Wednesday, August 09, 2006

An Alaskan Right of Passage

On Cheechakos and Copper River Dipnetting
Newcomers to Alaska are called "Cheechakos," which is a Native term given to the miners and pioneers a century or more ago. Jokingly, I figured that our family would be Cheechakos only until we received our first Alaska Dividend check, an oil windfall provided to all legal residents who have made Alaska their home for at least one calandar year. We moved here in the spring of 2004, and will receive our first Dividend sometime in the next month or two. That's a major right of passage for sure, but to my chagrin, we're still considered Cheechakos by some who say that the length of residency required to be considered a "Sourdough" is 10 years. "Old Timers" must be in Alaska for 25 years. Regardless of the provincial vernacular, I survived an important right of passage last weekend--my first dipnetting excursion to Chitina (pronounced Chitna), on the mighty Copper River.

Dipnetting for salmon is a privilege reserved for Alaska residents only and the experience could be lifted from the most dour Jack London story. People die out there while others continue to fish. For a few months each year, the State Department of Fish and Game allows residents to use large hand-held nets or fish wheels to catch migrating salmon on a small portion of the Copper. Each year the State issues about 1,000 to 1,200 permits, resulting in a harvest of about 50-60,000 fish.

Once you get your free permit the process is pretty simple: find a good spot, place your net in the water, and wait for unwitting salmon, fish on a mission to spawn, to swim in. However, the logistics, not to mention politics, are anything but easy. I'll defer the political discussion to other sources, but to summarize, access to the prime dipnetting sites is controlled by the Chitina Tribe, who would like to be compensated for use of their land to access the fishing sites. The fee is pretty nominal, about $20, but they did close off access for several weeks in 2004 or 2005, and there are still some hard feelings.

Back to logistics, the Copper is only 286 miles long and its watershed is relatively small compared to other major rivers (Mississippi, Colorado, or Yukon, for example), but this river is considered among the 20 largest rivers in the U.S. During peak flow the river flows over 150,000 cubic feet per second, and it transports nearly 70 million tons per year of sediment ( The best dipnetting is in the narrows, below Eskilida Creek, where the river chanel is less than 100 yards wide in most places and the river flows at about 15 miles an hour. Even with a life vest, unless there is someone to pluck you to safety, if you fall into that river you will probably die. The water is cold, about 40 to 50 degrees and the current will carry you away like a piece of driftwood bobbing through roiling undertows, rocks, and eddys to be ground up like hydrated fish meal.

To dipnet somewhat safely on this portion of the river you need to be tied by rope to an immovable object such as a stout tree or large boulder. Neglect a tie down is to tempt fate, to become another statistic or story. The river has claimed many lives over the past 30 years, when this practice was made official by the state (Natives have dipnetted for eons).

A Dipnetting Adventure
While my kids and wife slept soundly in the tent, my neighbor Rose and I woke at the unseemly hour of 4, to get in line for the first-come, first serve charter ride on the river. We waited for a couple of chilly hours at O'Brien Creek, loading on caffeine and making sure we had the right gear. Promptly at 7, the guides arrived and we were on the river in a minute. They dropped off a few others first, on what seemed to be pretty scary spots, bascially at the base of a cliff, with nothing to hang onto. Rose is an Old Timer, but hadn't dipnetted in over 20 years. Our site was much more benign, on the east side of the river at the base of a landslide, that included a lazy eddy and even a sandbar. While somewhat less dangerous, the netting was poor. We caught only six or seven fish between us by 1:00 in the afternoon, nowhere near our limit of 60 and goal of 30. Meanwhile, the fellows across the river were pulling five to ten fish an hour.

With only one fish, Rose had reached her limit of frustration and started to brew something warm to drink--I was ready for a break too. But a guide appeared and promised to take us to a better place, this time on the base of a cliff on the west side of the river. Here the river boiled and bubbled angrily at our feet. The guide instructed Rose on where to sit, and I hadn't even finished setting up when she pulled in her first fish.

At my spot, just a few feet away, it was a struggle just to keep the net in the water for 30 seconds. The current was so strong in this part of the eddy that I had to brace the net against my leg while I leaned against a boulder with all my weight--in a semi-sitting position. This was exausting. The roar of the river was almost deafining and its motion mesmerizing. The water was brown with silt, about the color of heavily milked tea. Particles of silt were visible in the liquid maw, and large trees float by looking like burnt matchsticks. I thought about the Copper River, and realized it cares not what it carries on its rapid decent to Cordova and the Gulf of Alaska. It just flows relentless and untamable. A good Alaskan river. And a scary river that typically does not give up its dead.

Over the next four hours we pulled in 30 Sockeye salmon, ranging from three to eight pounds. I struggled at my spot, managing to net another eight in the first few hours, but by 4:30, my arms were exausted. So I took a break to mark the fish that we had caught and to prepare some for our pickup. Rose went on a tear and pulled in about a dozen nice salmon over the last 30 minutes, including a couple of double captures. By then I was scrambling to tie them up and get them ready for transport. Had we stayed until 7, we probably would have limited, but 37 fish seemed pretty good and we didn't want make any mistakes out there. At the end of the day, when you're tired, that's often when bad things happen. We quit at 5:30 and were boated back to O'Brien Creek by 6:00. A long, tough day. But now my family has 70 pounds of famous Copper River Sockeye salmon to savor for the next year, high in Omega-3-oils and all.


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