Magazine article Sunset

Kodiak Island, Alaska

Magazine article Sunset

Kodiak Island, Alaska

Article excerpt

PLACES IN THE WEST

Salmon and bears adore this island. So do the rugged people who call it home

Two or more times a day, the AIitak Bay District setnetters head out in skiffs off Kodiak Island, Alaska, to check their nets for salmon.

It's called picking fish: The nets-some as long as 900 feet-are strung like curtains from shore out into the water, attached to a rock on one end and an anchor on the other. As the nets are hoisted aboard through a set of rollers, the fishermen, usually two or three to a boat, remove the salmon from them, one by one. The fish are sorted, counted, and put on ice before the fishermen motor farther out to a tender boat that will take the catch to processing facilities 100 miles away in the town of Kodiak. On good days, each fisherman can gather thousands of pounds of salmon; sockeye (or red) are the most valuable. On bad days, there are few salmon but plenty of jellyfish, which can pool up ankle deep, a great mass of stinging goo.

Stretched out in the Gulf of Alaska, about 250 miles southwest of Anchorage, Kodiak Island is big-at about 100 miles long, the second-largest in the United States. Kodiak's two ends couldn't be more different. At the south end, where Alitak Bay is, the windswept hills are mostly bare of trees, covered instead by tundra, bushes, and grassland. just outside the town of Kodiak, at the north end, the forests grow tall and thick, with dangling mosses and hanging fogs-this being the northwesternmost extent of the temperate rain forest.

Kodiak is one of the country's busiest fishing ports and is the biggest community on the island, whose overall population is 13,913. But Kodiak Island is less celebrated for its people than for its namesake bears. Reaching up to 10 feet tall and weighing 1,500 pounds, they're the Earth's largest terrestrial carnivore-the heavyweight champion of the world.

All told, there are about 3,000 Kodiak bears in the Kodiak Archipelago. Many of them are on Kodiak Island itself-a big island, to be sure, but still, to a nonresident, that sounds like a whole mess of bears. It's a little like hearing that there are 3,000 sabre-toothed tigers. A primordial carnivore is, after all, a primordial carnivore.

Island residents are far more sanguine about the presence of all this Ice Age-style menace on their doorsteps. The bear necessities-food and wilderness-are here in abundance, so while sightings aren't uncommon, there's actually plenty of Kodiak to go around. As one person put it, "Well, you do have to keep an eye on the kids, and you might lose the occasional dog, but the bears really aren't that big of a deal."

About half the setnetters live outside Kodiak Island, and at the beginning of each summer, they arrive from all over the country. Dave and Rita Dieters come up from Florida; Bruce and Tanna Luque from Snohomish, Washington; and Nelle and Pete Murray from Idaho's Snake River country. Some of the setnetters who live on Kodiak year-round teach during the school year and work the nets in the summer.

Unlike many of the setnetters, Bruce Luque grew up on Kodiak. His dad was a commercial fisherman, and the family moved here when Bruce was 12. In 1978 he bought his father's permit. Now his two kids help him out.

"It's a good life," Bruce says. "It's work where you can involve your whole family, and you share and spend time with other familles too. I guess community is the word that best describes things around here. We're just one big group."

A connection to community-as well as a love of fishing-is what keeps bringing Nina Burkholder back to Kodiak. As a kid, she spent her summers here, salmon fishing with her family. She has returned for the last 21 summers, coming up from her winter home in Homer, Alaska.

It is in many ways an enviable existence. The work isn't easy. But the opportunity to spend time in this fjord offers huge rewards: fresh salmon berries just outside your door, foraging red foxes on your beach, and no shortage of fresh seafood-halibut, a couple of permitted king crabs per summer, and of course salmon for such local specialties as pirokh, a puff-pastry dish that reflects the island's 300-year-old Russian heritage. …

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