Alaskans eagerly line up for Copper River sockeyes

The people and gear has changed, but this old tradition remains

Posted: Sunday, July 01, 2007

O'BRIEN CREEK - The line to Mother Nature's grocery forms here sometime before 5 a.m.

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With the far north sun offering plenty of light but little heat, people shiver in the queue beneath leafy cottonwood trees to await the first of the day's charter boats that will haul them down the Copper River into Wood Canyon to pursue salmon.

Off to the east, the river is a brown, glacial slurry rushing toward the Gulf of Alaska. More than a week before, the salmon - sleek reds and big, powerful kings - entered its mouth nearly 150 miles to the south.

For days, the fish have been battling their way blindly upstream toward spawning grounds even farther on. Hundreds of thousands of these fish will eventually make it there to spawn and die.

Tens of thousands will not.

Their struggles will end in someone's dipnet.

Instead of continuing on to feed bears, wolves or gulls - or spawn - these salmon will grace a dinner table, likely in Fairbanks, Anchorage or the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Most people waiting in the morning chill are from those Alaska urban areas. They will pay $90 a head for a jet-boat ride into the canyon to pursue an activity begun thousands of years before when the first Ahtna Natives discovered they could dip a net into the glacial waters and sometimes pull out a silvery salmon.

Over the centuries, the looks and attire of the people coming here may have changed, but the desire to land fish has not.

"Anyone catching anything?" asks Tim Doran from Fairbanks.

Reports vary. Some in line have heard the fishing is good, some not so good. Someone has a friend who was out for a few hours and caught many. Another has a neighbor who was out for a day and caught almost nothing.

Even the grimmest reports, though, aren't enough to make any of the people lined up 30 or 40 deep sacrifice their place in line as they wait on the boats that load up six at a time, rocket downriver and then seem to take forever to return.

The Alaskans waiting in line make quiet conversation. There are no tourists here; the law prohibits that. Only residents who have been in the state at least a year can participate in dipnet fisheries.

The price of admission is enduring at least one winter in the north. It is an eclectic bunch that can claim that distinction.

They range in age from 20 to 60 or more. They come dressed in yellow Helly Hansens or brown neoprene waders or old blue jeans. Some wear life jackets in case they fall from the cliffs while fishing in the canyon. Others carry ropes to tie themselves to shore. They are mechanics and physicians; day laborers and artists; cooks and lawyers.

A few complain about the charter fee. They would prefer a roadside fishery.

Under former Gov. Wally Hickel, they got their wish. In the early 1990s, the so-called Copper River Highway was bulldozed open along the route of the abandoned Copper River and Northwestern Railway for more than 20 miles south to the Uranatina River.

A rough, one-lane road, it made it possible for dipnetters to drive to their fishery. The governors that followed Hickel, however, refused to spend the money to maintain the route and over time Mother Nature began to reclaim it.

Every year, rains would bring a new landslide down the cliffs. For a few years, the state pushed the rock and debris aside with a bulldozer, enabling cars to continue driving the road.

Then even that maintenance was cut back, and the road became passable only to four-wheel-drive vehicles.

A particularly big slide in 2001 closed the road and trapped a few of those vehicles in the canyon to the south. The state bulldozed a trail to help people get out, and then announced it was done maintaining the road.

Signs were posted stipulating that the "highway" was closed.

Dipnetters ignored them, moved some rock and dirt and for the next five years pushed downstream on four-wheelers, mountain bikes and even compact four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Then came another massive slide last fall, temporarily cutting off all access downriver. But four-wheeler owners have been pecking away at it, and now there's a rough trail through.

Rough but not good, said Arleen Lenard, who oversees the O'Brien Creek Store for the Chitina Native Corp. There has been at least one report of someone rolling a four-wheeler there and watching it tumble downhill into the river to disappear forever.

"I heard a rumor last night that a fellow on a four-wheeler going across had sprained or broken an ankle," Lenard said Monday, but the Chitina Fire Department was not called out to help.

"I don't know that they know that we're here," added Lenard, who also handles emergency medical services for Chitina.

An independent lot, Chitina dipnetters often don't call for help. They're just as likely to splint up someone's broken leg and drive them to Glennallen for treatment as call for EMTs.

That sense of independence also makes many balk at the $90 charter fee, although it is, by some standards, a bargain.

The limit on salmon is 15 per individual or 30 per household. With Copper River sockeye fillets retailing for $15 to $20 per pound, a household limit of just sockeye could be worth nearly $2,000 for someone catching a full limit.

Many dipnetters often end up making more than one trip, given that 30 salmon means a lot of filleting, packing and freezing in a single trip. Some consider it easier to break the chore down into more manageable units - say 15 in June and another 15 as the run continues into July and August.

A few dipnetters even save some of their limit to come back in the latter month looking for the little-pursued silver salmon that also make their way upriver.

Around 6:45 a.m., 24-year-old Claire Doran, Tim's daughter, is surprised to look up and see a doctor she knows.

"Hey, there's Dr. Foote," she says to her mom and dad, who are waiting in line with her.

Dr. James Foote has been out fishing all night, and does not - at this hour - look very doctor-like. His face is dirty. The vest he wears for warmth is dirty. Even his red rubber boots are dusty brown from the glacial silt.

But he is smiling and happy. He and friends have been out overnight, and they have caught fish. This is good news to the Dorans, who go over to chat.

"He was my pediatrician," Claire says.

Claire herself is preparing to make the move from Fairbanks to the University of Alaska Anchorage to work on her own medical degree.

Before that, though, she and her dad are off on a grand fishing adventure.

"It's pretty strange going to the middle of nowhere to stand in line," she says.

Her mom, Kate, is along - not to fish but to provide support. She brings up hot tea as the Dorans wait in line longer than anticipated.

At about 7 a.m., Mark Hem - owner of Hem Charters - comes up the riverbank from the boat to announce that there is only room in the canyon for one more group. He apologizes that every good ledge for fishing is taken. He explains that some people have just about caught their limit or are simply ready to quit, and as fishing slots become available he will ferry more dipnetters downstream.

Someone asks if they can make a reservation.

"We don't do reservations anymore," Hem answers.

In an effort to make charter operations more efficient and hold the fee at $90 as gasoline prices skyrocket, Hem and fellow boatmen Sam McCallister have put dipnetters on a first-come, first-served basis. It enables them to run a full boatload of six people downriver on every trip.

As Hem loads the last six dipnetters he will transport for a couple of hours, he tells the people still in line, "Don't be discouraged."

With good fishing spots in Wood Canyon limited, Hem and McCallister want to see people get their fish.

The sooner dipnetters catch what they want, the sooner they leave. The sooner they leave, the sooner there is an open spot for new charter-fee-paying dipnetters.

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