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Life and Death on the Last Frontier

By Will Brown

“Mend it,” said Little Rock as we watched my fly line drifting downstream.

My guide’s name wasn’t Little Rock, but that’s where he was from. I couldn’t remember his real name during our first day together on the water but, for whatever reason, his hometown stuck with me, so I started calling him Little Rock. It suited him, and it stuck.

We were miles from anything, fishing the Agulowak River, which connects Lake Aleknagik and the southern arm of Lake Nerka, all part of the headwaters of Bristol Bay, in the crook of land formed by the Alaskan mainland and the Aleutian peninsula. “Aleknagic” is from the Yupik language and means “wrong way home,” in reference to how easy it was for native fishermen to get turned around in the dense fog that often blankets this drainage. For over three thousand years the Yupik’s ancestors did precisely what we were doing, taking advantage of the annual feeding frenzy that accompanies the spawning runs of Pacific salmon. Bears, eagles, other species of fish, otters, humans, and others all join the feast.

A “mend” is a fly fishing technique that becomes necessary when you’re fishing a river and the current causes the line to drift faster than the fly at the end of it, the line dragging the fly along behind. This results in an unnatural presentation, which is to say the fly won’t drift through the water in a way that looks like it might actually be something that the fish you’re after might want to eat.

The fish we were after were rainbow trout and arctic char — another species of salmonid closely related to trout — that inhabit rivers and lakes, and occasionally coastal waters, in arctic and subarctic regions. What the char and the rainbows wanted to eat were sockeye salmon eggs. We were therefore fishing with tiny orange balls fixed to tiny hooks. If they didn’t drift naturally with the current, the fish would know something was up. Most of the fish I had chased with a fly rod had been inshore, saltwater species. I was still getting used to this freshwater stuff.

“Big mend,” reiterated Little Rock, and I dutifully flipped the rod tip upstream and lay the line on the surface behind the drifting fly.

I liked Little Rock. He was young and new to these waters. But he was enthusiastic, a quick study, and he could handle a boat and throw a fly line. He was standing in the river at the bow of our boat holding onto the gunwale, walking the boat downstream as I cast from the stern.

“What do you want to be when you grow up, Little Rock?,” I asked.

“You’re lookin’ at it,” he replied.

“No college plans?”

Little Rock said that he had finished the ACT test in under twenty minutes, answering “C” on every question. Apparently this strategy earned him a score of 24 out of a possible 36, which would qualify him for entry into “selective” schools, according to Wikipedia. But Little Rock aspires to fish and to make fly rods. I admire that, and told him so.

“You have what Aristotle called a ‘telos,’” I told him. “You know your purpose.”

This turn in the conversation led by winding ways to the disclosure of the fact that I am a clergyman, a fisher of men, a fact that I’ve noticed can scandalize fishing guides, maybe because their language can be, well, salty. It’s a familiar turn in my conversations with guides. Over the years I have come to understand that it is inevitable, but I always dread it a little bit — the mild embarrassment, the temporary awkwardness.

But Little Rock, splendid fellow that he was, took the disclosure in stride. He asked me to say a prayer for his boat. I cast behind a boulder, mended the line, and prayed: for the boat, for our safety, for success (Deo volente). Little Rock took off his hat for the prayer. I admired that too.

As soon as we said “amen,” I hooked up. No kidding. Little Rock whooped. A decent fish, judging by the slack line that burned through my index finger and the buzzing of the reel as the fish started pulling drag.

“Nice char!” said Little Rock. “Don’t horse him. Keep your line tight. Let him fight the drag. He’s gonna run again.”

The drag wasn’t the only thing the char had to fight. As I finessed him toward the boat I could see that he was moving through a pod of sockeyes. Those nearest the char lunged and slashed at him, and he tore out again to get away from them. The reel buzzed. I guided the char around the stern, away from the frenzied sockeyes and around the motor, and we finally got him in the net. A handsome fish, just assuming his spawning colors, harmonizing with the clusters of early fall foliage on the shore, olive with pink flecks along his sides, fading to pinkish amber on his belly. After admiring him for a minute, we returned him to the river.

It had been overcast and drizzly when we ran south down the shore of lake Aleknagik at dawn, but the sun dug holes in the clouds as we turned east into the Algulowak, illuminating bright bunches of aspen and alder leaves among the conifers along the shore and lower mountain slopes cradling the river. It was early September and some of the leaves were just turning gold. Little Rock read the river perceptively and kept the boat in the deeper channels, steering around gravel bars and submerged boulders. He was wearing earbuds to drown out the engine noise, bobbing his head to the rhythm of whatever it was he was listening to. I flashed him an ironic, rock-and-roll “devil horns” sign, and he shouted “Tyler Childers!” over the wind and the engine. I nodded my approval.

Staring over the gunwales at the bottom as we ran up the river, there were sockeyes everywhere. They looked like rocks paving the river bottom as we sped past, but they were bright red — their spawning coloration — and therefore easy to see. They numbered “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands” (Rev. 5:11).

In point of fact, about 78.3 million sockeyes returned this year to their spawning grounds in the pristine Bristol Bay watershed (and that’s not even counting the other four species of Pacific salmon: chums, pinks, silvers, and kings). Biologists have been counting them since the middle of the 20th century. The 2022 spawning season saw more sockeyes in the rivers than have ever before been counted. And more were harvested by commercial fishermen this year (59.6 million fish) than in any other year on record. It’s unclear precisely why they are thriving, but it likely has to do with rising ocean temperatures. Sockeyes seem to like climate change, at least for now, and this quirk of theirs adds an element of resiliency to the small communities of native Alaskans in the area, whose way of life orbits around the salmon runs, as it has done for millennia.

At midday Little Rock pulled the boat to shore and we built a campfire. A fat bear on the far shore dropped a salmon, still wriggling despite having been bitten almost in half, and waddled into the alders. Once a good bed of coals had been established, Little Rock laid a tinfoil packet containing salmon (what else?), sliced potatoes, and onions, over the coals. We sipped beer and discussed SEC football while we waited for our lunch. Little Rock was confident the Razorbacks would dominate this year. I wasn’t so sure, but once again I admired his partisan moxie.

A little platoon of Canada jays gathered in the spruce boughs overhead as we finished our lunch. It was delicious, just as Little Rock had promised. A few of the bolder jays made strafing runs at the scraps while we cleaned up and doused the fire. Little Rock waded out to the boat and heaved an ice chest into the bow. An eight- or ten-pound sockeye undulated past his knees, and he reached into the water and grabbed it, holding it up for inspection. It was hideous, a blood red male, its snout hooked down and its lower jaw hooked up in the distinctive “kype” that some species of male salmonids develop when they spawn. Its mouth was full of monstrous fangs. Its dorsal fin had begun to rot along its ridge, and its skin was beginning to peel away in patches. It looked like a zombie.

Sockeyes are one of the few species of vertebrates that are semelparous, meaning they breed only once and then die. They do this after spending several years in the open ocean and then returning to the same rivers in which they were born. Nobody knows exactly how they manage this. Once in the freshwater of their natal rivers, the salmon stop feeding. All their energy is devoted to finishing their pilgrimage, establishing nests (called “redds”), laying and fertilizing eggs. Once this is accomplished, whatever energy remains is singularly devoted to defending the redds and the eggs they shelter. Their bodies change radically, especially those of the males. They turn dark red, develop kypes, and grow those ghastly fangs. Though still living, they start to rot. Their only purpose is the protection of the next generation, and they do this until they literally fall apart. They too have a telos.

Little Rock tossed the sockeye back into the river, where it undulated aimlessly, zombie-like, in the pristine water.

For a long time a mining syndicate has aspired to build the world’s largest open pit mine in the middle of the Bristol Bay watershed. They’re calling it the “Pebble Mine.” It turns out the earth there conceals one of the largest deposits of copper, gold, and molybdenum in the world. They figured this out after geologists flying over the area noticed unusually colored surface rocks in 1987. To get at this “tremendous store of wealth,” as the syndicate calls it, they now propose to process 200,000 tons of earth per day for 45 years. The return on investment is projected to be in the billions of dollars, dwarfing the several-hundred-million dollars generated annually by hunting and (mainly) fishing in the area. The mine’s promoters have given assurances that they can accomplish their designs with no adverse impacts on the environment. They’ve even gone so far as to claim that the mine might “make the ecosystem even more fish-friendly than before.”

A mining operation that processes 200,000 tons of earth per day for decades on end, right in the middle of a remote, pristine watershed, and it does this with no measurable effects on the ecosystem other than improving it. Call me skeptical. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers appears to share my skepticism. In 2020 they denied permitting for the Pebble Mine because of the proposal’s failure to comply with standards of the Clean Water Act. But permitting processes like this are subject to prevailing political winds, and because of the vast amount of money at stake, and the long time horizons, the mine’s developers can probably afford to wait. The watershed needs durable protections of the sort that can best be provided by the legislative process.

And more fundamentally than that, the legislative process needs to be underwritten by a virtuous citizenry, a people whose primary metric of value is not dollars, a people who are capable of seeing in the sublimity of creation something more than an assemblage of resources ripe for commodification.

Maybe most fundamentally of all, the whole earth needs people who have cultivated their innate capacity to gaze on her in wonder, and who can allow that wonder to lead them, by a process of what ancient philosophers called phronesis, to that truth that sets men free.

The fishing slowed as the afternoon wore on. Clouds returned from the northwest on the back of a chilly wind. It started to drizzle. I was standing on a sandbar, casting blindly, surrounded by dead and dying sockeyes. Words from the burial rite emerged in my mind: “In the midst of life we are in death; of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?” A golden eagle lighted in the top of a spruce tree upriver. Little Rock’s two-way radio crackled to life. A guide further down the river relayed a report from the main lodge: white caps were forming on the lake, the weather would deteriorate through the rest of the afternoon.

“We better pack it in, Little Rock,” I said.

To get back home to my natal river in southern Georgia, I had almost thirty hours of travel ahead of me, starting before dawn the next morning. A significant part of that time would be spent in an airplane, parts of which, I don’t doubt, would be made of copper, gold, and molybdenum. I would read Evening Prayer on my smartphone and then despair over the asinine offerings of “inflight entertainment” as I waited for the gin and the Ambien to kick in, the only way I know how to endure the technological marvel that is transcontinental air travel.

We broke down our rods and stowed our gear.

“Ready? Might get a little rough,” grinned Little Rock.

He ate this sort of thing up. I nursed the thought of a warm fire and bourbon at the main lodge as I pulled my neck gaiter over my baseball cap and ears, then synched down everything synchable on my rain jacket. I flashed Little Rock the rock-and-roll “devil horns” sign as he put in his ear buds and coaxed the motor to life.

He took us down the Agulowak with the same skill (and speed) that he had taken us up it that morning. As we rounded a bend and entered the main body of the wrong-way-home lake, I bade goodbye to the river, to the day, to all the graces they had colluded to disclose.

The lake wasn’t as rough as I had anticipated, but rough enough to please Little Rock. I mouthed the fixed parts of Evening Prayer, the ones I know by heart. Certain phrases obtruded themselves more forcefully on my heart and reins than they normally do — about God putting down the mighty from their seat and filling the hungry with good things, about him lightening our darkness and letting his servant depart in peace.

Back home a beloved friend and parishioner lay dying. My wife was coming to the end of the second trimester, increasingly great with our first child. I was coming to terms with my impending re-entry into the American economy of spectacle and narcissism.

As a mark of Christian civility, the main lodge had set up a fully stocked bar at the dock. We arrived without incident and I collected my gear and headed for the bar, leaving Little Rock to fill out his after action reports, or whatever it is guides do after a day on the water. I hollered at him when he was done and heading for the warmth of the fireplace.

“Hey, Little Rock! Thanks for an unforgettable day.”

“Man, I feel so lucky to be able to do what I do in a place like this. I just hope they don’t f— it up with that mine.”

“Well, sic transit gloria. Tempus fugit, and all of that. Just remember your telos.”

“I’m not sure what any of that means.”

I winked at him. “Keep mending it.”



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