Introduction to what it's like to be from Naknek, Alaska.
|Bristol Bay is a body of water in southwest Alaska north of the Alaska Peninsula. The salmon swim into Bristol Bay every summer. Many of them are eaten by whales, birds, and seals. Millions are caught in the nets of fishermen. There are endless obstacles that they face. Only a select few actually accomplish what they set out to do, which is to spawn and die so a new generation can continue the cycle of fate. They make their ways into bodies of fresh water through rivers.
Naknek is a town built on one of these rivers, the Naknek River. It is nothing more than a trickle, mucky brown from thick slimy mud that sticks like the thick gunk in a drain. There are rocks, boulders, and random scraps of rusted, flaking metal emerging from the mud like decrepit corpses rising from their graves. Flocks of hungry gulls gather as they flap around squawking and pecking at the maggot-infested fish and garbage that lays scattered, fogging the air with a thick foul odor.
Canneries, standing on crooked splintering pilings, line up on both sides of the river. Boats tie to them, tilted into the angle of the beach. Skiffs lay in the mud with the blades of their Danforth anchors stabbed into the flesh of the beach. They wait for the tide to take them into the water.
At the mouth of the river, the water begins gushing in over the sandbars like a rapids. Over the course of six hours, the small flow of water barely moving over the mud grows into a raging flood stretching from the bank on one side of the river to the bank on the other. The water level gradually climbs its way up the pilings until they are completely under water and the docks of the canneries appear to float on the surface. Boats rock and bounce in the waves that chop at them like madmen with axes. Even though they stay in one place, they appear to be moving as the current tries to drag them away from their anchors.
Every once in a while the river will snatch someone to drag away in the current. After it’s finished with the body, it spits it back out to be found beached in the mud or tangled in the web of someone’s net, ghostly white, bloated with gas, reeking of the powerful smell of decay.
People gather to this river from around the world, hungry for the fish that swim up through it. Most of the traffic downtown is the fishermen and cannery workers walking in their ragged clothes, frantically swatting at buzzing swarms of mosquitoes and cursing in different languages. They leave trails of cigarette smoke as they step over puddles and garbage.
Some of them are walking out of Naknek Trading with overpriced produce that has gone beyond ripe, some of them are stumbling out of one of the bars and some of them are walking out of D & D, which emits a perfume of deep-fried food that almost conceals the stench blowing in from the beach and the cigarette smoke that spews from the employees at the gas station and the swarms of strangers walking around downtown.
As the schools of salmon slow to a halt, so do the swarms of strangers from the outside world. The boats get pulled out of the water and canneries shut down and lock up. Eventually, even the unbearable clouds of mosquitoes dissipate and there is nothing left to swat. Everyone knows the inevitability of what is coming. The cold air creeps its way across the tundra like a ghost, leaving it brown and dead in its trail. This is the time when Naknek prepares itself to be alone in the long, cold, darkness that only a few dedicated souls will stay for. This is where my story begins.