An extract from Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home by Malachy Tallack
Published today by Polygon.
“This is about as far from pristine Alaskan fishing as you can get”, said Jeff, from the other side of the boat. I smiled back. “That’s okay” I said, and nodded. And it was okay. Like many anglers, I had dreamed about coming to this place for so long that I wasn’t going to let my enjoyment be dimmed by the fact that I wasn’t there alone. I felt lucky, and perhaps even a little smug. I certainly did not feel disappointed.
The Kenai River runs from Kenai Lake in the centre of the peninsula to Cook Inlet, eighty miles to the west. It is a beautiful river – milky blue and sun splashed – and extremely popular with fishermen and seekers of white water. We had launched our boat (a ‘cataraft’, in fact: a metal-frame held between two inflatable tubes, with a pair of seats on either side and another perched in the centre for the oarsman) at Cooper Landing, just below Kenai Lake, and were drifting downstream in search of fish. We shared the river with other anglers, in boats and on the shore, as well as with tour groups chasing rapids. In addition to these mostly quiet companions was the Sterling Highway, which ran alongside the upper stretch of the river. And though it may not be the busiest of roads, the hum of traffic was nevertheless a continuous accompaniment to the sighing of the water.
But fishing has a way of blocking out those things you wish to ignore; it has a way of disguising what needs to be hidden. The water around us swelled in our eyes and ears until it filled us, like a daydream or a vision. We were not alone, but we could just as well have been. Around us was forest, and beyond, snow-smeared slopes. Above the water, swallows danced like butterflies; and higher, a bald eagle cruised, as though following the same unquenchable current as the boat. All about us was the white noise of air and water, while beneath, the river flexed and writhed like a muscle.
We floated onward, our eyes wandering from the rod tips to the mountains around us. Slow drifts gave way to faster, shallower water, then deep, swirling pools. Mike, who held the oars, kept us as close to the “good water” as he could, letting us know whenever he felt optimistic, or whenever we approached a likely spot. We cast, letting the heavy flies sink, then working them along the bottom, each retrieve imbued with hope and a renewed vision of the phantom trout below. Time and again we would approach those spots, those places of expectation. The water would move in the right way around the rocks; our eyes and fingers would focus on what could not be seen; every part of us would be ready for that moment when, as Ted Hughes wrote, ‘the whole river hauls’. And then we were past. The boat would slip onwards and carry us away, and we would breathe comfortably again.
I have often thought that fishing brings a changed relationship with time. That mix of concentration and expectation, that sharpened gaze at float or fly, expands the present in every direction. It admits more detail and swells inside, towards a prodigious breadth. Connected to an unseen world, the angler watches and waits with something more than patience. Lightheaded, both utterly present and absent at once, all attention is there, where air meets water. Vision and touch become entwined. Time extends, as it does in the moment of an accident, and eventually, as Norman Maclean wrote, ‘all things merge into one’.
To fish is to be held in the heart of a stillness in which nothing is still. It is to wait patiently for a time that has already been imagined, yet which may never come. It is to live between tenses, in the anticipation of a perfect present. It is to be tangled in three time zones at once. As I fish – as I wait for the future to grab hold – I cannot help but be carried back to other days and other places. I am brought home, to cool, summer evenings in Shetland, where bright trout dash and tremor in black, peaty lochs. And further, to my first encounters with the water, in streams and ponds in Sussex, where I threw my cork floats and safety pin hooks, hopeless but filled with hope. And then, again, to that warm, August day, when my father left me at the lakeside and never came back, when I lost so many things at once that I had never even dreamed of losing. All of this is held in the act of cast and retrieve, cast and retrieve.
Jeff and I first met in the early weeks of 2002. We were exchange students then, living for half a year in Copenhagen, studying at the city’s university. We were taking Danish language lessons weekly, and one evening found ourselves sitting side by side in class. We did not immediately get along. Both of us were quiet, with a youthful adamancy. We thought we understood things that neither of us truly did, and we had drawn our understandings from quite different directions. Our views, on politics in particular, were very far apart. On our first meeting I offended Jeff with an offhand comment about his country’s president, and that could easily have been the end of it. We need never have spoken again. But we did – first out of politeness, and then from a mutual respect. Finally, we spoke for pleasure. Of all the people I met in that city, he is the only one with whom I am still in contact. We became friends, hesitantly, and we remained friends.
After university, Jeff moved to Alaska with his wife, who is from the state, and later they started a family. He had long dreamed of living in the north, and she wanted to come home. Since then, we had met only once, very briefly, in Shetland. So our friendship, by the time I visited, was concentrated behind us. The months we had spent together seemed a long distance away, and our communication in the intervening years had been brief and occasional, and in writing only. It had left an awkwardness, of which we both were aware, though neither mentioned it. But in the boat, connected to the water, that awkwardness drifted away. The space between past and present dissolved and faded into nothing. The river held us together.
There are many times in my life that I remember with longing. Some of them are clear to me now – I can see them, hear them, smell them – but they are never clear enough. I can hear the swishing of my father’s corduroy trousers as we walked together; I can feel the pace and weight of his step.
But I can no longer remember the sound of his voice. It is lost, and I cannot bring it back. Some nights I lie awake, gripped by a hollow, crushing nostalgia. Some days the desire to go backwards, to another time or place, is so strong that I am almost dazzled by tears. There are people whom I miss. There are places I have not seen in many months or years, but which are as plain to me now as if I left them only yesterday. They are as much a part of my present as the trees and the water, and the fish that I cannot see.
We look back, I think, towards times when we were not looking back. We are nostalgic for the absence of nostalgia. We long for those moments when we were not longing for what we could not have. We are restless to find rest. At home, beneath skies that I have known for most of my life, I still think of other places where I have lived – of Fair Isle and Prague and Copenhagen and Sussex – and I feel an aching, unquenchable homesickness. I think of all that cannot be brought back – a storm of pleasures, gone – and I curse my memories, just as I curse the lack of them.
Nostalgia was first recognised by Swiss doctors in the late 17th century. An illness primarily affecting soldiers at war, it was, literally, home-sickness, from the Greek nósto: to return home. For almost 200 years the disease – which was characterised not just by intense longing but also anxiety, lack of appetite, fainting, stomach pains and in the worst cases even death – was considered a serious, physical ailment. The only cure for the most severely afflicted was to go back to that longed-for place. Yet this sickness is not exclusive to humans. Nostalgia is not our longing alone. It would be fair, indeed, to see homesickness as the crucial force that brings life to the Kenai, to Alaska, and to this whole corner of the continent. For what else, in truth, could you call that instinct – that desperate, anadromous urge – that pulls salmon back into this river, and to thousands of other rivers like it? What else could it be that brings those fish home, but an awesome and ultimately fatal nostalgia?
Around the 10th of June each year, the first sockeye or red salmon enter the Kenai from the sea. This particular run of fish are heading for a tributary called the Russian River. They are predictable both in their timing and their destination. Earlier, from the middle of May, the first king salmon, or chinook, climbed the river. Another run of kings will come in early July, and of reds a few days later. In addition to these there will be two runs of coho or silver salmon – one in August, one in September – and finally, every second year, there will be pink salmon from late July through August. These fish are the lifeblood of the river. They are, indeed, the lifeblood of the whole Pacific Northwest. In extraordinary, incomprehensible numbers the salmon return to those places where they were born. In the same shallows and gravel beds from which they first emerged, thousands then millions of fish come together to spawn. Then they will die. Great writhing masses of these creatures, increasingly grotesque as the end approaches – their skin discoloured and peeling, their flesh already rotting on the bone – will reach a place and then stop. This is their home, from where they can neither go on or go back. And by stopping there, by dying, they become in turn a part of the place itself. The flood of protein from their decaying bodies feeds everything, directly or indirectly, from the bears and eagles to the soil and the trees, and the next generation of salmon. It will feed, too, a great many people.
I had heard about the crowds that congregated on this river in summer and autumn. I had seen photographs too. But still I wasn’t prepared for the sight that met us as we drifted down beneath the highway bridge and past the confluence of the Kenai and the Russian, where the sockeye fishermen were congregated. It was surreal and unsettling; like a carnival, at once horrifying and hilarious. A line of anglers filled the southern bank of the river, opposite the road. They stood perhaps two or three metres apart, like a picket fence, stretched as far as we could see. Along the bank only the occasional splash of a hooked salmon disturbed the remarkable, rhythmic order of it all.
Such is the quantity of fish moving through the river during these runs that even this extraordinary pressure from anglers is not sufficient to affect population levels. Enough salmon will pass through this barrier of people to maintain present numbers and ensure healthy runs in future years. And despite the United States’ reputation for relaxed attitudes towards conservation and sustainability, populations here are well monitored and restrictions strongly enforced. Any notable fall in fish numbers would be followed by reduced catch limits. In this state at least, the notion of salmon as a shared resource, worthy of protection, is a powerful one.
The three of us floated though the middle of this strange gathering, then hauled the raft up on the north bank a little further downstream, where the crowds were not so dense. We found our own spots on a narrow branch of the river and began to cast, the water flowing in one direction, the fish in the other. Time resumed its little games. Everything moved. Nothing was still.