My dad is up early smoking out spiders from the smokehouse and sweeping them down with a broom. He said he couldn’t sleep last night because he was excited to smoke the cohos. I don’t offer to help with the spider smoke-out. I yawn. My coffee thermos, cupped in my hands, warms me on this cool morning.
My father leans the broom against the nearby shipping container and heads over to a block of wood. He holds a small chunk of wood atop the block and with an ax he splits the wood. My father’s hands steady again, but they weren’t so steady two months ago. This summer, he spent a week in the hospital here in Wrangell, and then flew to Anchorage to his cardiologist. His doctor suspected congestive heart failure and sent him to the emergency room. He spent two weeks in the hospital and recovered at a family member’s home in Wasilla. All the while, he could hardly wait to get home and fish for cohos.
A day after returning home to the island, we took him fishing and he caught two cohos, enough to fill the smokehouse. In between last week’s storms, we readied the smokehouse.
Now, I slice through silver skin into salmon flesh. Soil, leaves, gravel and fish blood are packed beneath our feet from years of cleaning and smoking salmon. I fill a small tote with salmon slices as my dad fills a cooler labeled “brine tank” with water from the garden hose. He pours in a box of salt and stirs it with a stick. I hand him the large potato and he checks to see if it floats in the brine. The potato bobs in the water.
“Perfect,” he says.
I lift my smaller tote and dump in the salmon slices. We turn the slices over, flesh side down, and leave them to soak. We sit on the nearby chairs in front of the smokehouse and wait for the fish to brine. My dad’s stories are as salty as the brine.
He starts: “I was about 12 years old, and I was on the bluffs just past the ferry terminal. I had tossed in a hand line and caught a couple of bullheads. My grandfather taught me how to throw the handline like a lasso. It’s a heaving line with a weight and a hook on it.
“I filleted the bullheads for bait, then tossed the handline out into the deeper water. I caught a coho. So, I tossed the handline out again and caught another coho. They were big Stikine River cohos, and I couldn’t pack them. I had one fish in one hand and another fish in the other hand. I had to drag them home. By the time I got the cohos home my arms ached, and the fish had dirty tails from dragging them on the road. My mom couldn’t believe it!”
My dad has a lot of coho know-how. He grew up fishing with his dad on their commercial troller and tromping around the island with his friends.
After the coho slices have brined, my dad pulls the plug on the tank, and it drains. Together, we dump the slices onto a rack that’s been laid out on the table. I place the slices on another nearby rack, skin side down, and when the rack is full, I help my dad slide the rack into the smokehouse. We fill up five racks with coho.
My dad arranges the alder chips and kindling in the base of the smokehouse. After a few tries, the alder fire is smoking. Smoke plumes from the smokehouse eves in a slow-motion curl, up through the spruce tree’s branches. There is no sight more beautiful.
I sit beside my dad as smoke-scent wraps around us. We sit, not speaking, but listening to a few crows gathering in the alder behind us and the curious squirrel scampering up the spruce tree. A sliver of sunlight shows through the gray clouds.
“This is what I do best,” my dad says. And I’m sure he’s talking about how good he is at catching salmon and smoking fish. But he finishes his sentence saying, “I’m good at watching. That’s what I do best.”
Good at watching? I get it. He’s good at enjoying the moment. He’s good at being present with his binoculars on our deck watching killer whales play on the Etolin shore. He’s good at tying hooks. He can slow troll all day with the best of the trollers.
It’s a good thing he’s proficient at waiting, because this summer, when he was admitted to the ER at Alaska Regional Hospital, there were no beds for the fisherman. Hospital beds were filled with COVID-19 patients and people suffering from the results of summer’s typical accidents. Instead, my dad waited in a small room off the ER for 29 hours. We didn’t know if we’d ever go fishing with him again.But here he is.
I turn toward my dad. He’s lost some weight from his hospital stay. Kéet and Oscar mull around near him, sniffing, hoping for a dog snack from his pocket or to find a morsel of salmon flesh on the ground.
“I can hardly wait to have some smoked salmon,” I say.
“Me too,” he says. “I’ll save the collars for us to eat, and we can jar the rest.”
“Sounds good.” Depending on how many cases we have, my daughters Brea and Nikka will get a case. “This will be Bear’s first taste of smoked coho,” I say referring to Grandson Bear.
“He’ll love it,” my dad says.
I flip my hood up and as a light rain falls. All around us, I imagine nets are setting, people are gutting and smoking fish. But this is not so this year. In many areas of Alaska, five of the six salmon species lag behind normal. Our governor issued a disaster declaration and airlifted 90,000 pounds of salmon to villages along the Yukon River so they can get through the winter.
In Southeast Alaska, we are fortunate to have these few cohos smoking. The past couple of years we’ve dealt with king salmon closures near town. Salmon are always on our minds. Is our food chain being altered by climate, and/or trawling bycatch, or what?
I consider all this. We have more time to wait so I sip my coffee and ask him, “If you’re out on the water, how can you tell a fish jumping is a coho?”
“Coho jump clean out of the water like a king salmon and make big splashes,” he says. “From July on it’s usually a coho you see jumping because king salmon don’t usually jump that time of year.”
He tells me cohos start running around here mid-July through September. And he says he and his dad never targeted them, the cohos were a bycatch of fishing for king salmon. But later, when he had his own fishing boat, he’d fish for cohos.
“I’ve seen coho swimming across the logging road at St. Johns,” he says. “I was working for the Forest Service and one of my crew and I were walking to a flooded area and there were cohos swimming across the road to get to a pond. The beavers had made a dam and we had to unplug it. It was pretty neat to see cohos swimming across the road, though.”
There’s a bald eagle atop the large spruce, waiting. We fishermen sit near the smokehouse, waiting. Waiting for coho to smoke isn’t so bad if you can talk story, if you can anticipate the first slice of smoked salmon on pilot bread, if you can imagine a grandchild tasting smoked salmon for the first time. Waiting means sitting with my dad learning more coho know-how, how they jump, what bait or gear they like to bite, when to fish them, how to smoke them. Waiting also means that my dad is here now enfolded in alder smoke, present with rain falling on us and another story on the hook, because it could’ve been otherwise.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Yéilk’ Vivian Mork. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.