Back in Naknek again, where every fisherman’s a friend

Forrest Johnson

I‘m back in Naknek, Alaska putting nets in boats, getting wet and windblown, staying with my Bristol Bay family that has adopted me as I’ve adopted them, enjoying life at the fishing shack with little contact with the outside world other than the expectations regarding the price of salmon. I read old newspapers and magazines left from last year and listen to the soothing voice of Dick Estel reading novels much like I did from our hovel outside of Fairbanks when I first moved to The Last Frontier in 1978.
To be honest this shack is much improved from that hovel, a small log and A-frame structure dug into the permafrost, propane lights and no electricity. Our woodpile was nearly the size of the place and it was snug and warm in the 50-below winters of interior Alaska. All the huts and hovels in that little village we called Hopkinsville were a mishmash of building materials inhabited by folks who seemed to enjoy the disconnect from a haphazard society. Here in coastal Naknek there that same immediacy about life that we had when we were much younger, that feeling of living in the present when you leave the roads behind and travel mostly by boat and live for the fishing announcements and the hope that the next net is full.
Naknek is full of people from all over the place, not only fishermen but people that work in the fish processing plants, people from Haiti and Ukraine and Columbia, people from the south side of Chicago and college campuses. My German exchange student son from many years ago is a pilot-in-training with Lufthansa but he finds the time, or his training schedule finds him the time, to return to this place for another season of no sleep and roiling waves and a pretty good paycheck.
When I was happy that my daughter married I didn’t know at the time that my son-in-law’s father would come along and join the crew as chief mechanic and jack-of-all-trades and take the worry out  of running boats in irascible weather. To me that is more proof that if you keep going in this life all things work out.
The news of the world is in the background. Yes, occasionally news appears between the readings of Dick Estel and the fishing reports and the eclectic music from the public station across the bay in Dillingham but it doesn’t interfere like it does at home. All that tells me is that I should learn to ignore the pace of life that crowds in on us in this frenetic digital age and sip my bourbon a little slower.
I was reading in one of my magazines, one I actually brought along so it was a more recent publication, that they’ve now invented a razor that has a ball hinge that helps the head pivot so it can cut a whisker 23 microns shorter than the other leading brands. Luckily the article included a critique that called it a “dumb novelty that represents everything terrible about America’s innovation economy.”
I’m sure glad they said that but they didn’t say that it also represented everything terrible about America’s economy of excess, that hollow striving for what we don’t need in order to be happy in our lives but a message that sells so well that we feel we need to strive for such novelties and knic-knacks and apps to make us whole and connected.
Travelling to Alaska allows me to see just how stoned and hooked we are to our devices, whole airports full of people staring at tiny screens while I look for someone to talk to. The plane usually starts to buzz with chatter as we near King Salmon but most of the way things are pretty quiet as folks are connected to worlds far from the person they’re sitting next to. Years ago Alaska Airlines would hand out drink coupons for the short flight between Anchorge and King Salmon and I have to say that I’ve never been in a flying bar before as nearly everyone was tipsy by the time the plan landed. Maybe the airline could do that again and help keep people from spending all their time looking at their hand held devices.
 I see no real need for the digital fix as I have survived for 60 years now with vices other than that. You see, I have vices. I drink and smoke weed. LSD was a particular favorite of mine. But I still got up and went to work or had to take my grandma to church and had dreams that included going to Alaska and finding a fishing boat. Those things, those bad, bad illegal things, were vices. They were not addictions. The way I see it most people are addicted to that economy of excess and their hand held devices, staring at little screens that promise a world they cannot deliver.
Soon we will be hauling in fish, bringing a product to market, a tangible product, one that you can see and feel and taste. It is a different product than the one people are addicted to today, that cloud, that access to worlds unknown, worlds and relationships that exist on a screen, never to be touched, felt or tasted.       

Forrest Johnson has been writing for over 20 years and was editor of the Lake County Chronicle in Two Harbors.