A man in a hurry stepped right in front of my moving car in the Fred Meyer parking lot the other day. He didn't even know I was there. Either that, or he figured the risk of being killed was worth the four seconds he saved by darting in front of me.
That guy was on a mission, and he wasn't alone. It happens every year about this time on the central Kenai Peninsula. The sockeye salmon are running.
An almost palpable tension is in the air. You can see it on the frantic faces of people waiting in line at stores, gas stations and boat launches. You can smell it in the acrid exhaust fumes coming from the lines of hell-bent vehicles on the roads. You can hear it in the buzz and whine of outboards, and in the clamor of excited anglers and dip-netters.
Like an Alaskan summer, a sockeye run is a fleeting thing. The fish are here one day, gone the next. Sometimes you get only one shot at them, and it's never a sure thing. Sometimes the'll be out in Cook Inlet, a herd of 100,000 or more, just swimming around. Then, as if of a single mind, they'll all enter the river. Tens of thousands will swim upstream past Kenai in one day. If you're on the river when it happens, life is good. If you happen to be otherwise occupied, you can miss the best part of a run.
Nothing is certain about catching these salmon. If you prefer catching them on rod and reel, filling your freezer can be iffy, indeed. Not only do you have to be in the right spot at the right time, but you have to be both lucky and skillful. To be legally caught, fish have to be hooked in the mouth. Sockeyes rarely bite, so catching a "legal" one is difficult. Furthermore, hooking one and landing it are two different things. Sockeyes are at least as motivated to avoid being caught as you are to catch them. Finally, unless you own property along the Kenai River, you have to compete with thousands of other anglers for a small space where you can stand and fish.
Considered altogether -- the moiling crowds, the frustrating unpredictability, the extreme reluctance of the fish to be caught -- it's no wonder people become frazzled during the sockeye run.
People are less polite than usual. Their smiles, if they smile at all, are more often the on-and-off kind. Some buckle under the strain and become verbally offensive. Social graces are on "hold" until after salmon season.
As if the peak season for king and sockeye salmon weren't enough pressure, July is also prime time for visitors. Aunt Doris and Uncle Herman are here from Ohio, and they want to go halibut fishing. If we do that, we'll miss a day of dipnetting. They can't dipnet, or even help dipnet, because they're not Alaska residents. And we wanted to get them out on Prince William Sound and up to Mount McKinley. Whose idea was it to tell them where we live?
In July, fishing prevails above all else. It's all-consuming. When we're not fishing, we're either getting our stuff ready to go fishing, or we're recovering from fishing. The tempo increases from adagio to allegro agitato. The difference between June and July is like the difference between Kenny G and John Coltrane.
Viva la difference.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.