Fish. We catch them and hatch them, we clean them and cook them. We can them and smoke them and give them as gifts. We stuff them and ship them and share them with friends. We paint them and carve them, but that's not the end.
We photograph them, write about them, sing about them, too. Not just for the summer, but all year through. It's not just our rivers where spawning fish flood. They're our work. They're our dreams. They swim in our blood.
To residents of the Kenai Peninsula, fish aren't just a summertime preoccupation. They're our staff of life.
"There's just something about fish that binds you to this place," said Clare Swan, of Kenai, who was born and raised in the midst of the peninsula's commercial fishery. "There's a real strong connection."
Although no longer involved in commercial fishing, Swan still makes sure there are enough fish to enjoy during the winter and to give as gifts.
"I'm a real fish eater. I could eat it every day," Swan said. "My favorite way is to just eat it right out of the can."
If it's for the grandkids, Swan knows exactly how they like their salmon -- smoked.
Ensuring the connection to fish is passed to future generations is important to Swan, who is on the board of directors for Cook Inlet Region Inc., chairman of the board for Cook Inlet Tribal Council and past chair of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe. The tribe is one of three Alaska Native organizations on the Kenai Peninsula that were issued a state educational fishery permit.
"The permit is for individuals to illustrate and educate their members in an understanding or appreciation for traditional uses of fish," said Larry Marsh, assistant area management biologist for the Department of Fish and Game. The program began in 1989.
Maintaining the connection to fish also extends to Swan's elders.
"It is really wonderful what it is able to do for the elderly," she said. "My daughter takes care of my aunt, and when Auntie's depressed and down, I can make her salmon soup in the old way and it perks her up."
People eating fish is a sweet, sweet sound to Fred West, owner of Tustumena Smokehouse. He reported that sales of his gift packs increase during the winter holiday season and that his new product -- fish sausage -- is about to go nationwide.
"We developed salmon sausage four years ago," he said. The product, which looks similar to summer sausage, is made strictly from Cook Inlet chum and pink salmon.
"I want people to know that it's made from the wild salmon of Cook Inlet," West said. "We don't import any fish whatsoever. We support our local fishermen."
Major supermarket chains across the United States will soon carry West's salmon sausage packaged as a "lunchette" with cheese and crackers.
"People don't realize how much our quality of life on the peninsula depends on fishing," said Jeff Berger, owner of Deep Creek Custom Packing. "Even people not in the industry are affected."
He pointed to the obvious ties to mechanics and fuel suppliers, but also included the impact on hotels, restaurants and the travel industry, to name a few.
"A lot of people that provide us machinery, packaging and all the support services come up here to make sales calls, but they take advantage of what's available for recreation, as well," he said.
Seeing beyond Alaska's borders, Berger ships Alaska fish to Korea via Korean Airlines. He also supplies restaurants in Washington, D.C., South Dakota and Chicago. His holiday gift packs can be delivered door-to-door anywhere in the United States.
Seeing beyond the flurry of summer fishing activities, Berger supports winter recreation by selling assorted secondary fish products to area sled dog mushers.
Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association also helps supply food for sled dogs, such as the 40 Alaska huskies owned by musher Judy Merritt, of Moose Pass.
"They've been our sponsor for three years," said Bill Merritt, Judy's husband, of the association's support. Merritt estimated that in three years they have received three tons of salmon from the association's Bear Creek weir near Seward.
Activities at Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association's two hatcheries stretch well beyond dog food, according to executive director Gary Fandrei. Producing pink salmon is the focus at Tutka Bay, where the association incubates some 100 million eggs each year, then releases the young salmon.
Trail Lake Hatchery, near Moose Pass, is a central incubation facility for sockeye and coho salmon. Activities there encompass the entire Cook Inlet drainage, extending north to the Denali Park area and including both the west and east sides of the inlet. The association also has an agreement with the Seward Chamber of Commerce to produce and release young coho salmon into Bear Creek for the Resurrection Bay recreational fishery.
Fish are also finding their way into Kenai Peninsula schools, thanks to the aquaculture association. Fandrei is formalizing a program to allow greater participation by students in hatchery activities. Several schools already are involved informally and have classroom incubators.
Then there is the artistic impact of fish. Dot Bardarson, owner of Bardarson Studio in Seward, has seen wallets made of salmon skin, door knockers in the shape of fish, functional pieces of pottery that include fish designs, fiber creations with fish painted or stitched on them and metal signs that are replicas of "old time signs." Her studio's logo is a fish, and there's a fish sign on the roof of her studio.
"The (studio's) front deck has three absolutely exquisite streetlights, and there's a silver salmon at the top of each one," Bardarson said. "They're made of copper on a beautiful wooden post."
In watercolor scenes painted by Bardarson, fish fly through the air, their colorful shapes adding humor and meaning to the artist's work.
Fish also are the subject of Daryl Hollingsworth's art. This peninsula artist laminates different kinds of wood to create a block that he carves into "surrealistic looking fish."
"I angle and curve the fish in such a way as to make the grain of the wood swirl," Hollingsworth said. He uses a second piece of wood for a base, carving it to look like water. The fish and base are connected with a piece of brass. An oil finish accentuates the color and texture of the wood.
Music and fish are literally Butch Leman's bread and butter. Several years ago, Leman, a Ninilchik singer, songwriter and lifelong fisher, stopped in Seldovia on his way back to Ninilchik after a halibut trip. A band was playing at a local establishment, and Leman was asked to join them. His fishing partner encouraged him to sing the humpback salmon song.
Leman started singing, "I like humpback salmon, good old humpback salmon, caught by Ninilchik fishermen."
"Then I heard a bang and a crash and there was a friend of mine from Seldovia coming over tables, yelling, 'You're in Seldovia now!'" Leman said.
He now exchanges the reference to Ninilchik to match the location.
Nancy Lord, of Homer, writes about fish. Her book, Fish Camp, is about fishing in Cook Inlet. Lord was raised in New Hampshire and came to Alaska when she was 21. She began fishing on the inlet's west side in 1979. However, unreliable tender service and low fish prices are causing her to sit this season out.
Writing is filling the gap.
"I'm actually working on a book about beluga in Cook Inlet," Lord said. Although beluga are mammals, not fish, the subject definitely reflects the author's connection to the water.
For every resident of the Kenai Peninsula, there is a link to fish.
"Even if you're a person who doesn't eat fish, or you've never had any experience with fishing, it doesn't matter," Swan said. "Everyone has their own way of looking at things."
For Swan, it's "the smell of the ocean, listening to the water lap on the dory and all the things that go with it."
"I can smell the outdoors early in the morning and tell if there's fish coming or not," she said. "The old people used to say, 'It just smells like it,' and it's really true. It's hard to explain. I think it just comes from being here."
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