More than a business

Posted: Thursday, July 17, 2003

Whoever coined the phrase "life's a beach," had no clue about Cook Inlet sockeye salmon setnet fishing.

The idea of drinking fruity drinks while relaxing and soaking up sun on some palm-tree-shaded beach is lost on the hundreds of commercial fishers who each year spend close to two months out of their lives toiling to eke out a portion of their livelihood.

In early June, setnetters began getting their fishing gear in order, repairing tractors, trucks and boats that will have to bring in hundreds or even thousands of pounds of fish; mending nets, setting up rigging and making certain everything's ready for opening day.

Their strenuous labor will continue until after the Aug. 7 season closing, physically lifting nets filled with salmon into small outboard motorboats, and literally pulling boats filled with fish into shore by the beach-bound nets.

Despite what amounts to a shrinking opportunity to fish and the need to have alternative income sources the remaining 10 months of the year, for many commercial setnetters fishing is a major factor in their lives.

Rather than an occupation, it is a lifestyle that weaves through family life and often consumes their thoughts in the off-season.

"Even in December, we're thinking about fishing," said Nikiski setnetter Gary Parker.

The 45-year-old Parker fishes off Salamatof Beach, 10 miles north of the Kenai River, with his cousins Carl and D'Ann Waggoner and their son Chad. The four each own varying stakes in 12 setnet sites and divide that portion of the beach among themselves.

Aside from sharing the haul from the day's catch, they share their lives and their love of fishing, and either are surrounded by friends and loved ones on the beach or have been at some time or another.

"I like it here," Parker said late last Thursday morning, after setting the first nets of the season. "I like raising my family right here on the beach site with me."

His three youngest children were out with him on opening day, working around the site in different capacities. Twenty-two-year-old Chris rode in a 15-foot boat with Chad Waggoner, picked fish from outside nets inaccessible from the beach.

Becky, 19, and Mathew, 12, worked on the shore helping to unload the boats when they came in, picked fish from shore nets or cleaned sand off salmon tangled in those nets. There was some desire expressed to follow in Parker's footsteps.

"I'd really like to be in the Marines," Mathew said. "Maybe I'll go for four years, then come back to fish."

Parker's oldest children, Melissa, 26, and J.J., 25, have had their share of fishing as well, and, in some cases, continue to do so. J.J. is enlisted in the U.S. Navy and will return on leave sometime next month although he'll miss much of the fishing. Melissa fishes with her husband, who used to work with Parker and the Waggoners, but now leases a site in Kasilof.

"They probably learned to walk here," Parker said of his children. "For my family, it has been hugely beneficial working with them. There is a huge amount of character built in them when they work with their parents and they deal with real-life situations. Working with their parents, they learn respect and learn to still love one another."

Chad Waggoner, 32, said his love of fishing spawned from growing up coming to the beach with his parents, even though he moved away from Alaska to start a family.

"I enjoy it," he said. "I think it's fascinating."

D'Ann said setnetting is a tradition that spans generations. Carl and D'Ann met on the beach.

"He was working for my dad when I was 11, but he waited until I was 21 before he married me," she joked.

D'Ann's parents, Marvin and Gerry Eppes, were fishing off Salamatof Beach long before D'Ann was born, and the Wag-goners' union allowed that tradition to continue. Harold Parker, Gary Parker's father, fished with Marvin Eppes and married Gerry's sister Betty.

As family and friends joined the Parkers and Waggoners at the beach house last week for a massive lunch of chicken enchiladas, salad and biscuits some of them working at the site and others just there for the camaraderie Carl Waggoner said the closeness and congenial atmosphere was one that extended from beach site to beach site.

"As you go up and down the beach here, you find tremendous community involvement," he said, naming families from his site southward.

"The Mumfords, the Eppes, the Kornstads and Glazes. ... We know all of the fishermen up and down the beach, all the way to the (Kenai) river."

Gary Parker said the families share a social connection when they're not working because of the bond they have when they're fishing.

"There's always coffee brewing and generally a dinner or lunch," he said.

Fishing has paid off so far for the family of fishers, as the group cleared 32,000 pounds of salmon on opening day and returned 21,000 pounds on Monday.

Paul Brilla, a retired minister who comes up from Washington state to help the Waggoners and Parkers each year, joined Carl Waggoner in relaying fishing stories Thursday during lunch.

He said everything setnetters do from the time they begin to prepare for fishing until they close up shop at the end of the season is the basis for their way of life.

And Brilla rebuffed the idiom that described beach life as easy and frivolous.

"I think it's the other way around," he said. "Beach is life."

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