Reds return, take us back 1,000 years

Posted: Wednesday, July 25, 2001

KENAI, Alaska (AP) -- Along the long sand beaches behind the grassy dunes at the mouth of the Kenai River, the American melting pot was on full display one night last week.

Koreans, Samoans, Filipinos, African-Americans, Indians, Native Americans and all variety of white folk, rich and poor, prowled the shoreline in the grayness of an Alaska night.

The first man I met on the beach drawled two words:

''They're coming.''

Then, smiling, he disappeared into the gloom of the night toward the cul-de-sac where the shiny new trucks and sport utility vehicles lined up with the trashed-out, beater station wagons.

This was not some ''X-Files'' scene of alien encounters, as fans of the popular television show might presume.

''They're coming'' had a deeply down-to-earth meaning that needed no explanation to anyone on the beach.

Red salmon were out there.

Another wave of them appeared to be preparing to swarm the beaches along the river's mouth. All week the sonar counter farther upriver had been going wild counting sockeyes -- 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 or more per day.

The short, summer cycle of natural bounty on the Kenai Peninsula was nearing its zenith. The dozens to hundreds here (the human crowd, like a salmon school, is an always-shifting entity) wanted simply to reach out with pole and net to grab a silvery, 5-to-10-pound fish.

In both practice and desire, this is an activity that goes back at least a thousand years in Cook Inlet. The Dena'ina Athabascans, occupants of the Inlet when the first whites arrived, swung dipnets from platforms built above the tidal waters.

No one knows for sure how the Kachemak Eskimos, who ruled the Kenai Peninsula before the Dena'ina occupation, fished, but it is possible they used dipnets as well.

''We've got nets that go back about 2,000, 3,000 years,'' said Debra Corbett, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service archaeologist studying the early inhabitants of the Kenai.

Those nets, of course, weren't made of nylon, monofilament or polyester. Those nets were made carefully by hand from sinews or the roots of spruce trees.

Some spruce trees, Corbett said, might even have been cultivated to ensure the production of the long, fine roots best for weaving nets.

All the effort required to build a simple tool was rooted in the culture of the people. If there is a man or woman who can still weave a traditional spruce-root dipnet, we need to find him or her and record the knowledge before it is lost, replaced by the culture of the new dipnetters.

This culture, too, is marked by its tools.

For $50 to $100, you can buy a decent long-handled dipnet.

And yet, for every store-bought net on the beaches, you'll see another handmade version. Some are beautifully constructed with obvious care and attention to detail and appearance.

Others are cobbled together in forms more primitive than those used hundreds of years ago although the materials are state of the art:

The hard steel of concrete rebar bent into a 4-foot square.

The monofilament of a gillnet lashed to it with some nylon cord.

A length of PVC (polyvinyl chloride pipe) capped at both ends to serve as both net handle and float.

What the inhabitants of this land would have given to have such materials at hand hundreds of years ago? This, and other technological improvements, would have made their lives so much easier.

With neoprene or Gore-Tex waders, no one needs a platform on which to stand and dip. Those platforms were probably protection against hypothermia.

Insulated from the cold water, today's dippers can get right in among the fish. And they do.

One thing hasn't changed.

Nets still swing in excitement when the reds return in July. People still swarm the beaches, shouting when a salmon thumps, thumps into their net. Many happily charge up out of the water onto the beach to beat their prize to death.

In that, at least, we remain, thankfully, as primitive as the first people, who probably understood a little better than modern man the essence of all life.

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