The Earth follows its path around the sun and summer slides toward winter. Endless light of long summer days grows dim. Green leaves become flecks of gold. Dropping temperatures promise the return of snow and ice.
And Kenai Peninsula residents who spend their summers ruled by the push and pull of tides and the migration of salmon, cast a lingering glance over their shoulders.
Memories harvested on the water are the fuel that warms them until the days begin to lengthen and the waters flow free.
In Ninilchik, John McCombs has pulled his 33-foot boat, the Katydid, from Cook Inlet, with the help of a fellow fisher's trailer. Other winters, he's stored it in a Homer boatyard, but this year's poor fishing season won't permit that extravagance.
Instead, the boat will spend the winter getting a well deserved rest on the banks of the Ninilchik River, far from the inlet's rolling swells.
Rest, however, isn't on McCombs' schedule.
To begin with, he's clearing the boat of the odds and ends of summer. In the days ahead, he will make a list of tasks to complete before winter hits. Plugs to remove, water to drain, oil to change, antifreeze to add and Fiberglas to repair. There's painting to be done, one year the topside, next year the bottom.
Over the course of the winter, McCombs also has nets to hang, his fingers straining to remember the necessary steps to secure the float and lead lines to drift nets that stretch 150 fathoms in length.
"There's a science to it," he said, with a knowing laugh. "If you ever went out fishing and had a net poorly hung, you'd find out why."
When he came to the peninsula 26 years ago, McCombs got a job on a commercial fishing boat out of Ninilchik. In 1986, he bought the Katydid and has been fishing on it ever since -- with the exception of 1989, the year of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
His deckhands are local high school students, two for halibut fishing, one for gillnetting.
"My eldest daughter is going to fish with me next summer," McCombs said, referring to Maureen, 15. They have fished together in the past, but not for the entire season.
McCombs has spent the winters working as a carpenter, crab fishing in Western Alaska, and even finding employment on the North Slope. He built his own home and for the past 15 years has worked as the head custodian at Ninilchik School.
"I've done lots of different things," he said. "Whatever I could find."
There isn't much left of commercial fishing anymore, McCombs said. Instead, the area has become a tourist haven.
So why does he continue to fish?
"I'm in debt," he said. "I can't afford to sell out, and I couldn't give this stuff away."
Nor does it seem that he wants to. His eyes drifted away from the items he was gathering, toward the inlet's shore where waves rolled along the rocks.
"Looks like a high tide today," he said, momentarily distracted from the task at hand. Disappearing inside the Katydid's cabin, he reappeared with a tide book. "No, the big ones are next month. Guess I'll have to come down and watch the water wash across the beach."
John Hylen grew up in Ninilchik playing with toy trucks, similar to the ones his dad, the late John Hylen Sr., operated as part of a road maintenance crew.
"Now I'm playing with the big toys," Hylen said.
For the past six years, he's owned Marine Services and run a fleet of eight John Deere tractors adapted to launch boats off Deep Creek. He and the dozen or so Ninilchik residents that make up his crew begin their season the last week of April. It's a 24-7 kind of job that Hylen escapes only for short periods when he grabs a quick shower at his nearby home.
Does he ever squeeze in a minute to throw a hook and line in the water for fun?
"I never fish for sport," Hylen said. "It's strictly meat for the table. Even as kids, there was no sport to it. We'd go down to the creek, cut a little pole, put some line on it, scrounge up a hook that someone lost, catch a fish and take it home to eat. Whatever we caught, we ate. For most of the people around here, it was a meat-and-potatoes-type thing."
His hectic schedule comes to an end after the first week in September. Everything has to be removed from the beach because of powerful winter storms that sweep the shoreline. After repeatedly being driven into the saltwater, the tractors are badly in need of Hylen's attention. There are lots of parts to be replaced, occasionally involving a transmission or rear end.
Once that's done, Hylen goes in search of winter employment, usually construction.
"I have a friend in California that I go work with a couple of months a year," he said. But he's more than willing to change the warmer temperatures of California for an Alaska winter.
"I enjoy being by the water, being around boats," he said. "I get too far away from saltwater and I get a claustrophobic feeling. I just feel better being around saltwater."
Mark Tuter came to the peninsula 20 years ago to be a youth pastor for the Church of the Nazarene. After the economy took a downturn in 1985, he put his fishing experience in the Lower 48 to work for him. With the help of a 21-foot Willie Featherlite, he began guiding on the Kenai River. After 16 years of use, the experimental model, one of only five made, continues to keep Tuter afloat and doing what he loves to do.
"I've always fished," he said. And whether it's the Sacramento River of California, the Snake River of Idaho or the Kenai River, Tuter said the challenge is the same: figuring out how to catch something.
His summer days start at 4 a.m. and end around 10 p.m. Clients come from all corners of the globe.
"One year I had clients from 11 different countries," Tuter said. "This year, they came from eight different countries."
In 1996, he received the first Alaska Professional Sportsman of the Year award from Gov. Tony Knowles and Sen. Ted Stevens. In 1999, he received the Yamaha Guide of the Year award for having the winning boat in the Kenai River Classic.
When things slow down around the first of September, he pulls his boat out of the river, into storage and begins the process of draining lines, changing oil and making sure everything is cleaned up. New reels replace old ones. And in the spring, he checks the boat for leaks, calling in the help of area welders, if needed.
He keeps himself busy during the winter by running the Community Schools program at Soldotna High School, coaching the girls' basketball team and substitute teaching between 120 and 130 days during the school year.
"And I think about the river all the time," he said. "I can hardly stand it. I really miss it."
Don't get him wrong, he enjoys his role at school.
"But whenever I get back on the water in the spring, I know that's exactly where I belong," Tuter said.
In 1985, Curtis Bates came to the peninsula to sell insurance. Ten years later, he traded in his desk for a 20.5-foot Willie Predator and a few years later began guiding on the Kenai River and out of Deep Creek.
"Fishing has been a passion," said Bates, who fished for salmon and steelhead in Washington. "I've been fishing all my life."
Come the end of the season, he goes through the same routine as Tuter, except that Bates has a local mechanic, Ralph Mills, go over his motor.
"For the last five years, I've stored my boat outside," Bates said. "So I made a little tent out of wood that I put in the boat and covered with a tarp to keep the snow out of it."
This winter, however, his boat will be sitting inside, thanks to a friend who has some spare room in his garage.
"This is a luxury," Bates said of his friend's generosity.
Once the boat is squared away, he switches over to his winter schedule. For the past six years, he's been driving school bus for sporting events and field trips. He also teaches different styles of drumming. On Mondays and Tuesdays, Bates teaches students on the peninsula and on Wednesdays and Thursdays he teaches at the Huffman Music Center in Anchorage. The slower pace means he can catch up on his sleep.
"You get really tired, but it's a good kind of tired," he said. "After fishing for so long, you kind of want a break.
"But then you start doing another job and you wish you could go back to what you were doing. I love to guide."
When Ralph Mills isn't working on Bates' motor, he's keeping several hundred other motors in working order at the request of peninsula sport and commercial fishers. He came to the peninsula in 1982, and for the past four years has operated Ralph's Marine Service.
During that time, he's seen fishing-related activities fill more and more pages on the calendar. His work days stretch from 10 to 18 hours, and he has acquired a cell phone to help him respond quickly to his customers' needs.
"It starts picking up in February, when people start getting new boats ready to go," he said. "Plus a lot of people do the Homer fishing derby, so they get their boats ready for that."
His slowest months are November, December and January.
"But that's when I get a lot of work for setnetters that takes me through the winter," he said.
Being so closely involved with fishing, when does Mills get time to participate rather than provide support?
"I don't," he said. "I'm not a fisherman."
Suzanne Fisler, a park ranger at the Kenai River Center, also shifts gears between summer and winter.
"My interaction with the (river) guides radically decreases," she said, as does her involvement with bank restoration efforts.
"But in the winter, we actually do more reviews of plans for bank projects, and the guides submit their use report forms.
"In the summer we do all the fun stuff that generates the paperwork. All the paperwork bites us in the rear in the winter."
The drop in activity makes it possible for other groups to take advantage of the center, using it for meetings and classes. Also, winter is a time for staff to take vacations.
But in these in-between days, when the hum of outboard motors is gone and the ice hasn't begun to form, Fisler is taking the opportunity to enjoy some time along the river.
"It just smells different right now," she said.
Over at the Kenai city dock, Wayne "Swede" Freden was getting his work wrapped up before shutting the harbor down for the season. In 1987, he hired on with the city to manage the operations at the dock over the summer. A year or two later, he began working with the city's road crew during the winter, plowing snow at Kenai Municipal Airport.
"This is a terrific place to work," Freden said of the harbor. "The best thing about the job is the serenity of the water, more than anything. Right now, there are no boats in the river and this is a heck of a view."
How does his winter job compare to his summer job?
"It's not even close," he said. "I like taking care of the city dock."
Activity picks up on the waterfront in May and usually lasts until October, or as long as there's someone needing the dock. Once it quiets down, the floats are pulled from the harbor.
"The latest I've pulled the dock was Christmas day," Freden said. And he only pulled it then because sharp river ice was cutting through the foam logs that keep the float above water. "That was quite a year."
This year there were more than 3,000 launches from the dock, with a couple of hundred a day during dipnetting season. He laughingly called it "a zoo."
However, not so the decrease he has witnessed in commercial fishing.
"I notice it on the dock," he said. "Each year, it's less and less. Less fuel sold. Less fish caught. It's just a shame to see this."
Freden leaves the main gates to the dock open until the snow starts falling, well aware that other peninsula residents share his attraction to the water.
"I think people like watching the birds and the beluga," he said. "And there are seals in the river right now."
A moment later, he reduced the attraction to a common denominator.
"People just love looking at the water," he said.
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