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'The Salmon Way: An Alaska State of Mind' captures demanding life in the northern state

Seattle Post-Intelligencer logo Seattle Post-Intelligencer 5/2/2019 By Joel Connelly, SeattlePI
a close up of a stuffed animal: Author and photographer Amy Gulick's latest book, "The Salmon Way: An Alaska State of Mind," captures the demanding way of life in the far north through beautiful images and true-to-life prose. © Provided by Hearst Newspapers

Author and photographer Amy Gulick's latest book, "The Salmon Way: An Alaska State of Mind," captures the demanding way of life in the far north through beautiful images and true-to-life prose.

"The Salmon Way: An Alaska State of Mind" is a joyous, visually gorgeous book about a physically demanding way of life and the Alaskans who live it, love it, and are fiercely attached to it.

Photographer/scribe Amy Gulick celebrated the central role of salmon in nurturing Alaska's natural systems with her book "Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska's Tongass Rainforest." She is now focused on the human dimension.

a man wearing a hat standing next to a body of water: Author and photographer Amy Gulick's latest book, "The Salmon Way: An Alaska State of Mind," captures the demanding way of life in the far north through beautiful images and true-to-life prose. © Provided by Hearst Newspapers

Author and photographer Amy Gulick's latest book, "The Salmon Way: An Alaska State of Mind," captures the demanding way of life in the far north through beautiful images and true-to-life prose.

The book is very . . . Alaska.

Witness this description of the Naknek River, an integral part of the world's largest sockeye salmon run, in which nine rivers feeding Bristol Bay see an average 33 million red salmon return each year:

a fish swimming under water: Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) migrating, Alaska © Provided by Hearst Newspapers

Sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) migrating, Alaska

"I squeeze into a tiny Cessna seaplane. The pilot looks like he just graduated from high school. A plastic Jesus figurine bobbles on the dashboard, and I'm not sure whether to be comforted or alarmed. The Naknek River is our runway, and we roar up and take flight.

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"In no time I see why this is sockeye country. Countless unnamed ponds, small lakes, and streams drain into larger unnamed lakes and rivers, which drain into the ocean. Unlike the other four species of Pacific salmon, sockeye need lakes for a certain stage of their life cycle."

Gulick is soon back on land, and on water, in the company of fisheries biologist Travis Elison, who caught his first salmon when he was five years old — "a 38-pound king bigger than me." He explains the craziness of the Bristol Bay fishery. Most salmon runs go on for a month to six weeks. Most of the Bristol Bay run returns in about 20 days.

"It's one of the things that makes Bristol Bay fishing so exciting," says Travis. "It's managed on a tide-by-tide, hour-by-hour basis."

The enormous commercial and native fishery of Bristol Bay has spawned sport fishing lodges. When I last flew out of King Salmon some years back -- on a DC 3 that inspired Casablanca jokes -- 'had a party of wealthy, well-fortified Germans for company.

Pam Smith removes strips of salmon from their brine soak before taking them to the smokehouse. "All these people who smoke fish (commercially) shove their fish into a dead space. There's no air flow; it's all very sterile," she says. "... I don't think that properly represents what Copper River salmon can be." © Provided by Hearst Newspapers Pam Smith removes strips of salmon from their brine soak before taking them to the smokehouse. "All these people who smoke fish (commercially) shove their fish into a dead space. There's no air flow; it's all very sterile," she says. "... I don't think that properly represents what Copper River salmon can be."

Gulick is a multi-talented storyteller. She fits in a description of how Alaska restored its depleted salmon runs after statehood in 1959. The account is interrupted by appearance of a bear. Flip the page, and there's one gorgeous shot of an Alaska brown bear, almost jaunty with nose in the air, a hook-nosed sockeye salmon in its jaws.

a close up of a mans face: Pam's husband, Bob, hauls in a Copper River king in Orca Inlet. He fishes commercially and gives his wife eight kings per opening. © Provided by Hearst Newspapers Pam's husband, Bob, hauls in a Copper River king in Orca Inlet. He fishes commercially and gives his wife eight kings per opening.

The characters in this book are as abundant as the returning sockeye salmon of Bristol Bay.

My favorite is Katie John, an Athabascan native who fought back in the 1960s when the state of Alaska closed native subsistence fishing camps on the upper Copper River. A mother of 14, plus six foster kids, she sued and won a landmark federal court victory for subsistence fishing rights.

David Parker Brown holding a fish: Frankie Ragusa, general manager of Seattle distribution for Ocean Beauty Seafoods, carries a 40-pound Copper River salmon after it's arrival at the Sea-Tac Airport outside Seattle as part of the first shipment of the season of Copper River salmon from Cordova, Alaska, Friday, May 17, 2013. The arrival of the salmon, which is prized for it's taste and color, is a rite of spring in Seattle, and the fish bring top dollar in restaurants and fish markets. © Provided by Hearst Newspapers Frankie Ragusa, general manager of Seattle distribution for Ocean Beauty Seafoods, carries a 40-pound Copper River salmon after it's arrival at the Sea-Tac Airport outside Seattle as part of the first shipment of the season of Copper River salmon from Cordova, Alaska, Friday, May 17, 2013. The arrival of the salmon, which is prized for it's taste and color, is a rite of spring in Seattle, and the fish bring top dollar in restaurants and fish markets.

"The foods that we gather, that we grew up on, that we continue to eat -- this is our way of life," granddaughter Kathryn Martin tells Gulick. "My grandma passed on this knowledge to her kids and grandkids. When she got older and couldn't do these things anymore, we did them for her. It's the Native way."

The Gulick book is a feast, a theme deployed by its author. "Salmon are a gift. To the land, water, animals, plants and people," writes Gulick. "And when you are on the receiving end of a gift, you give back."

The Salmon Way has threats hanging over it. The pain endured by the fishing village of Cordova has lasted decades after the 1989 grounding of the tanker Exxon Valdex fouled the pristine beaches of Prince William Sound and beaches as far distant as Katmai National Park.

a view of a mountain: A failure to recognize that Seattle is changing:  The Emerald City has long been a gateway for commerce to Alaska.  The port, the Chamber of Commerce, the maritime industry, all have been boosters from days of building radar warning systems against the Soviets to construction the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. But Seattle is now a hotbed of pro-conservation activism for Alaska -- from Braided River's glorious picture books, to Sen. Maria Cantwell's defense of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to local fishing boat operators and restaurants resisting the proposed Pebble Mine close by the salmon streams of Bristol Bay (pictured above). © Provided by Hearst Newspapers A failure to recognize that Seattle is changing: The Emerald City has long been a gateway for commerce to Alaska. The port, the Chamber of Commerce, the maritime industry, all have been boosters from days of building radar warning systems against the Soviets to construction the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. But Seattle is now a hotbed of pro-conservation activism for Alaska -- from Braided River's glorious picture books, to Sen. Maria Cantwell's defense of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge to local fishing boat operators and restaurants resisting the proposed Pebble Mine close by the salmon streams of Bristol Bay (pictured above).

Mineral development has proceeded in rivers that rise in British Columbia and flow into Southeast Alaska. British Columbia has allowed a large mine to open in the Iskut River, principle tributary of the Strikine River. The B.C. government has also pushed mining upstream in the Unuk River, home to the largest Chinook salmon run in Southeast Alaska.

a boat is docked next to a large body of water: Protesters, demonstrating against the Navy's planned exercises, head out in commercial fishing boats on Orca Inlet, which opens onto the Gulf of Alaska, on Saturday, May 16, 2015, in Cordova, Alaska. They say the military activities could endanger critical fish habitats. © Provided by Hearst Newspapers Protesters, demonstrating against the Navy's planned exercises, head out in commercial fishing boats on Orca Inlet, which opens onto the Gulf of Alaska, on Saturday, May 16, 2015, in Cordova, Alaska. They say the military activities could endanger critical fish habitats.

The mother of all threats is, of course, the gargantuan proposed Pebble Mine, which would be located between two of Bristol Bay's most productive salmon streams. Seemingly killed off by EPA studies of the potential for catastrophic damage to fisheries, it has been brought back to life by the Trump Administration.

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It is curious the political clout of resource extraction industries, and the carbon economy, in a place where a natural resource — fisheries — contribute so much to so many.

An average of 2015 and 2016 harvest totals show that 792 million salmon were harvested in Alaska, resulting in $418 million in income received by fisher folk for their catch, $1.4 billion in first wholesale value, $1.7 billion in labor income, and 32,900 jobs.

But the more fundamental worth of fish to Alaskans, Gulick writes, is measured in "family, community, culture, well-being, and way of life — values to reduce to dollars and cents, and senseless to try."

The value of salmon to Alaska? "Priceless," Amy Gulick concludes.

"The Salmon Way" is published by Braided River, a branch of Mountaineers Books. It is 192 pages, on which you will find 100 color photos plus maps and illustrations. It'll set you back $29.95, money very well spent.

a bird flying over a body of water: Bald Eagle sprading wings, Homer, Alaska, USA © Provided by Hearst Newspapers

Bald Eagle sprading wings, Homer, Alaska, USA

a small boat in a body of water: Protesters, demonstrating against the Navy's planned exercises, head out in commercial fishing boats on Orca Inlet, which opens onto the Gulf of Alaska, on Saturday, May 16, 2015, in Cordova, Alaska. They say the military activities could endanger critical fish habitats. © Provided by Hearst Newspapers Protesters, demonstrating against the Navy's planned exercises, head out in commercial fishing boats on Orca Inlet, which opens onto the Gulf of Alaska, on Saturday, May 16, 2015, in Cordova, Alaska. They say the military activities could endanger critical fish habitats.
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