Su Lum: Slumming
August 18, 2009
My daughter Skye recently returned from a two-week adventure in Alaska with her friend Colleen, whose father lives on a remote lake in the middle of nowhere accessible only by bush plane.
When Skye showed me the photographs I did not have a yearning to return to those primitive conditions (to this day I love the sound of a dripping faucet), but she brought with her the best thing to come out of the 49th state – two halves of a silver salmon, caught and flash-frozen on the spot just days before.
As I gorged on the salmon, dusted with lemon pepper and lightly sauteed in butter, I recalled the high point of my days in Alaska, when the silver salmon were running in the Little Susitna River, affectionately (and appropriately, I thought) known as the Little Su.
To get to our fishing spot from our homestead was an expedition in itself, 10 miles over a bush road torn up by an oil exploration company that didn’t get out (as promised) before spring breakup arrived, leaving tracks a foot deep snaking through the forest. We bounced in our VW bug with one wheel in the middle and one on the side, slipped into the trenches, jacked up the back end and (an old homesteader trick) “drove off the jack.” Repeat, repeat, repeat until we arrived at the “great, gray, greasy banks” of the Little Susitna River.
I don’t remember what we used for bait but it might have been cheese. It didn’t matter because 10 seconds after throwing the line into the water we’d have a bite.
To bring them in, we used our hooligan net, a fish net with a 6-foot-long handle. Hooligan are smelt, little 6-inch mackerel-tasting fish with a million bones that we chanced upon churning up a creek near Anchorage and got swept up by the excitement of the moment. “The hooligan are running! Get a net! Quick!” So we did, but the aftermath was not a success.
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Silver salmon, though, that’s a different story. Burt had built a fire and the first fish, dressed and wrapped in foil, baked on the coals while we caught more, more, more in a mounting pile. That first baked fish was right up there among my most memorable meals.
I was a couple of weeks away from giving birth to Skye and was relegated to chopping off heads, eviscerating the salmon and wrapping the catch while Burt did the heavier work of hauling them in.
We bounced back home (jungle hammocks and tarps at the time) with 15 or 20 fish, dined on salmon thrice a day and put the rest in our freezer in Anchorage, along with the bear and moose meat. We went back to the Little Su for more, only to have our cache swiped by a brown bear who left Sasquatch-sized paw prints and an easily identified pile of (smoking) scat. The bear had literally swiped the fish right out from under our noses without either of us hearing a sound. We decided it was about time to run along home.
Skye’s present was as close to the real thing as you can get, short of baking a fresh-caught fish on the river bank, reminding me that my Alaskan experience hadn’t been all bad – there had been that perfect salmon day, followed quickly by the much more astounding experience of having a baby. I wouldn’t trade anything for that.
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