Year: 1969, North Kenai, Alaska, now Nikiski, Alaska
Growing up in Northern Colorado and coming to Alaska in my 29th year, with 3 kids, 3 suitcases and $100 in my pocket, I was educated in a hurry about the life around water, boats, fishing, swimming and how at ease everyone in Alaska was around water. I was just the opposite, totally petrified of water – I still am.
I remarried in May 1969 after two years of hard Alaskan work and getting to know the wonderful people of North Kenai.
I loved the sand and the beaches and especially mesmerized at the hard work fishermen and women did on the fishing beach site, known as setnetting. Their nomad way of living appealed to me. Living on the beach in fishing shacks, setting nets at the crack of dawn, tramping up and down the beach with big heavy boots, shaking the fish out of the nets, getting them set again, pulling the nets, usually by hand, before the 7 o’clock deadline at night that the Fish and Game guidelines required.
We counted the fish, hauling them off to the fish processors, getting back to the beach just to see the sun skip across the top of the mountains. Friends and fellow fisherman would set around a campfire watching the sun’s reflection in beautiful Cook Inlet. It appealed to my gypsy nomad soul and I wanted to buy some fishing sites that were for sale at Arness dock. My husband of three months did not!
Not to be deterred, I called my dad in Colorado, and asked him if he wanted to buy the property I had in Poudre Canyon in Colorado so we could buy the fishing sites in Alaska — besides, the property in Poudre Canyon was a better deal than the $14,000 I needed for the 7 sites. We could trade straight across, I said. Dad loved bargains and he always tried to make you think he was not interested.
I heard his voice perk up, but he still said – “I will have to think about it.” My heart sank – maybe he had changed and he did not like bargains anymore! Not so! He continued, “I’ve thought about it – OK, I’ll do it.”
He wired me the money and I had fishing sites and Dad had a bargain in the mountains of Colorado. I later learned that he sold it for a lot more money than I borrowed, but that is not the story that he always told me. When I asked him if he had sold the property – not yet, he would say, it’s not worth much. He had a bargain and he used it to his advantage, with a smile of course. He loved to “horse trade” and laughed, smiled and told stories and jokes and charmed himself right into whatever he wanted. I smile thinking about his “horse trading.”
After we bought the fishing sites, next to Gene and Betty Coulter’s sites, we built an A-frame on the beach and we moved my 3 kids and my husband’s 3 kids to the cabin for the summer. It was a temporary beach home away from home and I loved it. I could see the vast span of Cook Inlet without getting in the water. I could see the beautiful mountains across the inlet and the wonderful sunsets. I could look for agates on the beach with the kids and listen to the waves at night lull us to sleep. On fish days, we fished from shore. I would never have to get in a boat or get wet. It was wonderful.
I cooked over an open campfire with large cast iron cooking pots, hanging from a tripod. We ate chicken soup with homemade noodles. We had fish chowders and moose stews. Moose chili was the very best. Then on special occasions – which was about every Saturday night — we had deep fried beer battered salmon and Betty’s coleslaw. What could be better? We had lots of drop-in friends setting around the campfire until the wee hours on the weekends.
Setnet fishing is a bunch of physical work and each night we all were exhausted and fell into our sleeping bag beds and slept to the sound of the waves hitting the shore. This old farm gal was in heaven. Every morning the 6 kids would crawl down the ladder from the second story loft, full of feathers, from their World War II surplus, down filled, sleeping bags, mostly full of holes. The second floor looked like a chicken farm.
Time for the fishing nets to be set at seven in the morning. We rousted everyone out of the chicken farm to help put the nets in the water or stretch the nets out on the beach and wait for the tide to bring in the fish. Gene and Betty were our fishing partners and taught us land lubbers how to “set nets.”
Their cabin was right next to ours, and usually the two men got in the boats and setnets from the buoys that they had placed in the water earlier in the season. I offered to look after the 8 kids –Betty and Gene had two — saying I did not like boats or water that much and I could not swim. I would busy myself mending nets and “building coffee” over a campfire, and fixing breakfast and planning supper for the whole crew.
I thought I was safe and sound on the sands of Cook Inlet. I always got the sideways glance from Gene and Betty about my comments, but they never said anything. Gene finally mentioned once that the only way to get over my fears was to get in a boat. I said to him, “Well, I don’t think so… maybe — we will see.” I had NO intentions of getting in a boat in the water. Later, I was to eat my words.
That time came sooner that I expected. The tide was high it came time to set the nets at seven. Betty, a hard, hard worker, had hurt her back. My husband could not get back down the beach at high tide from delivering the fish the night before. So Gene decided it was time for me to learn to set nets from the boat. I unwillingly got in the boat. I unwillingly helped him put the nets out and unwilling got soaked and unwillingly took orders from Gene who manned the boat. “NO! NO! Not there, over there, over the bow, lean over the bow, pull that net tighter. Watch for the buoy! Grab that running line! Don’t fall overboard!!” He barked those orders like an army general, all at the same time, over and over again, until I was too exhausted to worry about getting wet and I sure as heck did not want to fall overboard.
When we got back to the beach, I fell out of the boat onto the beach, dragged my shaky legs up under me and again, fell onto the beach. I glared at Gene. He stood there laughing at me. “Not bad for a Colorado landlubber, you will do better next time.” HA! I had news for him! There would be NO next time. I ate those words too.
He dragged my unwilling body and soul into the boat a few more times that summer. Sometimes to pull nets at high tide. Now — that was real work! Dirty inlet mud and dripping wet, fishy smelling nets was work for this short-legged farm gal. Was this my idea of owning fishing sites on the beautiful beach?
Just as the season was winding down, I thought I was home free from getting in the boat ever again! Early one morning Gene came running into our cabin shouting at me – “Help me get the boat out of the water! This storm is going to beat the bottom out of the boat. We have to get it to Arness Dock and tie it up.” We had a big of storm blowing in.
As usual, my husband was gone before the tide came in and me and the kids, Gene, Betty and their two kids were still on the beach. “I AM NOT doing that! I am not getting in that boat!” I screamed at him. He whirled around and pointed his finger at me, “Get your rain gear, get your boots on and HURRY!” But! But, but — “NO BUTS! Do it!!” He shoved me out the door threw me my boots and he started running for the boat. I grabbed my boots and ran for the boat. Then I saw what he was talking about. The boat was going to get swamped and beat to pieces on the rocks.
I barely got one foot in the boat, and Gene took off into the waves. Bucking and sliding sideways, I started screaming, as I was putting wet feet onto my wet boots. “I don’t wanna die this way, I don’t wanna drown, what about my kids, and I want OUT OF HERE!” I screamed and cried, each time getting louder and more hysterical. He had his hands full trying to keep the boat upright and headed for the dock. Finally, aggravated, he turned to me and shouted. ”SIT DOWN, SHUT UP AND BAIL!” I heard the word BAIL and panic set into my bones! I let out a bellowing scream, sat flat down in the bottom of the boat with water up to my waist and started to bail with a five pound coffee can. I bailed so hard and so fast, all I could think about was getting the water out of the boat; the harder I bailed the more silent I got. I needed to concentrate on getting the water out of the boat.
We finally bucked, bounced and sloshed our way to the dock, where my husband was waiting to tie the boat up. Gene got out. They both had to pull me out of the boat, dragging me over the side and onto the dock.
I sat up, sopping wet and yelled. “I was sure we were going to drown!” They bent down and pulled my boots off. The rest of Cook Inlet water drained out. They laughed and laughed – “I though we were dead, drowned at sea!” I started crying all over again. Gene laughing at me, said “I told you to sit down and bail, to shut you up!” Now I was really mad. They wanted to know if I was as mad as a “old wet hen.”
They pulled me to my feet and put a coat around me, and led me to the warm pickup, turned up the heater, then started telling each other how funny I was screaming my head off in the middle of the boat, bailing water with a little coffee can.
They teasingly told me and everyone else that would listen, that all they could see was this wet, blonde head in the boat, with tiny streams of water from the red coffee can being tossed over the side of the boat. I was just scooping up tiny amounts of water instead of big cans full.
They never apologized for getting an entertaining laugh out of the poor screaming landlubber, setting flat down in the bottom of a boat, up to her waist in water bailing small amounts of water. “Did I think I was going to save us?” Gene would ask.
Gene’s way of telling me I was a good sport and hard worker and a good hand by the end of summer was the comment, “Thanks. Not bad for a short legged, blonde landlubber.”
The Pioneer Potluck series is written by 50-year resident of Alaska, Ann Berg of Nikiski. Ann shares her collections of recipes from family and friends. She has gathered recipes for more that 50 years. Some are her own creation. Her love of recipes and food came from her mother, a self-taught wonderful cook. She hopes you enjoy the recipes and that the stories will bring a smile to your day. Grannie Annie can be reached at an- firstname.lastname@example.org.