Author’s note: This column previously appeared in the Clarion on Dec. 3, 2004. In the intervening 10 years, my old friend Marlin Miller passed away, but everything else in this story, from the coffee at the Golden Griddle to the locals’ affection for pink salmon — “humpies” — continues unabated. This is a timely tale because 2014 is a “humpy year,”one of those every-other-year happenings during which astonishing numbers of pink salmon swim up the Kenai River to spawn. — LP
I’m at the Golden Griddle in Sedro-Woolley, Wash., having early-morning coffee with one of my favorite people, Marlin Miller.
I’ve known Marlin since I was a pup. He and my father, friends since grade school, are the same age, 90. Marlin has lived in this small town on the bank of the Skagit River all of his life.
“Never saw any reason to move,” he says.
When he was a young man, a few virgin stands of Douglas fir remained on the hills around Skagit Valley, giant trees that were alive when Christopher Columbus found his way to the Caribbean.
“I get calls from schools to come and tell the kids the way it used to be in the good-old days,” he says, his lean, leathery face crinkling into a broad grin. “I’m kind of a consultant, I guess.”
We swap fishing stories until the waitress, a 40-something who knows Marlin well, comes by to refill our cups.
“Are you boys being good?” she asks.
“As good as can be expected,” Marlin says, winking and grinning at her.
“I’ll bet,” she says, smiling and moving on.
Marlin turns serious. “Say, you should’ve been here during humpy season. The people were standing as close as from me to you.”
This wasn’t news to me. On the Skagit, people go absolutely bananas during the pink salmon runs.
Shaking my head in disbelief, I say, “In Alaska, a lot of people consider humpies a trash fish. Hardly anyone catches them on purpose.”
“They sure like ‘em here,” Marlin says. “It was so crowded, I couldn’t cast. Finally, the guy next to me got hooked into a log or something out in the river and broke his line. That was my chance to cast. Darned if I didn’t hook one. Landed him, too!”
“I don’t get it,” I say. “People flock to the rivers down here to fish for humpies. But they apparently won’t pay much for them at the store. Alaskan fishermen catch millions, but they can hardly give ‘em away. They get only a nickel a pound for humpies, barely enough to pay expenses. What a country.”
“You know,” he says. “They aren’t bad fish, if you catch ‘em before they’ve been in the river too long.”
“I know,” I say. “When I was a kid, Mom used to cook every humpy I dragged home. I don’t recall ever having any leftovers, either.”
Marlin chuckles and says, “You always did like to eat, you rascal. Still do, from the looks of you.”
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.