Leaving Alaska 

Cultures clash as a fishing season ends.

The sport fishermen, for all their Alaska brochures and magazines and fly-fishing dreams, weren't prepared for what awaited them in King Salmon. They expected mountains, glaciers, eagles, clean air, pure water -- in a word, majesty.

But there's no majesty at the King Salmon airport. King Salmon is a two-bar dump with no mountains in sight and water like the Mississippi. And all around the lobby, the tarmac, and the four-car parking lot on this day was a nervous herd of filthy, unshaven, hungover or still-drunk refugees from the local canneries, cussing and drinking and fighting over the available seats on the plane. Their luggage was mostly boxes held together by duct tape, and they reeked of diesel and dead fish. They -- well, we -- had just stumbled off of boats, out of machine shops, and away from "slime lines" with our pockets filled with money and our heads filled with visions of women, beer, or both.

The sport-o's, as we called them, clung to each other by the baggage claim, waiting for their thousand-dollar rods to arrive so they could catch their ride to the lodge. They had come in swapping stories about big fish and wild rivers, and they were trying to maintain their enthusiasm in the face of this ugly reality.

We had already taken turns buying rounds in Eddie's Fireside Inn across the road and most of us had gone for the "liquid breakfast" on the boat that morning, so the party was rolling along as we were herded toward the plane.

When we hit the security gate at the airport, my skipper set off the alarm, so he emptied his pockets -- coins, money clip, knife, watch, can opener, Leatherman tool -- then set it off again. This time he took off his monstrous belt buckle, which he wears on the side of his hip, then dumped another pile of metal goodies into the tray. Off went the alarm again, and this time my skipper, a near-60-year-old man who looks like he's been on the sea for 100 years and was up to a canter in his drunkenness, looked at the airport staff with the face of a little kid who just did not understand why he kept getting into so much trouble. The sport-o's exchanged some glances and chuckles, and half of our herd stared them down. Our collective thought was "Laugh not at a real man of the sea, O ye of the weak big-city variety." He took off his hat with the big Alaska Fisherman's Union pin on it, and this time he made it through without a sound. The sport-o's got their gear and fled.

Once on the plane, we ordered two Bloody Marys each, and, those being consumed, took a nap. An hour later we were in Anchorage, the closest thing Alaska has to a city and a "normal" airport; it's about a third the size of Memphis. We had 25 minutes to catch our plane to Seattle, so we found some of our brethren in a bar. There were four or five of them, each with a mixed drink and all being watched carefully by waitresses in little red-and-blue uniforms. It looked like someone had let the farm animals into the house.

I ordered myself a two-foot-tall beer and looked at the clock: 17 minutes to departure. It was rough sledding, but I made 'er.

We hit the next security gate about four minutes before departure, and this time my skipper shed about 12 pounds of metal before any hassles could develop. While he was doing that, I said something to the security man about how many problems all this technology creates. I was flying high and meant it purely as small-talk, but he looked at me with all this sincerity in his eyes and said, "Well, that's nothing compared to what the government is doing."

"Excuse me?"

"Well sure. I read this book -- we sell it in the store -- about how the government is building this electronic shell over the whole planet and starting to control our minds with it."

And this guy was with security.

The plane took us out over Prince William Sound, and I was glued to the window, lusting after the blue water, the endless coves and inlets, the long, winding glaciers running down to the ocean, and the scattered bergs spreading out from their faces. This, I thought, was what the sport-o's had come to see -- not that they'd really appreciate it.

By the time we got out over the water, I had a beer in front of me, my skipper had two more Bloody Marys, and the flight attendants were nervous. The skipper had already proposed that the U.S. should buy British Columbia, "since those damn Canucks don't know what the hell to do with it," and the two of us were just giddy with our new freedom. I was sort of worried things might get out of control, especially after my skipper bragged about the time a flight crew refused to serve him after he and some other fishermen incited a food-riot in the air.

But I also decided that all the other people on the plane -- the nervous flight attendants, the tourists with their whiny kids, the pale-skinned losers with their slick, new Alaska sweatshirts -- looked hopelessly full of it and could use an encounter with a genuine, drunk Alaskan sailor. Not one of them will ever see water coming over the bow with a full load of fish in the hold! My skipper sized up one couple and said, "Well, they've been to Alaska, they've driven around for a week, and now they're gonna write a goddamn book about it!" When the plane landed, he yelled, "All right, folks, we're back in Seattle! It's time to stir up whatever shit you want!"

Most of them, I thought, wanted nothing stirred up at all.

E-mail: paul@paulgerald.com

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