"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Canning Salmon. In the rain. In the wind. On a Beach. At Night. By Firelight.

I spent yesterday canning five fresh sockeye salmon, all the while flooded with memories from long ago when we canned salmon on a beach during a storm in the Gulf of Alaska.    As 16 jars perked away in a rattling pressure cooker, I searched a storage closet for a particular photo, taken many years ago, and finally found it.

Fresh salmon headed for the canner.

When you can salmon, you pack it so the skin side shows through the glass.

Today, the final four of 20 pint Mason jars are cooking.    The photo isn't very good, technically.  Taken at night during the storm, it's difficult to make out the people around the driftwood campfire.  

The backstory to that photo is that I had gone to Montague Island with my husband Ken and brother-in-law Jerry to fish for salmon.   Huge salmon.   Huge fighting silvers, or Coho, salmon.   The float plane was piloted by Wayne Racine, who was then the owner/operator of a Moose Pass restaurant-motel called the Jockey Club, ironically a business we would end up owning many years later.   Wayne let us off on the beach in Patton Bay, with instructions to meet him in the same place on our appointed day of return.

We landed and fished at Nellie Martin River.   The cabin we stayed in was way along the shoreline and just before the land jutted into the ocean.

We were at the spot where Nellie Martin River empties into Patton Bay.  A couple hundred yards or so up the river was a US Forest Service cabin for rent.   Not for us, though.   The cabin was occupied by Forest Service employees and our cabin was a hundred miles down the soft sand beach.   Or so it seemed after we lugged all our gear and salmon canning equipment along the sand.   It was probably more like a mile.

The red roof is the site of the USFS cabin on the Nellie Martin river on Montague Island.     We fished at the mouth of this river, downstream to the right.

The cabin was owned by a friend, John Kinda, who was a retired Moose Pass hunting guide.  In order to fish for those wild silvers, we had to walk back to the Nellie Martin, fish, then lug our catch back to the cabin and can them.   We used cans for their light weight rather than Mason jars, but the can sealer was no light-weight.

Because we were fishing in saltwater, snagging was legal and we were allowed six fish a day each, but because we were fishing in saltwater, we competed with the offshore sea lions and seals for the fish.   Nonetheless, after a couple days we had plenty of fish.

Ken fighting a Coho salmon on Montague Island.

In addition to spectacular scenery and a great run of Coho in late summer on Montague, there are also a lot of Sitka black-tailed deer to hunt.   You don’t have to compete with the sea lions and the seals for deer.   Just bears.    Big bears.    Big, hungry brown bearsnot little grizzliesand I watched the beach for bear tracks, because bears like fish, too.

I found this photo of a Montague Island brown bear on the Internet.   Couldn't find any photo credits, and I don't know who the hunter was.   Yes, the bear is wet.   It rains a lot on Montague.

A Sitka black-tailed deer.   Found this on the Internet.

One fish was noticeably larger so we decided to weigh it.   Ken held up a small scale that went to 22 lbs. and I hung the fish on the hook.    The fish plummeted to the ground, along with several pieces of the scale.

On the morning of our departure, we rose early and began the onerous chore of lugging all our gear and fish down the beach to the place where Wayne would pick us up.   While the load was lightened by no longer having the food we’d carried in, it was substantially increased by the fish.   We had four cases of cans and a couple five-gallon buckets of fresh salmon destined for the smoker when we got home.   It doesn't take many of those large Coho to fill a case of cans or a five-gallon bucket.

Finally, after several trips, we had all our stuff in one place and we sat down to wait for the float plane.

We waited and waited.   Then we waited some more.   The Gulf of Alaska was blowing up one of its notorious storms.   As evening approached, we built a make-shift shelter by taking advantage of the river bank and the root end of a driftwood tree, and made ourselves comfortable.   Thankfully, we did not have hard rain to contend with.

Knowing full well that we could be stranded for several days, our concern for the un-iced fresh fish grew and grew.   After some conversation, we hauled out the pressure cooker and cans and started the long process of canning fish, in the dark with sand doing its best to fill the cans.   We spent the night on the beach.  There was no way we were going to lug all that stuff back to the cabin and, because of the bears, we couldn't leave it on the beach.

Ken is in the  orange cap and Jerry is to the right, cutting up the fillets of salmon to pack into cans.   Looks like we had a tarp to make a tent for protection from rain and wind.   The pressure cooker went into the fire to process and seal the cans.   This is the photo I sought for two days.

The next day the weather looked hopeless and we faced another night on the sand.  Every buzzing mosquito sounded like a far-away plane.   Finally, finally, Wayne’s plane landed in the rough ocean water and taxied up to the beach.

While we were loading everything into the plane, a small plane on wheels landed on the sand beach.  It was another pilot from Moose Pass, Ludwig Pfleger.   I saw him watching as Wayne taxied away from the beach, through the surf pounding the shore, and into the large, troubled swells where he began his take-off run.

Those were the years when I was deathly afraid of flying in anything but helicopters, and this takeoff did nothing to lessen my fear.  I was sitting in the back row of seats next to Jerry, and Ken was next to the pilot.   Both Ken and Jerry were pilots.

Wayne tried to get the plane on step preliminary to takeoff but as the floats slammed into the top of each swell, the very loud, very alarming stall buzzer shrieked in terror and each shriek foretold a miserable death by drowning in an upside down airplane in the frigid water of the Gulf of Alaska.

I looked at Jerry.   He gave me a facial expression equivalent to a “thumbs up,” but I read something else in his eyes.   Crash, crash, crashwe bounced into and off of the irregular swells until finally, at long last, after an eternity, the blasted stall buzzer shut up and we were in the air.   A very rough, bouncy, pot-holed air, but airborne and headed for the smoother, protected Resurrection Bay and on to Trail Lake and home.

I saw into Ludwig a few days later.    “I didn’t think you were going to make it,” he said about that takeoff.

“I didn’t either, Ludwig.   I sure didn't either.”


The mess I made searching for that one elusive, very flawed photo.


  1. This is my first visit here but it won't be the last. What a wonderful essay! I'm still bouncing around trying to help that plane take off! Alaska used to be on my "bucket list", but, alas, over the (many) years I seem to have misplaced the bucket.
    I'm eagerly anticipating returning with a cup of coffee to begin devouring older posts.
    After seeing all that fresh salmon, I'm suddenly starving. If I close my eyes, maybe these sardines will taste like Coho ....

    By the way, you didn't make that mess searching for a photo - you retrieved a memory.

    1. HI, Wally. Nice to see you here. I love your bird photos. As soon as I clean up the mess I made searching for that photo, I'll link your blog to my blog roll. Love your last line, but memories sure made a mess.

  2. Yes, with that photo you retrieved a memory and the photo certainly enhanced what you were dealing with that night on the beach, canning salmon over a campfire. True Alaskan tale all the way around. If I had not lived here myself for over 54 years, this would be hard to imagine! Smiles and reminiscing myself over some fishing memories. Patti

    1. Hey, Patti. I think only an Alaskan could believe a tale like that.

    2. I had to search real hard to remember everything about that adventure. I am beginning to think we might have been delayed by a couple days to make us undertake canning in a storm. That freaking' stall buzzer in the plane erased a lot of what happened before.

  3. Man Oh Manischewitz. What a take off in the float plane. Then to have Ludwig say he didn't think you were going to make it. Whew. What a bear in the internet photo. Massive. I can't fathom canning anything in those conditions. Smiles. Cap