Setting the Net
Mean high water: n. Average height of water at high tide.
Moving to coastal Alaska meant moving to the water life, although I hadn't known it until I arrived. Nothing is separate from the sea—not the sky, not the land, not a single day, nor my mood. I wasn't used to this. I wasn't ready for it.
It was the middle of July when John dragged out a tangle of net he'd salvaged from the beach months before. In winter, wind and surf reshuffled the beach, exposing hidden treasures—rusty bicycles, boat parts. He had wrestled the gill net from the sand and now wanted to set the net in front of the house for silver salmon that ran along the shore toward streams farther up the bay. I couldn't conceive how such a thing should be done—where to set the net, how to check it, what to expect. But John had a way of finding free stuff and asking a few questions here and there—at a potluck dinner, at the gear shop, in the neighbor's yard—and then he'd know how to do it.
John's certainty intimidated me. So I washed dishes and watched him through the kitchen window as he spread the clump of net on the lawn and got to work meticulously unwinding, untying, and straightening the whole thing out. The net took a day to untangle and decipher. When it was done, the mesh stretched sixty feet across the grass and lay ten feet deep. The float line, a line of white floats across the top of the rectangular net, would hang the net from the water's surface and the weighted lead line at the bottom would sink to keep it open when submerged. I helped John fold up the net in the way he'd learned from a friend: He took the lead line and I took the float line and we walked from one end to the other, bunching it up along the way.
At low tide the next morning, I followed John down the edge of the bluff in front of our house, lugging the hind end of the net over my shoulder. I liked to believe my lithe, curveless body, though small, was strong and capable of bearing up to whatever I wanted to do. But I slipped under the weight of the net in muddy spots the wild raspberry had left bare. The sky was a wide open blue and the white sides of gulls glinted far out on the bay. In front of us, the retreated tide exposed a mud mirror that reflected the mountains across the water. Clam holes and the coiled castings of marine worms pocked and pimpled the reflection. We weren't the only ones who had decided to try for silver salmon. Two nets were set in front of houses farther up the bay, and with the tide out, their lines and pink buoys lay idle on the flats.
John had planned it all out. We staked one end of the net close to shore, stretched the mesh perpendicularly across the mudflats, and then anchored the other end into the mud. Then we dragged the lead line away from the float line, opening the mesh. It was as flaccid as an empty sleeve and so far from the water it looked as though it would never be submerged. But John insisted that silver salmon run through the shallows. For good luck, we tied a buxom white mermaid buoy to the net. Then there was nothing left to do but wait out the tide.
Earlier that month, we had bought fishing licenses at the grocery store and picked up a colorful newsprint booklet that explained the fishing regulations for Southcentral Alaska. The sixty-page publication included colorful drawings of rockfish and salmon, maps of river mouths and bays, instructions on how to efficiently kill your catch, and detailed directions on where and how to fish. John and I had moved to Alaska not quite a year earlier and had learned that with fishing, as with everything else, there were clear distinctions between locals and outsiders: Only residents could use nets to catch fish for themselves, while tourists were limited to hook and line.
New to the town of Homer and eager to fit in and stake out our own territory, we quickly realized that Kachemak Bay, on which we now lived, was already a crowded place. Even with its convoluted coastline and dozen islands, every bit of nature's real estate had been claimed. All five species of Pacific salmon populated the bay, fattening off its rich waters and swarming local streams. Humpbacks, orcas, and fin whales regularly plowed the water, sending the sound of their exhalations over the surface of the bay. Forests of ribbonlike kelp grew thickly from the seafloor, feeding urchin and harboring sea otters, who napped while wrapped in the green fronds. Long strands of kelp washed ashore and quickly became whips and jump ropes for children playing on the beach, or were sliced and pickled in jars. When the bay withdrew at low tide in the spring, shorebirds up from California and Mexico on their way to nesting grounds farther north crammed the flats, needling their bills into the mud for pink, thumbnail-sized macoma clams. Above, marsh hawks patrolled for the stragglers and the weak. Hundreds of snow geese owned the head of the bay each spring, and the rocky shore on the south side of the bay, which was dimpled and nicked endlessly, was as populated and compartmentalized as the oldest city block. Sea lions claimed Sixty Foot Rock as their haul-out spot and occasionally lorded over the harbor, eyeing passersby with dogs. In summer, a clump of nearly naked rocks became a boisterous colony of nesting gulls, kittiwakes, puffins, murres, and cormorants. The chatter clattered loudly above the sound of the surf, and the ammonia smell of guano could burn your nose from more than a quarter mile away.