Clean Enough: A Guest Post by Leslie Leyland Fields

“I’m tired of being around men all the time,” Naphtali complains. I feel the same, stuck on an island with five sons, her brothers. I go out with her on the next pick as a respite for us both. She takes her place automatically in the stern and I in the bow of our aluminum skiff, which makes me her crewman. I expect nothing else. At 22, she has run her own skiff for six years. Her face is deeply tanned from weeks out on the water; her cheeks are red, eyes a vivid green. I sit in front of her on the seat, partly protected by a chest-high plastic tote that holds our fish and ice. I feel small beneath her. She is taller and stronger than I am.

We begin the first net, which hangs heavy in the water, the leads weighted yet heavier by the rush of an ebbing tide. Above us the mountains of the Alaskan peninsula hover like clouds over the water. Every minute or so I look up from my hand-over-hand pull of the net and look around. We’re on the backside of our island, Harvester Island, a 400 acre teardrop that rises up to a single peak at 900 feet. The water is the Shelikof Strait, a fifty by three hundred length of water, fenced by mountain ranges on both sides, Kodiak Island on the one side, the Alaska Peninsula range on the other, as saw-toothed and lofty as any mountains I’ve seen in the world. They are one of the few fixtures in this world that remain in place. The water is always moving, carrying us the ten miles from one net to the other, one island to another, delivering the salmon we depend on to our nets. But the ocean currents are generous and indiscriminate, delivering more than fish.

After storms and especially high tides, the beaches bloom with mounds of ropy kelp, grasses, ribbons, saltwater succulents every shade of brown and green, all twisted into painful knotted bodies, a sudden garden of violence. Much of this makes its way into our nets, and is delivered to our hands. Our job then is simple—glean the kelp from the net. Every skiff length, we stop, our hands pulling at the grasses as if we’re milking cows or pulling weeds from a garden. Often, the skiff is filled with more kelp than fish. Today is one of those days. In just an hour, we are ankle deep in a harvest neither of us wants.
We have four nets still to go, but I am dreading the end of the pick, after we deliver our fish. One job will remain—bailing and cleaning the skiff. I know how it goes. Naphtali will throttle down and angle the rudder of the outboard at the sharp right, and we spin. Tight circles, all our momentum contained in spirals that cant the skiff, sending the wastewater to the low side of the floor. We squat on our haunches, begin scooping and bailing the slop of gurry, blood, scales, guts, kelp and jellyfish. It does not smell—but if left in the skiff even a few hours, it would begin the rank of the decomposing. All the skiffs do this, the eight skiffs under our banner, Fields Wild Salmon. My three other sons, my neice and nephew, the ten crewmen. But no one cleans with such intensity and thoroughness as my daughter. Like her father. But I cannot spin. I set my face to the bottom of the skiff, shutting my eyes against the twirling horizon, trying to fool my body into ignorance of this dizzying circus act. I’m too old to perform. Hail to Naphtali for keeping such a clean skiff, but my body can’t do it. Nor can my mind. In just a matter of hours, we will return to the skiff and begin hauling in all the same ocean detritus again, and just a few hours later, another futile spin, readying for another harvest of weeds, fish, and guts. Why must the skiff be this clean?

None of this is what I anticipated. Before children, if I had thought about being a mother someday and passing a heritage onto my daughter, I would not have envisioned this: the two of us out in a skiff, in orange raingear, slimed by fish guts, blood and kelp, the mountains and ocean rising up around us. I would not have imagined us killing fish instead of garnishing them; snatching salmon from watery jaws, shouting sea lions away from our nets, picking kelp until midnight. In a rosy glow, I place the two of us in the kitchen. There we are, within warm buttery walls, surrounded by appliances with dashboards and buttons just waiting to be controlled by the lift of our fingers. Engines that whir to life with a touch rather than a full-body yank on a six-foot pull cord. We are wearing matching aprons instead of matching raingear. Standing side by side while I demonstrate the roll of the pin, the fold of the dough instead of the slashing of kelp and the roll of jellyfish from the nets. Betty Crocker is there. We speak of literature, The Heart of Darkness, The God of Small Things as we braid a mound of challah. I teach her the science of yeasts and pie crusts, the brilliance of Indian curries. She learns to savor the artistry of food as I do, the unending beauty of colors and textures and flavors—this, the only domestic art that I love.

None of this has happened. But this day, at the end of the pick, Naphtali turns the skiff over to me to devise my own bailing performance. I throttle up to full bore, then angle the arm to the right, then the left, a zig and zag sufficient to lean the sides for the scoop and bail. Naphtali bails. Like this, I cut a jagged swath home from the nets to our island. The skiff is clean enough today.

Leslie Leyland Fields is the author of seven books. Her most recent release is “Hooked! True Stories of Obsession, Death and Love from Alaska’s Commercial Fishermen and Women.” She runs a professional writing service, The Northern Pen, and speaks around the country at conferences and universities. For 34 years she has been home-based on Kodiak Island, where she has worked in commercial salmon fishing with her husband and children.

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