Big Saws

By Michael Kew

Photo: Kew.

LIKE EVERYWHERE, THE WOODS were once virgin. From southern Alaska to northern California lay vast tracks of temperate rain forest, huge conifers untouched since sprouting at the end of the last Ice Age. Later, humans arrived via the Bering land bridge and became the indigenous people of the northwest, settling and evolving into several cultures and societies, treading lightly and harmoniously in their rainy eden, living off and with the land and sea, the natural resources rich and widespread. And although the people warred amongst themselves, their pre-Columbian tribes and their forests flourished for 15,000 years.

Then came the 19th century and white men with big saws. Flat, open land surpassed trees in value, and the trees were simply large brown weeds that needed to be cleared. It wasn’t long before settlers realized the terrain was unsuitable for anything but trees, however, so instead of building homes and seeding farms on the clearcuts, they made more. Large-scale industrial logging eventually leveled nearly 100 percent of the forests that covered the evergreen coast.

The natives had no involvement. They just lived there.

“My ancestors could do nothing,” Sam said. I found him one morning squatting near the rivermouth on his tribe’s beach, a beautiful place, cleaning a salmon he had just hooked. He tossed the guts into the river’s clear running water. Like many around him, Sam was a die-hard fisherman, his gaunt face acne-scarred, his brown eyes weary. He loved adventure books and television shows like Deadliest Catch. His hair was black and long and worn in a ponytail.

“I catch a lot of fish right here,” he said. He pointed at some sea stacks. “We’ve got some good ling holes out there, too.”

Nearly 30, Sam was thin and unemployed and grew up on his tribe’s small reservation, a blustery and bleak patch of ramshackle homes, rusted cars on blocks, junked boats, bullet-holed street signs, roadside clearcuts, and lazy stray dogs howling into the wind. Trash was rampant. Alcoholism and precipitation were common. Tourists were not. There was no casino, no rustic riverside campground, no five-star resort—how could there be when the place sulked in squalor? Poverty beat the people down.

 “This is what we have, you know? The reservation. The rez. What is happening around us, the logging outside the rez, we cannot control, but they really cannot control what is happening inside here.”

They was the government. Indian reservations were exempt from normal bureaucratic protocol, sovereign entities that, like military bases, had the unique right to close beaches to the public. The tribe managed its own land. Sam’s beach, covered with the largest pieces of driftwood I’d ever seen, had a wide gravel rivermouth sandbar that looked like it could form a good right-hander when the swell was small and clean. Today, preceding a storm on the horizon, the surf was huge and evil-looking.

“Have you seen surfers here?”

He lit a cigarette and took two tokes before answering. He looked pensive. His hands were spotted with fish blood.

“Surfers? No. This is not a place where you can do surfing.”

Most of the northwest coast was like that. It was never a good surfing zone and never would be. Typically, miles of banal beachbreak alternated with inaccessible bays and fatally flawed reefs, nothing worth traveling for. Cradling the weather kitchen called Gulf of Alaska, the coast was typically overloaded with swell, the winds strong and foul, and with few roads leading to few beaches, a surfer was forced to hike or to avoid the place altogether.

“Want to come eat some of this salmon?” Sam asked.

“Sure.”

I followed his old black Ford pickup for a mile inland to a small house that he shared with his mother and his two salmon-fishing brothers. At sunrise they had taken the family skiff upriver.

“They won’t be back for awhile.”

From outside, the home looked abandoned, with broken windows, a crumbling garage door, rotting walls, a mildewed roof smothered by thorny bramble bushes growing from the hillside that the house backed up against. Three wrecked pickup trucks, all flat-tired, were parked in tall weeds near a frail shed where fishing gear was stored. Stained laundry hung from pins on a fishing line strung between two skinny fir trees. Birds sang. A toppled basketball hoop lay on itself, pressing rust into the soil.

Sam’s mother had gone for groceries. I caught a glimpse of the house innards, far cleaner and more organized than the yard. An untended fire burned in the kitchen woodstove; its smoke rose lazily from the rooftop chimney cowl.

Aside the front porch, a propane barbecue was ignited and Sam lay two small salmon steaks onto tin foil he’d set on the grill. The meat cooked quickly. Sam’s black cat, Shadow, smelled the fish and crouched by my feet.

“Some in my tribe want to build a casino here, but I don’t think it would do much good because we don’t get tourists. The rez has nothing for them, no hotel, not even a restaurant. Maybe some river fishing. The beach is cold and windy. Nobody is going to drive all the way out here just to gamble. Alcohol is banned. Other reservations already have casinos and hotels, and they’re a lot closer to the highways and cities. Tourists go there.”

“Do you want tourists here?”

He chuckled. “I think they would ruin it for us. It is peaceful now. My mother thinks tourism would bring crime and traffic. Only a few people want a casino. My brothers do. But the rest of us know better.”

With a metal spatula he lifted the steaks from the foil and soon we were pulling the tender pink meat apart with white plastic forks. It was delicious.

“Probably born in the fish hatchery,” Sam said.

“It’s kind of sad,” I said. “Having to breed fish in a hatchery and later putting them into a lake or a river?”

“Better than nothing. Without hatcheries, there would be no fish. All the landslides and soil run-off from the logging areas have really trashed our creeks and rivers. Fish can’t live in mud water.”

The sky darkened fast and within minutes rain appeared, the drops hissing as they hit the hot barbecue grill. Shadow ran into the house.

“You think it will rain all day?” I asked Sam.

“Probably.” 

Photo: Kew.