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The Great Alaskan
In the largest state in the Union, a state built on gold rushes and oil pipelines, ninety-pound king salmon and twenty-pound king crabs, a lot of things come prefaced by the phrase Great Alaskan. There’s the Great Alaskan Salmon Bake and the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show and the legendary 8.6 Great Alaskan Earthquake and, of course, a species of larger-than-life male citizen, who shall be referred to from here on out as the Great Alaskan Dad.
Some identifiers: The Great Alaskan Dad flies his plane on floats in the summer and on skis in the winter. He hunts for caribou, moose, wild sheep, wild goats, geese, and ducks, plus fishes for halibut, salmon, and trout. No matter where he goes, his outfit remains the same: falling-down hip boots, patched wool pants, drugstore sunglasses with Polaroid lenses for spotting fish underwater, and a Stearns life jacket with a red plastic tag that reads pull-in-the-case-of-an-emergency, which has never been pulled, despite his frequent, always almost fatal emergencies. A buck knife—the blade stained with dried unidentified blood and slime—dangles from a lanyard somewhere on his person.
At one time or another, he has suffered from an unforgettable—for all involved—case of beaver fever, a violent lower-intestinal disease caused by drinking downstream from an active lodge. At one time or another, due to a plane crash or bad planning, he has had to live—for days, in the bush—off tasteless ancient pilot bread and a jar of powdered Tang.
The Great Alaskan Dad can sew on his own buttons, patch his own waders, repack his own shotgun shells, and repair his own outboard motor, even as the boat is filling with water in the middle of the ocean. The Great Alaskan Dad can land a Piper Cub on a 150-foot-long gravel bar, which is technically impossible according to all aviation authorities. He can outrun a grizzly bear by running very fast or at least faster than his hunting buddy (which, by the way, according to a Great Alaskan Dad, is the only way to survive a grizzly bear, so don’t curl up, play dead, and make yourself into a human meatball like those dopey forest rangers advise) with a hundred pounds of freshly dressed moose on his back. He can make a fire out of wet green wood, in the middle of the winter, just as the blizzard starts, using his last match, which he strikes with his fingers nearly, but not totally, paralyzed by frostbite. He can—and will—also defend the veracity of the above three claims to the point of shooting saliva across the room, should any family member dare challenge the few overly extravagant or Jack Londonesque details therein.
In addition, although he might not bring this up around the campfire, the Great Alaskan Dad has invented a diaper out of alder leaves and garbage bags when all the Pampers that the Great Alaskan Mom packed happened to fall out of the raft. The Great Alaskan Dad has piloted a plane while his airsick Great Alaskan Child projectile-vomited inside the fur-lined hood of his parka. And he has—not mythically or romantically or hyperbolically in the least—grabbed that same child’s belt loop or leg right before that child fell into the raging stream or fell out of the flying plane or slipped off the boat or wandered off the cliff or tumbled down the crevasse of the glacier or ate the poisonous blue berries that were not blueberries or sauntered directly into the path of a black bear with two newborn cubs.
Where all this experience might not help him, though, is in the land of toothbrushes and crustless peanut-butter sandwiches, recommended daily vitamins and monsters under the bed. In short, the world of domestic survival, which is where my Great Alaskan Dad and I land the first summer after my parents’ divorce.
It’s June, the first week of salmon-fishing season. For the past six months, I’ve been away from Anchorage, Alaska, where I grew up, in order to relocate with my mother to Baltimore, Maryland, her childhood home. The first day I’m back up north, I find out that Dad has moved from our old house by the mountains into a new house across town. The house is big and sunny and filled with lots of wall-to-wall beige carpet—but no furniture.
It’s eight o’clock at night. “Time for bed,” Dad says. He rolls out two identical down bags—bags designed to keep you warm in temperatures up to forty below—on the beige carpet. I hop in mine, zip it up to my chin, and crumple up my jeans for a pillow. The sky through the windows is a blazing, sun-heated white. We have no blinds or curtains.
“Shut your eyes,” he mumbles.
I shut my eyes. But I’m eight years old. I squirm. I hum. I kick Dad, whispering, “I can’t sleep. Can you sleep?” over and over.
“Tell your brain it’s nighttime. Your brain will believe anything, if you say it over and over.”
“It’s nighttime,” I say, my voice echoing off the blank plaster. But my father’s brain is better at believing than mine, it seems. He is asleep already, his mustache twitching mid-dream.
Two weeks later, we’re duking it out in the upstairs bathroom. Dad stands roaring in the doorway, trying to convince me to take a bath—or at least comb my hair. I crouch inside the shower stall, hiding, wearing only my flowered underwear and undershirt. I’m a tiny, runtish girl, with twiggy fingers and a dense rind of dirt on my elbows and knees. The shower is an enormous stretch of blue tile and glass, with three shower nozzles at three different heights: one for Papa Bear, one for Mama Bear, one for Baby Bear. The idea for this family-sized bathing arrangement came from my mother, who designed this new house not knowing that by the time it was built, she and I would have already moved Outside, as Alaskans call anywhere beyond the borders of the state, including Paris, Rome, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, and Hackensack, New Jersey.
Dad and I might not have spent last winter together, but I still know one thing: If you’re going to run from my father, you really need to make sure that you have a long, unobstructed area ahead, if not a vista, because he’s going to be right behind you—catching up.
Water drips from the broken faucet, pinging against the tiles. A Dad-shaped shadow drifts across the shower door. The glass has a premade cloud inside it, a crystallized puff of decorative steam. “Come on,” he says. “Let’s get realistic.”
I curl up tighter.
“Either you’re coming out. Or I’m coming in.”
Dad counts to three. I listen dully. But there is nowhere for me to go except between the thin lines of grout. In he comes, tossing me over his shoulder and setting me down on my bottom on the bathroom counter. I scream. Dad’s face goes ashen. He stands me up on the counter, off my thighs.
In the long mirror lining the wall above the double sinks, we both look at the edges of the rash on the backs of my legs, a rash I have been hiding since my arrival, never undressing in front of him, bandaging the boil-like welts myself—not entirely successfully. The crusted scabs have broken open and reinfected. A trail of thin, clear ooze leaks down my thighs.
Dad blinks. He steps back. There is no medical reason for my rash, the doctors have told my mother. I consider telling Dad this too, if only to stop his face from scrambling around for an expression. But if there isn’t any medical reason, I’m pretty sure the rash is somehow my fault. The same goes for my weight loss. I’m a bad eater or I have a bad stomach or I don’t try hard enough to keep the food inside. My teeth stick out; my ribs stick out; my head is a big wobbly ball on the top of my neck.
“Okay,” Dad says. “We’ve had a rough spring. Nothing to worry about. Nothing some antibiotics and a little protein can’t fix.”
In his hand, however, he still has the comb, a black dime-store comb with rows of tiny, close teeth. It is the one hair instrument he owns. It belongs on the counter with his one bottle of shampoo, which he also uses as soap and shaving cream, and his one disposable razor. He lifts the comb toward me, slowly.
I throw my arms over my head. The comb is going to snag on my hair, or what’s left of my hair, which is, by now, a matted, snarled pelt. I haven’t gone near it, not even to wash it, since coming to Alaska. I’ve tried to, once. I’ve thought about it. But I’m still too scared of touching it or having anyone else touch it—a fear that my father also does not know about, not having seen me with lice a few months prior, nor at the beauty parlor where the stylist swooped up my waist-long blond hair and sawed it off by the base of the ponytail with her brisk, professional scissors. The result: a ragged blond tuft that caused little old ladies in restaurants all over Baltimore to redirect me to the boys’ room.
Dad sets down the comb. He leans his fists on the counter, his arms muscling up. Is he mad? Am I in trouble? Dad loved my long hair. He used to make us matching mustaches from it, draping the long blond strands over my upper lip. Mom didn’t tell him about the lice, probably. The two of them don’t speak.
Dad leaves the bathroom, coming back a few minutes later with a kitchen fork and a pair of fish-gutting scissors—bent-bladed, thick, heavy surgical scissors that he brings from the hospital to fillet salmon in the garage. He lines up this equipment on the counter on a hand towel as if he’s in the operating room. He is a very good surgeon, grown-up strangers in town always tell me, pointing to their knees and hips, showing me they can walk again, thanks to him.
But I’m trembling already. I keep my eyes on the comb, just to make sure he isn’t about to use it. The comb is worse than the scissors. The comb will get stuck in the knots and tear out my hair by the roots. Dad points to the counter. I lower myself into a crouch, resting my chin on my knees. The bathroom smells of steam and pee. In the distance, the windows of the house rattle as a floatplane takes off on the lake outside.
“Leigh,” my father says, which is already worrisome. My name is Leigh, but only according to my birth certificate. Dad calls me Leifer, or Pookey, or, sometimes, Pooks.
I hunch up a little tighter. He approaches with the fork. “What I’m doing now,” he explains in a calm, rational, professional voice, a voice he uses with his patients at the office, “is loosening the knots, in order to determine which we can untangle.” He moves slowly. He keeps his hands away from the comb. But I don’t want this Doctor Dad, this understanding, gentle surgeon who picks through my hair with the wide teeth of the fork, teasing out the hairs strand by strand. I want my dad, who should be telling me to stop the waterworks and suck it up, who three years from now, when we tip our raft in a rapid-filled canyon and watch our gear float off downstream as we head directly for a boulder and I begin to scream hysterically, smacks me on the top of my skull with an oar and tells me, “You’re okay! Got it? Now paddle!”
I lean into the mirror. My father gives up on the fork and begins scissoring through the little hair that I have left. Clumps brush against the back of my neck and slide to the floor. My rash itches. My legs shake. I dig my toes into the counter. Dad makes a hard, strangled sound.
He is crying. I shut my eyes. I hunch forward, the air shivery and cold on my neck where the hair is gone. Not to hear him or his choky-sounding sobs, not to let him hear my own tears that keep slopping out, I do the thing that he always does when he’s gutting fish or tying flies. I hum a floaty, no-tune song, blowing the air up through my teeth so it comes out as a whistle.
Two hours later, on the dock at the back of the house, Dad and I don’t discuss what he did during the previous spring while I was gone. Nor do we discuss why my body is melting down. Nor do we discuss the new custody arrangement, which gives me only eleven more weeks this summer in Alaska, plus Christmas in December, meaning that, from this point forward, I’ll be spending most of the year, for the rest of my life, in Baltimore. Instead we get the plane loaded and get out of there, away from the mirror, away from the bathroom and the house and the city of Anchorage, into the bush.
Our plane is a four-seat Cessna 185 on floats. Over Cook Inlet, Dad keeps us low, swooping over the cold gray expanses to point out surfacing beluga whales. I sit beside him, wearing my matching headset and holding my matching steering wheel. He pretends to fall asleep after a while. I take over the controls, the way I’m supposed to, checking and rechecking that our nose is level. “Dad?” I say over the crackle of radio static. “Dad?”
He saws off a phony snore, his eyes still shut. “You’re fine. You’re doing great.”
“Keep your eyes on the artificial horizon.”
I stare at the two-dimensional plane in the gauge, its wings teetering over the line between the painted land and sky. No throwing up, I tell myself. Copilots don’t throw up. Or get scared. Or let their planes crash into the ocean. Or look over to see if their father is really sleeping or just pretending to sleep. And he is pretending, right? He always pretends. It’s like a fire drill, but in the sky.
“Eyes on the horizon, Leifer,” Dad says, opening his eyes. “You’re in control. You’re 100 percent capable!”
I take my hands off the steering wheel. And puke in his lap.
At last, we spot the deep, gray channel of Beluga River. Dad brings us down with a hard slapping landing. There are no romantic northern pine trees here, no sap-scented breezes. The air reeks of fish and gulls, the water flows by choked with mud and red, bloated dying salmon. Walls of alders line the riverbanks, clouds of mosquitoes hum in the branches. Grizzly tracks paw across the sand.
We dump our tackle boxes by a driftwood log. At this time, my dad isn’t the master fly fisherman he will soon become—the fisherman-artist with his delicate rod, catching and releasing, throwing C-shaped casts over dappled creeks. It is 1980 in Alaska, a state with 3,000 rivers and 3 million lakes. The sporting mores are not quite as respectful, or picturesque. We set up our spin poles with giant shiny Pixies—slabs of silver metal gussied up with an appetizing glop of plastic salmon eggs. The hooks are yawning trebles, in effect mini anchors with three lethal barbed points.
As usual in the summer, the river is red with fish, throbbing with movement in shallows where the salmon fight for space to lay their eggs. With the sun broiling down on us and hours and hours to go before the 11 p.m. sunset, I prowl the bank in my boy-sized hip boots, the tops sloshing down off my thighs, the feet filled with freezing mud and water.
I cast upstream, and get my hook caught in a bush. I cast downstream, and get my hook caught in the weeds. I snag on a rock in the shallows. I hook my own jeans. Down the river, as always, Dad has a fish on. He fights it through the boulders, wading in up to his chest.
I swing my Pixie in the sun, studying the drops of water glistening off the line.
“Leifer!” Dad says, holding up a salmon. “Hook in the water.”
I climb onto the plane float, sitting on a life jacket to protect my rash. Deep in the current, my lure bump-bump-bumps along the bottom. I daydream about a seagull that I train to sit on my shoulder like a parrot. My line jerks. My rod bends a little funny. And—bam—my line is sizzling through the river, zigzagging through the shallows. I jump off the float, already running, half letting the fish yank out more line, half pulling it back up the shore. Not to mention half listening to my dad as he shouts: “Watch your drag!” “Pump and reel!” “Watch your tip!” “Reel. Reel!” “Thatta girl!”
Fish-drunk and screaming, I inch the flopping salmon onto the beach, then run for our trusty wooden club. Only now do I see what I’ve hauled in. The fish is unmistakable—the swollen back, the hooked mouth, the mottled gangrene-colored skin. I’ve caught a humpy, the lowest species of salmon in the salmon family, a fish mocked statewide for its swamp-creature looks and lack of intelligence. Worse, my humpy is soft, lumpish, at the end of its natural life span.
I look up at Dad, waiting for him to laugh.
He rocks on his heels. “Now,” he says. “That’s a beauty!”
“A keeper!” he says. “Throw her in the take-home pile.” To prove his point, he steadies the fish for me, holding it firmly against the gravel. Slowly, I raise the club. The fish looks up at me with glittering, green, very alive eyes. Its gills heave. Its fins twitch. I shut my own eyes as I bring down the club hard, over and over—bits of blood and skin splashing up onto my cheeks, the skull creaking, giving way to mush. Still I don’t stop, as if I’m listening for Dad to thunder at me, That’s enough.
But he doesn’t. Above us, seagulls wail, swooping down for scraps.
Hour after hour, for the rest of the day, we bring in humpy after humpy. Our tempo turns swift, methodical. We bash them on the head, bleed them by the throat, throw them in the waterlogged storage compartment in the floats. The more we catch, the more we have to catch, as if, in our minds, the next unnecessary salmon will justify the previous. Neither of us talks as the pile grows, the pebbles at our feet turning flecked with blood.
If Mom was here, we would have made a fire to keep her warm while she read her novel on a log. If Mom was here, she would have told us to knock it off—not because we’d caught enough fish, but because we were all too tired and hungry and it was time for a big hot plate of spaghetti.
The moon rises. The mosquitoes swarm. The sun lowers in the white sky. Still, we stay and stay, catching and clubbing and bagging, not going home as if we don’t ever have to go home, until it is too dark and dangerous to stay any later, and we have to take off.
“Great job today!” my dad says, over the headset, as we fly over Fire Island. “You’re a champ fisherman, you know that?”
“I think my last one was eight pounds!” I say. “Maybe.”
“Sure it was. A state record, I bet. We’ll have to look it up.”
I smile. It isn’t a real lie that we’re telling each other. It’s a fairy-tale lie, a fish-tale lie, the kind Great Old Alaskans tell each other about the five-hundred-pound halibut that once leapt into their rowboat and sank it before leaping back out and swimming off. Besides, I might really be a champ fisherman. One day. If I practice my casts and keep my rod tip up and live in Alaska for forever, just like Dad.