Charting Packers Spit

Sixteen years passed since I had last slept in Uganik Bay, on the west side of Kodiak Island, Alaska. Yet there is something about the summers of childhood that stretch on and on. They persist in dreams. Perhaps they are the soil in which our character takes root. No, we are fishermen, not farmers; they are the redd in which the roe is spawned.

Uganik Bay on Kodiak's west side; Packers Spit is circled. 

Uganik Bay on Kodiak's west side; Packers Spit is circled. 

This I knew: on the chart, Packers Spit swooshes out like a reverse comma into the East Arm of Uganik Bay. But would I remember its three-dimensional form as we made our approach? I was sitting in an aluminum skiff, and in my lap were my stepdad’s ashes. It was summer solstice and, coincidentally, it was Father’s Day. The day before I spent conducting oral histories with fishermen, but today I wasn’t the historian. I was the daughter of Shutup Joe, Pam and Clifford, and I was returning to the fish camp where I spent summers as a kid, the place where my parents go after they die.

When the float plane that delivers mail twice a week dropped me off on the beach, Clifford’s ashes weighed more than the produce that I carried as my food contribution for the remote fish camps that were to host me. I was flippantly eschewing the line between the personal and professional as I set out to document the bay through oral history and, for myself, convert places on the chart to places that I’ve stood. There was no practiced disinterest, no professional distance here. In August of 1982, my father was fishing in the bay when he received a message delivered via FM radio: “Come to town to meet your new girlfriend.” The girlfriend was me. When I was planning this project, I went to the home of Floyd, one retired Uganik fisherman, and saw a framed portrait of my stepfather’s father hanging on the wall. I learned it was my grandfather who had taught him and many others in Uganik Bay to setnet for salmon- a type of fishing in which one end of the net is affixed to land and the other juts into the sea like a hook.

Floyd and other Uganik old timers took out their charts to show me fish camps, and I tried to imagine the landscape but I couldn’t clearly grasp in my mind. I became familiar with their index fingers as they pointed out capes and crannies of coast line. Their fingers jumped from small islands to miniscule outcroppings that were an eighth of the size of their fingernail yet managed to hold a lifetime of their summers. Like tracing constellations across the sky, these fingers indicated fish camps instead of stars, old canneries instead of planets. Miners Point, Trap 6, Daylight Harbor, Gull Light, Packers Spit- the utterance of names over lips as they pointed at each place reminded me of the devout performing a daily rosary, with familiarity and with respect.

I opened my own atlas of Alaska and ran my finger countless times along that comma of land that constitutes Packers Spit, rubbing to conjure memories. Many times I’ve flown over it, heading to another destination but sneaking a glimpse of the rotting hull of my father’s last salmon seiner, a speck high and dry in the lagoon. In archival collections for the Alaska Packers Association, the company from which Packers Spit derives its name, I encountered plats on which buildings like “China House” are noted. The salty marsh that never had a name when I was a kid was marked as Mathew’s Lagoon. It was known as Uganik Fishing Station then, according to the 1893 land commissioner’s report. I tried to recall where the nubby pilings protruded from the sand and correlate them to the cannery building hand-drawn on the old survey. But the sad truth was that after so many years, Packers Spit was more familiar to me as a birds-eye landform than an actual landscape.

Even though I couldn’t remember it before that moment, it was a startlingly familiar site as we neared Packers Spit’s sandy beach on Father’s Day. The crewman jumped over the bow and walked the anchor up shore. I followed him and looked up to see the cabin that my family slept in barely visible behind the towering beach grass. There was no path to it, so I made big steps and hoped to not squish any voles underfoot in the process. The cabin was standing but rotten; all windows were broken and gray sky was visible through a large hole in the roof. It was insulated with old salmon can boxes, but mostly the cardboard had drooped to the floor. I looked out the window from which I used to watch Clifford plunging from the seine skiff, making bubbles to scare salmon deeper into the net. But the grass was so high that I couldn’t even see the beach. I picked up a key to an outboard motor and slipped it into my pocket. The cabin might last another few winters, or not.

More skiffs arrived filled with fishermen who were friends with Cliff. A salmon seiner anchored off the spit, close to shore, and the husband and wife walked to the bow. I opened the bottle of my stepdad’s drink of choice, Bacardi, took a swig, and passed it to the fisherman sporting orange rain gear to my right. I opened the plastic box in which Clifford’s ashes were packed, tore the plastic, and held the bag by its bottom. Light particles floated in the wind, heavy chunks of bone thumped in the sand. I wondered if what looked like smooth, white shells were actually the weathered bits of my mother and of my father, whose ashes my siblings and I had scattered in that very spot years before. The captain of the seine boat rang a bell. We sipped the bottle of rum until it was empty and I put Clifford’s photo and a handful of ash within it. I screwed on the lid and threw it into Uganik Bay.

We jumped back into the skiffs and powered away from Packers Spit. I looked back across the wake to see Packers Spit moving further away. Then I saw: it isn’t a comma. It rolls out like a green and slate-grey carpet from a wall of mountains. It is outspoken flat land in a bay made of peaks and cliffs. Its appearance was again fixed in my mind, relieving the burden of faded memory. But if it was closure that I was seeking, it was not something that I found. And if it means leaving Uganik Bay behind for another 16 years, it’s something I don’t want, either.  

Note: This February I attended the Fisher Poets Gathering for the first time. This annual gathering of fishermen writers and their supporters in Astoria, Oregon includes a variety of literary events and nurtures a community of folks whose creative energies are fueled by the sea.  It was an honor to take part in this growing event that pays homage to the oceanic literary arts. I shared Charting Packers Spit there.