By Lisa Polito
Before I came to Alaska I had never killed anything in my life. Perhaps the occasional fly, the stray ant on the sidewalk, a road trip’s grillwork full of moths, sure, but never held a breathing body, eyes rolling in terror toward mine, and stopped that breath, blood dripping from my hands. I imagined myself too sensitive, too squeamish, filled with Buddhist sensibilities.
I came to Kodiak late one June for a visit, still reeling from the trauma of divorce, trying to find my footing in the world again. Planned as a week, the visit stretched easily into two months, though my funding was not so limber. I found myself presented with a new and unusual employment opportunity—hatchery laborer. So it was that on a cool, rainy day in late August I climbed aboard the Pen-Air Goose with two co-workers, my backpack filled with new, blue Helly-Hanson polypro and second-hand clothes. That first view of Kodiak from the air, I sat in the co-pilot’s seat, awestruck, too new, too “green” to be frightened by the bucking plane. My seasoned travel companions later confided in me their fears during that flight. But I was overcome with the splendorous still-green island and deep blue bays that peek-a-booed through the rain and fog, winking at me knowingly.
We came down hard on the wind-whipped water, the lower of the two lakes that feed into Olga Bay on the south end of Kodiak Island. The Fish & Game folks refer to the area as Upper Station; the topo maps designate the lakes as Upper and Lower Olga. Whatever the name, in those last few days of August I saw my first williwaw on that lake; wind peeling water into towering veils of mist. Four of us inhabited the tiny cabin on the southwest shore. I could cross it—length or width—in three easy strides. Weather permitting, we skiffed across the lower lake each day, then hiked to the upper lake where we constructed the camp for the egg take. It took more than an hour each day just to get to where the work was, the topo map a decidedly inadequate representation of the terrain: hummocks, hills and high grass; bogs and bears. And as September came on it was starting to get cold.
Eventually, we built platforms and raised weatherports at the upper lake. With an outhouse crudely constructed and the latrine dug, we were forced to abandon the cozy little cabin. Our first 36 hours in the weatherports, wind confined to our bunks. Wind battered the heavy plastic skin, whapping like a helicopter’s rotor—whudha-whudha-whudha-whudha—the sound so loud we couldn’t hear to converse or sleep. We lay bundled against the cold, fear of the 45-knot winds bilious in my stomach.
With our accommodations expanded, more workers arrived. We began beach-seining sockeye salmon, corralling the fish near shore, sorting through them for females with bellies soft as ripe fruit. Net pens floated in the lake, suspended from square frames of airtight PVC pipe—one for males, one for females. I began awkwardly, grasping at the slippery, swimming fish. I learned to cut the arms off of my sweatshirts to keep them from wicking water down against my torso in the warm neoprene waders, learned to hold the tails firmly, stiffening my wrist against the muscular mass so the fish couldn’t twist and thrust away from me. I learned to cradle the fish, handling them gently so as not to damage their spines or the precious cargo of eggs. Two, four, six—after a week we had filled eight net pens.
In order to take the eggs, of course, the salmon had to be killed. The pens of fish would be towed in-shore from their anchorage, and for the male sockeye death was a heavy blow to the head with a length of pipe or a club. But for the females it was a broken neck, to preserve the unfertilized eggs. Bloodied and mired in the mud, these pens were then referred to as the “killing pens.” As the first egg-take approached, I made certain everyone was well aware I would not be going into the “killing pen.” I wanted no part of them. I found my place in the egg-take world: carefully slitting open the bellies of the dead females to gently loosen the eggs from the body cavity.
These were long days, in the cold, on our feet, without much movement, and with little to no time for breaks. The logistical trick of the remote egg-take is to get the eggs fertilized, packed, chilled and ready to go when, hopefully, the plane came at the end of the day. Our days started as soon as it was light and didn’t stop until well after the plane took off.
After the third egg-take, one of the guys in the killing pens developed bad carpal tunnel inflammation. Against my will I was reassigned and found myself donning chest waders, cotton gloves and a grim resolve for the task at hand. We were in the last days of September, and the lake’s water was frigid. I could feel it in my feet, through the layers—socks, Bama Booties, waders.
The white cotton gloves, always too big for my small hands, seemed to stretch and float in my way as I tried to grasp at the traces of fin and tail in the silty, near-shore water. When at last my grip gained purchase on the slippery tail, I found my struggle had only begun. Hands wet and cold, soggy cotton gloves at least a size too big, I attempted to follow directions. Firmly grip the female’s body with your left hand. Be certain to cover the egg vent so that eggs do not leak out. With my underdeveloped, now stiff-from-the-cold left hand, I clutched the body of the fish with all my meager might, and a stream of eggs shot out. I slid my hand quickly to cover the leaking egg vent. Place your right thumb along the top of the head where it meets the body, and wrap your fingers around under the jaw like you were palming an orange. An orange, yeah right. I stretched my small hand into this contortion, straining the limit of my reach, finding the support of my knee helpful in maintaining the awkward grip of my left hand. Now, using your thumb as a lever, lift the head up and back until the neck snaps. What?! I could barely hold the writhing fish, now I was supposed to use my thumb as a lever?
I became focused on the images my instructor had set in my mind: palming an orange; thumb as a lever. Fixating on the latter, I tried again and again to perform this theoretically simple ‘snap’. My thumb is a lever, my thumb is a lever became my mantra for the moment. The fish and I struggled in our individual efforts—me cursing, the fish gasping but surprisingly strong for something so close to its natural death. I became so determined in my efforts and so focused on the mechanical image in my mind of my thumb as a lever that I was taken by surprise when there was a quiet, wet “snap” and my hand filled with blood, pumping in pulses against my wrist.
I had the sense that I had done this thing inadvertently, as though I had knocked over the sugar bowl while wiping off the table. The feeling of remorse—which I was certain was imminent—never came. The next one was easier, and the third easier still. As the day wore on, I moved from one pen to the other breaking necks, bashing heads. I came to prefer the physicality of the assignment, the expended energy warming my neoprene casing against the lake’s chilly waters. Although my wrists and muscles were sore at the day’s end, I was not tired in the same way as I had been, standing in one place for 10 hours. In a way, I was energized.
I was shocked. This wasn’t at all how I was supposed to feel. I was supposed to feel brutalized, persecuted, forced to be a murderer. I was supposed to stagger beneath the burdensome weight of those lives I had taken. But I didn’t. I didn’t feel any of those things. I felt great.
I took a walk along the edge of the lake that evening to contemplate this discovery: that I was a killer, seemingly without remorse. I watched as the light faded from the sky, brilliant red and gold giving way to the dull, deep purples, making room for the stars; the lake’s waters still, silent. I found no answers there, no revelations in the glory of the setting sun. But I did realize that I, like the world around me, could be surprising, unpredictable. Even to myself.
I suppose my initial attitude toward killing the fish had been a throwback, a shard of a more innocent worldview when I still believed everything could be “all right” in a storybook sense. As if these fish, in another few days, wouldn’t have hauled themselves into shallow waters, struggling to fan broad tails in the grit, letting loose flows of eggs and sperm, only to skulk off, gasping, to die a slow, agonizing death. As if the majority of those eggs would actually be fertilized and mature to fry. As if acts of violence, most of them far more senseless than mine, will not touch all of our lives in some way. As if suffering, on some level, were not an inherent part of a rich life experience. As if death were not a natural and inevitable destination for us all—me, you, the fish.
For the remaining five egg takes I worked in the killing pens. I could not bear to go back to the other work, so sedentary. I have a picture taken that last day, just before I returned to town. I am knee deep in cold water, blood splattered and speckling my face, a dead salmon in one hand, a bloody length of pipe in the other. I am laughing heartily. I love that picture. That year at Christmas, I wanted to send the picture to friends and family back in Arizona. I didn’t. I didn’t think that they would understand.