Katherine Carscallen: Reflection on the President's visit to Dillingham

One Lucky Day in Bristol Bay
By: Katherine Carscallen

From the moment Air Force One dropped down from the low cloud cover over Kanakanak bluff it was suddenly real. The President of the United States of America is really visiting my lifelong home.  And not just any President. I will be honest, I have not always had the pride in our country that we are all supposed to have. I've always had pride in my home, and usually in our State, but growing up in a rural Alaska community through the Bush era didn't exactly instill the nationalism it maybe should have. President Obama's sincerity, intelligence, and caring has now changed this. Yesterday I drove past an American flag flying from a boom truck and it shocked me to feel something that I'm sure so many others in our country feel when they see this symbol of what really is a great nation. I'm very thankful for this. This visit however was not about politics, it was about three things - water, salmon, and people.  And that is why President Obama came to my home; because he cares about people, the salmon that sustain them, and the water that is at the heart of it all.  

I just turned 30, and in the inevitable reflecting that comes along with that milestone, I have come to the conclusion that there is no need to question it or wonder why, and to just appreciate that I live an incredibly lucky life. I have the most ingenious resourceful and truly good parents a person could ever have. I was raised in one of the richest places on earth, and afforded the opportunity to leave this place for an education that only instilled a deeper belief that where I was raised and the lifestyle I already know is un-beatable. I was never taught to fish, but instead so immersed in it, that I could not even describe how I know the things I know and am daily amazed at the knowledge that I've absorbed from my community through osmosis.  Most of all, I was lucky enough to be born in a place that has been cared for and protected for thousands of years, and the result is awe inspiring. I don't know if the earth evolved this way or was created this way. What I do know is that this is one of the few places that it is still the way it is supposed to be. 

This summer I witnessed some of the most incredible forces of nature that exist on this planet. I left the Dillingham boat harbor at midnight on June 22nd for our 3 hour opening the next day. My crew and I then drove for 2 hours through the most "biblical" (as described over our group radio, about 245 times the next day) lightning storm I've seen in my life. Thousands of bolts lit up the sky. Little did I know this was foreshadowing for the awesome forces of nature I was about to witness. 

The factors that contributed to finding myself in Schooner's channel without another boat in sight are an absolute travesty in themselves, and something all Bristol Bay fishermen need to come together and address this winter. That aside however, having just delivered half my eight-thousand pound limit at the bottom of the channel, and receiving a radio call from my partner Kai, who said he was over-limit and pulling his net, I had the opportunity to do something all drift-gillnetteres dream of. I set my net right on the line, for no real reason other than habit, because when I say the channel was empty, that is an understatement. There was not another boat fishing for two channels and at least 6 miles despite the literal "miles of jumpers" visible to the south. I started to set across the color change and as the corks hit the water they did not stop splashing. We pulled back to the tender forty minutes later with the remainder of our limit.

My crew and I had savored that moment for about two and a half minutes before picking back up to avoid going over limit, but I will never forget having the opportunity to put a net out, all alone, and watch it explode with a portion of this year's 58 million sockeye run.

This and every other lucky day I've had in my life, are why, when asked if I would be willing to represent commercial fishermen and help share our lifestyle with the President, I didn't question why or how. I just said yes, and set out to find some commercially processed salmon fit for the leader of the free world, and husband to an avid wild salmon lover. Thanks to a certain PAF watchman who shall remain nameless so as not to jeopardize his job and our friend Dylan, still out here direct marketing salmon, we were able to put together a good representation of the commercial product processed here in Dillingham for distribution to the rest of the nation and beyond. 

As I watched the President walk down the path to Kanakanak Beach, my mind scrambled to put something entirely out of context into order. I remember thinking he looked like a hologram or an actor and how unreal it all seemed. Thats until the President smiled and laughed off the cold, pouring rain, saying "how else would I know I was really in Alaska."   

I watched him walk naturally down the beach to greet Mae and Alannah, the best people I could imagine to introduce the President, and the nation, to the culture of salmon fishing in Bristol Bay. As President Obama donned the gloves Alannah and I had frantically dug out of my boat cupboard that morning and clearly defied all the prep his staff had given us that he would not be putting on rain gear or handling any salmon, it was clear that he felt more at home and natural in this setting than I ever would have imagined.  That evening, looking at a photo of him smiling with our muddy tidal water in the background, I was reminded of a well known photo of the then Presidential hopeful on the beach in Hawaii, wearing the same natural, genuine, at home kind of look that he held through his entire visit in rural Alaska. I think he must have been feeling that very connection, as Alannah and Mae showed him the ropes of gill netting, he told them of his traditional spear fishing back home in Hawaii.  

By the time the President was chatting with Kim and Rose about the different types of subsistence salmon, the surreality of it all had slipped away. He was completely at home, and his annoyance with secret service for taking away our knives so he couldn't learn from Rose how to fillet a salmon was all so genuine and real. I wish I could say I was articulate and collected as I described our commercial fishery to the President.

Truthfully I have no faith that the sentences I was putting together had any grammatical value and I'm just lucky they were coherent. President Obama's handshake, sincere eye contact and warm presence however did put me at ease enough to forget my "talking points," I'd been rehearsing in my head all morning, and have a real and frank chat with him, not only about the value and pride we in Bristol Bay have in the salmon we are providing to the world, but also some of the challenges we are facing.  As I showed him the H&G product and vacuum packed fillets, I mentioned that if he has had Wild Sockeye Salmon in a restaurant or from the store, there is a good chance it came from Bristol Bay. As we moved over to the cans, currently an unavoidable a reality of processing the largest sockeye run in the world that hits Bristol Bay in the compacted span of a few short weeks, I mentioned that the markets for canned salmon are an older generation and we are struggling to ensure we do not loose this important market.   

To my surprise, this surprised the President.  

"I don't see why," he said. "This stuff is great!  My grandma used to make us salmon cakes out of canned salmon." Rose, Kim, and I all smiled and nodded as he asked if we knew what he was talking about; 
"You know, canned salmon, smash up some ritz crackers... salmon cakes, right?"  

Days later, I don't think that smile has left my face as President Obama went on to tell us all his thoughts about Bristol Bay:

"So obviously we're thankful for the incredible display of fishing skill that has been built up over hundreds of years.  And all the folks here engage in subsistence fishery, which is part of the traditional way of life for so many here on Bristol Bay.  Even though we’ve got a cloudy day, I think everybody has a sense of how beautiful this place is.  And the scale of fish that come through here is remarkable.  If you catch -- or if you've eaten wild salmon, it’s likely to have come from here.  And this has some of the biggest salmon runs, sockeye, in the world.  And it’s part of the reason why it’s so critical that we make sure that we protect this incredible natural resource, not just for the people whose livelihood depends on it, but for the entire country.  About 40 percent of the wild-caught seafood in America is caught right here on Bristol Bay. 

And it represents not just a critical way of life that has to be preserved, but it also represents one of the most important natural resources that the United States has.  This is one of the reasons why we have shut off oil and gas exploration in this region.  It is too fragile, and it is too important for us to be able to endanger it in any sort of way.  And this is something that obviously has strong support for the people whose livelihoods depend on it and for the people of Alaska. 

But there are other threats to this environment that we’ve always got to be alert to.  And hopefully by us coming here, we’re highlighting the need for us to keep this pristine and make sure that this is there for the children and grandchildren, great-grandchildren of all these wonderful fishermen."  - President Barrack Obama, Sept. 2, 2015

I have come to recognize and appreciate that I live an incredibly lucky life and I am thankful most days, but this one tops them all. I have never been so inspired and thankful in my life with real hope that our country can take a turn for the better, and like Bristol Bay, prioritize the fundamentals of life like clean water, air and food above greed.

From the day the President came to Bristol Bay I have only two personal regrets: 
The first is entirely vain: I regret having thrown out the Carhartt raincoat that actually fit me ok at the end of this season because the last four fishing seasons put a little too much wear and tear on it, leaving me looking like a drowned rat in my brand new Gage raincoat.  Dear Grundens; Please tell me where I can find one of your new women's sized of raincoats, and thank you for recognizing that not all fishermen have absurdly broad shoulders. 

Second, and much much more importantly I wish I had asked the President for the rest of his grandma's salmon cake recipe. Mine always turn out a little dry so I would love to know the Obama family secret!

I actually have three regrets, but while focusing on being thankful, I am trying to just live with the last one: 
I regret that every single person in Bristol Bay, did not have the chance to look President Obama in the eyes, and not only thank him for all he has done for our home, but be thanked by him as well, for sharing a piece of it with him.  I am writing, in hopes of sharing an experience I feel truly lucky and thankful for.

-Katherine Carscallen, Bristol Bay Fisherman.

PS: Chuathmuk - Thank you for loaning us your only commemorative Bristol Bay Sailboat can of Sockeye Salmon (last seen in the photo). If you would like it back, please contact Secret Service, 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue - they insisted on taking it.

Click here to read more reflections on the President's trip to Bristol Bay.