Alaska Dispatches: One Fish Can Change Everything | Adventure Kayak Magazine | Rapid Media
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Nancy Pfieffer is on a summer long subsistence kayaking trip with partner Fredrik Norrsell Photo: Fredrik Norrsell

Fredrik Norrsell and Nancy Pfieffer check in from their summer spent subsistence kayaking in Southeast Alaska

It's early June and my husband and I are off on what now seems like our annual subsistence kayaking trip. Last August we lived off of the land and sea as we paddled around Alaska's Prince William Sound. When the berries were ripe and the salmon were running, subsistence life was relatively easy.

This year we are taking the whole summer. We chose to paddle Southeastern Alaska, where we have a plethora of new islands to explore, along with the possibility of finding wilderness hot springs. Being even a couple degrees further south also gives us a surprisingly broad variety of new species on the menu. Here the white flowers and huge leaves of thimbleberry line the trail. Currant, cranberry, blueberry, raspberry and salmon berry bushes crowd into every opening in the woods. This place will be a fruitful paradise...in a couple of weeks.

Over a last cup of coffee in Haines, I overheard a fisherman exclaim, "Someone in Hoonah caught four sockeye."  The salmon migration, the event that makes this entire ecosystem work, is coming.... soon. The sweet abundance of summer is on it's way. Meanwhile, I am a bit concerned about surviving on beach greens.

After long weeks of preparation, we are finally on our way. As we paddle away from town, the sun is out and wind and current are behind us

"Let's try jigging off the point," I suggest.

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Photo: Fredrik Norrsell

Not long after lowering my hand line, a fish hits, hard.

"Fredrik," I yell, "I've got something big."

I pull on my line. Something yanks back. Afraid of being tipped over, I stop pulling and hang on. I won't be fighting this one until I am safely rafted up.

Paddles across our laps, my husband and I become a catamaran. Fredrik helps haul. Whatever this is, it's heavy. Peering over the edge of my boat, I watch a large gray shape emerge. Two big eyes look up at me from the same side of a large, flat head.

"It's a halibut!" I holler.

This fish is food for the family for a week. This fish means an easy start to our trip. It could provide us with the ability to cover miles, toward even richer fishing grounds outside this long fjord. I can taste halibut with lemon and cilantro already.

Fredrik and I look at our fish, then at each other.

"What do we do now?" we both exclaim, each hoping the other has an idea.

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Photo: Fredrik Norrsell

Our landing net is pathetically inadequate. I consider opening my spray skirt and dumping it in. It wouldn't fit. Besides, this fish would beat me black and blue. I had been hoping for a decent size rockfish or a small cod. This giant fish was caught on a small single hook.

"We need to tow him to shore and land him there," I say.

"That's for sure," says Fredrik, "but let's try to get another hook in him first."

Fredrik hands me a big treble. I look into my fish’s slightly strange eyes and drop it into its gaping mouth. Our deck explodes in a tangle of lines and lures. Our fish is gone.

I understand now why a big animal is so revered in native culture. A moose can feed a family for the winter. A whale can feed a whole village, and one fish could have changed everything.

Fredrik's Vegetarian Delight Recipe

Toss a combination of goose tongue, lamb's quarter, beach pea shoots and a hint of beach lovage in a fry pan.

Sauté in olive oil with onion flakes and turmeric. Yummy.

Explore more of Nancy and Fredrik's work here and stay posted for future dispatches from their summer-long kayak subsistence trip in Southeast Alaska. 

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