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Catching the Ebb

Drift-fishing for a Life in Cook Inlet

Bert Bender

Publication Year: 2008

Bert Bender started fishing Alaska’s Cook Inlet in 1963 with a thirty-foot sailboat converted to gas power and with no equipment for pulling in a net. Catching the Ebb recounts his thirty summers of gill-netting for salmon and describes his parallel career as a professor of American literature. Drawing on his academic specialties—American sea literature and the influence of evolutionary biology and ecology in American writing—Bender celebrates the fishing life and traces the fishery’s path of change, from shifts in the market and the demise of canneries to the effects of the Exxon Valdez disaster of 1989 to the rise of the farmed salmon industry.

Catching the Ebb will appeal to readers interested in Alaska, the sea, and the fishing life. In addition to its stories of people, boats, and fish, Bender’s compelling memoir addresses the critical question: Can we restrain our heedless pollution of the sea and avoid depleting ocean resources?

“That Catching the Ebb is written by a lifelong literary critic and writer who is also a professional commercial fisherman is what gives its unusual quality to this well-written and always absorbing book.”

—Peter Matthiessen, author of The Snow Leopard and Men’s Lives

“Bert Bender has dragged his nets up and down the coast of Alaska and the inlets of his studies, and brought up a world of work and earned contemplation. I loved this book.”

—Ron Carlson, author of Five Skies

Published by: Oregon State University Press

List of Drawings by Tony Angell

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pp. ix

Thanks to the many fellow fishermen I had the pleasure of working with and learning from in my years on Cook Inlet. First among them are my former partner, Dick Gunlogson, my two deck hands, John Chalmers and Mike Chalmers, and the several friends to whom my narrative refers by their first names...

Part I: The Life and the Waters / Chart of South-central Alaska from Cook Inlet to Kayak Island

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pp. 1-3

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pp. 4-6

A tremble of life. Constellations of slender inchlings, limpid and light-shy, astir in their cradle of pebbles and dark water. Along lake shores and surrounding streams of the coastal north Pacific, this new generation of sockeye (or red) salmon. After the spawning mothers...

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The Thing

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pp. 7-16

Fishing is a bloody business. Yet nothing I know is more exciting than to see bunches of fish hit your net, the more the better. Swimming near the surface, salmon hit the wall of net that hangs from the cork line, each driving its head into a single mesh that slips behind...

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Cook Inlet

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pp. 17-26

When Captain Cook explored Cook Inlet in 1778 his party interacted with Dena’ina Athabaskan people whose ancestors had lived there for five hundred to a thousand years. Before the Dena’ina arrived, Eskimos known as the Kachemak people had occupied the area. Although...

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The Wake

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pp. 27-41

As I try to account for how I got here, how I became the sort of person who would venture into both commercial fishing and academia, and how I came to write this book, I imagine being on the boat. It’s flat calm with no land in sight. I’m on the flying bridge and...

Part II: The Ebb / Chart of Cook Inlet from the Forelands to Seldovia

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pp. 43-44

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Catching the Ebb

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pp. 45-61

Cook Inlet was clogged with ice that seemed to stretch all the way across and buckle up into the Chigmit Mountains. You couldn’t imagine a boat out there. Dick and I were driving along Cannery Road toward the Kenai River and the cannery called Columbia...

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First Drifts with Margaret

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pp. 62-77

After several days exploring the fjords across Kachemak Bay, we knew we couldn’t make a living hunting seals. We had to get back to the cannery and get ready for the fishing season. There was a lot to do and a lot to learn, and we needed to buy more provisions...

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The Cannery

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pp. 78-95

When the old Columbia Wards Cannery on the Kenai went out of business in 1998 two of my friends wrote to tell me about it. We all had close ties to the cannery and noted its closing almost as we would a death in the family. Bill was especially moved because he’d been...

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Bowline Bill

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pp. 96-103

Early in August of 1963, our first year as fishermen, Dick and I were on a drift a few miles out from Clam Gulch tower, not catching a thing and wondering if we should “bunch it.” The fishermen from the Columbia River and Puget Sound had already bunched it a week before...

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Anna A

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pp. 104-117

After the gill-netting season that summer in 1963, I had nearly two months to scrape up some more money. My half of the earnings on Margaret amounted to four hundred dollars, and that wouldn’t go very far. My predicament had arisen earlier that year when, teaching junior...

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Poopdeck's Hand

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pp. 118-126

Poopdeck’s real name was Clarence Platt, but about fifty years ago someone nicknamed him Poopdeck (after the cartoon character Popeye’s father), and it stuck. Before he died at age ninety-six he was so well known and beloved in Homer that they named a street after him. If you...

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Ngul-a Fatica!

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pp. 127-133

In early July of 1967 I pulled into Snug Harbor for a two-day layover. It had been a pretty good period for so early in the season, and my spirits were up. I was fishing alone on Sounion and, after pitching my fish off onto the power scow Beaver, I dropped the hook just...

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Desdemona Sands

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pp. 134-143

There was a weak run in Cook Inlet in 1968, and Fish and Game closed the season early. This left me in a bind, because I couldn’t make my boat payment for Sounion and I needed more money to finance my next year in graduate school. The National Marine Fisheries...

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Sounion and Scrivener

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pp. 144-157

During our third season on Margaret, in 1965, Dick and I talked about dissolving our partnership and getting boats of our own. Not that our friendship was at all bruised from the years of fishing together. I can’t imagine a better partnership, not even the one between...

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pp. 158-169

After I gave Scrivener’s keys to the new owner that day, I felt a little like Ishmael in “Loomings.” It was only August and not November, but it was a damp, drizzly day in Seldovia and in my “soul.” As soon as the plane back to Homer rose above the fog bank, though...

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pp. 170-179

The two hundred reds we caught on our first day’s fishing with Ishmael helped ease the stress of boat building and missing the first days of the season. The weather was perfect, the boat and all the new equipment ran well, and John was much stronger and more self-confident...

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pp. 180-186

My deck hand John and I were waiting at the dock for a skiff ride out to our friends’ boat. About half the fleet had already quit for the season, but there were still quite a few boats in the Kenai. We began to notice several boats scattered across the river, barely moving against the...

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pp. 187-194

If you were the only gill-netter in Cook Inlet you wouldn’t have any competition. You’d have all those reds to yourself! But you’d probably end up running a long way to find them. You’d realize how big the Inlet is, and if you broke down you’d wish you weren’t out there alone. When you’re out there but not catching much, it’s always good...

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Sign of Wind

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pp. 195-201

In a bad year—like ’81 on Cook Inlet—you get more keyed in to signs, any sign that could explain a poor run or foretell a change, if only in the weather. I think most fishermen are this way. Who—except maybe athletes before competition—outdoes our nervous and sometimes superstitious attention to the swirl of details? You...

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Judith on the Bluff

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pp. 202-207

On the bluff above the mouth of the Kenai River you can look down the Inlet to the southwest. If the weather’s decent you can see Chisik Island, over fifty miles away, and beyond that, Mt. Iliamna, out toward the beginning of the Aleutian Range on the Alaska Peninsula. From the other direction, on a boat out in the Inlet, you can see the bluff from...

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A Mouthful of Sand

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pp. 208-223

On September 23, 1976, my cousin Suzanne called my office at the university to tell me she was worried about her dad, my Uncle Bert. He had flown to Alaska from his home in Seattle for a sailing adventure with his old friends Don and Cathy Lowcock. On September 4 the three...

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Exxon Valdez

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pp. 224-241

In late March of 1989 the thick citrus scent and a dusting of snow on Four Peaks could almost make you forget about the Phoenix smog. Besides, the foothills of the Superstition Mountains were still water colored with lupine and poppies, and we were on the homestretch in...

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Captain and Crew

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pp. 242-252

Well, by “crew” I mean only John, my deck hand at the time. And I admit it’s a bit of a stretch to refer to myself as “captain.” I remember being uneasily amused when someone first called me that, sometime in the sixties. During those years the whole drift fleet monitored...

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The Cutting Web

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pp. 253-261

It was the best thing we’d seen all day—a big splash in the net out toward the end. We both jumped to our feet and John yelled, “Yeah! Big one out by the buoy!” We were on a drift out near the middle rip, off the north end of Chisik Island, and I was wondering whether to pick...

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pp. 262-271

Arriving in Kenai late that June I expected a hard year. My deck hand Mike had a cast on his broken wrist, and we were worried that he wouldn’t be able to pick fish, his most important job. Mt. Spurr was threatening to erupt and we knew that if it popped during the peak of the season we might take a serious hit. There were bad rumors...

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Call Me

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pp. 272-285

Between August of 1992 and March of 1993 I agonized over whether to sell Ishmael and my limited-entry permit. I wanted to fish for six more years, until 1998, when I would be sixty years old and Todd would finish college, but Fish and Game’s biologists were very pessimistic...

E-ISBN-13: 9780870716423
E-ISBN-10: 0870716425
Print-ISBN-13: 9780870712968
Print-ISBN-10: 0870712969

Page Count: 336
Illustrations: B&W drawings
Publication Year: 2008