Ice, mud reveal a Person of Merit

Suzanne stands on the bank of the Chatanika River in Alaska in 1974, holding a whitefish she speared.

 

Her wet, baggy trousers were so frozen they clanked. Her jacket sleeves from cuff to elbow were stiff with a slurry of ice, mud and slime. In her numb, frozen fingers she clutched a big, dead fish — and laughed her head off.

Up until that black October night on the banks of the Chatanika River near Fairbanks, Alaska, Suzanne had been just a new reporter at the paper where I worked. Now, watching her kneel on that frozen mud and gut fish after fish with a razor-sharp knife, I immediately judged her as a Person of Merit.

My job at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner was outdoor editor. And since there is an awful lot of outdoors in Alaska, I was pretty busy. Suzanne had shown an interest in the outdoorsy stuff, so I asked her if she would like to handle a story on a buffalo hunt that the Alaska Department of Fish & Game had put together. She did that one and there were others to follow.

Then, the Sport Fish Division of ADF&G at Fairbanks invited us to go spearing whitefish on the Chatanika; it was October and the season was open.

When ADF&G biologists do something, they do it big. No, we were not going to wade around in the river like other poor wights, equipped only with hip boots, Coleman lanterns, spears, and wrapped in cloaks of futility. We would ride in a boat — a killing machine if ever there was one.

Two steel river boats (flat-bottom craft resembling the much smaller duck boat), four feet wide, were lashed together to make an eight-foot span. The boats were about 20 feet long, driven by powerful jet outboards; there was a tank of gasoline for the engines, and a tank of blackberry brandy, a necessary lubricant that enabled the crew to function in the dark, freezing night.

Across the bows a sheet of plywood served as both deck and killing platform. A railing kept the spearers from plunging headlong into the water, and lights extended over the water to enable us to peer below the surface of the Chatanika. A generator supplied electricity to the lights. The spears were eight feet long and tipped with five barbed, steel prongs.

We would rumble slowly up the river while schools of big whitefish swirled beneath us. Two people at a time stood at the railing, furiously jabbing fish and dumping them into a washtub, which we filled. The boat was vibrating with a lunatic glee.

When it was over, we pulled to the bank to clean our catch. In addition to Suz and I, there were half a dozen other crew members. They would squat on the frozen mud to clean fish, but they kept toppling over. One man cut himself. They said to heck with it, and continued lubricating. Suzanne and I, who hadn’t been that interested in the blackberry juice, cleaned all the fish, reaching past the crust of ice on the riverbank to wash them in the crystal water. It was then that I looked up at her holding that fish, grabbed my camera, and took the photo that accompanies this story.

Not long after, I left Fairbanks to return to Rapid City, and Suzanne was to stay on for 10 more years before attending law school and then working in Washington, D.C.

In the 30-some years that passed, we might have exchanged two or three postcards but that was all — until she called one day, said she would be passing through Rapid City, and would I be around. Indeed I would. And that is when the spark we never realized we had burst into flame. We were married in November a year later. We are celebrating our 15th anniversary.

Now, our cold autumn nights will probably find us in the living room, cuddled up with our dogs and reading. She will peer over her book, smile at me for a few seconds, and say, “Let’s go spear some fish.”

 

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