Books Quarterly: Getting Skunked in God's Country

Joe Upton's classic 'Alaska Blues' returns to print.

Standing on the deck of this tender making its way up the Inside Passage to Alaska, I thought, 'This is it, God's country, right here—don't look any farther.' And then I started salmon fishing, and it was the best and most enjoyable fishing that I'd ever done. But the fishing has changed for the worse faster than I would ever have thought it could, and I don't see any improvement soon." Joe Upton was singin' the blues—singin' the Alaska blues in his book by the same name, first published in 1977 and recently brought back into print by Sasquatch Books. When he pointed his salmon troller south for the last time, loggers were clearcutting the Tongass National Forest, choking local salmon streams with silt and debris. Chinook and coho stocks were in sharp decline, and the little communities that clung to bites of coastline from Point Baker to Haines were all but spawned out—or so it seemed. Alaska Blues

by Joe Upton

Sasquatch, $15.95 Joe, a thirtysomething fisherman who'd been working Alaska since his late teens, returned with a notebook full of memories and a knapsack full of exposed film and created a remarkable tribute to the land and the lifestyle he thought he'd left behind. (Upton later returned to Alaska to fish Bristol Bay, in the southwest. He now lives on Bainbridge Island and plies warmer waters, writing an historical guidebook to the Caribbean.) Fortunately it wasn't all over, as Upton had feared. Alaska salmon harvests skyrocketed from fewer than 50 million salmon in 1977 to more than 200 million two decades later. While the declining fishery was painful for Upton back then, it was a good thing for us that his luck was on the ebb. A busy fisherman doesn't have time to explore desolate inlets, poke around abandoned canneries, and muse over deserted mines and mink farms. He's too preoccupied conking fish, mending gear, and grabbing shut-eye. A busy fisherman can barely hold a pencil hard enough to scribble his name on a fish ticket by the end of the day, much less write such a captivating chronicle of an entire season in Southeast. When Canned Heat sang "Goin' Up to the Country," the band couldn't have known it was singing about Southeast Alaska. Yet in the early 1970s there were thousands of fed-up high school and college students who hopped tenders, shipped out on purse seiners, or indentured themselves in remote canneries just to get the hell off campus and leave the SDS, Richard Nixon, Bob Hope, and Mom and Dad in their wake. Since the fishing was lousy, Upton had plenty of time to gather up and preserve this '70s utopia in words and photographs. We hear the whales snoring outside his hand-built cabin in Point Baker. We see the flat evening light of summer peek through the window of an abandoned homestead and silhouette a lone troller as it slips around a rocky point. We envy the companionship of his beautiful deckhand/wife, Susanna, and his faithful black lab, Sam. We share their fear when storms catch them too far from shelter. "There was a long sinister swell and a southeast wind at 20 knots at Egg Island," writes Upton, "but we kept going. We passed the last anchorage, at Cape Caution, hoping that the weather would get better. Two hours later we knew we were in for it . . . " It's no wonder the book was, and still is, such a big hit with all those summertime '70s fishermen who eventually gave up piling web and threading herring for real jobs back in the world Outside (local parlance for anyplace but Alaska). Ask them about Alaska now, and they'll dig out the old blue hardbound edition and hand it to you like an old love letter. It's their talisman, their proof that the life really did exist. Proof that you could give the finger to establishment expectations, slip loose the lines, blow a kiss to bullshit, and point the bow outta here. John van Amerongen is the editor of Alaska Fisherman's Journal.

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