You can’t get to Cordova, Alaska, over land. You can’t go there on a whim, at the last minute, turning south onto the road that heads to town, because there is no road that will take you there. You choose to go there, by boat or by plane. And that one little hiccup in the ease of transportation eliminates the throngs of cruise tourists that seem to dominate so many of Alaska’s summer destinations. It changes the tone of the town completely. It makes it feel likes its own place, a living and breathing community built largely around the fishing industry, and especially around salmon fishing. For that sense of place that wasn’t built around tourism, and for the good luck of getting to know the town a little more intimately than the average tourist, Cordova won my heart.
Plenty of folks do make the effort to get to Cordova, most of them groups of men: fathers and sons and uncles and cousins and friends, heading in for a week or two on annual fishing trips. The intimacy and rhythm of this yearly ritual made for a warm, relaxed tone on the plane. Men boasting numbers around fish size, years there, locals known, but only the most good-natured of boasting. There were very few women on the plane.
Cordova is a place that’s defined by the presence of water in so many forms: the frequent strings of wet, drizzly days, the mountains and the valleys forged over millennia by glaciers and rivers, and the grand mud flats, braided rivers, and meandering tributaries of the Copper River Delta. Not to mention the sea.
We spent an incredibly soggy first morning fishing along the Eyak river. No waterproof gear was immune to the insidious power of the rain. We waded into the water to our thighs; a few of us wrangled salmon. I wrangled something at the end of the line a number of times, but lacked the finesse to reel those wily biters in.
In the afternoon we went foraging for mushrooms and berries. Alaska’s wild food abundance is ridiculous. And it’s because of all that rain. I have never witnessed more berries, or more varieties of berries, anywhere: blueberries, huckleberries, high bush cranberries, raspberries, crowberries, nagoonberries, and on! Cordova is at the edge of a temperate rainforest. It’s brilliantly green, damp, mossy, ferny, and ripe.
Langdon Cook discovered a rare black chanterelle.
Our group was composed of chef Stephen Beaumier, his partner Katy Oursler, who’s been deeply involved with Outstanding in the Field since its inception almost a decade ago, and author, educator, and forager extraordinaire Langdon Cook. I was really happy to be in such company; they all brought their own expertise and rich life experience to the week and it was totally inspiring to hang out with them.
We toured the docks. A busy place of net-mending, gear-gathering, and general prep for the next opener – the next day that the US Fish and Game gave the go-ahead for a 12, 24, or 36 hour stretch of fishing for Cordova’s commercial fleet. We were there towards the end of the season, but at the season’s peak, the boats often stay out fishing for unbelievably long stretches of time. Fishing is regulated for sustainability, ensuring that the salmon aren’t overfished.
Happening alongside our Coho Tour was a weekend mushroom festival. Stephen and Katy were prepping the feast for the event, incorporating as many local and foraged foods as they could gather, including some of the yellow chanterelles pictured above, lots of berries, and of course, some unbelievably fresh Coho salmon.
Above, Stephen removes some steaming hot cedar planks with salmon from the grill, in a serious downpour.
The evening was amazing. It was a community coming together to socialize and celebrate around the things that they hold dear. It was also a fundraiser for the Copper River Watershed Project. And it was a tremendous feast, with a salad of nasturtium leaves and flowers, that amazing salmon, and a slew of delicious vegetables.
The next morning we went in a small floatplane for an aerial tour of the delta. It was amazing. I love the topography of the delta, with its many serpentine waterways, diluvial mud flats, braided rivers, and, higher up, the glaciers that feed them. That amazing turquoise cast to the water is from glacial flour, fine sediment ground from glaciers and suspended in the water. It only sparkles that color on a sunny day.
At the last minute, I decided to extend my trip by a couple days so that I could get on a commercial fishing boat – the openers aren’t determined ahead of time, so there was no way of predicting that over the course of our 5 days there, none would be able to go out. And I really wanted to get out on a boat. Ashton, above, was awesome enough to let me tag along for a 12 hour run. We left a little before 5, and he was in place and ready to cast his net by 6 AM, the official start time of the opener.
It was a slow day. The end of the season was approaching quickly, and Coho don’t run in such impressive numbers as the sockeye that peak in the middle of summer.
The sea is a place full of easy, rich mythology. I loved being out on the water all day; not a whiff of seasickness on the boat, just a serious case of sea legs on solid land when we returned in the evening.
Michael and Austin prep some fillets for making into salmon jerky.
A huge thank you to the delightful Nelly Hand for inviting me out – it was a dream trip. And to Blair Hensen; the two of them worked their butts off to accommodate us and it was no small feat. Thanks to the Copper River Marketing Association for building such a tremendous trip into their budget; we are so lucky to be able to participate. And thanks to Ashton for taking me out on his boat, the fishing community for welcoming us, and to the great company of Langdon, Katy, and Stephen while there. Copper River Marketing covered the costs for the trip but the writing and photography are entirely my own.