KASILOF, Alaska — I arrived at fish camp to find a sofa on the beach with a fire beside it, crackling inside a washing machine drum. A few hours before, I’d taken my first flight since the pandemic began — humming low in a small plane from Anchorage to the small town of Kenai. My destination: the mouth of the Kasilof River.
My boyfriend, Jack, fishes that river every year. I came to join him. Like many Alaskans in the summertime, we were after salmon to fill our freezer. Jack’s friend, K, ran the operation, stringing nets into the water to snare the salmon as they muscle in from the ocean on the tide. A group of his friends rotated through to help haul nets and cut fish, all of us taking home fillets for our labor. Most of the time at fish camp, though, we didn’t work. We watched the nets soak and waited on the tide.
That day, as Tom Waits bellowed from a little speaker, a couple of K’s friends, who were also helping at camp, took a seat across the fire from me. Wasn’t long till we were in one of those conversations between people on opposite sides of America’s political chasm. Antifa. How transgender athletes are taking over women’s sports. The injustice of affirmative action.
Usually I appreciate how Alaska makes me sort out liking — or even loving — people with different politics. But I knew we’d eventually talk about the virus. I wasn’t sure I could take it.
After an initial, effective shutdown, Alaska reopened its businesses in May. By the time I got to Kenai, in June, people were throwing barbecues and returning to church. Cases had started increasing in the area, and would soon rise quickly in Anchorage, too.
Compared with states like Texas and Arizona, Alaska had too few cases and too few deaths for most people to have firsthand experience. And the way Alaskans saw virus risk had grown increasingly politicized, depending on where people got their news. I had just read a story about masks in the Anchorage Daily News posted on Facebook. It was buried in comments, quoting obscure doctors, about how they didn’t work. Commenters, some of whom I knew, kept posting that the virus was no different than the flu.
I didn’t know whether K’s friends took it seriously, but I could guess. They’d already been telling me about stories they were reading on the far-right One America News Network. Turned out, though, I was wrong.
A couple of hours into our wait, the guys got a call. Their co-worker had tested positive. Suddenly they looked scared and embarrassed. They didn’t want to get us sick. K proposed we mask up and distance ourselves. His friends left for town to get tested. The rest of us went out to check the nets.
Gulls dove and screamed as Jack rowed the rubber dinghy out to the furthest buoy. K hoisted the net over the bow. One salmon appeared, then another, with iridescent eyeballs and mouths chewing air. Fish piled around our feet in a pool of pink water and old beer cans.
God, it felt good to be out there: cumulus clouds, wind, the boat rocking. I smelled fish blood. It smelled like a regular summer.
When we got back in, I started chopping tails, but the knife was dull and I kept messing it up. By then, the guys were back from getting tested, and all our masks had fallen down around our necks. One of them got tired of watching me and grabbed my hand as I chopped. I felt his breath on my face as his hand guided the knife with extra force.
The next day, flush with fillets, scales bright as silver coins, I headed into town for groceries for my final dinner before we left.
At Walmart, I was the only customer wearing a mask. A pregnant woman filled a bag with apples, while a kid in her cart watched a cartoon on her phone. Witnessing this felt like finding something precious I’d lost, a wedding ring in the sand. Life was going on as if we were recovering from the pandemic, rather than right in the middle of it.
I got to the lodge where I was going to cook and picked rhubarb from the garden. At first, I imagined cooking for just a few, but soon setting a generous table became as inevitable as the tide. I sent word to everyone at camp — including K’s friends — to come eat.
An hour later, we stood in the kitchen with our paper plates, discussing smoked salmon brine and layoffs on the oil fields. It felt easy. Like a thousand summer salmon dinners.
About halfway through, I had an urge to wash my hands. Or at least to put on my mask. But I didn’t. Our normalness made me drunk. Maybe it made me stupid.
The next day, flying home, I thought about how deep the virus slices into the sacred, seasonal rituals of our lives. Politics aside, it’s hard to fault someone for the desire to preserve some of their pre-pandemic life, even if it means believing things that don’t really hold up, even if it’s risky.
Anchorage appeared below me, the grid of streets reminding me of how small my universe had become. The screen on my desk. My children outside my locked bedroom door. The blocks to the grocery store.
There were so many losses still to come. There were so many things I wanted to hold on to.
Julia O’Malley (@julia_omalley) is a third-generation Alaskan and the author of “The Whale and the Cupcake: Subsistence, Longing and Community in Alaska.”