Set in the tiny Native village of Egegik on the shores of Alaska's Bristol Bay, Bill Carter's Red Summer is the thrilling story of one man's journey from novice to seasoned fisherman over the course of four beautiful, brutal summers in one of the earth's few remaining wild places. As millions of salmon race toward their annual spawning grounds, Carter learns the ancient, backbreaking trade of the set net fisherman, one of the most exhilarating and dangerous jobs in the world.
Housed in a dilapidated shack with no hot water and boarded-up windows that keep the bears at bay, Carter spends his days battling the elements on the river and his nights drinking whiskey with a memorable group of hardworking, hard-living characters. There's Sharon, the tough, charismatic woman who runs Carter's fishing crew; Carl, her stoic but warmhearted colleague; and a half-dozen local fishermen, many born and raised in this unforgiving place. Their stories -- harrowing, touching, full of humor -- all underscore the credo of the village's fishermen: Do the work or leave.
Carter's crew is imperiled a number of times as tides rise, nets are snagged, and the weight of too many fish threatens to sink their boat. Written with gusto and honesty, Red Summer brims with astonishing human experience and joins the grand tradition of books written by great American outdoorsmen-writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Edward Abbey, Peter Matthiessen, and Sebastian Junger. Red Summer will appeal not only to fishermen, naturalists, adventurers, and armchair anthropologists alike but also to anyone who has ever yearned, however privately, to escape the bonds of modern civilization.
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I look out the plane's copilot window and from up here the view is perfect and flat in all directions except to the south, where sixty miles away the ground rises in a cone-shaped volcano: the snowcapped Mount Peulik. The sun leans heavily toward the north pole and the land abruptly ends as it disappears into Bristol Bay, which from the air, on a clear day, looks like a flat plate of tinted glass. Looking east and west the flat tundra landscape spreads outward, disappearing at the bend of the earth.
My destination is the small village of Egegik, 350 miles southwest of Anchorage on the western side of the Alaskan Peninsula, a stretch of land that extends out from the mainland 475 miles, and averages 50 miles wide. Cut off from the interior by a vast mountain range, the peninsula is geographically isolated, even from Alaskans. At its farthest point west the Aleutian chain begins, a 1,200-mile strip of islands aimed at Russia in the shape of a kite's tail. The only way to Egegik is by sea or plane, and by sea one must navigate the violent waters of the Bering Sea, not something done by anyone other than commercial fishermen or cargo ships.
I boarded the plane in King Salmon, Alaska, and strapped myself in the copilot chair. The only other seats on the plane were occupied, one with cargo and the other with a female passenger; a Native woman who was busy chatting with the pilot about something. Thrilled by the landscape below I quickly put in my earplugs, and adjusted my sunglasses to shield my eyes from the Alaskan sun, that cosmic torch that taunts all summertime visitors to the Great North.
Now I scan the earth for any clues of a human footprint. A house. A road. A discarded boat, or heap of trash. But there is nothing. From my angle there isn't even a tree, at least one standing over four feet tall. There are no hills, just a flatness, the kind one imagines astronauts see as they peer down at earth from space, the world smashed flat by the relative distance. But there are the thousand shallow ponds that dot the tundra, a broken mirror shimmering the reflection of the plane's metal, exposing how small we are in comparison to the landscape before us.
These pockets of water fill topographical wounds created ten thousand years ago, as the last of the great glaciers slowly receded, scraping the land as they disappeared, like a giant John Deere bulldozer clearing a road. A road the size of Tennessee. As the millennia passed, mountains disappeared, pulverized to rock and pebbles, leaving behind indentations in the earth's surface, which then became lakes and ponds, making the area resemble a gigantic soccer field full of potholes after a fresh rain.
The lack of trees can shock the first-time visitor. The flora is thick but short and bent over, genetically altered by thousands of years of wind blasting down from the Arctic with nearly hurricane force. That isn't to say there is a lack of vegetation. The ground is teeming with green. Tundra grass, alders, and willow squeeze together and cover every square inch of the land. They grow in low thickets, each species intertwining with the next, growing sideways instead of upward.
With the wind behind us, we fly over a river and a tiny village. It looks deserted, not a person in sight, only a cloud of dust rising up behind a single van driving toward the airstrip. There are a few large water tanks, some heavy equipment, and a row of sea cargo containers, but no people. Several large buildings are covered with rusted tin roofing on the bank of the river. Steam billows from a smokestack. This must be the cannery. Most of the homes look abandoned, the grass growing as high as the windows. As we bank I get a closer look at the Egegik River, which spans more than a mile from one bank to the other. The water is muddy, not clear as I had envisioned.
The plane sets down on a stretch of gravel on the bank of the river, just behind the town. A lone orange wind sock stands at attention; the pilot guesses 30 miles per hour, says that is normal out here. There are no buildings at this airport, no small tin shack with the word egegik on it; there isn't even another plane in sight. Instead a van is waiting at the edge of the gravel, near the grass.
The van pulls up to the belly of the plane and we all pitch in, quickly unloading the luggage, along with the U.S. mail. Some groceries and boxes of frozen goods are transferred as well. The driver of the van is a small Native woman with a round flat face and Asian features. Her age is a mystery and she laughs loudly with the young woman from the plane, who also has a round Native face and Asian features. They are talking as if they have been having a conversation for the last two hours. I don't listen. Instead I hold my backpack close to my side, staring out the window as the van begins to move, trying to pick up any clues that will help shape my perception of this outpost. The driver heads down a single-track dirt road toward town.
"Hey, where you going?" the driver suddenly yells at no one in particular.
I say nothing. The driver looks at me in the rearview mirror. "Yeah you, I'm talking to you. Who you working for?"
"Sharon Hart," I say, blurting out the name of the stranger who called me twenty-four hours ago, asking if I wanted a job as a commercial fisherman.
"Sharon's fishing partner is Carl, my husband," says the passenger. "I'm Jannelle."
"And, she's my daughter," says the driver, pointing at the passenger.
Driving, we pass a few people walking but no one waves, their heads pitched downward as if staring at their feet. I count more four-wheel ATVs than cars, and on one ATV there are stacked several people. It's hard to say whether they are mothers with their children or older siblings with their younger siblings or maybe just friends all riding together.
Finally the van stops in front of a small shack with a caribou rack above the front door. "Sharon's house," says Jannelle, pointing at the dilapidated structure. "There was an opening today, she won't be home for a while. Carl's still on the Fiasco, halibuting."
I nod my head as if I understand.
"Get out. And shut the door," yells the driver. Stunned, I don't move.
My first instinct is to compare this place to a shantytown in the Third World. In some ways it does resemble many I've visited. But there is one clear difference. In poor villages, the world over, the local people are almost always friendly. They may not have food on the table or running water, but they welcome you in. And the poorer the place, the nicer they are. At the other end of the scale are the rich, locked behind tall gates, with twenty-four-hour security guards. But here I am confused. Egegik, by the looks of it, is poor, but the people act rich. I know within the first minutes of being here that this will be a difficult place to understand.
"Now!" the driver shouts, waiting for me to get out of the van.
Standing on the road, I look away from the driver, hoping to discourage her from speaking further to me. The passenger leans out the window, raises her eyebrows, and playfully nods her head in my direction.
"Welcome to Egegik," she says, and the van drives away, spitting sand in my face. Copyright © 2008 by Bill Carter
Table of Contents
Sharon Hart 27
The Flats 39
Twenty-eight Thousand Pounds 55
Fishermen Blues 62
Malibu Marty 70
Bush Radio 79
How Was Your Winter? 87
I've Been Here Before 96
The Food Chain 107
The Last Frontier 116
The Mayor 123
Too Many Fish 134
Church Hill 147
Seeing Native 159
Fish and Game 176
Becharof Lodge 185
The Last Season 207
Paddling Home 224
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I am not a commerical fisherman nor have I ever been to Egegik,but I have spent several summers in Alaska fishing. I believe this book is a truithful depiction of the life and people of a fishing village. Many of the people are misfits with criminal backgrounds who are attracted to the wildness of Alaska. they are sadly a lot of drug users, more and more meth is becoming the drug of choice. Bill Carter is a good writer and the book was worth reading.
I read Bill's book, 'Red Summer' and did not put it down until I finished it. I have first-hand knowledge as to how I know Bill brought the characters and way of living to life not because I was there but because Sharon, the main character, is my cousin. He captured my cousins'- Sharon, David and Ron Hart - personalities and lives just as I have known them to be. I knew my cousin Sharon chose a hard life after she and I graduated from high school. I went to college and she went fishing - this was 1979. She has been fishing the waters of Egegik to this day and I never knew just how hard that life was for her. I have never, ever heard even one complaint about it. Bill wrote of his life with Sharon as his captain, and with the folks of Egegik, in such a way that you feel as though you are right there with them all. He brings you in from the first page and you feel saddened at the end because you want to read more! Thanks Bill for writing of your experiences so descriptively that I felt I had spent wonderful, miserable, exciting, tiring, and rewarding summers with my cousins. - Barb
I found Red Summer to be a fantastic novel about a subject I wouldn't have otherwise been interested in. Carter's strength is in depicting the characters he meets along the way, and their personalities seem to drip off the page. To be honest, the concept of walking around bear country freaks me out, and working 20 hour days under grueling circumstances freaks me out even more. Red Summer is able to capture such a fantastic portrait of life in Alaska that I may just be willing to risk a grisly mauling for the experience.
This book by Bill Carter grabs the vary essence of life in so many ways. life that is seldom found any where else but in such small fishing village's like Egegik where talk is cheap and working hard is all that matters. 'Red Summer' Gets right into the life's and minds of Fishermen. ordinary men and women working harder then most, and some times loosing it all, just to make a living. 'I am and always will be a Commercial Fishermen. I love Bristol Bay and the life its given me and my family' Thank you Bill Carter. I know you worked hard at it, and your book Shows.
I Loved this book! I was Born and raised in the Village of Egegik and return each summer for the commercial salmon run. Bill did a fantastic job describing 'The Greatest Place on Earth'.