The efforts to fish and preserve this food source lie in the delicate balance of Mother Nature and the lifelong dedication of a group of some pretty special people.
“You really have to want to be here, in Cordova,” I heard from more than just one person. “You don’t accidentally stumble or end up here. But if this place speaks to you, you might just never leave.”
This was one of the first things I learned when I visited Cordova, Alaska last summer as a guest of the Copper River Marketing Organization. I thought I knew the fish well, both as a cook and from my food marketing days, but my knowledge didn’t even touch the tip of the iceberg when it came to understanding sustainability, geography, the life span of salmon and how much work it takes to bring this noble fish to market.
I also could never have prepared myself for Alaska’s arresting beauty.
A huge part of what makes these salmon so special is their home. They spawn here, then travel outside of the Copper River to live and grow but make their way back after several years, traveling hundreds of miles to return. The river snakes via various tributaries, and it is this long passage that requires the salmon to store plenty of extra omega-3 fatty acids in their bodies. This is what makes them desirable, delicious, and worth preserving. More on that in a bit.
While there are 5 varieties of Alaskan salmon, Copper River salmon means King, Sockeye and Coho (or silver). Each variety has their own qualities in regards to shape, size, and abundance in terms of harvest. But if you ask me to pick a favorite, well, I can’t. I’ll take any of them, any day of the week.
And then there’s the sustainability. Rarely have I seen the idea and practice of sustainability in such a holistic form; it is everything these people do. It has to be if they are to preserve a species that supplies us food but takes years to grow. Their attempts are nothing short of miraculous.
Salmon are caught during something called a Run, with very distinct starting and stopping points set up during each run. Runs are determined by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADF&G. The ADF&G set the run times, which are anywhere from 12 to 72 hours long and based on a very accurate fish count. Counts are made via underwater sonar, monitored by people in shifts, and fishcounts are also made from planes flying over fishing grounds. Based on how many fish escape into the wild and how many are returning to spawn determines just how many fish can be caught. This strict adherence guarantees that there will be enough fish not only for next year’s harvest but also for generations to come.
And then there’s Cordova itself. A small town at the base of the Copper River, it’s a rugged place with a vast waterfront that rests in front of deep green mountains. It’s serene in summer and not-so-forgiving in winter. I was reminded by the residents that my visit occurred during the best possible time of the year, giving me warm sunlight and tranquil winds which allowed me plenty of memorable photo moments. The late day sun never went down, allowing me plenty of beer time, too. I spent the first few nights with my curtains open, the novelty of sun at 1am making me smile until the effects of disturbed sleep took its toll by the third day. I eventually learned to make peace with a sun that never quite went away. It’s glorious and made me giddy.
And just who are these people who spend their days doing the hard work so that we can eat these fish? They’re wonderful people from all over, some of those same people who stopped by once and never left. They’re gracious, gregarious, elegant even. The opposite of the salty fisherman stereotype, at least to me. And they made me love Cordova and all that it is, or at least what I learned about her in my short time there. The magic of the land doesn’t stop with the earth – it flows straight through the residents.
I dream of returning one day, of drinking beer at 10:30pm in the sunlight, of learning more about Copper River Salmon, of finally pulling my own weight on Kim’s boat and not turning green and clammy (sorry, Kim!) and maybe to repay the generosity of Mother Nature and the people of Cordova, Alaska.
I’ll start by eating more fish.
Copper River Salmon season is underway. To find it near you, visit Copper River Salmon.org and click here. For disclosure purposes, I was a guest of Copper River last year and have done work for the California Avocado Commission which has worked with Copper River Salmon for cross-promotions. In fact, the big giant recipe on the main page is mine. All opinions expressed in this post are my own, photography is copyright me me me. Thank you!