Fishing on the Nakina
By Drew Higgins (Carleton College)
On our second day camped on the Nakina River, I caught a Dolly Varden. Salvelinus malma. Or it could have been a Bull Trout, Salvelinus confluentus. The two species are difficult to distinguish.
The fish took some time to fully die. It was remarkable how its nerves persisted, how the heart continued to convulse, even when it was no longer in the fish’s body but in my human hand. What power I had in that moment: holding another creature’s heart. I threw it into the Nakina, offering it back to the river, just as the Tlingit elder Uncle Jackie had told us to do. Within seconds, another fish flitted by and swallowed the bloody clump. Brutal, but as it should be. The cycle continues.
I brought the fish’s now limp body to the riverbank and dipped her in the frigid water. I ran my fingers slowly along her slimy scales, gently washing off blood and dirt. She was pretty, pink spots freckling her dark body, and she was dead. Dead dead. Not even twitching anymore. The life, that ephemeral essence, had gone. So swiftly, and by my own doing. Where had it gone to? It had been the same with the chickens I killed the summer I was nineteen: several cuts from a knife, some blood, jerking and flapping. At last, stillness.
I both like and dislike killing. It seems to me that to be alive on this Earth is to kill, and the best killing is that which has purpose. I cried for a doe I hit with my car one dusky summer evening because its pain was needless. To kill a fish in attempts to feed your body feels different. There is strange satisfaction in providing for yourself, and I sensed it, when I swaddled the Dolly Varden in tin foil over our fire that night, and when we forked into its meat, delicately plying away flesh from bone. It was the satisfaction of self-reliance, which is a kind of pride.
But there is still, always, sadness and poignancy in killing, especially in killing a creature so distinctly wild and alive as a fish swimming in the Nakina River. I’m tired of hearing the justification that it is fine to kill something provided it has a brain smaller than you—what a lie. So long as its heart beats, there is the fervent desire to survive, and that is both raw and real. I saw it in the Dolly Varden. It may not be a higher stratosphere of thought, but what it lacks in complexity it compensates for in intensity—honest, overpowering desire, to live, to move, to mate—which is not to be underestimated or belittled.
My time on the river reminded me that part of our human’s higher stratosphere of thought means coming to terms with the tangible and ugly pain we cause. To kill a thing, any thing, is to be confronted with this. We can hide from it behind the chains of consumerism, but I think I prefer the unavoidable brutality up front, unabashed, in a fish flapping on the gravelly bank of the Nakina while I struggle to knock it unconscious with a smooth river rock. Because only when we do the disdainful work of killing with our own hands do we comprehend its gravity. It forces us to be quick and merciful, and when we cannot be merciful—which is inevitably so, at some point—it teaches us to be grateful.