FR. BRAD REYNOLDS, SJ, first visited Toksook Bay, an Alaskan village on Nelson Island, in 1973, having gone to Alaska to write on the work Jesuits were doing there. Toksook Bay was then a cluster of small, unpainted wooden houses along two dirt roads on a strip of beach on the Bering Sea. With Fr. Frank Fallert, SJ, as guide, he met the people who lived there. “For the next day and a half I stayed with Frank as he visited families,” Brad remembers. “There was a big lump in my throat when I left. I didn’t know it at the time, but there was a lump in my heart, too.”
Since then, Fr. Reynolds has written about Toksook Bay for National Geographic, published a mystery novel using it as the setting, and documented the evolution of the village in photo exhibits.
Last year, on sabbatical, Fr. Reynolds visited Toksook Bay once again, spending several months among its people, now old and dear friends. “The kids I photographed in 1973 are grown up with children of their own. I still have a lump in my throat whenever it’s time to leave there,” he says. Fr. Reynolds directs the Loyola Jesuit Center in Portland, Ore. His article about the spiritual dimensions of Eskimo masked dances, a tradition in Toksook Bay, ran in our Summer 1996 issue (www.companymagazine.org /v134/prayer.html).
LAST SUMMER I was a fisherman. Or to be more accurate, a companion of fishermen. I was spending a few months in Alaska with Yup’ik Eskimos on an island in the Bering Sea, there mainly for my soul and the companionship of those good people.
Toksook Bay is a village of fewer than six hundred people, perched on the southwest side of Nelson Island. There are no cars in the village. No banks, no drugstore, no fast food. There are no trees. Only the water, the tundra, and some low-lying hills. The people’s lives are tied closely to the land and the sea, and they live on what they can harvest from both. In the summer, that is fish.
Soon after the ice broke and left the bay, the herring came. Now, in summer, the salmon arrive—the kings first, then the silvers. And there are halibut. Lots and lots of halibut.
For those they use hooks as thick as coat hangers. A 100-pound halibut is not unusual, so the gear has to be strong. They cut up salmon for bait. I was never comfortable with the idea; I kept remembering the red fillets at Safeway for $5.99 a pound.
Henry Simon takes me fishing for halibut in his eighteen-foot aluminum boat. We have to wait for a high tide to push off from shore. The bay in front of the village is scattered with boats heading out to sea. We follow them, tracing the shoreline several miles north before turning toward deeper water. Everyone carries a VHS radio on board, and they talk to one another and their families back in the village, describing where they are and how their luck is running. They talk in Yup’ik mostly, and I understand very little of what is said.
But the language feels no more foreign than my being there. Finding myself in a small open boat, fishing for halibut in the Bering Sea is just as exotic as hearing Yup’ik coming over a radio. I am a priest, for God’s sake, comfortable in a culture of books and magazines, conferences and appointments, liturgical celebrations and administrative details. My white hands are soft. At home I don’t even own a fishing rod. I am amazed even to be here, to be sitting beside this young man who thinks nothing of fishing the Bering Sea in a boat small enough for a duck pond.
We are in the Etolin Straits, halfway between Nunivak and Nelson islands. Both are hazy flecks lying low against the horizon. In fog or low clouds they don’t even exist. Even the other boats disappear, and you are floating out there alone. The feeling of insignificance is huge and I find it frightening and exhilarating. I can feel the goosebumps beneath my clothes. Sounds are amplified; our feet shuffling against the boat’s bottom, the slap of waves along the hull, the creak of the reel as you wind in line. We don’t talk a lot when we are fishing, more when we first start out. Then we talk about the clouds and the waves and the weather; we wonder if the fish are here or somewhere else. Henry talks a little about his family, his wife and five children back in the village. And he asks me a few questions about my life downstates, which is anywhere that is not Alaska. But after awhile we run out of things to say and settle into a silence that is as full as the water around us. We let the boat’s rocking lull us, sometimes even forgetting to give the occasional tug on our fishing rods.
You jig for halibut. You try to keep your bait just above the ocean’s floor, and you move it by raising your rod up and down. How this looks to a halibut 50 or 60 feet below is a mystery to me. But I follow Henry’s directions, and when he jigs his rod, I jig mine. He teaches me how to cradle the rod lightly in the open palm of my left hand, holding the end in my right. You can feel the fish nibbling that way, he says. It takes me awhile, but eventually I feel something happening down below, and I begin to understand.
Every time we go fishing, Henry catches more than I do. He not only catches more, but his fish are always bigger. The first is not surprising. I am a novice, and he is a high priest of halibut. But why the bigger fish swim past my bait to take his is a constant mystery. I’ve watched him bait his hooks. I use the same size chunk of salmon, cut from the same fish, and I bury my hook inside it just like he does. I let out my line as far as he does, sometimes even on the same side of the boat. But the fish Henry pulls in will be 50 inches and mine will be 46. I don’t mind it, I just don’t understand it.
Once he brought his oldest son to fish with us. David is nine; a small, skinny kid with a head of thick, black hair. He is quiet and shy in the boat, and I wonder if it is because I am there. Henry will tell me later that David is a pretty quiet kid. He is wearing sunglasses, and I am never sure what he is looking at. But his head is turned toward the shore as we leave the bay and he seems to be watching the bluffs and beaches we are passing. When we reach the fishing grounds, David sits quietly in the bow while I drop the anchor and his father prepares the fishing rods. Henry lays a silver salmon on a plywood board between his feet and, with a rusty knife, cuts the fish in half. The entrails spill out and spread across the board. He slices off a small steak, about $2 worth, then cuts it in half again. He attaches the chunk to David’s hook, then hands the rod to his son. In Yup’ik he instructs him to lower his line into the water. He watches closely as his son follows his directions. Before he returns to his own seat, he winds a length of the anchor line around his boy’s waist and ties it to a brace. There are halibut below that could flip David into the water with one quick tug.
Henry and I lower our own lines together and we reach bottom about the same time, only moments before David begins reeling his line back in. From the way the rod is bent and the way he is struggling, it’s obvious he’s caught a halibut. He says nothing, only starts reeling. In Yup’ik, Henry asks him if the fish is still on. The boy nods, still reeling. Henry braces his rod against a boat seat and searches for his gaffing hook. It’s a long curved barb, four or five inches in length, attached to a wooden handle. In his fist it’s a formidable-looking weapon. He moves forward and stands next to his son, who is still struggling with the pole. There is no sign of the fish yet, but it begins to fight, trying to pull away, and David tightens his grip, his little face set with a fierce, determined look. In a low, calm voice Henry encourages his son. Now the fish’s bulk passes alongside the boat, still several feet under water but close enough for us to see. It’s big enough, perhaps 30 or 40 pounds. After two more passes and while David raises the fish as close to the water’s surface as he can, Henry stretches and sets the gaffe in the halibut’s flat head, heaving hard as he lifts the flapping fish into the boat. He clubs it with a wooden mallet until the fish stops moving. The boy in the sunglasses is wearing a smile as wide as the fish, but he still hasn’t said a word and I still can’t see his eyes.
On that trip David caught more fish than his father and more than the priest. Henry’s were still bigger though, so in total weight I think father and son came close to tying. I was a distant third. The water was calm that day, as smooth as an asphalt road. The sun was high in the sky, and when we returned to the village on the next high tide, which came about 2 A.M., it was just turning dusk. It was a calm and wonderful night for fishing, and I felt privileged to be out there with Henry and his son. We ate bologna sandwiches and carrot sticks and chocolate, and before we reached home, David even removed his sunglasses and smiled directly at me.
I went out with Henry another time when the weather was bum. A cold wind was blowing from the north, and the Bering was rough. His little boat was bouncing hard against the waves, and I felt each shock roil up my spine. The next day, in the village, I would limp slowly and sit carefully. On the boat I grabbed the seat with my hands, trying to lift myself up just before we slammed against another wave. It seldom worked.
There were other boats around us, their anchors already set, and they bobbed like buoys in the waves. Henry turned off the motor and quickly moved into the bow to throw out the anchor. Our boat began to tug against its tether, riding up and down the crests as they swept past. When we dropped down into the gullies, the boats around us disappeared. Henry baited both our hooks, and we began to fish.
Despite the rough weather, or perhaps because of it, fishing was good. He hauled in our first halibut just minutes after lowering his line. I waited about 45 minutes before I had my first, but then they started biting for both of us fairly regularly.
We had hoped the weather would smooth out, but it only got worse. The clouds dropped lower, and there were occasional spatters of rain. But it was the waves that made me nervous. They were rising higher now, several feet above our boat. We rode them okay, but as the tide rose our anchor line tightened and an occasional rogue wave broke across the bow. The chatter on the VHS was increasing, and when we crested I could see boats heading toward shore. I watched Henry, waiting for some clue that he was ready to go, but he seemed calm enough, content to keep fishing. The wind was picking up, and our little boat was rocking pretty good. I don’t get seasick, but was beginning to wish I did. Then we’d have a reason for going in. A big wave rushed our bow and swept us up high before tossing us off its back. More water splashed in, and although I didn’t say anything, Henry could read my face. “Maybe it’s time we got closer to shore,” he said.
“I’m ready,” I agreed, already reeling in my line.
He started the motor while I stumbled forward, grabbing onto the anchor line. It was too rough to try standing, so I knelt in the bow, my knees slipping on halibut, and pulled hard on the rope, hand over hand. The boat was dipping and sliding and the line was heavy and it took all my strength to pull it in. Henry had to work the tiller, trying to ride the waves, and could only sit and watch my struggles. I felt weak and foolish for how long it took me. Once the line was in, he wasted no time turning us toward shore. It was a rough ride and seemed to take forever. I kept looking over my shoulder at the shore but it never seemed to get any closer. We were both wet from the spray, and I could taste salt when I licked my lips. I couldn’t see out of my eyeglasses and eventually put them in my pocket.
The tide was still too low for us to return home. Henry couldn’t get his boat close enough to the village inside the shallow bay, so we had to wait. As we headed toward shore he said he had something to show me.
He pulled up on a rocky, deserted stretch of beach. After setting the anchor in the rocks, he led me up the steep side of a bluff. The top was covered with tundra grass, and small blue and white flowers dotted the vast field of green. He led me over the top of the bluff, close to its edge. Below us the waves were crashing against the shore. After a couple of hundred feet, he stopped and pointed. In front of us were several indentations in the ground. They were spaced about seven feet from one another, and each was about four or five feet deep. The same tundra grasses were growing in them, and I probably would have walked right past without noticing them if Henry hadn’t pointed them out.
“People used to live here,” he told me. “Maybe it was an old fish camp.”
We were only a few feet from the edge of the bluff. In front of us was nothing but Bering. Behind us the tundra turned up into hills that topped out several hundred yards above. “Come on. There’s more.”
We followed the contours of the bluff, climbing slightly until we came to a flat plateau. Henry was walking ahead, his eyes looking down in the grass, when he stopped and pointed. I walked up next to him and looked down. A human skull was settled into its own nest of green grasses, as if it might have been carefully placed there. But it was clear the skull had never been moved.
“This is where they were buried,” Henry told me.
We found four graves up there. Four skulls that still lay uncovered on the tundra. We didn’t know how many more might already be hidden in the spongy soil. The early Yup’iks left their dead above ground, sitting them upright with their arms wrapped around their legs, their heads resting on their knees. They piled a wooden frame around them, almost like a little house, and then set a pole above them, hanging personal belongings of the deceased. For a woman it might be her favorite tea pot. A man’s rifle would often be left. These were things they could carry with them into the next world.
In all the years I had been coming to this island, no one had ever brought me here. I was never shown this old site.
We stayed up there for awhile. The wind was dying and the clouds were lifting. It was a beautiful setting, and I could understand why someone would want to live in this place. Even more, I could understand wanting to be buried here. If it were up to me, I would choose it for myself. I asked Henry if it would be alright to return someday and make photographs. He said it would. Then he asked if we could pray.
“I don’t think anyone has ever blessed these graves,” he said. “Maybe you could do that.”
And so I did. I stretched out my arms and we bowed our heads and I said prayers over ground I thought was already about as holy as any I have ever stood on.
We cleaned our fish on the rocks before heading back to Toksook. The bottom of our boat was filled with the clean white bellies of the halibut. The wind died down and the water smoothed. We were still ahead of the tide, and Henry ran the boat slowly as we headed home. I watched him as he watched the water.
Jesus knew what he was doing. Fishermen make good apostles. I already knew that, but last summer I think I learned why. It is because they are willing to take risks with their lives for the sake of others. Because they love the challenge of it, and they love the thrill of the catch. Because even in turmoil they can see beauty. And they know a peaceful place when they find it. And most of all, because they remember to pray.
Last summer I was a companion of fishermen, and my life is better for it.