My Zen and the Sea Lion

Another brilliant slice of Alaska wild by Kurt Dunbar.   If you love to fish, you will relate to the meditative, transcendental experience that Kurt captures so beautifully.     There is, however, a twist...

Dan said somebody told him the pinks were running thick at Tonsina Creek. 

Pink salmon are also called humpies because of their appearance as they leave the sea and enter fresh 
water. This smallest species of salmon have been at sea for two years before they return to spawn in the 
stream, creek or river they were born in. It is a natal and a fatal return. 

Like four other species of pacific salmon (red aka sockeye, silver aka coho, dog aka chum, king aka 
chinook) pinks go through an astounding transformation in their early life. After hatching, the smolt will 
shed their nutrient rich egg sack. As fry, they begin in miniature to resemble the sleek silvery adult 
salmon they will become, if they survive. The odds of that are not good. It is in this early stage of 
development that salmon instinctively answer the call to head to sea. 

This is also when one of the most amazing transformations in nature begins. At a molecular level, a flood 
of latent internal chemicals begins to build salmon a new body. Born in fresh water, by the time they 
reach the sea they will have changed from the inside out into a sea creature. 

After a time, each species of salmon gets that primordial call to return to their natal spawning beds to 
perpetuate their kind. With pinks it is only two years, with other species like chinook it is longer, but 
they all get the call. As they enter fresh water their struggle to reach their spawning beds begins. These 
can sometimes be hundreds of miles inland replete with nearly impossible impediments and imposing 
inclines. To compound their plight, their bodies immediately begin to decay as soon as they enter fresh 

The stark reality for salmon is that they get no second chance at this point. The change in their early life 
from a fresh water creature to a salt water creature is a one-way deal, just one change too many for an 
indifferent and dispassionate mother nature to grant. 

Once in fresh water salmon stop eating. As they begin to lose fat reserves and muscle tissue their bodies 
literally begins to fall apart. The clock is now ticking on their inevitable demise. Humpback (pink) salmon 
take on a gruesome appearance as they start to deteriorate. The males in particular develop an extreme 
arch to their back almost doubling their size from belly to back. Their jaw starts to curl into a hideous 
snarl exposing sharp new snag-like teeth. The body itself turns a sickly green and eventually a dull gray 
with white splotches as flesh starts to peel off and hang from the dying fish. Still, they swim on often 
with pieces missing or trailing behind. Death for salmon is neither a pretty sight nor a quick experience, 
unless of course they are eaten by the numerous creatures that exploit their vulnerable state. 

But sea run pinks freshly returned are beautiful. Bright and sleek as a bullet, their silvery scales shine. If 
caught in the sea the flesh is firm and tasty. On the strength of Dan’s comment, my goal was to catch 
some pinks for dinner and maybe a few more to smoke up for later. I often took my daughters with me 
fishing but they were still in school. My fishing buddy Dan had something going on and couldn’t go so I 
forged off alone. I grabbed my gear and drove to Lowell Point just a few miles south of Seward, Alaska 
where I lived. At Lowell Point the road ends and it is a mile or two hike of rough brushy trail to Tonsina 

I broke out of the bushes onto a long gravel beach where the creek runs into Resurrection Bay. The 
beach was strew with numerous beached logs of Sitka spruce. Half sunk in the sand and gravel and 
polished a smooth silvery gray they almost looked like half buried beached whales. There was a slight 
breeze off of the water. The sea wasn’t too choppy with waves from a foot to two feet. Not too bad for 
surf fishing. 

I assembled my pole and rigged my gear for pinks, which was light line (3-5 lb. test) and a florescent pink 
“pixie” spinner with a treble-hook. No bait, I knew pinks always hit on the shiny stuff. I trod into the surf 
about to the waist of my chest-waders and anxiously made my first cast. 

With the steady beat of the waves on my body I unconsciously fell into a rhythm, casting my line to 
match the pattern of the waves. Flinging the weighted line out ten of twenty yards, I slowly reeled in my 
little pixie lure in unison with force on the water as it hit my body and then the slight sucking pull of the 
water from the beach behind me, over and over again. Waiting to cast out again timed to the wave 
pattern moving my body to and fro, I kicked into automatic. I wasn’t even thinking about it. That was the 
thing, I wasn’t thinking at all. The wind, the sound of the water breaking on the beach, and the steady 
force of the water on my body put me into a meditative state without any conscious effort on my part to 
try to do so. Artists and musicians, seers and saints, and I suppose writers call this state many things. I 
am tempted to call it Zen but not being religious nor deeply familiar with the precepts of Buddhism, I 
guess the best word that comes to mind is the “zone.” I was in the zone. 

Part of the experience is the loss or suspension of a sense of time. To this day I am not sure how long I 
was in the surf at Tonsina Creek casting my line into the water over and over again. It might have been 
twenty minutes or a couple of hours. I do know what broke the spell. 

I was suddenly and immediately jarred back into mundane reality replete with a jolt of adrenaline as a 
huge mass sprang out of the water on my left a foot or two away. I nearly dropped my pole and worse 
yet stumbled backwards almost falling into the waist deep water. That could have easily been fatal if my 
chest waders filled up with water. I would sunk like a stone and be pulled out into the cold deep waters 
of Resurrection Bay never to be seen again. To add insult and indignity to being startled out of my wits, 
the Sea Lion had snorted or spit slimy gobs that spotted the upper half of my waders with some gooey 
flecks hitting me in the face. 

I headed to the beach shaking and laughing at the same time. If Sea lions don’t have a sense of humor, 
they certainly have a sense of territory. I can only assume that was reason it had stomped on my bliss. 
And bliss it had been, for a while anyway. It was one of the best days fishing ever and I didn’t get a single 
bite…in any respect.


Andreas Bauer tack sharp Fotoblog, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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