Charlie Wilber found his way to Alaska over 40 years ago, and it didn't take him long to decide he wanted to stay. This week on Voices of The Tongass, Charlie shares what exactly has kept him in Alaska, and lessons he has learned along the way. To hear this week's show, scroll to the bottom of this post. To continue the story, keep reading.
Photo by Berett Wilber
Charlie Wilber came to Alaska in 1971 as a smoke jumper, parachuting into remote areas of the interior to put out wildfires. "I'd hardly ever flown on an airplane. I got to Seattle and the state of Alaska had a person hired at the gate to try to convince you not to come to Alaska because there were no jobs…I thought I would only spend a summer here, but here I am, still here." When smoke jumping got "boring," it was time for the next adventure. "I wanted to make Alaska home," he says. "I felt like there were a lot of opportunities here for a young person. I still feel that way. I tried to figure out what I could do so I could live here. By a weird series of coincidences I had a friend with a hand troller in Icy Strait. I worked with him for about a week, thought ‘Hey, this might be something', and it took off from there. I bought my first boat in 1979 and never looked back."
We had to clarify: "So you bought a troller and became a fisherman after only one week of fishing?"
"Yes," he says, chuckling. "And I would not do that ever again, nor would I encourage anyone to learn that way. The smart person would become a crew member for an experienced fishermen. I said, ‘this looks pretty easy, I could figure this out,' and it was fairly painful for a number of years. It wouldn't be the first time I learned something the hard way. Someone told me once you aren't really fishing until you have every penny in it, and you owe money. And then you are seriously fishing because failing really isn't an option at that stage."
In the process of collecting stories for Voices of the Tongass, we have talked to several "fishing kids." Charlie is the first "fishing dad" we've interviewed, and we want to hear his perspective on parenting on a fishing vessel. "I suppose probably some of the most enjoyable times is when I had my two daughters on the boat with me. I've really enjoyed developing a working relationship with my daughters. One seemed to take to the water, and the other decided that probably wasn't in her interest. And I think that's a good thing, that the two of them have found their own path." Through summers spent on the boat, Charlie has passed his well-weathered wisdom on to his kids. "You know, if nothing else, I wanted my kids to have an appreciation for the environment that we were in - for the ocean. Wanted them to have an understanding of what I was doing...and I think they do both have a real sense of appreciation for the environment. When they were little we would go somewhere and they could spend all day with their little nets checking out bullheads on the rocks. There's not many places you can do that."
And then we have to ask: What has he learned about fishing, in thirty-four years on the water? "In order to be good at it you have to be very observant," he tells us. "A lot of it is by hunch: there are a lot of nuances. You can't see the fish, but you can see the fishermen. You can learn quite a bit from that."We pepper him for the stories of the what else he's learned and the unusual things he's seen on the ocean: comets and waterspouts, trolling through herds of humpback whales, the northern lights, sharks, sunfish flopping on the surface of the water. But he makes it clear that one of the things that's most important to him is not something you need to be out on the ocean to see. "Not a day goes by where I don't still see the novelty of being able to walk out my door and be in the forest. And its not just recreation: I feed my family with deer, and obviously with fish. In order to have healthy salmon runs, the environment is very important. You can't have successful fishing when there's not habitat for the fish to spawn in. My living depends on having a healthy environment on land and on the ocean. The word sustainability gets used a lot these days, but it's the honest truth. Fishing isn't just a hobby. I've got a serious investment in equipment and everything else. It's how I make my living. I want these fish runs to be healthy for a long time, for long after I'm gone, I hope. To see the salmon returning each year…it's almost an inspiration. You can go to Indian River right now and almost walk across it without touching the water. It's really phenomenal. How many thousands of years has that been going on?"