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Alaska man recounts years of fishing, hunting, firefighting in new book

Author Michael Chihuly with his springer spaniel Crosson, named after famed Alaska Bush pilot Joe Crosson. (Courtesy Michael Chihuly)

 

Author Michael Chihuly with his springer spaniel Crosson, named after famed Alaska Bush pilot Joe Crosson. (Courtesy Michael Chihuly)

 

Sixty years is a long time, especially for someone as active as Mike Chihuly, a Ninilchik-based fisherman, fishing guide, hunter, biologist, firefighter and a friend and neighbor to many around the state, who recently decided to share his six decades of stories about life in Alaska in a new book, "Alaska: Fish and Fire."

Chihuly has gained a wealth of knowledge from his lifelong outdoor exploits and is still clearly serious about his passion for piscatorial pursuits, as he makes clear early on: "I currently have five boats in my yard, and yes, despite what my wife says, I need all of them."

His experience grew over time and with age, but back when he first arrived in Anchorage in 1957, Chihuly was as green as many newcomers, and he makes no effort to hide his boyhood mistakes.

One came after a day of fishing with his father, when he tried to dry out some sopping sneakers by propping them up on sticks over a fire while camping stream-side for the night. Things did not go as planned.

"When we got up, there was nothing left of my tennis shoes except some melted rubber around the edges of the coals," he writes.

While humbling, readers can't fault Chihuly's naivety, since he wet his footwear fighting a king salmon — a colored-up, hooked-nosed beast nearly as large as he was, but the author knew how to use the current to his advantage. Chihuly vividly details his doubts about landing that first big fish and the feelings of finally bringing his chinook to shore.

"To my surprise, I tired the thing out and had it up against the bank. I wasn't big enough to drag it up the bank and I was half scared of it anyway," he writes. "Finally, Dad came along and helped me lift it out of the water. It weighed 30 pounds and was a pretty impressive catch for an 8-year-old."

Almost as impressive is that Chihuly began commercially set-net fishing for sockeye salmon a few years later in the undisputed catching capital of the world: Bristol Bay.

He was just 15 years old but, "I was having the time of my life! I worked for a crew of five, all older men. They cussed, and drank, and talked about women and left their girly books in the outhouse. I learned a lot about life just listening to them while playing hearts and pinochle in our little set-net shack, waiting for that opener."

Chihuly enjoyed himself so much, he went back two years later to work his own site with two 17-year-old friends. Again, he unabashedly shares how much went wrong. They ran out of food faster than planned and had to hunt shorebirds with pellet guns. After a few empty nets, one boy split to work for a cannery, and Chihuly's contracted fish-buyer backed out at the last minute. Then, after spending 24 hours awake to walk to another processor, make a deal and then walk back to his fish site, the salmon came in, filling nearly every diamond in Chihuly's net.

"We worked as fast as we could go. Covered in mud, our fingers bled from the sockeye's gill rakers, the mud pulled at our feet with every step, and we took no time to relieve ourselves. We peed our pants and kept on going. After all, there were thousands of fish left to pick and time was of the essence," he writes.

Despite the tireless work, the tide came back in before they could empty their net. Worse still, their fish buyer's truck broke down, so no one was there to pick up the fish they landed. They harvested 3,000 sockeye, but probably lost an equal number to the Bristol Bay tide.

"That opener was a hard lesson in poor judgment, the power of Mother Nature, hard work, and the vagaries of fishing," Chihuly writes.

Fishing tales aren't the entirety of the book, though. Chihuly shares an equal number of stories about bagging moose, bear, goats and game birds. A few chapters focus on living off the land with his family while spending a winter in the remote Agulowak River area near Dillingham.

He offers a bit of history regarding hockey and collegiate life at UAF, too. And the book wouldn't be complete without some of the highs and lows of being a firefighter, including 13 years as a fire chief.

Chihuly's writing style is simple to read, and the subject matter is informative and entertaining enough that lifelong Alaskans and those new to the state could both glean something from spending time in the pages.

You will find the original article here

Fish and Fire: Ninilchik resident writes stories of his life

Posted: December 14, 2016 - 1:37pm 

Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Mike Chihuly and his wife, Shirley, greet a passerby while he signs copies of his recently published book, "Alaska Fish and Fire," on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016 at the annual Peninsula Art Guild's Fine Arts and Crafts Fair.
 
Photo by Megan Pacer/Peninsula Clarion Mike Chihuly and his wife, Shirley, greet a passerby while he signs copies of his recently published book, "Alaska Fish and Fire," on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016 at the annual Peninsula Art Guild's Fine Arts and Crafts Fair. 
 

Ninilchik resident Mike Chihuly has lived enough lives to write several books since moving to Alaska more than 60 years ago. Instead, he packed them all into one.

Chihuly’s book, “Alaska Fish and Fire,” was published in August and released in October. It catalogs Chihuly’s life experiences from growing up in Alaska and working on the state Board of Fisheries to his time spent on the Agulowak River and working as the chief of Ninilchik Emergency Services.

“I probably should have written two or three books,” he said of the broad range of topics covered in the memoir.

The 65-year-old retiree has packed a lot into his years in the Last Frontier, starting with what he describes in the book as a memorable trip to the state from Seattle as a young boy. It turns out the boat had a safety drill during which passengers had to don life jackets and prepare for what to do in an emergency, but as a child, Chihuly didn’t understand that.

The book is peppered with similar amusing anecdotes, as well as some more serious sections. Chihuly said that during the short writing process — a mere two months — he didn’t mean to write a chronology of his life. He just sat down and started writing the stories he thought people would like.

What he saw as story after story made it onto the pages was that the story of his life in Alaska was unfolding, he said.

“I guess it’s a memoir because it’s just 26 chapters of my life, or 26 views of my life,” Chihuly said.

This is not Chihuly’s first foray into writing. Since catching the bug in a writing course his sophomore year of college as a fisheries student, he has written several articles for outdoor and emergency response magazines.

He took a break from writing for a period while he was busy with work and his children, he said, but has stuck with it ever since.

“I had been threatening to write a book for a long time and I didn’t know where to start, and I put it off and put it off,” Chihuly said. “It just hit me last winter. I said, ‘You know, Mike, talk is cheap. If you don’t get this done, you’re never gonna get it written.’”

Chihuly got plenty of feedback while he was writing the book, sending chapters out to several friends and asking for advice. One of them was David Bear, the current chief of Ninilchick Emergency Services, who worked with Chihuly for about six years and appears in the book.

“It was wonderful,” Bear said of working under Chihuly’s direction. “I’m fortunate to have worked with a guy I consider like a hero.”

Bear provided feedback on chapters and has also read the finished product. He said Chihuly did the chapters about fire and emergency response justice, accurately portraying how it is to respond to emergencies in such a tightknit community where everyone knows each other.

Chihuly said it has been surprising to hear feedback on what turns out to be people’s favorite chapters or details. Some readers picked up on the relationship described between him and his wife, Shirley, and told Chihuly they would have liked to read more about that, he said.

While Bear said he was interested in the fire and emergency response section of the book, he also said he was fascinated by some of the earlier chapters, in which he learned things about Chihuly’s life as a fisheries biologist and a young man growing up in Alaska.

“I discovered a lot about him as a person,” Bear said.

“Alaska Fish and Fire” is available at the Homer Bookstore and River City Books in Soldotna.

Megan Pacer is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

The original article is found in the Homer News