The Most Rev. Paul D. Etienne, Archbishop of Anchorage, Alaska and Catholic Rural Life Board President, writes about his experience King Salmon fishing in Alaska and how it helped him reflect upon the words of Laudato Si’:
In these recent days, I have been taking time for rest and relaxation. For months, people have been encouraging me to take advantage of all that Alaska has to offer, and that is what I am doing in these days.
As you hopefully know, one of the great wonders of Alaska is the salmon. Last week, at the generosity of several good folks, I flew to Illiamna for a few days of fishing for Red Salmon on the New Halen River.
While the veterans among us generally caught their limits, I on the other hand spent the majority of my time ‘paying my dues,’ learning how to catch this illusive fish. About all I got out of the deal was a sore arm! However, in the final hour, a good soul took me back to the water and showed me some of the finer techniques involved, and helped me get my limit (5) for the day!
This week, a few other generous people offered to get me out on the world-renowned Kenai River for a day of fishing for King Salmon–duly named! The setting alone was so peaceful–the sound of the river rolling by, the beauty of the surroundings, the lush green grasses and trees–almost immediately put me at ease. This alone would have been worth the two and a half hour drive to the destination!
The next morning, we started early, departing the lodge at 4:45am. The professional guides are limited to being on the water from 6am until 6pm, so the locals all want to get at least an hour on the water before the guide boats show up. Even with our early arrival, there must have been close to 15 boats already on the stretch of the river we were going to fish. After 6:00, I counted over 30 boats in our stretch. A light rain fell throughout the morning, and the temperature hovered at 55 degrees.
I had the good fortune to catch and release one King Salmon (estimated at 40 pounds) while catching and harvesting another, weighing an estimated 30+ pounds. (On the Kenai River, there is a daily limit of one King Salmon–and a seasonal limit of two.) The King Salmon as you might guess is the most sought after of all salmon, not only because of its size, but because of the oil levels and quality of meat. I can personally attest, it makes a scrumptious meal!
While enjoying the company of some very good-natured individuals, as well as the beauty of this portion of God’s creation, I kept calling to mind Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on our Common Home, Laudato Si’.
The opening lines of this Pope’s teaching says this:
“LAUDATO SI’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord”. In the words of this beautiful canticle, Saint Francis of Assisi reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us. “Praise be to you, my Lord, through our Sister, Mother Earth, who sustains and governs us, and who produces various fruit with coloured flowers and herbs”.
One cannot help but be aware of the delicate balance which nature maintains and requires. Alaska is a constant reminder of the glory of God’s creation, and just about everyone living here ‘gets it’ that it is a privilege to be here, and enjoy the beauty of such pristine nature. The words of Pope Francis come alive here, as we experience the embrace of this ‘common home’ we call God’s creation, our Sister, Mother Earth.
While I am grateful for the wonder of this ‘great land,’ I am also aware of the truth of the teaching of Pope Francis that ‘all is connected;’ God, the human family, the earth that is our common home, and all of God’s creatures that fill the heavens and the earth. Thus, another quote from Laudato Si comes to mind:
Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose. None is superfluous. The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God. (#84)
The life-cycle of the salmon tells us how important it is to maintain a right relationship with creation, and the Creator. The salmon require clean water and all that the ecological environment of the rivers and streams offer. Erosion is a serious threat to the species. The Pacific Salmon spawn once in a lifetime, and then die. The eggs they lay in the fall hatch in the spring. The young ‘fry’ live in the fresh waters through the summer months, and then migrate to the ocean in the fall, only to return again at the end of their life, to continue the cycle of life.
The young fry require the grasses and tree roots along the river banks as their nursery. Other fish also live off of these young salmon. The spawning salmon also make up a huge part of the summer diet for the bears and birds. This says nothing of the fact that many people rely upon the quality fisheries of Alaska to put large quantities of sea food on their tables year after year, and provide good paying jobs for the many fishermen and workers in the fish processing industry.
This is the story of just one ecological system–that of the Kenai River, and of the many other streams of Alaska which are home to many of the Pacific Salmon species. Hopefully, this simple reflection makes a dent in why it is so important for more and more people to take the words of Pope Francis seriously, and begin to reflect upon how each of us is called to care for this beautiful creation we call home.
Here is one final quote from Pope Francis:
For this reason, the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion. It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them. Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience. (#217)
I hope you are finding time this summer to enjoy some rest and relaxation. May your re-creation also include some time in God’s creation, and may this time also lead you to give thanks to God for the beauty of his handiwork. May it also be an opportunity for you to experience a call to the ‘ecological conversion’ necessary for us to not only enjoy the beauty of God’s creation, but ensure that it is passed on to many generations after us!
“Laudato Si’, mi Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord.”