Common Ground: Condition Red — Combat fishing instigates fight or flight-from-crowds tendencies on the Russian

By Christine Cunningham, for the Redoubt Reporter

It was 2 a.m. when we pulled into the parking lot at the Russian River.

“Maybe the crowds won’t be so bad,” my fishing partner had said, and that sounded logical to me. The only people awake at that hour are pastry chefs or staggering out of bars. There might be a few of us fishermen dedicated enough to wake up in the night and slip away with our catch just as the morning light illuminates the riverbanks and trees in one of those Paris Salon images from the idealized world of Romantic landscape paintings.

These were my thoughts just before we turned into the parking lot and jerked to a stop behind 27 cars waiting to get in.

“Must be the road construction,” I said. “Must’ve caused all the cars to back up.”

Then I noticed that the cars weren’t running. When you are waiting for so long that it will save you money on gas to shut off your car, and the guy two cars ahead of you has his bare feet sticking out the window while he reads “War and Peace,” you know it’s going to be a long wait.

The guy who pulled in behind us got out of his car for a conference. He had come down from Anchorage.

“No, there wasn’t any road construction,” he said. The guy was shirtless and his eyes were shifting around as he counted cars.

“What we gotta do,” he said, “is sneak into overflow parking. I’ll walk the extra mile.”

Then something tripped his mental trigger and he took off in a run toward the fee shack.

When I assessed my tactical situation that morning, I was unaware and unprepared. In combat conditions, this mindset is referred to as “Condition White.” In Condition White, a person drifts, blissfully unaware. They spend their life savings on Paris Salon images for the parlor and smoke cigars. If anything serious happens, the first instinct is shock. My eyes focused on a teenager wearing pajama pants and carrying a garbage bag heavy with fish.

“This can’t be happening,” I said.

The color code for surviving combat fishing moves from one level of mindset to another, just like other emergency readiness systems. Without being alerted, my mindset went to condition yellow. I started to realize that the parking lot was potentially unfriendly. As the bare-chested man ran back to his car and drove past the line of cars to the overflow parking, I tried to be relaxed. The man reading “War and Peace” dog-eared a page and put on a pair of slippers.

“I’m willing to walk the extra mile,” I said.

My heart rate was quickening. We needed to get a spot before “War and Peace” caught on to the overflow parking option and took the last space.

My fishing partner was still in Condition White. He was pondering a Plan B. There were other, less-crowded fishing options to consider. But I had determined the threat. The engines of cars were starting up ahead of us in anticipation of a car exchange. The line was moving. We needed to act fast. I was shifting into Condition Red and he hadn’t shifted into drive.

“Plan B,” he started to say, but I cut him off. My plan be to get parked in overflow parking before it filled up, and we better do it fast because cars were piling in behind us and it was still two hours before the bars close.

We hadn’t even parked the car when I hit Condition Red. Catastrophic breakdown was sure to occur when I actually got to the river. People were unloading bicycles from the backs of trucks and entire families in helmets were whizzing by as I fumbled to tie a fly knot. My face was turning Condition Red as a guy with a baitcaster and 50-pound test loaded up his limit of fish.

The war zone we were about to enter is ironically called, “The Sanctuary.” Instead of bullets, it was death by 99-cent sockeye flies being lobbed in every direction. So, instead of heading there, we headed up the trail to a hole upriver. But the crowds were everywhere, hiding in bushes cleaning fish or stacked four rows deep and up to their necks in water with children fishing from their shoulders. They were all flipping and practicing a style of fishing that was more like a dance move — the Kenai Twitch.

By the end of the morning, before I usually even have coffee, we’d walked eight miles in waders before we found a sparsely populated fishing hole. I was in no condition to fish.

Christine Cunningham was born in Alaska and has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for the last 20 years, where she enjoys fishing, hunting and outdoors recreation. Her book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” was released by Northern Publishing in January 2013. She can be reached at For up-to-date information on the “Women Hunting Alaska” book, visit Northern Publishing online or “like” Women Hunting Alaska on Facebook.


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