Commercial Fishing in Alaska: Get a Job

Kinda weird when you realize your hands have lost their callousness. Current tender hands slide over the rough edges of totes full of medical supplies in rural Alabama. The sun isn’t up yet, but we’ve been working for about an hour and a half. It’s a temp job, nothing more. “Man has to eat” I smirk while my mind wanders from thought to thought. Pallet after pallet, mechanical motions of quads, lumbar, traps, shoulders. The weight shifts to biceps and forearms as the boxes are slung onto a conveyor belt. Thoughts run free on a mental sojourn with no compass or direction. Relief work as Gene Logsdon calls it. I shove my hands under the tote handles and let my mind roam where it pleases.

The hands are rough as limestone, although I can’t really feel them for the icy water mixed with fish entrails. They’re wrist deep in the gills of a 90 pound Halibut; mechanical motions of quads, lumbar, shoulders, traps. Squat, lift, push, throw, wrestle these slippery fish into a brailer bag as quickly as possible. I have two coworkers, opponents, my only concern is throwing two fish for every fish that my coworker throws in the bag. Simple mind, simple movements. My feet slowly absolve themselves of their warmth until I finally forget about them and their numb cowardice. Covered cap to boot in oily slime, pale skin like a white flag of surrender, we load the last of the fish into the bag. $10/ hour for an AMRAP of Halibut thrusters. I’m glad just to have some sort of money coming in, it’ll be a week and a half ’til I get that paycheck but it’s something. I see an almost imperceptible nod of the head by the dock foreman as I climb over the ladder onto the concrete pad of the Auction Block where the fishermen of Cook Inlet come to offload their fish.

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 I remember putting too much thought into what I should wear to go ask for work, “Carhartt’s or just jeans… don’t want to look like I’m trying too hard. Better wear a beanie so they can’t tell I’ve got long hair, don’t want anything working against me.” Slow, deliberate footsteps led me along the spit of Homer, past the Salty Dawg and down the ramp into the harbor. Shoulders back, chin up, eye contact, “ten feet tall and bulletproof”. I believed it too. Those moments are rare, when you step back from your reality to realize the culmination of a thousand tiny moments and decisions that led to, well, your current reality. Most possessions gone, family distant and the closest thing to a love aborted. In those moments of realization I’d like to think one taps into some sort of lifesource, maybe some deeper part of the soul. By god, you just might be ten feet tall and bulletproof.

I think I asked every boat in the harbor if they were crewed up, looking for workers or needed free work done on their boat. A few benevolent skippers wrote down my phone number and said they would pass it along if applicable. Days drag by without a call from the Auction block (to offload fish), no calls from skippers looking for crewmembers. I practice tying knots and reread The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey while i’m laying in the cab of the 4runner (affectionately known as The Warthog). I have lengthy conversations with my “neighbor” who is parked beside me. He is constantly tripping on acid and tells me he’s my spirit guardian. My spirit guardian would live in a Winnebago. I drive to Mcdonald’s and park as close to the building as possible so I can use the wifi without going inside and buying something. More work for the Auction Block on Tuesday, back to waiting on Wednesday. Sitting in the truck reading, the phone rings and a soft, tired voice asks me to come to the Northern end of the harbor for an impromptu interview aboard the Cachalot, a Tender vessel. No time for walking, feet were slapping pavement and I was damn determined to get a site on any boat, for any captain.

The old man sits in a recliner in a fairly spacious galley. Looks like 1970 in there, there’s a small bookcase beside a fridge filled with novels and westerns. I see the wheelhouse down the hall has an old school steering wheel beneath a dashboard of gauges and meters. Looks like something out of a pirate ship. The old man, named Hugh, exudes a soft-spoken grandfatherly vibe. Not exactly what I had expected: he has both eyes, doesn’t have any tattoos of an anchor and doesn’t want to fight me before hiring me. I’m cautious of this old fellow. I answer his questions directly and try to be concise (unlike this blog). I assume he’d rather not hear any flowery bullshit about the nature of adventure and finding myself.

“What brought you out to Alaska?”

“Came to make some money and see what it was like out here.”

“Any experience on fishing vessels?”

“Nope, but I’m ready.”

“Are you mechanical/ good with engines etc.?”

“Probably enough to be dangerous”

A brief meeting with the boat owner, Alan, leads to me being hired on for $150/ day for a 65 day season. Food and board included. I’m happy. Stoked. It happened, I made it happen. Sold everything unessential, lived in the 4runner in the winter mountains of Colorado to save on bills, drove over 7500 miles without a single contact in Alaska… and it worked out.

Sitting on the bow that evening after a full day of sanding/ priming/painting, a chill runs through my body. It’s still cool, even in June. Watching the sun set through a jungle of cranes and hydraulic cables, thoughts ever return to a woman a couple thousand miles away. To quote Mr. Abbey: “Under the influence of cosmic rays I try for cosmic intuitions- and end up earthbound as always, with a vision not of the universal but of a small and mortal particular, unique and disparate… her smile, her eyes in firelight, her touch.” I lean back and accept the path I’m on for what it is. That doesn’t keep me from analyzing the same situation for the thousandth time though. Earthbound as always I suppose.

Pallets are empty and I’ll be bringing home a couple of pet splinters. Soft hands, man. The sun has come up and I hop in a van to help a driver complete their route. Someone asks, “Man, I thought you had your own route by now?”

“Nah man, just a temp. Just a temp.”

 ‘Til Next Time,
-Mike

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