Commercial Fishing in Alaska: Call It Good

An offbeat rhythm wakes me up. I spend a while contemplating what it could be, a hard thump against the wall every ten seconds or so. If I had to guess I would say it’s a can of green beans ramming against the wall in the pantry. The boat is pitching back and forth, my body slides up and down in my bunk with each crest and valley of the waves. By now the rough water is a common staple of life. After confirming my canned vegetable theory and dealing with the racket of the bean can kickdrum I retreat back to my bunk and fall into a tenuous rest. I’ve still got two hours before I have to take over wheelwatch. Upon taking the wheel, the seas have risen and the wind is kicking hard. We’re on our way to Kodiak and have left behind the comfortable waters of Bristol Bay on our old rustbucket. We’ll make it there, it’ll just take a while. The cup of coffee sitting on the sill of a window serves as an inclinometer with the level of coffee going from rim to rim of it’s ceramic borders.  The small radio sitting to the right of my jetfuel broadcasts an announcement of broken weather updates and static. Heavy conditions for the next few days.The steady lull of diesel engines drone and I guide the boat slightly off course so we don’t get thrashed by the waves. We’re making about 6 knots an hour and are taking the long way by trying to negotiate with mother nature. The winds and waves continue to build up a fury. After about 7 hours of this, Ed decides we’ll wait out the storm and swing into Eggegik Bay for a day or two.

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A day and a half goes by without much excitement, just completing maintenance on the engines down below and general busywork. We had been battling the anchor winch off and on for the majority of our time in Bristol bay. It would randomly jump off the cog that was pulling the 700 pound anchor out of the water and send the anchor as well as the chain behind it spinning out of control. Exhilarating, I do say, but things had been going well and we hadn’t had issues with it for a while. On the afternoon of the next day, Jason and I are sitting outside the wheelhouse and see smoke coming out of the forepeak; where our generators produce power for our anchor winch, cranes, compressors, refrigerating system, pumps etc. We rush in and see the yellow CAT belching smoke, on the verge of flames. I rush behind the engine and slam the throttle down to kill the engine. Our backup generator, a brand new John Deere, was ruined at the very start of the season. It had been filled to the brim with seawater after some shoddy welding allowed water in through the exhaust stack. It was useless to us. So we’re stuck in Eggegik Bay until we revive the CAT generator set. Excellent. Ed appears soon afterward and makes an assessment and we begin our enduring task of working through the day, night and next morning to get back on our way to Kodiak.

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Step 1: Repair the generator set on the CAT and bring it back to life. This is unsuccessful as the generator set is scorched.

Step 2: Repair/waste time on the saltwater soaked  John Deere for way, way too long. Lost cause.

Step 3: Create a mismatched frankenstein generator. Long, dirty, stressful work that isn’t guaranteed to work.

Step 4: Have a cup of coffee, burn some incense and pray everything works.

We work and hope for success and in that moment we find it. The engine roars and electricity fills the copper veins that run through the body of the vessel. We pull the anchor at a snail’s pace and find our way back to the open ocean and are greeted with decent weather awaiting us. As we pass from the Bering Sea and emerge into the Gulf of Alaska, thick flocks of birds land on the water, some sort of mating ritual or gathering. Lush, green grass covers the slopes, which slowly turn into mountainous terrain stretching out across the island and an empty ocean before us. I notice them, I appreciate them with a different kind of reverence than normal. I don’t feel a slack jawed wonder, but more of an acknowledgement of another beautiful moment that life sets before our eyes. It occurs to me that a transition of sorts has occurred, I’ve accepted that this is my life, that this journey is just a link in a chain of memories already made and waiting to occur. The boat lumbers through the narrow alley that is False Pass while snow capped mountains look down on our fruitless toiling. Another link every moment.

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Arriving in Kodiak, one can feel a general lack of urgency in the air. We tie up to the dock and get in touch with the dock foreman to receive our marching orders as to when we’ll be receiving fish. He tells us a rough idea of an opening date but says things have been slow lately. This is a slight understatement. There’s practically no salmon this year in Cook Inlet, which means little money for the fishermen. I had occasionally regretted working on the tender boat, I had wished I had been able to get on an actual fishing boat instead of a tender. It was a weird, macho pride thing. I guess I felt like the work didn’t provide the requisite suffering commercial fishing was sure to entail. Young men are fools. We sat on the dock for two weeks without going out to receive fish one time. I was unbelievably glad I was on the tender receiving a day wage instead of a crew share pay system on a gillnetter or purse seiner. Those guys were bringing home next to nothing. We had another crew member come aboard, a fat little russian named Anatoli who had worked the Kodiak season before and was friends with Alan, the boat owner. He had a thick russian accent, loved speaking loudly, loved vodka more and fancied himself a gourmet chef. He made sure you were aware of this fact by insisting he divvy out your portion of dinner each night that he cooked. For the most part I didn’t mind him being around, especially when he cooked. During this time we did everything we could on the boat, we sanded and painted, worked on the fish pump, prayed over the frankenstein generator and tried to stay busy. Eventually we ran out of funds to work on tasks though. Alan, back in Homer, didn’t want to put money into the boat so we followed orders and finished what tasks we had begun. From then on we were being paid to sit on the dock and wait. Wait for an opener, wait for news, wait for anything to happen. Those two weeks drug by with an agonizing lack of speed. I must have done a thousand pushups, written a whole notebook worth of journal entries and read a half dozen books during that time.

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As most men of the maritime industry do, we found solace in the various bars throughout Kodiak to pass our time and throw away our money. It was a brief respite from the confinement of the boat and a good way to meet new people. Jason started seeing a woman while we were docked up in Kodiak. He decided one night it was a fine idea to bring her over to the boat for dinner with the crew. A terrible, terrible idea but I’m glad he did. When Jason and Summer arrived Ed was drunk and stoned out of his mind while Anatoli was excessively inebriated on Absolut Vodka. The following dinner party ensued. Anatoli brings in the meal he cooked with a vocal pride unmatched by Guy Fieri on an Iron Chef finale. He slaps food on our plates with an extra heaping on Summer’s plate. “Yur gonna love this shit” he says and makes a crash landing on the seat next to me. He’s pretty sweaty and has big eyeballs. Summer is a quiet, shy type without too much to say, she keeps her eyes down and occasionally looks up to laugh but doesn’t add much to the conversation and only speaks when necessary. As the liquor continues to flow, whiskey now,  Ed begins a cannabis fueled story about… we’re not sure what it’s about. Twelve minutes later we still have no idea what it’s about. Ed’s droning continues until Anatoli snaps his head to the right, looking down at Summer’s plate, then up to Summer, then back down to her plate again. “Wvhat iz wvrong wvith the foud? Do you not like the foud?! I spent the whole day on zupper, et the fuckin foud!” Jason sends some strong curses and threats his way to which Anatoli immediately responds by looking over to Jason with a smile in his eyes ” Ya dun gud man, ya dun real gud” and wants to bump his fist. Jason declines. I try to draw Summer into a normal conversation but she is preoccupied with wishing for death and only retorts with one sentence answers at best. Ed begins another story similar to the first and we finish supper. Anatoli shouts more about Summer’s dislike of his food and his lack of gourmet chef ability. New tactics to grab a compliment. Ed stands up and puts his hands on Summer’s shoulders and begins talking about the love he has for the crew, he then begins massaging her shoulders, head and face. At this point I’m telling Ed to quit massaging her cranium and Jason is furious, threatening to bludgeon people with frying pans, there’s alot of shouting. Summer realizes the comedy in the situation and starts a downcast laugh, excuses herself and jumps into the ocean. Not really, she excuses herself and never sets foot on the vessel again. She never calls, never writes. A shame.

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Freedom and liberation are distinctly different but undeniably linked to one another. Perhaps freedom is the extended act of liberation minus the war cries and shouted prayers of thanks. When our contract got canned because of lack of work, I was ecstatic. We had completed 60 days of our 65 day contract and were no longer needed to occupy space on the Kodiak dock.  The boredom and confinement had been driving me insane, which made our contract termination all the sweeter. We cut lines from Kodiak and left the slow ticking hands of time for the other mariners stuck hanging around. Ed had me go switch on the air compressor in the engine room, I didn’t ask why, just went down and flipped it on. I walk back into the wheelhouse with a cup of coffee, as Ed flashes a big smile, he pulls the air horn down for three long blasts as we leave the calm climes of Kodiak for our final destination, Home(r).

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I’m on wheel watch as I see the lights of the Homer Harbor come into view through the mist of the night ocean. The midnight sunsets are gone with June and July and the darkness lingers. I realize that it’s over, I’ve finished the season and I’m a couple of hours away from liberation, but more importantly freedom. I take a minute to soak it in, to allow myself a quiet victory alone, above the cold, dark waters of Cook Inlet. That feeling, that completion was what I wanted out of the entire trip. That moment of: “Damn. I did it.” And I got it. Two days later, with the vessel tied up, firm handshakes to each of the crew and a fat check in my wallet, I get in the 4runner and pull onto the highway headed for somewhere new. Did everything work out exactly to plan? Nope. It never does, and it makes the journey all the more memorable. Experiences, adventure, money, freedom.Call it good and move on. I shift through the gears in silence, 3rd gear, 4th gear, 5th gear. Gone, gone, gone.

‘Til Next Time,

Mike

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