Solstice: Not a Fisherman’s Longest Day

26 06 2012

Funny how the recent weeks shrank as the days lengthened. After a spring of Sitka decadence, June dashed by. Seemingly overnight, Cap’n J and I are on the cusp of our 2012 salmon season. I wanted to tell you what we’ve been up to as we prepare to leave the dock, but in truth, I could just repost last June’s “Chasing Kings” and none of us – me included – would know the difference. Contrary to the nonstop drama of commercial fishing reality shows, a “same shit, different season” monotony is more often our industry’s true foundation.

Every year, the summer troll season opens on July 1. As the harbor buzz gets louder – sanders, grinders, and butt-rock whining over the water – our fleet’s peculiar homogeneity is evident. We’re all following the same preparatory checklists, while knotted in the same tangle of emotions. “23 seasons and every year I wonder what the next season will bring,” another troller texted me yesterday. “Nervous, excited, dread, exhausted, boredom, thankful, conflated. That about sums it up.”

Our season begins with a carefully monitored king salmon opening. We’ll leave Sitka on the 27th to get into position – a destination yet to be decided. Where will this year’s big smash be? With only an expected 8 to 10 days for this high stakes opening, there’s no room for error. Cap’n J would be the first to tell you that he’s starting to freak out.

“I had my first king salmon dream last night,” he told me over coffee the other day, a feverish glint in his eyes. “We had over 200 kings the first day. We always have over 200 kings the first day in my dreams.”

He’s got big dreams, my king salmon-crazed sweetheart. For non-fishing friends, 200 kings in a day is a very, very good day. Dream-worthy, in fact. We trollers handle each fish one at a time. Hook and line caught, they’re individually landed, bled, cleaned, and handed down to our -38 degree fish hold to blast-freeze. Two hundred black-gummed beauties? We’d never stop moving, never leave the deck, and hopefully scarf a granola bar breakfast sometime before noon. We’d fall into our bunk as adrenaline-overdosed zombies, and wake up four hours later hoping to do it all again.

Like all fishermen, we labor to prepare for what’s in our control, while bracing for inevitable surprises. (Last year it was weather. We made the best of it, turning Easterly 25 into an epic Lituya Bay beach party, as “From Fish-able to Festivity” shared.) Joel’s been tying gear until his fingers swell. I scrubbed the fish hold to a sterile shine, all set to receive opening day’s first load, and made a new door latch to keep the dorm-sized fridge from flying open on a wave. We’ve double-checked our survival gear and run both the engines, assuring ourselves that everything’s purring as it should be. I’ll fill the Nerka’s 250 gallon water tank right before we go, and we took fuel the other day. (Next time you’re feeling pained at the gas station, imagine 846 gallons of diesel.)

I only touched up our copper bottom paint this year, resulting in a two-toned patchwork that visibly pained the neighboring skippers. Sorry, guys – $162/gallon!

I knew things were getting serious when we sat down to make our grocery list. After fishing together for seven years, we’ve got a set meal rotation. Tofu pad thai on the first night out, before the bean sprouts go bad. Fake meat tacos. Lots of fish and rice. A couple frozen lasagnas for the nights we’re too busy to cook. Tuna casserole on day 12, when we’re down to just canned stuff.

Dinners were easy enough, but lunch had us stumped. We stared at each other across the table. “What the hell do we eat for lunch?” Joel asked. “Why can’t we remember?”

I reached for the computer. “I’ll ask the Facebooks… See what other folks do.”

A thread of good suggestions ensued – stew, loaded baked potatoes, and the ever-popular Stuff in Tortillas. Then a fisherman friend identified the root of our amnesia. “Lunch? You don’t remember because you don’t eat lunch when the kings are biting.”

Oh yeah…

A glorious sunset washed over the harbor at 10:30 on summer solstice, but our friend’s comment reminded me that our longest days of the year are still ahead, looming on the calendar’s next page. When the Nerka exits the breakwater, life will change. For the next three months, Cap’n J and I will embrace our most driven, compulsive selves. Up with the 3:00 dawn, to bed with the 11:00 twilight. Staying out until the hold is full, running to town to deliver those fish, practicing our best “turn and burns” – pushing ourselves to get back out as quickly as possible.

Not a schedule that facilitates very frequent – or eloquent – posts. We’ve had some powerful conversations here recently (like this one, and this), but Hooked’s updates will likely be more postcard than lengthy letter for the coming months. I’ll stockpile the stories, keep you in my good thoughts, and look forward to being back in touch.

Be safe and be well, friends – thanks for being here.


“I am going to work on a fishing boat.” Letters from Amanda, Part 1

25 06 2012

Hey friends – Amanda is our special pen pal for the summer, as introduced in this post. I’m grateful to her for sharing her first-time fisherman perspective with us, and hope you’ll join me in welcoming her to our community here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dear Hooked,

Thank you so much for the opportunity to write.  I have found something really special about telling folks in Sitka that I am going to work my first summer on a fishing boat.  I’ve seen a lot of faces light up with warm, nostalgic smiles and I’ve heard many an exclamation that lets me know I’m about to have an experience to cherish. I have been received with nothing but support and have been told many times that I am “going to have so much fun!”  For this and a few other reasons, I feel motivated to write about my experience and I am grateful for an outlet here.

I’m working on a fishing boat this summer. I’ve never worked on a boat, I’ve never spent more than a night on the water, and I’ve never even really caught a fish.  I grew up in a suburb of Seattle and went to college in Bellingham, Washington. I’ve spent the last four years doing various types of social work.  I’ve worked with developmentally disabled adults, divorcing parents, and most recently children with mental health issues.  It is safe to say that with the emotional exhaustion these jobs have caused, I’ve often idealized a kind of work that is demanding in a different way.  This is part of the fishing job appeal.

When I moved to Sitka, just like so, so many before me, I was instantly charmed by the harbors and the fishing culture. The descriptions are so quaint they are cliché, the bobbing of boats, the smell of old wood, fish, and diesel, the back drop of trees and mountains.  It all appealed to me in a distant way because I knew nothing about it. I was struck by the camaraderie among fisher people who always seem to have something to talk about; a big catch, a boat maintenance issue, an upcoming season opener, they have a language that can only include those among the trade.  The social savvy side of me has always wanted to participate in the conversation, especially with a scruffy young fisherman or two, but this is the kind of talk that you can’t fake.  You don’t talk about it unless you’ve lived it.

Herring season amplified this to a degree I was not expecting.  That time of year, late winter and early spring, brought a lot to Sitka and to me by default. Not only did I see two months of the most beautiful weather I have seen in Alaska, but the town collectively woke up.  People got out on their bikes and hikes, dug up their garden beds, and went out to brunch.  The days were noticeably longer and the town filled with new people, including a charming herring seiner who I happened to become acquainted with.  We shared each other’s company for a few weeks and hearing him talk (complain, brag, joke…) about the season was really interesting to me. It provided me with moments to learn from somebody who spoke of something he clearly cared for and knew about.  There is so much experience behind this kind of knowledge.  I won’t resign all the credit to this adorable fisherman and his unyielding habit of helping friends and friends of friends, but I did mention to him that I liked the idea of working on a fishing boat.  Soon enough, we could barely walk down the harbor without him facilitating a new introduction.  And for some reason, I got some job offers.

The job I accepted is working for the salmon season on a “tender boat.” This is a big boat that transfers fish from the trollers out at sea to the processing plant on land. My job is to cook for a crew of two men plus myself, write the “fish tickets” (receipts), and miscellaneous deckhand work, like navigating the boat or sorting incoming fish.

Stepping onto the Nichawak [not the boat’s real name] for three months has me worried about a number of things.

Safety: I can be pretty clumsy, what if I trip or get tangled hurting myself or jeopardizing the safety of two other people?

Isolation with two people I barely know, what if we don’t get along?

I’m so inexperienced, I’m certain I’ll surprise the captain a time or two with what I don’t know.

I’m good with direct, clear instructions but I know there will be times where I’ll feel like I’m learning another language.

I’m worried about my gender identity. I cherish my femininity but I know that in a male dominated culture, there will be constant attention drawn to it.  I will have to find a balance, I don’t want to covet my femininity but I don’t want to act upon it as if I’m obliged.

I know there are things I didn’t mention here (the physical and psychological toll of long work days, the nights awake in the wheel house, the massive cargo of dead fish, killed without hesitation).  But overall I hope that it sounds like I’m fairly aware of what I’m getting myself in to.

Ultimately the reason why I am fishing is this. I have a college degree, 25 years of life, and some tools I’ve picked up along the way. But I have no direction.  There are a few things I know I’d like to do and be and make in life but at this point, I go wherever experiences are to be had. Experience means newness, challenge, lessons, and eventually wisdom.  So whether I’m ready or not, I greet this experience, the Nichawak, tomorrow.


“I Just Really Want to Go Fishing!” Introducing Amanda

22 06 2012

I’m a nosy person. My social worker days allowed entry into others’ most private moments, while fishing’s mode of communication, the VHF radio, provides socially acceptable eavesdropping. The Backdoor Café’s elbow-close tables are just as handy for my voyeuristic tendencies.

One crisp March morning, camped at a corner table, I pecked out sentences between bites of peach-raspberry pie. When an earnest voice drifted over, my steel-ringed ears perked up.

“I just really want to go fishing! I know it’s clichéd, but I don’t even care about making any money.” Mentally, I mouthed the next sentence. “I just want the experience.”

Though the sentiment was familiar, the voice was not. With a casual sip of coffee, I glanced down the room. A young woman sat among the morning crew. Alaskan men whose hands are permanently etched with their mediums – motor oil, copper paint, white-laced trails of long gone hooks and blades – these regulars dished advice with indulgent smiles.

“First thing you’ve gotta do is learn to swear,” one said.

Another agreed, “Learn to swear, learn to fish, and learn to shower less.”

Long brown hair swinging forward, she leaned into their words. Teal-accented glasses shielded her eyes, yet excitement shone through body language as she nodded intently.


Back aboard the Nerka, I told Joel about this latest newcomer in the spring flood of dream-driven greenhorns. “I kinda envy her,” I mused. “Growing up in this, always knowing the reality of our business, I’ve never felt that kind of wide-eyed excitement.”

He frowned. “I don’t know about that – I still get awfully excited to go fishing. To me, excitement without knowing what to expect is just anxiety.”

“Yeah… But we know too much to be excited like that, all consumed by the fantasy.” Struggling to put my feeling into words, I cast about for a comparison. “Like kissing. Kissing someone new is crazy-exciting, and kissing someone familiar is a different, quieter kind of exciting.”

My partner of 8 years smiled. “What’s really exciting is kissing someone you know really well, but haven’t seen in a long time. That’s what coming back to Alaska and going fishing is like for me.”


I surreptitiously followed this young woman’s updates for weeks. She held a seat among the morning regulars; her open demeanor and enthusiastic ability to connect with anyone impressed me. One day, a thread of uncertainty wove through her usual optimism. She wondered aloud how she’d know if a skipper was safe.

Her apprehension echoed in my head as I walked back to the boat, a feeling of shirked responsibility tugging at my heels. Dammit…I should’ve reached out to her. Pulling out my phone, I texted one of the fishermen she’d been sitting with.

“Hey dude – the woman who wants so much to go fishing should give me a call. Would you give her my #? Thanks!”

A return message buzzed almost immediately. “Hi tele! Amanda is very excited to give u her number! Here it is: XXX-XXX-XXXX.”


That’s how I met Amanda. Several hours later, she sat in the Nerka’s cabin. Surrounded by the trappings of a foreign world, she studied the lures hanging from the helm and carefully repeated their names. Hoochies. Flashers. Spoons. I could practically see her brain creating a new file, tabbed “Fishing Terms.”

I hate to see an inexperienced young woman to find herself in a bad situation, sure, but my motivation wasn’t so pure. A friend needed a deckhand. Knowing that he prefers female crew, I wanted a better sense of who she was before making any offers. Could she actually be as genuine as she appeared?

Yes. By our visit’s end, I was openly scheming to land Amanda a job with my friend. There’s no telling how someone will handle the sea, sleep deprivation, or isolation, but it was clear that Amanda had the right attitude.

Such a good attitude, in fact, that many other folks jumped to help her in her quest. One morning she approached me with apologetic eyes. “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to help your friend… I got a job.”

Waving aside the apologies, I cheered her good news. She described her role working for a well-reputed captain on a tender – a large vessel that transports catches from the fishing grounds to the processing plant. I gave a thought of thanks for the guardians in our community. Gently cradling her fantasy in experienced hands, they’d placed equal value on her safety and the realization of a dream.

How will reality stack up against the fantasy? Wouldn’t it be fun to hear directly from Amanda on that? She’s agreed to be Hooked’s pen pal over the course of her first fishing season, letting us know how things are going. This makes Amanda our first correspondent, and I’m so delighted that you’ll get to meet her. Stay tuned – I’ll post her first letter on Monday. Meanwhile, please join me in welcoming Amanda to our community and wishing her well this inaugural season!

Have you chased a dream? How did it live up to the reality? What would you like to ask Amanda about her experience?   

FISH 2012: Call for Artists!

19 06 2012

Here’s an exciting opportunity, friends…

The University of Oklahoma School of Art and Art History wants your entries for their Fish 2012 International Art Competition. The theme is “art related to the culture of fishing,” and what that means is wide open to your interpretation. Possibilities include fishing as an economic lifestyle, the process of fishing, work and gender issues, conservation and politics, environmental habitats and sustainability, fishing for subsistence, fisheries collapse, fish quality and safety, and community education.

What artistic medium can you enter? Curator Cedar Marie explained, “Media can be anything; photos, collage, film, poetry/spoken word, sculpture, fiber arts, ceramics, video, mixed media (this can be a combination of materials, any materials that can make an interesting or compelling artwork, including boat parts, fishing gear debris used to make a sculpture, etc! No live or decomposing animals though), performance footage, screen prints or lithos, etc. I once saw a wood sculpture of a fish that had a motion sensor, so when anyone walked by it, it spoke!”

Here are the basics:

Fish 2012 is open to all US/International artists 18 years old and older.

All media is accepted, with a $30 entry fee. (This covers 3 images.)

The entry deadline is September 1, 2012.

The exhibit dates are October 23 – November 7, 2012.

Complete competition information and entry details are here.

There’s powerful talent among Hooked’s readers, and this is a wonderful opportunity to share your gifts and your perspective on this lifestyle. I so hope you consider entering. Thanks for helping to spread the word far and wide among your communities. Now get to creating, and good luck!

Ophelia the Octopus: created entirely of marine debris by Island Trails Network & Kodiak High School. (Photo by Merrill Burden)

AfterWords: Reflections on the 2012 North Words Writers Symposium

16 06 2012

Got an email from one of my writer buddies last week. “So?” she prompted. “How was the symposium?”

Tough question. I’ve been back to boat work for two weeks now, varnishing the Nerka’s rails while wondering how to tell you about one of the best experiences of my writer’s life.

First, I need to tell you how remarkable the North Words Writers Symposium’s very existence is. It began with a dream, when Skagway Tourism Director (and community heart) Buckwheat Donahue imagined a celebration of the written word in Southeast Alaska. Local publisher/bookseller Jeff Brady and writer Dan Henry shared Buckwheat’s dream, signing on as co-organizers. Thanks to these three and support from the City of Skagway, Sergeant Preston’s Lodge, Alaska Magazine and others, 2012 marked the North Words Writers Symposium’s third year. Drawing prestigious faculty – a Pushcart Prize, Shamus Award, even an Academy Award nomination among them – this all takes place in a town that’s one-and-a-half miles long by four blocks wide.

With four cruise ships in town on my arrival date, Skagway’s population of 880 jumped to 10,000.

Many of you heard how excited I was, on the way to Skagway. So should I tell you about the sudden fear that drowned excitement, just before the first night’s welcome dinner? Who do I think I am? I shouldn’t be here! When I called Joel in late-stage panic, he listened patiently before replying, “That’s ridiculous. You always get this way before something big – remember Fisher Poets? – and it always ends up amazing.”

Smart fella. I can tell you my “I’ll just stay long enough to be polite” exit strategy didn’t last long. By evening’s end, when the Red Onion staff herded me toward the door, I felt dizzied by the non-stop conversations. Genuine and generous, the authors tore down the walls my lit star-struck self had imagined.

“We’re all equals here,” Seth Kantner insisted. An hour later, Nick Jans said, “We’re all rolling the same rock up the same hill.” And when John Straley dropped into the chair next to me after talking with Scott Silver, he marveled that someone that successful would openly voice self-doubt and insecurity – “the same as the rest of us.”

A spirit of inclusivity defined the next three days. LONG days – 15 hours together, talking books, writing, and Alaska with passion that never waned. We were an intimate group, eight faculty members to 40 participants, together from breakfast to late into the night.

Kim Heacox and Dan Henry made time to speak raven. (Yes – I swooned a bit.)

For the writers amongst you, I’d love to rehash every panel. Heather Lende moderated a fantastic discussion on memoir, with Seth, Kim Heacox, and Deb Vanasse. Jeff hosted a panel on dialogue, drawing from the experiences of Scott, John, Deb, and Lynn Schooler. John led an animated examination of gender and writing, and Dan elicited stories on agent/publisher relationships. After discussions of manuscripts that sell and the business of self-promotion, we celebrated the heart of our work – the words themselves – with fantastic faculty and participant readings.

Dan hosts a discussion with Heather, Lynn, Kim, Deb, Seth & Nick.

What I really want to tell you is what this gathering of Alaskan authors felt like. “There’s no ego-tension here,” one noted. It was true. Down-to-earth sincerity fostered a feeling of kinship, a “we’re in this together” sentiment that rejected self-promotion to champion the collective instead. Kim summed up, “I cannot promote enough the work of my fellow Alaskans… The more centered you are, the best you occupy the center.”

And this faculty championed more than each other. Whether doing memoir, children’s books, or detective novels, each writes with intense love for Alaska – an entity more character than setting. With that love, each writes from a place of social responsibility. “I’ve got that whole ‘save the world’ thing going on,” Seth said. “I feel the need for my writing to go somewhere, to make an impact.” Everyone voiced similar motivation.

We even spent a morning hiking (though the train track walk was quickly abandoned.)

“So, did you come back inspired?” a friend prodded.

Absolutely yes… The greatest gift was seeing that my lit star heroes aren’t superhuman untouchables but people like you and me, who work extremely hard at the story they’re compelled to tell.  People who, as Nick said, “sit in the goddamn chair,” even when writing isn’t fun.

(“Fun?” John stared at me, brown eyes magnified behind thick glasses. “It’s like having homework due and it’s Sunday night, every fucking day of my life.”)

Powerfully inspiring.… But a bit not exactly, also. Being in a room full of Alaskan writers made me turn a more critical eye on my work. This group emphasized a perspective different from groups Down South, and I suddenly felt very underprepared. When Deb described her tendency to submit work too soon, overly eager for outside affirmation, I recognized my own undoing.

“The number one secret to writing a manuscript that sells is to not try to write a manuscript that sells,” Deb said. “Write something beautiful, a manuscript that’s not just good but exceptional, the book that you want to read and the story that only you can tell.”

The story only you can tell. I’ll be thinking on that over the coming months, ruminating amidst salmon entrails, sideways rain, and dancing whales. In the end, all I can tell you is that there’s no sweeter sound than hearing opportunity knocking, and being available to answer the door. My gratitude to all – organizers, faculty, participants – for making this such a memorable experience.

For a delightful take on the 2012 North Words Writers Symposium, check out my friend Clint Farr’s article for the Juneau Empire, “Formidable Group of Alaskan Writers Gather to Discuss Their Craft.” 

Headed back to Juneau in a five-seater, I waved to Heather’s unbelievably beautiful town of Haines.

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