Hi friends. We’re in the midst of Southeast Alaska’s second (and last) king salmon opening, trudging through Day 14. It’s been a rough one – beautiful weather negated by coast-wide poor catch rates, far from the season’s salvation that so many fishermen had hoped for. I’ve been looking back to July’s first king opening with nostalgia.
Late June. I am lingering over a cup of coffee at the Backdoor Café, exchanging goodbyes and good wishes to local friends. Yep, leaving in the morning for the king opening, see you in a few weeks. A nearby woman overhears. She asks me to watch her science fiction paperback for a moment, then heads out the door.
When she returns a few minutes later, she plucks a small golden icon from her dress pocket, extends her hand to mine. “This is for you. Saint Nicholas keeps women and men at sea safe. Be careful out there, and come back to us.”
Cap’n J and I always imagine we’ll leave town a few days before the July 1 opening. We fantasize a leisurely idle out to the fishing grounds, breaking the 18-hour run into several days, even sparing time to do something fun along the way. Between last-minute mechanical gremlins and the greedy distractions of town, it never happens that way.
Until this year. The Nerka eases into mist-shrouded Bertha Bay on the evening of the 28th, joining one of our favorite boats, the Kathleen Jo. Jeff is another young captain, a fellow boat kid who grew up to take the reins of his childhood summer home. Arriving a few hours ahead of us, “Captain Picnic” and his deckhand have already started blissfully pruning in White Sulphur Hot Springs, but skiff-master Derak jumps out to ferry us in. We sink into the scalding bath carved out of stone and gaze through the layers of rain, wondering aloud whether the coming days will bring glory or despair.
On the 30th, we run all day to reach our destination, charging 40 miles off-shore straight into the Gulf of Alaska. The sea is quiet. Scanning with the binoculars, we see flocks of sea birds paddling serenely along the glassy surface. “Damn, there’s a lot of birds here!” Joel says. Fulmers, storm petrels, shearwaters, albatross… It’s as if they’re anticipating tomorrow’s opening day as anxiously as we are, eager for salmon entrails flung to waiting beaks. We trade hopeful grins; this visible link of the food chain bodes well for us.
Joel throttles back in a spot of ocean that, on the surface, appears no different from any of the surrounding blue. The differences lie beneath, and he is acutely aware of them all. He shuts the main engine off, but the auxiliary, running our fish hold freezer, growls without pause. Except for brief reprieves in town after the fish are safely delivered, this diesel drone is a relentless soundtrack to every freezer troller’s season.
Day One. The alarm sounds at 2:30. We roll straight out of the bunk and into the fish clothes laid out the night before – scrubby sweatpants and thrift store hoodies, sleeves rigid with multiple seasons of salt and slime. As if no time has passed since we last did this, our bodies immediately slip into the repetitive steps of a bloody ballet.
The day doesn’t live up to my sweetheart’s fantasy, but it’s good all the same. We take turns running into the cabin to shovel spoonfuls of pasta salad into our mouths, then find a school of night biters – kings that climb onto our gear until sunset’s lingering echo is long silent. Flipping on the deck lights, I fumble through the final scrub-down, erasing every gory crime scene splash to begin fresh the next day.
It’s 11:30 when we peel off our boots and fall back into the bunk. Reaching for the clock, Joel mumbles, “Gonna sleep in tomorrow.”
Day Two. With less than a four hour nap, we wake to find the Nerka lolling in almost the same spot of ocean we’d shut down in. No need to run to a fishing spot, our hooks are in the water by 3:30. The first king salmon hits the deck before 4:00, and the day officially begins.
Despite the extra 15 minutes of sleep, we’re zombies today. By mid-morning, Joel retrieves pints of Ben & Jerry’s from the fish hold. “We’re gonna crash so hard from this,” he says around a spoonful of Bonnaroo Buzz.
I swallow a -38 degree shard of New York Super Fudge Chunk. “Sleep deprivation, adrenaline, and massive sugar overload… We are fuuuucked up, buddy.”
Loose stuff on a boat is a bad idea, and ordinarily I’m a stickler for keeping things in their right home. But by the end of the day, I stop putting the Ibuprofen away between doses. The Costco-sized bottle squats on the table, as familiar a centerpiece as the fists in my back. Petulant at being forgotten over these past eight months, old aches and pains demand attention. Oh yes, I remember you…
Day Three. Joel spends most of the day in the cabin, fingers of his right hand taped together, a bag of frozen peas and carrots slowly melting on swollen knuckles.
This is a sudden, startling turn of events. Midway through the previous day, as we’d stood side-by-side in the cockpit, gutting kings in unison, Cap’n J began inhaling sharply with each slice and scrape. “It feels like there’s ground-up glass in my knuckles.”
Today he can’t wield a knife without lightning bolts of pain shooting through his right hand. Thanks to a few lucky decisions, this is one of the best king salmon days Cap’n J and I have had together. Of course it is. I handle the deck, dashing between running the lines, landing fish, cleaning fish, preparing them for the fish hold, while frustration and fear stain my sweetheart’s face. What kind of rebellion is his body staging? And what kind of future does a fisherman have, without his hands?
Day Four. Team Nerka is a mess.
The 3:15 alarm drags me out of dreams – nightmares – that I haven’t yet fallen asleep. Joel’s hands continue to shriek in protest. Mine do, too, after hours of hauling giant ling cod to the surface. Aquatic dragons with fanged five-gallon buckets for mouths, they grimace and snarl as I struggle to release their hooks, then dive back to the depths with a thankless smack of the tail.
When I duck into the cabin for a cup of tea, Joel shakes his head at me from the pilot seat. “This sucks, dude. I’ve never wished for a gale during the king opening before, but I sure could use a harbor day.”
Only Bear seems unfazed. She spends all day in the fo’c’sle, curled in a tight ball beneath our sleeping bags. This is out of character, and by mid-afternoon we’re anxious – is our cat okay? When she finally bounds up the stairs and stretches leisurely in the cabin, Joel and I have been up and working for 12 hours, with another seven yet to go. I swear that’s a smug smile under her whiskers.
Stand by, friends – to be continued whenever we’re next in town. Until then, best wishes to you all.