Scenes of King Salmon Trolling (Part 1)

25 08 2012

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.”

“Three o’clock?”

“Three fifteen.”

*****

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.





“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?   





Woman at Sea in a Man’s World (With a Rogue Wave from the Past)

11 06 2012

By 6:00, the sun had already blazed a long trail above Sitka’s mountainous backdrop. Joel slept in as I headed up the dock, lured by blue skies, the Backdoor Café’s Saturday morning cinnamon rolls, and a solo walk to puzzle over a resistant piece of writing. I hit the harbor ramp with a smile.

“Goddamn, is that Tele?”

My smile became a grimace. I nodded to the man casting a fishing pole on a nearby float.

“Top o’ the morning!” he called. “How’re you doin’ this gorgeous day?”

“Doin’ great. Have a good day.”  At the top of the ramp, I stomped onto the parking lot pavement. Like a threatened bear, an irritated chuffing broke from my throat. Really? We’re harbor buddies now?

*****

Our reunion had occurred three weeks earlier. I’d taken some books back to Kettleson Library, weaving around two men smoking outside the entrance. One exhaled a thick cloud. “Tele?”

I cocked my head. Probably no older than his early 40’s, life had gnawed this grizzled man’s edges, but still he grinned brightly. “It’s me, Carl!”

Just before he spoke, my stomach sank in recognition. I kept my face blank for a few passive aggressive beats.

“Holy shit, you look ‘zactly the same! What’s it been, 15 years? You still fishin’? Hey, didja ever get those pictures I sent ya?”

I grappled for handholds amidst Carl’s tornado chatter. How’s it going. Yep, running a boat with my partner. Pictures? Huh, no, don’t recall. Nice to see you, gotta go.

Fleeing into the library’s quiet, I felt snared by unforeseen remembrance.

*****

I was 19 when I got my first job crewing for someone other than my mom. Broken by a series of bad seasons and major expenses, she’d had to sell the Willie Lee II. Like many boat kids, I’d been anxious to stretch my deckhand wings, eager to prove myself working for someone who wasn’t family.

My new captain was a type of man I’d come to know well over the next decade. Men of my dad’s generation, who prized work ethic above anything, they saw a female worker not as a weak link, but a delightful novelty. Men who were tickled to see a petite young woman hurl herself against physical labor. The other deckhand and I did the same work, yet our captain had a clear favorite.

This didn’t endear me to my crewmate. In his mid-20’s, Carl had worked on giant processors in the Bering Sea, but had never been salmon trolling. For three months we cleaned fish alongside each other all day and slept in bunks mere feet apart. We seemed to share the same 52-foot universe, but in truth, Carl was beached on a desolate island. Our captain and I were veteran members of the Southeast Alaska troll fleet, and our conversations built fences instead of doors.

On a boat, three can be a far lonelier number than one on land.

Carl was a good sport – better than I would’ve been in his boots, really. Chatty, good-humored, helpful. But as the season went on, he descended into sullen silence. I don’t remember asking why.

The truth came out in September. Anchored in Yakutat Bay, we waited for gales to pass so we could make the long, exposed run down the coast. Our captain napped as Carl and I played nickel-a-hand gin rummy at the galley table. (A slow coho season, some days felt like I made more money playing cards than fishing.)

Studying his hand, Carl took a breath. “Sorry I’ve been kinda an asshole this summer. It’s just, I’d never worked with a girl before. I just thought we’d end up – you know – doin’ stuff, to break the monotony of bein’ on a boat. So it confused me when nothin’ happened.”

As if he’d shouted the Empress has no clothes, Carl shattered my illusion that if I worked hard enough, I could erase gender. Make myself more fisherman than female. I don’t remember my response. What I do remember is picking a fight with him an hour later. When he turned the boat’s 10-inch TV to a scratchy episode of Cops, I scoffed the show’s racial caricatures. Knowing our oppositional views, I went there anyway, deliberately, and Carl replied just as the script said he would.

“What are you, some kinda n***** lover?”

The gloves came off. I didn’t know how to speak a sudden sense of gender frailty, how to name the resentment of being viewed as concubine rather than coworker. But I could rage to defend another group’s misrepresentation. That felt easier than speaking up for my own.

The remaining weeks thrummed with tension. I didn’t tell our captain. When we reached Seattle, I hopped off the boat and didn’t look back.

*****

However anonymous you feel on the big blue, there’s no escaping your past once you hit the dock. West Coast fishing communities blur into a small, secret-less neighborhood. Given enough time, you can count on tying up next to the person you could’ve gone the rest of your career without seeing.

Fifteen years later, I consider for the first time the courage behind Carl’s admission. I’m unsettled by my reactions, then and now. Self-examination veers dangerously close to the apologist behaviors women are so socialized for, and I turn away. Surely there’s a lesson in this – isn’t there always, in situations that leave us feeling like we’ve fallen off the sidewalk’s edge? – but I haven’t found it yet.

A gift in 1994; still one of my favorite presents ever. (Thanks, Daniel.)

Have you worked somewhere that your gender made you stand out, or have you worked alongside someone else in this situation? What lessons did you take from the experience?





Enduring Burning: Alaska Walks for Life

15 05 2012

No halibut on deck here… Consistent storms have tethered us to the dock for two weeks, waiting out weather like 45 knot winds and 22-foot seas. We take it for what it is – what else can you do? – but watching steady gray sheets pouring down the cabin windows gets old.

So I go for a walk.

Southeast Alaska’s second annual Walk for Life is scheduled to gather at Crescent Harbor at 12:30. Scoping the scene from across the street, I see three people huddled against snarling wind and icy shards of rain. Oh, man… But taking a public stand against suicide seems especially necessary on such a grim day. I yank my hood up and head over.

Others feel similar urgency. Over the next half-hour, about 50 people fill the harbor shelter: cane-bearing elders, bundled children, young couples. Organizers from the SouthEast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) hand out T-shirts emblazoned with The Watchman, a symbol of courage designed by Tlingit artist Robert Hoffmann.

“I’ve never worn a T-shirt over two coats before,” muses social worker Maggie Gallin.

With everyone decked out and ready to march, SEARHC Suicide Prevention Program Manager Wilbur Brown calls for our attention. “If you’ve been around Alaska at all,” he begins, “you know there’s a lot of suicides here.”

A lot of suicides… Statewide, Alaska doubles the national average, while rates in remote Arctic villages are up to seven times higher.  From our mountains, salmon, and bears, to our chemical dependency, domestic violence, and despair, we have it all bigger, badder.

Wilbur explains that Walk for Life is a response to those staggering losses. Initiated in Kotzebue, the first walk took place in 2009. (150 people participated in nearby Ambler – almost half of the Kobuk River village’s population.) In 2011, Tessa Baldwin, a Kotzebue teenager, inspired Southeast Alaska to join. One year later, the prevention effort has been embraced statewide. “People are walking for life all over Southeast today – people are walking in Angoon, Hoonah, Kake, Klawock, everywhere. We’re walking to celebrate life and say no to suicide.”

SEARHC Suicide Prevention Program Manager Wilbur Brown.

So we walk. Led by a police escort, we march through an intersection (one of Sitka’s two stoplights) and down the main drag, winding around Saint Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church and turning to parallel the channel. We hold up traffic. One driver leans out her window with a smile. “What is this?” Her smile washes away with the answer.

We file into the Sheetka Kwaan Naa Kahidi house, where Wilbur opens the ceremony. He hopes that through events like these, we might lessen the taboo of talking about suicide. “Alaska’s highest suicide rates are among young men. And what do we teach our young men? We teach them not to talk, not to feel, not to communicate. We want to show them there’s another way.”

One of those ways may be through cultural revitalization. For the next several hours, Naa Kahidi pulses with tradition’s heartbeat. Accompanied by a single drum, four Ravens stand at the stage edge, voices raised in a sorrow song shared by Hoonah’s Sea Pigeon clan. A group of Eagles respond, keening loss that pierces through the rafters, through time and place, through language.

Nodding with the beat, I glance at the ink on my left forearm. Part of me for 13 years, this tattoo usually demands about as much conscious consideration as a pinky toe, but in this setting, the Viktor Frankl quote seems to glow. That which seeks to give light must endure burning.

I remember burning… Sitting mute in the psychiatrist’s office, consumed by blistering loneliness, resolute. (Nine years old, I’d already aced my family’s lessons on silence.) Another lifetime trapped within that flame. Alliances with alcohol, friends whose angst mirrored my own. Skin carved like pie crust to relieve the steam within.

I remember light… Blinking against newly broken dawn as I staggered into my tribe. People who offered hope, connection, the thrill of community. We strolled bold amongst dragons, confident we’d pass through without a scorch.

It’s been seven years since I was a practicing social worker. I exchanged the path of tending lives for one of taking life, hunting fish half the year, yet still I find myself whispering the names of those we lost. The young man who committed suicide by cop. The young woman who hung herself in jail. In a hospital. In a garage. With an overdose. With a shotgun. After being kicked out of the family for being gay. After seeming to have made it, whatever “made it” meant. Those we lost, and those we might have. Those whose despair feasted like parasites, those who crooked their fingers to death and silently screamed please.

I remember the hiss of light guttering out, echoed by the mechanical slurp of a stomach pump. By then I’d learned that if I sat very quietly – as still as the dead – and wiped my expression mountain stream clean, the ER personnel would let me stay with the kid I’d brought in. Studying the steady extraction of a young woman’s stomach contents, grainy residue awash in waves of Pepsi Blue, I wondered how I’d ever dared imagine I’d sidestep burn-out.

Back in Naa Kahidi, six drummers gather around the Hashagoon drum, centered on the main floor. “We’re going to do a song to honor those who’ve passed away from suicide,” one explains. “Please remove any head coverings and stand if you’re able to do so. You’re welcome to join us to dance if you’d like.”

A circle forms around the drummers. I study the pairs of Xtra Tufs and sneakers, all moving with differing degrees of certainty and grace. Shuffle, toe, step, toe, knees flex, shuffle. As the faces of my dead and might-have-beens shimmer against the dancers’ feet, it’s easy to meditate on the losses binding us.

But a child careens through the room. Arms outstretched and a grin wide enough to swallow the sun, he runs against the stream on socked feet. He’s shirtless, a clan robe around his shoulders, clasped with five pearl buttons spanning his narrow chest. The robe is a stunning piece of regalia, a red and black link to his history, but today it’s a cape streaming behind him and he’s Superman. He runs faster – he flies – the embodiment of joy, curiosity, and light. He shoves grief aside, inflates us all with his buoyancy.

I leave Naa Kahidi wanting to believe that little boy will keep flying. That the dragons who reduced so many other heroes’ capes to charred ash will leave him be. I hope he grows up knowing how to ask for help, that the only shame is in silence. I hope he learns there’s another way.

If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal, please talk to someone. Here in Southeast, contact SEARHC’s Helpline at 1-877-294-0074. Nationwide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.784.2433. Be well.





Remembering Isabella: 1924 – 2012

19 04 2012

Longtime Hooked friends may recognize Isabella Brady’s name from last summer’s story of a traditional foods dinner. Leaning on a walker, dishing slabs of moose alongside venison stew, the Alaska Native Sisterhood president commanded as much attention as the chewy texture of whale between my teeth.

I’d hesitated to post that story without Isabella’s blessing. Before we left town on a fishing trip, I printed a copy at the library and dropped it into the mail, feeling more vulnerable than I had in a long time.

When we returned to town a week later, a gravel-voiced message awaited me. Isabella told me to call her. Exasperated with my nervousness, Joel asked, “What’s the worst she can say?”

Um… Don’t write about her, don’t post her photo – oh, and my writing’s a terrible bunch of cultural exploitation?

When Isabella answered, I stumbled through my introduction. She interrupted me. “I thought your article was outstanding.” Anxiety gave way to embarrassment, as she shared overly generous praise. This single sentence would have been enough: “I was having a real bad day when I got it, and it made me feel real good.”

*****

Our interactions developed around a directive: “Come to my house and have something to eat with me.” More commandment than invitation. Isabella liked to talk, and I was an eager audience.

She instructed me in making clam chowder, while describing the sharp contrast between her Sitka childhood and the North Dakota Presbyterian college she attended on $100/month scholarship. “Bring me the flour tin and a fork. College was like being a celebrity. Home was like being in the Deep South, for all the prejudice against my skin, but at college, it made me special. Are those potatoes gonna boil over? Mostly my classmates were disappointed I wasn’t an Eskimo.”

A woman of ferocious faith, Isabella began every meal with a thorough blessing. On our third visit, she asked if I was affiliated with a church. My response didn’t please her.

When I brought salmon heads from our final trip last summer, she recalled her boat-building grandfather, Peter Simpson, and her own fishing childhood. “We had a scow, used to buy fish from other boats at Lazaria and Shelikof. We’d collect sea gull eggs at Sea Lion Rocks, had to time getting out of the boat with the waves. I hated it – I got so seasick. My brothers teased me, they told me to eat bacon.”

She asked if I knew how to work a video recorder, still wrapped in plastic. “My friend sent it; she said I should record my stories.” We talked about the challenge of telling your own story, for all of the places that it intersects with other people’s. She spoke of her reluctance to intrude on others’ privacy, then shrugged. “They’re mostly all dead now, anyway.”

*****

On Tuesday, my feet bounced lightly down Sitka’s main drag, my backpack laden with a Tupperware of marinated black cod tips. After the meals she’d shared with me, I felt shyly eager to bring Isabella a gift of food I’d harvested.

A few minutes away, I pulled out my phone to make sure it was a good time to visit. A male voice answered on the second ring. I didn’t think anything of it. Isabella’s home was a hive: a constant flow of children, grandchildren, friends buzzing in and out.

“Hi, is Isabella there?” I chirped.

“No… She’s not here right now.”

I glanced at the afternoon sunshine and thought of the black cod in my pack. “Well, will you be there for a minute? I’ve got some fish for her that I could drop off.”

“Who is this?” the man asked.

I hesitated. “Friend” assumed too much; “smitten admirer” would be more honest. “My name’s Tele… I visit with Isabella sometimes.”

His quiet words hit my ear like small pebbles dropped down a well, as he explained that Isabella had fallen the day before. “She was Medevaced to Anchorage… We don’t think she’s coming home.”

*****

I saw Isabella once this spring, shortly after we returned to Sitka. She told me to make us some pancakes, supervising every step from her seat at the kitchen table, murmuring along with the stereo. That saved a wretch like me. She said how blessed she was, reflecting on the love and generosity that people had shared during her winter hospitalizations. She said that she wasn’t afraid of death.

Penny piles lined her coffee table, copper flashes amidst the endless papers of a lifelong leader still organizing from her living room couch. When she grumbled about needing penny rolls, I volunteered to pick some up at the bank. They’re still in my backpack, a rubber-banded stack heavy with accusation. Why didn’t I take them straight to her, right after leaving the bank?

Isabella sent me out the door with a small jar of sourdough starter. She promised, “Once you make your pancakes from sourdough, you’ll wonder why you never did before.” It’s in the Nerka’s dorm-sized refrigerator now. I don’t know anything about keeping starter alive, but I’ll learn. It’s what remains.

*****

Some people seem too powerful to die. Whether by the confidence with which they move through the world, the magnitude of their service, or the depth of what they’ve survived, they seem invincible. As if they glow so bright that they’d scorch Death’s grasping hand. Maybe part of me imagined that would be true of Isabella. When I saw Raven Radio’s Wednesday headline – “Native leader, activist Isabella Brady dies at 88 – I didn’t want to believe.

As a non-Native, I’ll never know the strength, courage, and hope that she provided to so many. The community is reeling, grief shrouding the Brady family, the Kik.sadi clan, and Native people throughout the region. I’ll never know the taste of their loss. I was blessed to spend a mere speck of time in Isabella’s company, a few afternoons far more significant to me than they would have been to her. And though I fear some may hear this story as self-absorbed, my experience is the only authentic place I can speak from, the only language I have to honor Isabella’s tremendous legacy.

In several grace-filled sentences, Mike Schinke said what I’ve spent pages struggling to convey. I’m thankful for his permission to re-post them here.

“A prayer of solace for the Brady family. A prayer for the health of remaining elders. A prayer for the perpetuation of Tlingit language and culture.

Let Isabella Brady’s life be a testament that one person can make a difference in the world. May her accomplishments inspire many to also make the world a better place in their own ways. She will be missed by many and her absence will be felt far and wide for a long time.”

Amen. Rest in peace, Isabella. My deep sympathy to all who are mourning.





Contemplating the Harvest: Sitka’s Herring Fishery

30 03 2012

When Cap’n J and I arrived in Sitka last week, we found the harbor packed with seiners, decks loaded with coiled nets, and the air near-electric. As captains and crew paced the docks, I found it easy to imagine their boats as equally impatient – steel and fiberglass racehorses pawing the water, nostrils flared as they waited for the gate to open.

On standby, waiting to go…

Spring in Sitka means herring. If there’s a Southeast Alaska runner-up to Deadliest Catch’s rock star madness, it’s this – the Herring Sac Roe Fishery. You can follow the frenzy from wherever you are: JuneauTek always provides excellent coverage, and Youtube is plugged with testosterone-drenched videos like this one.  Scenes of combat fishing, engines screaming as boats slam-dance over who’ll set their net in the sweetest spot. With 48 permit-holders and openings that last mere hours, competition is ferocious.

(I’m told that the Coast Guard is putting their foot down this year. Any boats ramming another, they’ve promised, “We’ll shut this thing right down,” like a fed-up parent shouting from the car’s front seat. Sure. But cowboy culture is hard to police. Walking through the harbor, I notice boats necklaced with neon chains of rubber buoys, their bows so thick with inflatable cushioning that the vessel’s name isn’t visible.)

Anticipation further heightens the intensity. On Monday, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game put the fleet on two-hour notice. Biologists take daily test samples of roe, monitoring the eggs’ maturity level. When that level reaches 11%, ADF&G will give the fleet the green light, allowing at least two hours’ notice for everyone to jockey into position before the gun goes off. Management biologist Dave Gordon shares updates on the day’s findings over the VHF radio. Yesterday, he summed up the slow roe development with a call for continued patience. “We will continue to monitor the distribution of fish.”

I don’t have any connection to this fishery, yet even I’m caught up in the excitement, eager to witness an explosive exodus from the harbor. Herring is a Big Deal, and never more so than this year. After last year’s then-record quota of 19,430 tons, ADF&G determined past calculations had underestimated the biomass.  The 2012 quota skyrocketed to a new high: 28,829 tons.

Veteran status in one fishery doesn’t make you knowledgeable in another. With my seasons limited to trolling, longlining, and shrimping, the XtraTufs on my feet and crew license in my wallet are all I share with a herring deckhand’s experience. Trollers drag their hooks around for up to 18 hours a day, striving to catch at least 100 coho, one fish at a time. The longliners I’ve crewed on have fished relatively small quotas – 15,000 pounds of halibut here, 20,000 pounds of black cod there. And my shrimping memories are fond recollections of the mellowest ocean-labor I’ve had. Coming from such comparatively small potato ventures, I found it impossible to conceptualize almost 29,000 tons of herring.

I wasn’t the only one. Jeff Feldpausch, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska’s Resource Protection Director, asked himself what that number really meant. What does 57 million pounds of herring look like?

Imagine a football field… Over 20 feet high.

Imagine the Empire State Building… 77 times as tall.

The Sitka Tribe released a series of ads protesting the quota as excessive, and Jeff spoke with Raven Radio, further explaining the concerns. Herring are what’s known as a keystone forage fish – that is, a vital part of the marine ecosystem. A critical food source for salmon, halibut, and humpback whales, herring are the only forage fish that’s commercially harvested in Alaska.

“What happens if you cut out the bottom of the food chain?” Jeff asked. “Everyone above collapses.”

If herring’s value in the ecosystem is near-priceless, I figured, its economic value must be astronomical. But that’s a tough one to gauge. Virtually all of this fishery’s catch is shipped to Japan, where the sac roe – kazunoko – is a high-end traditional food, a New Year’s delicacy. After much speculation on how last year’s tsunami would impact the market, the wholesale value fell $500/ton, crashing down to $150-$200/ton. This year’s price remains an unknown.

Kazunoko: a Japanese New Year’s delicacy. Photo from www.tastefood.info

Beyond Japan’s ravaged infrastructure, some fear their food culture is changing. Tlingit elder Ray Nielsen believes kazunoko is a declining market. “The young people, they eat at McDonald’s. There’s no money in this anymore. It’s just an ego fishery now. Everyone wants the big sets.”

As I sat at the Backdoor Café considering all this, a friend noticed the Tribe’s flyers on my table. “Propaganda,” she scoffed. “There’s a lot of fish out there.”

Maybe. I hope so. ADF&G points out that the quota is only 20% of the biomass; using the football example, the remaining herring will tower over 80 feet above the field. And as a troller, all of my experience with ADF&G has been positive. I’m impressed with their salmon management, thankful that their strict supervision has contributed to abundant runs and a strong industry. I have no reason to doubt their biologists.

But excess in all forms makes me anxious. A little voice deep within cries, What if we’re wrong?

Art by Ray Troll.

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t speak from first-hand knowledge, and regular Hooked readers know I’m sensitive to the notion of “enough.” So what do you think? Wherever folks fall on this issue, it’s one we should consider. Your experiences and observations are welcome here; thanks for keeping it civil.





Happy Birthday, Hooked!

18 03 2012

One year ago today, Hooked went live with this post. Astute readers may notice that that first post’s date doesn’t match today’s celebration. Though I wrote and posted “The Launch” on March 10, 2011, I didn’t have the courage to make it public until 8 days later. Full of trepidation, I wasn’t sure what I had to say – or if anyone would care. Arriving late to the blogosphere (about 3 years after my dad prodded, “Do you have a blog yet?”), I agonized over what kind of first impression Hooked would make.

That first post laid out a pretty modest mission: “Hooked is intended to share the story of what it is to be a Southeast Alaskan fisherman, a troller/longliner who combs the sea to harvest the highest-quality wild salmon, black cod and halibut.”

“Fisherman” is both an occupation and identity for me, so this wasn’t a bad goal to begin with, but I like to have room to stretch. The next line left the narrative door ajar: “Fishermen are a diverse bunch, and no one’s perspective is quite the same. My voice as a tree hugging, tofu eating, public radio listening, pierced/tattooed bleeding heart pescatarian feminist, a lapsed social worker turned professional deckhand, is – perhaps – a tad unique.”

Just as my perspective is unique, so is yours. As you introduced yourselves in the comments, strangers became new friends, and I delighted in your diverse voices. Encouraging family members. Current and retired fishermen. Women from an astounding variety of life experiences. Whether actively working on the water, land-locked and dreaming of a life adrift, or seasick-prone and happily rooted ashore, you tugged the threads of these posts and found them connected to the fabric of your own lives.

So this post isn’t about celebrating 12 months of a one-dimensional online construct. This is about recognizing and honoring community, and that’s all of you who take the time to stop by and say hello. You’ve become participants in these stories. Your hearts seized as whales rose up beneath the Nerka. (Maybe some expletives fell from your lips, too, in chorus with those falling from mine.) You celebrated Cap’n J’s birthday, and you imagined the taste of traditional Tlingit foods. When I shared my writer’s panic last fall, you offered support and encouragement. You learned the interdependent relationship between salmon, trees, and Southeast Alaskans, and you rallied as spokespeople for the Tongass National Forest. You cheered for the 2012 Fisher Poets, and you grieved those lost at sea.

Hooked’s readers have been the greatest joy of this experience.  I wish I could offer you a slice of that aquatic-themed cake (or provide a gluten-free/sugar-free/vegan alternative) in thanks. You’ll just have to trust that we enjoyed it with you in mind. Bear, too.

In lieu of cake, I do have a gift for one of you. Two months ago, I printed a few copies of Hooked: The Best of 2011 through blurb.com. An 80 page collection of my favorite posts, they came out pretty nicely (only 2 typos discovered thus far, and purely my fault.) If you’d like to be entered into a drawing to win your own copy, leave a comment here before midnight on Wednesday, and I’ll put your name in a hat. (No, not a hat, but an Xtra Tuf boot. Thanks for the suggestion, Cedar – cultural authenticy matters!)  Cap’n J will do the honors on the morning of the 22nd, and I’ll stick the winner’s copy in the mail as one of my final tasks before we head north.

Are you a long-time Hooked reader, or a new visitor? As we approach the upcoming fishing season, are there particular stories or issues you’d like to hear about? What have you liked in your time with Hooked, and what could we do differently over our second year?








%d bloggers like this: