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.

Amanda





“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?   





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.





Fisherman, Community Participant; Someone in Between

24 04 2012

Cap’n J and I have been back in Sitka for a month now, blissing out on the pre-tourist calm. This is something I love about being up here early. Seasonal workers (yeah, like us) and visitors are a mere trickle in spring, rather than the flood of summer. Like bears snuffling their way out of hibernation, locals blink happily at the lengthening days, joking easily, relieved to have slipped through winter’s clammy fingers.

Sitkans know how to stay busy. Community events celebrate all manner of talent, and we’ve kept a full calendar since our return. The Sitka Film Society brought Salaam Dunk to town, a great film about an Iraqi girls’ basketball team. Performer Gene Tagaban shared a powerful evening of stories, music and dance. There was the Monthly Grind – a community-wide variety show that runs October-April – and an evening of live storytelling at the Larkspur Café.

All these things, and we even managed to go fishing. The Nerka spent 10 days away from the dock, as we tried our hand at winter king trolling. April’s ocean conditions are notoriously fickle; only weeks earlier, a friend awoke to his deck piled with snow, an icy skin on the water. Braced for the worst, we got the fantasy instead, re-entering our work life with flat calm water, gorgeous sunrises, and the occasional king salmon. Not even Bear could complain, sprawled on her bunk in a sunbeam. (Though she did get seasick when we first left the dock. Nothing like a glassy-eyed, mouth-foaming cat to make you feel like a terrible parent.)

Bear's kind of fishin': flat seas and sunny.

We’d have happily continued dragging our hooks around, but by the middle of this month, it was time to scrub the Nerka clean and switch gears. We’re jumping ship to longline on a friend’s boat, hoping to head out this week. Slowly progressing towards being ready, we spent much of Sunday loading halibut gear aboard. (The boat sat noticeably lower in the water, her nose sniffing the sky, after we were done.)

We’re here to make a living, I know, but I’m also hungry to make a life in Sitka. Every day, yet another flyer is tacked to the Backdoor Café’s bulletin board, promoting yet another tempting event. This week is no exception.

Monday was World Book Night, and Sitka’s unique method of spreading literary love earned a national shout-out in USA Today.

Isabella Brady will be honored on Tuesday evening, first with Alaska Native Sisterhood services (5 pm, ANB Hall), followed by cultural services that will continue late into the night (7 pm, Sheet’ka Kwaan Naa Kahidi).

Wednesday marks a different honoring, as Sitka’s Fish to Schools program is recognized as Alaska’s 2011-2012 Best Farm to Schools Program. Only on its second year, Fish to Schools connects local schools with local seafood. If you’re in Sitka, dinner is a not-to-be-missed meal by Ludvig’s Colette Nelson. Otherwise, you can still support Fish to Schools here.

On Thursday, community organizer Lakota Harden will lead a workshop, “Allies for Youth,” training adults to ally with youth for social change and developing leaders for the next generation. (9 am-noon; RSVP with Brian Sparks, 907.747.3370.) This one’s dear to my heart: my non-fishing path was as a social worker with Seattle’s homeless youth. While I can’t give up this life at sea, I miss social justice work, cultural conversations, the energy and resilience of young people.

But as I heard so often as a teenager, “We are here to catch fish and make money,” and you can’t catch fish if your hooks aren’t in the water. Given a self-sustaining bank account and no anxious skippers, I’d gladly sign my time over to all of these events, and more – experience assures me that Thursday’s tempting event will be followed by something equally fascinating on Friday, then Saturday, and on and on. The thing about fishing for a living is that – eventually – you have to leave the dock.

All this makes me curious… Is our little island town of 9000 special (well, yes), or are other communities equally rich with goings-on? With Hooked’s friends spread across such diverse geography, I wonder what it’s like where you live. Do you feel very connected to your community events? Which ones? How do you hear about them?








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