Beyond a Final Scratch: Clawing Our Way to the Season’s End

20 09 2012

When the alarm goes off at 5:00, night still owns Southeast Alaska. Joel pulls the anchor and, by the green guidance of the radar, weaves our way between the other boats. The secure anchorage is calm, but deep, steep seas greet us at the mouth of the bay, abruptly flinging the Nerka’s bow up and down. Bear leaps off the bunk on wobbly legs and huddles beneath the table, staring at us with wide eyes. A single howl of dissent pierces the cabin.

“NAAAO-OHHHH!”

“Oh, sweetie…” Feeling like a terrible parent, I pat her spot on the bunk. “It’s okay, Bear-cat, c’mon back up here.”

She times her return jump with the waves and lies down, pressed tight against the cabin wall, dilated eyes fixed at nothing. We coo over her, stroking her stiff body, and Joel shakes his head. “Even Bear’s burned out. It’s like she knows it’s September now. I think that was the ‘Why are we still doing this, I want to go home now!’ howl.”

*****

That was a few weeks ago. Since then, Joel, Bear, and I have each issued our own burn-out howls. It’s been a long time since our spring homecoming –six months, almost to the day – and this unusually long season has taken its toll. The Nerka’s cabin morphed from warm and cozy to cramped and mildewed. Cap’n J’s black hair sports several new strands of white. And after half a year sealed in double-layered wool socks and rubber boots, my feet are a horror show. Our bodies are weary, our minds ready for a new challenge beyond seducing salmon to bite our lures.

Friends from Down South (anywhere, that is, below Alaska) send increasingly insistent texts. “Where are you? When are you coming back?” All of the other Washington-based trollers already pulled the plug on this season – some as early as August, opting to chase tuna off the West Coast instead.  Marlin, our last partner standing, called it quits yesterday.

It’s tough to stay motivated when, everywhere you look, boats are being put to bed. But there’s a deep chasm between wanting to do something different and feeling able to, and the calculator hisses that we’re not done yet – that we shouldn’t be done yet. Though Southeast Alaska’s coho troll fishery typically closes on September 20, it figures that the Alaska Department of Fish & Game would issue a 10-day extension this year. Given the opportunity to fish right up to September 30 (weather permitting, a weighty caveat this time of year), isn’t that what a person should do?

(This is where Marlin’s voice pops into my head to scold, “Don’t should on yourself!” Tough not to, sometimes.)

Beyond the physically monotonous tasks of commercial fishing, there’s an equally repetitious mental narrative. Just like last year – just like every year – I’m haunted by questions of balance. Where do you separate the values of money and time? Between financial security and self-care? As a seasonal worker, how do you drive yourself hard enough to know you’ll be “okay” through the winter, yet still demonstrate a priority for relationships, allowing for a beach party here and an extra few hours in town there? And how do you get beyond being “okay” until the next fishing season, to actually beginning to weave a safety net of savings?

If I knew the answers, this wouldn’t even be a post. If any of you can relate to these struggles, I’d love to hear your reflections on what you’ve learned, what’s worked for you.

All of this is to say, friends, that I don’t know when we’ll next be in touch or where I’ll be writing from. We splurged on a day at the dock today, mostly to say our goodbyes. (Also to have Thanksgiving dinner with the good ship Sadaqa, of course. The fourth Thursday of November’s got nothin’ on mid-September, when we gather to give thanks for a safe season, beautiful wild salmon, and the beloved friends we share this life with.)

The alarm clock is set for 4:00; we’ll untie the lines and run to Cape Edgecumbe, about four hours out. We’ll be fishing for ourselves tomorrow, setting aside a personal stash of coho to keep us fed this winter. After that, it’s tough to say what will happen. Fishermen make art of indecision.

Until that next landfall, friends – wherever it may be – be safe and be well. We’ll be in touch.





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.





“This Fishing World is an Observer’s Playground; Observation is my Ally.”

8 08 2012

Hey friends – if you’ve been following the story of Amanda, our first-time fisherman guest writer, you may be as eager for her latest update as I’ve been. The frenzied life of a tender deckhand hasn’t allowed much land time (and even less internet access), so I was thrilled to find this post in my inbox. If you’re a new visitor, please do catch up on her pre-season anticipation and her first check-in; she’s got a wonderful story. Be well – T

Thursday, August 2, 2012

I’m taking it all in. We’ve been tendering for over a month now, running out to the fishing grounds, buying and unloading fish from both gill-net fishermen and seine-net fishermen. We are finally being sent to tend to the trollers.

For too many reasons to list, troll tendering is much preferred by the Nichawak’s skipper. I’ve gathered that the main difference between troll tending and tending to net fishermen is the way the fish are handled. Gillnet fishermen unload thousands of pounds from their boats at once, seiners unload tens of thousands. Too many fish to sort, these fish immediately get dumped in the Nichawak “fish hold,” which can contain up to 160,000 pounds of fish when full.

Because they use line instead of net, the trollers don’t catch as many pounds of fish at one time. When buying troll fish, we will touch every fish; first gutted and cleaned by the trollers, we sort them by weight and quality and carefully place them in totes of “slush.” I am anticipating being more connected with the work and feel excited about that. Tonight we head South, down Frederick Sound, through Chatham Strait, and to the Southwest coast of Baranof Island, the open ocean.

A troller anchored in southern Baranof Island bay.

This fishing world is like an observer’s playground.  It seems that every time I form an opinion about something, it is soon challenged with new information and I am wondering that perhaps it is only after experience that we become entitled to our opinions. Observation is my ally.

I’ve struggled with all the anticipated obstacles, the unpredictable schedule, the endless pounds of bloody fish, the close quarters I share with the crew, the occasional communication breakdowns.  More than once I’ve stared at a crew member after recieving an instruction and thought to myself, “They just said English words, why didn’t I understand?!”

But I’ve come to learn what it means to “haul the anchor,” “hook up a Treko to the rigging,” “tie up to pilings,” “get the galley sea-worthy,” and “ice up.” I’m in love with the nautical language and the novelty of the VHF radio is still at large. I giggle at every opportunity to use it and my favorite things to say are “Roger that!” and “Standing by on channel 16 and channel 11!”

I’ve also come to realize that I am not a very serious person, most that know me would probably agree, and there are many, many things about this job that make it very serious work. This has been a struggle. I’m learning to adapt my sense of humor to a fishing/boating/equipment context; I boast a spot-on impression of a hydraulic crane.

Though we’ve had, will continue to have, our grouchy moments and shared frustrations, the Nichawak crew laughs a lot. I treasure them for their unwavering work ethic, their humility, and their patience. They are “Gerald,” the deckhand/engineer, and the skippper, “Sal” (and I disclose with affection that they chose their own pseudonyms.) In contrast to myself, Gerald is a serious soul and forever gracious, remarking “I feel nourished” upon finishing a dinner that I had labored over after a long work day.  Sal, who is well known and respected among the Southeast fishing community, has integrity worth speaking of and is always good-natured.

They’ve been great company, but I often find myself wishing for the perspective and insights of other women. This wish grew into desperation after a particularly difficult experience, which at first horrified me. It has since left me confused and seeking someone to relate (bless them, Gerald and Sal didn’t have much to say to console me). I’d like to share it now, if only because humans have hard feelings, and that’s what’s relatable.

Ratchet straps are long, heavy straps that we use to immobilize thousands of pounds of equipment on deck while we are “underway” (traveling). I am barely literate enough in equipment language to describe them. They work by cranking a handle up and down, this turns a wheel and coils the strap, creating tension and eliminating excess slack. Ratchet straps are heavy, they are old and rusty, and they are too damn big for my little hands. At first, using them was funny, I would refuse all help offered by the crew and stubbornly demand that they “let me figure it out!”

One day, we were abruptly informed by the processing plant that we needed to get underway immediately. Sal starts up the engines and Gerald and I rush out to begin our routine deck chores. One of these chores is tightening the ratchet straps over dozens of plastic totes full of ice, weighing about 700 pounds apiece. I go to work on the straps, cursing and sweating and pleading, taking twice as long as I should be. Urgency is building and I feel pathetic, Gerald is moving swiftly around me doing more than his share of the work and whether or not it is true, I am sure Sal is watching me from the wheel house wondering why I can’t manage such a simple task.  At this time of frustration I think to myself these exact words, “Damn, this is so emasculating!”

Emasculating. But, I’m a woman! A feminist even, by some definition. I finally finished with the ratchet straps (or at least just the one) but I was shocked with myself. I thought I was proud and empowered by my gender and I couldn’t believe I would so instinctively let such a trivial frustration affect how I perceive my gender.  Suffice it to say, this feeling led me to a series of other difficult emotions, including but not limited to shame, guilt, and embarrassment.

In further reflection of this experience, all I can come up with is that I am a product of my culture and our constructed gender roles. But in all sincerity, I feel jolted and would like nothing more than to sit down with one of my friends, Anna, Elizabeth, Lily, any strong, capable, independent woman really, and talk it out, gather whatever wisdom they have to shed.

So, I asked for challenges and I am getting them in all forms. To conclude, I will remind myself here of what I am reminded of every day: I’m grateful for this experience, grateful for opportunity, humbled by what I’ve learned and what I have yet to learn.

Thanks for reading!

Amanda





A Mid-Season Update from the F/V Nerka

7 08 2012

Hello friends!

Apologies for the radio silence; Cap’n J, Bear the Boat Cat and I are all fine, but it’s been a very long time between available land time and internet access. You haven’t been far from my mind: every day I catch myself thinking, “Oh, I should write about this, tell Hooked’s friends about that.” With the reality check of realizing that we’ve already reached our mid-season coho closure, I suspect you’ll be getting this season’s fish stories far into the winter, long after my sea legs have faded.

After returning from our July king opening, Cap’n J and I were eager to finally experience Sitka’s Homeskillet Festival, a July weekend of music that we’d never before been in town to attend. So we dallied at the dock, had a fantastic time, and, when we finally got back out fishing, arrived too late on the scene for an epic coho bite. Instead of filling up the Nerka’s hold in record time, we found ourselves grinding out a 15 day trip.

That was a long one for us. Our produce supply dwindled to a couple limp carrots and we eyed the water faucet with increasing anxiety – how many more washed dishes or tea pot refills before it spat and ran dry? Though it wasn’t great fishin’, we found ourselves having one of the best trips we could remember. Almost two weeks of glassy seas, breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, trolling alongside friends human and animal – pods of humpback whales and orcas, grizzlies shambling along the beach, mountain goats scrambling sheer cliffs shooting from the sea. With our work office a glacier-strewn mountain range seeming just a stone’s throw away from our daily tack, we agreed that this was the kind of trip – even with the mediocre fishing – that kept us  thankful for our lives as commercial fishermen.

F/V Chasina tacking along the Fairweather Range.

When that trip finally came to an end, Cap’n J turned to me. “You know what’s awesome? We haven’t seen a man-made structure – other than boats – for over two weeks.”

“And a lighthouse,” I added.

“Oh yeah. The lighthouse and boats. How many people get that kind of experience, or know it’s even still possible?”

(I wonder – how many of you experience this sort of “into the wild” disconnect? Is it a value for you, something you seek out, or are you soul-fed in other, more populated environments?)

After that, we made a 50-hour turnaround in Sitka and spent another five days chasing coho. We’re having a brief reprieve now; Alaskan trollers are on a state-mandated closure now, shut down for four days to ensure that enough coho slip through to inside waters and their spawning rivers.

So we’ll take a couple days to catch up on delayed chores and a frenzy of socializing with the loved ones we mostly see from across the sea, rather than in person. As always, internet access is iffy and time is short, best of intentions and all that. Two last thoughts I don’t want to slip through the cracks:

After weeks at sea, my inbox is usually bursting with junk and not much else. What a lovely surprise to sign in and learn that two of my favorite writers had bestowed blogging honors on Hooked! Sincere thanks and appreciation to Graham’s Crackers for nominating Hooked for a Very Inspiring Blogger award, and Wendy Welch for passing along the Liebster Award. (You guys made my day; thank you!) I’m terribly slow at the “pay it forward” element of these awards, but it’s on my list. Wendy is the author of The Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, a memoir I’ve preordered and am eagerly awaiting its October 2 release. Graham wrote an elegy to Lonesome George, the world’s last giant tortoise, that so moved me I read it aloud to Cap’n J in the Nerka’s cabin. Please do get to know both of these gifted writers.

My inbox had one other extremely exciting offering: an update from Amanda! It’s a wonderful glimpse into how the past five weeks have been treating our first-time deckhand friend, and I’ll shoot for having it posted by tomorrow evening. Stay tuned!

Many thanks for your patience with the irregular, unpredictable communication that’s inevitable in this fishing business, friends. I hope the summer’s been treating you well, wherever you are, and send my good thoughts to you all.

 





Through a New Troller’s Eyes: July’s King Opening

15 07 2012

It seems that my friend Marlin is destined  to have literary deckhands. After a string of memoirists and bloggers, one of this season’s hands is Paul, an MFA grad focused on creative writing and fiction.

Paul isn’t green: he’s crewed on another mutual friend’s gillnetter, and worked the slime line of a Southeast processing plant. But trolling is new – a different fishery, a different culture. Like so many of us who find our footing through writing, he hasn’t wasted any time in processing his experience on the page.

While I frittered this town time away with a blend of necessary chores and soul rejuvenating socializing, Paul got right to work. I found him in my favorite spot at the Backdoor Cafe – the highly coveted corner table “office.” Intent on his computer, he explained his project – a 1000-word piece about our king salmon opening, a new sort of “Blessing of the Fleet.”

Paul posted that piece on his blog that evening. I read it right away – jaw slightly agape, stunned at his ability to fictionalize our recent experience, creating new characters on recognizable boats, while maintaining absolutely authenticity to the core emotions, struggles, and rewards of our business. It’s a rich, sincere piece of creative writing that captures the heart of trolling beautifully. Do yourself a favor and read it.

Here’s the opening paragraph to pull you in:

“Opening day on the trolling grounds and a glassy ocean receives the fleet after their long, bucking ride up from Sitka.  Sometimes July on the Fairweather Grounds is like this, like old friends returning to each other. But this July there will be only three more days of good weather.  The other days it will blow. Westerlies, southwesterlies, white caps and swells, twenty five knots winds that come whipping off the open ocean through the trollers’ welded bait sheds making a sound like a locomotive humming in the near distance.  With the winds there is rain, there is usually rain even in calm seas. It does not storm, exactly, but mists, sometimes aggressively; it is never warm.”

Read the rest of “Blessing of the Fleet” here.

 

And that’s it for another few weeks, friends. Cap’n J and I are fueling up this morning, then heading back out for our first coho trip of the season. This is where the grind starts: we’ll stay out until the Nerka’s hold is full. Hopefully we’ll be back in touch in another 10 to 12 days. Until then, be safe and be well, friends. 

 

 








%d bloggers like this: