From Greenhorn to Graduate: Celebrating Amanda’s First Fishing Season

1 10 2012

Exciting news, friends – Hooked’s guest writer Amanda has completed her first season in the commercial fishing industry! New readers, I urge you to take the time to catch up on Amanda’s journey. From an April morning when I overheard a young woman  say she wanted to go fishing, her pre-season anticipation, the first challenges and triumphs, a mid-season struggle, to these concluding reflections, she’s got a wonderful story and it’s been an honor to have her with us. A green deckhand’s experience is never easy; many newcomers don’t stick it out. Please join me in congratulating Amanda on a successful first season!

*****

Dear Hooked,

My contract is officially over. The weather has turned and the salmon in Chatham Strait are few and far between. I am back to life as a land dweller, grateful for regular access to news and local produce. Tender life feels very distant, especially being down in the Lower 48. By the time I stepped off the Nichawak, I couldn’t wait to talk about something other fishing. Anything other than fishing. Out on the water and tied up at the harbor, it seemed that all talk was of fishing hot spots and the latest boat project.  Now, down South, I find myself looking for opportunities to talk about fishing and feel giddy when given the opportunity to explain the difference between seining and gillnetting, or how to operate the Nichawak’s hydraulic booms.

Some mornings I wake up with phantom pains in my thumbs, as if I’ve just spent a long day “slingin’ cohos.”  My hands are a bit more scarred and my calluses are rougher, as I had hoped they would be.  My upbringing in the suburbs is something that I think is reflected in the look and feel of my hands.  They are mostly smooth and clean, a dead giveaway.

When I was a kid, my dad would assign me yard work chores. I spent more time complaining about them than actually doing them. This truth, embarrassing as it may be, brings me to one of the biggest challenges that I faced this summer: my attitude.

A week into the troll opener in August, we were on our third straight day of work without sleep. In these three days we bought over 90,000 pounds of fish, Skipper Sal, Gerald the deckhand, and me.  I think it’s fair to say that these are difficult working conditions.  That third morning, I remember the sun rising, the sky must have been bright and beautiful.  But I don’t really remember that beauty.  Mostly, I remember being vaguely aware of the colors around me and being pissed off.  I felt the scowl on my face and I heard myself snap at Gerald, “I’ve got this, back off!”

I was tired and sore, I was hungry and overworked, and I had yet to realize that this did not entitle me to be grouchy, nor did it entitle me to snap at my crew. Times like these (yes, this happened more than once) I had to tell myself, sometimes even out loud, to change my attitude, relax the muscles in my brow, get rid of that snarl on my face and get over myself.

Suffice to say, in the beginning I had idealized this experience.  Parts of the dream were realized.  I watched whales breech 30 feet from the boat. I learned everything I could, from telling apart a coho and a sockeye to operating hydraulic cranes. I conquered ratchet straps, I tied clove hitches, I navigated an 80-foot boat around Chatham Strait. I experienced glory and pride and accomplishment.

But there is no getting around it; parts of this experience were just shitty. They weren’t fun, they were hard. I learned a lot about myself this summer and some of these things were difficult to face, severe realities.  I let “grouchy” get the best of me. I have opinions and nothing to back them up. I have too much pride.

Pride.  Such a stimulant, such a barrier.  How did I get to be a person with so much pride? Why is it that I hated asking for help? Why did I balk so much at the idea of someone correcting or compensating for my mistakes? Why could I push myself to work harder and be better only to prove that I could? As busy as the tender life is, there was plenty of idle time to consider these questions.  Yet I never seemed to figure it out: where does pride come from?

This winter I will work in the high desert of Washington State, tending to horses and learning about life as a ranch hand. As of now, I will return to the Nichawak, possibly working for Sitka herring (the fishery where I first discovered fishing!) and probably for another season as a Southeast seine, gillnet, and troll tenderwoman.

I think about why I want to return. I try to remind myself that it is because of certain privileges in my life that I even have an option. I have the privilege of being able to choose what I will do next and make a choice based on a desire for personal growth.  For me, a bit of guilt is inherent in this fact, but I won’t be constrained by this.

So, I think I will choose to go fishing again.  There is still self-reflection to be done, there are skills left to learn, and then there’s good old fashioned pride, a nagging reminder that next year I can be better.

– Amanda

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“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





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?





A Belated Mother’s Day

20 05 2011

Some things happen slower in Alaska. The past few weeks’ frenzy of getting up here and ready for our first halibut trip delayed this post. Though the official day has passed, the sentiment is still relevant.

Robert Fulghum has an essay about Mother’s Day. How, as a Unitarian minister, he gave a sermon on Mother’s Day – not of the flowers-and-Hallmark variety, but one that acknowledged the complications that so often accompany our relationships. This is that kind of story.

In 1986, my parents built the Willie Lee II. For 4 years, we fished her as a family. My dad was thankful for our experiences on the water, but didn’t believe salmon trolling could support us in the long run. My mom disagreed. When they split up, she took ownership of the Willie Lee, with her 13 year old daughter as her crew.

My mom and I have not had smooth seas. Seething with rage and grief following my parents’ divorce, I moved out of her house at 15 to live with a boyfriend. Fishing was our one remaining point of contact: every June, regardless of our estrangement, we’d reunite at her boat and head north, prepared to spend the next 3 months living and working in extremely close quarters under stressful conditions. Throw a hateful 16 year old and an exhausted, isolated parent/employer alone together in 54’ of boat, send them out to sea for a record 26 day trip, and see what happens. Hard times.

Weren’t many women skippers in the early ‘90’s. If you ask her how it was to be a woman in such a male-dominated industry, she’ll declare that she felt completely welcome. She loved the physical labor, the mental demands, and the community. Much of the community loved her right back, attracted as much by her enthusiasm and eagerness to connect with people, as the sheer novelty of a mother-daughter operation on one of the fleet’s bigger boats.

We fished the Willie Lee together for 6 years. She installed a refrigeration system, gaining access to the premium frozen-at-sea salmon market. But the expensive undertaking was followed by a few bad seasons – poor fishing, low prices. My dad’s dire predictions were confirmed: My mom, very nearly broke trying to earn a living doing what she loved, was forced to sell the vessel they had crafted with their own hands.

It’s been 15 years since my mom navigated Southeast Alaska, but she’s still present in the minds of old-timers. Every summer, they ask me how she’s doing, chuckle over their favorite Val stories. One that always comes up is from 1993, when she was trolling off the Washington coast. When the 5/64”stainless steel fishing wire backlashed on its hydraulic spool, she reached in to sort it out, without clipping it off to relieve the tension – exactly what she’d always warned me never to do. The wire slipped loose unexpectedly. All of that line’s weight sliced through her left thumb. Trained as a veterinarian, she picked the 1” nubbin up off the deck and held it in place.

(This is where the fisherman retelling this story will slap his knee and bark a tobacco-phlegmed laugh. “She fished out the rest of the goddamn drag because she didn’t want to take off in the middle and alarm ev’rybody!”)

It was an 8 hour run in from “the Prairie,” where the fleet was fishing off-shore, back to Neah Bay, and another hour to the Port Angeles hospital. When the doctor shook his head that no, too much time had elapsed for a successful re-attachment, my mom shook her head right back. “If you don’t sew it on, I will!”

He got out his needle and sutures.

That summer, she wore a bulbous, grubby bandage swathed around her fragile digit. But the doctor had been right: the flesh had been too long apart. All that season, whenever fishermen asked how her thumb was doing, she eagerly yanked off the covering: “Oh, it’s coming along – look!” More than a few salt-crusted veterans spat out their coffee mid-sip and turned green at the sight of that blackened stump.

It’s tough to live up to a legend. I spent much of my twenties feeling vaguely ashamed of my career deckhand status.  Where fishermen’s smiles carried warmth, I saw measurement. Where they expressed approval, I heard faint disappointment. Thought Val’s daughter woulda got her own boat, done somethin’ more… I still sometimes feel like I’m walking Sitka’s docks in my mom’s shadow.

In the years since she left fishing, she’s pursued another dream, single-handedly turning her 5 acres into a farm, shifting from harvester of the sea to that of the soil. Fruits, vegetables, herbs all flourish under her care, along with chickens, rabbits, and goats.  But her enthusiasm and passion have always exceeded her availability. It’d be tough to manage this alone with all of the hours of the day; she’s struggled to do it while simultaneously working swing shift work – 12 hours on a week of days, followed by a week of nights – as an oil refinery operator.

She doggedly refuses to use the F word to describe herself, yet is one of my earliest models of feminism. From her experience as 1 of 3 women in Cornell’s veterinary program to skippering her own fishing boat, every stage of her life has been testimony to forging one’s own path.

So it confuses me to see this astoundingly competent, accomplished woman tentative and grasping. I’m impatient with her deference to men and naked hunger for my approval, irritated by every expression of self-doubt and each pandering “What do you think, Bud?” to a dismissive companion. How can she be uncertain of the strength of her own two feet, when so much of her daughter’s life has been a semi-conscious effort to fill her boots?

This Mother’s Day, I’m following Robert Fulghum’s lead. No flowers or cards here, the gifts I wish I could give my mom are of a different sort. Like-minded friends who delight in her farm, people who understand the struggles and celebrations of farming. A partner who respects her dreams, independence, and the intense labor she’s given her land. A long, active future of digging in the dirt, cultivating new life and well-being. A daughter more patient with differences, more forgiving of the past and more dedicated to a future of common ground.

Stuff you can’t find on Hallmark shelves.

 Though this post is for Val Aadsen, I’ve been tremendously fortunate to have many strong, inspiring women in my life. MJ, Carol, Joy, Vickie, Auntie Social – thanks to you all for sharing your lessons and love.





From the Galley: Conflict of the Feminist Fisherman

30 03 2011

There’s a treacherous voice in my head. It maintains a mosquito-like buzz in the back of my brain, an oppressive equation: “You are X, so you need to do/dress/behave Y.”

You know the one. Maybe you’ve struggled with your own version. Maybe someone explicitly stated these rules, building a box around your self-image one rigid, restrictive word at a time. Maybe we absorb a cultural narrative, sucker-punched by the messages saturating daily life. The box goes up higher still, stronger, until we can’t distinguish where the walls end and our true selves begin.

Rock with Driftwood – trapped & constrained, or securely embraced?

I was 27 when, burned out and broken from my 7 years as a social worker, I fled back to fishing. It seemed a good omen, exchanging a social service life for a boat named Sadaqa, the Arabic word for charity. Full of good juju, we were Team ‘77: vessel, captain, and crew, all born in the same year.

April 28th was a glorious day to throw off the dock lines. Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal is unusual in that it is a fresh-water home to ocean-going vessels. Lake Washington’s water table is higher than Puget Sound, and requires passage through the Ballard Locks to access the sea. Marlin manned the helm as I supervised our lines on deck, ignoring the crowds of spectators.  The water table slowly fell, a mariner’s elevator down to the exit floor.  One of the workers, a man around my age, smirked down at me.  “Are you the cook?”

I pointed at Marlin: Nope, he is. Six years later, Marlin’s still chuckling about this. “He didn’t say anything after that; I think you imploded his mind. ‘What? But you’re the girl!’”

The captain crisping our tofu, blowtorch-style.

Joel and I were a couple for almost 2 years before I agreed to crew for him.  After earning a reputation as a skilled deckhand, I was afraid of going backwards in the fleet’s eyes, being relegated to “the girlfriend” on a boat. When I hopped aboard the Nerka, the chip on my shoulder was a 4×4 beam, ready to bludgeon anyone who’d box me into a stereotypical role.

As is so often the case, I ended up clobbering the person I loved most. Turned out Cap’n J had never done the cooking on board, and, consumed by the full-time task of keeping the Nerka functional and fishing, wasn’t eager to start. Of the 7 boats I’d crewed on, all of my previous captains had handled the meals. The realization that I’d be the woman in the galley, taking direction from my male partner, sent me into a total tailspin. We had some ugly scenes those first few years.

The ridiculous, complicating truth?  I love food, and believe anyone who enjoys eating yummy goodness should know how to prepare said yummy goodness.  I’m the conflicted feminist who carries still-steaming pies down the dock to share with friends and cooks big pots of soup to keep on the stove in case anyone stops by – and who resents the hell out of anyone assuming I’d do these things.

It’s been a long road to realize my struggle has more to do with my own internalized sexism, insecurities stashed in my psyche, than the actual perceptions of my fishing friends.  The fishermen who thought I was a good deckhand before I joined forces with my sweetheart, they still think so.  Cap’n J and I navigated this storm, creating a pretty awesome partnership along the way.  Peace generally reigns, on deck and in the galley. Me cooking is the most efficient use of our respective skills (and appeals to my controlling nature), and he does the cooking at home, enjoying the big kitchen.  Everyone wins.

I was reluctant to post recipes on Hooked. Had a whole big back-and-forth in my head about it. That nasty voice sneered that I’d be boxed as “that fisherwoman who blogs about fish recipes.”  But your time is valuable, sweet reader, and I want you to gain something from your visits to Hooked. Beyond these stories, the tangible offering I can share is a deep love for wild seafood, and some of our favorite ways to enjoy it. Delicious, heart-healthy, beautiful fish… If not from our boat to your table, at least from this page to your recipe box.

(I wonder – are there places where you struggle with the shoulds and supposed to’s, and the path that makes you happy to be you? How do you make peace with this tension in your own life?  Hey – I’ve got a berry pie coming out of the oven. Pour some tea and join me, and we can peek past those false walls and sit with our authentic selves, at least for a moment.)

Pie and tea? Yes, please.








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