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





“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





“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?   








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