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.





Celebrating at Sea: King Salmon, Graduation, and a Birthday

11 08 2012

Curses! I thought this one was scheduled to publish on August 11, but apparently didn’t quite get it set up right in the flurry to leave town. Please put yourself back in time 9 days, friends, and thanks for your patience with in-season difficulties.

Today’s a big day, friends.

Starting today, Southeast Alaskan trollers get our second – and last – chance this season to land on the Chinook motherlode. Many of you know from previous posts what serious business these king salmon openings are; this August shot at redemption is no different.

As you read this, the Nerka will be bobbing around out there somewhere.  Story-wise, last year’s August 15 opening will be hard to top. The weather was among the toughest Cap’n J and I have fished, nasty winds and stacked seas battering Southeast. Farther up the coast, most of our fishing partners anchored up by mid-morning, resigned to sitting out the first day. Churning seas threw a friend across his cockpit; he spent the remainder of the three-day opening nursing a cracked rib. Not an easy day, but so very worth it: abundant and ravenous, king salmon climbed the gear, grabbing hooks as soon as we put them back into the water.

I’m hoping the seas will be a bit more benign this year.

We enter this opening with high hopes, imagining triumphant rejoicing on the other side. But there are pretty major celebrations here at the starting line, too. Today is an important day for two of my most beloveds, and that’s what I’d really like to share with you.

It’s a relief and a joy when your closest friends end up with partners that you love, people you can develop your own closeness with. That’s how I feel about my “brother” Marlin’s wife Sara. We got to know each other best while longlining together on Marlin’s boat, bonding through sleep deprivation, seasickness, and physical exhaustion. Though she’d never spent time at sea before, Sara quickly cemented herself as one of the best people I’ve crewed with.

At sea or on land, Sara’s one of my favorite people to spend time with, but I’ve barely seen her over the past two years. She enrolled in an intensive nursing program, committing wholeheartedly to her studies, and today is her graduation. A gifted communicator and one of the most empathic, insightful, genuine people I know, I can’t think of a more naturally gifted caregiver.  Sweet Sister Sara, I’m so very proud of and inspired by you. We’ll be cheering for you from the blue. M’bruk!

And the other celebration? Today is Cap’n J’s birthday! Thanks to some particularly serendipitous scheduling from the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, he’s ushering in his 30’s while catching king salmon. Far better than anything I could wrap up in paper, the opportunity to chase king salmon is pretty much the best birthday present he can imagine.

In last year’s birthday post, I shared the story of how we met. I wrote about how proud I am of the captain he’s become. That’s still true. I’m also moved by the evolution of our relationship.

Our beginning seasons were rough. As Joel struggled to make the transition from carefree deckhand to liable skipper, I wrestled with my own baggage around being “the girlfriend” on board. Miscommunications and bruised emotions were frequent in those days; I’ve only recently realized how far we’ve come.

When we pointed the Nerka towards Sitka last month, on our 15th day at sea together, I turned to Joel with surprise. “I’m not sick of you yet.”

He smiled back. “I’m not sick of you either! I’m still totally in love with you.”

“Ditto. Pretty cool, that we can spend 15 days in our own universe and still feel content and willing to continue.”

“I don’t even want to go to town yet,” he said. “If we didn’t have to go in, I could stay out and be perfectly happy still.”

For ocean-going folks, that sounded like one of the most authentic affirmations of our partnership. I don’t believe in soul mates, but I definitely believe in my shipmate. Happy birthday, buddy… I’m looking forward to spending this new decade with you.

Thanks for joining me in these celebrations, friends, and bearing with this love-fest. We’ve got an unusually high quota to catch this opening – almost 80,000 kings – so we’ll be out until we can’t wedge another one into the Nerka’s hold. Until next time, best wishes to you all, and for the fisherfolks among Hooked’s readers, stay safe and good luck out there.

Photo by Cap’n J





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.

 





The Fish of our Labor: The Nerka Returns

13 07 2012

We’re back safe and sound, friends, and here they are – the first king salmon of our 2012 season!

We’ll take another day or two in Sitka before heading out to chase coho for the coming weeks, and I’m hoping to share some more detailed stories with you before we leave. Meanwhile, just wanted to let you all know we returned safely, and with a lot of gratitude. After a nine-day opening of mostly good weather, a well-behaved boat, excellent teamwork, and some very lucky calls on where to go, we’re feeling very fortunate. Thanks for your good wishes; hope all’s been good for you, too, over the past few weeks.





Heading North, Take Two

8 06 2011

Seems that no matter how much advance planning and preparation time there is for the trip north, our final days are always frantic.  Way back in late April, before I headed off on the Charity, Cap’n J and I set a departure date. June 8th sounded just right… Time enough to enjoy our house after I finished longlining, time to go over the remaining Nerka details together, and time to enjoy several weeks in Sitka before our salmon season starts on July 1st.  A sound plan, indeed.

I was pretty confident in last week’s post.  It’s possible that the universe heard my confidence as cockiness: “With an intended departure date of next Wednesday, the remaining tasks are pretty slim.”  As many times as I’ve been through this process, I should’ve known better.

As you’ve heard before, fishermen’s plans change.   We planned to be slipping loose of the Bellingham breakwater in a half-hour; instead, I’ve got a cup of tea steaming beside me and am enjoying a final communion with the Bobs (you remember, our resident Stellar’s Jays) and squirrels.  Looked like we’d be hitting Queen Charlotte Sound just in time to buck into a Northwest 25.  Do-able, but we’ve got an awfully long season ahead of us to get beat up right out of the gate.

Between avoiding an ass-kicking and this week’s mad scramble of final details, the captain determined that a 24 hour delay would be acceptable.  We should still hit the tide right at Seymour Narrows, and hopefully sidestep the bumpy crossing.  Never a good idea to feel too rushed or locked into one arbitrary intention, we’re breathing much easier this evening.

We’ll have a friend on board for the trip up, someone to share wheel watches and contribute new conversation. Sean was a first-time deckhand on the 5 Girls last season. Every June, Joel and I eyeball the new crop of green deckhands and make a game out of anticipating who’ll make it and who won’t. From the moment we met Sean, we were in agreement: he was going to be the star new deckhand of the season.

And that’s how it worked out. He’s returning for a second round, but needed a ride up to meet his boat in Sitka. He and his partner, Angela – who’s a rock star deckhand in her own right, a powerhouse of endurance, strength and fishing expertise – drove up for a big send-off. It’s a bummer that our plan changed after they got here, so they’re having an unexpected amount of sitting-around-waiting-to-go time, but they’re professionals who know, “That’s the way it goes when you wear rubber clothes.”

Chaotic as the week has been, it’s a fun time to be in the harbor. After winter’s quiet and the slow meander into spring activity, everyone is in full-throttle preparation mode now. The 4 to 5 man (and some women) crews of the seiners surrounding us have been hard at work, repairing nets, sanding rails, all kinds of bustling about. We’re all a constant tide washing up and down the ramp, pushing mountainous carts down to our boats, tossing matching harried grins at each other.  This time of year, the harbor pulses with camaraderie.

Through it all, I try to remember the relief that’s on the other side of the breakwater. As soon as the lines are untied and we’re under way, none of this current chaos will matter. The mental brakes squeal, as we go from a zooming frenzy to a sedate 7 knot cruise. What’s inevitably forgotten won’t end up mattering, or will be dealt with in Sitka.  If our weather holds, we should have about a five day migration, a luxurious exemption from the rest of the world that I’m hoping to use as a mini writer’s retreat.  Fingers crossed.

Below, some photos from the past few days:

Monday: Provisioning, Part 1.

Stocking a Fishing Boat with Fake Meat Product: Oxymoron?

Cap'n J checks our survival suits. Bear, not so into it.

Sean & Ange, our ridealong squeezing himself into an if-he-absolutely-had-to suit.

Fake meat in the freezer AND prayer flags from the rigging? Bunch of hippies on this boat.

Cap'n J & T: frazzled, hopeful, anxious, and eager to be on the way north.

That’s the update, sweeties.  My remaining tea has gone cold, and some overripe bananas are begging to be transformed into bread, courtesy of Joel’s sister’s Ashley’s delicious recipe.  Be well, friends – hope to share some good stories with you by the middle of next week.








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