“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.



“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?   

Happy Birthday, Hooked!

18 03 2012

One year ago today, Hooked went live with this post. Astute readers may notice that that first post’s date doesn’t match today’s celebration. Though I wrote and posted “The Launch” on March 10, 2011, I didn’t have the courage to make it public until 8 days later. Full of trepidation, I wasn’t sure what I had to say – or if anyone would care. Arriving late to the blogosphere (about 3 years after my dad prodded, “Do you have a blog yet?”), I agonized over what kind of first impression Hooked would make.

That first post laid out a pretty modest mission: “Hooked is intended to share the story of what it is to be a Southeast Alaskan fisherman, a troller/longliner who combs the sea to harvest the highest-quality wild salmon, black cod and halibut.”

“Fisherman” is both an occupation and identity for me, so this wasn’t a bad goal to begin with, but I like to have room to stretch. The next line left the narrative door ajar: “Fishermen are a diverse bunch, and no one’s perspective is quite the same. My voice as a tree hugging, tofu eating, public radio listening, pierced/tattooed bleeding heart pescatarian feminist, a lapsed social worker turned professional deckhand, is – perhaps – a tad unique.”

Just as my perspective is unique, so is yours. As you introduced yourselves in the comments, strangers became new friends, and I delighted in your diverse voices. Encouraging family members. Current and retired fishermen. Women from an astounding variety of life experiences. Whether actively working on the water, land-locked and dreaming of a life adrift, or seasick-prone and happily rooted ashore, you tugged the threads of these posts and found them connected to the fabric of your own lives.

So this post isn’t about celebrating 12 months of a one-dimensional online construct. This is about recognizing and honoring community, and that’s all of you who take the time to stop by and say hello. You’ve become participants in these stories. Your hearts seized as whales rose up beneath the Nerka. (Maybe some expletives fell from your lips, too, in chorus with those falling from mine.) You celebrated Cap’n J’s birthday, and you imagined the taste of traditional Tlingit foods. When I shared my writer’s panic last fall, you offered support and encouragement. You learned the interdependent relationship between salmon, trees, and Southeast Alaskans, and you rallied as spokespeople for the Tongass National Forest. You cheered for the 2012 Fisher Poets, and you grieved those lost at sea.

Hooked’s readers have been the greatest joy of this experience.  I wish I could offer you a slice of that aquatic-themed cake (or provide a gluten-free/sugar-free/vegan alternative) in thanks. You’ll just have to trust that we enjoyed it with you in mind. Bear, too.

In lieu of cake, I do have a gift for one of you. Two months ago, I printed a few copies of Hooked: The Best of 2011 through blurb.com. An 80 page collection of my favorite posts, they came out pretty nicely (only 2 typos discovered thus far, and purely my fault.) If you’d like to be entered into a drawing to win your own copy, leave a comment here before midnight on Wednesday, and I’ll put your name in a hat. (No, not a hat, but an Xtra Tuf boot. Thanks for the suggestion, Cedar – cultural authenticy matters!)  Cap’n J will do the honors on the morning of the 22nd, and I’ll stick the winner’s copy in the mail as one of my final tasks before we head north.

Are you a long-time Hooked reader, or a new visitor? As we approach the upcoming fishing season, are there particular stories or issues you’d like to hear about? What have you liked in your time with Hooked, and what could we do differently over our second year?

A Word After Kings: Wrapping Up the July Opening

16 07 2011

I’m cheating with this one, sweeties.  After our 12 day king salmon opening, my written voice is as stiff as my hands, and our imminent return to sea has no leeway for an awkward post that can’t hit its stride in a timely manner.

The short update is this. Yes, we were briefly back in Sitka. Yes, we got lucky. After a steady string of dismal July king openings, it’s a welcome change to wrap up with gratitude instead of despair. In spite of some challenging weather, we enjoyed ourselves, the beautifully-behaving boat, and even some decent numbers of fish. Neither of us were really ready to quit when it closed on Tuesday night – pretty much the opposite of our standard scene, where we struggle to hold everything together to the end and are desperate to slam the door on this high-stakes opportunity.

Yesterday was a blur of delivering fish, fueling up and changing oil on both engines, cleaning the fish hold, doing laundry and getting 16-day past due showers, and catching up with friends. Today offered more frenzy: groceries, refilling the water tank, getting rid of our recycling, sticking a pile of bills in the mail. Folks often think that our time on the water must be such hard work, but I’ve come to realize that being in town and preparing to go fishing is far more exhausting that the fishing itself.

I’d intended to trade the narrative storytelling for the photographic, this time around. Got some fantastic photos of the Nerka in action from one of our partners, and had hoped to share a little slideshow in place of the words. But uploading even one picture is too much for the meager internet connection I’ve managed to find here. “Here” is a glossy-veneered blond picnic table incongruously plopped down on the edge of the harbor parking lot. It’s quarter after 11, and the sky has finally passed through indigo to deepen into Southeast Alaska’s mid-July not-quite-dark. It’s a still, overcast evening, with the smell of a light sprinkle just on the other side of the clouds, perhaps. I’m looking out at the harbor that’s still heavily steepled with trolling poles, knowing that the exodus will begin tomorrow.

It’ll begin with us. The clock is already set for 5 a.m., when we’ll untie and start the search for coho that will dictate most of our next 8 weeks. Cap’n J and I are pretty fired up this year – driven – so we’re eager to get a jump on this first coho trip. They’re small this early in the season, and it will take a lot of them to fill even the Nerka’s modest fish hold. If we get lucky and land on ‘em, we could be back to the dock in 10 days or so. Hopefully we’ll have a better report for you with that turn-around. Until then, calm seas and clear skies to you. Be well, all.


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