Rough Weather and Mercury Retrograde Hit the Fleet

So far:

1 blown engine
1 leaking gas tank
1 hole in a something something that almost sank the boat
1 brailer bag in a prop
1 broken bow thruster
2 midnight naked swims to save the boat
1 dislocated shoulder
1 smashed finger
2 almost sinkings
2 overboards (all survived)
1 something something else that necessitated pulling the boat out of the water
1 almost collision with a tender
1 medivac to Anchorage
Wind and seas rough enough to blow the windows out of 7 boats

The beginning of the season is always a chaotic swirl of breakdowns and fixings-up but this year seems more extreme than usual. Seems that its lucky the fish didn’t come early because half the fleet is too banged up to fish. Sunny skies today and here’s hoping the warmth brings safer conditions and our SALMON!

from the water
from the water
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The Fleet Departs

Bristol Bay salmon season officially opens on June 25th. On that day, each fisherman is required to have registered with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) which river district they will be fishing in. Egegik, Ugashik, Nushagak, or Naknek-Kvichak. In the weeks before what is known to us as “Blue Card Day” (in order to notify ADF&G of their chosen district, they fill out a form printed on blue paper), fishing is open but there is no registration requirement. Usually not enough fish to necessitate strict management. This week is known as “Free Week” and the early bird fishermen are usually in the water by around June 16th to get started. This year started out different though; last year “Free Week” brought huge runs of salmon come early to the bay on the heels of a hot, hot spring. The peak of the season came around June 26th, over a week early from the standard peak of July 4th. The numbers at the end of the 2013 season were generally disappointing and this early season was largely blamed. So this year, everyone came early.

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 At the dock

Everyone, that is, but the fish. After another hot spring that had everyone gearing up for a second early season, the weather turned to a more usual Bristol Bay summer… grey, cold, and rainy. The fish are coming in the usual Free Week dribs and drabs.

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Cap’n Reba hanging nets like a badass

And what happens when there are a lot of fishermen and no fish? Trouble. After some lackluster fishing last week, Fish and Game closed the districts for the weekend and everyone who had gone out came back to Naknek, joining the rest of the fleet that was still readying their boats for the season. I hid in my room Friday night, taking Theraflu at 9 p.m. and crashing out for a much needed full night of sleep. Saturday night was another BBQ at the house on Wolverine Lane, and there was a bit of the nasty and violent discontent in the air that I mentioned in the last post. We had a repeat dance party at Fisherman’s Bar and I stayed up until 3 a.m. again. There were fistfights, dislocated shoulders, and arrests, and that’s just amongst the folks I am personally close with. By the end of the night I was more than ready for the fleet to get. the. hell. out. of. town. and. go. FISH!

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Sunday was a bit sunny, if not warm, and there must have been 40 boats at our dock, all tied up to each other, fishermen hopping back and forth between decks, frantically tying on buoys and fixing engines in order to be ready for the afternoon tide as the water came in and lifted each one up out of the mud.  All day we had a steady stream of smiling and buoyant faces coming through the office to say goodbye, the hope and expectation of the as yet undiscovered season lighting up faces so that they all looked like teenage boys off to camp. As I said “Good luck and have fun out there!” to friend after friend I got a little choked up at the bittersweet excitement of it all. I’ll miss them but we are here, after all, for the fish.

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At 4:30 high tide we watched from the office windows as one by one they untied from each other and motored off down the river. Bon voyage, fisherfriends, go get ’em!

 

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Down In Bristol Bay

Today is 12th day of my 9th salmon season in beautiful Bristol Bay.  Time here is strange… the sun is up 20 hours a day and we work 90 hours a week at the moment, creating something like one long endless day.  12 days feels like 12 weeks.  Or more accurately, it feels exactly as if the winter was a dream and I never left this place last August.  The weather has been mostly cold, rainy and blustery… possibly affecting the run of fish, which was predicted/hoped/feared to be early.  Last year was hot hot hot and the fish ran early, escaping the nets that weren’t ready.  The boat accounting office where I work is starting to get busy with arriving captains and deckhands, frantic requests for money, supplies, and favors, an emergency every hour.  Every day some familiar face of a dear friend suddenly appears at my office door.   Lots of happy reunions, catching up on Bristol Bay gossip.  Much less discussion of our winter lives than you’d think.  The outside world falls away, here.  Nothing matters but the work and the salmon and the joy of being together again.  That is, until the middle of the season when the rain and the grind and the constant company starts to bring out the worst in all of us.

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I got here a few weeks earlier than I usually do and it was an unexpectedly gentle and slow homecoming.  Much better than coming straight into an office piled high with paperwork and loud with ringing phones.  Everyone is still taking it easy, working on boats and getting ready, and there’s been lots of time for fun.  Saturday night after (13 hours of) work, we headed down the one road about 10 miles to a house shared by a group of fishermen, beat up and dirty and bare bones, open just a few months out of the year and only inhabited before and after fishing is open.  The men had made sushi, pasta, baked salmon with herbs and lemon… not a small feat in a place with one small store and produce only wishfully called ‘fresh’, flown in from Anchorage (and before that, Seattle?) and sold at exorbitant prices.  We stood around the kitchen eating from paper plates, the fishermen in dirty carhartts and xtratuf boots, baseball caps and hooded sweatshirts stained with fish blood and burns from welding accidents, hands black with grease and oil.  Country music played on the stereo while we ate and told stories, each tale a little bit taller than the last and most of them true.  One of the consequences of working in this industry of daredevils and cowboys.  I remember overhearing the middle of one story: “And then I got on the back of the elephant and there were fucking tracers everywhere, man!”

 

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I’d been out until 1 a.m. the night before and swore I wouldn’t go to the bar after the BBQ, but there I was walking into Fisherman’s at 11 p.m.  Working in the cannery is a little bit like indentured servitude and a little bit like spring break.  90 hour work weeks and a party every night.   “Where every night is a Friday night and every morning is a Monday.”  The parties can be hit or miss… sometimes there is a dark vibe, everyone tired or grumpy or nasty, bar fights and old grudges, not enough fish and too much alcohol, men taking it real personal that you don’t want to dance with them.  Then there are the magic nights, when everyone you love is out, and everyone is just drunk enough but not too drunk, and the music is good, and ridiculous things happen, and no one punches anyone else, and the men all dance with you but don’t expect anything for it, and even while it’s happening you think, This is a magic night and I will remember it forever.  We had one of those Saturday night.  Danced for 3 hours in the back room of Fisherman’s, to Michael Jackson and MGMT and Footloose, all of us screaming the lyrics of “Don’t Stop Believing” with our arms around each other’s shoulders, multiple dance-offs, absolutely won by the small blond girl who did the worm across the whole room.  The stars were out as I walked him in a light rain, listening for bears in the tall grass on the side of the road.  Those nights are what make the bad days worth it.

My favorite part of the night went like this:

A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless asked me to go to the bathroom with her.  She sat down on the toilet and said, I have to poop.  I said No!  Not while I’m in here!  And then someone started banging on the bathroom door like they were on a drug bust.  I thought it was some fisherman friends trying to mess with us, so I opened it a crack to yell at them and came face to face with a small, squat woman looking very, very angry.  I tried to slam the door but she shoved her way inside.  My friend was just trying to pull up her pants and the woman elbowed her way past both of us towards the toilet.  I shut the door and locked it again (not knowing what else to do) and my friend was still trying to pull up her pants when the woman sat down on the toilet and said, “Who pooted?”  I started laughing so hard that I had to sit down on the floor.  My friend, who had her pants pulled up at this time, said to the woman, who was still on the toilet, “You look Samoan, are you Samoan?” and the woman said yes and they proceeded to talk excitedly about themselves, the woman still on the toilet.  I was still sitting on the floor, whooping and crying with laughter and trying to catch my breath, and my friend and the woman must have reached some kind of emotional peak because my friend said, “I just want to give you a hug!” and leaned over and hugged the woman, who was still on the toilet.   Oh, Naknek.

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It is almost the end of the day now and from the window of the office I see the river.  Earlier I watched as the tide rushed out towards the bay, grey water reflecting grey clouds above.   Now a scattering of gillnetters and crabbers (in service as fleet tenders for the summer) lie sunken in the mud, waiting for the tide to turn back.  The growl of the boat hauler filled the office all day as it emptied out the boatyard, the vessels that loomed large and awkward on land becoming tiny in the engulfing water, graceful as they roll into the swell and head out to the fishing grounds.  The season is upon us.

 

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*Down In Bristol Bay is the title of a book