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.
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!”
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.
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.
*Down In Bristol Bay is the title of a book