Anchored in Slocum Inlet. Nasty weather today- rain, heavy wind. We are spinning in fairly rapid circles around the anchor. The gillnetters in their tiny boats are being thrown all about in the chop – makes me nervous for fall fishing in Puget Sound. Peaceful day – we left Gastineau at 3:30 a.m. and went up to Auk Bay to ice up the four Lynn Canal boats. Icing was harder today – had to do way more shoveling, with hardened ice and one boat after another. My arms were screaming. Made bacon, eggs and grits for everyone and then we came down to Slocum. I slept. Now the boat is silent. I’m watching the waves and fog out the window and looking through the chart maps. Earlier I was sitting at the galley table reading, Joe and Gwynne next to me and I looked up to find the brightest rainbow I’ve ever seen coming straight out of the water between our bow and the shoreline. I went outside and the wind was so strong I could barely stand upright; it was flinging drops of seawater and rain at my face. It was so beautiful and wild, and I thought again about risk, and how the most beautiful, precious and sacred things are often only shown to you if you take on the risk and danger of finding them. If you make that sacrifice to the gods. I would never have seen the rainbow if I hadn’t gone to work on this boat, unexperienced, with strangers. The rainbow was full, stretching across our bow into the water on either side, and at one end bobbed a small blue buoy… the crab pot at the end of the rainbow. I doubt it could have been seen by anyone not in the harbor and I stood on the bow and laughed aloud at the secret, delicious magic of it all, the rainbow and the uninhabited green mountain behind it, the wild wind and rain, and the company awaiting me inside the cabin. All afternoon the wind has been groaning through the rigging as we turn and turn through the waves. We had halibut fried in Bisquick for dinner and then sat talking for hours. Now another night of sleeping soundly on the rocking of the water.
Last week, everyone was all aflutter that Fish and Game was going to open up the back end of Port Snettisham. A hatchery sits back there and the biologists believed half a million pounds of salmon were there in the water, waiting to go up the rivers to spawn. ADFG announced Friday that they would open the area on Sunday. We got extra ice and on Sunday morning motored slowly through the bay, a beautiful and quiet place, the mountains of the mainland and Snettisham Peninsula all granite and moss rising right up out of the water to ice and mist capped peak. The fog hung in long, thin bands across the water and clinging to the sides of the mountains. Boats were anchored near the rock walls, waterfalls pouring down into the bay just behind them.
You could feel the tension in the air and then it was noon and the nets spooled out behind the boats and into the water. A few hours later we watchd through binoculars as the pulled the nets back in and there we saw… nothing. A fish or two every few feet. Everyone was disgusted. The half million pounds of salmon had all disappeared up the rivers the day before.
We hung around the area for another 4 days until fishing closed on Thursday. The fog closed in. Most everyone left. On the boat we got bored, then antsy, then anxious. The name ‘Snettisham’ will forever be synonomous to me with cabin fever.
From the bow of the boat, I can see the lights of Petersburg sparkling red and yellow in the distance. We slide by Sukoi Island, a black silouette in the middle of Frederick Sound. My cell phone lights up- reception. Contact. I stand at the bow and check text messages as the cold wind slides by my face and we turn into the Wrangell Narrows. A few minutes later the captain angles into the small space at the pump dock and I lean out over the rail to hook the line over the cleat – too far – my foot slips in the Crocs I never wear on deck and I fall forward onto the rail with a thump. I catch my footing, hook the cleat, and tie off the line, my heart pounding. It was a minor scare but the worst I’ve had on the boat so far. I am careful. A few minutes later we all scatter for the evening. I climb up the slippery ladder and step onto the dock and am hit with the now familiar feeling of the ground beneath me seeming to sway. I get more seasick with this feeling on land than I ever do on the boat. I weave through the bright cannery buildings, the processors just cleaning up for the evening, all familiar faces from my time here as an office clerk last year. On the street I see the bright neon signs in the window of the bar and hear music coming through the open door. Town. Dry land. People. After taking care of some business at a friend’s house, I consider stopping in for a drink, but when I poke my head in the room seems claustrophobic and all the people unfamiliar and unwelcoming. I climb back down the dockside ladder and enter the warm, comforting confine of the boat to sleep soundly in my tiny bunk until we begin offloading at 7 a.m.
What to tell of my first 2 weeks on the water? How about the afternoon I took wheelwatch as we headed back to Petersburg from five days in Snettisham Bay. As the captain passed off the wheelhouse to me he said casually- ‘watch for icebergs’. We passed Holkham Bay and there they were, scattered across Stephen’s Passage, the unearthly glow of ancient ice shining in the distance. I steered the boat around them, never closer than a mile, giving them an unnecessarily wide berth. Too many viewings of Titanic. Not much later I saw a black fin cutting the water directly in front of us, and a moment later a huge killer wheel surfaced just below the wheelhouse window, not 10 feet from the boat. She was black and shiny like oil, big white patches over her eyes. Even in that quick moment of looking, she seemed to me to be intelligent, confident. She dove under and when I looked back, I saw her surface and dive again behind us.
The nights on anchor in this or that harbor, the boat swaying gently beneath us and the swishing, sucking, slapping noises of water coming in through the porthole. Or laying down for afternoon naps, the same swaying, watching the reflection of the sea sparkling on the ceiling of my stateroom, 6 inches above my head. When the boat is on anchor I fall into a kind of infantile total abandoment of consciousness, a black depthless rest unlike anything I experience on land.
Then there are the nights that we are running on the water, the diesel engine roaring beneath my head, the anxious memories of every story I’ve ever read about boats sinking keeping me awake until I fall exhausted into nightmare after nightmare about drowning.
The sunsets. Every night, the sunsets over the water and the islands. Orange and pink, blue and purple, even on the cloudy days it breaks through, always a vivid, startling display of color in the sky and shining across the water.
Finishing up wheelwatch a few nights ago just as the sun was setting at 9 p.m., I sat on the back deck to watch for whales. The sea was flat calm all the way across Stephen’s Passage to the mainland. The setting sun had disappeared behind the mountains but still shaded the water a deep rose, darkening to black. Across the expanse of water I could see, here and then there and then there, closer and farther away, the quick delicate flip of a humpback tail as they dove down into the deep water. For a moment the tails stood silhouetted against the dark mountains and the pink water.
Two nights ago, on anchor in Merrisfield Harbor, we were already in bed when a fisherman called on the radio, asking to offload. Five minutes later and we all stood on deck, fully geared in oilskins and gloves, blinking sleepily in the bright halogen glow of the decklights. The lights shine the otherwise inky black water a translucent green for the first few feet. I see a silver sparkle, and then another, and when I peer over the side of the boat I see a school of small silver fish, no more than 3 inches long – the salmon we will be catching in a few years- leaping for bugs on the surface. Their tiny fins flip back and forth at a frenetic speed and they all seem to hover there in unison, and then quick as a blink they are gone.
The work. Shoveling ice into totes, fast as you can, hurry the captain is waiting. Hacking at compacted walls of ice in the hold with a shovel or a sleek, sharp silver chopper. Tying up boats, learning to judge which cleat use, when to pull a buoy up to the bow, when to tighten the line and when to leave slack. Sorting fish cascading wet and slime covered out of brailer bags onto the sorting table, silvers with beady little eyes and metallic streaks in their tails, chums with arrowed tails and vertical stripes of black and yellow like bruises, sockeyes sleek and clean, pinks small and polka-dotted. We go quickly and I am usually still puzzling over the first fish when my co-worker is finished. Learning to never stand under the crane, always watch the heavy metal ball, don’t let it hit anyone in the head, don’t pick up a salmon by it’s tail, don’t lean too far over the rail when tying up a boat, don’t stand between the moving totes and the rail, watch your fingers, don’t fall overboard, if we start to sink wait until the water has filled up the cabin before you try to swim out.
The slow building of strength and competency. The small victories. The moments when it feels like all the strange, random experiences I’ve had in my life have given me the necessary skills to work on a boat. Clean the head? Sure, I used to be a maid. Cook dinner for us every night? No problem, I’ve worked in restaurants and lived in a punkhouse with a dozen people. The balance and grace it takes to jump around on the back deck reminds me of all those nights out dancing. My body knows how to move with rhythm and purpose. After 9 years of cannery work I am almost unphased by any kind of sleep or meal schedule. All those years in Portland with strange, random roommates make it easy to live in close quarters with strangers. All those years in the cannery making it easy to find the common ground and turn stranger into friend.
The compliments, sometimes direct, sometimes overheard. The quick, snapped chastisements. I remember every one and weigh them against each other like black and white chess pieces. Am I winning? Am I losing?
The moments when I feel like a dunce, a clown, a hopeless city girl who will never fit in in this world. Those moments happen too. But they come less and less often.
I’m writing this from the wheelhouse of the F/V Carole B. We’re running north up Chatham Straight – Baranof Island is 2 miles off the port side and Kuiu Island maybe 8 miles off starboard. On both islands the mountains are dark silhouettes, mist-wreathed and disappearing into low clouds. I see an occasional ship but the islands are mostly uninhabited – this land the province of bears, whales, eagles and seals more than that of humans. Southeast Alaska is a wild place in a very different way from the rest of Alaska – it seems tamer, the islands creating their own kind of protection from the rough weather of high mountain and open ocean – but there are hundreds of islands, from tiny Two Tree Island (just big enough for two tall pines to grow side by side, my captain says whenever a third starts to grow someone has to go chop it down to not confuse people) to the giant ABC islands of Admiralty, Baranof and Chicagof, each close to 2,000 square miles. On every island countless small bays and inlets, mountains and waterfalls, enough to keep a person busy exploring their entire lives.
I’ve been on the boat 48 hours. The first day, we ran south down Wrangell Narrows from Petersburg after taking on a hold full of salmon from two seiners. We stopped at the south end of the Narrows to pump off the fish from the Kayleigh Ann, skippered by my captain’s son and named for his daughter. I’d fallen asleep in my bunk and woke as the pitch of the engine deepened and we slowed, maneuvering into place at their rail. I came out on deck to find us floating together in the middle of the water, blue sky overhead and low green islands just a mile off to each side. I ran the fish pump as 40,000 lbs. of salmon poured into our hold. I stood at the pump switch under that blue sky as seagulls swooped and dived above me and thought – Yes. This. Sign me up. Give me a boat. I’m in.
Not that simple though. Although I’ve been working in the fishing industry for almost 15 years, I know nothing about working on a boat. My fellow deckhand and teacher, Kris, is amazingly nimble on the back deck, leaping onto wet totes and skipping across the narrow lip of metal separating the holds, in sneakers and with a cigarette dangling from his lip, pulling lines and shoving totes as they are craned over his head, balancing all the while over a 10 foot drop into an empty hold or freezing cold water full of fish, if we’re full. I am slow and nervous, especially when wearing my awkward, stiff raingear. The first night we offloaded our fish at Wrangell in the middle of the night – I had just woken from yet another nap and when climbing into the fish hold in my rain gear to spray it out, almost fell off the ladder and then put my entire leg into the recessed area of the hold that allows it drain. I felt like a clown. Learning how to tie a clove hitch took me two days.
I suppose I’ll get the hang of it eventually. To be continued!
The season is over. The boats are up on blocks, the dock is empty, the cannery is silent. My bedroom borders on the boatyard, and through the open window I hear the sound of rain outside, dripping and plinking on the back decks of boats scrubbed clean of fish slime and saltwater. They are silent shadows seen vaguely through my window blinds and their presence outside is comforting, carrying as they do the satisfying proof of another season survived.
I’m heading from Naknek back to Petersburg to be a deckhand on a tender boat. I am a little stunned, as I always am at the end of the season, to wake up and realize how very changed I am from the person that stepped off the plane in May. I got to Naknek this year with no idea what I was going to do afterwards, and a lot of anxiety about my lack of direction. At one of the pre-season BBQ’s a fisherman friend, in the midst of a conversation about how very much I love this world, said to me, “Well then you should try fishing.” A simple suggestion but it was one of those moments when everything seemed to stop around me and I thought, “Damn! He’s right!” and then the whole season it was as if the universe, seeing that I’d maybe gotten a glimpse of the next step, was yelling in my ear “YES, YES, THAT WAY!”
I wrote this early in the season; it came to the paper without thought:
Tonight I walked down to the dock just before the end of our shift to deliver something to a tender. I was grumpy, and the wind pushed against me, blowing hard off the river, threatening to rip the hood from my hair and driving cold air up my sleeves. I pushed against it down towards the pump barge, where the Balaena was tied, waiting for the tide so it can head down to Egegik for next week’s fishing opener. I came around the corner of the freezer plant and looked up to see a bright blue sky over the river and three seagulls, silhoutted in the still bright sunshine, even at 8 p.m., hovering in mid-air, the force of their wings against the wind just strong enough to keep them from blowing backwards.
Earlier, I sat on the dock at the end of my lunchbreak and watched the tide come back in, roiling and rushing in from the bay. The sky was cloudy but for long stripes of blue and the sun poured down through those openings and cast bright ribbons of light on the river, the opposite of shadows, and underneath that light the brown river water glowed and sparkled and next to it the dark shadowed water undulated and looking down from the dock the river looked like nothing less than an animal moving, shadow and sunlight rippling over it’s skin, more alive than just about anything I’ve ever seen. Every day here is a gift, the changing river and the changing sky, all there outside our office window and just outside my bedroom walls.
I’ve been coming here on and off for 14 years. Getting close to half my life. At first I was a reluctant traveler… here only for the money, scornful of the place, all mud and mosquitoes. I came back year after year, drawn to something I couldn’t name. Always eager at the end to return to my ‘real’ life, to the city, to civilization, to the world. Until the last few years when something started to come alive for me here… I became enchanted with the colors, the smells, the air, the sky, as I noticed that every molecule of everything and everyone here seemed more alive than anything at home in the city. Something shifted until this place became home. Until it wasn’t any longer somewhere I couldn’t wait to leave, but somewhere I couldn’t wait to get back to. Until it started to dawn on me, that this was my life. That it could be my entire life. That I could stay, if not physically HERE, in Naknek, than within those places and that feeling of home. Because home isn’t a place. It’s a feeling. And now I find that the loudest, strongest voice within me is calling to do whatever it takes to stay true to that piece of aliveness that Alaska woke up within me. Whatever it takes.
*the title is from a poem by Phillip Levine