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!