Alaska Stories

The First Two Weeks

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

ooh ooh it's a chum!  ...nope.
ooh ooh it’s a chum! …nope.

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.

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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.

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