Akutan Memories/King Crab season, 2013

I was gifted a fancy DSLR camera in 2012, and spent a few years taking pictures incessantly, which I did nothing with.  They sit in my google drive collecting (cyber)dust.  For the 3.7 people reading this, here you go.  I’m interspersing the photos with journal entries, quotes from books I read on that trip, and commentary because I have a cold and I can’t watch anymore bad movies today.

The backstory:  I’ve worked for an Alaska seafood company on and off for 17 years.  My work was primarily in Bristol Bay, but here and there I managed to take a job in another part of the state, mostly for the adventure (the $$ during the non-summer seasons for an office clerk is far from mind blowing).  In 2013 I left Bristol Bay after 2.5 months, had a week off in the States which I spent road tripping to Montana, flew up to Petersburg to work for almost a month, went straight to California for an astrology apprenticeship, had a week off at home in Portland, and then flew to the Aleutian Islands for crab season.  That was an excellent year.

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What a burden longing was– to stand on the continent’s soft edge, waves always and endlessly arriving, the surf breathing for you, and that old, old dream of paradise stirring deep, as if it were a place you could locate, a place where you could never stay but would instead spend the rest of your life yearning to return to.” Sherry Simpson, The Accidental Explorer

“I made it to Akutan safely, after 8 hours of airplane terror including the most harrowing landing over wild waters and between mountains that the wind was trying to fling the airplane into, 2 hours in the Anchorage airport, 1 beautiful day of exploring with a dear friend in Dutch Harbor, and 4 hours of seasickness on a big boat. Internet sucks but I’ll check in as able. Aleutian Islands: no motherfucking joke.” 10.14.13  

Dutch Harbor, from on high
Dutch Harbor, from on high

 

WWII fortifications on Ballyhoo Mountain.  Did you know Alaska was invaded by the Japanese?
WWII fortifications on Ballyhoo Mountain. Did you know Alaska was invaded by the Japanese?
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from inside a gun fortification lookout (technical term, I’m sure)
perhaps got a little overzealous with the photoshop saturation setting, here.  But it was an astoundingly beautiful place
perhaps got a little overzealous with the photoshop saturation setting, here. But it was an astoundingly beautiful place
3.5 hour flight to Anchorage, 3 hour flight to Dutch, and then a further 4 hour boat trip on the Sea Trader to reach Akutan (seen here at the Akutan dock upon arrival/survival)
3.5 hour flight to Anchorage, 3 hour flight to Dutch, and then a further 5 hour boat trip on the Sea Trader to reach Akutan (seen here at the Akutan dock upon arrival/survival).  I later learned I was lucky to get there so swiftly- planes from Anchorage to Dutch are frequently turned back at the destination due to high winds, and have to just fly the 3 hours back to Anchorage and try the next day.  Boat rides between Akutan and Dutch can take something like 12-15 hours in bad weather.
The first mate of the Sea Trader, who later became a beloved friend, was curt and unfriendly when I came on board.  I asked to be allowed to stay on deck, both out of fear/claustrophobia and curiosity about the islands.  He said if I was on deck, someone would have to stay awake to watch me, and their trips back and forth from Dutch to Akutan were often their only chance to sleep.  I was henceforth locked away in the galley with no portholes, and set to sea on the Bering in early fall weather.  I have rarely been seasick, but I spent the entire 5 hours hunched on this bench with my head between my knees.  Many curious members of the crew came to make conversation with me in this state, and I politely responded to their inquiries with my face in my lap- and managed not to throw up.
The first mate of the Sea Trader, who later became a beloved friend, was curt and unfriendly when I came on board. I asked to be allowed to stay on deck, both out of fear/claustrophobia and curiosity about the islands. He said if I was on deck, someone would have to stay awake to watch me, and their trips back and forth from Dutch to Akutan were often their only chance to sleep. I was henceforth locked away in the galley with no portholes, and set to sea on the Bering in early fall weather. I have rarely been seasick, but I spent the entire 5 hours hunched on this bench with my head between my knees. Many curious members of the crew came to make conversation with me in this state, and I politely responded to their inquiries with my face in my lap- and managed not to throw up.

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“Made it to Akutan.  I have my own room, and the window looks out onto the rock face of the mountain and the trail leading up.  The first morning I didn’t need to start work until noon so I walked to the village.  The road out of the plant curves around the harbor- the whole village and the cannery are planted on a narrow strip of land that butts up against the mountain.  Once you get past the harbor there are boardwalks that run through the village, wide enough for a 4-wheeler but no vehicles.  It was very quiet- just the sound of the water lapping against the shore and the wind and the birds.  I ran into the teacher and, being an obvious, rare and therefore interesting stranger, he spoke to me as if we were old friends and invited me into the school to meet the kids, all 13 of them.  I walked past all the houses to where the boardwalk runs through the tall grass towards the mouth of the harbor.  The sun was in my eyes and the light was strange, both very bright and strangely weak.  Just past the end of the boardwalk you could see the waters of the Bering Sea and the pale blue horizon.  The light and the colors and the water and the quiet all reminded me of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader when they reach the western waters and all become drunk with life force, and become quiet and calm and stop needing to eat or talk but just sit and look out on the waters and the light and feel a calm, overwhelming joy.  I feel like that.” 10.15.13

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“We never know what is going to happen, do we? Life is always throwing us this way and that. That’s where the adventure is. Not knowing where you’ll end up or how you’ll fare. It’s all a mystery, and when we say any different, we’re just lying to ourselves. Tell me, when have you felt most alive?” The Snow Child 

Russian Orthodox church in Akutan
Russian Orthodox church in Akutan

 

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“Walked to the village again this morning.  Saw a group of seals swimming across the main harbor, sleek heads bobbing up to take the air and then sliding back under, up and under over and over, graceful and coordinated as synchronized swimmers.  Listened to a small bird sing from a rock along the water- he stood facing me, chest puffed out, happy to have an audience.” 10.17.13

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I struggled in Akutan.  I was used to Naknek, where I knew everyone and had some earned authority from seniority and hard won knowledge.  In Petersburg the month previous it had still felt like the end of summer.  Akutan is a cold, lonely place.  It’s strange to look at my journal and see how unhappy I was because my memories of Akutan are the wonder of meeting a place under the enchantment of still belonging largely to itself.  But I was anxious, felt like an outcast, felt caged in by the office which was in the same building as the crab processing area and so smelled like dead crab and machinery.  I felt useless at work, and slow. I felt caged in by the oncoming dark also, which came over us more and more every day as winter approached.  A friend of mine wrote a novel that included scenes set in Akutan, where she has never been, but in describing the winter darkness as “shamanic” she got it right.  I will probably never go back there, but it imprinted itself on me in those five weeks, forever.

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“I went out to the dock at break today- needed to see the wild Alaska that I love and not these claustrophobic walls.  It has been stormy and the weather was wild, slapping up against the dock in wave after wave- a soft, milky blue green, the mountain across shrouded in fog and topped with snow, the seagulls riding the swells and fighting for tidbits in the water.  The Ocean Explorer pulling away, ponderous and slow, moving back out to the fishing grounds.” 10.25.13

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“At the end of my shift we did a pollock fish ticket with about 15 other species on the ticket- squid, salmon, sablefish.  It was dark out by then and through the office window I could see the black waters of the bay, looking thick as oil, waves shining in the lights from the boats at the dock.  A crowd of seagulls waited on the roof outside the window, patient as old men with hands in their pockets for refuse from the boat as it unloaded.  I had this vision of all those kinds of fish out there in the water, and the gulls, the water, the mountains and the stars, and the boats moving slowly through, invaders in a wild land much bigger and wilder than we could ever tame with our little metal capsules and flimsy nets, and how that wildness seeps into all of us here.  No- how that wildness makes an answering note sing deep within us, a chord that is always there.” 10.16.13

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“Even with the trauma, the crabstink, crying in the bathroom, the food, the darkness, the bedbug (just one thank the gods) it has been so worth it.  The beauty and the wildness of this place, the hills to climb and roam, the mountain greeting me every morning, the gulls and eagles and falcons, the small sparrows and starling, the terns with their oil black feathers and graceful long necks.  Sea otters rolling and playing in the water, the sea lions breaching and blowing- yesterday on the dock, 10 a.m., barely sunrise, we stood looking out to find a sea lion Masa had pointed out and then one breached just below us, she looked up and then dove under and with the angle and the closeness and the clearness of the water we could see her clearly, stretched out fins front and back, her ungainly body sleek and graceful in the water, diving down down down down at an angle until she disappeared into the darkness, I will never ever forget it.” 11.15.13

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“It started snowing a week ago and the mountains and the dock were all covered in an inch of snow.  I went out every chance I got, all bundled up.  It was majestic, and wicked and deadly and sharp.  Slate blue water, deepening to midnight and lightening to a milky jade green where the waves slapped the dock.  Water running off the mountain across the bay had become icicles, flowing frozen into the harbor water.  Seagulls minced dainty through the snow, leaving three pronged tracks, and huddled on the edge of the dock, heads sunk into their feathers.  There was a pair of sea lions that must live in the bay- I never saw them out of the water, but they were there in the water every time I went out, heads bobbing through the waves, glaring at me with belligerent, bulbous eyes.  Always eagles, falcons circling high over ahead and ravens calling from atop Maersk containers and light poles.  One stressful day, I took an hour and a half for lunch and walked the dock, 40 mph gusts blowing the fur hood of my parka off my head, blowing white clouds of spray off the top of the water and making the surface ripple and dance, here, there, changing direction with the fickle wind, everything alive.  I walked out past the cannery gates and a little way up the trail near the creek.  The gusts of wind almost knocking me over.  I stopped maybe 30 feet up and looked out across the water.  The wind died down and then I noticed the water surface being pushed up from the mouth of the bay- like a tiny wave, a wake, or like something rising from the deeps, some god or angel, white caps at the forefront.  I knew a big gust of wind was coming, I braced for it, watching the water shimmy closer and closer until it slapped against the rocks at the base of the road, then five seconds later SLAP- it hit me full force, I staggered, shrieked, laughed out loud and waited for more.” 11.25.13file_000-2

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“On their way out the door to head South for the season, the men from the Sea Trader (our only reliable form of transportation) cackled loudly as they called, “Good luck getting off the island!” A little bit unsettling. Thanks guys.” 11.13.13

Once the Sea Trader left, after the crab quota was filled and most of the processors were gone, the only way off the island was to take the hovercraft to the neighboring island of Akun.  Akutan is too rocky for a runway.  Akun is a small, flat island with a single air traffic controller working in a tiny building, a long runway, and a shipping container filled with chairs that served as a waiting room.  For ten days after the Sea Trader left us, the hovercraft was broken and we were all stranded.  I was arranging travel as part of my job and everyone was losing their minds, and I was losing mine.  We finally got it operational and I got myself on the hovercraft to Akun, and then an 8 seat airplane slowly ferried 40 of us the 20 minutes to Dutch.  In the shipping container waiting room was an inoperational coffee pot and 5 of the Chronicles of Narnia.

In Dutch Harbor I stayed at the Grand Hotel for a week.  I had fallen in love in Akutan, not just with the place and with the sea lions but with a human man.  I won’t talk about him much here.  That time with him was a sacred time, and a liminal one, a time between two worlds and between someone I had been and someone I was becoming.  I will treasure it always, though it was difficult to give it up, later, in the real world.

Dutch Harbor in December was breathtaking.  We had an entire week to wander around in the snow.  I come from a place where it snows enough to stick maybe once a year, and I felt like a child set loose in a wonderland.

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Russian Orthodox church in Unalaska
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Summer Bay

“We drove out to Summer Bay along ice glittered snow covered single lane road and then up into the hills past WWII gun ports and bunkers, tundra grass and berries submerged under a blanket of white, and out to Morris Cove, where we found the islands herd of wild horses.  I was entranced- I’ve barely ever seen a horse, much less a wild one.  Two of them walked towards me, curious and gentle.  I stroked their necks, one brown and one white, both with soft fuzzy fur coats, not the coarse hair I was expecting.  Long manes dreaded and unruly.  Big brown eyes looking at me with curiosity and no malice.  They soon tired of us and began eating the tundra grass growing next to the road.  Morris Cove somehow shelters them from the snow, sun drenched and golden.  On the way back we saw a fox, bright red against the white snow, skittish and quick.  He ran off before I could get a picture but I found his tracks down the road a bit, running down the hillside and onto a frozen pond.  Fox tracks everywhere, blue ice, the Bering Sea below in Summer Bay rolling towards the beach in slow swells, huge and undulating, splashing against the rocks at the feet of the seagulls, picking the shoreline for food.  Too cold outside to not wear gloves, our xtratufs crunching through the frozen top layer of snow.  Everything quiet and no evidence of the human world except us and the long abandoned WWII bunkers, everything magical and strange.” 11.27.13

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C and the frozen lake
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wild horses on unalaska island

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tide, feather, snow

“To die falling off a ladder or being run over by a drunk means nothing.  But, for the man who lives and dies at risk, who puts his hands in the fates of the gods, death is never meaningless.” The Holy, Daniel Quinn

“After 7 hours of flight terror – after rocking and rolling our way out of Dutch Harbor, after flying for over an hour through solid, ominous grey cloud cover between Dutch and Anchorage, after leaving Anchorage and spending two hours in a plane shaking so hard my teeth were rattling and the attendant was falling in people’s laps serving drinks, after the ‘little bit’ of turbulence we were warned about during landing had everyone in the plane screaming and bracing themselves on the ceiling, after everything in the galley jumped off the shelves and rolled down the aisles, after the coffee pots smashed to the floor and coffee started seeping underneath my seat, after we all applauded when we landed in Seattle and the flight attendant thanked the pilot for landing us safely, after the flight attendant patted me on the shoulder and said, “I’ve been flying 6 years and never experienced a flight that bad”- after all that and 7, SEVEN! mini bottles of vodka, I am safely if not soundly on the ground in the Lower 48. And I’m never flying again.” 12.2.13

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Passage to Juneau*

Today my Mom and I leave on the Alaska Marine Highway ferry, bound for Petersburg, Alaska. The trip takes just about 48 hours. I’ve been wanting to take this trip for 10 years. Besides the perk of not having to be on an airplane, I suppose I’ve romaticized being on the water. All those years in the cannery and the office, watching the fishing boats pull anchor and head downriver to places I’ve never seen. And even further back… I remember watching the Everett harbor out the window of our house near the Mukilteo ferry, my eyes glued to the binoculars for hours. Stories my whole childhood of my parents, aunts, grandparents shipping out on airplane carriers with Navy. My Uncle Darrell deep sea fishing off the coast of Florida. All the stories of the beauty of the water, and the scary things that can happen. Although realistically, dying in an airplane would be ‘better’- in the event of an airplane crash, you’re probably gonna be dead before you know anything has happened- even going down on a boat seems more romatic. Being taken into the arms of the mother and all that. We have an entire mythology about the sea- not so much about the gods of the air, machines (explosions). Going down with the ship has a long, familiar, and strangely comforting history.

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I’m pretty sure we’ll make it to Petersburg, though. We boarded the ferry in Bellingham, WA at 4 p.m. and cast off at 6. Yesterday, my stepfather Jerry said we seem very calm, considering what we were about to undertake. I do feel calm, but in the sense that it doesn’t seem real, because I want it too much. Too good to be true. I spent close to 6 months in Alaska last year- away from roads, traffic, billboards, chain stores, strip malls. I didn’t watch TV and for half the time, had no cell phone. I was cut off from a large portion of modern society and in it’s place was just – Alaska.

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In Bristol Bay it was the tundra, a flat brown land stretching to the horizon, lakes and ponds everywhere, the Naknek river, the Bay itself. A place more water than land. The sky above an arched dome deeper than the sky in the south. The river, tidal, dancing in once a day and rushing back out again, 25 feet of water down to the mud. Bears on the way to the bar, red foxes on the way home, eagles and ravens scavenging low tide for scraps. In Petersburg, coming in on the airplane from Juneau we broke the cloud cover and below was a jeweled land of blue water, underwater ridges creating phosphorescent green swirls on the surface, and the islands rising gently from the water, green tree cover from peak to shore. It was sea lions swimming parallel to me as I walked the docks on the way to work, and a murder of crows in the alder trees along the harbor where I ate lunch. Icebergs in Frederick Sound and kayaking through a forest of bull kelp. And the Aleutian Islands, a cold, wickedly magical land where the mountains came straight up from the sea, a sparsley inhabited chain of snow and ice belying it’s name as part of the Ring of Fire. Wild horses on a beach, eagles everywhere, the water a moody creature, the wind a living thing. A quiet there like I’ve never experienced.

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I could feel something coming alive within me in those places, in that quiet, in the closeness to the World, without the insulation of noise and movement and people. Going back to Portland in December felt like a kind of death. The noise cutting me off from a belonging that I’d just started to feel. It got so bad that one night in March I left my apartment at 10 p.m. and drove to the Sandy River and jumped in. The water was cold. I wanted it to be a revelation, a baptism, a cleansing, but it wasn’t enough. I started to acclimate to the noise and the concrete, even against my will. I suppose I’d like to find a way to feel that belonging even in the City, but today all I want is to get back to that quiet place. We are on the ferry now and as everyone boards I feel a swelling, tearful, from the soul gratitude. This boat is going to take me Home.

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*name of a book by Johnathan Raban