Find What You Love and Let It Kill You

The season is over and I’m home now… or what passes for home when what you have left of physical possessions is in boxes under a carport at your parents’ place, next to the half-finished shell of what will eventually be your tiny house.  I’m overwhelmed with an exhaustion borne of 71 days of work in a row, 940 work hours, 50 million salmon, 30,000+ fish tickets and invoices, two plane rides, and caffeine withdrawal.  And a sadness that isn’t so much loneliness as it is the sensation of having 7 limbs cut off at once and wondering how you are supposed to get by without them?  Those 7 limbs being my coworkers/salmon family.  

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I feel like we lived through 2 entire separate seasons this summer.  The first was relaxed and full of fun and easy-going work (even if that work was 80-112 hours a week) alongside a growing anxiety as the salmon didn’t come… and didn’t come… and didn’t come… until it was after 4th of July (the traditional peak of the season) and we started to prepare ourselves for a bust season.  The second season started on July 11th, when I came to work after having been gone 8 hours to find that the fish had come in force, all at once, we were on limits, and everything was about to hit the fan.  That second season involved a record-setting amount of fish tickets and invoices for us to process, the announcement of a price that was far lower than the fishermen had hoped for and some other company specific things that were devastating to the fleet, a lot of huffing and door slamming and yelling and tears, and the salmon a never-ending flood up the rivers until we were all begging for it to stop.  And it didn’t.  We were still getting huge deliveries a week after the season would normally have begun to wind down.  We worked more consecutive 16-hour days this summer than I ever have before.  There were a few days where I felt that I couldn’t take one more second of it.  But I could.  And I did.

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But don’t let any of that make you think I didn’t have one of the best summers of my life.  These yearly seasons of sleep deprivation and 24/7 companionship are my biggest teacher and I always come out of it changed.  I flew home from Anchorage on August 14th, terrified out of my mind as I always am on long flights, and to soothe myself I stared out the window at the mountains and waterways of Alaska, turquoise green and midnight blue and icy white mountaintops, and I thought about relationships, and love, and how if I took away anything from this summer it’s that nothing is guaranteed to us in life, not safety or comfort or joy but neither is sadness or heartbreak.  It all Is What It Is and all you can do is take each day as it comes, on it’s own terms, and live with it, and people too.  They are here one moment and might be gone the next, whether by choice or circumstance, and the best you can do is take what is offered as it is and let it fill you up rather than holding off for something you think you want more.  The love thrown my way this summer was enough to keep me going through the whole shitshow and probably the rest of the year, and I might have come home a broke-ass, 33 year old homeless unemployed high school drop-out divorcee but in life I count myself one seriously lucky woman.  

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Until next year, Alaska!

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Bristol Bay pre-season, in pictures

It has been a slow start again to the season.  2013 the fish came early and in abundance and the last two seasons we’ve geared up early, just in case… all for naught.  It’s nice for us in the office.  We get a slower start and more time to acclimate and get things ready.  The forecast this year is gigantic; 50 million fish.  The forecast last year was only 28 million and we got 40 million.  It has felt downright lazy-dazy these first two weeks and with that forecast, it makes me nervous.  I think we are going to get absolutely slammed with salmon in a few weeks.  Slow start means we will have the energy for it, I guess.  I hope…

I’ve been here two weeks and there was a good solid week of parties, reunions and shenanigans at the beginning but most of the friends left to go fishing a few days ago and I’ve been sleeping 9 or 10 hours a night.  After a first week of rain and cold the sun came out last weekend with a vengeance.  90 degrees yesterday.  Wut?  This is Alaska!  The place where Pacific Northwesterners and Scandinavians come to hide from the summer.  There’s a reason there are so many redhead fishermen in Alaska in June and July… bring back sweatshirt weather, please.

Here are some photos.  I’m not feeling very poetic tonight.

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a walk on the tundra
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baby fireweed blooming
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I wish that through this picture I could convey the pine/sage smell of crushed tundra grass and the sense of being held in the most comfortable mattress ever

 

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floodtide tender
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waiting for the tide
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90 degrees makes fisherfellas sleepy

 

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‘fuck you I have enough friends’

 

seal baby found stranded on the beach
seal baby found stranded on the beach
a visitation and knife sharpening lesson from Lee
a visitation and knife sharpening lesson from Lee

 

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saturday night on the town
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happy birthday Haley!!!

Back in Bristol Bay

It’s mid-afternoon Mug-Up* on the 6th day of my tenth salmon season in Bristol Bay, Alaska. This morning we had partial blue skies and the cold sunny light of early June, but now the grey shrouded sky blends into the floodtide waters of the Naknek River and rain streams down the windows of the office. The weather here changes with an abruptness that mirrors the spirit of the place and the work we are here to do. There is no softness in Bristol Bay. It is all knife edge beauty and stark truth.

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It is Sunday, early in the season before the fish have come, and this is my favorite time. The phones are quiet and we are all at our desks engrossed in the work of preparing for the season. The gloom outside and the rain on the windows creates a bubble of companionable busyness. Today is the first day that I feel *here* again. My whole self, present and engaged with this place, this work, not still half on the Outside. This is what I come here for. A total narrowing of focus. A concentration and surrender impossible in the land of TV, advertisements, cell phone apps, text messages, billboards and freeways. I am so grateful for my strange life in this place.

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It has already been an interesting few days on a personal level. Lots of dearly loved people here whom I rarely see outside of Bristol Bay. There is an intimacy rooted in daily contact and the intensity of work that is different from relationships forged elsewhere. There is history going back years, and the attendant complications of history. The first few days were a little difficult to negotiate. In the middle of it, I found a note jotted on the back of a piece of scrap paper in my desk, written at some point last season. “Riding the swells and eddies of emotion. It’s ok to do that here. Bristol Bay can take it.”

She always does.

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*”The term “Mug Up” was used in coastal communities by the mid-1800s to describe any snack or coffee break throughout the day or evening. “Mug ups” were an important part of life for fishermen. They would gather and have a hearty meal and warm up whenever they could take a break. Today, this nautical expression still describes a gathering of people for a drink and meal” Thanks, Urban Dictionary!

 

The Fleet Departs

Bristol Bay salmon season officially opens on June 25th. On that day, each fisherman is required to have registered with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) which river district they will be fishing in. Egegik, Ugashik, Nushagak, or Naknek-Kvichak. In the weeks before what is known to us as “Blue Card Day” (in order to notify ADF&G of their chosen district, they fill out a form printed on blue paper), fishing is open but there is no registration requirement. Usually not enough fish to necessitate strict management. This week is known as “Free Week” and the early bird fishermen are usually in the water by around June 16th to get started. This year started out different though; last year “Free Week” brought huge runs of salmon come early to the bay on the heels of a hot, hot spring. The peak of the season came around June 26th, over a week early from the standard peak of July 4th. The numbers at the end of the 2013 season were generally disappointing and this early season was largely blamed. So this year, everyone came early.

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 At the dock

Everyone, that is, but the fish. After another hot spring that had everyone gearing up for a second early season, the weather turned to a more usual Bristol Bay summer… grey, cold, and rainy. The fish are coming in the usual Free Week dribs and drabs.

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Cap’n Reba hanging nets like a badass

And what happens when there are a lot of fishermen and no fish? Trouble. After some lackluster fishing last week, Fish and Game closed the districts for the weekend and everyone who had gone out came back to Naknek, joining the rest of the fleet that was still readying their boats for the season. I hid in my room Friday night, taking Theraflu at 9 p.m. and crashing out for a much needed full night of sleep. Saturday night was another BBQ at the house on Wolverine Lane, and there was a bit of the nasty and violent discontent in the air that I mentioned in the last post. We had a repeat dance party at Fisherman’s Bar and I stayed up until 3 a.m. again. There were fistfights, dislocated shoulders, and arrests, and that’s just amongst the folks I am personally close with. By the end of the night I was more than ready for the fleet to get. the. hell. out. of. town. and. go. FISH!

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Sunday was a bit sunny, if not warm, and there must have been 40 boats at our dock, all tied up to each other, fishermen hopping back and forth between decks, frantically tying on buoys and fixing engines in order to be ready for the afternoon tide as the water came in and lifted each one up out of the mud.  All day we had a steady stream of smiling and buoyant faces coming through the office to say goodbye, the hope and expectation of the as yet undiscovered season lighting up faces so that they all looked like teenage boys off to camp. As I said “Good luck and have fun out there!” to friend after friend I got a little choked up at the bittersweet excitement of it all. I’ll miss them but we are here, after all, for the fish.

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At 4:30 high tide we watched from the office windows as one by one they untied from each other and motored off down the river. Bon voyage, fisherfriends, go get ’em!

 

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