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!!!
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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!

 

So Go Ahead, Wait On the Scent of Salt, Call This Our Life

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.

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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!”

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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.

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*the title is from a poem by Phillip Levine

Salmon Wakes

Today, I am tired.

It is our third week of 16-hour days. 7 days a week. Of ringing phones and constant emergencies, questions, endless paperwork, a crush of pressure to get it all done NOW.

And you know what? Compared to everyone else around here, I have it easy. The cannery workers have been working 16 hour shifts too- on their feet, with a break every 4 hours, in the cold wet stinky plant. The fishermen in the Naknek and Nushagak districts have been on a brutal schedule of 2-4 hours off between open periods. Just enough time to deliver, grab a snack, take a nap and then do it all over again. I sit at a desk in yoga pants and sandals and drink tea all day and take naps in my room on my lunch break.

Still, it’s 120 hours a week, and I’m tired.

The first boats came out of the water this afternoon. As I type this I can hear the growl of the boat hauler coming up the hill with the F/V Krisindy on its front. The boats will be put up on blocks in the boatyard, cleaned and winterized, to sit silently through the long dark months until we and the salmon arrive again with the spring. The fishermen have been calling and stopping by in a steady stream, to let us know they’re done for the season and get their advances. They all look tired too… wind and sunburnt, with pounds lost to the relentless endless push of fishing with no time for sleep or food, hollow-eyed and dirty. This year most everyone is leaving happy, at least… we are now at 10 million fish over forecast and the total catches were good.

Last night I sacrificed a few hours sleep to go down to the dock at low tide and have a drink with friends on the F/V Black Velvet. They were in for repairs and, due to a blown hydraulic hose, had made a mess of themselves and the boat- missing high tide and the chance to make it out of the river in the process. The water was at its lowest and the sun was setting as I climbed down… and down… and down the shaky ladder to where the boats rested on exposed muddy riverbed. We stood on the back deck and looked out at the center channel where a narrow pool of water lay awash in the purple and pinks of the reflected clouds. The water rippled gently on the surface and the fisherman pointed to one narrow wake and said, Look-there are salmon in the pool. I looked at the small wake, moving quickly upriver as the salmon tried in vain to make it up the river in too shallow water – beyond it the tundra and above it the sky and the river leading out to the bay and the boats all around us, the whole world a swirl of bright color reflecting off water and cloud so that, except for the line of bluffs cutting a horizon to the south, there was barely a separation between water and sky. The salmon wakes rippled in the water and everything was so big and alive and beautiful and I felt a swell of gratitude… common these days, even in my most exhausted or stressed moment, to look around and just think, Yes. This is the life that I want and it is the life that I have.

I looked up with that feeling tingling in every cell and next to me was my friend and we locked eyes and I felt in that moment that he felt it too. We smiled at each other and said nothing. Just smiled bigger, and bigger, as the colors swirled all around us and the salmon swam up the river towards home.

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July

Remember just a few weeks ago when we said bon voyage to the fishermen as they headed out to the fishing grounds? Here we are on July 10th and the season has come and now it goes. Just a day after my last post, the salmon hit the rivers with a mighty force and we’ve all been working like mad 14, 16, 20 hours a day to harvest them. The run was predicted at 26.5 million and we’re at 34 million now and though we are definitely on the ebb side of the season, we’re still fishing and the run is going to surpass predictions by quite a bit. We’ve had many small and big dramas, emergencies, tears, laughter, boredom, rain, mosquitoes, hissy fits, and lots and lots of coffee… and green tea on my part.

I haven’t had time to write much but I wrote this last year around this time of the season, so it will have to speak for this season as well…

The salmon are returning to the rivers from the Bering Sea and we return with them. Soon, the silver flash bang of the salmon run will begin to stretch us all thin – the sunlight, endless, days long under the Northern summer sun, so that each blurs into the next, the mindless insistent pulse of the salmon taking us over too – we run and push and pull and go go go – it is time it is time it is time. There is no time. There is nothing but time – the clock ticks 24 hours without darkness and we sleep where we fall, in boots and sunglasses, snatching precious moments from the flood of scale and fin. They are answering a call louder than comfort and ease and we must answer it too. Cheekbones honed sharp and eyes bright with exhaustion and adrenaline, our bodies made into quivering channels for a life force that is too great for them to hold and maybe not really ours to carry. We are carved down to nothing and yet in the bearing down we are made into everything – as the flow of the river carves canyon from mountain – an emptiness that is full in its purpose. The gill flutter tide force carving us out, making us more and less human, replacing our blood with saltwater.

towards the mouth of the Naknek river at sunset, midnight on the 4th of July
towards the mouth of the Naknek river at sunset, midnight on the 4th of July

Rough Weather and Mercury Retrograde Hit the Fleet

So far:

1 blown engine
1 leaking gas tank
1 hole in a something something that almost sank the boat
1 brailer bag in a prop
1 broken bow thruster
2 midnight naked swims to save the boat
1 dislocated shoulder
1 smashed finger
2 almost sinkings
2 overboards (all survived)
1 something something else that necessitated pulling the boat out of the water
1 almost collision with a tender
1 medivac to Anchorage
Wind and seas rough enough to blow the windows out of 7 boats

The beginning of the season is always a chaotic swirl of breakdowns and fixings-up but this year seems more extreme than usual. Seems that its lucky the fish didn’t come early because half the fleet is too banged up to fish. Sunny skies today and here’s hoping the warmth brings safer conditions and our SALMON!

from the water
from the water

Down In Bristol Bay

Today is 12th day of my 9th salmon season in beautiful Bristol Bay.  Time here is strange… the sun is up 20 hours a day and we work 90 hours a week at the moment, creating something like one long endless day.  12 days feels like 12 weeks.  Or more accurately, it feels exactly as if the winter was a dream and I never left this place last August.  The weather has been mostly cold, rainy and blustery… possibly affecting the run of fish, which was predicted/hoped/feared to be early.  Last year was hot hot hot and the fish ran early, escaping the nets that weren’t ready.  The boat accounting office where I work is starting to get busy with arriving captains and deckhands, frantic requests for money, supplies, and favors, an emergency every hour.  Every day some familiar face of a dear friend suddenly appears at my office door.   Lots of happy reunions, catching up on Bristol Bay gossip.  Much less discussion of our winter lives than you’d think.  The outside world falls away, here.  Nothing matters but the work and the salmon and the joy of being together again.  That is, until the middle of the season when the rain and the grind and the constant company starts to bring out the worst in all of us.

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I got here a few weeks earlier than I usually do and it was an unexpectedly gentle and slow homecoming.  Much better than coming straight into an office piled high with paperwork and loud with ringing phones.  Everyone is still taking it easy, working on boats and getting ready, and there’s been lots of time for fun.  Saturday night after (13 hours of) work, we headed down the one road about 10 miles to a house shared by a group of fishermen, beat up and dirty and bare bones, open just a few months out of the year and only inhabited before and after fishing is open.  The men had made sushi, pasta, baked salmon with herbs and lemon… not a small feat in a place with one small store and produce only wishfully called ‘fresh’, flown in from Anchorage (and before that, Seattle?) and sold at exorbitant prices.  We stood around the kitchen eating from paper plates, the fishermen in dirty carhartts and xtratuf boots, baseball caps and hooded sweatshirts stained with fish blood and burns from welding accidents, hands black with grease and oil.  Country music played on the stereo while we ate and told stories, each tale a little bit taller than the last and most of them true.  One of the consequences of working in this industry of daredevils and cowboys.  I remember overhearing the middle of one story: “And then I got on the back of the elephant and there were fucking tracers everywhere, man!”

 

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I’d been out until 1 a.m. the night before and swore I wouldn’t go to the bar after the BBQ, but there I was walking into Fisherman’s at 11 p.m.  Working in the cannery is a little bit like indentured servitude and a little bit like spring break.  90 hour work weeks and a party every night.   “Where every night is a Friday night and every morning is a Monday.”  The parties can be hit or miss… sometimes there is a dark vibe, everyone tired or grumpy or nasty, bar fights and old grudges, not enough fish and too much alcohol, men taking it real personal that you don’t want to dance with them.  Then there are the magic nights, when everyone you love is out, and everyone is just drunk enough but not too drunk, and the music is good, and ridiculous things happen, and no one punches anyone else, and the men all dance with you but don’t expect anything for it, and even while it’s happening you think, This is a magic night and I will remember it forever.  We had one of those Saturday night.  Danced for 3 hours in the back room of Fisherman’s, to Michael Jackson and MGMT and Footloose, all of us screaming the lyrics of “Don’t Stop Believing” with our arms around each other’s shoulders, multiple dance-offs, absolutely won by the small blond girl who did the worm across the whole room.  The stars were out as I walked him in a light rain, listening for bears in the tall grass on the side of the road.  Those nights are what make the bad days worth it.

My favorite part of the night went like this:

A friend of mine, who shall remain nameless asked me to go to the bathroom with her.  She sat down on the toilet and said, I have to poop.  I said No!  Not while I’m in here!  And then someone started banging on the bathroom door like they were on a drug bust.  I thought it was some fisherman friends trying to mess with us, so I opened it a crack to yell at them and came face to face with a small, squat woman looking very, very angry.  I tried to slam the door but she shoved her way inside.  My friend was just trying to pull up her pants and the woman elbowed her way past both of us towards the toilet.  I shut the door and locked it again (not knowing what else to do) and my friend was still trying to pull up her pants when the woman sat down on the toilet and said, “Who pooted?”  I started laughing so hard that I had to sit down on the floor.  My friend, who had her pants pulled up at this time, said to the woman, who was still on the toilet, “You look Samoan, are you Samoan?” and the woman said yes and they proceeded to talk excitedly about themselves, the woman still on the toilet.  I was still sitting on the floor, whooping and crying with laughter and trying to catch my breath, and my friend and the woman must have reached some kind of emotional peak because my friend said, “I just want to give you a hug!” and leaned over and hugged the woman, who was still on the toilet.   Oh, Naknek.

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It is almost the end of the day now and from the window of the office I see the river.  Earlier I watched as the tide rushed out towards the bay, grey water reflecting grey clouds above.   Now a scattering of gillnetters and crabbers (in service as fleet tenders for the summer) lie sunken in the mud, waiting for the tide to turn back.  The growl of the boat hauler filled the office all day as it emptied out the boatyard, the vessels that loomed large and awkward on land becoming tiny in the engulfing water, graceful as they roll into the swell and head out to the fishing grounds.  The season is upon us.

 

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*Down In Bristol Bay is the title of a book