At the age of 65, the world of the ocean and commercial fishing opened to me. I was riding my fixe to dinner at Mark Langdon's place, when Rebecca Chase called to ask if I'd like to go commercial fishing in Bristol Bay. A day later I was on Penn Air flying to King Salmon with a small duffel, including my Extra Tuffs, a dozn Atlas rubber gloves, and Helly Hanson rain gear. A quick taxi ride in Martha's taxi to Naknek brought me to the Leader Creek Fishery headquarters where I waited for the next tender to take me out to Steve Lewis' 27' aluminum boat, the "Red Magic" fishing the mouth of the Ugashik river 65 miles southeast of Naknek in Bristol Bay.
The tender was an old wooden boat, the "Randi Lynn", with huge aluminum tanks set on the front of the ship which held 250,000 lbs of fish in refrigerated insulated water. A series of booms would lift the bags of fish into the holds from the fishing boats. As I boarded the vessel, it was disgorging its contents into the cannery just up the hill from the Leader Creek Fishery headquarters in Naknek. A small boat with a huge compressor and suction system sucked the fish out of the hold and shot them up the hill to the cannery. The boat was appropriately named "The Boomer" because it made a huge boom every couple of minutes as air was depleted out of the giant suction tanks. We got underway at the next tide, about 5am, and headed downriver to the fuel barge set in the river. It held about 1,000,000 gallons of diesel fuel; the tender put on 3,500 gal. of fuel, and we set of for the Ugashik fishery. The crew was Tom, the captain from Seward, his daughter, and Mick, his only helper. Together the three of them managed the whole ship, including fixing the two Detroit diesel drive engines, the 6cyl Detroit diesel compressor engine, and the Isuzu ship's electric engine. Several times, the engines ran out of fuel because we were so low, and Tom & Mick would have to prime the injectors and do other repairs to get us going. It is amazing to see people with such a broad range of skills manage everything.
We passed a fleet of fishing boats delivering their loads to tenders, who then transferred the fish to "Processor" boats, tied next to "Trampers" which stored the fish for transport all over the world. Here's a photo of the process: A tender, tied to a processor on each side of a tramper:
We arrived at the Ugashik about 10 am, and they delivered me to the Red Magic, where I met Steve Lewis, his daughter Daisy, and her boyfriend Ben. Steve is a 3rd generation and life-long commercial fisherman from Petersburg, Alaska. Daisy is a RN, helping her father in the summer; and Ben is an environmental interpreter, making money for the year. The Red Magic had 9 insulated and refrigerated holds in the front deck for the red salmon we would catch. At the rear of the deck a large pneumatic pump driven wheel held the three shackles of nets, about 900' in length. We immediately started fishing, laying the net out the back of the boat. After a short time, Steve called us all to start pulling the fish out of the nets.
Steve, with infinite patience taught me the tricks of getting the salmon out of the gill net as quickly as possible. A small tool with a razor blade on the butt end, and a right angle hook at the top would either cut a strand of the net or pull the net over the body of the fish. By always grabbing the fish by the back of the head, and then pulling the netting out of the gills with the forefinger, or otherwise disengaging the head first, the fish would slip instantly out of the net. Steve was a master, able to extricate the fish almost instantly. I felt like a duffer, as the fish were sometimes caught in the net and rolled up, netting all over them. Steve would grab the fish from me and have them out in seconds. After a few hours of this effort I was feeling good about my newly developing skills, but the fish were slow to come out, and time after time, Steve would grab the fish from me and pull it from the net to save time. Time was of the essence, since this was his livelihood; the more salmon he could get each day, the more money.
It was beautiful work and reminded me of how much I love Alaska. It was part of the real Alaska I remembered from Denali Park, Kotzebue, and Port Alsworth. The huge ships, hundreds of fishing boats, and the bustle of commercial fishing activity brought back great memories and made me want to be part of it again.
On the second day, while I was pulling fish from the nets, I slipped on the deck and dislocated my right arm. Steve told me to take a break, and I went to the cabin, lay on the bed with my arm down and tried to relocate it by holding onto a 5-gal jug of water. No such luck, so Steve drove the boat the the closest tender to take me back home for medical attention.
We motored over to the Blazer, a dungeness crab boat. I climbed over the rail, and was led into the bunk by the crew, where I hung my injured arm over the edge, then turned on my back with my arm in the air to keep the pain down. I reached the top bunk, grabbed hard and tried to pull my arm back into its socket. After a couple of hours, I decided to do a classic gymnastic dislocation move, so I continued holding onto the bunk, got up, twisted my arm around until it was dislocated, then slowly relocated it back into its socket. It worked. Now, with very little pain, and the shoulder feeling normal, I lay in the bunk and rested. A few hours later, Dave, the captain and owner of the boat invited me into the wheelhouse, where I would spend the next twelve hours as we loaded the 156,000 lbs of red salmon and return to Naknek. The boat was 74 feet long, and carried the saga of the sea. Dave had been a crabber for 25 years. Until recently he had owned a 141 foot crabber and had worked the king crab out of Dutch Harbor, but with a wife and kids, wanted to spend more time at home, so he sold the big boat, bought a smaller one, and worked several seasons and spent more time in Reno where he lived. We motored back to Naknek, arriving the next morning. I thanked the crew, hopped up to King Salmon, and within the half hour was on a plane back to Anchorage.
It was sad feeling to be leaving the fishing fleet after such a short stint, more like a dream than reality. It was another adventure I thought I'd never have, but would go back in a second.