Well, much has happened since the last time I’ve posted. I got to witness what I call the ‘Great Dandelion Detonation’ in Anchorage. Of course, anywhere there are dandelions growing there’s always that time of year when you’ve got some fluff in the air. In Anchorage however, the fluff is like a snowstorm! You actually have drifts of fluff in people’s yards and alongside the roads. I’ve never seen anything like it.
The fuzzy was all over the place!
On a day when the fluff was thickest, I was walking to the Carr’s (Alaskan Safeway) from the house I was staying at in Anchorage. The streets leading to the grocery store wound though a bunch of suburban neighborhoods in the middle of town, so running into wildlife was the last thing I was expecting. I was walking down the sidewalk through the fluff drifts, as I was fiddling around with my phone. When I looked up from my screen, out of a side street to my left came a moose the size of a horse that was jogging in my direction! It was about only about a hundred feet away from me, it was the closest I’ve been to a moose that can actually get at me. I did an immediate 180 degree turn and started walking away from it. After I walked a short distance, I turned around to see what the moose was up to.
Fortunately, it was heading in the other direction down the street. It all happened so fast that I didn’t get a picture, although I tried. Since the way I had to go was the direction the moose had ran, I cautiously continued my walk. I think the moose ducked out in a creek bed that intersected the street a ways down, as I never saw it again. I figure it was a young male moose out wandering around looking for ladies or something. The moose you really have to look out for are the mamas with babies, although any moose could mess you up if you got on its bad/crazy side. This goes to show that you never know what you’ll run into outdoors in Alaska! The moment you step outside you could encounter any kind of critter, even in the middle of a densely populated area.
I went with Bethan and her mom to go check out the local botanical garden on one of my last Anchorage visits. I used to work at one when I lived in Hot Springs, so I was interested in checking out what they had here in Anchorage. It was small, but what it lacked in size, it gained in just the sheer variety of plant species. There were so many different kinds of native ground mosses, flowers and berries on display. Over the course of the summer different kinds of flowers bloom at different times. At the time we visited most of the early season varieties had already bloomed, and the late summer flowers had yet to produce, so the garden was in a bit of a lull. There were still plenty of flowers blooming however, so there was still much to see.
This was a pretty interesting display. I didn’t see any mushrooms on this shroomy bus, but it seems like a work in progress.
Some pictures from around the garden.
The major thing going on lately is that ‘The Big Show’ is well underway around here. That’s the general term for the fleet kicking off the salmon season. It’s kind of like Burning Man for the fisher folk. Over time, more and more people started showing up around the cannery. Around the end of June is when it really got hopping. Fortunately, Thor and I had the boat ready to go long before most of our fellow fishermen did, so we got to sit back and watch everyone else go crazy getting their boats in the water.
It’s now a couple of weeks into the season, and I have a few thoughts on the experience so far. The first thing is that commercial fishing in Alaska is a whole different beast than fishing for fun anywhere else. There’s only special days when we can go fishing, and sometimes they run consecutively. This means that you have to go fishing whenever you are allowed to, or you’re leaving money on the table. No matter if you’re injured, or sleep deprived, you’ve got to go. Injuries are really bad, because if you hurt yourself in a small way it never has a chance to heal properly. Then it keeps getting worse and worse, and you’ve got to figure ways to treat it (or keep it from getting worse at least.) This job is hell on the hands, fingers and wrists. I’m constantly popping Advil, icing and bandaging wounds. I’m used to getting injured fishing, it comes with the territory. Getting wounded and working through it is something I’m having to get used to. Fortunately it’s made me a lot more safety-minded and I’m learning how to not get injured in the first place. Still, some things just come out of nowhere and there’s nothing you can do about it. I just try and cultivate situational awareness as much as I can.
Another thing that has been a challenge is learning how to properly tie up our big boat when the river current is flowing strongly. Depending on the tide, the Kenai River can really get rolling. This really becomes an issue when tying up. There’s only so much force I can haul on a line in those kind of currents with that big of a boat. We had issues the other night when I tied off the Cheryl Lynn to the dock for our off-load. Right after I tied up, I noticed that the dock cleat I had just looped the line around started to lean over to the side facing our boat. The heavy current was putting enormous strain on the cleat, while Thor had the boat in gear to try and counteract the force of the water. Obviously, the cleat was rotten and couldn’t take the strain. There were people around besides me, we all ran for cover because when that thing eventually blasted off the dock it was going to go with lethal force. I couldn’t untie the boat because of the dangerous situation, so Thor gunned the boat and ripped the whole thing out. It came out like a bullet and slammed into the hull like a slingshot. That would have crushed a body part for sure.
Right after this happened, we tied up to another cleat and while I was unloading the fish, our engine started to overheat. We managed to make it back to our anchor buoy before a little bit of steam turned into huge clouds, filling the cabin. One of the skiff drivers came over to us, he thought we were on fire! Luckily, Thor managed to fix the problem the next day without calling in a mechanic, so we’re all good now. It was such a stressful off-load after a 20 hour day, things tend to go to shit when you’re least prepared to deal with them out here. As ya’ll can see, the whole docking aspect of this job can be really challenging. There’s just so much that can go wrong when you’ve got big boats crashing up into docks.
The ocean is wildly unpredictible around here. The tides rule everything, since they have a huge range. It’ll swing over 20 feet in 6 hours, and the access to the river is only possible when the water is high enough. We’ve had to wait out at sea for enough water to fill in the river mouth before we could enter. As for being out at sea, it’s generally pretty rough and choppy. Four to six foot swells are normal to work in. Occasionally it is nice and flat, but those times are few and far between. You have to really be careful on deck when things get rough, as it’d be so easy to get thrown overboard by wave action. Today as I write this (July 18) the entire fleet had to turn around due to really nasty conditions. It’s a shame because it’s such a nice sunny day, too bad it was unfishable out there. Swells were rolling 8-10 feet, it was rough. We all headed out to sea in a pack, and one by one boats peeled off to return to port. Thor went out a good ways to see if the waves would lay down some, but it was just too much to safely be on deck. It was a wild ride from inside the cabin though!
As far as the fishing itself is concerned, we’ve been doing pretty well. We’ve caught between 1000 to 3500 lbs of sockeye every time we’ve gone out. Salmon is going for 2 dollars a pound at the cannery, so we get a few thousand a trip. Captain Thor has been impressed by my deckhanding skills and has told me he’s going to give me 20% of the total, which is the experienced deckhand wage. This means I can make a pretty good amount of money for a good day’s fishing. For instance, if we catch 3000 lbs that’s 6,000 dollars. My 20% of that would be 1200 bucks, pretty nice! You can see why everyone is pushing as hard as they can to fish. Our fishing periods are Monday and Thursday, and we can fish from 7 AM to 7 PM. The Department of Fish & Game can add days depending on their daily sampling of the total fish population. This week every day but Tuesday was a fishing day.
I must say that while it is impressive catching so many fish, I really miss having that connection with the fish you get while regular sport fishing. When sport fishing, I feel that every fish has a story attached to it. Some fight while others come up without struggle. Others are smart enough to spit the hook or do something to get themselves unhooked. You’ve got to find the proper bait selection, depth, location and things like that. When you have a good fight with a fish and win, it’s just the best feeling in the world. With gillnetting, you put out your net, reel it in after a certain interval, remove the fish, and chuck them into the hold. No fish has a story, it’s like assembly line work. Sometimes when I catch a big fish I like to comment on the size of it, or how nice its colors are. In a way I feel it gives a little bit of dignity to the fish. There’s no thrill to it like the way it is when I’m fishing kings with my boys back in the Monterey Bay. It is what it is though. I’m glad to have the opportunity to do this work, but I can’t wait until I can get a rod and reel in hand to fish the proper way again.
Our fishing days run really long. Typically I’ll wake up at 3:30 and leave the dock at 4. It’s usually 1-3 hours to get to the fishing grounds out in the inlet, and that same amount of time to get back. Then with the off-load taking 1-3 hours, you’ve got quite a long day. Most of our days average 18-20 hours. It takes me a full day to recuperate if I’m lucky enough to have a day off. If the fishing is open the next day, you get a couple hours sleep and you’re back at it. You’ve just got to get by with cat naps here and there. There is a lot of down time letting the net soak, but when it is time to pull it in and get the fish out it’s a lot of work. When the boat is pitching around it gets wild!
I’ve come a long way in the two weeks we’ve been going out. I think I’ve got the fish picking part down, that was the hardest thing to learn how to do. The gillnet is about 13 feet deep, and when you bring it up on the boat it’s compressed into about a 3 foot swath of net. The salmon are all tangled up in there and it takes a lot of practice getting them out. We use these little metal picks to get the netting off of the fish, they are like tiny gaffs. They are also good at hooking the fish in the head in order to get a better grip on them. Sometimes the fish are small enough to just pull through once you get the head clear, but most are snarled up in there. It took me a few trips to really get the hang of it, and now I can get all but the most tangled up fish out of the net. Thor says that I picked it up faster than most people he’s seen, so I take that as a great compliment.
There’s a neat little community of fishermen down here at the cannery. Everyone knows each other from years of fishing together. People are divided into what is known as groups. Groups all fish together and share information with each other at sea. Our group has a code system so if one guy finds the fish, he can announce it to everyone over the radio in code so non-group members won’t get in on it. We’ve got a good group full of some interesting characters. Occasionally some of the crew will cook up a whole bunch of food and we’ll all get together and socialize. A lot of these guys are from Washington and Oregon, they fish down there and up here commercially. I just love sitting around with these salty dogs and hearing their stories. It’s a real good scene here of mostly older people. Everybody helps everyone out with whatever they need, as we’re all in this together.
Our very first voyage was 4 days at sea to start off the season. The plan was to head out on the 4th of July and make our way down to Snug Harbor on the other side of the inlet. It’s 52 miles away from Kenai and takes about 3 hours to get down there. Historically, all the fishermen went down there to party on the holiday, I heard it was a quite a scene down there on that day. We were going to fish the area down by Chisik Island (where Snug Harbor is located) and overnight in the calm waters of Snug. I’ve been hearing about this place for a while from different people, and seen it in some of Thor’s artwork. Thor’s girlfriend Ingrid had taken off work for the week and she was going to join us on our trip. Thor was excited to show us the place that meant so much to him, and I was definitely stoked to experience the wilderness on the other side of the strait.
We made our way down there and fished all day. There was a tender (boat that collects fish) from our cannery at the anchorage in Snug, so in the evening we brought our first haul in and off-loaded it there. I was blown away by how beautiful this place was. I’d say that it is probably the most scenic spot I’ve seen in Alaska so far. The waters were turquoise in color, rather than the grey cloudy glacial water that is seen coming out of the rivers of the Kenai penninsula. It was surrounded by lush green mountains and in the background many snowy white peaks of the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve loomed. It is home to an old cannery that is still in operation as a bed and breakfast. A handful of houses dot the shorelines, but other than that it’s undeveloped. We dropped anchor across from the cannery and went to bed around 10 o’clock. Around midnight when the sky started to get dark, some people at the cannery launched a round of fireworks from the beach. It freaked me out at first, but I soon realized what was happening. It didn’t even bother me that they woke me up, I’m glad I got to see some 4th of July fireworks!
The next day was a day not scheduled for fishing, so we just spent the day going over to other fishermen’s boats to see what they were up to. We’d tie up alongside and just sit around to shoot the breeze. The big party I was told would happen never materialized, I was all ready for some barbecue, bonfires and beers. Oh well, at least I had a lot of beautiful scenery to feast my eyes on. It was a bluebird kind of day, nothing but sun and clear blue skies. Every direction looked like something you could see on a postcard. We lounged around all day, and in the afternoon we got the news that the following day was a fishing day. So we went out and fished that day and the next, returning to Snug at night at the end of each day.
It was nice to visit there, but I got really poor sleep on the day bed in the cabin. All I could think about it my nice bed in my camper back at the cannery. When we got back I crashed for a couple of days, it was wonderful. That trip was the longest I’ve ever been out at sea. While I really liked the adventure of it all, it’s not something I want to do again for a while. Maybe if the boat was bigger and I had a more comfortable place to sleep it would be different, but my back and hips got really screwed up from sleeping on plywood with a thin layer of foam on top. Being middle-aged sucks, I miss the days when I didn’t have to contend with constant daily pains throughout my body. I try to do what I can to avoid it in the first place, that’s my only defense.
A collection of photos of yours truly and of Snug Harbor.
There is so much activity going on right now here in Kenai related to fishing. It’s as if the whole population has turned out to fish for reds on the river. You’ve got us in the gillnet fleet, dipnetters on the beach, and above us on the river are the set net folks. Dipnetters camp out on the beach, and spend all day in the water in their waders. They have giant hoop nets out in the current, occasionally a red will swim into them. They do pretty well from what I hear. Whole families turn out and fish together, heads of households can keep 25 and each family member can keep 20. A good day of fishing will stock up the family freezer for a whole winter, but the fishery is only open to Alaska residents. Then you have the set netters, who anchor their nets and go out in their skiffs occasionally to retrieve the fish. I don’t know much about set net operations, I tried to look up their limits but can’t find anything online. Like us, they can only fish on certain days of the week.
So that’s pretty much what’s happening around here. There’s so many things going on daily, this fishing life is pretty dynamic. If I were to try and tell ya’ll about everything that has gone down I’d be writing this post forever. Suffice to say that Alaska is a pretty extreme place. This makes the highs really high and the lows pretty low. Things turn on a dime, you never know what is coming at you. I like that uncertainty, it’s so much more my speed than the boring and predictable lower 48. Anyways, I’ll try and update the blog more often. It’s hard to find time to write though. Either I’m fishing, getting ready to fish, or recuperating from fishing. I still can’t believe I’m getting paid to fish! It’s been a life-long dream for me. Ok, see ya’ll next time!