I’ve petted a wild brown bear and I’ve watched my friend almost lose his hand. I’ve cut out my own salt-soaked toenails with a rope knife and seen the stars so bright that the sky was in danger of light pollution. I’ve felt the icy waters of the Pacific lock my muscles as I tried to tread water. I’ve caught more fish in one summer than most will in their entire lives. I’ve been an Alaskan commercial fisherman, a character in an American maritime story so often told but almost always misunderstood.
In the spring of 2011, I was a factory worker at a cosmetics packaging plant and a bartender in Ohio trying to find sleep somewhere between the two. I was, however, more deprived of the outdoors than I was of sleep, and when a former college roommate called about a summer opening on an Alaskan salmon fishing crew, I couldn’t turn it down.
I grew up fishing ponds and streams with bread-balls for bait and pop cans for bobbers. I never had the means to travel to Alaska and put these skills to use until a man with a nasally twang from Kodiak Island called to tell me he had received my application, found it acceptable and was in need of a last minute replacement for his crew.
One of his men had already developed blood clots and could no longer work. He offered me the job. Said I had two hours to accept the six-month contract. I was on the other line with my girlfriend at the time and will always remember the silence in that earpiece when I told her my decision.
I was able-bodied, capable of growing facial hair and had before me the opportunity of a lifetime.
I was off to sea.
Or so anyone would have thought. I’d seen several episodes of the Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” since it’s premiere and indulged in fantasies of how that world would become my reality. It wasn’t. And I’m thankful for that in ways only those crewmen who were with me up there would ever completely understand.
My commercial fishing experience in Alaska, as it is for most who volunteer for the adventure, was anything but similar to a made-for-TV drama. Over the months of my contract, my experience became the most demanding of my life. Not because of the physical labor or the sobering isolation from the rest of society; it was because every additional day I was there, I knew it would become increasingly harder for me to adequately answer that inevitable question when it was all over: “So what was it like?”
Skyler Russell’s photos will answer the question honestly, while all I’m ever capable of saying is, “It was out of this world.”
The pictures will also dispel the popular misconceptions that all Alaskan commercial fishing is about the exchange of brutal misery for quick cash; a suicide-pact with the weaker side of one’s self; the 24/7 adrenaline rush from constantly huffing sea spray; and, of course, hard-assery in its most natural state.
It may be those things for some, but for most, it’s just a job—and a unique one at that.
Russell’s photos will help tell the real story about what it’s like to be in Alaska as a commercial fisherman for a season.
And if the photos do nothing other than show that such an adventure is actually a very real part of this world—and that the wild is still horrifyingly beautiful and a passion for it is not wasted—then they’ve told the story better than I could’ve ever hoped.
- If all fishing were done on boats like the Northwestern or the Time Bandit, then the only kind of seafood we’d be enjoying is Bering Sea crab. There are dozens of different methods for each of the species that end up in your grocery cart and eventually your mouth. We fished for salmon. The style of fishing needed to pinch salmon does not involve massive ships skirted in ice and towers of heavy steel pots. OK, but is commercial salmon fishing as intense as it is for those crabbers? It can be, but in very different ways. Both work environments have their own moments of the extreme, but in differing doses and contrasting ways. Overall, I’ll be the first to say that Bering Sea crabbing is much more dangerous than any kind of salmon fishing, given that one is a summer season while the other faces winter’s worst, but you have to remember that television gives any outdoor adventure a calculated serving of steroids for the sake of dramatics and station ratings.