July 16, 2014
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.
It's Not Deadliest Catch
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.
Name That Boat
If the kind of fishing you do isn't on a single boat, that non-existent boat won't have a name. What most people picture when they think of fishing is grandpa on a park bench with his cane rod, Southern boys in NASCAR jerseys on sparkly ESPN bass boats, George Clooney in a less than perfect storm or cigarette-lipped crab boys on the Discovery Channel.
Like the differences between deer hunting and duck hunting, there are different methods and techniques to catch fish commercially. One popular method is seining, which is represented in the next photo. In this case, a crew lives and works on a single boat for an entire season. A crew, usually consisting of three to four able-bodied seamen, including a captain, works large purse nets to entrap salmon where they swim in open water numbers.
The less romantic way to haul salmon, for some anyway, is set netting. A set net operation is land-based, wherein large gill nets, typically 200 meters in length, are suspended vertically in near-shore waters by a system of buoys and anchors. Salmon returning to or from rivers to spawn swim along the shoreline and become trapped in the gill-sized diamonds of the filament nets. Set netters work in teams of two on twenty-something-foot aluminum skiffs to hand pick the nets. The different species — Sockeye (reds), Pink (humpies), Coho (silvers), Chum (dogs) and Chinook (kings) — are separated into large totes which are then taken to a large tender, a courier boat, and then delivered to the cannery for processing.
If you are eating a salmon that was caught by a set netter, you're eating a fish that went from the ocean to your plate by the tedious work of a single fisherman's hand.
Out to Sea
We were generally out at sea for about three hours at a time. How long were we completely removed from civilization, strictly isolated to a 50-acre island in the middle of the Shelikof Strait? Six long months. It's raw living at it's purest.
Few amenities, all electricity supplied by diesel generators (or lighthouses, the Alaskan term for the machine), showers once every two weeks via a Russian steam house called a banja, and water from rainfall catch. A sleeping bag is your bed in barrack-style sleeping quarters, and the single double-seater outhouse made for pungent but intimate post-breakfast conversations.
It's Not (Usually) Life or Death
Not once was I in a life-or-death situation. Was anyone else on your crew? I don't think so. There was never a situation where a life was in danger of being lost. The most jeopardizing work involved handling hundreds of gallons of gasoline at times. Hence, fire was always a concern, especially when you sleep and store hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gear in wooden buildings.
Because of the nature of the work environment, even the smallest safety infractions can turn dangerous, but there was never a time that couldn't be laughed off: 'Man, that was a close call. Next time I'll make sure to see if the stove is on before I touch the pot. '
I did go over board. Into 4 feet of water while unsuccessfully trying to de-boat near shore. Falling overboard and becoming lost at sea isn't likely with this kind of fishing. If you did go overboard, one of your friends would be waiting in a skiff ready to pull you out just as soon as you fell in.
The real danger of drowning lies in situations like falling into a spinning prop, becoming tangled in the line of a sinking anchor or a concussion from slipping on the deck before pitching overboard. Safety was always first priority and only when blatant mistakes were made, or freak uncontrollable accidents occurred, did it become a major safety concern.
The dangerous nature of the work is always in the back of your mind, but with so many eyes on the lookout for the slightest sign of trouble, it was difficult for any situation to become unmanageable.
Dating a Mermaid
The ratio of men to women who sign up to fish tends to favor those producing massive amounts of testosterone. But that isn't to say it's a world exclusively for men. There are plenty of women who man the nets every year, and those that do are regular gladiatoresses. For the ladies that join the crew as a cook, they hold the toughest job yet. Try feeding 11 He-Man wannabes burning through calories like they do air. It isn't a job for the weak.
And, yes, if you're a bachelor headed out to Alaskan waters to find that significant other, you're looking for a waterfall in a desert. You're more likely to pull up a net with a mermaid in it than to find a remote Alaskan fishing site to be prime courting grounds.
Make it Rain Dollars
The work/pay relationship is Facebook complicated. If you are looking to make a year's desk job salary with several months of set netting salmon, you're better off playing craps at the nearest casino. Each crew member gets a percentage of the season's total net, which is dependent on the total number of days worked, your experience (greenhorns get less) and the subtraction of gear cost.
Contractual pay varies for each site operation, who's running the company and how they're running it. For this crew's season, the number of salmon running was far less than desirable, so there was an excess of days when the biologist closed the waters. Therefore the total catch was meek in comparison to other years.
It is possible to walk away with $25,000 (remember, daily living expenses, like an AT&T bill, do not exist in the remote Alaskan wilderness), but landing that kind of paycheck usually means hauling in a season total that's over 1 million pounds. And that is, relatively speaking, a boat load of sushi.
We had what could be called a highly regulated work schedule that we rarely deviated from. Like any state's game season, the commercial Alaskan salmon season has open and close dates. The regional wildlife biologist determines when the waters may be fished, which is dependent on spawning forecasts. When fishing is permitted, it's a race to get the nets in the water and haul as much catch as possible.
In full swing, the crew would tend the nets three times a day on a tight schedule roughly something like this: Early morning tend; return to land for lunch; afternoon tend; return to land for a rest break; evening tend; dinner; sleep; repeat. On days when the fish were hitting the nets in full force, the midnight sun provided working light late into the night. Not only do the nets need time to fill with fish, the crew needs breaks to recuperate when they're working 15-hour days of manual labor.
So fishing for 24, 48 or 72 hours straight is technically possible, but it would be counterproductive to catching a lot of salmon. Your schedule revolves solely on the schedule of the salmon. Typically you fish hard when they're hitting the nets and remain patient when they're not. It's hurry up and wait, as the saying goes.
It is not a constant adrenaline rush, despite what you might have heard. There were moments, of course, when high swells got your heart rate up, but it's hard to get an adrenaline high from work that you do everyday in a series of repetitive tasks. What kept you high was the constant stimulation from the surrounding environment. The smell of fish oil, the sight of snow-crested peaks in the distance, the sounds of a fin whale surfacing and punching an exhale 20 feet into the air. A crewmate's inappropriate sense of humor can get you laughing until the salt is dry in your eyes and thoughts of home are put aside.
The Sea Will Make You Sick
You either had the inner ear for it or you didn't. And if you didn't, you developed one pretty quickly. Given that a set netter commercial fisherman sleeps on land, any given battle with rolling waters was relatively short and could be overcome with a good night's sleep. The constant transition between land and sea did make for some interesting dreams when you could still feel the yawing motion of the waves in your sleep.
Off the Grid
The owners of the operation had cell phone and Internet access, but the crew did not. For six months if we wanted to communicate with the outside world we did so through post. Every two weeks mail was picked up and delivered by bush plane at the cannery. "Mail day" was something everyone looked forward to when your daily human interactions were limited to the same 12 souls for six months.
The rare trip to the cannery, the hub for all commercial fishing activity in a given area, was like going to some exotic new zoo where fresh human faces are the attraction.
The Imperfect Storms
When it comes to judging storms, it's all about perspective. A 10-foot swell in an open, 25-foot aluminum boat will make you clench your cheeks the same way 25-foot swells might put you through several sets of skivvies while wrangling crab pots in the high seas. Like the differences between free climbing in Yosemite and summiting K2, each type of commercial fishing has its own dangers and thrills.
There were hurricane force winds that kept us off the water at times, and then there were times when we had to get to the nets even though you couldn't see the skiff 20 yards away from yours due to rain and waves. The most exciting days were the ones where the weather did its best to put you on your ass.
Alaska is capable of some of the world's most unforgiving temperatures. But we fished for salmon, which is commercially a summer season. Fishing the Bering Sea during the winter months is an entirely different beast, but it's not the only season you'll fish if you're targeting species outside of opilio and king crab.
Though the water temperature could still stop your heart in 15 minutes, air temperature so close to the Kodiak mainland fluctuated moderately between the low 40s and mid 60s. Not every kind of Alaskan fishing means taking baseball bats to ice or swallowing freezing rain.
The Crazy, Coked Up Ahab
That isn't a photo of natural Alaskan poppy seed. Our crew had multiple bosses who oversaw all operations, so there wasn't a single 'captain ' per se. They were family men who ran a business. There are stories of guys juiced up on uppers to pull 48-hour shifts, but I don't know how anyone would be able to keep their wits about them when they're inhaling snow like the Wolf of Wall Street.
Nicks and Cuts
There were some injuries but nothing too drastic. One guy developed blood clots in his legs, but that was from sitting in one place too long on his flight to Alaska. Another could have lost his hand when it was pinched between a dock line and a deck railing, but luckily it only resulted in stitches.
Knife cuts, rope burns and blisters were the worst threats. The rope of a sinking anchor around the ankle, a freak wave capable of capsizing the small boats and the heavy machinery always posed dangers, but everyone looked out for one another and accidents were minimal. The most dangerous aspect of the work was its relative distance from a hospital. A $10,000 phone call to the Coast Guard was a last resort when a knife couldn't do the job, or for one guy, when hemorrhoid cream was needed, ASAP (yes, that really happened).
You Are What You Eat
Eating fish for six months would result in gout and, most likely, the sprouting of gills. Thanks to our cook, we rarely longed for a home cooked meal. All of the food needed to fuel the crew and keep morale high was shipped to the island at the beginning of the season. There was rationing, plenty of preserved goods and a lot of repetition (canned peaches). By-catch like fresh cod, steelhead and halibut became mainstays, but the diet was never fish-centric.
Two If By Sea
There's a few ways to get to and from the mainland: on eagle's wings, by portkey or with the help of Falcor from "The Neverending Story." Most of us, however, took planes. The aircraft became smaller with each leg of the trip. What started out as a behemoth Boeing from Cleveland to Los Angeles turned into a mid-sized jet in Seattle. A shaky twin-prop from Anchorage was traded out in Kodiak for the little floatplane that put me on-site in the Shelikof Strait.
There was a lot of downtime. Ways to fill that downtime included hiking, knife-throwing, target shooting, cliff diving, writing letters and making hooch from apples and yeast. One mini-vacation allowed us to bushwhack the uncharted wilderness on a three-day trek to stalk brown bears on the mountain faces near our site.
A Motley Crew
Because the type of fishing we did was land based, the crew was much larger than that of a seining or crabbing crew. There were 11 full-time members contracted for the extent of the season, plus one cook. The crewmen were a collection of students, a carpenter, a farmer, a forest firefighter, a caterer, a bartender and, of course, all free spirits. They hailed from all over the Lower 48. One came from the Netherlands and another from Tanzania, Africa.
A View to a Kill