From Smog City to the Bering Sea: My Adventures as an Alaskan Fisherman
The boat rocked incessantly for the first four hours of the day. I struggled to comprehend that I would be outside on the deck for another six, keeping balance on my feet as the boat floated atop an angry sea. I was freezing - the wind was bone-chilling, blowing salty spray into my face and stinging my eyes as I struggled to keep them focused. We were getting ready to haul the net out of the water when suddenly, I woke up.
It was only a dream. In reality, I was almost three thousand miles away, back in Los Angeles. I exhaled deeply. I knew that Summer 2022 would be different from the previous two. This time around, the months will pass on land, which is a stark contrast from my life as a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay, Alaska.
Bristol Bay is home to the largest salmon run in the world. On average, about 30 million fish return each summer to spawn in the four main rivers of the region. These include the Naknek-Kvichak, Nushagak, Egegik, and Ugashik. Indigenous cultures have inhabited the region for thousands of years, and still follow ancient traditions, such as subsistence fishing. From a commercial fishing perspective, the fishery is valued at roughly $2 billion and supplies half of the world’s sockeye salmon, worldwide. I knew none of this when my story began, back in May of 2020.
We were several months into the pestilence that is COVID-19. I had spent over two months lounging around my house, unable to skate, surf, or see my friends. I was starting to feel a bit stir-crazy, living the groundhog day of listening to horrific news on television, reading novels to take my mind off everything, and drinking (probably) too many beers each evening.
Randomly, I got a call one morning from Ryan, one of my oldest friends from school. “Hey, dude,” he said over the line. “We are getting ready for the fishing season, and one of the guys has dropped out last minute. Do you think this is the year you want to give it a try?” He told me that if I was interested, the captain would give me a call and we could figure out the details.
Ryan had gone up to Bristol Bay for roughly six weeks each summer to work aboard a commercial fishing vessel. Each time he returned, he would tell me hellish tales of the gruelling work conditions, for which you needed to be physically and mentally sharp. He also told me how scenic and remote the area is, which sounded dreamlike by his explanations. Despite it seeming like a completely insane work opportunity, there was a part of me that wanted to experience it for myself.
“Can I think it over?” I asked. “Fucking aye,” he replied. I hung up the phone and weighed the risks and rewards of joining him. If I was going to do it, at least he would be there. We had been through thick and thin, and over the years, he told me that he believed I could do the job. Financially, going out there would be wise, because I had not been working much since going into lockdown. Once I was on the boat, with one captain and two other crew members, I would basically be quarantined from the rest of the world and safe from COVID-19.
I was in. An hour after that I was speaking with the captain, who detailed my upcoming flight that was in less than two weeks. I needed to rush order all of my fishing gear, which included waterproof bibs, thick rubber boots and gloves, as well as a high visibility jacket. Once I ordered the pricey commercial fishing licence, which is regulated heavily by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, there was no turning back.
Before I knew it, I was in King Salmon, Alaska, population 374. When I walked out of the miniscule airport with my military-style duffle bag, I gazed around the town’s equivalent of the local high street. Two rough-looking bars faced each other, almost with a menacing stare. A bank sat sleepily adjacent from the bars; no one seemed to be walking in our out. I was surprised to see a haphazardly-built skateboard ramp in an empty parking lot. I thought that I was in the land of salmon, not skateboards.
Wandering around the parking lot, I eventually recognized the captain. He had told me beforehand that he would be waiting for me while sporting a Boston Red Socks baseball cap. Despite living in the US state of Maine, he has worked as a captain in Bristol Bay for 15 years. We hopped in his dilapidated 1960 Ford pickup truck, and took a three-minute drive to the boatyard. His 32-by-12-foot fibreglass Wegley spends ten months of the year on dry land, supported by metal stilts. After doing prep work on the boat pre-season, the boat is launched into the river, where it can then start the journey to the rivermouth and out to sea.
In terms of fishing, I learned the technique through a baptism by fire. The 150 fathom - or 900 foot - net is coiled around a drum on the deck like a huge spool of thread. After setting the net into the water, the salmon are caught by swimming into it and getting stuck. A hydraulic motor on the drum hauls the net, fish-filled, back in. As the incoming net slowly wraps its way around the drum, the crew remove the tangled salmon by hand. Although there are hooked picks to aid in the process, my fingers were in intense pain all the time. Even with thick rubber gloves, the cold conditions made the process even more difficult.
During the peak of the season, we worked continuously. One deckhand, or the captain, could take a four-hour nap, while the other three worked. Then, we would rotate, allowing for someone else to get some rest. We encountered serious storms on several occasions but persisted, setting the net into menacing, gun-metal grey waters. Picking the fish became so much more difficult when the boat was bobbing like a cork in five-to-six foot swells.
Despite the physical and mental challenges of the job, there were many opportunities to enjoy the serenity of being in The Last Frontier. When fishing in deeper water, we spotted several grey whales, snow-white beluga whales, and walruses. After completing my second season in 2021, I decided to treat myself and explore Katmai National Park. Visitors can only access this remote area by taking a small waterplane that can handle about twelve passengers. While there, one can watch brown and grizzly bears hunting the salmon that the fisherman have failed to catch. I found myself getting emotional at the beauty of the adult bears and cubs simply existing in their natural element. Truly breathtaking to witness.
I now understand how difficult the lives of fisherpeople - and by extension, farmers - are. There is a complicated chain of events that occur behind the scenes that permit us to enjoy a meal on our plates at home. Women and men put their lives on the line to provide this amazing protein source for us. Now that I have experienced it myself, I know the story that lies behind a vacuumed-sealed fillet in a grocery story.
I think the most fulfilling part of my trip was the newfound appreciation I had for everyday things upon my return home. This sense of gratitude is the main reason why I would like to return to Bristol Bay in the future. It is easy to overlook the small things in life, whether it be our own bed, a hot shower, or basic plumbing. If you feel up to the adventure, there are various platforms online to seek out work opportunities in Alaska, whether it be on a boat or in one of the many processing plants on land.
By leaving civilization to work a demanding and, at times, dangerous job at sea, I reminded myself of what truly matters in my life. Despite the temporary moments of discomfort, I was grateful for the experience because it taught me an important lesson. If you find yourself sweating the small stuff and failing to appreciate what is in front of you, take one step backwards, remember to breathe, and make the best of what you have while you still can.
Text and Photos: Elliott Wright
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