An Alaskan Summer Part: Ataqan

23 05 2011

Growing up in a family of fishermen seems to solidify ones future.  I remember in the third grade we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up.  I answered, “Commercial Fisherman” because even then I knew that “commercial” means you get paid.

This story is broken into three parts: Ataqan, Aalax̂, and Qankun.  That’s one, two, and three in Aleut (Eskimo).  As far as pronunciation is concerned, your guess is as good as mine.  Stuff a couple marshmallows in your mouth and you’ll do just fine.

In the summer of 1990 I would fulfill my destiny and take my place in a long line of fishermen in our family.  I had taken the trip to Alaska the summer before, but at the end of the season, to get my feet wet.  It was the summer of ’89,  New Kids On The Block had the number one song with “I’ll Be Loving You”.  A black and white buddy cop sequel known as “Lethal Weapon 2” was the number one movie.

But now it was 1990 aka the 90’s!  Things were going to be different.  Communism was on the way out, if you listen you can almost hear Scorpions Wind Of Change.

And on that note….

“Step By Step” by New Kids On The Block was the top song in the nation and black and white buddy cop movie “Another 48 hours” was the top movie.  Like Bob Dylan said, “these times were a changin.”  Maybe not in music and movies, but did I mention this time I wasn’t going alone?  I was being accompanied by local sports hero Matt Thompson.  It was going to be Matt and I as the rookies, my dad as the first mate, and then the Skipper or Captain….. Walt.

Unrelated Tangent:

Now I don’t care who has done what since.  In my mind Matt was part of one of the greatest high school baseball teams I’ve ever seen or had the pleasure of watching from the bench.  Based on the equipment, level of competition, and just raw numbers.  They were  a later day version of Murderer’s Row: Three players hit over .500 for the season, Steve Anderson .506, Mark Thompson .519, Matt Thompson .521.  Combine that with Danny McFadden going 15-0 with an ERA of 0.93 and you had the north coast version of the New York Yankees.

Matt must have been nineteen or twenty at the time, as he had just finished his freshman year at Eastern Oregon.  Our interactions prior to this were brief.  In high school, I was a freshman when he was a senior.  I had only limited conversations with him while I rode the pine as a freshman on the baseball team, but he came off as a quiet yet respectful person.  All I knew was he was a cool dude that loved baseball and I was going to get to spend some one on one time with the 1989 2A All-Star Game MVP.  It was like a white less talented Tony Gwynn getting to hang out and talk hitting with Ted Williams.  As it turns out I don’t think baseball came up once.  But he did introduce me to several terms and phrases popular on the college scene.  Matt if you’re reading this… I thank you for that.

Our Alaskan Airlines 737 touched down in Anchorage, but our final destination was the town of Dillingham.  We had to change planes, and change planes we did.  It’s a little bit of a shock to go from the comforts of a Boeing Jet to something that looks like an Indiana Jones movie prop.  As we boarded a ramp which lowered from the tail I noticed this appeared to be some sort of converted cargo plane that seated 30 to 40 people.  I ended up taking a window seat right on the wing so I could keep an eye on one of the two propellers.  In the world of air travel, cargo nets for overhead storage is top shelf.  I kept waiting for them to load the livestock and Short Round to show up screaming “Docta Jones!” (That’s “Doctor Jones” in standard stereotypical 80’s asian voice)

Did I mention I don’t like to fly?  Let alone fly in something where they don’t even bother to go over what to do in the event of an emergency landing.  I’d always heard that Alaskan bush pilots were like Top Gun… The best of the best of the best.  Of course I think I also heard they die at an alarming rate.  The flight from Anchorage to Dillingham was probably in the hour and a half range.  As far as I was concerned, it was not nearly short enough.

The landing was a rough one, cross shears coming off the ocean, moving the tail of the plane all over the place.  The type of landing where you don’t exhale until the wheels hit, which I did.  Only to freak out when the engine cover came completely off!  As my pupils dilated and fixated on the prop I thought, “Oh my god she’s breaking up!  We’re going to explode!”  Nobody bothered to mention the tops of both engines pop off upon landing to create drag and cool the motor.  I kept thinking, “Get me off of this plane and bring on the sea sickness.”

Besides three days of sea sickness for most people, here’s what else you don’t realize about fishing in Alaska, four men on a 32 foot boat for an extended period of time can be interesting, and lead to an aquatic version of cabin fever.  Here are some other nuggets of information.

  • Showers are not really an option, in four weeks I had the opportunity to take two showers.
  • Sleeping on the back deck while still in your rain gear, in a seated position saves time and makes sense.
  • The “#2” “deuce” “duker” or “admiral dump-n-stein” is persona non grata in the bathroom, instead you get a 5 gallon bucket with rope tied to the handle so you can toss it over the side and scoop sea water.  You can figure out the rest from here.
  • Crew members take turns cooking and get to pick out the food loading up several grocery carts pre-season.  It’s like going on supermarket sweepstakes!
  • In terms of livable square footage we’re talking about 150 for 4 people.  You get to know each other.

Now fortunately for us the boat we were on was brand new.  I’ve seen and been on some real rust buckets.  I’ve heard the stories about how the exhaust manifold doubled as your stove.  We had the benefit of a gas range, oven, fridge and sink, all stainless.  Unfortunately those are conveniences that don’t lead to you making more money.

In Bristol Bay, the next important thing to knowing where the fish are, is speed.  The faster you are, the more sets you make, the more times you unload, the more money you make.  Our boat was a classic example of American engineering at its finest.  Huge Detroit Diesel engine powering a boat that was way too heavy.  The end result was a boat that sounded fast but was slow as hell.  At the opposite end of the spectrum you had our old adversary: Mother Russia!  If this were a movie, we’d cut to a clip of Russian soldiers Goose Stepping through Red Square. (click here)  Just do it!  One click 45 seconds, totally sets the mood.

The Russians may have lost the cold war, but they dominated Bristol Bay.  Huge fiberglass hull boats that had jet propulsion, not propellers.  To put things in movie terms: we were Rocky (lots of muscle but slow and dumb) and the Russians were Drago (Fast, powerful and cutting edge).  Only this time unlike Rocky IV, they absolutely kicked our ass in a 15 round one-sided beat down.  A popular pastime would be to blow by our boat, full throttle, at night, while we were anchored.  Thus throwing a massive wake at our boat.  Always awesome when you were trying to have dinner and the boat goes from completely calm to rocking violently side to side.  “Dasvidanya Americana’s!”

DOWN TO BRASS TACKS

Commercial Fishing in Bristol Bay is a series of “openers”.  For example they may open fishing for a 12 hour period, in that time you go wall to wall and try to catch as much as you can.  Then they close it down for a day or two.  In the down time you repair nets, or make repairs to the boat, if you’re all caught up on repairs you tie off next to one or more boats and play cribbage.  If you’re really lucky you head for shore.  By shore I mean the closest native village population always less than 200.

These villages were usually sustained by some sort of fish processing or cannery.  I always thought this is what a research station must be like in Antarctica.  There was such a feeling of isolation.  So much land and space and so few people.  It’s both peaceful, while at the same time giving you feelings of anxiety.  The anxiety comes from realizing you are not in control of just being able to leave whenever you want.  No wonder every year there’s a native who freezes to death with his face stuck to a gas can.  I guess at some point sniffing gas fumes and getting shipped off in a box seems like a good idea.

When there was no time for land, one of the boats we would tie off with was run by an older, jovial, slightly chubby Scandinavian man named Jorgen.  He spoke english with a heavy accent and had a two person crew.  His boat was something to behold.  Remember when I talked about rust buckets?  This would classify.  Or maybe I should say “wood” classify.  Wooden boat from the late 40’s early 50’s.  It’s at this point I overlooked how slow our boat was, and embraced the safety that welded aluminum with an airtight cabin provides.

Jorgen’s big plan in life was to fish Bristol Bay long enough to realize his dream.  His dream was to open a crematorium, it’s all he ever talked about.  How it was such a money-maker, and there was always going to be customers, low overhead etc.  Jorgen was an urn half full type of guy.

His crew consisted of two late 20-somethings whose names escape me.  One was a real earthy guy who was all about Steely Dan, nice guy, I think he was from New Zealand.  The other was a blonde woman who was kinda hot by default.  Consider this, she was the only woman with all of her teeth that any of us had seen in weeks.  Plus she was blonde, wore tight jeans, pink Vuarnet sunglasses and liked to talk about how cocaine made sex amazing.  That’s right, your heard me.  Inner Ron Burgundy monologue, “Hello Thomas, welcome to manhood and stay classy Bristol Bay.”  I’ve always had a soft spot for women who openly talk about their sex life and cocaine use.  I guess deep down I’m just an old-fashioned romantic.

It’s been said that most of the people in Alaska are there because they’re on the run from something or someone.  I think there is a lot of truth to that statement.  Consider it the last stronghold, technically you’re still in the United States of America but you’re just a short boat or plane ride from someplace where man may or may not have ever set foot.

Thinking back, it’s amazing that so much happened in such a short amount of time.  Who knew seven weeks would give me tales that would last a lifetime.  As an adult I sometimes go 3 months and forget everything that happened.  In the next part of this story I’ll touch on a few of them and go into detail on two specific events that I remember as though they were yesterday.  We’re just getting warmed up.  There are 1990 words in this story, now how cool is that?

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