A Coastal 4th of July

16 06 2011

The 4th of July has always been my favorite holiday.  Not that I’m any more patriotic than the next guy, but because my birthday is the day after.  It’s always been about parades, BBQs, presents, and real fireworks.  You know, bottle rockets, firecrackers, roman candles, etc.

The bummer of it is, I’ve lived most of my life in two states that frown upon real fireworks.  Nothing says, “lets celebrate our freedom” like being given a pack of snakes and smoke bombs.  While I’m sure the sparkler was cutting edge in the late 1800’s, today it’s a symbol of sucky fireworks.  Really, Oregon?  You’re one of the greenest and wettest states, but you’re hanging in there with the boring fireworks.  The new buzz phrase is “safe and sane” more like “safe and lame”.

Other crappy items you can add to that list of lame: pop-its, Crackling Fountains and my personal favorite of all time disappointments: The Piccolo Pete.  This thing lets out a high pitch whistle that sounds like it’s winding down to a nice big explosion.  Instead you get nothing but silence, like there was a misfire.  It’s the “USA Up All Night” of fireworks, just a huge tease that leaves you wanting.  That’s right, I’m talking to you Rhonda Shear.

Ironically, if you want to get the good stuff to celebrate independence, you have to seek out a historically oppressed people.  Back in the day in our neck of the woods it was a place called Tokeland.  I first heard about Tokeland Indian reservation in 1987.  We had just moved back to the Oregon Coast after being in exile in the greater Tri-City area, specifically Richland, for seven years.  My uncle Jack was visiting and asked if I wanted to see something cool.

Uncle Jack was the type of renegade anti-establishment guy who any young kid gravitates toward.  His primary interests were vinyl records and car audio systems.  He had a room at my grandpa’s place that was filled with boxes of vinyl records stacked to the ceiling.  In addition, he lived part-time in a sweet van that was similar to the A-team van.  Only it was a rust color that a decade later would actually be just rust, but that’s another story.

The “something cool” he wanted to show me was a pack of jumbo black cat bottle rockets.  These were still the days when you could find the glass Coke bottles without traveling to Mexico.  So he pulled out a pack and we lit them off, dropping each bottle rocket into the Coke bottle and listening to that whoosh and then a “pop.”

“Where did you get those?” I asked.  He responded, “Tokeland,”  which is located across the Columbia River in Washington.  Thinking back, things were so different 20 years ago.  There were no smart phones, there was no Internet, thus no mapquest or GPS.  Places like Tokeland were almost mythical in stature.  Usually it came down to some dude drawing a map on a napkin from the Dairy Maid.  Directions to places like this, we akin to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The first time I went there, I went with my parents and my other uncle, Vince, who had brought his family.  I remember looking at the selection in awe with my cousins.  They had everything, including two certain urban legends.  That’s right, the M-80 and the M-1000.  Just as the rumors had always stated, they were not out on display.  These were hidden under the counter for serious buyers only.  You had to ask the salesman a couple of times before he would break down, almost as if he wanted to make sure that you weren’t a cop.

Well thank god for my uncle Vince, because for entertainment purposes he was indeed a serious buyer.  In retrospect it almost went down like a drug deal, the heavy artillery was put in a small brown paper bag and slid nonchalantly across the counter.  There were other drug terms as well.  When you buy bottle rockets, it’s not by the pack, it’s by the brick.

Flash Forward to 2004:

The 4th of July is kind of a big deal in Warrenton, more specifically the 4th of July Parade.  People set up lawn chairs early to get a prime seat.  Getting pelted with rock candy from fire engines and clowns is life-changing.  When I took my wife home for the first time so she could see where I came from, it was over 4th of July weekend.  Did I have ulterior motives for picking this weekend?  Sure our anniversary is on the 4th, but I wanted to get her to the parade.  As we unfolded our lawn chairs, a single tear of pride rolled down my cheek.  Soon after the parade began, several tears rolled down Ally’s cheeks as she came to realize what she had married into.

Flash Back to 1993:

One of the high points in my life was getting “popped” with a “brick” in the back of my 1985 fire engine red Camaro.  Ah, Seaside Dairy Queen with Kelly Ray, I remember it like it was yesterday.  Dirty cop, looking in the back window with a flashlight, without probable cause.  One of those, “turn them over to me and I won’t give you a ticket” scenarios.

Had smugglers blues been playing on the radio, I would have done a huge burnout in the parking lot, leading to a high-speed chase.  The crowd would have cheered me on as Kelly opened a bottle rocket barrage from the T-top.   Instead, I think a more subdued Crazy by Seal was jamming, and I handed them over.  I’m sure Officer Friendly and his kids enjoyed them.

Flash a Little Further Back to 1987:

Sorry, I skipped ahead, we need to take the story back on track in the late ’80s.  On the day of the 4th we were going to have dinner and fireworks at our place on Smith Lake.  It was one of those awkward situations where it was the whole family including both my real dad and my step-dad.  Any who… I’ve noticed that when my real dad and uncle get together, they revert back to two 13-year-old kids, which was great for me because I was right around that age.  Now we could all act like kids together.  Allow me to explain:

Most of the fireworks purchased were of the rocket variety.  Because of this, my uncle had the great foresight to bring a large piece of PVC pipe to duct tape to the side of the back patio, at an angle.  What a great idea– you simply light and drop.  It was like a six-foot-long mortar cannon.  As the night progressed things started to get creative.  Uncle Vince realized that if you took the top off of the bigger rockets, and removed the two firecrackers, you could fit an M-80 inside.  So instead of two firecrackers going “pop-pop,” there was a pause and then a “KA-BOOM.”  I would classify it as something louder than a shotgun blast.  Let me put it this way, there was enough of a boom to rattle windows.

With the ante being raised yet again, my uncle took the PVC and hoisted it over his shoulder,  Then he yelled, “John Wayne!” and fired a rocket at my cousins and me who were out by the lake.  Don’t worry, there was no m-80 on board for that particular rocket.  That would have been irresponsible.

With the night winding down, there was one last rocket left.  Think of a bottle rocket only three feet long with a really thick red stick.  This was to be the grand finale.  However, the previous success with attaching m-80s to rockets had all the grown ups hard at work trying to figure out how to increase the payload.  Engineers at NASA don’t work this hard.  There was a buzz in the room, and a look of satisfaction adorned three grown men’s faces.  Here it comes, the big reveal:  Attached to the sides of this enormous rocket were two m-80s, but they didn’t stop there.  Strapped to the middle was the  pièce de résistance, an m-1000.

This was going to be awesome!  All the boys gathered on the back patio as my uncle lit this bastardized bottle rocket.  Looking like a futuristic space shuttle from hell, he dropped it into the tube.  Then there was a mighty “whoosh”!  We all looked up toward the black sky, ready to track the launch.

Warrenton… We have a problem.

It appeared the payload was too heavy, even for this massive rocket.  After the loud “whoosh” and nothing happening we all looked back to the tube, just in time to see six inches of the rocket peak its head out.  Then like a frightened turtle, or George Costanza in a cold pool, it receded back into the tube.  It was at this moment, that everyone did the most disorganized Chinese fire drill I’ve ever seen, looking for a place to hide and take cover.  Three seconds later, where there once was a six-foot PVC pipe there was only air, and the smell of gunpowder.

Obviously a major malfunction…

The explosion was so loud my ears were ringing, and I had managed to make it around the corner of the house.  My mother, who was inside cooking came out to find jagged pieces of the PVC shrapnel embedded in the side of the house.  As if she wasn’t pissed enough, everyone laughing and talking about, “how awesome that was” didn’t help matters.  But that’s what guys do.  We do something really stupid and ill-conceived and then laugh about how awesome it was that we didn’t die or lose an eye.

This year our two boys are getting old enough to appreciate fireworks, so I’m doing what any good father would do.  I’m driving 240 miles to the New Mexican border to buy illegal fireworks.  “It’s the smugglers blues”!

God bless The United States of America, and God bless Tokeland.

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An Alaskan Summer Part: Qankun

31 05 2011

After the marathon sprint that is salmon season in Bristol Bay, my dad thought we could use some rest and relaxation.

On the docket was spending time with Rick, a close friend of his from when he lived in Dillingham.  Then we were going to do a little recreational fishing.  You know, the type with just a pole and some beers.

We were well into July and I was getting my first experience of what summer is really like in Alaska: giant mosquitoes, trying to sleep with the sun out, and freedom.  Freedom to watch bears pillage the dump at will.  Freedom to really do what you want when you want to do it.  The absence of darkness really opens up a lot of options for a person.

At Rick’s house with my dad it was like I was one of the boys.  I remember staying up late and shooting pool listening to Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall, while they talked about old times.  By the way, if you’re going to survive in Alaska you need certain comforts.  Having a room in your home that is basically a small pool hall/bar is one of them.  My life’s lesson during those couple of days was how to make a proper bridge with my hand.  I also learned the basics of controlling the cue ball and how to practice my stroke with a coke bottle.  Trust me,  it’s way more impressive than it sounds.

Rick was a family man who lived his life his way.  He survived on money he made from his smoked salmon business.  I say survived, but he actually lived quite comfortably.  He took us in like we were family, and for the next few days we ate, laughed, and listened to classic rock.  Rick was the type of guy you could count on in a pinch.  The old cliché about the type of guy who would give you the shirt off his back, that was Rick.  Or, say you needed someone to destroy evidence: Rick was your guy, no questions asked.

One year for Halloween, when my dad lived in Dillingham, they dressed up as a two-headed monster.  Spent the whole night in costume, now that’s a good friend.  The group photo of their early 80’s indoor volleyball team is priceless.  Rick has a two-foot beard and my pops has half a stache on one side, half a beard and no stache on the other.  It looked like they always had a good time together.  Of course it was the early to mid 80’s in Alaska there was plenty of snow to play in.

Sadly Rick passed away several years later from a heart attack.  My dad took it pretty hard, but I know Rick had few regrets.  When you live life your way on your own terms, the only regrets a person could possibly have is not seeing their children all grown up.  Although as difficult as life can get at times, if my last memories were of my kids when they were young without a worry in the world, I think I’d be fine with that.

After we wrapped up our time at Rick’s we met with another of my dad’s cronies, Dave.  Dave ran a charter boat business, but was taking us out, no charge, as a favor to my dad.  In the process of thinking back to these memories I’m also figuring out I was very much along for the ride.  I just went with the flow, like a leaf floating down stream.  What I mean to say is I was never really asked what I wanted to do.  I didn’t care, I was seeing everything for the first time, so it was all good to me.

We departed Dillingham early in the morning for Lake Aleknagik (uh lick na gick).  The road was a long straight line and covered in gravel.  Dave was the proud owner of a 70’s era Chevy truck.  It had some “added features” that you just don’t see everyday.  Here’s an example:  half way through our ninety-minute drive, it started to rain.  “What ever will we do?”  Not to worry, there are windshield wipers, which are manually operated by way of a left hand, a coat-hanger, and a shoelace.  For those of you who have always had the convenience of a Napa or Auto Zone, allow me to explain.

The coat hanger was tied to the first wiper on the driver’s side, then bent to come around to the driver’s window.  A shoelace tied the second wiper to the first wiper.  Dave would reach out the window and pull the coat hanger several times, thus clearing the window.  It was one part ingenuity, one part idiot savant.  Eli Whitney would have simply said, “You win.”  The cotton gin?  Really?  This is Alaska, go hard or go home.

Dave had a large ski/bass jet boat he used for his charter business.  It was a nice setup, two custom-built gas tanks which would hold more than enough fuel for our 250-mile trip.

We spent the first couple of days at a cabin on the lake mostly doing nothing but sleeping and playing cribbage.  It was the first time where it was just us with no noise.  No people who wanted to entertain, no sound… and really for that matter, no modern convenience.  You know, like electricity.

I should explain the geography.  Lake Aleknagik is a massive lake that is the end result of glacier run-off.  The Agulowak (Uh gool a wak) river is the river that feeds from the glacier into the lake.  Along the way, the Agulowak river puddles up into tiny lakes.  There are five of these lakes spread out over 100 miles, the last one being at the base of a massive glacier.  My dad had only ever been as far as the third lake.

Now the trick to getting up to the different lakes is to have a jet boat.  The jet boat has no propeller, so when it gets up on step, or top speed, it basically glides over the water.  Since these rivers are so shallow, it’s the perfect boat. If you have a foot and a half of water you’re good to go.

Dave was a master of his craft.  Like Han Solo navigating the asteroid field in Empire Strikes Back.  Dave knew these rivers.  I remember vividly as he asked me, “you ready for some scary shit?”  Then he punched it!  There’s something about going 45 to 50 mph in a boat that’s amazing.  In a car, not so much, but in a boat feels like the sound barrier might be broken.  Dave popped in a tape of CCR’s greatest hits.  Just as John Fogarty was getting warmed up, Dave sparked up a huge joint.

My dad would later explain that there were areas in the river where the boat was too wide to pass.  Specifically large boulders that were just inches beneath the surface of the water.  Boulders the size of VW van.  Dave would have to come in at an angle and then cut back, banking the boat up on its side in order to squeeze through.  This was all made possible by the use of Mary Jane to calm the nerves.  Whatever he needed to do to get the job done was fine with me.  I didn’t like the prospect of hitting a boulder, at top speed, in the middle of nowhere.

Looking back now there’s no way this guy didn’t fly a chopper in Nam.  I’m surprised he didn’t have a flashback and yell at me to, “get on the M60!”  This is as close to simulating a Huey ( Bell UH-1 Iroquois) yank’n and bank’n its way up a river in the Mekong Delta a person can get.

The trip was going to take a couple of days, so we stopped at third lake, and spent the night in a state park cabin.  One of the cool things about Alaska is there are cabins in the middle of nowhere, built by the state, that anyone can use.  The design of the cabin was very basic, but since we were in the middle of nowhere it was pretty impressive.  There was a table with two chairs, a pot belly stove, a couple of windows, and two sets of bunk beds.  The bunk beds were nothing more than plywood and 4×4’s.  The idea was you would roll out your sleeping bag and supply your own pillow.  There was a fresh supply of wood left behind by the previous guests.  The rule is: Use what you need just make sure you replace it for the next person.  (Selfish Authors Note: The world might be a slightly better place if we applied this rule to other issues.)

Once the stove was going we all started thinking about food, so my dad and I walked down to the river.  The salmon were so thick the water looked like it had streaks of red.  Realizing he didn’t want to invest any time by using bait, dad opted to cast a treble hook (three-sided hook) out and on the first cast snagged a red salmon.  As it turns out this is illegal, but when you’re hungry laws have a way of being over looked.  We fileted the salmon right there on the bank and chucked the remnants in the river.  Bears love fish guts, so you really don’t want them hanging around.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention, this is grizzly country.

As we walked back up to the cabin I looked at the bark on a tree, “Hey dad, whats the deal with that bark?”  He replied, “There’s nothing wrong with the bark, that’s where a bear has sharpened its claws.”  I kid you not, it looked like someone had tried to keep tally marks with the tip of a chainsaw.  That’s how deep those claw marks were.  This was the first time that things started to get real for me.  This is Alaska: there are no phones, there is no hospital around the corner, and hungry grizzly bears kill people who camp by rivers.

Right behind the tree was an elevated wooden structure that looked like a small dance floor.  “What’s that?” I asked.  Half way laughing, dad said, “That would be a buffet line also known as a tent pad.”  I tried to do my best for the rest of the evening conjuring up images of every friendly bear I had ever seen.  You had Yogi, the dancing circus bear with a tutu, old Ben from Grizzly Adams.  Unfortunately, the .44 Magnum the old man kept at his side was a constant reminder of the actual danger involved.

After dinner, Dave sparked up another doobie and zeroed in on my bear concerns, pointing out how sturdy the door was.  The front door looked like every main gate you’ve ever seen in movies involving castles.  When the door was closed there was a huge 6×6 block of wood about four feet long that dropped in to brackets as a brace.  This is the part where my dad in his quest to always get the facts correct, chimes in with, “No, no, no, all that grizzly is going to have to do is lean on that door with all of his weight and it’ll cave right in.”  I’ve had better nights sleep.

After waking up alive and without incident, we had a huge breakfast.  Eggs, bacon and potatoes, like a skillet scramble, man was it good stuff.  There’s something about breakfast when you’re camping that’s just phenomenal.  We even managed to squeeze in a game of cribbage.  That little cabin was great, but it was time to move on, so we packed up our gear and started loading the boat.  As my dad and I loaded, Dave was smoking a joint preparing for the final push to 5th lake.

In the process of bragging about my cribbage victory over my dad, I realized I had forgotten my deck of cards at the cabin.  So I ran back and grabbed them off the table.  As I casually strolled back to the boat with deck in hand, the mood had changed.

My dad motioned me over to a mini sandbar that had formed near the river bank, just to the right of the boat.  I knew this type of summoning, it was of the “don’t talk, just move your ass” variety.  I stood there, like, “what are we looking at?”  With no words, as he peered into the dense brush south of the boat, he pointed down.  It was at this moment I noticed two things: A) The pistol was in his other hand and B)  There was a massive paw-print, so fresh it was still filling up with water.  Dads next words were clear and to the point, “get in the boat, now.”

I’m not really even sure if my feet touched the ground between that sandbar and the boat.  Dad’s may not have hit the ground either, because as soon as I was in, he was shoving the boat off shore, and then we was in right behind me.  In a world full of choices, a guy smoking weed and dodging boulders in a jet boat will always trump coming nose to nose with a grizzly bear.

After a couple of hours, and pushing the boat by hand through areas where there was only six inches of water, we arrived at fifth lake.  I kick myself for not bringing a camera, but things were different back then.  There was no social media, no digital cameras on everything like today.  The final lake was something to behold.  There were several waterfalls that poured into the lake from the glacier.  The water was crystal clear and ice-cold.

The sky was slightly overcast, which took the glare off the water, and allowed us to see all the way to the sand bottom.  The water was so cold that nothing grew, it was like staring into an enormous aquarium and watching the fish (arctic char) swim around.  Surrounded by forest, and the sound of roaring waterfalls, I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.  I remember thinking how cool it was to be in a place where very few people have ever set foot.  It seemed so unlikely there were still places like this in the world.  We spent the next hour or so fishing and taking it all in.  To add a little perspective: Even my dad, who had been going to Alaska for more than twenty years, was awe-struck.  We were taking this all in together for the first time.

The trip back down to the main lake was uneventful, sans one large exception.  As it turns out pot is good for calming your nerves in pressure-packed situations, and bad for doing mathematic calculations.  Dave had botched his calculation and we ran out of gas several miles short of home.

I guess it’s not really a boat trip unless you get the chance to paddle with an oar in your hands.  As I paddled I thought, “Surely this is nothing a coat hanger and a shoelace couldn’t fix.  Oh well, at least we won’t run out of daylight.”





An Alaskan Summer Part: Aalax̂

26 05 2011

 There are lots of little subplot stories I could tell.  I could talk about how our Captain, Walt, was bi-polar and quit taking his medication with two weeks left to go in the season.  Highlighted by his new-found obsession of rubbing olive oil on his face.

I could talk about the guy who lost his arm while trying to cut the cork line out of the prop.

Listening to Yankees pitcher Andy Hawkins throw a no-hitter on the radio, and lose 4-0.  Turning 16 and celebrating my birthday at sea.

Or my trip to the infamous “Star Wars Bar” in Egegik village.  Nicknamed after the movie locale based on the Obi Wan Kenobi quote, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

There was the evening we got caught in a squall and had to make a run for on of the small rivers that pours into Bristol Bay.  Imagine thirty foot swells in high wind, only you’re not on a massive crab boat, but instead what you see in the picture.  I can still remember sitting at the table in the cab, looking out the windows, and at the bottom of a swell all you could see was water.  Waves breaking over the bow, thinking, “This is awesome!”  If it were today I’d wheelin and dealin with the man upstairs, offering up football on Sundays for church.

After sticking my head in the Star Wars bar, I wandered off by myself.  Purely by chance coming across my grandfathers legendary boat, The Green Hornet.  It hadn’t seen action in years and was dry docked at an abandoned cannery known as Diamond E.  It was the only boat still there, as thought it was left as a monument to my grandfathers legendary conquests.

For years growing up I had heard the stories from my father, uncles and of course my grandfather himself.  Stories about being the top boat on numerous occasions.  Then there are the stories I don’t even want to get into.  Somethings are better left to the inner circle of family.

I remember running my hand along the hull and knocking off chips of the peeling paint.  Thinking to myself, “If you could only talk”.  For me, in a way, on a personal level this was why I had come to Alaska.  To fulfill my destiny and join the other members of my family who had made the same journey so many times before.  It was almost as though the boat was waiting for me.  The same way a parent who has become very ill will hold off death until a child makes it bedside to say their good-byes.

I climbed on board and stood at the wheel in my grandfathers footsteps.  Realizing that was as close as I would ever come to filling them.  I looked over to the rail and found an old homemade fish pick which I brought home.  The pick was nothing more than a piece of wood, slightly bigger than a roll of quarters, with what appeared to be a nail driven through it, the point bent down at an angle, the handle wrapped with net hanging twine.  The fish pick is a deck hands weapon of choice, it’s used to release the salmon’s head and gills from the net.   Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.  Sorry, I had to work in one more Star Wars quote.

When I got home I found out it was my Uncle’s.  To my knowledge he still has it on display to this day.  That’s the type of pride associated  with being a member of the Rubino fishing clan.  My grandfather was to my dad what Mr. Miyagi was to Daniel-san.  He taught him everything he knew and treated him like a son, not just a son-in-law.

To this day, even though my parents have been divorced since the 70’s, when he goes to visit, he calls him “dad”.  One of my few regrets in life is that it appears the lineage will end with me.  Now that I’m older I realize there’s nothing else I’d rather do.  I don’t belong stuck in a cube or an office, I’m at home and free on the ocean.

I’m sure you as the reader want action and adventure not sentimental rhetoric.  You definitely don’t want to hear about how I had a sweet mix tape featuring MC Hammer’s “You Can’t Touch This” or Matt’s off the wall purchase and obsession with an “Indigo Girls” cassette.  Both of which were played daily as they were our only tapes.  I will say Matty was a great cook which makes up of the whole Indigo Girls debacle.  Give the kid some garlic, tomatoes and Walt’s olive oil usually reserved for his weather-beaten face, and he was off and running.

CHANNELING YOUR INNER COOL HAND LUKE

In Alaska when fishing for salmon there are boundaries.  Invisible boundaries know as “the line” defined by the state and visible only by coordinates on a computer screen.  The line is patrolled by a heavily armed fish and game.  When there is money involved sometimes people do crazy things, like pull guns.

The place to be is as close to the boundary as you can be because that’s where the fish are.  The problem is: when you get too close the current can push your boat and net across the boundary.  Should you really hit it right and sink the net with fish, this becomes problematic because it takes time to clear the fish from the net.  Well this is exactly what happened to us.  We were picking fish like crazy when we heard a siren or air horn followed by, “prepare to be boarded!”

My dad has many qualities, one of which is the ability to think quickly in a crisis.  Like a modern-day Cool Hand Luke, without hesitation he took his knife and sliced the rubber tube that takes the hydraulic fluid to the stern real.  Then yelled to me, “Hit the lever twice” which I did without really thinking or knowing what was going on.  The result was hydraulic fluid spurting out all over the back deck.  “What is he doing and where are we going with this?”

In situations like this if it’s determined that you were purposely fishing across the boundary they can take your license, fine you, and take your catch.  Nevermind the intimidation of rounding everyone up on the back deck with automatic weapons and asking to see your licenses.  Why the weapons?  I think it’s safe to say a fisherman about to lose his catch may have pulled a gun or weapon at some point.

“Do you realize you were fishing across the line?”  I had visions of Boss Godfrey “The man with no eyes” looking on as we were basically being told “what we have here is a failure to communicate.”  And just like that my dad went into the explanation of how we really hit the fish and rubber hose had burst causing us to have to pull in the net by hand or “round hall”.  I have to hand it to the old man he was selling it like a classically trained Julliard actor.  Clearly this wasn’t the first time a hydraulic hose had been sacrificed for the good of the boat.

The end result was they bought it, and we got off with a warning.  After they left I remember him dispensing a life’s lesson, “Always have a spare hose” words I live by to this day.  Sadly this marked the high point of the season, not long after this  Captain Walt’s increasing bi-polar craziness started to get on everyone’s nerves.

Matt decided he had enough and “peaced out” on a Tender.  I always thought that was so bizarre, like how was he going to find his way home?  He just got off on a strange boat and was going to find his way home.  Clearly when you’re just a kid there is safety and comfort in numbers.  Update as of 5/16/2011:  During a fact check last night with my dad, I just found out that Matty Franchise took off with the blonde (from chapter 1) for another “job”… you old dog!  Twenty years later and it all finally makes sense.  Of course I’m only teasing, I also heard the blonde and the Steely Dan guy ended up getting married and started a family.  See everybody wins, it’s a happy ending for all!

When the dust settled and the season was over, I was the proud recipient of 57 fresh Hundred dollar bills.  Thinking back that was a lot of money for a 16-year-old kid and not bad for six weeks work.  But the story doesn’t end here.  We still had two weeks to relax and unwind before we headed home.  When you’re 16 you have no concept of danger, Lake Aleknagik and the Agulowak River here we come.





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?