Alaska Salmon FIshing
Some people may not know this, but for four years, I spent two weeks of my summer in Alaska catching salmon commercially. It wasn't like anything you see on TV, but it was an adventure nonetheless.
Living in Alaska wasn’t hard, per se, but it was primitive. We had everything we needed. The cabins were heated with propane, and we had propane stoves. We used the same little propane tanks that a lot of people have in their grills. One tank provided heat to both cabins, and one provided fuel for each stove, one in each cabin.
We had beds, which used a piece of foam for the mattress. We put flannel sleeping bags on them, and we could sleep comfortably with that. We also had pillows and pillowcases (we aren’t complete heathens).
We also had running water. We had a 35-gallon barrel, which was strapped to a homemade trailer. Coming out of this barrel was a nozzle, with a shutoff valve. When the barrel needed to be re-filled, we would close the valve, and disconnect the nozzle from the main system. The main system was comprised of blue tubing, attached to a small pump, which carried water to each sink. We would hook the trailer to a 3-wheeler (yes you read that right) and drive it across the tundra, about half a mile, to the cannery for water. We would then come back, re-attach the barrel to the main system, and we had water for the day.
Water was my job. It wasn’t always this way, though. We used to have 6 water jugs, 5 gallons each, which we would put in the back of a truck, which we would then drive on the beach to the cannery for water. I would then have to carry the jugs up the stairs, two at a time, and dump them into the barrel.
(Note: The “tundra” is the soil that our cabins were built on, which was about 20 feet above sea-level. We had to climb a set of steep stairs in order to get to the cabins. There was a nice little drop-off between out cabins and the actual beach. The tundra is where the plants grew, the cabins were built, and the outhouse was dug.)
One day, we were bored out of our minds, and I was tired of carrying water jugs up the stairs. So I, along with one other guy, developed the system where we could go overland and not have to worry about jugs. However, this did not come at a cost, as we had just made the process more dangerous. We had to drive the 3-wheeler, in first gear, over a trail that’s full of bumps. I rolled that wheeler more than once. This was something we didn’t have to worry about in the trucks.
Also, the trail cut right through brush. There was one spot in particular that had bushes all around, coming over my head, and the path was just wide enough to get the wheeler and trailer through. I saw bears on that trail a handful of times, at which point I immediately turned around and headed back. There was no way I was messing with bears, even if it meant going a while without water.
Our schedule consisted of a lot of sitting around. We would play cards (pitch), sweep the porch, cook food, and sleep. We only spent about 6 hours per day on the boats, depending on how the fish were hitting. Slow days, it would drop to 3-4 hours on the boat. We were pretty much begging for jobs to do. One year, my brother took a Monopoly board with him, and that was a huge hit.
When we were on the boats, however, it was good times. I don’t have a single bad memory of being on a boat in Alaska. Even when there were no fish, we still had fun, talked some smack, and stayed positive. The only time this wasn’t the case was during a storm, when the waves were real high and the running line kept coming off the rollers. Even then, we stayed busy, and were usually working too hard to have any negative experiences.
Because I was a young man, I was usually pulling the running line across the boat (again, check out my other post for more information). I always lost weight while I was there, because I was working so hard.
We would pick the fish out of the nets, put them into the bags, and then it was time to sell. If we had enough fish, and the water wasn’t too rough, we would go sell to the Providence, which was a crab boat, just like the ones you see on that show Deadliest Catch. It wasn’t crab season, so the crew offered their services to the cannery. If there weren’t many fish, or the waves were rough, we would beach the boat, or put it on the trailer, and sell to the trucks on the beach.
After that, it was back to waiting until it was time to go out again.
Some days, we got enough fish to go back and forth. We would pick through the net, and would watch behind us, where we had already picked. If we had enough fish hitting the net (“back-hits”), we would stay under the rope for a little while, and then pick back through. We’d get enough fish, go sell to the Providence, and then come back and do it again. These were real good days, because we always had fish to pick and jobs to do.
These boats were where I learned the art of “chirping”. We would talk smack back and forth. If a person was spending too much time getting a fish out of the net, it was “Hey you gonna marry that one?” Sometimes we broke a piece of the net trying to get the fish out. This was bad news, and the heckling was soon to commence.
Our chirping got so advanced that we created hand signals so that we could communicate with the other boat in our crew. A person holding a hand in the air meant “How many pounds you got?” The other boat would give their estimate: an exaggerated head pat was 1,000, smacking their chest was 500, and both hands in the air meant they had caught a massive King Salmon. For example, 2 head pats and a chest smack was an estimated 2,500 pounds on board. That way, we could have a competition to see what boat had caught the most fish, and you could bet that whoever was losing was speeding up after getting the report.
These trips have led to memories that I’ll never forget. There was always an adventure. In a world so wild, and where there was potential danger at every turn, a guy like me was bound to have fun.