The heart and soul of our fishermen-owned co-op is our line-caught wild coho salmon. Here are a couple of stories about gifts from the ocean that I jotted down in the journal I kept while out fishing last summer:
4:34am I hear the diesel engine start right by my bunk in the fo’c’sle, thus beginning another grinding 18-hour work day with Carter Hughes on his 36-foot boat the Astrolabe.
The Astrolabe at its moorage in Sitka, Alaska.
We start our Drag. The Drag is the process of dragging hooks through the water. A troller may make dozens of drags in a day through strategically targeted currents, using knowledge of tides, feed (i.e., bait fish and krill), and just an intuition of where the fish might be. On each drag, trollers “run the gear,” taking salmon off the hooks, cleaning them, and stowing them on ice in order to preserve their quality.
The Astrolabe drags 4 lines, which fishermen sometimes call wires. You’re on the Drag with 3 wires when you’re running the gear on the fourth wire, so it means you’re fishing all day. If you don’t have hooks in the water, you don’t catch fish. So efficiently running the gear is what a fishermen needs to do to pay the bills.
The day is a continual ad nauseam of run-the-gear. Start some hot water for coffee, go back to the trolling pit in the stern and run the gear. Toast a bagel in the galley stove, go back and run the gear. Count the fish on each drag. 12, 6, 14, Carter notes in his log book. There is a rhythmic monotony to running the gear, which is quite mesmerizing, a dizzying hypnotic repetition of movements that you can tell Carter has repeated for decades.
Trolling along, Carter’s catching enough fish to keep going, but the fishing has been slow enough to wonder why.
It is important to be methodical and conserve your energy. The tortoise is always going to beat the hare in this fishing game.
Like a farmer, a fisherman has to be a generalist. A weatherman, a market watcher, a diesel mechanic, a naturalist, a chef, an electrical engineer, a navigator, a gastronomical “expert,” a captain. But many fishermen aren’t just generalists--they go deep in some or all of these areas.
We get word through the radio that the F/V Seaboy, another co-op boat, found some water in its fuel tank up at Cape Cross, some 60 miles to the north. Lance, the skipper, is Carter’s good friend and also a co-op board member. Lance reaches out seeking advice from Carter, who has a wealth of diesel mechanics and electrical engineering knowledge. And Carter walks him through a number of options. The Seaboy’s engine is a Jimmy from the 1930s and keeps on ticking, but might as well play it safe. Wally and Kathi on the Restless Wind end up towing the Seaboy back to Pelican, a fishing village on the northeastern part of Chichagof Island. Wally has been a co-op fisherman/owner since 1960, which means that he has seen more water, more fish, more adventures, and more life than just about anybody on this planet. Truly a legend. Kathi is a firecracker and also a co-op board member that has been as loyal and as good to the co-op as anybody. Wally and Kathi winter in rural Texas and send co-op office staff Texas pecans and cowboy comics for Christmas every year, and they are just two examples of our co-op fishermen we have who live an extraordinary existence. It doesn’t surprise me that Wally and Kathi come by to tow the Seaboy back to town.
Most co-op boats today, like the Seaboy and the Restless Wind, are up at Cross Sound, a productive stretch of water in between Yakobi Island and Cape Spencer and the Fairweather Range. Carter doesn’t particularly like crowds, so we’re trolling somewhere else.
We make some drags through the beautiful fjord known as Slocum Arm. We can see a waterfall cove and layers upon layers of old growth forests off in the distance. In the morning, we’re consistently getting 10, 12, 14 fish on each drag, but fishing slows as evening approaches in the afternoon.
Trolling gurdies and an island in Phiel's Pass in the distance.
In the evening, otters are laying back, relaxing in the water, keeping eyes on the boat as it pushes through the islands towards a good spot to anchor. Carter shuts the engine off in an area of Khaz Bay that he calls Phiel’s Pass. Phiels’s Pass is named after a bootlegger who avoided being boarded on a harrowing night in the 1920s. Phiel ended up delivering contraband to Chichagof, a mining town of 3000 on the island in the 1920s, the ruins of which are now enveloped in forest, like so many of Alaska’s mining ghost towns. It takes a lot to live here in this rugged place.
It’s amazing how quiet it gets up here so far from everywhere. A loon and some marbled murrelets swim by us, whistling to each side of the boat. Salmon are jumping out of the water. Eagles are talking to each other, singing their gentle songs. It’s amazing how it seems that every creature for miles is out enjoying the incredible quiet stillness of the evening and the orange hues of the long sunset. If you haven’t been up to these northern latitudes, it’s amazing how long the sunsets last when you’re up near the top of the world.
Then I hear a deep breath. I can’t figure out what it is. A second time. It’s a whale spout. I orient and spot the whale cruising through the small rocky islands where we are anchored—the islands are just rock outcroppings covered in kelp and a few small Sitka spruce trees. The whales come and go and once we anchor, we sit down for a dinner of black cod on rice with greens from a friend’s garden. Out on this small boat, in the middle of what someone might call nowhere, I’m eating better than most people on this planet. I’m very thankful. Food is sacred. And producing food for others is one of the most important pieces of work we can do.
Carter puts on a CD of pianist Natasha Paremski performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, interrupting the silence while the whales continue to move out of the bay. We sit down and listen to the music, chatting about the day after dinner. After a while, deep into the music, I hear a crashing sound outside. Like a small bomb or the report of a really loud rifle reverberating through the islands and the bay, all the way up to Khaz Head. I jump up leaving my delicious dinner. Two whales are making their way through the small bay where we are anchored. The whales are breaching, jumping high, their entire bodies leaving the water and crashing. I fumble with my camera, barely capturing a video of a breaching whale. But in my frenzied effort to find the buttons on my camera, I miss filming the best show, a whale just a street’s width from the bow of the boat comes completely out of the water. The vibrations are like bombs and the boat starts bobbing in the still water as if it were a rubber duck in a bathtub. The sounds are incredible. Nature’s symphony in a fine duet with the Royal Philharmonic performing Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
I let out a deep breath. Once again, I feel lucky to be alive.
There’s so much to be thankful for.
We'll deliver our coho salmon to the fishermen-owned plant in Sitka where it will be de-boned, portioned, vacuum-sealed and blast-frozen for our customers down south. It makes me proud to help feed the world with such delicious, nutritious sacred food.