DUTCH HARBOR V
FISHING THE SOUTH LINE
Naknek River South Channel
When we finished our first half-day of fishing. Harry Jay Follman ordered the net reeled in, spun the Erika Lynn around and headed up the south channel of the Naknek River. The tide was ebbing, and I could just make out the sand and gravel bar that separated us from the town. We joined a small group of vessels seeking shelter behind South Naknek’s high cliffs and anchored up across from one of the canneries.
As I waited for Andy to prepare supper, I thought about how I came to be a deckhand aboard the Erika Lynn. I remembered watching the first season of The Deadliest Catch on TV and knowing I was hopelessly hooked. The show created a nagging desire to experience the same dangers and adrenalin highs these fishermen routinely encountered on the Bearing Sea. I was determined to one day earn my stripes as a Bad Ass, Bering Sea Fisherman before I left this world. When my longtime friend, Harry Jay Follman, called me a week ago, out of a clear blue sky and said, “Meet me in Naknek, we’re going fishing,” I was ecstatic. My dream had come true.
Andy had dinner ready a little before eleven, and we all dug in. Baked sockeye salmon, canned potatoes, and canned peas. When we were about halfway through eating, Mike, who had gulped his food down, abruptly disappeared below leaving the rest of us to enjoy our meal and the discussion of the next day’s adventure. Harry Jay Follman pulled a crumpled up notice out of his pocket which he got at the boatyard and tossed it on the table for all to read.
LOOKING FOR WORK.
He pointed at me, chuckled, and announced, “If you screw up, Full Share, this guy’s your replacement. Are you guys okay with that? The table erupted in laughter.
Kris said tomorrow’s marine weather forecast was for fair conditions in the morning, but we could expect thirty-knot winds and rain in the afternoon. When we prepared to hit the sack, Harry Jay Follman announced, “It looks like Mike’s asleep in your bunk, Full Share. Do you want me to toss his ass out of there, or you okay with sleeping on the floor?”
The little rascal had pulled a fast one on me. Mike knew there were only four berths and five of us. I realized the only thing I could do without alienating the crew was to suck it up and sleep on the floor in the main cabin.
“No! I’m the new guy, the floor works for me.”
It was then I realized why he shot me that brief hostile look at the D & D when we first met.
Andy was up preparing breakfast at five the next morning. He stepped over me twice and tripped over me once before I decided to get up. The smell of bacon and eggs frying, on the now working stove, woke up the rest of the crew. Harry Jay Follman demanded a cup of black coffee and fired up the engine. Mike went up to the bow, pulled the anchor and we headed back down the Naknek River. I was standing at the stern rail taking a leak, when Mike came down off the bow and confessed, “Sorry about last night, Full Share. I was just going to grab a quick nap, and I was out like a light. It won’t happen again.”
“It’s okay Bro, shit happens.”￼
Naknek and its Canneries
We left the relatively protected waters across from the Naknek canneries, entered the much rougher Kvichak Bay, and headed to the south line of the Naknek-Kvichak fishing district. Harry Jay Follman hollered, “Jake, come up here, I’m going to explain how this is going down today, and what we want you to do. The fish are coming up from the southwest, past Port Moller, Cold Bay, Ugashik, Egegik, and directly across the south line into the Naknek and Kvichak Rivers a few miles south of here.
Bristol Bay Districts – Courtesy of ADF&G
“We’ll be fishing the south line all through today’s opening. If we’re successful, and we will be, we stand to capture the lion’s share of the fish. The downside is, we will be competing with the most experienced and ruthless captains up here, in a dog eat dog competition for the fish. This is a serious and sometimes dangerous work, and I want you to know what to expect and what we expect of you. You’re our backup. You need to jump in there if someone gets hurt on deck, or needs a break. Stay alert, stay safe, and have fun.”
Kris overhead us and joined the conversation, “It takes nerves of steel and plenty of audacity to successfully fish the line. The Erica Lynn, Harry Jay Follman, and a dozen other boats, which are his dog pack, have been the top produces up here for nearly thirty years. The fleet knows this and respect this group of captains, but won’t cut them much slack.”
An hour later, Harry Jay Follman bullied his way into a prime position, directly onto the South line at Johnson Hill, along with his dog pack, which were skillfully fending off any intruding vessels. The morning flood tide opening was a few minutes away as Harry Jay Follman approached the spot he intended to drop the nets, and gently nosed another vessel out of his way. He put down his coffee cup and hollered, “Three minutes, Kris! Get ready and when I holler, drop the net.” The Erika Lynn was a few yards over the line as Harry Jay Follman prepared to make his first set, but there were no AF&G anywhere around to do anything about it.
At precisely eight o’clock, all hell broke loose on the south line. The sights and sounds of this big opening were mind-numbing. Four-hundred engines came to life simultaneously, and black clouds of diesel exhaust waifed across the fleet. The noise was deafening. It reminded me of the start of the Indy 500 or the Gold Cup hydroplane race.
Naknek South Line – Photo courtesy of YouTube.
We were fishing so close to each other that you could literally jump from boat to boat or net to net. I was speechless as I watched what was going on. Over fifty vessels, including the Erika Lynn, were fishing the face of the south line. As they jockeyed for position to set their hundred and fifty to three hundred fathoms long nets, they crashed into each other, ran over each other’s nets, and cursed one another.
Just as Kris dropped a hundred-fifty fathom of drift net in the water, Harry Jay Follman spotted the State Trooper’s helicopter off in the distance. He nudged me, “That son of a bitch is headed our way.”
I thought, Oh shit! We’re over the line, and he’s going to nail us. Jay gunned the engine, the Erika Lynn leaped forward and he turned sharply up river pushing a couple of other boats out of his way to drag his errant net back behind the line before the Helicopter spotted his illegal net and hit him with a huge fine. Erika Lynn nudging a vessel
By the time the Chopper reached us, we were just barely legal. Harry Jay Follman grinned up at the state trooper’s helicopter and gave it a friendly wave as it circled thirty-yards above. This wasn’t the first confrontation between the Erica Lynn and the AF&G, and the officer aboard the chopper was watching us with great interest. This was undoubtedly one of the most exciting events in my life.
State Trooper Chopper & below photos – courtesy of YouTube.
The next group of boats upriver from us was a nightmare of nearly three-hundred vessels, which were also jockeying for position and getting tangled up in each other’s gear. Some very angry fishermen lost a lot of time and valuable gear in the adrenal driven, macho insanity.
The third group of boats, even further up the river, were the more conservative vessels which were content, at least for now, to capture the fish that survived the mayhem and to watch the chaotic shenanigans down at the line.
We stayed on the line most of the four-hour opening, but for all the commotion and spent energy, we didn’t catch a lot of fish on the morning flood. When we returned to Naknek and approached Trident’s dock, Harry Jay Follman sent me up to handle the bowline. I was happy to be given an assignment and jumped to it. Trident Seafood off-loaded our embarrassingly small, five-thousand-pound catch, we found a spot to tie-up alongside several other boats and waited for the evening flood tide.
*** end Episode V ***
Excerpt from “A Cup of Joe”
DUTCH HARBOR IV:
TWENTY-FOUR HOURS TO LAUNCH
On the way back to town, Harry Jay Follman called the boat on his Satellite phone and told Kris and the boys to meet us at the D & D for lunch in an hour. The D & D restaurant was a Naknek landmark for ages but under several different names. There were a bar and restaurant on the main floor and rooms for rent upstairs. I followed my friend into the busy restaurant and over to a corner table, where three fit, badass looking fishermen, dressed in black hoodies, jeans, and rubber boots, were guzzling beer and laughing. I thought, Man, be careful what you wish for. There is no way I can ever pull fish like these muscular hooligans. Harry Jay Follman put his arm on my shoulder, and in a voice loud enough for the dead to hear announced, “Meet our new greenhorn.” Kris looked up, “What’s his name, Skipper?”
Jay laughed, “Just call him Full Share.”
Kris, who seemed to be a happy-go-lucky kid, who just turned thirty, extended his hand and welcomed me aboard with a wide grin. Mike an introspective, wiry, twenty-something ex-state-wrestling-champ just nodded. I sensed there was going to be an issue between us. Andy, a burly fisherman in his late fifties, looked me up and down before saying, “You’re a big one Full Share, glad to have you aboard.”
We slid into the booth beside them and as I picked up a menu, Kris said, “Don’t bother, we already ordered beer and pizza for the table. Their pizza is the best. Harry Jay Follman cleverly wove me into the tall tales, past adventures, joking and teasing that went around the table for nearly an hour. By the time we walked out of the D & D, the crew had accepted me for what I was, the Captain’s friend and a useless greenhorn. If this introduction had not gone well, and the crew resented me, it would have been awkward, or worse, aboard the Erika Lynn.
Kris announced, “We’re headed over to the Naknek Store to load up on groceries. How about you and Full Share giving us a hand.” I said, “I’d love to do that, meet you over there.”
The Naknek Trading Co. was the main source of groceries for the fishing fleet. It was more of a warehouse than a Safeway kind of place. Its wide aisles were crammed with shopping carts, fishermen, wives, kids and stock boys frantically refilling the shelves. Kris handed each one of us a different list of items to get and told us to meet up with him in thirty minutes at one of the dozens of checkout counters. We split up and were back in thirty minutes with seven overflowing shopping carts loaded down with frozen food, produce, frozen meats, bread, eggs, bacon sausage, soda pop, canned goods, coffee, spices, dry goods, paper products, talcum powder, aspirin, soap, first aid supplies, candy, chewing tobacco, cigarettes, dry cereal, powdered milk, condiments and magazines. We lined up our seven carts at the checkout counter and put it all on one bill. It came to a little over three-thousand-dollars. We helped load everything onto the one-ton truck they were driving and told them we’d see them the next morning. When Mike responded, “Yeah, see ya tomorrow, Full Share,” I knew it was going to be alright and my dream of fishing the Bristol Bay Run was intact.
Harry Jay Follman filled up our afternoon and early evening, showing me around town and visiting his fishing buddies, the fish buyers at the Trident Seafoods Cannery and his friend John, for whom he built the Yard Arm Cannery a few years before. I was having a ball, meeting interesting people, exploring the canneries, and taking dozens of photos.
That evening we ended up at Eddie’s Fireplace Inn in King Salmon for dinner. Harry Jay Follman was like a local celebrity there. Fishermen kept stopping by our table to say hello, re-introduce themselves and reminisce about good times and adventures they had shared with him. These folks represented the more genteel side of the Bristol Bay fishing fleet. Many of their boats were manned by three generations of family, who favored fishing the vast open waters of the Nushagak River district. Unlike the hard-driving skippers, who fished the line at Egegik and Naknek/Kvichak rivers, they were there to enjoy a safe, summer adventure with family, while making a few bucks doing so.
That evening we toured the three other jumping bars in town, Fisherman’s Bar, Hatfield’s Bar and the Red Dog Saloon. I wasn’t all that interested in drinking. I was tired and trying to get over a bothersome case of bronchitis. I had a beer at the crowded Fisherman’s bar.
We moved on to Hatfield’s, which was having a slow night, and got a booth near the bar. Harry Jay Follman discovered a couple of his fishing buddies at the bar and took off as I ordered a beer and looked around. There was a young fisherman passed out at the table to my left and a couple of guys hitting on the waitress. Suddenly the swinging doors burst open and young, handsome, Jake Philip Marlowe, one of the stars on ‘The Dangerous Catch’ TV show, stumbled in. He was fresh out of rehab and stoned out of his mind. He had a cute chick under each arm holding him up and a covey of young girls trailing him. They plopped him down at the table to the right of us and swarmed him. The place slowly started to fill up and come alive as the word got around that Handsome Jake was at Hatfield’s snorting coke and drinking double shots.
We ended up at the Red Dog Saloon, where we met up with the crew of the Erika Lynn. We had a beer together, discussed the plan for launching the boat the next day and fishing the mighty Kvichak. I was dead tired, and my bronchitis wasn’t getting any better, I excused myself and climbed the stairs to the bridal suite and crashed.
I was up early the next morning. I left Harry Jay Follman sleeping like a baby in his rack, and entered the Red Dog Saloon’s bar/restaurant and ordered sausage, eggs, hash brown, toast and coffee for breakfast. While waiting for my order, I made one of the toughest decisions of my life. This was day five with bronchitis and it didn’t seem to be getting any better despite all the pills I was popping. I thought it might not be such a good idea to be in the confined quarters of the thirty-two-foot Erika Lynn with a raging case of bronchitis in the company of four other fishermen. I could make the whole crew sick and mess up the fishing season. I wasn’t going to let that happen. I called Alaska Airlines and booked a flight that afternoon back to Honolulu. I’d come all this way, and I would be going home that afternoon never having stepped aboard the boat. I was horribly disappointed.
The barmaid delivered my breakfast, which looked really good, and I dug in. I glanced around the room as I ate. It was a pretty rough crowd of about a dozen or so fishermen, I noticed most everybody seemed to know each other. As I was finishing breakfast, Harry Jay Follman joined me for a cup of coffee. He pointed out a few of the well know fishermen/scoundrels gathered there and relayed a litany of hilarious, stupid crap they had done to earn their nefarious reputations. When he finished telling me a story about “The Crazy Greek,” who sank his own vessel in the Bearing sea with his daughter and himself aboard, I thought, This place reminds me of a scene out of John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel, ‘Cannery Row.’ When I could get in a word edgewise, I told him I was leaving on the afternoon plane. He responded, “Oh, no you’re not! I’ll take you over to the native clinic and get you checked out. Come on, Let’s, go!”
We headed over to the Camai Community Health Center, a short drive from the Red Dog, and waited a few minutes until they opened at eight o’clock. When we entered the empty waiting room, the native nurse didn’t seem to be all that happy we were there. She ignored us for several minutes, then asked, “What do you fellows want?”I explained I had bronchitis and I wanted to know if I was contagious because I was about to board a fishing vessel and I didn’t want to make the crew sick. She snarled at me, “Do you live here? Are you a native Alaskan? This is a Federally funded community health facility dedicated to serving the residents of the Borough of Bristol Bay. We don’t encourage the fishing fleet to seek medical treatment here unless it’s an emergency. Is this an emergency, Sir?”
I thought, If this bitch doesn’t let me see the doctor, I’ll be on the afternoon plane out of here. Harry Jay Follman saw I was getting pissed as she looked down her nose at me and rattled on. He interrupted her spiel by tossing both his paramedic and Fire Department ID’s on the counter and politely said, “Mam, I understand all that. This man is under my care. I have deemed this to be an emergency and I have transported him here for immediate treatment. Please admit him if you want to continue to receive Federal funding.” Jay had her, and she knew it, but she wasn’t through messing with us.
She stiffened up and blustered, “Please take a seat.”
I whispered to Harry Jay Follman, “Thanks, Man. I didn’t come all this way to be tossed out of an Indian clinic and take the next bus home.” Although I realized my fishing adventure was in the hands of a yet unseen doctor, who might be even less sympathetic to a fisherman from the lower forty-eight than Nurse Yazzie.
Ten minutes later, a native man came in, approached the counter and asked to see a doctor. We overheard Nurse Yazzie ask if he had an appointment, and he answered, “No.” She immediately swung the door open, smirked at Jay, and told the old man to follow her. She did that twice. I guess to make the point she was in charge there, and we better damn well understand that, or we would be there for a very long time.
She kept us cooling our heels for forty-five minutes before showing us to an exam room, where their only doctor, a young Haole boy from the lower forty-eight, examined me, asked what antibiotic I was taking and for how long? He said, “You have enough antibiotics in you to kill a horse. You’re not going to make anybody sick. Good luck fishing, and be careful out there. I’m pretty sure Nurse Yazzie doesn’t want to see you back here again.” He smiled and wrote me a prescription for ‘just in case.’ (I still have it. A memento of sorts.) I slapped Harry Jay Follman on the back and exclaimed, “Let’s go fishing!”
We pulled up to one of the two Naknek boat storage yard, where the Erika Lynn and three hundred other fish boats sat idle ten months out of the year, A dozen or more cabs were lined up on the street. They were disgorging what seemed like an endless stream of fishermen headed for their vessels in the yard below. These guys were a fraction of the over three-thousand crew members that would be boarding those vessels in the next few days. As we entered the yard, I was taken back by the place. I had been in plenty of boat storage yards but never, anything like this. This boatyard covered about ten acres on the bank of the Naknek River just north of town. There were over two-hundred boats up on blocks, preparing to fish the Bristol Bay Salmon run. A hundred boats had already launched and were headed for their favorite fishing grounds.
As the new kid on the block, it was hard for me to grasp what was happening there as we made our way deep into the bowels of this noisy, exciting, muddy place. The best description I could come up with was it was a fisherman’s version of downtown Manhattan, New York. The vessels shut out the sunlight and dwarfed us like New York skyscrapers. I quickly got caught up in the pervasive sense of energy, urgency, and excitement in the air. The sounds of yelling, laughing, cursing, frustration, and anger combined with the sounds and smell of dozens of diesel and gas engines reluctantly coming to life for the first time in a year was exhilarating. It got the adrenaline pumping through my veins, and I thought, This is good!
We managed to avoid hitting the innumerable forklifts, mud-splattered pickups, one-tons, and three-wheeled RV’s loaded down with supplies, nets, and spare parts, which skittered in and out of the narrow soupy gray mud lanes, between row after row of fishing vessels. Several mechanic’s trucks and welding rigs were blocking the lanes as they welded up last minute discovered leaks, or coached recalcitrant engines back to life. We made it to the Erika Lynn and climbed the twenty-foot aluminum ladder up to the rear deck, where we greeted the crew who were stowing provisions for the month-long salmon run. When I climbed aboard I noticed that Kris and Harry Jay Follman were having a serious conversation and pointing to the exhaust stack. I asked, “Now what’s the problem?”
“The boat’s carbon dioxide monitor went off when Kris ran the engine this morning. He’s narrowed down where it’s coming from, but it’s a bit of a job to get at it, and he’s checked with the welding contractors who are tied up until the day after tomorrow. A stack leak is a big deal. It could asphyxiate every one of us in our bunks overnight. I told him to pull the stack shroud and I’d see what I could do about getting a welder over here. We can’t launch the boat until we take care of this.”
I thought, Oh shit! Is this ever going to end? If he doesn’t pull a rabbit out of his hat in the next few hours, I’m not going fishing.\ because I’m leaving in four days.
Harry Jay Follman disappeared down the ladder, and I took a moment to survey the chaos going on around me. Three things caught my eye. There was only one launching vehicle, which was limited to launching four boats an hour. That’s fifty to sixty boats in a long day, so, it would take three or four days to empty out the yard. There was a gaggle of impatient skippers following the launcher around offering to bribe him with hundred-dollar bills to launch their vessel next. There was a brown bear, which nobody seemed to be concerned about, nosing through one of the dumpsters for yesterday’s pizza.
I don’t know how it came to pass, but Harry Jay Follman returned fifteen minutes later, pulling a Lincoln welding machine behind the pickup. He hollered up at Kris, “You got this machine for one hour, that’s it. Get that damn shroud off and make the weld.” Kris found the leak, a small hole where the stack was rubbing against a loose clamp and welded it up. He started up the engine and checked for leaks. Mission accomplice, we were going fishing.
One hour later, the launcher pulled up. Harry Jay Follman hollered, “Mike, take the welder back to the Judith May in aisle three, leave the truck in the parking area, and get your butt back here on the double! We’re out of here.” As the launcher positioned its trailer under the Erika Lynn’s hull, Kris protested,” Hang on! We need another hour or two to put the shroud back together.”
“We don’t have an hour or two, Son. We’re going fishing!
I felt the launcher lift the boat and within a minute or two, we were lumbering down the aisle towards the launching ramp with Mike sprinting after us in hot pursuit. The launcher operator hesitated just long enough for Mike to scramble aboard before we descended the boat ramp and splashed into the Naknek River. Harry Jay Follman eased the Erika Lynn away from shore and headed her down the south channel of the Naknek River. As we passed the F/V Kelly Jane, I got a glimpse of a very hung-over Jake Philip Marlowe on her back deck mending nets.
Within an hour, we were fishing the Mighty Kvichak with two, one-hundred-fifty-foot net trailing our stern. I was finally fishing and that’s what makes me the winner!
Harry Jay Follman wants to know, “Where’s the damn fish?”
At the end of the day, we baked the first fish we landed on the crotchety oil stove and enjoyed a Bristol Bay opening day tradition. The deep red-crimson color of a fresh caught Bristo Bay salmon is unmatched by any fish I’ve seen and the flavor and texture, OMG!
*** THE END ***
Stay tuned for the final episode on July 15, 2018
DUTCH HARBOR III
It was a little after noon of my first day in Naknek, Alaska. I had been asleep for about an hour in the bridal suite at the Red Dog Saloon when I heard a knock on the locked door, followed by the door bursting open. I sat up with a jolt. Harry Jay Follman had just blown into town.
He tossed his duffle bag on the other bed and bellowed, “Get up, Jake, we got to get going.”
“Jake, get up.”
“What are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here until five, and I didn’t get any sleep last night.”
“Too bad, neither did I. Let’s go!”
I knew he wasn’t going away, so I stumbled out of bed and pulled on my boots, as he used the bathroom.
“Where we going?”
“I don’t know. We’ll figure it out as we go.”
We slammed the door, hoping it would lock, scrambled down the rickety stairs and climbed into the same white 4WD pickup with the nets in the back. We headed southwest through town down Naknek Rd. to where it turned into Peter Pan Rd and ran along the cliffs above Kvichak Bay, (pronounced ‘Que-jack’)
Jay said, “North Pacific Seafoods has a cool 1890’s cannery a couple of mile up the mighty Kvichak River at Pederson Point. You have to see. it.”
As we barreled down the narrow gravel road, the locals riding the popular, three-wheel RV’s moved off the road to let us pass. I said, “Jay, you just missed the turnoff to Pederson point.”
“Relax Pilgrim, that road is for the tourists and girls. I’m not even sure if the side road to the cannery is passable this early in the season. Most of the traffic in and out of Pederson Point is by boat.” I wondered, Okay, how’s that going to work? Before I could ask, we pulled off the road and Jay ordered me out of the truck, “Follow me, we have to find these little white tundra flowers, I don’t know what they’re called but keep a sharp eye. If they are in bloom, the fishing will be good.”
While searching for the ‘good fishing’ flower, I spotted a brown bear digging through the garbage dump.
“Should we make a run for it?”
“No worries, Mate. He’ll leave us alone if we leave him alone. Concentrate on finding the flower. Several minutes later, we spotted a sprig of white flowers close to the cliff, and then another and another. I asked, “Do we pick them or what?”
“No, we only want to make sure they’re in bloom. It’s bad luck to disturb them.” I took a photo, and we headed back to the truck. As we approached the dump, the bear was waiting for us.
It stood up on its hind legs and growled menacingly. Jay hollered, “Run for the truck! You go to the right, and I’ll go to left.” I was pushing three-hundred pounds, and it was difficult to run on the spongy, thawed tundra. The bear chose to chase me. I was slower and possibly tastier than my physically fit friend. Nearly out of breath, I made it to the truck, with the bear close behind. Jay already had the engine running and the door open as he laughed and yelled, “Move it Jake, or you’re going to be lunch.” When the bear realized I had escaped, he turned his attention to the fishy smelling nets in the truck bed. Jay gunned the engine, and we left a disappointed bear in our dust.
“That’s enough excitement for today. Let’s go back to town and get some lunch.”
Jay’s silent response was to pull off the road for the second time. I thought he was turning around, but that’s not what he had in mind. He followed a faint trail to the edge of the cliff, where he nosed the front wheels right up to the edge and stopped. I thought, This is an excellent view of the bay and beach ninety-feet below us, how sweet.
Jay grinned and said, “Buckle up.”
I yelled, “No, don’t do this, we’re going to die!”
He slammed the truck into 4WD, and down we went, sometimes under control, sometimes not.
When we reached the bottom of this nearly vertical trail to the beach, I was a little shook up and demanded, “What the hell did you do that for? How are we going to get back up there?
“Relax, you want to see the old cannery, don’t you? This is the scenic route to Pederson Point.”
“Jay, let’s not do this. Look around you, Man. There’s a lot of loose sand, muck, and driftwood between us and that old cannery up the river. We’re surely going to get stuck, the tide’s going to take the truck, and we’ll end up walking back to the Red Dog.”
“Yeah, your right, it could get a little dicey. Maybe it would be best if you waited here with the women and children. Buckle up, Bucko! Here we go.”
Jay spun the truck around, and we were off to Pederson Point. He was a sprint car driver in an earlier life and knew all about handling a vehicle on any surface; asphalt, dirt track, sandy beach or in the river; no problem. When the truck bogged down in the sand, he’d grit his teeth, do a double clutch and throw it into reverse, double pop the clutch once more and slam it into first gear as he cranked the wheel to the right or left and we were off and going again. We weaved in and out of the tons of beach debris along the way. If we couldn’t drive over it, we went around it, and that often meant going into the river up to our axles. I was scared at first, but as I gained confidence in Jay’s skill behind the wheel, I relaxed, enjoyed the ride, and even whooped and yelped with glee at the close calls. I was having fun.
As we roared up the beach, spewing gravel and sand behind us, I thought about how I got hooked up with this larger than life character. I recalled meeting him at a pre-bid job walk ten years before in Hawaii. We were deep inside of the Red Hill Mountain at the Navy’s once-secret, WW II Pearl Harbor fuel bunker. Jay and I were there along with a couple of other contractors. We struck up a conversation after the meeting ended. He asked, “Where does this tunnel go?”
“It comes out at ‘Audit one’ on the shores of Pearl Harbor about a mile from here.”
“I have got to see more of this amazing tunnel. Walk down there with me, tell me what you know about it, and I’ll buy you lunch.” He took off before I could answer, and I hurried to catch up with him. He asked about the tunnel’s construction, and what they used the narrow-gauge railroad track for today? I told him the little I knew about it, which was “The Navy imported Chinese laborers to dig the tunnel and fuel storage tank sites by hand a few years before the start of WW II in anticipation of an attack from Japan. A primitive miner’s train like device hauled the excavated dirt and rock out of the tunnel.”
We emerged from the tunnel at Pearl Harbor’s central fuel pumping station. Jay noticed two of the big pumps were running, and asked the officer-in-charge, “Where’s the fuel going, Chief?” The chief pushed open one of the massive bombproof doors and pointed at the aircraft carrier, John Stennis, which was tied up a hundred yards in front of us.
Jay slammed on the breaks to allow a family of seals to waddle back into the river, jolting me back to the present. A few minutes later we rounded a bend in the river, and I spotted our quest. We climbed the muddy beach access road leading up to the old cannery, parked, and got out. I was going to kiss the ground we stood on but thought better of it when I realized I was standing in an inch of blue-grey ooze.
I was eager to check the place out. The tank farm was nearby and a good place to start. As we passed the tank farm, I stuck my head in the deserted old powerhouse and moved on to the boneyard where they stored all kinds of discarded pipe, electrical gear, tanks, old boilers, pumps and ancient fish processing equipment. The cannery didn’t consider any of this material to be scrap. They knew from experience most anything could one day serve a useful purpose. Until then, it silently awaited its fifteen minutes of fame.
I was surprised to see the fuselage of small plane stored on the roof of one of the warehouses. I wondered what they had in mind for its future.
The juxtaposition of all this junk adjacent to the shiny well-maintained fuel tanks, and modern fish processing equipment reminded me that Alaska fishermen and contractors never throw anything away. When equipment breaks down, it takes weeks to get replacement parts and material. The boats and the canneries run 24/7 during fishing season and necessity has taught these folks to recycle what they have, to keep things running. I thought, If Elizabeth thinks I’m a pack Rat, she ought to see this place.
We walked on the timber and plank manways, which kept us out of the spongy tundra and mud, as we explored this intriguing piece of Alaska fishing memorabilia. On our way to check-in at the office, we came across more treasures. I told Jay, “You go on, I’m going to stay here and try to figure out what this piece of machinery does.” I studied this beautiful old relic. I looked it all over, climbed up on top to get a better look at the gears, and took photos to review later. Although I did figure out how it worked, I couldn’t determine what purpose it served back in the day.
I caught up with Jay on his way back from the office, and we walked past the cannery workers 1940’s vintage living quarters, where a few early birds were already in residence. The cookhouse, fish processing plant, and warehouse were abuzz with activity in preparation for the run, which was expected to start next week.
I was excited to have the opportunity to be here. I’m fascinated by Alaska’s history, historical places, events, places, and things, especially those related to fishing and the Japanese attack during WW II. Alaska is the last wild frontier, and this old cannery was a treasure trove of history, as well as a look back in time. I was struck by the fact, that everything was old, wet, made of wood, in some state of disrepair, or rotting away. Someday, all this would be gone.
I’d seen enough of the cannery property and said, “let’s walk out to the dock and see what’s going on out there.”
We left the plant and made our way out to the dock. As we got close, Jay exclaimed, “That’s the Maverick from the Dangerous Catch TV show tied up there. Let’s go see who’s aboard.”
“Do you know those guys?”
“Not well, but I’ve met them a time or two. They may not remember me but were all fishermen, and we speak the same language.”
We stood on the edge of the dock, and Jay hollered, “Hello! Anybody aboard the Maverick?” A few minutes later, a crewman appeared on deck and asked, “What can I do for you guys?”
Jay struck up a conversation with the older fisherman, explained we were the Erika Lynn’s crew, and we were up here for the summer run.
He asked, “Who are you fishing for?”
After several minutes of fishermen banter, he warmed up to us and asked, “Do you guys want to see the boat?”
That was a no-brainer, we both responded in unison, “Hell yes!”
He mentioned as we clambered aboard, “You just missed the captain, he’s flying to Anchorage this afternoon.”
He insisted we join him for coffee in the galley after he showed us through the boat. He told us they Maverick got in a few days ago, and was here to serve as one of Trident Seafood’s Bristol Bay fish tenders. A tender is like a floating warehouse for freshly caught fish. The individual fishing vessels deliver their catch to the nearby tender’s refrigerated holds and return to fishing. The tender then offloads the fish at the cannery on a regular basis. This arrangement kept the fish boats on the fish without having to return repeatedly to the canneries in Naknek. We bid farewell to our new friend and headed for the truck to find our way back to town after an exciting day.
*** THE END ***
Stay tuned for episode IV.
An excerpt from ‘A Cup of Joe’ by Jake Winston
DUTCH HARBOR II
The first two and a half hours of my flight to Anchorage, I vacillated between dozing, listening to my tunes, thinking about my past adventures in Alaska, and making some notes for a new book I was writing, “The Raising of the Ruth Ellen.” By the time the flight attendant, Miss Snarly, reached me with round two of the drink cart, it was two-thirty a.m. and I was wide awake. I was sure she was expecting me to beg her for a couple of Boilermakers, but I surprised her by giving her a welcoming smile, ordering black coffee and thanking her profusely for her kindness. I think she suspected I had smuggled a jug aboard, which I didn’t; at least not this time.
As I sipped my coffee, I thought about the people I had met in Alaska over the years. The hearty souls who choose to live and work in the rural Alaska Peninsula. These folks called the North Slope and Arctic Circle home and worked in the oil fields and gold mines. A few adventurous men took up logging and fishing in what was called southeast Alaska. They worked out of Homer, Kodiak, Sitka, and Ketchikan. Their less brave brothers worked in the local sawmills, paper mill, and canneries there. Those whom I met, were a little rough around the edges, but good, industrious men and woman.
The three major Alaska cities are; Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Juneau, the state capital. Businessmen, educators, politicians, government workers, and service industry folks live and work in these more genteel locations. They are fine people, proud to call Alaska their home.
The twelve-hundred-mile long Aleutian chain is a different story. Long ago, the Russians settled there, and these hardy people, known as the Aleuts, established small villages throughout the islands Today, the older natives are cliquish and adhere to the ancient ways, but many of their grandchildren are more Americanized, hipper, and anxious to make money and buy things like their neighbors in the lower forty-eight. Many of them fled the Aleutian chain as young adults and gravitated to Anchorage and Seattle where they found work, mostly in the service industry.
Back in the eighties, the Aleutian Islands were the closest thing to the wild west I had ever experienced, and to a lesser extent, still are today. I flew into Anchorage on June 30, 2014, and spent the night in the Captain Cook Hotel. The next morning, I caught a shuttle over to the Ted Stevens International Airport. Ted Stevens was Alaska’s revered, long-time U.S. Senator and a good friend to the commercial fishing fleet. He was killed in a private plane crash under mysterious conditions in 2010. A fitting way for a true Alaskan hero to meet his maker.
I treated myself to a breakfast of scrambled eggs, hash browns, and reindeer sausage, in what is now the ‘Norton Sound Seafood House.’ It’s situated in a prime spot for people watching within the main terminal. As I ate, I checked out and categorized the lobby traffic. The folks hurrying by me were much like other lower-forty-eight people like myself. and those who lived and worked in Alaska’s major cities. I bought a gift for my wife, Elizabeth, in the ‘Alaska Mercantile’ gift shop, and descended to the baggage claim level to check in at the PenAir gate.
A native girl moved her duffle bag off the seat next to her. I thanked her and sat down to continue to observe my fellow passengers. I looked around the small gate. These folks were very different from the passengers upstairs. There were no suits among this crowd. The dominant dress was baseball caps on backward, hoody’s under heavy jackets, jeans and work boots or rubber boots. Today, the demography was equal parts of working white folks, Aleuts, Filipinos, and Peruvians.
I felt an exhilarating affinity to this group. These were the real Alaskans, not those folks upstairs. Many of us in this room had earned our living up here from fishing, construction, and logging. Sometimes under difficult conditions, dangerous situations and in all kinds of weather.
I overheard a couple of twenty-year-old kids chatting excitedly about their expectations of spending their first summer in the Aleutians working in one of the canneries. I listened as an older Catholic missionary priest talked about his travels from village to village; sometimes by plane, but also by boat, on foot and even on dog sleds. An old, wizen Aleut woman, with a bandaged foot, waited stoically in her wheelchair to return home from the Anchorage hospital, as her daughter fussed with her blanket.
When my fight was called, I got in line and walked out to board the PenAir, Bombardier Q400 prop-jet. Eighty other passengers and I, headed to King Salmon, a wide spot in the road, five miles north of the village of Naknek, population five-hundred-forty full-time residents. The village of Naknek is arguably the crown jewel of the annual Bristol Bay salmon run and what an exciting jewel it is. It’s situated on the Bearing Sea at the head of Bristol Bay.
This was my first trip into Naknek, and my first opportunity to experience the Bristol Bay salmon run as a deckhand. Harry Jay Follman, my friend, and Hawaii construction partner owns the Erika Lynn, a thirty-two-foot, drift-gillnetter. Jay had successfully fished the annual run for over thirty-five years and I was excited to join him on this trip, although I had no idea what to expect.
Mike, one of the crew from the Erika Lynn was waiting for me when I landed in King Salmon. As we loaded my bag into the back of the beat-up four-wheel-drive, white pickup truck, the two kids, who were on the plane with me, approached and asked, “Could you bring us into Naknek with you? We can’t afford the cab fare.” I nodded, “Okay with me” and Mike said,”Sure, but you have to ride in the back with the nets.” They broke into happy smiles, tossed their stuff into the bed and climbed in.
We dropped the kids off at the Trident Cannery and continued into town. Our next stop was at the LFS Marine Supplies store where I picked up my Alaska commercial fishing license. From there, it was on to the ‘Red Dog Saloon’ where Jay instructed me to book a room for the night.
When I entered the Red Dog Saloon at ten a.m., I was surprised to be standing inside a large, nearly empty bar that reeked of stale beer, whiskey, and cigarettes. I wondered where’s the lobby? The bartender ignored me, as he busied himself behind the bar, but the heavy-set barmaid, who saw my suitcase in hand, got up from doing her nails. “You must be Mr. Winston. Come on over to the bar and I’ll check you in.” She opened the beer stained, guest register, and said. “The only room we have available is the Bridal Suite. I’ll upgrade you for free.” I thanked her and climbed the wooden stairs to the second floor. I entered room eleven of a ten-room hotel and tossed my bag onto one of the two rickety beds. While I was shutting the door, I noticed the inside of the door had been kicked in. Outside of that, it was a decent room with a small deck and fire escape. I kicked off my shoes and laid on the second bed and waited for my adventure to begin.
*** THE END ***
Stay tuned for episode III