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 seafood 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 Bristol Bay salmon is unmatched by any fish I’ve seen and the flavor and texture, OMG!