Fishing in Bristol Bay, Alaska

Words and photos by Elliott Wright

The scream of the engine jolted me into a sluggish state of consciousness.

How long had I been asleep? Two hours? Three? Ten? Knowing was impossible, but this was the 2 a.m. wake-up call. My legs felt weak and my back achy. Time to get up. I was beginning to grow accustomed to the violent alarm.

I slid off my eyeshades, twisted the foam plugs out of my ears and, on fatigued arms, eased myself down from my bunk, aiming my feet into the black mouths of my boots. I had slept in my long underwear, which was becoming funkier each day. Shuffling into the cabin, the kettle was boiling, and I heard the rumbling anchor being hauled at the bow.

‘Morning,’ I mumbled to the captain, at the helm, who had risen only moments earlier. He nodded in my direction, both acknowledging my greeting and indicating that we were due for a cup of tea. Before long, our crew would be on the deck of the boat in our waterproof gear, ready to face another day of fishing in the heart of Bristol Bay, Alaska.

My adventure began at June’s debut. Lockdown measures were gradually easing in Los Angeles. There was helpless optimism for a ‘normal’ summer, although that seemed impossible due to the pandemic. Little did I know that a phone call from a close friend would lead me to the wildest summer I have ever had.

My friend invited me to join him aboard a commercial fishing vessel, seeking salmon in the cold waters of the Bering Sea. If I was interested in the expedition, he would put the captain in contact with me for a phone interview. I will never forget my friend’s disclaimer at the end of our call: ‘If things get crazy out there, I hope it won’t ruin our friendship.’ He explained that being stuck on a boat with three other people often leads to tense situations.

After thinking about it for five minutes, I called back and accepted the offer. The potential to have any work during the pandemic was good enough for me. Although I knew nothing about fishing and had only spent minimal time on boats, my friend suggested that baptism by fire was all I needed to succeed. The next day the captain called me. ‘Attitude is everything,’ he emphasized. ‘If you are ready to commit yourself to the tough times ahead, with a mentality of positivity and acceptance of hard work, the spot is yours.’ Immediately after, flights were booked, fishing gear was ordered for rush-delivery, and my anticipation grew.

I told only a handful of people that I would be embarking on what could be described as a summer camp for wayward adults. ‘So, you doing that Deadliest Catch thing?’ my friends asked with awestruck expressions. I had never even seen the show. Perhaps if I had, I might have been scared straight. However, life at home was scary enough. COVID-19 was ruining everything. The political framework, which was feebly supporting our shaky country, was crumbling, and a life dominated by Mother Nature on a fishing vessel sounded perfect. I needed to get away, clear my head, breathe.

I flew into King Salmon, population 374. Exiting the airport, I surveyed my surroundings. Two bars faced each other across the narrow road. A Wells Fargo branch occupied an abandoned strip mall. A haphazardly-built skateboard ramp sat in an empty parking lot. That surprised me the most. I thought that I was in the land of salmon, not skateboards.

Moments later, the captain approached me with an outstretched hand and smile. In addition to the captain, the crew comprised of myself, my friend, and one other deckhand. If there was an efficient way to quarantine from the rest of the world, I knew this would be it. After a three-minute drive, we arrived at the boatyard. This is where our 32 by 12-foot fibreglass Wegley spends ten months out of the year. The captain and I took a walk around, and he introduced me to some of the other fishermen in our radio group.

One captain I met—who at the age seventy-six looked as sprightly as a college athlete—was about to celebrate his fifty-ninth season in Bristol Bay. When I told him that it was my first year and that I was an Angeleno, his response was blunt. ‘Los Angeles? What are you doing here?’ So much for a warm welcome.

In terms of fishing, there was a lot to learn. The 150 fathom—or 900 foot—net is coiled around a drum on the deck. After setting the net into the water, the salmon are caught by swimming into it and getting stuck. Then, a hydraulic motor on the drum hauls the net, fish-filled, back in. As the incoming net slowly spools its way around the drum, the crew remove the intricately tangled salmon by hand. Although there are hooked picks to aid in the process, each evening our hands tingled with pain. Even with thick rubber gloves, the cold conditions made the process even harder.

During the peak of the season, we worked around the clock, setting and hauling the net continuously. One deckhand, or the captain, could take a four-hour nap, while the other three worked. Then, we would rotate, allowing for someone else to get some rest.

We encountered ruthless storms on several occasions but persisted, setting the net into menacing, gun-metal grey waters shrouded by dense fog and rain. If picking the fish out of the net was not hard enough, imagine doing so with the vessel bobbing like a cork, rising and falling five or six feet with the pulsing sea.

Despite the sore hands, minimal sleep, and harsh weather, there were many enjoyable moments. When in the deeper water, we spotted several grey whales, snow-white beluga whales, and walruses. While closer to land, we saw grizzly bears and bald eagles. Very patriotic indeed. Additionally, we were blessed with some of the most epic sunrises and sunsets I had ever seen. Finally, eating as much fresh salmon as we wanted on a regular basis was the cherry on top.

I think the most fulfilling part of my trip was the newfound appreciation I had for everyday things upon my return home. This sense of gratitude is the main reason why I would like to return to Bristol Bay next season. It is easy to overlook the small things in life, whether it be our own bed, a hot shower, or basic plumbing. The sensation of eating leafy greens and fresh fruit after the season was otherworldly.

I now understand how difficult the lives of fisherpeople—and by extension, farmers—are. There is an extensive chain of events that occur behind the scenes which allows us to enjoy a meal on our plates at home. Women and men put their lives on the line to provide this amazing protein source for us. Now that I have experienced it myself, I know the story that lies behind a vacuumed-sealed fillet in a grocery store.

In retrospect, my trip was an eight-week dream. I left the comforts of life in the city to immerse myself in an alien world, seeking adventure and physical labour. Before I knew it, I made it through and found myself right back where I started: a world wrecked by COVID-19, plagued by political strife, police brutality rampant as ever, with cries for equality still resonating in the air.

At a time when leaving for a vacation seems risky, I hope that you were able to experience something vicariously through my story. Perhaps thinking about our own lives through a different lens will better inform us about what is important in life. In closing, love yourself, your family, and your friends. We are all in this together, so let us keep pushing forward together, in a state of unity, not division.

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