Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Last Place on Earth





Glassy water in Ugashik.

Streams of stubborn white clouds fight the encroaching high pressure, gripping for life to the snowcapped summit of 7000 foot Mount Chiginagak some sixty miles to the southeast. The view that has been teasing me for the past two days is beginning to materialize. Steam lazily  piles off the mountain's lateral vent, reminding all that while today the dragon sleeps,  tomorrow she may waken in a foul temper.  

The forecasted winds of ten knots have not yet arrived; I am thankful for the gift of a steady boat as I calmly  float in the watershed which carries a vulgar reputation for big winds, nasty river bars and challenging working conditions.  A permeating scent, the mixture of bag balm, sunscreen and fish assaults my nostrils; offensive but none the less effective in masking the rotten stench of three men living and working on this little boat for the past 21 days.  

KDLG, the local NPR station breaks the peaceful silence.  Open Line callers ramble on for what seems an eternity, uninterrupted by the patiently polite host. Radio waves carry messages of love to fisherman and unhurried greetings to relatives in villages so remote that cell phone towers have yet to invaded their skylines. 

The season is winding down.

We caught 3000 pounds of fish yesterday and are within spitting distance of our 100,000 pound goal.  While the psychological pressures of this line of work wear heavily, a successful harvest and being able to count the remaining boat days on one hand seems to keep us all acting benevolently towards each other.  A steady stream of jumpers and sharp dorsal fins breaking the surface of the shallows near the muddy shore affirm a late push of fish are riding the flood upstream.  

Sometimes I can't believe this is all real.

Less than one hundred and fifty-years ago, I imagine that my home in the Puget Sound looked something similar to what greets my eyes now.  Mount Rainier towering over hills covered with ancient fir trees so thick that ten men linking arms could not surround.  Sockeye Salmon choking the clear running rivers that trickle westward from the glaciers of the Cascade Mountains.  Progress however, has changed much of that and while the Northwest is still a beautiful place, it is not the same.

When Seattle was born in the late 1800's, city planners chopped down hills  and dumped millions of tons of fill into Elliot bay, erasing the homes, sacred places of worship and livelihood of the Duwamish people who had been living there for thousands of years.  We fell most of the old trees and built a robust, but short-lived logging industry for several generations, but annihilated the fragile riparian zones of small streams vital to a breeding salmon.  We built hydroelectric dams that were instrumental in crushing Hilter's war machine and helping the Pacific Northwest build one of the strongest and most sustainable economies in the world, but decimated the salmon runs in Washington's great rivers.

While concentrated environmental and economic efforts have saved Pacific Salmon from extinction, they have largely gone from the Northwest and will not likely return in great numbers until the world as we know it ceases to exist.  In 2013 the US Department of Commerce declared the Washington Frasier River Sockeye a "disaster fishery" citing a 97% drop in revenue over the previous 5-year average.  Last week the Seattle PI reported a  sludge pond breach at the Imperial Mines Mount Polly gold and copper pit, which resulted in millions of liters of toxic phosphorus, copper, zinc, cobalt, selenium, arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium flowing into the most prime of Frasier River Salmon spawning beds.  I fear this may be a final blow to a dying run and it saddens me beyond tears.

Living in the world that we do has caused me great depression at times, and I am guilty of often sinking into the pits of pessimism.  But the fact of the matter is that we cannot go backwards in the reality we have created; we may only go onward and do our best to create the world we wish our next to generation to inherit.
We are empowered to make decisions every day which have an impact on the health of our environment, and subsequently our own well-being.  I write these words not because I am paid to, but because something that became very dear to me this summer is under grave and immediate threat and I feel moved to action.  Northern Dynasty, a Canadian mining company has proposed the development of one of the largest open pit mines in the world to be located at the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers; two of the eight mighty rivers that make up the Bristol Bay watershed.  The environmental threat of building a toxic waste dump in the center of the habitat which sustains one of the last great wild salmon runs on Earth cannot be overstated.

Fisherman fighting multi-national mining cooperations is a laughingly lopsided battle. Money is the king of capitalism and more people in the world desire metal dependent smart phones and laptop computers than care about one of the most important historical, economic and cultural icons of North America.  It is also likely true that the "economic potential" of a  pebble mine in Bristol Bay far outweighs that of the fishery and tourism that now sustains economy of this far corner of the world.  But I guarantee that when the last ounce of gold is stripped from the ground and the fish are all gone, these cooperations will pick up and move to someone else's back yard.  In my heart of hearts I hope that our government cares sufficiently about our environmental legacy to stop the development of this mine.

The irony that I write this piece on a laptop computer is not lost on me.  The human condition is wrought with contradiction and I am by no means exempt from being part of the problem.  However, I feel with passion that we must protect the few sacred natural  renewable resources we have left on this planet and do everything within our power to keep a few places in the world wild.  The threat posed by this project is far too great.  

I highly encourage you to follow the links I have provided below and educate yourself on the issue.  There are always two sides of a story, and never should we blindly accept information we receive from others.  If you are moved to do so, please take a moment to follow this link to the Commercial Fisherman of Bristol Bay website and send the prepared statement to the Environmental Protection Agency urging the passage of proposed protection of Bristol Bay under the Clean Water Act.  I also provided a link to the critically acclaimed film series In the Same Boat.  This documentary poetically illustrates the lives of Bristol Bay Fisherman and I hope you take a few minutes to watch. 

The fight is far from over and needs your support. 
  

Hyas Mahsie

Matt



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Monday, August 4, 2014

The Dent of Alaska



Home.   Sweet home.
Clean sheets, warm showers, a bed that doesn't sway with the ocean and reek with the putrid stench of three men living and working on a thirty two foot boat for five long weeks.  Despite the fact that Steady Freddy undoubtedly runs the finest kitchen in Bristol Bay, my beautiful wife's home cooking is second to none and nourishes the little aches and pains slowly from this aging vessel of mine.

There is a grand story to be told of the time I was a rookie deck hand aboard the F/V Potential on Bristol Bay.  It is a rich tale, full of characters larger than life and events that one simply must see to believe.  Thomas Jefferson once said, The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.  The truth is also that some stories should exist only in oral legend until they fade from the memory of those who were there, and become the mist that fogs the space between the fact and fiction of our history.  I will be brief.

I left for Alaska a couple months ago seeking an adventure, but with the eyes and mind of a tourist.   Fishing however, has a way of changing a man and pushed me places where I could never have driven myself.   The things I learned being a thirty-six year old greenhorn in a game where nobody gives a fuck about where you went to college, the letters in front of your name, or what you think you may have accomplished in your last job has taught me more than I ever could have anticipated.  As I lifted off the runway of Dillingham last week, leaving the clean water, expansive green tundra and steaming volcanoes of Southwest Alaska below,  I realized that in my chest no longer beat the heart of a traveler, but that of a fisherman.

Bristol Bay didn't leave an impression on me, it left a dent.  Alaska is in my future.

Kloshe konaway
Kloshe nanitch

Matt

The Usual Suspects (photo: Luke Brummer)

When it comes to chow, Skippy takes care of the boys and Freddy don't mess around.  This did not come out of a can. 

Alaskan Wild Iris (Iris setosa)…I think.

The Groover.  Yep, that's it for the boat. 

 Fresh caught Alaskan King Cakes anyone?  Tom Douglas ain't got shit on Fast Freddy.

Daniel San entrusted with the filleting of the King. 

The seals aren't dumb and a gill net full of salmon spells an all you can eat buffet to these clever mammals.

Salmon angels on a 12,000 pound day.  You know the fishing is good when Skippy stops to take photos. 

A three thousand pound round haul is an experience that one enjoys telling stories about, but not necessarily repeating.

Always a highlight of the day!

Pink at night; sailors delight.  

 Skippy gently explaining the intricate details concerning chain of command aboard the F/V Potential to Freddy and me.

Tender lines suck bad, but it's hard to be bent when the sky looks like this. 


Hydration stop.  Naknek, Alaska.

 How fish gets to market after it is caught.  Tender boat, processing boat, transport boat.

It's good to be loved and I imagine the only thing that beats mail on a boat is mail in jail.  Same same, but different. 

Matt's view for most of the summer. 

Boxing drills make the long hours of scratch fishing pass a little faster and keep you warm on snotty Bristol Bay days. 

 The Alaska State Patrol is unabashed in their presence on the Johnston Hill Line.

Ghost River.  I have the upmost respect for the fish that we harvest from the ocean.  The cycle that sustains this ecosystem never ceases to amaze me, even as the rotting carcasses of spawned fish ride the rip tide down the river.

Freddy is the Man.  Bacon donuts with maple syrup. 

 It's not about the shit you get into, it's how you get out of it~Frank Cranborne F/V Herbert Cecil.  
Some quick thinking and fancy driving kept our net from wrapping the Alaskan Reefer…by about six inches.


 BfF.  Skippy and Freddy have been fishing together a long time,  and boats have a way of bringing out the best and worst in all of us.  I respect their ability to maintain a tight friendship despite the stress that is inherent to fishing and living in a small space.  


Kowalski is a legend.  True friends send you treats in the mail!

 You can take a boy out of Pullman, but you can never take the Pullman out of a boy.

 Your friends will make fun of you for a long time if you do this and manage not to sink your boat.

 Steak, real mashed potatoes and fresh greens celebrate 100,000 pounds of catch in the 2014 season.  As much as I like eating rice and fish every day,  I feel pretty fortunate to work for a guy who understands that what you put in your employees is directly related to what you get out of them.


 Mount Chiginangak dominates the skyline of the Ugashik watershed and makes me imagine what the Puget Sound may have looked like one hundred years ago.  High ski potential.


As much as I like bears, I didn't mind not running into this fella. 


Be advised that entering into a practical joke competition with Myagi likely won't turn out in your favor.

 Beard love.  When I told Jenny that I was going to shave clean she begged me to keep the nest.  I compromised with a  number four trim.  

 Smoked Chum love.

That about sums it up.  (Photo credit:  Luke Brummer)

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Fish Hunt



The fish hunt begins and ends on Queens Slough of the Nushagak River.  

I wake up to take a leak off the starboard side of the of boat at ten pm and notice the muddy waters below bubbling and rolling with what looks to me like thousands of jumping fish.  I stick the dip net into the strong flood and immediately snag two 7 pound fish.  
My Dad tells stories his father told him of salmon so thick on the Pilchuck River in Snohmohish that you could walk across their backs to the other side.  I wonder if half the fisherman in Bristol Bay realize that this may be the last place on earth that this phenomenon occurs; I am thankful to be fishing for a captain that does.


The fact that I have slept less than ten hours in the past one hundred and twenty, combined with the eternal twilight of the Alaskan Summer has an amazing ability to blur a week into one long day.  It robs one of any concrete perception of time passing and event sequencing.  There are however a few vivid moments that will be etched in my brain for the remainder of my days.  


Fishing the South Line of the Nushagak in mellow seas under fine skies I watched Tom roll the Crawdad into the two foot swells of the the flood tide and his crew toss the gear into the water.  We turned the same corner and set off  his forward buoy as Tom's net exploded with five thousand pounds of glistening Sockeye Salmon.  We cheered across the water and pumped our fists into the air for the success of our friends. I watched Elijah agonize in frustration over missing a huge set for the rest of the day.


I hauled six hundred pounds of fish by hand into the stern of the Potential as we drifted ever closer to "The Line" as Fish and Game airplanes ran patrol five hundred feet over our heads.  I pulled harder on that line than have pulled on anything in a long while.  Better a couple of sore shoulders then a $5,000 ticket in the mail and chat with the State Patrol.  


Fishing being frustratingly slow, Elijah bucked the opinion of our radio group and followed a hunch borne of many years of fishing this watershed.  Flounder Flats rolled fast, muddy and shallow in a strong western wind as we stood on the deck fruitlessly scanning the choppy waters for jumpers.  Our nets hit the water at six am and immediately sunk under the weight of thousands of pounds of fish.  We spent the next four hours furiously picking fish, rotating gear and dragging our nets against a tide that pulled the dangerously shallow water out from under our boat.  Seven thousand pounds heavier with fish we tugged west into growing winds and short-set another five hundred pounds as the sun sunk lower in the western sky. A good day at the office. 


I stand in the stern pilothouse of the Potential picking 384 beautiful Sockeye Salmon with Freddy as a soggy wet northwest wind slammed five foots swells over the side of the boat.  I pull one fish from the net for every three gracefully extracted by Myagi.  Despite being cold, wet and exhausted I giggled at the fact that I am dropping my pick less frequently,  my cussing in frustration has become negligible and I am possibly being more of a help than a hinderance at the net.


Nothing says break time quite like Tamales and Coors Light for breakfast.  Elijah announced this morning that we are transferring to the Naknek Kvichack watershed.  By law we must stand down forty-eight hours before we can set another net, and to be honest, I am more than ready for a break.  We motored up the Nushagak and dropped anchor in the flat waters of Queens Slough, sheltered from the wind in the low tide.  Those who have followed the pages of Front Door Adventures will know that I do not cower from tasks that require a fair amount of effort,  but working the Nushagak River for the past 120 hours is by far the most physically and mentally challenging thing I have done in a while.

Thus far the F/V Potential has tendered 31,263 pounds of fish.  Not only am I finding the adventure that I sought out,  but I am learning much more than I anticipated and I feel pretty darn good about being part of an industry that delivers the cleanest and most sustainable seafood in the world.

Kloshe konaway
Kloshe nanitch

Matt

 Sometimes things go sideways on a boat, and rehearsal for emergencies is essential.  Fire, flood, man-over-board and abandon ship drill are performed and documented on a monthly basis.  Not only do these drills mentally prepare crew members for emergencies, they also identify equipment that is not functioning properly.  I sleep better at night with the confidence of knowing how deal with shit hitting the fan.

 Abandon Ship Kit.

Dip netting fun. 

 We are by far the best fed crew in Bristol Bay.  Fred don't mess around.

Fresh sprouts prevent scurvy.


Mid-western cheesy potato hot dish. 


Taco Tuesday.



Toasted King Salmon Sandwich.  Living the Dream. 

Clark's Point cannery. 

Tying to and unloading fish onto tender boats is by far the most dangerous aspect of commercial salmon fishing.  

Three thousand pounds of fresh fish.


 My view from the the stern pilot house.

 Sunrise always brings a little warmth to snotty wet & cold nights.


 Write this down.  Flounder Flats with a strong westerly and an ebb tide.

 The end of one hundred and twenty hour shifts calls for a celebration breakfast.