A Summer Spent Chasing Slippery Gold

I don’t think many people refer to salmon as “slippery gold” but after spending three months on a fishing boat, I quickly learned that the more fish you caught, the larger the paycheck would be.


Just about 5 years ago a friend of mine from high school reached out and made me an offer I couldn’t find any reason not to accept. His father had one open spot on his 58ft seining vessel and it was mine if I wanted it. 

About 5 years ago a friend of mine reached out and made an offer I couldn’t find any reason not to accept. His father had one open spot on his 58ft seining vessel and it was mine if I wanted it.

My knowledge of commercial fishing was limited to viewing an episode or two of “Deadliest Catch”, which takes place in the winter. For crab. Quite the opposite of my venture into salmon fishing in the summer.


LEADING UP TO I-SEA-LATION

If anyone knows me, they know that I am usually found doing one of the following two things (depending on the time of year…)

1. Shredding the gnar down my hometown resorts, Snowbird and Solitude on a snowboard
2. Roosting berms on my mountain bike in Moab

So how would I fair going from the endless terrain of Utah to a confined vessel floating in the sea for three months?

Well, for starters – the ride isn’t entirely about the “ride” for me. I’ve always been someone who enjoys solitude (and no, I’m not referring to the mountain this time), I mean mental solitude. And, so commonly speaking the feeling of solitude that fills me when I take that ride down the mountain on a board or a bike, is the same solitude I was seeking to obtain from a summer spent on a fishing boat in Alaska.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention I tore my ACL 8 weeks prior to departure…almost blew the whole trip. But after 8 weeks of diligent physical therapy, I was my most decent self – ready to rock the boat.


NET VALUE IN SLIPPERY GOLD

If you know little to nothing about fishing, you are in the majority. The Salmon season runs roughly from June 1st through Sept 1st.

Our home base was located deep in the Aleutian chain on Popof Island, a (town, village, community?) known as Sandpoint, Alaska, near the entrance to the Bering Sea. 

With a population of approximately 1000, this quaint town’s heartbeat depends entirely on fishing.   



A DAY IN THE LIFE…

It was salty.
It was windy.
It was tiresome.

Fishing consisted of four days on and four days off. While on, the crew woke up before sunrise, brewed the first of numerous pots of coffee, and would run several seining sets. Seine fishing is a method of fishing that employs a fishing net called a seine, which hangs vertically in the water with its bottom edge held down by weights and its top edge buoyed by floats.

In other words, the seine net was deployed by a skiff or small jet boat and formed a wide loop, that would (hopefully) be loaded with salmon by the end of the day.

The only breaks we would take all day would be for quick meals. The workday would continue until the crew was too tired and hungry to muscle on.

To supplement our 18hr workdays, we routinely ate approximately 10,000 calories.

Our crew was lucky to have a captain who cared about feeding his crew hearty meals. Many of the other boats did not have such a fortunate culinary plan. Cooking duties were shared, cleaning was communal, and of course, fishing roles were delegated. Working as a team was the only way to get through the season.


There was one day I will never forgot. A humpback whale swam through our net, a rare liability but none the less, urgent action was required. And no, the whale was not injured – all 66,000 lbs of its alluring capacity swam through and left us with a gaping hole that we would then need to sew. It was rough work and with a 5 man crew, normally a job for 6; it took us all night.

If you didn’t have a work ethic before this endeavor, you certainly would walk away with it after.

If someone didn’t carry their weight, the entire team was off-balance. You were accountable for yourself and that was an invaluable skill to have.

Off days consisted of boat repairs, stocking provisions, doing laundry, and other tasks to get us ready for the upcoming voyage.

Adjusting to life on a boat was simple enough but came with its challenges. Living in small quarters proves to be tedious (and increasingly difficult as the season carries on toward the end). Especially when the 4 crew members sleep in a tiny bunk room. My snoring surely was a problem for my deck mates, but I seemed to sleep through it fine.

The Captain slept in his own quarters. 

There were times where I missed my home life dearly. The simple times of mountain-biking, camping, and concerts filled my thoughts while jelly-fish rained down on me. I probably was stung 1000 times, but you get used to it…it became part of my routine, a daily occurrence that felt similar to the Stinging Nettle plant if you’re familiar.

Recreation was few and far between. As we motored through the season the feeling of restlessness became more apparent, and especially severe when the fishing started to slow down. Bickering amongst crew members increased as cabin fever progressed in-between fishing.  For everyone’s sake, these times were near the end of season and that brought on a sense of comfort.

The finish line was within sight. 


DRAWING A LINE TO PRESENT DAY

It’s been 5 years since I decided to say f”*& it and leave my home in Utah and head to Alaska.

Not so different from how I am currently feeling – I was stepping into uncharted waters with no idea what to expect. Confined to a space, with nowhere to go. Just me and the crew – all day, every day. My freedom no longer in my hands but at the whim of my captain and the current.

The sea dictated our routine. Everything that was once at my disposal, now stripped away. Our routine would be overhauled in a matter of weeks. Never thought I would compare my most memorable summer to a virus infected spring but here I am finding a line that seems to connect these two experiences.

While now we are confined to our homes. Basic social freedoms revoked and commonalities that we never paid a thought to, like toilet paper – has become the new gold currency.

How do I manage cabin fever? Or balance the delicate climate of a confined space shared with cabin mates (or in this case roommates)? Everyone ready to murder each other at the drop of a pin. Walking around on eggshells, or social distancing in our rooms.

I am no wise old man, here to tell you about the lost stories of my past at sea, but something I can draw from my time away to my time now is, one step at a time will get everyone to the end goal. 

And when this chapter does come to an end? Hopefully we will have a revitalized community effort to live better lives. Whatever that may entail.


Story and photography by Jameson Bonsey