Wednesday, July 23, 2014

July 21-22: Vacation: setnetters thrive on adversity

Another short post without photos yet. I just want to reassure friends and family that we got there (details to follow), stayed there (more details), and returned whole and unharmed, but not unchanged (lots more wet details).

As a preview, our tradition is to take off (rather brazenly) missing a crucial piece of information (that we don't even know we're missing), and then somehow cope with the outcome and so far, anyhow, come out whole. Rohan just reviewed the highlights of the return trip:

*Stopping in the village of Iguigig where the kind people allowed us to replenish our supply of gas ($107.10 for 15 gallons)

*Drifting lazily down river while Jake tried out his new fly rod (he caught a rainbow trout and accidentally snagged a big grayling)

*Heading the wrong direction up a certain creek... without paddles... for a while

*Recovering to the right river but the clock is running out on the outgoing tide

*Getting caught (semi-voluntarily) on a sandbar... for hours, thinking it would be 1 - 1.5 hours... and when the tide continued to drop for 4 hours after we expected it to turn, we began to wonder if a zombie apocalypse had occurred or someone took the moon.

*Once it started to come in, it made up for that lost time in the flood, flooding much faster than we see out here in the fishing district. When we could finally float, we drove through the confluence of rapidly incoming tide and outgoing river (yep, that equals whirlpools!) while trying to avoid whales (while it was light) and as darkness descended (and, because of the storm between us and our destination, darkness hammered down around us as we ran into the storm), trying to see and then avoid buoys and nets while keeping the water and the people and stuff on their respective right sides of the boat.

David did great at the helm, coping with all those conditions and trying to keep everyone as safe and dry as possible. He was successful on the first goal (safe) and I think the second goal (dry) may have been a bit too much to ask, given the conditions (despite the fact that unlike last year, everyone got into raingear early).

As I recount who did what, I find that overall, the New Boat crew was most active and I think this is probably because they have been working together all season and everyone knows his/her part in helping the New Boat get safely from Point * to Point # through Rough Points !*!?! with David at the helm. Sarah took over for David before we decided to dally on the sandbar and acted as his additional eyes and ears afterwards when the going got really rough. Jake once again served as excellent navigator and spotter. Rohan found multiple ways of pitching in, including helping with navigation, and facilitating communication between helmsman and navigator. Jeff and Roger were standing by to help in any way needed - Roger travels prepared with knife, flashlight, and knowledge. Jeff travels prepared with mightiness. AJ, confident in the crew, actually managed to get a nap during part of the trip home (an enviable ability!). David Duke led us in a game of Ninja on the sand bar and eagerly took over for me as a (more effective) spotter after I took a tumble in the bow of the boat when I tried to move just as a big roller hit. And Carbon, despite having what I think is a case of the End of Season Crud, also took his turn standing watch in the bow.

And that's just the highlights of the trip back. Details and photos on the trip up and back will follow.

Monday, July 21, 2014

July 18-20: Sleep wins again!

Argh! Another postponement. This time we've been busy with a storm that swamped the Bathtub, completely drowning the powerpack (restored with significant uncertainty by Roy) and leaving our beloved Yamaha 60 undeterred (where can we get another of those?!) Bringing in the nets, buoys, last of the fish, trying to keep the fillets we've made and sealed from walking out of the freezer without us. And now on Monday, we're off to explore the mysteries of the Kvichak River, destination Kokhanok and if that takes too long, Igiguig. It is a sorry thing to know about myself that somewhere deep in my psyche, I biologically believe that the world is flat. That's what my stomach thinks. Luckily, I have a downright adventurous crew that makes me prove my stomach wrong over and over. I'll report back - with photos! when we get back sometime on the 22nd.

Friday, July 18, 2014

July 14-17 placeholder

We have been fishing, rescuing a dead ranger, saying goodbye to friends and family for the season, welcoming a new honorary crew member from Hawaii, seeing my nephew!!, preparing homepack, beginning the closing up process, planning how we'll attend Fishtival, and preparing for this year's end-of-season trip adventure. I have many more details to report and photos to post, but I can't pass up this rare opportunity for a full night's sleep. I just wanted friends and family to know that this gap in posting is not ominous - we are all well and happy. We even got to spend a few hours at the Red Dog tonight watching a rare performance by Wendy Lee and Todd!! Dancing! I'll write more soon...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

July 13: New way to homepack

We are always looking for fresh produce that will keep for months in our conditions. In early May, we shipped up 20 lb of sweet potatoes, 50 lbs of red potatoes, 50 lbs of sweet onions, 50 lbs of fuji apples, and a few butternut squashes, acorn squashes, and kabocha squashes (which hold for a long time, but intimidate me!). I wasn't involved in packing them for shipping, but David, Sarah, Rohan, and Jeff put layers of newspaper between them and packed each type of produce in its own box. Once they got to the cabin, we've just stored them in my porch which is usually cool... except when the weather is hot.

All the produce did really well. The crew also unpacked them and I understand there was some early loss, but not much. They discarded those before they got to the cabin. Just today, we ran out of apples. The last one was a little bit soft, so we just put it in pancakes. We still have a few sweet potatoes, and most remain unblemished and delicious in our herbed mashed sweet potato recipe (mmmm), the remaining squash are still firm (though the acorns have turned yellow and red). The red potatoes have not started to sprout (though by this time in past years, some of them had), and only a few of the onions were a little moldy. We also just ran out of those. Last year, it seemed that about half of the yellow onions arrived moldy. The produce man told Jeff that the sweet onions store better, and so far, that seems to be true for us in these conditions. Rohan mentioned that it seems to depend on the batch - sometimes yellow onions keep better, sometimes sweet onions do.

Next year, I think we'll bring the same things, less a few of the squash, plus about 20 lbs of onions and maybe 10 lbs of apples and see if next season's conditions continue to be friendly to produce on the porch.

Today's weather was mild enough that we could break into two crews of two (though with the strong current, it is really hard to hold the crosspick!). Rohan and AJ infiltrated the New Boat! Here is a photo of them delivering to the Jacqueline W. The New Boat is tied up on the starboard side of the Jacqueline and they are in the process of lifting the brailer off the skiff to deliver it to their hold. We love it when the Jacqueline can come our way to take deliveries - it's so much less stressful than delivering to the beach where we need to worry about the tide going out from under us, drifting into other people's nets, or hitting the bottom (or worse, a rock) with the prop.

As it turns out, though, we are quite capable of getting ourselves into trouble when the weather is calm and the water is plenty deep enough. After delivering and before going in, we all got into the Ambi to address the location of the Grayling, which had wandered a little too close to our neighbor's net. We decided to pull its anchor and tow it back out of everyone's way before re-setting the anchor. I should have been more alert to the loose anchor line floating in the water during the tow, making sure it was pulled into our boat so that it didn't wrap the prop. Thunk. Whoops. Drop the anchor so we don't drift into someone's net! Rohan lifted the outboard and there was the prop, well wrapped up in the anchor line. Sigh. Luckily there was another skiff nearby (the Grayling) so I could jump into it to get access to the Ambi's outboard without having to hang out of the stern of the Ambi, clinging by my toes to avoid falling in. But it was so well wrapped, I had to cut the anchor line to get it loose. That's twice this year we've had to cut that anchor line. So we have added a new anchor line for both the Grayling and the Ambi to our 2015 shopping list.

We saved out a pile of our most beautiful salmon for homepack. We put them in a brailer and realized that we had a much bigger brailer of "most beautiful salmon" than of "least beautiful salmon," and I was worried about whether we could process that many in one go. So we talked it over and decided that instead of filleting the salmon into sides, we could head and gut them, and fit them into the vacuum seal bags without their tails. So the processing part should be quite a bit faster and it would require only half the pre-freezing space in the big freezer and most importantly, only half of the sealing (which takes almost as long as processing). We decided that we could risk trying to process 60 that way. So Roger and Rohan counted out 60 from the homepack brailer into another brailer... and we discovered that we had originally pulled out exactly 60. I'm glad my crew is tolerant.

Even though these salmon were not for AGS, we asked Brad to help us load them into our truck to take them in to process ourselves and he very generously did. Brad is great! I think this new approach to processing our fish will work well for us. It did turn out to be faster, with the added benefit that if a seal breaks, the whole salmon won't be freezer burned. Maybe at the collar and possibly in the belly, but most of the fish will still be easy to salvage. The downside of this approach is that we pay for shipping the backbone which will then be discarded in Seattle. It might be a worthy trade.

Even though I have a great preference for being down at our cabins instead of in town, I have to give credit where it's due. As we emerged from the conex after finishing the processing, we stepped into this scene... and me without my camera. But as he so often does, Roger saved the day with his, so you too get to see the beauty that washed us at the end of the day. And AJ mentioned that he had seen a rainbow as he was running fish from the conex to the freezer, not realizing the part of his job description is to alert me to such phenomena because I love to see them. Our friend Phil is fond of pointing out that we are all "Bristol Bay millionaires." What more could we ever want?

July 12: Moosen at the lake

As boats start pulling out of the water and the yard at AGS starts filling up, I begin to feel the melancholy of the end of the season, even though it is weeks away for me. Harry, Makenzie, Ev, and Hannah will leave soon and having already eaten their celebratory dinner at the D&D came down the beach to join our farewell dinner in their honor and in the honor of the Goat Roper crew, Phil, Tom, and Trevor who will also leave soon. My crew is still fishing the day-into-evening tides, but Rohan and I needed the ebb to get ready for dinner. Jeff replaced us both. Hmmm. We made the salads and the cheesecakes. What more is needed for a farewell dinner?

I just paused here for a minute to read The Sentimental Fish, the lead article in the Summer 2014 Wild Alaska Salmon issue of Alaska Women Speak. It was written by our very own Makenzie. I found it to be so moving: beautifully written, poignant, and in so few words conveys such depth and breadth of feelings - describing my own feelings about this time of the season better than I do. Really, it's more than "describe." It's like she picks verbal snapshots that, when taken together, are like a plucked guitar chord - a chord that elicits a feeling. Because that's what her article does: it does describe, so that the reader might grasp what she is talking about, and the images that she weaves together also create an emotional chord. I'm so proud (and comforted) to share this melancholy with her. And how fitting that she and Ev are both moose, Palmer High School's mascot, because...
Jake, our outdoorsman, burst into the cabin with a moose sighting! I feel I must tell the truth and admit that he had to keep showing me where to look to see them. Standing in the lake right behind my cabin! Someone wanted to know where the antlers are - answer: they don't always have antlers. And Roger voiced his suspicions that they are just donkeys, with those big ears. He also settled the question about what the plural of moose is. In my lexicon, it's now "moosen."

I went back in to keep working on dinner - guests would arrive soon! And came back out in time to see the moosen ambling off into the tundra. They were right up on the horizon with a perfect silhouette when Jake pointed out that they were walking toward an eagle, with a mountain in the background. I thought I was doing pretty well to see the moosen. He wanted me to see the eagle too? So I handed him the camera, and here is the story that those pictures told:

You can see why I couldn't pick just one.

We all returned to the cabin. Roger was in rare form tonight. When I cleaned the salmon we planned to grill, I placed the waste in a grocery sack to be emptied below the tideline on the beach. I asked the out going crew to do that, but they forgot.

When the crew came back in, I asked them to start the charcoal grill, telling Jeff where to find the charcoal - in a white plastic bag in my porch. He brought it and the grill over and went looking for the chimney to start the charcoal. As he returned with the chimney, Roger stepped into the crew cabin, walking between the two grills that were just transported from my cabin, with the bag that used to hold the charcoal, asking if we had any plans for the stuff that he had just emptied onto the beach, thinking it was the forgotten waste from the salmon and noticing, too late, that it was something else entirely.

We excel at Plan B. Time to use the blocks of mesquite, also on my porch.

I also asked him to tear the lettuce, as the base for the summer salmon salad. He asked if you can just twist the stem off, while twisting the stem off... so that lettuce flew onto the lemon cheesecake. And that's how we sneak more vegetables into our meals here at Moose Camp.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

July 11: Homepack fury

Fishing remains strong and we continue to split the crews. David's crew is managing the night tides (without any help from us) and my crew is managing the day tides, with occasional help from David's crew. These photos are from July 11.
Here is Rohan using the ranger to tow in the Bathtub with the tide's last several hundred pounds of salmon. AJ is ready to address problems as they inevitably occur on the trip. We are so glad to have the ranger back!

After dragging or pushing (depending on whether we can use the ranger) the Bathtub across the mud to the sand, we have to remember to anchor it (an easy thing to forget when the boat is not moving). Anchoring requires a little thought. In this photo, AJ is pulling the anchor up higher on the beach. This is because the next time the Bathtub will be used is when the night crew takes it out on the flood. They will probably be out there as soon as it floats (so if we forgot to anchor it, it would still be OK because they would be there to tend it). But we work hard not to rely on luck. Maybe the night crew would decide not to go out till later or would just be delayed. In that case, we'd still want them to be able to get to the Tub easily. With an onshore wind, as the tide comes in, it just nudges the boat higher and higher up the beach. But with an offshore wind, though, as soon as it floats, it will head to deeper water. If the anchor is placed deeper, that makes the boat out of reach as soon as it floats. When the next use is later in the ebb, though, it is important to anchor it out as deeply as possible (but still shallow enough to jump out and walk to shore without getting wet) so that it will still be floating when the crew returns to it, maybe an hour or two later. There are also lateral considerations in where to anchor. The nets are about 300' apart. The anchor line is about 50' and the boat, another 20'. When the tide comes in, the nets all swing north and that swing can travel quite a distance - 50' at the anchor and even further at the belly of the net. When the tide goes out, everything swings south to the same extent. We try to anchor in the middle between them so that if there is no wind, boats and nets will just swing together and as long as the boat is anchored at least 100' from the net on either side, there is no problem. But if the wind is blowing, even if the anchor is not interfering with the net, the boat, at the end of its 50' anchor line, may be. By the time we leave here, I'd say we're ready for our graduate degrees in anchoring.

The previous photo also shows Rohan pulling the ranger higher up the beach to wash it off, and Roger, in the distance, riding on the Gehl with Brad, picking up some homepack fish we pulled out to fillet later in the day.
As they got closer, I could get a better shot. With Roger's interest in equipment, I thought that he might especially enjoy this particular chore. Brad said that as Roger was riding, he said, "This is like being a garbage man!"

Despite the continuing strong catches, I must accept that at some point, the fish will all have arrived. Before that time, we must finish our homepack. I mean to take home most of the kings (I've made a commitment this year to do a better job of sharing), and about 200 sockeye. Most of the crew is taking between 25 lbs and 50 lbs of fillet. In the past couple of days, we've filleted 60 or 70 salmon for homepack. Instead of asking the crew to help me fillet 200 sockeye, maybe we'll head and gut them, cut off their tails, and seal them whole. That way there is less risk of freezer burn and it will probably cut the processing time in half.

Here we are, starting the filleting process with way more salmon in the not-yet-filleted pile than in the ready-to-pre-freeze pile. AJ has been piling them up and Rohan is wasting no time in starting to fillet. We are working in a conex provided by AGS. It's a great facility, with running water and everything! The waste goes into a garbage can and later goes into the grinder.

Jeff wasn't able to come with us this time because he wouldn't get back in time to go out with the night crew, but Roger, Rohan, AJ, and I were a processing force. This photo shows our progress, with Roger honing his new knife skills.

After filleting the last of the salmon and cleaning out the conex, I turned around and saw this. The full moon rising over the Naknek River. If I can just keep looking, even though I'm tired and my back is sore, I can turn around and see something like this.

Several years ago, when David, Harry, and I came up in November to see if we could prevent the crew cabin from falling over the cliff (we could do nothing but it didn't fall anyway), David and I went out and got insulated Carhartt overalls. They are amazing and kept me warm that November when the -20 degrees weather was freezing my nose hairs, and in the 9 degrees freezer when I went to join the sealing/freezing crew.

When the salmon are all piled together, it freezes slowly. So we spread them out to help them freeze faster; much better for quality. But it takes a few hours to freeze and we worry about our beautiful vacuum sealed fillets finding their way into the boxes of others who are in and out of the freezer. So when we decide to leave them unattended, as we did on this day, we try to be the last ones to use the freezer (that is, we leave around midnight) and the first ones back (in by 9 or 9:30 the next morning).

We worry less about the kings walking off - partly because they are harder to fit into luggage and because... what would someone do with it when they get it home? Me, I plan to give a few to my son's school for their graduation dinner, and I think we're planning on having a salmon bake this year, and I'll make lox. Yum!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

July 10: Happy Birthday, Debby and Bruce!

Two days in the summer are especially hard for me to write about - one is June 30, the anniversary of my younger son's accidental death in 2012, and the other is July 10, the birthday of my sister and my brother-in-law. But it is also the day my sister died in 2010. So every July 10, I think about my sister even more than usual. I think about how I didn't realize how extremely important she was to me, until she wasn't there anymore. She was the one who would always be there. And I was the one who would always be there for her. I think she was probably aware that I didn't realize how important she was to me, but I also think she knew, which is probably more important. And my whole life, she just forgave me for being dense that way - probably in other ways too that I haven't yet noticed. That is one of the many things I miss and appreciate about her.

Here we are in 2006. Even though she just came up to cook for us, she saw we were in trouble with this huge roundhaul, and she came down to help. That was Debby. I also have photos of her coming to help when I bit off more than I could chew with a commercial salting effort. She was always there to help.
She loved to garden and this was a photo that Trina got that really felt like Debby - she was allergic to everything and used to refer to herself, mostly jokingly, as "a delicate flower."

In fishing news: The ranger was ready to come home today!! Ryan at Naknek Engine told us that he had to replace the tire because if he put another tube in it, the rough spot inside the tire would just make another hole. I just feel glad that it was possible to replace the tire. And today is the day we started processing our homepack. So both the boom truck and the Red Truck went into town after the afternoon tide - the boom truck to pick up the ranger and because it has been carrying the vacuum sealer, and the Red Truck so that once David puts the ranger onto the bed of the boom truck, he can take all the bluies and the gas cans and get us all filled up with water and gas, respectively, and then return to the beach to prepare for the night tide while the processing crew processes.

Rohan, Jeff, and I filleted the fish while AJ ran them to the freezer to try to pre-freeze them before sealing them. Several people mentioned that it seemed that a lot of bags broke last year and we are hypothesizing that it is because the slime interferes with the sealing process. So to get around the slime, we are trying to pre-freeze for maybe an hour, and then seal them. This calls for fillets to be draped around the inside of the freezer, with a runner bringing a few newly sealed in, and returning with a few partially frozen. We were able to fillet 20 fish in an hour. Sealing them takes just about as long.

After we got back to the cabins (something that always elicits a sigh of relief from me), the crew let me tell stories about Debby. A friend recently sent me a quote about the worthy goal of being able to live with pain and loss side by side with joy and energy. Here we all are.