Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Hello all, this is Jake with the final blog of the season.

I woke up this morning to Chris saying, “Jake! There is a bear outside if you want to see it.” There aren’t very many places in the world where one can wake up to those words. The bear was out in the tundra by Debby’s cabin. It was, we’re guessing, close to 900 pounds. At first glance it looked smaller, until it stood up and was around 8 or 9 feet tall. Not something to mess with.

We are almost finished with the winterizing of the cabins and finalizing everything with AGS. We did it under the careful hand of Josh’s guidance. By splitting into pairs of twos and threes we went about net stripping (clearing the mesh off the nets) and bagging them up to go south. All the boats are in. The power rollers came off and are on pallets, also going southbound. We also spent some quality time in the walk-in freezer boxing fish. It’s made the rain and wind outside feel quite nice. We are now in our final night at the cabin, and tomorrow Josh flies out and we leave the cabins until next year’s adventure.

Last night the crew received good news: the price of fish for this year is 95 cents per pound. This is the highest price in fifteen years. We were sad not to have our fearless captain with us to celebrate. Our total fish count is 215625 pounds: second best season of all time.

These past two months have been quite the whirlwind of ups and downs. We pulled through though (literally!) and have come out with something pretty incredible. As Chris put it “We are a fishing machine!” But it goes a little beyond that. Last year Sarah said that we became a family. This is, perhaps, a better way to describe what happened here this summer. The crew came together and overcame substantial difficulties: Josh’s hand, tough conditions, and every type of set known to set-netting. Every member of this crew will walk away proud to be part of this familial machine. Each of us worked together as the pistons and pumps move in a finely tuned engine. Sometimes our motors coughed and sputtered, but we kept moving forward over all of the bumps in the road. And now we fly away until next year’s summer sun and Southwest winds bring the promise of fish. Until then, in the words of Liz, “Good luck and good fishing.”

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Life changes

It turns out that I'll be returning to Seattle quite a bit earlier than planned. We've had a very sad loss in our family so I'll be returning home to help with that and be helped by the closeness of family and friends. I'm sorry to leave this season on such a sad note, and it reminds me that life just marches on forward anyway. I'm so grateful to have such an outstanding crew; they'll get everything buttoned up for me under Josh's leadership. I know I'll have to let them know how to figure out what goes to the warm room, what needs to be protected from lemmings, what needs to be protected from condensation - and how to do all that stuff. What needs to be shipped south, what needs to be stored in Debby's cabin and what can be left out. Oh boy, it's a lot of information. And I think they'll still go to Katmai.

And I just wanted to say one other thing - the woman at Alaska Airlines was heroic in her efforts to change our reservations - mine, Trina's, Harry's and his daughter's (who I think of as my niece), and our mom's. That's a whole lotta changing during an impossible time to book a flight out of King Salmon. So thank you, Alaska Airlines!

Jake said he would take over with updates. He might start today - maybe after I leave. Thanks for keeping us company this summer. Liz

Friday, July 16, 2010

You've had a spare thumb all this time and you haven't told me?

That was Jake, in response to a fake rubber thumb that was on top of my rice container. It's another story. And it's the time of the season. We've decided to pull the nets as soon as we get our homepack and meanwhile, only fish the ebb. Everyone is sort of giddy with the idea of having all that free time. And the fog has lifted, the clouds cleared, and the sun has come out. It happened in stages. The whole crew went into town.

Erik calculated that pulling out 20 fish a tide (so as not to overwhelm the walk-in freezer at the processing plant) would take us far too many tides to accumulate our homepack goal. So we took everything we caught, not just the perfect ones. And we all headed into town with the idea of joining the Fishtival and seeing about camping gear for the Katmai trip - we ended up with two 6-person tents, two new sleeping bags (one for me!), and some small bottles of propane. Jake and Chris, our camping experts, are going to make sure we have everything we need. We'll take the New Boat because it's the fastest and the trip is kind of long - a couple of hours. We are sure to see bears on the way, on the shores of Naknek Lake. Hmmm, I'd better charge up the battery on the handheld radio. I'm not much of a navigator, but I think that as long as we stick to the right hand shore, eventually we'll see the commotion that is Brook's Lodge - it's the place where those photographs are taken that you might see in National Geographic of the bears on top of the falls catching the leaping salmon. Our plan is to see the bears, Jake and Chris might want to fish a little bit (people come from all over the world to do that) and the next morning, we'll take the trip to the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes - I've never done that and I think it'll be great.

While we were in town, treats abounded. There was mug up and the diabetic smorgasbord offered there (Chris had a long list of what he consumed), then a box of ice cream drumsticks from the store (it had become hot!), and then we went to the D&D for our one and only pizza night. Though they had very little room left for pizza. One of my secret goals for the summer is to see if we can put a belly on Jeff. I am beginning to lose hope on that one.

Freezing 55 salmon at once is a little tricky. One year, we tried freezing them in a heap - that's a good way to guarantee a very slow freeze (opposite of blast freezing) - so slow that the ones in the middle smelled bad by the time we found our mistake. But spreading them out all over everyone's boxes inconveniences everyone - they can't get into their own boxes because they're covered with our fish. So we spread them out for a few hours, until they freeze a bit and then stack them up on top of our box, like Lincoln Logs, so they still get air circulation but don't take up so much room. We put them in the freezer first thing when we arrived in town. The headed off for treats (which included showers and laundry!) and then stacked them up last thing.

It was a beautiful evening for fishing - and the whole beach was alive with people wanting to fish for about the first time all season - except my crew who are just too tired. We went out on the ebb - I was seduced by the sunshine and didn't dress warmly enough. So I think I was colder than I had been all season, wearing just thin polypropylene long johns under my dry suit. Brrrr. So I bailed out and left the crew to finish the tide and burrowed under my covers, sleeping for 10 hours! So I guess I was cold and tired.

How could it possibly be getting *colder?*

The crew doesn't complain, but Josh said that there were happy to hear that we are now fishing for homepack and when we fulfill everyone's homepack desires, we'll pull the nets. I'm looking forward to uninterrupted sleep and I really want to play CatchPhrase and Cranium with them.

Unless we get another push in the next few days, this will probably be our second best season ever - and we're all thrilled with that; we've certainly worked hard for it. We were out on the flood pick at 5:30 this morning - foggy and cold, but little wind and very few fish - less than 200 lbs. We might do better on the ebb. And we pulled out about 15 fish for our homepack. Josh and I are combining our homepack orders for 160 salmon, plus the kings (except what I can make myself give up to crew members who want them).

I don't think we've ever had a season before with so much fishing - we've been open every tide since the emergency period started on June 23, and we've fished all but two of them. That's a heck of a lot of fishing. This will probably be one of those seasons where we sit and stare for a while after we get home.

My thoughts are beginning to turn to re-entry into Seattle life, where tide and wind don't really matter, but time of day and traffic congestion does - those barely compute right now. Even though I long mightily to see my Seattle friends again, re-entry is always the hardest time of the year for me. I think, though, I'll try to delay thinking about it for a while - after all, I'm still here and we have quite a bit ahead of us - including a skiff trip to the Katmai bear preserve. We might even stay overnight (deliberately).

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Good neighbors

This morning's tide was busy. We were out on the nets for the flood pick at 4:30 - and it was darker than I expected because the clouds are still thick. And it was cold, cold, cold. Picking fish is hard when we have frozen stumps where fingers used to be. But we ended the tide with almost 4000 lbs. Here we are with about 1/3 of that in the Grayling. 15,300 lbs to go.

(I also just added some photos to yesterday's post and the Binge Sleeping post - of the night delivery. I'm late adding them because I kept forgetting to bring my camera back in from the boat.)

As the Ambi was going through the inside site, we noticed someone's buoy had gotten loose and stopped on our net. My policy is to return lost buoys if we know who they belong to; otherwise, keep them in a sort of cosmic accounting system where we lose some and we find some and maybe it comes out sort of even. The New Boat came over to say they needed help - the neighbor's net had migrated over to ours. Not a good thing.

Oh boy. The outside end of their net had come loose - the screw anchor had pulled up, so anchor, buoys, buoy light, assorted lines, and about 1/4 of their net had gone under and become entangled with ours. I think we were the only setnetters on the beach out there on the flood this morning. The crew on the Jill Anne I said we were the diehards - the grinders. So the neighbors weren't around to resolve it for themselves and they are delightful neighbors, so we didn't mind helping.

We first detached their net from the buoy and asked the New Boat to disentangle the buoys (and anchor, as it turned out) from our net and go put it in the neighbor's boat. Then we started to pick up their net. The idea was to pick it up as a roundhaul using our power roller and then raft up to their boat and using the power roller in reverse re-haul it into their boat. The net along with the buoy and anchor would tell the story. The only snag we hit (beside the fact that they have tremendously heavy lead lines) was that their net was under ours. That meant our boat had to go under our net - and dump it off over the stern. The only problem with that is that we have a big post in the stern with a picking light on it and an antenna for the radio (that only receives these days; doesn't transmit). We were able to go under the net at the tagline, so at least we didn't have to deal with getting web over all the stuff in the stern of our boat, but the current was running so hard - the tide rose more than 26 feet in 6 hours - that the lines were very very very taut. But Jake is strong and he muscled it up over his head and over the post. We laid the antenna down, but the pressure of the line snapped off the mount anyhow. Bob says it's not an expensive fix.

We went on to pick up the rest of the net - which had many more fish in it than our net did. I figure it was either their behemoth leadlines or the fact that their net had been fishing sideways, making a wall for the fish coming in to the beach, and pretty effectively corking off our nets. ("Corking" is a term used in fishing to indicate that someone else is fishing too close and diminishing the catch of the one who is corked.) Hard to say which it was - I might try out some behemoth leads.

The rest of the operation went smoothly enough. We got the whole net, fish and all into their boat, along with the buoys and anchor that had been deposited earlier. Then we set about the cold business of waiting for the New Boat crew to finish their net so they could deliver and we could go in for a while before coming out to fish the ebb. We made it in by about 7 AM and were back out by 8:30.

The ebb was busier and we barely got all the fish out before the nets went dry. We had some on the flood that were caught late in the ebb of the previous tide - one in particular was a beautiful fish and the seagulls had taken an eye, the gills on one side, the guts, and part of the neck. We couldn't sell that one, but I figured that we don't eat those parts, so we could use the rest to make dinner. I cleaned it and it was beautiful. On the ebb, we also saved a partial salmon - a seal had taken the head and much of the skin (bears do that too - do they know something I don't know?). But again, there was plenty left for us to use. Here is a photo of it - wouldn't you eat this? (Maybe I'm just getting tired, but isn't the color of the salmon the same as the color of the rain gear that the crew wears?) Anyhow, I figure we share the salmon with other creatures. Why not? I suggested using one of these fish to make a delicious salad brought to us by Erik with cumin coated salmon, black beans, orange chunks, feta cheese, and pine nuts. But even though that salad is delicious, it isn't warm, so chowder and more chowder is the demand.

I'm hoping for a good tide this afternoon. We'll be out for the flood pick at 4:30, 1 and 1/2 hours before high water. If the morning was this good and the afternoon is usually our better tide...

Now, a nap.

The afternoon flood pick was slow. We saw that our friends on the Goat Roper were nearby and Jake has been jonesing for a cup of good coffee. Every year we are told of the wonders of the Goat Roper's coffee - this year they said that they have an inverter that is dedicated to their coffee grinder. So under the guise of being sociable, we went to visit and just wouldn't leave until Phil offered Jake some coffee. He had to promise to make some after he finished his set for us to be willing to go bother my brother Harry who was fishing a small distance away. Harry has been reading the blog from time to time and suggested that given the conditions we're working under my comments about the marvels of my crew might be disingenuous. I'm glad he said that because it made me think about it a lot and it gave me the opportunity to be really clear here.

While it's true that there have been minor frustrations and training opportunities that I haven't written about, and not every crew member has every strength, and I'm sure, there have been times when each of us wanted to quit (and still, we've kept going), my comments about this crew have been completely honest. Jake remarked earlier that one of the really cool things about our crew is that we're a rag-tag group that works. Many of the crews on the beach pretty much consist of college guys. Ours has two sisters past 50, an old guy, a one-armed guy who is also a dancer, some football players, some intellectuals (and some who are both), modeling material (look at the photos - you can see who I mean) - all of us silly on lack of sleep. One of the things that's great about the football players (besides being strong and not afraid of physical work) is that they understand about protecting their team mates. And we have some lone wolves that need solitude. Some of the crew are great teachers (sadly, I'm not really in that group), some are nurturers - we have people with diverse interests and competencies. To me, that's a big part of our strength - we are very different from each other, and we respect one another's strengths (and weaknesses). Each crew member has shown up every time, front and center with heart, mind, body, and soul. What more could I ask for? As a whole, this group is hard-working, courageous, fun, funny, helpful, smart, determined, strong, interesting, willing, good learners, good-humored, supportive, thoughtful, and skilled in various ways. Together, we are a force. I'm proud of us; I'm thrilled with them; and I'm certainly proud of what we've accomplished and the good cheer with which we face the blistering cold tides that are slow as often as they are busy. So yeah, I mean it when I say how great they've been. This crew will live in my personal crew hall of fame with some of you who may be reading this now.

Phil made a cup of coffee (in his words, "...and Phil Lansing poured...") that made Jake the Jake he knows himself to be - he said it gave him some liquid sunshine and made his season. And then Phil played a tune on his concertina for us. It was a lovely interlude. Then, back to fishing.

Our total now stands at 215,069.

It's Fishtival weekend! I hope we'll have time to go in for a little while. It's a local celebration of the fishing season. David has been trying to get me to enter the fish splitting contest for a long time, but I'm sort of shy that way.

We get to sleep for a while now. It's 10:30 PM and I think we need to be out on the nets again at 5:30. At least it should be light!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Another dark and stormy one

10:30 AM - We just got in from finishing the night tide. We didn't fish straight through - we went out at 3:30 (in the dark, cold, fog, and wind) to clear the flood fish before the turn of the tide, came back in at about 5:30 and went back out at 8:30. We had a 26' tide here in Naknek. It swamped the neighbor's boat and would have swamped the Grayling, but we were too wily for it. The tide was very close to the cliff - it moistened the tires of the four-wheeler, and sprayed the back tires of the red truck. The white truck went into town to provide transportation for the drift crew for a day or two. When we came in after the flood pick (1176 lbs), we beached the Grayling and turned it bow to the waves. Then, to keep the stern from inching into the surf, allowing the skiff to drift to the steep part of the beach and then swamp, we were prepared to stand there with it till the tide dropped a little. Josh had a smarter idea - it involved using a rope to the stern of the boat and the red truck as an anchor.

The seiner that tenders for us came down and anchored between our sites to take our flood fish. We were happy to see them. Being tied up to anything in weather like this is harsh - the waves lift us and then drop us and the jerk when we reach the end of the tie off line throws us all around the (unpadded) inside of the boat. Four foot seas doesn't really sound like much, until I think about the height of the skiff, which isn't quite three feet. That means that when we're in the trough of the wave, we are surrounded by crests that are higher than the boat. When we ride down one, all we can see is water around the bow, and when we ride up one, all we can see is clouds. It's also hard to take a photo that shows the roughness of the water. Here is an attempt.

Our total now is 206,250. The crew is getting tired. I need to let them know that we might get a spurt of fish at the end here. In about half of the last several years, we've had a surprise tide of 12,000 to 16,000 at the end when we thought we were done. Such a tide will get a person's attention and wake them up, but if we're late to the nets on the ebb - and the ebb is when we've been getting the fish this year - we'll end up with either fish in the mud - a disaster - or fish in a bunch of roundhauls. Instead, we need to keep being early to the nets. Making our own mercy.

We had a good tide this afternoon/evening. 3434 lbs, bringing our total to 209,684. Every year, we make plans like "if we could just get this for 5 more tides, we could reach..." And every year, when it's time the fish just stop running like someone turned off the faucet. We can do anything we want and nope - they're not there. So we'll just keep going out there and see what has come to our nets.

In a side note, I don't see any berries yet this year. It has been a remarkably cold summer. A warm day here and there, but overall, cold. And the caterpillars are out. Trina remembers that meaning something like the mother of all winters is coming. Brrrrr.

In a regular winter, we have icebergs out here in the bay and an ice shelf builds up on the beach.

These photos are from 2001 when we visited in the winter. That was fun - and cold. These show the ice shelf. In the summer, the top of the cliff at our cabins is about 30' from the beach. In the winter, it's about 15' from the ice shelf, which is 15' thick (complete with dangerous air holes). The first photo looks down the beach toward Pedersen Point from the top of the ice shelf, and the second one looks out to the mud flats where our nets are now, from the top of the cliff. Looks cold, huh?

The Naknek River freezes over, which becomes a great convenience for the residents of South Naknek across the river - they can just drive across it. Otherwise, they have to fly or take a skiff. Freeze-up in the fall and break-up on the spring are the dangerous times - I'm not sure how they conclude that it is or is not thick enough to drive on. I'm sure it's not trial and error. I've heard that in the winter when the Kuskokwim River northwest of here freezes over, it becomes an official state highway.

As I came in from this evening's tide, I thought about innovation. I know a nail doesn't seem like much of an innovation, but that's how I get into and out of the dry suit. It has a very stiff zipper across the shoulders in the back, with a 5" strap. It's hard for me to reach. For the first half of the season, I padded over to the crew cabin to ask someone to zip and unzip me. Eventually, I put a nail into a stud in my mud room at the right height so I could back up to it, put the strap over it, draw the zipper taut and sort of wiggle it open or closed. I do worry a little about it getting stuck in the middle - I'm not sure how I would unhook the strap. I've had visions of hanging there by the strap until someone came over to check on me.

In general, how we end up doing things is not how we start out doing them, but we start out thinking that we know how to do them. Repeatedly and I think that's remarkable. And probably any other approach would paralyze us so this little delusion is probably another mercy that permits us to feel our way along.

Now that we're open until July 23 (did I remember to mention that?) we won't have to go out so many times in the tide. That's a good thing; we'll begin to catch up on sleep. I've asked Josh to sit out the morning tide. I think he's been on every one since he started coming out regularly, diverting energy from hand healing, though it is getting better.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Now the 2007 season is only the third highest

It’s 1:45 AM and we just got in from a 1 AM set. We were sort of drowsy about getting out there because it looked like the buoys would still be dry at time to set. The tide book said there would be 6’ of water out at the mean low water mark. That probably means no water for us. When it’s 7’, we might be in knee deep water or waist deep, depending on the wind. But the tide book also said that the water would be rising from 6’ to 12’ at the mean low water mark in one hour; that means it’s coming in fast.

I was the first one out a few minutes after 1 and the water was not quite knee deep at the outside buoy and half way (150’) to the inside buoy. I could tell the current was fast because when I let go of the boat to find the various rings and carabiners and lines to hook up the net, the boat tried to leave and it was difficult to haul back. Chris arrived just as I finished the set up and we set that net. There’s a heavy cloud cover tonight so it was dark, making it hard for my imperfect eyes to find the inside buoy target. Chris could see it and we were successful.

By the time we were done, there was enough water to take the skiff over to the other nets to be sure they were doing OK. They were. Erik and Josh set the net out of the Grayling by hand and Erik ran the net out of the New Boat meeting Josh who was in increasingly deep water, holding the buoy. (Josh admonished me that if I’m going to set everyone at ease by saying that there’ll only be 6’ of water, I also must give the crucial information that it’ll be 12’ in an hour.) From the time I got out to the boat to the time we pushed the Grayling in and anchored it – about 30 minutes, the water had advanced about 900’ horizontally. That’s fast. I saw a couple of hits after we set the net, so we’ll go out 1 ½ hours before high water – at about 3 AM to clear the nets. The wind is picking up; that usually means fish if any are out there, which I think there are.

We went out again at about 3 AM and picked up 700 lbs, then back in till 6:30 when we got 400 lbs and beat the second highest record. For this season, we're now at 202,312. I still don't think it's over. The seiner that didn't come for our fish on that very windy tide two days ago came this morning, so I asked what happened. I was glad I did because they explained that even at the height of the tide, the four foot seas were greater than the water they draw, meaning that if they came out, their hull would slam against the bottom with every wave, endangering their boat, themselves, and anyone trying to deliver to them. The issue wasn't that it was too rough for them; the issue was that it was too rough and the water was too shallow. We get hammered if we go into shore in that weather because it slams us on the bottom - into rocks, body parts, or whatever happens to be there; similarly the seiners get hammered in deeper water because their boat sits deeper in the water to start with. I was so relieved to hear that - it felt bad to believe that the decision had been made to risk the lives and welfare of the setnetters to avoid all risk to the tenders. They said that although the weather report said we were in 25 MPH winds, they felt a lot stronger to them. To me too.

My brother harry had his knee surgery about a week ago and is coming back on Wednesday to finish up the drift boat's season after his friend Tony (who has been skippering the boat) has to leave. Harry also believes there are more fish to be caught -- and he really likes fishing the Kvichak which has had a much stronger return than expected.

The hard thing about sleeping in 45 minute to 2 hour increments is that you're still tired when you get up (wind in the face helps to remedy that once you're up and out there) so you have to drag yourself out of bed several times a day. I think it's hard enough to do that just once.

It's probably time to start thinking about home pack. I think I'll bring back about 700 lbs of reds plus the kings (though I will send some kings home with crew members who want them. Believe me - I won't be pushing them to take king home). In the past, I've brought back 1000 to 2000 lbs. I often use it in my Seattle work - cooking for focus groups and I smoke a lot of it. But this year having brought back 1000 lbs, I had about 300 lbs extra in May, leading to power-smoking so as not to waste any. So this year, I'll bring back a little less.

We just got the announcement that says we're open from 1:30 AM on the 14th until the end of the emergency order period. That means that the rivers have achieved their escapement, the resource is safe, and this year, the management has been successful. I'm imagining the Fish and Game biologists dusting off their hands, sitting back, putting up their feet and heaving a sigh of relief. Another one in the bag. That sequence will come for us in a week or so. Right now, we have to keep our grip and fish out the rest of the season. This change will mean that we won't have to get up as many times, not having to go out to set the nets. Instead, we'll fish the flood an hour or so before the tide turns, and then clean up on the ebb. It'll give us more continuous time to rest, do laundry, sweep, etc.

Trina qualified for hazardous duty pay today. Josh suggested that Trina, Bob, and I stay in this tide because he remembered that I have an (overdue) report to deliver and that Trina had some business to complete for her diving lodge in Micronesia, and Bob always has things to improve around here. Running a restaurant as part of her lodge, Trina thought that the first order of business was protection of our health and so set about doing dishes and cleaning out my tundra-ator. That's my Naknek-style refrigerator. It's a hole in the floor with a handle and hinges. I've upgraded it by adding a plastic tub to put the things in that deteriorate sitting in tundra water, no matter how cold. That would be butter, milk, eggs, vegetables. Things in jars or waterproof containers can stand in the water outside the plastic tub. But earlier in the season when I made the pavlova for my birthday, I saved the yolks, thinking about chocolate chip orange cake later on, but we started fishing so much, those yolks just festered in the tub. Festered and spilled. Today was the day to address that. Hence the hazardous duty pay. I think the folks at home can testify that this is pretty much my effect on refrigerators in general. Sorry!

PM tide fetched 1776 lbs for a new total of 204,088. I've made a new cell in the spreadsheet that's the difference between the highest year (2008) of 228,881 and our current catch. (Me? Competitive?) We have 24,793 to go. Is it feasible? I looked back at previous catch records and found that after the 13th of July we caught:
34,933 lbs in 2007;
20,774 lbs in 2008;
12,561 lbs in 2009.

Going back a little further, in 2005, we got 25,227 after the 13th and even in 2006, our disaster year when we skipped three tides after the 13th to recover from our disaster, we caught more than 9,088 but could sell only that many. I'd say we have a decent chance. And it is reputed to be a late season this year.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Happy Birthday, Chris!!

The lemon cheesecake and the roast will need to wait a day or two, but it'll come. We set the nets this morning with the Friendly Ranger. It seemed to me yesterday that one of the brakes was failing - you know how when your brakes get wet and then you apply the brakes, you sort of skid ahead? That's what the ranger was doing yesterday. So Bob is going to look at it. First though, he needed to drive it. Hey - he could test it and we could get the nets set all at the same time.

The sleep felt good - I slept from about 9 pm to 8:30 when the alarm clock woke me up. The problem with sleeping is that my body begins to think things are normal so it starts to report in about parts that are suffering: hand - nope, we don't close and we still feel asleep; feet - toes are complaining about the cramped quarters; back - and so on. I'm not quite ready to hear the reports.

Now we're in for an hour - I asked Trina to stay in to get food ready. And then we'll see if we can go find 2001 lbs of salmon to take us to 200,000 for the season. I'll report in when we get back from the tide.

Yep - we made it over 200,000 - our total now is 201,111 lbs of salmon. Yum! That's probably about 400,000 meals we've provided. The next target is 202,243 - the second highest season we've ever had - 2007.

The tide was pretty slow - no wind at all and no current. So Trina and I scampered into town to get cheesecake makings for Chris' birthday cake while the rest of the crew wrapped up the tide. We go again at 1 AM for 20 hours. Though we don't usually get much in the dark, the whole ebb will be in daylight, so we may have a good tide.

Now, a nap.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Binge sleeping

We just delivered a little over 10,000 lbs in this insane wind and freezing cold weather. Now we're going to take a tide off - for some people, that means a long, hot shower. For me it means sleep. As much as I can stuff into a 12 hour period. This was a hard, exhausting, intense tide.

We had anchored the Bathtub in close enough to reach without having to try to row out to it in this weather. We were close to the running line so we decided to push it (against the tide and wind) to the running line (one end is anchored on the shore and the other 600' out) so we could pull ourselves out to a good depth before lowering the outboard. One-armed Josh used every part of his body (except the injured hand, I hope) to pull the skiff along while the rest of the crew pushed it from behind and I stood in the bow like that decorative piece in the old ships, but I was reaching out as far as I could to grab the running line - the tide was running so hard it was holding it up conveniently. My job, as soon as I could grab it was to start hauling the skiff into deeper water while the crew scrambled in. And whatever I did, I could not let go. Normally Chris or Erik (or Josh in the old days when he had two functioning hands) pushes us to deeper water and then jumps in (it seems that they can jump in even when the boat is over their heads). But when it's so windy and the surf is so wild we have to go out very deep because when a wave hits, the boat pretty much stands up on its stern, driving the outboard way down into the water (and sometimes knocking over or landing on a person standing in the wrong place - I once got knocked over in shallow water in a wind like this and had to roll out of the way to avoid the skiff landing on me. Josh avoided being knocked over this tide by hanging on to the gunwale of boat with his good hand and lifting his feet to take the ride when a big wave hit). The way to save the outboard is to go deeper, both to get out of the surf break and so that if we do get a wave like that, the outboard will have to plunge even farther down to hit the bottom. The running line strategy worked; we got out without incident.

By high water, we had about 3000 lbs on board our 21' skiff and needed to deliver it. The processor usually sends a seiner down to serve as a tender for our fish at about high tide, but today, when we really needed them, they were nowhere to be seen. So I called and was told that they weren't going to come down but we could come to them because in the rough weather, it was too risky for them (in their 57' seiner that packs 50,000 lbs, compared with our little skiffs, loaded??) so delivering to the beach was the only option. We couldn't keep the fish on board till the tide went out like we did this morning because we had too much fish and we still had to address the ebb fish - when we've been getting the lion's share of our catch each tide - we could easily swamp, especially in this weather. And we couldn't just call it a day; we had nets in the water catching fish. Nope, we had to deliver. Ulp.

I called Brad, the Gehl driver (and school teacher by winter) to let him know that we were going to try to deliver on the running line, asking him to meet us there. The idea is that we would back ourselves down the running line, keeping the bow out, going near shore - not quite letting the stern go dry but making sure it is within reach of the Gehl and hold there for all we were worth as the wind and the waves try to make us let go while Brad picks up the brailers. As long as we don't let go, we may take a lot of water (and we certainly did - there was some frantic bailing with a five gallon bucket), but we wouldn't be out of control in that wild surf and smash our outboard - or ourselves - on rocks or swamp the skiff during the delivery process, and we could pull ourselves out to deeper water after delivering. It was harrowing, but it worked. The crew did their part exactly right.

Then we decided to roundhaul the inside site (it made a big pile of fish-in-the-net in the middle of the boat) and the first outside site - almost as big a pile.

This photo is of a drawing of how the inside site fishes. You can see the two buoys at the outside end of the net (one red and one white with a black stripe). Then the running line comes from the buoy and runs 600' to the shore. We tie the net to the running line about 30 feet from the buoy. Most people tie just the cork line and that's what I did until about 15 years ago when I learned the benefits of tying down the leads as well. The main benefit is that it keeps the leads down - they are not able to flag in the current so more of the net fishes; the second benefit is that it creates a bag of mesh, billowing in the direction of the current. Both of these are mixed benefits - tying down the leadline makes it much harder to pick up and work with, and the bag catches everything that comes by - fish that have fallen out of our net or out of others' nets and rolled into ours, and flounders, floaters, garbage... everything. But we think the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. We call the line that holds the leads down the v-line (because it makes a V). It's best to tie them to the anchor, but it's not feasible when the net starts so far from the anchor. So we go about 30' back on the running line and tie it there. When the tide swings, the corks go first and they try to go over the running line. If the corks get far enough ahead of the running line, they'll pull the leads over too. Do a thought experiment to see what happens to the V-line if the leadline crosses the running line. Yep, the running line holds the V-line up. Sort of opposite the effect we were hoping for. To prevent that, we've started tying the corkline to the running line about every 30 feet or so. This way, the corkline and running line have to swing together. It makes it a little more of a hassle to set the nets and to take it up. In particular, we have to cut the ties. In a situation like this rough tide with all these fish, this is more than a small inconvenience.

We carry a knife on the boat. Chris and Bob were pulling in the net, Jake was managing the running line and I was running the hydraulics, scouting for floaters, and cutting ties. I kept the knife under my boot except when I needed it. On about the third tie, the blade broke off. What!!?? Now, the reason I told this whole story is to say the surprising part. As I was preparing for the tide in that short time we had after coming in from the previous one, I scrounged around my cabin for a replacement knife. That was the first time I'd done that all season. Just in case. I think that qualifies as making one's own mercy, but I had no idea that I'd actually need it and it felt more like inspiration than planning. We'd have been in trouble without that replacement.

With the ebbing tide, the wind calmed down a little bit, so we could beach the Ambi where Brad could come get the fish after we finished clearing the roundhauls. The other crew used the New Boat and the Bathtub at different times in the tide.

After we delivered our roundhauled fish, I headed up to get the Friendly Ranger. But I guess I was tired and my legs weren't working properly. I lifted my foot but didn't quite clear the rock and down I went. Luckily it was mostly sand so no harm was done, except to any pride I may have had in my sense of grace. Brad saw me and said that that about summed up the tide - nothing left. I used the ranger to go out and pick up the other crew's fish ("pick up" means drag in the Bathtub and then drag it back out to the New boat and help pitch the salmon from the New Boat into brailer bags held in the Bathtub and drag it back in for Brad it pick out of the boat). Long, long exhausting day(s).

We started this tide at midnight with the new anchor method for deep water set. The weather was windy and rough. The Jill Anne I crew knocked themselves out in the night to come get our flood fish. Here are some photos that may show how dark and rough it was.
This is the new boat receiving the scale and hook for delivery to the Jill Anne I. The orange blurs are the crew, moving around, getting the brailer prepared to receive the hook. The wind was tossing us around so much and it was so dark I couldn't get a clear shot.

The next one they are in the delivery process. The camera's flash went off on this one, though of course, the subject was too far away to receive that light. So I lightened it up in Picasa and it shows the Jill Anne I crew sending over the pelican that the New Boat crew will use to attach to the brailer and then to the crane with the scale on it.

This final one shows the Jill Anne I going on its rough way, down to collect the fish of any other insane fishermen who were out on this night. A long exposure gave enough light to have a photo, but it was hard to hold the camera still.

We came in a few times through the night as we were tending the net. We finally finished at about 9:30 am. The crew was dismayed to learn that we needed to be out for the next one at about noon. We fished that one straight through, and finished at about 8 PM. We were all cold, wet, and tired. So I decided that we wouldn't fish the night tide. I don't know if it will be stormy again, but I do know that everyone is on their frayed edges. I have to say that even frayed, I think I have the best crew on the beach. They pretty much haven't slept since the end of June and they remain cheerful, eager to help, and ready for the next tide. What more could I want?

Today brought us to 197,999. I'm at the part of the season where I need to wrap electrical tape around my fingers to protect them from (more) abrasion from the mesh - fish picking injuries. About a day too late.

Now, to sleep.

This time the wind is onshore

This will be a brief update. The night tides that we usually get between 1000 and 2500 lbs produced more than 6000 lbs last night. We started last night at midnight and just got in at about 10:30. We go again at about noon.

This time, it isn't the sleep deprivation that's getting us; it's the wind. It is a strong onshore wind, so strong that I feel it's unsafe to people and equipment to deliver fish to the beach. When we come into the shallows with a wind like this, we just get hammered. The neighbor got a broken motor out of his efforts to deliver to the beach and another got his skiff high centered on a big rock. So we waited until the tide was out and used the Friendly Ranger to deliver. That takes a lot longer.

This was the tide we tried the small anchor for the deep water set. Here is Bob, heading out to the net just about as the sun was setting.

Chris had a burst of energy - this photo shows him running through the mud to catch up with Jake. Using the anchor to hold the tag line worked well. And Jake found a great technique for getting started in the right direction despite a howling wind - it is backing up, pivoting around the anchor line until pointed in the right direction. We had a snag with the nets - there's a way to stack them so that they (probably) will play out without grabbing corks from lower in the stack and coming out in a lump. Some kind of error was made in the stack because the web caught the bottom end of the lead line and out went half the net together. I had put a long tag line on it just in case, so we quickly reeled the errant part of it back in, thinking we'd have to start over. But I noticed that we were very close to the target buoy, so we just played it back out and there we were. I call that a success.

We set at midnight. We were out there preparing for the set at 11:30, when the sun was setting. I was glad I happened to have my camera with me.

We came in on the Grayling a little before high water - there hadn't been enough on the flood to justify beating ourselves up in the wind more than necessary. We anchored the Grayling high on the beach so we wouldn't have to try to row to it... and it swamped while we waited (in vain) for the wind to die down. The Grayling swamps fairly gracefully - the air pocket keeps the outboard up and as long as the gas tank is in the transom, it probably stays out of the water too. So it's just a matter of emptying the boat (several energetically deployed five gallon buckets take care of that, though at some cost to the crew) and retrieving the stuff that may have washed out of the boat. And we were off. The outboard sputtered disconcertingly as we were heading to the other skiffs. My thought at that time was that we didn't have any back up means of propulsion in that skiff - no other outboard, oars, sail - nothing. And no radio. And the whole crew in the boat. Of course, we could throw the anchor and wait for the tide to go out, using the opportunity for crew bonding... but overall, a second means of propulsion might be good. Having had that thought, all of my mental energy was suddenly concentrated on keeping the outboard alive long enough to get us to the Ambi - I felt like it was the force of my will that inched us those last several fathoms. In truth, the Grayling did it on its own with Josh's coaxing. I think the problem with the outboard might be that the fuel was mixed too rich with two-cycle oil. It's um, not exactly a precise measurement. We'll try adding some gas to the mix to see if it improves its performance.

As we were going through the nets, the wind was so strong, we started having to call out big waves to each other so that we would hang on, and hang on to the net. It goofed a lot of people up. And even though more than 6000 lbs is a lot of fish, we're tired like 20,000 lbs. Strong winds suck out energy.

Our current total is 187,941 lbs. I have a hunch (actually, it's more of a deduction) that we'll have a lot fish on this tide. ADFG has opened the Kvichak river to the drifters, so very few will be out here in the Naknek district in front of us. Plus this big onshore wind. I feel like I'm stuck to the railroad tracks watching the freight train bearing down on me. We have the makings of a very bad tide before us. Everyone is tired, the wind hasn't laid down any, and I think we'll be hit with a lot of fish. If the wind keeps up, we may decide to skip the night tide.

Now, to nap.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Make your own mercy

First - we got in from the afternoon tide at about 5 pm, I think, having delivered 9,784 surprise pounds of salmon bringing our season total so far to 181,455 - third place record, just beating out last year.

My crew decided to stay in the boat at high water because we were getting a lot of hits on the inside site and we wanted to be ready for them. Some crew members lobby hard to be able to wait in the cabin. My conservative notion is to default to hanging off the nets so we can keep an eye on them and not be surprised by a lot of salmon on the ebb - it has happened before, more than once. Some of the crew from the other boat went in, confident that there weren't any fish out there.

Josh stayed out with my crew. We hung off the inside site watching it because it was really boiling. It was getting a lot of hits and we wanted it to have a chance to fish, in case it was just a school passing through. When it looked as if it had stopped, we got under the net and started working our way along. The fish were heavy. It was a happy surprise. When the hits started again right behind us, we decided to pull off the net and get it back in the water so it could continue to fish while the fish were there. We decided to go through one of the outside sites, figuring this bonanza was a local phenomenon. It wasn't; the first outside site was very busy too. Josh went to get his crew, and we all raced the retreating tide in an effort to get as many of the fish as possible delivered directly from the skiffs, and to have none of the fish or nets go dry on the mud while allowing the nets to fish for as long as possible. It's brinksmanship.

We ended up roundhauling the inside site - with a few hundred lbs of salmon in it, just before it went dry. The water was too shallow to drive along the net (and we had quite a load of salmon from clearing the nets earlier, bringing the prop even closer to the mud) so Jake pulled it into the boat while Chris pushed the boat and I scouted ahead for floaters, flounders, and possible drop outs, and to cut the ties that held the corkline close to the running line.

We then rushed to the first outside site, picking the fish out of it as we pulled it in. I pulled the Bathtub over and lashed it up to us to serve as tender for the fish we were carrying. As we cleared the roundhaul and transferred salmon from the Ambi to the Bathtub, I tried to explain to my crew about fishing. It's not just getting the fish out of the net; it's also not getting the fish. That's part of the deal. Fishing is the thrill of having a full net, and the disappointment of an empty one. It's the manic activity of racing the tide and the tedium of waiting for the tide to come in or go out, with nothing to do. It is pulling your gloves on anyway when your fingers are all swollen and shiny. And replacing rest and ice with ibuprofen, and healing opportunities with bandages. It is shivering in the aluminum boat wondering what insanity possessed you to think this was a good idea, and it's being warm on a hot day. It's taking on adversity and working with it and through it, undaunted. Or maybe daunted, but not surrendering. Fishing is not quitting. Fishing is persevering and finding a way to do it anyway. It's supporting your crew mate and your neighbor. Myrtle Drew assured my worried mother that, "We all helps each others." And at the end of every season, you get to know yourself a little better and what you know is that there is more to you than you thought there was. You have achieved something that before you would have thought was impossible.

It's being out there, ready. And only occasionally will it be necessary to be ready. It's like insurance - it's irritating to have to pay for it, but if there's an accident or a fire or an injury, you'll be glad you have it. The fish will come when they come, on their schedule. And when they arrive, they will be merciless. Mother nature is like that - mercy is not in her vocabulary. So we have to make our own mercy by being prepared. And being prepared means many times we're dangling off the buoy, watching the net, wondering if this will be the 15,000 lb tide amidst the 1500 lb tides we've been having. It was today - it was almost a 10,000 lb tide, and nearly all of it on the ebb. It was an excellent good thing that I pressed to have that ranger repaired, even though some people are already letting go of the season as if it were over - I think we're only about 2/3 through it. My crew and Josh stayed out, we had the ranger repaired, and we made ourselves a little mercy. Nothing in the mud, all the fish from the flats delivered in one pull.

David is going home tomorrow (waahhh). He had some business in town today and came back like the cavalry. He spotted us from the truck in need of a ranger, hurried the rest of the way to the sites just in time to jump on a ranger and come out to help. I am so very comforted that he understands what needs to be done just by looking at the situation, and knows how to do it. I'm very proud of him.

We go again tonight at midnight. We will have a lot of water - too deep for a push set - and it will probably be dark, though if the clouds clear, we'll have residual light from the sunset. We have a fresh breeze, and not a storm. I ran a line between the inside and outside buoy of one of the outside sites. Jeff and Erik will take a line out to do the same with another of the sites.

I want to try a new approach for a deep water set. Each anchor is marked by a buoy at the end of a 50' anchor line. The inside buoy often has another 50-75' of tag line to close the gap when the buoys are more than 300' apart. When the tide comes in - especially if it comes in fast and with a wind behind it, everything gets blown toward the northeast. So if we're running in the boat dropping the net out behind us, not only will the buoy and its 50 or 75' tag line not be where we need it to be, it'll be stretched in the opposite direction of where we need it to be by the 50' length of the anchor line plus the 50'-75' of the tag line. When the water is shallow enough, someone stands there holding the end so when the boat runs out of net, the end of the tag line is right there. On a deep water set, the water is too deep for someone to stand there. On two of the sites, we'll bring the buoys together using a line between them. On my site, I plan to drop a small anchor where the end of the tag line will meet the net. I'll attach a buoy to the anchor, and the tag lines to the buoy. That way, we'll have a bright red buoy to target, held in place by a small anchor. And the buoy will lead us to the tag line. I'll report in tomorrow about how it worked. Meanwhile, it's time for a nap.


Happy Birthday Debby and Bruce!

Today is our sister Debby's birthday and Bruce's, Trina's husband. Bruce has been given honorary sister status so I guess that makes him Debby's twin.

The weather completely calmed down. The biggest threat was from the mosquitoes, so we set all the nets. Did OK on the first pick through, but no one to deliver to. I had a chance to take some photos of the non-storm sky. I did keep scanning for a sneak-gale - something ominous looking, but so far, so good. We set our nets at 11 PM. As always, after setting, we go by the other boats to make sure all is well. I was relieved by the weather and as usual, moved by the beauty of this place I get to spend my summer. This first photo is of the other two boats: the Grayling on the left with Erik (stern), Josh (yellow sou'wester), and Jeff (bow) and the New Boat with Trina (orange raincoat) and David (stern). They are hanging out as hard-working fishermen, letting the nets fish before going through them. I still wasn't completely secure that a storm wasn't sneaking up on us, but it remained as calm as this looks.

When I looked around, though, I could see the scowling sky and retreating storm. This photo shows a drifter in the shadow of the storm with a setnet buoy in the foreground and the sun preparing to set shining above the cloud and on the water.

Finally, a near-sunset photo that I just couldn't resist. The water really was these two colors that matched the colors of the sky. Those are our neighbors in the skiff to the far right of the photo. We weren't the only ones that decided that the weather warnings were probably unwarranted.

We went through the nets and came in by about 12:15 am, to return to check the nets an hour before high water at 1 AM. Happily, at that time, I noticed that the Friendly Ranger had returned. I had noticed the day before that it was no longer sitting on the beach, meaning it was probably one step closer to being fixed. It is now fixed.

We delivered about 600 or 700 lbs from those picks and are now back in the cabins, waiting for the ebb pick at 4:30 AM. We have time for a little nap.

We usually do better on the ebb. We're all hopeful about catching our fourth place record on this tide.

We did it. We got in about 6:30 am having delivered 1,967 lbs of the best food in the world. We're now in fourth place against our own record. I think we'll be able to make it into the top three.

We have had a run on Dolly Vardens! They are a type of trout and since they're not salmon, we don't put them in the bag. My mother despised Dolly's and threw them away as trash fish. The sportsmen on the crew thought we should eat them. There were six! So they cleaned and I filleted them. I pan fried the first three but it was becoming too tedious for me so when the crew wakes up for the next tide, it'll be Dolly Varden curry over Israeli couscous. In addition to the curry paste, ginger, garlic, coconut milk, tumeric, cumin, and cinnamon, because it tasted a little salty, I put in some potatoes, garbanzo beans and green beans.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Red sky in the morning...

When Josh came looking for me today at 4 AM, he found me trying to get a photo of the glorious sunrise. Oh my. We had just a sliver of a silver moon in an orange sky. As we fished (it was freezing! Did I mention that it snowed last week? It's July, even if it is Alaska) the orange gave way to blue and the gray clouds became pink and red.

We got back in by about 5, so we get to sleep a pretty long time - back in the boats by 10:45.

This morning's tide was slow - 1295 lbs. I've heard that more are coming. I've also heard that a storm is coming - they do tend to come together.

We did try the gigantic Bathtub pull on yesterday afternoon's tide. It went smoothly. We used the Killer Ranger to pull the Bathtub (filled with 4500 lbs of salmon) to within reach of the line (the Killer Ranger can do that because the mud out beyond about 800' is not as slick as the mud closer in to the beach, so the ranger has something to bite into to get traction). We had a line in the tote on the back of the ranger, so Trina minded that as it played out running from the Bathtub to the pulley. We fed it through the pulley and I crawled under the truck to find something sturdy to tie to. Shifted it into low range, four wheel drive, first gear and took off slowly. It didn't even seem to strain - just pulled that Bathtub in. The same mud that gives the rangers problems pulling things makes things easy to pull. The mud is so wet and sloppy, it's almost like traveling across water - a slippery surface to travel on (for a boat, anyway). So the Bathtub delivery method should work. Yay. I spoke with Mark about the Friendly Ranger's broken tire and he thinks he has one that will work, so that repair should happen more quickly than I feared. It's odd to think about happening to notice that a ranger is missing from the beach, but when I glanced over earlier today, I saw that the Friendly Ranger was gone. That's (probably) a sign of progress.

And speaking of repairs - Bob fixed the power roller on the Bathtub this tide. I had saved my old powerpack from the Ambi for parts, and they were what he needed to get the powerpack in the Bathtub working again. Yay!!!

Back in from the ebb of the morning's tide at about 3 PM with 3836 more lbs of salmon heading from our nets to a hungry world. It is blowing hard from the east (offshore) - they say 25 MPH. The white caps are curling in the wrong direction. We pulled two of the outside sites a little early - the tide was expected to run out quickly and with the strong offshore wind, I expected it to just about evaporate from under us. But it went out really slowly. Now our big question is whether to fish the outside sites tonight - we go again at 11 PM to 5 PM tomorrow, two tides, and we've been hearing about gale force winds. On the other hand, I looked up the weather and it's saying east winds 10 to 25 MPH with gusts to 40 MPH. I don't see gale warnings posted or small craft advisories. If we can, reasonably, we'll fish the outside sites. In any case, we already have the inside site out and will be fishing that. With an east wind, we don't even feel it in the shallows because the cliff blocks it, so delivery to the beach and fishing the inside is easy. If the wind shifts so it's coming onshore, then that's a different story.

The problem is that unlike the drifters, when we make a commitment to fish, we can't really change our minds. It's like getting your arm caught in a wringer washer (does anyone else remember those? I grew up on them). You can't just yank it back - it takes a procedure to get it back. On the drift boats, if they don't like the weather, they just pick up the set and don't put the net back out. For us, if we don't like the weather and we've already put out the net, it's really hard to retrieve it and the best thing we can do for ourselves is try to keep up with whatever the weather brings. On the other hand, if we decide not to fish at first, and then change our minds, it's too late because those deep water sets are so hard to manage. Especially in the dark when it's windy.

So we'll wait to see what the conditions are like tonight and decide then. And hope like heck that we decide right.

1.1 million sockeye have gone up the Naknek River to spawn, and 1.5 have gone up the Kvichak. Our total catch so far is 169,704 lbs, 1068 from tying our 4th best season. This may be the tide that gets us past that milestone. But for now, a nap.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

No power roller and a one-armed guy (or Stump-Picking)

Watching Josh and Erik tackle our pretty busy inside site last night using the Grayling, that was my thought - the Grayling doesn't have a power roller and Josh is still using only one hand. How do you pull a net one-handed? There is much we can't really explain about Josh - that's just one thing.

This was such a confusing day for me. We fished starting at 9 pm on the 7th. We set the nets, fished the flood and then came in at about midnight or a little later for a little while. We decided to go back out at four, to clean up the ebb and get the fish delivered - we had been extended into the next tide, so we wouldn't have to pick up our nets and even better, we wouldn't have to be out so early on the next tide to set them. Yippee! A little extra sleep. The idea was to get an hour or two at high water.

First, a comment about using the alarm clock here. In my winter life, I might set the alarm for 7 AM or 7:30 or maybe even 8. Sometimes, I might have to change it to catch an early plane, but usually the setting stays about the same +/- an hour. Here, I'm always winding the little hand around the clock face - this time, I'll get up at 4; next time at 9; next time at 12; then at 2. It's one of those small indicators of being in a very different life.

So at about 1 am, I set my alarm for 3:45 and went to sleep. At 4, Josh was standing in my doorway asking me if I'm going. Huh? My clock said 3:15. What? Josh asked if I wanted to stay in. What? OK. And I went back to sleep. Next thing, he was standing in my doorway saying it's time to go fishing. What? I still thought it was 3:15 because that was what my clock said. It was light so I figured it was 3:15 in the afternoon. Maybe there was an announcement. I went to the Internet to check for one and nothing. Glanced at the clock - 9. What? That was when I realized that the battery on my clock had died - at 3:15. So, note to self: fresh battery for the alarm clock every spring.

I want to sing the praises of my crew. Not just the Ambi’s crew, but the whole group. We’re getting to the tough part of the season. You might think that the 36,000 lb days are the tough part, but they’re just hard in one way. As we move deeper into July, we get a better view of ourselves and one another. My sister used to say that on my pre-season birthday, June 20, everyone loved each other and my birthday was always happy. By her birthday on July 10, people are all mad at one another and her birthday wasn’t as much fun. I think she had it right and it has been a goal of mine as captain of our little enterprise here to keep our crew as cohesive by July 10 as it was on June 20. I think this crew has only gotten better in that time. (Including Josh's hand - he got a glove on tonight!! He might be two-handed sometime soon. Though honestly, I'm not sure being one-armed has slowed him down much.) Everyone is exhausted and there’s plenty of wishing I’d let us spend more time in the cabins and less time in the skiffs, but this valiant crew remains cheerful and hard-working. The folks at the processing plants don't have it as good as we do. I think they get a bit more sleep than we do, but I don't think they are enjoying themselves as much. Even in our really really hard days, at the end of them, we've brought the fish in or solved whatever problem we've had - and we can feel good (except for the bleary-eyed exhausted part). I'm not sure that people working here in other capacities get to experience that kind of satisfaction. Whatever the reason, at this time of the season, we begin to see people's frayed edges. In contrast, we're happy with and proud of what we've accomplished (so far, we have 164,573 lbs in); we're supporting one another; they're still making me laugh; we usually have what we need. I couldn't be happier with this crew.

David is great to work with because he is so very responsible and capable. I can trust him to stick with me. And he is always thinking of the crew - wanting to be sure they get enough rest, sending them up to the cabin as soon as we can. And he's always the last one in with me - even after me sometimes. And he is one heck of a skiff driver. He's due to head back to Seattle soon and I am a little worried about how we'll do without him. I had a call tonight from my favorite port engineer who said that the fish reports indicate that more fish are on their way. That's exciting.

On the way out to set, we saw a gorgeous rainbow that went from behind my cabin over all the rest to behind the Space Hut. I haven't figured out how to use the panoramic function on my camera yet, so here is the part of the photo with my cabin in it. Um... I think it's due for repainting.

After tonight's set at 10, we went through the nets in case the fish were hitting (they weren't) and then decided to go in until just before high water. We've been using the Bathtub to deliver the fish and it had a lot of mud in it. We had an opportunity to clean it and I mentioned the need. Trina and Chris, without being asked, just went over to the Bathtub with me when everyone else went up, to work on it. Anyone else on the crew would have done the same thing if they had been standing there when I said it needed to be done - it's just how this crew is.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

When is it a nap and when is it a sleep?

In my mind, a sleep has to be at least … say 5 hours long. If it’s 3 hours or less, then it’s a nap. I think that when it’s a nap, a person just lies down as is and then gets up and returns to their day. So we’ve been napping. Clothing gets added or subtracted, but I’m pretty sure no one on my crew has seen their skin for more than a week.

We had equipment problems today. One of the metal ribs that holds the tracks on the Friendly Ranger broke and punctured the tire of the Friendly Ranger. I had used it to replace the net on the inside site. I pulled it up to the cliff, trailing the old net behind it in our little dory. When we parked it, Chris remarked on that hissing noise. It was the air leaving the tire. The tire is hard to replace. Sigh. However, we were lucky. If we're going to have an equipment failure, I'm really glad to have it above the high water mark. That way we only have to solve the problem; not solve the problem of getting the equipment to safety first, and then solve the original problem.

Today’s tide started so slowly that I thought it was time for me to leave the boat and make some orange chocolate cookies. Trina, the more responsible sister, was thinking about bacon, eggs, and hashbrowns. We compromised - she did the responsible part of the meal and I provided the breakfast chocolate. When we got back out, we were surprised to find that we had a lot of fish on the ebb (why would this still surprise us? I can’t explain). The question is: without the Friendly Ranger, how do we get them in? The plan was to use the Bathtub, which slides easily across the mud, to tender for the other boats while there was still water under it, and then run as far to the beach as possible. The little Killer Ranger, which cannot take much of a load through the mud – it (like many of us) finds it difficult to take itself through the mud – could carry a line out to the salmon-filled Bathtub. That line would feed through one of our giant pulleys and we’d use a truck to pull in the Bathtub and all the fish in it, in one gigantic pull. I’ll have to tell you how it worked out next time because this time we had a small breakdown in communication and the focus of today’s fish moving operation was to test the limits of the Killer Ranger. This experimentation cost us a little of this evening’s nap time. We go again at 9:30 - we’ll test Plan B on tonight’s ebb.

The fish do seem to be here en masse – the escapement in the Naknek River jumped from 640,000 salmon yesterday to 845,000 salmon today (and that’s with everyone fishing both tides), and in the Kvichak River, it jumped from 600,000 yesterday to 865,000 today with an estimated 450,000 milling around in the river (safe from nets, waiting for to make a run for it to the spawning grounds).

Now it’s nap time.

We've been fishing since 9:30 PM. Sets were fine. A few early strikes, but then it slowed down. I had the time to take some photos. Here is my crew in action. This first series is Jake-In-Action.
He used to sort of stand back - I think he wanted to be sure that he didn't get in the way. This season, though, he's been diving in and it's been great. He has become an accomplished picker. Today he found his way through a basket case that was caught in two places, had gone through two holes in the net and spun in the bag it created. It was a masterpiece.

Chris is learning quickly. He's our hydraulics man. There is much to watch for in that position - many ways for the net to snag inside the boat, and a variety of ways and types of fish to be aware of outside the boat. He is also becoming a good picker. And he's fun besides.

Bob, of course, never stops working. Even when he had a tide off, we came back to a clean cabin with swept floors and everything! You can always tell when he's been there because he leaves order and functionality in his wake. Knives are sharp, lines are finished and stacked, surfaces are clear, oil is topped off... And he remains cheerful under some pretty demanding circumstances.

One of the great pleasures of this work is that we get to be on the water and actually part of some of the most beautiful sunsets.

I took this last photo a few days ago when it was so rough. It seems like ancient history now - today was sunny and hot. But it was windy - not as windy as it was on June 27, but still, pretty rough.

It's been most of the day since I posted this - The Internet has been out while we've been in from fishing. A friend wrote a few days ago to ask if I still feel that the biggest leap is between no access and any access, even painfully slow rather than between slow access and fast access. Yep, I definitely still do. My view is that it's good to have the option of being connected to the rest of the world, even by a thin thread.

Sneaking some sleep

Tonight's opening could have lasted till 5 am. It's a hold up tide, meaning that the low tide is not very low so we could have fished much longer in it like we did last night. But the fish slowed down - temporary lull, I hope. So we decided to pull in the nets early and get three hours of sleep instead of two. We don't scoff at two - that, with wind in the face and fish in the hands, is refreshing.

Before we pulled, we delivered about 7500 lbs, again, mostly from the inside site. That takes us to about 145,000 lbs for the season so far - ostensibly still in the heat of the run. If we stopped now, it would be our 5th biggest season since we started keeping track some time in the 90s. Next are 170K, 180K, 205K, and 230K.

Jake is now a picking animal. It's always a good tide when someone crosses the threshold from being sort of timid about the net and knowing that you grasp (my new favorite expression) Net Logic.

It's 3:30 am here in Naknek, having just come in (early) from the previous tide. We set again at 7 am, so we are now sneaking some sleep.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Plugged! The nets were sunk

I haven't written since earlier yesterday (7/5) because I've been fishing since 7/5 at 8 PM. It was blowing hard and the water was deeper than we can reasonably do a walking set. So we ran it. Except that the net got caught on a brailer hook on its way out of the boat, taking Jake out of position and tearing the net. Dang. We set anyway. Not too bad.

We did spend quite a bit of the flood trying to get the sets right. And we sort of overlooked the inside site in our limited time with the flood. So it wasn't until the tide was ebbing that we got to the inside site and discovered... no corks! Could the whole thing have broken? (At four different points - any one should hold a net gone awry.) So we started at the buoy - can we find a running line? Yes. I knew what that meant. It's something that causes a slight loosening of the bowels. If the running line is there and behaving as it should, then the net is still there. If everything is sunk out of sight, that means... eek!! Too many fish!!! And that was what it was. And that was only one of the nets. So we picked fish (20,000 lbs of them), pitched them and hauled them in from the outer sites to the waiting Gehl fork lift. Finally, we got in at 6 AM - 10 hours later, to discovered that we're going out again for a 6:30 AM opening. No one suggested not going, so we went and got another 16,000 lbs, for a 36,000 lb day. Yikes! Our total is now at 138K and we go again in a few hours. I'll go sleep now.

This is a later edit because it remains on my mind. Our crews were all mixed up that night. Helping one another with our sets, we ended up in different boats and suddenly it was time to fish. So we fished from where we were, with whatever boat we were in, with whatever crew we had. It turned out that the crews were well distributed by experience, height, and other factors. Erik and Bob were on my crew and of course, both plugged away with courage and determination. But Erik was also especially cheerful and encouraging. That was what has been on my mind - we'd struggle our way through six feet of sunk nets and at the end he would say with good cheer, "That's one fathom down." It was a real pleasure to work with someone with such confidence even if I did think it was misplaced. It was still heartening.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Ranger is fixed - thank you, Bob!

We cracked 100K lbs on the last tide. Round the clock fishing is hard. I was rotated out on the last tide. Almost asleep, I helped set the nets at 6 AM, having come in from the previous one at about 3:30 AM. (Awareness is amazing. I knew I was due for a sleep-out. I was thinking I would wait for Erik and then Josh and I would go last, so that I would be there for all the heavy tides. But once my body heard that sleep was available - uhn uh - no heroics allowed. You're sleeping!) So after we connected up the inside ends of the net, I glanced over at the other boats and saw that they were OK, persuaded someone (Jake?) to unzip my dry suit (it zips across the shoulders in the back - hard for me to reach and hard for anyone to zip or unzip), and kept walking: back across the mud, past the inside buoy, past the outside buoy of the inside site, over the thick sticky mud, up and across the sand, the rocks, the gravel, over the tire ruts, up the 30-some steps to the top of the cliff, down the patchwork boardwalk, and into my cabin. I slept for about 6 hours. It felt great, but the problem with letting go like that my body forgot to keep ignoring the pains and strains. Ouch!

Bob was scheduled to sleep out the previous tide. I had asked him about looking at the ranger, but he was worried about losing little parts in the sand (we pulled it on to a blue tarp), or tearing the gasket when he removed the cover of the transmission (could it get any deader? And he already knew he could make another gasket). So we decided to call the guy who works on the rangers over the winter and he said he'd send a man out. The man turned out to be taking a skiff to Illiamna so he was gone for two days. Bob agreed to try, with amnesty for lost pieces and torn gaskets. When I told Josh that Bob had fixed it (we've come to expect miracles from him), Josh exclaimed, "Bob is God!" I don't think I even mentioned a few tides ago, nothing related to the Ambi's outboard worked - it wouldn't start, it wouldn't go up or down... The battery cables had come loose... and Bob fixed it.

So when I woke up, I heard the ranger pulling the Grayling through the mud, pulling the first of two loads from the skiffs. Once again, most of the fish were on the ebb. About 7000 lbs, following 8000 lbs from the tide before.

They got in at about 3 PM, and Trina and I had corned beef hash and poached eggs for them so when they realized that our next opening isn't until 8 PM, meaning they need to be up by 7 - yay! 3 hours of sleep.

We'll probably get in from this tide around 3 or 4 AM on the 6th (depending on how many ebb fish we get - the more ebb fish, the later we are because of the difficulty with delivery. We can't make it up by coming out late in the flood because then it gets too hard to set) and then go back out at 6:30 am on the 6th. Those who predict such things are predicting a good push of fish for the next several days. This is just the nature of round-the-clock fishing. We get lots of opportunities to fish, so our poundage is up. But boy, are we ever tired.


Sunday, July 4, 2010

Do what I'm thinking!

This is Jake, speaking for me. I thought it was great, considering my misnomia affliction under stress. It's not quite the same as a-nomia - instead of not finding or saying the word I mean, I say a different one. Sometimes, it's not because of stress and not finding the right word; instead it's because it takes too long to explain when things are happening fast. But I felt a special kinship with Jake when he came out with that.

I forgot to mention yesterday that Trina grilled us two salmon yesterday -- and I ate half of one. Yum...

The good news is that we fished this morning from 5:30 AM to about 2 PM and ended up with about 8100 lbs, taking us up to almost 86000 lbs for the season. We have another tide tonight from 7 PM to 2:30 AM and then two more tides the next day. This is a lot of fishing.

Also good news is that Josh's hand is doing well, though it's not as healed as I would have liked. It turns out that when they stitched his hand up, they stitched through a nerve. Aieeeee! He said he's regaining feeling in his fingers - and his hand is taking that task very seriously. So he's still on the bench for part of the tide, coming out mainly on the ebb.

We've started rotating out three people at a time per tide, by social security number (we had to pick something!) So Chris, Jake, and Trina slept through this morning's tide. Next tide David, Bob, and Jeff will sleep out. They're probably giddy with excitement over it. David and Erik actually had the SSNs to step out in the first rotation, but David thought it would look rigged, so he waited. We're trying to be sure we keep two experienced crew people in all the tides. One per boat. The experience people are David, Josh, Erik, and me. (David did comment that I have more years of experience than all the others added together. I thought about my fish pick, which I've had for more than 20 years now - hard to believe - and wondered if it gets to claim experience too.) I think I'll let Erik step out next (tomorrow morning) and I might step out tomorrow evening.

The bad news is that the Friendly Ranger is down. I hope it's temporary - it is stuck in second gear. I was tempted to use a rock to fix it, but Bob cautioned against that approach. I was able to reach Mark Watson at Pen Auto, the man who works on our rangers for us. He's fishing in Egegik right now, but he said he'd have someone who works for him come down and fix it. I hope he is able to - we rely on that machine. If we can't get it working, we'll have to break out the Killer Ranger and take our chances with it - it has smaller treads so it won't be able to handle the mud as well - I figure anyhow we can use it to pull a rope out to the boat and pull it in through a pulley with a truck.

I'll let you know.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Day 10 of Josh's recovery

Josh is getting his stitches out today!! We've been sort of figuring that the fish have been waiting for him to get back in fishing trim. He's still going to have to be careful - it isn't exactly as good as new yet. But he did a great job taking care of it for the first 10 days.

It's about 1 PM. This entry will be short - I'll try to add to it later.

Some of the crew were late getting out to their boats for our 5 AM set and again, we found the water surprisingly deep. So while Chris and Bob held the buoys, with five minutes to set, Jake and I hopped in the Ambi, ran to the various walkers and took them to their boats so they would be only a few minutes late and able to do a walking set if they wanted, before we returned to our site for a running set. It un-nerves me to see people standing in water that is inexorably swallowing them (as in when they are holding buoys).

The ebb was fairly slow fish-wise, so we decided to pull the nets in early and get some sleep. That suggestion got vigorous nods from my noble and uncomplaining crew. But I've been getting dotty and we go again tonight. So we pulled the nets shortly after the tide, when the water was still rather high and running strong. This presents the special challenge of disconnecting the carabiners under the great pressure of the running current. We had brute force to get slack: one person pulls from the buoy to the 'biner while another pulls from the nets to the 'biner and a third opens the 'biner (not so successful when the current is really strong, but tiring!); tie a line from the anchor line to the net (taking the 'biner and its line out of the equation) and use leverage to shorten the new line (we tried twisting a fairlead in it) creating slack. Releasing the fairlead becomes the challenge on that method. Several years ago, we finally thought to use the boat. Going against the current, we nose up to the convex lines that are bulging toward us, pick them up and pull them over the bow, resting them on the gunwale, just forward of the fairleads, which are about midship or a little forward of that. The fairleads must be strong and stably in placed because this maneuver generates a lot of force. Then we run the outboard of the boat against the line and against the current to push the bulge out of the line transforming it from a bulging convex line to a convex line with a concave point in it. When we think we've pushed far enough (or when we begin to fear that the anchor line will break or the corkline will snap or some other catastrophe - similar to pushing people), we drop the outboard into neutral so that the boat snaps back against the built-up pressure as the line tries to return to convex position. During this transformation, the line goes slack, and we fumble with the carabiner to try to get it detached. Sometimes it takes more than one run; always it takes more than one person.

After picking up the second net, we rafted the Ambi to the Bathtub to transfer the net to the boat that will set it this evening at 6. Meanwhile, David's crew was gathering fish to be delivered into the Grayling, so he rafted it up with the New Boat (that they have named Pickaswego) to take on those fish for delivery and together, ran them to raft up with us in the Ambi to take on our fish. The whole little flotilla was rafted up in a row.

This photo shows the Grayling transporting the crew from the skiffs we use to go through the nets to shore. Whoever finishes first gathers up the Grayling and clips the working skiff to the outer buoy of the site it will set in a few hours. Then they transfer the fish from the working skiff to the Grayling for a delivery through the mud. You can see David in this photo at the outboard, Josh in his yellow hat and stump sitting on the shoot, Jeff, holding a bag of fish and looking at our skiff, Trina in the maroon cap and Erik, talking to David. The Grayling is 16' long and faithful! When our boat finishes first, Jake usually pilot the Grayling.

This photo is after they've picked up the Ambi crew and fish. Look back at the previous photo to remind yourself how small the Grayling is and pack four more bodies into it. I'm standing at the bow with the camera. I think I have a wonderful and perfect crew. They're eager, strong, brave, willing, really hard working, smart, and funny. And not just photogenic, but downright cute. Here they had a little more warning that I was going to take a photo. That bag of fish weighs nearly 1000 lbs. Delivering the fish is a challenge. At the height of the tide, the buyer usually sends a tender down on the water and we can deliver without going to shore. But when the tide goes out, it goes fast and the seiners don't want to go dry here, so they head out shortly after the turn of these short tides. But we've had most of our fish on the ebb, so when it's only one boat load, we bring the final load in using the Grayling. We run it as far as we can under power - until the prop kicks up too much mud, and then we all hop out and push it along in the water. When it hits the mud, we just keep going, pushing it across the mud where the truck and giant Gehl fork lift can't drive, to the hard sand where they can. I think it's an awesome site to see these people in orange pushing a skiff loaded with fish across mud.

Fishing has been moderate to disappointing for most of the tides this year. This photo shows the neighbors giving their net a chance to fish while they don't hang out in their boat. Those white things floating in the water are decomposing salmon - aka "floaters."

The question in everyone's mind is whether the fish are late or not coming in the numbers predicted. For example, we got about 2500 lbs on today's morning tide. It brought our total to about 75000 lb. That's not so bad at this time in the season, assuming that the run is late as some are saying, and a bit disappointing if we're half way there. July 4 is the traditional peak of the run. We've been scratching hard for just about every pound and a 2500 lb tide is about as tiring as an 8000 lb one because we still need to be out there on the flood and then on the ebb - we just don't spend as much of the time picking the fish out of the net. Not-picking while going through the net isn't the same as resting.

It has been pretty flat calm most of the season. The two tides that we've done well have been windy and rainy. And then it calmed down. Now we finally have some weather again (the wind is blowing - from the southwest! - and it's raining), so if there are fish out there, this should bring them to our nets this evening. Even though we tried to pull early, we ended up delivering about the same time in the tide as usual. How did that happen?

Bob stayed in to figure out what's wrong with my battery system (we had two bad inverters), the generator (it worked fine for him. Sigh), and my heating system which had been activated by putting together the two metal ends, and holding them there with a clothespin. Despite that charm, Bob installed a thermostat. It seems a little conventional and tame for the setting, but I am not complaining - it's great to be able to set a temperature and leave it.

More later, after sleeping for a few hours.

In the evening tide, Jake celebrated the full use of his thumb. Not sure what has been delivered on this tide - maybe about 2500 on the flood. The ebb didn't look very busy so I came in to put chicken, potatoes, and brownies in the oven and work on a report that is needed very soon. Couldn't resist this sunset though - I always feel cheered by a sunset (no matter what), but more so when it is so bright and beautiful, peeking out from under a thick cover of clouds that has been with us all day long. Happy fourth of July!