Friday, July 10, 2015

July 9: arrival of fish, maybe; internet up, maybe; vehicle apocalypse, definitely

This is the day after this post was written. Again, internet problems prevent prompt posting. Sigh.

We are in for about an hour waiting for the tide to drop. We have moved into around-the-clock fishing, probably. The Naknek River and the Kvichak River have both clawed their way to their minimum escapement goals, though with remarkably little harvesting by the fishing fleet in the process. Today's tide might change that. We were pretty busy for the first pass through the nets, then it dropped off markedly, then surprisingly, it picked back up just after the tide turned. We'll go out to finish up just past midnight. We've arrived at the place in the season where, if it's 10 o'clock, we can't be sure if it's AM or PM because of our goofy sleeping schedule. That's the arrival of fish part.

A Mifi (a wifi device that is also a router that can accept up to 10 devices connected to it) from GCI (a telecommunications company out of Alaska) arrived two days ago and we are trying it out. So far, so good. Not completely reliable, not blazingly fast, but whereas we sort of gave up trying to do anything requiring more than a few minutes of access with the old system, with this new system, we expect to be able to connect sometime that day, maybe even the first time we try. That's such an improvement we're pretty satisfied.

The vehicle apocalypse. Oh my. We have three hefty 4 WD pickup trucks, each with a different function (and with different weaknesses). The oldest is The Red Truck, a Chevy from 1976. I think I brought that up in 1995. It is a hearty 3/4 ton beach truck. It's had the front end rebuilt, the brakes reinstalled, the exhaust replaced - starting from engine itself, the door re-hung, the fuel line repaired, and the bed is just about rusted out. But that's the truck that I know will be able to dig its way through the sticky mud and get us where we need to go. The White/Canopy Truck is a 1990 3/4 ton Ford that Allen Tibbetts brought over from Anchorage in 2008 (I think), along with the New Boat on his then-tender, the Sally N. It's more of a gentleman's truck. I expected to remove the canopy as soon as it got here, but we never did. It's convenient. The crew and various things that need to remain dry can ride in the back in relative comfort. The rust isn't too bad yet, it doesn't make much noise - I think the heater and the radio even work. And we have The Crane Truck, a 1986 1 ton Ford with dualies (a double set of tires in the back) and a hydraulic crane. I bought it from a propane company in Seattle in 2007 eo enable us to offload our own fish should we get in a jam like we found ourselves in in 2006. This truck has required some work, especially the process of converting it back to gas after the propane company had converted it to propane. David is quite an expert in using the crane and he has been using it to offload brailers of salmon for our ambitious home pack goals and our modest iced fish goals.

When challenged for having more than one market - and AGS is definitely the market that has my loyalty - I realized that it is in our best interests and the best interests of our little industry here to encourage the right little guy processors. AGS, with its size and accompanying somewhat cumbersome bureaucracy, couldn't continue to try to work out how to pay setnetters for iced fish. I don't think we are the only ones to realize that overall, setnet fish are the highest quality, yet we are paid consistently and systematically less for them than are the drifters that have RSW (refrigerated sea water) systems or ice slush bags. The little guy processors have the flexibility to think about what quality actually is, recognizing that the standard of 39 degrees might be appropriate and reasonable for held fish, but it is the wrong way to think about fresh fish. The challenges to quality are different for held and fresh fish. So we have started selling a small amount of our catch to Copper River Seafoods and together, we are figuring out how to improve the quality even beyond our already high level.

On the day of the vehicle apocalypse, as David tried to position The Red Truck to take delivery of fish from The Crane Truck, he shouted out to us that he couldn't get the key to turn. I thought it was just the steering lock, but that wasn't it. Roger went in to see if he could shake it loose - no luck. So he used the White truck to pull it out of harm's way (meaning up above where we expect the next tide to rise). I tried to find a way to get it towed off the beach - none of our trucks are really up to the task of towing another for that distance through the sticky mud and over the rocks. The folks at Pen Auto said they could fix the ignition, but we would need to get it off the beach, at least. They were ready to meet us at the end of the beach access road. But we didn't have a way to get it that far. We called AGS, our fish buyer to see if they could pull it with one of their big deuce-and-a-halfs and they said it would be possible. Meanwhile, at my request, Jeff looked online to see if he could learn how to hotwire it. At about the same time, we got a call from the shop saying that the mechanic (Kirk) was waiting at the end of the beach access road with all his tools to try to fix it. I asked if I could run up there in one of our trucks and bring him and his tools back so he could do the work on the beach. Yes, that would work. So I went to The White Truck. It started right up. I put it into gear and... nothing happened! I tried 4 high, 4 low, 2 high... nothing happened. Roger, help!!! Two trucks, out of commission.

Meanwhile, Jeff was able to hotwire The Red Truck (and only after that did I realize that we didn't have a way to turn it off - whoops!), so David and I drove it up to the beach access road. When AGS called to make plans about towing the Red Truck, I explained about hotwiring it but asked if they could come anyway to tow The White Truck, which they did. (Thank you, thank you, thank you).

Kirk was able to repair the ignition on The Red Truck so that is functioning again. AGS towed The White Truck at the end of a chain, with Roger steering and braking about 6 miles to the shop. Roger used the term "harrowing," when describing how the brakes had ceased functioning because they had become so hot with the use, yet he had to stop anyway. Somehow.

I followed that procession into town and waited for them to get back to AGS so Roger and I could return to the cabins on a four-wheeler. We were able to nap for a couple of hours before heading out for the tide. As we were gearing up, I got a call from Harry saying that all the boats out there were loading up and we were going to have fish. That is today's report.

I don't know if I'll be able to upload photos. If anyone is interested, here is the dropbox link to where they are being stored. They are not completely up to date, the crew's contributions especially. But they do give an idea. Let me know if this works.

(Post script: good news! The problem with The White Truck was that the transmission fluid was waaaay too low due to a leak Roger discovered and maybe others he hadn't yet noticed. Embarrassingly, when we thought we checked the level of the transmission fluid, we were actually checking the level of the power steering fluid (we have to label those things better!) However, the embarrassment is nothing next to the relief of not having to replace the transmission. Whew!)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

June 28: Iced 'em, though not as many as we hoped

We are having grave problems with internet access. It looks like a window of connectivity. I hope. Here is the post from yesterday. I'll try to follow with more from today. Yesterday: We fished from 8:30 to 4:30 today - well, not quite that late because we ran out of water... or more accurately, the water ran out from under us. We got a little more than 500 lbs today, but most importantly, (a) everyone did great and the new crew members are learning how to fish and (b) we all learned a little bit about using ice and what the processor needs from us to increase our quality (which is already darned high - we just want to get paid for it).

I'm happy to report that the processor is being reasonable. They recognize that because we deliver our fish early and often - sometimes within minutes of catching them - they can't expect the fish to get to the low temperature required of the drifters. What's the difference? Drift fishermen go out for the opening and spend as much of it as they possibly can fishing. It makes no sense for them to deliver their catch in the middle of a fishing period because (a) they have the capacity to hold their entire tide's catch and (b) they would have to stop fishing to make a delivery. So the fish they catch at 8:30 am when the period opens are on the bottom of a pile of fish until they deliver them at 5 or so. They hold their fish for hours, plenty of time for the fish, if they are floating in refrigerated sea water (RSW) or in bags of slush ice to reach 39 degrees. In fact, that is the standard required to convince the buyer that those fish have been on ice since they were caught, and not just hastily put in ice as they were coming up to the tender. So 39 degrees is the standard for the drift fleet and it is achievable, except for their freshest fish - those caught at the end of the fishing period, (probably the highest quality fish they are delivering even though they haven't had time to chill).

We fish set nets. Our nets are anchored to the beach, no more than a quarter mile from the shore. Today, we set at 8:30 on the dot and then spent some time getting our "ice barge" floating and out to our quad. Then we all iced up, shoveling ice into the waterproof slush bags, putting the brailers on top of the ice inside the slush bag, and then pouring in 8 buckets of water - about 30 gallons. We picked the fish into those bags so they were immediately on ice. We kept adding ice when the ratio of ice to water seemed to be getting low. When we put the fish into the brailer, I think they had a substantially easier landing, and when they came out, they were much colder than they would have been otherwise. However, when the buyer is there, we prefer to deliver at least three times during an opening - right after our first pass through the nets, then in mid ebb as the tide is going out but before it is so far out that we can't deliver from the skiff. (The issue here is that the processor's giant forklift - brand name Gehl - that picks up our brailer bags of fish can drive out over the sand and to but not into the mud or it will be buried to its very high axles. Meanwhile, our boat can come in wherever there is water, but we have to stay floating so we can go back out to continue fishing and at the end of the tide, to get the nets out of the water. We want to deliver often because we don't have the capacity to hold fish like the drifter's do - our boats can safely carry only 3000-6000 lbs at a time, so we need to unload so we can go back out to get some more. Even if our boats are not full, we never want to go dry with even a partial boatload of salmon a quarter mile of sticky mud away from the market. And there is no penalty to us to delivering during the period because our nets continue to fish even if we aren't with them, a luxury the drifters don't have. This gives the buyer very fresh fish from their set netters. Today, some of the fish we delivered were still alive because they were in that slush ice, swimming around. But those fish will not be 39 degrees. They haven't had time to get that cold. So we are working with the buyer to figure out a fair indicator that will assure the buyer that we are treating the salmon well.

So far, we've agreed that if we use ice and enough water to float the salmon, we will get the iced price. That seems reasonable and fair to me. It's a bit of a pain to use the ice and the slush bags, but between the price boost and the knowledge that our salmon are even higher quality, it seems worth it.

We'll see how feasible it is as the season heats up.

We've been noticing that the Bathtub sure seems to have a lot of water in it when we get back out to it. First, we tried to believe that the plug was faulty. Still a lot of water. Hmmm. Today, we noticed a little geyser toward the stern, next to an air pocket. That might be the problem. So we pushed the Bathtub in so that Roger could get to it with his welder. We realized that we didn't have any pictures of his prodigious welding. And we missed a great photo opportunity during the tide today when he welded the brailer hooks needed on the New Kid while the New Kid was bucking around in the tide. That's Roger's Welding Rodeo. To make up for lost opportunities, I went down as the photo journalist on the Bathtub welding project. Roger took the boom truck to the edge of the sand, the aforementioned Gehl limit where it met the Bathtub, but that crack was dirty and seeping. He tried to wire-brush it and blow on compressed air, but still, it seeped. Finally, we decided to cut a hole in the "air" pocket and disturbed the habitat of a new species of sea monkey, draining it away. To facilitate this, David used the crane on the boom truck to lift and tilt the skiff. If I can find a way to a better Internet connection, I will post the photos, as well as other photos provided by other crew members.

In case I can't get another connection, I want to mention that tomorrow, June 30, is a hard day around here. We were here when we got the news that day three years ago that Alex, David's brother, my younger son, was killed in an accident jumping in the waves of a tropical island. He was 20 years old. He was full of joy, exercising his remarkable ability to jump when he jumped up into a wave that had built up too much, robbing water from the already shallow coral reef he was jumping from. The wave got control of him and broke on the unyielding reef with him in it, killing him. It wasn't anyone's fault, not even his, even though he had been a reckless young fellow. I have found this year that approaching this day, I sometimes find it hard to get a breath, even though I believe that my sadness does not honor him. He believed in feeling all his feelings - good, bad, and ugly. But under all his struggles was joy - joy and the dogged determination that a person can learn nowhere better than setnetting through our commanding mud. Joy, integrity, compassion, courage, excellence, and self acceptance were his signature values and practices. Practicing those are what I think honor him... and anyway, it's hard to argue with them as states or practices. So I try, but June 30 (now, today) is harder than most.

As I have every year, I will light a candle for Alex in the morning as we go out to fish and I'll leave it burning all day. I love the idea of other people doing this for him, too, so if you are so moved, please do. Sometimes I do better at accepting his death than other times, and I hope to get better at it in the future, but I never want to stop missing him.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

June 27: We get to fish!

We had an announcement this afternoon at 3 PM that the return to both our rivers has picked up. So far, the Naknek has 91.128 sockeye past the tower (30,756 of 'em yesterday) and the Kvichak, which usually gets its fish a bit later and lots of 'em, has 27,720 past the tower, 9,930 yesterday. So we get to fish in the morning - 8:30 am to 4:30 pm. Not only that, but it has rained a bit and it has cooled down. What a relief!

Josh, Ben, and I took the ranger (the tracked little tank we use to go through the mud) for a few reasons: 1) to install insulation (which arrived just today) in the Ambi and the New Boat (renamed the New Kid), 2) to install binboards and the binboards' brailer stands in the Bathtub and the Cockroach (yeah, we'll have to explain those names soon, as well as brailer stands and such), 3) to find out if the New Ranger is capable of pulling the Bathtub through the mud. (It is, but it's not easy.) The New Ranger has treads that are 2" narrower than the Friendly Ranger's treads (16" vs. 18") but tracks (the metal things that dig into the mud) that are about 5" narrower, even if they are about 1/2" longer. We're not sure if the difficulty in making it through the mud is because of the narrowness of the tracks (probably about 70%) or the thickness of the mud (I don't remember it ever being worse), and 4) to bring back the posts for Jolly Roger's Wrenches and Wenches to weld brailer hooks on. (Roger has been welding furiously so that our boats will be bristling with posts and brailer hooks that will greatly increase our efficiency, safety, and ability to sell iced fish.) The other name we thought of for Roger's welding business, when we were thinking that he might carry his welder around in the microtruck was Woger's Wittle Welding Wagon. It turns out that he has a very strong preference against that option.

We thought another use for the microtruck could be to fetch ice, but it's out of commission for now because the driver (who shall remain unnamed) hit a camouflaged rock and bent the rim on the left front tire. It turns out they are hard rims to find, so for now, we are back to our beefier options. Sarah and Jake took the boom truck in to town to pick up the new insulated totes (they came just in time) and to get ice for our initial attempt at icing our fish. The slush bags are waterproof and will hang on the brailer hooks, partially filled with slush water. The brailers hang on the hooks inside the slush bags and the chilly water fills them partially so that when we pick the fish into them, they begin to chill right away - and the salmon are floating, not squished on top of one another. When the tide came in a bit, bringing the Grayling closer to shore, David, Roger, and Josh transferred the ice from the back of the boom truck into the second insulated tote in the Grayling. That skiff will be anchored in the quad (the area between all the nets) to serve as our ice barge so if we need it, we can refresh our ice during the tide. After the ice was transferred, Ben joined the group to help get the 45 hp Evinrude onto the Grayling. Meanwhile, Ian was feeding us with barbecued ribs and great mashed potatoes.

Much industry has occurred during this lull in fishing - I now have glass windows instead of Lexan and they open and close. Thank you, Roger! The two flat-bottomed skiffs have binboards and are almost ready to hold brailers. Being able to control the load, especially in a flat bottomed boat, is very important for safety and maneuverability. Big improvement. Also, the crew cabin is getting into really great shape. I saw David, Ian, Jeff, and Patrick building a battery bin today that will keep the batteries healthier and reclaim the valuable real estate right inside the door.

I did have some moments of dismay today when, looking around, I saw what looked like a bunch of rookie mistakes, with not enough rookies to account for them all. It is easy to get sloppy, but we really can't afford it. Our primary outboard have very little tolerance for water or sand in the gas and getting into our gas cans seems to be the primary ambition of both those substances.

I will leave it at this for tonight so I can get some sleep and embark on what could be a big tide - a heck of a training run for the new guys.

Friday, June 26, 2015

June 25: Let the 2015 blog begin

It seems that the season will be like the blog this year, slow to start.

We have a very big crew this year, expecting a very big season. Of course, David, Sarah, me, Jake, Jeff, and Roger. And thrilled to have Josh for a few weeks this season (he took some time from his career as a merchant mariner to join us), Patrick (ShadowCat), a returning favorite from 2012 and two new guys: Ian, currently attending UPS in Tacoma and originally from the Boston area, and Ben, recently graduated as a mechanical engineer from RIT and ... well, I think he's been doing whatever work he can do in Jackson Hole that allows him to spend most of the rest of his time skiing. Photos will follow! I met Ian through Alex (my younger son) and Ben is a childhood friend of Rohan's, a crew member we miss who needed to stay behind this year for the sake of education.

When I looked at my notes from the 2014 season, everything pointed to a big season this year and my notes urged us to prepare for it. When ADF&G published their prediction of 54 million salmon coming back to Bristol Bay, I imagined the wall of fish that prediction and my notes could mean... and decided to add two crew members. Hence, a big crew.

Carbon was also with us early in the season as he searched for a place on a drift boat. He received many calls and many offers before finally making his choice.

We also hosted Jeremiah (a friend of Jeff's) for a few days before his captain was ready for him. That one is a story for a day when there isn't much to write about. It involved being robbed of his wallet (and ID) and phone at the Anchorage airport while he slept, waiting for the flight to King Salmon. There he was: 19 years old, no ID, no money, no phone, no job waiting for him and job opportunities becoming increasingly scarce as the days ticked by, knowing no one in Anchorage and having no way to reach us. I asked Jeff if he thought Jeremiah would just go back to Portland and Jeff said that he couldn't - he spent everything he had on the ticket to King Salmon.

I also want to finish the story of our harrowing trip back from Lake Iliamna at the end of last season.

There is also much to catch up with this season: In addition to bringing Sage, I brought Ollie (he will be 1 year old on July 5, a mix of Bichon Frise and Papillion). He is about 12 lbs and I worried about eagles getting him. We left his hair long in the hopes of making him look as big as possible from the sky. However, he is developing dreds with the help of the mud (he loves bounding through it, particularly thick and sticky this year). David got a line on a new (used) truck for us (a Suzuki Carry, a 4 WD micro-truck that gets at least 35 MPG and does great on the beach). Between that and the puppy, we are getting a lot of attention this year. Roger spent most of the second week up at AGS welding bin boards holders, brailer pockets, and brailer hooks into our skiffs to make us safer, more efficient, and to prepare our skiffs to hold the slush bags that will permit us to ice our fish so that even if we have to hold the fish in the skiff for a while - for example, if the buyer's truck is full or they just aren't there yet to take the fish as soon as we get them out of the net - the fish will be on ice. Great for quality. Harry has a new boat, the Miss Gladys - a great looking fiberglass upgrade from the Janice. Weather has been very dry (April, most of June) or very wet (May, first week of June). Despite the burn ban that has been in effect since June 16th, there have been more than 50 fires in this area, several of them surrounding us - close enough so we wake up to the smell of campfire and haze from the smoke, but far enough so we don't see any actual flames though we can see the plumes of smoke. Most of those fires started from a lightning storm a few nights ago. Patrick (ShadowCat) got some great slow-mo footage. Sarah has been taking photos that will help me remember what's been happening since she and David arrived - we'll get caught up.

The weather has been absurdly hot - in the 80s. Salmon berries are already popping out and so far, one of the season's most welcome non-fishing-related achievement is that Roger has installed in my cabin one of the opening windows that came up last year, but that we didn't have time to install. It is amazing how much of a difference it makes to have even one window that opens. I believe that more are in my near future.

However, so far, very few fish. We fished "free week," from June 15 to the evening of June 18 and got a few reds (I think our total sales so far is about 300 lbs) and a few beautiful kings that we have filleted, vacuum sealed and frozen. The "emergency period" started 9 am on June 19. It usually runs for about a month, the month that contains the peak of the salmon run. This is how the Fish and Game biologists ensure adequate salmon escapement needed for future generations of healthy returns, while also permitting the optimal harvest, for the sake of the fishing industry (fishing fleet, processors, and all the support services that make it possible) and a world that needs this fabulous source of protein. The biologists look at every indicator they can get their hands on to figure out how many salmon have already made it safely up the river (they have counting towers where they actually count the salmon swimming by), how many are milling around ready to go up, and how many are coming but haven't made it yet. Based on all of that - and maybe a few chicken bones thrown to the ground - when the salmon start to run, they will let the fleet take little sips from the returning tide of salmon. If they return in a wall, the fleet will be drinking from a fire hose. But until the fish start to move, we wait. We are waiting now.

It is a difficult combination: such hot weather, more expenses than usual because of anticipating a bigger return, and no fish yet. Thinking back over my (ahem) 50+ years in this fishery, there is nothing alarming in this pattern - we have seen many many really good seasons that have started off with a lot of waiting. But not in the past handful of years.

So we are getting projects done around camp - my windows, improved walkways, Jake and ShadowCat just installed our fourth composting toilet. And we're spending time while we can cooking and baking for birthdays and bbqs with friends.

My goal for this blog entry was just to write it! I can't explain why it has taken me so long to get started this year. I came about a week later than usual because of Seattle-work-related demands so I didn't get that slow integration back in, by myself with the dogs. Somehow, those evenings are perfect for reflection which tends to turn into writing for me. This year, though, Roger, Patrick, and Ben arrived the day ahead of me so this year's process has been different.

Welcome to the season. I'll do my best to catch up with what I've haven't written about while trying to keep up with descriptions of the waiting.

Let me finish this first blog entry with one of the best things that has happened so far (and so far, this has been a lovely season, so for something to have made it to the top is going some). It has several parts.

Part 1: Last year we met the kind, hard-working, personable, and talented David Duke. Jake sat next to him on the flight into King Salmon and though we were prepared to adopt him, he set a record for getting a deckhand position and it wasn't until the end of the season that he was able to spend a few days in camp with us, learning about setnetting. Nevertheless, the Alaska-style informal adoption proceeded and we now consider ourselves related to him. We had the pleasure of a few days of his company at our camp when he first arrived this season.

Part 2: My very dear and beloved sister is not well. She has spent the past 20 years with her husband creating an ecologically thoughtful traditional Kosraean village in Micronesia, offering spectacular diving and many other attractions. Since March, she has been between Oakland and Seattle learning more about her illness and receiving treatment for it. She has a three week break in the treatment, just in time to attend a conference in Fiji, which will also permit her to make a brief visit in Kosrae to see Bruce and try to take care of some business. She left Thursday night, the end of "free week," the night the beach gang at AGS launched our fifth skiff (piloted by Jeff and Ian), followed by Harry's new drift boat.

Part 3: I went for a little tour with Harry on his new boat, during which Jane (Harry's wife) happened to call. She was at our mom's and put Mom on the phone to talk to me. She wanted to know the results of Trina's second set of scans. (Short answer: the results were encouraging but not a promise.) Harry dropped me back at the dock and I proceeded with my day's tasks of loading and unloading stuff in preparation for returning to the beach, including getting food from the freezer in our net locker which is just a few lockers down from David's captain's. It is always a treat to see David's happy and handsome face.

Part 4: Not 10 minutes after I had talked to Mom, Trina texted to explain that she was at the Oakland airport waiting to board the flight to Honolulu and hadn't had time to tell Mom about her results, asking me to do it. (Check - though I don't really deserve the credit I took for that one since it was accomplished through a series of circumstances in which I was just standing there.) She also mentioned that she couldn't find a room in Honolulu so she would have to hang out in the Honolulu airport overnight. She wasn't complaining but I thought that would be particularly brutal for her and remembered that David is from Hawaii - maybe he could help.

Part 5: I went back to the net locker building and saw David. I will never succeed at poker - he looked at me and said, "Do you need some help?" So I explained what was happening and as I neared the end of the problem, I realized that he lives on the Big Island of Hawaii - not on Oahu where Honolulu is located, so he probably couldn't help. But he immediately volunteered the help of his parents who had just moved to Honolulu. I gave Trina the needed information while David tried to reach his mom to be sure it would work. There was a little back-and-forth but the really heart-warming part is that it did. David's generous and lovely parents took very kind care of my sick (and stubborn) sister (who may be slightly insane to be traveling at all right now). They probably didn't even know that their hospitality meant much more than just convenience and comfort. And it kept me warm for a long time - including now, when I got to write about it again.