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.