Wednesday, July 5, 2017

July 3: I didn't know fingernails could get sore

This will be a rough post. There will be many references in it to things I haven't had the time yet to write about. I'm really going to try to catch up, but it won't be today.

We fished on July 3 and were surprised by the biggest catch in our family's history of keeping track: 29,513 lbs on one tide! That's a whole lot of salmon for my mostly green and completely hard working crew. They were great - I can't think of how they could have been better, considering that on the biggest tides they've had before this one we delivered 654 lbs. What a shock for everyone.

Of course, it wasn't just a wall of fish that we needed to climb. We got some handicaps. We had heavy weather with southwest winds up to 20 mph and 4' seas. If we have no fish in that kind of weather, we end up tired at the end of a tide. Winds like that do tend to blow us some fish, but they also make it very hard to delivery them to the beach. The risk of swamping is great, especially if we have a big load of fish on board which the winds make more likely. The safest (and most convenient!) way for us to deliver in weather like that is to a tender. But for reasons I don't understand, that's when we're least likely to see a tender. It's an ongoing frustration.

We were fairly outgunned by the combination of weather, fish quantity, and limited delivery options. Having said that, though, I also want to thank Jesse and Mike, AGS's Gehl driver and truck driver respectively, for working so hard to pick up everyone's fish. When we came in to deliver, loaded and taking a lot of water, they worked hard to get the weight off the boat in the order we needed. They were just seriously understaffed.

The New Boat was completely swamped during an early delivery and they didn't recover from it for the whole tide, so we were down one of our workhorse boats before the tide even turned. Luckily, no lasting harm was done. Harry (my brother) recently gave us a vinyl cover made to fit over the brand new powerpack - and it protected it! The brand new outboard never went underwater - though water and mud were everywhere else in the boat. We took the New Boat crew out and put them in the Bathtub for the rest of the tide. No power roller. Argh!

When we went to deliver in the Ambi (photos later), the weight of the fish, the big crashing waves, and the crew's inexperience worked together to take on A LOT of water. We hadn't done the training yet where the crew has to jump out fast and get the boat turned so the bow points into the weather. I'm so grateful David was there to buy his fish for custom processing. He just jumped into the water (in his street clothes - brrrr!) and got that bow turned out. As a result, there was a lot of bailing ahead of us, but we didn't swamp. And as another result, my crew - who may be green but they are smart, hard-working, and willing - learned how to get the bow turned out.

The second time we went to delivery, it was worse. Jesse was determined to help us and get those fish off our skiff as fast as possible, but the waves started crashing over the bow. The more experienced New Boat crew was nearby and rushed over to help us bail and get the fish off. Saved again!

After that, our power roller stopped working. Oh no! Those loaded up nets are so heavy and without a power roller, they are soooo long! My crew was valiant, though. We planned to pick through each 300' net (for the second time that tide) and then pick it up (as the fishing period was due to close at 3:30). But it was taking too long to pick through the net because there were so many fish - the tide was running out too fast and we definitely did not want to be left with fish out on the mud flats! So Chris, Eli, and Tristan started to pull. They pulled with everything they had and little bit by little bit, they pulled all 300' of net with probably more than 5000 lbs of salmon into the Cockroach. That's a roundhaul. Eli jumped out to help push the fish in and I jumped out to push the boat toward the net. What a lot of work and the work only begins with getting it into the boat! Our plan was to leave the Cockroach there where it would be close to the shore and maybe the ranger could tow it to where Jesse could easily pick up the brailers as we filled them. No such luck - too much weight.

We couldn't stop to pick the fish out yet though, because we had another net we were responsible for. We headed out to that outside site which had already been picked twice, so that roundhaul was only 2000 or 3000 lbs and the Ambi is a big boat. But we also finished that one just in time because the stern was starting to drag. We stayed out there and cleared that roundhaul while, I hoped, the New Boat crew was clearing the roundhauls of the other two nets. 1200' of roundhauled nets is a lot to process.

But we did it - boat by boat. First the Ambi. Then the Cockroach. Josh burst my fantasy that they had already cleared the nets in the Bathtub. Ha! One of those nets had been picked twice, so it had only a few thousand pounds, but the other had only been picked once and it had probably twice that much. Here is where the dogged determination comes in. And "boat food" (beef jerky, power bars, fruit cups, and WATER).

While we were clearing the roundhauls in the Bathtub, I realized that the tide had turned. Fish and Game reported that the Naknek River got about a quarter of its escapement goal in that one tide, so they were opening us again that evening. Honestly, we all groaned. Then we started talking about what we could handle. Not another tide like this one! Remember, we didn't have any functioning power rollers for most of this tide. We decided to put out two nets. And we hoped we'd have a little time to rest and eat between the two tides. Picking through the roundhaul, I kept my eye on the tide which I knew had turned and was coming back in. When we cleared the roundhaul in the Ambi, we piled the fish in the bow - probably 2000 or 3000 lbs. It wouldn't be good if the water arrived and the Ambi was so bow heavy. So Tristan and Malcolm marched out there and redistributed the fish.

Even though the ranger was making multiple trips, lightening the load of the Cockroach, it still couldn't budge it and pull it in. Dang. And the Bathtub was even further out with even more weight in it... and we had been stacking the nets we were clearing outside the boat. (There isn't enough room in the Bathtub to keep the cleared nets inside the skiff, but that returning tide can sneak up on a person and we were tired.)

David pitched in with the ranger work and somehow got the Cockroach to move in. Whew! Just as we were finishing clearing the nets in the Bathtub, I saw that the Ambi was about to float and we were nearing the time to set the nets. So my crew headed out with me to do that. But as we walked out there, I decided that if we couldn't do a walking set (if the water was too deep for it) we would scrap that set and just fish the inside site. Then I realized that I was hoping that the water would be too deep for a walking set and that told me that we shouldn't try to fish that site. No one disagreed.

We stayed with the Ambi to bring it in on the incoming tide. As we waited (not very long) for the tide to rise enough for us to move, even with our heavy load, I looked over at the Bathtub we had so recently left and saw that it was surrounded by water. David noticed that too... and he also noticed that the water was halfway up the side and it wasn't floating! So he bravely drove the ranger right into the incoming tide -- up to its floor boards (eek!!) to try to pull the Bathtub to safety. That was a good time for me to look the other way. (I don't watch car wrecks, either.) The next time I looked over, I saw that David as the ranger captain was motoring along with that fully loaded Bathtub in tow. Once it started moving through the water, it had no trouble sliding through the mud. Safe! But Josh and Malcolm were still where the Bathtub had been with our little 6' aluminum boat, Skook. And they were putting something in - maybe just a little bit frantically. I think they were shoving the net that they didn't have time to return to the Bathtub. I looked at my watch. It was 9:31 pm. At least they weren't "fishing in closed waters," which carries a heavy fine. Fishing opened at 9:30.

We walked the Ambi in to where the Gehl could reach it and delivered those bags without having to re-pitch them or any more serious catastrophes. Yay!

We had 15 minutes between tides and we were all exhausted! So were Jesse and Mike who pulled a 24 hour shift trying to get all that fish picked up. Then we went back out to fish the flood just on the inside site. The wind had calmed down! We were relieved. We delivered about 5000 lbs from that site. At the end of that tide at about 4 AM, we decided we could handle two others and we set them for a total of three sites. We got in at about 5:30 AM and needed to be back out at 10 AM, two hours before high water (still without a working power roller!). But the crew was dragging. They were willing, but dragging. We pulled the inside site out of the water just after high water so we had only two outside sites left. ROGER GOT OUR ROLLER WORKING WITH (wait for it) BAILING WIRE!! The throttle had died.

We went through our outside site with the working power roller and had two big bags to deliver. But it was too late because there were other people ahead of us. Remember the zones? We would definitely have been in Zone 4 territory after Jesse and Mike picked up the fish from the people ahead of us. If we'd waited in Zone 3, we would have gone dry and wouldn't have been able to pick up our net using the Ambi. DON'T GO DRY! The New Boat went dry trying to deliver. Sigh.

Feeling good about our functioning power roller and knowing that the other crew was fishing without one (theirs, though it survived the swamping - was that a week ago? - seems to have developed a hydraulic leak), we went over to help them and to deliver the fish from our site to the Bathtub since it can be pulled in with the ranger. All of that brought us to announcement time where we learned that escapement in the Naknek River had reached 750,000 (nearly to the goal), so our fishing was extended for 25 hours. We decided that we were ready for our full set of four sites. We set the net that we'd taken off the inside site on #3 and Josh went in to use the ranger to set the inside site out of the Cockroach, pulled by the ranger.

Still feeling good - end of the day, no roundhauls to clear, tide is still going out and we're ready for the next tide... and we'll get about 5 hours of sleep before that happens!! Josh and David stayed down to deliver. The rest of us were in the cabin eating and planning when we'd need to get out to pick the flood. David and Josh came up to let us know there was a crisis. AGS has suspended buying - at least for this tide, maybe for the next one too. Groan. David, Josh, and Matt volunteered to take the ranger and the two flat-bottomed skiffs out to pick up the nets, two in each skiff. I tried to sleep, but have not been successful. Yet. Remember the New Boat going dry when they had to wait too long to deliver? We need to move that out to Zone 4 where it can safely ride on its anchor until we fish again... tomorrow? The next day? It's 10:45 PM now and we're just waiting for the water to come up enough to move it. We need to call in tomorrow to find out if AGS is buying yet. And that brings us up to date.

The fingernails: picking fish is a fingernail-heavy process. I use a fish pick as well, but I find that my fingernails became very tender yesterday and looking at them, they look bruised. I'm sore down to my fingernails. And I wasn't doing the heavy pulling!

Friday, June 30, 2017

June 29 Finally starting this year's blog

We haven't seen many fish yet, but we've been plenty busy - busier than I remember being preparing for the season (hence a very late start to the blog). It seems like everything was broken or corroded as we came into the season or as we tried to use them: three of our four main skiffs; our two main outboards, our beloved and faithful main back up outboard, and two second-string outboards; the batteries in my loft and/or the solar panels or connectors that feed them; the load tester and the volt meter to test the batteries; the battery or the charging system or the wiring for our flagship skiff; my computer (Fan Error); the brakes on the white truck; the wiring on the green four wheeler; the big 2 KW generator; the treads on the ranger (our mud crawling vehicle)... I'm sure I'll think of other things, but really, I think that's enough to keep us busy. Oh! And my body. Ouch! It must be corrosion from a winter of disuse. Note to self: 10,000 steps.

The broken skiffs and outboards are mostly the remains of the weather catastrophe that ended our season last year. Two of our skiffs capsized at the end of last season (no one was hurt!). I think if we'd been in them, they would have been fine. I've been thinking all winter long about how it happened: why did they swamp? Capsize? How could it have been prevented? They were anchored. I think I finally understand the confluence of things leading to the capsizes.

Our cabins perch on a cliff about 30' high. The ground up here is covered in tundra with an underlayer of permafrost about 2' down. When it rains (and some seasons, it rains all the time) the tundra is saturated and it's like a piece of bread in a bowl of milk. When it's time to go fish, we descend our 30' ladder and walk out onto the beach. Our beach has four "zones:" 1) closest to the cliff the ground might be clay (if the tides have been high and pulling clay and dirt from the cliff) or sand or gravel - early this season, it was peppered with big rocks. That might be 30' wide; 2) next is a zone of gravel and rocks that is about 50' wide. It's a downhill slant to the third zone and usually a safe place to drive if you can just dodge the big rocks; 3) is a sort of super highway of hard-packed sand that seems kind of flat. That's usually a safe place to drive - though it does contain some surprises (beware of the orange rocks!) Some years we have only 10' of that stuff and other years (like this year) more like 25'; and 4) the sticky, slippery mud flats. This is were we can't drive a regular vehicle - it would just get buried in the mud. It's where I slog through chanting to myself, "hips and thighs" as encouragement. This lasts all the way out to the end of the outside sites, almost a quarter mile away from the beach. Some parts of the mud flats are stickier and slipperier than others. We brace ourselves for those. It is a slog to get out to those outside sites. This is usually the safe zone for anchoring but definitely not for driving.

We lovingly call one of our capsized skiffs our Bathtub partly because that's its shape and partly because at the end of the season one year David and Josh used dish soap to disperse a hydraulic oil leak that started on the way in to clean the skiff for the season. When they arrived at the fish camp, they created a bubble bath when they sprayed the inside of the skiff with a high pressure hose. The Bathtub is crucial to our operation because we finally realized that it slides really well across the mudflats. We can tow it, loaded with 5000 lbs of fish, using our tracked vehicle (ranger) or if the mud is too bad for the ranger, we can send a long line through a pulley on the beach. We tie one end to a truck on the beach and the other to the skiff and tow it in. With less than 1000 lbs, the crew can just push it by hand. (I usually fall back from that activity - I think my legs are shortening with age. Sometimes I'll jump into the skiff and they push me too, but that seems just a little too decadent.)

The other skiff that capsized used to be called the New Boat or the New Kid. It was one of our two workhorse skiffs, complete with power roller, power pack, and big fancy outboard. That skiff had its flaws, but it has served us well.

When anchoring, it is very important to ensure that the skiff will ride only over the mudflats (zone 4). Anywhere else and it is in the swamp zone. When we came out to look over the cliff the morning of the equipment carnage last season, we couldn't see the Bathtub anywhere (I groaned, afraid it had broken it's anchor line and drifted away), the Cockroach was pushed up on the beach, full of water, but the New Boat and the Ambi seemed to be riding the storm well enough where we'd left them. It was only when the tide started to go out that we could see the very sad, upside down Bathtub.

For a little background, the Cockroach is another bathtub-shaped skiff that got its name because I unwittingly bought it out from under our lovely neighbors, the Williams, who were trying to bargain the seller down to a more favorable price. I saw the skiff on the side of the road and just waltzed in and offered an amount between what the seller was asking and what Mark (my neighbor) was offering and he sold it to me. I was appalled when I found out what I had done! The Ambi is our fourth skiff and in my mind, anyway, our flagship. It is a bit bigger than the others, especially side to side. It steers like an aircraft carrier that lost its power steering (it has a great big bow) but because of that, it is very very hard to swamp. It's the boat I almost always fish from. It got its name "Ambifisher" because of the years we tried to use it to drift fish in addition to set net when politics all but shut down the set net fishery. Those were dark years. I thought of "Switch-fisher" and "Bi-fisher" but I was worried we would upset people, so we went with Ambifisher.

I think both the Cockroach and the Bathtub were just anchored too close to the swamp zone, might have taken some water in the storm and the extra weight of skiff + water caused the anchors to drag further up the beach, further into the swamp zone and the swamp zone did the rest. We've swamped before, but never capsized and I'm not sure I can explain that, except for the narrowness of the skiff, the high weight of our beloved 60 hp Yamaha Enduro outboard, and the ferocity of the storm. However it managed it, the Bathtub came onto the sandy part of the beach, rolled over, and the outgoing tide just pounded it on the sand and rock, destroying the outboard and tearing off the stern post.

The New Boat's capsize was more confusing. It was anchored plenty far out... and we actually watched it go down. It had spent the summer dragging its anchor so we'd had to chase after it in one of the other skiffs and tow it back home. I thought the problem might be that the anchor had too little chain on it, so the storms we had all summer permitted the waves to lift the boat... and the anchor along with it. To solve that problem, I added about 10' of chain to the anchor line. What I didn't think about was the impact of the bow of the boat not being able to lift so much that it could lift the anchor. To understand it, I put myself in the New Boat's place. What if I were tied to a chair with a hose spraying water at my face? Even though tied to the spot, if I could move my head, I could dodge to avoid the spray of water in the face. But if my head were also locked in place, my face would get wet. When the bow was able to lift, it prevented water from coming in (even while it also lifted the anchor). When it couldn't lift, well, water would come in and that leads to a swamped boat. The other problem with the anchoring was that the anchor was tied off inside the boat so the anchor line ran out over the gunwale down to the chain and to the anchor, again, pulling the bow toward the water. We've anchored that boat that way for years and gotten away with it. But in those years, we didn't have a storm like these... and I hadn't added chain.

The damage to the New Boat could have been worse, but lots of repair was needed. The outboard was spared from obvious damage by the steering console in the middle of the skiff that stood up higher than the outboard. (When the skiff was upside down, the console made contact with the ground first, giving some protection to the outboard.) Roy, the world's best port engineer at AGS (Alaska General Seafood, the processor we fish for), had one of his guys spray down the inside of the outboard giving us the best chance possible for recovery. We shipped three outboards south to be assessed and repaired as possible. We left three here for assessment and repair. I was not surprised to learn that the Yamaha 60 - our favorite outboard that could be counted on to start on the third pull after years and years of probably inadequate maintenance - could not be repaired. If you look back at last year's posts - I think the fateful day was July 21 - you can see photos of the devastation. The Yamaha 40 that had suffered only being dropped was repaired and the shop said the Honda 90 was repaired and doing well. That remained to be seen.

So this year, we've lengthened the line part of the anchor line to 70' per line and the chain part to 30'. As much as possible, we're anchoring from a low point outside the bow of the skiff. I am determined to swamp NO equipment this year.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) manages the fisheries in Alaska to ensure the health of the runs into the future. Here in Bristol Bay (and maybe in other parts of Alaska, I don't know) they set up counting towers where they actually count the number of fish that make it up the river to spawn. They have determined that not enough fish have made it up the river yet to make it wise to allow us to fish. That has some convenience sometimes - we get a chance to clean up, bake bread, fix things, get some sleep, start (and start getting caught up on) the blog, and today, attend a memorial for Samantha Cockrell, a young fishing neighbor who developed "Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy" and later Sarciodosis, all triggered by a simple foot surgery nine years ago when she was 19.

As her mother spoke, she reminded us not to judge when another is in pain. They may be smiling, you may not understand the pain, but it's still real. That reminder hit home with me because several dear friends and one sister struggle(d) with chronic pain. We can't really see it from the outside and we definitely don't want it to be true. Those factors can nudge people to start questioning the experience of the person with the pain and I think that can make it worse. So in Laurie's words, "don't judge."