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."