North to Alaska! Part 3

Continuing the tale of my Alaskan exploits this last two summers ago...

I don't know why it's taken me over two years just to tell this story. Luckily I took notes. Thanks to the one anonymous person who commented that they actually liked reading about it and reminded me to finish the damn thing.

As the plane roared off into the sky and left us in a cold-but-sunny valley with a constant barrage of wind buffeting us, it suddenly sank in just how "out there" we really were. Cell phones didn't work. There was no one working the "airfield" (a strip of gravel fenced in to keep out grizzly bears and a single aluminum shed), and from where we stood there wasn't even a road. It was just us and the wind.

I did my best to distract myself from the panic attack that was building in my brain by taking in the landscape: the harsh winds (did I mention it was REALLY fucking windy?) prevented any sort of tree from growing, but this being July in Southwest Alaska it was as green as it gets. The hills were covered in thick, rolling grass as green and verdant as a painting. It swayed and undulated hypnotically under the winds, and the shadows of clouds raced across its surface like ships on an ocean. The sky was a brilliant azure, so bright it bordered on pearlescent. It was like someone had re-tuned my vision and suddenly I was seeing in high definition.

To say Alaska is beautiful is sort of like saying the Grand Canyon is big. Sure, you think you have an idea in your head. You've seen photos or video or whatever and you get it: it's neat, but not that big a deal. But Alaska is literally the most beautiful place I've ever seen. It's like another planet, and all the cliches apply: rugged, untamed, desolate, remote, unsullied by man, I can go on but the simple fact is you won't get it until you go there (which I highly recommend). It's awesome. I don't mean that in the generic suburban sense I've always said, "awesome" to stuff that definitely wasn't awesome, either. I mean "awesome" in the literal sense of inspiring awe. It made me feel incredibly small and alone and yet interconnected to life and it was amazing. And all this happened at a fucking airfield; I wasn't even out in the real nature.

Oh, also the Smoke Monster showed up.

Before we had to resort to killing and eating each other (I brought it up but couldn't get enough votes from the two girls), a big blue truck rumbled down the road we hadn't seen because it was hidden behind the aluminum shed and Kat and a dude named Julian, whose girlfriend was on my flight and who worked on the sister boat to Kat's, picked us up. We piled into the truck and took the one road into town, because that's literally the only place we could go. There is exactly one road. I think it might be six miles long? I'm totally guessing at that number at this point, but I do know it's short and it connects to nothing (insert joke about my penis).

We arrived in town and walked down the dock past a smattering of fishing boats in various stages of repair. Crews milled around their respective boats working on various parts and equipment, because even on a day off from fishing there's a ton of work to be done. And the salmon seiners do get days off: Alaska had the good sense to plan ahead more than just "we want fish today," so their fisheries are some of the most tightly-monitored and regulated in the world. Thus they'll get "openings" to fish in, in which they get a schedule saying something to the equivalent of "STARTING AT 1200 JULY 3 AND CONTINUING UNTIL 0400 JULY 5 THE SUCHANDSUCH AREA IS OPEN." Or something like that. This allows Fish and Game to monitor how many fish are getting upriver so they can prevent people from wiping out an entire run of salmon. If not a lot of fish are starting the journey in the first place, they need to make sure even more make it past the annual gauntlet of nets and hooks and bear claws and whatnot.

But anyway. I quickly stashed my bag aboard the Equinox, my Father-in-Law's boat, and met the crew, most of whom I already knew because they are various relatives and family friends of my wife. Then, like a low-rent Santa Claus, I distributed presents. 

Since the growing season is roughly 12 minutes in parts of Alaska, fresh produce (and most foodstuffs, actually) can be extremely difficult to find and comically expensive to actually buy. I'm talking "$8-gallon-of-milk" expensive. And since almost everything has to be shipped up, any fruits and vegetables that survive the trip arrive in stores already looking pretty rough. So I hope you really need that bell pepper because it's gonna cost you $9 and it's already shriveling on the shelf. 

That's why I showed up with a pack stuffed full of ibuprofen, or as fishermen like to call it, Vitamin I. Two giant bottles of fast-acting gel caps that I don't think lasted through the four days I was there. Being a fisherman's tough on your liver. Two days later Kat's dad would arrive with boxes packed full of fresh fruit from Seattle farmers' markets, since he had been staying at our place on his way back up to the boat. Once everyone was hopped up in OTC painkillers it was time for me to get the tour!

The stove. As in where they cook food.

The engine.

The "stern," or "ass-end" of the boat.

The crew shows off their telekinetic abilities by raising the nets off the deck with their minds.

Kat was eager to show me off to all her fisher friends, as this place is a huge part of her life that until now I'd never seen or experienced before. It's weird to meet so many people who do a thing that you just have to admit to yourself is more bad-ass than anything you'll probably do in your lifetime. Salty oldtimers, fresh-faced greenhorns out on their first trip, and all kinds in between. All of them, I kept telling myself in my head, could easily beat the shit out of me if they wanted to.

Not that any of them ever gave me the impression that they did want to; while I fully expected to meet some gruff and grizzled dudes I have to say everyone up there was extremely welcoming and all smiles. It probably helped that I was there for what was universally agreed-upon as the best weather they'd ever seen in King Cove. That and they don't get many visitors so just being able to see somebody who's not one of the six dudes they've been staring at all summer might've been a nice change of pace.

It was around this time that I got the lay of the land: two bars, one at either end of town, a grade school, a gigantic fish processing plant that served as the hub and pretty much sole reason for the town's existence, and the Harbor Master's, which had WiFi, showers, and toilets. 

- While giving me the tour of the boat, Kat told me their toilet was finicky and imparted a horror story about clogging it and having to call her cousin over to take apart the toilet and fix the motor. Upon hearing this, an incredibly powerful fear of jamming the toilet and forcing one of my in-laws to clean my shit out of the teeth of some kind of feces-munching garbage disposal took hold and I vowed never to drop a deuce on the boat. This resulted in a horrific dash to the Harbor Master's while cradling my rumbling stomach a few days later.

I also got the bear warning. See, we were in a remote enough town that it wasn't like you might see a bear if you went off the map into the woods or something. You were going to see a bear, and it was probably going to happen in town. Everyone insisted that if I went anywhere to go with someone and to carry a bear flare. They called them bear flares, but the packaging suggested they were long-burning road flares. You were supposed to take the cap off and strike it against the bottom, igniting a roughly four-inch-long stick of molten strontium and magnesium, and then wave it around to scare off a 500-pound carnivore while somehow not pissing yourself and crying. They walked me through how to ignite my flair, showed me where the stash was, and strongly advised against trying to change my grip on the thing once it was lit. I asked why.

"You'll melt your hand."

Good to know! I settled into the "spacious" (by which I mean slightly less cramped than the crew's) Captain's quarters and slept the deep sleep of a man completely overwhelmed by all the information and experiences he'd taken in throughout the day. But hey! Maybe this fishing thing wasn't so hard after all!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the quick response. It is always comforting when your choices are:
1. Be eaten by bear
2. Melt your hand