5.20.2013

North to Alaska! Part 4

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3


The 4th of July is a big deal in King Cove. I guess it's a big deal everywhere in the states, really, but it's one of those times when smalltown America really shines. And you don't get much smaller than a town of maybe 800 folks, most of whom earn a living either fishing, canning fish, servicing fishing boats, or collecting a check from the native corporation. 

(I don't know the specifics, but apparently most of the Aleut tribes are incorporated; maybe it's a tax thing, I dunno. Maybe all Native American tribes act like that; I didn't really check. But as a corporation they get to disperse funds to all members of the tribe from the money they get for stuff like fishing rights, land ownership, and whatever other deals they work out with the government. Before you get all Tea Party on me, I don't think those guys are making a whole hell of a lot individually, but if anyone can stretch a dollar it's the people living where food comes in on a barge every couple weeks and bears routinely come prowling around your house.)

Anyway, the entire town comes together for the Fourth, which is often kind of the kickoff to their summer. Kat and I walked around town with her crewmates and buddies while watching all the little kids in footraces and pie eating contests and things. It was just like my memories of the 4th growing up, except there were mountains and volcanoes and an ocean. 



I picked the worst angle to cover this pie-eating contest.

We made our way to the school, which also serves as a community center, for overcooked hot dogs and hamburgers. We mingled among the locals, but I've never been one for striking up conversations with strangers so my interactions were limited to "hello" and smiling politely. We got to see a display of little fishing boats the kids had built out of paper mache and popsicle sticks and stuff. It was Norman Rockwell meets Discovery Channel.

Then came the race, which Kat and her deck boss Jim signed up for. The premise was simple enough: first one to a red, white, and blue-painted rock wins. Except the rock was halfway up a mountainside.

Pictured, but not visible: a rock.

Before anyone could start running, though, we had to wait for the Sheriff's deputies to come out and fire shotguns in the air to scare off any grizzly bears that might be napping in the tall grass. I tried not to look like perhaps the only person within 1,000 miles not accustomed to gunfire in the middle of summer picnic festivities. With that out of the way, the racers took off up the hill with Kat sprinting up despite her claims that she wasn't going to go all out. About a half hour later she made her way back down flushed, panting, and desperate for water. The winner was a boy who looked to be about 12 and seemed like he could easily do the whole thing another two or three times.

Then there was the paddle race! Teams of two were set in purposefully-under-inflated rafts and instructed to paddle out to a buoy and back. Cheating was not only tolerated but encouraged. A few crewmen from the fishing boats opted in, including Kat and her crewmate Diane:

Sure they look adorable, but that's because you can't smell them.

But even more of the competitors were local high school kids: teenagers looking to score the cash prize and (to me, at least) woefully unprepared to wade into what had to be a 35 degree Bering Sea. The boys were in t-shirts and jeans. The girls wore cute little booty shorts and t-shirts they'd puff-painted with their high school or class year or some other girly thing kids those age do. What I thought would be a friendly competition quickly devolved into cutthroat boat sabotage and near-drownings. One woman literally dove out of her raft and into the water at the finish line to try and steal a victory. She still lost.

"To the victors go the medical treatment!"

Kat and Diane put up a mighty fight, but the locals had the edge. Afterward nearly everyone was soaked and shivering and laughing their way down to the bar. Kat and I spent the day milling around the town, which all told is about the size of my high school campus. Eventually, at something like 1am or so, a barge showed up to fire off some fireworks. The weather had gotten kind of scuzzy, so we watched from a dock while the boat seemed to be fending off low-hanging clouds with colorful-but-ineffective cannon fire. It was one of the best Fourths of July ever, and I was curious as to what we could do that might top it. Little did I know...

"Wanna go crab fishing?" Kat beamed, obviously excited at the possibility.

"Uh, yeah. Sure. Yes," I sputtered, trying to convince myself. Crab fishing? Was she nuts? I'd seen Deadliest Catch. I knew what happened out there. And I knew enough about myself to know I wouldn't be able to hack it. Luckily, it wasn't nearly as intense an experience as I feared. It was a pleasure cruise! We took off aboard the Cape St. Elias and headed out to throw down a few pots, which they were allowed to do because they were monitoring the biomass or something (That makes it sound shady, but it wasn't. They had a legit reason to go catch a few crab, I just don't remember what it was after three years of putting off writing about it).

We left port and the sea was a sheet of glass. A cool breeze freshened our faces as we steamed along perfectly placid waves taking in the sunshine and the sights. And by "sights," the crew meant a super spooky shipwreck.

Something something three hour tour.

The story behind the boat, the name of which escapes me, was that it was a top of the line, $3,000,000+ fishing boat custom built by some plucky young captain only to run aground in the middle of the night when one of the crew fell asleep on wheel watch. See, salmon don't really move at night, and if you don't need to go to town for fuel or to unload you don't really want to waste all that time and fuel heading back in. So most boats will simply stay out at the fishing grounds over night so they can start up as early as possible in the morning. But you can't really park a boat like a car. You can drop an anchor, sure, but even then if the tides and winds are moving steadily they'll push your boat right up onto the rocks. So each night the crew take turns at wheel watch, described by my wife as a horrific endurance trial in which you try to stay awake in a darkened wheelhouse alone after working for anywhere from 15-20 hours fishing. It's not incredibly involved; usually it boils down to watching the boat's position on radar and making sure it's not moving out of the area you want to be in. That's part of what makes it so easy to zonk out and, if you do, risk the lives and livelihood of everyone on board. 

Luckily everyone survived this, but the boat was unable to be dislodged and sits there like a shiny skeleton on the beach. I've never had much of a reaction to the idea of shipwrecks. They were always sort of mythical elements to stories, like pirates or dragons or elves. The idea that I would actually encounter a shipwreck never crossed my mind, but seeing one in person, alongside the people who actually have to worry about wrecking their ships, gave me a whole new perspective. Some of the crew had a morbid curiosity and struck out on a zodiac to go check it out and climb around the decaying hull. Others stayed on the CSE, wanting nothing to do with the wreck. It felt almost like we were talking about a dead body: some people wanted to poke it, others were visibly spooked. 

Kat and I decided to stay on the Cape St. Elias while the others ventured off to check out the wreck, so we drank and sat on the rigging and watched the others fish for halibut. Apparently fishing for halibut is basically like playing Battleship: the fish sit on the bottom, usually obscured with a fine covering of silt, and wait for something small enough and dumb enough to swim near their mouth so they can gulp it down. So basically me on a Friday night. But since they're not all that active hunters, fishing for them involves dropping a baited hook straight down and basically hoping you land it on their face. I watched a few of the guys do this for a half hour or so, politely declining their offers to join in what basically looked like pretending to fish. They didn't catch any halibut, but did manage to snag a couple sculpin:

Not pictured: sculpin usually explode from the pressure difference when you bring them up from the sea bottom. It makes "catch and release" pretty morbid.

Eventually the tomb raiders made their way back to the boat and we got down to business setting crab pots. After an hour or so soaking the crew pulled them up filled to the brim with sweet, Alaskan crab. I figured we'd take them back into town and have dinner, but the guys weren't messing around. They began cracking the shells open on the hull of the boat and throwing the halves into a pot. We gorged ourselves on crab almost as quickly as we could pull them out of the ocean. 

I called this "crab purgatory."


We'd fill a trash can with crab, empty it slowly as we cooked them all in the galley, then fill it again and do the whole thing over. We were all covered in crab juice and butter and sea spray and beer. No one spoke. We didn't have to. The only sounds were the cracking of shells, grunts and groans of satisfaction, and the angry, pathetic calls of jealous seagulls. It was a beautiful, primal thing to pull food straight from the ocean and eat it before her as if at some great blue altar. If I had to guess, I'd say the amount of crab I ate would run probably $250 in a restaurant. We stuffed ourselves until we couldn't eat any more and still had trashcans of crab to spare. 

As we motored back into town, the crew happy and laughing after a great day of relaxation in the middle of a grind of a fishing season, I realized the whole reason I came up here was drawing near: I was going to go salmon fishing, and I was feeling kind of scared.


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