Saturday, 21 June 2008

I arrived with my wife Nikita in Nakek, Bristol Bay of Bering Sea Alaska in the end of June 2006. The fishing was already ongoing for a couple of days, but we still managed to catch most of the season. The village of Naknek is some 10.000 years old - people have always been catching fish here. Now, besides the fixed permanent houses there is another village of Naknek, an aluminum village of some 700 32 feet long fishing vessels standing on the shore of the Naknek river waiting for the annual run of the red salmon in June-August. One of these boats was F/V Mecca, my first boat for the season.

F/V Mecca, the 32 feet aluminum holy-land.

Nikita Wu, my wife, was following along to Alaska and got a job in the Watzituya net hanging shop on the north bank of Naknek river. The shop was skippered by an old school net hanger, Miss Marcia Dale, whom manny of the captains seemed to respect and Nikita was said to be safe with her. Hanging nets is a hard job and especially vicious for your hands. Marcia was also a healer and a specialist of natural medicine - herbs, ointments etc. Many fishermen visit her for sore hands - so did I later on the season.

Nikita in the legendary Wazituya net hanging shop of Naknek.

Watzituya is the soft core of the hard aluminum Naknek. Here you can update the latest rumors, get a cup of tea and possibly somewhat an overall picture of what is going on with the fishery on Bristol Bay. Besides these, Watzituya will fix your nets.

The magic interior of the Watzituya net hanging shop.

I had never been a commercial fisherman before standing onboard Mecca. The first night we were transferring from Naknek to Nushigak and the sea was rough. The fishing vessels are restricted to 32 feet and have to sail in shallow waters hunting after the salmon runs. This means that on the open sea they are very rocky. We transferred to Nushigak bay in company with 3 other ships as a security measure. Nevertheless I would not have been too surprised on my first night on Meccan and Bering Sear if we would have drowned. On the other hand I was very relieved to find out that I didn't get sea sick.
A sketch of the Brisol Bay fishing area in order not to get confused of the rivers.

Hard core fishing started immediately after reaching the Nushigak fishing district. Learning the job as a deck hand was somehow unbelievable. It was hard to believe that a work this hard still exists in our world. There is no way getting around the fact that the open sea harvest of salmon is physically a hard work and you do not sleep much. The first couple of days I thought I was going through some test for the captain and the crew to see that I can really take this - something like the Hell Week for the Navy SEALS. Then I gradually realized that there was no test: this is this and this ain't something else, but this is this. I still couldn't believe it though, the work was really hard.

Slightly tired. The next level is the so-called Dutch Harbor Staring.

Our captain Turk was an old time Bering Sea veteran and gone through a little bit of this and that. He had crashed a plane into a remote arctic island while spotting for herring and survived with a half a can of peanut butter. He had woken up on Mecca during a snow storm, had rushed to the front deck to winch up the anchor and found that he had locked himself outside. The cabin door was locked. You don't dance too long out on the deck in your underwear during a snow storm on the Bering Sea. To avoid freezing to death Turk had to smash in one of the front storm window with the very anchor he came to winch up and then squeezed his XL Turkish body inside again. His whole upper torso was scarred after being cut with glass. On top of this the diesel stove had exploded on him and he had a severe fish poisoning making his legs and hands constantly hurt. I didn't feel I could come in from the deck to complain my hand aches to him. I'm sure he knew how I felt anyway and my place was out on the deck in the wind. Turk was the Captain and thus smoked Camel -cigarettes inside by the wheel.

Captain Turk, one of the finest fisherman and gentleman the country of United States has ever produced.

The gear what you use on the salmon run on the Bristol Bay is a 150 fathom drift net 8 feet high between the cork line and the led line. The color, camouflage and type of hanging depends on the color of the sea, bottom and captains way of seeing things. Some say the net has to have some fake holes painted on it or even real holes, because a school of salmon may stop in front of the web when they see it and then try to go through the "hole". When one of the fish makes a move, the others will follow and you may get a good hit. The web is a gill-net meaning that the salmon's head is supposed to go through and then the fish gets caught on its gills. The mesh size of the web therefore is dependent on the size of the preferably harvested fish. The net can be left drifting with a buoy on both ends or the other end can be tied off to the boat. Different techniques are used in getting the net in front of the salmon and the salmon into the net.

Soaking the net.

The crew on Mecca was Turk, Nathalie his daughter as the First Mate, Marty (Martin "Metalgod" Hunter Ross) Natalie's boyfriend as the other deck hand and me Marty's friend as the other deck hand. I know some of the boats was having a crew of 3 and some even a crew of 2 - captain and a deck hand. I know some captains also manage to fish alone, but this is not usual and often happens in the end of the season when all the deck hands are burned up. Nathalie had been fishing with Turk for years and knew what was going on with the fishing. The intensity of the fishing tended to backfire on her though and she was suffering nervous breakdowns on regular basis. Marty is big man with a fairly big heart and I had been working with him on various construction projects in Alaska, Finland, Japan, Estonia, UK and Taiwan. He is one of the finest gentlemen the country of the American Dream has ever produced. A man with wit and humor - a humanitarian man. Marty was no stranger to hard work and somewhat of a perfect partner on the deck. He was big and clumsy though and his body had to pay for this.

Martin Ross, Alaskan fisherman with Norwegian blood.

Captain makes all the decisions on the boat. He commands when to prepare for setting the net, when to set it and how to soak it. The deck hands have to be constantly alert to regulate the net according to the captains mind. When it comes to the taking op of the net the real work of the deck hands begin. The net has to be rolled up to the boat as fast as possible, so that you can fish more. The net rolls onto a hydraulic drum on the back deck of the boat. Before rolling up to the drum all the fish needs to be picked. Deck hands will use their fingers of fish picks to release the web from the gills or from however the fish is caught to it. The red salmon are big and there is many of them. A good set can pick a 8.000 pounds of fish. This is a lot to pick and slowly but steadily the work will get to your fingers and hands. You will get cuts that are hard to heal while on the sea with all the fish slime. You will also not sleep much.

Red salmon.

After a while of fishing the fish has to be taken to a tender boat that delivers them on to cannery or a processing boat. Tying off to a tender boat is always a ritual. From a deck hand's point of view the tender boat crews are having a softer duty on their big ships that rarely move. Winter time these same ships are used for king crabbing, which again is a hard work. From the tender boats we got frozen pizza to be baked in our diesel stove, soda and cigarettes. The tender boats can even deliver mail.

Kingcrabber Cornelia Marie, one of the stars in the Deadliest Catch, as a tenderboat during the summer.

On 4th of July all the fishing boats around Nushigak were anchored together into a floating aluminum festival of the independence day. No fishing accudents, but R&R. The captains were visiting their fellow captains and offering food to each others on the boats. For me the day was special, because a tender boat brought me a letter, pop corn and brownies baked by Nikita on the shore. This was sweet enough.

A lonely hunter waiting for the tide and the salmon.

On Mecca we continued rigorous fishing, but the catch was not the best possible. Turk had a couple of fishing warnings and he could not risk fishing near the edge of the fishing area - "the line". The Alaska Fish and Game are constantly supervising the fishery and if you cross the line you can get a ticket. In Turk's case this would have mend the end of the season. We had to stay behind the line on which the biggest catch is caught. After a long row of days working with no or little sleep we were once again tying off to a tender boat. The sea was rough as usual and it was nigh time. Suddenly I heard a terrible scream from one of the fish holes on the aft that had been opened. Marty had slip on the deck and fell into the fish hole and was now hanging on a bailer hook that had penetrated one of his buttocks. I got him on the deck and had a good look at his ass and it did not look good. The guys on the tender boat were lining up on their starboard to follow the examinatinon- Marty proudly presenting his bloody Viking ass. The wound was deep and painfully close to his rectum. It might have had punctuated he bowel.

Say hello to my little friend.

The tender boat didn't have any morphine so Marty had to cope with the painkillers onboard Mecca while we waited for the transferring to the Dillingham hospital. It was low tide and it took some four hours before we could motor into the Nushigak river and Dillingham where Marty was hospitalized. Also Nathalie stayed with him. I decided to continue fishing with Turk.

Working on the deck. Nathalie is patching the net.

Turk had another boat in Dillingham which we tugged into Naknek in where we stayed a couple of days. For me this break was great since I got the opportunity to see Nikita, whom I had been missing a lot. I was so tired though that I wasn't much of a company for my wife, but slept through the whole holiday. I remember when Nikita saw me first time after the fishing. She was looking at me outside the net hanging shop, but did not recognize me. She looked at me three times before believing, that I was actually there. I guess she had been quite stressed of me being out on the sea and obviously I also looked quite worn out. More like Zombie than a man.

Nikita and Marcian on the Watzituya terrace.

After a couple of days of resting and good food, thanks to Nikita and Marcia we started to go on fishing on Kvijaq with Turk. We set the net to a good spot as immediately after getting into water the cork line started to boil. Fish were hitting the net so hard it looked like it had been shot with a machine gun. The sea was stormy and Turk realized that we could not get all that fish up with the hydraulic drum but had to power roll the net in with our hands. During the power rolling Turks heart started to make trouble and after all the fish was in we motored with the stern-full back to Naknek where Turk reported to a local hospital. His season was over.

Turk and his last sternfull of the 2006 season.

After Marty and Turk being hospitalized I took a job on a tender boat called Flying D. Comparing to fishing the work was very relaxed, more like a holiday. The pay on a tender boat is not so good though and since the work was also boring I started longing back to fishing. A lot of deck hands had been quitting and Nikita and Marsha knew of the captains who needed more crew. The next fishing boat I was working in was the F/V Isanotski with a captain from Kodiak. We were fishing in Ushigak, but after destroying a net and cutting the tow line the captain also decided that the season was over. He paid me fairly and I stayed with Isanotski a couple of more days winterizing the boat. The last man fishing in Nakned was captain Rick Reed, also from Kodiak and I served with him till the end of my fishing season.

Cleaning a chinook for a present to Marcia.

Rick's boat F/V Liberty Bay was a safe boat to work in. Rick was very careful and professional with safety on sea and his boat and equipment worked superbly. The Sockeye run was soon over for the year though and after fishing a bit for silver salmon Rick decided to winterize Liberty Bay.

An aluminum village of winterized fishing vessels in Naknek.

After the fishing season we stayed with Nikita in Nakned for two weeks more. Nikita continued hanging nets and I was either winterizing boats or stripping nets for Marcia. In the end of Auguts we packed our things and flew back to Taiwan and the to Venice to set up our work for the Venice Architecture Biennale 2006.

Fish is real.

Marco Casagrande, deckhand