Rise and Shine
Work on an Alaskan salmon fishing boat such as the Epick requires long, hard days hauling nets and stabbing fish behind the eyes, but it’s broken up by moments of pure beauty out on the open water of bristol bay. / Photo courtesy Scout Edmondson
When a Colorado ski kid dedicates his summers to commercial fishing in Alaska, he learns an all important lesson: things can always get worse.
[dropcap size=small]I[/dropcap]’m staring up at the sky, daydreaming as the boat gently rocks. Suddenly, the tow line attaching the net to the mast slices through my field of view, yanking me out of my thoughts and back into the moment. I’m sprawled out in the Alaskan sun on the back deck of the 32-foot, aluminum-hulled drift-gillnetter Epick, in the Nushagak district of Bristol Bay.
It’s early July and hotter than usual in Alaska—an unsettling yet all-too-familiar trend—and I’m tired from the long hours of trying to put fish in the net. A rap song pumps out of a speaker crammed into a cubby in the aluminum gunwale to the right side of my head. It’s a surreal moment.
I’m eighteen years old and this is my second season onboard the Epick, which is operated by my friends Jake Clemens and Mariah Colton. I’ve been spending almost all my time with two dudes, Jake and Pete. We only come into contact with other people when we unload our day’s catch to the tending vessels or on the rare chance we tie up to another boat in our radio group. It’s been weeks since I’ve spoken to my family and even longer since I’ve talked to my friends back home in Colorado.
Before I get to asking myself why exactly I am here, I hear Jake’s voice on the deck hailer telling us we’re going to pull the net in, see what we have caught, and go make another set. I sigh as I get up, put the drum in gear, grab my fish pick and pull the lever that hauls the net in over the stern roller. Most days are like this when you are working in the constant rhythm of Alaksan salmon fishing.
So how did a Colorado high school ski racer end up working on a fishing boat? Back in the fall of 2017, I was pulling barbed wire near my home outside of Nederland, Colorado, with Mariah and Jake, then newlyweds. They asked if I’d like to spend the summer working with them on their boat during Bristol Bay’s famous salmon run.
“It’ll be hard work, but you’re strong and we think you could do it. Plus, you’d be making more money than you would be working a summer job here in Ned,” Mariah said.
After a few weeks of consideration, I realized they were right and I sent my resume to our (now former) skipper Jim Schwartz. I decided to take the job to go on an adventure, see new places, meet new people and make a little money while I was at it. Then before I knew it, it was June and I was sitting on the plane next to my new bosses on our way to the King Salmon airport. We stepped out onto a dusty airstrip with dozens of other people, all going to work either on boats or in a cannery for the season. The landscape oddly resembled Oklahoma—if Oklahoma had glaciated volcanoes rising out of the rolling grassy hills that then fell away to the gray, silty waters of the northern Pacific. I soon learned that the people here are as tough as their surroundings: gritty, hardy, and covered in dirt and oil from long days of mechanical tinkering.
When we pulled into the boatyard, I got my first glimpse of our aluminum home for the coming season, and was met by a small, friendly, well-groomed older man who introduced himself as Jim. He had been fishing for 37 years, season after season, and had made many friends with people in the fishing fleet. Jake had come to work for Jim a couple years prior and was about to buy the Epick (then named the Erin K, after Jim’s daughter) from him. With Mariah and Jake’s combined 19 years of experience, they were well suited to take up this task and continue building their life around Alaskan fishing.
They introduced me to some of their friends on other boats who welcomed me with smiles and genuine interest in my story. Over the next few days, we prepared the boat to go into the water and get to work. While Mariah, Jake and Jim dealt with mechanical issues, I dealt with smaller jobs—painting the engine, running errands to the marine supply store in the yard and moving hardwear out of the shipping container behind the boat on deck and stowing it all away. Finally, the day came when we put into the water and made our way to the district where we’d fish for a couple weeks. After that, we would transfer to another district and spend the rest of the season there before we made our way back to the boatyard.
To be frank, I had no idea what I was in for. Being a kid from landlocked Colorado, I couldn’t comprehend what life on the ocean would be like. I had never experienced weeks on end of eating, working and living on a pithcing boat, in bad weather, with minimal sleep. I’m not really sure what I expected, either. Music, movies and books I read growing up romanticized life at sea. Working hard and being away from your loved ones while on a boat always seemed cool to me, just because it meant you were tough. But it was such an abstract concept—nothing could have prepared me for what it really takes to labor day after day on a fishing boat.
Mariah, who grew up right down the road from me, had a similar experience her first season. She seined and gillnetted in southeast Alaska, then began fishing in Bristol Bay. When she started, she tells me, she was super curious and enthusiastic about everything that happened on a boat since she was a woman from a landlocked state who didn’t grow up with any relationship to fishing. Since then, she has simply been driven to prove how capable she is working in Alaska and how she can handle the same level of intensity and hardship that any man (or woman) who grew up fishing could. I admire Mariah for being able to not only hold her own up here in the boat, but also to thrive in the face of so much adversity. This past season, I told my coworker Pete that I thought Mariah is one of the toughest people I know. I still stand by that statement.
I felt that same feeling of curiosity about how it all worked my first season, too, but I honestly wasn’t looking to prove myself. I didn’t even really know just how hard the job would be. But here’s the reality: There are hours upon hours spent waiting for salmon to entrap themselves in our net. You pry their silvery, slimy bodies out of the green webbing. You stab each salmon behind their eyes (so each fish bleeds out and improves the quality of the meat) before throwing them into the refrigerated fish holds. And you do all of this in less-than-agreeable weather and running on a mixture of caffeine and ginger pills (to combat seasickness and stave off fatigue).
But you learn from it all—the smallest things, like a nice conversation with people onboard a tender, eating a Twix bar, geeking out over pictures from a skiing magazine, the rare bag of frozen veggies, a phone call from my family, or being able to hang out with our friends from another boat, all have a profound effect on my mood while fishing.
The first shower you take in the boatyard when you’re finished with your season is heavenly. Hell, just being on land is one of the best feelings ever after you’ve spent six weeks knocking around on a rocking boat.
During an opener (the period where we are legally allowed to have our net in the water), I stumble out on deck, only to be greeted by an enormous grayish-brown wave slamming the stern and Mariah saying, “The fishing’s incredible right now!” Already drenched, I jam myself into my neon-orange PVC rain gear, claw my way to the lever on the drum, and hang on for dear life while the rest of the crew pick fish out of the net. With the net in, I grab one of our bleeders, a razor sharp hand chisel, and begin spearing fish and tossing them into the holds. Mumbling vehement obscenities while I’m thrashed around on deck, my stomach begins to roil with sea sickness. Finally done, I stand up, turn around, and empty my stomach over the starboard railing.
I turn around, soaking wet and covered in blood and fish scales, look wearily at Mariah, Jake and Jim, and explode into tears. Mariah hugs me while I sob into her chest, and Jake and Jim try to make me feel better with words of sympathy. They tell me to take the rest of the opener off, and I go into the galley, choke down some pilot bread, and shed a few more sorry tears, before I fall into an uneasy sleep.
Coming home and seeing my friends and family after being cut off from them for so long really makes me think. Ever since I have returned, apart from appreciating things I’d taken for granted before life on The Epick, I have been looking at my existence differently. If anything seems really terrible and uncomfortable, I just tell myself that it could always be worse. I could be puking my guts out in the middle of a storm in Nushagak.