19 April 2013

An Adventure of Salmon and Self-Awareness (and a Healthy Dose of Self Deprecation)

We are traveling back in time here, to last August, when I went up to help friends out on their boat. This is the promised story. Thanks for your patience, and thanks for reading. 

A fine spray of salt sea and fresh rain misted my face as I retched carrot cake-flavored Clif bar over the rail. Remorse washed through me. Not shame, though the shame of being so seasick as to necessitate puking over the rail was there, too; but guilt. I had managed to eat two things that day: an English muffin with honey and butter, and that Clif bar. It wasn't the waste of food that made me feel guilty, either, but rather the simple fact that I had mentioned that carrot cake was my favorite flavor of Clif bar while Tele and I were shopping to stock the boat for a week or two, and Tele had generously bought an entire case of them for all of us to share. And I was pretty certain I was the only one on board who felt that way toward that particular flavor. Now, given my fairly limited adult history of puking, I was pretty certain that I would not be capable of stomaching carrot cake Clif Bars for a while. Maybe years.

I had been in Southeast Alaska for 3 days.  I knew, going into this, I would be seasick for a little while, probably a few days. The great thing is, no matter how shitty I feel while seasick, it mellows out; I know it will end. I then actually love the rolling and pitching of the boat. I relish standing strong as the horizon dips and yaws at crazy angles, getting lunch together in the galley, or moving about on deck. If I get a chance to sleep while we’re underway, it's like the coziest cradle possible. Even if you have (in addition to rolling from head to foot and side to side) the occasional full-body press into your bunk, followed by floating at a fraction of your weight, I welcome the waves. So I wasn't too worried. It was my cross to bear, to allow me to have this awesome experience.


When I arrived in Sitka on Monday afternoon, the weather was classic Southeast: gray, misty, not quite raining—so quite a nice day. As soon as I walked into the terminal, I was greeted by two of my favorite people, Joel and Tele. Salt of the earth, strong and caring and capable folk. We are all about the same age, but Tele's huge, brilliant eyes that reflect all colors back—and Joel's equally brilliant, high mountain tarn green ones—are cornered by beautiful crow's feet, deeper than their years. These crow's feet have been earned in their entire lifetimes of summers, spent on decks of boats, squinting into bright light, fog, clouds, glare off of water; peering into the bellies of salmon, up at the rigging, and down into the bowels of engine rooms.  These two, they smile often, and I delight in those crow's feet every time.

Directly after we loaded into a loaned van, we got some lunch, and began getting errands accomplished. An Alaska deckhand license, insulated and non-insulated rubber gloves, and a balaclava for me; hooks and plumbing bits and such for the boat; a new belt for Joel, along with some lures to support his new hobby of sports fishing off the deck at day’s end. On board the Nerka, Tele walked me through safety and operating procedures, and I practiced putting on the survival suit that makes one look like Gumby's red cousin, but can keep you alive in the frigid water if your boat meets with disaster. Basics mostly out of the way, we donned layers and layers of insulated clothing and went into the fish hold to glaze the last few days' catch with ice.

Stylin' in the fish-glazing gear

The following day was even more of a flurry of action, as we prepared to leave Sitka that evening. First order of business was unloading all of the fish from the trip Tele and Joel had just completed. Over one thousand coho salmon, weighing on average 9 or 10 pounds, were passed from Tele, who stood down in the fish hold, to me on deck, to Joel, who was standing on shore and loaded them one by one by one into fish totes that are about 3-4 feet deep and fit neatly onto a pallet. I felt mildly nauseous even then, due to the side-to-side rocking that I created walking from the lip of the fish hold, in the center of the deck, to the rail, where I lifted the fish up to Joel. Just a hint of what I had to look forward to, I figured. Might as well get it started early!

Tele and I then went shopping to outfit the three of us with delicious food for the 8 to 12 days we planned to be out. The grocery stores in Sitka have amazed me before, and this was no exception. The selection of goods is truly impressive, and while prices may be higher than down south, the inventory puts all of the groceries that I regularly shop at down here to shame. We loaded the carts with fruits and vegetables, veggie and meat sausages, yogurt, chips, crackers, cheese, tea, bread, milk, ice cream. And candy. Tele knows well how a comforting food can give one the oomph to make it through the rest of the afternoon, the next few hours, or the next 20 minutes, when you are cold or exhausted or grumpy and want to do nothing but collapse on a bunk. She encouraged me to pick out any comfort foods I needed or wanted (frosted animal cookies, Reisen chocolates, and Mike and Ikes were high on my list, along with a lot of chewy ginger candy), and she took my preferences into account when choosing anything that all three of us would be eating (like Clif bars!). Back at the boat, we made all of these things magically fit into the snug little cupboards and fridge. We then finished up a few last chores before ordering a pizza to go and getting underway. The Nerka chugged out of Eliason Harbor, bound for an anchorage a few miles out for the night.


The following day, Joel decided to head us for Table Bay, which sounded reassuringly flat for my already spinning innards. I knew that this first day would be rough for me, and I had been outfitted with a motion-sickness drug that I had been taking at regular intervals since the day before.  My equilibrium did not disappoint. My main memory of the day was Nausea. I staggered about and choked down that Clif bar for breakfast around 7, after which I spent the entire day in my bunk. Bear the Boat Cat spent the day with me, she being well acquainted with feeling under the weather while underway. I went in and out of wakefulness, from daybreak to mid-morning, when we caught some fish—I know not where and I had nothing to do with them, other than hearing them flap onto the deck.

Bear keeping me company/holding me down

Morning gave way to afternoon, and I was grateful that I hadn't yet needed to pee, because I wasn't sure I could have handled being upright. Eventually, though, it had to be done. I got myself upright, lowered myself from bunk to floor, and moved the three or four feet to the head. I got myself inside, while tipping and rocking, aft and forward, starboard and port. I did my best to lean against a wall as I lowered my long johns and underpants, and then sat. As soon as I was anchored on the toilet seat, I knew I was screwed. Too much movement and no sight of horizon in that tiny box, coupled with only barely contained nausea, was the tipping point. I hurried to finish up and get outside, but wound up using the garbage as a catch-bucket for the first round. 

When I self-deprecatingly announced my proud achievement of having barfed into the garbage and my lack of knowledge of what to do with it, Tele told me that I had the biggest smile she had ever seen on the face of someone so recently sick. And then the angel told me that she would deal with it, and to put it on the back deck, which is where I was headed next, anyway. The fresh cool air moving over my face soothed me, even though I didn't feel much better, and the evacuation of the Clif bar and English muffin continued for a while.

One of the odd comforts of sea-sickness is that my body just wants to sleep, or at least slip out of full consciousness. I spent a lot of time in a quiet in-between place, where my thoughts were like stones through still water: unbidden thoughts had unusual clarity, and my mind walked in places off the beaten path, or on paths that were taken quite a while ago. Old scars didn't cause anxiety; they were just things to look at in that crystalline calm.

Later in the evening, I felt enough better that I was able to sit up and talk to Joel and Tele. Topics ranged all over the place, and as we motored on south toward Table Bay, I was overcome with gratefulness for these friends: their generosity, their kindness, and the comfort that comes from knowing folks for a long time and still being amazed by how wonderful they are.


When I woke up in the dark the next morning, as Joel raised the anchor and began the drive out to the fishing grounds, I felt quite fresh and fine. I had hopes that I had turned that corner of mine, the one where I rise from the dirty gray fog of nausea into the shining glorious light of feeling at one with the boat and the waves. I ate a real breakfast and dared a bit of coffee, before going out to learn how to clean Coho salmon: the job I was here for!

I began my relationship with Joel and Tele's salmon at a restaurant in Anacortes, cutting, boning and skinning whole fish into strips for salmon and chips, steaks, and filets or tranches; using the bones for soup stock; trimming away paper-thin slices from the skeleton to eat as impromptu sashimi, the treat of the cook who has exceptionally high-quality salmon to work with. I continued in other kitchens, and now I had glazed fish with ice and unloaded frozen fish from the hold: I joked with Joel that I was learning to do this precisely backwards: I knew exactly what the finished product looked like, and now I was coming backwards up the stream to actually cleaning, and then perhaps catching, the salmon!

Coho in the hold. This is the state I am used to seeing, when I cook with Nerka salmon .
To clean a fresh-caught Pacific salmon, you must first give it a good rinsing and rub-down with the salt water hose, to remove sea lice and blood, and any other flotsam. You then cut the gills free on either side before cutting through the 'chin strap' right between the outer gills. Pull the salmon's head down and back and cut the head off at a curve matching that of the gills. Then slit the belly from the anus up to a spot between the dorsal fins, and reach in and gather up all of the innards, draping them over the place where the head just was, as you cut the membrane loose around the throat. Now, you will learn, if you stick a finger or two down the esophagus and pull back firmly, all of the innards will peel out. If you are lucky, the air sac will stay inflated, and when you chuck this pile of rich salmon bits overboard they will float, allowing the birds that trail the boat to dine with ease. Next, slip a fine-tipped hose into the main vein of the salmon and quickly flush blood from its veins, before you slice open the kidney and the bladder bones and scrape everything well with the spoon end of your knife. Trim up the area around the gill plate, give your salmon a last rinse and check. One beautiful Coho salmon, sans head and innards, with silver skin and glowing orange-red body, ready to be passed forward to rest before being handed down into the negative 38 degree Fahrenheit fish hold.

Cleaning my first fish. Just a little guy. 

It took me a few good repetitions to remember everything, but Joel and Tele were excellent instructors. Joel was impressed by how quickly I got it, and by how good my head cuts were, which was gratifying. It was kind of like that joke with the sculptor: I just carefully took away everything to make it look like a cleaned fish, the thing I was most familiar with. They had given me the tools, the knowledge, and the confidence to do so. I wasn't perfect: occasionally I'd do a step out of order, or nick something I wasn't supposed to. Not the end of the world, but usually resulted in a lot of extra work for me and a blue streak of curse words for Tele's ears. The amazing thing was that, even though I felt sea-sick again after a while, with my head down in the back of the boat, it had nothing to do with peering into salmon guts, or the way that piles of needle fish or other just-swallowed meals would come pouring out of the salmon’s throat when I cut it. Even an unfortunate eyeball that got loose via the gaff, just sitting there staring at me on the deck, did nothing to turn my stomach. It was all motion-caused. Matter of fact, I was having a freaking fantastic time, if feeling constantly vaguely shitty was taken out of the picture.

And therein lay the rub. I was having a great time, every morning started off strong, and I was able to eat normal meals. But I kept getting nauseated enough to need to go lie down, or at least go sit at the galley table with my head down. This happened a couple of times, every day. I was there to help by taking the load off of Joel’s hands, which felt like they had broken glass in all the knuckles. If Joel still had to go out and clean fish half the time, I wasn't really helping the way I was supposed to. To make matters worse, this was just Coho fishing, and it was slower than usual, with calmer than average seas. In another week or so, King Salmon season would be opening, and then the game was ON. When the Kings are open, you go fishing. All day, every day, in whatever weather you are confronted with, because the openings are very short, the catch allowances limited, and, by the pound, Kings provide more income to fishermen than any other salmon. I wouldn't have the chance to go lie down, and as the days wore on, it looked increasingly like there wasn't going to be any transition to fisher-goddess of the sea. I felt fucking horrible. Not only was Joel not getting the full-on break that he needed and I was here to provide, but come the time he really needed help, I might not be capable of providing it.

So we talked it over. Joel said his hands were feeling a bit better, that maybe the slow fishing, the semi-break from cleaning fish, and the mountain of shots and drugs that they had given him, back in Sitka, were all helping. If he could work, and I couldn't, then maybe this thing would sort itself out.

I hate feeling like I suck at something, that I am a failure, that I am letting beloved friends down. Even when those friends are telling me that it will be okay, it can be hard to believe that they aren't disappointed in me, anyway: I was disappointed in me; they had the right to be, too. However, the things I had control over, I could do well and comfortably. I could clean a fish. I could work in the galley on the diesel stove. I could poop in a bucket on the deck while my companions were a few yards away, pulling fish over the rail. My attitude was good, I was doing a good job when I could do it, but my body didn't like being on the open ocean. Even though I had gotten past being sick on slightly longer boats, I couldn't will this to change here. Accepting that I had no power to overcome the thing that made me unfit for the job was hard. Tele told me that I could think about it for a few days, which I did. Then she and Joel made the executive decision, which was the right one, the same one I had come to: I would fly out during the closure between Coho and Kings.

I wish I could say that having the pressure off meant I felt great for the last few days, but I still felt barfy except when the Nerka was at anchor. There was a lot of talk amongst the trolling fleet as to where we would all be spending the closure. It was a long way back to Sitka, but there the Nerka could offload the Coho we had caught and sell it to Joel's dad—the usual course of action. An increasing number of boats were talking about heading for a different town instead, to be closer to the fishing grounds they wanted to be at when they started pulling Kings. We weren't certain the Nerka would have a buyer, where we were going, but we decided we'd stack our fish tight, and that the Kings could go in on top if need be.

The final full day out was spent going all over the place: fishing a few different lines; out offshore where the Kings might be in a week, checking for bait and fish on the radar screen; back in for a little more fishing—and then we said fuck it and packed it in and headed for anchor, where everyone was rafting up for beers and dinner and company. On the way in to the anchorage we came across Humpback Whales bubble feeding, which is an amazing sight. Several whales get into an area that has a large number of herring, and begin swirling around the herring school, sort of packing them into a relatively compact space of sea. When the whales feel they've got the herring about right, they then dash up through the herring wad with mouths gaping. The whole batch of whales surfaces at the same time in a circle with mouths wide open, making them look like a crown on the water. This bubble feeding session was being attended by what we thought was about 15 whales, which was more that Tele or Joel remembered seeing before. This was another wonderful thing about the two of them: they have done this job since they were kids, have seen hundreds of whales, thousands of birds, mountains, sunsets; and yet they exclaim regularly over how beautiful or unusual or amazing something is.

Our Humpbacks bubble feeding
When we got in to the bay, we pulled the poles (the outriggers that give trollers their distinctive appearance: two large poles extending at 45-degree angles from the sides of the boat, from which the lines with their lures are strung) upright, threw a few buoys over the side, and tied up to another boat. After meeting the crews of the Arminta and Desiree, Marlin, Tele's brother, pulled in with his boat a short while later. Beer and wine, tacos and ice cream were shared about as we crawled from boat to boat, me meeting everyone, Tele saying hi to old friends and associates, and Joel getting to do the captain’s duty and have a serious talk with the older captains. It quickly became apparent that one of Marlin's crew, Mikey, was a simpatico type: funny (also punny), smart, skilled, and self-deprecating. When one of the deckhands from another boat dropped a gaff that was still attached to a fish and rapidly drifting away, he pulled a Superman by changing into his wetsuit in the blink of an eye, dropping overboard and swimming out to get it. This evening, of smiles and deck lights is still warm in my heart.

The next morning we slept in until almost 8 (a usual morning while I was there being: awake around 5, drive out to fishing grounds, hooks in by 6, coffee started, clean some fish, oats around 8), and as Joel got us underway, Tele and I bundled up, hopped down in the hold and glazed and stacked our fishes. To glaze the fish, we filled a trough in the fish hold with ocean water and dropped in a heater like one used for cattle water in the Midwest winter, to keep the trough from freezing up in the -38 degree air. Working as a team, Tele would gently set the already rock-hard salmon into the trough, and then I would pick them out and set them up on their 'necks' to let the glaze of water harden. After I'd used up all the available space standing fish on end, Tele would dunk them for a second layer and then we'd stand them all up again. Following that, they were all stacked like cordwood into the hold compartments. Repeated until all the fish were cozily nested together in their protective layers of ice and Tele and I had huge long frosty fake eyelashes and frozen knees and fingers. And usually Tele does this all by herself.  By the time we came back up and peeled off all of our layers, we were nearly to our destination for the closure.

In town, over the course of a couple of days, I had the most delicious Rainier beer out of a bottle that I have ever had, I saw a white banana slug, I met several wonderful bearded old fishermen who had wise and kind words about sea sickness and also about where to get the best coffee and maple bars, I rented an old lady swimsuit for $1 and had a helluva good time in the community pool, and explored the small town, highlights of which included a small shipwreck and a yard decorated entirely with logging rigging. We also celebrated Joel's 30th year on the earth with a big on-boat potluck, complete with cupcakes and candles; as well as blocktails, also known as square of the dog: a gelatin shooter made with real orange juice and plenty of tequila. My plane out was a tiny 12-seater, and the islands and water went in and out of the clouds as I flew away from my terribly short foray into salmon trolling.

Seriously. That wreck was neat-o.
Seriously. That suit was hot.
Seriously. That slug was rad.


In the end, it worked out for the best that I left. Joel's hands were, in fact, fairly well recovered, and heartbreakingly, the fishing was terrible. At a time when they should have been working themselves to exhaustion, they couldn't find fish, and the entire fleet was at a loss, second-guessing everything they did and everywhere they went. The salmon were just gone. I was so glad that they had made the decision they did—I would have felt completely terrible if I had just been dead weight on the boat when they weren't making any money. When times are rough, it's hard enough to get along with your partner, and having another person aboard (who, even worse, you feel you need to act civilized around) would have been no fun.
I had what amounted to an all-expenses paid trip in which I had amazing conversations with beloved friends, made new beloved friends, cleaned, glazed and unloaded salmon, and ate my last carrot cake Clif bar to date. It was absolutely amazing, and in truth, it's lucky that I didn't overcome my sea sickness: if I had, I would want to ditch Devon and go fishing in Southeast Alaska every summer that the Forest Service wouldn't hire me.

Tele observed that my soul was probably built for the mountains, and I think she's right. I want to be good at all outdoor skills, work that brings you right up against the natural world and its elements. Apparently, while my heart and mind have always swooned for the idea of trying life on the water, my body and inner ear have other thoughts. Tele's wise words brought to mind an experience from 10 years before, when I was in a singing group at the Omega Institute. The warm up exercise of the day was to go around the circle, singing out what your soul was made from. I went first, and I sang Rock and Moss and Wildflower. Every other person in that circle sang Love, or Light, or Compassion, or something similar. I remember thinking, as the first person after me went, "Oh, that’s a nice idea, too, I wonder what other people will say." It didn't even occur to me that everybody would say those things, that perhaps they were what the instructor 'meant'. I still think my answer to that question was dead on that day, and I would answer it the same today, but I would add Sun. 


photo credits belong to Tele and Joel, largely because I was ill so much of the time, and because Tele was so stoked to document my Great Alaska Fishing Adventure!

I warmly encourage you to visit Tele's blog, http://www.teleaadsen.com/
and Joel's photography site, http://500px.com/joelbrady-power
(and here's a specific post about Mikey: http://www.teleaadsen.com/the-golden-scrub-brush)


  1. What a wonderful account. I'm a huge fan of Tele's (and Joel) myself, and I love this insider's look into their operation. I'm glad Bear was there for you in your time of need. Excellent description of the survival suit, too, I agree they look like red Gumbys.

  2. What a story - I was right in there with you *gag, barf*. Thanks for this vivid account of how things just don't always go the way we hope. Who better than to support you through this than Tele and Joel ... a testament to true friendship. Thanks for inviting us in.