Northwest to Alaska
Chapter Six

by Peter S. Oleson

I would like to be able to spend some time in this chapter telling about what successful fishermen we were and that that summer of 1975 brought us happiness and great material wealth. In reality, as commercial fishermen, we were a total failure. We did however, have some good times, though few of them involved fishing. For one thing, we ate a lot better. Having a fishing boat allowed us to pretty much live off the sea. During the period before Eric arrived, we had done everything we could to get the boat paid off so we only had to worry about fishing and staying alive. One thing we did was cut our food costs way down by going to the butcher at the market and buying whole cow's livers for $.19/lb. and freezing them in meal sized containers. We bought quite a bit of rice and spagetti noodles and ketchup. For lunch, it was noodles with ketchup, for dinner we would have liver and rice. We did that for two or three months. I haven't eater liver since.

The summer of fishing and hard work turned into the summer of play. A bigger, better boat meant we could go further afield with our exploring. Sure, we did fish, and we made enough money at it to keep going all summer long, but it turned into a way to finance our exploration. It was pretty boring going back and forth all day long, pulling in the fish and gutting them and icing them down in the hold. Trolling for salmon is kind of like trout fishing, but with dozens of lures instead of one. Except for those short periods at low or high tide when not much water is moving, the tide makes trolling for salmon resemble a technique that river fisherman call back trolling. You have to use the current to maneuver the boat, with it's lures, into places that look as though they may contain fish. Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? A lot of those places are around kelp beds and rock piles, and you have a lot of gear out, including those big lead cannonballs to hold everything down there. Sometimes, you hit bottom, or even hook bottom, then a lot of things happen in a short time, none of them good.

The first time we went out with Eric, we had to get him his first fish. We stayed out a couple days and spent more time digging clams, cockles, and oysters than we did fishing. We did get him a fish, and he did kiss it, in keeping with the old fisherman's tradition. Then we headed back to town to barbecue the fish on the back of the boat and have a little party. Robbie, one of those weird guys from California, came over with his girlfriend and his mandolin, Eric brought his banjo with him on the plane, I had my guitar. We drank beer and played bad bluegrass, if there is such a thing. We diddled around town for a few days. Eric had to meet some of the strange people I hung around with. We spent a day climbing Deer Mountain, which lays at the southern edge of Ketchikan and if I remember right, is about 2,600 feet high. Real nice view, but you have to work for it.

We went out with another boat the next time, a displaced farmer from Oregon named Ron who was willing to teach us a thing or two about salmon and halibut fishing. Ron's boat was docked just a couple places from ours in Bar Harbor. That's where I met him. He had to give his motor an overhaul that spring and he knew I was a mechanic. He had a Gray Marine six cylinder, which was a flathead motor. His valves were all burnt to hell and his seats were cracked. I took the valves to work with me and ground them. Then he talked me into borrowing the seat grinding tools. I let him use them himself, I had enough to do on my own. Checking up on him that weekend, he had pretty much ground the seats into dust. He was, to be polite, a frugal man. I shuddered to look at his handiwork, but he was happy with it, and pleased that it had cost him next to nothing. He kind of took me under his wing after that. He was considerably older than us, though I don't know if he was any wiser.

Ron's big dream was to make enough money to buy a farm in Eastern Oregon. Having been through Eastern Oregon not that long before, I was having a tough time imagining farming there. There wasn't much water. It never does any good to mess with another mans' dream, so I never said anything about it to Ron, or his girlfriend Paula, or his deckhand George. How the three of them managed to live on that little boat without killing each other, I'll never know. Ron was kind of a rank bastard, especially after a week or two pulling halibut, which have never been known for their pleasant aroma. Ron took us out into the big water, out of the labyrinth of islands that comprise Southeast Alaska and into Queen Charlotte's Sound to fish around some big rockpiles out there. We did catch a lot of fish, but I was a little uncomfortable out there with nowhere to run to in bad wheather.

After one day out there in the big water, we decided to stay back among the islands. We fished and explored. In one tiny bay, we came upon an old, old fallen down shack and what must once have been a garden. There wasn't much left of anything, but the climate in Southeast is pretty harsh on the works of man. Ron eventually filled his hold with fish, mostly halibut, and we headed back for town. We made enough money to fill the fuel tanks and the larder with some to spare, so Diane, Eric, Dago and I took a little trip up to Loring to do some hiking on one of the trails there. We didn't have a permit to use any of the Forest Service cabins up there, so we took the tent and sleeping bags. The salmon were running up the river that the trail follows. We came across a black bear fishing in the stream , and we watched him for a while until he smelled us and melted into the forest. Thankfully, Dago never saw him. After that, we weren't so keen on sleeping in the tent anymore. We ended up way up the valley at a little lake with a FS cabin and nobody was staying there so we moved in. There are no mattresses in those cabins, the ground would have made a better bed.

In the morning, we backtracked down the trail and decided to do a little trout fishing. We did quite well and took enough for a meal back at the boat. Eric was going through withdrawal from junk food on the walk back and kept mumbling about Nacho Doritos. He knew there was a bag back at the boat, so there was no slowing him down, bear or no bear.

On the Fourth of July we were back in town to watch the big parade and take in the logging congress. The Blue Angels were flying up to perform. The parade was your basic small town affair, with one peculiar exception. Right in the middle of the parade, some Alaska Airlines pilot brought a 727 down Tongass Narrows and through downtown not much higher that treetop level. I often wonder what happened when his boss heard about that. The logging congress was just a chance for all the loggers to come to town for a big drunk and compete against each other in pole climbing, sawing by hand, throwing axes and all the other neat things that loggers do. One obvious inebriant spent five minutes trying to start his chain saw before throwing it on the ground in disgust. The next contender walked over, picked it up, turned the switch ON and started it right up. Those were the high points of the Fourth of July for me.

We decided to head over to Prince of Wales Island to check out some of the bays and villages over there. We slept at anchor in a little bay at the top of Gravina Island. We were the only people there, and the bay was filled with salmon who were leaping out of the water to slap back into it. Someone once told me that they did that to loosen the egg and roe sacks before running up the rivers. It was a perfect, calm warm evening. After dark, a fog settled in. I was having a hard time sleeping that night, so I crept up and sat on the deck in the middle of the night, the only sound the salmon leaping and falling, surrounded by luminescent fog. It was very surreal.

The weather looked pretty good in the morning, so at seven knots, we figured we could get to Prince of Wales in about six hours. The weather didn't stay so nice, though. About an hour and a half out, we were into some pretty big seas, so I put out the stabilizers. That worked for a while, but the wind just kept building until we were only able to look around while on the tops of the waves. We had to turn into the wind, taking it on the front quarter was just not making it. That put land in front of us after nightfall, so I decided to turn back. That was easier said than done. The seas were up to about twenty feet, and beginning to break on the crests. The crests were so close together that we would have to turn around either going up or coming down. I was afraid, Eric wanted to go on. I don't think he understood just what a fix we had gotten ourselves into. At least this time it was light.

I was afraid to keep going, but I was just as afraid to try to turn around. I started to check out the waves ahead, watching for one with a nice long trough, or at least a long wave that wasn't breaking. Going into the seas, we were crawling up the faces and plunging into the following troughs. I really didn't know what would happen if we turned around and began taking those seas in the stern. I finally decided, to hell with it, and cranked the rudder hard as we plunged into another trough. I slammed the throttle to full and got the boat far enough around to catch the crest on a rear quarter. We almost went over. I got it all the way around and backed off the throttle. What a ride that became. As a wave came up behind, it would lift first the stern way up in the air and as the crest passed the boat, the stern would drop out from under you and you would almost loose control as you slid backwards into the trough.. A lot of the time, on the crests, the prop would just be cutting air. I made the mistake of looking back once while we were in a trough. Just green water as high as you could see, it seemed. After that I just kept fighting ahead, trying different speeds to maintain some kind of control.

Nobody was talking much, just hanging on. Dago crawled under the covers on the bed. It took a long time, but we managed to pass the top of Gravina Island and kind of slide behind the island out of the seas. I headed for the dock. I needed some ground under my feet. I began to think that maybe I wasn't cut out for the seafaring life. If nothing else, that marked the end of our forays into unknown waters. After we docked, Eric headed for the bakery to staunch his sugar craving.

Ron was there at the harbor when we got back and was getting ready to head out to Duke Island the next day. We figured it was just as good a place as any, and decided to tag along and do a little more fishing. It was calm, but very foggy in the morning. Ron knew the way well, so I wasn't very worried. However, Ron decided to do some trolling on the way. I figured that as long as I kept him in sight, and kept an eye on the depth finder, I would be all right. So we both got all our gear down, and I was keeping him just barely in sight, we could see no land around us, but we knew it was there. I began to hear a distant chug-chugging noise that quickly got louder and louder. I was looking frantically out all the windows of the cabin, but I couldn't see anything but Ron and fog. The only thing I could imagine that could make that much noise was the Alaska State Ferry that was scheduled to go south that morning. The noise was so loud that I couldn't tell which direction it was coming from. Then, it let loose a blast from it's horn, so I knew it saw us on radar and wanted us to get the hell out of the way, but I couldn't see it or tell where it was. I laid on the throttle and headed for Ron's boat as fast as the old "Audace" could go. It went by, somewhere around us, but I never did see it. Another day, another near miss.

We spent a week just hanging around the little cove where we anchored and fishing during the day in that area we had gotten pretty familiar with. We spent one low tide collecting enough sea cucumbers for a meal. What a disgusting creature that is. When threatened, the sea cucumber will regurgitate nearly it's entire body. It has no bones, just a bag of muscle full of potential puke. They didn't taste bad, just a little on the rubbery side. We tried to catch some halibut with our longline, but we must have left it down too long, or picked a place where there were a lot of sand fleas, because all we pulled up were bones. It was fun, if unproductive. Ron didn't do too well that week, either. Something broke on his engine, and he had to call a float plane in on the radio and fly into town to get parts. He spent a couple days getting that taken care of.

We headed back to town early enough to get there before the fish buyers closed and I was running in the lead. Most of the days that we spent running back and forth to town we came upon schools of dolphins, which would swim along with the boat and leap out of the water as they crossed our bow. They always seemed to be in the midst of a joyous celebration. They would drive Dago wild, though. He would stand up on the bow and look down at them in the water and bark his fool head off. You couldn't really stop him, I always figured that he could hear them giving out their high pitched sonar signals. The dolphins didn't seem to mind, so I didn't really give it much of a thought. This day was no exception. We could see Ketchikan in the far distance, Dago was on the bow barking. After a while, I didn't know why, I had a bad feeling, and looked around and didn't see the dog. I asked Eric and Diane if he was down below with them, but they said no. So I stopped the boat and looked everywhere. No Dago. Ron came alongside and I explained. He hadn't seen the dog in the water and he had to get to the fish buyer, so he left. We went back and forth over our route calling for the dog until it got too dark to see. I never saw Dago again.

We went back out with Steve the mechanic the next day, in his Bayliner so we could cover more area. We crept along the shores on both sides of the channel where we lost the dog, with no luck. Eric called home about the dog, he was like part of the family. I have had many dogs since then, all in an attempt to find another one like Dago. It never worked. I have had a succession of the dumbest dogs to walk the earth. It has been said that you only get one good dog in your life, and I guess, for a little while, I had mine.

The remainder of the summer was relatively unremarkable. I took no chances, a kind of a gloom had come over us for a while. We did get to see a State Ferry ram the Ferry Dock and knock it askew. We hopped in the skiff to get a closer look, but when we got over there, a Coast Guard boat stopped us and we got a ticket for not having numbers on the skiff. I explained that it was a fishing vessels skiff and therefore exempt. He explained that if the skiff was not used exclusively to go from vessel to shore, it needed numbers. Further discussion proved fruitless, and I mailed the Coast Guard their damned $20 or whatever it was. The end of the summer came, as it inevitably does. Eric left for Wisconsin. Diane and I went back to working for a living again. I was in doubt about our future as fishermen, but the next summer was a long way off, and so many things could happen. The harbor was a much nicer place to live than a parking lot.

Peter S. Oleson

From [poleson@ptialaska.net]