Advanced Lessons on the High Seas
by Scout Edmondson
It’s 2 a.m., dark and windy. F/V Epick bobs along in tumultuous gray water near the beach, while I sit on a buoy in the corner of the port side stern with tears streaming down my face. Just moments before, the towline connecting the net to the Epick’s mast got caught on something along the railing, sprang loose, grabbed my head, and smashed my face against the thick aluminum stern roller.
My baseball cap, caked in sea salt and fish slime, flew off my head and over the stern and floated away in the dark. I’m crying because my head hurts, but also because I’m a scared, sleep-deprived 18-year-old in a harsh, dangerous place.
My captain, fellow deckhand, and I are on set in the Nushagak district of Bristol Bay, trying to catch enough sockeye salmon to stay on quota for our season. My cranium throbs, and I blink hot tears as I huddle against the biting wind in my bright-orange rubber rain gear, reflecting on how messed up my situation is. I’m fresh out of high school, working on a commercial salmon fishing boat with two hardened men. I miss my home in the mountains of Colorado. I’m nervous about leaving for college. I’m worried that we won’t be able to catch enough fish to make a proper season. I doubt what everyone has been telling me, that commercial salmon fishing is the best summer job a kid could have. I’m angry that I have to spend my summer trapped on a 32-foot-long fishing boat while my friends are having the time of their lives back home, enjoying their summer vacations after achieving the milestone of earning their high school diplomas.
Is it worth the paycheck? Maybe. I’m in one of the most wild, beautiful places in the world. But the constant paranoia of getting hurt, worrying about catching enough fish, railing at my crew—plus the seasickness, homesickness, racism, sexism, and harm to the environment that comes with working in a commercial fishery…
Wow, I think to myself. I’m in way over my head.
And I was. Apart from my first season in Alaska the summer prior, I hadn’t worked a real job in my life, and I was closer to Siberia than to my home in the Lower 48. Coming from a landlocked state, I had no experience with the ocean, aside from a couple visits to the beach. I was completely out of my element; it wasn’t my idea of fun.
Yet, despite the dangerous and inherently ridiculous nature of the job, I traveled to Bristol Bay for five more summers. Every year, I would find myself leaving the safety of my home to travel to one of the most remote places in North America, all on the gamble that we would catch enough fish to make a profit (and that we wouldn’t sink). Frankly, I almost quit after my first year, terrified of that worst case scenario. But I kept coming back. Why? Well, first—the money. Even on a year when my crew and I didn’t catch many fish, the pay allowed me to go to college without getting a part time job. Maybe for some people that would be enough of a reason. But for me, commercial fishing became so much more than that.
Year after year, my thirst for adventure and the magic of the bay kept calling me back.
During my fourth season in Bristol Bay, my crew and I had just transferred to Ugashik, the bay’s southernmost district, after several hard weeks of fishing in the Egegik district. My captain was driving, while my two other crew mates (both new that season) slept. I idled in the galley, watching in reverie as we steamed into the district.
Huge bluffs stood sentinel at either end of the bay, and fields of green tundra cotton rolled off into the distance until they met the base of Chiginagak, an enormous, glaciated volcano. Pilot Point, a tiny Native village, built along the shores of the Ugashik River in the middle of the bay, came into view, along with an ancient cannery—its peeling brick-red paint adding a bright contrast to the surrounding hues of green and brown.
As we steamed towards the anchorage alongside the old cannery, I walked onto the back deck for some fresh air. The sea was calm, the sky littered with strips of clouds. Silver light from the late afternoon sun danced across the deep navy-blue water. A cool sea breeze ruffled my hair, and I took a deep breath of the salty air. Just then, a gray whale breached the surface of the water along our starboard side, almost close enough to reach out and touch it.
Everything fell away. The fears about capsizing, the anxiety surrounding how much fish we caught, the homesickness. I was lucky.
The bay changed me. I met members of the Yup’ik, Iñupiaq, and Aleut tribes, who have lived in Bristol Bay for tens of thousands of years, and learned that the area is one of the oldest places populated by humans in the Americas. Being exposed to the lives of the Alaska Natives who call the bay home year-round and count on its salmon for survival humbled me. I learned how to live in tune with the sea: understanding the tide changes, how the wind affects the waves, and memorizing the channels salmon used to swim upriver. I became adept at repairing busted hydraulic lines, mending nets, and tying a bowline with one hand.
I might have been over my head that first season, but the bay taught me how to be self-sufficient, how to survive even the most dismal of situations, and how to appreciate the natural world around me. And for that, despite the summer paychecks, I’ll always be in debt to it.