WORKPLACE OF THE TITANS by Todd Beeby (photos courtesy of Matthew Arbo)
Jolting my head back to avoid the geyser of fish blood, I freed the salmon’s gills from the net. The Sockeye twisted out of my hands and landed with a thud on the boat deck. It was heading to spawn in the fresh waters of Lake Iliamna, Alaska. But now, gasping on the deck of a commercial fishing boat, it seemed to say, “Where the hell am I?”
I knew just how it felt.
The captain of my boat pointed to the 300 feet of set-net. All along it, hundreds of Sockeye salmon tails churned the water’s surface. “That’s called ‘boiling water,” he said. Which meant literally tons of salmon were writhing below.
I came to fear “boiling water” as it promised backbreaking toil. First, hoisting the lead-weighted nets filled with fish aboard the boat; then extricating each salmon from the net by hand; and finally delivering it to tender boats bound for processing plants. Every time we motored out to the fishing site, I prayed for only a few tails. Enough for some serious work, but not a Herculean session. This marks the difference between a true fisherman and an imposter: the fisherman prays for boiling water two tides a day, every day, for all six weeks of the Bristol Bay Sockeye salmon run.
I am that imposter. I have never truly fished, just cast a few lures into a lake. So I was all kinds of anxious when my friend–a lifelong seasonal, commercial fisherman–asked me to be his Second Mate for a season (don’t let the title fool you, I had no seniority over anyone; it was a two-person boat). Nor did I have any romantic illusions about the conditions or workload, I knew I’d continually be put the test. But after 20 years at a desk job in advertising, I needed some perspective. Before I could weasel out of it, I bought the plane ticket bound for Naknek, Alaska. I was there because I needed to prove something. But all I could prove was how unworthy I was to be there.
Now that I’ve had a glimpse of salmon harvesting, I am in awe of–and thankful for–these strong people. The giant-hearted, ropy-muscled women and men who bring the food closer to our global dinner table. The fishermen who hand-pick as much as 50 tons of fish every year from their nets. These are the set-netters who live and work each summer in an abandoned cannery called Graveyard Point in Alaska’s Kvichak Bay–what I refer to as The Workplace of the Titans.
Farmers and fisherman have a long muscle memory. Most of the people in this particular group started fishing in their teens, but all the motions were new to this 44-year-old. While not everyone around me looked imposing, their bodies were accustomed to lifting loads according to a daily schedule my mind and body found ludicrous.
And so the work began in Graveyard Point, fishing grounds 10 miles from Naknek. We “camped indoors” in abandoned, crumbling cannery buildings and houses. The tides here rise and fall two times a day, 27 feet in both directions, one of the highest tides in the world. So a typical day meant fishing from 1am-6am, then 1pm-6pm. We’d see the sunset, moonrise, the moonset, and the sunrise again; all while wrestling hundreds of pounds of slippery, defiant animal flesh over the side of a boat.
I was continually shocked about the scale of the work: the audacity of the fisherman who plied their heavy trade on waters that were equal parts generous and unforgiving. These were the real Masters of the Universe, not some hedge-funders strutting around Manhattan.
In this workplace, I was humbled countless times each day. I’d tie the right knot incorrectly, or choose the wrong knot entirely. I’d fumble the running lines and drop the bailer hooks. I’d do my damndest, but then realize my skipper was doing damn-near two-thirds of the heavy lifting without complaint. He and these other fishermen glided through their work, with motions as fluid as the water they fished in. Sure, they’d bellyache once in a great while, but they made friends with the work. For me, it was clear the relationship wouldn’t last.
During the season, I had nightmares that I was fishing. Only to wake up and go fishing. I got to know the pain of “crab-hands” (fingers curling up in the night to lock in a C-shape). These same fingers would swell alarmingly. My spine approached the breaking point, so my “birthday gift” was a back brace sent from my wife. And towards the end of the season, I fantasized about ways to be sent home, like “accidentally” putting my arm between two boats to break it.
For the last few weeks, I counted down to the last tide. We packed up our squat, loaded our gear onto the boats, and set off with the flood tide. I looked over at the other eight skiffs in our mini-armada all at full speed heading back to Naknek. For the first and only time all season, I felt like one of these fishermen. Hadn’t I just done work that nature itself understands and condones? Work that made actual sense? Maybe I allowed myself to feel a part of it because I knew the hardship was over.
Reaching the mainland, we spent days stowing gear and winterizing boats. Which left barely enough energy to walk a mile to the Red Lion Inn and drink the beers we didn’t have access to all summer.
There I go using the word “we” again. Like we were all fishermen. I was a trespasser.
Because I struggled through the experience. I took each physical ache and pain personally, as if I were the only one suffering through it. These true fishermen had the kind of grit required for the job. They understand that the salmon run wasn’t just something to survive, but to savor. I recall one tide where my captain said, “I love doing this. I love being out here.” Thank god for him and others who feel that way.
I experienced the season with trepidation, aggravation, and wonder. Wonder at how anyone can choose to do this kind of work, year after year. While I went through the motions of a fisherman, I could never truly be one of them. Just like the fish they catch, these people don’t really make a conscious choice to return to these waters for the salmon run. They come because it runs in their blood.