I had lofty goals for the summer of 2013. I was going to Elfin Cove, Alaska, year-round population 20, to buy fish from trollers. I brought books for the downtime, my computer to write about all my adventures, and clothes I wouldn't care about ruining. I was ready.
As it turned out, I barely had any downtime. I mailed home half my books midway through the season, my computer languished in its case (except for when I needed it for work) and it has taken months of processing to feel like my writing will do it justice. I'm still not sold on that last part, but if I don't start soon I'm afraid I never will.
Also: pretty pictures.
Broad overview: Trollers are a type of commercial fishing, one characterized by individualism. Trolling is less capital-intensive than many other forms of commercial fishing, such as seining or gillnetting, and for many fishermen who choose that life it's about a lifestyle almost as much as the money. Fishermen (yes, mostly men. Though I encountered a few boats run by women, and there were a number of women working as deckhands, the statistics were grim) were either fishing alone or with a single deckhand. They'd be out for days, with the radio (and the occasional cell phone) as their source of communication.
Boats would pull alongside, we would tie them up, and I would ask questions I needed answered for my paperwork. We would then unload their fish, sort it by species (almost all salmon, and primarily Coho (silver), which we would weigh by hand to determine how much they would be paid), and weigh the fish by species and size. I would finish paperwork and write them a check, we'd give them ice so they could go back out fishing, and that would be that.
When it's written out like that it seems so simple.
I was part of an all green (inexperienced) crew. The learning curve was steep. Troll tendering is a very physical activity: weighing by hand meant on a busy day we could each handle upwards of 10,000 lbs of fish at least once. "Giving ice" meant either shoveling ice or using the crane to drop a bag of ice in the boat's hold. I would switch gears from sorting fish to calculating how much money the fishermen would be getting paid at the drop of a hat. It was simple math that included stress, the deafening noise of engines in my work station, exhaustion, and, later in the season, severe sleep deprivation, and the fact that my screw-up would cost either the fisherman or the company money. Things they never test you for in math class. The work day ranged from just a few hours a day to 20 straight hours of work. Other tenders picked up our fish and dropped off ice, sometimes early in the day, sometimes late at night, or - when we were desperate - anytime at all.
It was a rocky season in many ways. I was the only person to last the whole season. The first captain left in a spectacularly dramatic fashion after just a few weeks, the second was there for a rocky month and a half, and somehow I found myself in charge of a tendering vessel after just over two months on the job. We were at a dock all summer long, so that meant I was responsible for HR (making sure the crew didn't kill/maim themselves or each-other, that the fishermen were happy) and logistics (communicating with the plant in Juneau and other tenders, primarily). We were lucky. The weather this summer was amazing, most of the fishermen had enough patience for us to figure our shit out, and there were no serious injuries on the boat. Overall, the season was a success.
To say it was a difficult summer for me could be the understatement of the decade. But it was also one of the best experiences of my life. Being on land meant I could sometimes wake up early and hike, climbing rocks and grasping at tree roots to get to the tops of waterfalls. If the front dock was empty (or close to) I would take my morning coffee to the end and watch the world go by. Since there were very few people around, that meant watching the nonhuman world go by. Being around so much death (in the form of fish and the meat that was a part of almost every meal) meant I liked to find a few moments to celebrate the vibrancy of life that existed away from the Pavlof. Beyond the mornings of solitude, it was the people, mainly fishermen and Elfin Cove locals, who saved me. And that's what I choose to remember right now.
I learned to let go of things I could not change. You couldn't control tides, weather, that you were out of ice, how many boats are looking to offload, or how long it had been since you last sat down. Those elements were out of your hands. "It is what it is." We would all say it to each other, tenders, fishermen and locals alike, to help cope with whatever obstacle had just popped up. It was a collective shrug of the shoulders, a bless and release to the situation at hand.
It is what it is.