Hitting Bottom in Alaska

Ten years ago, in the summer after I graduated from college, I took a road trip with three classmates to Alaska. We set off with a bold but half-baked plan to find work in the Alaskan fisheries. We believed that we could show up in some random dock town, ask around, and quickly land exciting and lucrative jobs on a fishing boat.

Things didn’t turn out quite as planned.

Between the four of us, we had one car and one tent to share. We drove from Seattle all the way to Anchorage, camping along the way. We had virtually no money, but we heard that jobs were bountiful and lucrative in Alaska’s dock towns. In retrospect, I’m not sure which one of us heard that, and I don’t think anyone bothered to verify the belief either, but we were young and idealistic, and we craved adventure, so we shot from the hip and hoped to hit a bullseye.

Our first shot was way off the mark. After two weeks on the road, we landed in a dock town in the Kenai Peninsula, but we could only find jobs as short-order cooks in a fast-food restaurant. We had a bit of fun, but we earned only just enough money to pay for gas, food, and fees to the camping grounds where we pitched our tent. We had to sneak into a local military base just to get hot showers. It rained constantly and our tent leaked. Over time, our moods gradually soured and we started to think that we might have made a mistake.

Eventually, however, one of us ended up getting a good gig on a charter boat, and I finally landed a job on a halibut fishing boat in a small town near Juneau. It was just what I’d been searching for, and it seemed like a big break. Yet that, too, turned out to be a flop. After a dangerous and exhausting week on high seas in the Gulf of Alaska, we caught almost no fish. When it was all over, the biggest thing I caught was the flu.

Bad as it was for me, Captain Carter had it much worse. He was counting on that catch to feed his family for the winter and to repay his father, who liquidated his retirement savings for this venture. On top of all that, he had over $40,000 in credit card debt that was growing every day.

His goal was to catch 7,800 pounds of halibut. That was the maximum amount that he would have been legally allowed to catch with his fishing permit. If we made the catch, it would have been worth it. At the time, the local fish processing companies — the ones that buy the fish directly from the fishermen and then wholesale it to the distributors — were paying about four bucks a pound. This means that 7,800 pounds would have netted Jason over $30,000. Not bad for a week’s work. And for me, the deckhand, who was entitled to 12% of the catch, I would have earned almost four grand.

Coming into this, I knew that I was taking a risk. It was perfectly possible that we might not have made the whole catch, or even half of it, and that my share would be small. But when it was all done, we made the worst catch the Jason has seen in his entire career. We picked up less than 1,000 pounds of halibut after seven intense days of work. My share was just a few hundred bucks. Since I had to spend money getting down there and getting outfitted with all the necessary gear, I actually ended up losing money on this trip.

I worked damn hard to lose that money.

Before we set off, my first job was to bait the hooks. This was a “longline” fishing boat, which means that we were using long lines of rope to catch the halibut. Each line was about 600 feet long, and had 100 or so hooks on it. We had 30 lines in total, and needless to say, baiting them was a long and repetitive process. It started with untangling the lines from a snarled clump that looked like a mountain of hay on the deck. Then, once baited, each individual line needed to be curled up like a coiled snake and stacked meticulously in the back of the boat. With thirty lines, and with two of us working at this, it took the whole day. It was a mostly mindless task, but there was some art to it. I tried to make the process interesting by rolling my lines into the most beautiful, symmetrical coils possible. I started taking great pride in my coils — a petty validation, but an affirming one nonetheless.

After we baited up our lines, we took the ten-hour trip to the fishing grounds. Since halibut live on ocean floors, our next step was to lay the lines at the bottom of the sea. To do this, we’d start by affixing a buoy to one end of a line and an anchor to the other. Then, when the Captain made the call, I would drop the anchor and watch it pull the line into the water. It would uncoil rapidly, with hooks and loops of rope flying everywhere. It was very dangerous — the hooks and loops could have easily caught my arm, dragging me into the water and possibly to my death. Yet I couldn’t keep too much distance, because occassionally the line would get tangled up and would need a bit of prodding to ensure a smooth and steady descent.

Once the lines were sent to their resting places on the bottom of the ocean, they were left there for six to twelve hours for the “soak.” It was important to time the soak just right. If we didn’t leave the lines down there long enough, the halibut wouldn’t have had time to find their way to the hooks. But if we left them down there too long, the halibut that got caught would have eventually grown weak from struggling against the lines, making them susceptible to predators like dogfish or pests like sandfleas.

When the soak was complete, the next job was to reel in the lines. While I pulled them up with a mechanical winch, Captain Carter’s job was to grab the fish as they came into the boat and toss them onto the deck. The halibut ranged in size from about twenty pounds to almost a hundred. Other, bigger halibut were rumored to be lurking in these waters, and other fishermen already caught three hundred pounders that year, but we didn’t catch any that were anywhere near that big.

Most of the halibut, in fact, were pretty small, but even the small guys were a fight to subdue. Once they were pulled in, they flapped around, sometimes so wildly that we had to beat them on the head with a bat to make them calm down. Occasionally, we would even have to stick a knife through their head to bleed them and weaken them so that they couldn’t struggle. Halibut are amazingly powerful creatures. Even after being bled, they could still sometimes muster the energy to flap themselves off the deck and back into the water.

Overall, we didn’t pull in many halibut, small or large. On some lines, we pulled in virtually nothing. On others, we found ourselves overridden with dogfish or other useless catch. On the first afternoon, Captain Carter worked to meticulously pull the dogfish off the line and place them back into the ocean without killing them. After about thirty dogfish came up consecutively, however, he started screaming curses and ripping them violently from their hooks. Guts were flying all over the place, sometimes into my face, where they would get stuck in my beard. It was unnerving to watch him rip apart these fish, which were bearing the brunt of his anger.

Things only went downhill from there.

At the end of the first day, Captain Carter was clearly unhappy with the catch. After the second day, he started getting nervous. He couldn’t sleep and all he could do was talk about how screwed he was. He started smoking compulsively, which was not enjoyable since I was already getting a sinus cold from the long hours and the harsh conditions. He blubbered incessantly, saying that he thought his wife would leave him over this. She had tried to talk him out of it all along. She told him that he should stick with his charter business, which was pulling in a good and steady income for the family, and that a move to commercial fishing would be too risky. Now, she was being proved right, and Captain Carter was worried that this was going to be the last straw for her. He was worried that she’d leave him and take his kids, Calvin James and Alice Buttercup. For a man who clearly loved his kids more than anything in the world, that would have been too much to bear.

By the third day, Captain Carter was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. I worked as hard as I could to keep his spirits up. I became his personal counselor: “Captain, you’ll get out of this fix. Come on, chin up! We’ll get a thousand pounds yet. It won’t be much, but we’ll do it, and that’ll at least get you through the winter. Just hunker down and everything will be OK. You can always borrow some money from your friends. You are a good fisherman, and you’ll be able to make it happen next summer. Stop talking like that! This isn’t your fault! Didn’t you hear those other fishermen talking on the docks? Everyone’s having a hard season. Why do you think the price is so high? You’re as good as the rest of them, and if we just push, we’ll make it through this one yet. Now we gotta finish these sets. Come on, let’s go.”

I spent most of the third day providing reassurances, but by the fourth day, I started growing tired of feigning positivity. Everything that could have gone wrong did, short of getting killed or maimed. On the fifth day, the stove broke, so we weren’t able to make any hot food, forcing us to live on cold cereal and apples. On the sixth day, we got caught in some choppy seas, with winds at a blustery 25 knots, and after getting battered all afternoon, my sinus cold turned into a full blown flu. On the final day, we realized that there was no way that we were going to come even close to catching our quota, and that we were going to go home poor and broken.

As the flu set in on the journey back to the docks, I couldn’t do anything except lie in the cabin with my eyes closed. I was exhausted. I lacked the energy to move or eat. All I could do was sit and think. I thought about the pain. I thought about death. I thought about how I might have to borrow money just to get home. I felt like an idiot and a failure.

After that ordeal, I almost decided to pack it all in and go home, but then a good friend encouraged me to take another shot. I pulled myself together, hit the docks a second time, and found my way to the boat of an amazing captain, where I spent the next few months. We had exciting adventures, caught tons of salmon, and returned home with money our pockets and amazing stories for our friends and family.

The whole story illustrates an important lesson that I still sometimes forget: that even on bleak days, when you feel that you’ve hit bottom and have nothing left, positive change is always possible. Sometimes, even when things look like they couldn’t get any worse, wonderous victories are just around the corner.