A good deed undone

Harbor in Kodiak, Alaska

I am in Kodiak. One of Alaska’s larger “cities” nestled on the northeastern end of the Kodiak archipelagos several hundred miles southwest of Anchorage and a smaller number of miles off the eastern side of the Aleutian Peninsula. For the next month I will be training to become a shellfish observer. After completion of training I will be shipped to Dutch Harbor, AK where I will get on a first crab fishing boat and head out to the Bering Sea for what will be one hell of a winter. To answer the question you are thinking about : yes, I will be on a Deadliest Catch boat. However, observers are not allowed on camera.

This will be me in three weeks

How the hell did I get here?That is the question every observer will eventually ask themselves when they are puking their guts up while the boat is in the trough of a 60 ft swell, getting hammer by 60 mph winds and a temp so cold it must be god’s breath. I knew the answer long before I had arrived. I knew before I even left Washington. I knew why I was doing it, and how fucking miserable it would be. So why the hell did I sign up?

Three years ago I was working at a local pet store in Bellingham. One fateful day my batshit crazy boss gave me two weeks notice because I had unknowingly misinformed a customer regarding one of our products. Two days later he rescinded the notice, but the dice had been tossed. I politely let him know I needed a few days to think about it. At the end of my two weeks I walked away from that shitty job and into a new job working as a Custodian at Western Washington University.

I am a scientist. I have a degree in Biology, why would I work as a glorified janitor? The short answer: because I’d be at a university. You see, I want to go to grad school and study biostatistics and genetics. In my mind, I had a very small probability of actually getting into a grad biostats program. Especially considering I had no background in statistics or genetics. So working at a university where I could take free courses to fill in the gaps and do research for a professor was well worth having to clean toilets and listen to an old afghani man talk about the virtues of shaving your balls, why you should never kiss after sex, and why making beds is a woman’s job.

Over the course of those three year I did volunteer research for a professor. About a year into it, she agreed to take me on as a graduate student when I was ready to apply. The problem was, two days before she had to make an official decision, three months after the graduate school application deadline and six months after I had applied, she changed her mind. No explanation offered. She told me she thought “I was taking the easy way out” and that I should “apply to a bioinformatics or biostatistics program”. Whether she was right or not doesn’t change the fact she threw me under the bus.

When I learned of her decision, I had already quit my job (by then I was working as an office assistant on project management and data analysis jobs). Thankfully, I had lined up a boat that summer to do commercial salmon fishing on.

Fishing the Shumagin Islands of Alaska this past summer

My brother spent the previous two years teaching high school in Sand Point, Alaska. When I told him I was thinking about fishing, he’d offered me a room for the summer. Mid-May, I said my good byes to friends in Washington and began a new adventure. Let me tell you, it was an adventure….The first boat I worked on was a purse seiner. The captain was this short, old, overweight, Aleut who had been fishing since God only knows when. When I spoke with him the first time, he had warned me that he could get “excited” at times and might “raise” his voice. Understatement of the year. Minutes after I arrive in Sand Point I was stuffed into the back of a pick up truck and on my way to a crash course about fishing culture.

The guy was a first class asshole. In the fishing world, he is called a “screamer”. A guy I worked with later recalled one incident when he was tying a half hitch. The captain walked out onto the deck and screamed “It pains me to watch you tie a half hitch!”. That was probably the nicest thing he’d said to the guy. Four days I listened to the man berate me, attempt to humiliate me, and refuse to listen when I pointed things out. There was one incident that was the straw that broke the camels back. I was following his instruction regarding the steps for installing a new sink. They were wrong and the sink wasn’t able to be fastened down to the countertop. He blew a gasket and started trying to drill holes around the rim of the sink with the intention of screwing the sink onto the countertop. I ask him politely if I can take the sink out and simply follow the instruction in the manual. He starts yelling at me about why I didn’t read the instruction manual in the first place. I started yelling back. He eventually left after letting me know there is only room for one man on board the boat and that was him. After finishing up late that night, I left a note on the counter saying I quit, packed my stuff up, and left. I will not put my life in the hands of an impulsive asshole.

View from the cemetery in Sand Point, Alaska

I only had a few hundred dollars in my bank account and no job. I needed to act fast. I knew about observing from a friend who did it a number of years ago. It paid well, so I thought I’d give it shot. The recruiter responded quickly, but not before I found myself another boat to work on. Over the next few months of summer we emailed back and forth, had an interview, and eventually I was offered a job. I had two choices: observe on a crabbing vessel or groundfish vessel. I chose groundfish knowing it would be slightly less miserable than crabbing. Two months later I get an email informing me they will probably only need four groundfish observers and that I am seventh in line. Oh, by the way, crab observing is wide open.

Over the years I learned to be aware when fortune is guiding me, usually when she is dragging me by the ear. This felt like one of those moments. When the recruiter mentioned crab observing the first time we talked, I had a nagging feeling I’d be spending my winter on a crabbing vessel, whether I wanted to or not. Sometimes I think fortune has a twisted sense of humor.

After spending a summer covered in salmon guts and stinging jellyfish, working 20 hour days, and trying to fish in stormy weather I have a decent idea of what to expect from being a crab observer. So why would I do it? Money and perspective. A good friend also fished last summer. After he finished, he told me it was one of the most difficult things he has ever done. His medical school studies seem easy when compared to the backbreaking lifestyle of fishing. I agree, I have never done anything that compares to what I went through salmon fishing. Halfway through the season I broke an ankle and probably tore a rotator cuff muscle. I popped a few ibuprofen every day and kept fishing, because that is what fishermen do. But I am able to sit here, typing up this post and know I was able to pay off my student loan. It was worth the suffering if it bought me freedom from the chains of the modern college education.

Observing on a crabbing boat in the Bering sea is something few people will ever see or experience. When I do finally go back to civilization and enter the paper-pushing, ass-kissing, tedious world of academia, it will be a pleasant experience compared to what I will have endured in the frigid north.

P.S. I am actually looking forward to observing