That Boatyard Life

By Joe Echo-Hawk

It takes me a few hours of staring at my pile of gear before I remember how this fishing thing works.  I usually sit there and drink coffee while I look at that pile and contemplate the life decisions I’ve made that got me to this point.  Eventually, I decide it’s worth getting everything out to go do it all over again. Once I make it to that place mentally, things begin to happen.  

The boatyard is part of the cannery.  And “cannery” really is such an outdated term since the fish end up in so many other forms besides just being put into cans.  Cannery just sounds better than Processor.  I make my way through the boatyard giving way to infrequent traffic consisting of atvs, dirt bikes, forklifts, and World War II era utility trucks.  Down the hill is the dock overlooking the river.  At the moment, it’s less of a river and more of a mudflat.  Low tide.  My favorite time to fish.  Right now, the fish smell is just a vague ocean smell.  The salmon aren’t here, yet.  The cannery has the feel of a giant just waking up from a long nap, but it’s still blinking at the light.

I dodge a few more forklifts on the dock, trying not to get in the way of the dock crew in the middle of craning equipment off of one of the crabbers, and make my way up to the mug up room.  It’s empty other than the leftover scraps from the 10am mug up. Stale cookies of unknown origins, plain bagels, last night's pizza from the mess hall.  I refill my coffee and add a splash of hot cocoa for my customary Naknek mocha and since beggars can’t be choosers when you’re on the frontier diet, I take some pizza to save for lunch.

There’s a covered deck overlooking the river where I enjoy my mocha and begin to warm to the idea of actually getting some work done.  The south channel only has a few boats anchored up in it.  In the coming days that channel will be packed as more boats drop in. 

I plod my way a quarter mile back up the hill to the net locker and decide it’s time to work.  But first, I need to check in with the fleet manager and see if there are bunk rooms to stay in.  And there’s a few fishermen who just showed up that I haven’t talked to since last year.  And you know, I really should talk to the port engineer; I have some equipment to fix and it’s always wise to stay on the good side of the port engineer.  Surly bunch, those port engineers.  I think it’s part of their training.  They don’t want you to know that they have a good side because everyone has something that needs fixed up here, but those good sides can be found if you have a respect for your equipment and a bottle of decent scotch to trade for their hard-earned knowledge.  And now it’s lunch time.  After lunch I always find myself a little sleepy, so it’s time for another cup of coffee.

Now.  Now, I’m ready to work.  I’ve officially run out of justifiable excuses.

Rows of batteries greet me when I unlock the door to my net locker.  I hook up the battery charger since it’s conveniently by the door.  The locker is so full I can’t actually get inside.  The wire mesh fencing that lines the net locker lets me see the pile of stuff without the pile of stuff falling out of my locker.  The gear shed that houses my net locker houses a few dozen net lockers.  You can learn a lot about other fishermen by looking at their net lockers.  Who takes care of their stuff, who has too much stuff, who has the organizational knack and who just kind of wings it from season to season. 

I start to remember how this works.  I peek my head out of the second story bay door and find there’s a forklift driver who’s willing to drop a stack of pallets in the door.  Lining up the pallets in the hallway of the gear shed, I can now start to empty out my locker.  The gear shed is where fishermen hang out.  It’s where fishermen tinker and do their work out of the weather.  It’s where yarns are spun and nets are hung.  Right now, I’m here early enough for the place to be scarce.  

My pile of stuff exits the net locker net by net, barrel by barrel, anchor by anchor.  I drag and grunt a four-wheeler over to the bay door where a forklift can scoop it out and down into the boatyard.  The other four-wheeler has been on its last leg for about a decade now, so I need to tinker on that one still before it comes down.

The pile of stuff is now out where I can see it.  Think about it.  Ponder it all for a bit.  Try to remember what was broken and what worked well.  Inspect it.  Poke at it.  Test it.  Ponder it some more.  

My stuff is everywhere, but that’s ok because the Italians aren’t here yet.  When the Italians show up the gear shed turns into a full fledged net hanging operation.  An Italian Net Hanging Operation is the official term for a three to five day activity where one or two seemingly angry chaps sit on wooden benches outfitted with highly specialized and homemade metal apparatuses used for the spacing of their knots, and then they commence smoking cigarettes as frantically as they tie the knots that attach the web to the lead line and cork line.  There’s usually someone I perceive to be an underling who is responsible for snaking the 50 fathoms of lead line and cork line throughout the entirety of the gear shed.  If he hasn’t successfully snaked the lines in front of everyone’s net locker doors then one or both of the angry men on the wooden benches yell something at him until he’s managed to block all access to the entire second floor of the gear shed.  I have no idea what they’re yelling even though they mostly come up from the Bay Area.  It seems obscene.  It’s passionate.  It feels like it’s meant to offend The Underling’s being as a person, but then again, they could be saying, “Great job Vincenzo.  You’re a natural!  I’ve never seen someone block almost every net locker door on their first day!”  I make it my mission to get the pallet jack and move every possible pallet over to the bay door before the Italians arrive.  

The Russians occupy the building next door.  Peppered throughout all of the gear sheds are Alaska Native families.  The native families are the Switzerland of the gear sheds.  They’re neutral ground.  They get along with everyone except occasionally themselves, but, that’s what it means to be family.  Some of the families have teenagers on up to grandparents in their 70’s still showing up for the summer salmon season.  Some of their smiles are the biggest I’ve ever seen.  

For the moment,  I have the place to myself.  Every few hours taxis squeak and protest their way through the boatyard depositing fishermen.  Buses and vans operated by the cannery offload their seasonal workers in droves.  The giant is letting out that yawn that says, “I’m almost awake.”  

There’s really no sense of time here.  I work until I’m hungry or tired which means I’m usually eating dinner at 10pm and then back to work.  It’s light out, always.  If I’m really on a roll then it’s after midnight before I head to bed.  The rest of the crew is showing up tomorrow and my goal is to have it clear in my mind what needs to be done to get us ready to splash our boats in the water.  I make to-do lists.  I check a few things and add more things to the lists.  I drink more coffee.  

I go back to poking and prodding and pondering and inspecting.  What needs to be bought that wasn’t already sent up?  What needs to be fixed?  Can I even find a welder at this point in the season who has time?  I know we had a problem with this powerpack last year, but what was it?  Why didn’t I take better notes? 

Eventually I reach the point where I know I can keep the guys busy for a few days and we’ll be most of the way towards ready to drop in when the lists are done.  I’ll figure out the rest as it comes.  I head to the bunk room on the other side of the cannery property.  It’s a maze of dirt roads and boardwalks winding through old tin buildings, heavy equipment, boats on stands and the occasional wandering soul or lingering silhouette smoking a cigarette.

The bunkhouse is a long two story building with rooms lining the halls.  Most of the rooms have two sets of bunk beds in them which means it’s crowded when the crew shows up.  There are shared bathrooms centrally located.  How good a night’s sleep someone actually gets in the bunkhouse really depends on who is in the other bunkrooms.  I’m here at the tail end of early season this year, which means it’s mostly the go-getters here now; the quiet church mice at night who need to get things done the next day.  The later you’re in the bunkhouse as the season spools up, the more rowdy the bunkhouse crowd gets.  It’s the procrastinators and the drinkers and people making up for lost time who come and go at all hours of the day.  

I get about 6 hours of solid sleep, which feels luxurious compared to the night before in the Anchorage airport.  I wake up to the sound of heavy equipment emptying the dumpsters outside my bunkroom.  Big Brad is running his Gehl, which is basically if a tractor and a forklift had a child it would be a Gehl.  

Big Brad. Punctual.  Reliable.  Fresh off the mess hall 7am breakfast routine he’s back to work.  His work ethic guilts me into rolling out of bed and I get back into my uniform consisting of dirty, oily, paint splotched Carhartts and a hoodie with the same aesthetic accents.  And a beanie.  I can tell it’s cold by the temperature in the hallway because the smokers always prop the doors open and stand just outside the door under the overhang out of the rain.  

Brush teeth.  

Drink water.  

Go. Find coffee.  

Find food.  

My mind can only load familiar routines and short thoughts.  It looks wet and drizzly so I grab a raincoat and shuffle back toward the gear shed.  The drizzle and the early morning mean it’s all but deserted outside.  I clunk my way into the gear shed and over to the coffee to pour a cup.  Back outside and up the stairs and down the hall to the gear locker I go.  I haven’t set up anything to cook with yet, and I’m not in the mood to ride a 4 wheeler in the rain down to the breakfast burrito place.  Hot water dispenser and oatmeal it is.  I’ll get more creative with my food later.  Right now it just needs to serve function.  Help me get back to work.  The fish are coming and since I don’t know when, it feels like I need to be ready as soon as possible.  It feels like that every day until I know I’m ready for the fish to show up.  I blink somewhat stupidly as I wake up by consuming my coffee and oatmeal and attempt to get my brain working again.  It is a very common occurrence during the season to attempt to function and think while not really being awake yet.  Good habits and routine for these times of foggy headedness are the fisherman’s friend.  The cold outside air pours into the uninsulated gear shed and gets me moving. 

As I peer out the door evaluating the many routes the day could take, I realize taxis and vans are already depositing the morning’s arrival of crews into the boatyard.  My crew arrives today.  Other crews I know are arriving today and tomorrow.  The season is here.  This quiet subdued place is about to become a cacophony of hammering, pressure washing, engine testing, yelling and cursing, diesel burning frenzied momentum that will only relent when the fish have finished their migration.  If my crew is almost here, the Italians could be on any of these taxis at any moment.  I better finish moving things around the net loft before the net hanging operations commence.

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