After standing frustrated on the dock all that first day, we met at Chris’s house to hash things out. We decided that as much as wanted to fish, we wouldn’t go until we got a straight answer from someone who knew what that would mean. We agreed my first skipper, Jim, would be the person to ask. He had experience and perspective, and he would be honest with me. I’d ask him the next day if it looked like the strike would continue.
I found Jim at mug-up the next morning. The canneries hadn’t budged on the price, and there was a growing tension and an angry tone to the fishermen’s talk around us as I asked him if we could have a private conversation on his boat, the North Sea, after coffee. He agreed, tight-lipped with a short nod of his head. I didn’t want to embarrass him by asking naive, perhaps sensitive questions of him in public, so I left him in the mug-up room with the old-timers, and walked out to the boardwalk to listen to the fishermen complain: “Fuckin’ canneries. They can settle this in a heartbeat if they wanted to.” “No use fer us to sit on the beach, goddamit.” This is a waste of time. I swear I’m leavin’. I’m sellin’ downriver if this doesn’t end soon. We’re always gettin’ the lowest fuckin’ price. Fuck these guys.” It was the beginning of a long education.
The Skookum Too and other vessels tied to the
dock at Columbia Wards Fisheries, Kenai, c. 1983.
I joined Jim half-an-hour later in the cabin of the North Sea. I sat in the doorway as he worked on a windshield-wiper motor. His actions were slow and deliberate. So was his speech. “You don’t want to go fishing, Pat. Not during a strike. I know how bad you want to go, but you risk losing a lot more than a few dollars if you do.” He told me a story of a guy who had done just that, years ago. He fished while everyone else was on the beach striking, and for that he was ostracized by his friends and competitors alike. Other fishermen quit talking to him, even the cannery workers lost respect for him, and as a result he always had trouble getting the services he needed, couldn’t count on help if he got in trouble, and lost the friendships and support he had taken for granted when he decided to make money at someone else’s expense. After years of diminished support, he eventually sold out. His reputation followed him, though, when he moved to the Bay, and he eventually got out of fishing altogether. “You don’t want that,” he advised with a shake of his head as he tightened a screw on the wiper motor and looked over his glasses at me. “That’s not the way to start your fishing career.”
I sat on the step of the cabin and nodded. We visited for a few more minutes, and then I thanked him and took the long walk up the ramp to meet Chris, Gigi and Veronica. “What’d he say?” they asked.
We stayed off the grounds with the rest of the fleet until the canneries upped their price a week later. Wrapped in that decision was my first realization that I was really a fisherman, not an outsider looking in. In the meantime, we couldn’t stand not using this boat we’d spent so long getting ready to fish. We loaded her up with sport fishing rods and a case of beer and went trolling for salmon in the river mouth. The other fishermen thought we were crazy, and of course they were right. But that’s another story.
Waiting to fish: the lower floats at CWF, c. 1980.