Wednesday, October 31, 2012

So Much Has Gone

I got an email from a good friend in Kenai the other day who said she'd gone down to the old Columbia Wards' Cannery I used spend my summers at as a fisherman - and the warehouse where I'd spent so much of my time, where my locker was, where I stored supplies, used the crane to haul shackles of web up and down from the loft, where I'd driven my truck to grab gear, driven forklifts to haul it, where fishermen for decades hung their nets, where I'd walked hundreds of times with my camera, was no longer there. Gone were the beefy rafters in the egg house, where cannery workers of all nationalities scrawled their names and the years they worked in the plant – some of them as far back as the 1920’s, when the cannery was rebuilt after the fire. But now that warehouse was no more. The entrepreneur who bought the cannery after Wards' Cove shuttered it in 2000 decided it was a bad investment and sold the warehouse for its lumber - old growth Douglas firs made up those massive rafters. Work crews tore down the structure this past summer, hauling the pieces away while the fishermen who used to dock there tied their boats to buoys downriver, and like all good fishermen paid more attention to the fish, the winds and the tides than to a piece of their history sinking in their wake.

I've visited the cannery every time I've returned to Kenai since I moved away in 1998. Far more so than Indiana, where I spent my childhood, it was really where I grew up, and it had always been a second home to me. Except for when they were rebuilding right after the sale - putting in a restaurant and making hotel rooms out of the old fishermen bunkhouses - it felt like a ghost town. Through the thin veil of time and memory, I could hear in my mind fishermen long gone still laughing on the dock; forklift backup alarms beeping as they moved fish totes into the freezer plant from the dock; boats starting up with the throaty roar only a Jimmy can make.  I thought about what to write in tribute to this passing, and decided I needed to re-publish the following piece. It's about a warehouse that's fortunate to be still standing across the Inlet. Some fishermen (not entrepreneurs) bought it a few years ago. They're trying to keep it alive and working - not as a cannery, but as a lodge. They haven't changed it much, from what I've been told. They're trying to keep it from going further into disrepair. They "get" what it is that they purchased.


Snug Harbor Cannery
Chisik Island, Alaska

Deck slippers sound muffled on wood. The thick plank floor of the cannery, worn smooth by decades of footsteps, transmits the noise of my passing with little more than a whisper. I walk back in time. My eyes adjust to dim yellow light. I pick my way through strewn manila line and coiled electrical cords. The warehouse echoes silently in my head with years of engine repairs and assembly-line canning of salmon. Rusted saws and axes still lean against rough-hewn plank walls and stout support beams. Palette after palette of diesel boat engines wait silently in a row, wrapped in dust-covered plastic. Nets bundled in torn and ragged burlap bags sit piled high in dark, forgotten corners like old fat men in a steam bath. Nestled sheets of fiberglass roofing lean against a wall beneath broken windows.

Below my feet I can hear the small waves of the incoming tide roll the gravel of this remote Alaskan beach. The warehouse sits on pilings above the tide line of Tuxedni Bay, Alaska. Mesmerized, I drift up the stairs to the web loft, where I find wooden floors worn smooth and bare with years of dragging nets and line to racks for mending or hooks for hanging. Outboard motors hang in a row on racks of their own under a ceiling of huge, latticed wooden beams. The immensity of the structure, of the beams themselves, lends a cathredral-like quality to the experience of standing under them. They are dark and dry, old-growth Doug fir I am told years after, with deep, rough grooves in their sides and white and yellow words and numbers scrawled on them. “Gebenini,” “Mohr,” “Humbolt, “Showalter,” “63,64,65,” 58, 59, 60.” “Tanaka, 34.”

Over the years, countless cannery workers, tendermen and fishermen crawled high among these rafters to write their names. After their names they put the dates of the summers they spent working the cannery: from as recently as last year to well before I was born. Filipino names, Japanese names, Italian, Norwegian, Native Alaskan. Some with only one date after them, others with repeated, sequential numbers, testifying to summer after summer spent working fish.  The gear locker doors below the beams display more names written in marker pen. Names crossed out, one after another, in a legacy of the owners of the lockers’ contents, until only one was left uncrossed: Hoyt: -xed-out; Pugh: -xed-out; Hansen: -xed-out; “Thompson.” Behind the mute locker wire wait stores of gear: buoys, line, nets, props. I find a piece of chalk on the floor near one locker door and bend down and pick it up. I look up, and for a moment consider writing my name, too. But I am only a green deckhand at the start of my first season, and I think I haven’t yet earned the privilege. Maybe another year, if I survive. So I put the chalk down, and walk away.

Ten years later, after ten seasons fishing as a crew and skipper, after finally learning ropes I hadn’t even realized were there to learn, and learning how to catch fish, fix boats and survive rough weather, I return, this time looking for chalk. I find it, pretty much where I'd left it.


Ten years after that I find myself back again, this time with my eleven-year-old son. Together we climb the old stairs to the loft. I show him my name on a beam near the windows, and the years that are written next to it. There are some more to add today. It is his third season with me, and neither of us know it’s to be our last. I ask him if he wants to put his name up there too, next to mine. Together we find half a piece of chalk on a table filled with old mending twine and needles. As I had done alone so many years ago, together we climb steep steps up to the planks that weave through the center of the latticed rafters. We lie down and stretch, one at a time, to reach the beam waiting for us. Our beam. It’s just above the window that looks out on Tuxedni Bay. Looks out on Snug Harbor. I add my years to the space beyond my name, then hand him the chalk. “Hang on a minute,” I say. I go down the stairs, and as he writes his name above mine, I take his photograph.


After the film is developed, back at home later that month we see it together: the picture is dim and blurred, but he is there forever, more in my mind’s eye than on the film, writing his name upon the rafters of our history, of our past, of our lives.

In her email about the Kenai warehouse, my friend said, "I was blown away by the size of the area it enclosed." That's true in more ways than one.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Photo Contest - ASMI Replies

Photo Contest Reply: Tyson Fick replied to my letter with understanding and a goodly amount of reasonableness, all things considered. Good for him:

Hi Mr. Dixon,

Thank you for your email... I’m... sorry to hear of your disappointment with the contest rules. I want to assure you that I am not trying to scam anyone or be deceitful. Nor is it my intention to disallow someone from selling marketable photos that might be entered in the contest. We are no strangers to paying for photography services and every year we spend a lot of money on photography and photo usage rights with a number of professional photographers. We will continue to spend a lot of money on photography and video going forward with or without a photo contest. But, you rightly pointed out that this is more of an amateur photo contest and we don’t expect many if any professional photographers will enter. And it is true that we are looking for a way of expanding the library of usable images while engaging with people around Alaska. We have run contests like this in the past and this language was suggested by our copyright attorney.

I’ve been directed by my board to get unlimited usage rights on newly purchased photos since the patchwork of usage agreements and promotion partners had gotten pretty unmanageable. Maybe we can do a better job on the contest rules language so that ASMI can use and share the photos without further permission or expense while the photographer retains copyright and the ability to sell images elsewhere and would be happy for a suggestion while we take look at amending the language.

I’m happy to talk about it any time. If you want to call, my number is below.

Best fishes,

Tyson Fick
Communications Director
Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute

and my reply in turn:

I appreciate your prompt and thoughtful reply. I'm glad you understand the issue, and I appreciate that you continue as an organization to purchase photos. I think your suggestion of improving the contest language so photographers don't give up all their rights to the images is the right direction to head. Crediting the usage back to the photographer is always a good policy as well. At least that way something is given back to those who are providing you with images that would encourage their interest in the craft (who doesn't like to see their name in print?), and doesn't divest them of ownership of their own images. That way the entrant can be part of the solution instead of a victim. It's a more palatable agreement, at least in my mind. I hope your lawyers agree.


Hopefully ASMI will change its language on the rules (and its policies) to be more favorable to photographers in the future. At least we got them thinking about it...

Read the Rules: Photo Contests

The Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute is a large association with relatively deep pockets. As an ex-commercial fisherman, I support what they do to get the fish prices up and to get people to buy fish (always an issue in Burgermerica). But as a professional photographer, I had to object to their policy on copyright for images submitted to their latest photo contest: 

"If you submit an image to the contest, ASMI reserves the right to free reproduction of entered images in all media and the right to provide all entered images to promotional partners around the world. The copyright for all entries will be retained by ASMI. ASMI reserves the right send emails promoting the contest."

So I looked up their Communications Director, a Mr. Tyson Fick, and sent him this letter:

Hello Mr. Fick:

I am a professional photographer and an ex-commercial fisherman (Cook Inlet gillnetter for over 20 years). These days I make a good portion of my living taking and selling photos of the commercial fishing and marine industry. I was excited when I first saw your Photo Contest advertised on Facebook by a friend, and immediately went to the web page and started looking it over, only to be disappointed in your policy of wanting to take all photo copyrights for every submission! I admit that most of your entrants will be amateur photographers who have no intention of selling their work. I would also agree that winning a grand prize worth $500 is a fair enough price for those some of those rights. Allowing you to publish a winner as often as you'd like - as long as I get to sell the image as well - that even seems acceptable to me (but probably would not be acceptable to all pros). But ALL rights to ALL photographs submitted? That is a scam to get as many images for your publication as possible - for free - from an unsuspecting public. I grant you that publishing your conditions in the Rules section is actually a very good thing. And as a former commercial fisherman, I support your efforts in the fish marketing business. But as a professional photographer I have to ask, "Can't you do better than this?" If you want good images to use, at least pay a fair price for them. Even to the amateurs. Or at the very least, don't ask for all rights. that's just greedy - and it's greed at the expense of the very people you serve.

Any chance you'll change your rules on this matter?

I look forward to your reply.

It might seem like a trivial thing to many amateur photographers, and advertising is worth something for sure, but I subscribe to the belief that you shouldn't give your work away for free. And businesses, non-profits, and institutes shouldn't ask you to. You have invested in your photographs, even if that little image on your monitor doesn't seem like much, it is worth the price of your camera and lens and tripod you used to take it. It is worth all the hours your spent learning how to use it. It is worth all the gallons of gas it took to get to where you were when you took it. And it is worth all the time you spent downloading it, selecting it, editing it and submitting it. 

Still want to give it away? If you do, make sure it's for the right reason. Certainly not to "get more work." That technique doesn't work. Make sure you give your images to organizations you want to help, believe in, and support. The rest of them can offer you a fair price, just like everyone else. 

We'll see what Mr. Fick has to say. I'll post his reply, if I get one. Meanwhile, steer clear of contests like these. They aren't worth it.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Farewell to Smitty

The Fisher Poets family lost one of its elder members yesterday. Harrison "Smitty" Smith of Long Beach, Washington, crossed the bar for the last time. A longtime fisherman and poet, Smitty was beloved by the Fisher Poet community and all who knew him. He had a wonderful way with words, and great sense of humor. He will be missed.

His wife, Lorrie Haight, sent this obituary to me yesterday. It's going in the Chinook Observer next Wednesday. I thought it would be appropriate to publish it here:

Harrison “Smitty” Smith, 86, of Long Beach, WA, passed away quietly on October 25,2012, at the Circle of Life, Adult Family Home in Long Beach, WA. Harrison was born on June 9, 1926, in Everett, WA, the son of Jack and Olga Smith of Lowell, WA. Olga taught remedial reading which young Smith picked up early and began earning favors from her by writing poems. Jack had been a commercial fisherman before marrying and shared his love of fishing with his son. Smitty’s grandfather, Jake Smith, taught him the art of blacksmithing at the age of four. This inspired him to learn how to create and fix anything. He loved to work with his hands and used all tools.

Young Smith attended Lowell Elementary School and Everett High School where his sense of humor charmed everyone he knew. He hated the name Harrison and was soon knows by all as Smitty. As a teenager, he took a job at a radio shop in Everett and developed a deep respect and understanding of electricity. He joined the Navy during WWII and trained in Special Devices. After attending college in Maryland on the GI Bill, he bought the radio shop in Everett where he had worked. 
Smitty married his first wife, Beverly Rees in 1949 and raised two daughters, Sue Ellen and Luanne. He became a tech rep with the Philco Corporation which took him to various places in the States and to Okinawa, Japan. 
While training airmen at the Naselle Air Station in the mid 50s, (now the Youth Camp) he reconnected with his lifelong love of fishing. On weekends he worked for Frank’s Tackle Box, the first charter office in Ilwaco, taking parties out in the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean in search of salmon. 
By 1965, he had his own troller and continued taking charters out of Ilwaco, then switched to commercial fishing. Smitty built a 43-foot troller, the “Sea Miner”, in 1970 and headed to Alaska. He became famous for giving technical help to troubled fishermen over the radio, solving problems from malfunctioning auto pilots to chasing cats out of hiding places. Since he had always been a poet, he often read his topical poems to the fleet during slow times. Many of them were published in the Alaska Fisherman’s Journal. 
After a divorce in the late 70s, Smitty met Lorrie Haight in Pelican, AK. They shared a love of adventure, fished together and traveled extensively. In 1985, they began cruising the South Pacific for eight years in the “Akvavit”, a 53 foot, steel sailboat they built in Stanwood, WA.  
After returning to the states, Harley-Davidson motorcycles became their next passion, and in 2000 they set off on a three-month, 12,000-mile camping trip across the northern States and Canada. The highlight was stopping in Sturgis, SD, during Bike Week to enjoy the company of 600,000 other biker fans. Other biking trips took them to Key West, FL, and Skagway, AK. Smitty also ran a small motorcycle repair shop at home in Long Beach, WA.
As one of their favorite poets, Smitty delighted audiences at the annual Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria, OR, from its inception in 1998 through 2011. He published three books of poems, one of which is still in print. 
Tragically, in September of 2004, while riding his Harley to Yuma, AZ, Smitty was struck by a pick-up truck in Southern California and fought for eight years to regain his health. Shortly after his 85th birthday, he came down with pneumonia and was finally transferred to hospice care at the Circle of Life. 
He is survived by his first wife, Beverly (Rees, Smith) Beyeler of Yuma, AZ, their two daughters, Suzy (Smith) Johnson of Yuma AZ, Luanne (Smith, Tyson) Huebsch of Hillsboro, OR, two grandchildren, Luke Tyson and Katharine Sue (Tyson) Moran, two great-grandchildren and his wife of 32 years, Lorrie Haight of Long Beach, WA. There will be a memorial service sometime next summer. Smitty’s cremated remains will then be scattered in Alaska by his family. A bronze plaque with Smitty’s poem, “Mount Fairweather”, will be placed in Sitka, AK, his home fishing port. In leu of flowers, memorials my be made to the Harrison “Smitty” Smith memorial fund at Key Bank, PO Box 559, Long Beach, WA 98631, to assist with the plaque.


Here’s what it’s like on the Fairweather ground when the air is crisp and clear.
Fishing 40 miles offshore and the foothills disappear
Beneath the ocean surface, and all that’s left to show
Is a mountain range, clean and white: solid ice and snow.

Knife edged drifts and shadowed crags, the highest peak of all
Is mighty Mount Fairweather, fifteen thousand plus feet tall.
It’s looking o’er me in silence yet it seems to say,
“This is the place where you belong and this is where you’ll stay.”

I have no sense of distance could I extend my hand and seek
To feel the wispy vapor that crowns the lofty peak.
Or touch the sculptured snow fields and chasms bold abrupt,
Where sharp and stern, in black contrast, the jagged rocks erupt.

It’s hard to take my eyes away, but there are fish to be caught.
Can it be true this land was once for seven million bought?
Yet, I think this was too great a monetary fee,
‘Cause I’ve paid not a penny and it all belongs to me.

Harrison “Smitty” Smith, 1982

We love you, Smitty. May you have a smooth and following sea.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Trapped on a Fish Trap, Part Two

"Hand" traps like this one were constructed by driving metal 
stakes into the mud, then spiking or stapling spruce poles to the stakes.

The top of the trap was still well out of the water. Near it, 18 inches below the tops of the poles, smaller stabilizing poles called “ribbons” or “capping” had been nailed and lashed horizontally the length of the trap. A barrier of chicken wire was nailed to the poles when the trap was built at the beginning of the season, starting from the capping at high tide and lowered to the bottom when the tide was out, forming a “lead” or fence between the poles.  This lead directed the salmon swimming near shore toward the heart of the trap where they were penned in a rectangular area called a “pot” and eventually brailed out by hand and hauled by skiff to the scow for eventual pickup by the cannery tender.
Chests pounding from the close call, Nick and Bob sat on the capping above the pot and surveyed their situation. They couldn’t stay where they were, for the incoming tide would soon be high enough to wash over them. If there was a storm behind this swell, the situation could become worse yet as the waves built: on a big tide like this one they could be knocked off the trap into a turbulent sea. The Westward wasn’t due on her supply run until later tomorrow. They were a long distance from shore, and there was no one there that they could yell to for help anyway. The shores of Cook Inlet were sparsely populated. Although federal regulations dictated the distance between traps to be at least one-half mile, the nearest trap was one and one-half miles to the south. The dory, still floating, was capsized and useless. No help was available. They needed to do something quickly.
 They decided to scoot along the capping toward shore as fast as they could. They scooted along in a sitting position, pulling themselves around a pole every twelve feet, then back down again to scoot some more. The process seemed to take forever. They had to work themselves around more than 90 poles. By the time they neared shore, the water was lifting them up and threatening to wash them away. Their boots filled with water, and the extra weight was a hazard if they were to slip off the trap. They decided to remove one boot at a time after they passed a pole, shoving it upside-down onto the top of the narrow pole. In that way they could ensure their only boots would survive the ordeal, though they were beginning to wonder at their own chances. As they slowly neared shore, wet, cold and tired, they joked about how sore their butts were going to be the following day.
Finally they reached the end of the trap. Unfortunately it stopped 60 feet from the beach, where the water was still seven feet deep. The waves seemed enormous as they rose up and broke between the trap and shore. Close to safety, they now had to pass the most dangerous test of all.
“You better jump!” Bob shouted to Nick, knowing he couldn’t swim. “I’ll be right behind you!”
Nick nodded and leapt into the cold water. As he hit, an incoming wave picked him up and threw him toward the beach. When the wave receded, he found himself standing upright, with Bob at his side. Exhausted but alive, the two cousins could only shake their heads and smile at their good fortune.
They were alive but not finished with their adventure. The high tide now nearly reached the bluff, and a jutting point blocked their way to their cabin a half mile away.  They realized they would have to wait at least two hours for the tide to drop before they could get around the point.  Soaking wet and shaking, they were losing body heat fast.  In the dim Alaskan summer night they dug shallow depressions in the eroded sandstone at the base of the bluff with their bare hands. They then buried themselves in the sand to stay warm.
The sand insulated them with what little body heat they had left, and they shivered and joked as the tide slowed and turned. The sky brightened with the coming sunrise, and they dug themselves out and slogged to the cabin. After a change of clothes and a hot meal, they walked out at low tide to resume work on the trap, this time wearing shoes. 
On the Westward, a concerned Gene Mason recovered their skiff and two of the pipes still lashed to it five miles south of the Waterfall trap. Thinking the worst, he headed toward the Waterfall trap at full speed. He was delighted to find the two young men alive and well when he arrived. Nick and Bob recovered the other two pipes off the mud of the inlet where they had sunk after rolling off the skiff. They used the dingy to recover their boots after the tide came in. NIck continued to trap fish until it was banned in 1959, then turned to set netting for the remainder of his career as a fisherman. 

Nick Leman passed away Oct. 15, 2010. He was 92 years old.

- Thanks to Nick's son, the Hon. Loren Leman for help with details of this post.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Trapped on a Fish Trap, Part One

Just north of the island of Kodiak the Gulf of Alaska opens to Cook Inlet, an inverted-funnel shaped body of water that leads to Anchorage and beyond, splitting into shallow, narrower arms as it reaches the end of its passage. A few red salmon make the entire transit north beyond Anchorage to the Susitna river system, but the bulk of the Cook Inlet sockeye run, numbering well into the millions, are bound for the Kenai river on the east side of Cook Inlet nearly halfway to Anchorage.
In the years before the Alaskan drift gillnet fleet discovered Cook Inlet, the bulk of fishing was done from shore, using fish traps constructed anew each year with wooden poles set in rows that stretched hundreds of yards into the water, wire mesh nailed to them to funnel the fish into pens, where they were scooped out by skiffs or cannery operated boats called tenders. When the Alaska Legislature banned the fish traps as its first act after statehood in 1959, many former trap fishermen began using set nets, or nets anchored near shore to catch the salmon as they swam toward the rivers of their birth. By then the drift fleet had already been fishing the middle of Cook Inlet on boats for nearly five seasons.
The days of fish traps were days of self-sufficiency and hard work. In 1998, I interviewed several fishermen as part of my Master’s thesis, which was to collect an oral history of the Cook Inlet drift fleet. One surprise was getting to interview an old-timer named Nick Leman, a set-netter from Ninilchik, south of Kenai some 35 miles, who had fished on traps as a much younger man. Nick told me the following story while we sat over coffee and hot chocolate in the lobby of K-Mart in downtown Kenai:

A fish trap on the shore of Cook Inlet, 1935, photo courtesy of Nick Leman

         In the early morning twilight, 18-year-old Nick Leman pulled hard on his nine-foot oars to match his cousin’s strokes. The two young men were rowing their skiff in tandem to the outside end of Nick’s fish trap.  Two hours before high tide the Cook Inlet current was still running strong, and Nick and Bob did not want to lose ground. They were almost to the pot of the trap, 1,200 feet offshore, where they were going to attach one end of each of the four pipes they were carrying to the top of the trap and drop the other ends to the bottom. This would make their job of installing them easier in the morning when the tide was out. The big tides of early May and June were the times to build the traps in Cook Inlet. In 1936 Nick and his cousin Bob Resoff were younger and tougher than their fishing partners, and as a result they were the ones who did most of the grueling work. The pipes, made of steel two and one-half inches in diameter and 30 feet long, were used to guide the apron web to the bottom when the regulations required the trap to stop fishing.
          Nick and Bob loaded the eighteen-foot wooden dory carefully, with the ends of the heavy pipes stuck in the bow and two pipes tied to each corner of the stern. The aft ends of the pipes hung well off the back of the boat.  The skiff was narrow and tippy, but it was all they had to work the trap. Gene Mason, skipper of the Westward, the cannery tender that picked up the fish and delivered supplies and mail, had brought the skiff from Seldovia for Nick to use for the summer on the Waterfall trap just south of Clam Gulch. During the season Bob worked the Porcupine trap, four and one-half miles to the north. The young men kept the skiff anchored offshore and used a small dinghy to reach it when it was time to work the trap.

Nick Leman & Joe Oskolkoff with their skiff.

The incoming tide was bringing a swell to the waves, and the dory rode cleanly up and down them as 19-year-old Bob pulled at his set of oars. He watched the waves coming toward the stern of the boat. The force of each swell pushed the skiff toward the trap, swinging it to the side only to be quickly corrected by the strong backs and arms of Nick and Bob as they rowed. The distance to the outside edge of the trap closed rapidly until almost without warning they were upon it.
Guy wires stabilized each of the upright long spruce poles that stuck out of the water and created the framework of the trap. The poles, fastened to wooden or steel stakes driven into the mud and sand bottom, needed the extra support of the guy wires.  As the small skiff was lifted by a wave, the end of one of the pipes unexpectedly struck a wire. The force broke the rope holding two of the heavy steel pipes in place. The two pipes shifted suddenly to one side of the skiff, pushing Bob with them.  The skiff tipped severely and began to take on water.  Instantly, they knew they were in trouble. Both were wearing regular fishing garb: work clothes, jackets and boots - but no life jackets. They were sitting in a sinking skiff in over twenty feet of water, and Nick didn’t know how to swim. Fortunately for him the bow of the dory was touching the trap. He grabbed a pole and began climbing to the top of the trap. A cold wave surged up at him as he went, soaking his pants and boots with frigid Cook Inlet water. His cousin was in more serious trouble. His boots were stuck between the pipes.  The skiff tilted into the water as it filled, and the pressure of the pipes pinched Bob’s legs, threatening to drag him to the bottom when they rolled free.  Frantically he pulled his feet loose, scrambled out of the swamped skiff, and also clambered up a pole.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Cards Do the Talking, Part 3

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.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Cards Do the Talking, Part 2

Here is the next installment. I'm going to try and keep these at 500 words or so, so you don't feel overwhelmed with the reading. There is a tense change here - from present to past. Which do you like better? Let me know...

We were stunned. What does this mean? We asked. Who is on strike? Everyone? We found it hard to believe that every boat in the Inlet, over 700 of them, were all in agreement to do this. We were teachers, for Chrissakes! We’d never experienced a group of teachers agreeing to do something like this. They couldn’t even agree on what made a student tardy rather than absent. Shit.
We asked ourselves WHY are we striking? For a better price? Why? What’s wrong with the price we have? We had no knowledge of markets, of expenses vs earnings, of price-fixing or what was fair or not. All we had experienced since the decision to get involved in fishing was the hard work. Now we had to deal with politics???  “Bullshit. Let’s just go fishing,” we argued to ourselves, “Let these guys work out this crap. We need to figure out how to catch fish.” Plus, we reasoned, we’ve got a ton of debt to recover. Our expenses were overwhelming. “We can’t afford to sit at the dock and wait for the processors to come to us. We need to start making money NOW!”
         I was a teacher before I fished. I knew intellectually that breaking a strike was the wrong thing to do. It had always been a no-brainer to me that if a teacher strike were voted, to be an effective tool everyone needed to participate. My confusion in the matter wasn’t about my belief in supporting a strike. The problem I had was that I didn’t see myself as a fisherman. I bought a permit and a boat; I worked as hard as anyone I saw to get ready for the season; but I still hadn’t fished a day in my life other than as a deckhand; I hadn’t yet earned the right to be a card-carrying member of the club. No one had shown me the secret handshake. I supposed I’d merit it eventually, but until then, I was just a “teacher who fished.” The concerns of the fishermen weren’t my concerns, really, were they? If I went fishing while the rest of the guys were on the beach, how could my small effort create a problem for all these other professionals?
         But the other fishermen around the cannery who saw us as green and dumb made it a point to talk about strikebreakers when we were around. As the first scheduled fishing period loomed, they mentioned guys who had gone fishing during the last strike, in less than complimentary terms. Though the stories weren’t clear or complete, we started listening more attentively. They were speaking about us, to us, without ever actually mentioning our names.

In the fishermen's bunkhouse, CWF, Kenai.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Cards Do the Talking, Part 1

I have a memoir of fishing stories I have been writing on for some time now, but haven't figured out how to finish. Not sure I ever will, but thought I'd toss the pieces out there to see if anyone finds them entertaining. Plus, it's a great way to motivate myself to rewrite. I'll fire off installments as I reread and edit them. Hopefully that will mean posting on a more regular basis. As always, I am happy to receive your comments and feedback, including - especially - critiques. Let's shove off:

The Cards Do the Talking 

Twenty Years Fishing Cook Inlet 
by Patrick S. Dixon 


I reorganized my office today. Rearranged the parts of my life I feel I can change. In the process, I knocked over a card holder, and scattered my stack of old fishing permit cards - each year a different color - from my 20 years fishing for salmon in Alaska’s Cook Inlet. A flurry of color left my desk like a bunch hits the net, all chaos and jumble, landing on the floor at my feet, each card holding a summer of history like permission to remember…

Me, trying to figure it all out, 1980.


I pick up a white card from the top of the pile. It reads: “Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission PERMIT CARD. Salmon Drift CI.” In bold black letters, on the top right just under a hole punched in the plastic is printed “1980,” my first year as a skipper, after two years of crewing for an experienced Norwegian who had been at it since the mid-fifties. 

My wife, Veronica, and I partner up with two totally inexperienced but equally enthusiastic friends to buy the permit and boat during the winter, and the purchase takes some creative financial scrambling. My partner and I scrape all the money together that we can to buy in, - I borrow $2,000 from my brother and add Veronica's Chevy Blazer to the deal just to get the permit. We pull it off, though, and the work starts. The boat we buy from the cannery is an old company boat with a wooden hull. Chris and I spend every available minute of time crawling around it as the engineers install the engine. We ask questions about the fuel system and how it works, the electrical system and how it works, the exhaust, the cooling system, the hydraulics, the water tanks the fuel tanks, the reel, the electronics, and on and on. It's a crash course in boat systems, and we drink it all in until we have just enough knowledge to be dangerous rather than effective when we break down. 

Our boat, the Skookum Too was never designed to actually fish. It was a plug for making a fiberglass mold to lay up the hulls of 'real' boats. The planks have no corking, or padding to absorb water, between them like most seaworthy wooden boats do. The selling point for us, though, is a rebuilt Caterpillar diesel 3160 that the cannery is paying to have installed. The machinists who do the job call it a "school-bus engine." It seems a fitting machine for a schoolteacher-fisherman to use - a term I eventually discover is used to designate a class of fishermen who aren’t as good or as dedicated to fishing as full-timers. When I hear the term “teacher-fisherman” stage-whispered at mug-up about me, I silently vow to become a better fisherman than the asshole who mutters it loud enough for me to hear. I know him. On land, he’s a blowhard. I doubt if he’s much different at sea. Still, not knowing what we are doing, we eventually go fishing, throw out the gear and... take naps. When we make a set on the big day and take the entire 12-hour period to pick 800 fish while the rest of the guys we know, including the asshole, come in with 1,600 or more, we figure we are doing something wrong. We just don’t know what it is.

Machinist Jim Peterson directing the crane 
lifting our engine to the boat from the dock.

Strike One 

But before we get to have that experience, after all the boat work we are excited to just get to the fishing. When the Skookum is finally in the water after months of preparation and work, when the engine finally starts, after all the web has been mended by Veronica’s and Gigi’s inexperienced hands, after all the groceries and gear has been bought (but not paid for) and stowed aboard, we go to the cannery expecting to leave the river with the fleet only to find out from a gathering of fishermen at mug-up that we are on strike. Shit.

*  *  *

How's that for starters? More soon. Let me know what you think!
- Pat