Saturday, August 13, 2016

Fear. And a little hope.

The Cordova Fishermen's Memorial in Cordova, Alaska

I spend a lot of time in Alaska worried. Scared. Afraid for what might go wrong or an accident that could happen.

These worries are not unfounded. They are built upon a foundation of cautionary tales and true life rescues, narrow escapes and tragedies. And sometimes facts and figures.

In 2013, NPR's Planet Money published The Deadliest Jobs in America, in One Graphic -- here it is, y'all.

Source: Bureau Of Labor Statistics
Credit: Jess Jiang and Lam Thuy Vo /NPR

You read that right. Fishermen have the deadliest job.

Why do I torture myself?

I mostly keep these things at bay while Aquaman is out fishing by being busy with The Wrecking Crew and engaged with things happening in town and with friends. But sometimes, I willingly explore and evaluate what can go wrong. Forewarned is forearmed, or something like that.

So a walk along the harbor turns into me stopping at the Fishermen's Memorial - something I've passed by countless times but never stopped to examine closely.  

This statue is surrounded by plaques placed by the families and loved ones of fishermen who are no longer here. The empty spaces are filled and will continue to be filled with memorials.

Quoting Robert Frost - a kindred spirit here.

I read and felt connected to this thing that is so much bigger than any one person - commercial fishermen, their families and their community. Some of these men I knew, others were names I recognized from living here, and still others were unknown to me. Yet the sentiments expressed were not alien, not unrecognizable. Many tributes were literary, which warmed my heart. Others incorporated the language that is fishermen and Alaska. But I felt as if I understood in a way I never could have before. Because now someone I love is out there.

Quoting Robert Louis Stevenson - my father was fond of this one.

There were several like the one below, for those lost at sea. 

It was sobering. It crossed my mind that although I knew this was time well spent, reflecting on the realities of a very dangerous industry, perhaps I shouldn't dwell on it while a husband and child were out there fishing. 

And yet...

The memorial stayed with me that day. I think it was on my mind when I picked this book up from the shelf in the bedroom of the apartment where we were staying - 

I started reading and guess how this book begins? With a rescue on the Copper River flats. Yep. Right where Aquaman is fishing. And now that I know a bit more, I recognize the names of the places and where this particular fisherman got into trouble. It made my stomach hurt, reading this book. But I couldn't put it down. And then I picked up this one by the same author:

This book was the inspiration for the Discovery Channel's Deadliest Catch. Walker served as a consultant on the show for several seasons. His book chronicles his experience working on crab and fishing boats in Alaska. I found myself holding my breath and tightly gripping the book as I read. I would have to take breaks so I could stop clenching my shoulders and jaw.  

I am always so relieved when Aquaman and The Wrecking Crew are back on shore. Not that it means the danger passes. We are constantly engaged in difficult tasks on and around the water. Something that sounds simple - like loading a repaired net onto the boat - is not simple at all. It is scary. It involves cranes and ladders down incredible vertical drops at low tide with really cold water. 

Getting ready to load the net.

Pulling up below the dock.

The net is in the back of the truck. Thing 1 is standing by.

This is the part where I got nervous. Thing 1 had to crawl down the ladder to make sure the net didn't get hung up on the dock.

Please don't fall.

Please don't fall.

Please don't fall.

He just looked so vulnerable. And little. But he knew what he was doing. 

Then Thing 2 had to swing out over the edge of the dock, crawl into the back of the truck, and stop the net from going over too rapidly so that Aquaman could pull it on the reel properly. 

I just kept repeating, "Be careful."

You just can't tell from the pictures how far down the drop was because it was low tide. It was a long way. Trust me. 

And while I was fearing for my children, Aquaman was running around on deck down below trying to load the net. 




See Thing 1 on the ladder?

Reeling in the net.

But it all worked out. No one was hurt, no damage to any equipment. I worried for nothing.

So do I stop myself from worrying the next time? Nope. When Thing 1 wanted to go fly fishing alone at the weir, did I calmly agree? Well, kinda. But I went with him and kept watch. 

That tiny speck on the water is my child.

Still there? Yep. Still okay? Yep.

Something seemingly simple, like going fishing, involves him walking along slippery rocks - potentially being thrown off balance. Not to mention the bears who would like to have what is on his hook. Or what if he falls into the cold water? And hurts himself and floats downstream? And he can't get out? 

Why do you keep bringing this stuff up?

So when he makes it back safely, I do things like go and get milkshakes. Cause I'm celebrating my babies being alive!

You can have whatever you want, honey.

This is in no way a critique of anyone's safety skills or knowledge. If anything, it's an admission of how susceptible I am to fret. 

I know that Aquaman checks and double-checks and researches and calculates and tries to be as safe as possible. 

I trust him. 

So how do I handle the fear? 

Any way that I can. Sometimes it helps for me to dredge up things that have worked for me in the past in overcoming fear. In the 80s, a self-help book called Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway was incredibly popular. (My God it's coming up on the 30th anniversary of its publication -- anybody else remember this book?) My mom read this book and would invoke this edict by Susan Jeffers regularly when any of her five children struggled with life's difficult decisions. Besides being something we made fun of my mother for reading, (This self-help stuff is cheesy! Gosh!) it became a family rallying cry -- "Feel the fear and do it anyway!" we'd shout as we went forth to face the world (only partly tongue-in-cheek). Remembering this sometimes helps me still. It reminds me that fear is unavoidable.  

Occasionally, I'll find new things that give me hope. Usually, it's words. Like these by Rebecca Solnit in a recent article in The Guardian:

"It is important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is or will be fine...Hope is an embrace of the unknown."

Solnit was referring to dark times in the world and issuing a call to action, but it spoke to me in terms of fear being about the unknown - often, it is the worst case scenario that our minds can dream up. So drumming up a little hope seems like a smart thing to do. 

This hope helps me to battle the fear -- especially now that The Wrecking Crew and I are tucked back in the real world while Aquaman continues the remainder of the fishing season solo. We text back and forth when he has service -- him telling me the temperature is in the 40s and it's raining sideways, me telling him the temperature is 105 and there's a heat advisory. Heat sounds kinda nice, he texts back. Sideways rain sounds kinda nice, I respond. 

I feel like I've gotten soft since we've been home. Back to the classroom, I've traded in my Grundens raingear and Xtra Tuf rubber boots for tasteful skirts and sandals that meet the teacher dress code. I'm not mending nets, I'm refining lesson plans. I'm not so tough.   

I worry about him. But I know this is the nature of the business. Commercial fishing is dangerous. And I also know that he's never been happier. This is work he was meant to do. 

So here's to fear. And hope. And to being Xtra Tuf.  

I try to be Xtra Tuf when I put on these boots.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Slowly. Clearly. Calmly.

Copper River sunset aboard the F/V Pelagic

The Wrecking Crew has been taking turns going out commercial fishing with Aquaman. The Redhead went first, prompting arguments of which of the three knuckleheads are our "favorite" and who gets treated the best, etc. I emphatically declared that we have no favorites - that they all annoy and irritate us equally.

They accepted this. Because they know it's true.

Thing 1 had his turn and spent much of it seasick in the bunk, begging to be dropped off on land - any land - for the entire 36 hour opener. He survived, and even went out again into the Sound (the "other side" it's called, as opposed to "the Flats" where it was rough) for 10 days and was quite the picker of fish. He found his sea legs, I suppose. 

Thing 2 then had his turn for 36 hours out on the Flats and did great - he was especially fastidious about washing dishes as soon as meals were over. Doing chores quickly and without complaint is even more appreciated on board a fishing boat than it is on dry land.  

When Thing 2 and Aquaman returned, they planned on being in town for less than 24 hours and turning right back around for another opener - this time lasting 48 hours. But then Aquaman looked at the weather and saw the seas would be one to two feet, that the winds would be calm and the skies would be clear. And then Thing 2 said something that hadn't occurred to me in my frenzy of shore crew support, running errands, and mending nets, "You should go, Mom. It's your turn." 


Aquaman agreed. I was hesitant. "You mean leave you guys here? Alone?" 

Thing 2 then said something typical of a teenage boy. "We'll be fine, Mom. Even when you're here you're not really here." 


"What do you mean?" I asked. For about the millionth time in my parenting life, I wished I could raise one eyebrow dramatically to convey my ire at a child. 

"You're always busy -- on the dock or at the warehouse, mending nets. We're alone a lot, you know."

And he was right. The boys were pretty self-sufficient. The Redhead cooked full meals on his own. They entertained themselves with smartphones and laptops and hikes and kayak excursions they set up with friends with no help from me. They had each found odd jobs, hired to bag or mend nets or wash boats or help out in a dozen little ways around town - and they did it without me. And I had reluctantly and finally accepted that they didn't brush their teeth, put on deodorant or take a shower no matter how much I nagged - they did it when they wanted to, on their own time. 

Buying in to the fishery really couldn't have come at a better time as far as the stage our boys are in. 

So I decided to do it. I think Aquaman didn't quite believe it. I had gone out fishing with him once, over a decade ago. I spent most of that opener on the Flats in his bunk with a pounding headache, trying not to hurl. The waves were mild, he told me. It was calm, he told me. They didn't feel mild and it didn't look calm. I didn't like the way the sea rolled in under us. I didn't like the loss of control, and I wouldn't surrender. So I just laid down and closed my eyes, mentally fighting with the forces of nature, and eventually it was over. I'd been hesitant to go with him on the seine boat he spent the last two seasons on, but I shouldn't have worried. Seiners fish in Prince William Sound. It is protected and calm and beautiful. The bigger boat offers more stability. After going out with him and the captain and crew, I called it the "gentleman's fishery." It was delightful. 

But I knew this wasn't the Sound. This was the Copper River flats. And I was hanging everything on that weather forecast of calm and clear. 

I made a final trip to the grocery store for the boys on land and for us on the boat. The Wrecking Crew didn't seem at all concerned that both of their parents would be far out on a 30 foot Grayling. For days. I told them two things before I left: "Don't embarrass me. And don't set anything on fire." I thought that just about covered every possible contingency. 

Thing 1 helped me carry things down to the boat where Aquaman talked last-minute strategy with another fisherman, who was also surprised that I was going out on the boat. "Really?" she asked. "You're going? Well, right on!" I know her response was because the Flats are known for being rough, for the weather being unpredictable, for the wind and tides and breakers and currents to all change without warning. But it was going to be beautiful. I just knew it. "It's going to be like a cruise vacation!" I gushed. "Right?" She just smiled and shook her head, turning to walk further up the dock to her own boat.  

Loading the net onto the boat.
Does the sky look ominous?

We left the night before fishing opened when the tide was right and headed to Egg Island, where we would anchor for the night. It was rainy. And foggy. It is super loud inside the cabin -- the engine takes up most of the space - and we wore huge headphones to protect our ears. Aquaman sat in his captain's chair. I sat perched on a stack of tool boxes where I could see out the window.

The Captain

We couldn't really talk, what with the roar of the engine and all, so I just watched everything passing us by. Aquaman pointed out cool things every once in a while. It is an entirely different thing to see a place from the water than it is to see it from land.

Those are sea otters. 

A sea otter haul out. Or hang out. They look like they're just hanging out, right?

Gazing around the cabin, my eyes landed on this, plastered among other notices on the cabin door:

Of course this is what I noticed. 

Above the engine noise, I yelled to Aquaman. "So what do I do if you suddenly slump over? Like from a heart attack or something?" 

He calmly pointed to what I had already noticed. "That tells you exactly what to do!" he yelled. "Read it!"

I did. And you know what I focused in on?

This part. 

Who are they kidding? 
Slowly. Clearly. Calmly. 

These are three adverbs that don't describe me when I'm speaking, or any other time, nevermind in an emergency. 

My stomach knotted a bit as I read through the Coast Guard Emergency Radio Procedures. Then I yelled some more questions to Aquaman about the radio and how to use it (Channel 16, folks -- I do remember that at least from my CB days on family road trips in the 1970s), and about his GPS and what the MOB button is for. Man Overboard, that's what it's for. That's what I hope never to need. It records the latitude and longitude where you are at the precise and horrifying moment so that you can get back to the person to look for them in the general location where they fell off. 

I think Aquaman was pleased that I took an interest in these safety issues. He probably assumes it's because I'm responsible. But it's mostly because I'm scared. It's the same reason that I got a basic lesson from him on how to start and drive the boat (it's a jet boat), including how to go forward and reverse (there is no transmission, so no neutral), and how to pull into the slip in the harbor - including how to tie up. 

We anchored in a beach area - other boats were all around us. Everyone would get up early and get their spot on the fishing grounds before they could drop their nets in the water at 7:00 a.m. It took me a long time to fall asleep. Once the engine was off, I had to get used to the sloshing sound of the water against the aluminum hull. It sounded like we were in a big metal trough, the kind we used to water the cows from on the farm. It continued to rain, and I quickly figured out that I should take Aquaman's and every other female fisherman's advice and just squat to pee on the deck that is consistently flushed with seawater rather than drag out the bucket for the same and more serious purposes. It takes some getting used to - squatting and balancing with the waves while relaxing enough to relieve your bladder, getting over your nervousness that a nearby fisherman might know what you're doing - or, worse yet, see your backside. But expediency won out over modesty. On a trip outside on the deck at midnight, when it was still dusk, I noticed the boat sounded different and that a small ripple was hitting the bow. I assumed the tide or current was changing. Every little noise made me nervous. But I finally fell asleep at about 2:00 a.m.

Gong! My eyes were instantly open. I wasn't sure where I was. A second passed. 

Gong! Aquaman leaped from inside the bunk we shared, gliding over the top of me, and launching himself up and out onto deck. As he opened the cabin door, I saw another fisherman and his boat - close enough to touch. 

I had no idea what had happened, but jumped out of the bunk. I could see Aquaman out on deck, in nothing but his boxer briefs. He leaned in and yelled for me to hand him his Stormy Seas jacket. It was cold and still drizzling rain. I helped him in to his jacket and he was back out, pushing off of this other boat and pulling the anchor back on board (which had dragged in the sand as the tide and current changed - causing us to drift and hit another boat) and eventually starting the boat and maneuvering safely away. I heard the other fisherman say, "So much for sleeping through the night, huh?" He had a smile on his face. It was 4:00 a.m. Aquaman came back inside the warm, dry cabin with a ridiculous grin. "Now you know what it's like to drag anchor, honey!" 

I couldn't believe he was still having fun. He loves it. Every bit of it. 

"Well, we may as well get out there. I'm awake now." He drove out to the fishing grounds and picked a spot for the first set. I made my coffee and settled in to watch Aquaman in action. 

The difference between me and The Wrecking Crew on the boat is that they are crew. I was a guest. No work for me. 

I watched the sunrise. I watched Aquaman make all of his preparations - getting in to his raingear (full bibs, jacket, Xtra Tuf waterproof boots and waterproof gloves), cleaning the fish holds one more time, lining them with the brailer bags (kind of like enormous mesh shopping bags to hold the iced fish once caught), checking in with his group on the radio, getting the buoys attached to the net staged and ready to go over the bow roller, and counting down the seconds to 0700. Then he dropped his net in the water. 

Washing things down

He is content. Can you see it?.

The net going out

I love this picture, y'all. Doesn't he look happy?

Net all out. You can see the yellow and white corks.
Then you wait for a while. It's during this time that you hope to see splashing along the net. A hit! And you hope not to see a seal. They love salmon. And they think a fisherman's net is a seafood buffet, laid out just for them. Easy pickin'. After this trip, I don't think seals are cute anymore.

That rounded thing that's bigger than the corks? That's a seal. No bueno.

After 30 minutes or an hour or sometimes longer, the fisherman pulls the net. And hopes there are fish in it.

Pulling in the net.

It's a good thing when he pauses. It means something's caught.

A fish!

Each salmon is removed from the gillnet by hand.

Then you set the net again!

And you point out interesting things to your wife
who is watching from the cabin door.

Then you put the fish into the fish holds.
This is called pitching fish.

The more fish you pitch, the more sore your back. 

Sore back = good. 

The fish stay iced - or slushed (a mixture of ice and water)
until the fisherman delivers to a tender or to the dock

This routine goes on for hours. The day passes like this. Then the sun comes out and it is paradise. 

Can't beat the view.

There are larger boats out on the fishing grounds called tenders. These boats take the fish from the smaller gillnetters and deliver it to the canneries in town. They also sell the fishermen fuel and provide ice. It's efficient. That way the fishermen can stay out fishing. 

Aquaman worked his tail off. I would intently watch and ask questions and be amazed. But whenever he would pull up the net and turn on the engine to go try another area, I would put my headphones on to protect my ears and lay down in the bunk - because it can get a little rough when the boat is going fast - and I would be instantly asleep. It would happen so fast that I didn't even know I was asleep until I woke myself up snoring. 

It was the life, I tell ya. 

After running around like a crazy person with all the shore support to keep him fishing, this was bliss. 

Did I mention the sunsets?

It went on like this for 48 hours. Aquaman watching the waves and the tide and the current and talking on the radio with other fishermen. They talk on the radio a lot. It was comforting to me - to hear those other voices. It made me feel like we weren't alone. And they were nice to each other - offering words of encouragement and the benefit of years of experience fishing -  each and every time they pulled the net out of the water or made another set.  

Look at that view. Come on.

So that's how it went. 

Slowly. Clearly. Calmly. Just like the Coast Guard says. 

I think that's pretty good advice. 

Coming in to the harbor. 

Waiting to deliver.