July 4, 1992
Gulf of Alaska
Here's a bit of general diatribe. I hope you don't consider mass distribution too tacky. I seem able to send off only one letter a week, and I'll be toting my three kids through the jungles of Borneo before I've written everyone to tell them about life on the "Mud Bay" tender (the boat I'm living on).
Let me begin with the topic of personal hygiene, a topic of major preoccupation for western man. I am very happy if get to take a shower every other day. Working on this particular boat is actually a combination of seeming opposites. I am the the 2nd mate and cook on the boat, which is occupied by Jeff, myself (M. Elizabeth), and the evil Captain Blau (should be confused with Captain Bligh, or even more appropriately, Captain Ahab. He's got a personality schemata similar to the Devil: nice guy, nice guy, nice guy...massive alcohol consumption, BAM - intense verbal abuse and general assholic behavior.) Anyway, he's not supposed to be the topic of this paragraph.
Oh yeah, the hygiene-cooking thing. Here I am working on a boat, which means 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on the boat, in the middle of the Gulf of Alaska... well, not always in the middle of the Gulf. We run between this area, called the Flats (supposedly one of the most dangerous bodies of water in the world. Today the tide fluctuated 17 feet) to the closest town, Cordova, which is about a seven hour boat ride. There we offload all of our fish onto another tender, and then dock for anywhere between 12 to 24 hours. (Luckily, the boat next to us is occupied by Ron and Anne and their three dogs, Anvik the beagle, Tutka and Kiska two huge, hairy black dogs. Jeff and I borrow them for dog company when we are in Port.) I do food shopping for both our boat and for all the fisherman that deliver to our boat. We fill our water tanks, gas tanks, procure 3 - 5 bags with 1000 pound of ice for the fisherman (hoses of various girths and substances are the mainstay of life here - it's pretty much how you give and receive anything in fishing world - I'm sure this is where the expression "you hoser" began), make one or two phone calls from the pay phones at the harbor master and then we're off again to cruise out into the Gulf. (This is getting to be a long paragraph so I'm going to break it off here, in memory of my 7th grade english teacher, Mrs. Braun. Here's a new paragraph for you, Mrs. Braun.)
During the day we take deliveries of salmon from fishermen: kings (chinooks), and reds (sockeyes) and dogs (chums).. Different types of salmon have different running periods. The kings were plentiful when we started out here three weeks ago. Now, any king that comes in is probably old and the price per pound paid by the cannery (in our case, we are hired by a cannery called "Peter Pan" located in Valdez. Hell of a name for a fish canery, eh?) has dropped significantly. The gill netters sometimes make presents to Jeff and I of halibut and crab and these enormous disgusting razor clams which are filled with all sorts of primordial goo. We've bought a few reds and one large king which we had smoked by two guys in their eighties who have been smoking fish their entire lives.
By the way, a gill netter is what the fisherman are called who use a gill net to fish. Amazingly so, eh? Normally gill netters fish alone; except men like "Double Wide Clyde" who weighs about 300 lbs and whose table inside the cabin is littered with the most graphic sex magazines. He tends to need a little help. Another type of fishing is called "Seining." They use a much longer net (and the name of the net is...yes, a seine net), and there are usually four guys on the crew.
When you are allowed to use a gill net and when you can use a seine is determined by the Department of Fish and Games as well as the time periods, called "openers" when you are allowed to fish. We have just finished a 36 hour opener going from Thursday evening at 7:00 pm until Saturday morning at 7:00 am. The periods are usually 12, 24 or 36 hours long. This is the only time that fishermen are allowed to fish (legally, although I don't think this is a major deterrent to fishing at other times if you can find someone who will take a delivery of illegal fish.) Consequently, we receive deliveries at any time during that period. During the opener which just ended (we are now in the midst of running back to Cordova and then on to Valdez, where we are going to offload our fish directly to the cannery. The entire trip will take about 15 hours to Valdez. I have just been initiated into the fine art of driving this 78 foot scow. Since we are just skimming past islands and in no danger of going off course or hitting land, my main job as skipper was to avoid hitting logs and to watch all the sea otters floating around on their backs.) As I was saying, during this period, we took deliveries yesterday from about 8:30 am to 10:00 am and then went outside the bar where we anchor into the ocean and took running deliveries nonstop from 1:00 pm until about 11:00 pm. Jeff and I repaired a netted bag, called a brailer, (Jeff did most of the repairing while I heated him some cherry pie and hot chocolate. Do you happen to have a good cherry pie recipe?) which we use when the fishermen don't have their own bags. Then from 1:00 am until 2:30 a few more boats came. At 4:00 am it started again and went until 8:30 am, at which point we pulled anchor and began our journey towards Cordova. (Here I should mention that my boyfriend/first mate let me sleep most of the night while he took deliveries alone with Captain Nightmare.)
So, when these guys come to our boat, we use a crane to pull large bags of fish out of their small boats. I give them groceries, pump gas and diesel and fresh water. Then I go back inside the "House" and make the meals, which are amazingly elaborate - smoked salmon and asparagus crepes, mango chutney chicken, crab quiche, cherry pies, carrot bread, blah, blah, blah. This is my own choice. The Captain would rather eat steak and potatoes. His whole face lit up when I told him I was making hamburgers and baked beans and brownies with WHITE SUGAR for the fourth of July.
When we deliver our fish to another tender who is running it into the cannery in Valdez, I put on full rubber rain gear. (By the way, I live in a pair of knee high black rubber boots. I feel like a Mod Squad wannabe.) The other boat sticks a huge tube into our fish hold with their crane (it looks somewhat like the tubes on those old portable hair dryers that had a hose that attached the body to the hood - you remeber those from the early sixties, right? This one is about a foot and a half in diameter though) and then literally suck all the fish out of our boat. Now, mind you, this huge tank is also full of salt water, fish gack and fish blood and miscellaneous pieces of salmons bodies and innards. When it gets down to the last few layers of fish, Jeff and I have to climb a ladder down into the tank with dead fish under feet and floating around up to our knees and push them over to the bottom of this tube. Then the last twenty or thirty we pitch into a brailer by hand.
So, if you know that every few hours for two and a half days you're going to be handling fish gack, gasoline, diesel and getting salt water all over you, there's not much point in changing your clothes or taking a shower. (As you can see I have finally returned to the original theme of personal hygiene. Digressions and parenthetical phrases are my forte.) At the end of the third day, I smell, my clothes are disgusting, Captain Lucifer is treating me like I'm mentally retarded by explaining how to get the saran wrap out of the box. I have to come in to play Suzi Homemaker and bake eggplant Parmesan for the 8 hour ride back to Cordova.
So, I guess I'd term my lifestyle as "primitive - gourmet hell".
Jeff (also known as "fish boy", his theme song: "I am fish boy, hear me gup. Don't tell him I told you.) and I ? - oh my God! O.K., imagine this. Imagine growing up as a devote Catholic until the age of 16. At that point, imagine joining a fundamentalist Christian Cult. Imagine leaving that cult a mere thirteen years later at the age of 29, living alone in Los Angeles as a rebel without a cause for another five years. AND THEN, imagine living in a van for three weeks with a man (the first time living with a member of sexus oppositus) as you travel together across America and Canada and then getting onto a boat to be together constantly for another six weeks. Imagine that and then run like hell.
I am fortunate to be in love with the coolest man on the planet (no offense intended fellers) and we are developing quite a propensity for having fun together. What a thing, living with a man; having a life together with someone besides my dog. I can't say it has been easy , although I don't think it's much of a challenge to Jeff. He's just Senor Enjoy Life At All Times. He's got a thing for joy.
OK, here's an incident of how Jeff and I get along under stress (which is about 22 1/2 hours a day on this boat). Yesterday, at about 4:00 in the afternoon, in midst of the frenzy of ocean going deliveries, I was standing on the side of the boat handing one of the fishermen a gas hose. At that unfortunate moment, Jeff, who had two days before given me a stern lecture on always being aware of where the other person was below so as not to spray them with the wash down hose, decided to throw this fisherman his empty fish bag. This bag fell squarely over me, so that I was completely covered. Remember that black and white movie with the creature looked like a black umbrella that engulfed the victim's entire head and sucked their brains out? It was like that, but it was over my entire upper body and not just my head. As you may or may not be able to imagine, my head and upper body were covered with blood and gack and fish scales (looking a little like silver sequins). As I pushed the bag off of me, I could hear both Jeff and the fisherman laughing. When the fisherman saw my face, he quickly turned away pretending to tie something onto the far side of his boat, mumbling "Uh Oh" under his breath. I mentioned Jeff's advice to me of the day before in harsh terms. He mentioned his opinion about my bringing that up, also rather harshly. After untieing the fisherman's lines, I went into the bathroom ("head", in boatworld) to fume and wash off my head and face. When I came out, there was a Dungeness crab holding a pen waiting outside. The crab told me he was trying to write me a little note about how sorry Jeff was for not noticing me before he threw the bag done. I had said unpleasant things. He had said unpleasant things. Let's not be mad at each other. We kissed (Jeff was trying to get the crab to grab my butt) and another fisherman pulled up. That's how it goes with us. No es on the boat will end Juy 15malo, eh?
O.K.,o.k., so I go on and on. What else can I tell you? Of course, at the time of the solstice, which was June 21, the sun never set. There was 24 hours of light, a few of it just before and after midnight being somewhat dusky. Now, there is some time when it actually gets dark in the middle of the night. I think that the sun sets eight minutes earlier each day. Or maybe it sets four minutes earlier and rises 4 minutes later. Something like that.
Our job on the boat will end July 15, although there is a good chance we will quit earlier, just to have the opportunity to quit. There is often far to much name calling going on by the captain. At any rate, after the 15th, we will be living in the van in Valdez. I believe Jeff is working for the Department of Fish and Game. Who knows what I'll be doing. I've been eyeing a cool, old building for sale in Valdez to make into a bookstore- coffeeshop. But I think that's longer than a five week process, so I'll probably have to find some other job.
I know you're dying to hear about Osa the wonder dog. She is living with a family on a small ranch near Santa Paula, which is by Ojai. Apparently she had a few things to work out with the two year old, Emily with whom she was jockeying for position. You will be happy to know that Princess Osa has been dethroned and is being treated like a dog by her foster family. Perhaps I will actually have a dog with good manners by the end of the summer. he may fly up to stay with us in Valdez within the next few weeks.
That's enough news about my life in Alaska to make you wish I'd stayed in California and kept my computer off. Maybe there will be one more summer installment once Jeff and I start adventuring on land.
I have yet to receive anything but one shot of mail, given that it's all sent to Valdez and we have only been there once. But I am sure you've written. As a matter of fact - thanks for your letter. If Jeff knew I was writing to you (he's finally sleeping in our little bunk) I'm sure he'd say "Hola" (but in some obscure Asian language no doubt...)
PS - Sea sickness notation: Only the first trip out and again yesterday, rolling around on the ocean. I had to get onto a gill netter's boat to help him pitch dead, bloody fish into a brailer by hand. That is not the thing to do when you feel sea sick.