On a commercial fishing vessel in Alaska, it’s all about keeping it in perspective

Story and photos by Sam Lungren

Sorting frantically through the mess of lead line, purse line and web, I stood beneath the boat’s power block and directly in the path of anything coming through the mechanized pulley hauling in the net. Then I broke the cardinal rule: I looked up.

A viscous clod of red stinging jellyfish shrapnel hit my forehead, slid down under my sunglasses into my left eye and down my shirt, searing all it touched. But a salmon seining operation does not stop for personal discomfort. I could still see out of one eye.

My dad counted it as a victory that I only had one eye swell shut from jellyfish stings on my first day. Thirty years prior on his first day commercial fishing – also in the Valdez Arm of Prince William Sound – he had been completely blinded. I’m just proud I didn’t jump ship.

Dad toughed it out for weeks in Homer, Alaska, before landing a berth on a commercial fishing boat. He worked construction on a shrimp processing facility, surveyed land, played LPs of organ music for a two-member church, and played backup trumpet for an all-black Hawaiian band in a Swedish bar called the “Ya Sure Club.” At last, a junior high school student he was teaching to play trumpet said his father had a deckhand opening.

The guy he replaced on the seiner had recently been the Alaska state champion heavyweight wrestler. The kid had washed out after just two weeks of seining, something I didn’t fully grasp until my own first day.

Purse seining for salmon requires the concerted effort of four crewmembers: skipper, skiff driver, deckboss and deckhand. We spot schools of jumping, traveling pink salmon, and then stretch the quarter-mile-long net between the mothership and the skiff, parked on shore, to block the fish. After 20 minutes, the two vessels converge, wrapping the net in a circle.

Then we draw up on the bottom of the net like an upside-down coin purse, while the deckhand – me – plungesLungren-2390 the surface at the gap with a long, cupped pole. When the fish are completely trapped, we haul the net on board over the power block, forming a bag of fish to roll into the hold. The deckboss stacks the cork line – the floating edge of the net – and the deckhand stacks the lead line and the purse line across the stern.

That first day was among the longest of my life. After 14 hours of seining we finally got to deliver our fish to the tender vessel, requiring me to crouch thigh deep in refrigerated seawater in the fish-hold, shoveling salmon toward the vacuum pump.

Lying damp in my skinny bunk down in the fo’c’sle that night was no comfort. I had two more months of this to endure. At age 21, that seemed like a lifetime.

In the following days, I found myself grumbling about the work. I woke every morning with numb hands from plunging and throwing lead line. Our 76-year-old captain said later he was sure I wouldn’t return the next year.

After the initial 14 consecutive days of work, seining closed for a day to allow some of the fish to run up the rivers and spawn, so we ran into the Valdez Harbor for fuel and groceries. I bought some necessities, and then took a walk out of town to think. Sitting by a little creek green and purple with spawning dog salmon reminded me how lucky I was to be in Alaska. I promised myself I would finish out that summer.

Two years later, my third of four seasons, I left Alaska early to start graduate school. My dad – then age 55 – flew up from Whidbey Island, Washington to cover for me and relive a fond memory.

The weather was nasty the day our shifts overlapped, borderline un-fishable. To plunge, I had to brace myself on the gunwale against the sea swell. The net full of jellyfish billowed like a sailSam-Lungren-0400 coming off the power block, wrapping around my lead and purse lines and everything else within reach. Diving to untangle one mess after another, all while trying to stay on the rolling boat, I caught myself war whooping.

Looking down into the choppy water, thousands of gleaming salmon recoiled in unison from one gray wall of their webbed prison to another. They clapped against each other as we hoisted the 10,000-pound bag on board and into the hold.

Strafing wind and rain rattled like a snare drum on my rubber jacket and bibs. Still, the deckboss and I were tossing chunks of kelp at each other and doing our signature salmon dance.

Glancing over at my dad, smiling and hauling away at the purse line, I understood what he had always tried to teach me. Toughness is more than survival. Toughness is finding joy in adversity.

This story was first published in the summer 2014 issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine.