We pick up the story as our hardy work crew is given the gift of 2 more hours of sleep a day, courtesy of a slimmed-down 16-hour-a-day work schedule. It doesn’t sound like much, but, amazingly, it makes a big difference. Somehow 18-hour days put us right at the precipice of complete physical and mental collapse. Those two hours pull us back from the edge – not far, but far enough that a sneeze, or a misplaced step or a hard cough won’t send us over.
We are on that boat for just about 3 weeks. We switch to 16 hour days about halfway through. It’s another 8 days or so of sorting, freezing and packing salmon, then a morally murky day of harvesting roe (I was never able to learn exactly what the rules were on this, but the foreman’s behavior that day was so squirrelly, I am pretty sure we were violating some fishery regulation).
About halfway through the trip a new guy comes onto the boat and breaks up the monotony a bit. He is fun to work with but he keeps using the word “machismo” as an adjective, and I am too burned out to bother to explain. We celebrate the 4th of July in the midnight sun. If by “celebrate” you mean “stand outside on the deck for a few minutes at around 11 PM and watch fireworks explode in the eerie Alaskan summer twilight.” I believe that I will smell like fish for the rest of my life and I think my hands, imprisoned in rubber gloves for so many days on end, will never fully unwrinkle.
Our last days on the boat are spent in the below-deck freezer (imagine a big hole in the deck of the boat, and then imagine it’s very cold inside that hole. That’s your below-deck freezer). We pack the boxes of salmon onto pallets and having them craned into another boat. This is before the days when almost every type of cargo goes over the sea in those boxy steel containers – this is old-school. We set up a pallet with a cargo net spread out under it, load it with boxes of salmon, pull the net up around it and hook it to the boat’s crane.
We then scrunch ourselves into the corners of the freezer, as far as we can get from the 2 tons of frozen fish swinging overhead, as the crane operator picks up the pallet, pulls it up out of the freezer hole and drops it into the freezer of another boat. From here that boat’s crew unloads the pallet and stacks the boxes in their hold.
After the load-out, it’s all a blur. I remember the flight from Anchorage, or maybe it was Dillingham, but I have no recollection of how I get from Bristol Bay to a jet airport. On the flight back to Seattle the foreman Dave, and his girlfriend Sue invite me to their homestead in the Flathead Valley of Montana, so I spent the next few weeks hanging out on their property where Dave was building a log cabin. We play cribbage under a tarp while I live in a toolshed and learn to shoot guns. Halcyon days those were, but all too soon I hear the siren song of the Bering Sea pollock season and it’s back to Seattle for another adventure. I promise that if you tune in again, I will finally talk about that 700-foot boat.