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    Ketchikan

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    Sitka

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 Gillnetters hauling in net near Ugashik River, AlaskaIt’s May, 1965 on the docks of Fishermen’s Terminal, Seattle (though the same dynamic applies today) and the Alaska fishing and support fleet is painting up, gearing up, building nets, and getting ready to go. There’s a big freshwater lake in the middle of downtown Seattle, connected to the salt water of Puget Sound by a set of locks. As the fisheries resource of Alaska is much larger than its resident fleet can handle, much of the Alaska fleet winters in Lake Union and Salmon Bay, where there is no tide, the fresh water kills any growth that their hulls accumulated up north and there is easy access to machine shops, electronic technicians, and all the rest of support that they need. The thickest concentration of boats is Fishermen’s Terminal, with row after row of workboats in a 10 acre U-shaped basin with support facilities on three sides.

And up and down those docks march The Hopeful. Young men and a few gals drawn to the excitement and promise of an Alaska fishing season: adventure, camaraderie, and the chance of a big paycheck at the end. Ever since the first canneries set up shop in Alaska, long before the Klondike Gold Rush put it on the map, the Lure of The North has been strong. And from the 1870’s when the first canneries were built, up to the present day, boats left from Seattle, and often picked their crews or at least some of them, from the young folks on the dock that came by.

Here’s how it works (though today some crewmen and women get their jobs from the internet): you walked the docks, trying to get the attention of a busy skipper or a sympathetic crewmen, to ask if they needed a hand for the season. For most of the time it was a thankless and discouraging task: skippers were under the gun to get their boats ready and get out of town and headed north. Most boats were already crewed up, with hands returning from previous seasons, who had been already working for weeks, painting up and building nets. Plus most of the guys walking the docks were newbies, greenhorns with no Alaska or commercial fishing, or even boating experience.

But all the same guys got sick, hurt, failed to show, and I knew that many of the crewmen and more than a few skippers had started just like we had: walking up and down the docks. Plus I thought that I had at least a leg up – I’d spent the previous year fishing tuna and anchovy on rough steel boats of the bleak desert coast of North Chile; I was experienced.
For myself, after the grit and dirt of the docks of North Chile, the rough, company owned steel boats, the smell of fish meal and dead whales, Fishermen’s Terminal was like something out of a dream. Gorgeous wooden boats, carefully maintained and painted by their owners, lined the docks; pride of ownership was everywhere.

But it was bittersweet as well – ten days passed chasing leads that never seemed to work out, while seeing other guys, less able than me, I thought, get on good boats just by happening to be in the right place at the right time. Day after day I walked the docks with many other eager young men and gals, chasing every lead, but not getting a job. Sometimes after a discouraging morning I’d hang out in Seattle Ship Supply or Nordby’s – the marine supply stores at Fishermen’s Terminal that smelled of tar, oakum, and paint, and where the customers talked in so thick a Norwegian accent that I could barely understand a word as I tried to eavesdrop on conversations, hoping to glean a clue to a job lead.

The boat that I had come up from Chile on, the Nick C II, and where I was living as I looked for a job, was tied up at the edge of a busy waterway where fishing boats would pass on their way to the locks to begin their trip up the Inside Passage to Alaska and the fishing season ahead. Each evening as I sat outside on deck eating my modest supper, the boats would pass, crews standing on deck, beers in hand, and I could hear snatches of their excited conversations about all the fun they were going to have ‘Up North.’ It was torture to hear them, and at the same time know that I was just one tip or conversation away from a job like theirs.

My first Alaska job was aboard this big fish buying boat or tenderFinally a tip, from a staffer at Seattle Ship who had befriended me:  “The Sidney needs an engineer,” he said one day without fanfare. I thanked that man, you bet, and hustled right over.

The Sidney was a handsome 80 footer, a fish-buying boat or tender, loading boxes of freight into her hold. I called up to the man operating the winch controls: “I heard you’re looking for an engineer.”

He looked me up and down and finally said, “Aren’t you a little young?

“I’ve been second engineer on a tuna boat……”

“How about gas engines…? Most of the native boats that fish for us have big Chrysler Royal gas engines… Are you familiar with them?”

“Oh, sure,” I said, more confidently than I felt, “no problem.”

“OK,” he said after a moment, “You got some kind of reference?”

I gave him the name of Steve Trutich who owned the Nick C II.

I couldn’t sleep that night I was so excited. In the morning I hustled over to the Sidney. A truck was alongside with another load of freight. The skipper was at the winch controls again, waved me aboard.

“OK, kid, you’re hired. How about a thousand a month?”

“Great,” I stammered, and in an instant a whole new life opened up.
Just then a big Caddy pulled up and some guy waved to my new skipper. “Here, take over,“ my boss said, and waved up at the rigging over me, “and don’t two-block anything.” And jumped into the Caddy and took off.

“Yo, kid,” It was the driver of the truck. “Hustle up.. we’re burning daylight here..”

I suddenly realized he was expecting me to run the winches. I looked down at the array of the six winch levers and froze.Mickey and Me
Just then a kindly looking older man emerged from the hold below and climbed up the ladder to where I stood, muttering loudly enough for me to hear: “Ain’t that like Lloyd, hiring a green engineer to save a few bucks…”
He presented a big claw of a hand: “Hello, young fellow, I’m Mickey Hansen.”

Just by chance I had stumbled into an epic Alaska fishing job: the shady skipper, the grumpy cook, the green deckhand, and the old Alaska salt as mate. Mick turned out to be a wonderful friend and a true mentor. Born in Norway, like many of the older men in the Alaska fisheries, he’d immigrated as a child and gone to Alaska on his dad’s boat at 12. He’d spent 50 years working the coast in all kinds of weather, in all kinds of boats. We took a shine to each other right away, and he taught me many of the skills that I needed to be an Alaska fisherman.

We spent another two days loading freight at the West Wall of Fishermen’s Terminal, and I got a glimpse into the enormous logistical undertaking that was the Alaska salmon business. Ahead and behind us at the quarter mile-long wharf, were big boats like ours, absorbing truckload after truckload of food and supplies for ourselves and the smaller boats that depended on us, as well as freight for the remote canneries that we worked for. We’d work until dark, almost 10 at that time of year, and in the morning find the deck littered with packages dropped off after we’d hit the sack.
Behind us at the wharf that first evening were three 58’ Alaska salmon seiners, tied together, bedecked with flags, a boozy party in progress on their decks. Taped on the flying bridge of one was “HAPPY ARE WE WHO FISH ON THE SEA.” I was too, very much so.

In the morning they were gone, through the locks and down into the salt water of Puget Sound beyond to start their journey on the winding way north: the Inside Passage and Southeast Alaska.

I couldn’t sleep that night either.Happy seiners

P Channe 2My first drone was this little 100$ job I bought at the Ben Franklin store in Juneau.. A baby quadcopter, it sort of looked like a big green Preying Mantis…  But… hard to fly! If I could keep that thing in the air for 30 seconds inside the house, I was doing great. And the only time that I tried it outside not a minute passed and it was in the trees, luckily within ladder reach.

As I learned later, this was before the kind of powerful micro GPS/enabled electronics that were being rapidly developed in China. So the main problem with the early drones was simply that they wouldn’t hover easily – you had to always keep flying them. Ideally you could adust all the controls to neutral so that it would hover without control input, however try as I might, I could never get there. Finally, after shredding many propellors, at least got the hang of the way the controls worked.

“Get a cheap drone first and learn to fly it.” was the advice I had gotten from more experienced drone fliers… Yet I never could keep that first drone in the air without whacking something, so I wasn’t dying to step up to a 1100$ unit with sophisticated video and still camera.

But, I really wanted to be able to take a drone to some of the places I had seen in Alaska and up and down the Inside Passage. So I kept watching the reviews and realized that basically a revolution was taking place with drones: GPS, sophisticated algorithms, and proximity sensors allowed the development of drones that would hover perfectly still when you let go of the controls. And a computer controlled camera on gimbals created essentially a rock steady platform for shooting videos and stills.

Drone on bedSooo.. I dug deep and bought a DJI Phantom 4 drone with extra batteries, propellors, and a nifty hardshell backpack to carry it all in, plus a new smaller Ipad (my old one was too large to fit the brackett on the controller): totally cool! The whole package came to around 1900$, but who was counting?

Step 1: read the instructions, and there were a lot of them and a lot of sad videos on Youtube of folks who didn’t and crashed their expensive Phantom on the first outing. Next… out to the local baseball field to try it out. According to the instructions, it had a “Return to Home” (RTH) feature that you could activate manually or would activate itself if radio communication with the controller failed or if its battery was running critically low ( It warns you first…)

Soo.. for my first flight I thought I would test to see how accurate the “RTH” feature was. I placed the Phantom squarely on top of the second base bag, and hit the “takeoff” button. WOW: with this angry buzzing it jumped up into the air and hovered directly over the second base bag, maybe 4’ up, and just stayed there, perfectly still without any control input from me: totally cool! Next was simply getting used to the controls and its really slick feature called collision avoidance. It had some sensors facing forward, so that it would basically stop about 4’ away from any object in front of it ( you could still collide into stuff traveling sideways and backwards..) Pretty easy to fly really: an instrument readout on the Ipad monitor displayed its relative position to you and the direction it was pointed, as well as height and distance from you and what the camera was seeing.  So… zoomed around getting the feel for things, and then a test: sent it up to max altitude, (around 400’ – set to comply with FAA regulations, its ‘service ceiling’ is about 20,000’) and about a half mile away and hit the RTH. At first I couldn’t even see it until it appeared about 90’ overhead and started descending until it landed with ONE FOOT ON THE SECOND BASE BAG! No more than 6” from the exact spot it had taken off from: I was blown away: how did it do that?

Then on another baseball field flight, I clipped a branch near the top of an 80’ spruce tree – the non-dense outer needles/foliage in trees confuses it apparently – and had a real “Oh Shit” moment as it fell sideways toward the ground. But then, halfway down it righted itself and went back into a hover again!!

So.. I was ready for an expedition – with Dan Kowalski, experienced filmmaker/photographer – up to Desolation Sound in lower British Columbia

Roscoe GPS The first night of our trip was the most dramatic – we rolled for two hours across the inland sea that is Georgia Strait on a blustery rainy late afternoon.  Our destination was Roscoe Bay, only accessible at half tide and higher – at low tide the entrance is blocked by a gravel bar – and it wasn’t clear if we’d have enough water to get in… So cautiously at dead slow, the light failing…. fathometer down to 2 feet under the keel.. in we went over the bar and into this exquisite bay, more like a lake in the woods… Got down the anchor and got out the Glenmorangie – that exquisite feeling of the satisfaction of finding a secure anchorage after a challenging day filling us up: yahoo!

We were so excited: there we were with our new drone in one of the most spectacular spots on the B.C.Coast! But when we fired our new puppy up the next morning, the Ipad/monitor flashed ”Aircraft needs firmware update!” Sh*t.. for that we needed internet and Wi-Fi, and where the hell were we going to find that on a remote part of the BC coast?????

But there was a guidebook aboard our chartered cruiser and we discovered that about three hours away up this winding channel was “Toba Inlet Wilderness Marina” which supposedly had wi-if .. So off we went to a gorgeous spot – of course we were the only ones there.. And… YES! Indeed they did have Wi-Fi and so with updated firmware we were ready for a short test flight: up a couple of hundred feet, and hit RTH. All looking mighty good, but then at the last minute realized that instead of landing on the middle of the dock, the Phantom was instead about to land about 4’ over, in the WATER! By the time I realized this it was about 6’ off the water and dropping fast so I hit the cancel button and tried to throttle up: no go… Then I looked at the monitor and saw a flashing message:  “Are you sure you want to do this”.. YES, Godammit!!!! By then the drone was about A FOOT off the water and dropping fast so I hit up and it shot up so quickly that the prop wash splashed the water high enough to hit the blades.. Waaaaaaay toooo close.

Landed it safely on the dock; breathe in, breathe out…  Then to add to the stimulation of the day, we found a Hillary Donald debate on a live feed and watched it with some fine old single malt, all around. Way too much stimulation for one day… Then in the middle of the night the wind came up and I went to check on the lines and the front had come through bringing NW’ly flow and clear skies…

The gauntlet diagramThe next evening we were at a place called Big Bay on Stuart Island, overlooking a place I nicknamed “The Gauntlet” where several channels converge creating dangerous tide rips that have claimed the lives of careless mariners. It’s also the place where many mariners feel “The North“ begins, where the rapids mark the transition from the sunnier climate, protected waters, and populated shores of the South Coast to the lonlier, wetter, wilder, North Coast.  Safe passage through the rapids is only possible at slack water – the top or bottom of the tide when the current briefly pauses. All vessels, big or small, bound up the Inside Passage have to wait for slack water. It’s almost as if nature wanted to give travelers pause, as if to tell them to be careful.

And so in the warm light of sunset we launched, bounced up to 400’, hit the ‘record’ button and just did a slow rotate, taking in the stunning panorama as Morning coffeethe evening colors played across the land.

Dan is a very experienced filmmaker and photographer. I am also a photographer, having produced numerous color books on Alaska and the Northwest coast. At the end of the evening’s flying, we landed the drone, took the thumbnail-sized micro SD card out of the drone and into the side of my laptop, and literally gasped at what played out on the screen before us: a crisp, rock steady video with perfect color: we were truly stunned at the clarity and colors from the drone’s camera, which was little bigger than a cigarette pack.

And so the next few days went: exploring the narrow and winding wilderness passages north of Yucula Rapids. At the end of each day, we’d review the footage, amazed yet again at the new vistas that the Phantom allowed us to see. And pushing the envelope and learning a little more on each flight. The most fun was one morning steaming down Cordero Channel to catch slack water at Yuculta Rapids. It was windless and still when we launched but when the controller started flashing “low battery” the wind had freshened, setting up a short chop, and making a normal landing on a piece of plywood on the back deck dicey. So I told Dan I’d fly the drone in close and he’d have to grab it. No sweat.. though in reviewing the footage Dan did look a little anxious as the whirling blades got closer and closer.

And Desolation Sound saved the best for last. We’d ended up our week in this exquisite anchorage called Laura Cove, with just one other boat (In August it would have been jam packed). The sky was cloudless, the water still.

“Dan,” I said when the anchor was down, “you gotta try the kayak, it’s so gorgeous. I’ll launch from the shore and follow you around.”
Our chartered trawler in Desolation SoundAnd so we did – I set up on shore, and when Dan started paddling, launched, and followed him about 50’ behind and maybe 30’ up. The water was so clear I could clearly see the bottom under the kayak, the ripples from his paddles. Then as he slowly paddled around a corner in the narrow channel, I slowly took the drone up to 400’ until I was looking down at a canyon in the tall firs, at the bottom of which was Dan, still paddling. Then, slowly tilting the camera back up to horizontal, I panned slowly around, taking the dramatic vistas: mountains behind; channel and islands ahead: WOW!

That perfect day and those wonderful takes pretty much creamed the weather too: the next afternoon found us rolling across the strait once again in wind and rain, but immensely glad that we’d got that good weather window at all so late in the season and thrilled and excited that the drone had performed so well. Now we were ready for Alaska in the spring!


Eskimo gals w reindeer

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In the 1950s, the only outside contact for 19 isolated native and Eskimo villages along the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands, was the 114 foot mailboat Expansion, which made regular round trips from Seward, skippered by owner Neils “Cap” Thomsen, one of those entrepreneurs Alaska seems to attract. One of the first things “Cap” noticed on his trips was how some native villages seemed to have a lot of single young men, while another, just forty or fifty miles away, single women. But owing to their isolation, neither group of singles was aware of the others.

“So I bought a Polaroid camera, and started taking pictures of the unmarried natives. I’d write their names and towns on them like: ‘Nina Poplook from Gambrel Bay,’ etc. I put the pictures on two bulletin boards, one for men, the other for women. Pretty soon after that the word got around, and as soon as we’d come around some point to enter some harbor where a native Captain Thomsen with iced up ship.village was, the singles would be jumping into their boats and paddling out to the Expansion as fast as they could to meet us even before we got the anchor down. They’d come right aboard and head for the singles bulletin boards. And back in those days to get legally married, you had to go all the way east to Cold Bay, a long way, even today. So I got a Justice of the Peace license so that I could marry them right on the boat.”

In the summer “Cap” would advertise for bird watchers to come with him out to see the Aleutians and its abundant birdlife. His brochure should have also read: “And help the Captain work on his floating processor,” as trips would usually include a two or three day stay in Dutch Harbor so that “Cap” could do a little scraping and painting on his crab processor. When king crabbing started to get big, he bought and processed crab, riding that boom, eventually selling out to buy a small resort hotel in the Carbibbean.

Photos: icing was a frequent problem on winter mailboat voyages as you can see from these photographs. In extreme conditions vessels could become top-heavy with ice and capsize, unless the crew could knock the ice off. Author’s collection

These are Eskimo ‘shoppers’ aboard a trading vessel like the Expansion, probably around 1920. Vessels would load up in Seattle with supplies like rifles, ammunition, kerosene, sewing supplies, etc. and travel to remote native and Eskimo villages. Natives like this group of Eskimo gals would come aboard, usually bringing ivory and furs to trade for supplies. UW 1762