My First Alaska Job

 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

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