Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.
Ugashik River, Alaska, July, 1986: this isn’t your regular Alaska, with really nice snow capped mountains and those spectacular glaciers all over the place. This is tundra, Aniachak volcano with its big plume of steam, and a shallow muddy river, far from civilisation. Bering Sea, sub-arctic: grim.
My crew and I are just laying there in the swell, watching our net, hoping for a few more fish and wondering how much more we can stand. “Staying to catch the last fish.” sounded like a good idea at the beginning of the season six weeks earlier, but now, catching just a couple of thousand pounds a day was making us rethink it. Then a voice from a bull horn wakes us from our daydreams of home: “Hey Cap.. if you sell to us, we’ll do your laundry.. throw in a free bag of groceries, and pay you in fresh hundred dollar bills….”
I looked at the guys and they gave me the thumbs up. Our regular fish buyer hadn’t showed up and I couldn’t raise him on the radio. I was sure if he here here, he’d probably come close to matching whatever the cash buyers were paying, but our clothes were starting to smell, and our regular tender’s food supply was down to candy bars and cans of chili. So we got our dirty clothes together in a big duffel bag, and went alongside after we’d picked up. our net. Wow: great groceries – he had a whole freezer of steaks and frozen veggies to choose from, and good to his word, tracked us down the following day with our clean clothes, still warm from his dryer!
The day after that we woke up in Dago Creek, aching and tired from a particularly rough day for just a thousand pounds and realised we’d beat ourselves up enough. A nasty cold rain was blasting into the anchorage from the Bering Sea outside; it looked like half the remaining fleet had decided to leave after unloading the night before and only a diehard 20 or 30 boats were left.
But first we had to get back to Naknek, the region’s one town and where we kept our boat. It had been so rough when we unloaded the night before that I just wanted to get away from the tender before someone got hurt or the boat got smashed up. So we hadn’t gotten filled up on gas. At the time, I wasn’t concerned; we had enough for another opening, but now that we had going home fever, we didn’t have enough to get all the way back to the Naknek River. What the hell, I figured, if we couldn’t get gas out in the river on the way out, we could probably get some from a tender in the Egegik River, halfway to Naknek.
So it was pound down some oatmeal, batten down the hatches and head out. Once we got out of the shelter of Dago Creek, it was obvious that getting gas at Ugashik was out of the question – the tide was ebbing hard against the usual SW blow, creating a nasty, short 4-5’ chop so there was no way that we were going to get alongside a tender for gas. Plus I looked around and saw that our cash buyer had disapppeared as well: the hundred boat support fleet that had turned the river into a city of lights at night just a week earlier had dwindled to a couple of tenders bucking heavily at anchor.
It was so ugly that we had to slow way down and just let the current push us along; faster than that and we could have taken out a window. The grey sky pressed down almost to the water, and in a moment the shapes and lights of the tenders were lost in the murk. With the tide almost down the bars on either side of the channel were breaking heavily, and we were mighty glad to finally get out by the sea buoy, and make our turn east and for home. We timed our departure for the bottom of the tide, and with the turn, the flooding current began to push east, and the seas, now running with the wind, eased considerably.
Home! Back to my wife and the kids! What an exciting thought! Once we’d made our turn, the guys hit the sack, I poured some coffee and just settled in for the ride, just now and again getting enough of a glimpse of an austere and lonely shore through the gloom to keep me safely in deeper water.
When we arrived off the Egegik River, there was no sign of any fish buyers; it looked as if they were all done there as well and just a single fish processing barge, the big blue Ultra Processor, still lay in the channel. I hailed them on the radio and explained my situation; they said they usually didn’t service boats like us; they left that to their tenders, their season was over anyway; they were just waiting for the tug that would tow them down to Southeast Alaska for the pink salmon season down there. But they did have a couple of drums of gas and found enough hose to lower down their high steel side.
Except… that try as they might, the hose and nozzle was only just long enough to reach down to the tank fill and no more. But there was a swell running which meant that at the bottom half of the swell, the nozzle would pull out of the tank, and I’d have to shut it off and wait to jam it into the fill again when the boat rose, pump another half gallon or so…. Finally we pumped enough to see us home and got the hell out of there before all the spilled gas blew up and cooked us.
Never was a crew so glad to see the big tractor at the boatyard shove the trailer down into the swirling current of the Naknek River and wave us in. I jammed our boat between the heavy steel pipe guides, the tractor started up the slope to the boatyard, I shut off the big block Chrysler 440, and just like that, our season was done.
But first I had to get our settlement – the money for all the fish that we had delivered all season. I had the guys start to clean up the boat, found someone to jump the truck, and headed into Naknek and the trailer where our market had its office.
Only… no one was there, even the sign was gone.. and then it hit me: I’d done the classic Bristol Bay newbie mistake: trust a new market. All season we’d delivered our fish to a new fish buyer, figuring to pick up a check for the balance at the end of the season.. And even with our modest pounds, the big price meant that would be well over a hundred thousand dollars…
I pushed open the unlocked door: empty, looking like they’d left in a hurry – drawers pulled out, papers scattered on the floor. My chest tightened – had we been taken for suckers, like I knew others had when fish buyers went bust or disappeared without paying their fishermen? How was I going to explain that to the guys…?
Then a gal came out of the other office in the trailer – another tiny, one small floater fish buying company.
“Hey,” I said, “Whatever happened to Ocean Pacific?”
“They all left,” she shrugged and headed back into the small office, and my heart sank even further. But then she turned around again and looked at me. “Aren’t you Upton?” said she, “ I think they left something for you.”
I followed into her office as she rummaged around in her desk, finally came up with a smudged envelope with my name on it. I ripped it open: checks for the three of us, totaling over a hundred thousand dollars….. YES!