The Pettit~Files, From the tour divide to commercial Fishing
Thirty four years and burning the torch at both ends, my life shoots out in spirals like a clydiscope twisting and forming new colors, and images shattered by adventure, failure and the need to see more. Paralled by the two paths that seem to be my life then only to be brought back together to form these days, like a yo yo stretching from the end of my string then coiled back up. From the 2,800 mile expedition of the tour divide spanning from Banff to Mexico. I again headed north, but without a bike. Back to my old haunts, chasing halibut through the ocean, looking for 18,000 pounds to bring from the depths of Alaskan waters, to the shores and stores in Bellingham.
Its 1,106 miles from my new southern home in Phoenix to Seattle. I was picked up by the two B’s, one who moved from Phoenix so I introduced her to my other friend Beth, who arrived from Denver many years ago, I was comforted by their friendship and happy that I could introduce two great people. I had a night layover and only got to see a handful of friends, my next flight was at 6:00 the following morning, so the Rainier’s had to be cut short and so did my time in the Seattle nightlife. We had beers on a patio along the Lake Washington shoreline, in great views of volcanoes and the mountains my home state is known for. The weather was perfect and I was comforted by the breezes lifting off the lake and covering me with a chill.
I crashed on B Steen’s couch, she was gracious enough to wake before four am to haul my sorry ass back to the airport. From Seattle to Juneau its 909 miles, arriving before eight am I was eagerly looking forward to a bloody marry while peering out to the glaciers outside the airport windows. I was surprised to find I couldn’t get booze in Alaska on this morning, very unusual. Instead I loaded up with caffeine and chugged it before passing through the armed TSA agents. I had a three hour layover and scammed the WIFI, and did some people watching, next stop Yakutat.
Once airborne the winged jet liner lifted off above the mountains and glaciers pooled around inlets of salt water and rarely explored. The spiny mountain ridges expose themselves skyward like the spine of an anemic child. Knobs of higher peaks protrude like the vertebra of our history and the smashing force of plate tectonics. The ocean laps at their bases below the water, kelp forest sweep side to side with currents and tides. Islands trapped alone and separated from mainland’s arms of earth, finger like in form stretch out disappearing into our greatest natural abundance.
Ten years after Aaron first brought me to Yakutat, I’ve returned a seasoned deckhand with years of experience. Maybe a little rusty but I know it’ll return fast. Perhaps a bit scrawny too, my old ways of making money, pouring concrete, building stuff and commercial fishing left me with the same amount of body fat, but about 200-215 pounds on the same frame. A little different to the 170-190 I carry around now. In the pressurized cabin above the earth, clouds take on an appearance of oil in water, little circles of cumulous hovering the sky sporadically held together by whisp of white vapor.
it’s a short 199 mile hop to Yak, I haven’t been here in probably five years, and progress had been made. Pavement all the way to the harbor, I even heard word that there getting cell phones in September, strange times indeed. I was met by Aaron Davenport, owner of the Pelican and John Morris, high school buddy. He’d been up with Aaron most of the summer and they needed some experienced help catching the remaining balance of their quota, then haul the goods south. A Seven day adventure running day and night, its zombie land on the high seas.
We made our way to the boat, tied to the dock in the calm waters, there was the vessel that gets me a little nostalgic, also something I’ve cursed in vain for days, weeks and months at a time. I use to spend on average over 120 straight days on her wooden planks, but with the quota getting cut down, the fishing now last only 45 days or so. We had planned for me to fish the entire year, but this little thing called the tour divide got in the way.
Financially we needed it. The cost of the divide and hospital bills where high, not to mention Amber and I had moved into our new place and I’m still paying two rents for another two months. The shop and I parted ways, hopefully for the better. I had left with eight dollars in my checking account and was flying on borrowed miles from a good friend. A hundred and fifteen bucks crammed in my wallet, not enough to buy a deck hands license, I didn’t want to use my credit card, the idea of spending borrowed money at an interest turned me off, but I knew if I needed to I could get an advance from Aaron, but that would require me asking for help, something still to this day is usually a muted phrase.
The VHF crackles to life with a computer animated voice telling us of the weather that lay ahead, so we holed up in town for a couple days. It was good to see some old faces and this land that captures my imagination. There is actually good surfing in Yakutat, Aaron went up early to catch a minus tide. So the morning after we all got acquainted and the whiskey was poured at length we hopped in the truck with surfboards on the hunt for waves, but everything was washed out and running confused, like my frontal lobes blushing with Kentucky whiskey. The next day we boarded a friends skiff and jetted out of the bay again looking to surf but the swell wasn’t nearly big enough, maybe for Aarons paddle board but not for ours.
There is only two bars in town, and we happened to get there a couple days before Fairweather days, a town celebration filled with native rituals, food and families fly in from all over to reminisce. We attended each bar on different nights, although the same band had played in both bars, they did manage to change up their set though. Smoking is allowed, so a thick air hung of wasted tobacco, sitting in between the lofts of people, being re-breathed and reeking clothes. The days where spent running around, doing some gear work and watching it rain.
They say the population of Yak it just over 650, and now complete with two cops, both a little on the abrasive side. A couple of stores, ice house, big dock and really that’s about it. Back during the war the U.S military used the protective inlet to get ready to pounce on Japan if needed. Old quancets, tanks, and even some towers mark the shoreline.
The Pelican, built in 1929 in Seattle, is a long for the day of 54 feet, and maybe 14 feet wide, and draws about 7 feet. The rough hewn lumber has withstood all Aaron has thrown at her, and a couple before him, Aaron has owned it now for over 30 years. Once, it sank off the coast of Washington when the old skipper tried to run in between a tug and barge. She sank in about a 100 feet, the hole in the port side sucked out a deckhand never to be seen again, and not too long after, Davenport bought her. There is a town in Alaska named after her, the boat hauled all the materials to build the old ice house and storage.
eptember 26, 1938 is the day the F/V “Pelican” arrived in Lisianski Inlet to begin construction of a cold storage. The timing of this event coincided with the movement of the salmon troll fleet westward from Sitka and on up the coast to Yakobi Island. Before the arrival of the “Pelican” the Lisianski area had witnessed developments by miners and a government navigation site at Soapstone Cove. From the Pelican, Alaska website. A cool piece of history I’m proud to be a part of.
I’ve been to Pelican before only one summer, its location is far down the Lisianski inlet, we got blown off due to weather and the run time to anywhere else was too long. Pulling up to the docks the tiny town sticks out along the tall green mountains all around it. Everything is on a boardwalk, built on stilts. There was only one car I noticed there, to haul the trash out to the dump, everything else was four wheelers and gators. There is a couple good rowdy bars, Rosie’s has to be the most well known. Let us not forget the boardwalk boogie, its on my bucket list. Everyone wanders around the boardwalk, cooking, drinking, smoking whatever feels right, then after a spell at Rosie’s listening to music everyone gets naked and runs down the boardwalk and launches off the dock into the chilly inlet, defenatly my kind of party.
We headed up to the little library and looked at old pictures, back then wheelhouse’s where the sizes of phone booths, they served only one perpas, to navigate. They where uncomfortable, so you wouldn’t fall asleep. The bunks, galley and everything else was down stairs away from the elements.
Back to Yakutat and the catch we needed. The wait for weather was longer than expected, causing anxiety in some, but if you’ve had your ass handed to you in the middle of the ocean, a couple days in town isn’t going to kill you. Needing 18,000 pounds is not as easy as it use to be, so you need up to five days if the fishing is slow, and it wasn’t a quick easy catch for us. We loaded up with Pollack, bait for the catch, about 4 tons or more of ice, each fish has to be “poke” iced, once cleaned it leaves the chest cavity open and must be filled with ice, the head and layer ice as well. It’s a long run to Bellingham, so the better their iced, the better they look. You don’t want to be looking like a lazy deckhand once the hatch is popped off and your fish are revealed to the buyer and your captain, both people that write your checks. My fish came out at a nice and chilly 30.4 degrees, even after nearly eight days after they where caught.
Finally we headed out of town and towards the fishing grounds, its about a day or so of running to get out there. I was nervous about getting sea sick since my hiatus, as soon as we passed the break water the boat rolled into the smooth ocean. The old tradition of lowering the poles and getting the stabilizers ready, I asked who wanted first watch, I was turned down and headed for my bunk. I’ve always slept good on the boat, your insides roll around and your head spins until you fall into a slumber like drug induced coma. I woke up some hours later, after dinner and during the movie, I was heckled by the fellas and not too long after we fired out or fist set.
I’ve gone up on a trip or two since I’ve stopped going full time, nowadays the old stuck gear is out, and tub gear is in. The old way, dating back to the Norwegians, or at least that’s what I’m told, called for rolling over the gear that was “stuck” through the rope with a beckets. Attached to that was your hand tied Gagnon then your hook. The spacing varied between the fish we chased, typically halibut gear was 12 feet or so and black cod around 6. The old way is a dying trade, like so many labor/time intensive trades, I’m proud to still know how to do it, but with snap on gear, baiting takes hours instead of days, along with gear work. No more standing in the stern going over miles of gear with rotting bait waiting for you to fix.
Firing out the gear and snapping the baited hooks to the outgoing line, usually deploying the bird bag to ward off the albatross, we use to set two strings, but without knowing how hot the fishing was we chose one to see what was around. The amount of work and smell was incredibly easier, we use to have a 500 gallon tote of bait, typically near rotting and marinating in a brine of heavy sea salt and weather, then you would load up a five gallon bucket of slope and bait away, not for the faint of stomach, and I lost mine many times.
It felt good to be working, back out on the ocean and spending time with a man who’s taught me so much. The salt air swirled around my chin and cooled my chest, clumps of my spent air stayed above my head, then carried away by the wind. Staring out to the abyss of water, land is something you can’t see, furthing sealing your fate till your job is done. Back to sleep for awhile then eat, and start picking.
I would like to think I fished in the pseudo heyday, working with men who wanted to be commercial fisherman, honing their craft and honoring their boat and captain. Aaron has always had quality deckhands and has built a reputation of a good paying, fun owner who knows how to fish and treats his guys and boat well. So many relics are near sunk, rotting next to the docks their tied to. We haul our boat out, paint and maintain it yearly, others however don’t do it at all. Its expensive, time consuming and generally a pain in the ass, but the Pelican, even after over 80 still looks damn good, and I’m proud to have a little history with her.
A small string use to be anything under 3,000 pounds. We’ve had over 9,000 pounds on the deck from one string, this trip however wouldn’t be that easy. The first set netted us around 1,000 pounds. While we finished cleaning and icing the fish, Aaron heads to the wheel house to throw some food on, scour over the monitor and old logs to find more fish. It isn’t like the “Deadliest catch” crab show you see on TV. Long lining is more labor intensive, but in typically calmer waters, and on noticeably smaller boats. The man running the roller is in charge of steering the boat while bringing the catch on board. With a gaff in your hand you peer into the water and look for the twisting grey and white of halibut rising from the ocean floor.
Gaffing them, then bleed them. Running a knife in a particular gill area to spill the red fluid so they don’t blush. Aaron has an eye for quality and we’ve always had high marks for our fish. Running the boat isn’t easy, you have to stay ahead of the gear while making sure the line is clear of the boat and certainly not in the propeller, all while dealing with the current, wind and the ever present whales. Once on board the fish are then hoisted up onto the table, measured then recorded. Each size is a certain weight so we know exactly how much we have, then cleaned. it’s the only thing boat wise Aaron didn’t teach me, he cleans them the old way, while I learned the “proper” way. Running a long sharp knife on top of the gills to the base of the skull you cut away the sweet meat, then cutting the bottom of the gill plate from the mouth, next you slice the membrane of the stomach liner from the spine, you should be able to pull the gill and guts all out together, then chuck it overboard to the noisy hoards of birds.
Next you yank the balls, yes all halibut have balls, then you scrap the blood veins and sweet meat, you should then be left with a white, clean gullet, ready for ice. You sling the fish down the hatch to the ice hole. Once stacked up, or the deck is clear you head down to the ice. The fish must be properly iced, there is a mattock to hack away at the frozen wall of ice, shovels and scoopers. Icing them in place and once the fish take up an area always white side up you layer ice, making sure the boat rides well and your balanced, usually towards the end of my icing Aaron has taken the tally board and counted up our catch, while we usually argue over what we got. If it’s a good catch he’s happy with the announcement poking his head through the hatch, my personal favorite words, “We got what we need” meaning we can get the fuck off the ocean and head home, or at least closer to land, where the water is calmer and the running faster.
It would take us nearly five days of fishing to get what we needed, a long time to round up the fishies. Waking at all hours of the day to pull the lines, you have to be careful not to let the sand fleas get to your catch. The nights and mornings become a blur, your body aches from bouncing around on the ocean, and your hands swell up from gutting and icing the fish. A constant habit of re-baiting, firing out strings, waiting, cleaning and icing. Not to mention running around the ocean burning fuel and food looking for the nomadic sable fish. The old stuck way of fishing would’ve been impossible, the snap on gear is the way to go, making the deckhands job easier, then you have to just stay out of the way of the captain. Don’t piss off the guy who writes your checks.
The weather actually held out for the most part, we got beat up a little heading towards Sitka, but otherwise not too shabby. The next leg is long, slow and beautiful. We pulled into Sitka, fueled up and took on more top ice so they would stay cold for the journey to Bellingham. Stocked up on groceries and I wondered down to the Pioneer bar, better known as the P-bar, the local rowdy establishment. I chugged back a tall Rainier beer longneck, took in some sights I hadn’t seen in awhile then walked back to the boat.
The inside passage is a glorious series of channels carved out from islands and massive water ways. It reads like a fallopian tube protected from the vast pacific ocean connecting Alaska, British Columbia and my home state of Washington. You steer the wooden vessel through herds of kelp islands, narrow causeways and multiple islands some tiny and nameless and others huge with their own character and people to match. The ever present “dead heads” are a danger. Huge stumps and trees hiding just below the water line, if hit properly it would jar a rib loose and all the work and boat could be lost.
The inside passage is a popular water way for the incredibly large cruise ships, yachters, tug boats and barges. Averaging 8-10 knots the land masses and trees move by at a snail pace, running 24-7 it’s a shift work of wheel watch, sugary foods and cups of coffee and tea to keep you awake in the pitch black nights. You have your noble Tec gps and radar telling you where you are, and who’s in front or behind you. Two VHF’s one always on 16 the coast guard station, and one on the traffic station, so you know when the massive cruise ships and long tugs and barges will come by.
The three of us are not up too often at the same time. The deckhands have work to do, organizing gear, mending lines and of course doing what ever the boss says. If its flat and sunny I like to paint the rails and running boards, so when we pull into town we don’t look like we’ve been at war. We pass by many world class whale watching sights, sometimes I sit on the bow and watch the dolphins cruise in our wake, crest out of the water and cross each other, amazingly fast animals. Scrub the ever present green off the deck and hiding in all areas and straighten up. In the old days with the old gear if it were just Aaron and I it would take me most if not all the trip to finish the gear work, these days you have more hammock time, and also a chance to improve your culinary skills, it was on the boat, learning from the guys how I learned what to cook, something now I actually like doing.
Popping down every so often to check on the catch and reapply when and where needed, it begins to look more like a tomb of ice than anything, so long as their cold I’m not too concerned how it looks. Movies are played, hours are spent reading, swinging in the hammock or looking at the beauty of the rugged inlets known as the inside passage. Small towns dot the coastline, navigation buoys, and the antique lighthouses, some lived in and taken care of by tenders. Logging camps, yachters anchored up and trollers clog the water. The scenery, gorgeous, I’m thankful to Aaron for taking me up all those years ago, working to make a living, working to live together in a confined area and working to keep the boat going have taught me many things I use daily in life. Patience to bend, not break, until you can change things for the better, I thought a lot about fishing while on the tour divide and believe I was more prepared than most with my days spent on the ocean.
I’ve long been self reliant, but you need help, and good help is hard to come by. Over the years some of what Aaron’s tried to teach me is just now settling in and being used, back then I thought his advice was sometimes frustrating, spoken in languages I didn’t fully understand, but I find myself hearing him and doing things naturally that he warned, or told me I might do in situations I didn‘t know would arise. It is a unique relationship, no longer anchored by my relationship with his daughter but now as respected friends, there will always remain aspects of a teacher/student bond as well, our characters are similar and he was the first elder I’d known I wouldn’t mind being like, if I ever where to age. I respect the change of our relationship, no longer the tough love, protective father to his daughter, now we could talk as friends and develop new aspects of who we are. No doubt being out on the ocean, hundreds of miles from shore, you develop a kindred bond, nearly unbreakable.
Closer to home the excitement builds, the TV starts to work, cell phones come in and out of range, the thought of going home with a fist full of cash and money in the bank makes whatever hell you went through seem like it was all worth it. We caught the currents right and made good time, if you don’t catch the slack and flood tides right you can squander hours and sometimes days, gliding past Vancouver island the sensation becomes even more real. The lights of the big city, the first you’ve seen in quite a while, ferries criss cross the sound and sailboats run in your lanes. Usually the sun is high in the late summer sky, there is a warmth after many cold, wet days spent bouncing around the ocean. We off load in Bellingham, we use to sometimes off load in Everett just a few miles away from my hometown, but like many things of yester year, the fishing sheds, cranes and the capacity to off-load there are gone, further remembering that this trade, some centuries old is becoming more archaic, and perhaps less in demand.
The bright spot with a shortened quota is it typically drives the price of the fish up, I think the most I’ve ever been paid was a little over 4 dollars a pound, but this time the prices where nearly double. We tied up after midnight, a long run with the main diesel engine running both day and night, finally quite. It will be noisy soon enough, we pour a large drink and have a quick toast, talk briefly about the run with tired eyes and anxious nerves. Aaron has spent years running up and down the inside passage, while I’ve probably spent a month or more, you get to know the towns, sights and history of all you pass by. We use to deliver all halibut to Bellingham, the price usually over 25 cents a pound more, spend a little time at home, recharge then head back north. But the cost of fuel and the days spent running took its toll, and a lot of those trips where just two guys on board, arriving home near exhaustion, but with a fat wallet.
The morning came early, and so did the noise. Fork lifts bounce on the deck just above you, crews hustle to get organize to offload. There where a couple other boats not too far behind us, but we beat them to the dock, and got first dibs on off-loading, and also perhaps a little better price. Down in the belly of the ship, two nets are dropped down, the fish are stacked up, then hoisted out. It takes a little while to off load, after all the fish are off the boat, next we began the task of shoveling off the ice, its all pretty labor intensive as your half standing in the insulated hull.
John Morris and I had to head home, he had acres to tend to and a family back in Montana and I had to get back to Amber and a potential job opportunity that required me home ASAP. Keith our fish buyer was able to give us a lift back to Snohomish, there at city hall where my mom works I snagged the keys and took John to the train station. I spent a little time driving around my beloved roads I grew up on, so much had changed. After that it was time to eat and check on flights back to Phoenix. I had a couple beers and saw some familiar faces. The cost of tickets where apauling so I waited a day and they dropped 800 bucks. Aaron was nice enough to give me a wad of cash and a check that Chase bank needed badly.
I didn’t like leaving Aaron alone to take the boat back to Everett, a journey that takes the better part of a day. He’s done it before, but its always better when you have help with the poles and guys on the dock to help you tie up. Also I don’t like getting paid then feeling like theirs more work to do, it bothered me a great deal actually, but walking down the sidewalks on a sunny afternoon, back in my hometown with a belly of food and good sights in my eyes it eased the pain a little. I took my parents, brother, sister and her family out to diner, in the meantime I bounced from old haunts to haunts on 1st street. I spent the night at my folks place, scratching my old dog “Chubbs” it felt damn good to be back in my three lakes area, so much had changed and I had two in the years since I’ve been gone.
I had a flight later in the afternoon the next day, I made some stops to see friends and to say hi to my uncle Jim who suffered a stroke since I’d been gone but he wasn’t home, so I loafed around town, did some banking and got caught up on bills. I walked down to the Snohomish river and watched it for awhile, lines of people threw out lines hoping to snag a humpy headed up stream, I loved it. I also grabbed a huge bag of clothes and more project bikes to bring back south. I had wished to see more friends and spend time with them in Seattle, but I was pulled tightly south, and the timeline was urgent. My mom took me the distance to the airport, we got caught up on chatter, saying goodbye then hefting the large bag and 200 dollars over the counter, my dad had agreed to send the bike box loaded with goodies via UPS.
I like airports but I’m not a huge flyer, little metropolises spread off in different wings. I bought some shitty magazines and bellied up to the bar waiting for my ride to come. I arrived late in the evening and already it was hot, the jeep pulled up and my girl stepped out. So much had happened since I’d left. I had been gone most of the summer, 24 days for the divide and now well over two weeks for this trip. We had just moved into our new place, she held it down with our two dogs and waited for me to get home so she could put me to work.
My first day home I attempted like always to get organized, I had some obligations to attend to, I also wanted to relax and be comfortable. It was the first time I had a surplus of cash in years, the bills where caught up, I was home and it almost seemed too good to be true. I had dropped the girl off at the airport when my phone buzzed to life, it was my mom telling me my cousin Eddy had passed away after a lengthy fight with cancer, just after his mid thirties. I hung up the phone and called my aunt, then made my way to a misted patio. It was over a 100 degrees so I got a couple icebergs, beer mixed with margarita mix, a potently strong cure for the heat and death.
It all seemed surreal to me, he was in Arizona for awhile at the Mayo clinic, I’d seen him a time or two and the last time he looked healthy and full of life. He had started to ride and we made a deal with my bike, he wanted to go back to Alaska and back to work. He had sent me a couple messages from time to time and a quick email while I was on the divide, I had talked to my family about it while I was briefly in Washington, and now I had gotten the news nobody wanted.
The days the followed didn’t mean a whole bunch, I still had to pay two rents and two utilities all while getting our new place turned into our place. It was too hot to ride, and my motivation to do so wasn’t there. We got out of town for a couple days, I wasn’t sure what my next moves would be, back to a shop? Back to school? I had a couple job opportunities but they where both out of state and not realistic where Amber and I are at currently, but they where good offers, making me realize that I’m moving in the right direction.
Eventually though time heals, more like a bridge than a scab over a wound. I eventually got back to riding and writing, and once the money ran out, back to work. Even in tight times I feel as though I’m doing the right things, which for me, mean everything, I live by the song “running on faith” my faith though not in religion but in the idea of myself and my future. I’m surrounded by great people I’m learning to rely on, while picking up more things about myself along the way, sometimes you have to dream limitless, keeping a part of you in the clouds and equal parts in the day to day. it’s a line I’m attempting to walk, to live a life less ordinary is a bit scary, but the reward is that much greater.