As one of very few women working in Alaska salmon country, I learned how to gut a fish and swallow its heart. But an even harder trick was navigating the torrential sea of masculinity.
Here’s how to clean a salmon: Flip it on its back in a v-shaped metal tray. Pull the feathery red gills tight, and cut them out. Slice your knife through the anal vent and up the belly. Grab the mess of guts and pull it taut, slicing the connective tissue along both sides of the collar. Rip them out. If you don’t want the seagulls to follow you, slice the air bladder so it doesn’t float. Toss the guts out of the side of the boat. Slice the kidney membrane in one smooth line. Grab a spoon, the same kind you use to eat cereal. Scoop out the kidneys, scraping out the last gelatinous pieces from the now-dry spine. Sometimes the fish’s heart dangles in its throat, its connective tissue oddly tenacious. It might still be beating in the hollow body. To become a real fisher, you have to eat it whole — feeling the pulsing flesh travel down your throat, the salt prickling your salivary glands.
After a week and a half of fishing in Alaska, this is what I do.
I am here for money. Back home in San Francisco, I’m a part-time nanny or catering server or cupcake monger. The other part of my time is spent on writing and illustration projects. The latest — a book in which a friend, Lauren, and I interviewed female street artists in Latin America — has left my bank account empty. These are the days I worry I’m still a drifting, unproductive hippie, just like when I first moved to Northern California in 2004 at 22.
I’d once worked in an Alaskan cannery — a processing plant where fish are gutted, cleaned, and fitted into cans — just prior to that migration to the Bay Area. I made just $7.25 an hour, but me and a couple other friends toiled such long shifts that we each took home $2,000 for two and a half weeks of work. I never intended to return, but when Lauren’s bank account hit ten dollars, she insisted we come. She’d never worked here but had heard my stories. Shifts leave knuckles swollen, backs aching, and minds numbed, but we know it takes weeks, sometimes months, to find a job in San Francisco. So Lauren and I pack cans with fish meat, netting similar cash returns.
And then I meet “Gio.” (To protect the reputations of those in this small Alaskan fishing community, I’ve changed the names of people in this piece.) Gio is around 30 with a long mustache and a belt with tools and a knife. He wears a frayed black sweatshirt appearing as though he uses his sleeves as spare cloth.
“Cannery work is the bottom of the barrel,” Gio tells me. “You’d make more money fishing.”
After first encountering him in the dining hall, my interest in fishing is piqued. I follow him, down an aluminum ladder and over a few other boats, to the deck of his boat.
Immediately, I know I want to go fishing. Everything is dirty and tiny and either on hooks or tied shut or taped down so that it doesn’t move when the boat rocks. It feels like a renegade vessel.
There are seemingly no fisher women around, and I wonder if the industry is a hostile place for us. But Gio tells me there are women who fish and “you just have to be able to tell someone to fuck off if they’re hitting on you and you’ll be fine.”
I tell Gio I don’t know why anyone would hire someone without fishing experience. “Just keep asking boat captains,” he tells me, “and eventually someone will probably give you a job.”
Later in the night, Gio and I hook up in a chain-link net storage locker filled with worn wood. At some point, two fisherman walk through the hall of lockers and Gio whispers, “Hide!” We both hastily cover our naked bodies with a stinking pile of fish net on the floor, me with my hands over my bare breasts stifling laughter.
Lauren flies home satisfied with her bounty, and I fly to a small town in the Alexander Archipelago — a section of Alaska’s southeastern panhandle. The silver salmon season there is still strong.
Leaving Gio, I know the strange, delightful moment in the net locker will remain etched into my memory. Despite the unlikeliness, I want to see him again.
After three days of searching for work, I end up on the deck of the Bardus with Dave. His face is all giant brown eyes and bulbous nose, while both his mannerisms and voice are languid, as if a recording of him were being played back at 80 percent speed. It takes us 40 minutes just to walk down the 600 feet of dock to get to his boat because we stop and talk to every other captain along the way.
Dave came up from Mexico to work when he was 22 and has been fishing for the 40 or so years since then. His parents hated that he wasted the university degree he earned. He hires me solely on the recommendation of his friend, whom I’d met while searching for work. His friend hadn’t needed a deckhand, but we drank a beer together and he dubbed me “good people.”
I thank Dave profusely when he hires me. “Well, you’re certainly enthusiastic,” he says. “Maybe a little too enthusiastic.”
He shows me around his forty-foot wooden boat, geared for four-line trolling — a hook-and-line method of fishing that catches fewer fish than in using a net, but the meat is higher quality. His fish are usually sold frozen and whole instead of canned. Above, two fifty-foot wooden poles hinge upright on the deck. When we’re ready to fish, they will splay out like wings, spreading out the four fishing lines so they don’t tangle.
The cabin below deck is a cluttered mess of plates, pots, fishing hooks, brightly enameled lures and dingy clothes. It’s dark and there’s only a two-square-foot patch of floor visible for standing next to the stove. “I’m not the neatest guy,” Dave says. “But we’ll clear some space for you.”
To get into my bunk, I’ll have to launch myself over two emergency insulation suits and a couple canisters of gasoline. It’s not ideal but I’ve lived in worse — at least the water keeps insects out, unlike the house I’d rented on a trip to Indonesia — and I know I can’t be picky in my first fisher job.
“Never had a woman on the boat so I’d have to get used to it,” Dave says. It will be just the two of us.
I think Dave wonders if I’m cut out for fishing work because he warns me, “Pretty soon you’ll be able to gaff those Coho good.” And then, just to make sure I get it, “You’re gonna have to kill them.” Which I understand in theory, but part of me is afraid I won’t be able to do it, that my fierce empathy will interfere and seize me up. I’ll have come here for nothing then and will need to use all my money to fly on four separate planes back to San Francisco.
I’ve thought only of how to overcome the barrier of getting hired without contemplating what it would be like on the other side.
* * *
Most people picture Alaska as a land of ice and snow, but during the summer in the Southeast, it’s not. Dave and I fish with the sun warming us enough that we wear t-shirts most of the time, and otherwise my sweater beneath my rubber orange overalls is enough. Our goal: catch 100 silver salmon a day.
In the mornings, Dave drives the boat and waits until we get to a fishing spot to wake me. I’m always dead asleep, cocooned in my sleeping bag in the bunk below his, which is just big enough for my body. I keep the bag cinched around me so I don’t have to touch the bed, which is covered with threadbare loose sheets, which often slide off to reveal oily foam. The bed looks like it’s been there since before Dave bought the boat.
My bunk is underneath Dave’s, so close there’s barely a foot separating my face from the boards.
In the afternoons, Dave sits at the helm, his thick grey moustache twitching as he puffs on his pipe, which several years ago he adopted to replace his three-pack-a-day cigarette- smoking habit. He hunches over the wheel, a permanent posture, in dirty jeans and a grubby white t-shirt. I wear my “outfit,” as Dave calls it: a stained grey shirt and the only fleece pants I could find at the thrift store — red with white snowflakes on them because they were originally intended to be pajama pants.
When I have to go to the bathroom, there’s a white plastic bucket, which I pull onto the upper deck so Dave can’t see me when he’s in the wheelhouse. “You sure pee a lot,” he says.
On deck I use the metal reel to drop our four fishing lines. As I set each one out, I clip lures on every four feet, each punctuated with a barbed hook. Once in the water, the lures or “flashers” themselves look like a school of swimming fish — plastic and metal decoys.
I go back in the wheelhouse and cook us breakfast — bacon or sausage, eggs, and toast — on the cast iron over the greasy black kerosene stove. As soon as I start cooking, though, Dave calls me up because the line jiggles and I have to reel it in. I run the lines alone while we’re fishing unless we start catching so much that both of us have to reel in lines at the same time.
The line is divided into six-foot-long sections, each with a short lure clipped on. As I reel it in, I methodically remove each clip until I reach one with a fish. I pause the line and use my gaff, a wooden baton with a thick metal spike on the end. I hold the line taut with my left hand, and knock the fish on the head with the blunt side of the gaff to kill it. Then I swing the gaff’s spike, piercing the fish’s skull with it to pull it up.
I think about death all day. I watch the fish eyes dilate and fix when they die. It becomes the signal that I’ve done my job, so I begin to get a small rush from killing. The rush is mixed with vulnerability; I often feel nauseated with my power. Some of the fish I reel in have eyes blanked out with blood, a result of trauma from the hook, like their irises and pupils were colored in by a child with a red crayon. Sometimes the fishhook will curl up through the roof of a fish’s mouth and push one eye out so it bulges. Or the hook will pierce through the eye, and when I pull the hook out, the eyeball is stuck on the barbed end and I have to cut it off with my knife. The insides ooze black. Sometimes before the fish’s eyes fix they scan back and forth so fast they almost vibrate. Sometimes I lick my lips and taste salt and I don’t know if it is seawater or if blood from the fish has splashed on my face. The experience is filled with visceral violence, but I feel more attached to the fish than I’d anticipated, even in death. My financial survival is tied to the well being of the salmon population.
Fishing has tangible results hard to find in the rest of my life. It connects me, albeit violently, to the cycle of life and death and I feel rooted in the natural world. If I accidentally slice the flesh of the fish as I’m cleaning them, we get less money when we sell them. If I don’t pull the clips fast enough off the line, they jam the reel and Dave has to spend half an hour untangling it. It feels like an antidote to my life back in San Francisco, rife with invisible systems and uncertainty. My groceries show up at a store, the process opaque. My paid work, like serving hors d’oeuvres at fancy parties, seems like it shouldn’t exist as a job in the world I want.
When the day is done, Dave and I anchor in protected harbors, relaxing into the silence as we shut off the motor.
Dave usually cooks dinner — either steak or pork chops with potatoes, but never fish because Dave doesn’t like the taste. I eat my dinner outside on a paper plate, while I watch the sun set on the islands around us.
There are always creatures in the harbor. One night: a swarm of miniature jellyfish, no bigger than silver dollars, each one invisible save for a faint circle enclosing their body and a thin white cross. Another evening brings us silver needlefish floating to the surface, making plopping sounds. When I dump out our pee bucket the splash agitates phosphorescent plankton in the water, creating a burst of tiny sparkles.
A few weeks into the season, I decide I want to commit to fishing long-term. On a practical level, I’m attracted to its seasonal nature, working three to six months to support myself year round as an artist. On a romantic level, I’ve fallen in love with the sea and the hunt. I work my plan out in my head in moments while I am reeling in fish or cleaning them. I’ll keep working as a deckhand for several more years until I can get my own boat.
* * *
To prevent environmental strain on the population, king salmon runs are managed meticulously. I hear that a woman working for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game — which manages regulations in Alaska fisheries — saw a single king salmon scale on the deck of a boat while they were out of season, and searched every corner until finding some the captain had been hiding away. This means thousands of dollars in fines, and sometimes jail time.
Dave and I often hook kings accidentally, seeing their iridescent black scales just beneath the surface as we pull up the line. We use our gaffs to grab the hooks, flip their bodies so the hook pops out, and watch them swim away.
Despite the law, many fishermen eat kings, the most delicious salmon species, once in a while. They are always very careful about it, filleting the salmon while out at sea, disposing of the skin and scales and sneaking it out in a cooler.
One day, in maybe my fourth week of fishing, I tell Dave I want to bring one home, and he says it’s fine and I can just choose one of the kings we accidentally hook. We pull up one king, half its body bitten off by a shark, leaving shiny strings of flesh dangling off the back of its body alongside the finger-y guts. “Not that one,” Dave says. “We’ll get a good one.”
As the sun sinks low, I pluck a small one off and instead of unhooking it I gaff it and pull it in. But when I show it to Dave, his face crumples and he says, “No! Not a baby! Those are doing even worse.” My cheeks get hot with shame and he slumps his shoulders and says, “Well, doesn’t matter. It’s too late now.”
All the highs of my fishing life slide out of my body in one motion and I am left feeling like a naive amateur. What kind of hunter goes around killing babies? It’s exchanging a life for a meager amount of meat. Later I pan-fry and eat it. Its delicate taste, though, can’t eclipse the sadness surrounding its capture.
* * *
One day the starter on the Bardus’ diesel engine dies and we pull into Pelican, the closest town with a mechanic.
After a couple days waiting for repairs, another fisher there named Spencer invites me on a short fishing trip. I figure I’ll make a bit of money instead of simply waiting for boat repair. Dave gives me permission and suggests that we could meet in nearby Elfin Cove in a couple days, so Spencer and I don’t have to return to Pelican. He asks that I just check in within 24 hours.
After fishing for a day, I talk to Dave on the phone. He answers my questions tersely. The mechanic has not started the repairs yet. I ask if I can set up a time with him to call back. “No,” he says, and tells me he doesn’t want to meet in Elfin Cove. “If I prep the boat for another trip, I’d be doing your job…I can always leave your bags on the dock if you’re not coming back.”
“I’m coming back!” I say and we hang up. When I return to town, Dave acts normal. But when Spencer sits down at our breakfast table, Dave gets up immediately and walks out.
* * *
A few days later I wake up to the crunch of ice, and thumping. I open the door to the deck and Dave is in the hold, slamming around the shovel. “What are you doing?” I ask.
“I’m cleaning the hold because you didn’t.” He doesn’t look at me, starts sliding boards out of their tracks.
“I’m happy to do it,” I say. “I didn’t know you needed it clean today.”
“I haven’t seen you in three days!” he says. “You haven’t been checking in with me enough. You haven’t been doing things that good deckhands should do. Without being asked.”
He tells me I should have scrubbed the deck of dog slime and cleaned the boat of moss. Now that I’m looking, I can see mossy buildup around the edges of the boat. “Why didn’t you just ask me?” I say. “I’m trying to be a good deckhand.”
“I’ve been treating you differently than other deckhands. Maybe because you’re a girl. I don’t want to order you around.”
“Just treat me normally,” I say, raising my voice.
“I’ve barely seen you. You just come back to the boat to eat and sleep and that’s it. It’s a good thing we didn’t get stuck anchored somewhere,” he says, “or you’d really be sick of me.”
I’m frustrated that even after working for months with Dave, it seems my gender is still salient. I’ve worked hard. I’ve learned to run the lines and kill the fish. I don’t turn away from any of the work, even when Dave offers to do it himself. But he doesn’t quite see me as a legitimate deckhand. I’m a woman squeezing myself into the role.
Since starting fishing, I’d met two other female deckhands and five female captains. One of the captains told me she started fishing on her own for her second season. Someone had said to her, “You better find a captain you’d like to fuck.” But “I just couldn’t find anyone I wanted to fuck,” she told me. “So I leased my own boat.”
Since starting work with Dave, I’ve been offered several jobs for next year by highly successful fisherman, called highliners. They all seem like good possibilities money-wise but I’m wary of each captain’s reasons for wanting to hire me.
I get into my gear and shovel the rest of the ice out of the hold, plunking it into the water. I scrub the damp wooden boards with a plastic brush, soap and water, flushing away any fish remnants. It smells good in here, like soap and wet wood, and for a moment, I sit in the back section, my legs folded, my rubber boots tucked beneath me. From here I can see the sky and the mountains beyond. The people are all elsewhere; none of them can see me.
* * *
The next afternoon, I fill a bucket with soapy water, plunge my arm into the cold, and use a plastic brush to begin scrubbing the moss off the edges of the boat. It takes ten minutes to get through a tiny patch and after an hour Dave comes back to the boat and tells me not to worry about it. We should get it off later with a power washer. This frustrates me even more because it’s clear that during our conversation, he’d been grasping for things I hadn’t done right.
He says the engine will be fixed by the end of today. The mechanic just needs to put in one more part.
When I tell Spencer I’ll be leaving, I tell him to let me know if he decides he wants a deckhand. This year he fished alone. “I’d love that,” he says, “but my wife would never go for it.”
At night, lying in my sleeping bag, feeling the slow rock of the tempered harbor waves, I remember something Gio said to me: “I don’t know if you have it in you to fish.”
“Why not?” I’d asked.
“Because you said the cannery was teaching you how to get better at working with people you didn’t like. When you’re on a boat, if you don’t want to be around someone, you’re shit out of luck. There’s nowhere to get away.”
Have I romanticized fishing too much?
* * *
In the morning, Dave and I leave Pelican and he radios his buddies to see where the fish are biting. It feels good to be back out fishing. Every time I look up from my work, the seemingly endless archipelago of Southeast Alaska stretches beyond.
Since Pelican, it feels like Dave takes up the whole boat, his body odor seeping through the wheelhouse and the cabin. His jokes feel cloying, like I’m a teenager again, shuddering from the tenderness of a parent.
When the fish slow, I join him in the wheelhouse to read, sitting with my knees tucked to my chest on the small shelf I’ve cleared.
Later in the summer I will work on other boats: long-lining black cod, catching wild shrimp in wire traps, finally getting to catch kings, their black iridescent bodies sleek and wild until I pack them in ice. I will find someone to work with the next season, a married man with a family and a professional work ethic. But during our last day fishing together, he will read me a poem he wrote that starts, “I wanted you last night/ I wonder if you knew,” and will tell me how hard it is to be away from his wife. And I will realize that this is what it’s like to infiltrate a man’s world — that things will change only when there are enough of us.
Beyond my shelf the rest of the Bardus’ wheelhouse is scattered with tools and fishing line and rusted metal flashers. I close my eyes and press my cool hands over my eyelids. The last few days my eyes have started to puff up, probably from a mild allergy to mildew, which seeps into everything in this old boat.
“You know you can always fish with me again next year,” Dave says, looking only at the sea before him. “Though I’m sure you’ll find some highliner who can make you more money.”