DILLINGHAM, Alaska – The story begins in Bangladesh. For the past week it had been a game of hide-and-seek with poodle-sized cockroaches: I would hide, they would seek. I was learning a lot about myself. One such lesson is that I scream like a damsel-in-distress when confronted with an insect larger than my thumb that can scurry at 15 mph. Also that this densely populated country of more than 160 million didn’t really appreciate another nosy journalist in its midst – a representative of the country’s secret police had made that abundantly clear.
So when I saw the job ad for a fisheries reporter for Bristol Bay, Alaska my imagination went wild. I was sitting inside the fortified compound, a whitewashed colonial affair of a mansion that belonged to the family of my new friend and ally, when I came across the want ad: “… will require some in-region travel to remote fishing communities to bring our listeners firsthand accounts from the fishing season as it unfolds from the entire Bristol Bay region. We are looking for the adventurous candidate with at least one year of…” The deadline was the following day.
One month, nine flights and seven countries later I had arrived in Dillingham, Alaska the largest community on Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest wild salmon fishery. Really it’s the last great run in a world where salmon across the globe have been dying out from overfishing, runoff from farms and development, climate change and general poor stewardship on the part of humans. Bristol Bay is different. Following some over-exuberance in which the fishery was nearly wiped out in the 1940s, the state of Alaska has been closely managing its salmon runs on a day-to-day basis that ensures that enough salmon escape the salmon slaying gill net boats and set nets to ensure there’ll be a run the following season. Alaska Department of Fish and Game technicians literally count the fish as they swim by – I watched them – and that’s recorded as escapement. If enough fish don’t get upriver to be counted as escapement – where they’ll eventually spawn – they shut the fishery down. No ifs buts or what-the-hells. People understand what’s at stake even the fishermen whose livelihoods depend on their catch of the season.
Dillingham is not a scenic place. In fact little of the Bristol Bay region could be described as such. It’s low country, mostly tundra with scrub brush and withered conifers that grow on a thin band of soil that covers the permafrost. The community itself has about 2,300 souls or so and much of the buildings are of the corrugated metal modular school of design. What does make it interesting is that it’s predominately Alaskan native – Yup’ik – to be more specific. The native language can be heard in the supermarket aisles and post office. It’s a difficult sounding language to the English ear. It is very guttural with back of the throat sounds and clicks, but it has a lyrical rhythm like one hears in Norse.
My employer was the local school district. The radio station KDLG. I’d hit a home run with my cover letter in which I’d cataloged my experiences as a small-town reporter where – and I quote – “most of my life living in very small towns where everyone is in everyone else’s business. It can be challenging as a hard news reporter because accountability is immediate and self-evident when your audience are the very same people that sell you groceries or pour your beer. That’s why it’s important to temper one’s tenacity with a healthy dose of humility and a sense of humor in order to gain confidence and ultimately serve the community.”
For little did I know that just a few months prior KDLG‘s news director had made the front page of the Anchorage Daily News for her personal blog in which she mocked the tragic death of a young woman and accused a good portion of the community of being a bunch of incestuous alcoholics. She’s no longer welcome in Dillingham.
But this town is not the horror show detailed in the woman’s blog titled Chilly Hell but it does have its challenges. What saddens me is that as news director of the only news organization in the region this woman was in a unique position to play a positive role in shining a spotlight on the social ills that plague much of rural America and ‘Bush Alaska’ in particular. Instead she chose to belittle her own community and mock her audience. To paraphrase a Russian proverb, one should never spit in a village’s well – for you may one day need to drink from it.
Arriving in mid-May there was little color to be seen – the snow had only recently thawed and the sky clouded up and always seemed threatening to open up. In many cases it followed through on its threat and about 80 percent of the summer was a steady drizzle with a brisk wind to back up its bite.
A word or two about Dillingham’s nightlife. Unlike the surrounding villages alcohol can actually be bought and sold – though not on Sunday. Alaska has what is known as the ‘local option’ in which its citizenry can – through referendum – enact or repeal specific liquor laws. Many villages are dry, damp or wet. One can be jailed for even possessing booze in a dry community. You can’t buy drink in a damp town but neither can you be jailed for it and where it’s wet– well, you get the idea.
That’s not to say there aren’t bars in Dillingham. There are exactly two and they are crap for different reasons. Toward the airport is The WillowTree Bar, where the beatnik poet Gary Snyder once wrote these lines in its honor:
Drills chatter full of mud and compressed air
all across the globe,
low-ceilinged bars, we hear the same new songs
All the new songs.
In the working bars of the world.
After you done drive Cat. After the truck
front legs folded first
under the warm oil pipeline
set four feet off the ground —
On the wood floor, glass in hand,
laugh and cuss with
somebody else’s wife
Texans, Hawaiians, Eskimos,
Filipinos, Workers, always
on the edge of a brawl —
In the bars of the world.
Hearing those same new songs
Naples, Galveston, Darwin, Fairbanks,
White or brown,
Drinking it down,
of the work
of wrecking the world.
(Probably © Gary Snyder – used without permission).
The Willow is pretty dull. Its main attraction are the $3.50 cans of Keystone Ice and discount shots of Black Velvet (a guaranteed hangover-inducing combination in even the smallest doses). There’s little crowd, little combination and the bandstand remained perpetually underutilized.
In contrast, the Sea Inn (“where you drink so much ’till ya can’t see out”) is likely the only nightspot from Goodnews Bay to Naknek. There are a few, basic elements that make a watering hole enjoyable. In each category this bar goes the distance in being anathema to all.
Expensive drinks, surly service, bad music, patrons that swing from confrontationally friendly to coldly indifferent to outright hostile. After clearing the door check (the Sea Inn has more black t-shirt wearing “greeters” than my hometown bars usually had patrons) I looked across the pulsating mob to the stage. Sitting on a folding chair was a grinning youth with a backward baseball cap receiving a lap dance from an inebriated woman in her 40s that was pushing 300 pounds. It’s an image that’ll be indelibally burned into my subconscious. The sad part was that it was downhill from there. Never again did I see such unabashed hedonism, rather it would be just as loud, just as heaving but never so light-hearted as seeing a 22-year-old being pleasured by a gyrating walrus.
But more about the job. As the fisheries reporter it would be my role to keep tabs on the efforts on the bay and file radio reports from the various communities that play host to the legions of fish slayers that pilgrimage each summer from their homeports in places like Astoria, Oregon and Seattle. It’s a short salmon season – the fish sometimes complete the bulk of the run in a 10-day period – so getting access to the fishing boats can be a challenge. The best way we could deduce would be to get aboard a larger “tender” these are 60-120 foot vessels that often work as crab boats in the winter or fish in deepwater when they’re not servicing the smaller salmon boats. They anchor themselves in central locations and the fishing boats deliver their catch after they’re full or the fishery temporarily closes to allow for more fish passage – “escapement” – where the salmon is stored in a refrigerated hold.
Some of these boats are the very same vessels featured in that idiotic ‘reality television’ serial known as ‘The Deadliest Catch.’ My first assignment was on such a boat, the Arctic Dawn, which due to its crew’s rabid Maoist politics (“kill the fatcats!”) we decided to rechristen the ‘Red Dawn.’ As we would anchor off in a sheltered cove waiting for boats to bring us fish, I suggested we commission our own reality TV show called ‘Easiest Catch’ as we sat anchored waiting for boats to bring us the fish.
On most of these assignments the fun was getting there. The communities of 300 to a 1,000 people are all off the road system and only accessible by boat or aircraft. The airline Pen Air has a virtual monopoly on air traffic unless you want to hire a bush pilot as a charter. My station KDLG is given a $20,000 annual grant that comes from an organization funded by the fishermen themselves so I had a generous travel budget. Why it costs the same airfare to fly 30 minutes (60 miles) as it would to fly from Anchorage to San Francisco (nearly 3,000 miles) is a question I can’t answer. But then again I’m not an economist and can’t grasp the rationality of the free market.
My first assignment involved touching down in Egegik (population 300) and then literally begging fishermen and whoever would listen to take me out on their boat to deliver me to the Arctic Dawn, the tender that had given me permission to park my overpaid journalistic ass and interview the fishermen as they made their deliveries. That night the tender would steam back to its home port and it would be a mere 25 mile hitchhike back to the airport (I am too good for taxis) and I would be back in Dillingham to file my report for the weekly Bristol Bay Fisheries Report.
It was a top notch crew with good stories, fiery politics and capable cooking that whet my appetite for the tender life. The rest of the season I tried to finagle my way onto the water as much as possible and was successful in many cases. Being deskbound meant phone interviews with seafood economists or biologists which while informative, didn’t have the same pinache as being fed steak dinner on a 120-foot boat adrift in Bristol Bay.
It was at the end of the season and the travel budget was running low. My saintly news director had given me the green light to visit the village of Togiak where there was some late fishing. The manager of the main seafood processor was my new buddy having hosted me there before. A Czech who had been coming to Alaska the past half-decade on a student visa, he was a wise cracking, fast-talking Slav that I could relate to. Neither of us could quite figure out what twist of fate had delivered us to the stark, windswept wasteland that is Bristol Bay but both were making the most of it. This guy wasn’t doing badly. He had befriended a number of local families and the cultural exchange between the young Central Europeans and Yup’iks was edifying to behold. On my first trip to Togiak we’d been invited to a traditional sweat lodge called a muk’ee though I still can’t pronounce it properly. On our way up to the muk’ee which is a wooden hut with a woodburning or gas furnace powered sauna we watched as the Togiak Volunteer Fire Department sprayed water on the smoldering wreckage that was all that was left of a neighborhood muk’ee. They’re a bit of a fire hazard, these muk’ees.
This would be my second proper visit to Togiak. No visit to the muk’ee time unfortunately. It was a shame – I had enjoyed hearing stories from the shriveled elders whose pain threshold was exponentially stronger than mine. There’s a macho element to the muk’ee where one conditions themselves as to how much heat they can stand. It isn’t just the air – boiling water is poured over the coals and the scalding steam is something many people can’t bear for long. I for one couldn’t and had to constantly excuse myself to cool off in the cold midnight sun that would stubbornly refused to set properly until mid-July.
The fish processing plant was in full swing and run by 40-odd efficient Czech university students working side by side with Togiak locals. These hardworking Central Europeans work hard all summer in Alaska so they can blow it in a weekend in Manhattan. They come from Turkey, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Russia and Kazakhstan to name a few and they are the main labor force in the canneries of Bristol Bay that a hundred years ago had imported labor from China, many of whom rest in shallow graves protruding from eroding hillsides on the bluffs around Dillingham, victims of a particularly virulent strain of influenza that displaced the entire settlement of Dillingham about 90 years ago.
My goal was to get back on a tender to interview the skippers of fishing boats. The 18-year-old sister of the seafood plant’s office administrator was going out to a set net site the following morning with her father and after making a nuisance of myself they agreed to drop me off at a tender I’d reached on the radio. They were to pick me up before the next tide.
Fishermen are by nature a superstitious lot. They don’t like to tempt fate. So it was with some trepidation I learned the name of the vessel: the Fate Hunter. Strike one. It was only later that I’d learn that they’d changed the name – a big no-no according to fishermen lore and a sure-fire way to fall out of favor with the sea gods. The original name, the skipper told me, “was something Catholic – Mary-something…” This wouldn’t be good. I suppose the third strike would be the curse of having a woman aboard – the captain’s girlfriend – which is also reputedly bad luck though that superstitition is rapidly falling out favor in these more enlightened times.
So when the set netters ditched me and returned to Togiak without me I wasn’t all that surprised. I was on a cursed vessel and might as well see where this hunter of fate would take me.
The upshot was that the tender soon received order to return with its fish to Dillingham. Rather than a 45-minute skiff ride and a 30-minute flight, it’d be a 20-hour journey. But hey, sea travel is the most elegant form of transportation and we had plenty of movies and fully stocked galley. So I’d be a little late for work – roll with the punches.
Also aboard was a 31-year-old Tanzanian whose business card recently boasted his recent graduation from Columbia University. He was on a fact-finding mission to Alaska as his family ran its own seafood operation in eastern Africa. He was an interesting chap so I tried not to resent him for having already claimed the extra bunk.
It was 4:30 a.m. A crew member and I were on watch in the wheelhouse. Actually we were watching some schlocky romantic comedy. All around us was the stark windswept treeless shores across the boiling dark sea. But to escape these harsh realities and relieve their eventual boredom, these grizzled seafarers spend hours watching and rewatching soppy romantic comedies on DVDs. They seemed genuinely hurt when I failed to appreciate the poignancy of Avatar and kept making cracks about a Starship Troopers-meets-The Smurfs saga.
Up in the wheelhouse, we were engrossed in some schmaltzy romantic comedy and the lead blonde was fretting about something that would certainly be resolved in the next 80 minutes.
The Fate Hunter lurched violently to the right and we stopped moving. This wasn’t good. Looking at the GPS we realized we’d strayed off course and had hit one of the many sand bars in the narrow channel.
The captain appeared in the wheelhouse, his hair askew, and immediately tried to set things right. We were on a flood tide – so the water was rising – but he gunned the engine repeatedly in a desperate attempt to free us. One of the lower ranking crew members muttered the folly in this as he could do more damage to the rudder but knew better than to open his mouth. After some time we were free from the sand bar and drifting but had no steering. A cable had snapped or bolts had sheered off – the crew couldn’t be sure – and had no choice but to drop anchor in the middle of the bay and await rescue.
The “three hour tour” ended up into a 36-hour saga as tide times and commercial realities meant we’d have to be towed by two separate vessels. One good thing about commercial fishermen as they are always ready to lend each other a hand. On a previous trip a tender towed a fishing boat whose motor had failed and they had been fishing for a competitor; it didn’t matter.
Coming into port that evening I was relieved feel my rubber boot hit land. I couldn’t complain this crew had spent the vast majority of their time being pitched around in that rusty tub since the middle of June. To compensate I made a booze run in a borrowed truck so they could find solace while waiting to see if their boat could be repaired.
It was this week that one of the biggest stories in the nation broke twenty miles away and I could do little to cover it. Filling in as the morning host I was tied to the operating board from 6:30 to 9 a.m. I awoke at 6 a.m. to hear something on NPR about a plane lost near Bristol Bay. Crap! I high-tailed it to the station. Just days before KDLG had canceled its membership to the Associated Press and we no longer had the wire. We did have the internet and I tried to scan for information while doing the normal chores of the morning host, compiling the weather, local bulletins, etc. All I knew was that a plane was missing – there were little details but former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens was thought to have been aboard.
Instead of reading the weather, I filled my normal 30-second spots with what was on the wires and careful to attribute the information. I was fielding calls from bureaus of national networks looking for information but there was little I could say. It was hours ahead in Seattle, Chicago, Washington – the nation had already had its coffee and wanted answers. I’d been awake 45 minutes and was scrambling frantically to get some kind of local report. At about 7 a.m. a fire department member called and gave me some sketchy details. The next phone call was from a Fish and Game biologist to remind me to turn my microphone off – I had been broadcasting myself talking on the phone to the fire department guy.
Thirty minutes later the news reporter and normal morning host Adam arrived. “Ted Stevens isn’t gonna die on my watch!” he proclaimed. He has a car and was able to get out to the airport. He was chased off by surly airport officials but not before getting a quick snippet from an NTSB investigator that had arrived and we were able to do a live 2-way at 8:30 a.m. which made me feel like we were at last covering the story.
As the living were extracted the story moved to Anchorage. The governor was to make a statement at 11:30 a.m. – which in an election year I took to mean the senator was dead and Gov. Parnell wanted to sound gubernatorial and make the somber announcement. The Stevens family preempted him by about an hour and the governor was denied some cheap political points.
The frustrating part came as we called around to local people involved in the search-and-rescue. They either wouldn’t talk on tape or didn’t bother to call back. Only later would I read their named in national newspapers or attributed in national networks. So much for the homefield advantage. But this is not a community where people relish hearing their own voice on the radio. Not even me, but the difference I suppose is that I get paid.
As the media frenzy died down that afternoon and as soon as the names of those aboard were released, I figured the story would move to where it really had been center all along: Anchorage and Washington. Those are the financial and political centers of Alaska and the U.S. and it was only by fate that the crash had happened so close to Dillingham anyway. None of those aboard had strong local connections even though many people here do I have a story or two they can relate about meeting the late senator.
So with the day’s work done, I wandered into the Sea Inn to meet a fisherman friend. I felt like I deserved a diversion after early morning madness. A friendly local in town from his job away in Anchorage began buying us shots of Crown Royal. He was immensely friendly but as the conversation flowed his mood changed and he sat with his back away from me. I asked what was wrong. Apparently I thought I had made some slight against Native Alaskan culture. I was taken aback; I hadn’t, even in fun made any wisecracks on what is a very sensitive subject and was dismayed to have somehow hurt his feelings. He wouldn’t explain his anger and I didn’t want to press as I realized the whisky may have something to do with his darkening mood. I went to the toilets and came back to find my friend gone. “Your buddy left,” a observed a woman from down the bar as she saw me looking puzzled. His shot of Crown Royal sat untouched on the bar. My ex-Native friend still scowled. I retreated out of there – but not without shamelessly downing the whisky of the friend who’d done a runner. I fell into a deep sleep at 7:30 p.m. that evening.
Now my time in Bristol Bay – three months it’s been – is drawing to a close. Tomorrow I fly out to Anchorage and then California. But this fishy public radio is turning into somewhat of a career. For during my tenure here I managed to land my job as a full-time news reporter at a community radio station on Kodiak Island south of the mainland. It all starts in September.
Sitting on that mat in Bangladesh I’d never imagined that a hastily fired cover letter could set things in motion that might bring me back up to Alaska. But that’s why the name of the ship ‘Fate Hunter’ still doesn’t make sense to me. For we can’t hunt that to which we are already destined. For we are fate’s quarry, not the other way around.