Half past six on a Saturday night, a corner table of the Albatross Restaurant and Lounge, Kenai, Alaska, and already the third round of Jell-O shots are going around. Dinner ended less than a half hour ago and now, all that sliced moose, elk, roasted pig and salmon is aiming to flop right out of my gut. If you come to an Alaskan potluck, you better be ready to sign off your digestive system. A cherry-red glob of Everclear shimmies in my hand, but I set it down. “I know how these work,” I say. “I went to college.”
My host for the night is either disappointed or doubtful. It's hard to tell the difference on somebody who’s weathered 30 years on a fishing boat closer to the Arctic Circle than a Seven-Eleven. He’s not talking, of course. His shot is tipped back, his white beard becoming speckled in neon. I’d never noticed shots come in the same cups that hospitals use to pass out pills. He crushes his between three fingers and laughs.
“Nah, there’s no booze in here,” he says, and then there’s two more in his hands.
I’d forgive the mistake you’ve probably already made, of imagining this night as any other night, in any other bar at the flickering outskirts of any other town. There’s plenty to suggest this: an electronic jukebox, lighting up every time one country song fades into another, a narrow section of sand past the swinging patio door, used for throwing cigarette butts and horseshoes. Next to the bathrooms, a pool table doubles as a cup-holder, and thin-faced, over-40 waitresses circle the tables searching for empty bottles and dollar bills. The fog of cigarette smoke makes me think of the VFW bars I once sat in drinking bottomless Shirley Temples, a dartboard all to myself, while my dad would talk business over mid-afternoon beers. I don’t know a thing about fishing boats, but I’m convinced at least about one thing, even if no one else is: I belong in bars like this.
Tonight’s a celebration, although not the kind Kenny Chesney is currently talking/singing about over the bar’s speakers. Every year the bar hosts a potluck for Cook Inlet’s fishermen. They’re sitting six to eight a table in hooded sweatshirts and shoulder-length beards. They size each other up and down like they did the buffet line earlier. They talk low and their eyes don’t stay on any one thing for too long. I’ve never been good at that, especially here. I stare at everyone.
At my table, they’re making predictions that soon turn into brags. I'd be more impressed were there not also an audible apprehension, a tiny uptick in tone that I’ve often demonstrated, I’m told, when I’m acting “crazy”. I’ve noticed it in everyone here, everyone who has a job that requires a cosigner - Mother Nature, in this case - to make a living.
To anyone who’s given himself to martime pursuits, the albatross is synonymous with burden, borne from one’s own foolish missteps. It’s good luck that spoils into bad in the hands of an overzealous recipient. About six million salmon are expected to be passing through the Cook Inlet, where the Kenai River empties, over the next six weeks. I learn that this isn’t an unusually high prediction, that last year’s was more than double this amount. Less fish for the same number of boats means the margin for error is pinhead-thin. Sluggishness. Cloudy thinking. A head pounded flat after too many Jell-O shots. After a while, I start to think that our calm night of drinking at the Albatross is sort of a cross-wielding gesture. If you drink at the Albatross, the metaphorical one stays away from your neck.
Whoever might have started out their fishing careers contemplating the metaphors of romance poets is more likely to have a different era of myth-making in mind now. Ever since Deadliest Catch first aired on the Discovery Channel six years ago, a flood of copycats have followed to find their own ratings gold. It’s not difficult to understand what makes Alaska an attractive backdrop for reality television's half-scripted dramas. Climate and local characters, both relentlessly extreme. A remote isolation that has the tendency to seem to its viewers - or anyone living a typical American existence - uniquely profound. And because of new state laws giving generous tax cuts to film and television production, it's likely that the trend will continue to alter local demographics and industries in sudden public focus.
Sometime between now and eleven pm, with the type of dumb, stubborn clarity that only comes about after five beers and CCR on the jukebox, I realize where I am. Even with its mounted deer heads and live-in scent of Pinesol and Parliaments, this is nowhere I know at all. By the time the Albatross closes, the sun will have barely set on the horizon, the sky only a cavernous grey, the oddest hue, defiant, as if sleeping off its own impending hangover. And then there’s the doggy bag. It’s late, and the captain - a brick of salt and spit, with a beard and ponytail flushed as white as the sky - has taken his candy-coloured Jell-O shots to go.
As it happens, the captain is the father of my boyfriend, and that’s the reason why I’m here. Ten months out of the year, he spends his time like I do: mostly indoors, mostly in front of a computer, taking public transportation, eating pizza and not touching a single slab of elk’s meat. For the other two months, he comes to Kenai to work as a deckhand on his dad’s boat, the Grouper, fishing sockeye salmon - or reds – in the Cook Inlet, 160 miles southwest of Anchorage.
I arrive in Kenai on the last Tuesday in June, a few days before the season’s first openers.
It's early in the evening when Jacob picks me up in his dad’s Toyota pickup. Summer solstice has just passed, nearly nineteen hours of daylight at the sixieth parallel north. From the highway, the town laid out looks just like any I’d see along Highway 161 through Minnesota’s Iron Range region, every brand of fast food restaurant and gas station the same; even the names of hair salons, featuring the same one-cent puns.
I make a tired request for coffee, fully expecting McDonalds. Instead, Jacob pulls into C-Cups, a tiny stand set up in a parking lot for what looks like a vacant industrial mall. The suggestive title extends to its drink names, but sadly no further. Jacob orders my latte, size C, from his window, and a few minutes later, a 30-something in a baggy sweatshirt hands him my coffee. The espresso tastes overextracted and the milk is beyond burnt, but I savour it, imagining how hard it must be to steam milk in a shed that couldn’t fit a lawnmower let alone a lady and her espresso machine.
I’d been warned about the camp’s rustic accommodations long before I bought my ticket. I would be staying with Jacob, in a trailer parked in the lot adjacent to the cannery where boats docked and unloaded their catch every night. There would be some electricity, but no running water. Showers were available for five dollars up the road at the nearby laundromat. Privacy would be scarce. I’d be one of a few women in the camp, maybe the only one at all.
I'm down to the last sugary sips of my latte when a sign reading Copper River Seafood appears up ahead. We pull in, the gravel road dipping down a small hill. A wall of pine trees had hidden any views of the water from the highway, but now I can see the western edge of the Kenai Peninsula where it touches the Cook Inlet, the end of the Kenai River. The water and land converging in this way makes the shore an indistinct, wobbly line, but we can see far across, about fifty miles, to where the faded mirage of Mount Redoubt stands. I note the excess of industrial beige, buildings lined up along the docks, gleaming gray in the sun above the water, where a couple of dozen boats float, tied to each other in pairs.
In comparison, camp is slightly less majestic. We turn left, the mountainous citadel visible now in the rearview mirror, approaching a different type of fortress lined by blue and green pines and rusted metal. Dusty pickups and RVs sprawl like giant dogs on top of the gravel. I can’t tell which ones run and which ones don’t. Boats and school buses and miscellaneous vehicle parts fill in every bare spot on the lot. I can see Jacob’s dad standing near the firepit, as well as a few more men. A couple of dogs come chasing after our truck, barking until we’re out.
Nerves are an expected part of any meet-the-parents situation, but at least three strains were working against me here. I couldn’t remember when, exactly, I’d last been on a fishing boat, but I know Clinton was president. I also know I threw some of our catch - walleyes or crappies or whatever - back in the water when my dad wasn’t looking. I’d been replaying that scene in the weeks leading up to my visit: me sitting in that red Lund boat, hearing the fish flop against one another in the cooler at my feet until eventually the cooler was silent. This was more memorable to me than anything I’d learned about fishing. Only it was my sea legs, not suffocating animals, that were the source of concern on this trip. Blame it on my environment, the smooth and mild-tempered waters of the north Midwest, for making me into an insufferable passenger on any ocean-going vessel. Nerves are one thing; debilitating vomit is another.
A few minutes later, greetings made and introductions casually given, I'm midway into a lesson in horseshoes with two camp veterans, Bill and Bob, longtime friends of my boyfriend’s dad. Trucks continue pulling into the lot, beer bottles cover the picnic table and I slip away before the horseshoe competition gets too serious. Around the fire, I learn that most of the fishermen here come from the lower 48 specifically for the season. A number of them are married, with kids, others with kids but unmarried. Their excitement is spiralling loose on the first night of the getaway they’ve been anticipating all year. Curse words and off-colour stories start to flare. I feel like I’m at some adult sleepaway camp. Everyone’s escaped from something, an accounting job, home improvements, dramatic middle-schoolers, insufferable ex-wives.
There are women around, of course. The nearby strip club, Good Time Charlie’s, as it's reported to me, serves as a spot to find a girlfriend and a deckhand for the summer, a distinction some fisherman are apparently apt at blurring. I'm told of a few women who've worked here, on crews or on the docks, in the past. Some haven't returned yet for the season and it’s safe to assume they will not, ever.
Jacob's dad chimes in to tell a story about the bartender serving him Long Island cocktails a few nights ago. She was after him, he said, as soon as he showed her his pictures from a Santa Claus convention he'd attended one year during his off-season. The circle of men around the fire explodes. There is Perky, as he is known, and then there is everyone else. It hasn't taken me long to figure out his place among the crews at this particular camp. A conspirator and a comedian, he’s also one of the only men I meet who lives year-round in his boat and trailer. He does, in fact, look like Santa Claus, if he'd ditched the elves and recruited Hunter S Thompson, traded in his sleigh for a wooden fishing boat. When he's excited, he works his feet at an in-place gallop, narrows his eyes and smiles wide, showing black where white should be. When he's riled up, his fists clench at his sides and he exposes his lower row of teeth, all of them in place, his own sentences disrupted with pitched growls and curse words.
If you want to see him riled up, ask him about the recent boom of reality shows coming to Alaska in search of the next Deadliest Catch. I can’t tell if Perky's feelings about the surge of camera crews interested in his chosen profession has something to do with the fact that not long ago, he’d been courted by one. A small crew for the Discovery Channel had accompanied him near Kodiak Island to tour cod grounds, a trip that had steep costs in fuel and time spent; and in the end, the footage was scrapped. Captains are maybe one of the last living professions to carry around serious superstitions. Bananas are strictly prohibited from even being in visual proximity to a boat; and if you think it’s a matter anyone takes lightly, go ahead and try to make a joke about it. Once upon a time, and I suppose still, for some fishermen, women were equally bad as bananas. I can at least see where that belief stems from. After Perky shares his story about the camera crew, it’s clear who has replaced women on his boat’s blacklist.
Besides horseshoes and booze, there's not much for distractions here. During the days leading up to the big opener, we watch bald eagles leaving their evergreen homes, returning with bloodied bits of unidentifiable animals. We read books by the fire and amuse ourselves with an old signboard near the entrance to the camp. One afternoon, we go into town for what I later realize was a bonafide date: dinner (Carl's Jr), a movie (This is the End) and a shower (separate) at a nearby Wash 'n Go.
The morning after the big Albatross dinner, my boyfriend’s dad takes us out to breakfast at a local hotel (we count 41 taxidermied creatures) and then drives us around Kenai and its neighbouring towns. 30 years in Alaska is long enough to witness nearly the entire beginning of infrastructure, from tangled forest to highway boom town. He drives, pointing out personal landmarks: a house or trailer where an old girlfriend once lived, the roads he helped pave or woods he worked to clear, and most amazingly, a decrepit schoolbus buried deep among the trees, his first home in Alaska. I’ve brought my camera and he’s intent on finding a moose for me to capture. When we spot her, she’s turned toward the border of trees marking her territory from ours. At the snap of my camera, her head turns and Perky kills the engine. If I look at them both long enough, it’s actually hard to tell who blends in better.
I’m given a set of dermal patches to combat seasickness that I apply at four in the afternoon, about twelve hours before we take off. They make me feel dizzy during the first ten minutes after I stick them behind my ears, and I try not to see this as a sign that I will be obliterated by nausea and ultimately thrown overboard by my own boyfriend. When we leave the next morning, at three am, I’m awake only enough to notice the sky is black. It’s the first time I’m up to see it.
Once the boat has been loaded, I shutter myself into the narrow bunk below the deck, falling asleep before my brain can register any imbalance or loss of equilibrium. It might be the best sleep of my life, warm in a sleeping bag and pressed against the curve of the boat’s hull, the patch slowly drugging me. When I do wake and poke my head into the cabin, Jacob is at the controls. My head stays heavy and I struggle to stay awake for longer than an hour at a time, chugging Cokes to little effect. I’m awake, luckily, during the half hour when eight hundred pounds of sockeyes are caught. I see them hitting the net, when Perky starts yelling to us from the back. Everyone jumps up but I stay at the entrance to the cabin, watching the fish being pulled in with the net. They look like flies on sticky paper, each weighing around eight pounds, although they look much bigger. Jacob and the other deckhand shake them loose like they’re unloading presents from a sack, occasionally stopping to snap the gills of the fish with a gloved finger. This makes the fish bleed out so the meat, whenever it’s eaten, tastes fresh. This load will be brought to the cannery as soon as we get back, to be processed and canned and sent out for distribution.
Our whole trip lasts about fourteen hours. Besides the early catch, no more reds are brought onboard. I, along with the bloodied salmon, are brought to the dock where I wait for Jacob to finish clearing the boat and tying it to its slip. Other boats are unloading their hatches which are emptied into bins, then carried by forklift to their next processing point.
I watch crewmembers emptying their boats. Against the flat grey sky they look like orange buoys in those rainsuits, shimmering with seaweed and jellyfish guts. They have an entire season ahead of them. 30, maybe 40 days, if they’re lucky. And if they’re not, a whole year will need to pass before they can try again. I want the myths to be true for some reason. For the plight and power of these strange men to be raised up alongside the ancient mariner’s. I want them to be tougher, stronger, better, meaner, worse than me so that I’m allowed to stand in silence when the swelling blue folds into itself and a thousand pounds of fish slide through their gloved hands. So that I can wonder what it is that separates them from me. The trouble with myth isn’t that it’s elusive, it’s that we never stop looking for it, feeling for its shape. It’s like watching someone you love while they sleep and thinking, “Now who is this?”.
I hear a voice coming from my right and turn to see a man walking toward me, his shaved head and leather jacket glinting in the late northern sun. He’s a producer for National Geographic. His crew just got into town. They’re looking for another to trail. He tells me he knew I was an outsider by my Steve Madden motorcycle boots. I tell him I’m visiting my boyfriend. They’re docking up right now. The Grouper. His dad is the captain, I say, he’s quite a character.
He holds out a card and tells me to pass it along.
I wave his card off, politely thank him anyway. I’m exhausted, and the sun won’t go down for another six hours.
Karina Briski is a writer whose work has appeared in Marie Claire, The Hairpin, The Billfold, and elsewhere. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York and tweets at @karinabthatsme.