Alaskopolis: Fishing Stories 2014-2020By Ben Gordon
January 25, 2021
1. Don’t Die
2014. My dad calls to tell me about a sheep hunt he’d been on with an old fisherman friend in the interior. He tells me to call this friend because I’ll be working on this friend’s fishing boat this summer. “You’ll either be with Andy or his identical twin brother Pete.” Two people I’ve never met or heard of before. Fishing after high school is a mundane fact in coastal Alaska, but when I tell my friends I’ll be fishing they don’t believe me. The cognitive dissonance of imagining my 18 year-old-self working on a seine boat is too much and everyone worries for me. The most common two words I hear before I leave the first time are “don’t die.”
So I fly into Cordova to fish for a man I’ve never met, with a backpack full of books I think a recently graduated 18 year-old should read. I won’t read any of them, and later in the season I’ll wish I used the backpack space for more socks.
Andy and his wife, Mel, pick me up from the airport. Andy has a lazy eye and a limp and he says it’s because his twin beat him up in the womb. Andy seems a little shy at first so Mel does most of the talking. She wears wire transition lenses, and chain smokes Marlboro reds. She is a born and raised Cordova girl.
Cordova had a railroad in and out of town, but now there’s a 30 mile stretch of dirt road where it used to be, ending at a bridge which was swallowed by the unforgiving Copper River during the Good Friday earthquake of 1964. Now, Cordova is cut off from the Alaskan highway which would connect it to other parts of Alaska like the city of Anchorage. Cordova doesn’t want this road to the city. They fear a road will take away what is special about Cordova which is that it’s really only fishing and things related to fishing. There are bumper stickers on lots of cars and businesses around town “NO ROAD.”
1989, thirty years after the Good Friday earthquake of 1964, and seven years before I am born, the Super Tanker “Exxon Valdez” runs aground on Bligh Reef and spills over 10 million gallons of crude oil into the Prince William Sound. After the spill kills the fishing industry, financial anxieties, spikes in substance abuse, domestic abuse, and suicides plunge Cordova, a town of 3,000 (mostly fishermen), into chaos. Twin fishermen and lifelong Cordovans, Andy and Pete move south along the coast to Sitka to continue fishing in waters untouched by the oil.
Andy’s boat, The Ace is brand new, fresh from the boat yard in Washington. Unlike other boats in the fleet, the living quarters are comically small. It’s the first thing people comment on when they step inside for the first time. “Oh it’s like… really small.” Andy designed it this way so as to not invite any other sort of leisure or unnecessary passengers (like his wife). “It’s a work boat, not a piano.” Andy also takes this as an excuse to keep the boat as messy as possible. The deck of The Ace is spacious and incredibly efficient in its operation. Andy likes to make sets fast. The more sets you are able to make in the fourteen hour fishing periods, the more fish you catch, the more money you make. The price of the salmon varies year to year. That’s one tactic Andy uses to keep me coming back. He keeps predicting how high the price is gonna be. “It’s gonna be the biggest year, pricewise, you’ve ever seen.” And usually it’s not and it’s a lot lower than he predicts. He makes up for this by always being one of the top three boats in the Sound. Some years his twin beats him.
3. Thom, Ethan, and Paul
Thom has minor gauges in each ear and wears a red knit cap with devil horns. He’s one of the boat builders and is on the crew to help fix and finish the boat since it was rushed out of the boat yard. One day he runs out of chewing tobacco. I hand him a slice of pizza at the end of the fishing day and he throws it in the water. He teaches me mechanical things, but it is confusing because he compares everything to jerking off. Changing oil? Just like jerking off. Tying lines? Exactly like jerking off. Unbolting a piece of equipment? Just think of it like jerking off. I don’t remember any of the practical knowledge.
Ethan was recently asked to leave his Christian college in Homer, Alaska because the administration found out he had sex with his girlfriend. He says he was called into the dean’s office and they asked him if it was true he had had sex with his girlfriend and he said yes because he was worried being caught in a lie would be worse for him.
Paul is basically the co-captain and Andy’s oldest friend. Paul is patient and teaches me a lot. Each piece of the boat is designed for a specific part of the fishing operation and I have no idea what any of it is. I’m told to do things like “shorten the purse line” and “change the oil,” “pull up the bunt,” “pop the release,” and I have no idea. Eventually you learn things until one day you understand. It took me two summers to understand what each part of the net is for. There’s the corkline, the lead, the lead line, bunt, web, breast line, purse line, rings, king ring and so on. One day it all clicks.