Working on the Edge: Surviving in the World's Most Dangerous Profession: King Crab Fishing on Alaska's High Seasby Spike Walker
No profession pits man against nature more brutally than king crab fishing in the frigid, unpredictable waters of the Bering Sea. The yearly death toll is staggering (forty-two men in 1988 alone); the conditions are beyond most imaginations (90-mph Arctic winds, 25-foot seas, and super-human stretches of on-deck labor); but the payback, if one survives can be tens… See more details below
No profession pits man against nature more brutally than king crab fishing in the frigid, unpredictable waters of the Bering Sea. The yearly death toll is staggering (forty-two men in 1988 alone); the conditions are beyond most imaginations (90-mph Arctic winds, 25-foot seas, and super-human stretches of on-deck labor); but the payback, if one survives can be tens of thousands of dollars for a month-long season.
In a breathtaking, action-packed account that combines his personal story with the stories of survivors of the industry's most harrowing disasters, Spike Walker re-creates the boom years of Alaskan crab fishing--a modern-day gold rush that drew hundreds of fortune-and adventure-hunters to Alaska's dangerous waters--and the crash that followed.
"Skillfully written and intelligently observed with all the muscle, beauty, and energy of a 145-foot Alaskan fishing boat making way through the treacherous waters of Shelikof Strait..."
"Walker writes with such intensity that no one will walk away from this book without travelling some small part of the way with these men (and a few women) who work on the wild, water edge of civilization, pushing and pushed to the limits of strength and stamina."
Alaska Fisherman's Journal
- St. Martin's Press
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- 6.09(w) x 9.19(h) x 0.84(d)
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Working On The Edge
THE GREENHORN SEASON: TANNER CRAB FISHING ABOARD THE ROYAL QUARRY
As I pounded the waterfront of Kodiak's Cannery Row in search of work, I stretched my black wool cap down over my numb ears and withdrew farther into the warm, protective folds of my Navy pea jacket. Broke and unemployed, with virtually no experience at sea, my stomach felt empty with apprehension. Huddling against the cold, indifferent winds of January, waiting, literally, for my ship to come in, I tried to imagine what Donny Channel and John Magoteaux, as well as the two men who died, Tom Miller and Tom Davidson, had endured.
Several days earlier, a hard-drinking fisherman in the B & B Bar had told me the Master Carl story. For a bar-stool rendition, it was surprisingly accurate, except that he had the grizzlies chasing Magoteaux and Channel for two whole days. "And the bears would of got 'em, too," he put in finally, "if the Coast Guard wouldn't have come along and chased 'em off!"
I'd arrived in Kodiak with twenty dollars to my name, but I held one ace card. I had the address and phone number of crab-boat skipper Mike Jones. He was said to be a young, heads-up fisherman who owned and ran the seventy-one-foot blue and white steel crab boat, the Royal Quarry. We'd gone to the same college (Oregon State University in Corvallis) together.
"I can't promise you a thing if you come up, Spike," Mike Jones (Jonesy) had told me when I phoned him from Oregon only a week before. "But this I can guarantee you. You're not going to get a fishing job sitting down there in Portland. This is where the work is. There's some real money to be made up here. Right now, my men are pocketing about a thousand dollars a week. And that's fishing tanner crab [a tan-colored spidery crustacean that grows to severalfeet in width, averages about three pounds in weight, and is marketed as snow crab]. The real money is made during king crab season. You wouldn't believe how much you can make, provided you get a job on the right boat.
"But it's tough work. Dangerous work. Dozens of crewmen get killed every year up here. And not just anybody can do it. The crab pots are called 'seven-bys' [seven feet tall, by seven feet wide, by a yard deep] and they weigh seven hundred and fifty pounds completely empty. When they arrive on deck, they may weigh a ton if they're full of crab. You've got to be able to control their swing enough to guide them into the rack [pot launcher]. And you need to be able to do it in rough seas. The weather can really get tough up here.
"If the fishing's good, you might have to work steady for thirty, forty, or fifty hours without sleep, or even a cooked meal. We can teach you enough about knots and navigation to get by, but the one thing that no one can teach you is how to work. You can't wait to be told what to do. You've got to be able to see it, and not be afraid to jump right in and get it done. But you've worked as a logger. You probably already know what that's about."
"If you're really serious about coming up, I can find you a place to crash for a few days," he said finally.
Three days later, I flew into the Kodiak Island Airport.
With a one-way ticket in hand, I had caught a flight out of Portland, Oregon. Some fifteen hundred air miles later, my plane had touched down in Anchorage, where I climbed aboard an Alaskan puddle jumper. My journey took me south along Cook Inlet and out across some 270 miles of Gulf of Alaska waters to Kodiak.
It was a sleet-filled night and my plane was late getting in, but Jonesy was there to greet me. He gave me a pickup truck ride into town and left me with one of his crew members, Steve Calhoun, a good-natured young man from northern California. Steve was exhausted from a long day of repair work aboard the Royal Quarry and after only a few minutes of conversation, he turned in.
I was fast asleep in a sleeping bag on his couch when, long before first light, Steve rose and dressed in boots and work clothes. As he walked out the door, he paused. "Here's my key," he said, setting it on the kitchen table. "You can stay here while we're gone. Just be sure and latch the windows and turn everything off and lock up whenever you go out. We should be back in about a week."
With a long green duffel bag in hand, he opened the door to go. It was dark outside. Several inches of fresh powdered snow had blown in across the doorstep. "We've got grocery supplies to store away and a few chores to get done on the Quarry this morning before we leave," he continued. "So, we shouldn't be shoving off until afternoon. When you get up, come on down and I'll show you around the boat."
"Thanks a lot," I said, my voice filled with gratitude.
"Oh, hell, that's all right, ah ..." He groped for my name.
"Spike," I offered.
"Oh, yah, Spike. Anyway, I don't have any trouble at all remembering whatit was like to be broke and trying to hunt up a job on one of these crab boats. No trouble at all."
"Good fishing to you," I replied.
Then, with a short wave of his hand, he lifted his duffel bag and fled out the door. I shuddered as the cold blast of arctic air he had let in rolled across the floor and over me. I thought of the brutal weather, my inexperience at sea, and the sad state of my personal finances, and suddenly a moment of panic and doubt gripped me. I asked myself what could have driven me to take such a risk; to leave family and friends and all the warm familiarities of home to venture into this primitive northern country and compete for a crewman's berth in such a brutal and deadly trade.
I slept hard and long, and when I rose again, the morning was nearly gone. I chose to skip breakfast, dressed hurriedly but warmly, and headed straight for the waterfront and the B & B Cannery in an effort to catch the Royal Quarry and her crew before she shoved off.
Shelikof Boulevard, a street of mud and gravel, wound its way from the center of town along the waterfront to an area commonly referred to as Cannery Row, a strip of processing plants standing shoulder-to-shoulder at the edge of St. Paul Harbor.
With the season already in full swing, Cannery Row was already alive with activity. Everywhere the thriving capitalistic pulses of movement and noise and commerce prevailed. All along the waterfront, one could hear the shrill tooting of the shift whistles, the deep belching sounds of crab boats as their powerful diesel engines growled to life, the hydraulic groan of straining dock cranes, the hum of electricity, and the metallic click of chain links meshing over conveyer-belt sprockets. And there was the hiss of escaping cooker steam, the revving of motors, and the warning beeps of racing cannery hysters (forklifts), while out in the harbor, sea gulls squabbled over discarded scraps, and dockside, cannery workers joked in Taiwanese and Filipino tongues.
To the nose of the pragmatist visiting Cannery Row drifted grim waves of lung-stopping ammonia, the rotting smell of oozing cannery slime, and the unrelenting odors of iodine, kelp, and decomposing microorganisms. Even though I sported an empty belly, those smells renewed my spirit, filled me with a sense of opportunity and adventure, and sent romantic notions jolting through me.
There was an energy here; a boomtown intoxication that can be found nowhere else on earth. There was a sense of optimism and imminent excitement all around; life had taken on a new meaning in these parts. One could see it in the shuffle of the crab-encumbered ships vying for off-loading space along the waterfront, and in the passing faces, and in the quick, restless, straight-ahead way people moved. I could sense an excitement in the tired but grateful faces of the cannery workers as they shuffled home from another profitable sixteen-hour shift. And in the grocery stores, where rich and hungry crab-boat crews bought up every loaf of bread, gallon of milk, and sirloin steak in town, regardless of the price.
I could see it in the crowded streets, where long bumper-to-bumper rows of work vehicles filled every available space and along which dual-wheeled trucks with precarious loads of 750-pound crab pots balanced on their flatbed trailers raced. They were on their way to be unloaded at the earliest possible moment onto their ships, which were tied to the tall wooden pilings dockside.
Their thudding tires pounded a track through the rough, muck-filled chuckholes and launched geysers of ash-based mud out both sides, coating the long rows of parked vehicles from hubcap to door handle with a sloppy goo the color of wet cement. Jockeying for position on the docks, these same pot-toting trucks had hardly rolled to a standstill before their crews clambered atop them. The young men who leapt to untie the pots moved with excitement and vigor. And as I watched, I found myself envying them, the positions they held and the lives they lived, for they had become an integral part of something vital and adventurous.
I'd been part of similar scenes before. Though now still several years shy of thirty, I was there when ambitious men, driven by soaring oil prices, rushed to open up new oil fields outside Morgan City, Louisiana; and I was there when soaring lumber prices lured the same kind of men to plunge, axes in hand, into some of the last great stands of prime old-growth timber in the United States, near Forks, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula.
As I wandered broke and jobless along the waterfront, I tried to remind myself that I had not ventured north completely untrained. While working in the offshore oil fields bordering the Gulf of Mexico, I had served out an apprenticeship as a deep-sea diver; and during that tenure, I had learned to cut and weld underwater, and how to inspect ship hulls, barge hulls, and propellers.
While logging in some of the more remote camps in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and southeast Alaska, I'd learned how to work around heavy equipment, how to stay out of the bite of a straining line, and a good deal of the common sense of serious labor.
I'd learned that a man could find a niche for himself in life just about anywhere, if he kept his nose clean, his mouth shut, and worked without quarter or need of praise.
Call it impetuousness, or point to the insatiable greed of man, but here in the remote Alaskan outpost of Kodiak, simple American capitalism once again had touched off a modern-day gold rush. Yet this time, the prize was not oil or timber. This time, the nuggets were showing in the tanks of fishing boats returning to port to be off-loaded. During the winter months and into the spring, their cargo came in the form of tanner crab, and during the fall, as spiny red king crab.
Experienced skippers--their giant steel ships ranging from 70 to 170 feet--with the knack for tracking down and boating the milling, wandering, unpredictable "bugs" were said to be grossing as much as one, and, occasionally, even two million dollars a year! And the crewmen working on those elite boats were earning upward of 7 percent of that gross, or $70,000 to $140,000 per man!
Those who had caught the scent of such vast riches let nothing deterthem--not the gamble of a plane ticket north, the cold inconvenience of winter, the fear of the unknown, or harrowing tales of shipwrecks and disaster. Now, hundreds of would-be fishermen were pouring into the port villages of Kodiak in the Gulf of Alaska and Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands on the edge of the Bering Sea. I was no different.
I arrived at the B & B Cannery just in time to wave goodbye to Jonesy as he shoved off from the docks.
Jonesy saw my hurried approach on the dock above him, and poked his head out the wheelhouse window and yelled up at me. "We'll be gone about a week, depending upon the fishing," he called, the white jets of his breath lingering in the cold winter air. "Check with Joe at the cannery to see when we'll be getting back into port. We keep radio contact with them. They'll know when we're scheduled to be back in port."
"Who?" I yelled after him as his ship pulled away.
Jonesy again stuck his head out the side wheelhouse window, pointed to the cannery building behind me, and hollered back, "Joe! Hungarian Joe!"
Standing on the edge of the cannery dock, I stuffed my hands into the warm wool pockets of my pea jacket and watched the Royal Quarry idle out of the harbor. I was still there when the toylike spectacle of the blue and white ship turned the corner and moved out across the wrinkled gray expanse of Chiniak Bay.
Suddenly, the commotion of the waterfront broke into my thoughts.
"Hey, Joe! Where do you want the pallets stacked?" a youngster in bright yellow rain-gear pants called from the steamy entrance to the cannery.
I knew it was Hungarian Joe standing behind me even before I'd met him. He'd been part of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, I'd been told. When several divisions of Russian tanks rolled into his country, he'd escaped into Austria. Dressed in plain greens and browns, he wore a flat-billed baseball cap and answered the rain gear-clad youngster with a heavy, Eastern European accent.
"Joe," I interrupted, "I was wondering if you know how often the Royal Quarry reports in?"
He did not seem to hear me. "Vee have crab to cook now!" he replied. Then he pivoted and hurried back inside the cannery. He wasn't ready to talk with anyone then. I'd catch him first thing the next morning.
I turned back to the water and once again took in the view. On my far right, and slightly inland, I could see Mt. Barometer, a unique and pointed mountain that rose abruptly for some three thousand feet. It stood unchallenged, and greeted all incoming flights at the end of the airport runway.
In the distance stood the long, rugged shoreline of Chiniak Bay. The low-lying country was covered with weather-stunted spruce trees, and its headlands played out abruptly in the form of cliffs at its waters' edge. Inland rose an entire range of steep round-topped mountains with broad bowl-shaped valleys stretching between them. Buried in snow, with bare black rock showing through in places, their treeless slopes offered a bleak reminder that winter was full upon the land.
Behind the gigantic hills near the water stood a range of four-thousand-foot glacier-covered mountains, their tallest peaks disappearing into the clouds. But they looked much taller than that, rising from sea level as they did. As I watched, I noticed how the wind was blowing a haze of powdered snow up and over the mountain ridges. Blown into feathery wisps, it looked like mist rising from a breaking surf.
Ahead of me, across the channel, lay Gull Island, a narrow strip of land--a plateau of rock, actually. Crowned with brown winter grass, raked by an icy wind, and encircled by a lonely gray expanse of sea, the island was accented with a tide wash of rich brown kelp and the plump white-breasted forms of sea gulls taking refuge along the rocky shore.
Not twenty feet from the blinding arc light of a welder cursing his trade, I watched a narrow rainbow-colored strip of spilled fuel oil drift by. Submerged in the depths below it, white-stalked sea anemones as long as one's arm sifted the rich currents. Then there was a submarine flash of fin and blubber, and seconds later, perhaps a hundred feet off, the marble-eyed, mustached head of a sea lion rose from the water. Rich brown in color, its fur wet and slickened, the frolicking creature barked, rolled, then dove again, vanishing behind the cloud of its own breath.
Fatigued from the cold and the travel, that night I hiked back to Calhoun's apartment and crawled into my sleeping bag. I felt thankful to be out of the weather and slept that night like the living dead.
The next morning, I rose before sunup, downed two glasses of whole milk, four pieces of wheat toast, a quarter pound of bacon, and a half dozen eggs, then once again made straight for the waterfront. I still had hopes of stumbling upon a skipper who, like Mike Jones, knew how to find and catch crab, treated his crew in a straightforward manner, and had a reputation for keeping the ships he skippered afloat. It was a high and mighty order, I chided myself, for someone with no experience at sea and with little more than a sawbuck left to his name.
Down on the city docks, I came upon what I believed to be my first crab boat. I placed both my hands on the steel side railing and cleared it in a single motion. Then, standing on her back deck, I came face-to-face with a sign posted on the wheelhouse door. It read FULL CREW. Farther down the docks, I came upon still another. It read DON'T EVEN ASK!
Then I checked Cannery Row for new arrivals and spied the fishing vessel Cape Fairwell tied to the pilings in front of the B & B Cannery. "Do you guys have a full crew?" I asked, calling down in a subdued voice to a crewman working on the back deck of the crab boat. Heavily clad, the young man appeared to be splicing together two lengths of yellow cord line.
Without looking up from his labor, he shook his head. "You're the third person to ask me that so far, and we only got back in port last night." Then he glanced up at me. "But that doesn't mean a thing," he put in. "You gotta just keep on asking. Guys get injured. Guys get fired or move on. The worst a skipper can say is no." Still, being refused struck me as the deepest form of rejection. And when the crewman returned to his splicing, I silently moved on.
For an entire week, I pounded the waterfront in search of work. Each day, I made it a point to stop in at the B & B Cannery and check with Hungarian Joe as to the possible arrival of the Royal Quarry. Then, with the daylight gone and my ambition waning, I'd drift from bar to bar, keeping my eyes peeled and my ears open.
The bar life in boomtown Kodiak was the basic social activity for those crewmen in port. It was an all-night lifestyle in which spirits were downed and adolescence could be prolonged indefinitely. It was a stopgap for the missing loved ones of home, and deckhands readily substituted the blood-warming oblivion of liquor and the wild bohemian camaraderie in their place.
Many of the bars reminded me of museums in which drinks were served. King crab and tanner crab that had been injected with formaldehyde were commonly mounted over the bar; along the walls hung pictures of crab boats, harpoons, nets, buoys, glass balls, and life rings. The legal drinking age was nineteen. Some of the bars didn't even blow reveille until 5:30 A.M. And in the long daylight hours of late spring and early summer, I was told, you walked out the front door blinking into daylight.
There was Solly's Bar (and restaurant), Tony's, The Mecca, The Ships, Shelikof Lodge, The Harvester, The Anchor, The B & B, and the Beachcomber. And I came to know them all.
Shying at first from the drunken commotions I chanced upon, I remained silent and waited for the others to do the talking. Each night, I listened to unrefined men clad in muddy boots, wool caps, work-worn jeans, and heavily insulated jackets speaking in a lingo all their own. They talked with enthusiasm about strange (and therefore exciting) places I had never been: Whale Pass, the "south end," Portluck Banks, the bays of Kajulik and Chiganaga, Afognak Island, Cape Alitak, the Barrens, Homer, Icy Cape, Shelikof Strait, the Semidis, Lazy Bay, Dutch Harbor, compass rose, the "slime banks," and "the mainland." These exotic names, in turn, were tied to anecdotes involving catch totals and crew earnings, stormy seas, and men who had experienced them.
These men spoke a nautical language, one of geography and events gleaned from decades of open-sea experience. I learned of the fierce tides of Sequim Pass, the prop-grinding shallows of False Pass, the dog-salmon runs of Kukak Bay, the deer hunting on Kodiak Island (with a legal limit of five deer per person per season), the elk hunting on Afognak, the bleak loneliness of the Pribilofs, the mind-bending savagery of seasons "served" around Adak (out in the Aleutians), and of adventure in the uncharted waters along the Alaska Peninsula.
So I eavesdropped without shame, and by week's end began to probe with questions of my own. I bought drinks for complete strangers and asked questions until further questioning would have seemed rude, or neurotic.
One night, I stepped out of a bitter cold and into a wild and spirited event at a small, waterfront bar. It was there that I first saw her. She was a good-looking brunette of about twenty or so, a young spitfire of a woman. At the moment, she was locked in an arm-wrestling battle with a boisterous greenhorn who had justflown into town. Unable to ignore his mouth any longer, the young woman had offered up a small challenge. Now an intense throng of hard-drinking fishermen and cannery workers were pressing forward on all sides to get a view of the match, and to voice their support.
The commotion was deafening. A rough-looking fisherman sporting a foot of beard and a gruff voice was cheering her on. "Show him what you're made of, Susey!" he growled, pounding his fist on the bar.
One fanatical female booster screamed, "Come on, Susey! Take him! Pin the bastard! You can do it, Susey!" As the woman cheered, she pounded on the back of a fisherman with one hand, while slopping beer on the floor from a glass held in the other. And as the battle at hand continued, and the young girl named Susey drew closer to victory, she leapt and screamed and her voice climbed into an hysterical shriek.
One had only to look into the greenhorn's face to predict the outcome. And as the amazing vein-popping muscle of Susey's right forearm drove his arm closer to the dark hardwood surface of the bar, his eyes looked bloodshot and his face had flushed purple with effort. Then, with a final gush of exhaled breath, the greenhorn's arm collapsed in surrender and the room erupted. The embarrassed greenhorn fled from the friendly jeering and pats on the back. With his head down, he moved hurriedly through the crowd and out the door.
As I departed, the attractive young woman called Susey, or, more affectionately, Susey Q, was sitting at the bar with a warm glow on her face. She was surrounded by a number of admiring young women. Then with a gentle, feminine flair, she swept the clean brown hair from the side of her face and, with a calloused hand, daintily lifted a fresh cold glass of beer to her lips.
Later that night, I was listening to the music and jamming down straight shots of tequila at the Beachcomber Bar when Royal Quarry skipper Mike Jones appeared. He stole one of my six shot glasses of tequila and swilled it down before I could protest.
"Jonesy, you're back!" I shouted, feeling surprised and delighted to see him. "When did you get back into port? They told me you wouldn't be in until tomorrow! How did your trip go?"
"Well, we've got nearly a full load on board," he replied matter-of-factly. "But we were lucky. We didn't break down, and the weather and fishing were good."
"You've been 'lucky' all season long," I joked, poking fun at his modesty. "In fact, I heard your December king crab season wasn't exactly a bust, either."
Jonesy broke into a wry smile. "How did your job hunting go?" he asked.
I shook my head. "Not nearly as well as your fishing trip," I said.
Then the skipper of the Royal Quarry turned to me in earnest. "Spike, we've got a man on board who just might not work out. Now, mind you, I can't promise you anything in the way of a job, but if you think you'd like to, well, you could go out with us this next trip. It'd be a way for you to learn the ropes and see what it's all about and how you like it. And it would give us a chance to see how you work out."
I could feel my hopes soar.
"Now, I can't pay you anything," he continued, doing his best to be clear about the terms. "And I can't promise you a job, because I have a full crew on my back deck right now. But they're an unhappy bunch at the moment. Ordinarily, that wouldn't bother me; I mean if they were mad at me, that wouldn't worry me much at all. But the problem is, one crewman doesn't seem to be able to pull his full share of the load. That makes for bad feelings on deck. And I don't like to see that.
"Besides, if things went well during your trip out with us ... well ... I can tell you it wouldn't hurt your chances at getting aboard our ship, if and when it does come open. And if things don't work out in the way of a job on board our ship, once you get a little experience at sea, opportunities have a way of opening up for a guy who keeps trying. But you have to be patient. And sometimes you have to pay a few dues first. You have to use your head."
"Jonesy," I replied, my eyes wide at the opportunity, "I'll be ready whenever you are. You can damned well be sure I want to go! You betcha!"
He seemed pleased at my enthusiasm. "I thought you might," he said, smiling again and swilling down the last of his drink. "Steve Calhoun will be buying supplies for us tomorrow morning. Tag along and help him if he needs it."
He rose to go. "You'll need boots, gloves, and rain gear. If you've got any questions about what to buy, talk with Calhoun. He'll set you straight."
Early the next morning, I bumped into Hungarian Joe at the B & B Cannery. "Soooo," he began, "did you hear of zee load Mike Jones brought to us?"
"So," he began again, "you go out with him on next trip. Yes? No?"
When I nodded a second time, Joe's eyes danced with delight for my good fortune.
"But I'm not getting paid," I put in quickly. "This trip is just a test to let me see what it's all about ... and to see if I work out."
"Ah, you vill make it!" shot back Joe. "You must vait and see!"
I nodded again. I always liked people who genuinely wished the very best to others.
"Ahhh, this Jonesy, he know how to find zee crab," he continued. "He one damned good fisherman. He deliver only to us. He come to port and bring all zee ship vill carry!"
I felt encouraged as I climbed down the dockside ladder and leapt down on the deck of the Royal Quarry. Steve Calhoun had arrived just ahead of me, and came out to welcome me aboard. We needed to buy groceries first, then we'd stop by Sutlifs Hardware Store and buy some working clothes and rain gear.
"What size boots do you wear?" he asked. "I have a spare pair you might be able to wear."
"Size thirteen and a half," I said.
Calhoun looked at my feet and made a face. "Damn, man," he said. Then added, "Well, so much for that idea!"
Suddenly, a young woman's voice broke through our conversation. "Hey!Let's have a little less talk and a whole lot more work going on out there!" she hollered. Then she stuck her head out the back of the wheelhouse door and smiled.
I froze in my tracks. My mouth fell open. It was the girl who'd won the arm-wrestling match the night before.
"That's Susey," offered Calhoun, smiling at my look of astonishment. "She's your new deck boss."
WORKING ON THE EDGE. Copyright © 1991 by Spike Walker. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.
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