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Bear WranglerMemoirs of an Alaska Pioneer Biologist
By Will Troyer
University of Alaska PressCopyright © 2008 University of Alaska Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNorth to Alaska
Huge white-capped combers slammed into the Sablefish, periodically causing its bow to sheer left and right. The skipper, Gene Stubb, throttled back the engine and spun the wheel to face each onslaught. "Looks like a real nor'easter coming down the strait," he said to me.
My queasy stomach began to really churn. I knew I was in for another siege of seasickness. I gripped the portside window ledge tightly and braced my legs as wave after wave broke over the bow. A small chair slid across the wheelhouse floor and crashed into the wall. It was getting too rough! The skipper spun the wheel to starboard, and the Sablefish slowly responded. A moment later the waves were on our stern and we were running with the raging seas.
"We better get out of this storm while we can," Captain Stubb shouted. "We'll run behind that island ahead and hole up in Alert Bay until it blows itself out."
I wholly agreed, as I was sweating profusely and swallowing to keep everything down. But to no avail. I ran for the head and got rid of breakfast and lunch. It was the third time I had been seasick in as many days, and now my voyage of adventure did not seem to be so much fun. I dove for my bunk and lay there, wishing I were on solid ground.
The Sablefish continued to roll as the breakers surged into our stern, but after thirty minutes we gained the leeward side of the island and the waters calmed. I crawled out of the bunk and went to the wheelhouse, where I cracked a window for some fresh air. Captain Stubb looked at my ashen face and grinned. "Not feelin' so hot?"
I did not answer, just frowned.
The little Sablefish was only thirty-six feet long and heavily loaded with supplies and people, so it did not take very rough seas to make it buck and roll.
My real journey to Alaska had begun many years before. As a teenager during the early 1940s I had read many books about the Last Frontier. The stories enthralled me: a vast land relatively uninhabited and teeming with exotic wildlife. It was a direct contrast to the Indiana farm life I knew. In 1948 I drove the Alcan Highway to Alaska. After spending a few weeks in this immense northern land of high mountains, lakes, glaciers, and an unending taiga forest, I was convinced it was the place where I wanted to live and work someday.
In 1951, during my junior year at Oregon State College in Corvallis, I heard about a job in Southeast Alaska. The seasonal position was with the commercial fishery research branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). I was a wildlife management major and not looking for a job in fisheries, but working in Alaska caught my attention. I applied for the job, even though I would have to miss spring term.
Now, here I was, fighting my way through rough seas along the coast of British Columbia, seasick, but determined to see it through. We had left Seattle three days earlier, bound for Ketchikan and anticipating a three- to four-day voyage. Unfortunately, we had not yet reached the halfway point. I wondered if my weak stomach would survive the long trip.
Three of us seasonal employees were aboard the Sablefish, along with Captain Stubb, his wife, and their four-year-old son. His wife was an incessant talker and constantly sought my ear. I was in no mood to talk when I was even slightly nauseated from the rolling ship, so I often retreated to my bunk to avoid her chatter.
We tied up at the dock in Alert Bay and spent two days in the Canadian fishing village before the storm subsided. The trip to Ketchikan continued to be one storm after another, and I became seasick at least four more times. We worked our way north along the coast, dashing for shelter when the seas got too rough and running when the weather permitted. I got a lesson in Canadian geography as we passed Bella Bella, the Queen Charlotte Islands, Prince rupert, and various other islands and landmarks along the British Columbia coast. On the tenth day we finally reached our destination.
Ketchikan was a typical fishing town in Southeast Alaska, with its maritime businesses crowded along the seashore. Large seiners, trollers, gillnetters, and sailboats filled the local boat harbor and were anchored in every cove that offered protection from stormy seas. Numerous docks jutted into the salt water, and boardwalks lined many streets. A forest of huge spruce, cedar, and hemlock trees bordered the edge of town. Wet sphagnum moss hanging from the tree branches typified the rain forest that covered this part of coastal Alaska. Fishermen in knee boots and foul weather gear strolled along the boardwalks, contrasting sharply with the bankers in business suits. This fishing town was quite dissimilar to the small towns I was used to in the States.
We spent several days in town recuperating from our voyage and taking on more supplies. We then headed up the coast past Bell Island Hot Springs and anchored at the mouth of a small salmon stream. After hauling the equipment a hundred yards up the stream, we pitched our plywood tent frames on four feet of hard-packed snow that remained from winter. As spring progressed and the snow melted, the tent frames sometimes dropped a few inches, scattering our supplies on the floor.
We stayed two months at the first site and at Old Tom Creek in Skowl Arm on Prince of Wales Island, clipping the adipose fins from tiny pink salmon fry. We caught the newly hatched fish in nets and placed them in small, shallow pans of water mixed with a few drops of alcohol, which slowed their squirmy movements. We then held the subdued fish between two fingers, clipped the fins, and released them back into the stream. Pink salmon return to their parent stream to spawn after two years at sea. The adults with clipped fins would later be counted in salmon catches and in the streams to determine survival success and migration patterns.
After a few weeks of constantly clipping fins, the task became a bit boring. But I loved the evenings and off-duty days when I roamed the beaches and forests observing numerous deer, black bear, and other wildlife. Occasionally I found the tracks of a wolf in the sand or observed red fox feeding on clams. The bays were filled with various species of sea ducks, shorebirds, and bald eagles. I wandered the beaches and forests for miles and never saw the track of another human. I was captivated by the wildlife and by the massive wilderness in this wild, remote country. Where I had grown up in Indiana, the countryside was dominated by developed agricultural lands, people, and cities. As I experienced these wild lands I had so often read and dreamed about in my youth, I realized that I felt at home.
This early spring job near Ketchikan turned out to be only a prelude to a summer of adventure.
Chapter TwoSummer on the Situk
I hiked up the Situk river one morning, passing numerous small pools, riffles, and gravel bars. A few red salmon were already fighting their way upstream, harbingers of the hordes of salmon that would soon follow. A deep pool lay before me, and in the placid water I could see dozens of steelhead trout moving back and forth. Occasionally one rose to snatch an insect. My hands shook with anticipation as I attached a small lure to my fishing line. I cast the lure above the trout and slowly retrieved it, expecting an immediate response, but nothing happened. I cast again and again, without success. My euphoria faded, and I became frustrated and angry. This was not going to be easy after all. On about the tenth cast the rod was nearly jerked out of my hands. The line was ripped from the reel as I fought to slow the fish. The spool was almost empty when the steelhead turned and ran toward me. I thought it was gone until the huge trout leaped four feet out of the water in a cloud of spray. I was astounded at the size of the fish. I was reeling frantically to take in slack line when it leaped again, shaking its head violently in an attempt to throw the lure. The big fish raced across the pool several times before it began to slow its efforts. I worked it closer to shore, and when the steelhead gave up the struggle, I pulled it onto the gravel bar, dropped the rod, and ran forward to claim my prize. I held up the twenty-six-inch fish, hardly believing I had finally landed such a trophy. I was elated and yelled, "What a fish! What a fish!"
I turned and looked downriver. No one else was on the Situk, and in the distance I could see the weir, the structure through which I would count thousands of salmon during the course of the summer. I looked at the fish in my hands again and said to myself, "Boy, there're sure some major perks to this job."
In May, after completing the pink salmon project near Ketchikan, I was offered a job as weir watchman on the Situk river near Yakutat. My boss, Gomer Hilsinger of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was the fishery management agent for this region. When I arrived at his office in Juneau, he briefed me on my duties, which were primarily to count the different species of salmon that migrated up the Situk river to spawn. Documenting the number of salmon in the major streams in Alaska helped the FWS monitor the health of salmon populations that were subject to intensive commercial fishing.
After Gomer trained me for the summer job, he smiled and said, "I probably shouldn't tell you this now, but for your information the Situk river is one of the best sportfishing rivers in Alaska. Remember, your first priority is to count the fish through the weir, but you should have plenty of time for fishing. I'll envy you while I'm sitting here in this office."
Gomer also informed me that I would be traveling to Yakutat aboard the vessel Kittiwake. It was one of the vessels the commercial fishery branch of the FWS maintained to assist them in carrying out their salmon management duties. I was not eager for another long sea voyage, as I had not forgotten the rough trip to Ketchikan on the Sablefish only a few months before. Gomer must have read the scowl on my face. "Oh, don't worry," he said. "It's only a one-day trip, and the weather forecast is good."
His comment relieved my fears temporarily, and the next day I boarded the Kittiwake. It was about fifty-eight feet long, with lots of cargo space and limited living facilities. Hank Museth, the skipper, met me as I stepped aboard. "Welcome to my ship, Will. Just take your gear downstairs and toss it on any empty bunk available," he instructed me.
Hank was a tall, lean man with a tanned leather face acquired from years at sea. A few hours after we left Juneau, his deep bass voice resounded through the wheelhouse when he got on the radio to let the Juneau office know of our progress. "Juneah, Juneah, dis is da Kidd-ah-wake approachin' Point retreat," he informed Hilsinger's office.
Hank warned me to enjoy these relatively calm waters while I could, for once we passed Cape Spencer and entered the Gulf of Alaska, we could expect rough seas. I was not happy to hear those dire warnings, but I dismissed them for the moment. I was enjoying the scenic snowcapped mountains and the numerous green forested islands that surrounded us. The weather was pleasant and I stood on the deck of the Kittiwake with my binoculars observing the abundant marine life. Various species of seabirds rose from the water as the Kittiwake sent its wake rolling toward the shores of Admiralty Island. I spotted harbor seals lying on rocky islets and sea lions diving as we approached them. Several times I saw the white head of a bald eagle sitting on its nest in the top of a tall spruce tree.
Soon after we rounded Point retreat and entered Lynn Canal, a pod of porpoises appeared on our port side. They swam along the bow of the vessel for a few minutes, occasionally breaking the surface; then they furiously pumped their tails and raced ahead before circling back to repeat the playful performance. In Icy Strait, near the entrance to Glacier Bay, a group of humpback whales became visible. I was enthused at the abundance of wildlife and often yelled at the crew inside, "There's a whale!" or "Look at the porpoises!" Hank only smiled at my exuberance.
Darkness was falling as we entered Cross Sound, and Hank decided to spend the night in elfin Cove, a small, well-protected bay. He wanted to get a good night's rest before we entered the expected rough seas in the Gulf of Alaska.
The next morning I was awakened by the noise of the Kittiwake's engine, and a few minutes later I heard the anchor chain being hoisted onto the foredeck. I quickly got dressed. The smell of brewing coffee permeated the air. Hank and Pete, who was the boat's cook and deckhand, were listening to the marine weather forecast when I entered the wheelhouse. The forecaster predicted winds from the northwest at fifteen to twenty knots and seas to eight feet. It was not the best forecast, but Hank thought we could make it.
Pete offered a breakfast of pancakes, bacon, and eggs, but I opted for two slices of toast, knowing from previous experience that my stomach would be churning when the Kittiwake started to buck heavy seas. Once we passed Cape Spencer, there would be no islands to duck behind along this rugged coastline. Hank figured the trip to Yakutat would take sixteen hours. The Kittiwake made a steady nine knots. Before long we entered the unprotected coast, and the Kittiwake charged straight into the swells. It did not roll from side to side, but the up-and-down motion was enough to upset my weak stomach.
Hank saw my uneasiness and asked me to take the wheel while he went to the galley for a snack. An old seaman, Hank possessed an appetite that was not curbed by the bucking vessel. To keep the Kittiwake on course, I quickly learned to not overcompensate on the wheel when the vessel wandered slightly. I also discovered that steering kept my mind off my upset stomach.
By midafternoon the seas had increased, and at times the water broke over the bow, slamming against the wheelhouse. Hank was forced to throttle back the engine to reduce the impact of the waves. Our forward speed slowed to about six knots. I was rather pale as I grasped the windowsill to steady my balance. Pete looked at my ashen face and suggested I eat a few saltine crackers. It seemed to help temporarily, but I had no appetite for food.
By nightfall the combers had become larger, crashing into the wheelhouse on a regular basis. My stomach was really roiling by then, and I ran to the head to upchuck what little food I had eaten in the last twenty-four hours. I was miserable and wondered how I could have signed on to this trip after the similar experience I had endured en route from Seattle to Ketchikan only a few months before. I vowed that if I ever got to shore, I would never set foot on a boat again. But I wanted the summer job on the Situk river and consoled myself with the thought that this trip would not last forever. I crawled into my bunk and hung on to the railing to keep from being thrown onto the floor.
The drone of the vessel's engine was often drowned out by the sound of waves slamming into the ship. After each onslaught the Kittiwake lurched and rolled. Sometime during the night the refrigerator door came open, spilling its contents. I heard the sound of breaking glass and rolling cans coming from the galley, but I was too sick to care what happened and only tightened my grip on the railing. I found out later that Pete was also seasick. Only Hank, the weathered seaman, seemed unaffected, but he later confessed he had felt a little queasy.
My misery seemed to last forever, but finally the Kittiwake quit rolling. It gave me some hope. An hour later I was feeling much better and decided to get up. I walked through the galley, where Pete was still cleaning up the mess, and said, "Good morning!"
"What's so good about it?" he answered with a couple of expletives. I ignored his obvious bad mood and continued to the wheelhouse.
Hank was at the wheel. He smiled and said, "Didja enjoy da ride?"
"Not exactly," I replied. "I had a pretty miserable night."
Excerpted from Bear Wrangler by Will Troyer Copyright © 2008 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission.
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