Monday, August 1, 2016

Deadman's Bay Part I

by John S. Mickman

John Mickman and the Sogn in 1973
(Yes, we all had long hair back then!)
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in the Winter Quarter of 1973, I arrived at one those big decision points of my life; a) I could either search for a job using my degree from the Carlson School of Business at the U of MN, or b) return to Kodiak, Alaska and get a job on a commercial fishing boat.

At that time in my life I really couldn't see myself working in an office as a businessman, and anyway, in the early 70's the country was in a recession and there were not many jobs to be had. Option 'b' was way more appealing, as the previous summer I had hitchhiked to Kodiak, and after many trials and tribulations, had gotten a job on a commercial shrimp fishing boat named, The Sogn.  I had really liked fishing and working on the deck of a commercial fishing boat had come naturally to me. I was good at it, and the potential earnings were much more than a young cadet businessman could make.

The other factor was that I didn't have to be a fisherman for the rest of my life; I could be a commercial fisherman for some period of time and then make a career change and put my business degree to work (I hoped!).

And so, on a cold, bleak day in March, the day after my last Final Exam of Winter Quarter 1973, I was back on the road hitchhiking to Seattle where I took a plane to Anchorage, and then on to Kodiak. I had decided that I didn't want to hitchhike all the way to Anchorage because it was still winter in northern Canada and Alaska. Bitterly, dangerously cold. I still had thousands of dollars saved from working on The Sogn the previous summer, so I decided that flying was a better option. And, the sooner I arrived in Kodiak, the sooner I could start looking for a job on a boat.

A good buddy from the previous summer, Jacob LeVann, lived in a rental house with his fiancée Mary on the hill (Pillar Mountain) above the harbor. They had extended an invitation for me to stay with them until I was able to get a job and find my own place to rent. Jacob had fished on a boat named The Salu the previous summer, and the Salu and Sogn had fished side by side a few times during the '72 Shrimp Season. The Salu was a bigger, much newer, steel hulled boat, but the Sogn's catch had matched the Salu time and again. Actually, our 3 man crew of Jack the Skipper, Bert Parker and me were always able to get our shrimp on board and our net back in the water dragging along the bottom before the Salu was able to. We really had worked out an efficient deck operation.

Both Jacob and Mary welcomed me with open arms and we all became even better friends. Jacob was looking for a fishing job too, as the Salu had left for the 'lower 48' to get rigged up to fish King Crab that Fall. So Jacob and I teamed up and were able to cover all the areas which would likely turn up a fishing job - the harbor, cannery row, the fisherman's bars and marine hardware stores. A couple of fisheries were open including Halibut and Tanner Crab (Snow Crab), and shrimp season was just around the corner. As an experienced shrimp fisherman, I was certain I'd get a job soon.

The small town of Kodiak was a beehive of activity and it all revolved around the fishing industry. Kodiak's population was less than 5,000 souls and harbored hundreds of boats in the harbor -- which was always bursting at the seams. There were hundreds of young deckhands like Jacob and me in and around town, as well as boat engineers, skippers, hundreds of cannery workers and many businesses that supported the fleet. There were young people like me galore; having a 'beverage with the guys' was always interesting - and fun.

My favorite night time haunt was The Beachcombers. This truly unique venue was a old, decrepit, landlocked cruise ship that was located about a half mile from 'downtown' Kodiak,  and a hundred feet from the waterline. The developers had dug a deep ditch from the shoreline, pulled the ship into it, and then bull-dozed the dirt back around the ship. You had to climb about three flights of steps alongside the giant hull to get to the entrance on the main deck of the ship.

I was amazed the first time I saw the Beachcombers and spent many, many fun filled nights there. The Beachcombers boasted a nightclub, that featured live, nightly entertainment - always a rock and roll dance band. It also had a billiard hall in which I really honed my pool playing skills. There was a 'restaurant' of sorts from which you could get a sandwich and a beer if you liked. They rented out the staterooms for $25 per week, and although they were small and cramped, the rooms were warm and dry and were always available. These rooms were a real necessity for Kodiak because there was a severe housing shortage in town with lots of people coming and going constantly.

Kodiak had no stoplights and the roads didn't go to anywhere in particular because Kodiak was an island. There was only one grocery store, Kraft's Grocery. Shopping in a small town like Kodiak was as much of a social event as any other endeavor in town. I ALWAYS met lots of my friends there and shopping took twice as long as it should have -- what with all the visiting and all.

The roads outside of the actual town of Kodiak had been forged through the woods and over the mountains by the military during World War II.  They were all made of black, volcanic gravel that was converted to washboard status within days of any occasional grading job. During any dry spell longer than two days, the dust from these roads would coat the trees, brambles and houses with a fine grey dust. This dust coated 100% of the vehicles in Kodiak and no one bothered washing their cars; we all just waited for the frequent mist and rain to rinse them off. This dust was everywhere. Misty rain was nearly constant in Kodiak, which converted the dust into a fine grained mud that coated ones shoes or boots and stuck like glue. No one in Kodiak wore their shoes into their houses due to this  black mud. All houses had a mudroom where the family and visitors shed their shoes and oilskins then entered the abode in their stocking feet. Everyone. Every time. Every house.

Because Kodiak was a fishing port that supported the entire population, the fishermen enjoyed a higher social echelon than the non fishing people; the better the fishing season, the more successful the town. And, the better boat you fished on, the higher up the social ladder you were; the better the boat, the more respect you earned among the community.

Within the first week of my arrival, Jacob contracted with a King Crab boat to overhaul 100 of his crab pots, at $20 per pot - $2,000! The good part was that the pots were right next to the huge processing ship, the Star of Kodiak, and there was a steady stream of boat owners, skippers and crewmen walking by daily. After working out a good system, Jacob and I could re-wrap a pot with new webbing, re-tie the door hinge including door straps, and lace the tunnel eyes in place in about 45 minutes. Working fast with a good buddy like this was great fun and we planned to be done with the job in a week or so.

I've always liked to work and enjoyed it more when it was shared with a good friend. My dad trained me early on that if you have to do a lot of the same kind of thing (work), the trick was to do each one faster, better and more efficiently than the last. During my many years as a commercial fisherman, almost all the deck work was repetitive and when I would get 'in the zone', a tremendous amount of work would be accomplished in a short amount of time. Jacob was the same way. There is a certain camaraderie that men develop when working 'in the zone' like this, and the bond between Jacob and me became much stronger during this time. Although I've always been extremely competitive, I was as hopeful that Jacob would find a job just as much as I hoped I did.

One afternoon while flipping over the last 500 pound King Crab Pot for the day, I pulled my back out and could hardly stand up straight. I'd never had any back problems before, and this was really debilitating. That night another buddy of ours that was looking for a job, Pat, came over celebrate; he had gotten a job on a Tanner Crab boat. His extremely attractive girlfriend Patty was with him, and they were very much in love. Pat was a huge guy, 6' 6"  and he weighted at least 275. Huge. I knew the smaller boat he'd gotten a job on; the 54' Madre del a Rosa was a rusty old slab that hadn't seen a coat of paint in 10 years.

Pat noticed my back pain and told me he could fix me right up. Really?, I asked. "Sure", Pat said. "Just stand up in the middle of the floor right here" he instructed. As Jacob, Mary and Patty watched, Pat put me in a 'full Nelson' grip, lifted me a foot off of the floor then dropped me. Just before my feet hit the floor, Pat jerked me up and I felt(and heard) my vertebra snap back into place. Very scary. But, my back was fixed and I didn't have any more back issues for 20 years.

The next day, Pat left the harbor aboard the 'Madre' and I never saw him or Patty again. In a storm on their first day at sea, the rigging which supported the 'picking boom' broke and the boom crashed down on Pat, hitting him at the base of his neck, breaking his back and severely damaging his spinal cord. They medevaced him to a hospital in Anchorage where Patty flew to met him. We heard through the grape vine that he ended up in a hospital in Seattle and the prognosis was grim; he might have to spend the rest of his life as a quadriplegic.

I have often thought of the omen of Pat fixing my back when, within a day, his back would be broken for the rest of his life. After hearing this awful news about my good friend Pat, I resolved not to accept a job on any boat what wasn't in good condition. Fishing was dangerous enough without the added issue of ratty rigging, poor electronics, rotting pots and leaky hulls. Nope; I resolved to find a job on a good boat.

Fortunately for me, but unfortunately for an injured guy that had been fishing on The Sogn, I was hired back aboard. The boat's owner, Frank Tennyson, hired me for the balance of the Tanner Crab Season and was back in the Wheelhouse as Skipper of the Sogn. Frank had been ill the summer before and unable to fish, but he was fully recovered and he loved crab fishing. Frank was a large, hearty man with a quick wit and a great sense of 'tom-foolery' with a huge, easy laugh.

End of Part I. Watch for next week’s edition of the continuing saga on the M/V Sogn!

No comments:

Post a Comment