Thursday, August 4, 2016

Deadman's Bay Part II

by John S. Mickman

John and the Sogn
In Part I, I had just gotten onboard the Shrimp Trawler, The Sogn, and was looking forward to a fruitful summer season of fishing shrimp off of Kodiak Island, Alaska.

Frank took great pleasure in feeding me baloney and seeing how far he could take me down the garden path before I figured out the ruse. I soon learned to take the things he said with a grain of salt and question everything he talked to me about. However, he still would catch me unawares and we'd have a good laugh. This season with Frank as the Skipper of the Sogn was so much better than it had been the previous summer with 'Jack the Skipper'. We were having a profitable Tanner Crab Season, and each crewman, Ron, George and me, earned over $1,000 per week. We all got along well and were having a good time.

Being a smaller, 72' wooden hulled boat, we waited out the worst of the late Spring storms by anchoring up in one of Kodiak Islands many bays. During these layovers which could last two to three days, I'd read, write, tell stories with the guys and play games. Ron loved to play cribbage and chess and we spent much of our 'down time' in these pursuits. Although I considered myself a pretty good cribbage player, Ron had incredible luck with good hands and would win most of these games. However, although he was an able opponent, Ron never won a chess game. He was just as competitive as I, and this frustrated him to no end - much to my delight. The whole crew would rub his losses in, at which time he challenge me to yet another game.

Ron eating shrimp for lunch
Franks son Ron was about five years older than me and many days while anchored up, we'd take the heavy aluminum skiff down from atop the Deckhouse, put the kicker on and cruise around whatever bay we were in. On one of these cruises, we spotted 3 Kodiak Bears beachcombing along the shoreline. Not long after that, we saw a small camp of guys and beached the skiff to see what they were up to. It turned out that they were bear hunters and hadn't seen a bear during their 10 day bear hunt.

    [Ron eating fresh shrimp for lunch]

We told these guys we knew where there were 3 bears - boy, did their ears perk up. They wanted to know if we'd take them to the bears, as this was their last full day of their hunting trip. Before I could say anything, Ron said, "Sure, we'd be happy to take you over. But, if you guys get at least one bear, you have to pay my buddy John and me a thousand dollars." The guy that had been doing most of the talking replied without missing a beat. I'll give you guys a thousand dollars for each bear we shoot!" The deal was struck.

The three hunters jumped in the skiff with Ron and me and off we went. As we neared the place we'd seen the bears, Ron hugged the far side of the bay and we all saw the bears still playing around on the beach. When we were just adjacent the bears, Ron changed course and headed right for them at top speed. As we got close, the bears spotted us and began running up a big snow slide that ran a thousand feet up the mountain. Just about this time, the guy on the bow drew his rifle and put his scope on the biggest bear as he raced up the mountain. BOOM, he fired from the moving skiff; I'll be darned if he hadn't killed the bear and he rolled down the mountain to the water line. When we reached the shore, each of the other guys jumped out and fired at the other two bears. One was hit and the other one escaped.

Well, this was quite a turn of events. We skinned the bears keeping the heads and put them in the skiff with us. With all this weight in the boat, we were really low in the water and needed to pay attention. We were all thankful that it was very calm in the bay. Ron invited the hunters to dinner aboard The Sogn, so we headed that way. Frank was a gracious host, and we all enjoyed a dinner of King Crab and Halibut. We all drank, talked and told stories well into the night. These guys couldn't believe their luck and thanked us all many times over. Finally, Ron brought the hunters back to their camp. When he returned, he handed me 10 - $100 bills. He asked me how I liked being a Hunting Guide; I told him I liked it just fine!

When Crab fishing, we needed three men on deck as opposed to having two men when we were shrimp fishing. Our crew was comprised of Frank as Skipper, Ron the engineer, a guy named George who was the Deck Boss and me - Deckhand. Of course as the low man on the boat, I was also the cook and chief bottle washer. George was a much better cook than I, and he gladly showed me many more meals to add to my limited repertoire. We had a merry crew, but it was not to last long.

Six weeks after I got the job on The Sogn for the Tanner Crab Season, the fleet had caught the quota which was established each Season by the Dept. of Fish and Game,  and the season came to an abrupt end. During our last trip, I asked Frank about the coming Shrimp Season. "Not to worry", Frank said with his typical gusto. "I hate shrimp fishing. I'm going to have George run the boat and you and Ron are going to work the deck. You should have a job all through the summer shrimp fishing, and then in the fall, I'll get back onboard and the four of us will fish the King Crab Season. Your job is secure!"

Wow, this was awesome! We were making good money fishing Tanner Crab and I was confident we'd do well fishing shrimp all summer too. But the big money was made during the fall King Crab Season. Some Crew Shares were a thousand dollars per day, instead of a thousand dollars per week. I was on top of the world. I sent some money down to my girlfriend (and future wife) Su, and she come up to Kodiak and found a little house in the woods we could rent. I then purchased a little VW station wagon for bouncing down the rustic Kodiak roads; life was good.

After converting The Sogn from a crab boat to a shrimp dragger, George, Ron and I set out to catch as much of the season's shrimp quota as possible. I was still the cook and George encouraged me not to skimp on the groceries. I gladly complied, as Ron and I were burning up calories like crazy, working 20 hour days on deck. However, George was sitting up in the Wheelhouse each and every day, and I noticed he was staring to get a little pudgy. I continued to buy more groceries, cook bigger and better meals as Ron and I watched George get chubbier and chubbier. 

Unfortunately, we were not doing very well and were struggling to get full loads of shrimp - about 75,000 pounds including a deckload. We only had 3 days to catch a load of shrimp in the summer because the warm weather would melt the ice that kept the shrimp cool in our hold. When our ice was gone we had to be at a cannery dock unloading or we were in peril of the entire load rotting. Most of the boats in the shrimp fleet were having the same problem. I wondered if we were catching all the shrimp in the local waters? No one knew, but there were some that thought so. We all trusted in the divine wisdom of the Alaska State Department of Fish & Game to set quota's so as to only allow harvesting on a sustained yield basis. The idea was that each and every year in the future, Kodiak would have a successful Shrimp Fishery.

After a month or so, we decided to try some new grounds on the southwest part of Kodiak Island, just outside of Long Bay. We'd never seen anyone fishing there before, and although this bay was just a long narrow divot carved into the coast, the depth was about right; it could be an untapped shrimp grounds. We agreed to burn the fuel, which came out of our Crew's Share of the total earnings for each trip, and give 'er a try.

So, the evening of July 14, 1973 I stood my usual 4 hour watch as we cruised down the east coast of Kodiak Island, going south toward the Cape Trinity. There were Storm Warnings out and the winds were coming from the Southwest at about 45 knots. Real breezy! However, I was hugging the coast and although it was windy, the wind was coming offshore with no expanse of water from which to build seas of any size.

Also being from the SW, the sky was clear with a full moon lighting up the water as we steamed along at 9 knots (about 10 miles per hour). It was a beautiful, exhilarating night with a lot going on. In the moonlight I could see the coast, but I relied on our radar for navigation. There were no other boats around, and because there are no houses or towns to speak of on the coast of Kodiak, the only illumination was the moon and stars.

I had learned to enjoy being at sea in a storm and this night was no different. The Sogn sliced through the 4 - 6 foot waves nicely, and being a wooden boat, the timbers worked and 'sang' as we danced along through the storm. I loved 'watching the water' when on watch like this, and found great interest in looking for squalls, watching for debris and crab pot buoys on the surface, sea life - lots of stuff was always going on. I loved long trips on the water then, and I love it still.  I wasn't tired at all during this late night watch that night. Too much was going on.

Finally, at 3:00 AM, my 4 hour watch ended and I woke up George for his watch. We were still running toward Cape Trinity, and once we rounded that corner, we would be taking on the full brunt of the storm over about 50 miles of open ocean - from the Alaska Peninsula, all the way across Shelikof Straits.

Skipper George and his big tummy was matched with a big sense of humor. George had a quick wit and really loved bacon-fried white bread as a 'desert' at breakfast. As he sidled through the narrow hatch to the wheelhouse, George said, "Gawd John, has the wind been screaming like this all night?", as he took a sip of steaming hot coffee.

"Yeah, you should have seen the seas build up just after Sitkalidiak Island. It was awesome! I'm surprised you and Ron slept through it", I replied. The wheelhouse of the Sogn, which sat perched on top of the Deckhouse, was small, and George and I together up there barely fit. I squeezed past George back toward the hatch and interior latterway that led into the Crews Quarters below in the Deckhouse.

I commented to George that we were at an extreme low tide. "We're not going through the Geese (Gee-zee) Channel are we George?" I asked. "My heading is off to the East of the Geese Islands right now."

The soft red light in the wheelhouse illuminated the small area, and George shuffled over to the radar and took a look. "Nope, we have to go outside the Islands for sure. This is really going to be rough going through Sitkinak Straits." George turned on the spot light and looked over the rough seas. The spray was starting to be lifted off the tops of the waves - 'smoke on the water'. George commented that he figured the small waves we were in as we hugged the coast would build to 20 feet or better after we rounded the Cape.

After talking about it for a few minutes, George said I should keep my clothes on when I hit the bunk because we may have to run into Alitak Bay and drop anchor; there was no reason we needed to take that kind of a beating and risk damaging the Sogn in any way. I agreed, went down to my bunk and laid down, fully clothed, but with boots off.

By this time I had learned that the only way to stay in my bunk in tough weather was to sleep on my back with my arms locked behind my head. In this way my elbows were firmly pushed up either side between the bulkhead and the bed board that held me, my sleeping bag and my mattress in place. I assumed the position and went fast asleep. That's another skill I had developed; when fishing, catch up on sleep every chance you get because you may not get another change for a long, long time.

End of Part II. Watch for Part III in next week’s edition.

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