hobart logo
What We Keep in the Locker -- the Internal Dialogue of an Alaskan Fisherman photo

I am at the back of the ConEx with a broom in my hand, smoking a cigarette. Every year it is the same. The light filters in through the opposite end where a padlock hangs from a steel latch on the doorframe, and in those first idle moments my thoughts begin to gather. Pickups cruise by with arms hung out rolled down windows, asking after my dad, scruffy dogs under their canopies. The boats have been pulled from the water and lifted onto blocks in the background where deckhands wield pressure washers, hosing the hulls down. Toby Keith is playing somewhere far off through a junky radio. I stab the cigarette into a pile of fishing weights, kicking up dust in my camp boots, the whole cannery alive with activity, processing the last deliveries of a salmon season drawn to a close.

The ConEx is not unlike a dumpster. I can’t help thinking this when the time arrives. Once intended for cross-seas shipment, it now lies decommissioned in a thicket of summer vegetation along the road to the trailers, rusting clean through its frame into the gravel. It is forty feet long and six feet wide, its floor a row of wooden planks coated in the sod of heavy use. Essentially it is a time capsule—a box for our things, our equipment—though it has come to represent something more over the course of my life. It is a sign.

There is enough junk in this box to fill our boat three times over, enough rope and enough fried net to wrap our trailer like a cocoon. We try not to take note. We carry these things in and out without question, every year, over and over again. They thicken and thicken. We harbor seasons past as if they contain value, or meaning, and maybe they do. We call this box the Locker, and every year, the Locker needs to be cleaned out.

I am using the broom as a shovel, pulling backwards, sideways, busting through piles of wet rope and dunnage, the tiny pieces left behind from net strippings and long days sipping coffee out of the rain. No one ever took the time to put in floodlights. To be honest you’d never really need them. The daylight holds strong past midnight, sometimes later depending on the month, and picks back up around three. In the very back, though, where the paint shears off in sheets, the light is dim and the smell is thick with ironrot and sea musk. This is where I digest my season. This is where my thoughts begin to gather. It is early August and I’ve spent nearly every moment of the last four weeks wide awake.

My dad shows up in the Toyota he got on trade a few years back. All it took was a salvaged boat run aground, left in disrepair, and a case of beer from up town. We later found out the antique copper bell on the mast was worth a small sum in drug money. He’s got two cups of coffee fingered in his left hand, a pair of red Victor knives in his mouth and a bundle of netting in his right. Every year it is the same.

At the dock we spin the net off the drum in three sections, called shackles, that feed into large bags we’ll tie up and haul to the Locker for stripping. We’ll lift the bags into the truck bed, on top of the cab, and putt along the shoulder of the highway to the cannery two lots over, most times in light rain. I’ll watch him flip the hazard lights on, resisting another cigarette. Along the way in the ditches fireweed shoots up through bear grass and alder, cones of bright fuchsia flowers bucking late summer. The locals will tell you each year it grows differently: the height of the fireweed is a marker. In this case it is tall, spelling a deep snowpack for the coming winter, which now feels palpable with a fresh dusting on the hills.

The bags are close to 150 pounds, enough to buckle a guy’s knees, and the way you shuffle with the corners is something earned through years of trial and error. Luckily, for me, I am young. My dad puts his legs into the lift, his face a clenched baseball glove across from me. We waddle in jagged angles through the doorway. He is cranky, both social and hermitic, just past sixty, a white beard hung over his chest. I remember being nine, or twelve, or seventeen, immune to those visual cues one associates with age. Now it is undeniable. Now it is quite clear. Some day my dad will die. It might not be soon, but the last few years have seen a transformation in him, his skin roiling and neck sagging. He hobbles around hawking loogies and popping his jaw. He groans obsecenities and piles drinks into his gut. The lifestyle is overcoming him, though no less stubborn we heave our gear handily out the truck and into the Locker, rain sprinkling down on our sweatshirts, his audible panting an unwelcome visitor unlikely to recede.

We are here to strip our net, recounting the season’s events one by one with knives in our hands, shedding the tattered workhorse from our gear. Come late spring this same net will be reworked, its middle replenished with web, the battered snaps and lashings retied. It is all about the hands. To picture this correctly you must first understand our hands.

Over the course of the season the joints in your fingers swell, developing bruises that throb and refuse to show their color. Your wrists give in to the constant thrashing and stretching, acquire cuts and bruises from other jobs: shoveling ice in rocky seas, tying ropes to cleats and unexpected slips in the rain. The mosquitoes in the down times make a feast of your wrists, usually the only open skin aside from your face. To understand these hands is to picture an invisible torment. In comparison the net has fared much worse.

By now every bit of catch we’ve hauled has passed within its small expanse, swam unknowingly into the diamond-patterned web and tangled either by the gills or fins until we’ve wheeled them in by hydraulics and picked them free. The process is hundreds of years old. The hydraulics are not. But by the time the season has closed the web is littered with holes and tears that let fish pass through, and with any luck a portion of our profits will be put toward some new netting for the following season.

“This foxy web held up like shit,” my dad will say, a mixture of scorn and gratitude. “All this new technology, thinner filaments, monofilaments: it gets em alright, but look at this horseshit.” It’s hard to find an area more than ten square feet without a broken mesh, a sizeable tear, or a schoddy mend we’d coozied up between sets. “In the old days we’d have to mend every one of these. Wasn’t no new net every season.”

The old days are something you hear about often. Generally they came before my dad’s time, before he arrived in ‘77, when gillnets and drift boats were clunky, ancient things leased out by the canneries. Talk of the old days is something I can only pass as hearsay. For my dad, it’s simply memory. When he was first starting out he took on a loan from the state of Alaska to purchase his own permit. The 15,000 dollars was a fortune at the time (he was 24) but he worked tirelessly to pay it off and then, later on, find himself a boat of his own. In the meantime everything had been a lease or a prayer, something bought on credit or gambled solely on the outcome of the seasons and their spoils. All of this was an effort to gain freedom. All of this was an effort to gain solvency inside a business of his own. To say any of it came without work would be a discredit to the name of work itself.

“Ah, there it is. Look at that motherfucker,” he says as we pull another several fathoms out the bag. “That backlash cost us some real money right there. Look at that thing.” It’s almost forty feet long, a gigantic hole we loosely sewed back together in a scramble on one of our better days. “Just the time we spent mending it cost us big-time coinage. Shit, shit, shit. If the net’s not in the water, well, you know.”

Looking back like this it’s easy to locate your mistakes. But in the moment, with the fatigue and pressure, decisions are made as though trailing in a reckless race—and in many ways it is just that. During the short month that makes up a season, there are only so many opportunities. Biologists have the final say: if enough fish have not returned to the river, we don’t work. That is the short and long of it. This year we had weeks straight to ultimately squander, seeking out a run that never showed, but you never know when your time will dry up, or when the fish will finally arrive. It’s a troubling set of circumstances. Sleep becomes a senseless waste, if at least an investment with its own implied costs. You never stop believing your time will come, and you never stop running.

“You think the weather had anything to do with it?” I ask rhetorically, having had this conversation repeatedly throughout our slower days. I already know the answer, and it’s complicated.

“We’ll never know, I guess. Could’ve been a fall rainstorm when those fish had just been fertilized that fucked em up, a spring storm when they were smolt, ocean temperatures once they got out, lack of feed, anything. You just never know.” My dad works through three to four knots at a time, slicing the hanging twine like saplings from a limb. Sometimes he does it without looking, or, without his glasses the lay of the blade feels more comfortable by touch. “I did think this was going to be a hell of a year but you’ve gotta learn this is what it is. Some years you get nothing. That’s the way it is.”

“Without the price we got, we’d be in pretty bad shape,” I say, feeling positive. “If we were getting seventy cents like in 2000 we’d be fucked.” It may come as a surprise that salmon can be caught for so little. The danger and work involved is immense, and for such a pittance, the compensation seems unjust. This year we were lucky enough to get two dollars a pound. It saved our season.

“Weren’t for us nobody would have wild salmon,” my dad says, rightfully angered. “At one time we were paid how we should be, at least you could feed your family, try and keep a house. Now they’re just waiting for us to fold it seems like.” In years where the fish are abundant, the price drops accordingly. This is market diagnostics. In this system, there is never a proper reward for your successes. You just work and work. The years have seen my dad’s possessions hewn down to his permit, his boat (which he lives in) and a beat up Toyota. “But it’s like I said,” he continues, gnawing a tab of loose skin from his forefinger, “We’ll fish until we keel over, and they know it.”

I’ve never known if I was considered a part of the We he uses so often. “We,” he says, and, “They.” Over and over. The dynamic seems to exist outside the realm of observation. He’ll say something like, “We’re out here starving and killing ourselves for nothing. They can’t keep doing this shit, not for long,” and I know exactly what he means. He means to say the foundation he’s built his life upon has crumbled before his eyes, at the age of sixty, too deep to turn around. He means to say there’s no way to prepare for this, no one to blame, and essentially that is unfair.

“What else are we gonna do, though?” I ask, placing myself inside that mysterious collective boundary. “We’re lucky we’ve even got a permit, right? We make a little here, break even there. Some people would kill for that. It’s a living.” I find myself playing the hopeful advocate more than I’d like to, even when I’m not certain I have a point.

“Jake, you don’t understand. This is our livelihood up here. This is all I’ve got.” In these times it’s clear the most critical part of our understanding involves time. I will never be able to put in enough time. This will never be the career I built. Like mine, his hands will yellow all the same, battered slowly, but they will never truly be mine. It would be impossible to know what he knows, given my age. I’ve given so little time. At the end of the day I am a simple protegé, following his lead. I am lost somewhere between We and They. “I wanted to leave this to you some day,” he says, “I wanted something to leave but anymore I’d say it ain’t worth a fuck.”

Every year it is the same.

“What is this?” I ask, uncovering a stack of papers in an ice tote. I tend to change the subject when he gets to ‘passing things on’. Something about failures on the part of both sides seems a bit sore for dwelling. He’s moved the knife back to his mouth, a hand searching the crown of his skull where his glasses usually lie, attempting to focus. “Ah. That’s old Jimmy’s paperwork. From the 70’s,” he says.

“Didn’t he drown?”

“Yep. ‘86. Before you were born.”

“Jesus. How long are you going to keep this stuff?” I ask, digging deeper. The stack seems endless.

“Well, I guess I never thought about throwing it away,” he says, the thought of a thought vacating him. All around us the contents of the Locker threaten to collapse from the walls in. Components from boats long gone remain buried under cracked manifolds, blown-out jig machines, popped buoys. It’s beginning to look like a giant mess. Like the kind of mess you’re left with when your own blood wants out. But not all messes are bad.

In the corner of your mind you keep the good ones, separate and watertight, in the safety of laughable faith. In this corner the memories are miracles fully formed, without struggle or context, lying there tempting you to go further. The inlet stretches undisturbed between glacial ranges, pulled forward by the force of a white moon, the curvature of the earth spotlessly palmed as it vanishes into the hands of water and sky. The net lights up like a flare, bodies tangled in a flash of silver skill. You turn around out of breath to find the hatch filled to its framework, collapse entirely free of bitterness, with energy to spare, the sun still high as you point the bow toward the dock, riding low in the water, the music blaring over the engine, an iced beer in your hand. A midnight sunset, the catch unloaded: a day that ends and begins and ends and begins endlessly. These are the memories that keep you coming back. This is what we keep in the Locker.

image: Jacob Perkins