The Alaskan Wilderness Prepared Me for COVID
Every summer I make the long trip up to Naknek, Alaska — an outpost of human settlement among the tundra, volcanoes, and wildlife of southwestern Alaska to be part of the commercial sockeye salmon fishing season in Bristol Bay. From the airport at King Salmon, we drive the lonely stretch of pavement a half hour north, to the boatyard in which the Epick, a 32-foot-long, aluminum-hulled gillnetter that I call home for several weeks out of the year, resides through the winter. My crew and I prep the boat and put her in the water, where we make use of the abundance of daylight typical to Alaskan summers to try and catch as many salmon as possible.
In 2020, I went amid the COVID-19 pandemic. When I got there, it seemed that the remote Alaskan wilderness had been immune to the chaos back home. On July 12th, at the beginning of the 2020 commercial fishing season, my journal entry read:
Day 1. Diesel engines rumble all around me, sea birds sing as they sweep through the air, and heavy metal drifts from some obscure corner of the boatyard … While the rest of the world has shut down, and the U.S. grapples with the pandemic and protests caused by systemic racism towards African Americans, the scene in this dusty, hardscrabble boatyard is the same as it’s always been. Ignorant of our collective plights are the emerald-green trees, the grizzly bears who shuffle down the beach, and the mosquitos that dance erratically around fishermen’s foreheads.
My experience as a commercial fisherman has undoubtedly helped me through the COVID-19 pandemic. When I’m in Alaska, it’s not uncommon for large swaths of time to go by without contact from my friends or family. Showers, fresh vegetables and cell phone service are all rare commodities while at sea. It’s a very remote existence. What’s interesting, though, is that isolation is something everyone can relate to nowadays. Social distancing mandates, unemployment and a halt in the everyday life we enjoyed before the pandemic has taken a toll on everyone, I know.
I’m lucky, because spending time as a commercial fisherman, I’ve more-or-less become accustomed to being cut off from society.
Bristol Bay, the greater borough home to five of the most pristine wild salmon-spawning rivers in the world (Naknek, Egegik, Ugashik, Togiak, and Nushagak), is an incredibly remote part of North America. Here, isolation is a fact of life. Groceries are shipped in from places like Seattle, cell phone service is hard to come by, and the year-round population of the entire Bristol Bay Borough consists of 748 people.
Day 17. I awake to wind and stinging rain. The waters around me churn as they are blown along, and a dull, greyish-brown light seems to clog the air. Other boats lay hunkered down behind a tall bluff, hiding from the squall. As I stand on the back deck of the Epick amid this surreal rain storm, I’m taken aback by where I am. There really isn’t anything like the wildness of Bristol Bay. Nothing is controlled here. The weather does what it will do. The tides run in and out, ignoring the little 32-foot-long fishing boats that are thrashed around by the waves. The other day, I saw a pod of belugas swim right along our port side, as if I wasn’t even there. This place is so far away from my home in the lower 48, I might as well be on Mars.
I still remember writing that last line in my journal. Being so far away from my family is one of the hardest parts of fishing in Bristol Bay. This was especially true in the 2020 season. Right before I left for the season, out of nowhere my uncle Chris died. His death was a bombshell to my entire family, and made for an incredibly challenging season. Most of this stress came from uncertainty. Obviously, my uncle’s death was a slap in the face. The lack of reliable communication with my family made me feel paranoid, and guilty that I wasn’t doing enough to comfort my loved ones. Furthermore, the season could have shut down at any time had there been an outbreak among the fleet. All these things made me realize that unpredictability is a fact of life, and I gradually came to accept that I’m not as in control as I previously thought. Any season is a gamble; 2020 was only different because it happened amid such a chaotic year. The salmon may never come, there could be an accident leaving me or one of my crew injured or dead, there could be a mechanical malfunction on the boat forcing us to end the season, the list goes on. I learned that I just have to accept these possibilities. Commercial fishing has taught me to go with the flow, which has been invaluable throughout the pandemic.
When I’m not in Alaska, I usually seek isolation. Whether through skiing, running, backpacking or cycling, I find peace in wild settings, where I can remove myself from the hustle and bustle of life. The only difference between those settings and Alaska is that I take comfort in returning to civilization at the end of the day. In the Bay, connection to people outside my crew can be rare, and sometimes the remoteness can become overwhelming. Every year when I return from Alaska, I feel a renewed appreciation for things I would have taken for granted before the season. Food tastes better, the sounds of the city are more clear, the colors of the forest so much more vivid, and the laughter of people I’ve missed is like music to my ears. In my last journal entry from the season (day 46), I described feeling a “renewed sense of self-confidence after making it through hell and back.” Bad weather, poor fishing, mechanical failures, sea sickness and exhaustion definitely put things into perspective.
But in 2020, when I came back to COVID-life, I couldn’t help but feel like I was still in Alaska, in a way. Of course I had access to the comforts of home. But in order to keep myself, my family and friends, and my community safe, I had to continue isolating myself from others. I did feel, however, that I was able to apply some of the lessons I learned through the season to my daily life. I knew (and still know) that any terrible situation, such as the pandemic, will eventually pass, like stormy seas in the Bay. I feel more comfortable not knowing what lies ahead of me. I see now that the human spirit is tough, and that it takes a lot for it to break. At times through every season, I am sleep deprived, pissed off, and ready to quit, but I can somehow muster the strength to carry on through the discomfort. My favorite fisherman’s mantra is: “Today and tomorrow, those are the only two days that matter.” It reminds me to be present, but to also be mindful of what is to come.
Despite the monotony, the discomfort and the homesickness, I’ve found that Alaska will always teach me to be humble, to have patience when it counts, and to endure whatever is thrown at me. I didn’t realize that commercial fishing could be such a profound experience before my first season in Bristol Bay. But now that I’ve spent time there and really experienced the Bay, with all its beauty and all its ugliness, I am grateful.
And in case you’re wondering, I will be going back this summer.