Friday, September 28, 2012

ALCAN 2012

Last you heard, I was stuck in Valdez due to flooding. After a 5 day wait (due to bad weather) to get out of Cordova I finally got out only to be now stuck in Valdez.  I couldn't help but begin to notice my bad luck.

A series of storms kept hammering the coast of Alaska causing flooding all over that part of the state and washed out some roads.  Like the one and only road out of Valdez.

I arrived via ferry from Cordova into Valdez at 10 in the morning the road was due to be closed until 3 in the afternoon.  I hung out at the Valdez Public Library for 5 hours then headed north out the road.   Only to find out that is was still closed.  Standby to standby until the next announcement at 6 PM.  It started to feel like waiting for a herring opening.  6 PM came and went with no word.  Finally about 7:30 PM, after waiting patiently all day, I heard on the radio that the road was now, finally open.

There wasn't much daylight left then, but given that the road was open despite the fact that it never stopped raining and wasn't forecasted to stop raining, the writing was on the wall.  I took off out of Valdez.  I didn't get far that night, but I was out.  And heard that that next morning, the road had closed again. 

The view from the ferry, though not much of one

Flooding along the road out of Valdez

Waterfalls along the road that are usually a trickle

Once out of Valdez and over Thompson pass, it was clear skies, amazing fall colors of gold, orange, and reds.  Heck, there were even stars, something I hadn't seen in weeks!  I could go on and on trying to describe Alaska's fall time beauty and the beauty of the ALCAN, the Alaska Canadian Highway,  but instead, I'll let my pictures speak for themselves.

Moose in the morning

Fall colors

Alaska morning

Fall colors in the morning

Early morning

Colors in the morning

Caribou in  the Yukon

British Columbia, Canada

Black bear in the Yukon
Bison in the Yukon

Friday, September 21, 2012

It's the journey not the destination...right?

Sounds sage enough.  I’d buy it.  Though, that wasn’t my tune a few days ago …

Another wise old saying is that the journey starts the moment you leave your door.  I think that’s horseshit. Well, at least, that isn’t quite the case when you live in remote places of Alaska, like, say, Cordova and your one and only mode of transportation out of said remote places of Alaska, like, say, Cordova, is the ferry on the Alaska Marine Highway, and said ferry keeps getting cancelled!

I think if you are stuck in the town you live in, like yours truly, your journey most certainly does not start the moment you leave your door.  That’s when purgatory starts. 

I was all scheduled to take off on the ferry Sunday morning.  But Mother Nature had other ideas.  That bitch.  The weather picked up to southeast 40 with gusts to 60 and the ferry was cancelled for both Saturday and Sunday’s sailing.  Ok, ha ha, all part of the fun of living in Cordova.  Right?

I’m a trooper.  I got up super sonic early Monday morning and was at the ferry terminal at 5:55 AM all excited to try again to get out. I showered, put on clean clothes,  had my coffee already made, a thermos full for the road, pasta salad I made the night before so I wouldn’t have to stop for lunch and other little snacks for myself.  Carefully packed the few remaining items into my car, arranging them just so.  Said good-bye, again, to my buddies and I was ready to travel.  My high hopes came crashing down like a tsunami when I found out I wasn’t even on the stand-by list.  I was told I had a snowball’s chance in hell of making it out. The car had been packed for days and I was already out of bed.  What the hey? I had to try!  I couldn’t get a confirmed reservation for another 8 days!

I waited and waited and waited.  For an hour and a half.  Finally, I was told to stage in Lane 2.  This is a good sign.  The ferryman pointed at various cars and told them to load.  I’m so close!  First this one, then that one, then another 20 minutes or so later ferryman said “Sorry.  All full”.  Meh.

I was sure I was going to get out, if nothing else, by sheer will alone!  Deflated, I slogged back to the terminal to rebook my ticket and was told that there were a lot of people ahead of me who had been trying to get out for the past 10 days!  But, that I now had a new confirmed reservation for Thursday, 3 days away. At least I know now when I’ll be leaving.  And, looky, that’s the one and only window of decent weather.  How lucky for me.

In the mean time, Cordova and Prince William Sound continued to get pounded by storm after storm.  The ferry was cancelled for Tuesday and Wednesday.  As my dad would say “The wind blew, shit flew, and no one could see for an hour or two.”  The wind did blow, I think we had gusts to 50 or 60. We got 20 inches of rain in three days; there were flood warning and high wind warning everywhere.  Luckily, most of Cordova is on a hill so not much flooding.

I woke up at 5 AM Thursday morning with little hope.  The tree branches outside bumped and thumped against my window all night, letting me know that the forecasted weather window did not arrive after all.  Demoralized, I got up anyway, didn’t shower, didn’t pack a lunch but just dragged myself down to the ferry terminal only to confirm what I already knew.  Cancelled.

This was starting to get old.  I mean, how much stand by to stand by can one woman stand?  My friends from down south tried to console me “be patient”.  It took all my will power not to tell stick it were the sun don’t shine.  It was my Cordova buddies that gave me the best advice a gal can get at 8:30 in the morning.  Start drinking.  Ha! Now that’s advice I can sink my teeth into!

I spent the day rethinking my travel plans, reviewing my other travel options (turns out, I didn’t have any), and pretty much beating my head against the wall.

However, managed to get to bed early and again, woke up this morning (Friday) at 5 AM.  Heard the same damn branches outside my window letting me know the wind is still blowing.  Debated a shower.  Threw on the same clothes as yesterday, made coffee but no snacks.  Tucked my remaining bags back in the car any old way,  didn’t say good-bye to anyone and slogged, again, back to the ferry terminal. There were cars lined up to get on, a good sign.  I parked and trotted through the rain to check in.   This time, I’m on the stand by list, that’s another good sign.  Ooh, number 3 on the stand by list…this sounds promising.  And the weather is starting to come down….

I get staged in lane 1 this time.  Someone checks my ticket.   Then finally, I hear the words I have been longing to hear all freaking week!  “Pull forward to the purser.  She’ll take your ticket then drive aboard.”  THANK YOU!

Me and my ass are finally getting out of Cordova after a long, emotionally arduous and torturous week of ups and down and going/not going and stand by to stand by is finally over.  I can at last start my 3500-mile road trip south!! My prayers are answered!

Wait, what?  What did you just say?  The Richardson Highway,  one and only road out of Valdez is closed due to flooding?  Shut the front door. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

I hate catching fish one at a time

 “I hate catching fish one at a time” says Fisher Poet Dave Densmore casually last winter at a dinner party following the Astoria’s Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria, Oregon. 

Dave ( is one of the highliners at the event and has been commercial fishing and performing at Fisher Poets for years. I was pretty intimidated by him, with his larger than life stories, poems, persona and eyebrows.   Every time he would come up to me during the weekend to say “Nice poem” I would shoot off my quickest “Thanks” and scamper away.  That is, until we bonded over our mutual hate of catching fish one at a time.

I had once, mistakenly, stated that I hated catching fish one at a time to a guy who evidently enjoyed sport fishing.  He acted as if I had just defaced not only his very existence, but also everything he had ever held sacred, ever.  I was vilified from that moment on.   And, kind of started to feel bad about it.  That is, until I heard Dave Densmore, commercial fisherman and fisher poet extraordinaire,  make the same declaration.  The moment I heard it, he was my new hero and best friend. I slapped him on the knee, much to both of our surprise and shouted “Thank you!” I gave him a quick rendition of my vilification which vanished at that very  moment.  I all but swooned and cooed as his words of detests for catching fish one at a time washed over me and I felt like I had been saved!  Here, I thought it was just me.

I mean, I love being out on the water, be it a river, creek or the big open blue.  I love being on a boat or skiff.  The cold slimy bait isn’t my favorite, but I can handle that,  (however wiggly worms are right out). Its just, I cast, I wait, then nothing.  I reel it in.  Cast, wait, nothing.  Reel it in.  I cast, wait, oh, this time I have a bobble, no, it was just the bottom.  I reel it in.  I cast, again.  Wait, again.  Nothing.  I reel it in, again.  Sigh.  By now, I’m bored, cold, and half pissed off.  I have plans for this fish I haven’t even caught yet.  There is this scrumptious top secret recipe I’m privy to that I’m dying to try.  I have all the ingredients, I have it all mapped out in my head, I can even taste it.  I’ve told all my friends about this great dish I want to make, I’ve all but planned a party.  But the main guest, the only guests that matters,  is a no show.

So, I replenish my egg bait, cast again and wait.  Oh, tug, tug.  “Fish on!” I cry.  That’s right bitches, stand aside.

I’ve been out here on the Eyak River casting away for about 15-20 minutes or so, wishing I had a gillnet.  Granted, its fall time in Cordova and a nice fall day, overcast and in the low 50’s.  We are in a nice 20-foot drift boat just outside of town. The scenery is quite pretty with the trees and mountains.  The day is pleasant. There are tons of other drift boats around all full of sport-fishermen all drinking beer before noon.   Folks are lined up on the beach in chest waders, standing in cold fast moving water for their chance at a fish.  They look cold and miserable through my eyes.  I feel sorry for them.  Poor bastards.  At least I’m in a boat. I shiver for them.

As I pull up on my rod with my left hand and start to reel it in with my right, I am reminded of all the aches and pains I’ve accrued this season commercial fishing.  My left hand cramps up under with weight of the rod.  My right elbow screams in protest as I reel in this fish.  My left shoulder joins in on the protest, seemingly, just because it doesn’t want to be left out. 

As the fish gets closer, our guide grabs the cutest little dip net that you ever did see.  It's so small, it can be handled with one hand, unlike the 2 foot in diameter dip net we have on the gillnetter attached to a 10 foot pole. 

With all his grace of a guide he swoops his cute net into the water and scoops up my catch.  A Dolly. Varden.  A little 2 pound Dolly, which, though I hear they are good eatin’, I’ve never actually met anyone who has sunk their teeth into this little trout type fish. I think great, now I have bigger bait to catch a coho with.  But no, the guide says we don't do that and let it go. That doesn't even compute.  All that waiting and pain just to let it go.  Poor thing still had the hook in.

I go through these motions a good 20 or 30 more times.  My wrists is killing me, my elbow is about to disown me.  And in the matter of a few hours I manage to catch that exact same damn Dolly another seven times before it was finally time to go back to town and put me out of my misery. 

For 3 hours on the water, I had nothing to show but my own pain, which wasn’t even visible.  And the whole time I was thinking, ya know, if I had a gillnet, I’d be eating by now!

Friday, September 7, 2012

An ass kickin’ silver season

Which has really been more of just an ass kicker,  than ass kickin.  This past week especially, when not one but two storm systems swept through Alaska.  They gave the seas out west of the Aleutian chain 70-knot winds and 17’ seas.  They ripped through the Anchorage bowl earlier this week with 100+ MPH winds tearing out trees, flipping small planes and left 30,000 people without electricity.   Three days later, some 4000 homes are still without power (

NOAA's weather graph for 9/4/12

By the time these storms got to us on the Central Gulf Coast, Prince William Sound and the Copper River Flats, it was merely blowing a steady but relentless 40 knots or so.  Of course, this was Monday and there was a silver opener so guys and gals were out fishing.  Most fishing boats faired without too much harm, just tales of close calls of sailing down the channel while picking up the net, catching trees, snagging down and ripping up.  Most guys stayed inside the protection of the barrier islands instead of fishing out in the open ocean where seas were probably over 10 or 15 feet, at least.

The tenders, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of staying inside.  Their deep drafts prevent them from running all the way to the east end of the fishing grounds inside so they are forced out into the open ocean.  Also, once they have fish on board, they are pretty much committed to getting those fish back to town.  So, come hell or high water, or both at the same time, they usually go. 

Tender Alaskan Pacific

One tender, the Alaskan Pacific can attest to that. Coming out of the Bering River, the east end of the fishing grounds, they took a “30 year wave” one that ages you 30 years in an instant.  That wave that broke out both front windows and knocked both guys out of their helm seats.  Their windows must be about 12 feet or so above the water line and they said two-thirds of this wave completely washed over them.  It probably would have flipped a bowpicker like a toy in the tub.  I don’t know what electronics it knocked out, but I know they were lucky enough that it didn’t drown the mains so they were able to come in under their own power.  A 65 nautical mile run in big seas and 40 knot winds with no front windows.  No thank you!  They made it to town all right patched themselves up with plywood and Plexiglas and went back out, in still shitty weather, to buy more fish for Thursday’s opener.  

Usually, it’s the little bowpickers that get their asses kicked, this week it was the bigger boats. 


The Sound Pacer, an 80 foot tender with a green skipper was following fellow tender Tamar into Soft Tuk on the east end of the Flats this last opener, a place where this skipper had never been, with this boat anyhow.   The boat hadn’t been there either this year so the GPS didn’t have any current track lines.  These channels change on an annual basis, so there are no current nautical charts and track lines need to be changed every season.

tender Sound Pacer (picture by Chris Salmon)

After a snotty crossing on the Flats they finally duck into Soft Tuk, missed the channel and promptly ran aground.   They dented in their keel coolers and over heated an engine while getting pummeled by breakers.  Breakers that ripped off their rudder and caused them to start taking on water.  Hopefully, this all happened to the same engine so at least they would still have one engine and could limp off the sand bar when the tide came in. 

View from Sound Pacer (picture by Chris Salmon)

Last I heard, which was last night, everyone was OK and the pumps were able to keep up with the incoming water. They were able to limp in under one engine and were up on the grid last night! 

But fishing boats weren’t the only ones getting their asses handed to them this week.  The Chenega, our 220’ ferry on the Alaska Marine Highway took a pounding last Sunday crossing Prince William Sound from Whittier to Cordova, with 50 Girl Scouts on board.  Evidently, everyone was seasick and they didn’t slow down while getting hit with wave after wave.  They took such a pounding that structural damage was caused!  As of yesterday, September 6th, inspections reveals that further welding to the framing will be required to meet regulatory standards.  The vessel has been out of commission all week and the soonest estimated date of service is Monday, September 10th.  We rely on the ferry for transportation of not only people, but also cargo (such as salmon) in and out of town, produce and groceries. 
You can keep posted on that at

Lets just hope next week will bring better luck.  And weather.