Let’s start at the beginning. My name is TJ and I am the Chief Wandering Officer of www.wanderingstray.com. I have traveled across the US two and a half times including making my way, by sea, from Washington to Bristol Bay, Alaska. I used to live a more conventional life working in the restaurant industry but I always dreamed of seeing the world. Ultimately, my dream job is National Geographic Photographer. Recently I started trying to actualize that dream.
I have two business degrees but so far no desire to get a “Real Job”, meaning a white-collar job. I find that expression to be quite insensitive, there are many… what to call them… “Fake Jobs” after all that are real respectable work. I started off by moving to new places for no reason other than a change of scenery. Then I would start to get “The Itch” to go somewhere else, but I would be stuck in a lease agreement. I have wasted plenty of money getting out of leases, and finally decided leases don’t work for me.
Come January 2014 I decided I wanted to be an Alaskan Fisherman, which is very much a real job, with real dangers. I started saving every penny I could and obtained a job through an Alaskan fishing job website. I loosely planned my trip across the US from Georgia to Washington, where I was to meet my first captain. I packed way more stuff into my car than I needed and dubbed myself “Happily Homeless” on 21 April. The bulk of my journey consisted of me visiting mostly US National Parks. I find myself feeling very much at home surrounded by nature.
I stayed at a hostel in Boise, Idaho where I meet a hitchhiker and almost instantly offered to take him to Portland, Oregon the next day. It was the final leg of his journey and I was heading there so I figured why not. Leaving Boise, I call the captain to arrange a meeting and he informs me that he found someone else, “because he hadn’t heard from me”. I responded calmly.
“Was I supposed to call you every day and chit chat like a middle school girlfriend? The season doesn’t start for a month!”
The hitchhiker said I seemed pretty calm for someone who just lost their job. I said I lost a job I never started, I’m still on an adventure so everything will be alright. Figuring we had more time than I had at first anticipated, the very next day we took the scenic route. I ran out of smokes in the middle of no where, there was nothing open in the small town we were passing through but a short way out of town I see a guy with a bonfire on the side of the road and decide to stop and see if I can buy some smokes off him. He invited us to join him for beer, smokes, steak and potato dinner. The Hitchhiker slept on his couch in a camper with no power or water and a wood burning stove. I camped outside in my tent. Come Portland, I drop off the hitchhiker and start making my way north up the coast, stopping in every harbor, looking for a new job. Read Risk and Reward for more details on my journey with the hitchhiker.
I make it to Bellingham in Washington, the first place where I finally see many fishing boats. I start walking the docks around nine in the morning on a Saturday, asking everyone for a job. Most people were just strolling around the docks and after a while, I only talked to people on the fishing boats. Pretty much all the boats had a full crew, one crew member suggested I buy donuts and hand them out (it had worked before). A couple of weeks later I actually saw someone handing out donuts and took one myself. It was about two in the afternoon, I passed a couple of men walking and after about twenty feet someone yelled at me “I heard you were looking for a job.” I turned around, yelled “Hell Yea!”, and made a B-line towards them. We made introductions and I met the captain.
“We are heading to the bar, you should join us, drinks on me!”
That was all I needed to hear. We drank, I was “interviewed” and I moved onto the boat that very night where I grilled up a BBQ.
I worked on the boat for a couple of weeks and then we shipped out for Bristol Bay, Alaska. We were a salmon tender, taking fish off of fishing boats and delivering them to the cannery in town. Crossing the Gulf of Alaska was fun, the weather was shitty. I think it took about ten days but it seemed like a month before we made our way to the fishing grounds. The seas were high, 20-30 feet, the winds were howling, up to 60mph. We didn’t get much sleep, definitely no quality sleep as the ship rocked back and forth, up and down. Our boat was 110 feet in length with a 24 foot beam. The rest of the crew got sea sick, luckily I didn’t. Even the captain said he got a little queezy. We had a deck filled with gear, and a 32 foot gill-netter that we were shipping up to Bristol Bay so there wasn’t much room to move around. In high seas things would come loose and it was always my job to run outside and tie shit down. Be warned, don’t be better than everyone else at certain tasks. I am nimble, good on my feet, and good at tying knots. By the time we got to Bristol Bay all my clothes were soaked and we couldn’t use the dryer in rough seas.
We got to work quickly, the job entailed craning over bags up to 800lbs. There was a scale hanging from the crane, we would record the eight and dump them into one of three tanks holding over 100,000 lbs each. Total we would hold 350,000 lbs of salmon. It was my job to maneuver the bags so the captain could read the weight and then dump them into a tank. At the end of everyday I would be covered in fish blood and slime. It often involved long hours of fast-paced work, thankfully it was the land of the midnight sun which helped to keep you from feeling too tired working late into the night. There is a saying in the Fishing Industry “Hurry up and Wait”, it comes from the fishing times being regulated and being stuck on the boat with nothing to do. My boat Works Hard, and Plays Hard. On the 110′ boat we had everything you need, plenty of booze throughout my summer, a 10,000 watt sound system that would rival any nightclub, PlayStation, TV, Projector screen, movies, and a Hot Tub on top of the Wheel House. During down time up to eight gill-netters would be tied to or boat and we would have boat parties with 30-40 people.
After 30-days in Bristol Bay, the season came to an end and we had to cross the gulf again heading to Southeast Alaska area near Ketchikan. In SE the fishing boats are Purse Seiners and catch five species of salmon. Here my job was to sort the different species, since they all pay different prices, and weigh them. We worked on a giant sorting table with various weigh boxes, it resembled the childhood board game of ‘Mouse Trap (except our baskets would drop). The fish would be pumped out of their fish holds by a 12inch hose attached to a fish pump, essentially a giant wet-vac. We would usually do 3-5 boats a night, totaling 300,000+ lbs of salmon. One night we only took fish off one stray boat, so we decided to pump these fish into another tender to avoid an 8 hour haul into town; meaning we would get the rest of the night off, awesome… except, it wasn’t so awesome as someone has to jump into the fish hold and move the hose around to gather all the fish and make it go faster. Guess whose job that was! I got in when the tank level was just over waist high. A mixture of 33°F/0.555°C refrigerated sea water, salmon, blood, and slime. And since this is usually the job of cannery workers we did not have a pair of waders on the boat. I was Balls Deep in freezing cold Salmon (plus blood, slime, and some water).Work Hard/Play Hard. In a lot of ways I preferred the SE season, the workload was about the same. Though I missed the people we interacted with from Bristol Bay, and we didn’t have any big parties with other crews. We worked two days on/two days off. Depending on when we delivered fish we would either be in town over the off days going to bars, usually on the captain’s dime. Or we would be stuck out in a secluded cove somewhere, sport fishing, skiffing over to the beach for bonfires, beach combing, obviously drinking, and whatever other way we could find to entertain ourselves. I was promised camping on the beach before leaving the lower 48, and that only happened once. The day we got the skiff operational I grabbed my backpack in case I got stranded and headed to the beach. Shortly after I arrived, the captain radioed me saying the tide is going out and not to let the skiff go dry. I know how tides work, it is not that hard. I had about six inches of water left under it. I radio back, “It’s already dry”. Captain responds slightly pissed, “Well this is a good learning lesson”. It was, I learned to lie and use mother nature as an excuse!I started collecting drift wood for a giant bonfire, pull out a sleeping bag, cook some freeze-dried spaghetti and enjoy my first night in a month and a half completely alone. It was so blissful, quiet (except when the crew radioed me drunken messages. I fell asleep under the clear sky looking up at the stars.To top of the season, the captain had an end of the year trip where his friends flew up to Alaska and we went on a ten day private party cruise. This involved drinking from the time we woke up till we went to sleep for a couple of hours, rinse and repeat. We had four half kegs and two cases of liquor, sport fished from the time we woke up, beach combing/fires and hunting trips(No deer unfortunately). I did see two black bears, didn’t want to kill them though. I also accepted a challenge to hang a buoy on the Buoy Tree (origins unknown). My trip out to sea lasted a total of about three months. I really enjoyed myself most of the time, and it allowed me to explore Alaska’s Coastline in a way that very few people get the opportunity to. Mostly just the way fishermen and rich people with private boats see it. The boat I worked on probably has more fun than most other boats. It is also nice that I got a mostly all expenses paid trip, and made a pretty good paycheck for the whole thing. It turns out that I am quite a good crewman and feel at home on the sea. Whether I make it back I am not sure, I turned down this upcoming season so I can travel to India and beyond.
My name is TJ and you can follow my blog over at Wandering Stray, please show me some love by clicking “Like” on my Facebook page. I also included some links throughout the post to direct you to more in-depth posts about my time fishing in Alaska. Don’t forget to explore the rest of my blog and read about my adventures while I crossed the States two and a half times. I will be departing for India shortly and from there somewhere new, be sure to check back for new posts. A special thanks to Will of The Broke Backpacker for being the first to feature me as a Guest Post, I am very honored!