The Fishermen (and Women) of Yakustan
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August 4, 2009
The Fishermen (and Women) of Yakustan
by Alvah Simon
We set sail into the dreaded Gulf of Alaska on the tail end of a gale, in the theory that this gave us the maximum weather window to make a safe crossing into the protection of the Inside Passage. I don't deny that things have gone terribly wrong for many the mariner in this notorious gulf, but our passage proved that our minds are just as capable of stirring up a tempest as the North Pacific. We motored most the way.
Even though well offshore, we traveled in the shadow of Mount St. Elias. This stunning peak rises directly out of the sea to a towering 18,008 feet, making it the most dramatic vertical rise in North America if not the world.
We might have made it all the way into Cross Sound with the entire Gulf safely behind us, but our curiosity about the remote and road less village of Yakutat got the better of us.
No sooner had we tied to the town dock than we met sailor and fisherman, Les Holcome. Les took Diana and I home for hot showers and to meet his wife, Robin, several beautiful daughter-in-laws, and for as young as Robin looked, more grandchildren than I could count.
When Les and Robin, their sons Herb, Curt, Nick, and daughter, Sonja, aren't sailing the family Morgan Out Island 35 through the Caribbean for the winter months, they live in Yakutat helping each other build their homes, rig their boats, set their long lines, mend their nets, and make their living as professional fishermen. Even pretty 18- year old Sonja owns her own halibut quota.
Les explained he could not take me out to the famous fishing rivers the next day because he had promised to take Sonja out to pull her long line, which had been soaking for the maximum of two days. I have never been on a commercial fishing boat, and was very curious as to just what the process was that brings these fine fish to our home and restaurant tables.
Technically I was allowed onboard only as a visitor, or in this case a photojournalist. I.E. I should not participate directly in the fishing. But truth be known, it is hard to stay out of the fray when a monster halibut, by far outweighing Sonja, hits the deck with attitude. Simply put, commercial fishing is not for the faint of heart or frail of limb. It is hard work, gruesome work, and one of the most dangerous occupations known. Still, Les and Sonja yelled with joy, "BIG butt!" every time a flopping barn door appeared on the surface. By the end of a long day Sonja had her 2000-pound quota and I had an aching back but fascinating experience.
Yakutat boasts world-class sport fishing and a large airstrip. Recreational anglers from "outside" (the lower 48) fly in to stay at any one of several outfitting lodges. Curt Holcome told me that occasionally for entertainment, he goes out to the airport to watch them offload. He says that even while they are walking down the plane's ramp to the tarmac, almost without fail, the first thing the tourists do is turn on their cell phones. Curt just loves watching their expressions turn from confusion to a form of electronic vertigo as they discover, that in spite of its air connections and being officially in the US of A, Yakutat has no cell phone coverage whatsoever. The locals affectionately refer to their edge of the earth town as Yakustan, and appear in no hurry to catch up with the rest of the modern world.
With the next weather window, we set sail down Gulf of Alaska's lee shore towards Cross Sound and the protection of the inside passage. We had hoped to stop in Lituya Bay, but the narrow inlet demands entrance only in daylight, with light winds and at slack tide. We did not enjoy the confluence of these conditions.
Lituya was scene of a catastrophic event in 1964, when an 8.3 magnitude earthquake triggered a landslide. At 1700 feet, the ensuing tsunami wave remains the highest wave ever recorded on earth, and the scars of destruction remain on the mountainside to this day. Although very remote, the event did not go un-witnessed. Three fishing boats were anchored in the bay. One was never seen again, but incredibly, the other two rode out a series of five unimaginable waves, and lived to tell their amazing tale.
Alaska dwarfs its sister states in scale and extremes. When Texans boast how large their state and everything in it is, Alaskans just smile. They jokingly threaten to divide Alaska in two, thus making Texas our third largest state. Alaska boasts the northern most and westernmost point in the USA. Denali is by far the highest mountain, Juneau is our largest city by area. I intend to spend the next week confirming that Admiralty Island alone boasts more brown bears than all the rest of the US combined. The truth is, everything is bigger in Alaska, and a lot of it bites.