Dutch Treat

Whether sharing their catch, their automobiles, or their transmission-repair expertise, the denizens of Dutch Harbor, Alaska, are a generous lot. From "The Roger Henry File" for September 18, 2008

RHAlaska368

Alvah Simon

The average Alaskan male is large, lovable, and friendly. But they should not be allowed indoors on the furniture.

We were no sooner tied up in Dutch Harbor than Byron and Rich, both big and burly as bears, called us over to their fishing vessel, the Nancy Ellen for hot showers. I assumed that Diana would be too shy to enter such a macho domain, or be put off by the boat's patina of bait and blood. But she was down in their forepeak washing away the mud and memory of Kasatochi's eruption in a flash.

While I waited my turn, Byron slapped a 10-pound black cod in my hands.

"Go eat this. It's good. Have you ever had a red salmon, a sockeye?"

"Well no, but really, there are only two of us. We couldn't possibly eat any more."

He plopped a fat salmon on the deck. He has ruined me for life, for I will never experience its equal. The flesh was so orange it glowed. The raw meat was firm and succulent and I am embarrassed to admit how much so happily slid down my throat.

That afternoon, Byron apologetically dropped off a "small" Alaskan king crab, but promised a bigger one for the next day. Diana has always said that she does not like crab, but after her first taste I wasn't silly enough to pass my arm between her and that gargantuan beauty.

Later, as he was dropping off some salted-smoked cod and fresh halibut, Byron mentioned they would be out on a fishing trip for a few days. Why didn't we use his old car while he was gone?

You cannot repay these people for their help and hospitality. They will not let you. But you can have them onboard, break open some good wine, a rarity in these parts, and listen to their amazing stories of living life large in Alaska.

With Byron's car we were able to easily reprovision and chase down parts, fishing licenses, pilot books, and tidal tables. Cruising has been described as fixing your boat in exotic ports. I climbed the mast with a garden hose and washed down the volcanic grit. We re-ran the furling line and blocks, reinforced the sail repair, and tended to countless chores. But the real problem of the transmission that would only work at speeds just above an idle remained unsolved.

Rich, off Nancy Ellen, said that because the local tradesmen worked on large fishing vessels with deadlines more pressing than budgets, they charged like wounded bears. He said it would be cheaper to fly a mechanic up from Seattle. When I could breath again I reluctantly decided we would have to make for Seward in our compromised state.

In the local pub we met a longshoreman named Dan who casually asked how long we would be in town. I didn't want to bore him with our tale of woe so just mentioned we didn't know because we had transmission trouble. The next day Dan's lovely Scottish wife, Caroline, arrived at our boat to drop off her friend Richard and invite us up to her house for dinner that night.

Richard has plied Alaskan and Russian waters as both captain and engineer for many years. I assumed this was a social visit so broke out the tea and biscuits. Richard is very well read, and we talked books for two hours.

Finally he said, "We had better get started on that transmission of yours."

By afternoon no two parts of the transmission touched another. By nightfall the Roger Henry was fully operable again. Richard wouldn't hear of any payment. He is simply a fine and friendly gentleman with deep technical skills who is just happy to help.

Over dinner Dan, Caroline, and Richard related stories of Dutch Harbor. Billions of dollars worth of fish and crab pass through this boom and bust town. Most people find this treeless land achingly empty. They take the money and run. But Dan and Caroline love it. Eagles swoop by their front window, foxes frolic in their garden. They can sit for hours just watching the light play on the misty hills that stretch beyond one's imagination.

The old stereotypes no longer work here. The once wild fishing industry has been vertically integrated. The corporations now own the fish quotas, most of the vessels, the processing plants. The once wild and free small boat owners now punch a clock and compare salaries and benefits. The old mix of local Aleuts and lower-48 runaways and renegades has changed into a League of Nations. The cannery dormitories are now Towers of Babel where one can hear Mexican Spanish, Ethiopian, and Tagolog Philipino spoken.

I expressed my frustrations with our time-consuming breakdowns. I said I was anxious to go see "The Real Alaska."

Caroline said, "This is the real Alaska."

Chastened, I looked around the table: at Richards's rough hands and sharp mind, at this pretty woman who crewed on the dangerous crab boats in the northern winters, at Dan's artistic photography hanging on the walls. I thought of big Byron and Rich, their open hearts and eager natures.
She's right. I am in the real Alaska, and feel privileged for it.

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