If you’re reading this I’m currently either high in the sky on a flight home or in an airport as some small part of the journey. The important thing is, though, I’m on my way back. Hurrah!
Better yet, thanks to the help and support of readers and fans, I managed to hold out and over long enough to make a small stockpile of cash on this trip. It means pushing all my releases back a month or so … but given that the alternative was pretty much indefinite/long-term delayment, this is the best option. I’d still like to try and get both Unusual Events and Colony released this year (after all, that’d bring my published fiction wordcount for the year to something like 775,000 words, which would be awesome) but it’s quite possible Colony will end up being an early release next year instead.
Anyway, that’s all stuff that extraneous to this post. You see, I figured if I was going to be gone for so long, I might as well give you guys a bit of an idea about what it was I was doing. As kind of a thank you for being patient. And for helping out.
I can’t say that last part enough. Thanks to everyone who supported me on Patreon or purchased/reviewed one of my books over the last few weeks, or even just sent some kind words. Thank you.
Now, what was I up to in Alaska?
So, shrimp fishing.
The first thing that I’ve got to say is that what most people think of when they think of commercial fishing probably isn’t that accurate. Unless they think of Deadliest Catch. And even then, they’re only partway there, as that is a reality TV show.
So, with that in mind, I’ll say this right off: It’s a harsh job. One that can sink into downright nasty and brutal. As of my typing this, with us having delivered three days ago, and finished cleaning up everything one day ago, my hands are still swollen and sore. As are my wrists. And a bit of my arms. They’ll probably still be a little swollen and stiff by the time you read this on Monday. Last year, the swelling persisted for about a week-and-a-half. That’s normal. Or, in other words, commercial fishing of various kinds is not a job for normal people. It chews people up and spits them out. Harsh and brutal, as I said.
That second thing to I’ll mention? It doesn’t start like everyone assumes. Most who follow this blog (or my other) and knew where I was going probably assumed that I arrived in Alaska, walked down to the dock, and climbed aboard a boat. In fact, it doesn’t quite work like that. For some boats, yes, but in my case, with the job and everything else, when I arrived … prep work. Lots of prep work.
Thankfully, I took pictures! Not of everything (once the job’s going full bore, you can’t really stop), but of what I could. Should help fill in some blanks.
Step 1: Getting Ready
So, the first thing I had to do was get to Alaska. Actually not that hard. Especially not anymore. It only took a day or so’s travel to get there, a good chunk of which was layovers waiting for flights to line up. Not glamorous, but not unspectacular either. An aerial view of Alaska is always pretty sweet.
Eventually, after hopping on a couple of flights, I managed to make it to my hometown’s small airport. And by small, I do mean … well, here, look at it for yourself to the left there. That’s pretty much the whole terminal.
Small town? You bet.
Either way, once I’d arrived, work began pretty quickly. I deposited my bags at my parent’s place and then went and got to work. Doing what, you might ask? Getting the shrimp pots ready, of course!
See, shrimp fishing can be done in a variety of ways, but the one we’ve done for the last few years (and was done by the captain for over a decade before that) is fishing via pots.
It’s actually pretty simple, really. You’ve got a string of line with a bunch of metal clips on it. You attach a buoy on one end and toss it over, and then as the line trails out, you clip on the pots. At the other end, attach another buoy. The pots sit along the ocean floor where the shrimp are (assuming you put them in the right place, and that the buoy line is the right length), and the next day you come to pick it out.
Got that? Good.
Now, there are a few things that have to be done with these pots. First of all, they’re basically a metal frame with some mesh netting laid over the top. Nothing complex. The “form” of the pot, the three funnels that guide shrimp inside, is held in place by three metal rings connected to one another with rubber straps. The same rubber holds the lid shut. Tire tube rubber, basically. Which doesn’t actually hold up great over both repeated use and the harsh elements. So, each season, before you head out, you need to go over each one of these rubber straps and check them for elasticity, wear and tear, etc.
But that’s not all you need to check. In the event that a pot is lost, it’s certainly going to come apart … but slowly, and that’s something that could in the meantime be a drag on local wildlife and fisherman. No one else wants to be outfished by a phantom lost pot, much less one that’s just ensnaring things in can’t release, even if it will eventually be nothing more than a frame.
So, in case anyone loses a pot (not that we want to, but it happens), there’s also a failsafe. A long cut in the mesh along one side of the pot that’s stitched together with cotton thread. Soft cotton thread. If the pot is lost, the thread will come apart long before the pot does much damage (if any).
The catch is that the thread is so soft it decomposes almost before the season is over. Stuff goes fast. Which means at the start of each season, not only do all the pots need to be checked for holes and whatnot, but all the old cottons need to be torn out and replaced.
On all the pots. Every last one.
Yup, that’s a lot of pots. All in all, just that part of the job was the work of two days.
That wasn’t all there was to be done, either. All the lines that those pots needed to connect to had to be taken and loaded onto the boat. As did the buoys. And bait for the trip. Food. Fuel. The freezer system had to be checked, as a new compressor had been put in. The live tank and pump had to be set up. The bait chopper installed. Covers put aboard …
But at long last, we were ready.
Step 2: Fishing
Funnily enough, the first week went amazingly smooth. Incredibly smooth. The bland, grey, wet weather cleared up the afternoon of our departure, revealing an oft-hidden blue sky with a bit of sun, and the sea was almost flat calm. We headed out, waited for the season to open, and dropped our gear.
Okay, that makes it sound incredibly easy. It wasn’t. Nor was the rest of the week. Shrimping is an … involved process (hence why I run out of pictures around this time). Each morning you wake up at about 5:30 and climb into the freezer hold to case up the boxes of the prior day’s catch. This freezer is generally -30 or -40 Celsius. It’s quite the wakeup call. Once that’s done, you grab breakfast and then chop up the bait for the day, because at 8, you start picking pots (laws mandate that you only touch your pots from 8 AM to 4 PM).
Pot picking is pretty simple, actually. Pull the line up and empty pots as they come, then flip them over and swap out the prior day’s bait (a two-part of bait jars for ground bait and mesh bags for … solids) for new. Close up the pot and stack it on the deck. Grab the next one. Once all the pots on that “string” are done, reset the string, connecting and tossing pots back over the side as the line goes out (this sounds easier than it is, and I’m skipping a lot of steps). Once that’s done, sort out the catch, tossing over the ones that are too small and putting the rest in a live holding tank. Then get
more bait ready while you run to the next string.
That process takes about six to seven hours. But once it’s done … you’re not. The shrimp still needs to be processed. So you scrub everything down with soap and bleach, have a quick lunch, and then you process. All the shrimp we sell go to Asian markets across the pacific, and so they’re packed whole, by size, and dipped in a preservative. You scoop the shrimp out of your holding tank, dip them in the preservative, and then sort them by size into small, one kilogram boxes. Specific counts, packing, etc. Once you’ve done that, then you load them into the freezer, where they’re frozen.
This takes about … oh, eight hours or so. Depends on how many you have. Mind you, this is by hand, hence the swelling in my wrists and hands.
Once that’s done, you rinse and clean everything off again and then, then … you don’t get to sleep (it’s usually 11 PM by this point). No, you still have to get ready for the following day. Get out bait from the secondary holds to thaw, use the grinder for the ground bait and load the bait jars … this takes about another hour.
Only then do you eat dinner and crawl into bed. On a long day around one in the morning or later. That’s one day. You’ll be up in four or five hours to do it again.
And for the first week, that was how it went.
Step 3: Gremlins
After our first delivery (taking the boat back to the harbor to drop off our processed catch) our fortunes changed a bit.
First a storm hit, and we sat it out in the harbor. Then we made it out, only for another storm to hit and force us to stop fishing barely a third of the way into our day.
Then the freezer died. Back to town we went. And then the pump started to leak. Then we replaced it. Then that one developed problems. Our generator’s cooling pump began to leak, and its backup broke down completely, dragging our generator to a screeching, emergency shutdown halt. Which fused/broke the emergency shutdown sensor, leaving the only solution to jury rig the old pump back in and disable the safety shutoff … leaving the generator at risk of suffering major damage if the already faulty pump failed.
And that’s not even all the misfortune we suffered. It was said best by the owner of the boat, who expressed that in the 16 years he’d been shrimp fishing, he’d suffered less problems in that time than we did in this one trip. Disaster after disaster befell us. Nothing life-threatening, but certainly eating into our time. We managed to catch everything we wanted to, but in twice the time it should have taken us otherwise.
I don’t know if it was just poor luck, of if we really did pick up a shipload of gremlins, but by the time we quit, I half expected the wheel to fall off while driving the boat (not that our “slightly drunk” electronic autopilot wasn’t doing a great job anyway of making it appear that way).
Step 4: Putting It All Away
Even with all that … we weren’t done. Our final delivery was last Tuesday, but there was still more to be done after that. All the pots and gear had to be stowed and returned to their proper place and cover, so after all those days of work putting them on the boat we had to take them off again. Everything needed to be cleaned again, which meant a hands and knees scrubbing job for me that took a couple of hours … it was a list.
So, why tell you all this? Well, partly because it can’t hurt for you guys to know what I was actually up to and what it was like. I’d probably have been a little more eloquent in typing this, but as I said, my hands, wrists, and forearms are pretty stiff and sore.
But there’s another angle to this too. Despite all the craziness and hardship, there were fun moments to be had. Taunting the endless seagulls, for example. You’d be amazed what you can get them to eat (or better yet, tricked into eating)! And I had time to think, plot, and plan, of course. Shadow of an Empire saw some nice planning and worldbuilding during all the grunt work.
Shrimping is a tough, brutal job. But I can hack it. I have hacked it. And thanks to that, I’ve got the money to not only survive, but do things like get Unusual Events and Colony a nice cover.
Anyway, I hope you all found this mildly interesting at least. More to come, and it’s good to be back.
Oh, and we had a giant shrimp feed at the end. Hooray!