Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Alaska 2: The True Alaskan Experience

The Homer harbor, a priceless sight at the crack of dawn

What would that be? Alaska has a lot of offer tourists to make for a unique and unforgettable destination. You can hike some of the highest peaks in North America, tour the glaciers by plane, take a fjord cruise, sea kayak, whale watch, and even hunt! However, the number one priority on my list of must do activities in Alaska was fish! No trip to Alaska would be complete without experiencing fishing. Growing up with three brothers, I was pretty much a tom boy and fishing was something I did frequently with my brothers and Dad. My Dad loved to fish and got us interested and exposed to the sport from an early age. We'd fish in rivers, streams, ponds. Catch and release of course. I'm not the most gifted when it comes to the sport of fishing and I have a few strict rules everyone has to abide. First of all, Melissa does not bait her hooks if live worms are being used, YUK! Secondly, no way on earth does Melissa touch the fish long enough to take it off the hook. Therefore, I was one happy camper using salmon eggs and bobbers.

The other boats in the Homer harbor

I enjoy the suspense of fishing. You never know when you are going to get a bite and if you are me, you aren't even sure you are feeling a nibble when they are biting. Before I set the hook, I let them feast on my bait and when I reeled them in, nine times out of ten, they had swallowed the hook. We should have kept my fish for dinner, because they were pretty much goners by the time my brothers patiently removed the hook they'd swallowed it. As I grew older, fishing turned into accompanying my Dad on the raft or boat. I would paddle while he threw in the line. It was a good excuse to relax and keep him company. In fact it was my Dad who really wanted to treat me to a fishing trip in Alaska. He went fishing in Alaska with my brother to celebrate his retirement and couldn't stop talking about the size and quantity of fish up north. Since he was treating, and I figured it was a one time experience, I decided to book a nice charter trip in Homer, rather than fish off the shore.

After cycling in the rain for the last two days without any scenic views, I was in for a treat aboard the fishing charter

It was a scenic boat tour and fishing charter all in one!

Homer was the place I chose, as I had a few extra days waiting for my ferry and little did I know this was halibut capital of the world! Perfect, I was guaranteed a catch! I signed up with a promising company, Bob's Trophy Fishing on Homer's spit, you can't go wrong with a name like that! I pedaled down to the harbor with my gear....cycling and hiking gear of course would have to do for a half day trip. I hadn't fished for years but you never forget how to cast. I was delighted to be on the water to get a unique view of Homer and the spit. It was a beautiful clear day and the scenery alone going out to sea was priceless! What a great way to wrap up my visit to Alaska!

A promising name for a fishing charter company.  I actually highly reccomend these guys, very professional

My excitement was just a wee bit premature, I forgot that I get terribly motion sick and for some reason this small detail never crossed my mind when I planned my fishing trip. However, it had been years since I had actually gotten sick, a long time since I was aboard a small boat, so I had pleasantly erased sea sickness from my mind. The Pritchard's have notoriously weak stomachs. We get motion sickness at the drop of a dime, the first swerve in the road and someone in our car was already asking for a bag! One person would start getting sick in our car on a family vacation and then it was the domino effect. Here it was, a half hour into our ride out to the fishing spot and I started feeling wheezy. I went out to the deck to get some fresh air. That usually does the trick in a car. But on a boat, the movement is magnified coming in all directions and although the fresh air was blowing in my face, it wasn't enough. I started feeling more and more nauseous and decided to go to the front of the boat. While it was crashed up and down and side to side through the waves, traveling further and further from land, I held on to the railing for dear life, trying desperately to calm my stomach. The captain had warned up that if we were going to be sick do it overboard, into the sea, I hadn't paid any attention to his warning and here I was on the verge of puking. Seriously Melissa?Are you seriously gonna get sick Melissa? Don't puke, not again, not on a boat in front of a ton of strangers. Pull it together girl!

Enjoying my hot chocolate and the scenery, little did I know what was in store for me......

A gorgeous sunrise from the boat

These were the thoughts racing through my head. None of my positive thoughts counteracted the nausea sensation. I was horrified and humiliated. I tried my hardest to keep my head overboard as the boat crashed over waves. The fresh air was blowing in my face, but that didn't stop me from starting to hurl. Luckily I hadn't eaten breakfast, only a cup of hot chocolate. I didn't have much to loose, but when your stomach is empty the sound effects are even worse! I was making some horrendous noises, but I was too preoccupied to feel embarrassed. How was I ever going to survive a five hour fishing charter? My Dad was going to be so disappointed, I could hardly hold on to the deck railing let alone a fishing rod. What a disaster! The captain of the boast came over to check on me, but there was nothing he could do to help, I just needed to get it all out. I did get it all out, all out and over the top of the deck, it splashed on my pants,....it was not a pretty sight! The captain gave me some ginger to chew on, which was suppose to settle my stomach, It seemed more like a powerful breath mint if you ask me!

I was out for the count for a good hour or so

Thankfully the boat stopped just as I stopped wrenching and as all the guests came pouring out to the deck to fish, undisturbed by my performance in the slightest, they were focused on their halibut. The guides had to hose my part of the deck down before anyone could fish there and I migrated into the cabin to rest. I dozed on and off for the next hour while my whole world swayed back and forth up and down. After an hour, I went out to the dock to give it a try. That lasted a whole five minutes, in time to get a picture with the rod in my hand before I headed up to the front of the bow to puke, yet again! What a sight to see. A dozen clients totally wrapped up in their fishing casting rods anxious for a bite, and here I was next to them, gripping the railing of the boat, trying desperately to pull it together. How embarrassing! This was twice now on my trip that I had gotten sick, not in my own privacy but in front of a crowd of people I don't even know!

Great pose, but I only lasted 5 minutes before handing the rod over to get sick yet again!

I returned to the cabin and so did everyone else as the captain decided to change location because no one was getting any bites. We found another place where the water was remarkably calmer. I don't know if it was the ginger or my determination but I went back out to give fishing one last try. Still dizzy, I got a rod and started to participate. The captain welcomed me back, complimenting me on my “full recovery”. I still felt wheezy, but I was just going to have to deal if I wanted to experience Alaskan fishing.

Halibut fishing has nothing to do with the fishing I was used to where you putt a worm on your hook, use a bobber, and wait. Here, you cast, let out all your line until it hit the bottom, and then pulled up and down on the line continuously waiting for a bite. The weight on the line was so heavy I felt like I had a fish on my line the entire time it was in the water. Halibut hover around at the bottom of the ocean, hence their rocklike camouflage appearance. In theory, with halibut, you don't actually have to set the hook. When you feel a bite, you let your line down the start reeling up. Simple, right?

For the next hour no one caught a fish, although there were a few bites. The guy next to me got us all excited when he finally felt a nibble and seemed to hook the fish. His rod practically bent completely in half as he tried to reel it up and it became at least a 20 minute ordeal. I knew the fish in Alaska were big, but exactly how BIG were they? Mother Nature seems to be on steroids here in Alaska, I guess their fish are too! This guy looked strong, but the fish on the line was giving him a good fight and he was making me nervous. My arms were getting sore reeling up the line with only the weight, how was I going to manage a halibut even if it was puny in size? Thankfully the guy ended up catching a skat, a type of manta ray that was enormous! That was a pretty exciting event, but everyone else seemed frustrated, desperately wanting to catch a halibut. They put it back and we all kept our hopes up the fish would bite.

The skat the other client caught, it was pretty big and put up a good fight

There were a dozen of us fishing off the boat, which makes keeping lines untangled, a real challenge. The process looked somewhat like a cycling pace line, but on a boat. You started at the bow tossing in your line, inching your way to the stern as it drifts. Once at the stern, you reeled it in and went back to the bow to start the process all over again. All of a sudden after about three hours out at sea, everyone starting catching their halibut,.....everyone except me of course! It was like Forest Gump shrimping in the Gulf Coast after the hurricane. We went from catching nothing to reeling up a fish every cast, in the matter of minutes. Strangely, the people showed no excitement, no buildup. They caught fish after fish as if they'd done this their whole life, but in reality we were all new to the sport in Alaska. I had a couple of close calls, a few bites that got me excited and I began with my typical sound effects and vivid facial expressions. I was ecstatic! I tried to reel them in, but lost the fish. I had to re-baited my hook countless times (correction: the guides baited them again for me thankfully).

After a dozen bites, I finally had a successful catch. It put up a struggle at the beginning, and from what I could determine it was a HUGE halibut. Halfway through my battle to reel it in, the fish stopped fighting and I was convinced it had gotten off. Luckily the captain told me to keep reeling which I did, making plenty of sound effects and the whole boat was engaged in the catch. Hey, it's not every day you get to go fishing in Alaska and experience catching a 2 foot fish, this was exciting!

It's hard work reeling those fish in.......I need to work on the arm muscles

I reeled and reeled for what seemed like forever and used my entire body to get enough strength to bring it up to the boat. It was probably the smallest of anyone's halibut, but for me, it was the biggest fish I had ever caught! I couldn't be more proud. The guides put it in a net, brought it onboard, and took out the hook. As the guide skillfully tried to remove the hook which was halfway down it's throat of course, it brought back memories of my childhood. Some things never change. This poor fish had little chances of surviving, although he was going to be dinner, regardless of where in his throat that hook was. They tagged him and I went for my second, which thankfully came with the following cast. The second fish felt bigger than the first and was even more difficult to reel in, which is why I knew my arms were ready to call it a day. Halibut number two had been hooked perfectly in the lip, but was actually smaller in size than my first.

After two halibut, about 2 feet in length, making for 7 pounds of fillets, I was satisfied with my fishing experience. What a workout! If I could have only used my leg power to reel in the fish, it would have been a piece of cake! By that time the rest of the clients had reached their fish limit as well and we headed back to shore; a calm and uneventful ride!

Remember my rules, no touching the fish......

Except when they are already dead.  A small catch for some, but plenty big for me to be proud!

A half day trip had turned into a full day excursion and I was exhausted! I stepped ashore and felt the the whole world still rocking. I called my Dad immediately to fill him in on the experience. We all laughed as I shared my experience with them, proud of my catch. It was ridiculously expensive to ship the halibut, and even though I really wanted to eat it at home in Eugene upon my arrival, I decided to share the love and gift them to my hosts. That night I prepared a delicious dish with the fresh halibut, potatoes, onion, garlic, tomatoes and a bit of olive oil. Fresh halibut is scrumptious, even more delicious remembering how sick I had gotten in order to catch the darn thing! I had no desire to go back on a fishing boat, not for a LOONG time at least!

Elias, Debbie, and Charlie, my hosts and I enjoyed a delicious fresh halibut meal
A LOONG time turned out to be about 24 hours later, when I found myself hitchhiking through the Whittier tunnel on my way to the ferry. Going fishing in Homer meant missing the Whittier ferry and I had to hitch hike back to the top of the Kenai Peninsula with my bike to get the ferry from there. Luckily the young guy who picked me up brought me all the way to the Whittier tunnel and no sooner than I arrived, a pick-up pulled up and agreed to put my bike in the back, since I couldn't ride through the tunnel. Dave, from Anchorage, was headed out to pick up his shrimp cages and guess who became his first mate!

Whittier harbor by the ferry dock

BINGO! Shrimp fishing another true Alaskan experience. I didn't really feel like going back on a boat, my stomach was still queezy, the world still rocking under my feet, but how could I turn down an opportunity to shrimp? I was in good hands with “Handy Dave” or “Skipper Dude,” as his friends call him. Recently retired from management in the food service industry, he had a small boat in the Whittier harbor for periodic commercial fishing. 

This is your view while you shrimp fish in Whittier, pretty impressive

Dave and his boat, the Apache II

Dave promised I wouldn't have time to get sea sick as the cages were close to shore. We drove down to the Apache II, his small boat, me, Dave, and his dog Puff. We drove to the harbour and went down to his boat, me, Dave, and his dog Puff (no bigger than a soccer ball and as puff as a cotton swab). His boat, The Apache II, he had basically built himself (which gave meaning to Dave's nickname) and we set out for the cages. In the 15 minutes it took to ride out to them he gave me a briefing on how shrimping worked, a bit of history about the area, and the Alaskan fishing industry. I was learning a ton, engaged in conversation, felt fine, and was anxious to pull up some cages! I watched him do the first two, then I had a chance to bring up the third and fourth. This was much easier than halibut fishing and much better on my stomach. Plus to tell you the truth, I like shrimp and seafood better than fish! We had caught two different types, ranging in size from 4 to 8 inches. Dave threw a couple back, the ones with the most eggs, in honor of the shrimp goddess! This was good karma, according to Skipper Dude. I liked Dave. He was an interesting fellow with a lot of stories and anecdotes on life.

Shrimp fishing is actually a lot of fun and much easier than halibut

I got to reel in a few of the cages

I don't mind picking up these guys.  Huge shrimp called "Langostinos" in Spanish...

On my trip, I meet a lot of different people, and although I might only talk with them briefly, sometimes an hour or two tops, they open my mind to ideas, concepts, and perspective on life I've never thought about. Here was Dave, recently retired, and unfortunately a sudden widow. His wife had died in October after being confined to a wheelchair for 15 years, struggling from MS. It's normal to hear people my age or younger say they are lost in life, but I never imagined to hear these words come out of the mouth of a retired man. Dave, just shy of 60, was used to having an incredible amount of responsibility from a very young age. For the first time in his life he didn't have any and therefore didn't know what to do with himself. I found him to be plenty entertained with hobbies from the stories he shared and active in his children and grandchildren's life as well! There's no doubt in my mind he'll settle right into his new retired life. We ended our fishing trip with a few cold ones on the boat before he dropped me back off at shore for the ferry. I gave him a hug, a man who had been a total stranger just two hours ago, had given me more than just a lesson in shrimping that afternoon.

Dave put fresh bait in the cages and set them back out again, only to repeat the process all over tomorrow
Voila, dinner!  Too bad I had to board the ferry, I would have eaten the whole bag!

My ferry awaits!
Fishing isn't the only true Alaskan experience I've had these past 3 weeks. In order to deal with some of the more drastic and challenging weather while cycling, I found myself at the mercy of other people's kindness and experienced some of the most needed and appreciated hospitality of my trip yet. I don't think I could have pedaled Alaska and come out with such a positive memory without putting my faith and trust in the local people like I did. Alaska is home to few, in part due to it's harsh climate and rugged wilderness. It definitely has it's appeal and I now understand why so many people stay. It's hard to deny the appeal of making the Alaska experience live forever!

1 comment:

  1. WOW... Great story...I could feel the pain of your motion sickness!! But what an incredibly memorable day. Take care of yourself!!