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Ugashik Crew Report

By John Locke - Posted on 30 July 1995

The clueless crew were ably led by Fearless Fred, Master of Salmon. Fred knew the ins and outs of counting salmon. He could count them forwards, backwards, sideways, and upside-down. He could count them when they were bouncing around like popcorn under the 2 AM spotlights. He could count them as he scooped them out of the net and into the live box. He could even count how many fish he didn't catch on his fly rod.

Throughout his reign, Fred was assisted by John, Master of Disaster. Right from the beginning, when John fell off the floatplane into the river, he proved his ability to get out of fixes by getting into more of them than anyone else. The second day, while trying to set an anchor in the middle of the river for a ripple dampener, a device to smooth the surface of the water so one could see the bottom clearly, he nearly sunk the skiff. He caught the anchor line in the prop, which stopped instantly. The current caught the boat, whipped it around, and then stopped it dead. Water piled up on the transom, an inch away from flooding into the skiff. The line was wrapped several times around the prop, under great tension so that it could not be released.

To make matters worse, Fred was on the left bank, and the other skiff was on the right bank. Neither Debbie, who was also in the skiff, or John had a knife on them, and in their enthusiasm to get the job done, both had forgotten to don life jackets.

Fearless Fred saved the day, tossing them a line and pulling the boat to shore.

Another time, during an early windstorm, John managed to foul the prop on a submerged grassy hump. As he fought to cut away the grass, he sliced his finger. Deciding to act cool and take his time, he panicked and threw the anchor to shore before he was swept out to sea. It was only 20 miles downriver. Turning his attention back to the prop, he soon noticed that he was still floating rapidly downstream. He thought he had heard a "ping" sound. Looking up, he saw the yellow anchor rope lying on the grassy bank, some fifty feet away, and quickly receding. The handle on the boat the anchor was attached to had popped right off, and he was still adrift.

Finally, he got the prop clear, lowered the motor, and got it started. To make sure the boat didn't drift away while he retrieved the anchor, he drove all the way up on the grass, leaving the skiff entirely out of the water, a maneuver Debbie repeated several times.

Debbie was the third member of the crew, a last-minute replacement for a new-hire from job service whom the Area Biologists--the Bosses--decided was not altogether a good choice--he was not all together. So Debbie was on the plane to join the others less than 5 hours after she said she could do the job.

Unfortunately, Debbie was somewhat rattled by John's skiff adventures, and after two days of challenging boating conditions, with 40 mph winds pushing across the current, she was a basket case. "Doesn't weather like this make you want to get a real job?" she was heard to ask. John's reply was "Uh, nope." That was when she realized she was in the wilderness with two loonies, so she hopped on the first plane out.

Debbie's departure proved fortuitous, because it forced the supervisor to come out early. Not only were the fish not running strong, but since he had to pull a counting shift, he had little energy left over to assign extra tasks, and mostly stayed out of the way.

The best thing about Ugashik is the wilderness. That is why a couple dozen sport-fisherman flew in for the peak of the sockeye run, and fished shoulder-to-shoulder, combat style, for two weeks, right next to our counting towers. They stayed at the Bear's Den, a lodge about a mile downriver, and asked us every hour, "How many fish did you see that time? How about the other side?" They probably find out if it's raining by watching The Weather Channel.

But the fish were late. They must have slept through the alarm. All the sport fishermen gave up and went home empty-handed, and by the time the fish showed up, we were alone again in the wilderness.Jane Browning keeps salmon from escaping in Lower Ugashik Lake. July, 1995

Around then, Debbie's replacement, Jane arrived. Jane is a set-netter from way back, and she had just finished test-fishing with a drift gillnet on another river in Bristol Bay. She wrestled fish with skill and experience. Unfortunately, she wasn't used to keeping them alive, so by the time we finished plucking scales from our samples, we had a pile of mortalities.

Sockeye salmon live one or two years in the lake, as they grow into smolt. Then they migrate down to the ocean, spend two or three years swimming around, dining on gourmet plankton and sightseeing, and then swim back through a bunch of drift-netters trying to catch them to fill their wallets, and set-netters trying to fill their freezers. Eventually, after great effort, they make it back up the river to the lake of their youth, pair up, go up into some tiny stream where they can be alone and. . . you know. After the cigarette, they drift back downstream and die. By August, there will be hundreds of thousands of carcasses littering the shores of Lower Ugashik Lake.

John felt guilty about needlessly killing a handful. Perhaps it was because we had deprived them of their fun, just when they were so close. In any case, he vowed that they would not die in vain. So he built a box, put the fish on shelves inside, lit a fire, and cremated them. But what do you know? The fire didn't get quite hot enough, just smoky, and the fish tasted so good, he went right out and killed more fish.

Soon he was a ghost. He would come off his graveyard shift, and rebuild the fire. Other times he would be seen, fly rod in hand, reeling in another victim. In between, he would have a pile of fish bones on one side and fillets on the other, spending hours trimming and cleaning the meat. The porcupine who sat on the windowsill of the cabin in the evenings became quite worried. John wandered around muttering something that sounded like "Alaska Beauty," mumbling "I only need sleep every other night. . ."

Since he was working every night, he quickly collapsed and snapped out of his mania. Soon, he was back to his regular activities: counting fish from a 12 foot tall tower made of scaffolding, catching fish in a beach seine and taking their scales, cooking fish for dinner, and, during his free time, fly-fishing just for fun.

But John's adventures weren't quite over. One afternoon, he and Jane were loading the net into one of the boats. He put a foot out to guide the boat around the other skiff. Suddenly, to Jane's amazement, he was gone. Into the river, headfirst. He came up sputtering, laughing like a hyena. By this time, Jane wondered what she had gotten herself into.

But she learned quickly. After three days of doing dishes and cleaning up the cabin, she quit and let it all stack up like everybody else.

Fred is training to become a firefighter. To prove that he could put fires out with aplomb, he lit the smoker on fire, not once but twice. The second time, he also demonstrated his abilities as a cajun chef. His specialty: Blackened Sockeye, brined in Soy Sauce.

Those are the facts. The names haven't been changed, because there are no innocent.

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