It’s been said that Durango is a small town made up of people from big towns, each bringing a unique lifestyle, occupation and creativity. They arrive because of the beauty that surrounds us. Rita Dieters is an amazing example of one of these people. Being her friend, I have gotten to know about her crazy lifestyle, which shifts each summer. This is her 35th year of being a commercial salmon fisherman in Kodiak, Alaska, during June, July and August.
I decided to see a slice of this life and to satisfy my curiosity about her work and this area of the world.
After several airplane connections, I arrive in Kodiak and settle into the Best Western. I use the word “best” loosely.
The next morning, I leave Kodiak in a small plane to Akhiok Village. I am surprised by the absence of an airport. No tower or flashing lights direct us, but the pilot expertly maneuvers the landing with the talent of any good bush pilot. I am relieved to finally be here.
Rita meets me via skiff, a small, open aluminum boat. My first question is, “Where are the facilities?” at which Rita calmly points to the nearest brush cover. Heading that way, I fall, bruising both legs, which bleed and swell. Then into the skiff we go. Twelve miles later we arrive at the fish camp. I am ready for a large drink and ice for my swollen legs, but a slab of frozen bacon must do the job.
The cabins are comfortable, but with just the basics. All supplies come by tender boat, so there isn’t room for frivolous items. The tender boat is a service provided to the fishermen. It supplies the necessities, such as groceries, furniture, machinery, gasoline and equipment. It is the working lifeline to the outside world. Their only other connection is the VHF radio channel 79. This is needed for daily weather reports, emergencies and latest news regarding fishing and anything else that might arise. I suddenly become aware of our remoteness.
I find the sunrises spectacular and the scenery breathtaking. I am informed that there are many overcast and rainy days. I am fortunate to enjoy a few sunny ones. However, this business is governed by the weather, and can change at the drop of a hat. The barometer, tides, winds and, of course, fish all determine how many nets are set and when.
Captain Rita, crew and I set out on a night excursion of “picking the salmon.”
It is an eye-opening experience. As we pull the nets in, we haul in a variety of salmon and other creatures, such as jellyfish. Once the salmon is on board, the crewmen remove them from the net and quickly break the gill plate with two fingers inserted into the gill. This drains the blood and makes for a better fish, but also creates a slippery boat bottom. The total pulled in by our three skiffs that night amounts to 2,000 pounds. Rita is pleased, but tired.
Offshore, a young bear looks for leftovers. I learned Rita’s fish camp is surrounded by a Kodiak National Bear Preserve which, of course, is somewhat unsettling. My anxiety comes from recognizing that I am part of the food chain, and definitely not at the top.
The next morning finds crew members up and working at
8 a.m. They harvest 2,000 more pounds of salmon, bring the fish to the tender, who takes it on to the processor, wash four gill nets and fill all gas cans before breakfast. There will be one or two more pickings before the day’s end.
The season begins to close down at the end of August, but they will fish usually into the first week of September. Then it’s time to secure the campsite to prevent any wandering bears from making the cabins their home. Perseverance keeps the crew going in spite of sore backs, swollen hands and general fatigue. When the fish are running, they work up to 12 hours a day in all weather conditions and without the luxuries of home.
The payoff is the money and the resulting lifestyle, but it comes with a high price. It taxes the physical, emotional and mental being.
I am in awe of Rita and her crew’s persistence and tenacity in light of this physically demanding enterprise. The next time I order salmon, I will remember the hardy people who make it possible for me to enjoy my seafood entrée, and give them thanks.
Sydney Morris is a freelance writer who lives in Durango.