The Catch, Pt. 4: Aleutians of grandeur
Part 4 of my uncle Mike Sutter’s journal from a factory fishing trawler in the Bering Sea.
By Mike Sutter | The Bering Sea | 1988
My first sight of the Aleutian Islands was in the middle of October, on a rainy, gloom-filled day, with a strong wind churning up the black surface of the sea. They appeared as giant rocks rising straight from the water, their bases rimmed with white where the surf crashed against them, their tops shrouded in dense fog and invisible.
They reminded me of Skull Island, home of King Kong, with only the faint throbbing of native drums missing.
As the ship drew closer in its passing, I could see that the solid rock surfaces, vague and smooth from a distance, were scarred by cliffs and ridges and deep indentations, and that some of the slopes were covered with brownish green vegetation that hugged the ground. No trees were in sight. The ship proceeded through the Unimak Pass to Akutan Island and its village to pick up additional crewmembers. The village, of the same name as its island, is a small settlement of wooden buildings at the base of a slope crowned by a high ridge, with the water as its front yard. It is not a deep-water port, and our ship couldn’t dock, so we sat a few hundred yards offshore, waiting for the new people to be shuttled onboard. I looked at this settlement, at its remoteness and the desolation surrounding it, and I wondered how it would be to live in such a place, so cut off from the world, so far removed from my perception of how people “live.”
A Norwegian described to me how herring is home-cured in Norway. The herring are dressed and holes are cut in their tails so they can be spread out and strung on broomsticks, for drying or curing. I said that in my country, we do the same thing except that we throw the herring in the garbage and eat the broomsticks.
The character of the Aleutians changed as time passed and the ship moved. The next time I saw land was 11 days after my first sight. Unalaska Island and the fishing town of Dutch Harbor, where we unloaded our catch. It was near the end of October. We glided into a bay surrounded by high, snow-capped volcanic peaks, their lower elevations covered with soft, smooth scrub vegetation. The waterfront was ugly — mud, stacks of rusting crab pots, warehouses and piles of dirty equipment — but beyond the man-generated mess was a natural setting of great beauty. In December, when I saw Dutch Harbor for what proved to be the last time, the snow had advanced downward from the peaks to the flat ground, and its whiteness reflected a brilliant sun.
The memory of the Aleutians I will always carry with me occurred one night in November. The ship was half a mile off the shore of a small island. The moon was bright, the sky was clear. A high cone-shaped peak rose from the island’s interior, and the snow it carried gave off an eerie, translucent glow from the reflected moonlight. I went out on deck and looked over the side into the water. A group of sea lions was there, twisting and diving and splashing, gorging themselves on the waste from the fish we were processing. Never, in all my years of dreaming, did I ever expect to see a sight like this. I would like to return to these islands. On my own time.
I learned a little Norwegian. I know how to say, “Hello from the Bering Sea,” and, “Hello, I’m from Norway. Do you like potatoes?” One of the female crewmembers was also interested in the language. She asked a Norwegian to teach her a phrase of greeting. He taught her a phrase that meant, “Do you want my body?” She didn’t know that. Everyone else did.
The freon incident. A demonstration of stupidity. A leak developed in a freezer pipe. A foggy cloud formed and clung to the floor of the processing factory. The foreman told people that if they felt a little dizzy they could go on deck for a few minutes, but he expressed to me his idea that anyone taking him up on the offer was just trying to get out of working. I knew he was full of s---. I knew that freon was harmful. I went on deck and stayed. The captain and first mate arrived a few minutes later, ordering the remaining workers (and the foreman) to evacuate the factory.
(TOP PHOTO: A crab boat docked in Dutch Harbor on Unalaska Island in the Aleutian Islands chain that trails off the southwestern corner of Alaska. This is where the fishing trawler came to unload its cargo. INSET: Snow-covered islands along the Aleutian chain. BOTTOM: Unalaska Island interior. Photos by Douglas Sundberg)