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Alaska: The Last Frontier Episode Sneak Peek

Otto Kilcher photo by Discovery Channel

Otto Kilcher photo by Discovery Channel

Here’s a preview of Sunday’s new episode of Alaska: The Last Frontier on Discovery Channel:

Episode Description:
Still reeling from the recent 7.1 earthquake, the Kilchers rush to make headway on time sensitive projects. Otto, Charlotte, and Eivin travel across Kachemak Bay to rescue a family relic. Atz Lee races the melting snow to transport a sawmill to his homesite before it’s too late. The first fishing trip of the year leaves Eve and Jane lost at sea.

Note: We’ll have a profile of Eve Kilcher in our December issue.

Sneak Preview To Tonight’s Gold Rush Episode

Group portrait of all the miners at the claim: James Harness, Jim Thurber, Todd Hoffman, Jack Hoffman, Chris Doumitt, Dave Turin.

Group portrait of all the miners at the claim: James Harness, Jim Thurber, Todd Hoffman, Jack Hoffman, Chris Doumitt, Dave Turin.

Discovery’s hit series Gold Rush returns tonight (check our local listings) with a new episode.

Our friends at the Discovery Channel shared some good news from last week when the show’s new season premiered:

Discovery hit ratings gold with the season 7 premiere of GOLD RUSH – ranking as the #1 show on all of TV on Friday night among M18-49 & M18-34. It was also cable’s #1 telecast across all 25-54, 18-49 and 18-34 demos. The series scored an impressive 2.12 P25-54 rating with 4.0 M Total viewers P2+ on Friday, October 14 in L + 3. It also beat TBS’s American League Championship Series game across all 25-54s, 18-49s and 18-34s. GOLD RUSH drove Discovery to rank as cable’s #1 non-sports cable net in Friday Prime across all 25-54s, all 18-49s, P/M18-34, P2+.

Look for our profile of Gold Rush miner Dave Turin in our November issue, and here’s a sneak peek at tonight’s new show:

 

 

 

 

An Alaskan Ninja Warrior Soars

Photo by Nick Hanson

Photos by Nick Hanson and NBC

AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR -- "Los Angeles Qualifier" -- Pictured: Nick Hanson -- (Photo by: Brandon Hickman/NBC)

AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR — “Los Angeles Qualifier” — Pictured: Nick Hanson — (Photo by: Brandon Hickman/NBC)

The following appears in the October issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

BY CHRIS COCOLES

On Labor Day night last month, it seemed like everyone in Unalakleet (population 688) showed up for a watch party to see this Nome-area village’s favorite son defy the odds.

Nick Hanson, 28, appeared in the final rounds of the NBC hit reality competition show American Ninja Warrior, in which athletes attempt to complete rigorous obstacle courses that feature everything jumping, climbing and swinging.

Hanson may be the most unlikely of survivors who’d previously qualified in various cities (Hanson completed his course in Los Angeles). Unalakleet can be a dreary and hopeless place for its mostly Native Alaskan population. But on this night, several of the local kids Hanson coaches in various sports were in the audience and watching their hero attempt to finish the course in Las Vegas in the first of a three-part finale. 

“A ton of the youth from Unalakleet all came, even without their parents,” Hanson says. “To see it and relive it on my own watching the show, but also to hear everybody’s reaction, that’s when you go, ‘This is really cool,’ because everybody in my village looks up to me. That’s when it really soaks in for me when I know I have so many supporters here.”

The ANW courses, both the one he qualified on in Los Angeles and the one he barely missed finishing in the allotted 2 minutes, 20 seconds in the final round in Las Vegas, are a series of tests – mostly physical but also mental.

Hanson, like everyone else who participates, is clearly an elite athlete capable of doing the extraordinary with his body. But that doesn’t change what a grind this exercise can be with the lights on and the cameras rolling.

“You can’t really (think about) beyond the first obstacle, and if you do, you make a mistake,” Hanson says. “It’s like building a wall, because you’re excited about your (new) house, and then you realize it’s the wrong size wall. You’ve got to measure twice and cut once. That’s the way I approach everything I do. When I’m going up on these obstacles, I kind of have to relate them to stuff that I do in Unalakleet.”

And much of what he does in his hometown is help the next generation accomplish his or her own version of American NinjaWarrior

“OK, let’s go Eskimo,” shouts American Ninja Warrior analyst Akbar Gbaja-Biamila – as you’ll soon discover, Hanson is referred to as the Eskimo Ninja when he competes – as Nick prepares for some of the most grueling two minutes and 20 seconds of his life. He traverses a series of wobbly steps and then a sharp incline, pauses and channels his inner trapeze artist by flinging himself from a trampoline onto the course’s “Propeller Bar” and then a Tarzan swing. He easily scales a few climbing obstacles. Two minutes to go.

AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR -- "Las Vegas Finals" -- Pictured: Nick Hanson -- (Photo by: David Becker/NBC)

AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR — “Las Vegas Finals” — Pictured: Nick Hanson — (Photo by: David Becker/NBC)

HANSON’S NATIVE BLOOD COMES from his mother Davida’s side of the family; she’s an Inupiaq. His dad, Bret, is a non-Native whose mother and Nick’s “Nona” moved to Alaska years ago when she was battling cancer and worked as an artist. Bret graduated from high school in Barrow but has lived everywhere from Los Angeles to Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories before eventually meeting Davida in Barrow and settling in Unalakleet.

Besides a stable family life, Nick had two major influences in his life: sports and subsistence fishing and hunting. 

“The subsistence lifestyle is the way I grew up, I guess. Trying to look at it from an outsider’s perspective, I talked to (fellowANW competitor Kevin Bull, a stock trader from Northern California), and he’s never gone hunting,” Hanson says. “And I’ve known how to treat and handle a gun since I was 5 and 6 years old; that’s when my grandparents were taking me out. I was taught how to handle a gun correctly and how it’s a tool and not a toy. It’s not something you messed with.”

Hanson also learned at an early age to respect the natural environment around his people and how critical the flora and fauna can be to feed the village. There was always a sense of respect and honor to the big game he’d hunt or the salmon he’d catch over the course of the year to fill freezers with meat. 

“It’s a journey and an adventure to behold,” he says.

His grandparents on his mother’s side learned how to hunt with a bow and arrow and spear – the tools of past generations – and it’s Hanson’s intention to do the same for his children and grandchildren.

He remembered his first time at sea hunting ugruk, bearded seals that are major component of the Native diet in that far-flung corner of Alaska. These aren’t quite the adorable spotted or harbor seals you can watch frolic around local harbors in Alaska. Ugruk are massive pinnipeds that can grow to 600 or more pounds.

Hanson still hasn’t harvested his first moose yet, having been on five different moose hunts but allowing someone else to fill that particular tag.

“But I’ve been there to carry out those 250-pound hindquarters,” he says. “But I think the coolest thing we do here is egg hunting. We’ll go out on the 100-foot cliffs, climb up and gather eggs from the nests of seagulls and murres and bring them home. That’s our egg source. We just have to go rock climbing for them.”

“It’s like a natural farm. If you think about what a farmer has to do – get up early in the morning and take care of the (crops), feed the horses and the pigs. Farming is a full-time job. Up here, we have certain specific seasons that we have to follow. Right now (mid-September) it’s the end of berry season, so you see a lot of people gathering, gathering, gathering. You go to work, and as soon as you get off work you’re gone until the sun goes down getting berries. Right now it’s moose season, and we’ll even skip work and take a day off. Our administration (at the school where Hanson teaches and coaches) will say, ‘Alright, you’re going moose hunting? Thanks for letting us know and we’ll see you when you get back.’”

Salmon runs – usually kings, chums and especially coho and pinks – are obviously also a big deal when they come through. But what Hanson gets out of the notion that you can sustain yourself via the outdoors more so than rolling a shopping cart up and down the frozen food aisle is just how his people hunt.

Rather than stalking an animal, Hanson says waiting for it to come into shooting range is the proper way to hunt.

“We go to a certain spot where we know they’re around, and if it presents itself in the right way, then we’ll take it. When we’re out hunting we’re definitely going with a purpose. We want to make sure that we provide for our family and bring food home. But we also respect that if a seal isn’t giving itself to us, we can’t change that.”

Hanson clutches a cylindrical-shaped log tethered to a rope and glides over the water hazard below, a potential swim no ninjawarrior who has survived this far wants to take. “Well, shoot; now he better hold on here,” Gbaja-Biamila, a former NFL defensive lineman, says as Nick swings back and forth on the log, then lands safely on a mat, then stumbles ever so slightly before jogging across a small bridge where he can catch his breath again; 1:34 on the clock.

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ATHLETICS HAS ALWAYS BEEN one of Hanson’s outlets to escape the vices that take down so many in Unalakleet, but it was initially more out of revenge than any kind of competitive juices pushing him.

“To be honest, I’m going to get a little deep here, and that’s the only way I can tell the story,” he warns. “I’m an Alaskan Native and my mom was born and raised with bloodlines coming from Unalakleet and Barrow. But my dad’s side has Italian in him, so I look white. Only if you look into my eyes and nose and facial hair, that’s where my Native comes out.”

Hanson says his culture is rather young in the eyes of Western civilization.

“The racism is still strong from both angles, and in my generation it’s only starting to heal, and that’s why they call us the Healing Generation,” he says.

So here was young Nick Hanson, who was every bit the Native to those he grew up with in Unalakleet, but he looked like an outsider from the big city. That created tension and teasing within his tiny community.

“A lot of the kids looked at me and they laughed because I was talking Native but was white. The first thing I experienced was these two girls – and they’re really close friends now who I love dearly – came up to me and said, ‘You’re not supposed to be here.’ I was getting beaten up, the other kids thought I looked funny and was weird because I did my homework and wore rubber boots to school on a rainy day when all the other kids were so used to rain they just wore their tennis shoes.”

The bigoted razzing got to be too cruel one day in third grade when Nick hit rock bottom. He sobbed all the way on his walk home, but for some reason had an epiphany. He was not going to put up with this anymore.

“As a third grader that’s a big step to take. So that year, I started to play basketball. All I did was not care about anyone else and turned everyone else off except my coach. I listened to my coach, Steve Ivanoff, and did what he wanted me to do. And I did it.”

By seventh grade, his court skills were so advanced he was practicing with the older kids from the high school. By then, Hanson was running cross country and playing volleyball. These days, besides his athletic TV prowess on ANW, Hanson has excelled competing in the Arctic Winter Games – he currently holds the world record in the scissor broad jump and has won multiple medals – and the World Eskimo Indian Olympics.

“My competitive drive just grew and grew. And the roots were deep. I was trying to fit in with the other kids, and when they saw how good I was at sports and how athletic I was, that’s when they would start to say, ‘Hey, Nick, how’s it going?’ And I thought, ‘This is my in.’ Then it took over, and that’s been my lifestyle ever since.”

By the time he’d reach adulthood, Hanson wanted to be on the other end of the spectrum and help others get out of their shells.

In Unalakleet – as Hanson painfully discovered – kids there often can’t get the help they desperately need.

The course is unrelenting as Nick defies gravity and any semblance of Newtononian logic. Another launch brings him to a narrow space between two walls, known as the “Jumping Spider.” Only the strength in his appendages keeps him from falling into the pool. He must work his way across the walls, all the while climbing higher in the process. Host Matt Iseman: “Not a lot of spiders up in Alaska, but no problem for Nick Hanson.” Again, a chance to exhale, but only as precious seconds tick away before contesting “Sonic Curve,” a set of six angled steps and then right into another swinging rope. The clock is under a minute now and the Eskimo Ninja knows he’s got to pick up the pace a little.

It’s becoming clear that all the working out he’s done back in Unalalkeet – not to mention his successful completion of his Los Angeles qualifying course – has served Hanson well. Next is running down a slope and running up a ridiculously steep wall to grab the top of and continue his quest to move on. His upper arm strength is somehow enough at this point to get up and over rather smoothly. The reward? A harrowing journey across “Broken Bridge,” something of a sprint through spread-out steps A few nervous steps later and finishing in the allotted time is looking feasible. “It seems like a lot of time left,” Iseman theorizes at the 32-second mark.

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HANSON STUDIED CIVIL ENGINEERING at the University of Alaska Anchorage, but he knew all along that teaching and coaching other Natives in his hometown was a chance to make a difference through sport.

Turning on that lightbulb above someone’s head is not easy – especially in Unalakleet. Kids here are terrorized by the demons of temptation and vice. Drug and alcohol abuse can be chronic issues. Depression is widespread. The Alaska Dispatch Newswrote a profile of Hanson and reported that six teammates he played high school basketball with committed suicide. 

“We had 12 players, so we’ve lost half. It’s tough to think about because I can look at those athletes and I won’t say any names, but some of these guys were the top basketball players in the state,” Hanson says. “One had the potential to be a point guard in college. He was the best player I’ve ever met. I played right alongside with him and was excited to be his shooting guard. And I was excited to get an outlet pass from him every time because it was on-point.”

“It’s tough to see these guys make the choice to take their own life. It’s just like, ‘Why? You had such potential and you’re so smart. I grew up with you and know how smart you are.’ Why would you make a choice like that? You start thinking about it, ‘What’s going on?’ You look back and try to read between the lines with those guys and what made them make that choice. Obviously alcohol was involved, but, man, it just really sucks.”

Of the substance abuse – drugs and especially alcohol – that has affected so many young people in tiny Alaskan villages, Hanson makes a valid point about the Native population. Again, it’s a young culture, one that just can’t handle the effects of being under the influence (a fitness fanatic, Hanson abstains from alcohol and tobacco).

This is not other societies, where taking a few – or more – drinks is almost acceptable behavior and in the DNA of younger generations. But the vices did irreparable damage to Native teenagers.

Hanson feels fortunate he had responsible parents – Davida is a recovering alcoholic and hasn’t gone to the bottle in years – and the Hanson residence became something of a halfway house for Nick’s troubled friends.

“I’ve had kids coming over to my house all my life – sometimes three at a time. We’d have kids sleeping over and we’d all just pile into my bed; we’d all just sleep head to toe, even on school nights. They would just come over because their home wasn’t working.”

“That’s just kind of a normal thing out here in Unalakleet, where it takes a village to raise a child. That statement really does mean something, because my parents have helped raise quite a few kids. I know plenty of other parents in this community that are really great parents and they’ve helped raise (troubled children). It’s not the kids’ fault and it’s not even the parents’ fault because they got sucked into it and the trauma that they had in their own life.”

And now that he’s an adult and coaching every sport that’s offered to the kids in the village, Hanson hopes his brush with American Ninja Warrior fame can make him a built-in mentor for struggling youth. He’s become heavily involved in an Alaska Department of Health Services organization, Play Every Day (dhss.alaska.gov/dph/PlayEveryDay), which encourages kids to get outside move.

The ninja course Hanson and his buddies built along the waterfront in Unalakleet – a nephew convinced Nick to build it and pursue the show – is also a safe haven for many in the community.

 “You definitely have those moments where there’s one kid that you just say, ‘Come on – work with me here.’ And you get frustrated because that’s the way life is. You’re not going to have a perfect day every day. But on the day that they do click and you see that moment of ‘A-ha!’ in their eyes, you know it when it happens more than once that week; you made it click in that moment. And it’s that moment that I live for every day.”

When you have to deal with something called the “Flying Squirrel” and time is ticking away, you know the degree of difficulty is ratcheting up. Holding on with both arms, Nick meticulously rolls back and forth, leaping from one set of bars to another, a climbing net waiting on the other side. He makes it, but with less than 15 seconds remaining, Gbaja-Biamila reminds that Nick has “to get high on this cargo net! He’s already staring to get a little tired.” A little tired? When he makes it onto the net, he has just over 11 seconds left to climb up and over and then reach a small catwalk, where a button must be pushed before the final buzzer.

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THE TERM ESKIMO HAS become a taboo subject for how to describe Native North Americans who settled in Alaska and Canada. To many, especially in Canadian circles, the term is a derogatory one and has been replaced with the term Inuit to describe Natives of the far north. The movement includes the U.S. as well.

In May, President Obama went so far as sign HR 4238, legislation that officially replaced Eskimo with the term Native Alaskan. 

The controversy has not gone unnoticed for Hanson, who embraces his American Ninja Warrior nickname, the Eskimo Ninja(two of his cousins came up with the moniker).

“But I am an Eskimo. Granted, it can be a derogatory term, but only if you use it in a derogatory way. The derivative of it is eaters of raw meat, and I’m not going to deny that; I’m in the muktuk (bowhead whale blubber) contest of eating raw whale blubber (at the Eskimo-Indian Olympics).”

“But being offended by something, that’s all internal. When I’m introducing myself on the show I say I’m the Eskimo Ninja but I’m Inupiaq Eskimo. The term Eskimo Ninja caught on at the show. But (host) Matt (Iseman) did say on the show that I was an Inupiaq from Unalakleet. And we’ll slowly get to the point where we’ll be Inuit people and we won’t be Eskimo anymore. But right now it’s just a slow transition and it’s not going to happen tomorrow.

But tomorrow is what Hanson is looking toward. He’ll surely go back to American Ninja Warrior, but he has a higher calling than the bright lights of the obstacle courses and TV land.

Besides plans to get a master’s degree in math so he can teach the subject, Hanson is also pursuing a bachelor’s in Native Alaska studies. He can understand the Unalakleet dialect but wants to be able to speak it fluently with the few old-timers who still speak it and then introduce it to the village’s youth.

“It’s been an honor to represent my culture, and that’s the biggest wow moment for me,” he says of his celebrity status.

“Another thing I wanted to show with my ninja thing is I want (village youths) to see that they can do something positive in their lives and do something amazing. All they’ve got to do is set their minds to it. And if I can make that difference in maybe five or six kids per village and they can look up to me and change their ways, that’s going to turn into 10 or 15 in the next generation and then maybe everybody in a few generations.”

 The final countdown is on. As the Eskimo Ninja climbs up the rickety net the seconds are evaporating … five … four … three … two … Coming from a place where the statistics don’t favor the locals, when he pulls himself onto the runway he’s just a few feet from achieving what seems like a statistical improbability. But then the buzzer sounds as he’s on his knees trying to get up off the mat one last time. “Noooo!” Gbaja-Biamila screams, his hand on his head in disappointment. Hanson’s agonizingly close to moving on but going home instead. Nick rests his head against the pole. But he smiles. Surrounded by what seems like his entire hometown of supporters (his family, his girlfriend Joanne Semaken, friends) he chats with sideline reporter Kristine Leahy. “I was just like, ‘Ah, frustrating.’ But I was there; I had it,” Nick says calmly. “If you fail, keep working – keep working hard.” Someone is listening to those words back home. Nick is sure of that. ASJ

Editor’s note: For more on Nick Hanson, like him at facebook.com/eskimoninjaunk, follow on Instagram (eskimoninjaunk) and watch his videos at youtube.com/channel/UCjRYT67aAC9-dV12dsUBhwQ

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Nelchina Caribou Hunting Season Reopens On Friday

Nelchina Caribou Herd photo by Larry Whyte

Nelchina Caribou Herd photo by Larry Whyte

The following press release is courtesy of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game:

All state managed caribou hunts in Game Management Unit 13—including hunts CC001, RC566 and DC485—will reopen on October 21. Harvest is open to hunters who currently hold valid permits and have not yet harvested a caribou.

Nelchina caribou herd numbers are currently above management objectives and biologists do not anticipate reaching a harvest quota during the winter season. The winter hunt is scheduled by regulation to remain open through March 31, 2017.

A series of mild winters and relatively low predation have combined to raise Nelchina caribou herd numbers above the fall management objective of 35,000 to 40,000 animals. Analysis of data from a photo survey conducted in July places the 2016 population near last year’s estimate of 48,700. To help bring herd numbers closer to healthy management goals, hunters are encouraged to harvest cows.

The Nelchina herd has moved into the eastern part of Unit 13 and animals have been crossing the Richardson Highway between Paxson and Sourdough. Caribou have also been seen scattered along the Paxson end of the Denali Highway. Hunters are warned that the Denali Highway is not maintained during winter; a sudden snowfall could render the road impassable and leave motorists stranded.

Hunters are reminded to be aware and respectful of private and native corporation land boundaries, controlled use areas, and closed hunting areas including the Clearwater Controlled Use Area, Paxson Closed Area, and the Tangle Lakes Archeological District. To learn more about lands closed to hunting, see the 2016-2017 Alaska Hunting Regulations.

For herd movement updates and emergency orders, call the Nelchina caribou hotline at 267-2304. The hotline will be updated periodically for the remainder of the hunting season.

Panhandle Hunter Survived A Bear Attack

Photo by Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Photo by Lisa Hupp/USFWS

Sorry for just getting this in now, but I was on vacation and out of the office all of last week. The Alaska Dispatch reported that a hunter survived a bear attack two weekends ago in Southeast Alaska.

Here’s the paper with more:

A deer hunter from Hoonah was injured in a brown bear attack on Chichagof Island in Southeast Alaska Saturday, and was saved when his hunting partner shot and killed the attacking bear, Alaska State Troopers reported.

Anthony Lindoff, 36, of Juneau and Josh Dybdahl, 30, of Hoonah, were approaching a brushy spot in an area of muskeg near Neka Bay on Chichagof Island, preparing to call for deer when the bear attacked around 12:30 p.m. Saturday, troopers said in an online dispatch. 

“They heard a ‘whoof’ and then a brown bear emerged from the brush charging at them,” troopers wrote.

The bear pinned Dybdahl on the ground; Lindoff grabbed his rifle and shot the bear, killing it, the dispatch said.

The bear, a sow, had two cubs with her, according to the dispatch.

“Investigation revealed that the attack likely occurred as a result of the bear being startled,” troopers said.

Lindoff and Dybdahl called the U.S. Coast Guard, which picked them up in a helicopter and took the men to Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau.

Back To Port Ashton

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The following appears in the September issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

BY DAVID ZOBY

Montague Island appeared in glimpses, broken by rough surf and headlands, scoured by waves and wind.

We trolled long wavering lines a half-mile out from the kelp beds. No other boats were in sight. Capt. Gregg Tanji flipped on the Furuno and it immediately began its weird sound – spup-spup-spup – like a card dealer flipping out the deck. The sonar found stacks of baitfish.

Within moments of setting out downriggers, one of my fellow boatmates was into his first king. When the line popped out of the clip and went slack, he froze. But the deckhands directed him to the right rod and the fight was on.

He had never caught a salmon in his life, and now he was slowly working a wild king to the boat in one of the most pristine fisheries in the world. The fish made a second run, as kings do, but this time it came to the surface and wagged its head back and forth, desperate to throw the hook. When the big fish hit the net, a cascade of silver scales burst loose like confetti.

This was my second time trolling for kings off Montague. I had been lucky enough to do an overnight trip to nearby Port Ashton some years before, and I was eager to get back. The coastline was as indifferent as I remembered it, foreboding and enigmatic. The Gulf of Alaska seemed so immense, so daunting, I tried to think of other things: king salmon on the grill; taking some nice photos; the sushi restaurant in Seward where I had had a great meal the night before. I tried to ignore the fact that we were the only boat within sight. On this type of long-range trip, you are essentially, profoundly alone at sea. Someone asked about facilities on Montague Island.

“Nobody lives there,” said one of the deckhands, Chase, a likable Baylor University grad student who fishes Alaska in the summer to cover his tuition payments. “There’s a few hunters’ cabins there for deer and bear hunters. But it’s uninhabited. Ninety miles long.”

“Are there roads?” asked one of the clients.

“No roads. The closest towns are Whittier and Seward,” on the mainland, said Chase as he busily reset the gold spoon and the sonar continued marking bait – spup-spup-spup-spup – in crescendo. The king went in the fish box and I heard him in there, thrashing.

The salmon bite fizzled after just three kings, possibly because the tide swung and the gear wasn’t working quite right, or possibly because a solitary bull orca cruised right through our best spots. Capt. Gregg told us to reel up the lines. We were going for halibut.

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OUR VESSEL, THE TAIL WATCHER, was like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s a 40-foot Armstrong Marina Catamaran with twin Volvo Penta inboard diesel engines. It can break 30 knots, even in chop. On this trip, there were eight clients, though the deck space on the Tail Watcher gave us plenty of room to fish and keep our lines from tangling.

The equipment on board was top of the line: Avet reels and Loomis rods, all kinds of bright jigs and spoons, fresh bait and a mesh chum bag the size of a bean bag chair. Moreover, the Tail Watcher has attitude. It seems like a hybrid – a cross between a military amphibious lander, and a souped-up Humvee. The welds are as thick as my pinky. Inside the wheelhouse, there’s enough electronics to make you dizzy.

We all sat in the galley exchanging fish stories while Capt. Gregg positioned the boat on a pinnacle. There was a science to it, and he wasn’t satisfied until he pegged the boat right atop a shelf where the structure fell away to deeper water.

The skipper said he hadn’t tried this particular spot in years but felt good about it. A bulging chum bag of chopped herring and various fishy morsels was lowered to soak. The two deckhands, both Texans themselves, scrambled to set the anchor and replace the salmon gear with stout halibut rods. I asked if I could jig, rather than soak herring and salmon carcasses.

“We always keep at least one jig in the water,” said Matt, the deckhand and a Texas A&M graduate. He explained that we were targeting large halibut – 40 to 100 pounds or more. “It makes no sense to go running around the ocean looking for ‘chickens.’ We’re after quality fish here, so be patient.”

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WE HAD MOVED OFFSHORE enough to where you could just barely see Montague and its sea-battered headlands. I used a somewhat lighter rod than the others who dropped circle hooks baited with herring, sockeye carcasses and octopus. I lowered a 16-ounce jig with a white twister tail until I felt the obvious thud of the bottom. I pumped the rod only six or seven times before I felt a jolt. The fish held tight to the bottom. I strained to move it. Finally, the fish began to come up. Halfway through the fight, the fish sort of stopped struggling.

“It’s a big yelloweye,” said Capt. Gregg, who had appeared over my shoulder with a bamboo-handled gaff in hand. He was right; it was a yelloweye and the biggest I had ever seen.

Jigging seemed to be the ticket that day. We took turns until we had limited out on the rockfish. They were huge, with one topping 20 pounds. A few small halibut also fell to herring, but mostly it was a yelloweye bite.

“We’ve found the pumpkin patch,” said Matt, as he gaffed another trophy yelloweye.

John, an angler from California who was fishing with his nephew, suddenly groaned as his rod doubled over, the last eyelets of his rod touching the sea’s surface. Others had halibut on at the same moment, but none seemed to be dragging them around the deck of the Tail Watcher like the beast John had hooked. It took him over 30 minutes to raise the fish, a beautiful 100-plus-pound halibut with astonishing markings on its back. The boat’s crew, all three of them, handled the fish in a scrum of gaffs and clubs. We all stood back out of the way of the huge tail that was thumping the deck of the boat, and I could feel the raw power through the steel as the fish made its last struggles. John seemed dazed and awed by what had just happened. He told me later he had never caught a fish like this one.

“That flounder did not want to come on board,” said Matt.

My halibut, a 50-pound fish with a greenish hue, bit a jig. I ‘d been talking about elk hunting with one of my boatmates when I felt a solid hit. The drag ran for 30 seconds and the jigging gear is so much lighter than bottomfishing gear that you get to feel it all. You are in the fight in a way that you can hardly imagine.

When the fish finally came alongside the boat, Capt. Gregg, gaff in hand, asked if I wanted to keep it. I peered over the gunnels to see a fine manhole cover of a halibut in the clear water. I hadn’t caught a nice halibut like this one in years.

“Absolutely,” I said.

The author celebrates a nice salmon catch.

The author celebrates a nice salmon catch.

AFTER WE’D ALL CAUGHT a halibut, we stopped at a rocky pinnacle for black rockfish. I tangled with a 30-pound lingcod that had to go back into the sea because season wasn’t open yet. The others quickly limited on “black beauties” before we returned to the stoic kelp beds to look for a few kings and called it a day. Our pal, the orca, was nowhere around. The Tail Watcher’s sister boat, the Predator, was there, though. The captain, a Wyoming native turned Alaska charter captain, was on the radio.

“We just hooked one – one seagull,” he said. “They’re aggressive today.”

I noticed the same thing. The glaucous gulls off Montague are a wild-eyed, mean strain of birds. They have to be to live out here where everything eats everything else. Gulls plagued us all day, dodging in to grab a bite of herring, quarreling among themselves, dive-bombing the bait table.

While the deckhands set the gear, gulls dove at the battered gold spoons. Matt explained to us that the king bite was not a guarantee, that many boats out of Seward were not catching any this year. But even with these daunting words, I was all for trolling. I love trolling for king salmon, even on a full charter where you have to wait your turn as others fight and lose fish. I just wanted a shot at one king.

One by one, the kings began to come to the net and my turn was approaching. These are not the same fish that run up Alaska streams, rather “feeder” kings that gather off Montague to fatten up before returning to British Columbia waters to spawn. The limit is two per day, but with the slow bite, it would be a feat for each of us to get a chance at a single king.

Most of these anglers had never caught a king, and it was fun to watch them grab the correct rod out of the holders (the crew ran three rods on each side of the boat) and fight these wild fish.

When my time came, Matt was just setting the spoon back in the water. He had yet to drop the downrigger when the king slashed across the surface and grabbed the spoon. We all saw it. I slowly worked the fish back to the boat, letting it run when it needed to and taking what it gave me.

A Chinook is my favorite thing in the world to eat, so I was particularly careful not to make any mistakes, considering that I have lost quite a few of them at the boat. But Capt. Gregg appeared again (he seemed to have the unique ability to be where he needed to be at the right time) and deftly netted my fish.

All eight of us now had a king, and it was time to head to the lodge at Port Ashton, which is two islands away from Montague, on Evans Island’s Sawmill Bay, for dinner and a good night’s sleep. We would do it all again the next day.

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OUR SHORT RUN INTO Port Ashton was a photographer’s dream. The fjords were veiled in misty shrouds. Seiners were busy working their nets. I saw a young girl “plunging” the water’s surface, striking it with a paddle to scare the salmon back into the net. You could smell the scent of fresh salmon, and wet acres of rainforest.

We were met at the dock by Port Ashton’s owner, Lia Talvi. She brought a wheelbarrow for our gear. Our fish box was gaudy – an embarrassment of riches. Lia, who has seen her share of catches, told us we had done extremely well. And you could tell she was being honest. She hopped on a four-wheeler and drove our gear to cabins where we would spend the night.

I wish I could say that I celebrated with my fellow fishermen into the wee hours of the night. I wish I could say I took a dip in the hot tub. But the truth was, after a satisfying meal of chili, salad and cornbread – and a long conversation with Lia, who dropped by the cook shack with freshly baked “Mug-up” cookies – I was beat. We talked for a while about the king fishing and how lucky our crew was to each get a king.

“That doesn’t happen all of the time,” said Lia. “With kings you never know.”

The Talvis live a life on the edge of the wilderness. They literally carved their lodge out of untouched landscape and brought everything in by boat. Lia joked that they still call the trail up to the main cabin “The Trail of Tears.”

Thank god no television producer has discovered them and tried to turn their authentic lives into a reality show. People come to here relax, kayak the calm waters of Sawmill Bay, photograph the wildlife, or, as in my case, enjoy a respite from a day of charter fishing.

It’s a unique place that you’ll never forget. Being at Port Ashton is the extra special treat you get when you book an overnight trip out of Seward. It might be the reason I continue to dream of Alaska.

I went back to my room and read an article about Mardy Murie’s days in Port Ashton. The father of the woman sometimes called “the grandmother of the conservation movement” once owned the cannery here. Who knew? As a girl learning to maneuver skiffs and clean salmon, Murie felt a profound connection to the wilderness at Port Ashton. Perhaps learning to work a tiller and pick salmon from nets is what inspired her to go on to become a literary treasure. The writing was so vivid, so clear, that I drifted off to sleep dreaming of seine haulers and fish tenders of a bygone era.

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THE NEXT MORNING FOUND US in chop just off on Montague. The Tail Watcher shed the confused seas with no difficulty whatsoever. We were so close to the headlands that I could see the shapes of sea lions on the rocks. I could hear the surf crushing miles of shoreline. We were bottomfishing in just 70 feet of water. Still, large halibut came thrashing over the rail.

Jigging again, I caught several hoss black beauties. I was reeling up to check my jig when a halibut slammed it and ran back to the bottom. It fought unlike the fish I took the day before. This flatfish ran like a king salmon, peeling off line, sulking off the stern of the boat until I was able to coax it back.

It was a carbon copy of the fish I had caught the previous day, a solid 40-plus-pound keeper. I nodded to the captain, who gaffed it and hurled it into the box, which was already brimming with black rockfish and halibut worth bragging about. The gulls were back to harassing us, crying and squabbling over lost bits of bait.

We trolled for kings before heading back to Seward. When they came, they came in twos and threes – wreaking havoc with our gear and causing us to laugh and shout with excitement. During lulls in the action, I kept looking at Montague Island and wondered how long it would be until I saw its mysterious bights and peaks again.

It’s not that easy getting back. For one, many outfitters don’t let a party of one such as myself add on to their overnight trips. Grande Alaska Lodge, who runs the Predator and the Tail Watcher (as well as some other impressive boats), was the only company in Seward willing to book me on an overnight trip. Most outfits require you to book the whole boat. Also, when fishing in Alaska, your plans can change at any moment. There are some days where the charter fleet just can’t go out as far as Montague. A Coast Guard chopper prowled the skies one morning to illustrate this point. A private vessel was overdue at Seward and an alarm had gone out. Luckily, it all turned out OK for the fishing party. But it goes to show that fishing these waters is serious business, and you need a knowledgeable, well-seasoned captain and crew to make sure your trip is safe and enjoyable. On the Tail Watcher, we were in good hands.

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BACK IN SEWARD, it was all smiles and backslaps as we posed by the fish boards with our incredible haul. Kamell Allaway, owner of Grande Alaska Lodge and J-Dock Sport Fishing, was cruising the wet boards in his rubber boots, checking with his clients and making sure they had enjoyed their trips. He carried a cup of coffee, his telltale laughter booming as he shook hands and visited with folks. He popped into photos and took charge of cameras and cellphones while fishermen scrambled to have their photos taken with the day’s catch. How often do you see the owner of a business involved in every aspect of his operation?

Kamell was helping hang fish on the fish boards, directing people to the free coffee in the seafood shop and making sure everyone knew how to get their fish home (J-Dock does it all, from filleting and freezing your fish, to getting it to your doorstep in pristine condition).

The whole wharf was buzzing with activity: fishermen hugging their families, tourists taking photos, legions of taciturn men filleting fish. But I kept thinking about Port Ashton, where the silence was interrupted only by the distant sounds of seiners plunging the water, or eagles twaddling in the high branches of trees that overlook the green waters of Sawmill Bay. I was already dreaming of going back.

A Caribou On The Kobuk

The following appears in the September issue of Alaska Sporting Journal 

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BY PAUL D. ATKINS 

MREs are full of anticipation, including the finicky one I was trying to rip apart.

The plastic seal was like a vise, but eventually I got it open and began searching to see its contents. Eli, my 12-year-old son, was already devouring his ready-to-eat meal, and Lew, my longtime hunting partner, was doing the same. Since we were starving we decided to eat on the boat, which was anchored to a bluff on the south side of the river. As I heated up my “pork rib” I got the strange feeling that we were being watched, or at least not alone.

My intuition was correct. Four monster caribou bulls stood on the bank across the river and contemplated whether to cross or not. It was a beautiful sight.

The stretch of the river we were on was a familiar one, but getting there that morning had been an adventure in itself, since reaching the Kobuk can be treacherous. A monster, shallow lake separates the town of Kotzebue from its mouth, and if the wind is up, then it’s almost impossible to cross in a boat.

The wind that morning was supposed to be less than 10 mph, which is very doable, but once we got halfway across it changed and triggered bigger-than-average waves, tossing us to and from and covering us in glazed ice. It was a cold bumpy ride, but once we made it across it well worth it to see the old river once again.

As we cruised upriver, we took note of how the wall of yellow-leafed willows that stretched on forever into the hills came to a stop just short of the sand and rock that covered the bare bank. Green grass could be found in a few places and on the way up we’d seen six moose devouring it as fast as they could. The other side was a high mud bank covered in a deep, dark mixture of moss, roots and sand standing taller than I or anybody else could ever climb. It was classic Arctic Alaska. I had been through here many times, but 10 years had passed since I’d last been up the Kobuk in search of caribou.

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RIVERS ARE A HUGE part of everyone’s lives here in Alaska, but for us here in the Arctic, the Kobuk is especially so. Whether you’re getting from one village to another or heading to camp in hopes of catching a few salmon or picking berries with your family, it really doesn’t matter; the river helps define who we are.

The Kobuk itself flows endlessly east of Kotzebue and is made up of many different channels that find their way into one wide expanse of delta. Each channel has a name and each has some of the best hunting this country has to offer.

Many years ago when I first arrived in Alaska, I made my maiden voyage up this same river by boat. I was in awe of its beauty and the immense amount of taiga that ascended the landscape above it. Huge valleys of spruce and willow could be seen in every direction; the river teemed with fish. It was as incredible then as it is today.

That same trip, which happened over 20 years ago, was actually my first introduction to Alaska. The weeklong adventure was for caribou and hopefully a moose, if we were fortunate enough to see one. We did not, and the closest caribou we saw was well out of reach. But that boat ride changed me: I fell in love with Alaska and life in the Arctic, and it played a big part in me moving here and making this place my home. I’m so glad I did.

After that first trip, I couldn’t get back fast enough, so I made it to the Kobuk again the following September. This time, however, it was quite different. Thousands of caribou migrated through the country and seemingly approached us from all directions.

From our boat, we could see groups of 50 and 100, and knowing where to position ourselves became a confusing delight. I used my bow to get my first caribou on that other trip, and to this day it was probably one of the most incredible hunts I’ve ever been on.

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IT WAS NO DIFFERENT on this particular day. The bulls that were staring at us from across the river now didn’t seem too concerned. They actually looked tired, and as I watched them through my binoculars I started to imagine the incredible journey they were on: Miles and miles of deep tundra, being chased by wolves and bears, plus all those rivers they had to cross. I would be tired too.

Seemingly on cue they began to bed down, and one after another they lay in the sand directly across from us on the river.

We tried to continue with lunch, but the thought of four bulls lying on the bank across from us made it too exciting to eat our MREs. We had to make a plan, and I told Lew and Eli that our best bet was to roll up the anchor and float down the river ever so gently and get across to the other side. The hope was that the caribou wouldn’t become too alarmed and would stay put until we could make our way over. We proceeded to implement that plan and it seemed to be working perfectly.

Our floating exercise brought us to a point downstream 400 yards away from the bulls. We quietly got out with our gear: Lew with his bow, Eli with his rifle and me with the camera.

The wind was right and the willows were thick, making conditions perfect for a stalk. We inched our way forward, weaving in and out of the brush, while trying to keep a visual on the caribou at all times. It was working perfectly until the willows gave way to open bank. Lew ranged them at 100 yards and knew that getting a shot with the BowTech was not going to happen. Eli, however, would have a chance with his rifle.

My son had never taken a caribou, even though he has been with me many times when I’ve done so. He has helped me cut meat and truly enjoys being on the river. Getting him his first big game animal has been our goal for some time and I really wanted this for him.

We quickly set the Bog Pod shooting sticks up and got ready. Eli lined up his scope and pushed off the safety. We could tell that the bulls were getting nervous as each stood up, milled around and watched in our direction.

Then it happened. A boat came barreling around the corner, creating a chaotic scene that had our four caribou friends making a mad dash through the wall of leaves. It was game over.

It was equally disappointing and incredible to experience. As we cranked up the boat and headed back to camp all I could do was reflect on seeing caribou once again on the banks of the Kobuk. The scene – four big bulls with their brownish gray coats and showing off their beautiful white manes and tremendous antlers – was truly special and hard to stop thinking about. We didn’t score, but the experience was a memory that will be forever etched in our minds.

I was so glad Eli was able to see it.

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AS WE HEADED TO CAMP, we rounded one of the many bends in the river and came to a large sandbank I had camped at once before. Lew noticed something and over the steady purr of the outboard motor I heard this telling declaration: “Caribou!”

We immediately headed to shore, and I got my rifle from its case. I jumped up on the bank and began the short stalk alone. There were five animals in all, each bigger than the four we had seen earlier. Choosing was difficult, and I had to decide quickly, while at the same time get a clean shot. Wanting the biggest bull meat-wise and antler-wise can sometimes create conflict, but once I found him it was pretty easy. The scope found its mark and I waited for him to turn broadside and alone. He did, falling where he stood.

The remaining bulls ran only a short distance, stopped and looked back like they always do. For a moment I thought Eli or maybe even Lew might have a chance at one of them, but the caribou weren’t impressed. They quickly turned and disappeared into the wall of willows, swallowed up as if they had never been there.

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The whole episode took less time than it takes to tie your shoes, but it was incredible, to say the least. It was exhilarating and surreal all at once.

Seeing the big bull laying there in the sand with its double shovel and pristine coat reminded me of long-ago seasons, when I’d brought my dad to this very spot. I’d also spent countless hours hunting with friends in this same area.

We took a few pictures, field-dressed the best we could and loaded the bull on the front of Lew’s boat. Darkness was approaching now, but we were happy sharing in our success and the benefits that come from living in such a great land that we call home. It was the end to a great day.

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THE KOBUK RIVER IS full of surprises. It might be moose one day, waterfowl the next, or maybe even a porcupine; you never know. This day, however, it provided us with food and memories from one of its oldest and most incredible inhabitants: the mighty caribou. ASJ

Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on hunting big game and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor toAlaska Sporting Journal.

Big Game? Don’t Forget Big Grayling

 

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The following appears in the September issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:

BY DENNIS MUSGRAVES 

Outdoor adventures in Alaska’s Interior region usually rotate towards shooting sports in fall.

And it makes sense, given that big game animals are the preferred choice for many; moose, caribou and bear hunting take priority when birch leaves turn yellowish-orange and shrubs fade brown. But while most people are busy setting up moose camp or hiking to a remote spot to stalk caribou, my idea of a fall adventure keeps me waist-deep in the water.

Pursuing Arctic grayling with a lightweight fly rod is my passion this time of the year. Since seasonal changes do not affect the iconic resident sailfish of the north, they remain active and willing to bite. It’s the last chance for open water fishing before snow blankets the landscape and the waterways freeze over. Fly fishermen are wise to switch from floating to sink-tip lines and think deep, since the dry fly bite almost disappears with changing seasons.

Sportfishing for grayling just prior to whiteout does bring on certain feeding changes in the fish. Lower temperatures from cooling weather fronts reduce insect activity, a common food source for grayling in summer. But the presence of spawning salmon provides a river load of happy meals for the Arctic species.

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STOCK YOUR ARSENAL       

Like the changing season, your fly box should reflect the changing availibility of forage. Include a varied selection of subsurface presentations, as having a stockpile of certain wet flies will definitely help put more fish in the landing net.

A main staple for most experienced anglers targeting Interior grayling during the short fall is the famous Egg-sucking Leech, commonly called an ESL for short. The fly combines the body features of a Woolly Bugger, while at the same time replicates a salmon egg. The attractiveness of the double feature creates the ultimate enticement for a hungry grayling.

Saddle hackle is used to hold the marabou tail against the shaft of the hook, and then matching-colored chenille is wrapped to form the body. Additional egg-colored chenille is wrapped at the opposing end of the marabou tail, forming what appears to be an “egg” from a salmon. The cylindrical body and pulsating tail gives the fly life in the current as it drifts near the riverbed, imitating a leech latched onto a fish egg perfectly.

Black and purple materials are very popular for tying the body, with the egg portion usually various shades of pink, chartreuse or roe-tinted orange. Dark-purple bodied and orange-egg combos are always plentiful in my grayling fly box.

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CASTING IN THE CURRENT

Good presentation is accomplished by casting upstream and allowing the leech to sink and naturally drift in the current. Occasional stripping of line will assist in moving the fly along a gravel bottom.

Sometimes I find the need to use a small piece of split shot just about 18 inches above the fly in order to get deep in faster water. The key is to have it near the bottom. Using a swinging or stripping technique with an ESL can also be very effective.

Arctic grayling are one of the most unique species of fish found in Alaska. They are beautiful, aggressive and scrappy, fun to catch for any level of angler and easy to target in the late open-water season – especially if you have an Egg-sucking Leech tied on at the end of your tippet. If you’re planning any fishing in order to feed yourself during a big game hunt in the remote bush, make sure to bring a couple of ESLs to increase your odds at catching riverside lunch.

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IT’S STILL ALASKA

Grayling fishing during the hunting-crazed fall certainly won’t allow me to fill my freezer with moose steaks, nor will it put a trophy set of caribou antlers on my wall. But it’s not like I feel as if I am missing out.

The opportunity to spend quality time in the wilds of Alaska catching and releasing feisty Arctic grayling by the dozens is more than enough to satisfy this angler’s hungry outdoor spirit. With a majority of outdoor enthusiasts trying to harvest Alaska’s big game during the fall, that only makes for less fishing competition for me and my friends on any of our favorite rivers flowing through the Interior of the 49th state. ASJ

Editor’s note: To see more of Dennis Musgraves’ Alaskan adventures, check out alaskansalmonslayers.com

Petersburg Mayor Pens Excellent AntiMining Column

 

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Petersburg mayor Mark Jensen penned an excellent column  in the Juneau Empire about the negative and possibly tragic impact that Canadian mining companies can have around Southeast Alaska.

Here’s a sample of what Jensen wrote:

Alaskans are being asked to essentially bear all the risks and none of the economic benefits for nearly a dozen massive Canadian mines in the headwaters of the Taku, Stikine and Unuk transboundary rivers. This is not a typical ask, because Alaskans currently have no choice in the matter regarding how these mines are designed, permitted, built, operated or reclaimed. Nor do Alaskans have any specific assurances and guarantees that our water and fish will be protected or that any water pollution and damage to fisheries will be cleaned up or compensated for.

Last week in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Alaska’s entire Congressional Delegation again said what thousands of Southeast Alaska residents have said for years: We are not OK with this scenario. More specifically, their letter said, “Transboundary mining issues (must be treated) with urgency and focus today (that will) prevent discord and disaster tomorrow. … The stakes for Alaska are enormous.”

For Petersburg, where fishing is the lifeblood of our community, damage to our rivers and the fisheries they support would be catastrophic.

However, earlier in the week, as the delegation was finalizing the letter to Secretary Kerry, we learned that another B.C. mining company, Chieftain Metals, owner of the polluting Tulsequah Chief mine, is undergoing bankruptcy proceedings. Now that Chieftain has thrown in the towel, who will be responsible for halting the acid mine drainage into the Taku watershed, which has been flowing unabated for almost 60 years?

Read the rest of it here. Well done by Mayor Jensen.

 

 

Strife Leads To Charges Filed For Fishing Captain

 

I remember being fired up to watch the 2000 George Clooney-Mark Wahlberg/John C. Reilly etc. fishing flick, The Perfect Storm  when it first came out. I figured, “How you could mess up a movie with Clooney barking orders at his minions, Diane Lane fawning over Marky Mark and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio kicking ass while skippering her own boat?” Throw in an underrated who’s who of character actors and it was a can’t miss hit. As it turns out, the movie was good but not great, but between all the spectacular visual effects of a tiny fishing boat being battered by massive waves in the Atlantic, there were moments of brilliance depicting how much tension can go on with a bunch of fishermen stuck together in the middle of the ocean.

So I guess it’s not a surprise that we occasionally experience stories of strife among the crews. Take this report from the Alaska Dispatch News last week: 

The skipper of a fishing vessel has been charged with repeatedly assaulting a crew member and threatening to kill him in waters near Kodiak last month.

Kyle Mead, 39, of Anchorage faces five counts of assault, three of them felonies, following an Aug. 26 incident aboard the fishing vessel Miss Destinee. All five counts are considered acts of domestic violence because both Mead and the crew member were living aboard the vessel at the time.

According to an affidavit against Mead, written by Alaska State Trooper Brock Simmons, Mead reported an assault to Kodiak troopers by satellite phone at about 5 p.m. Aug. 26, saying that the crew member had charged Mead, who had “defended himself.” Afterward, Mead said, he told the crew member to remain in his bunk as the Miss Destinee headed for Kodiak.

When troopers spoke with the crew member at Providence Kodiak Island Medical Center, where he was being treated for minor injuries, he said he had been working for Mead since June.

“During his time on board, (Mead) had made several comments to (the victim) placing him in fear of physical injury,” Simmons wrote. “The defendant had told him, ‘We’re under maritime law out here and it would be easy to make you disappear.'”

The report goes onto say the allegations also include alcohol and a handgun, so it’s a rather disturbing chain of events.