When Keith Colburn first set foot in Alaska, there were bears – albeit a stuffed one – snow and regret about his decision to head north.
This was March 1985, when Colburn had manifest destiny expectations of arriving in the Last Frontier and finding work on a fishing boat. Initially, it went terribly.
Fast forward over 30 years and Colburn’s life in Alaska is completely different. He captains his own crab boat – the F/V Wizard – and is one of the skippers featured on Discovery’s hit series Deadliest Catch, which recently began its 14th season.
His celebrity status offers plenty of perks – it’s true: crab captains can be TV stars. Spy on Colburn’s social media pages and you’ll find him visiting Venice and attending sporting events like thoroughbred races, Seattle Seahawks games – sharing snaps of he and quarterback Russell Wilson – and college basketball’s NCAA Tournament.
“Overall, it’s been a wonderful, great ride. I’ve experienced new things; I’ve met some amazing people,” he says. “I’ve been able to do things I would have never done (and) the doors that have been opened from the exposure of being on TV.”
But it hasn’t been always like this; it’s a dream that was spawned on that gloomy welcome-to-Alaska nightmare of a first day.
COLBURN AND HIS BEST friend Kurt Frankenberg fled their beloved ski slopes of Lake Tahoe, a gorgeous alpine setting along the California-Nevada border, when they were in their early 20s – a little restless, a little impatient and maybe even a little dumb.
Colburn’s parents were in the casino industry in Tahoe, a popular gambling destination on the Silver State side of the lake. Their son had different career plans.
“I knew at an early age that I would not be in the casino industry,” says Colburn, now 55. “And I spent more time in the game room waiting for my dad to go on break to bum a quarter off of him – or a dime back then – to play pinball. And I just didn’t want anything to do with the casinos.”
At that time, he spent most of his days doing two things: skiing and cooking. He worked at a French and seafood restaurant, working his way through the ranks of the kitchen, from scrubbing dirty dishes to an assistant’s chef position.
The money was OK, and the camaraderie between Colburn and the rest of the staff meant fun times on their one day off a week. And the skiing, of course, in one of the West’s best locations for that sport, was fantastic. But it wasn’t enough to keep him there.
“The lifestyle was pretty demanding. I would spend eight to 10 hours a day in the kitchen and four or five hours in the morning skiing and not getting a whole lot of sleep,” he says.
Fishing? Save for trolling for Lake Tahoe’s famed trout and Mackinaw with buddies, Colburn was more entertained by the slopes than salmon. But a few years earlier, a restaurant coworker named Santo had had a proposition. He needed to get a Hans Christian sailboat moored in the San Francisco Bay area down the coast to San Diego and wanted a passenger to go along.
Why not? The fearless 18-year-old was up for any adventure. Colburn was hardly a sailor, and by the time they sailed under the Golden Gate Bridge and hit the open water of the Pacific, he wasn’t sure if Santo knew what he was doing either.
“It went from flat water to 10-foot seas. That’s when I got my first instance with seasickness. We’re on a 36-foot boat with 25-foot seas sailing down the coast. It was a pretty scary situation,” Colburn says. “But at 18 years old when the captain is sort of a big bulletproof guy – I didn’t know what kind of mariner Santo was, I didn’t know anything about sailing, but he seemed calm enough and faithful enough that I never really became afraid when I was out there. I was crazy.”
The weather was violent enough that they had to hand-steer rather than use the autopilot. They were essentially surfing downwind with 20- to 25-foot waves crashing over the deck.
“Every two minutes I’m waist- or chest-deep in water trapped to the helm trying to follow a little red globe as a compass and keeping the boat on course,” Colburn says. “It was nuts, but I fell in love. And a few years later, I was getting a little burned out on cooking.”
Cue Colburn convincing his BFF Frankenberg to find their sea legs on a fishing vessel far from home, on far more stormy seas.
“I had an older friend who a couple years earlier had gone to Alaska and had come home with a pocket full of money and he’d said there were lots of opportunities for young guys who wanted to try and fish,” he says. “And so I made the decision to, instead of committing myself to wanting to be a chef, I would be willing to try something different. And so, kind of on a whim, we decided to go to Alaska.”
What could possibly go wrong?
LONG BEFORE THE INTERNET was a useful tool, Colburn’s Alaska research was done from a landline. He called the chambers of commerce at various port towns. He and Frankenberg concluded that Kodiak had enough fishing seasons to give them a decent chance to find work.
In their possession the guys had literally $50 and a tent to sleep in. Never mind a return ticket to the Lower 48.
“We were completely committed,” Colburn says.
And they questioned that commitment immediately. Colburn remembered the exact date: March 7.
“We get off the plane, and back then in 1985, the airport at Kodiak was like two Quonset huts put together. But they had this big statue when you go through the terminal and walk out of the other side of this big Kodiak brown bear that was kind of standing up,” he says. “It’s your introduction to Kodiak. And we just looked at each other and said, ‘Oh man; we’re screwed.’”
It wasn’t the only time Colburn and Frankenberg shared a blank stare and an uh-oh moment.
With a dusting of snow coming down, they hitchhiked from the airport to get down to the harbor. Upon entering the harbormaster’s office, they asked to leave their packs with him and look around for a while. When the harbormaster inquired about their presence on that blustery late-winter day, the guys said they were looking for jobs.
Here’s how the exchange went:
“What kind of work you looking for?”
“Well, we want to fish.”
“Well, I’ve got some bad news for you guys.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“You guys are about a month early. The herring fleet isn’t even going to start gearing up for about three weeks. Crab (season) is just winding down and those guys are still out there fishing and they’re nowhere near here. And the rest of the fleet is going to be tied up for at least another month.”
It was Colburn’s no room-at-the-inn introduction to Alaska.
“And now, for the second time, we look at each other and say, ‘No, we’re not screwed. We’re totally screwed.’ So there was a lot of, ‘What the hell did we get ourselves into?’”
A few days later, some hope arrived in the form of the F/V Alaska Trader, a 135-foot crabber/tender that had been mothballed around Bristol Bay. It was pulled into Kodiak looking haggard and beaten up, but with an owner aspiring to put it back in the water again to fish. Enter an opportunity for two eager, if not desperate, greenhorns looking for any opportunity they could find.
It was the first step in a new career as a fisherman for Colburn.
“And what they needed was two really stupid kids to do the worst jobs you can ever imagine on the planet. It was for room and board,” he says. “There was no pay. But you know what? Those staterooms on the Alaska Trader were a helluva lot nicer than the tent we were staying in.”
WHEN HE LEFT HIS skis for the sea in the 1980s, aspiring chef Keith Colburn was pulling in about $24,000 a year in the kitchen of that Lake Tahoe restaurant. That first year in Kodiak, when he and Frankenberg were doing the grunt work to restore the Alaska Trader and eventually fish on the vessel, they didn’t gross half that.
But he says that’s a story no different than the other dreamers who flock to Alaska to hitch a ride on a boat and try to make a life out of it.
“So the question wasn’t, ‘Why did you go to Alaska?’ The question was, ‘Why did you go back?’” Colburn says.
“But the very first time we set sail out of Kodiak going to Togiak for the herring in early April, we were on watch. It was a beautiful night and we’re going through the islands, and I’m over on the port side of the wheelhouse and the captain comes over and goes, ‘Yeah; you’re hooked.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘You’ve got the look.’ I was literally hooked immediately and just fell in love with being on the water.”
By 1988, he became a full-time deckhand on the Wizard, and within a few years he elevated himself from working down below in the engine room to being on deck as a deck boss, to then a mate and a relief captain. Finally, in 2005 he purchased the boat from one of his mentors, John Jorgensen.
“All of a sudden John handed me the keys and said, ‘You know what? You’re the captain now.’ And it’s gone from there.”
He’s made not just a career out of crab fishing the dangerous, and yes, deadly waters they work on – in this season’s premiere, all of the vessels paid tribute to the crew of the F/V Destination, lost in 2017 when the boat sank in the Bering Sea. But there’s also the fame that’s come with being a fellow skipper on Discovery’s most successful series.
That said, Colburn also is grateful that Deadliest Catch has given his industry a collective face. Yes, viewers only see what the cameras shoot and producers decide to air. But as this unlikely mega hit began its 14th season last month, it’s important to note the impact the show’s had on all of those who aren’t household names in the commercial fishing cosmos.
Colburn has testified in Congress multiple times, making pleas when pending government shutdowns have threatened to delay the opening of king crab season in Alaskan waters.
“It wasn’t like they slammed the door in our face in Washington D.C., but we were the little guys and kind of an afterthought. But all of a sudden, along comes TV and the doors are opening wider and wider all the time,” Colburn says. “It’s helped not only myself but all fisheries, and I think the awareness about the risk of fishing, the rewards of fishing and the value of the product that we bring in, the biggest thing is that it’s helped fishermen all around the United States. You watch Deadliest Catch and you see guys risking their lives to catch crab; you get a better understanding of why it’s expensive. (Crab are) incredibly dangerous to catch.”
“Going back to the first industries that were ever in America – fishing and whaling – long before we became a country and started farming in America, there were fishermen. So for us keeping that way of life alive throughout the United States, I think that would be the biggest reward that I can say has come from the show.” ASJ
Editor’s note: New episodes of Deadliest Catch can be seen on Tuesday nights on the Discovery Channel at 10 Pacific (check your local listings). Follow Capt. Keith Colburn on Twitter (@crabwizard) and Instagram (@captainkeithcolburn) and like at facebook.com/CaptainKeithColburn.