Long days on the Kasilof River

It’s about ten o’clock at night in Kasilof, Alaska and I am tossing and turning in my bunk room anxiously awaiting my first true day as a skiff driver on the river. I have an idea of what I am getting into as its now my third week at work and things are starting to ramp up in the Salmon season. What I don’t know is what to expect tomorrow, our first big fishing day of the driftnet season on our section of the Cook Inlet. Not only is it a day where we expect three times the boats that we had previously but it is also a new moon which brings the biggest and most dynamic tides I will see in my time working this river. Knowing I had a captain and his crew coming “between 3 and 4 A.M” I try my hardest to fall asleep and get some rest before the day begins in a few hours.

I’m woken by the doorbell in my room chiming and lighting up. Game time. I open the door and tell the crew of 5 to give me two minutes and I will meet them on the dock. I hastily put on my gear and head to where everyone is waiting by my skiff, a 22 foot aluminum boat with a healthy 90 horsepower motor and my sole source of anxiety lately. The tide is up, way up, 23 feet to be specific and its moving out fast. The captain wants to get on the boat as fast as possible to follow the flood out of the river and get to their location where they will fish for the next 12 hours hoping for as much wild caught Alaskan Salmon as possible. The ride goes off without a hitch and I return to my bunk, I pat myself on the back and go back to sleep. I know today is going to be a big day and I need as much rest as possible.

I wake up around 10:30 and go down to the river, and my head starts spinning. The tide is now fully out, -5 feet, a shift of 28 feet in less than seven hours.

My skiff is sitting in its normal spot on the dock and its completely beached on the muddy banks of the river. “How the hell is this going to work tonight?” I mutter to myself before heading in to drink coffee and make myself breakfast. The day goes by as normal, menial tasks and maintenance to get the station ready for a big work night. The river is completely devoid of boats and we get initial reports of it not being a fantastic fishing day. A wave of relief flows through me, I don't think I’m ready for a big night.

We are sitting in the common area talking about what we think is going to happen and when people will start coming in, general idea is we still have about 3 hours before boats start arriving with their daily haul. The radio chirps, it’s one of our highliners and he is bucking tide to bring in a massive haul. You can tell by the sound of his voice he’s exhausted and the sea has worn him out today. Everyone scrambles to get their gear on and meet our first boat on the pier. The total haul for that first boat was about 8,000 pounds of Salmon, I immediately know it’s going to be a long and hard night. As the boats start coming upriver my anxiety heightens, this is it and I need to step up. About 2 hours after we begin unloading brailer bag after brailer bag I get the call on the radio, my first ride of the night has beckoned. I rush down to the floating pier and the tide is lower than I have seen it in my time here, I look over at my skiff and my fears are confirmed. I forgot to till up the prop and its sunk in the mud, I panic. Luckily for me I have two incredibly capable coworkers who have seen it all on a boat, one comes down and shows me exactly what I need to do and how to come back in to the dock. I try to talk him into driving the skiff but he is needed on the cranes, begrudgingly I get in the boat and cast off. “Here goes something” I say to myself. All the big driftnet boats are coming in now adding to the madness of a low, and incredibly strong, tide by churning up massive wakes that push my boat all over the place. The first boat is far up the river, roughly about a mile, and past another two buying stations where commercial boats are just tied to anything they can waiting their turn to sell their fish. I weave through all the boats trying to keep it straight and perpendicular to all the criss-crossing wakes and tidal waves. I arrive at the first boat with no issue, load up the crew and their gear and head back to the pier with new sense of confidence. I have to pull a 180 degree turn and nose into the floating pier, normally not an issue but when the edge of the pier is sitting in the riverbank it greatly changes the dynamic. I do exactly as Aaron told me and got all my angles wrong. I missed my opportunity and pull long ways onto the dock where the commercial boats tie off to have their fish craned out of their holds. I hurriedly unload everyone and look behind me as a forty footer is pulling into the dock. I untie and take off, ready to give it another attempt to berth it where it belongs. My radio calls out to me, one of the friendliest captains needs to be picked up. Saved by the bell. I take off and get the crew of two boats, eight people in total. Eight people who have spent their entire lives on the water and not just any water, but this river I am currently on. I pull back up to our dock and remind myself that none of that matters and no one is judging me, and I pull into the berth like I knew exactly what I was doing. Everyone says thanks and heads off back to their cars and homes for the night.

That’s how the night goes for the next two hours. Full panic attacks followed by small victories and moments of relief; complete relaxation and confidence followed by wakes crashing me into the sides of boats worth more money than I have ever had. Its up and down, just like the tides. Finally, after about five hours of me beating myself up and the boat supplying its own form of beating on me the high tide is in, and it’s as calm as a lake. It never seemed to get too dark that night, and the sunset and sunrise were incredible. I do my last run of the night and as I am returning to the dock I am smiling. I am smiling because I did it, I navigated dozens of trips up and down river with no problems. A river that has risen and fallen a total of 94 feet throughout the course of my first real 24 hours as a skiff driver.

I pull up to the dock and tie off, I am now done. I see everyone cleaning and shutting equipment down and I take a minute to be alone on the dock by myself, to thank the river and to allow my brain to slow down. For the first time in an incredibly long time I feel accomplished. I was hired for a job I had no experience doing and I am learning how to do it, I am using skills and instincts that have been dormant for a while. We received over 50,000 pounds of wild caught Alaskan Salmon that night and it was a night I will never forget, for better or for worse.