I was gripped by the details of Ryan Shuck and Joey Galbreath skirting cold watery deaths, but there was also something more: I once had a slot waiting for me on that boat.
A few years ago I, too, spent the winter on the Bering Sea. A breakup had hit me like a furious gale with cold, stinging waves of madness and grief. But the heavy clobbering also helped me stagger away from a job as a voiceless newspaper copy editor and strive to become a teller of stories, even at middle age.
On New Year's a few years ago, I walked up the gangplank of the M/V Stellar Sea, headed to the remote Pribilof Islands for three months of working crab and cod. I sought adventure, yes. I needed money, true. I also needed escape. Back in the home where I first held her sudden lightning strikes of emptiness blistered without warning and I would call out her name. Obsessively, I filled the hollowness of afterward with imagined conversation, schemes and wheedling, prayers and promises, oratory and self-recrimination and sometimes the only relief was to run -- to dive into a noisy hell and work beyond the point of exhaustion.
In other words, to walk up the gangplank of the Stellar Sea, where I found my story was not unique.
I came back with journals filled with the experience and a reference as a good, steady worker. It was the latter that attracted the recruiter from FCA, who said he would hold a slot for me when the Alaska Ranger next sailed from Dutch Harbor. I gave myself until August and, just a few days before the Ranger sailed, a newspaper called and offered me a job as a writer.
What a world I found up there.
Here are a couple of journal entries:
Lat. 57.07 N
Lng. 170.18 W
Jan. 21, 1300 hours.
Anchored off St. Paul Island.
Crab, crab. Piles of crab at every turn. Zooms of crab on conveyor belts. The factory deck fired up this afternoon when the Polar Sea, the first boat to reach us, came bearing 140,000 pounds of opilio crab.
I stand at the head of the butcher line gloved, sleeved, booted. Robed in orange rain gear. Ceremonial, the butcher awaits. Somehow I hadn't expected the crab to be alive, but they pour down from topside in a mass of moving legs and twitching claws, soon piled so high I cannot see my roommate Eleazar opposite me.
Gather up the legs, slam its nose into a steady-rest of angle iron. Pull. The legs convulse and wrap around my hands in death. The carapace falls away into a flume. Just so easily, this crab just a moment ago is now "product" I hold in each hand.
Worms and parasites. Big crab and little. Guts fly in the gilling brushes where we clean the newly exposed meat. Crab water sprays as the body is broken. Go, go, go. Twenty of us work the line, expected to butcher a crab every five seconds. Some crab cling to their brothers. Others walk off the belt to my hands, and death.
Lat. 55.05 N
Lng. 166.3 W
Jan. 16, 0200 hours.
We reach the Bering Sea, waters dark and muscled. The Stellar had spent all day thrashing north up Unimak Pass, and I was out on the fantail as often as possible. I wanted to greet this moment. We bounce and shake in 25-foot seas like a compass needle in the center of a remote disc of iron water.
For the first time in 12 days, there are clearings of sky to reveal stars wheeling across the night. As many as I have ever seen. And closer. It seems there really is a top to the world, and soon I'll be drenched in stars just as now I am hit by spray flying over the shuddering bow.
The rest of the ship is asleep, save for Hiram who sits alone in the galley watching The Invisible Man on the TV strapped to the wall. The Stellar, I think, bears a cargo of invisibles -- sailing into winter to butcher crab for $6.05 an hour. Scarred, pierced and tattooed women and men who have had hard lives and harder luck, whose success is sometimes measured by how far they fall while screwing up a second chance or a third. The tales of what slipped from our grasp are told with attention to context and fine detail, and often a rueful sort of pride. Listeners nod. We know the story.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & made little money, but found shipmates rich with stories. My thrashing lasted years, but I, too, survived the ferocity of the winter sea -- winds howling out of the darkness, decks heaving, mooring lines groaning and snapping, curses and shouts. Mine, though, was an interior storm.