Dead Fish

As I am no longer tied down to the demanding year-round training schedule of a collegiate ski racer, I've found time to pursue other interests. One of them is making money. Really though, it's tough to find a well-paying summer job that allows time for both morning and afternoon training sessions. With my new freedom, I took up an offer to work as a deck hand on a salmon gillnetting boat in legendary Bristol Bay.

Two short weeks after returning from the Alaska Range, I flew to Naknek to kill fish. Six weeks, and nearly 200,000 pounds of salmon later, I returned to Anchorage with calloused hands and the biggest paycheck I've ever earned.

Gillnetting is a very labor intensive way of fishing, but it's very sustainable, and has almost no wasteful bycatch. Instead of surrounding a shoal of fish with a trap net (called purse-seining to those in the know), gillnets entangle salmon of a particular species and size much like a snare. The mesh size of the nets is just big enough to fit over a salmon's head, then catches on the gill plates to pull fish from the water. It's almost impossible to catch fish or animals of the wrong species or size; they simply can't get snared in the net. Furthermore, escapement of salmon into the river systems is counted, and fishing openings are strictly regulated to ensure sufficient breeding populations. It's no exaggeration to say that gillnetting in Bristol Bay is the cleanest, most sustainable fishery on the planet.

But, it is lot of work. Every fish that comes onboard is ensnared in the mesh of the net. Somebody has to pull each stuck fish out of the net, and toss the fish into refrigerated holds.  I was such a somebody.

Fishing is one of the last jobs that has no guaranteed pay. No salary, hourly wage, signing bonus or pension plan. Just a percentage of a possible catch. As a first year deck hand, my cut was 5% of the total catch after fuel and groceries. The more we caught, the more I was making. The harder I worked, the more we caught. If we never caught anything, I would owe my share of fuel and groceries. But that's  what made this job one of the most satisfying I've ever had. Offloading our catch to the tender boats at the end of the period and seeing the total effort of our four-man crew hanging there in big slimy bags gave me a satisfaction akin to finishing a ski race and seeing my finish time posted on the scoreboard. All of our exhaustive effort culminated into one daily score, and this time the score had a dollar sign in front of it.

Thanks to Chris White: captain of the Vulcan, Mike Reitz: mechanic and first mate, and John Stetson: seasoned deck hand for their mentoring and for our shared efforts and experiences.

Denali's West Buttress

What a great trip! Clay, Rick and I spent a couple of weeks on Denali. Anyone familiar with the Alaska Range knows that the weather is one of the biggest challenges there. If it's snowing, blowing or severely cold, it makes otherwise straightforward routes like the West Buttress completely impossible. Something like half of all attempts on Denali fail, almost all of those due to severe weather.

And so we were shocked and pleased to have perfect weather for our entire trip! We had planned one full week of weather days into our itinerary, and never used one. We did get to experience some of the harsh conditions that Denali is known for, but they coincided with our rest / acclimatization days. We must have earned some good mountain karma somewhere along the line...

Twelve days after landing on the Kahiltna Glacier, Clay and I walked to the tippy-top of the continent in crystal clear and calm weather. It was a soul-quenching experience to see that much of Alaska from one vantage point.

My favorite part about this trip was what I learned. It took us rookies a lot of planning, organizing, budgeting, experimenting and practicing to pull off such a big adventure. Last year, when we first started thinking about Denali, the whole idea felt extremely daunting. After our positive experience on the mountain, I feel like I learned a lot. A lot about being a mountaineer, and a lot about myself. I can look back at what was daunting then, and see that I accomplished those things. That kind of success makes me confident and optimistic for other things that seem daunting now, whether in mountaineering or in life.


Upcoming Updates

And now it is time for me to delve back into the digital world...

I've been a busy adventurer during the summer despite what might be inferred from my complete lack of new stories. My excuse? I've been almost entirely unplugged almost the entire summer. It was great. You should try it.

Now that I'm back at school with plenty of bandwidth, I no longer have any reason to hold the internet in endless suspense, awaiting my next blog entry. And so I've begun composing. But I have a lot to write about, so I'll need a while to get it all down.

In the next short while, expect scintillating stories and even a few pictures of these adventures:

  • Slogging Denali
  • Killing Salmon professionally
  • Kayaking Resurrection Bay 
  • Biking the Denali park road
  • Racing the Nenana River
  • Backpacking Kesugi Ridge
Until then, power down, unplug, go outside, and do something you could blog about!


Too much snow...

Like last year, the Tour was during the first weekend of spring break. This timing requires a quick transition from ski racing to mountaineering. Sunday afternoon saw me totally wrecked from skiing hard for 50k, and Monday morning I was breaking trail through knee-deep snow, carrying a hefty pack of mountaineering gear. Yahoo.

Clay's friend from Michigan, Patrick the footballer (Played on the starting lineup for Michigan State) came up to visit AK for his spring break. No one yet knows how he decided that spending time camping in the cold with two smelly guys in Alaska was a better option than lounging on the beach with many beautiful women in Cancun. As it was, Clay and I already had excellent adventure plans for spring break, so Patrick got the Full Alaskan Experience.

Patrick, representing MSU

Clay, ready to slog

It's nasty out, but we're havin' fun.

Our goal was to hike from the Crow Creek trailhead up Goat Mountain to the Eagle Glacier near the Raven Headwall (gotta love the animal names for places...sounds like I made those up...) Well, when we left Anchorage, it was cloudy but pleasant. Driving South, we couldn't see the road for all the snow. Should have been a hint right there. We got to the the trailhead in a full-on blizzard, and knew right away we would never make the glacier because the avalanche conditions were abysmal. But, since we were there, and had all our stuff together, and were totally gung-ho to go play and camp in the snow, we loaded up and decided to hike up the creek valley a bit, and camp on the flats before the mountain. Breaking trail was fun, and hauling a pack wasn't too bad, and the wind was only sometimes, and you could ocassionally see through the snow to the next patch of alders to bushwhack.

Then a snow sluff (i.e. small avalanche) buried us to our belly-buttons. Yikes. A small, 12' cut in the creek valley dumped it's snow on us as we walked by. We took it as a loving slap-on-the-wrist from the mountains, and quickly retreated to the saftey of the truck. Out in a big flat field, we spent a while practicing with our fancy avalanche rescue equipment to pay penance for tresspassing against the snow and mountain gods. A couple hours after we drove back to Anchorage, an epic avalanche covered the highway, closing the only road South for a day. We all agreed to stay inside reading books the next time it snows that hard.


Done College Skiing

The end of my college skiing career came and went all too quickly. I'm often asked, "How was your season?" or, "How did you do?" I find it sort of a tough question to answer. I had some great races, some really difficult ones, and some kickin' adventures. Overall my performance this year was about what I expected, and maybe just short of what I dreamed it could be. I didn't win any races.  I didn't qualify for nationals. I wasn't the MVP. But, I just might've had the most fun, and could maybe have reaped the most satisfaction.
In my very last college race, for the very first time, I got DFL (Dead  -*@#&-  Last). Yep, everyone beat me. Ouch. Ironically, the race was still ultimately satisfying. I raced as hard as I could, I didn't give up despite my position, and fought hard until the bitter end. Really, that's all you can ever do, the rest is up to your competition. I had a bit of an asthmatic episode during the race, and coupled with the altitude, I wasn't capable of moving very quickly. I didn't let it go to my head though, and stayed tough for all 20k. That is satisfying, and could even be called successful.

The Tour of Anchorage was another fun time. It's tough to Race 50k after a season wherein 20k is long, but I always love skiing together with all of the Anchorage regulars (irregulars?). I felt strong for the first 45k, but lost my battle to glycogen depletion. It felt strange to be so close to the finish, but unable to ski well. Next time I'll pack a few GU's.

So that's it for this college ski racer. I know I'll always ski, and I'll probably still race here and there, but mostly it's on to new adventures and other fun games.

Photos by: UAA ski team


Denali Aspriations

The ski season is gradually nearing it's end. I've raced almost every weekend for about a month now. My last college races ever will be in Colorado Springs at the RMISA regionals event two weeks from now. After that, it's the Tour of Anchorage, and the Oosik in Talkeetna to wrap up a pretty decent ski racing career. On to different awesome things.

Just turned in my registration to the park service, it must be official. Clay and I have been gradually planning and accruing gear for this coming spring. About a week after Clay graduates with his Bachelor of Arts in justice, we'll be flying out of Talkeetna into Kahiltna base camp for a power-slog trip on Denali's West Buttress. Clay, myself and Rick, another hunting guide legend, will spend three weeks playing out in the snow and cold, hoping for a chance to see the top. Should be a rowdy gig.


Schallinger for the W!

Racing in Utah went reasonably well. My legs are still hurting today two days after the 20k skate race. The olympic course at Soldier Hollow is no easy feat for mere mortals, but our UAA freshman ringer Michael Schallinger hailing from Traunstein, Germany made easy work of it. On the last hill before the finish, Schalli blew past the pack and sprinted in for the win. This is the first nordic win for UAA since Paul took the gold in New Mexico in 2007. Yahoo and good work Schalli!

Schallinger jump-skating up the last hill.

Here I am heading out for one more lap at Bohart Ranch in Bozeman.

Photos by Mandy Kaempf and Lex Treinen