Jos Claerbout : First letter from Alaska

Jos Claerbout : First letter from Alaska

photos added by Popster

5/23/94 We arrived in Anchorage around two in the afternoon on Friday. Our initial excitement and plans to "just pitch our tent outside the airport", were dampened somewhat by the information woman's insistence that Alaska isn't "just one big wilderness area." As we sat in the airport the theme that would soon repeat itself sunk into our heads, "we have no plan, we have no plan." Would misery exist without expectations? It was soon ascertained that money would have to be spent (and after our pre-departure splurge, this wasn't appealing to either of us) and the local youth hostel came up as the winner. In economics, the concept of an externality is defined as something that arises out of an activity that affects a third party in a way not necessarily intended. They can be positive (you like listening to the local school band practice) or negative (like pollution). Youth hostels are an excellent example of something that can yield positive externalities. Put a bunch of travelers together in a very small place and guess what? They exchange information. It was quickly discovered that our initial destination, Homer, was full of people like ourselves (clueless, unemployed) and that Seward was really our best bet.

Land of the falling rain

After a few too many hours in a bus station, 2:30 Saturday afternoon found us on a bus to our aforementioned destination. I spent most of the three hour trip admiring the scenery and reading the second paper that I had picked up in Anchorage. The town came off as pretty civilized for a place that was said to only have 2,000 people, tops.

We stepped off the bus a little before six straight into a good downpour in 35 degree weather. This was unquestionably John's and my trial by water. We had come prepared for the worst --- 2 large tarps, 2 tents, 2 thermorests, plenty of stakes --- preparation that was not in vain. As we stumbled sumo-wrestle toward our campsite under the weight of our glad bag wrapped backpacks, I began to question my "dry sandwich" approach to camping in the rain. The theory was one tarp underneath the tents side by side, and one tarp above, either suspended in the trees or weighted or tied down. A nice theory, but in practice its dry implementation would prove considerably more difficult.

Our campsite was shared by four other tents all of which would be gone by morning. Had we known what was in store, we might have done the same. So there we were, standing utterly rain proof, wondering how our current situation would translate into a like one inside of our tents.

We first dropped the ground cover, the bags on tops of it, and finally, the rain tarp. While cumbersome, the operation kept each one of us dry while setting up our sleeping accommodations underneath. Our first attempt, which secured the tarps with nothing more than shallow stakes in the rocky earth, failed miserably and when the wind started nearly whipping us into the air, our tent security was replaced with rocks and cords through the tarp's grommets.

Despondency, disillusionment, and an offer

I'm wording this entry on the tenth of June and am now obliged to recap the past three weeks. The rain that greeted us did not let up for four days. (It had been going for a week before that.) Morning pulled the curtain of exhaustion far enough away to allow me to appreciate the beauty of my surroundings. We were camped on the rocky shore of Resurrection Bay, a deep inlet into the Kenai peninsula, upon which one of Alaska's first towns was founded. 4,000 foot mountains surround the bay and the strip of land that separates them from the sea. If last night's stay in the hostel had allowed any doubt, it was now clear that we were in Alaska. And even clearer that we were unemployed. And thus was born the twice daily "walk to the docks", a one mile beachside trek that landed us on the wooded planks of potential employers. While we were camped near a downtown spending center in this town of 3,000, the earning center was a bit of a walk.

Our first trips gave us nothing more than an understanding of the workings of the harbor. It docked mostly work ships in the north and sailboats and charters toward the south. It also fostered an interesting multicultural atmosphere (although not by the color-conscious ethos of those who define themselves as "ists" of the latter) by docking many boats owned and operated by ethnic Russians (who, I later found out, lived in Alaska without losing their geographic and social identity). I had the pleasure of speaking with one of the captains whose full sized beard came down to his mid sized waist riding pint sized legs. Nationally Chinese, I found he was Mongolian, but unfortunately spent more time speaking with his young peer, an 18 year old thrown out of high school for "sexual harassment" who seemed unrepentant in his egoism. Alaska certainly isn't worried about drying up its supply of odd characters. It is they who I am determined will pepper these pages.

Our second day of dock walking resulted in the chance meeting with Perry Buchannan, long time owner of the seiner/longliner Dolly B. (I'll try to explain the fishing terms later on.) He said he would probably need workers for the halibut opener, a 24 hour fishing extravaganza on June 6th. As this was just the 23rd of May and he didn't want to talk to us again until June 3rd, we were left with free time and uncertainty were we to take the offer as solid or as just a possibility. What was the best way to, as Jack would put it, look out for number one without stepping on number two? We decided the best way was to stay in the dock area and familiarize ourselves with these novel surroundings while seeking any work to tide us over and stem the flow of money out of our wallets.

We learned it was day two of the ten day black cod season (look for an econ. rant later on) which we were too late for. After that came halibut and our best bet for employment seemed to be processing jobs at the local canneries until the third rolled about. The very friendly employment service in town tipped us on to two local canneries that might or might not be hiring. Icicle Seafoods and Dragnet Fisheries. (I hear the latter always gets their fish.) We were off.

Upon our arrival at the behemoth Icicle, we were directed toward the personnel department, Anne Green. The directions were given to us very slowly, with lots of hand signals and positive reinforcement. I guess the connection between uncleanness and stupidity is close in many people's minds. After winding our way through an enchanted forklift and conveyor belt jungle, Annies office appeared. She happily accepted our applications --- happy, because she didn't need to hire us now, but reserved the option for a few days hence. Off to Dragnet.

Next to a large orange dock, this Fish Detective/processing agency was just the opposite of Icicle. Where Icicle was a towering gray warehouse, Dragnet was 4 portable trailers with squatters under the dock. Jack was the man I was to talk to. Approaching the door I was greeted by another figure leaving the center portable with heavy facial hair and an enormous gut. I suspected I had found my man. Positively identifying himself, Jack, in his brusque and fluid manner informed us of everything that Anne had, telling us to check back the next day.

We did, and upon doing so were jokingly lambasted by Jack for squandering a day as beautiful it could only be spent "chasing pussy and drinking beer." He went on to talk to us and another one of his workers for several minutes. His type was one with which I was not well acquainted. Words and sentences flowed from a growling throat that demanded credibility. He was lamenting the loss of two of his workers to Anderson's, another processor. "Sure, they'll get work now, but they'll get screwed come the 15th. There's no loyalty at a place like that. You come work for me and you've got a job through September. Here for ?? more weeks, then to Dillingham, Kasilof, Dutch Harbor, Bristol Bay.. The worker, who reminded me amazingly of an oversized (?) Piggy from Lord of the Flies bubbled out his adoration of an agreement with his boss (minutes before, in a private conversation with John and I, he wondered why he wasn't going to Anderson's as well. Nothing was coming into Dragnet.)

Jack's manner was one of supreme self reliance. To question anything, he said was to place yourself in battle against a rabbit in a briar patch. While I may have privately questioned some of what he said, none of my incredulity slipped into my speech. I know where I'm outclassed. Jack's personality was magnetic and I was drawn in. I quickly decided that "The true Alaska experience could be quicker found under the docks of Dragnet than in between the corporate walls of Icicle. I would prove myself much more right that I would have preferred.

By the close of the first week in Alaska, John and I moved in under the Dragnet dock. The cod season was to finish noon the following day and many boats were to be expected. So 2 PM Friday we packed up our stuff and made the 1-1/2 mile trek to our future employer. No boats had arrived so we prepared more food. We had been carbo-loading for the past 24 hours fearing the 48 hours on, 12 off, 48 hours on work schedule that Jack had described was endured by last year's crew. At 6 dollars an hour and overtime after the first 8, ALASKAN BIG MONEY was finally headed our way, right?

The anxious crew of 10 saw an uneventful day of stone pitching turn to an evening of the same. Saturday rolled around and the dearth of boats spun the wheels of the rumor mill as all of us tried desperately to figure out why all boats entering the bay veered right, toward Icicle. When the entire day yielded only one 14,000 pound catch (about 3 hours for a 6 man crew) I became curious myself and more ready to believe that Jack had somehow done something to "piss off" the fishermen. If this were true, we were all in trouble. My conversations with Norma in the office yielded the shielded admission that "someone might have said something" to anger the fishermen, who had decided to show Dragnet just what a bad idea it was to piss them off.

Only two ships came in Sunday. The total three were all registered in Seattle and a ten year patron of Dragnet decided to go elsewhere, all of which lends support to the theory above. And so, without working an hour, came to an end of my time with black cod in Alaska.

It marks my first experience as a member of the exploited proletariat. I couldn't complain too much though, 4 crew members had been shipped from Kenai (120 miles away) with big expectations. My travel had been limited and rent there cost me $6 less a night (that is, zero) than at the campground. I also got to see another marvelous economic principle in action. Stacked on the dock were hundreds of pallets, those 2x4 contraptions used to stack goods on. We put some under our tents and burned around 2 a day for food and warmth. Our private cost of retrieving the pallets was only about 5 minutes each. Dragnet, however, probably lost a few dollars for each one we burnt. Any feelings of guilt were quickly absolved upon the realization of my relative abject poverty.

John and I had been disappointed with our experiences in Alaska up till now (he more than I, years of travel have taught me the value of diminished expectations). We hoped that another trip to the Dolly B would straighten things out. It did, sort of.

Long lining and other ways to lose your hide

A few harried trips between town and the docks finally secured us what we were looking for -- fishing jobs for halibut. After talking to many people I learned that the average share (given to a deckhand) of a halibut catch was somewhere between $20 and $2,000. It was known to be a gamble. But when Perry let us move into his boat a few days before the opener, that gamble became a sure thing. As romantic (retrospectively) as dock life may be, a kitchen is a wonderful thing. Now, I'm going to skip a lot here, just so I can get to the description of long lining. If this takes any less than 15 pages, I'll be surprised.


This is the first stage John and I were involved in. (Oh, before I go further --- I'm going to describe all this in excruciating detail --- I'm sorry in advance if anyone gets bored. But knowing my readership, fish stories are always welcome.) Herring was the bait to be used. Packaged in boxes of 110 we were to cet the thawed fish in half and dump them into our individual bucket. Each layer of fish had to be salted generously to avoid spoiling. Between the three of us we cut about 16 boxes worth. Bear in mind that there were 3500 hooks that awaited bait, a fact I put as far out of my mind as possible. I applied to variants of the same work ethic to my labors.

The first was one I had learned with the CDF [California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention] on a dangerous day assisting tree removal near power lines. There are times to joke and there are times not to joke. When one is in danger of losing a thumb, it is not a time to joke. It is as my father had commented about his uncle Fritz, an otherwise very personable fellow -- you just couldn't talk to him when he was operating a power saw, he wouldn't say anything. Am I finally learning discipline? Nevertheless, the job was done and the salted and covered tubs were put away for the night.


This was done the morning of the fifth. It was now time for those freshly sharpened hooks to pierce tender fish flesh -- and by my arduous accomplishment. The hook was an ugly affair. (I've kept one and picture it at right). About 3 inches long and 2-1/2 inches wide. Each herring piece was to find a home double pierced on these hooks. My speed was good -- over 500 an hour -- a rate which qualified me for the dubious title of "Masterbaiter", a pun of such caliber that I had not heard it since I left Hawaii. My fingers still have holes in them from this exercise. Not as many holes in them as the fish, though. Upon completion of three hours work, we were done. Each baited hook (with attached ganyon and becket) was laid in a tub, circularly filling it incrementally. The ganyon was an 18 inch cord that ran between the hook and the becket, the large snap at the end. A becket looks something like this. By placing one's hand around it with the thumb here, it would snap open, and could be effectively attached to the drag line. I have managed to acquire one of the marvelous contraptions for the belated benefit of all interested parties.


So, the afternoon of the fifth, we were off. It took us 3-1/2 hours to reach Cliff Bay, where we anchored for the night. Like so much of coastal Alaska it was impossibly and effortlessly beautiful. Thickly wooded slopes of mountains veered toward the water, stopping just inches short of dropping their growths into the flat jade pool that lapped at their precipice.

Unfortunately, more earthly (or rather, humanly) responsibilities beckoned to John and I inside. We were to cook dinner -- chili cheese burgers. Let me assure you, I was thrilled. But I have to do this stove justice. Let me try, as fairly as possible, to recount Perry's instructions for its proper lighting.

Alright, first open up this wing nut -- that lets the diesel down there to the burner. If you take off this metal lid, you can see the diesel flowing into the chamber there. Now, get a paper towel and SET IT ON FIRE, then THROW IT DOWN THERE. Replace the lid (emphasis added). After Perry's initial explanation, John and I were able to repeat only one phrase to each other for the next hour. "Take a lit paper towel and throw it in the gas." Ah, adventure.

Well after several meals we both had 4 eyebrows between us, which was a good sign, and felt adventurous enough to attack an actual meal (on my list, chili cheese burgers served on toast ranks pretty down low for actual meal, but in Perry's $135 foray into the supermarket for pre- departure food, it was one of the only things that had emerged. We did, however, have enough Mountain Dew and Cheetos to last us a lifetime. And eating like this, that wouldn't be long.

Well, I'll save you the bore of the entire cooking saga, which I think is better reduced to a few sample quotations.

"Wow, that's a lot of grease."

"If I were you, boys, I'd use a skillet."

"Ya know, I bet if we slid this knob to open, there'd be a lot less smoke in here."

"Are burgers supposed to look like that?"

And the meal, once served, can best be described by just two words.

"Mmm. Diesel."
Sleep came early as tomorrow we had to be up for the 5 hour trip to lay our first line. (I'll explain all that in a bit.) I woke up to the singular churn of a boat motor laying steady noise after the intermittent burst of a wave clap under the hull (not coincidentally, where I slept). I lay in bed, awake, for at least an hour, and although not seasick, could not help but remember my vain attempts at age 6 to convince my mother I was suffering from a heart attack while crossing the English channel by car ferry. (Anyone not understanding this reference, should consider themselves better off for it.) I was more comfortable laying on the floor then, and things seemed not to change much in more than a decade. Upon finally getting up, I found I was a lot better off outside, which is where I decided to situate myself. The ride was uneventful and at 12 PM we were ready to start laying gear.

And now, a digression

A short story of kinesthetic stupidity two years ago during my tenure at CDF [California Department of Forestry]. Bill (a fellow in his late 40s) and I were assigned the complicated task of throwing logs from one truck to another. These logging trucks were each about nine feet high and spaced two feet apart. Each log chunk weighed about 35 pounds and was to be thrown from the bed of the full truck (which we stood in) to the bed of the empty one (2 feet away). This went on quite fine until I picked up a rather large log with the intention of doing to it what I had done to its brethren. About midswing I decided I didn't have quite enough momentum so chose to hold on to the log rather than release it. This was fine with my wooded friend who had no qualms with taking uninvited company to see his peers which is just where I went. My leg collided with enough force on the side of the bed as to cause a paint stain of my clothed shin. My body, thankfully, was luckier and landed in the gently mocking confines of a bed of wood. And so was born Jos the flying squirrel.


This is probably the most dangerous aspect of long lining and also, not surprisingly, the stage where Perry and Dan (the other crew member) had decided we had matured enough to get by without a significant amount of their help. Now, to long line, you put out skates (sometimes a skate is quixotically defined as 10 skates strung together). Each lesser skate is about 1800 feet (the most you can get in a box). Therefore, each greater skate is 3-1/2 miles, of which our boat has 3. These were all wound onto an enormous spool mounted on the stern of the Dolly B, about three feet from the edge. Now, to put out a skate, it was first necessary to put out a big floating flag and a buoy, which marked the beginning of the line. To these, more than 100 feet of rope (I forget just how much) are attached, the end of which hooks on to the anchor, which is in turn connected to the first skate. Obviously, the beckets must be attached to the line as it goes out. This is where John and I came in. We were to kneel on the stern, facing the sea, in between the spool and the end of the ship. We each had a tub of 250 pieces of bait with ganyons attached by our side. Now, when the first skate started lowering into the water, the stress began. The line passed over my right shoulder and the bait was by my left. It was the opposite for John. And since the rope was spooled, it would swing from one side of the boat to the other as it unfurled. Dan was quite proud of showing us all the holes it had burned in his jacket over the years. I was determined not to have any such points of pride myself. So here's the routine. Rope starts going out. I reach into my tub, grab a becket and snap it on. 15 feet later, John does the same. Repeat. Easy, right? No. Let me just list enough complications to make mother wince.

The first one is speed. From the time a becket is snapped to the line, I had about seven seconds before I had to snap the next one. Bear in mind that there's 250 ganyons in one of these tubs and the hooks get messed up pretty frequently. There was no time to stop the line, so if one of us got stuck, the other would have to do double time.

The second is that a becket is not the easiest of snaps and attaching it to a line whizzing by at 3 miles an hour ain't so easy either. I dropped four ganyons total during this phase, John three. The rope had to be stabilized prior to snapping, which is why we wore gloves. Unfortunately I had my cloth glove on my right hand and my leather one on the other. By the time I realized it, I had already burned a cute little hole in the crotch of my right hand. Still a gross little thing a week later. Even with the leather glove I managed to give myself rope burn on my middle finger.

Now, besides all this, snapping is dangerous for the kinesthetically stupid, which is why I mentioned that CDF story a while back. I tend to be kinesthetically stupid, a defect I balanced by taking this job incredibly seriously as well as taking as many precautions as I could.

What makes it dangerous is the possibility of getting hooked and taken off the boat. Once that becket is snapped, that line is going out, with a dangling hook attached. And before you think I'm joking, bear in mind that this gear is designed to catch fish that weigh over 300 pounds, compared to my paltry 180.

There are, of course, ways to avoid this. The best is the one I followed, and did for 3-1/2 hours while on my knees:

  1. Grab bait in tub with left hand, becket with right.
  2. Switch hands, throw bait overboard (while holding on to becket).
  3. Snap becket on.

It worked, I'm alive, but your knees really start to get to you after a while. Course, after laying three of these, there was yet more work to be done. And not just more work, but REAL work.


Now here's where things get interesting. By the time we had laid the last skate, it was time to pick up the first. We did this by bringing it up the side through some rollers, and back to the spool. Dan, who was experienced, would pick the beckets off the line and throw them onto the "table". (I have no better way to describe the rectangular cover for the hold. It was about three feet high.) Once on the table, it was John and my turn. For the first skate, he took the job of hook replacer and I of hook remover. Most of the hooks came up with nothing, and when thrown on the deck, John would coil them around the lip of one of our friendly tubs. Now when a fish other than a halibut was attached, I had to take out the hook from the mouth (or the head, or the eyeball) of this "junk" fish. At first, I proceeded with great difficulty. My experience in this realm was somewhat limited and the cod, shark, flounder, and skate that had the misfortune of coming my way often died before I could return them to the water. It should be noted that birds have a fascinating reaction to large dead fish. They know that it's food, but they just don't know how to eat it. Nothings funnier than a swarm of ducks surrounding a belly up cod, all of them fighting for property rights, but having not the foggiest notion of how to eat the damn thing.

Well, I was continuing to blunder along when one of these two foot sharks came close to chomping down on my finger. (They didn't have much in the way of teeth, but one hell of a bite, let me assure you.) That's when the idea of forcing my fingers downs these fish's throats lost its favor, and ramming the becket down there to keep the mouth open came into fashion. And if you can picture me stooped over a fish, hands going furiously, instruments in its mouth, you see that there was only one possible title I could be given -- Jos Claerbout -- Fish Dentist!

This realization bred a whole sick sort of office chatter I would engage in with my patients. "Oh, yeah. I see your problem now. It's this hook that goes in your mouth and comes out your eyeball." "Now, you're going to experience some discomfort." "Hey, that's weird, you've got the same problem as the last guy." At times my tone was compassionate and conciliatory. "You want the hook out, I want the hook out." But at times I admit I lost my temper: "Stop bleeding!"

All in all, though mortality rates dropped to about 25% with my more personalized service. And one last note on junk fish -- skates. They're the ugliest damn fish I've seen in my life. Here, I'll try to draw the underside of one for you.

Well not very good, but suffer.

So, on the off chance we actually caught a halibut (commercial fishing seems to be the moral equivalent of cutting off your head to eradicate pimples) it would be pulled out of the water with either a) hand on the ganyon, b) a large, fireplace poker-esque object, c) tongs, d) all three, which invariably caused all of us to cuss out the others as incompetents and weaklings. We were swearing like ... never mind. So every couple hundred hooks, we'd pull up a halibut, and once it had been measured (they had to be over 32 inches) it would be attached to a line strung along the port side of the ship (we were picking off starboard). Had we had a large catch (over 10,000 lbs), we would have had to stuff the fish in the hold. Normally, a crew of four allows you to clean them right after they're picked, but as neither John nor I knew how, this would have to wait.

We started picking the first skate around 6 PM. It was dismal. We pulled in fewer than 20 fish on the whole thing. But because halibuts are big fish (anywhere from 25 to 350 pounds) it wasn't a total skunk. The second skate was better, but comparatively pathetic to the 15,000+ pounds that Perry had been hoping for. Highlights included a ten foot shark that has managed to get hooked in the head (the ganyon was cut when we saw it) and some 70 pound halibut. It was almost surreal, working until 3 in the morning with the wind gushing, the boat rocking, our bodies racked with cold and fatigue (okay, I'm exaggerating) plunging on. We were twenty miles off shore and the only bright light came from the lamps mounted on the ship itself. We worked as an effective team, no complaining until the job was done at 3:15 and we were in bed.

6:15 same day. I awake, Perry tells me it's time to get started. As I grumble in the kitchen trying to decide what to eat for breakfast, Dan asks me if I'm ready to start yet. Reeses peanut butter cups and 4 Ritz crackers won the day. Breakfast of champions.

We started picking the third skate almost immediately. Perry had been up for an hour navigating us to the site. As I took the job of hook replacer it quickly became evident that we were picking our way towards an Alaskan skunk in the box. I collapsed into my bed at 11:30 uncertain of my share, uncertain of the price of halibut, but certain of one thing -- we did not have much.

My sleep was jarred by the fear that our fiberglass hull would not live to tell its friends about the spankings it was delivering to the waves. And at 5 PM, June 7th, I was woken up with the phrase, "Come on, time to clean some fish".

Jos Claerbout gonad extractor/goop scooper

Before I start this, I should mention that its been almost two weeks since I've written. More on Day of Despondency later.

So, coming into the harbor we had to clean the (now thankfully) small number of fish we brought in. Since neither John nor I was experienced, this was accomplished assembly- line style. Dan took the head, effectively (and in scarcely more than one motion) cutting out the gill plates, and getting, as a special bonus, the entire set of internal organs! It was then passed onto me, where I would reach into the body cavity, wiggle my fingers a bit, and retrieve a homendashen shaped thing. Yesiree. Fish gonads. And don't I feel inferior now. Holding a testicle the size of your hand is a most .. singular experience.

I would then spoon out the bloodline and some interesting goop at the top of the spine called the 'sweet meat.' I won't even venture to guess what this was, as I suspect fish don't have sinuses. This whole process took a little over an hour, as we had fewer than 100 fish. John would clean the fish off and drop them into the hold.

Stuff! stuff, dammit!

As we drew nearer and nearer to dock (to sell the fish), it became increasing necessary to provide the illusion that these fish had been chilling in the hold on one ton of ice instead of working on their tummy tans for the past 24 hours. This necessitated stuffing the fish with ice, a process that even without time constraints was difficult as our hands quickly froze underneath our gloves. Two minutes after finishing this it was time to remove the hold cover as we had docked and now we were to unload the fish.

A net dropped into the hold and we threw them in. There's really not more to it than that and I'm three weeks behind on the journal.

So ... cutting to the chase, the 2,074 pounds of halibut, at 1.35 a pound, at a 8% share, minus gas and food (loved those Cheetos) I get a check for $164 dollars. Boy, that's almost five dollars an hour!


Well, it was a letdown. But it turns out Perry was going to seine for salmon at the end of the month, so we had jobs with him. Well, not exactly. He found somebody who was experienced, so we were effectively un-hired. Then his son, Steve, hired both of us, later saying there was only room for one of us. As the handwriting on the wall couldn't get much larger, I decided to hit the road.

Jos, on the road

So, 7:30 PM on a Thursday (the 9th, I believe) I decide to go to Kenai, then maybe to Homer. The bus? No way, man, I'm becoming an advanced wanderer. It was time to start hitching.

So I head out of town, totally overburdened with gear, until I come across a road sign reading:

Moose Pass  22
Anchorage   95
Homer	   120

I'm not sure on those distances, but it's not off by any factor greater than two. Like my approach to so many endeavors, I decide to bring some levity to this seemingly despondent art and become the Happy Hitcher.

I would accomplish an effective rudimentary hand relationship with drivers as follows: Car approaches. Jos holds up hands in front of him with grin on his face. Meaning --- 'Okay, check out this great idea!' Next he points at car. Meaning --- 'You'. Then by painting to Moose Pass on the sign, an extremely reasonable destination. Then a thumbs up meaning --- Jos thinks it would be a good idea for you to take him to Moose Pass. Always wanting to hear the other side, I would then turn to the driver and shrug with my hands out, soliciting their opinion. This was usually accomplished by them driving past, an act I saw as a bit rude considering my extensive roadside theater. I kept in good spirits (I figured people are more likely to pick up a smiling hitchhiker) by verbalizing my hand motions. It was hard not to laugh hearing myself repeat 'You, me, Moose Pass, good, okay?' over and over.

While most drivers just drove on past, several pointed to their left. I had a bad feeling they were saying 'Hey, idiot, if you want to go to Moose Pass, why aren't you on the right road? Moose Pass is over there!' It was only later that I learned they were in fact attempting to communicate 'No, you idiot, why are you trying to hitch from me, I live here.'

So then the first hitched ride of my life came along. A 35 year old driving a jeep Family wagon with a child seat in back, I felt secure. And so I met Leif.

Norwegian by blood, Leif looked every bit his thick blond heir and a mustache to match, he was only about 50 pounds short of being Thor. He was very personable and I quickly learned that the bullshitting skills I have worked so hard to acquire over the course of my life made me the perfect hitcher. We discussed all sorts of things, (including boats) but what I found interesting was when our talk would turn to his impending marriage. He was a laconic as they come, but when we got to this topic, he actually choked up. It was like nothing I had ever seen. It was still a year off and made him as jittery just thinking about it. Date lots of people. A mantra oft repeated by mother and one worth following to avoid the crisis of self doubt this fellow was facing. And a bit after the town of Moose Falls, he drops me off, at the fork in the road. (Okay, break, two things. First, there aren't many roads on the Kenai peninsula (see map above) and secondly, it's very safe --- so, no fretting at home, Okay?)

So a half hour and a short drizzle gives way to Mark, driving a pickup. He's about my age, listening to a Rush album he loves. Not much to say, except that Leif is his boss. Interesting how that works, eh? I'm dropped off at a small town gas station, where I meet Don. This is where the story gets more interesting, so I'm going to take a break for sleep.

Don seemed rather nonplused by life. Not that he was depressed, or fundamentally unhappy with it, but just that it wasn't serving up anything tasty. My request for a ride in his motor home was met with a sort of 'well, if I gotta' look.

I eagerly hopped into the luxurious accommodations of the aging motor home. At about 40 feet, I suspected there was space for luxury and the plush red swivel seat that met my buttocks confirmed this. Enough luxury to accommodate a 600 dollar bulldog as well. Bruno didn't like the ride and his perpetual nervous slobber over his owner's bedroll assured me that Don's wet toes would drive home this fact over the course of the night.

When I pointed this out to Don, he wasn't surprised, commenting the trip makes Bruno nervous. Bruno confirmed this by knocking his cosmetics onto the floor. Having already established that I recognized the importance of and did indeed like the dog (an important ritual for Alaskan guests and hitchhikers) I turned to Don himself.

He was in his mid-late twenties and from Michigan originally. A small gut (and overall roundness) proved that Alaska's not the only state with harsh winters. His overall demeanor was to travel the world with, he was easy to talk to, and as it was around 9:30 at night, that's all I really wanted.

I had to admit that my talents for boosting people's egos have increased dramatically, while discussing college,

'Yeah, I never went.'

'Nothing wrong with that. Most people I know shouldn't even have been there. You probably made a better decision than they did.'

"Huh. It's true. Ya know, a lot of the guys that I work with went to school and got psychology degrees, and I earn the same amount of money."

"Yup. Some people just make the wrong choices."

Bearing in mind that Don's job was to pump water out of the ground in order to lower the water table to allow construction underground, I'm suddenly glad that I had realized that being a "people person" did not necessitate taking the Major of the Masses. (I should probably thank my parents.)

Well, Don got me to Kenai around 10:30. Arriving in a gas station we met his other dog, a white lab that had been chained to his truck all day without food. It was so happy to see us that it peed all over my shoe. That being, in these formative years, a novel experience, I found it funny. After much shenanigans, we drove the two vehicles to a campsite where I spent a very wet night in my tent. (No R.V. accommodations were offered.)

Morning came and I shuffled to the curb, overloaded, to practice my art. I had packed nothing but Ramen and candy bars (we had many on the boat) to eat on my journey. The Ramen was gone the night before and the snickers bar in my mouth offered little sustenance. And lent less perseverance even, to the task at hand. Half an hour of attempting to flag a ride yielded nothing and in a desperate attempt I even involved candy in my roadside shame. It went something like this. YOU! ME! (behind my back) REESES! Yum! Ride! About half of the drivers laughed, some looked vexed and one woman looked downright offended. A diabetic? Just as I was giving up and had turned away from the road, an old dirty Cadillac El Dorado came to a dusty stop. And there I met Vinnie the Pol[itician]. As I clumsily stepped into the car the old man extended his hand.

"Vincent Riley of Kenai. Pleased to meet you. Where ya going?"

"Uh. Jos .. Claerbout --- Homer"

"Now, I gotta warn ya, kid. I'm a bullshitter and a politician."

"I'm home. Let's go."

So we embarked on the hour long trip to Homer. One, I may add, that was never interrupted with silence. Politics and Economics were favorite topics of Vinnie, and ones he spoke of with authority. He had run for borough (equivalent to county) mayor in '72 and managed to summarize an article on derivatives for me he had just pulled from the Economist. My admission of a desire to work with the GAO met not with a drooling blank stare, but rather his own appraisal of the organization --- a committee he's on was recently audited by them. It was a great time --- the esoterics of academia with all the comforts of home. Was this man in enormous polyester pants my lost uncle? Well, we may never know as Homer proved too painfully close for my newfound preferences. He drove me though the town, relaying all the gossip that was necessary to know, and dropped me off on the Homer spit, a 3 mile long peninsula no wider than 50 yards that serves as the focal point of drunken deadbeats and misplaced academics for the world. I set up my tent.

I plopped down camp on the beach, alongside of hundreds of others doing just the same. My first thoughts of Homer were of excitement. So many people, just like me, wanderers! Sharing a lifestyle and an experience --- a whole mindset. Unfortunately, my memories of Homer would be marked by a different outlook --- but more on that soon.

Despair and despondency

My first couple days in Homer I was so taken back by the beauty and intrinsic relaxation that I did little but lie around and go into town. But how to get to town? I was 5 miles out (see map above). (How I've failed to answer my true calling as a cartographer is beyond me.) I walked the first day. But that was something I would not repeat. It was time to embrace the art of hitching.

Thumbing it, part deux

Well, I wasn't even ready for the cavalcade of characters a trip in the cab of a car would reveal. I'm finding I don't appreciate people in a psychological sense, but in a literary one. I don't meet personalities --- I meet characters. This is both an important realization and distinction. Let me introduce to you (my pathetic sense of prose striving here) a representative sample of the people I've met.


She seemed attractive behind her dark shades, seated at the wheel of the battered pick-up. My friendly offers to ride in the bed were refused, she insisted there was room up front. We chatted amiably for several minutes --- me self conscious, unshowered, sporting a bandanna. As we barreled down the spit, I noticed the sign alerting campers to the self-registration office and the daily fee of $3. I wondered aloud if I should pay it. "What do you mean, if? I'm the spitbitch". "That what?" "The spitbitch." "How nice for you." "No... I collect fees from the campers. Of course you should register." "Oh, damn."


"Hey, man, jump in!" "Great, thanks!" Remembering my Alaska etiquette, I knew my next question. "What's the dog's name?" "Riff, Oh, hey, there's another hitcher." I nervously checked over my shoulder. The decaying land cruiser seemed full, the back being occupied by a Doberman-Rotweiler mix, pleasant in spite of its heritage. As I scratched the dog, the second hitcher filed into its domain, secure as Scott had commanded, "Now, Riff, we don't bite no hitchers." After ascertaining that I was not a cop (I guess he took my word for it), Scott produced a small amount of marijuana which he sold to his delighted passenger. (I politely abstained.) Blaring Ozzy Osborne's "No more tears" loud enough to wilt the ears of poor Riff, we tore down the spit.


The truck was a relic. It rattled up the dirt road toward me, obediently bowing to the side of the path at the sight of my thumb. Billy met my gaze. We got to talking. He told me of his first winter in Alaska.

"Yeah, I didn't work. Just sat and drank. Went through $30,000."

"Really, $30,000."

"Yeah, that's what I had after dealing coke in Ohio."

"Coke, really."

"Yeah, it would have been another $40,000 but I had an $800 a week crack habit."

"Really, $800?"

"Yeah, sometimes you can get a 100 dollar rock and it'll last you all day."

"How nice." Suddenly we lurched to a stop. Billy stared confused at the dashboard for a moment, then laughed. "Oh, we're in an automatic. Two pedals, not three." I decided to helpfully confirm his observation.

"Yes, two pedals."

He told me of his aspirations to be a baggage handler this winter. I assured him he would bring credibility to the profession.

Some woman whose name i do not know with red hair

I had walked three miles already to my destination. Only about two were left. The blue Saab had just passed me and I was growing more frustrated. Then, 100 meters down the road, I saw its reverse lights come on. It backed up all the way, and to my incredulity the woman invited me in. "I'm only going a little bit, but I figured that was better than nothing."

"Yeah ... I'm going to the Dry-dock."

"That's where I'm going." Her dog was named Bud, an Australian Shepherd/Golden Retriever mix (yes, I'm getting to really like dogs). We shared a pleasant and laughing conversation for 10 minutes. Her hair was red, the dog was soft.

Okay, before anybody get concerned --- most of the people I ride with are boring. Sometimes they don't say anything. I just wanted to record these characters in print.

On turning twenty homeless and unemployed

The day I turned twenty was a day of half hearted job searching that yielded nothing. It was a lonely day, and even a bit depressing. But very illuminating. On it I realized that the Heist of the Century is over. Anything I get from now on I'm going to work damned hard for. To expect the world to fall into my hands is to invite failure. And I will not fail.


That was my only thought as I pounded the docks 4 times a day, looking for interested skippers short a deckhand. Homer's number of fishing boats seems large (although I'm sure it's tiny compared to Kodiak). I came to know the docks well. Many of the captains weren't on the boats, but any that were would surely meet with my query. The first man I talked to was interested in hiring me. He never called. Three or four days of this and I was getting down. But then, I was hired on the Norquest, a 110 foot salmon tender. Tenders pick up the fish at sea and deliver them to the docks. It promised to be too good. I enjoyed the company of the other three crew, etc. Too good to be true.

Turns out the owner of the boat hired someone at the same time the captain hired me. I was let go with a great quantity of apologies and 50 bucks for five hours work. This let down proved great. I sat in my tent the next day and just felt sorry for myself. Would I have to go to Kodiak? Should I work in a cannery? Why don't I get a real job? Will I have enough money to live here next year? I ruminated on these questions, while lamenting my pathetic situation. But then I remembered my birthday.

"If I'm going to fail, fine. But I refuse to fail sitting on my ass. If I fail, it won't be for the lack of trying." So the next day I walked the entire length of the docks, even those piers that had mostly charters and sport fishermen. I asked every captain I saw, no excuses this time. Nothing the first day. Nothing the second day.

On the third day, just as I was walking down the last pier, a voice called out. It was Todd, from the Endeavor. I have been persistent with his boss, Leroy, about a job. None had come. It appears that now Todd knows someone who doesn't have a crew. He was in Drydock. I thanked Todd profusely and prepared to head out the next day. That night I felt good.

Things get out of control

I hitched the five mile ride to the Drydock, half of it was unpaved. The trip allowed me to see a beautiful side of Alaska I had forgotten. Living on the beach, I had forgotten the lush forests and beautiful scenery Alaska has to offer. I think I may live this `isolation' next year. Arriving in Drydock, I scooped out the 32' seiner "Omega" and its skipper, Brad Chisholm. [photo taken later by parents]

I found him, working in the engine hold of the tiny boat (32 feet is a very small seiner --- most tend to be 40-45 feet long, the limit is currently 58). He actually seemed interested in interviewing me, something I welcomed, hurling up questions, as his mind strived to fix the hydraulic pump at the same time it assessed this newcomer. After a few minutes he surfaced and told me, "You're the first one to show up, so I'll probably hire you. Come back tomorrow at nine."

I was elated. I even went out and bought lunch for the first time in two weeks. Hitching back, I met Don Flynn, captain of the Lady Lee, a 46 foot seiner going down to Valdez the 10th of July.

"Yeah", he said, "I'm looking for a crew. Experience doesn't matter." "Really."

I found it hard to believe. Although the 10th was a bit late for my taste (it was currently the 23rd) I gladly took his phone number, keeping my options open. Once back in town I decided to check on my other lead, Ron White of the Middy. He confirmed he too was looking for a crew, although he was going to miss a crucial week in July. And then, in the bookstore, a fisherman walks in and starts lamenting how he just lost his deckhand and needs one immediately. It was odd.

After much thought, I decided to stay with Brad. As I have to hitch two rides to get to the Drydock, I talk to a lot of fishermen. All of them know Brad, and all of them respect him, both as a nice guy and as a fisherman. Even though we don't go out till tomorrow, I know I've made the right choice.

End Journal part 1 --- sent to parents 6/26/94.

Well, this is the first installment --- an anemic 
34 pages.  Expect more soon, some of this writing 
is good, and some is crap.  Plow through what 
you can.  I'm probably at sea now and will call as 
soon after the 3rd as I can.


Between fishing jobs and at the end of the summer he was a volunteer at KBBI radio station in Homer, shown here with Mums and a KBBI coffee cup.

He only owned 10% of the Big fish. When the boat's owner realized what they had on, he got out his rifle --- taking no chances on losing it.

Other Jos Alaska links: Big fish. Audio tape diary. Election campaign. American Country Magazine. Mine guiding. Fishing diary.

return to the Life of Jos