Improvisation is a vital skill Alaskan fishermen acquire to survive physically and financially in winter. The extreme weather of Nome, AK, exposes Nome’s fishermen to the dangers of frostbite and snowblindness, especially when they go crab fishing. The wind and high tides also pose hindrances. Crab fishing in Nome entails making a hole through 3 feet of sea ice and dropping a pot into the water. The pots used are insulated to slow freezing. In addition to crab fishing, some fishermen also engage in fossilized bone carvings and sled-dog tours to augment their winter income.
Outside Nome, Alaska, on the frozen Bering Sea, fishermen handline pots and try not to freeze off body parts.
We’re roaring through the harbor at 15 knots and aren’t leaving a bit of wake. If we could leave a wake it wouldn’t matter much; the boats were removed months earlier, before temperatures fell to 30 below zero and the harbor, which is actually the mouth of the Snake River, made several feet of ice.
I should mention that it’s March in Nome, Alaska, and I’m standing on the back of Robin Thomas’ 12-foot “crabbing sled,” a toboggan-like affair that Thomas tows behind his snowmobile.
As Thomas throttles up his fishing vessel, I turn my face downwind so that the breeze can roll over the wolf-skin ruff on the hood of my parka. I cinch the hood down another notch and adjust the flap of my face mask to reveal nothing more than my sunglasses.
I turn back into the wind to see Thomas doing the same. The idea is to eliminate frostbite and snowblindness, two of the hindrances one encounters when winter crab fishing a couple of degrees south of the Arctic Circle.
Minutes out of town, the Bering Sea appears, a tableau of frozen 10-foot “waves” – snowdrifts and fragmented ice. The temperature was a balmy 8 below a couple of hours before we left, and Thomas has heard that winds might pick up out of the south. That, combined with our speed when we turn into the wind, drives the chill factor to a point not even worth calculating.
Suffice it to say that exposed flesh will freeze in minutes. When it thaws it turns to an open red wound; in extreme cases, it turns black and has to be removed.
Hours earlier, Thomas took me to meet Joe Jones, his 51-year-old “deckhand,” who’s now roaring along behind us on another machine. We were warming ourselves beside a large wood stove in Jones’ place with Mark Koenig, another “crabby guy,” as Thomas puts it.
Koenig was telling us about a time he went out to check his pots, which are lowered on lines through holes in the ice. As he was tending his gear, an encroaching storm broke off the ice floe on which he was working and began taking him and his snowmobile to sea.
“High tides and the wind make the ice crack off,” Koenig explained. “I pulled my pots and took off for shore, but I got my machine stuck in a big drift. By the time I got dug out and tried to go to shore [by another route] the lead [a crack in the ice] opened and I got stuck out there.”
A National Guard helicopter plucked him off the ice just before dark.
“That lead had really gotten big by then,” he said, adding that the chopper pilots let him take only a handful of crab.
“That was some expensive crab,” Jones interjected with a snort.
Last Koenig had heard, somebody from Brevig Mission, a village some 80 miles to the west, had seen his machine drifting out to sea. Later in the day, I tell Thomas and John Osborne, another crabber, that one of their colleagues declined to take me out fishing because he thought the publicity from this story would bring a horde of newcomers.
They both break out laughing.
You do what you can do
In an average year, Nome’s commercial fleet comprises a half-dozen of these guys. And Thomas, 42, is living proof that you do what you can do to survive physically and financially in Alaska’s extreme northwest. Improvisation is often necessary.
He came to Nome in 1974 with his mother, a schoolteacher, and fell in love with the country. He never left.
Thomas stands about 6 feet tall. When the sunshine hits him just right, streaks of platinum dominate the sandy shocks of hair protruding from his balaclava, a knit face mask popular among mountain climbers, skiers and Nome fishermen.
As he chops the frozen herring he’ll use for bait, Thomas speaks with an intermittent softness that commands attention. He tells me that he spends stormy days in his tiny shop carving ivory or in his house writing chapters to his online novel, Walrus Dog (www.nook.net/~robin/). The book is a hybrid of fantasy and Eskimo legend in which local villagers flee to nearby Sledge Island to subsist unhampered by the coming millennium.
The carving – or, actually, the selling – of his ivory got him into trouble a few years back when federal agents conducted a sting operation. They pretended to be tourists and bought illegal ivory from Nome and neighboring villages. Only native Alaskans may harvest the ivory tusks of walruses.
“I chose ivory carving to support my Native family,” Thomas offers while running pre-trip errands in his battered Chevy pickup. Since the bust, he has been trying to establish himself as a carver of fossilized bone, which is legal to sell. He further augments his income by putting his two-dozen huskies to work on sled-dog tours, which he touts via his website.
To most who know him, though, by summer he’s a herring and crab fisherman with a 25-foot skiff. By winter he’s one of but a few crabbers intrepid enough to chop a hole through 3 feet of sea ice and drop a pot into it.
Before we begin the 50-minute run, Thomas tells me he’d fish more than the six pots he fishes now, but last year the ice moved offshore and carried 40 of them away. He hasn’t earned enough money to replace them yet.
As for marketing his catch of red king crab, his first option is to put them on an Alaska Airlines jet returning to Anchorage and sell them to Aquatech, a local processor, for $3.50 per pound. But Thomas says the processor isn’t interested in batches smaller than 100 pounds.
For about one week in March, however, there is another market: He can get between $7 and $10 per crab on the streets, when Nome’s population of 4,000 bulges to 6,500 with revelers who’ve come to watch the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Today’s pick of the first pot begins with optimism. The two men remove insulated covers, which slow freezing during the three-day soak, to expose the large hole at the first pot. They then chop out corners, skim the ice and begin hauling the pot by hand, from nearly 50 feet below.
“It feels heavy,” says Thomas as he begins the slow retrieval. We’re on a long “pan” (relatively smooth sea ice) about a mile and a half offshore.
“One year I made $8,000 here in one month,” he says, his eyes scanning the stark, white landscape. Thomas stops the steady pull as the bridle of the pot emerges from the slush that’s already forming in the hole.
Jones, meanwhile, has removed the lid of an insulated tote on the back of the sled and is filling it with buckets of sea water. In essence, he’s tanking down the hold on the sled.
The two men extract the pot. It’s not a bad haul; it contains a dozen keepers.
“Pulling these pots and seeing the crabs is the same thrill as when a gold miner sees gold in that pan,” says Jones as they rebait the pot.
“I topped off this [tote] with five pots one time,” Thomas says. “This pot had 30 keepers in it.”
“Probably a $700 day right there,” adds Jones, who’s taking the crab from the pot to the tote before the wind and cold freeze the catch solid.
Conversation here is a stop-and-start proposition. As we pull up to each of the six pots, the two men shut down their machines, pull off their face masks and take up abbreviated strands of conversation as they chop out the edges of the hole and extract chips with a skimmer.
Who performs what duties is apparently a long-established rite, affording the pair time to swap yarns about their favorite bait and stories of men who’ve fallen into the holes and returned to Nome nearly frozen fast to the helms of their snowmobiles, “crying in pain,” as Thomas says.
By the end of the day, we’ve landed around 60 crabs and they’ve told about as many stories.
We come into the harbor at probably 20 knots. Thomas cranks the skis of the machine to starboard, and we rise to a gravel road, which he takes for several hundred yards before cutting left to take us onto what looks like a sand spit.
We pull up to his 24 huskies, which are whirling and yipping on chains outside a friend’s house. He unlashes the groundline that holds the cover to the tote and grabs a couple of crabs. I follow him across the narrow road to the largest of two tiny houses on stilts.
Inside it is hot. Gilbert, a rotund Eskimo man with a massive set of arms, burns pallets to keep his neat little abode toasty. We pull back our face masks. The capillaries in our cheeks flush to the warmth.
Gilbert and Thomas exchange: two crabs – one large, one small – $15.
“I’m goingk-ta-coook them up toooonightt,” Gilbert half-sings on his way over to drop the crabs into a stainless steel kettle on the stove.
Moments later, we’re two masked men ripping through town. The tiny, albeit powerful, engine whines to a higher pitch to match the resistance of the huge sled on Nome’s graveled streets.
We catch up to Jones at Thomas’ house, where he announces he’s heading home for the day. Thomas wants to know how to split out Jones’ share of the catch. Jones seems amenable to just about any arrangement. Cash it will be. Thomas ventures he’ll take the lead downtown and sell it on Front Street.
“I guess I’ll do business right out of here,” he says as we make our way across a parking lot to the Polaris Bar, one of the town’s most prominent watering holes.
We shoulder our way through a heavy wooden door and let our eyes adjust to the dimness. I’m about to order beers, but Thomas wants a club soda. (He tells me later that part of his five-year probation from the ivory bust includes a departure from alcohol.) So, I order a club soda and a coffee above the din of the jukebox.
From the other side of the bar, an ebullient blonde brings Thomas his soda, then turns to me and asks, “You take your coffee hot and black, just like your women?”
“Hot and black, like your women!” She shoots me a sidelong glance that suggests I’d best loosen up.
Seems I forgot where I am. Aside from Kodiak or Dutch Harbor, Nome is one of the Last Frontier’s wildest towns. The barmaid’s reiteration is at once a reminder that this is no place for anyone who can’t take a joke.
I remember, too, that the Polaris is renowned for one of the state’s wildest wet T-shirt contests, although I have been forewarned that the T-shirt designation is a bit of a misnomer; the contest’s credo is “skin to win.”
On a typical year, first place surpasses $1,000. (The jackpot is garnered at a clothing auction prior to the event.) Transients also get caught up in the action. Local lore has it that a prominent TV newscaster lost her job last year after flashing in front of the crowd, then invoicing her agency for her time on-stage.
Of course, I had already let my callowness out of the bag when I booked my room at a bed and breakfast.
“How far are you from all the action?” I had asked the owner of the B&B, Cussie Reardon, prior to coming to Nome.
“Where you room doesn’t much matter,” she said. “You don’t sleep anyway; you just party until you can’t stand up anymore, then you crash.” Thus far, she’s right on the money.
While I mull all this, Thomas slips away. He returns a few moments later.
“I’ve got 10 of ’em sold at the restaurant over here. In the meantime, one of the barmaids wants a couple, but I’ve got to round up a cooler.”
What he doesn’t sell before dark he’ll trade to a guy from Kotzebue, 180 air miles away. The deal, a two-for-one in Thomas’ favor, was consummated earlier in the day, and if all goes well he should wind up with a plump burlap bag of sheefish, a delectable fish extracted from the region’s rivers. Some of these will be for his own consumption, while the rest will be used as crab bait.
We leave after Thomas decides the pedestrians are thicker across the street. We stand on Front Street as frigid darkness descends.
“When it’s warmer, I turn ’em loose and let ’em walk around on the sidewalk,” Thomas says with a smile.
Today, however, he dips the crabs out of the slush for the onlookers, some of whom simply want a picture or footage for their video cameras to remember their trip to the Iditarod finish. Many are intrigued by the crabs; a few prolong their gazes at the intrepid man who extracted them from the frozen sea.
Robin Thomas himself is preoccupied with rolling his collection of $5, $10 and $20 bills into an ever-thickening bundle in his hand.
NOME CRAB TRAPPING: THE FACTS
* Number of participants: Permit holders have ranged from two to 42 since 1978, when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game began keeping records.
* Size of participating boats: In this case, snowmobiles ranging from 30 to 100 hp tow “crabbing-sleds,” which are either reconfigured dogsleds or long utility sleds that can handle about 30 gallons of seawater and up to several hundred pounds of live crab.
* Typical fishing area: Fishing is done in 40 to 50 feet of water, typically a mile off Nome.
* Gear: Conical pots, usually weighing less than 100 pounds, are fished individually through holes in the ice.
* Capital investment: Prices for suitable snowmobiles begin at around $3,000. Many fishermen, like Thomas, build crabbing sleds for around $100 in materials. The pots run about $100 apiece, including the bridles. Winter crabbers use no buoys, but most build insulated covers for about $60 apiece to keep the holes from freezing over.
* Annual landings: Has varied widely since the Alaska Department of Fish and Game began tracking “fleet” effort and landings in 1978. In 1995, for example, a crab-cooking project with a local processor generated interest locally and the fleet swelled to 42 commercial fishermen who landed 7,500 crabs. Two years later, only two fishermen participated, landing a total of 83 crabs. These red king crab average 3 pounds at their legal shell width of 4 3/4 inches.
* Season: Nov. 15 to May 15. But ice conditions often pre-empt a full season.
* General regulations: There is a 40-pot limit, and crabs must be 4 3/4 inches across the shell.
* Permits: A red king crab permit is $50. An additional “catcher-seller” registration entitles the permit holder to sell crabs on the street.
* Ex-vessel price: Fluctuates. Fishermen usually get $3.50 per pound through processors or up to $10 per crab on the street.
* Markets: Catches of crab beyond 100 pounds are shipped to a processor in Anchorage. The processed crab is distributed domestically and abroad. Much of the catch, however, is sold locally.