A meteorific night!

Last night the Perseid meteors were out in full force, so I hiked in the Dream Lake up in Rocky Mountain National Park to capture the splendor and sleep under the beautiful starry night. The night began as a battle against the torrential rains that scattered across the rockies, which made for a very wet and soggy ride on my motorcycle. Needless to say, I wasn't a very happy camper. Especially after the hour long drive that put me at the base of the hike with nothing but clouds, rain, rain and more rain. I decided to wait it out though, hoping the skies would clear before sunrise instead of driving back to my very inviting warm bed back in Boulder. When I arrived at the trailhead 12,000 feet up in the middle of the night, I felt like a cold wet icycle that needed thawing. Turns out my motorcycle doesn't provide much protection against the elements... I quickly hopped off my bike, grabbed my pack, and started hiking the steep trail to warm my blood. I was blessed with perfect weather when I arrived at the lake - the rain had stopped, the sky had cleared, and the stars were shining as bright as ever. I set my camera up, and started snapping away to capture the meteors that seemed to be everywhere. It was an amazing show, definitely a first for me, and it turned out to be a magical night. I walked away with one of the coolest night sky photos I've taken to date, so I hope you enjoy! It was quite a lot of effort to get this one shot, but well worth it in my opinion :)

 

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Scenic Alaska

Not much new going on up here, everything is pretty much routine by now. Go out to sea, catch fish, come back to port, offload, repeat…. with the occasional excitement thrown in of course (ie sea lion boarding the vessel, pod of killer whales off the bow, porpoises swimming alongside the boat…etc) so I figured I’d put up some pictures. Unalaska is quite the beautiful little Island tucked away in the chain of Aleutians, so it makes for some beautiful photos Smile

 

 

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Skipping stones at sunset!

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Looking down on Dutch Harbor

 

 

 

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The view as we make our way back into port

 

 

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Looking back from the wheelhouse

 

 

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A teeny tiny squid in my sample!

 

 

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Wildflowers are coming out, its beautiful!

 

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Walking along the beach

 

 

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Working on a fishing boat has its perks…millions of birds follow us!!

 

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Birdies flying around our stern as we haul up the nets

Here’s a quick video of the birdies that fly around our boat as we haul in the nets

Dutch Harbor

Well, not much new going on up here, the most exciting part of my day usually involves finding some new, strange species of fish in my sample spotting a rare bird as it flies past us on our way out to the fishing grounds. We did, however, have a visitor on the boat the other day – one that in over 20 years of fishing, none of the other crew had ever seen jump on a boat before. Turns out a sea lion boarded the boat when we were out at sea! My hypothesis is that there were killer whales in the area and the spooked sea lion jumped ship (in this case jumped ON ship) to avoid them. Anyways, it was just an interesting thing to see him sitting on our trawl ramp for nearly two hours before he headed back into the big blue!

 

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Here’s our little visitor!

 

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Curious little bugger….

 

 

Every week or so when we make our way back into Dutch Harbor to offload, its great to notice the change in scenery… When I first arrived, it was fairy dry and brown, but now as summer kicks in the flowers are blooming and the green hills splattered in pink and blue are simply stunning..

 

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Wild lupines grow all over the island! Its gorgeous!

 

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Imagine playing ‘this little piggy’ with this guy!

 

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A windy day in Dutch!

 

 

DSC00665Stacks of crab pots – you see these all over the island, waiting for the winter crab season!

 

 

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Pretty mountains!

Even the ocean can get rough…

Wow..last night was a wild ride. Even my almond butter thought so! Sounds funky but it goes kind of like this... that almond butter has been sitting in top of my bed for the last few days and every time I have a crack at it, the contents always seem to be in the exact same position I left them in the day before. So I start drawing designs in the butter before I cap it to see if it holds, kind of a little fun surprise when I open it up the next day and find cutsie designs in my delicious tasty almond butter haha. But I'm telling you, that stuff doesn't budge! Its like glue, once its set and capped, it stays solid! Well...this morning when I opened up my tasty almond butter hoping to see that little birdie I drew flying off into an almond butter sunset, what I found was kind of a shocker. It looked a lot like gravity had made some erratic decisions and changed directions on numerous occasions, turning my neatly organized little jar of almond butter into an explosion of goo covering the entire container!!!
Bet you never thought a guy could write an entire paragraph on almond butter now did ya haha. Yep...sometimes I even surprise myself! Ok back to the story. So as I have been so accustomed to these unbelievable conditions where I peer out and it literally looks like we're floating on glass - even calmer than most lakes I've been on - I can't help but think I've been a bit spoiled. And the funny part is that early on in the day, the sun was shining and it was gorgeous out! I felt like a bear that's been in hibernation going months without seeing sunshine, finally emerging from the cave I have appropriately named 'Morning Star' only to find a spectacular, flat, sunny day. But the funny part is that when I see that sun shining, it makes me nervous for what's to come. The only other day that we've hit any kind of weather just so happened to be that dreaded Wednesday oh so any Wednesdays ago when earlier in the day, it happened to be sunny and beautiful. So it was only appropriate that the first thing I thought to myself when I saw those golden rays of light shining so glamorously off that glassy calm ocean surface was...if history repeats itself, which I'm assuming it has a good chance of doing especially out here on the Bering Sea, then I'm in for a little treat tonight. And lets just say I wasn't that far off...
Lets just say that octopus I ate last night found itself scattered in little bits all around the trawl alley haha. In fact..I think my journal entry from yesterday kind of goes like this:
  6/25/2011   2pm: A beautiful sunny day! The water is glass, I could float out here forever...
                      6pm: We just caught a huge octopus! Awesome! Ate some, yum yum!
                     10pm: Uh oh..running into some chop out here...
                     2am: That octopus quickly made its way out of my stomach and onto the deck just now... why oh why do fishermen have mustaches!!!!

 

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The day starts out deceitfully calm….

 

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Did I say glass? Yeah… I meant glass. Have you ever seen calmer water!?

 

 

 

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Fighting boredom is a real battle out at sea. Trying to stay upright during an afternoon of jump roping on a rocking boat makes for a good challenge..

 

 

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The octopus we caught! It was tasty going down…less so when it came back up…

 

 

 

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Starting to get choppy out there…soon these waves were twice the size. Hard to believe that earlier in the day it was calmer than a lake out there.

 

 

 

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Pollock. Is it really worth the sleepless nights and bouts of seasickness?

 

 

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Yep…I think it’s worth it.

 

 

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You might not believe it, but these birds are so common in Dutch Harbor that they are actually considered pests! It’s not uncommon to see twenty lined up on the boat railings back at dock where they feed on the discarded catch. Can anybody name the bird?

 

 

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Fisherman hard at pla..errr.. work!

A fisherman’s life

The life of a fisherman is in no way comparable to that of a normal American with their 9-5 job. It’s a stressful world up here – the pressure a captain faces to find the fish otherwise he and his crew go home empty handed, the stress of the crew working out on deck in rough seas as waves crash over the boat walls and thrash them around. One slip and you plunge into the icy arctic where the survival rate is less than 10% for man overboard cases. It’s a dangerous lifestyle, not for the faint of heart, but what an adventure it is! Along with the danger of the job comes an element of excitement, one that you cannot find working in an office. Every step is carefully placed otherwise you lose balance and fall over in the pitching boat – every meal is a challenge to eat as your food slides from one side of the plate to the other – every shower you take your arms and legs are pressing against the walls trying to get as much contact as possible to avoid dancing around in there and falling all over the place. Life out at sea is a life unlike any other, and that’s the draw…it’s an amazing experience, one that you can only find on a boat.

The world of fishing is a pretty amazing spectacle – the art of going hundreds of miles out to sea to find small patches of fish in the wide expanse of ocean that surrounds you is an incredible talent that the captain has learned over decades of experience. Unfortunately there is a confidentiality conflict with me discussing the dynamics of my particular boat and its workings, but I can still give the general idea of how things work up here. In the pollock fishing industry (which is where I’m working now) trawler boats head out from port and steam anywhere from five hours to three days out looking for fish. These boats range from small, mom and pop boats about fifty feet long, to huge factory processors over three hundred feet long. My boat is a mid size vessel, about 150 feet in length, which is a great size because there is still a small enough crew (six of us total) that we’ve still got a homey atmosphere, but big enough to stand its own grand when the waves get pretty nasty. Don’t get me wrong, 150 feet is nothing when the waves start picking up and we are definitely getting thrown around out there, but its nothing like those smaller boats that are completely at the mercy of the sea.

Once the captain makes the call, the boat drops the nets and depending on how good the fishing is, they can be in the water from anywhere between one and fifteen hours. Depending on the size of the boats, the nets can hold somewhere from twenty tons of fish up to several hundred tons. Once the nets are full, they are pulled back on board where they are dumped into holding tanks, then re-set to start the process all over again. When all the tanks are full, the boat heads back to port where the fish are offloaded to a giant factory. This is where things get interesting…the factory uses huge tubes that they lower into the holding tanks and these literally act as giant vacuums, sucking the fish out at a rate of about one ton of fish per minute! The fish are sucked up onto a giant conveyer belt where workers will sort through the catching, removing unwanted like jellyfish and skates, as well as damaged product that will be used as fishmeal. Part of my job description involves monitoring the offload process so I get to meet all the fascinating characters that work up in the factory. The diversity is unbelievable, these workers come from anywhere and everywhere – many from islands like Guam and Fiji but also from southeast Asia, south America, Africa and even some eastern Europeans. They’re a lively bunch, and all working hard (12 hour shifts, 7 days a week) to earn a living, and it’s an awesome time getting to know them.

So what is it that I do on the boats? basically all the fisheries in the USA are monitored for overfishing and there are permits set and fish caps and things like that to make sure we don’t overfish. Well, the only way they collect that data is by sending people like me out on the fishing boats to actually collect the data first hand. So the overall goal of my job is to keep an account of the activity that goes on, what kinds of fish and how many are caught. I also collect biological data to assess the population dynamics of the fish. Whenever my boat pulls up the net, I have to get three samples (one at the beginning when they start dumping out the bag of fish, one in the middle, and one at the end). For each sample I gather three buckets of fishies, each bucket holding about 50 fish and weighing nearly 40kg. Then with each bucket I count all the fish, identify each species and weigh them all. Next I have to sex and measure a certain percentage depending on what species we’re catching. Then with some fish I have to do maturity scans, that way we can determine the maturity of the fish in the population, and also I get to collect otoliths (which is really cool). Otoliths are two little bones in the skull that help the fish orient itself in the water, and I’m not sure what kind of data they collect from the otoliths, but that’s not my job I just get to collect them which is the fun part. That’s basically it, it’s not too complicated and it’s pretty interesting seeing how these fishing boats work in the real world. Before heading up to Alaska I figured it would be a good thing to know where your food comes from, in this case the fish we eat, so that’s where my inspiration to come up here and work on these boats started. I also think it gives me a different kind of respect for both the fish and the fishing industry, this way I can see how much effort it takes to catch these little buggers and understand how they came from the sea to my plate!

 

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My boat, just after pulling into the docks and beginning to offload. You can see the yellow cranes holding up the giant vacuum tubes that suck the fish out of our tanks.

 

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Pulling up the nets

 

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Dumping the fish from the bag into the tanks

 

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Inside the factory

 

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Sorting the catch – a big jellyfish here.

Dutch Harbor AK

      After finishing our three week intensive observer training course, the twenty of us graduates dispersed into the wind. We would get word of who went to what boats and who flew to which ports, but ultimately it was an anxious waiting game as we sat around for that phone call that could come at any moment telling us where we would ship out to. After a week in Anchorage, I got the call and flew out to Dutch Harbor – a small Aleutian island notorious for its history in the fishing industry. As a central hub for the majority of fishing activity in the Bering Sea, nearly all of the four thousand inhabitants of the island are somehow involved in the industry – whether it be working on boats, on-shore factories, or transportation of product. Nearly 75% of the workers are seasonal and from any number of countries making up one of the most diverse work forces imaginable

After the five hour flight in on the small propeller plane that makes its rounds to Dutch (including two stops along the way to fuel up) we landed on what looked like a dream come true after spending the last month living in the city of Anchorage. The island is blanketed with mountains up to 2,500 feet tall – just what a kid like me who’s been stuck in the city for the past month has been waiting for! With peaks literally everywhere, there’s plenty of opportunity to hike around and explore the island for the few days I’m here.

  The weather is almost always a cloudy, misty, gray scene not unlike that of Ohio (ugh) but it’s manageable, especially considering the fact that I can finally get some elevation! Not sure I could survive in a place like this permanently as I am a big fan of sunshine, I can definitely enjoy myself here for the three months or so that I will be in and out of the harbor. And that’s all for now, its time for me to get the last few hours of use out of my legs before I head out on the boat tomorrow morning and hit the high seas!

 

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Moose give the best kisses!

 

 

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Hiking around Dutch Harbor

 

 

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A view from the top of one of the peaks – the plant where the boats offload is visible in the center

 

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Hiking around Dutch

 

 

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What a beauty!

Everything there is to learn about groundfish observing…

    Nine hours a day in the classroom….three hours a day of homework…. three weeks straight with no breaks. Yep, being a groundfish observer is not as simple as catching a flight up to Alaska and jumping on a boat, but it’s been an amazing learning experience so far! We’ve been working around the clock trying to prepare for the demanding job to come – 18 hour days at sea assessing fish stock populations, monitoring for marine mammals and sea bird interactions, collecting biological specimen data a variety of species, among countless other duties on board our vessels. Not only that, but each and every one of us works independently as we are assigned to a variety of vessels, so it is imperative we are completely confident with our sampling methods and data collection techniques to provide substantiated, unbiased data that could potentially affect the entire fishery – a multi-billion dollar industry. And yet after three weeks of long and grueling days in the classroom and countless practical exercises, I still get the feeling that the moment I step on that boat, I’ll have absolutely no idea what I’m doing!

   In spite of the rigorous work schedule, I’ve always had a knack for getting my work done early so I can get out and explore wild Alaska at the end of the day, and I’ve had the chance to do some pretty amazing things since I’ve been here. Whether it’s been hiking up a mountain peak barefoot (and yes that includes crossing snow fields…at one point I was wondering if my toes were still connected to my feet), running out during low tide to find myself rummaging knee deep in mud, riding a bike to the outskirts of town only to bump into two very large moose staring back at me with one heck of an intimidating stare, or simply going on a road trip with my roommates down to Seward – I always managed to find myself with yet another exciting adventure in my three weeks of class. So here are some photos, enjoy!

And for those of you wondering, it looks like I’ll be heading out to Dutch Harbor on the 7th to depart on my first vessel, and let me assure you, I cant wait!!!!

 

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Sporting my immersion suit – this bad boy will keep me alive if our boat sinks and we have to jump into the frigid arctic waters! Hopefully this will be the last time I ever put it on!

 

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Getting our Groundfish Observer certification on our last day of class! Yipee!!

 

 

Nature is my playground…

 

 

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This is exactly how it came out of the moose…I swear!!

 

 

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A lovely little stop on our way down to Seward

 

 

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Moonrise over the mountains

 

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Glacier

 

 

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Beautiful Alaskan sunset – these are hard to come by since the sun goes down around 11pm these days, so rarely am I out in an area where I can catch a good glimpse.

 

 

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happy and in my element

 

 

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Shelter from the wind

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The fastest way down the snowy mountain slopes Winking smile

 

 

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Tromping through the mud!

First days in Alaska

I’ve found that I try to live my life an adventurous style, and that the majority of the time when planning my next trip I’m pretty quick to jump the gun of accepting a position without much thought. And I usually realize (often a week or so before leaving) what I’ve actually gotten myself into and that’s when the panic sweats kick in! Well, maybe not to that extent, but you get the point. All of the sudden I’m a week from embarking on a life changing adventure – one that requires me to take a huge leap outside of my comfort zone. Almost as much as my trip to Africa last year, this latest jaunt to Alaska epitomizes my tendency to dive head first into something that I have some intrinsic desire of getting myself into. The point being that it’s easy to sign the dotted line months before a commitment --- Sure I’ll head up to Alaska a few months from now, sure I’ll jump on some fishing vessels and head out into the Bering sea with it’s 20 to 40 foot waves and fifty mph winds, no problem! Of course, it’s all talk until that day creeps up on you and every night I lay awake in bed thinking I’m that much closer to actually fulfilling this ‘dream’ I’ve had for so many years to work up in Alaskan waters. But it doesn’t really become real, not even the day before leaving as I’m rushing to pack my last minute goodies and the warmest, most Alaskan-worthy clothes I can find. No, it didn’t become real until the minute I stepped onto that flight to Anchorage. That for me was the moment of no return. The threshold, the moment of truth, the instant I realized I was really about to go through with this thing. Yes this was it, there was no turning back, and that’s when the wave of anxiety hit me as it always does at some point when I take off on some grand adventure. I used my last minutes in the contiguous 48 to make a quick call to my dad – I can only imagine the desperation in my voice as I nervously questioned him what in the world I was doing and how I was going to survive the madness of the untamed Alaskan sea for the next few months! He provided me with fatherly words of wisdom that eased my nerves – at least for the minute or so we chatted. Words of wisdom never seem to have a lasting effect when you’re off gallivanting to a far off land! Of course at this point there’s nothing I can do but sit back and try to enjoy my last four hours in a familiar setting (the airplane) before stepping off into the vast unknown. 

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Stepping on to my flight to Anchorage – the point of no return!!! A pretty nerve-wracking moment!

Not surprisingly, stepping off the airplane into Alaska was no different than stepping off the airplane in any American city – your cell phone still buzzes, the signs are still in english, you still pay in dollars…I guess it wasn’t as dramatic of an entry as I was expecting, pretty nonchalant even. I grabbed my bags, stepped in a cab and headed off to the bunkhouse. Now for some reason I expected to be met by a group of scruffy, weathered guys who I would be working with over the next few months (that’s just the impression I get when I think of Alaskan fisheries!) but to my surprise I looked at the room assignments and as fate would have it, I ended up in a room with four girls! Hah! Just when I think I’m not going to see even a trace of a female for months, it turns out I’m living with four gals during my three week training course. I was absolutely shocked! And to find out that the class itself is about 50/50 boys and girls, I still couldn’t believe it! These are some tough chicas, that’s for sure. I’m sitting over here shaking in my boots just thinking about the work we’ll be doing on these boats and they all seem to be perfectly content…hmm, what a strange picture that one is. Anywho, today was our second day of class and wow is it intense. Starting at 7:30am and going straight through until 5:30pm, talk about a looong day in the classroom. And to sit through three weeks of this, it’s not going to be pretty. Though I suppose its for the best…after all, I would hate to end up out at sea for weeks at a time without any clue of what I’m supposed to be doing. Ok well that’s about it for now, I’ll keep this bad boy updated as I go!

 

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North Pacific Fisheries Observer Training Center! Aka my home for the next three weeks

DSC00011First day of class. Just like being back at school!

 

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Keying fish in the fish lab

 

 

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Here’s our bible. This thing is about the size of a phonebook!

 

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Yipeeeee! Alaska!!