- By: Greg Thomas
upfront notes /// greg thomas
I started traveling to Alaska alone when I turned 16, taking a salmon-cannery job that required 17-hour workdays, seven days a week, for three months straight.
It was terrifically demanding work, even though I had it good compared to all the college guys; they were wading around in salmon entrails, slicing off heads and fins, and breathing in a squalid cloud of fish blood. By state law I was too young to handle sharp implements, so I worked in the egg room, with a bevy of college girls, where I lined pine boxes with plastic and handed them off to be layered with brined salmon eggs. The work area was dry, the girls attractive, and the pay was really good. Even so, by the end of summer all I could think about was getting out of the rain and back to Seattle’s late-August/early September sunshine, to find ways to spend some of my hard-earned cash.
In time the cannery work grew monotonous and I yearned for more adventure. One spring I stomped the docks in Petersburg and came up with a deckhand job on a 42-foot-long trawler. I worked hard for two months, putting out baits and hauling in king salmon and cohos for up to 20 hours a day. But that wasn’t good enough for my stressed-out boss—he finally had to fire me because he couldn’t get me to quit. A few months later someone found him dead next to his treadmill in a remote cabin at Tebenkof Bay.
I found a job the day after I was fired, this time on a 32-foot wooden bathtub that we fished off the rugged outside coast of Baranof Island, in the Gulf of Alaska. It was scary work (especially because the boat had already sunk twice in the harbor), but thrilling, too; I saw sharks and whales, landed an 80-pound king, watched a coastal grizzly chase a few of my friends, and wandered around some of the most amazing and remote country on earth.
When I’d return to Seattle each fall it wasn’t difficult to articulate my experiences, but it was nearly impossible to get my friends—who’d caddied for golfers, flipped burgers at Jack In the Box or pulled weeds out of the rich folks’ gardens—to believe a word I said. Alaska and the whole experience was too far outside their narrow realms. I’d ask what had changed when I was gone and they’d answer, “Nothing.” They’d ask the same and I couldn’t help but say, “Everything.”
Eventually I quit commercial fishing, but I didn’t quit Alaska or travel. These days I spend as much time in the Great Land with a fly rod as possible, and I hit Canada, the Fisherman’s Paradise, just as often. Occasionally I throw a line in exotic places, such as the Florida Keys, the Bahamas, even Russia and Belize. At times it feels like I’m in some sort of competition with my fly-fishing cohorts to see who can get the most stamps in their passport, but when I really consider why I travel it always goes back to those early trips to Alaska and a change of location from Seattle to Petersburg, and vice versa.
No matter what challenges and frustrations existed in either location, a simple three-hour flight on Alaska Airlines, just a modest geographical shift, took me light-years away and awakened all possibility. It’s no different today. So, when someone asks if they should travel to fish, I think about that temperamental boss of mine who was married to his work, never travelled and died in his early 40s, alone, next to a treadmill. And I reply, simply, “Just go.”