(Photos courtesy of Connor Smith and Facebook)
If political science senior Connor Smith was asked to define who he was, he would say an Alaskan fisherman.
Smith, along with liberal studies senior Ben Daigle and architectural engineering senior Ethan Meier, took this quarter off from school to head to Alaska for the salmon and herring fishing seasons. The trio is currently in Alaska for commercial fishing — one of the most dangerous and deadliest occupations in the United States.
Not only have they heard of frightening fishing incidents, but they’ve experienced them firsthand. Between the three of them, they’ve witnessed a person falling between two boats, had a boat nearly sink and had their own boat break down in the middle of nowhere.
Commercial fishing may not be how the average Cal Poly student spends their summer, but it’s a commonality the trio shares on the deep waters of the northern Pacific.
The Alaskan lifestyle
This dangerous and adventurous occupation isn’t just a job for Smith, it’s a lifestyle, he said.
Born in Homer, Alaska, Smith and Daigle have been childhood friends since the age of 4 — their families are neighbors living a quarter-mile apart.
Homer is a small, seaside community located 222 miles south of Anchorage. Most of Homer’s residents have some relation to the fishing community. The town’s harbor is home port for many fishing boats, including the Time Bandit, well-known from Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch.”
Tourist shops abound with postcards and bumper stickers that describe Homer as: “A quaint drinking village with a fishing problem” and “Homer, Alaska: We’re here because we’re not all there,” the latter of which can be found on the bumper of Smith’s car.
“You have a general idea of who everyone is,” Daigle said of the small town of approximately 6,000. “Everyone knows you and who you are.”
Along with being home to a tight-knit community, the town also houses several art galleries with a distinct art community, views of multiple glaciers and offers the opportunity for bear viewing.
Among the more tourist-drawn activities, the town bustles with outdoor recreation. Snow machines, motorcycles and boats are on hand, said Smith, who grew up hunting and fishing with his dad and three older brothers. As with Smith, Daigle spent a lot of time outdoors, but instead enjoyed snowboarding and hiking.
Daigle also spent his summers on his family’s island that lies across Kachemak Bay from Homer.
The island had no electricity and his family relied on building fires in a wood stove for heat.
“I grew up without a TV,” Daigle said. “I didn’t have a computer in high school.”
Daigle began commercial fishing from his family’s island when he was 5 years old, but it wasn’t until he was 16 that he began living on a boat during the summers and fishing in Prince William Sound, a sound in the Gulf of Alaska where Smith and Meier will also fish this summer. Daigle was the deckhand on another boat the summer he was 16 and bought his own boat at the end of the next summer, right before he entered Cal Poly as a freshman.
Smith, however, was just 13 years old when he began commercial fishing.
“I have three older brothers and they all fished, and it was just expected of me,” the lifelong-Alaskan resident said.
Growing up for Meier looked quite a bit different.
Having moved 22 times, there’s not an exact place the 22 year old calls home. But now, the Alaskan transplant is applying for Alaska residency.
Meier’s first visit to the mountainous state was the summer after his freshman year at Cal Poly when Daigle asked him to deckhand for him. Meier worked on the deck of the boat, picking fish from the net and helping in every facet of boat work.
“The first impression of Alaska is just, ‘Wow,’” Meier said. “I’ve been to a lot of places in my life, and this place just blew them out of the water.”
After three years of working for Daigle, Meier now owns his own fiberglass boat, which is 29 feet in length, 11 feet wide. Meier said he didn’t plan to buy his own boat, it just fell in his lap. This spontaneity didn’t come without some initial apprehension from his family, though.
“I told my dad about it over winter break … ‘So, um, I might be going to Alaska to do commercial fishing,’ and my dad (was) just like,‘no,’” Meier said.
Despite early concern, Meier said his family is really supportive of his new lifestyle in the state known as “The Last Frontier.”
Though fishing can be fun, living on a boat for an extended amount of time isn’t as hyped up as it may appear.
“People tend to think that it’s really glamorous and I get asked (for) a job by every person that I meet,” Daigle said. “But it’s really shitty most of the time.”
Daigle is currently operating his own boat, a 36-foot aluminum bowpicker, starting off the season fishing for chum salmon. He said he’ll be awake for up to 50 hours of off-and-on working.
“It’s really a lot gnarlier than people think it is,” Daigle said.
But arduous demands and high-risk dangers just come with the job.
“I really love the competition of it,” Daigle said. “There’s a lot of money out there and everyone’s really, really competitive and it’s just kind of fun treating it like a game because it’s a long season. You have to have something to keep yourself going really hard.”
Smith is currently working for his captain on a six-month contract. He’s always on call, ready to work on the boat at any given time and will spend most of the six months on the boat without any significant time off.
“You stop taking showers,” Smith said. “I shower once every few weeks or so. You get used to not ever being on land. You pay attention to a lot of things that you wouldn’t think about normally.”
Smith said the hardest part about being on a boat for that amount of time is never seeing family and friends and being around the same people. He is currently writing a blog documenting his time in Alaska to give friends and classmates a better idea of the Alaskan fisherman lifestyle.
Daigle, on the other hand, said motivating himself is the hardest aspect.
“You just work as hard as you want to,” Daigle said about fishing. “But if you don’t work really hard, you won’t make nearly as much money.”
Though keeping up momentum is a challenge, Daigle enjoys boatlife.
“It’s kind of fun,” he said. “I like living on a boat because there’s nothing you can think about other than fishing. You don’t have to worry about anything else.”
Though fishing provides separation from the rest of life, Daigle said, by the end of the season, “you’re over it.”
But even then, there’s something about living on a boat that draws you back, he said.
In the face of danger
The trio’s latest return to the water comes even after hearing and witnessing some of the dangers that come with the job.
Fishermen and related fishing workers was rated as No. 1 on Forbes’ list of America’s Deadliest Jobs, with 40 total fatalities in 2011 based on preliminary data. It is ranked before logging workers, aircraft pilots and flight engineers.
Smith was witness to one close call involving a family member.
When delivering fish to larger boats, there is a space created by buoys between the two vessels, and if there is a big wave, someone can fall in between the boats and be crushed — something that almost happened to Smith’s cousin.
Luckily, Smith’s uncle was able to jump down, grab the cousin and pull him up before the boats smashed him.
“We managed to get him out,” he said. “It can kill you really easily.”
Though there are various dangers to commercial fishing, you become less scared with practice, Smith said.
“Once you kind of know what you’re doing, it’s not that scary,” he said.
But as a beginner, things are bound to go wrong.
“The first year, we were just a total shit show,” Daigle said. “Every day something was going wrong. That first year was just pretty awful.”
Meier remembers one time in particular during that first year when he was fishing with Daigle.
“We caught a bunch of salmon,” Meier said. “We went to take the fish off deck and we went and we anchored up the net for the night and went to sleep.”
Meier and Daigle woke up at 6 a.m. the next day to find the bow in the air and the stern and engine compartment under water.
“Holy shit, Ben, we’re sinking,” said Meir, who grabbed a 5-gallon bucket and began tossing water out the cabin door. This is just one close call the two have experienced in their fishing endeavors.
“It can get super nasty out there and people can die all the time,” he said.
Despite the danger they face every time they climb onboard and head out to sea, Smith, Daigle and Meier all said they find commercial fishing gratifying.
“You can have really big days of like, money,” Daigle said. “That’s the whole reason everybody does it, it’s because you never know when you’re going to do really well and a lot of times it’s just super random. You could make $20,000 in a day if things go right for you.”
Daigle said it’s exciting not knowing how the day will pan out.
“You have to fish really hard and hope,” Daigle said.
Smith, however, finds fulfillment in the hands-on aspect of commercial fishing.
“Working hard and working with your hands … hard manual labor is very rewarding for me,” Smith said. “Getting a paycheck and knowing I worked for it. (At the) end of the day, feeling like you’ve accomplished something.”
Along with manual labor, Smith said he enjoys being a part of the fishing community his family has been a part of since 1936.
From Alaska to SLO and back again
Though Smith loves Alaska, he enjoys coming back to San Luis Obispo.
“I always love it just because of the weather and I get to go surfing,” Smith said. “The lifestyle is so much chiller I guess. Everything is paved and, I don’t know, life is kind of easy.”
With the time they’ve spent in both Alaska and San Luis Obispo, the trio definitely notices the contrast between the two locations.
“It’s like black and white difference,” Smith said.
One clear difference is in the choice of pastimes — in San Luis Obispo, Smith may ride the California waves, but in Alaska, he hunts black bears.
“If I don’t get fish and meat for my parents, they have to buy it,” Smith said.
Differences in attire also distinguish the Central Coast from Alaska.
“You wear like totally different clothes up here (in Alaska) — practical clothes,” Smith said. “In California I wear like semi-trendy things.”
This can lead to some commentary when there is crossover between the two attires: When Smith wears rain gear in California that he would normally wear on a boat, he receives comments saying it “smells like fish.”
Meier said the differences from Alaska and San Luis Obispo are a “full 180,” not just in activities and clothing.
“The mentality is completely different,” Meier said. “People just like, don’t care up here (in Alaska). It’s not superficial at all.”
Meier is currently in Cordova, located on the east side of Prince William Sound.
“Walking around downtown nobody knows me,” Meier said. “Everyone says ‘hi’ and ‘good morning.’ People are friendly and they’ll take you in if you need help.”
This camaraderie isn’t just specific just to Cordova, but is pretty much Alaska in general, he said.
Smith echoes these sentiments.
“I’ve always kind of been in love with it,” Smith said about Alaska. “Nowhere else could be home having lived this way. I don’t think I could ever do anything else, really. Just getting to be on the water, it’s very therapeutic.”
All three of the trio have to return to Cal Poly in the fall to finish their degrees: Smith plans on returning to Cal Poly in the fall for his last quarter, while Daigle and Meier both have plans to graduate after winter quarter.
After graduation, Smith said he will take the rest of the year off to go fishing again for another six months. After, he hopes to attend law school.
Daigle said he will end up in Alaska again at some point after college, though he doesn’t have any definite plans as of yet.
As far as fishing goes, Meier said he will see how his first season with his own boat pans out.
School aside, it’s safe to say the trio is enjoying time in the Alaskan outdoors.
“The pictures you see are incredible, but they don’t (do it) justice at all,” Meier said. “This place is just massive. It’s hard to get a sense of feel for it. This is kind of my office, you know? My window I look out, you see all these crazy snow-capped mountains and it’s incredible.”
Check out Smith’s first-hand account here.