Thursday, April 24, 2014

A Committment vs An Interest

One of the plant observers shared a great quote with me about the difference between interest and commitment:

"Taking an interest is when you participate in something when it's convenient. Commitment is when you take initiative and make it happen, no matter what."

 A lot of the time it is not possible to workout on the boat. There is no stationary bike, treadmill or space to run and forget swimming entirely! When the seas are rough I cant even do push ups, sit ups or squats. But I would like to think I have a commitment to my health and physical fitness. (Land Ali races triathlons for crying out loud!) My subconscious certainly does! One of my most frequent dreams as of lately has been of Pacific Coast Highway, on a sunny, windless day in SoCal. In my dream I'm riding south, past Newport Coast and along the rollers into Laguna Beach. I can feel the sun tanning my back and arms as I cruise the shoreside highway on my bike. The view is an amazing panoramic shot of the sparkling Pacific spreading out past the cliffs and kelp beds into a cloudless blue sky. I'm riding pretty hard, I can feel it in my heart rate and in my legs, but its a good pain of pushing the envelope, building on my endurance and making me stronger. I'll do about 45 miles on this road, and afterwards head over to my favorite breakfast burrito in Seal Beach before passing out for a solid mid-morning nap. It's one of my favorite rides at home (yes, this is a real place and memory from home, and I CHOSE to come to Alaska. ... What's wrong with me?)

Waking up to my dark bunk, incased in a claustrophobic house on a rocking boat in the middle of the frozen north is the definition of a rude awakening. But just because I am no longer home, and its not convenient (much less enjoyable!) to workout up here I want to stay fit and be able to pick up where I left off in CA when I return. So every time we offload in port I make every effort to walk over to the community gym. 

The first time I was not expecting much. Maybe a treadmill or a stationary bike (I prayed), some weights and a couple other machines would be acceptable. As I walked up to the little loft and looked around I realized there was an abundance of free weights, weight machines and even a hanging punching bag. No treadmill, but, my heart leapt as I spotted the little reclining stationary bike in the corner! Thank god! All I wanted in life at that moment was to sit on a bike for a couple hours and spin! It may not have been a traditional bike layout, but I could live with a reclining bike for a few months. As I sat down I realized something was very seriously wrong with the bike. The seat no longer locked in place, the arm handles didn't turn any more and when I pushed the petals the lose seat threatened to topple over. Clearly this was not safe to use. With my cycling dreams dashed, I stood lost in this "gym" having a somewhat serious emotional breakdown over a broken ten year-old stationary bike. Eventually I spotted the only remotely cardiovascular themed piece of equipment in the "gym"  a Stair Master 3000 from 1995! I gathered what was left of my resolve to work out, stepped up to this machine that was built the year I started kindergarten and said a little prayer for it to work. 

To my great surprise it did! Now, it was no bike ride along PCH, but I did get a good workout of 45 minuets of "stairs" and the endorphin kick I was craving. It's a serious chemical dependency at this point. So from then on, every time I'm in port I always make the pilgrimage to the little "gym" to climb stairs while I stare longingly at the forgotten dream that was a spin workout in Alaska. At this point I'm just thankful I cant get some exercise at all, and that I can continue my commitment to my health and fitness.

Monday, April 21, 2014

FAQs of Alaska

What was your favorite part of the job/trip/experience?

Seeing and learning so many new things! Alaska, despite its hardships, lack of civilization, and general cold-shoulder to newcomers … or maybe because of these things, is truthfully, pretty amazing! Everything is big, unforgiving, and wild. The islands are picturesque snow covered volcano-tops sticking out of the sea, sometimes you can even see them smoking! The wildlife is beautiful, and untamed. And the marine life is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before; for example: wild orcas, albatross, salmon galore,  50+ lb halibut, more Pollock than you can imagine (… no really, Pollock for days), and countless new species to see! I’ve had the privilege of learning an entire new ecosystem and seeing landscapes that most people will never get the opportunity to. I feel pretty lucky to experience this for a living.

What was the most difficult part?

The lifestyle change required of the job was, by far, the most difficult adaptation for me to make. You have to be flexible with pretty much everything including, but not limited to, your living situation, the food you eat, your workout routine, and your assignment location and duration. Staying healthy and content in adverse or difficult circumstances can be a challenge but I am very glad that I made the effort to stay positive and workout when I could or I would have gone crazy!
By the end of a contract we pretty much all look like Mr. Coffee Owl here.

Is Sarah Palin correct in that you can actually see Russia from Alaska?

With visibility the way it is here most days, I’m lucky if I can see across the bay. It’s true that the air is SO MUCH cleaner than in LA, but snow, rain and heavy fog (let alone the curvature of the earth!)  make it pretty much impossible to see across the sea. … But some boats in US waters do fish so far west that they are technically east according to their longitude!

Hate to dash your hopes and dreams, but sometimes Sarah Palin doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

Insert SNL Sarah Palin skit video here ((((Here you go

Hot fishermen?

Unfortunately not, but, as any observer here will tell you, some of the helicopter pilots are pretty easy on the eyes. This actually came up over breakfast with my lead the other day when we found out our plant is closing down pretty soon. I said that I would dream that “night” (when I sleep, which is technically day, yay night shift!) about being woken up in the middle of the night to leave Akutan and go home! And he replied. “Yeah I can see it now: ‘ALI WAKE UP! You’ve got to pack before the helicopter pilot flies us out to Dutch to catch a plane to Seattle! And he’s going to do it all without his shirt on!!’”

I know this is a picture of Prince Harry, but its close enough.

Would you it again?

Sure! The benefits outweigh the costs for now. Actually, I told my company I would come back this fall sometime. I’m hoping to catch the end of whale season! I’ve heard there’s so many humpbacks in Whale Pass during the summer you can see them on all sides of the boat. Plus that’s when the puffins come to town, and who DOESN’T want to see adorable puffins in real life?

Pretty sure this is an Atlantic Puffin, but he's adorable so I'll let it slide.

When are you coming home?

 Good question! When I finish here in Akutan hopefully they’ll send me to Dutch Harbor, where I’ll wait for a plane to Anchorage and then to Seattle (like everyone else working in the Aleutian islands at the end of fishing season!). This could take days. After I’m in Seattle I have some science work to do, and I will wait for a debriefing appointment with NMFS (my program, the National Marine Fisheries Survey) which could take 1-2 weeks. After that I’m driving home to CALIFORNIA!!!!
My office whiteboard hommage to California.
The succinct answer is sometime in May.

Huntington Beach California - Home, Sweet, Home

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Cold Hard Truth

This is NOT my boat, thankfully. But left unbroken, ice can pile up like this quite easily.

I get a lot of questions about the weather and "exactly how cold is it there?" Honestly, most of the time I don't notice how cold it is anymore. I realized I've been in the cold a very long time when I was walking to the "gym" thinking how it was a nice warm day for once ... and then I stepped in a puddle that was freezing over as I thought about the "warm" day. Sunshine can be deceiving.

That's not to say that I am always warm. It has been quite cold on some days. So I figured I should probably write about what everyone wants to hear, me being miserably cold on the high seas (why else do you keep coming back to this blog?  Morbid curiosity is totally human, I get it) The worst day was in early March. I woke up to an announcement that we we're hauling back (aka we're bringing the trawl net up and dumping the fish into our tanks), so went up to the wheelhouse to moniker the haul. Just FYI for anyone like me, who has no extreme cold experience, your first indicator that its colder than hell frozen over outside is when you can see a thick layer of ice covering every surface on the boat. Меня зовут Али и я люблю лед и снег!

The icicles were pretty cool (cool, haha, get it? Ok back to the story.). It's just as you imagine, there were long, thick blue daggers slanting away from the wind along all the eves of the house. I decided I should probably put on another layer of clothing at the point (thank god I have some common sense). When I stepped on deck to sample my fish I immediately felt the cold hit my face and lungs as a breathed it in. It almost hurt to breath. "Ok, once you get moving, and pushing fish around it will get better, like warming up at the start of a swim!" I told myself. Right?  ... Actually the longer you're out there the more your face hurts and the cold starts to seep into your double-gloved hands.

 I got straight to work (well as soon as I broke up the inch layer of ice covering my science gear), which turned out to be a pretty good idea for a couple different reasons. One, the faster I worked the less amount of time I'd have to suffer this frozen nightmare. Two, moving around did keep my core warm and occupied my mind so I couldn't dwell on my discomfort (to put it lightly). And three, I realized as I was sampling, the fish were actually freezing solid to the deck around me! Yay! 

By the time I finished my work I could barely read my writing on my deck sheets, turns out its really difficult to write legibly when you cant feel your fingers! I had fish slime and water frozen to my rain gear. In short, I don't think I've ever been that cold before in my life. Luckily in the coming days the weather lightened up and the heavy freezing spray turned back into snow.

 And that's the cold hard truth of ice on the Bering Sea!

My only ice photo, taken in Akutan

Saturday, April 19, 2014


I have news! I am finished on my boat! I have been reassigned to the plant in Akutan as the second observer. Now I stay on land and take salmon genetics for all the boats that offload here. I work nights so this has been an adjustment! I try to keep busy to stay awake, writing for the blog, reading (conditions are never too crappy to read on land!), editing data, and using the internet (the novelty probably won't ever wear off). The highlight of my week has been discovering that pandora radio works up here, (shhhh don't tell the plant)! Adnrew Bird radio is where it's at.

Despite still being in Alaska and not heading home just yet, I am very pleased to start my new chapter as a shore side observer. I got to sleep on a real mattress in MY OWN ROOM THAT WASN’T MOVING last night ... Well today, last day? I don’t know, this days and nights thing is getting really confusing. Regardless, I am looking forward to having a set schedule for a while, going for a run/walk, depending on road conditions, and going to the "gym" before "breakfast" every day. The cafeteria doesn't have the best tasting food, but they have salad most days and apples a lot of the time, so I get to eat healthy! I heard they even serve tacos occasionally, but I’m not holding my breath for good Mexican food just yet. There are always a few options here, as opposed to boat life! I had plain yogurt and granola for dinner this morning!! It was awesome. I’ve never been so excited to see plain yogurt before in my whole life.

I won't lie, I'm also excited that I don’t have to do dishes, laundry or any other chores while I'm here, the plant pretty much covers that. What am I going to do when I go back to real life and I have to do my own laundry and PAY for food?!? People here are really nice to the observers, probably because the plant doesn't function without us, and everyone at the plant has been brainwashed NOT to harass the observers. (Fun Fact: Observers are protected by the marine mammal protection act! Not lying, can’t make this up.) I think I'll be here till the plant closes for the season, which should be soon if rumors are correct, but its fishing so I wouldn't carve that in stone any time soon. So for now, I am marooned on this tiny rock of an island, observing shore side.
This is a shot from about halfway up the mountain lookng over Akutan and the bay.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Sunset On The Bering

My favorite time of day is just before the sun sets on the water. From the deck I can see the golden light that dips below the grey clouds and touches the navy waters to turn them turquoise. The golden-crested swells roll relentlessly as the vessel topples over each one. They play an endless game of hide and seek with the horizon. The sparse rays of dwindling sunlight shine over the moving swells, onto the rails, and through each droplet of water clinging to the net.

Sunset at sea could be anywhere. Without land, boats, or birds I can imagine I’m home, only just out of sight of Catalina, or that I’m visiting far away foreign waters in Asia or Antarctica, or even, that I’m on another planet entirely, with alien creatures lying in wait below the surface. It is familiar and not, it’s exciting and boring, frightening and comforting. It is a blank slate upon which you can only project your own emotions.

In this ever-expanding desert of water, I find comfort in knowing and experiencing an untamed wilderness.

Took this photo out the back of the wheelhouse window a few weeks ago.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Easter on the Crab Dock

Last night I went to sleep just as we were coming into the bay around 3am. I fell asleep looking forward to checking my mail, (FYI getting mail is now kinda the highlight of my life, I've fallen so far from my roots as Land Ali) and hanging out with people that are not the same three people I see every waking moment of everyday on this boat! After mail I'll fax some data, grab a snack and a cup of coffee with the plant observer before heading off to the stair master for a workout! (Land Ali shakes her head in disappointment and walks out the door to hop on her bike for a solid 50 mile ride.)

So I wake up the next morning, and take the stairs up to the wheelhouse to check the weather. Only I don't see the Akutan dock, there is no containers, no happy little community gym or even any dock workers in sight! We are not at the plant dock, oh no, I realize we have been banished to the far side of the the bay and chained to the crab dock. No way to walk to the office, no stair master, no beloved mail ... all I have is a view across the bay of my intended destination ... so close yet so far.

Yes the crab dock is a definite step down from Akutraz (the island prison as the observers call it), which I didn't know was even possible. Boredom has no limits in commercial fishery observation. I mean, we might as well be anchored in the middle of the sea. There's nothing to do off the boat and theres not even the distraction of data collection or bird watching on the boat - well besides the Dutch Harbor pigeons (aka the ever-present dirty scavenger bald eagles).

But, as I continue to find here in Alaska, with every cloud there is a silver lining! Sometimes when the conditions are right, and by "conditions" I mean we're headed to dutch harbor soon, and by "right" I mean we happen to be carrying a bunch of eggs that are about to go rotten, you can have an Easter Egg hunt on the crab dock!

This idea came up one morning, (morning is a relative term here, I think it was closer to 4-5 in the afternoon) when one of my deckhands walked into the galley and said, "You ever seen the foxes?"

Foxes? ... Like real ones?

Yep! They're the largest indigenous mammal on the island. They're pretty cool little guys, somewhere in size between a medium dog and a coyote. They look exactly as you'd expect, red fur, big bushy tails with a white spot on the end and cunning little furry faces. How they originally got here I have no idea, maybe their ancestors were fantastic swimmers?

Shortly before sunset we climbed off our boat with a couple dozen nearly rotten eggs and wandered through the crab pots. We hid our rotten "Easter Eggs" among the driftwood and along the rocky shore where we could see from the wheelhouse. Some of the Dutch Harbor pigeons took advantage of our hospitality but when night came it was the foxes who were calling the shots. They crept down to the shore and, one by one, found and ate every egg as we watched from our boat. I felt like a national geographic host, camped out at night on a remote post to see a rare species ... Ok so they're not that rare, the foxes are more or less as common as raccoons at home, but I didn't care, I got to see them for the first time!

Happy Easter from Alaska!
Yeah, kinda like this... ok no not really. I wish.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Itys-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie Pink Polka Dotted Boots

So everyone on the Aleutian Islands wears the same boots, the EXTACT SAME BOOTS. The boots are rubber, ugly brown with ugly tan trim, called extra tuffs. They clash with every color and look dirty fresh out of the box.

I can understand the practicality of the boots themselves. They’re completely waterproof and pretty bomb proof. I can walk through 4 inches of water, mud, fish slime, or worse without any fear of a leak or tear. What I can’t understand is why they only come in ONE color! Why can’t we have variations or fun patterns like those cheap rain boots at department stores right before the one rain a year in CA?! If I could get a pair of plaid green boots, or ones with little goldfish swimming all over them I’d be sold.

My biggest problem with the boots is that when entering a public building such as the library, gym or church everyone must take off their boots in the entryway. So when I come back to put on my boots and leave I can never figure out which pair of ugly brown boots, among the 10 pairs of identical ugly brown boots, are mine! I actually wore one of my deckhand’s boots out to the office one day. “Didn’t you notice they were two sizes larger than usual?!?!” he asked, between spurts of uncontrollable laughter.

So I’ve come up with a solution, and no, it’s not to simply mark one side of the boots with my initials with a permanent marker, because one, that’s boring, two, it’ll probably rub off, and three, we don’t have bright pink permanent marker. My solution is to paint my boots! Of course the only paint available is the paint I personally have on hand, coral pink nail polish. So bright pink polka-dotted boots it is! (Its ok, you can sing the song in your head now … They were Itys-Bitsy Teenie-Weenie pink polka-dot boots, that she wore for the first time toda-a-ay!)

Step One: I washed my boots with soap and water to get all of the mud, slime, and as much of the Pollock scales off them as possible.

Step Two: Tested a small portion of nail polish on one boot to make sure it doesn’t eat into the rubber and royally screw my only pair of waterproof work boots.

Step Three: Attempt to paint circular polka dots all over the boots with my little nail polish brush. Who said knowing the finer points of nail polish application was not a critical job skill?!

Step Four: Pray that the boots dry before I need to wear them to go work ankle deep in fish muck. Step

Five: Never mistake my boots for anyone else’s ever again!

Problem Solved

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


The observers don’t call Akutan by name, they call it Akutraz, after Alcatraz the famous island prison.

In the small village of Akutan there are not streetlights, stop signs or roads; the main mode of transportation through the area is by foot, along a cute little wooden walkway that parallels the shore. There is one church, a cemetery, a gym, a restaurant (that may open when there’s customers), a bar(that only serves beer, no food, no spirits just beer), a library, a school, and about 10 houses. That’s it. I can imagine people get sick of it, but for now I don’t see it as a prison, I see it as another small adventure to explore.

I had the privilege of delivering to the town for a couple months now, but only recently got a chance to explore it with a few other observers. We had barely left the seafood processing plant and started walking along the little wooden walkway when the friendliest chubby black lab greeted us and decided to show us around. He had a Seahawks collar but no nametag, so we decided to guess his name. He would answer to just about anything: George, Lary, Taco, Buddy – Guess my name is probably a familiar game for him. He must have been the happiest dog in the world, everyday he wanders his town, playing in the tall grass and bubbling snowmelt streams, hanging out with anyone who walks through town. No one fences their dogs, or ties them to the house. There was a veritable pack of small dogs that roamed the village as well, but none were as friendly or charismatic as our George.

We decided to grab a bite at the restaurant, but it was closed. 1pm in the afternoon isn’t a common mealtime here apparently. Across the way from the restaurant is the cemetery, and its beautiful. It has white crosses over each grave, surrounded by a white picket fence. The whole site looks over the bay and towards the white peaked mountains of the other islands. At the far end of the wooden walkway is the library. When we walked in the library was empty, a sign asked us to remove our boots. So we wandered the one room, 4 shelved, little library in our socks.

They may not have had many books in the library but they do have a wonderful collection of town history artifacts and old photos! Akutan used to be a whaling town and then it was used as a military base during WW2. They had all kinds of photos of natives, fishermen, and whalers outside their houses, or public buildings. Some of the old fishing and whaling tools are displayed under glass. There’s a giant, rusted harpoon gun on display at the entrance of the library, Alaska is nothing if not badass. Hung on the wall, like it’s no big deal, is an otter pelt. It must be over one hundred years old (fun fact: otters were the first protected endangered animal, and one of the success stories of such types of conservation programs, they’re rampant here in Akutan Bay. I hope they choose to repopulate SoCal soon.)! Its still soft, and beautiful.

On the way back we caught up with George again! He found a ball this time and would drop it on command so we could play fetch as we walked to the community gym. Again, when we arrived the gym was empty and we were politely asked via written sign to take off our boots and wander around in our socks. The gym is one basketball court with one set of weights up stairs, and a ping-pong table on the side. Just inside there is a rack of about 20 pairs of running shoes, each labeled with their size. I guess everyone shares gym shoes, and when they grow out of them they just use the next size up? We decided to go it in our own socks. There was a rack of a few basketballs, one volleyball, and one giant kickball! I haven’t had so much fun running around playing games in my socks since I was five, I swear … And I don’t even like basketball. It was so nice to stretch my legs after the long period of no workouts.

It’s a different world up here. I hardly ever see the natives. I guess its cause they have work to do in the middle of the day, and truthfully there’s just not that many of them. Everything is just left open. Cars are left with their keys in the ignition, gyms are left open, no fences for dogs. When I asked whether they worry about theft the reply was, “Where would a thief drive a car if they stole it? Onto the boat?” – Good point.

Despite what all the observers say, Akutan is nice in its own light. I couldn’t live there by any means but, its worth seeing and experiencing as something so completely different from my normal view of life.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Musings of Cabin Fever

Sometimes I feel like a little kid at the dinner table. 
"I'm full, can I be excused from Alaska now?"

"Not until you finish a little more of your contract dear." 
"But I don't want to finish my contract, it's cold and smells funny!"

Sometimes I feel like one of those dogs that dreams of chasing rabbits and fetching sticks. You know, the ones that dream so vividly they move their legs while napping on their rug? 
Except I dream of racing triathlons, I'm sure I'm spinning my legs or at least giving a few good free-strokes every night in my bunk. 

Today was exciting! We could actually see land from our fishing site! 

Fruit is dwindling and all the veggies are gone, except the iceberg lettuce.  Last night I felt extravagant having a bushel of grapes AND and apple.  Luckily the laundry cabinet of chocolate bars never seems to run low or go bad. And neither does the thin mint ice cream, with real thin mints in it! It's amazing. I'm learning a new level of self control, far too slowly for my own good though. Come to think of it, maybe I'll go do a little "workout" with my resistance bands and a heavy book used as a weight for squats! 

You know you've been in Alaska too long when you're sick of eating snow crab. 

On the plus side I saw a Laysan Albatross today. They're probably my favorite bird up here,. They're huge! And that's coming from someone who hangs out with bald eagles all day in port, which by the way are scary and totally NOT afraid of you. The Laysan albatross look like they're wearing a massive amount of eye shadow and liner.  I'll post a photo when I get some better connection. 

That's all I can think of right now. The constant sloshing on open water turns my brain to mush after a while. I'll post again when I can!