Saturday, April 26, 2008

Alaskan Adventure - Cod Processing

It all starts with catching the cod. There are two methods:

First are the trawlers. They drop a huge net off behind their ship and drag it around, scooping up whatever is in front of it.

The second are pot catchers – which are the ships also used for crab. They drop off a huge “pot” (a wire cage) that is baited and the cod swim in to get the bait. I was told by one of the pot cod ship’s crew that cod caught this way are a better product as they are fresher (they don’t die in a net) and the flesh is in better condition (they are being mashed by thousands of pounds of other fish in the same net). To my eye, they definitely looked to be of better quality.

For a drawing of these methods, go to this link at the Trident web site:

The catcher ships come to the Independence to drop off their catch. It is stored in the ship’s hold in sea water to keep it VERY cool. A huge hose is put over from the Indy into the holds and the fish are pumped out.

At the first station, which is up on the deck, the fish are sorted with the messed up ones and any by-catch (fish who were in the wrong place at the wrong time) being put into different bins. Records are kept of all this. And yes, they are sorting during a blizzard.

Then it’s down the conveyor belt to “the slime line”. Here they are headed and gutted…

Split down the middle…


And sent to trimming. This is where they take the side of fish and trim it into the nice fillet that you get on your plate at Red Lobster. The “skirts” are minced and these get made into fish sticks.

Then it is “candled”. That is where each fillet is laid out on a ‘light table’ so you can see thru the fish and remove any nematodes, stray bones or bruises there may be.

After all that it goes past the QC (quality control) people who chuck out any that aren’t up to standards.

Once all that is done, it is laid out on trays to be flash frozen.

The frozen fish is then packed into the boxes according to grade or cut.

And sent down to the huge freezers in the bottom of the ship.

Also harvested are the stomachs, eggs and milt. Don’t know what milt is? Go look it up. It’s used on sushi. Yum, yum!!

Everything else is ground up. There is a reason that the seagulls love us!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Alaskan Adventure - M/V Independence

By Thursday the Independence had moved away from Adak and was at the next island over… the Great Sitkin Island. This was so it would be closer to the fishing ships that were bringing cod to be processed. There is a finite time from when a cod is caught until it’s no good…so, the closer the processer the better.

The Bowfin, a freezer ship that works with the Indy, brought the corporate guys back to catch the Thursday flight and I rode back on it. The trip took about 3 hours. Not much to do, I munched fresh baked chocolate chip cookies…got caught up on the gossip magazines…and was lulled into a nap by the rocking of the ship.

The second ship with the Independence is the Eastern Wind. I never made it over there. It would come along side when the Bowfin wasn’t there.

The safest (and fastest) way to go from one ship to another is in “the basket”. This is a canvas net contraption with a solid base that is hoisted by one of the cranes to move people and things back and forth. Fun!

The M/V Independence is one of the processors in Trident’s fleet. It’s 356 feet long by 61 feet wide (or almost as long as a football field and a bit more than a third as wide). I think it’s 6 stories tall from the waterline, with some engine stuff lower.

The deck is where processing starts. It’s where pallets and totes are stored. In fact, it’s where a lot of things are stored including the skiff. It’s where seagulls and eagles perch. And it is where I spent a considerable amount of time, especially when we were in the Inner Passages where it warmed up to the 40s.

I also spent a lot of time up on the bridge/pilot house watching things happen and visiting. And listening to stories.

This is the captain’s seat.

The factory is in the lower decks of the ship and is where the fish are processed. More about that later when I write about processing.

The galley was my favorite place at 10:30am (lunch – or brunch for me) and at 4:30pm for supper. Luis always had at least 2 entrees tho it was usually 3, a fresh soup, some sort of potato, veggies, brown beans, rice and a dessert – most often a cake or a Jell-O salad. Breakfast was from 5-7am (NO THANK YOU!) and late supper was from 11pm – 1am. (This picture is a shot taken by Himself on an earlier trip).

Himself’s office was 10 steps and one stairway from my room. Medical clinic, personal quarters, email café and coffee house all rolled up in one.

My room was a gift! Vic – who is the ship manager (I think that is his title) – was kind enough to let me use his private room for my stay. Wow!

Everyone who comes aboard the ship has to participate in the lifesaving drills. First was learning how to put on the immersion suit (aka Gumby Suit).

This is what will keep you alive in the terrible cold of arctic waters.

Then you learn where your life raft is located...

...and the procedure for abandoning ship.

And finally you are taught what to do if someone falls overboard. Which is take this ring, throw it to them while screaming your lungs out “Man Overboard” and pointing to their location. You never take your eyes off them.

The hard reality of these drills hit home 11 days after I came on board, something I will write about in a later post.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Alaskan Gentleman

Before I made it aboard the Independence, it had to move to a quieter cove up at the Great Sitkin island. This raised some question of how I would get out to it. Personally I wasn’t too concerned as I knew the corporate folks were still on and they WOULD find a way to leave. I was visiting with a group of Adak folks who were full of questions as to why I was there and what did I think of their island. Eventually we got around to talking about when and how I was going out to the Indy and we discussed the options…which included the idea of chartering someone to take me out there and how much it would cost.

And old fishing captain who had opted not to do state fishing was sitting there listening to the conversation. He’d finally had all he could stand and barked, “Aw hell, I’ll take you out there and I won’t charge you anything either!!”

What a sweetheart.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Alaskan Adventure - Adak Island

To get to Adak commercially you have one choice…Alaskan Airlines on either Sunday or Thursday on a 3 hour flight aboard a modified 737. The modification is that the front half of the seating area has been converted to cargo space. Adak doesn’t get a whole lot of visitors. There were only about 20 people on my flight. It was an uneventful flight, with some comic relief from an FAA official sitting in front of me who was coming down to do a rotation at the airfield. When the flight attendant was giving the “emergency exit” speech, the FAA dude muttered, “yeah, yeah…in case of emergency jump out of your seat and get to the aisle. Run left OR right until you hit a wall. Turn left OR right and jump out of the plane. No problems.”

Himself met me the airport, which was a treat as we weren’t sure he’d be able to come in (the medical officer has to be at pretty close call). Not only did he get to meet me, he had a few hours before he had to be back! So we gathered my bags, got the key to my lodging and the key to my rental truck. Ah my rental truck. It was an OLD Navy issued F150 with so many dents and rust that there wasn’t much more I could ever do to it. Worked for me as the ice potholes sure made driving rough going. Found out a few folks from Trident corporate had come in on my plane too for some business on the ship, so I offered to drive them from the airport to the ship. Then Himself and I headed over to my place to get rid of my things.

What a pleasant surprise when we arrived at my digs. It was a townhouse left from when the Navy had a base here. I had a fully furnished 2 bedroom apartment, complete with satellite TV with 103 channels! Nice! After bringing in my stuff we hopped back in the truck and headed out to get some supper at the “Aleutian Bar and Grill” and take a quick look around. All too soon it was time for Himself to head back to the Indy.

Next day was shore leave and everyone was able to come in to enjoy a bit of time off. Himself and I checked out the General Store (or I should say I checked out the store as he has been in it many times) and had lunch at the “The Cold Rock Café”. Then we took off in Ol’ Rattletrap to explore what we could of the island. Thaw was just starting so I didn’t get to range far afield as I had hoped…the outer roads were still snow covered to the point that you could not see where they were. But there was a beautiful black sand beach that we spent a long and lovely afternoon exploring.

Tide was out and we beach combed for shells (leaving those who still had someone living in them), interesting rocks and the rare piece of driftwood (there are hardly any trees in the Aleutians so driftwood is not common). We were the only ones on the beach unless you count the seagulls and eagles (both Golden and Bald). Too soon the day ended and I took Himself back to the ship which was headed back out to the bay.

Due to the ship business being done by the corporate folks, I ended up spending 2 extra full days on Adak. And it worked out wonderfully. Day two was one of the rare ‘perfect’ days on Adak. Blue sky, no wind…calm and peaceful. I was out as soon as it was light – that being around 9am and didn’t come back until around 7 pm. If there were something to see…I saw it. Back to the black sand beach, over to the seawall at the harbor to watch eagles and a Stellar sea lion, down to the small boat dock, up on the ridge. Rattletrap and I were everywhere. I shot a lot of photos that day.

The next day showed the other face of Adak. It’s is called “The birthplace of the winds” and she showed her moodiness with a snowstorm and howling 45 MPH winds. A good time to nestle in and enjoy a bit of that satellite TV while watching the swirling snows outside my picture window. The blow died down (winds went down to around 25 MPH) about the same time as my “Top Chef” marathon was finished, so I headed out to see this side of Adak life. BRRRR!! Dropped in to tell Elaine ‘hello’ and headed over to the grill to get a carry-out of their egg rolls for supper.

Adak town itself is an extremely small, close-knit community, from what I could see. There is a fish processing factory, the ship docks, a community medical clinic, a small public school, the airfield, public works buildings, the “General Store” for most household needs and also the “Bake and Tackle” that has a nice little bakery in it, the “Cold Rock Café” for breakfast and lunch and the “Aluetian Bar and Grill” for supper and a drink. The post office is open on Sunday cause that’s when the mail comes in and then closed on Monday. Since everything comes in by cargo ship or on the airplane, prices are a wee bit outrageious. Let’s see… I paid $7 for a package of BallPark hot dogs, $6.89 for a half gallon of milk and $3 for a loaf of bread.

Golden eagle...I think!

A cold afternoon.

Fishing boat coming into Adak harbor.


The Adak gas station.
Better not run out of gas!
Beach treasure.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Alaskan Adventure - Palmer & Talkeetna

On my third and final day I went north along the beautiful Glen Highway to the “Mat-Su Valley” to see whatever I could. I did have an time that I needed to be at a musk ox farm, but otherwise the day was mine.

I was early for my appointment so I stopped at an overlook to take in the view for a while. At the same time there was someone else also enjoying the peaceful scene. We both were carrying cameras. That is how I met Calvin Hall I had a very pleasant visit with him, talking about the area, ravens, and photography.
My visit to the musk ox farm was an appointment because they weren’t yet open for the regular tourist season when they have trained docents to lead the tours. I had the pleasure of being shown around by one of the herdswomen who actually cares for the animals. The tour starts in a small museum with very nice displays. Then you head out to the pastures to visit with the animals themselves in their segregated by age pens. Musk ox aren’t in the cattle family at all, but are more closely related to the goat. Their native name is Oomingmak which means “bearded one”. The farm has a joint venture with the Native owned Oomingmak Musk Ox producers cooperative . The farm harvest the soft undercoat (more on how later) called QIVIUT (ki-vee-ute) and sells it to the co-op. They then turn the wool to yarn and knit beautiful and expensive shawls, hats and so on (a stocking cap costs $170!). But oh man…that wool is softer than cashmere. The qiviut is gathered by putting the musk ox into squeeze chutes and combing them out. You get about 5 pounds of qiviut per musk ox and 2 oz bulky skein of yarns sells for $80. Yep…you’re figuring that right. Each musk ox produces about $3200 worth of qiviut.
As suggested by Mr. Hall, I headed up the other side to see if I could get a glimpse of Mt McKinley before the cloud cover came in. The native people call it Denali (hence the name of the park it is located in), which means “the great one” or “the high one” depending on which source you read. There are works in progress to change the name back to Denali. That is the one I like best. But anyway…I did see Denali as I drove towards Talkeetna but by the time I got to a place where I could pull over the clouds had covered its face. But at least I saw it!

Now this was my last full day in the Alaska mainland and I STILL hadn’t seen a moose. Moose warning signs, moose *leavings* in the backyard, moose pictures…but no moose. Maybe they were all hiding out with Bigfoot. Then at long last I spotted a moose on the other side of the highway moose fence at Ft Richardson. I made a 10 mile detour to get back around so I could get this picture of him!
The next morning I packed up my things and headed towards my next adventure on Adak Island.

Year old musk ox calves.

Musk ox bull.

Beware of moose!