“Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride,” Naknek Style

If you have ever visited any of the Disney theme parks, you would know about “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.” (Actually, it only exists now in just the California Disneyland, and has been operational there since 1955.)  It is loosely based on Disney’s adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, namely the segment called The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. The basic gist of the ride is that you move at high speeds across the countryside, tossing about, crashing into things, and generally moving about in a chaotic way.

I must confess that I never have, at least as far as I can remember, taken advantage of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.  I have been to Disneyland twice, Disney World twice (where the ride also existed until 1998), and Tokyo Disneyland twice.  I don’t know why I never rode with Mr. Toad, but I suppose it’s because I never had a connection to the story.  After an experience one day in Naknek this summer, I may have a connection at least to the spirit of the story.

It all began with me taking advantage of the only sunny evening during my week in Naknek by heading down to Leader Creek and looking for photo opportunities.  It was low tide, and there was a row of drift boats sitting in the mud, ostensibly moored until the next high tide could bring them afloat, and the next opener would allow them to head out after sockeye salmon.  I was on the ground at the bows of these boats, taking photos, when a couple of skippers – standing above me on the bows of their boats – called down to me, joking saying that I’d need a model release for those photos.  (Of course, the correct documentation would be a property release, but I chose not to correct them in order to build rapport.)

I told them about my Bristol Bay project, and that I had just come back earlier that day from a few days out on a tender and drift boat in the Ugashik District.  They mentioned that their boats had been featured in the National Geographic article last year about Bristol Bay, and they invited me to join them for the next opener.  Since the opener was at 6:00 a.m., they would be heading out at 2:00 a.m. with the outgoing tide.  That meant, in order for me to get settled into a bunk for the night, I would need to be back at midnight.  I was originally scheduled to leave the next day, but knew I had to take advantage of the offer.  We chatted for a little bit, and then I accepted, leaving with “I’ll see you at midnight.”

When I returned, night had fallen and the nearly full moon was rising above the banks on the far side of the Naknek River.  I received full introductions around; three brothers from Seattle who each owned their own boat: Ben (the N20), Dan (the Curragh), and Nick (the No Limit).  I decide to start on Ben’s boat, a shore boat, the F/V N20.  Ben has owned the boat for four years and has been fishing since he was 17.  The name for his boat is a nod to the old system where the canneries owned the boats (as well as the permits), and christened them with a sequential alpha-numeric name, N1, N2, N3 and so on.  Ben points me out to a bunk they have set aside for me in the bow; its regular occupant, a crewman, has volunteered to sleep on the deck in the main cabin.

I climb into the bunk, much like re-entering the womb, as there are two other bunks tucked into this tiny space inside the bow forward of the main cabin.  In a short while, I fall asleep.  Within a short while, though, I am awakened by the sounds of water lapping against the hull of the boat – the tide is coming in, churning around the boat, lifting it up off the mud, and making it buoyant once again.  The three boats are still tied together, floating out toward the floating dock just off the mouth of Leader Creek.  There is some yelling and chaos, engines start, lines are cast off, and we are on our way down the Naknek River toward open water.

I sleep off an on for the next few hours.  But at some point, we entered open water and choppy seas.  We are motoring straight out, heading to the tender to pick up some ice before proceeding to the location where we will wait to drop buoy for the opener.  The waves are so choppy, I am frequently airborne in my bunk, flopping up and down like a fish out of water.  I glance over at the two other bunks and see that the crewmen are sleeping unaware and unconcerned about the seas.  Slam, slam, slam I go against the bunk.

As the opener approaches, I am out on deck, looking out at the other boats readying for the opener.  It is a crowded area, just beyond the mouth of the Naknek River, with boats maneuvering all around us to ready their buoys for dropping.  The time comes, our buoy goes over, and two hundred fathoms of gill net starts flowing out behind the N20, stretching out as we motor forward.  It is not long before Ben decides it is time to pull the net and pick fish.  As they are pulling, I start to smell something burning.  Not knowing if it is normal for his boat, I keep watching and photographing the crewmen and Ben as they do their thing.  However, shortly after the net is pulled, the engine cuts out.  Ben goes down below and checks things out; we have blown the serpentine belt and we’re not going anywhere for a while.  Ben calls up Dan who happens to be nearby and asks him to swing by and pick me up.

In a short while, the Curragh is in sight and pulling up alongside us.  I packed light for the day – a Lowe Pro Orion AW camera bag and a sleeping bag – so it is easy to toss things over to the Curragh and hop over.  After introductions, we head back out to drop a buoy and continue fishing.  As we drift nets, Dan is constantly maneuvering the keep the net where he wants it – and meanwhile, dozens of other nearby boats are doing the same.  On several occasions, the other boats cut over our outstretched net.  Between the tossing seas and the darting boats, the scene is dizzying.

After a long day of fishing, where we pulled in about 4,000 pounds of sockeye, we start heading into the Naknek River.  Once up the river a little ways, Dan realizes that the tide is going out to quickly to make it to the city dock.  He is going to try to get me to one of the processor docks, but soon, he realizes we won’t make it that far, either.  At one point, we almost got stuck in the mud near the Trident processing facility.  Once free-floating again, Dan approaches a flat boat – a shrimp tender – that is unloading its sockeye catch for the day.  Can they take me on so I can get to the shore? Dan asks.  Sure, comes the response from the tender.  And a minute later, I am standing on the deck of this flat boat, waiting for my chance to hop to shore.  Fortunately, I am wearing my Extra Tuffs – the footwear of choice in the fishing world, if not most of coastal Alaska in the summertime.

Once on shore, I recognize where I am: a couple hundred yards away from a spot on the beach where people I spent time with on a set net a few days before have a small shack.  I look in that direction and see a truck at the shack: they are unloading their own catch of the day and delivering it to the Ocean Beauty truck.  I walk up the beach a ways, and make contact with my new friends, who are more than willing to give me a ride back into town to where I am staying.

Three different boats and a truck in one day.  I got a sense that this was not an unusual experience for life in Naknek, Alaska during the sockeye season.

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