I grew up your typical rural northeast Arkansan middle class boy. I was blessed by a stable home with 2 parents who love me very much and an older sister who is better than me in every way. I was raised in the outdoors and learn to love and respect it more the older I become. I attended a private Christian academy from preschool until graduation that, along with my family, instilled a strong conservative sense of Christian faith and religion. After I graduated from my tiny high school, I walked down the road about 2 miles to a tiny Christian college. After my freshman year I decided to be a real adventurous man and move out of my parents house to attend Harding University; yet another Christian learning institution filled with people I already knew. This time I was a whopping hour and a half away from my Mother and all of my close friends. I was really pushing my limits here.
I began change rapidly once I got to Harding. Though I was surrounded by people who shared the same conservative religious views, I seemed to be an outcast of sorts. The only time I seemed to feel "in place" was when I'd drive to my deer cabin for a weekend hunt or go home to duck hunt with my friends. Now don't get me wrong. I made a few friends and socialized some, but I just didn't seem to fit the mold like I saw so many others doing. My first year was spent trying my hardest to do so. I pledged a club, lived in the fun and social dorm, and started dating a popular girl. I really thought I was starting to figure it out when I went home for the summer after my sophomore year. That summer was spent visiting my girlfriend and striving to gain the respect of her family, making money, and trying my hardest to diet and exercise my way into becoming a more attractive, thus more popular piece of arm candy for my new lady. Once again, I really thought I had it figured out at this point.
I was on top of the world when I returned to school for my junior year. I was looking good, I had my pretty girlfriend, and I was coming to reap the rewards of my labor intensive attempts to put my life in order. It was all going just as I had hoped until the pretty girlfriend suddenly decided I wasn't "the one." Underneath my seemingly overly manly man exterior, I'm actually a sensitive little girl at my core. I had completely fallen head over heels for her at this point and I was absolutely crushed. I thought my life was over. Everything that I was planning was thrown out the window. I went into my dark depressive hole and didn't cut any of my hairs for many a month to come. I let everything I had worked so hard to set in place, crumble because I was figuratively in a glass case of emotion. It was during this self pity period filled with closet sobs and "tough guy face don't look at me" days that I was starting to really feel outcasted.
My sister got married in January of that year to Slader Marshall. A very unexpected, but happily accepted and loved addition to the family. He is from Juneau, Alaska and is the owner of Slader's Alaskan Dumpling Co. His party of groomsmen were primarily his Alaskan buddies along with me and a couple other lowly Arkansans that made the cut. A couple of his Alaskan buddies, Tyler and Eric, were becoming independent commercial salmon fisherman that year and I was obviously intrigued. I hounded them with questions for the time that they were with me and showed a great interest in what they were doing. Due to my extreme hairiness and seemingly rugged exterior, I suppose, they both told me I'd make a good deckhand. I took it as a much appreciated small boost in confidence and thought nothing of it after the wedding festivities had ended. A couple months later whilst making myself crawl out of the depressive pit of darkness, I inevitably ended up across the road from where my now ex girlfriend worked. Lucky for me that place is Slader's Alaskan Dumpling Co. and I was going to see if I could get a family discount and drown my sorrows in some butter and siracha covered soul food. I sat alone near the register trying not to look out the front window when Slader yelled out behind me, "Hey, are you ever going to call Tyler about that deckhand job? He's been asking me about it." I immediately had a mood spike and quickly got Tyler's number from Slader and gave him a call. I had no idea that this was a real possibility for me. When I called Tyler he assured me that it was indeed an actual inquiry of summer employment. This was a chance for me to run away from my problems while getting paid to catch fish in Alaska. It was a no brainer for me. I bought a plane ticket immediately. The months leading up to it were a blur because I finally had something else to fixate my mind on. I had no idea what I was getting into for the summer, but I was beyond excited.
I came to Juneau on June 10, 2015. I had never seen a snow capped mountain before so just the plane ride in had me starry eyed. I stayed in Slader's childhood home with his parents for the first part of June and got to hike all around Juneau and take in all of this scenery that I believed only existed in the picture shows. The last part of June was spent Chum (Dog) salmon fishing in the Icy Straight. I was quickly informed that I would not be coming back to dock up in Juneau every night to sleep in a bed. We would anchor up every night and sell fish to buyers who would meet us on the fishing grounds in big ships called Tinders. After a week or so of chum fishing we came back to Juneau and I was very surprised at how long the hours were and how difficult the work was. I then realized I was in for a very strange and very labor intensive summer.
On June 28 we charged 12 hours straight to the coast in the gulf of Alaska. I can't explain what it felt or looked like for a boy from the rice farms of Arkansas to roll into Cross Sound on our little ship. Everything I had ever seen prior to this place in my life seemed so small and so tamed. I secretly cried a bit the first time I came through Idaho Inlet as we rode the tide into the Pacific Ocean. I wish I could show pictures or explain to someone the coastal waters of Southeast Alaska in a way that would give it an ounce of justice. The coastline is made up of huge jagged rocks being pounded by big sea swells at the base of seemingly black mountains covered by spruce and hemlock trees. All of this is in the foreground of lofty snow covered mountains and the biggest skies you've ever seen. Most of this is all hidden to the fisherman for the majority of the time spent fishing due to the ocean mists that often blanket the waters just offshore making a thick, wet, and erie fog. The water is rich with marine life including fish of all colors shapes and sizes, seals, sea lions, sea otters, porpoises, killer and humpback whales, and many other things that would take too long to mention. I, for one, especially enjoyed the whales. They were everywhere and would pop up unexpectedly, often right next to the boat. Talk about something that will make you feel small and weak.
For the rest of the summer we fished for King (Chinook) and Coho (Silver) salmon, depending on the season. Days were long, often starting before 4 am and ending after 9 pm. The fish were rather scarce that summer, but I couldn't tell. I thought catching over 100 fish in a day was quite a lot. It rained more often than not, it seemed. There were many days spent being thrashed by big waves and burned by strong winds. There is no better place to find oneself than in the midst of physical exhaustion and danger away from anything or anybody that is familiar. I finished that summer with a new heart and a very long mustache. I can't begin to explain how soul cleansing it was to do nothing but think and work hard all day every day in a setting like that.
I returned to Harding that fall with a newfound confidence. I knew that I didn't fit in and I was dang proud of it. I found that this group of people who dedicate their lives to trolling for salmon are a band of misfits. The other fishermen you meet are clearly outsiders in whatever walk of life they have come from. They would rather spend their lives at sea than at a comfortable job surrounded by lots of friends and family to derive their confidence and comfort from. A group of people that have decided to be together alone. I loved that.
When I started school again my mind worked in different ways and I viewed people differently. I looked at God and my own faith very differently. When you skip church for 2 months straight, you'll begin to appreciate fellowship more and learn to think for yourself for a change. I found that personal appearance and extreme hygienic practices seemed arbitrary. I found girls to be even more frightening and mysterious than before. I found that I'm extremely emotional now and I don't know why, but I've since learned to accept it. I truly had a complete change of heart and a new sense of peace. Well, that peace was quickly tested by my senior year of collegiate academic work. I spent that first semester wrestling with the fact that I'll be headed straight to more school then work in an office or hospital after I graduated. I could wrap my head around it, but not my heart. After much contemplation and one too many research papers I made my choice to not apply for grad school. At this point I had no plan. I really can't say it even bothered me. I knew God would take care of me because he always has and I would find happiness wherever I was because it truly is just a state of mind. That being said, I still needed to figure out something to do when I graduated. I thought and thought about it until I came to a solution.
I would just run away from all my worries for a while and figure it out the best way I know how. I bought another plane ticket to Alaska, only this time it was a one-way ticket. I decided I'd go back and fish for the entire summer and give myself all the time that I needed to think. I'd get a sense direction for the next step in life after education and focus on what my heart wants and what my Lord wants. I wouldn't have to worry about the distractions that cloud my mind when I'm surrounded by normalcy. So I graduated from college, got my degree that means literally nothing to my future, and thanked all my teachers for dealing with my ADD. I got to spend some quality time with my mom and dad, friends back home and some from school for the first part of the summer. Just about the time it started getting too hot for comfort, I ran away to the great white north again.
I got here just in time for the King salmon season opener on July 1. I got to go back to the place that I love and get to thinking. Within the first week I had already come to a conclusion on what my next step in life will be all thanks to the clarity of thought facilitated by the open ocean. The rest of my summer was basically carefree besides the occasional storm, which are actually pretty cool to fish through, just a little frightening and tiring in the moment. I would often let my mind wander into thinking of nothing at all except pulling gear and cleaning fish. That, in itself, is a wonderful thing. This summer was great for recharging the soul after a stressful school year and a great pre-transitionary stage for the adult life.
This summer I was also blessed with a heck of a lot more fish to catch and clean than last year. The first day of Coho fishing we caught and cleaned over 300. Those next couple weeks we consistently caught 200 or more each day. That is rough on the arms and hands of deckhand who's out of practice. After a few weeks of decent fishing, things inevitably began to slow down as the fish moved along. Towards the end of July, I hopped on a packer barge on a whim because I was told they could take me to Juneau for free. I got on and asked the old salty captain when we might get there. He then informed me that we were headed to Sitka and that we may not go back to Juneau at all. I then got to mentally prepare myself to be homeless in Sitka until I could hitch a ride to Juneau or back to the fishing grounds. Luckily the packer made an unscheduled stop in Swanson harbor to drop some fish on a smaller packer barge who indeed were on their way back to Juneau. I then hopped on this other guy's boat, and what a character this captain was. He was an older gentleman with a long gray beard and a glorious silver mullet. He stood about 4'5" off of the ground and sounded very similar to the members of the lollipop guild on the old Wizard of Oz film. I got the privilege of sleeping on his boat in a bunk above his silent, but sweet daughter. There was no bedding on the old wooden bunk because they were not expecting guests and the bunk was Jimmy sized so the fetal position was my only option. I was exhausted from fishing so I slept in spite of it all.
I safely arrived in Juneau at the fish plant early the next morning after some morning coffee and conversation with Jimmy. The next week or so was spent hiking and eating as much as possible. I got to do some incredible ridge line hikes that struck me down with awe, fear, and pure exhaustion. I had a close call with a momma bear and some Cubs. I fell and hurt myself many times. I got to walk on some glaciers and explore the ice caves below them. I observed the salmon running up various streams to spawn. It was a wonderful few days off of the boat. The last night I was in Juneau I was able to hear Trampled by Turtles in concert and then hop on a ferry at 3 am the same night. I took that ferry to Sitka and met up with my captain and a few other fisher friends to spend a couple days exploring that neat little fisherman's town.
On August 13th there was a second King salmon season opener. The weather was extremely rough for the first few days. It was definitely the strongest winds and roughest seas that I had ever fished in and it really whipped us in our little fishing vessel. Only 2 days into the season we were put out of commission by the storms. We broke off 75% of the gear that we were running and we had to limp our way back into Sitka. This was the season ender for me so I hopped on another ferry that same night and came back to Juneau.
I will be returning to sweet Dixie land here shortly on a big jet plane. It is a bittersweet end to my Alaskan adventure. I can't wait to see all of my family and friends again, but my heart already misses the unbridled wilderness of the Alaskan coastline and the wonderfully strange compilation of friends that I made while out there. All of this really comes down to a couple central points that I've been trying to convey in a round about way with an extreme lack of writing skills. The only way that real exponential growth has happened in my life experience has been through extreme discomfort fueled by the desires of my heart. There's something beautiful about fear, whether it be of the unknown future or of drowning in the icy waters of the Gulf of Alaska. There's no substitute for hard work and learning to deal with your fears and discomforts for the sake of therapeutic revival. Another point I've attempted to surface is how important it is to expand your horizons and truly look through the lens of someone who is so far removed from your own culture and lifestyle. Real wisdom is gained through this kind of insight and will allow deeper understanding and much better perception of the hearts and minds of people you come into contact with. If you want to take a peak into some of the culture that I was able to experience on my trip, go check out Slader's Alaskan Dumpling Co. in Searcy, Arkansas or catch his food truck sometime. Grab some pelmeni or some Heritage coffee and check out the books and decor for a taste of the Juneau atmosphere. Go try some new food and go experience a different culture. Some life changing ideas have been spawned for me in that shop. Go see if you can do the same for yourself.