A Student’s Summer at Sea

When Isaac Doucette was a little boy, he used to stare out of his window at the end of each summer, anticipating his older brothers’ return from their annual Alaskan fishing trip. He knew that when they finally returned, they would come bearing fresh salmon and a summer’s worth of hard-earned fishing money in their pockets.

Young Doucette dreamed of when he would finally be old enough to join his brothers out on the water.

“It had a mythical connection to it, because my brothers would leave for what felt like a long time, and when they came back everyone celebrated and was so happy,” he said.

Flash forward to June and Doucette, now a sophomore at Clark, will be returning to Alaska to fish for his third summer. But this is the first time he will finally get to work alongside his brothers. They are heading out on a 60-foot-long boat called Wonderland to capture salmon along the Alaskan waters from Ketchikan to Juneau.

The five-person crew fishes for a variety of salmon, from the largest, most profitable king salmon, to the smallest pink and chum salmon that are sold primarily to dog food companies.

Rough, cracked and callused, Doucette’s hands are those of a working man. The fishermen spend up to 48 hours working in one shift, sometimes only getting four to six hours of sleep. Doucette works as a deckhand to help prepare the quarter-mile-long fishing net to drop in the water.

“Picture a mobile construction site,” Doucette said.

Enormous winches swinging through the air, rain pounding, having little room to move because of the machinery and lack of sleep all contribute to the stress of the job.

“The worst parts of fishing go hand-in-hand with alcohol,” Doucette said. The stress of the intense job often leads to out-of-control drinking, which tends to cause fights on land.

But Doucette said one thing makes it all worth it — the money.

The men get a percentage of the total catch of the season. Doucette said on an average fishing season, a man can end the summer with anywhere from $8,000 to $20,000 to his name.

The cost of fuel and food is split equally between the crew, but they sometimes chow down on their own catch to save money on groceries. On a man’s first trip out on the water, he is forced to partake in a strange custom.

“I ate the beating heart of the first fish I filleted, and that’s now my tradition if I’m killing something for the first time,” Doucette said with a laugh.

The fishermen frequently encounter wildlife, such as whales that burst out of the ocean and bears that pop out of the trees while the men hike nearby islands on their days off.

Not having mail or cellphone coverage, Doucette likes the feeling of being disconnected from the rest of the world. During a rare break, the men will read books or watch movies in sleeping quarters that consist of a pair of bunk beds across from each other in a closet-sized room.

“‘Eat Pray Love’ was my lifesaver after the marathon of John Wayne and Tom Selleck movies my captain made us watch,” Doucette said. “I also like to read shipwreck novels because it makes me feel like what I’m doing is more badass than it actually is.”

Lean-figured and standing at 6-foot-4-inches, Doucette cannot stand up in the sleeping quarters and has to constantly duck his head.

The three-day trip back home is Doucette’s favorite part of the summer because he can relax, reflect on the season and take in Alaska’s breathtaking scenery.

Doucette said he does not want to pursue commercial fishing as a career, but in the meantime it works well with his school schedule. He plans on graduating from Clark with his Associate in Arts next year.

“At the end of the summer you don’t ever want to go back or see those people again.  But after a few months, you miss the adventure.”

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