Few who know him would argue with the suggestion that Christoper Nicolson is of the more adventurous members of Brooklyn’s illustrious food world. Greenpoint resident and winemaker at the Red Hook Winery by day, Christopher returns to the waters of Bristol Bay, Alaska each summer to join his family in their generations-long tradition of fishing for wild sockeye salmon.
Christopher and his cousin launched the Iliamna Fish Company several years ago to bring the finest of their catch directly to fish nerds in Brooklyn via an end-of-season, once-a-year CSA pickup at The Brooklyn Kitchen. As his CSA members eagerly clear out room in their freezers in anticipation of this year’s big pickup (this weekend), Christopher brings us an essay on what he did on his summer vacation (and it does include danger on the high seas):
2011 Summary: As usual, the departure from Brooklyn was hectic, hot, and hilarious. We arrived in Naknek, Alaska, home of the Eagle-Sized Mosquito and Tiny (but Painfully Hungry) White Sock Armada, on June 18 after traveling for 22 hours.
Day 1: Get the skiff in the water, sort & haul nets out of dusty net lockers, mount a new outboard motor on the skiff (see note below), coil and splice lines, drink 1 gallon of yerba mate and 2 gallons of black tea.
Day 2: Load skiffs with groceries, water, fuel, nets, cassette tapes, and 85 pairs of warm socks. Leave for “fish camp,” a 2-hour journey by skiff on the morning high tide. Toss my hands in the air, since my new outboard konks out before I’ve even gotten two miles from the dock. Bring motor back to shore. Attempt an evening departure on the evening high tide: new motor konks out again. Use a crane to pull the boat out of the water, pull off the new motor, and put on a crummy, 15-year old motor. Finally depart the next morning and arrive at fish camp at noon.
Day 3: Set up camp in the morning and then, later in the evening (on the low tide), set up fishing sites in thigh-high mud. Rejoice that last year’s 6-foot deep augers have withstood May’s ice breakup.
Day 4: First day of the season, a ritual of practice fishing, meant to work out kinks and shake off the cobwebs of the winter. Usually, at least two nets are ruined on this day. Today, no nets are ruined, but we discover that the augers are on a bad “line” from the shore. Swearing ensues, followed by a Navy Seal operation to redrill the augers in knee-high mud. The expedition is completed and we contentedly trudge (through waist-high mud) back to shore.
Day 5: The season starts in earnest. Fishing is slow. Bugs are hungry. Leon Russell and Leadbelly accompany us.
Day 6: A few fish. Two Thermos-fulls of green tea are knocked back.
Day 7: No fish. Glum faces.
Day 8: A bunch of fish! Lots of Stooges, then Metallica, then Saint-Saens (the necessary chill out).
Day 9: A wall of fish, an alternate scene from Apocalypse Now (Redux). There are so many fish, in fact, that we have to hail our neighbor to borrow his extra boat. Both neighbors hop in our boat to help us drag the fish in. We are exhausted and happy, and we have no idea that later this same evening, we’re going to sink our boat in a storm. Cue ominous music.
Night of Day 9: Colossal waves batter our boat. We tie up to a large vessel to off-load our boat full of fish. The bow line snaps, a huge wave spills over the stern, we hop into the dark cold water. A line is tossed to us and we’re hauled in. We watch our boat drift back in the waves, sink and then capsize. Holy smokes.
Morning of Day 10: Amazing Providence. Our boat mysteriously drifts down to the only accessible beach (since we’re in the bush) in a 10 mile radius. Although we’ve lost all our fish and the crummy old (aforementioned) outboard is smashed to kingdom-come, EVERYTHING else somehow amazingly stays in our boat–even our nets that were tied to NOTHING. We pray prayers of thanks and begin re-equipping the boat. My cousin provides a spare motor, my brother supplies 10 hours of his time, all of my cousins and a few neighbors push the boat down from the high tide line, and we’re off and fishing again by the evening tide!
Day 10 to Day 36. We catch fish steadily (giving thanks to the biologists who tightly and proudly manage the world’s largest and currently healthiest wild sockeye salmon fishery). In contrast to last season, however, the fish begin slowly tapering off (swimming in deeper water, we conjecture), after the first week of July. Overall, we’ve had an above average season and we’re VERY happy, especially that we didn’t die when the boat sank:)
Day 37: By the end of the season, we’ve sworn off canned food completely and subsist solely on Dr. Gary Null’s green powder and raw sockeye.
Day 38: Camp is closed down to the strains of TV On The Radio and New Order (we’re homesick for Brooklyn). We wonder if a bit of espresso would be naughty? We stick to green tea instead.
Day 39: Our little family armada of skiffs makes a beeline for “town.” Boats are pulled out of the water, nets and gear are furiously hung, motors are feverishly winterized, and end-of-season wish lists are composed. The mechanic tells me that my new motor (which I was looking for all season long) is finally repaired but that it is a lemon. I’m considering sails for the 2012 season.
Day 40: Homeward bound, sadly, joyously, exhaustedly, and gratefully.
For more on Iliamna Fish Company and a detailed look at inner workings of a fishing season on Bristol Bay, check out our conversation with Christopher earlier this year.