The Three Sisters: Nothing But (Seine) Net

The skipper and I arrived back in Valdez by midday, with the seine net in tow. Now came the (in)delicate operation of transferring the seine net from the trailer to the dock, and then from the dock to the vessel. All of this was made easier by the fact that the Three Sisters deployed a boom suspended Puretic power block. Well, somewhat easier.

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The power block was invented by a Croatian fisherman, Mario Puratić, and patented in 1953. The power block is a large powered aluminium pulley with a hard rubber-coated sheave. Source: Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

Trouble was, one first had to move the vessel to a dock capable of making the transfer from land to the boat. And that meant multiple steps had to be executed in order:

  • Move the truck and trailer onto the loading dock. Maneuver executed by: The Skipper.
  • Untie the Three Sisters and move her from her current berth to a perch alongside the loading dock. Maneuver executed by: The Skipper.
  • Attach the seine net to the power block. Maneuver executed by: Skipper and crew.
  • Using the power block, slowly – carefully – move the seine net onto the Three Sisters, being mindful along the way to make sure it wasn’t tangled or damaged. Maneuver executed by: Skipper on the power block, crew on the net (see illustration below)

This procedure took the rest of the day.

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Stacking net on a purse seiner

My girlfriend — the skipper’s sister-in-law — was starting to show her frustration at the seemingly endless delays. She wanted nothing more than to go fishing, but she also had her standards. In a tense exchange, she asked the skipper about survival suits. “I’m not going fishing unless we have survival suits,” she declared.

When the Skipper seemed to demure, telling her we were only going to fish “inside waters” (1), she pulled me aside and started to walk toward town. “We’re leaving,” she said.

“Where?”

“Back to Cordova.”

“You can go if you want. I came here to go fishing.”

We kept walking. Soon we were at the Alaska State Ferry dock. I gave her a hug and headed back. She didn’t follow. Back at the boat, the crew asked: “Where’s K?”

“She’s at the ferry dock. Said she’s headed back to Cordova.”

“And you?”

“I’m going fishing.”

“That’s good,” the Skipper declared. “We’re headed out at the next opening. Which is tomorrow.”


(1) By “inside waters,” the skipper was referring to the protected waters that cover much of Southeast Alaska. These waters, because they are surrounded by islands, are generally protected from fierce Pacific storms. That doesn’t mean a fisherman is entirely safe without a survival suit. These waters are still very cold and, once tossed from the vessel, a fisherman has only a small window before hypothermia kicks in.


Craig

Order “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime from Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

Leland E. Hale: “Live” on KTVA Anchorage

LIVE! with Liz Raines and John Thompson on KTVA Anchorage to promote “What Happened in Craig: Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.” Man, those people sure are chipper for 0-Dark-30!

VIDEO to follow!

KTVA
On the set with Liz Raines & John Thompson

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Mugging with co-host John Thompson in the Green Room.

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With co-host Liz Raines in the KTVA studio.


Craig

Order “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime from Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

Talkeetna: In The Shadow of Denali

The westward turn along the Glenn Highway skirts the Chugach Mountains and then heads into the fertile MatSu valley. I’d spent many days in these parts, following Robert Hansen’s tracks into the bush, where murder was just another day in the life. But as we hit the Parks Highway in Wasilla, that memory started to fade. We were now going up country, back into the wilderness that Talkeetna landmarks, where Denali reigns as a benevolent dictator.

I would like to say that we lingered on Talkeetna’s lone main street, with its funky bars and roadhouses. That we took in its back country grit. That we caught glimpses of Denali and decided a back country hike was in order. But we didn’t. We headed straight for Maggie’s house, just off the town’s center; this started as a business trip and it would end that way (1).

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Nagley’s Store, downtown Talkeetna

I was not disappointed. Maggie herself was no-nonsense Alaska in the best sense of the word. She was outgoing but unassuming and cut-to-the-chase as she offered us beer, food and good company. Over the course of the evening several of her friends dropped by, providing lively chat and an abiding sense of community.

For some reason, though, I curled up like a puppy and fell asleep, the friendly voices rocking me in my private cradle.

At least I was ready to hit the road bright and shiny the next morning. The skipper backed his truck up to Maggie’s trailer and, with considerable assistance from her boyfriend, fussed with the nets until we were convinced they wouldn’t slide off during the 332 mile return journey.

“We’re going fishing,” I thought, as Talkeetna faded in the rear view mirror. “Nothing can stop us now.”

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Chulitna and Talkeetna Rivers converge at the Susitna River in Talkeetna, Alaska (Leland E. Hale)


Chulitna River, Talkeetna, Alaska – Denali covered by clouds (video by Leland E. Hale)


(1) I didn’t return to Talkeetna until 2017, in the company of Lorrie Miller and her daughter, Carolynn. We did some of the things I missed the first time around, including a thrilling jet boat ride on the Chulitna River. This time I was a tourist.


Craig

Order “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime from Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

How Three Sisters Got Her Name & More

Because I was dating his sister-in-law, because the Three Sisters took her name from, well, the three sisters in his wife’s family, my skipper had more than a passing interest in the web of relationships that were intersecting that summer in 1994. And so it was that, on the 300 mile drive from Valdez to Talkeetna, he wanted to gossip inquire about those intersections. And more.

Dangerous territory, this.

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From Valdez to Talkeetna, via the Richardson & Glennallen Highways (Apple Maps; illustration Leland E. Hale)

Guys often assume that we’re in this together — meaning men are in this together against women. So any information we can share becomes strategic. It becomes a “help me win” moment.

Yuck. This was not a place I wanted to go. I decided that less was more.

Since I’d known his sister-in-law since she was in her teens, I felt comfortable enough filling him in on the broad outlines of her family history. That she and her siblings — two sisters and a brother — were the children of divorce. That they had little contact with their father. That their mother was a force of nature. That growing up their mother once rented two adjoining apartments — one for herself and one for the kids. That the sisters were head strong and independent, having fallen not far from the tree.

The skipper nodded as I talked, revealing a look of recognition and, perhaps, resignation. For my part, I was entranced by the scenes unfolding outside the truck’s window. Although I had spent many days in Alaska while researching “Butcher, Baker,” this was new turf, with spectacular vistas. Talk about the sisters would have to ride in the backseat.

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Trans-Alaska Pipeline, along the Richardson Highway

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Thompson Pass & Worthington Glacier, along the Richardson Highway. Thompson Pass is one of the snowiest passes in Alaska. It routinely sets snowfall records.

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Short Trees, on the approach to the Glennallen turnoff. The boreal region of Alaska has a harsh climate, as these trees show. Yes, there will be trailers.

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Town of Glennallen, at the junction of the Glennallen & Richardson Highways. From nothing but wilderness to this bump in the road. Typical Alaska. If we failed to make the westward turn at Glennallen, we’d end up in Fairbanks.


Craig

Order “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime from Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

Gone Fishing: Get That Net

We had the boat. We had the crew. We had groceries. We were shipshape. Even the engine was starting to purr, although the skipper wanted a few more tweaks: you don’t get second chances when you’re out on the fishing grounds. What we didn’t have was a net. As in, you gotta be kidding, we don’t have a net?

The typical salmon seine net for Inside waters — meaning protected waters like those in the “Inside Passage” — is 220 fathoms long (which translates to a quarter-mile). There’s a cork line to make it float on top of the water and a lead line to sink the bottom of the net. There are also pursing lines, lifters and a tow end that connects to the power skiff. If you build one at today’s prices, expect to pay at least $30,000 per net.

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Salmon Nets for sale (in storage)

But fishing is a funny business. People work their way up, with better boats and bigger catches and then, for a multitude of reasons, they sour on the industry. When that happens, they have lots of fixed assets that they need to unload. The most valuable of those assets is their Alaska fishing permit; they are limited in number and, depending on the area and fishery, can be worth upwards of $100,000 (two SE seine permits recently listed for $250K each).

Our skipper knew just the right somebody. Maggie was one of the few female skippers in an industry then dominated by men (still is, by the way). She’d sold her Southeast seine permit and rebooted, starting a river rafting and adventuring business in Talkeetna, at the gateway to Denali National Park and Reserve. She still had her boat and her gear. Including her nets.

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Purse Seiner with skiff and net

“How about you come up to Talkeetna with me and help me get that net,” the skipper said.

I didn’t need to be asked twice.


Craig

Order “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime from Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

Groceries, Ground Moose and other Delicacies

We reached our home port a little short on groceries. No sense carrying stuff till we needed it. There was one exception: we’d grabbed a load of ground Moose meat in Cordova, courtesy of friends and relatives. With a taste reminiscent of ground beef — lean ground beef — it was going to fill a lot of slots. Moose tacos. Moose enchiladas. Moose sloppy joes.

The rest of the shopping would be done in Valdez.

Three of us were tasked with shopping: me, the skipper and our skiffman, who’d take over cook’s duties when I left. We clambered into the skipper’s truck and drove to a local discount store, then grabbed a flat platform truck and started loading it down with groceries. Loads and loads of groceries.

groceries

Toilet paper and paper towels. Dish cleaning supplies — detergent and scrubbers. Shampoo for our tiny shower. And then we started on the staples: ketchup, mustard, mayo and bbq sauce (a later version of me would likely make the bbq sauce from scratch, but on a boat, there’s something to be said for packaged foods). And then the actual food. Canned tuna (yup, we’d be eating fish). Canned tomatoes. Canned corn. Folger’s coffee. Sugar. Parmesan cheese in a gigantic Kraft tube. Multiple packages of corn tortillas. Bread. White bread. Peanut butter. Jelly. We pretty much stuck to the basics.

Except for a few fresh veggies. Eggs. And a fryer chicken.

We got back to the Three Sisters and started to unload, using those special, wheeled carts found on boat docks everywhere. We spent a goodly amount of time finding the best nooks and crannies for everything. And then, like the typical laborers we were, we took a break.

It wasn’t long before the skipper found me. “What’s for dinner? How come you aren’t cooking?”

“What do you want? I can cook anything.”

“Let’s grill that chicken.”
groceries
“Grill?”

The skipper pulled out a portable propane grill and we took it to the upper deck and lit her up. For some reason, it didn’t quite feel safe. Something about the open flame. But there it was. BBQ chicken. I had learned the first lesson of cooking on a fishing boat: Always be ready to improvise. Oh and make sure it’s fully cooked, despite the growing darkness. You don’t want to kill people on your first night out.


Craig

Order “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime from Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

Valdez: Leland E. Hale Sees Tanks

The skipper neglected to point out Bligh Reef as we made the turn into Valdez Arm. Not that I would have taken the time to view it — I was fighting with the diesel galley stove. It was a little tricky to start — seemingly requiring an endless supply of matches — but it was the feed that really worried me. It was, to say the least, sputtering and inconsistent.

The range’s burners would start, flame for a while, and then inexplicably go out. The oven was a little better, in that it didn’t flame out quite as quickly. I just hoped somebody could fix this before we left Valdez for the fishing grounds. The farm kid was trying, but admitted he was better at fixing tractors.

Before long, though, we were both taken in by the vistas. As we sailed past Bligh Reef and motored into Valdez Narrows, we encountered a slender fjord bordered by snow-capped mountains that dipped straight to the sea. The waters were deep and dark, running to 700 fathoms in the center channel. With the town dead ahead and the Valdez Marine Terminal to our starboard, the sights were heavy on visual contradiction: heavy industry piously planted in the bush; a seemingly endless line of petroleum pods stretching before us; the tankers lined up like giant caterpillars ready to take on their precious nectar; the Chugach mountains overlording them in their magnificence.

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Valdez Marine Terminus, end point of 800-mile Trans-Alaska pipeline (courtesy Barb & Bill Connor)

It was reasonable to wonder how well we’d do, fishing these waters that had been fouled by thousands of gallons of heavy Alaska crude. The spill, after all, was only five years distant. And even a cursory review reminded me that, in the early days of the disaster, 50-mile-per-hour winds drove that oil onto the nearby beaches. While fishermen were devastated, a new side-industry sprouted, with boats being pressed into cleanup duty — and many more on the shore, dealing with a black goo that coated everything.

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Exxon Valdez shore cleanup crews

That was the next surprise: five years on little evidence of the spill remained, at least on shore. And the skipper assured us that the fishery had rebounded, aided in no small part by the Valdez fish hatchery (1).

Make no mistake: the folks who fished here were still struggling to recover from the losses they suffered when the fishery was closed. As part of that, many fishermen — my skipper included — were still awaiting a financial settlement from Exxon. That, as they say, was still in the courts.


(1) The Valdez hatchery was founded in 1982 and has a permitted green egg capacity to incubate 250 million pink salmon and 2 million coho salmon each year. With this capacity, it achieves annual releases of approximately 230 million pink salmon fry, and 1.8 million coho salmon smolt. Current average adult returns to the hatchery are approximately 13 million adult pink, and 160,000 coho salmon. After harvesting a small percentage of the return for cost recovery and brood stock, the remainder is harvested primarily by commercial purse seine fishermen.


Craig

Order “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime from Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

Leland E. Hale Enters Prince William Sound

I didn’t expect that we’d be headed to Prince William Sound.

Then again, the Three Sisters was not run like a democracy. No vessel is. The skipper held all the high cards and that was fine with me, as long as he still agreed to go down with the ship. I say this jokingly, as a way of revealing that when we left Cordova for the fishing grounds, I naively thought we would be fishing in the near vicinity. After all, the Copper River fishery in Cordova’s backyard is home to some of the finest Pacific salmon in the world.

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Gillnetter w/ salmon, Copper River

That sense was reinforced by the fact that we were having some engine problems. While one of our crewmen grew up on a farm and spent more than a few days in the engine room, getting her tuned, there always seemed to be one more thing. But the kid was resourceful and never more cheerful than when he had a handful of grease, so we headed out just before the first opening.

What I didn’t know was that getting a permit to fish the Copper River was damn near impossible, so that meant our home port was going to be 66 nautical miles north of Cordova. We were in fact sailing to Valdez, at the head of a fjord on the eastern side of Prince William Sound. Yeah, that Valdez. Terminus of the Alaska Pipeline. Home port of the infamous Exxon Valdez, whose tragic encounter with Bligh Reef left decades of upheaval in its wake.

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Exxon-Valdez, Valdez, Alaska (1989)

As we headed into Prince William Sound, I familiarized myself with the vessel, particularly the galley. This was going to be my workplace. The Three Sisters was a classic, wooden purse seiner. She had a cooler, but not a refrigerator. Duly noted. Her cook stove ran diesel, just like the engine. Duly noted. There were top burners and an oven. Could be handy. A small counter top. Check. Decent knives. Important. A sink with water from the holding tank. Got it. Though far from a luxury liner, she had everything I’d need.

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Cordova to Valdez (courtesy Marine Traffic; illustration, Leland E. Hale)


Craig

Order “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime from Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

Leland E. Hale Poses as a Commercial Fisherman

Research, research, research. That’s my mantra. And if you want to write about what it’s like to be a commerical fisherman… you have to become a commercial fisherman, if only for a little while. I readily admit that I didn’t get to this realization in a straight line. There was, in fact, a hole in my process.

I couldn’t avoid admitting that when, in 1994, a friend gently admonished me. “How can you write about murder on a seine boat,” she wondered, “if you’ve never worked on a purse seiner?”

Fair enough, I said. “But I don’t happen to have a purse seiner handy.”

“I do,” she said. “My brother-in-law has a purse seiner in Alaska and he’s going fishing in two weeks.”

“Can you arrange it?”

“He asked me if I wanted to work this season,” she said. “You’ll have to work, too. What can you do?”

“I can cook?”


In a whirlwind of arrangements — buying airline tickets for the flight north; finding the right clothes, including a hat for the fishing grounds, so I wouldn’t get slimed by jelly-fish; grabbing a duffle bag to carry my purposefully sparse belongings; and cooking a crew menu for an audience of one (my friend) — I was off to Cordova, Alaska. As a cook on a purse seiner. It was only a two-week commitment. Little did I know how much would be crammed into those 300 plus hours.

After a short, mandatory stop in Yakutat — where we spotted eagles in the trees just off the runway — we landed at Merle K. “Mudhole” Smith airport in Cordova. If you don’t have a truck, the airport is about as far as you can drive in Cordova. The paved road ends at the runway, 11 miles out of town.

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Cordova, Alaska (summer)

As a sign of my dumb-shit status, I assumed we’d go fishing right away. That wasn’t the case. First, there was prep work to be done. We rendezvoused with skipper Earling Carlson and the F/V Three Sisters at the Cordova docks. Our trusty vessel needed some spring cleaning before we went anywhere near the fishing grounds.

After scrubbing her stem-to-stern, at high tide we motored over to what Earling called “the grid,” which I learned was a clever substitute for a dry dock. After tying up the Three Sisters, we waited for low tide, when she’d be high-and-dry. It was then that we scrambled like ants; we needed to scrape and paint her hull before the next tide came in.

My friend grumbled that this should have been done the previous season, when Three Sisters was put in for the winter. I didn’t care. I was there to learn. Earling Carlson was going to make sure I did. I wasn’t ever going to be a professional fisherman, but I sure as hell would discover what it took to be one.

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Longliner on a grid in B.C.


Craig

Order “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime from Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

Thank You, Tricia Brown: Barnes & Noble @ Alaska Book Week

Many thanks to Tricia Brown at Barnes & Noble Anchorage for organizing a GREAT series of readings/signings at their Anchorage store during Alaska Book Week. Here’s a shameless plug for the great work of Tricia Brown in organizing a very impressive program at Barnes & Noble, Anchorage.


Sunday, October 7: A series of authors — including Melissa Leann Carson, Ann Dixon and Tricia Brown — sign their children’s books. This is where it all starts, ladies and gents.

Monday, October 8: More children’s authors (and illustrators) — Barbara Jacko Atwater and Ethan Jacko Atwater; Phyllis Adams; and illustrator John Van Zyle.

Tuesday, October 9: Kim Rich signs her memoirs, Johnny’s Girl and A Normal Life. Stan Jones signs his books from the Nathan Active mystery series, Frozen Sun, Tundra Kill, Village of the Ghost Bears, Shaman Pass, and White Sky, Black Ice. Cinthia Ritchie signs her comic novel Dolls Behaving Badly.

Wednesday, October 10: Jamey Bradbury signs The Wild Inside. Don Rearden signs his books Never Quit and The Raven’s Gift. Leland Hale signs his books What Happened in Craig: Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder and Butcher, Baker: the True Account of an Alaska Serial Killer.

tricia brown

Thursday, October 11: Adrienne Lindholm signs her new memoir, It Happened Like This: A Life in Alaska. Jackie Ivie signs her fantasy, Laird of Ballanclaire. Jan Harper Haines signs her family memoir, Cold River Spirits.

Friday, October 12: Jean Aspen signs her family memoirs, Trusting the River, Arctic Daughter and Arctic Son. David Ramseur signs his political history, Melting the Ice Curtain.

Saturday, October 13: Lucas Elliot, illustrator for Moose, a graphic novel, signs books. Dan Walker signs his coming-of-age novel, Secondhand Summer. C.M. McCoy signs her paranormal YA novel, Eerie. Debby Dahl Edwardson signs her picture books, My Name is Not Easy and Whale Snow.

I can’t wait. This is going to be fun!


Craig

Order “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime from Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.