This Alaskan Life: The Things You Need

by Toby Sullivan

March 28 – April 3, 2002 / Vol. 11, Ed. 13

You need Xtra Tuffs boots – two pairs for when the ankles get holes from being folded down to dry. Two sets of orange Grunden’s raingear, jacket and pants. Dutch Harbor brand gear is OK too, they even have pockets now. But the hoods on the Helly Hansen jackets are too small for some guys, and the dark green color is invisible at night in the water if you go over. If anything happens. Nothing from West Marine will last one good day. If it looks like something you’d wear on a sailboat, forget it. Even on the reinforced Grunden’s the knees will go out in a few weeks, climbing into the pots, climbing up on the stack, hefting hundred-pound coils of line into the pot with your knee. The crabs will grab the cuffs. The sleeves will catch on the corners of pots. The picking hook will tear the sleeve to the shoulder, and it will happen a minute after you walk out on deck in a brand new jacket, the smell of orange plastic fresh in the wind, the $70 price tag still flapping on the collar as you tear it off in disgust.

You need neoprene wristers, like the sleeves of a diver’s dry suit, at least two pairs so there’s always warm ones in the dryer. A couple dozen cotton glove liners. A case of green neoprene gloves, a hundred dollars a dozen, with the long cuffs that go up under the sleeves of your rainjacket so the water runs down your arm and off your fingers. You need them because the dryer will make them brittle. Because thousands of spiny opie crab shells will scuff the rubber off the fingertips. Because a hundred miles of line will come out of the crab block every day and abrade the notch between your right thumb and index finger like a fast river cutting through soft rock. Because at the end of the trip half the lefts will still be new in the drawer under your bunk and all the rights will be trashed in a box in the entryway, and you will pick through them every morning looking for the ones with the smallest holes.

You need a wool stocking hat, though it will get wet and freeze and weigh so much your neck will hurt. A military tank helmet liner, with the little strap that snaps under your chin for your ears in February working up against the ice pack in the Pribilofs. A neoprene face mask for when it gets really cold, when the ice fog starts moving across the water in those spooky little wisps. An insulated Mustang suit for working on top of the crab pot stack in the wind, for chopping ice off the rails, for setting the anchor at two in the morning behind St. Paul when it’s blowing fifty. Make sure it’s the kind with the inflatable collar that has a mouth tube to blow it up, that will keep your head out of the water if anything happens, and a CO2 cartridge that goes off automatically, hopefully, if you are unconscious. If anything happens.

You need lots of hats, billed caps with the logos of bars and canneries and equipment companies. Sometimes hats are lucky, but you will not keep them. They will blow off in the wind when you look up at Coast Guard C-130s going over, get ground up in the bait chopper by your friends for a joke, dropped between the dock and the boat while drunk, taken by girlfriends for souvenirs, lost.

You need a pair of uptown jeans for the Elbow Room. A set of Carhartts for doing gear work in town. Thick polypropylene socks, all of one pattern so you know whose are whose when they come out of the dryer. Felt boot liners. Those little blue bootie inserts. Sweatpants and hooded sweatshirts, enough to always have a dry set to put on. Lots of cotton T-shirts for changing out of between strings of gear, when you soak them through with your sweat. Underwear.

You need a knowledge of cookery. The ability to learn how to change the oil on a Caterpillar 3298. An appreciation for dawn. A respect for night. Books about anything. Money. Your toothbrush. Extra strength Tylenol. Kneepads. A Walkman. Jimi Hendrix for good days and Hank Williams for bad ones. Paper for letters. Stamps to mail them. A calling card for the phone on the dock in Akutan. The numbers of people who will answer that phone late at night, who will listen to you breathe when you forget what you wanted to say, who will know without being told. Pictures of those people. A calendar. The memory of dry land, summer, trees, and the smell of your woman. A piece of her clothing in case you forget. Plans for the future. A plane ticket home.

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