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ON THE LAM

In Alaska, a 'puker' faces a trial by fire

October 21, 2003|Heidi Hough | Special to The Times

Three hours out of Homer I'm lying in my bunk when I awake to smoke filling my nostrils and a voice screeching, "Get out! Get out!"

It's a rude start to my career as a commercial fisherwoman, and not exactly what I had in mind when I left L.A. to spend a quiet summer in remote Alaska working on my Aunt Shila's boat.

Up here they call Homer, Alaska, -- population: 5,000 -- "a quaint drinking village with a fishing problem." Or at least that's what the sign in the Salty Dog says. The day before I hit the high seas, I had set my amber ale down on the chipped wood bar there and ducked under the door for some fresh ocean air. Wow, those snow-capped mountains in the distance looked lovely. Then a pickup rolled by and someone yelled out: "Puker!"

I laughed. As a tough Angeleno, I felt more than equipped to handle a small town of hardworking fisher-people and miscellaneous scary things in the woods.

Early the next morning I headed to my first day of work. There was a lot to do before we took off for Prince William Sound on the strenuous, often dangerous gamble that is commercial fishing. We were going to one of the richest marine habitats in the world. About 15 million salmon -- chum, silvers, sockeyes and pinks -- return to the sound each year to join millions of tons of halibut, herring, cod and a bounty of rockfish, shrimp and clams. That's just for starters. There are also an estimated 13,000 sea otters, 5,500 harbor seals, seven species of whales, some half a million migratory birds and thousands of resident bald eagles in the neighborhood. Although our mission is to catch chum salmon, I was ecstatic to be heading for waters hailed by tourist brochures as some of the most beautiful in the world.

"How's it going, Kurt?" I greeted the boat captain. "Some kids called me a puker last night. I can't believe that's an insult here. "

Kurt smiled smugly. "Let's hope you're not. That's what we call tourists around here who come on charter boats, puking and taking our business."

I shrugged off Kurt's teasing and introduced myself to my two crew mates. Within the hour I heard Josh, 25, comment to Mac, 18: "I am predicting this will be a hard trip for her." He based this only on the demographics available to him: girl, 22, from California, relatives own the boat.

But by the middle of the day, all I could think was, "I didn't sign up for this. Am I really supposed to balance over an empty gas container serving as a makeshift toilet, while on the high seas? Wriggle in a filthy engine compartment the size of a kitchen sink to sop up puddles of oil from the leaky engine amid knees, legs, and pipes within inches of my head? Lash the skiff in expert knots?"

Aunt Shila had assured me that my athleticism and basic intelligence would be more than up to the job at hand. Apparently not.

I'm adrift as I try to break into the men's club, on my own in a way I've never experienced. I get curt responses to questions about things that are obvious to all except me. The smirks behind the more helpful answers make me wish that I'd never asked. But even though I'm tempted to hide under my baseball cap, I keep my ponytailed head up high. I am intent on proving myself.

I'm in my bunk trying to sleep off the effects of Dramamine to keep from getting seasick, when I smell smoke and hear the screams. "What is it?" I yell groggily to Mac.

There's time for only a one-word answer: "Fire!"

To be continued next week....

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