I SCRAMBLED OFF MY bunk toward the cabin door through smoke so dense that I fell into a hole where the stairs usually were. Elbow-crawling onto the deck, I realized one of my crewmates had folded back the steps to scope out the fire.
Fire was raging in the engine room, and the one-ton net used to haul up fish was stacked in the hold, blocking the door. It was clear that only a person my size could squeeze into the crevice, reach through the sizzling metal pipes and hope to drown the flames. Here was the moment I'd been waiting for, the day I'd show up the men who doubted me and thought they could do it all.
When the smoke thinned to a haze, I got into position -- sort of a crouch, one foot in front of the other -- between the net and the door. Dipping into a bucket, I tossed cupfuls of icy seawater into the steaming darkness. The fumes from burning fiberglass stung my nose and eyes.
Slowly, the fire waned, but the engine was fried and our trip to the salmon-thick waters of Prince William Sound aborted. We launched the skiff and, wobbling and zigzagging across the Cook Inlet, towed the boat into Seldovia, an island village of 300. There, Capt. Kurt and Josh and Mac and I drank beer salvaged from the hold until our troubles were laughable.
Dismissed as a "puker" by some Homer, Alaska, locals when I signed on as a commercial fisherwoman on my Aunt Shila's boat, I'd finally achieved hoisting-a-cold-one-together crew status and, with the boat dead in the water, it no longer mattered. But the gratification of simply being useful, a player, had put me right back where I think I needed to be: happy with me, unconcerned with fitting the macho mold.
Yes, I'm a 22-year-old college student lately from L.A., where wilderness adventuring more often than not means visiting a friend in a place like the Malibu hills. No, I don't fish for a living or hunt for fun and food. But I love chilled air, run-on sky and the purple fireweed-laden mountains as much as the Alaskans who came or stay here because of them. And by the end of a summer in one of richest marine habitats in the world, this pristine wilderness had turned my dream of becoming an environmental lawyer from a career goal into a passionate conviction. How could it not?
Being an Alaskan is about letting the land fit you, not the other way around. When I got that, I began to feel the subtle passion that binds the scattering of sturdy people -- one per square mile if you do the math -- who commit to living here. It's the same feeling that draws outsiders like me, visitors willing to give in to the frontier.