I was fortunate enough to grow up in Seattle, Washington, "the upper-left hand corner" of the United States. For me, Alaska was a less-distant dream than it was for kids from Maine or Florida, Arizona or Texas. Some of them still made it up there, of course, and I even met crewmembers from as far away as Wales and Israel during my time on Alaskan fishing boats. But these were truly exceptional people; unorthodox in the extreme, you might say. Exceedingly restless.
Getting to Alaska
But what about recent high school graduates just looking for a start, or college students who need to pay tuition and buy books in order to further their own dreams? What about all those millions of people who watch Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel and suddenly feel the pull of the sea? A lot of them think about heading up to Alaska to work on a fishing boat, too. They have some vague concepts of fantastic scenery and big money, but they don't have any idea how to proceed. If you're one of those people, how do you go about getting to Alaska and making some money?
Well, you could do it the way I did. You could scrape together twenty-six bucks, and hitchhike up through British Columbia, accepting rides from mobsters and religious zealots. Sleep under picnic tables. Catch a ferry to Southeast Alaska, with ten cents left over. Walk the docks aimlessly, then eventually get hired on a fishing boat without even knowing what kind it is. You could do it that way, but I really don't recommend it. What I do recommend is that you check the Internet to see if there is some way to connect with fishing boat captains before you head north. If you look in the right places, you can find realistic information about the work and the risks involved in commercial fishing, as well as the substantial rewards.
Working on a Fishing Boat
So, what is it like to work on a fishing boat? Well, the first thing to understand is that Alaska has over 9,000 miles of coastline, and thousands of fishing vessels operate there, going after a wide variety of seafood and shellfish species. From 28-foot salmon trollers that drag weighted lines and baited hooks in a low-tech fishery aimed at catching one beautiful fish at a time, to giant "factory trawlers" whose nets are big enough to swallow the Astrodome, to those crab boats made famous on the Discovery Channels' "Deadliest Catch" program, there's no simple answer to the question of what life is like on a fishing boat. However, I can tell you about one of the most common entry-level gigs you can land in Alaska; a summer job on a salmon boat called a purse seiner (pronounced "say-ner"). This is the way I started out.