By Joseph Robertia
From the comfort of his surroundings, Fred Ashcraft sips a hot cup of coffee, while staring out the front window from his chair. Behind him a wood stove crackles, not only heating the room, but also warming a pot of stew. Shelves around him are stocked with groceries, and there’s a bar with several bottles of top-shelf liquor. If Ashcraft gets tired, he can also climb into one of the bunk beds behind him.
There’s little time to sleep, though. Ashcraft isn’t lounging around his home in Anchorage. He’s actively fishing in the personal-use set gillnet fishery at the mouth of the Kasilof River. His abode for the duration — while only needing to provide shelter for roughly nine days — is one of the largest and most elaborate on the beach.
“This is no pup tent,” Ashcraft said.
The 30-by-60-foot structure is built with five trusses, six large Plexiglas windows and blue tarps securely sealing the whole thing.
A bar runs the length of the structure along the inside of the front window for people to rest food and drinks and stash pens and permits to keep up with the catch. There’s a cleaning station in the corner with a tank of water, a rubber basin for washing dishes and a bottle of antibacterial solution to keep hands clean.
“My son, Ted, builds this,” Ashcraft said. “He takes off two weeks from work to build this and then take part in the fishery. He uses his vacation every year for it. A lot of this isn’t architecturally approved, it’s just scrap that he has and puts up, and he adds to it every year.”
Ashcraft said that the reason for such an elaborate structure is to host a large
number of fishermen.
“There are about 25 people that work with my son, and they all come with their wives and children to take part. We’ve got three sites and we sit in the windows and watch the nets,” he said.
Not everyone taking part in the fishery goes to such lengths for their personal-use set-net fishery home away from home, but that’s not to say they didn’t put work into their camps. Gus Michaud, of Funny River, excavated a portion of the bluff in order to site his living quarters. It gives him a soft substrate under his tents, while raising them up so there is no fear of getting wet on a high tide. Tunneling into the bluff provides him with a windbreak when gusts come up, as well.
“We like being off the beach and started doing this a few years ago when we had big, 30-feet-high tides sweeping in,” he said.
Building back into the bluff keeps sand out of their food, since they carved out a portion of the bluff for their grill.
“We do salmon, steaks and oysters, all kinds of cooking on there,” he said.
The project looks like a lot of work, but Michaud said it isn’t tough to carry
out, especially when the dirt work is done a little at a time.
“It’s easy digging, and we do one tent one day, one the next, and another the next,” he said.
The bluff is perpetually sloughing sand, though, and the idea of being buried while sleeping in the tent during the night would seem to be a concern, but Michaud said he’s never had a problem.
“If it sloughs, it does it while we’re digging,” he said.
Other fishermen, such as Ellen Halseth, of Anchor Point, take more of a minimalist approach to their temporary quarters. Halseth has a few tents set up for storing gear and necessities, but does most of her sleeping in her vehicle, which she drives down to her fish site.
“I prefer to stay with my dogs in the back of the truck,” she said, referring to her three poodles tucked under the camper top of her pickup truck. “It’s warm with them and drier when it’s raining, but there can be a lot of condensation with the four of us breathing.”
As little as Halseth has set up, Gerard Franey, of Cohoe, and his son, Josh,
from Happy Valley, have perhaps the most streamlined camp on the beach. They take turns watching the fish hit their net from the comfort of a soft, reclining Lazy Boy chair. At night they may spoil themselves by also pulling a sleeping bag over them.
“He saw it on the way here,” Gerard said. “He went through the dump to throw out some trash and there it was next to the Dumpster. We were just fortunate it fit into his Subaru.”
It may not seem like much, especially compared to camps like Ashcraft’s, but Franey said fish camps are all about different strokes for different folks. His may not be the fanciest along the shoreline, but it satisfies his needs for a week and a half.
“It may not seem like much,” he said, “but once you’re reclined in it, it’s incredibly comfortable.”