Reasons to be in Alaska, Part III
JD and lads arrive and we hug each other. They complain about having no sleep and being knackered. In return I tell them what a lovely sleep and fabulous breakfast I have had. He ignores me and wanders off to retrieve the kit.
Oh dear, after a good hour, it transpires, all the kit had gone to Hamburg from Washington. So we had the Go Pro (a small camera) main camera, only 1 tape, 1 battery and no sound kit. That's it. JD, Matt and Russel are not happy bunnies. I resist the temptation to tell them again what a lovely breakfast I had had.
After several cigarettes, a few coffees, and a lot of fairly irate discussions with the ground staff, we all resign ourselves to the fact there is nothing we can do. The kit could be arriving on either of 2 flights later in the day, one later in the morning, or late afternoon. Not the news we wanted to hear.
JD and the lads now with only 4 hours sleep and airline food in 2 days accept the fact that we have to kick on with what we have, we have no choice.
We move in the small airport about 100 metres to another small check in desk. The lad behind the desk looks about 15. Russel the soundman, still worried about his kit, is mumbling about not being entirely happy. We then have to weigh everything, including ourselves as we are going to be flying in 2 small planes for the short 30 minutes trip to Hoonah. After a lot of stacking and re-weighing we go through a small door out onto the tarmac and start loading the 2 planes. I'm in the slightly larger plane, as we are going to try and do our first piece to camera.
The weather is spectacular with strong sunshine and blue skies. The mountains that surround the airport are high and fully wooded and brilliantly green. The young boy finishes packing the smaller of the aircraft and gets into the pilots seat. Yes, he was the pilot. I make the joke that he should still be at school; our pilot ignores me, as we do a walking piece to camera getting into the plane.
Here he explains later, you don't drive much here, you use the sea or fly everywhere. Not very reassuring, especially when they tell you they fly by sight, ignoring most of the instruments. (Whilst we were there, a small plane had crashed into a mountain killing all the people on board).
We take off and head for Hoonah, about a 20 minute flight. On the way the pilot makes a quick detour and circles a pod of whales far below, so Matt can get a few shots. I forget my camera is in my bag that has been packed in the back, damn...
We circle around the tiny airfield, and then make a sharp descent into Hoonah, the airfield is deserted.
While they un pack the plane I do a quick piece to camera. We all pack into a small mini bus for the 5 minute trip into Hoonah town.
Our driver Jimmy and his wife Minnie are our guides for the day. They both have the tourist blurb off to a tee, both even laughing in the right place. They are charming.
We have coffee at Grandma Nina's coffee shop/shed and looks like the only shop in town. The main town probably comprises of about 50 small wooden homes, most identical, after a big fire in the forties.
A large guy, thick set, huge shoulders wearing a baseball cap rolls up. He booms, 'Hey you the film crew' we nervously say yes and we all shake hands. This is our charter captain for the day, Keith Skaflestad, he is quite a scary guy, and it was like shaking hands with a grizzly bear.
We all climb aboard and leave to find his dad who is out salmon fishing; he is about 30 minutes away. His boat is immaculate, clean and new, with two huge engines. Once out of the harbour we open up and glide across the bay. What a job I have, here in Alaska, sun shining, beautiful clear blue sky, calm turquoise sea, flying across a huge inlet.
On the way we chat about fishing, salmon, whales and of course bears. It transpires he loves all three, and promises us to take us to see whales later as he knows the perfect spot. We all get very excited.
Bears, he says, are everywhere; so be careful. I ask him if he is scared of them. He pauses and smiles, he replies 'No, cos I have this' and he pulls out a 50 calibre pistol. I have never seen a handgun that big before, its huge, as big as my chest and slightly worrying. It turns out its one of 27 guns he owns. I enquire as to why he has 27 guns and a 50 calibre pistol. He chuckles and says 'Cos I can!' He laughs and shrugs his shoulders when I explain that if you are caught with any handgun in the UK you could face 5 years in prison.
We arrive at his dads boat the Janice K, and meet his dad Faggan. They are trolling for salmon. This means long lines are dragged in the water very slowly. Attached to the lines are large hooks and sliver pieces of metal that flash in the water and attract the salmon. I climb aboard and we shake hands. Keith's son is fishing also.
I ask about the species of salmon they after. They fall into 5 main categories King, Coho, Humpies or Pinkies, Chum and Sockeye. King being the most sort after and bringing the best price. I'm amazed at the way the guys handle the salmon, with great care. We film various bits and pieces then say our goodbyes and head off to the cannery, about 30 minutes away.
The cannery also known as 'Excursion Inlet' is a slightly spooky place. Its literally in the middle of nowhere, on the side of a hill with no road access whatsoever. The only way in is by sea or air with a very short airstrip at the back of the complex. It looks like a gravel road, until you see the funny International Airport Building. The original complex was built to house prisoners of war, that burnt down, then re-built as it is today.
Its a huge complex, with large processing lines, for canning, preparing, freezing, and caviar production.
Tonnes of fish are processed here in only a few months, the volume they get through is staggering.
At the rear of the building are the buildings that house all the migrant workers. They come from all over the world, and many returning year after year, earning as much as they can in the few short months.
Outside the main processing plant are banks and banks of shipping containers, ready to ship cans and frozen salmon all over the world.
We film wonderful old machines that remove heads, guts, skin and anything else that needs sorting, its a very slick operation. The fish are all graded and checked and re-checked.
The salmon for canning are cut and packed into cans by 2 machines that were built in the 20's and still going strong. The attention to detail is everywhere. Two lines of workers check every can to make sure there is no bone or skin on top of the can. If there is any, then they are gently removed or pushed back into the salmon. When I enquire why they do this, the reply is that it's the first thing the customer sees, and it puts them off seeing anything other than pure salmon flesh.
The lids are added after under vacuum, then off to the retort (a sort of huge pressure cooker) for cooking and then cooling the cans.
The best quality salmon is filleted by hand and trimmed perfectly before being vac packed and frozen. I pick a couple of nice fillets for my cooking section to the film later. We also choose a large King salmon for our dinner. I plan to barbeque it later once Keith has dropped us off.
Finally we drop past the caviar processing plant. Its the most secretive part of the operation, carefully picked to remove any veins and, graded, salted and packed. The market for this premium product is on the increase, and is sent to Japan and Europe. In the UK we call it Keta caviar. Large round globules of salty, viscous liquid that fill your mouth, no wonder Sushi chefs love it so much.