MICAH CENCI PHOTO
MICAH CENCI PHOTO
MICAH CENCI PHOTO
MICAH CENCI PHOTO
MICAH CENCI PHOTO
MIKE CENCI PHOTO
MICAH CENCI PHOTO
EGEGIK, Alaska — When she wasn’t working, 17-year-old Micah Cenci was happy to explore the Alaskan wilderness with only her camera and her shotgun for company.
The Naselle High School senior and talented photographer recently returned from her first season of fishing for sockeye salmon on Bristol Bay with her father, Mike Cenci. She came home with a portfolio of nature photography and stories that sound like they came from a book of Russian fairy tales. During her time in Egegik, population 109, she lived in a tiny cabin with no running water, worked 20-hour days, saw the midnight sun, made friends with a fox and came (almost) face-to-face with a grizzly bear.
‘Something very crazy’
“I did not know I was in for something very crazy,” Micah said in early October. She had planned a summer of hiking, working and spending time with her animals and friends. Then, her father’s retirement plans turned her vacation plans upside down.
Cenci had been thinking about fishing in Alaska when he eventually retires from his job in the enforcement division of the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. It all seemed like a distant possibility to Micah, until the night last spring when he announced that he’d leased a “set-net” site in a camp on the southwest coast of Alaska, where the Egegik River feeds into Bristol Bay.
“Pack up your bags, it’s going to be six weeks,” he told her. “There’s no cell service, there’s no Starbucks.”
Micah thought he was kidding, but reality quickly sank in as they began planning and packing for six weeks in a community where virtually everything has to be shipped in. She wasn’t all that intimidated by the prospect of fishing in the boondocks with an otherwise all-male crew. But as a part-time college student, babysitter and athlete who fuels her killer days with staggering amounts of coffee, the very thought of being so far from a ready source of caffeine gave her a headache.
“Not that I’m a Starbucks fanatic,” she explained, “But coffee is needed.”
A bumpy start
The two flew to Anchorage, then flew to King Salmon, where they waited for the tiny taxi-plane that was supposed to take them to Egegik. It turned out to be a very long wait. When the pilot finally agreed to take them in late evening, they had to leave some of their baggage behind until later.
Her first views of Egegik were underwhelming. The rutted air-strip at the tiny airport “was not a real landing strip!” Micah said. “It was so bad. Very bumpy.”
On the short ride to the camp, she took in her surroundings: rutted dirt tracks, low scrub and lichen-covered tundra, a lot of garbage drifting around, and on the shore of the bay, the long line of cabins and steel shipping containers that was to be her home for most of the summer.
Their little A-frame cabin was sturdy compared to some of the others, but the previous residents had left it in shambles.
For several days, Cenci and crew members Tony Warrington and Mark Preston hauled away junk, while Micah chipped a sludge of rancid grease and fish guts off of every surface. No matter how much deep-cleaning she did, she couldn’t get rid of an awful smell in the cabin. Then she noticed a five-gallon bucket hanging on wall. Inside, she found a “nasty, disgusting” slurry of tobacco-spit, dank water and garbage that had been fermenting since the previous season.
Ready, set, net
In Egegik, commercial sockeye fishermen lease sites. Space is at a premium, the window for profit is small and competition is stiff, Cenci said, so having assigned sections of the bay “helps [fishermen] avoid getting shot.”
Cenci says they used “The Cowboy Method” of set-netting. The crew would anchor one end of a big net on the shore, then get in the boat to haul the other end into the bay. The goal is to set a straight line perpendicular to shore, so it can catch sockeye as they follow the currents. It can be very challenging when the weather is bad or the current is strong, especially for an inexperienced crew. At best, a badly placed net will hurt the neighboring fisherman’s catch. At worst, it can get tangled in a boat’s prop, causing serious damage to the net, the boat, or the crew.
The Cenci crew had a steep learning curve.
“I needed all the advice I could get,” Cenci said. Micah’s quad broke down and she had to ask strangers to help her haul it back. The crew sometimes had to race storms and tides in a boat loaded with thousands of pounds of fish. On one occasion, the heavy boat started taking on water.
Setting the net from the boat was especially nerve-wracking for Micah. If the net flew off the hooks, she said, “You would have, like, a broken face. It took about 30 seconds, but you were scared out of your mind, because if you messed up, you would be really messed up.”
Learning under pressure sometimes tested the bond between father and daughter. One day, their boat drifted too close to another fisherman’s net. Micah was closest to the wheel, so Cenci told her get them back on course. It was an urgent situation, but Micah was having trouble hearing him, so she couldn’t figure out what he wanted her to do. Cenci admits he ended up using some unprintable phrases. Later, “She gave me a lecture about my inability to effectively communicate,” he said, laughing.
“You have these moments of crisis, and at the time, they can be pretty tense,” he said. “But later, even if you were on the receiving end, I think you tend to come back to ‘Hey, we got out of that. Together we got out of that.’”
Midnight sun, midnight oil
During the first couple weeks, the sun never really set, Micah said. It didn’t really matter, because the fish set the work schedule without much concern for human needs like food and sleep. They often got up at 5 a.m. and worked until midnight. It wasn’t long before everything they owned was covered in fish.
“You cannot get away from it. It’s on your clothes, in your hair, on your boots,” Micah explained. “You’re stepping in it up to your thighs. You can’t sit anywhere. Well, you can, but you’re gonna sink up to your butt in fish.”
There were a couple of days that were so busy that they had to choose between sleeping and eating. One night, Micah made hashbrowns and eggs while the others slept, waking them up just in time to eat. Then she slept in the truck as they drove to the fishing site.
After two weeks of “hard, hard, go, go,” she had more time to explore. There was plenty to see: a stretch where all the craters in the tundra were filled with feathers, ponds where moose would gather to drink, and huge populations of cranes, raptors, songbirds and gulls.
“I thought there was just one kind of seagull. Apparently, there’s not,” Micah laughed. “Arctic terns are really cool, but they’re angry all the time and they swoop at you.”
She spent a lot of time watching the unusually tame fox that lived under their cabin. Sometimes, it let her follow at a short distance. One day, she watched as infuriated birds tried to chase the fox away from their nests in a sandstone bluff.
Swarms of biting insects were a constant problem that led Micah to spend much of her time with her face swathed in a big scarf. Even inside the cabin, she had to work to keep pests away. She rinsed dishes in vinegar to banish food smells, and reinforced the poorly installed windows with duct tape.
Still, one morning, she found a “giant claw swipe” on the metal siding. On another occasion, she made a video of bears sniffing around the cabin and testing a window. She and Warrington beat on the walls and shouted to scare the bears off, but they weren’t very impressed. Eventually, “They kind of ambled away,” she said. That night, “Tony kept his gun loaded under his bed.”
One afternoon as she rode her quad near the camp, a hulking, light brown grizzly bear appeared on a sandstone bluff, about 30 or 40 feet in front of her. She knew she shouldn’t test her luck with a grizzly, but she couldn’t help watching in awe as it leaned over the ledge, using its enormous sharp claws to scratch at something. She stayed just long enough to make a few pictures, then sped away.
Worth the ‘hot bean-water’
Micah was thrilled to return to the comforts of home, and very happy to see her mom, sister and friends. After weeks in the camp, even doing dishes with running water seemed like fun. But it wasn’t long before she started planning for next summer’s fishing trip. She’s hoping her younger sister will go along.
She came back with a nice paycheck and the satisfaction of knowing she’d proven herself in exceedingly tough conditions
“I was really impressed,” Mike Cenci said. “I asked a lot of her. She gave me 100 percent.”
People might be surprised, Micah said, to learn that her biggest struggles had nothing to do with being covered in fish, brutal workdays, grizzlies or mosquitoes.
“I really hated the lack of being able to talk to my best friend,” she said. And there was one other aspect of life in Alaskan fishing camp that she found intolerable.
“The hardest part was drinking percolator coffee,” Micah said. “It’s like drinking hot bean-water.”
‘You cannot get away from it. It’s on your clothes, in your hair, on your boots. You’re stepping in it up to your thighs. You can’t sit anywhere. Well, you can, but you’re gonna sink up to your butt in fish.’