Michelle Theriault Boots
3:42 PM AKDT, March 31, 2011
NOME, Alaska --
What Tony Shelp wants for his birthday is to catch some king crab.
Each winter when the ice “sets up” in January, Nome’s small fleet of commercial and subsistence crabbers use augers or power saws to drill squares the size of doorframes down to the sea. Then they bait the heavy pots with old fish and lower into the ocean water, which hovers around 32 degrees, and return via snowmachine a few times a week to check them.
Today is Shelp’s 49th birthday, and he’s headed out onto the ice with two friends, all on snowmachines, to check the traps.
“There ain’t another commercial fishery like this in the world,” he says.
It’s looking like a good day so far: bluebird skies and not a hint of wind out as they speed out onto the ice. For March in Nome, Alaska, a day like this is rare. Most often, Shelp does this in bitter cold or blowing snow.
Shelp and his friends Rodger Thompson and Duane Johnson dismount their snowmachines and gather around the first site, covered by plywood and snow and marked with a stick.
Shelp, a powerfully-built man with a ponytail, a few missing teeth and an easy laugh, comes out to check the traps several times a week, but still has to break through ice accumulation with a chainsaw.
He and his helper Duane Johnson, a 20-year-old Inupiaq Eskimo who grew up in Nome and has impressed Shelp with his work ethic, have come up with a new method for pulling the traps: Shelp stands precariously over the hole (he’s fallen into the frigid water before – last time it happened he just changed clothes, right out on the ice, and kept checking traps) and attaches a rope to the snowmachine that helps pull up the heavy trap. Then he teases the trap up with a homemade tool: a hockey stick with a hook attached. This is hard work – even though it’s in the single digits, both men have worked up a sweat.
The trap comes up filled with the ice crabber’s enemy: starfish. Crabbers believe that starfish and King crab don’t like to comingle, so Shelp tosses them onto the snow.
“Two keepers,” Shelp says, and tosses the basketball-sized crabs, claws wriggling, into a cooler. After re-baiting the trap – King crabs are known for being a little picky, and don’t like “the real stinky” bait, Shelp says – and covering the plywood hole with snow, the men ride into the white horizon. The east end of their set is yielding little, but they think they’ll have better luck further from town.
“Go west, young man!” Shelp exhorts.
There was a time when a winter crabber could make good money doing this, says Rodger Thompson, Shelp’s friend and sometimes-employer. Up to 40 crabs might be pulled from a single pot.
“Back in the old days, we could do it, but anymore it’s a gamble,” Thompson says.
Local crabbers suspect that Russian fleets on the other side of the Bering Sea have overfished, leading to a decline in the population of Norton Sound crabs – a unique subspecies that’s smaller than the behemoth King found further south in the Bering Sea, the kind familiar to viewers of the hit Discovery Channel show “Deadliest Catch.”
Norton Sound red king crabs have the cleanest, sweetest tasting meat in the world, Shelp says.
He makes about $10 per crab, but often ends up giving lots of it away. And for the past two seasons he’s been averaging just a few crabs per pot, just enough to break even.
“Commercial crabbing is an expensive thing to do,” Shelp says. “It can become just an expensive hobby.”
But Shelp has other reasons.
“Mostly I just love being out in this country,” he says.
Other than a modest line of Nome’s storefronts back on shore, the ice is its own kind of wilderness. There are seals and foxes and circling ravens and, he says. On a clear day like today, there’s nothing he’d rather be doing. Actually, he says, even on days when the wind is blowing and the snow is driving and it’s hard to distinguish the ground from the sky – he loves it then, too.
Shelp is a recovering alcoholic. He grew up partly on the Klamath Reservation in Southern Oregon and partly in Wasilla, where his parents had a homestead when he was a kid. He moved to Nome 17 years ago because Wasilla was filling up with people and he wanted to be closer to wild country where he could fish and hunt. He slept on the beach when he arrived, worked at a gold dredge and quickly ended up working in many of Nome’s numerous bars -- a line of work he now realizes was probably not good for a struggling alcoholic. At one point he had a pet wolf that would accompany him, on a leash, to the Board of Trade, the town’s most notorious saloon. A string of rough years when he would “wake up with someone else’s teeth in my hand” eventually landed him in prison for a few years.
He got out, got sober and says he hasn’t had a drink in eight years.
Being able to spend time “out in the country” is a big part of that, he says.
The men keep checking traps as the day slowly warms to 10 or 12 degrees. Some traps yield four of five crabs. But most hold just two or three. Shelp vows to invest in better bait.
Later, after dinner at Subway – Nome’s only chain restaurant – Shelp stands on the snow berm where town meets the Bering Sea. The sun is setting and the ice is pink behind him. In a hat and a hooded sweatshirt, he looks smaller than the man hoisting up heavy traps out on the ice.
By the time he and Johnson returned to town in late afternoon, they’d caught 32 crabs. They ended up giving half of them away.
It’s the Nome way.
“Well, I ran into Old Sluggo, and he can barely walk 50 feet and I felt good to give him a handful of crabs,” Shelp says with a shrug. He also gave some to elders in town and sent some along to villages where they don’t get crabs, as a special treat.
He and Johnson picked up a couple of hundred dollars worth of bait.
Tonight in Subway he ran into his probation officer. They ended up sitting down together over foot-long sandwiches, talking. Back when he used to drink, he shared beers with Nome judges and mayors. That’s the kind of town this is, he says. Everybody fits in.
Even though he’s been ice crabbing for years, he still feels a sense of privilege every time he’s out on the ice, he says.
“Up here,” he says, “It’s still the last frontier.”
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