Friday, December 17, 2010

Ropes, Nets and Buoys- Dutch Harbor, Pt. Two

Dutch Harbor was born from the sea. The tundra wreaks havoc on nitrogen levels and makes traditional farming profoundly difficult, so most islanders - from early Unagan natives to the multi-cultural collision that now calls Dutch home - farm the sea. Or, in some way live off it's gifts.

So, all around Unalaska, Iliuliuk and Captains bay, one can find caches of nets, crab pots and buoys. Most are stored for boats which are either docked or at sea and will eventually find their way onto a deck bound for the Bering Sea or points beyond. In the meantime, they stand as sculptural installations, perches for ravens and eagles, even mineral rich stashes for intrepid grasses. Either way, they have their appeal.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Welcome to Dutch Harbor. Pt One

Photo by Casey Kusyk

Long time no blog.
Long story...

Around October 1, I got a call from my dear friend Ethan Prochnick, wondering if I'd like to come up to Dutch Harbor for "the easiest producing job on the show". That being "land producer" for the Discovery series, "Deadliest Catch". And, relatively speaking, he was being honest. But as my friend Lanny Sikes, who lived and worked in Juno for over a decade recently stated:
"Alaska is not for pussies...Life (is) so dangerous & vivid - not a lot of margin for errors. And so terribly beautiful."
Amen, Lanny.

Not So Great Escape- A Red King Crab makes a (fruitless) run for it.

The learning curve on this job has been, well, steep. Steep as a snow covered cliff-face capped by Bald Eagles defecating on your Gore-tex. I am a "Land Crab", a green-horn "Deadliest Catch" producer helping to round out stories and imagery on land for a show that takes place largely at sea. On my first day I was handed a camera and told to get out there and shoot a "meet and greet" between a one of our producer/shooter teams and their new captain. The producer was seasoned, the boat was new to the show, and I had no goddamned clue how to focus my brand new Sony Z5 HDV Cam. It was a sweaty few days.

Partners in Land Crab- Ben Murray, Casey Kusyk

And there's scant little mercy to go around, since the greater majority of our crew is out on boats in the Bering Sea, risking all, and I mean all, alongside some of the toughest laborers in the world: Bering Sea crab fishermen. Theirs- on both sides of the camera- is a brutal job, hard on the body, the head and, when in port, the liver. My job is actually a few jobs slapped over one another: behind the scenes when crew are in town, meeting boats, filming off-loads, chasing down on-land dramas (I say nothing here, watch season seven, my advice), filming b-roll- the worse the weather, the better, the more nautical the happier the folks back in Burbank.

It is, in fact, a great fucking job. I have gained a fluency in a range of camera technology most folks only drool over in camera mags, gotten the chance to work with some of the best, most insane reality shooter/producers in the business, had the monumental presence of the "terribly beautiful" topography of Alaska to toil in, and, last but not least, had it all in the one and only Dutch Harbor. Dutch is a great many things to a small, rarefied mix of people: a place rich in Aleut history, a contested battleground in WWII, a hard drinking palace of fast fortunes, a place to get lost in, a place to test your mettle, a place to get away, a place to work. Hard. Everybody in Dutch - from dockworkers to doctors to welders to processors- works very, very hard. It's a culture of creative survival and ingenuity. People up here have chops. When the Apocalypse comes, it's to Alaska I will run.

Lucky Lady herself, aboard her eponymous vessel, "Lucky Lady",
ready for land after 3 months at sea, fishing halibut.

I don't have a ton of time to shoot much of my own stuff, thanks to plenty of shooting needs for the show, but every once in a while, as the Kesslar "Pocket Dolly" is running a time-lapse, I wander around with my Nikon D700 and try to chronicle the stoic, strange beauty of this place. Long a fishing port, the narrow shorelines are marked by strange dumps of lines and nets, processing plants, fueling stations and potyards.

Alyeska Processing Plant, Dutch Harbor

The effect is both overwhelmingly industrial and uniquely hand-made. Massive plates of steel are coerced into shape, nudged into place and loaded with "gear" while nets and buoys and lines lie in forgotten storage, looking oddly toy-like and fanciful. At other times, say, the rare day when the weather is too nice for the show (Deadliest Catch has a very stormy aesthetic, blue skies don't cut it), I blast around the few roads Unalaska Island offers and explore.

Bunkhouses, East Point Rd., Dutch Harbor

Margaret's Bay, Dutch Harbor, looking toward Alyeska Processing


The town of Unalasaka, flanked by bays and lorded over by mountains, is the gateway to both sides of the island, and home to the bulk of both it's Aleut and military history.

The town of Unalaska, looking East

The surrounding tundra bears copious scars of bunkers and ancient civilizations alike while the coastline teems with rare Emperor Geese, Harlequin Ducks, sea otters, seals, sea lions, and, of course, Bald Eagles; the land and culture vibrates with history, human, geologic and biologic.

An immature Bald Eagle tears into frozen cod, foraged from a boat.

And, so, without further ado, the opening salvo of my time on Dutch; a glimpse of a profoundly gorgeous, ever changing, unrelentingly unapologetic place. To date, I have never encountered a more dramatic, more alive, more austere and more intimidatingly beautiful landscape. Much more to come...

AP Ben Murray- a man of dry wit and lethal asides, on Ballyhoo Hill

Basalt ridge, Summer's Bay

Moonrise over Unalaska Bay

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Chasing Igor

It’s 4:30 am, Sunday morning. September 19, and my surfing sensei, John-O, is singing loudly. I’m still shaking off a very good dream or visions of last night's lobster, courtesy of Arthur and Heidi - John-O's step-father and mother, respectively- and the singing is getting on my nerves. Alas, in one hour the sun will be up and swells from Hurricane Igor will be slamming the coast of New England. Waves make sensei very happy and when sensei happy, sensei sings.

We lash the boards to the roof of the rental car- a flagrant violation of the rental contract- and pull out of his family’s driveway at 5:10, headlights ablaze through winding back-roads under a canopy of huge maples, elms and oaks, flanked by ancient stone walls, bound for heavy water.

“Carrot?”, John-O sings, “apple?”. A mad look in his eyes lets me know he’s already surfing something somewhere as cedar shake homes rip past in the dark.

I wave off the fruit and veggies. Visions of Dunkin’ Donuts’ coffee and glazed crullers drift through my mind. It’s too damn early for carrots. The day before, we had taken a leisurely, midday jaunt in his stepfather Arthur’s gorgeous 28 foot Fortier boat, the “Lagniappe” (which aptly means, “something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure”).

"Sensei" John-O loads the Lagniappe.

We trolled the local islands and cobble channels for striped bass and bluefish, all the while keeping our eyes peeled for distant breakers where, under normal conditions, none would appear, seeking indicators of Igor’s arrival. An hour into our fishing trip, we pulled up outside a narrow channel breaking left and right heavy enough to give local boatmen pause to reconsider. John-O's eyes rolled back in his head. Arthur gamely hung outside, eating his sandwich and downing a beer while John-O made easy work of the solid left ripping through the channel on his quad fish. I managed to drop into a few myself before getting dragged into the impact zone and spanked. I then managed to burn off all remaining pride clawing my way back to Arthur and the good fortune of Lagniappe.

Off an island not near you, John-O spots breakers in the channel...

...and makes for the water.

But today was a different deal. We hit the first break by 6 a.m., the parking lot alive with the sound of boards being waxed and wetsuits being zipped. Along the bluff the silhouettes of surfers in hoodies stare out at the incoming swell as the line-up is calculated, the paddle out assessed. Igor is pounding the bluff with 6-10 foot sets wrapping around the point from the south. It’s a very impressive sight anywhere, but here in New England, it’s a downright revelation.

Solid sets- 6-10 feet- wrap around the local lighthouse. 6 am.

Local bears, stirred from slumbers, prep for the paddle out.

We’re back in the car, in search of more and less at the same time- more breaks, less people. This pattern continues over the next few days, as Igor jacks up, registering at some breaks like small houses12- 15 feet high, or weighing in lean and mean at others, 6-8 feet and breaking fast. At these more intimidating spots, I feel my manhood retreat, leave my board on the car, pull out my camera and stare like the rest of the civilians. Standing on the lawns of families not yet stirring or in front of working class Irish pubs still sleeping off the night before, I bust out my Nikon D700 with a very old 200mm zoom and even older 2x converter and take a whack at documenting this southeast swell and these unheralded breaks (that shall remain, for want of staying alive, nameless).

Too big and too fast, but otherwise perfect. 8-10 foot sets, steady offshore winds, lefts and rights for days.

Unknown local at an undisclosed break makes the drop into a very fast 10' barrel.

John Wingate- Dropping in.

Geo Quiz: The ferry is going where?

7 am. A local surveys the lineup.

Casual under pressure, a local tucks in.


..but not over.

The working class before clocking in.

8 am. Sunday. The Dawn Patrol Checks Out.

In a crowded parking lot, seasoned local shows up California style...

...Inside and out. On Monday, that same local was spotted ripping into several overhead lefts and rights.

A fast right past the rocks, somewhere below the mansions of Newport.

Monday, September 20th, our last day. Tomorrow, we'll be back in Southern California, to a very flat sea. After a surfing and shooting a stellar dawn session 40 minutes to the south, we stand on the bluffs of this remote Rhode Island rivermouth, and watch it all go off, big, chunky and steady. 12-15 foots sets pound the rocky shore all day long while the winds blow strong offshore, holding all but the strongest paddlers off the wave. The two riders below had the joint wired, and dropped into most of the heaviest bombs.

Goodbye New England, local style: