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Extreme Alaska Cruising: Crab Fishing Tutka Bay

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ALASKA
Kirsten Dixon

If I go out my front door and walk across the deck, slide down the steel ramp and climb onto the boat tied up to the end of the dock -- and then head south into the deep and beautiful seven-mile fjord called Tutka Bay -- I can go shopping for Alaska Tanner crab.

The currency for obtaining crab in Tutka Bay is a few old pieces of salmon or halibut pinned to the inside of a square wire crab pot. In the short version, I drop the baited pot down into the deepest part of the bay. The pot is attached to a rope with a buoy on the end of it that bobs and floats to let me know where my crab pot is. In about 24 hours, I pull up the pot using a mechanized wench attached to the boat and count the number of trapped crabs I have.

It's a little bit like gambling. And that's why it's kind of addictive -- I don't know what's coming up and I can't buy the pot.

When I go out to check for crabs, I wear bright orange Grundens rain bibs I bought at the marine hardware store in Homer along with my knee-high rubber boots. Overkill I know, but I like dressing the part of a badass Alaska crab fisherman. My only problem -- and it's a crazy one for a chef, which I am -- is that I don't like to kill living things.

Last summer, when I pulled up my crab pot, there was a giant octopus draped around the pot. I screamed, he glanced up at me, stared me directly in the eye and then gracefully uncoiled himself from the pot and slid back down into the depths. At the time I had a Spanish chef working at the lodge. He couldn't believe I let the octopus go.

"In Bilbao, I take them and I smash them in the head until they die," he told me with wild hand gestures and a fiery glint in his eye.

So, I think about the crab, lured by a few pieces of old fish and now trapped in the pot, and if that isn't the least of its worries, there's a giant octopus trying to reach in and grab a leg or two. It's a brutal world. I've been known to let live crabs go on our beach and watch them return into the water. I am possibly the only catch-and-release crab fisherman in Alaska. Needless to say, it's easier for me to call my fish broker and order a fifty-pound case of crab legs delivered.

Jump to full-screen photos of Alaskan crab fishing

It takes twenty-five minutes from Tutka Bay to boat over to Homer, the seaside village where the endlessly fascinating marine hardware store is. I have something of a pied-à-terre along the Homer harbor, on the Spit, as the peninsula that juts out from the mainland is called. I stay on the Homer side sometimes when I am transitioning between one of my three lodges or when the weather is bad. My second-story one-room apartment sits across from the public dock where huge boats pull in at all hours of the night, off-loading halibut, rockfish and black cod. The fish are disgorged from the boats onto the dock, they are put straightaway into large ice-filled totes and shipped off to fish markets around the world. The whole process takes minutes.

There are so many kinds boats in the Homer harbor, the scene is a pleasant mix of small and large, pleasure craft and working boats. The famed Time Bandit from the television series Deadliest Catch is often docked nearby.

The Homer Spit is home to a festive and slightly gaudy row of mostly sea-themed shops that hawk wares to tourists in the summer. You can find anything from buckets of crabs for sale to sweaters knitted in the Andes. My favorite is the closet-sized fish taco stand behind the fish-processing place that includes little pickled radishes with each order. The Spit boards up promptly on Labor Day with only a few spots -- the Salty Dog Saloon and Captain Patties Fish House among others -- remaining on for local winter trade.

Homer is the kind of town where a Canada goose makes headline news in the local paper. The goose imprinted onto a group of Sandhill cranes as a youngster. We're all watching closely now to see if the goose will migrate away with the cranes to their winter grounds in Oregon or California.

It's also the kind of town that had a ceremony on the beach last week where a big hand-woven two-story basket was built and burned, a transient piece of art used in a cleansing and healing ceremony of sorts. There were fire dancers and drummers and a potluck on the beach. It was right up my alley.

"I hope they don't dump all that crap in the ocean," my husband Carl says. He's a little more pragmatic about cleansing and healing ceremonies.

I'll drop my crab pot over in Tutka Bay until the season ends. Soon, the deck, the ramp and the dock will be blanketed in bright white snow set against the steely blue of the ocean. Few birds will remain and, for the most part, everything for miles around will be perfectly silent. There won't be anyone here to watch whether I gently let the crab back into the water or whether I look another octopus in the eye.