A nostalgic memoir recounts a fishing life, from Southeast Alaska to Bristol Bay

“Young Men Go North: An Alaskan Fishing Memoir”

By Joe Upton. Epicenter Press, 2023; 331 pages; $19.95 paperback, $9.99 ebook. (Includes black and white photographs and maps).

Joe Upton, the well-known Washington-based author of several previous books built around his 33 years of commercial fishing in Alaska (“Alaska Blues,” “Journeys Through the Inside Passage,” “Bering Sea Blues”) as well as a couple of guidebooks for cruise ship travelers, is back with a vivid memoir covering the length of his fishing career.

As a teenager in 1964, the adventurous Upton lighted out from his east coast home to Iquique, “a small dusty town on the desert north coast of Chile” and signed on to work on a tuna boat for local wages. There, he met an old-timer who’d fished in Bristol Bay’s sailboat days and filled him with stories — stories he recounts in the book’s first pages. The hook was set. The young man found a boat headed to Seattle and then, like so many others at the time, walked the docks looking for a way north and “just by chance…stumbled into an epic Alaska fishing job: the shady skipper, the grumpy cook, the green deckhand, and the old Alaska salt as mate.” That mate, Mickey Hanson, to whom the book is dedicated, became his good friend and mentor. That summer Upton worked as the engineer on a salmon tender based out of Metlakatla, buying salmon all up and down the Inside Passage.

Upton is a terrific storyteller (likely at least as good as the old salts who taught him), and that first summer is brought to life in colorful detail. On one memorable occasion, he volunteered to dive under the boat to free a stuck anchor. In a hundred feet of water, in the dark, with a makeshift tank made from an old fire extinguisher, he lost his way, panicked, almost ran out of air, and very nearly didn’t live to tell the tale. “And so our season went — never a dull moment; always something interesting going on. For me, just 19 that summer, a pretty green kid, it was ALASKA in capital letters.”

Upton went back to school, to a fisheries program at the University of Rhode Island, leased a salmon gillnetter that proved to be so unseaworthy he never got it out of Washington waters, and then, a few years later, went crabbing in the Bering Sea. After that, the protected waters of Southeast Alaska drew him back. He purchased his own salmon gillnetter and a piece of land in Point Baker (on the north end of Prince of Wales Island) and lived what seemed an idyllic life. (These years are the subject of “Alaska Blues,” published in 1975.) He left that life (and wife) to run a tender, then went to Maine for a few years to work in the herring fishery. Back in Alaska with a new wife, he ran another tender out of Petersburg and seemingly had a great time exploring all of Southeast’s wild coasts and historic sites.

Throughout it all, Upton mixes in much more than his own adventures. The entire memoir becomes a history of Alaska’s commercial fisheries and a study of place and people. He describes the early cannery operations and boats and the advances in operations, boatbuilding, gear, navigating, and communications, all of it shot through with fascinating anecdotes. In the section about 1982′s tendering, Upton tells of a family that built a dugout canoe for their children to travel back and forth to school in and about finding Russian trade beads on a beach where earlier village residents used to cast them into the sea for good hunting luck. He details market changes in the industry and the growing emphasis on seafood quality.


Part III, “Alaska’s Grand Prix: Bristol Bay” fills the book’s second half. Earlier in his life, Upton had decided against fishing in Bristol Bay. (After Limited Entry was instituted in 1973 to control the number of fishermen, a friend encouraged him to buy a permit for $2,000, but another friend said, “Everyone knows there’s no fish up there, the Japanese fished the Bay all out.”) In 1986 he finally headed west, and he fished there for the next dozen years.

As with the earlier sections chronicling his fishing life, the Bristol Bay pages are packed with details and anecdotes, in this case centered on the intense, high-pressure fishery, as well as its evolution and the life of the region. From his beginnings with a 30-year-old “starter” boat, he worked his way up to eventually building a custom aluminum giant. One engrossing passage chronicles his journey from deciding to build his boat a foot longer than the state’s 32-foot legal limit, on the rumor that lengths were going to be relaxed, and then having to “chop off” both the bow and stern when the length requirements were kept and enforced.

More dramatic passages chronicle horrible weather, high seas and ripping tides, near-disasters, the strike of 1991, fishing strategies and conflicts, personalities, and “all the wild twists and turns” of the fishery. He writes at one point, “If you want to be a polite fisherman, you probably need to fish elsewhere.”

Finally, Upton describes initiating his 12-year-old son into the Bristol Bay fishery and the few “magic” (he frequently uses this word throughout) years that followed. Just as the old salts had mentored him, now he and his peers welcomed his son and filled him with Alaska stories. (That’s his son on the book’s cover, the young man of a new generation.)

In an epilogue, Upton writes, “The success of the Bristol Bay fishery is due to two elements: strong and independent management, where the fish’s and not the processors’ needs always come first, and pristine watersheds with essentially no development.” He discusses the threat of the proposed Pebble Mine and related projects and the effects of a warming ocean and rivers on western Alaska’s runs of king and chum salmon. We also learn that Upton’s son grew up to become a “fish lawyer,” working for a seafood company. “The dad caught fish; the son sells fishing advice. Who’s smarter?”

“Young Men Go North” will be a particular treat for readers interested in Alaska’s fisheries or history, but it should also appeal to anyone with a taste for lively storytelling.

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Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."