Bristol Bay, the eastern arm of the Bering Sea is nestled in the southwest corner of Alaska just above the Alaska Peninsula. Following the Peninsula west leads to the Aleutian Islands. Bristol Bay is home to some of the world’s largest tidal extremes, and an astounding number of shoals, sandbars and shallows. It is one of the most dangerous places in the world for large and small vessels alike. Weather can change from pleasant and balmy to violent storms with Category 2 hurricane force winds, rogue waves, and fog. Bristol Bay and the Aleutian Islands are no place for amateurs. Many professional fishermen and women and sailors have lost their lives in these regions. Commercial fishing always ranks in the top ten of the most dangerous/most deadly jobs in the world, often hitting number one – commercial fishermen and women are exposed to even more danger than soldiers in combat.
When Governor Palin’s steel was not being forged on the basketball court, the hunting grounds, or the firing range, it was being forged in Bristol Bay’s watery crucible as an employee on Todd Palin’s fishing boat. Gov. Palin’s eldest daugher is named Bristol, in honor of the Bay.
Both Kaylene Johnson’s Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned the Political Establishment Upside Down and Joe Hilley’s Sarah Palin: A New Kind of Leader discuss Gov. Palin’s commercial fishing activities.
“[The Palins] fished from a twenty-six foot skiff with no cabin, a boat that could hold 10,000 pounds of salmon in eight holding bins below deck. It was the most physical and dangerous work Sarah had ever undertaken. On calm days with Bristol Bay glittering in the sunshine, the surge of migrating salmon felt like a miracle. The work was staggering, however, and on stormy days, with cold saltwater spraying the deck, it took every fiber of Sarah’s resolve to stay standing” (Johnson, 2008).
“Sarah has toughed out many a cold night,” [Todd] said. “Even with hundred-mile-an-hour winds, you don’t want to be the one that turns back just to find out later how good the fishing was” (Johnson, 2008) (emphasis mine).
Chuck Heath, Nick Timurphy, Todd and Sarah Palin were caught in a bad storm one night, causing Heath and Timurphy to take shelter in one salmon bin, while the Palins took shelter in another.
“Rain was coming sideways, and I wondered what the heck I was doing out there,” Chuck Sr. said. “Some of the worst days of my life were spent on that boat” (Johnson, 2008).
Working the Slime Line
During 1980s, as young Sarah Heath finished up school, she would travel back to Alaska and work on her vacations. From Going Rogue:
I joined [Todd] on the Bristol Bay fishing grounds. During slow salmon runs with Todd, I worked messy, obscure seafood jobs, including long shifts on a stinky shore-based crab-processing vessel in Dutch Harbor. Another season, I sliced open fish bellies, scraped out the eggs, and plopped the roe into packaging. All of us on the job thought it was hilarious that the company would slap a caviar label on the . . . er, delicacy . . .and sell it to elite consumers for loads of money. Practically every kid in Alaska has spent at least one summer working some kind of “slime line” (Palin, 2009, p. 48).
August 27, 1988: The Day Bristol Bay Nearly Claimed Todd Palin
Two days before Sarah Heath became Sarah Palin, another woman – the sea - almost claimed Todd Palin’s life. As recounted by Luke Dittrich, of Esquire in this exclusive interview with Todd Palin:
He fished for weeks, in near constant rain, as wet as a fish himself. On the morning of the day he’d promised to be back, he headed home, but the sea roughened and the rain fell harder, and he had to take shelter in a little cove. He anchored the skiff and got to shore and found an empty cabin there, where he dried off and had a bite to eat and a little nap. When he awoke, it was low tide and the skiff was high and dry. He had to wait a few hours before it was floating again, and by that time it was eleven o’clock at night, and though the summer days in Alaska are long, they’re not that long. Looking back, he knows he should have stayed in that cabin for another eight hours. But he was twenty-four years old and in a hurry (Dittrich, 2009, ¶1).
The open skiff the Palins use for salmon fishing. Photo H/T Joe Silva
As Todd maneuvered the skiff to open water, he got caught in a violent storm. The wind and the rogue waves pounded his boat for several hours. In the raging storm and the pitch blackness, Todd had to keep the skiff between the shore and the shoals. One wrong move meant that Bristol Bay, not Sarah Heath would claim him. He saw the lights of Dillingham – his home port – and made it back (Dittrich, 2009, ¶1).
Two days later, on August 29, 1988, Todd Palin and Sarah Heath got married.
Not Afraid to Get Her Hands Dirty, Bloody…or Broken
As we see from the foregoing, Gov. Palin was very used to getting her hands dirty and bloody. But, in a 24-hour period, she did something most of us mere mortals would not do….
One day Sarah was holding on to the rail of their fishing boat as it sidled up to a tender to which they were delivering a load of fish. As the boats made contact, Sarah’s hand was smashed against a railing. She broke several fingers. Todd skiffed Sarah back to shore… (Johnson, 2008).
Now, most people would be out of work on disability for three to six months after an accident like this. Not Gov. Palin.
She had her hand tended to and returned the next day to continue working (Hilley, 2008).
Johnson wrote that “Sarah did not hesitate to take on tasks usually left to the men” (Johnson, 2008).
Indeed, Gov. Palin has taken on tasks that have killed men twice her size.
Gov. Palin hauling in a net of salmon. Photo H/T Joe Silva
Cod Processor ‘Katmai’ lost at sea near Aleutian Islands. (2008, October 23). Deadliest Reports. Retrieved October 17, 2010 from: http://deadliestreports.wordpress.com/2008/10/23/cod-processor-katmai-lost-at-sea-near-aleutian-islands/
Dittrich, L. (2009, April 13). “Todd Palin is the Man for America Now.” Esquire Magazine. Retrieved October 15, 2010 from: http://www.esquire.com/features/todd-palin-bio-0509-5
Hilley, J. (2008). Sarah Palin: A New Kind of Leader. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
Johnson, K. (2008). Sarah: How a Hockey Mom Turned the Political Establishment Upside Down. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House).
Palin, S. L. H. (2009). Going Rogue: An American Life. (New York: Harper). p. 48.
The 15 Most Dangerous Jobs in America. (n.d.) Business Insider. Retrieved October 16, 2010 from: http://www.businessinsider.com/the-15-most-dangerous-jobs-in-america-2010-3#no-1-fishers-and-related-fishing-workers-15
The Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale Summary Table. (n.d.). National Hurricane Center, National Weather Service. Retrieved October 16, 2010 from: http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/pdf/sshws_table.pdf