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Today in Ketchikan

Airship Goes to Alaska 2016

This is a story about a bus ride.

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(If you look closely, you can see Airship, just right of center.)

Here's us today: coffee, work, work, work, breakfast, more work, go to the grocery store, back to the boat, more work, watch cruise ships leave, more work. Later we're going to have dinner over at the Bar Harbor Restaurant

We rode the city bus down to the Safeway near the Bar Harbor marina, but we decided to grab the bus going the other direction. The city bus has a free shuttle that does a loop from the end of downtown to the plaza where the Safeway is, so we got the whole loop in by catching it going the opposite direction. 

Our bus driver was a native...totally cool Tsimshian guy with great jewelry and a super dry sense of humor. We chatted with him about his family, where he lived, the woodwork/artwork he does, the silversmithing tools he gave to his grandson and how he's going to pay for art school for him as a graduation present, and some other random stuff. We told him we'd stopped in Hartley Bay (the Tsimshian village in BC where we stayed on Day 14), and he said many of his relatives live there.

He asked us about our boat, and we talked about some places up here we have and haven't been. Then, this cruiseshipper couple got on and asked the bus driver if he'd take them to the Ruby Princess at Berth 4 (just next to the City Floats, the stop where we got on). He said yep, he'd have them there by 4pm. (It was around noon.) They laughed and sat down in front of us, in the seats that face the center of the bus. They remarked how much larger this bus was than the one they took from the ship into town...that one was just a tiny little bus...and then they noticed they were going away from the ship. I said "This is a city bus, but it's free, and it's a loop, so you'll get back to the ship" and not to worry. "This is a city bus?? Oh, okay? But it's free? Well that's nice!" Kevin asked them where they were from and they said Orange County, which is funny, because it was as if they expected people would know the name of their county. Not their city. Not their state, but their county. Now, I grew up in Orange County, so I did know their county, but I imagined someone (in Alaska) asking me where I was from. And what if I replied "Multnomah County" as if they should know where the hell that was?? Anyway, I digress.

They followed "Orange County" then with "Huntington Beach. California." as if they'd been given the blank stare after the county name before. I said "Nice. I went to Huntington Beach High School. Grew up in Seal Beach." Small talk ensued..."nice place to grow up..."  "so close to the ocean..." 

Then, they asked the bus driver, "Where are you from? You look to be of some Indian descent." He said "I'm a Native." They said "A native what? An Indian?" He said "No, I'm not from India. Columbus was lost and confused." He patiently told them the name of his tribe, Tsimshian, and that he was also part Tlingit, and it was like they had no idea there were even any indigenous people here. It was crazy. They chatted amongst themselves a little more and he continued his conversation with us about different places to see, traditional canoes, etc. 

Next, I asked the couple in front of me "So, what all have you guys seen since you've been in Ketchikan?" (even though I was pretty certain I knew how this would go). The wife answered with a chuckle, "Not much! Mostly the jewelry stores." (OMG seriously??? Why on earth do people come to Alaska on a cruise to shop for stupid gemstones that no one has ever heard of, and that have nothing whatsoever to do with Alaska? It baffles me.) I'm totally cool though and ask her "So, is it a better deal to shop for jewelry here than where you live?" (Kevin was so proud of me.) She said yes, that whatever stone she bought earrings of was maybe a hundred dollars less than where she could get it at home, and they got a really good deal because they were from the cruise ship. I said I heard that all of those stores were actually owned by the cruise ship companies though...and she said, "Well, some of them, like Diamonds International and the Tanzanite places." But apparently she thought she was shopping in a Native-owned jewelry store. She said "We've been here before though!" as if to excuse the fact that she'd only seen cruiseship-owned jewelry stores during her visit. I asked if they'd been down to Totem Bight State Park, or the Saxman Native Village before. Nope...like they'd never heard of those places. (Oh, but her husband just LOVES Alaska. That's why they keep taking cruises up here.) I told her those places were definitely worth visiting and that you could get there by bus.

The bus pulled into the stop at the Totem Heritage Center and stopped. I told the cruiseshipper couple that if they had time sometime when they were here and didn't want to leave the downtown area, they should check out this museum. There are some great exhibits with tons of interesting information. The husband noticed the totem poles out front and asked the bus driver if there was time to get out and take a quick picture. The bus driver said, in a loud booming voice "Nooooooo" and then smirked. The lady asked how long they'd be stopped here and the bus driver said "This is my 3 hour break." :)

The husband got out and took a few photos the totems out front, and the lady said to the bus driver "We're quite a ways away from our cruise ship!" and the bus driver replied, in the same loud booming voice, "GOOD!!!" (I could feel him winking at us as he said it, even from behind his dark aviator shades.)

At the next stop, another cruiseshipper couple got on the boat and the women immediately compared jewelry shopping stories, the woman in front of us moving her hair to show off her whatever-ite earrings.

We got off at the Safeway and thanked our cool bus driver for the ride. I shook his hand and he asked how long we'd be in town. I said we'd be bopping around for another day, then gone, then back for a week or so and that I was sure we'd see him again. 

As we were moving to the front of the bus, the lady looks at me and asks "This'll take us to our ship, right?" I said, "Yep, next stop."

Best bus ride ever.


Snettisham Sockeye Hatchery

Airship Goes to Alaska

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Alaskan Sockeye Salmon is arguably the best salmon in the world. Some would say it’s the best fish in the world. Its intense color, beautiful texture, high oil content, and rich but subtle flavor make it a favorite among seafood enthusiasts. Because of the high oil content, it takes smoke exceptionally well, so smoked sockeye brings a premium in the retail market. Sure, King/Chinook and Silver/Coho salmon are better known and much more widely distributed. King is popular primarily because the fish are large and exciting for sport anglers to catch. King is noticeably fattier with more marbling than other species. Plus, it’s got the best marketing name. Coho is in a sweet spot of popularity, quality, and sportsman appeal. But ask most Alaskans what salmon they prefer, and you’ll often get “sockeye” as the answer. 

A decent amount of Alaskan sockeye makes its way into the high-end retail market in the “lower 48”. It’s treated as a delicacy in finer restaurants, and we often see sockeye fillets in good fish markets in Portland bringing prices as high as $35/lb.

Kinda makes you want to head up to Alaska, grab a pole, and catch yourself some sockeye, doesn’t it? Well, not so fast there Ishmael. Sockeye have small mouths and feed on very small prey. They pretty much never strike at lures or flies, and really can’t reliably be caught with a rod and reel - unless you just happen to snag one, or your hoochie randomly cruises by a rogue sockeye with an attitude problem. The sockeye we get to eat are primarily caught through gill netting by commercial fishermen.

Over the past several decades, pollution, over fishing, disease and other factors have dramatically reduced the populations of all types of salmon, and particularly sockeye. With worldwide demand for the product constantly increasing, fish farming has emerged as a dubious practice for creating large amounts of fish meat quickly, but with serious consequences in terms of fish quality and environmental impact. Fish farms, along with the antibiotics, chemicals, and other factors that come along with them, are known sources of disease, pollution, and non-native species introduction that cause serious damage to native salmon populations. Plus, fish farming dumps large quantities of inferior-grade product on the worldwide market, dramatically impacting the price of wild salmon, with dire consequences for the Alaskan fishing industry.

Don’t confuse hatcheries with fish farms. Hatcheries are one of the best weapons we have in the quest to preserve and propagate native salmon species, preserve fish quality and the environment, and sustain the commercial fishing industry. The idea is simple - restore the native fish populations and offset some of the manmade damage to the natural habitat and spawning grounds by helping the returning fish breed, protecting and nurturing the fry until they’re ready, and then releasing them back into the wild where they can live normal, happy salmon lives until they’re ready to return, spawn, and die.

Sockeye are special, though. Just as they aren’t easy to catch, they are also very tricky to breed. Most other species of salmon can be hatched, held briefly until they begin to grow, and then released into the wild within a few weeks. Sockeye have to be held and nursed for almost two full seasons before they can be released into the wild and survive. That means a hatchery for sockeye has to be equipped to raise and care for fry/smolt for almost two years before they can discharge them - requiring significant additional amounts of labor and expense.

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Snettisham Sockeye Hatchery sits at the head of Port Snettisham near the Speel river, about ten miles in from the entrance off Stephens Passage. It is adjacent to the Snettisham Hydroelectric Project, an electric generating facility that provides most of the electricity for Juneau, which is about 30 miles to the north. A small crew of around a dozen people operates the hatchery, with temporary seasonal staff that come in to help out in the busiest times. Snettisham is accessible only by boat or float plane, and there are no stores or other amenities. The nearest market is in Juneau, which is a several-hour boat trip (or a brief but expensive float plane trip) away. Two weekly mail flights comprise most of the in-person contact with the outside world. The Snettisham staff is pretty excited that, due to their proximity to the power plant, they have a decent land line, a modest internet connection, power, and fresh water, 6 miles of road -- luxuries that many remotely-located hatcheries do not enjoy.

Power plant inside the mountain:

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Kevin and Darcy, the couple who manages the hatchery, have a Nordic Tug, read our blog, and when they found out we were in SE Alaska, they invited us to come by for a tour. Sweet!

We were pretty excited to meet the staff, tour the facility, and explore the surrounding environment. About 30 minutes after we entered Snettisham inlet, we encountered probably 30-40 gill net boats, stretching their nets across the channel in every direction. One fishing boat came out to meet us. The captain explained that most of the boats were setting their nets from the edge to near the center, so we could probably head down the middle of the channel swerving between the bright orange buoys and be clear of most of the nets. We slowed and watched carefully as we weaved Airship through the slalom course of gill nets for the next several miles.

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It's beautiful in here:

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As we rounded the last corner, we heard the voice of Kevin Steck - the manager of Snettisham Hatchery - on the VHF. He told us to come on into the harbor and tie up at the float (the one with the big “No Mooring” sign), and he’d come out and meet us in his skiff.

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Kevin is noticeably excited. We have apparently arrived on a Red Letter Day at the hatchery. The fishing boats we saw on our way in will probably not be there tomorrow. There is an elaborate game of counting and allocating at play. The number of returning fish for various streams is counted and estimated, the amount of breeding stock required is calculated, and a decision must be made about whether or not to allow commercial fishing boats to rush in and harvest any surplus. Kevin was up late last night re-doing estimates and coordinating with the various organizations who regulate commercial fishing. It is critical that enough salmon be allowed into the natural streams to spawn and into the hatchery to establish breeding stock. Without those essential fish getting through, there will not be enough to breed the next generation. But, if too many fish come through, they are wasted and the fishermen miss out on their opportunity to harvest. The hatchery is owned by a non-profit company (DIPAC — Douglas Island Pink and Chum) that serves the fishing industry, so its whole reason for existing is to be sure that adequate populations of fish return every year to provide a sustainable sockeye harvest for the commercial gill netters.

Today, they finally (just barely) made the minimum return allocation. The authorities gave the green light, and dozens of fishing boats descended on Snettisham. Those were the boats and nets we picked our way through on the way into the harbor. Tomorrow, the fishery will probably close again and the boats will be gone. The window is extremely narrow.

We arrive at the dock and jump into a pickup, winding up the dirt and gravel road to the hatchery. Standing outside the entrance, Kevin introduces us to Darcy (his wife), Assistant Hatchery Manager and a marine biologist. They begin to explain how the whole thing works. Beside where they stand in their Xtratuf boots, we notice a foot wash. Very quickly, it becomes clear that every activity in the hatchery operates under constant maximum security alert level. The enemy is always out there, silent, invisible, waiting patiently for the tiniest misstep that will allow it to break in and destroy the entire year’s harvest. Nothing - not farming or pollution or politics or overfishing poses a bigger threat to the success of the hatchery, or to the sockeye population itself, than the virus.

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IHNV or Infectious Hematopoietic Necrosis Virus is a naturally occurring but lethal (to the fish) virus that infects a large percentage of the salmon population. In the tight confines of a hatchery, it can rapidly spread - potentially causing the loss of the whole annual harvest. If you consider that there are only two Alaskan sockeye hatcheries (Snettisham and Main Bay Hatchery up in Prince William Sound), the loss of a single season’s harvest at one of those two hatcheries would be catastrophic. 

The fish make their way up the channel toward the hatchery, guided by their mysterious natural navigation system, returning to the exact fresh waters of their birth. (Funny to think they're returning to this, isn't it?)

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Some find themselves snagged in fishermen’s nets. Others are picked off by various predators. A persistent few make it all the way to the hatchery, where they swim and jump through a series of ladders and pens to a sorting area. Here, the hatchery staff selects the breeding stock for the next year. Males and females are culled into separate “raceways” where they will be held until it’s time to harvest eggs. 

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The hatchery needs about 6,800 fish selected as breeding stock. These 6,800 fish will produce around nine million offspring which will be raised at the hatchery and released into the wild the following season. Additional fish that make it into the hatchery are harvested and transported to be sold. The money from selling these hatchery-harvested fish is the source of revenue for the operation of the hatchery. Since the hatchery is a non profit corporation, its goal is to harvest only enough fish to meet the operating expenses. This lets the hatchery avoid competing in the market with the commercial fishermen, and allows it to be more selective in the quality of fish it sends to market.

The breeding stock that are selected this month (August) will be held in the raceways until October, when the egg harvest is done. Kevin and Darcy lead us into “the shack” which is the room where the eggs are harvested, fertilized, and disinfected before being moved into incubators.

Egg harvest is a grueling one-month task for the staff. An assembly line is set up in the shack. In the first station (the “kill” station) females are killed and their eggs are removed and placed into individual bowls. Males are killed and their milt or gametes harvested. Bowls of eggs from three females are fertilized with milt from two males (breeding stock are retained in a ratio of 3:2 females to males). The milt is placed into the bowls on top of the eggs, then the process is activated by the addition of seawater.

The fertilized eggs are carefully monitored and rotated through three separate disinfecting iodine baths. Any bowls showing the slightest signs of trouble are immediately discarded and destroyed. Great care is taken not to cross-contaminate between bowls. Since the virus is passed down from the female to the eggs, it is important to maintain separation of the batches from each female. If one batch falls victim, the rest are protected. Temperature and water quality are critical throughout this process.

Finally, the fertilized eggs are moved into incubators (still separated as much as possible to protect against cross-contamination from viral outbreaks). Each incubator has three water sources available: cold, hot, and natural. The cold and hot are carefully mixed with the natural to maintain the desired temperature for the incubating eggs.

Incubator tank:

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During incubation, the fish are marked with a special code using a fascinating technique called “Thermal Marking”. Fish have an organ called the otolith which is a part of their sensory system. This organ has bands or “rings” (much like the rings in a tree trunk) that develop while the eggs are being incubated. Slight variations in water temperature cause these rings to be either light or dark. So, by subtly manipulating the temperature of the water, the hatchery can cause dark rings to be either wide or narrow, depending on the amount of time the temperature is held higher. These wide and narrow bands can be read like a bar code throughout the fish’s life. So each hatchery is able to mark a binary code on every fish that uniquely identifies its origin - without implanting any kind of chip or other tracking device. There is a worldwide database of codes, so it is theoretically possible to identify just about any hatchery fish by examining its bands.

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Approximately four months later, the eggs hatch and by early May the fry are ready to leave the incubator and feed. The fry have to be fed by hand, by trained observers who can monitor how much the fish eat and can distribute the food so that all the fry have an equal chance at being fed. Initially, the baby fish must be fed (again, by hand - automatic feeders apparently can’t do the job correctly) sixteen times per day. Over the next 14 months, the fry are monitored and moved into ever-larger environments. It turns out that the baby fish actually like to be crowded. They feed and flourish better when they’re fairly tightly packed than when they are given more individual space.

Raceways filled with tiny sockeye:

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With each move, the groups of fish are kept segregated to avoid passing the virus. If a tank shows signs of the virus, the entire tank is immediately destroyed. The staff working with the fish perform rituals right out of “The Andromeda Strain” - disinfecting themselves constantly, changing garb, walking through disinfectant foot baths at every entrance and exit. Similarly, the water flow through the facility is kept separate as it is used and discharged - making sure that the water that flows through one tank never finds its way into others.

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Finally, almost two seasons after they were hatched, the juvenile salmon are loaded up and transported to various locations where they are released into the wild. The ultimate goal is to achieve a 10% return rate, where about one million of the juveniles release would return three or four years later as adults to spawn again. The juveniles are released in multiple locations to prevent a single natural problem from taking out the whole batch, and in order to study the methods and locations that result in the best return rates.

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At this point, the 10% return rate is a distant goal, and the hatchery struggles to achieve even a fraction of that. Other hatcheries have it much easier - with species that are less fussy and locations that are much easier for returning salmon to reach. Still, it’s this extreme challenge that makes life at Snettisham exciting.

As we ended our tour, Kevin asked if we’d like a couple of fish. (Was that a trick question?) He donned some waders and grabbed and net and headed down to pick us out a couple of good ones. (He looks pretty badass here doesn't he?)

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Here's Kevin and Darcy's 26' Nordic Tug, Tortuga, parked at the dock near the hatchery:

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Kevin and Darcy took us back out to Airship and we invited them to come back for dinner on the boat later that evening. (We did not cook salmon…we figured they get enough of that.) I cooked and cleaned the two Dungeness crabs we caught at Taku that morning and we made some penne pasta with a creamy parmesan sauce with crab, and an arugula salad. It was a really fun evening! Kevin and Darcy brought us some gorgeous flowers from their garden, along with some fresh greens (kale, rainbow chard) and a just-pulled bulb of garlic.

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We stayed moored at the floating barge for an additional two days to wait on the front passing through that was creating 6 foot waves in Stephens Passage, along with 35 kt winds, and tons of rain. First thing every morning, we heard the radio call from Kevin at Snettisham to the crew camped near Speel Lake “Good morning, have you got counts for me?”  The crew is there with equipment that allows them to count the natural return to the creek that would lead them to spawning grounds at Speel Lake. We can’t hear the reply, our VHF antennas can only pick up the hatchery’s side of the conversation, but we can always guess whether the news is good or bad based on Kevin’s tone of voice as he replies “OK, thank you. Nothing new to report here.”

Touring Snettisham Hatchery and meeting the dedicated people who choose to spend their lives in this remote, beautiful, and challenging environment was a remarkable experience for us. Few people will ever have the opportunity to come here and see the tireless work these people invest every day in this gorgeous place. But, if you see “Alaskan Sockeye” on the menu or in the market, there’s a good chance that it started life here in Snettisham, lovingly aided by Kevin and Darcy and their crew.

Don’t eat or buy “farmed” or “Atlantic” salmon. It’s bad for you. It’s bad for the environment. It’s bad for the economy, and it undermines the hard work that these people are doing every day to preserve and nurture this amazing natural resource and the Alaskan fishing industry.

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And now, more photos from our few days at Snettisham:

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A bunch of harbor seals out near the runway:

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Thanks again, Kevin and Darcy! 


Ray Troll: The Man, the Myth, the Ratfish

You remember the ratfish incident in Port Harvey, right? (Click that link if you don't.)

Well the ratfish has crept into many conversations since then...the weird "girl grabbing appendage" (called a tenaculum) on its head that grabs with little Velcro-like hooks onto the fin of the female ratfish during mating, the long "graspers" that hang from beneath it to also grab the female ratfish during mating...there's a lot to talk about, about the ratfish. Ratfish belong to an ancient species of shark relatives--Chimaera--a very primitive group of fish dating back more than 300 million years. 

Our flotilla group has had many conversations about the ratfish since qw pulled one up on our crab trap: (1) that we should have a flotilla burgee designed with a ratfish on it, (2) that the secret "Waggoner Flotilla 2015 Greeting" should be a bent forefinger at the forehead, mimicking the protruding tenaculum on the forehead of the male ratfish...you get the idea. Lots of silliness.

The other night while having dinner at the Bar Harbor Restaurant, Brigette stopped by our table. Brigette Ellis is a friend of Mark's and the owner of the Alaska Eagle Arts Gallery with her husband, artist Marvin Oliver. She'd been having dinner a few tables over and stopped by to say goodbye. She happened to come by during another one of the ratfish conversations, and someone said "Hey! Do you know about the ratfish?" She said "Yes, but the guy who really knows about ratfish is Ray." She returned moments later with Ray (I assume he was dining at another table).

"This is Ray Troll. Ray, they want to know about the ratfish."

Well. This could not possibly have been a better set up.

Ray pulled up his shirt sleeve to show us his ratfish tattoo.

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Ray gave us a little info about the ratfish, and I told him I'd caught one on our crab trap at Port Harvey and showed him the pics from my iPhone. He enlarged each shot to show everyone the tenaculum on the male's head as he explained different kinds of ratfish, their relation to sharks, how they haven't changed in 300 million years, and then said there is actually a ratfish named after him. For real. Check this out

Ray, demonstrating the "Ratfish Secret Handshake":

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Ray Troll is an artist who has lived and worked in Ketchikan for the last 30 years, but his art reaches far beyond SE Alaska. You've likely seen his work. He calls himself a "fin artist" and his main subject is fish. The first time we ever saw his his work, it was the fish art t-shirts (years ago).

This is one of his most popular designs...(he's got a color version here as well):

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But Ray's not just about art t-shirts. He has had many museum shows, a bunch of books, and he also has a band about to release their third CD. The band is called Ray Troll & the Ratfish Wranglers (of course).

In 2011 Ray and scientist Kirk Johnson (now the Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History) were jointly awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the Science Writing category to support their book project called “The Eternal Coastline: the Best of the Fossil West from Baja to Barrow.”

So basically, Ray's kind of a big deal.

We chatted for a few minutes there at the table and Ray said we should come by his shop the next morning and talk fish. So we did. He gifted me one of his CDs (as a new member of the Ratfish clan) and I told him I'd trade him a portrait, so we arranged to meet at his shop (Soho Coho, run by Ray and his wife Michelle) on Creek Street yesterday afternoon.

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I was a little early so I could look around the shop a bit (definitely worth going by if you're in Ketchikan...lots of good Ray Troll stuff, plus the work of quite a few other local artists). Ray arrived and off we went to his studio. We got to the parking lot and he gestured to a car and said "This one's mine." The license plate is RATFSH. I said "Of course it is!" :) 

Ray's studio is a cool, contemporary vertical structure he designed and had built behind the home he share with his wife Michelle's, and it's got a fantastic view out over Tongass Narrows. 

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We hung out and talked for a bit first and Ray taught me some cool things about his current obsession: the Helicoprion, also known as the "Buzz Saw Shark". He's got some pretty cool props inspiration in his studio, and we played with a bunch of it.

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Two of Ray's friends stopped by and he opened up a jar containing a preserved ratfish and gave the three of us an impromptu lecture about ratfish! 

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(Note the Buzz Saw Shark artwork in the background, and the ratfish hat on the table.) 

Describing the tenaculum:

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Until next time, little ratfish buddy. Back in the jar you go!

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Ray said he was really trying not to ham it up too much. He was charming and warm and funny (and he totally hammed it up and it was great).

We call this one "Look Into the Whorl" ... the visual of how the Buzz Saw Shark's teeth grow:

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And here's the more serious portrait of Ray in his studio:

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Meeting and photographing Ray was a blast. He dropped me off back at Airship, with one quick stop along the way to show me his very first piece of public art. On the side of the the Silver Lining seafood-processing plant you'll find Ray's first mural, dated 1984. He worked here on the "slime line" as a fishmonger when he first moved to Ketchikan, and traded that mural for some studio space in the adjacent building, where he was close to the fish (he could bring fish right up to his studio to draw them). He told me that the halibut in the mural are totally wrong though...they're facing left, but they're actually right-facing fish.

He knows that now.