It’s not every 14-year-old kid who wants to spend three weeks with his elementary school principal, but Kyler Mitchell is no ordinary kid, and Bob Winters is no ordinary principal. And working on a fishing boat off the Alaska coast for three weeks is no ordinary summer vacation.
For 36 years, Bob Winters has spent summers catching sockeye salmon in Alaska, much of it on his boat the Marlene J. In the spring of 2019, Winters invited James Mitchell, Kyler’s father, to fish with him for part of the summer. “I’ll have to think about it,” James replied, but then Bob continued with a suggestion that sealed the deal for James: “You could bring Kyler with you.”
James didn’t hesitate. “We’re in,” he responded. The Mitchells bought fishing gear and clothes, secured plane tickets, and were on the verge of departing when the trip was canceled due to major engine damage on the Marlene J. “We were so disappointed,” James says, “so when Mr. Winters invited us again this past spring, we were really looking forward to it.”
What they were not looking forward to was travel in the age of COVID. First, James and Kyler had to acquire “critical infrastructure paperwork” that allowed them to travel to Alaska to work in food systems. Next, they had to self-quarantine for 14 days before they departed. Finally, they had to spend 36 hours on three flights from Spokane to Seattle to Anchorage to Dillingham, Alaska, wearing masks the whole time.
“In Anchorage they’re very protective,” Kyler says. “We had to show our paperwork and our fishing credentials, and we had to fill out a form declaring ourselves and our purpose for being in Alaska.” Those who didn’t have proper paperwork, Kyler says, were given COVID tests on the spot.
It was Kyler’s first time flying, and the experience did not disappoint. “It was definitely cool,” Kyler says. “That bird’s-eye view of everything once we dropped below the clouds. Even though we had to wear masks the whole time, I really enjoyed the flights.”
The Mitchells met Bob at the Marlene J and hopped aboard, ready for the Bristol Bay fishing grounds. They spent most of the first week near Nushagak before moving southeast to Egegik—and now those Native place names slip easily off Kyler’s tongue.
“The first few days we felt great, despite the lack of sleep from travel,” James says. “We were just running on adrenaline.” But fatigue and a bit of seasickness kicked in after a few days until the Mitchells got their sea legs under them.
They spent a lot of time standing on those sea legs. “In the first few days we had seven-hour fishing windows,” Kyler says, “So we’d fish two shifts of seven hours with a break in between once we delivered the fish to the tender.” During Kyler’s breaks he didn’t play basketball or video games — he slept if he could, ate if he needed to, fixed gear if it needed fixing, and sometimes just sat on the stern deck of the boat breathing fresh air and watching the ocean around him.
“The sunsets were the best,” Kyler says. “We had a 360-degree view; there was no land in sight. When the sun went down, it surrounded us. It was like a ring of sunset.”
“We can’t thank Mr. Winters enough,” says James, noting that on the first day on the boat, Bob said “‘you’re going to have to start calling me Bob,’ but we couldn’t do that.” (Who calls their elementary school principal by their first name? Right — no one.)
“Mr. Winters is The Man,” Kyler explains. “He can do everything. He rarely slept. He knew how to fix everything.”
“Mr. Winters knows his stuff,” James confirms. “He’s been at this a long time. He used to take his daughters with him when they were young. He’s calm and soft-spoken and makes his expectations clear — just like he did as a school principal.”
“Mr. Winters was so gracious about taking two completely clueless people like us up there,” James adds, describing how the first time they delivered fish to the tender, he and Kyler stood directly under the crane — where fishy stuff might fall down on them — “and everyone could see how new we were, but Mr. Winters just calmly gave us directions.”
Despite the demanding schedule — especially during the two weeks of open fishing when they could fish 24/7 if they wanted — both Mitchells say they’d love to go back. “If you’d asked me the day I got back, I’d have said ‘ask me later,’” Kyler says. “But now that I’ve had time to reflect, I want to do it again.”