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Blanchette: CCS Hall of Famer has lived what he writes

Tue., Nov. 9, 2010

God, how I hated the moment, my life, and the blind ambition that had carried me here. Then, drenched and shivering, with my knees bent and legs braced wide against the twisting deck, I stooped and threw up for ten uninterrupted minutes.

Spike Walker, Working on the Edge

On the other hand, he made $60,000 in 42 days.

The whipsaw extremes of Spike Walker’s remarkable life have, on occasion, resembled the violent, random bucking he took from the storms and whims of the Bering Sea in nearly 20 years as a crewman on the Royal Quarry, the Rondys, the Elusive, the Alaska Trojan and other crab boats.

He has, in no particular order, been a record-setting shot putter at Spokane Falls Community College and a neck-risking commercial diver in the Louisiana bayous, logged great swaths of the Northwest and taught the fifth grade in Forks, pushed 750-pound crab pots across the decks of wave-tossed boats and pushed periods and paragraphs around an Apple computer that’s now 25 years old and recently spit out his fourth book, “On the Edge of Survival,” recounting the harrowing rescue of the Malaysian cargo ship Selendang Ayu off the Aleutian Islands in 2004.

It is a literary genre – the Alaskan danger franchise – that Walker has virtually owned since the 1991 publication of his crabbing memoir, “Working on the Edge.” No greater confirmation exists than the acknowledgement of famed television producer Thom Beers that the book inspired his wildly successful series, “The Deadliest Catch.”

Whatever his work – tying a carrick-bend knot or typing a particularly chilling passage – Walker has approached it with a fierce pride, while also cheerily dismissing it all as part of what author James Michener called the “divine irrelevance of the universe.”

“In the book jacket here they call me ‘acclaimed,’ ” Walker joked. “That’s slightly above a horse thief.”

More modest acclaim came recently when Walker was inducted into the athletic hall of fame at the Community Colleges of Spokane, where he was a fixture on coach Mike Keller’s early SFCC championship teams and set a national junior college record of 62 feet, 1 inch. His NWAACC record of 61-3 1/2 has survived for nearly 40 years.

That earned him an invitation to the U.S. Olympic Trials and a scholarship to Oregon State, where he placed third in the Pacific-8 Championships. But he was never happier as a competitor than he was slinging weight in the basement of the Spokane YMCA and “just trying to see how far I could throw.

“I never ‘did’ team sports,” said Walker, who graduated from Battle Ground High School near Vancouver, Wash. “I’d have 14 tackles in a game and we’d lose and I’m supposed to feel bad? I had a great game – but that’s not the right attitude.”

So he was “relieved, frankly” when he turned his back on athletics and pursued his disparate endeavors, which eventually found him pounding the waterfront in Kodiak, Alaska, in 1978 with $20 in his pocket and the phone number of Mike Jones, a crab boat skipper who had been a Pac-8 champion wrestler at OSU.

What he didn’t realize is that he’d stumbled upon what he called “a modern-day gold rush.” The confluence of consumer demand and an unprecedented population of harvestable king crab had quadrupled the market price, and scores of fortune-seeking wannabes made their way to Alaska where, Walker said, “You could make a thousand dollars before breakfast.”

You could also encounter storms with 50-foot waves and 100-mph winds, 39-degree seas, numbing routine and endless work days. Walker once went 74 hours without sleep. He survived the storms and got lucky; three days after he resigned from the Elusive, the boat caught fire and sank 100 miles off Kodiak Island.

“We lost 44 people one year in Alaska, crabbing,” he said. “Forty-four dead out of about 3,000 hands. In one 18-month period, one in seven boats either ran aground, sank or had to be rescued.”

And after several years, the boom busted and Walker “lost the hunger” that made the dangers and drudgery worth it all. What he hadn’t lost was the respect for the culture, the savvy of the best skippers and the courage of the crews. He realized early that he was in “at a very special time” and was compelled to fill notebooks about his experiences. For that urge, he credits an SFCC English professor, the late Floyd Jones, for triggering a passion.

“I could always tell a story,” he said, “but I didn’t know if I could do it on paper.”

It turned out to be just as daunting in its own way as high-risk crabbing. Not content to retell his own tales, Walker threw himself into research and interviewing colleagues and survivors of various Alaskan calamities. His first book was a labor of 8 1/2 years, not a small part of which involved trimming a 1,006-page manuscript. He recalled especially the support of his father, Bob.

“When he heard St. Martin’s Press had bought it, he got tears in his eyes,” Walker said. “Sixty days later, he died.”

And Walker had found himself living on another edge. The stress of the creative process – or perhaps the withdrawal from his old high-risk, let-loose lifestyle, or both – uncovered a dependence on tequila and other substances, and his second book, “Nights of Ice,” was written “as I was descending into alcoholism.” Recovery, as always, is ongoing.

That he himself wasn’t able to cash in on the “Deadliest Catch” phenomenon did not exacerbate the condition.

“Thom Beers is a true genius, and his word is as good as platinum,” Walker said. “If I’d gone to him with the idea that would be one thing – but I didn’t even know about reality TV. He freely says the book was an inspiration. I don’t have much trouble with jealousy. Besides, if it would have come through in 2000, I probably would have killed myself with alcoholism.”

Now nearing his 60th birthday, Walker is ready for a change in course.

“I still want to tell stories,” he said. “But I can’t give up eight years to do another one of these. I really want to write fiction. I want to own the characters and take them to a place of my own creation.”

But likely still out there on the edge.

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