By Mitch Flagg
Mitch Flagg grew up in Homer, Alaska, and worked for Beaver Nelson for 14 years, fishing both herring and salmon, and several more years with Beaver’s son, Rob Nelson. Flagg now lives in Palmer, Alaska.
As a fisherman, Beaver Nelson has a lot of qualities that make him a tremendous leader. Here are a few that come to mind.
He did the dishes. I remember one morning on the boat awaking to the tinkling of pots and pans coming from the cabin above. Staring at me from one bunk was Lance and from another, Mike. We sleepily came to the realization that Beaver was the only one up, and to our collective horror he was doing the dishes, and we all knew there was a huge pile leftover from the big fresh fish fry the night before. While this may not seem like a big deal to some people, to us as his deckhands it illustrated that Beaver never considered himself above doing anything that needed to be done on the boat, even though by this time he was a tremendously accomplished and respected fisherman throughout the fleet.
As deckhands, we found ourselves racing around, anticipating and trying to find all the gazillion little tasks in the daily life of fishermen that needed to be done, because we knew that if we didn’t get something done, Beaver was going to do it himself. His leadership by example was far more effective than the yelling and critical methods used by many other skippers.
Beaver probably never knew that morning how much it meant to us lowly, sleepy deckhands that he did the dishes.
He rarely raised his voice. So when he did, we listened. We always found it both amusing and sad when we could hear other skippers constantly screaming at their deckhands so loudly we could hear their voices over running engines — ours and theirs. I came to view the yellers and screamers as those who lacked planning, training and general leadership skills.
He listened to others. And he listened well. Beaver was always asking questions and letting others do the talking. It was interesting to pull up to other boats and observe, as Beaver would even get some far younger, relatively inexperienced skipper talking. It didn’t matter that he may have known far more about a subject than they did. With an irresistible and almost childlike curiosity and approach, Beaver could get anybody talking and pick their brains for any information he might put to use in the future: Where exactly did they lay their nets out to make a certain set? What stage of the tide was it? Which way was the wind blowing? Where were the rocks and other hang ups located (Beaver’s interpretation of this is that he mostly tried to get information from the far more experienced fishermen. As he says, “The exchange of information is always worthwhile to everybody!”)
Beaver was a masterful listener and humble lifelong learner.
He didn’t play the “I am the skipper, so this is the way it is going to be” card. His vessel operation was always considered a team effort. While Beaver was a tremendous leader and much more often than not made really solid choices, he was human. And at times, we had differences. But unlike some leaders, he was not above reconsidering things and sometimes making sincere, heartfelt apologies. I remember one time I pointed out to him how I felt like we had unfairly corked off a younger skipper from our own hometown in what was an unspoken, non-competitive fishing opener.
Because of his openness, we as crew were more likely to bring challenges and solutions to Beaver’s attention, which I believe made the teamwork and living conditions on Nuka Point very enjoyable.
He treated his deckhands well. We had a lot of fun. Whether it was searching for ivory in Togiak, exploring the islands of Prince William Sound, beachcombing in Cook Inlet, climbing mountains and chasing sheep in the Chugach, or playing tennis in Sitka, Beaver was always looking to mix fun with fishing. This helped prevent the burnout I saw in many other deckhands whose skippers’ minds were only on fishing. I always greatly appreciated this about him — we worked hard and we played hard.
Even in the off-season.
Beaver was not just an employer to me. He was a treasured friend. He is one of the most influential figures in my life, and I will forever be grateful our paths crossed and for the time we spent together.