Off over the murky waters lay an empty hull, the cold steel still incomplete. Off on the creaking docks stood three shadowy men. As the sunlight above pierced through the gloomy clouds, the men finally stood visible. Tom Rulu, owner of the unfinished piece, sold his commercial fishing license. Unable to use the boat he had envisioned, he considered getting rid of the now useless trash. The other two men by his side—John Gauthier and Tom Spaulding—had come across the entire state wanting to take chance at buying the beauty that would one day be known as… The Norseman.
This is how things went down in Ford River, MI during the year 2000. John Gauthier and Tom Spaulding were in the looks for a faster boat. News of a trap-net boat being built in the upper peninsula intrigued the pair. Soon after, they bought the fresh hull, asking Rulu to finish its construction. Once The Norseman was fully constructed, Tom and John would be driving 15 knots out of the flowing mouth of the Thunder Bay River all the way down to the busy docks of Harrisville Harbor. From there, they’d travel as far as the lonely mass known as Sturgeon Point, and as close as the 17th parallel limiting their reign of fishing. Their nets would be left alone here during the night, the fish being their only company.
As the crew approach the bustling nets full of fish, the clear the 50 foot long deck to lay out their catch of the day. They’d entangle each and every whitefish, holding them captive. Only the bigger fish such as the Lake Sturgeon would survive the encounter with The Norseman. Once all seven nets have been checked and loaded, the tired crew headed back to the docks with all the other hustling boats around. The suffocated whitefish would get packed and stored for the night, waiting for the oncoming work approaching the next day.
Tom and John would spend the day processing the fish. Their cold, breathless knives dug deep into the underbellies of frozen fish. Guts spilled out onto the feet of the fisherman as they continued forth with their handiwork. However, ⅓ third of the previous day’s catch would be spared. Those dead fish will have the chance to be flayed, sold only to the local markets, restaurants, and other companies around the neighboring cities around Rogers City—where the head of operations is located. The processed fish, meanwhile, will be sold to other companies nationally.
Thirteen years of manning The Norseman has turned out great for Gauthier & Spaulding Fisheries. However, when the quagga mussels were introduced to the Great Lakes, whitefish populations have decreased. Along with them: The Norseman’s fair catches. The tired old boat just couldn’t bring in the catch it once could in its glory days. By 2013, Tom and John retired, passing down the steel frame to the current captain of the boat, Travis Laver.
Travis and his two man crew run the activities surrounding the boat. However, just as the Great Lakes had changed, so has The Norseman. Following 2013, the crew had trouble reeling in very many adult whitefish. With quagga mussels consuming their food supply, young whitefish can’t find the food necessary to grow. The Norseman was restricted to an even smaller number of whitefish able to catch, as well as how long the fish could be. In addition, they no longer supply the local markets around Alpena county. Though reasons why of this is unclear, it wouldn’t be hard to understand that maybe there wasn’t enough whitefish to go around.
With the new crew, however, they adapted to the change, shaping a crew fit to run about on Lake Huron. Also in exciting news, The Norseman’s licensed fish has made a steady comeback. Now they are doing well, but not as well as the glorious days. As long as the whitefish continue swimming strong, The Norseman will continue sailing strong ,too.
Alpena High School, Science in the Sanctuary, Derred Weitting, 2019
Source: personal interview with Tom Spaulding (2019)