A Soap Opera on the High Seas: The Origins of TV’s Deadliest Catch and Other Cable Staples
‘Rugged individualism’ is that oft used phrase that in reality describes the American fascination with challenging the unknown and not just enduring or surviving.
American history is replete with reverence for the mythical cowboy. He was a loner from parts unknown who traversed the continent, came to the rescue of the recent settlers who knew nothing of ranching and needed a fence built, said little and asked for nothing more than a cup of coffee.
That’s the myth, anyway.
The reality is very different. Settlers moved west for opportunity and fortune, not necessarily in that order. It was the harsh realities of frontier living which forged much of the character of the nation.
Times have changed but we haven’t. Americans still want to push the envelope, and like the stories which were telegraphed back east to willing audiences, cable TV plays out to record numbers of people who want a front row seat to other Americans who want a front seat to those willing to push the boundaries and face the dangers of the unknown.
A lesser-known consequence of the collapse of the real estate market in 2007 was the sudden unemployment of a 40-year-old carpenter from Kalamazoo, Mich., named Scott Meisterheim. Meisterheim first went to Las Vegas, then north to an oil-drilling camp in the Alaskan Arctic, and, one divorce later, to Nome, Alaska, a town of about 3,500 people huddled on the coast of the Bering Sea, in search of that last hope among last hopes: gold.
People like Scott Meisterheim have been coming to Nome since 1898, when three Scandinavian-American prospectors stumbled upon gold deposits of almost-unthinkable richness in the Anvil Creek watershed outside town. (The largest nugget found there weighed a dozen pounds.) Modern Nome may be a century removed from its glory days, but you can still catch their echo in the town’s small harbor, where the docks are lined with gold dredges: rickety pontoon boats that ply the Bering coast, sucking up from the sea floor what’s left of Nome’s mineral inheritance.
There are easier ways to make a living. Divers in heated wetsuits must descend into the frigid water for hours at a time, directing vacuum hoses connected to a sorting apparatus aboard the dredge. If you’re lucky, you can make thousands of dollars in a week. Meisterheim was not lucky. His first season in Nome was plagued by technical mishaps and shouting matches with his dredging crew. He returned to Michigan well short of the child-support payments he owed, and he spent four nights in jail.
Several months later, in a moodily lighted historic tavern outside Santa Barbara, Calif., Meisterheim was reflecting on the experience in front of a film crew. Seated across the table from him was Vern Adkison, a mountainous Alabama native who owned the dredge that Meisterheim captained. Adkison was convinced that Meisterheim had found more gold than he had let on. “He lied, he cheated, he maliciously damaged my equipment,” Adkison growled.