‘There is right and wrong in this world’: Frank Woods

By Ben Andrews

Nov. 3, 2020

ALASKA

Woods, right, and his crewmates take a break from fishing the Bering Sea. Photo courtesy of Frank Woods.

Frank Woods, right, and his crewmates take a break from fishing the Bering Sea. Photo courtesy of Frank Woods.  

Beluga skins and dried meat hang in the freezing air outside Frank Woods III’s two-acre property in Dillingham, Alaska. With his home neighbouring thousands more acres of Native and federal subsistence lands, Woods has limited his trips into town since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but he made the drive Tuesday to vote at an absentee booth in Dillingham.  

Recent polls gave President Donald Trump a lead over Joe Biden in the historically Republican state, which Trump won handily in 2016. Commercial fisheries and other large Alaskan industries often benefit from Republican deregulation. Alaska’s shift toward Biden may contain lessons for swing states that are richer in electoral votes.  

Woods, a commercial fisher and political independent, believes the biggest problem facing Alaska is partisan division.  

“I don’t ever want to choose between Republican or Democrat and base my identity off that,” he says.  

Woods, 55, is a third-generation Alaska Native and commercial fisher in Dillingham, a village of less than three thousand people on the Bristol Bay arm of the Bering Sea. He refers to himself as about three-quarters Native and one-quarter white.  

“I don’t fit quite right in the western world,” he says. “But when I go back to the village, I’m still a white man, because I got white blood in me.”  

Somewhere between white and Native, Democrat and Republican, Woods’ political views are defined by good-natured compromise and collaboration.  

“He has a really diverse set of friends and peers. He’s good at bridging those gaps between people,” says Shelley Cotton, the oldest of Woods’ 10 children. “He loves to joke around, give people funny nicknames and tell stories about them. That’s a big part of how he gets around in the world.”  

Her younger brother, Grant Woods, puts it simpler.  

“He loves everybody.”  

Woods’ boat, Wave Ryder, sinks low in the water, heavy with fish. Photo courtesy of Frank Woods.

Four years of bitter partisan division have tested his staunch neutrality. Pressured to take a side, Woods chose Biden. As a result, he no longer speaks to some members of his family.  

“I still love family and friends that disown me because of a political stance – and that’s fine,” he says. “It’s just not my idea of what America was built on.”  

Woods was born in Dillingham, a town without a stoplight, but has lived all over the United States, from Denver to Maui. He has worked as a taxi driver, youth counselor, and forestry manager – his current position. “Done just about everything you could imagine as far as a career goes,” he says.  

One constant has been commercial fishing. He calls it a “passion” and attended welding and refrigeration schools in Boulder, Colo. because aluminum boats need repairing, and fish need to be kept cool.  

The fishing season in Bristol Bay lasts between April and August. Fishers there catch mostly herring and salmon. Woods says the industry has become “over-capitalized,” as locals have either lost or sold their permits.  

“Non-resident Alaskans have capitalized on our local fishery to the point where it’s pretty much aced out all local and local Native people,” he says.  

Woods believes it would take at least a quarter of a million dollars for the average Alaskan to break into the industry and much more to be competitive. Similar economic conditions fueled Trump’s rust belt support in the 2016 election.  

But for Woods, Trump’s divisive rhetoric and handling of COVID-19 outweigh economic concerns. He has witnessed the mental and physical suffering caused by the pandemic in his community.  

“If we’re just going to open America and let the virus take its course, our children will suffer, our elderly will suffer.”  

Last week, Woods’ dad ended up in hospital with an unrelated condition. “Because of COVID, nobody is able to visit him in the hospital,” Woods says. “If he dies there, he’s dying alone.”  

“There is right and wrong in this world,” says Woods. “We don’t treat people the way people have been treated the last four years.”