This post was originally published on http://www.alaskawaypoints.com, on June 29,2011. This version has been slightly changed from the original. My apologies for the length; the man himself used a lot of words in his own storytelling, and I couldn’t do any less.
Our last trip’s halibut successfully unloaded, the Charity pulled away from the fish plant and quietly cruised down Sitka Channel toward the fuel dock. Ross and I were putting the deck back together when Martin’s astonished exclamations burst from the cabin.
“Holy shit – get in here, Sis!”
Martin has a strict no-halibut-slime-in-the-cabin rule. I called back, “I’m in my rainpants!”
“I don’t care; come look at this boat right now!”
He gestured at an oncoming vessel. “Tell me what boat that is.”
I squinted. It was a serious hulk of boat – steel bow poles speared the sky, a covered deck provided all-weather protection, and the pristine white hull was blinding in the midday sun. Identifying boats from afar is a point of pride to both Martin and I, but I was stumped.
“You know that boat better than you think,” Martin said. “That’s the goddamn Aquila.”
My breath sucked in, and we stared at the passing boat as if it was a ghost ship. It may as well have been.
Joel and I were Down South when he got the call. We’d tied the Nerka up in Bellingham two days earlier, after running south with the Aquila. I watched as Joel’s face drained slack. “Oh my god, oh my god,” he repeated into the phone. “We just made the trip down with him.” Thoughts that were cohesive suddenly slid against the walls of my skull, as solid ground gives way under our feet after weeks at sea. Steve Meier had died, and nothing was right in the world anymore.
We were in a code group with Steve for 5 years, lucky enough to spend our salmon seasons trolling alongside the Aquila. Every group has an undisputed highliner, and Steve was ours. If there was one fish in the ocean, he’d catch three. Salmon, halibut, ling cod, dungies; the fishery didn’t matter. Steve was a driver, out there to harvest, and that’s just what he did.
Unlike some highliners, Steve was humble. When one partner asked if anyone was catching, Steve reported what he had. The partner joked, “Oh, you don’t count!” Steve came back all offended, “Whaddaya mean?” The rest of us knew exactly what was meant: if any of us used Steve as the bar that we measured our day’s success against, we might as well go find land jobs.
There’s an entry in our 2007 log, “We beat Aquila Steve today!!!” Three exclamation points; it was that big of a deal. He congratulated us that day – “Yeah, you had a good day” – then came back with a vengeance, thoroughly whupping up on us the next. We shook our heads, knowing that was the natural order of our group’s universe, and imagined him chuckling to himself. “Heh heh heh.”
Lots of trollers get stuck in a geographic groove, a mental force-field blocking them from venturing too far west, nosing too far south. Not Steve. He would go anywhere, try anything, if there were fish to be caught. He made us all bolder, better, than we would’ve been without him. We’d have followed him to the ends of the ocean, just for the pleasure of going there with him.
Steve was honest in a way few people are. He liked you, or he didn’t; he agreed with you, or he didn’t. Either way, he’d let you know. We counted on hearing at least one good “Steve rant” over the radio every season, and man, there were some doozies. With the uninterruptible power of a keyed mic in his fist, Steve was a gale that couldn’t be stopped. So many can dominate a conversation with their views, but few can step back and poke fun at themselves afterwards. When Steve finally wore himself out, his tempo slowing down and volume mellowing, he’d pause with a self-conscious chuckle. “And that’s enough out of me for today. Heh heh heh.”
Here’s the thing about Steve: he found deeper value in people than their differences, focused on the common ground he had with folks whose beliefs he was worlds opposed to. He told one of our group’s more conservative members, “You’re way over there on the right, and I’m way over here on the left, so we should just talk about fishing.” And that’s what they did, with mutual respect for each other as fishermen and friends. “He tried to save me when we first met. That didn’t go too well,” Steve remembered with his deadpan delivery, followed with a signature smirk. “I did find myself saying ‘fuck’ about every other word around him after that.”
Ferocious as he was, Steve was strong enough to admit his wrongs. When Joel crewed for him out of Crescent City, he and the other deckhand were packing crab pots from the storage barn to go down to the boat. They decided to work together, each on either side of a pot. Steve showed up, took one look, and laid into them. “What the hell is this? You’re gonna take all goddamn day doing it that way! Every man to a pot!” He ran over to the barn, grabbed a pot, and rushed it over to the trailer to make his point. Slamming it down, he slowly stood up, hands immediately going to the small of his back as he surveyed the scene. “Jesus, these are heavy. You guys must be fucking tired,” he said. “Keep doing it the way you’re doing.” He went gingerly back to the truck, nursing a tweaked back that would give him trouble for the upcoming days.
There was no one like Steve Meier. That was evident at his memorial, where fishermen from all up and down the Coast crowded a North Seattle backyard. One after another, we told stories of this extraordinary man. He’d inspired many there to face their battles with alcohol; everyone agreed, “If Steve could get sober, anyone could.” He’d bailed deckhands out of jail, tried to help young men whose struggles he surely saw his own young self reflected in. One fellow crabber, a mountain of a man, curled his fists and wept openly before the crowd. “At least the sea didn’t get him.”
As devastating as his sudden death was, the thought of illness weakening his body and spirit was worse. Joel said it best: “Death would have to sneak attack Steve, there’s no way it’d be able to take him head-on.” Head-on… How Steve lived every moment of his life.
The Aquila glided past, her new captain lifting a hand in acknowledgement of our stares. An unexpected relief swelled through me. “That’s not Steve’s boat anymore.” A beautiful boat, one he’d be impressed by, but not one that wielded the power to gut-stab me when we pass it on the drag.
It’s hard to believe this is our second season without Steve. He’s always with us – smirking from a photo at the helm, constantly memorialized in dock conversation. I walk by the Aquila and can’t take my eyes off of her. Turns out her new owners are a real nice couple. That helps. Seeing the care they’ve poured into making her their own, that helps, too. The raw edge of loss shifts into a quieter, gentler pain.
But Christ on toast, we miss you, Steve. We’ll conk some kings for you, old friend.