You Never Forget Your First: Origins of a Fisherman

28 10 2011

The twenty-four hour daylight of Alaskan summers can allow a person to forget they’re in the 61st latitude, with the round-the-clock rays that foster 1200 pound pumpkins, 120 pound cabbages, and perpetually pants-less three year old children.

That day was no different. Clad in a T-shirt, underpants, and socks, I squatted amongst the construction rubble of our backyard, happily brrmbrrmbrrm-ing a yellow toy tractor over cement chunks.

Grandpa Jim’s truck lumbered down the drive with a gravel-chewing crunch, and I ran to greet him. The turquoise sock on my left foot slithered south, while the white one on my right held its northern course.

Grandpa heaved himself loose from the steering wheel and swung me up into a hug. He was a darker version of himself – a man in black that day, shirt sleeves to rubber boots. His trademark rainbow suspenders were missing – not right for a day on the river, perhaps.

(As an adult, I will see rainbow-striped suspenders hanging limply in a store, or strapped against a stranger on the street, and they will murmur gruff assurances of safety and love. Part of me will want to scoop my arms full and head for the cashier, and my feet will miss a step, tempted to follow the stranger home.)

A broad grin split Grandpa’s face as he shifted me to his hip. “Got something to show you.”

At the back of the truck, he set me down and opened the bed. He reached in, then straightened up with a soft grunt. My eyes widened.

The fish hanging from his curled fingers was taller than I was. Gills and guts still intact, a weary rivulet of useless crimson eased down the curve of its belly, to drip from the tail to the ground between us.

“What do you think of that?” Grandpa asked, pride bursting as clearly as his forearm  muscles.

I didn’t know what to think. Circling curiously, I tilted my head back to peer into unseeing eyes. The black mouth gaped skyward, wide as my grandpa’s grin. With a single finger, I skated the slime coat down its broad back, the unfamiliar texture mermaid supple and riverstone smooth. Chinook scent filled the air.

“What is it?”

His laugh was belly-deep and not unkind. “This is a king salmon.”

Thirty years later, I will have harvested thousands of king salmon, more than my grandpa could have dreamed of, his hands twitching cat-like on an imaginary rod and reel. I will struggle with what it means to make a living off of killing. I’ll whisper apologies to fish gasping for the sea and stroke their sides, tracing scales of emerald, amethyst and opal. I’ll watch the flat aluminum of death swallow their rainbow.  And with every unmistakable whiff of king salmon, some small, dimly-lit closet of forgotten memories will shine with the echoes of my grandpa’s pride.

Grandpa Jim, Little Tele, and the First King

Thanks, Maestra Laura Kalpakian and the Tuesday night “Memory into Memoir” class, for this recent homework: to write a short memoir scene out of a photo. For the writers amongst you, this is a great exercise. I wouldn’t have thought to explore this moment without the assignment.





A Fisherman Writer’s Winter of Intentional Living

21 10 2011

One of the great myths about commercial fishing for a living is this:

“Oh, you guys only work half the year! Must be nice, having all that time off.”

Cap’n J and I usually just smile. With him trekking through the wilderness to shoot gorgeous photos, me available to go for weekday walks on a moment’s notice, and our friends never certain what state we’re in, it’s hard to say we don’t enjoy winters of indulgence.

The last few years, though, our “off” season was anything but. The Nerka needed an onslaught of very expensive, very time-consuming TLC. We became residents of the Port Townsend Boat Yard  – squatting on friends’ boats when our own became uninhabitable, washing dishes in the public restroom, slapping clouds of fiberglass dust from our clothes, and constantly declining invitations. “Sorry, we’re working on the boat.”

With projects like this: 3 days battling 5200, to take out our leaky helm windows.

Hard as it was to leave Alaska, we were both excited to wave goodbye to the Nerka. Leaving her under watchful local guardianship, safely tethered in her stall, and putting 1000 miles between us seemed an excellent way to re-visit this notion of a “free” winter.

We fantasized about the luxury of a season without boat projects, imagined the ways we’d fill our time. Cap’n J would hone his photography skills, doing the hiking/backpacking that he loves. I’d devote myself to writing: I’d take renowned author Laura Kalpakian’s memoir course, finish my book proposal, shop it around, find a publisher and agent, and fully commit myself to telling the story I’ve spent the past decade dreaming about. On the side, I’d write the Hooked posts still in my head. And some new columns for Alaska Waypoints. And go to the gym. And catch up on house maintenance. And re-unite with friends and family. And enjoy non-fishing time with my sweetheart.

And then I was crumpled on the floor, sobbing at Joel’s feet.

My most loathed physical trait is that my tear ducts live on standby, ready to leak into action at the slightest emotional tilt. Anger, frustration, feeling hurt, inspired, joyful, touched…They’re all fair game. (Physical tilts do it, too: they often overflow when I lie on my side. Joel reacts with alarm – “What’s wrong!” – then reminds himself, “Oh, you’re just leaking.”)

So tears are familiar territory for us.

But last Saturday night was different. Cap’n J sat editing photos, in the middle of a chatty sentence, when I burst into tears. I erupted, geyser-like, into snot-ridden sobbing, an iron fist of panic pummeling my sternum. Through ugly gasps, I released a flood of fear that there was too much to keep up with, an Everest of requirements for a new writer beyond actual writing, time-devouring tasks of platform building and social media engagement. More events to cancel, friends to disappoint. That I didn’t know how to do it all.

That I couldn’t do it all.

Shocked by my abrupt meltdown, Joel made a fast recovery. He stroked my shoulders and said that I was putting too much pressure on myself, and it didn’t have to happen all at once. That this is the time to dedicate to my dream – “That’s your job this winter” – and the people who love me will understand the absences, unreturned phone calls, and delayed visits. That I’m not alone, that he’ll be there along the way – taking care of the house, feeding me fish (brain food, you know), being my emissary with friends and family. “I’ll tell them, ‘I’m here representing Tele.’ They’ll understand.”

That this is a story I need to tell, and even if nothing else comes of it, I’ll have succeeded by writing it. “And I don’t believe that nothing’s gonna come of this,” he added. “I know you’re going to get published.”

That I could do it.

Every writer in crisis should be so lucky to have a Cap’n J.

Several days later, I was in another class, this one on “outing” ourselves as writers. Teacher Brooke Warner urged us to boldly proclaim ourselves as writers, proudly declaring to loved ones and strangers alike, “I’m a writer, this is what I’m doing.”

Then she asked, “Where in your life do you need permission to say no?”

(Cap’n J laughed when I told him this. “That class covered everything you’ve been going through!” Absolutely. I take comfort in realizing how common my anxieties must be, that all across the globe, other writers are having meltdowns just like mine – and are taking deep breaths, finding their way, and getting their stories out there. Me, too.)

I’m sharing all this, sweet reader, to explain that Hooked will be a quiet harbor for a bit. My goal is to have a finished memoir proposal by November 1st, so you won’t be seeing any long, evocative essays drawn so deeply from my heart. (Photos and videos okay instead?) I may not respond to individual comments, or as quickly as I’d like. And I won’t have time to write horrified posts on news like this.

I hope Cap’n J’s assurances are right, that folks will understand my unavailability, and Hooked’s readers will still be here when we return to a regular posting schedule. I can’t send you all fish – my usual expression of gratitude. Instead, I promise to post sneak peeks from the book-that-will-be, a first-read special just for you. You’ve encouraged me to make this great leap, friends – it’s only right that you be the first to see what comes of it! I’ll welcome your thoughts and suggestions.

I started writing this post on October 19 – Hooked’s 7 month birthday. Turned out to also be the day we crossed 10,000 views. Pretty thrilling – I’d hoped to reach that goal by October 31st. I’m indebted to each of you for joining this journey, and being such a joyful, supportive community. From my heart – from the very tips of my Xtra-Tuffed toes – I thank you.

Until next time, friends - in the words of our fishing hero and friend - "I'll be standing by."





Contemplating Alaska Day

18 10 2011

Today is Alaska Day, and, I have to admit, I have mixed feelings.

On October 18, 1867, Russia formally transferred control of the Territory of Alaska to the U.S. Commemorated as a  statewide holiday, Alaska Day is a really big deal in Sitka, where the actual transfer took place.  Festivities begin in early October, all building up to this day. Schools close. People get gussied up. The Lutheran Church hosts a pie sale like you wouldn’t believe. And a giant parade rolls through downtown, kicked off when the Coast Guard Jayhawk helicopters buzz Lincoln Street. Sitkans love an excuse for a parade.

Immediately following the parade, folks climb the stone steps up Castle Hill for a re-enactment of the transfer.  People in period costumes lower the Russian flag and raise the Stars & Stripes. The 9th Army Band provides accompanying music. It’s all very ceremonial.

Re-enactments of all kinds make me uneasy. I wonder about the groups not represented, the stories that aren’t included in the re-telling.  Those silences echo through this ceremony. Originally known as Noow Tlein, the land honored for its transition from Russian ownership to American is the same ground where, after the Battle of 1804, Tlingit people ceded their home.

(This summer, I asked a Tlingit elder about this. “Alaska Day must not be much of a celebration for you.”

“No,” she replied flatly. “But I’d rather be American than Russian.”)

I don’t have answers for these conflicted feelings, and I’m not in Sitka to experience Alaska Day first-hand this year.  Instead, I’m watching the Bellingham sun slowly creep up outside my writing window, Stellar’s Jays and squirrels rushing up to say good morning and ask where the peanuts are today.

Without any helicopter escorts or brass bands, I’ll mark Alaska Day in my own quieter way, recalling one of the last sunrises of our fishing season – a sunrise so spectacular that Bear the Boat Cat had to be on wheel watch, while Cap’n J and I were both fixated on capturing the moment. (No obscenity-laced whale interaction here, friends – this one’s safe for all viewers.)

There have been times when we’ve chosen to simply enjoy something beautiful, pausing to be present with ourselves and our surroundings, rather than distancing ourselves with the flurry of documentation. Probably not as many of those times as would be good for us.  But I’m glad this one made it onto film, so you can enjoy it, too.  Whatever stories you carry, may your Alaska Day include moments of beauty.





The Liebster Meets Alaska Book Week

12 10 2011

Early September, I hit land and jumped online. Waded through weeks of spam, mass mailings, and impersonal updates. Just when I felt like I might as well have stayed at sea, a message from Annie Boreson leapt out:

I just wanted to tell you that I love your writing. You live a fascinating life and you write beautifully about it. I just gave you the Liebster Blog Award. Hope that is okay!

Okay? An award for Hooked? Reeling from delight rather than landsickness, I was a giddy, blushing mess of awe and wonder.

Writing is such an isolated activity, it’s easy to feel alone with your words. I spent years stifling the urge to write and disparaging the pieces that forced their way to paper, certain that any complimentary responses were merely friends being kind. People who “had” to like my work. Surely no one else would care about my bleeding heart reflections.

But the Liebster suggested otherwise!

From the German verb lieber – to love – the Liebster Blog Award recognizes worthy blogs with less than 200 followers, thereby raising their visibility. The “rules” are simple: thank your awarder and link back to them, select 5 blogs as your own nominees, and let them know by leaving a comment on their site.

My gratitude to Annie Boreson, author of Atoll Annie & the Non-Specific Rim, for awarding Hooked the Liebster. From the comic perils of giving birth in Norway in July, to a heart-wrenching tale of an abusive grandmother’s secret love, Annie is a superb storyteller. Introspective and audacious, reflective and funny, she got my laughter and subscription with her goal, “To go viral before  the Mayan Calendar stops me.”

Every adult grown of an outcast kid carries the searing recollection that selecting some means excluding others. I agonized over the nominations. Beyond inherent reluctance to name “favorites,” how would I choose? Hooked’s readership represents my ideal neighborhood: delightfully diverse, our residents range from conservative Alaskan fishermen, leprechaun-green environmentalists, contemplative memoirists, even a self-described “ex-party girl turned Midwestern wifey-poo.” With such differing life languages amongst you all, what 5 blogs could speak to everyone?

To the rescue: Alaska Book Week! Coinciding perfectly with this post, my Liebster picks are dedicated to some of my favorite Alaskan blogs. If you don’t have time for a new book this week, please take a moment to visit one of these Alaskan writers online.

Nagoonberry reminds me to stop and breathe. My first visit was to this post about my favorite flower, and I’ve been a subscriber ever since. This is a blog of journeys. Humans learning to live together in community. Personal and communal introspection. Thoughts on spirituality and sustainability. I suspect those of you drawn to Hooked’s more reflective moments will connect with Nagoonberry, too.

A Fairbanks English teacher, Paul Greci describes Northwriter as “a blog about writing, running, kayaking, and life in Alaska.” His posts include lovely photos and reflections on his environment. Ever imagined a lynx strolling across your porch? He’s got a great story about that very experience here. And don’t miss the photo of his treadmill laptop – talk about productivity!

If you’re looking for pure, unadulterated fish talk, PickFish Tales is for you. Reading this blog is like being in a BS circle on the dock, with one star storyteller, Jen Pickett. Jen’s been fishing for 20 years, is a fellow contributor to Alaska Waypoints, and has an awesome ability to honor deadlines in the midst of the season. And she’s funny! In addition to following her blog, you can often find her performing with the Fisher Poets (where her work was recently included on the gorgeous site In The Tote – congratulations, Jen!)

Whether writing verse or prose, Alaskan writer Vivian Faith Prescott is a true poet. You’ll find breath-stopping, heart-singing imagery and Tlingit honorifics on Planet Alaska, in stunning pieces like “The Language of the Landscape.” During these off-season months, when I’m struggling with the miles separating me from Southeast Alaska, I read Vivian’s work and she carries me home.

49Writers is such a fabulous resource that I have to close with some love for them. A non-profit supporting Alaska writers and their work, they host an impressive caliber of events. (More than once, I’ve wished I was in Anchorage to attend.) Literary folks – whether in Alaska or Alabama, an active writer or an avid reader – should consider subscribing. Here’s a post for writers who dream of crafting their work during a summer in Denali.

A note to these gifted awardees: I generally shy away from “Pass It Along” virtual movements. But it is lovely to learn that your voice touched someone, and I do recommend favorite books to friends… Is this really so different? If participating in the Liebster isn’t your kind of party, no worries. Please enjoy the public recognition of your work, knowing that your words have mattered to me, and spread a bit of liebe in your own private way.

(This is a particularly good time for Hooked to share the love, having received another bit of sweetness this week. Thank you, Cami Ostman, of Seven Marathons on Seven Continents, for naming Hooked one of your favorite blogs! Feeling honored, indeed.)

Got a favorite Alaskan blog of your own, sweet reader? Please share! 





How I Went to Sea: Father’s Day in October

9 10 2011

Many Hooked readers responded to the Mother’s Day post, available here. In true Libra commitment to balance and equity, this one’s for my dad, Ken Aadsen.

People often ask how I became a fisherman. It wasn’t an obvious path. I was born in Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley, a region that would later achieve infamy for its particularly potent strain of marijuana and an equally mind-numbing public persona. Land-locked, we were far from the briney deep.

My parents were veterinarians, and in the late 1970’s, their practice was the only one available for miles. I was barely a merger of sperm and egg when a client’s horse kicked my dad. A shot full to the face, he recalls, “It was like being hit by a four by four.” Surgeons struggled to rebuild his nose and cheekbones. As he lay in critical condition, my mom told him he was going to be a father.

The injury degraded his already-limited eyesight to a few degrees from blind. To call my dad a work-oriented individual is a laughable understatement, and he sought a project to stave off the ensuing depression.

Someone else might have taken up model airplanes or the guitar. He began building a 45-foot sailboat in the backyard. I was an only child, but the Askari was my sibling. To the tune of a static-crippled AM radio and my dad humming along with Willie Nelson, my playroom was the boat barn, carpeted with wood shavings and silky shards of fiberglass. I mimicked his meticulous work, nailing one block of wood clumsily to another. While other kids checked beneath their pillows for the Tooth Fairy’s deposits, I peered into the Askari’s newly-installed stove to see if “the Oven Fairy” had left a Tootsie Roll on the shelf within.

When you surrender 7 years of your life to building a boat, you surely deserve the reward of taking that boat to sea. The Askari said bon voyage to her Wasilla birthplace, cruised down the Parks Highway on an “Oversize Load” trailer bed, and bobbed confidently in the Port of Anchorage, where Ship Creek meets Cook Inlet. My parents sold the vet clinic and charted a course across the Gulf of Alaska. Neither had much ocean experience, but they trusted their creation, christened “protector” in Swahili.

I had never seen water like that, a surrounding blue so expansive that it swallowed even the memory of land. A black-footed albatross paddled along in our wake for days, our sole companion. When we landed in Sitka, the dock swelled with fishing families. “This looks like a fun way to make a living,” my parents thought. They quickly rigged up the sailboat as a hand troller. And with that, we were as hooked as each salmon that graced the Askari’s broad deck.

That was both a beginning and an end.

Another 7 years and another boat later, I watched my dad pull out of our Washington driveway, his blue Ford Taurus sitting heavy on the shocks. Staunch devotion to silence was my family’s religion, and the word “divorce” was never spoken. I learned he was moving to Los Angeles because a good job awaited him, one that would support our struggling family in a way that fishing couldn’t.

Our initial phone calls – weekly, Sunday evenings – rolled like tumbleweeds across empty prairies of wordlessness. We became pen pals instead, exchanging long, discursive emails that revealed far more than either of us ever would have in person. He sent Priority Mail envelopes stuffed with months’ worth of newspaper clippings – articles on topics he knew I’d be interested in, and those he thought I should be. I came to recognize those bulging envelopes as the currency of my dad’s affection.

Growing up protective of his limited sight, a self-appointed caregiver, it was easy to view him as an innocent bystander in my parents’ divorce. Today I understand that relationships – their entries, their exits – are never one-way streets. It’s hard country, living with the wordless. I’ve come to believe that humans are connected by stories and shared experiences, more than by blood or legal bonds. If your partner swallows their stories and speaks as if being charged by the syllable, where do you find and nurture a point of connection?

In moments of pessimism, I’ve wondered if people are capable of true, soul-deep change. But pessimism is not my nature. I have no stronger evidence that people can indeed choose another path than my father, a man raised on the curdled milk of suspicion, paranoia, and judgment, who now consciously embraces love, acceptance and forgiveness.

The past 70 years took him from Montana’s cowboy country to the Alaskan bush, from the fishing fleet of Southeast to the fertile fields of the Pacific Northwest’s farmlands. His time in L.A.’s urban machine led to a new career in D.C. as an international seafood inspector.  I received postcards from Vietnam, Chile, the Phillipines, Oman (to name just a few), and stood in attendance as he and my delightful Southern stepmom married. These days, his passport doesn’t collect new ink at such a rapid pace. The spiritual journey he’s on now doesn’t include clearing customs.

I am my father’s daughter in that we’re both listeners, quick to stifle our own stories in favor of hearing someone else’s. But I’ve learned sharing my voice is as valuable as making room for another. Intimacy is built upon equal invitation and vulnerability. I’ve learned as much from my dad’s oversights, as from his intentional teachings.

I’m thankful for those teachings.  Along with my mom, he bequeathed a work ethic so ferocious it borders on compulsion. More than once, he’s responded to major life transitions not as traumatic, but as opportunities. He’s encouraged me to find value in all people and experiences – particularly those I find most challenging – and to seek the lessons offered.

Not least of all, I’m thankful that his dream took me to sea.

"This was the most fun I've had since retiring," he said of his two weeks' helping me with boat projects.

This was originally intended as a Father’s Day post. Best of intentions. Instead, it’s posting on my birthday weekend – tribute to my dad’s part in bringing me to this life, this profession, this day. Love you, Dad – thanks for all of the above.





How to End the Salmon Season (aka Selective Memory, the Fisherman’s Friend)

3 10 2011

A close friend was raised on a troller, fishing with his dad. One of my favorite end-of-season stories is from him:

It was a beautiful day at the Cape, flat calm, sunny, in early September. My dad looked over at me and said, “Let’s quit.”

A teenager at the time, my friend was flabbergasted. They were catching, the weather was great; why in the world would they quit right then?

My dad gestured around us and said, “I want to remember the season just like this.”

And with that – a great forecast, big coho biting, and several weeks remaining of the season – they hauled their hooks aboard for the last time that summer.

Sunrise over Shelikof Bay

*****

Our last day of the season was not that kind of day.

After several days of calm water, good fishin’, stunning sunrises and sunsets, we missed the chance to close a challenging season on that positive note. By 9:00, our hooks had been dragging for almost 3 hours and we’d caught only 11 coho. Not a good ratio.  Gusting 30, the wind threw rain at the boat in sheets as we bucked up and down the 9-foot chop. Fish-able, certainly, but miserable all the same.

On another boat, this might be called “deckhand weather” – the kind of day where the captain stays warm and dry inside, sending the crew out to run the gear, clean the fish, and handle the deck work. But the captain/crew line on this boat is blurred gossamer-fine, and Joel is not a jackass. We shivered side by side in the cockpit, heads ducked low against the pellets of rain, as we cleaned the few coho on deck.

“This is how we’re going out, huh?” Joel hollered at our surroundings. In answer, the next gust shoved us hard starboard.

Long skeins of snot hung from my nose. Clad head to finger to toe in raingear, there wasn’t a dry, wipe-able surface in sight. If there’s any test for a relationship, it’s this – sharing weeks on 43-feet of living space, always within arms’ reach of one another’s filthiest, stinkiest, sorest, most exhausted, least attractive selves. As I continued scraping kidney from the coho before me, the wind grabbed the threads and flung them long.

Raincoat on and smile gone; one of the days that our job actually feels like a job.

****

I’d been nursing a cup of coffee in the Backdoor several weeks earlier when a local teacher said, “Reading your posts, I think trolling sounds pretty good.”  I’d smiled at the familiar tone, the envy with which non-fishermen sometimes view our profession. Be your own boss and work only half the year, practically a wildlife cruise, anyway, with the sights you see. Fritter the rest of the year away, frolicking about while the rest of society endures a rigid work week in exchange for a week or two of vacation – if they’re lucky.

But as we frequently remind ourselves, “If it was easy, everyone would do it.”  With the coho cleaned and handed down to blast-freeze in the -38 degree fish hold, we rushed back into the warm cabin and grabbed towels to dry our sopping faces. Joel turned to the calculator and began punching numbers again.

“If we quit today, how much would we be giving up?” he asked. Our premium frozen-at-sea market meant that one day of scratching up 90 of these coho could mean $2000 for the boat. After expenses, Joel and I see significantly less, but early childhood indoctrination continually loops through my mind. Every fish counts!

I recalled my friend’s story, how I admired his dad’s decision to end the season with a personal value, rather than a financial one. But Joel and I sat surrounded by sheets of numbers: lists of anticipated winter expenses, balances of fish already sold, conservative estimates of what we could expect to yet be paid. When you’re young, self-employed in an unpredictable industry and looking at a long, uncertain off-season, the decision to quit a few days early could mean the cost of several months’ mortgage, car repairs, or a long-overdue trip to the dentist.

Still, I wondered, how much is enough?

A bin full of king salmon: Enough?

****

During the August coho closure, Joel and I had helped a friend who was replacing part of his engine. He came to fishing by way of upstate New York over 15 years ago, when he visited Southeast Alaska and never left. As he squeezed his grease-stained self beside the engine, guiding her 1000 pound bulk back onto her mounts, he muttered with his lingering East Coast edge, “We do it ‘cause we love it, that’s the fuckin’ pisser.”

Beyond financial worries, it’s this love that makes it tough to say goodbye. After much debate and not a small amount of sadness, we pulled our hooks aboard for the last time that afternoon. By then the rain had let up and the seas had come down, and we hugged each other close, tactile thanks for the months of teamwork. Cap’n J revved up the Jimmy for our final run back to Sitka, and I cranked up the music for my intensive end-of-year deck scrub.

Mixing the bleach-heavy solution, I thought about the traits that make a good fisherman. Endurance, observation, creativity. Patience. The ability to juggle prudence with necessary risk. Some degree of obsession. To be independently wealthy would be okay, too.

But perhaps our greatest quality is the gift of selective memory. Within a month, the day we called our last won’t matter. We’ll forget all of this season’s challenges and remember only the good. Those massive hogs of the second king salmon opening. The spectacular sunrises of early September. The joys of community within the fleet this season, boat parties that crossed code group lines and rang with laughter. If there’s one thing fishermen know, it’s that suffering is temporary, but the pride in our work and gifts of our experiences are lasting.

From us to you, with gratitude for our customers. Thanks to all for making this life possible for us.








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