Beyond a Final Scratch: Clawing Our Way to the Season’s End

20 09 2012

When the alarm goes off at 5:00, night still owns Southeast Alaska. Joel pulls the anchor and, by the green guidance of the radar, weaves our way between the other boats. The secure anchorage is calm, but deep, steep seas greet us at the mouth of the bay, abruptly flinging the Nerka’s bow up and down. Bear leaps off the bunk on wobbly legs and huddles beneath the table, staring at us with wide eyes. A single howl of dissent pierces the cabin.

“NAAAO-OHHHH!”

“Oh, sweetie…” Feeling like a terrible parent, I pat her spot on the bunk. “It’s okay, Bear-cat, c’mon back up here.”

She times her return jump with the waves and lies down, pressed tight against the cabin wall, dilated eyes fixed at nothing. We coo over her, stroking her stiff body, and Joel shakes his head. “Even Bear’s burned out. It’s like she knows it’s September now. I think that was the ‘Why are we still doing this, I want to go home now!’ howl.”

*****

That was a few weeks ago. Since then, Joel, Bear, and I have each issued our own burn-out howls. It’s been a long time since our spring homecoming –six months, almost to the day – and this unusually long season has taken its toll. The Nerka’s cabin morphed from warm and cozy to cramped and mildewed. Cap’n J’s black hair sports several new strands of white. And after half a year sealed in double-layered wool socks and rubber boots, my feet are a horror show. Our bodies are weary, our minds ready for a new challenge beyond seducing salmon to bite our lures.

Friends from Down South (anywhere, that is, below Alaska) send increasingly insistent texts. “Where are you? When are you coming back?” All of the other Washington-based trollers already pulled the plug on this season – some as early as August, opting to chase tuna off the West Coast instead.  Marlin, our last partner standing, called it quits yesterday.

It’s tough to stay motivated when, everywhere you look, boats are being put to bed. But there’s a deep chasm between wanting to do something different and feeling able to, and the calculator hisses that we’re not done yet – that we shouldn’t be done yet. Though Southeast Alaska’s coho troll fishery typically closes on September 20, it figures that the Alaska Department of Fish & Game would issue a 10-day extension this year. Given the opportunity to fish right up to September 30 (weather permitting, a weighty caveat this time of year), isn’t that what a person should do?

(This is where Marlin’s voice pops into my head to scold, “Don’t should on yourself!” Tough not to, sometimes.)

Beyond the physically monotonous tasks of commercial fishing, there’s an equally repetitious mental narrative. Just like last year – just like every year – I’m haunted by questions of balance. Where do you separate the values of money and time? Between financial security and self-care? As a seasonal worker, how do you drive yourself hard enough to know you’ll be “okay” through the winter, yet still demonstrate a priority for relationships, allowing for a beach party here and an extra few hours in town there? And how do you get beyond being “okay” until the next fishing season, to actually beginning to weave a safety net of savings?

If I knew the answers, this wouldn’t even be a post. If any of you can relate to these struggles, I’d love to hear your reflections on what you’ve learned, what’s worked for you.

All of this is to say, friends, that I don’t know when we’ll next be in touch or where I’ll be writing from. We splurged on a day at the dock today, mostly to say our goodbyes. (Also to have Thanksgiving dinner with the good ship Sadaqa, of course. The fourth Thursday of November’s got nothin’ on mid-September, when we gather to give thanks for a safe season, beautiful wild salmon, and the beloved friends we share this life with.)

The alarm clock is set for 4:00; we’ll untie the lines and run to Cape Edgecumbe, about four hours out. We’ll be fishing for ourselves tomorrow, setting aside a personal stash of coho to keep us fed this winter. After that, it’s tough to say what will happen. Fishermen make art of indecision.

Until that next landfall, friends – wherever it may be – be safe and be well. We’ll be in touch.

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10 responses

20 09 2012
Vicky Wood

Geez, September 15th has come and gone! Time to fly south! I hope you catch your winter supply in short order, humm maybe even a big fat king or two!! Be Well…..Be Safe.

20 09 2012
Nancy D

Tele WHO?? Get your butt down here and enjoy some gorgeous fall!

20 09 2012
karlalovesfish

Tele & Joel, all I can say is – been there. Til the end of September (coho fishing until the 30th). Then long-lined with Al in October (not a good time of year to be messing around on Spencer Spit with no running partners). Then brought the boat down to WA after that! Amidst hurricane warnings & gale winds. Took 3 weeks and we got home 4 days before Thanksgiving. Wouldn’t do it that way again, but we had a boat payment to make, so we did. I understand the thinking & your decision & have great respect for the seamanship the two of you demonstrate aboard the Nerka. That said, listen to your cat!

20 09 2012
keneumey

Ha! I’m the only one thinking, “You can do it! Hang in there! What’s another 10 days? Push on. Those people putting their boats to bed are quitters, and now you can catch all their fish!”

However, if your body and your cat are telling you you’re done, you’re done. No point pushing through if you’re not at your best. The only thing I know how to compare it to is writing. Sometimes I’m too tired or moody to write, so what’s the point? I’m not going to produce anything worthwhile, so might as well take a nap and write again another day.

Can’t wait to see you when you do make it back.

20 09 2012
Holly

“Fishermen make art of indecision.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better understatement.
Seems like all the comments are voting for Bear. I probably would too. But then I’d change my mind and say “Just go fishing one more day… what if there’s a huge school at Edgecumbe right now… there are hardly any boats out there…” And then I would say, “It’s 7:35 and it’s dark already? Holy sh–! Summer is over. Let’s go home.” And then I would change my mind again.

I don’t have any wisdom or advice. I just really love this blog. I will miss it when you’re gone.

1 10 2012
Tele

Have you REALLY only been trolling for two seasons, Holly? Your comment is pure veteran fisherman, vacillation and all! :)

How was your season? I heard your skipper was thinking of retirement… What are you thinking for next summer? What are your off-season plans?

And thanks for being such a long-time, true-blue friend to Hooked, Holly. Don’t fret, there’s nothing to miss. I’m not going anywhere… I get as much, if not more, from our exchanges as you do. :)

21 09 2012
Claire 'Word by Word'

Weariness drips from the words but the act of writing them perhaps provides its own sustenance for you to keep going – and a land visit for Bear. Pushing the boundaries allows you to explore beyond, making it slightly different perhaps to last year, the fisherman’s equivalent of change perhaps?

The reward awaits and will be appreciated all the more for the sacrifice made I am sure.

21 09 2012
pierrmorgan

Just take really good care of yourselves. Visualizing a calm ride for your coho harvest.

23 09 2012
patriciasands

“The fourth Thursday of November’s got nothin’ on mid-September, when we gather to give thanks for a safe season, beautiful wild salmon, and the beloved friends we share this life with.” – You truly state the meaning of Thanksgiving no matter when or where you are. Wishing you a safe and productive last run for the year!

25 09 2012
Karolee Joel

Geeze Tele, I’m in Newport fishing the last king openings. Tuna went belly in late August, but I’ve just recently arrived down here. High pressure is holding, the days are still sunny and sort of warm; nights cooling down like it is fall or something. These fish are just feeders, only 10 pound average they are paying $5.25 straight. Weather has been exceptionally nice, but there are disturbances heading this way. Forecast from the European Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting says later next week it goes back to really nice, in the mean time sort of lumpy and windy and maybe a little bit not fishable.

The trolling down here is not that different. The biggest challenge is lose crab gear. Think human planted pinnacles that might move during the day. So the big radio network supplies pot sighting reports more than fish reports. Cooperation is the ethical standard down here, on fish and pots and weather. That is sort of different from AK – it seems that it takes long time to learn from people where the uncharted rocks are.

This will all change by the end of October when the fishery is finally over. Getting up the coast to the Straights might be a challenge. It is 36 hours to Cape Flattery, dodging crab bouys, and ships. Not the struggle to get down from AK, but you king of need 36 good hours. You might hop from Newport to Astoria to Westport to Neah Bay, but you really hope to get home this time of year, right?

See you this winter.




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