Merry Solstice, Friends!

21 12 2012

As you know, I’m not so much into the holidays, but Solstice always resonates with our seasonally driven, migratory life. So it was a special treat to start today with one of Lynn Schooler’s stunning Alaskan photographs, captioned with his own appreciative acknowledgement of Winter Solstice. My thanks to Lynn for his permission to share his photo and sentiments with you.

Lynn Schooler, Solstice Whale Dance

Lynn wrote, “There was the fading winter light, with alpenglow on the mountains, and suddenly a fully grown humpback whale burst from the sea toward the sky

Happy solstice, everyone. Let’s celebrate. We made it around the corner and we’re heading back toward spring.

(Of course, you’re always welcome to click ‘share’ on my photos if you like, or if we are not already friends, shoot me a friend request and I will be happy to accept.)”

If you’re not familiar with author/photographer Lynn Schooler’s work, you can start with this review of one of my favorite books. Happy Solstice, friends – my best wishes to you and yours. 





Life in the Gray: After Sandy Hook

17 12 2012

I’m writing to you from a ferry. Seated alone on a midday crossing, staring into a muted seascape. Ocean the green of beach glass, clouds shushing the sky; land’s faintest skeleton peeks through sheets of rain. Whitecaps the only bright spots in this world. “Lots of sheep out here today,” one of our fleet elders would say about the turbulent sea.

This relentless gray depresses some, but I embrace it, a reassuring companion for my eternal ambivalence. It’s here in the gray that I struggle to balance a precarious tower of contradiction.

Contradictions like my relationship with guns. On auto-answer, I would’ve told you I don’t have one. You know who I am, sweeties – tree hugging, tofu eating, feminist fisherman and all that. I don’t like guns. I don’t want to shoot shit. I don’t need one to feel safe; they invoke the opposite in me. I don’t want any part of guns or gun culture.

But that’s too black and white for someone living in the gray. Of course I have a relationship with guns. Born and largely raised in a state where over 60% of households have them, how could I not?

Early childhood in Wasilla. My parents – like most Alaskans – hunted. One of our family stories recalled leg cramps hobbling my dad on a caribou trip. My mom packed him, all their gear, and the meat back out.

Being a deckhand. Until recently, most of the boats I crewed on had guns aboard. My mom. Single men. Family boats. Folks who regularly served venison and wouldn’t go to the beach without a gun as bear protection. The single time I’ve fired a gun was on one of those boats, urged to join my shipmates in target shooting a can tossed in the water. Wish I could tell you we retrieved the can afterward.

The August night that my teenaged self paddled to a Sitka Sound island with a handful of other deckhands. We started drinking on the way out, passing the fifth of Jager between kayaks, wasted by dusk. We told fireside stories of the kushtaka, Tlingit lore’s shape-shifting otter-man. Spooked by a shadowy tree, one of the boys pulled a handgun from his backpack. Began waving it around. The rest of us suddenly sober, another grabbed the gun and put it away.

Still a teenager. Midnight cruising the back roads of Washington farmlands. When headlights appeared in the rearview, the jittery driver reached for the glove box. A handgun inside. His paranoia, certain that the car behind was “after us.” Making it home, shaken by what could have been. A year later, learning that boy killed a man.

The land job I had, where shotguns leaned against the truck shop walls, casually propped alongside broomsticks. When the boss’s temper snapped, he’d grab the closest one, stalk outside, and blast starlings off the power lines.

The contrast of people in my heart. I’m on this ferry traveling to a winter reunion with fishing friends. Almost everyone there will be a hunter – including the petite young woman who recently shot her first deer, a four-point – except for Joel and me. I don’t eat meat other than fish because I choose not to eat what I can’t take responsibility for putting on my plate. I don’t like killing fish, but I do it as humanely as possible, with gratitude and respect. Most of these hunters share those values. They talk of “bad kills” – shots where the deer suffered unduly – with disapproval and condemn waste. I respect their connection to the food on their tables. I’ll be happy to see each of them, while avoiding the fixed marble-eyed gaze of bucks long since passed through our hosts’ freezer, Santa hats perched jauntily on ears forever cocked.

But this isn’t just about guns.

Contradictions like the sudden urgency with which we talk about mental healthcare after a tragedy like Sandy Hook, and the reality of how we respond to those struggling among us. The conversations that inevitably follow, where we talk about mental illness the way some folks talk about Africa – like it’s one uniform place, rather than a continent of many countries, ethnicities, languages, religions, cultures. Mental illness is that continent, inclusive of millions of us and a broad spectrum of diagnoses, behaviors, challenges, and triumphs. Contradictions like my hope that this will be the tragedy to reframe our nation’s priorities, that we’ll veer towards valuing and investing in others’ wellness, squared off against antipathy for a discussion that stigmatizes all people in need as the next potential assailant.

Contradictions like friends’ posts on Facebook, where we communally grieve, rage, and process.

“It is one’s choice to act in a manner that will bring pain and suffering upon another,” wrote one. “Sadly, there isn’t anything we, as individuals and as a nation, will ever be able to do about the actions another chooses.”

Another said, “We live in a culture that is more oriented to competition than cooperation, to power than vulnerability; to materialism rather than sustainability; to defense rather than inquiry; to self-interest and individual rights rather than concern for the whole.”

I didn’t have the strength to weigh in. What could I say that hasn’t already been said about Sandy Hook… and Oregon… Tulare County… Minneapolis… New York… Wisconsin… Colorado… Seattle… Florida… Arizona… Ohio… Georgia… and Texas, in 2012 alone? Words are such worthless fragments, too small and brittle for this size of grief. What would they even matter?

Blogger Jim Wright’s readers were anxious to hear what the fiercely spoken Alaskan – a gun owning, military consulting, Navy veteran – would say about Newtown, but he wasn’t having it. “I may have something to say later, but at the moment, I’m not going to waste my time – and it’s exactly that, a complete and utter waste of my time because absolutely NOTHING has changed since the last bloody slaughter, since the last time a bunch of kids were mowed down by the insanity that is America and its bizarre obsession with guns and violence and blood. Nothing has changed. Not one goddamned thing. Exactly as I said five months ago. We can’t even have the conversation. Both sides were already rehashing the same old arguments before the blood was dry.”

I have two friends who didn’t rehash old arguments. They embraced action. “The only response is to organize,” the one in Seattle wrote. “I’ll be hosting a conversation today at 3 pm about possible next steps for those of us who want to ‘do something’ about gun violence. You don’t have to be any kind of expert – I’m not.”

The resulting group has scheduled bi-weekly meetings, open to anyone who wants to be involved. If you’d like to be, visit the Densmore Working Group.

The friend in Sitka didn’t waste any time, either: “I am sure that many of you are as furious, outraged, devastated, and so, so sad about the Connecticut shooting as I am,” she wrote. “I feel so strongly that SOMETHING needs to change in our nation, our states, and our communities. My personal step towards a solution is to invite people to a letter-writing campaign this Wednesday, December 19, at 6:30 pm at the Larkspur to send letters to our state senators, representatives, and president. The goal here is to do SOMETHING proactive to reduce these violent incidents.”

If you’re in Sitka, drop by the Larkspur Café, 6:30 to 8:30 pm, to participate. Those outside of Sitka can join in, too. I’ll be writing my letters in solidarity from Bellingham.

There aren’t a lot of easy answers here in the gray, but one sunbeam voice breaks through. My friend Laura posted this resource from Mr. Rogers, advising parents how to talk to children about traumatic events. “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

Good advice for all. May we look for the helpers… May we be the helpers. I’m thankful to have friends setting the example.





Boat Cats. Fishermen. Heaven.

28 11 2012

Some of you know my weaknesses.

Pie. Baked treats in general. Delightfully patterned socks. Pens, paper, empty notebooks waiting to be filled. Fabric. Crafty people. Books. Bread and cheese. Those one-size-fit-all stretchy gloves. Handwritten cards. Bandannas. Funky coffee shops. Bad pop music. Good tattoos. Coconut ice cream. Ravens – all of the corvids, really. Squirrels.

(Joel interjects here that I have a particular fondness for the creatures most people view as pests, “including humans.” It’s true: the outcasts have a friend in me. We recognize our own.)

And boat cats.

Regular Hooked readers know Bear, but my boat cat history dates back to 1984. My parents launched the sailboat they’d been building in the backyard, sold the vet clinic that was both home and livelihood, found a new human for our two black Labs, and packed everything else into a 40-foot van. Everything, that is, except for Yacky.

This Siamese came to us as a client. His humans brought him in for a urinary blockage, then elected to have him put to sleep, rather than pay for the treatment. “Well, if you don’t want him, can I have him?” my mom asked. Successfully flushed out, he never had a problem again.

When the Askari splashed, Yacky came with us. I suppose my parents figured we had room enough for a cat that didn’t move much. Probably the ensuing years of transience weren’t a lot of fun for Yacky – sailboat, house, broken-down motorhome, different house, new boat, dragged along with every bi-annual migration. Somehow he lived to be 18, quietly dying aboard the Willie Lee II in 1995, my mom and I both at his furry side.

Thanks to those origins, boats and cats are inextricably linked in my mind. How can you go to sea without a kitty to snuggle? Who’ll you talk to when you’re 40 miles offshore, tired of your shipmate, and not going back to land for another few weeks? Who’ll be the boat’s chief morale officer?

(In 2005, I struggled to decide if I’d continue crewing for my “brother” Marlin, or jump ship to work with Joel. A major negotiating chip was who’d be the first to get a boat cat. Those two know me awfully well.)

Someone else does, too. My friend sweet wirkman sent me a link today. “Cat Heaven Island in Japan.”   Photographer Fubirai spent over five years documenting the semi-feral felines, cared for by local fishermen. They’re stunning photos. I swooned. (After some anxiety over the spay/neuter/vaccination services. A commenter claims such a program has been in place for years, and I’m choosing to believe that’s so.)

By Fubirai, from Buzzfeed

I’d planned to spend tonight practicing for a Fisher Poets performance that’s in 15 hours, but cats on the interwebs have completely derailed me. If that happens to you periodically too, don’t miss these 50 gorgeous photos. Let me know your favorites. I’m calling 2, 4, 10, 13, 16, 20 – oh, just go see for yourself.

(Also, the story claims that the soundtrack is “optional.” If you grew up in the Eighties, it’s most definitely NOT. As sweet wirkman advised me, “play the optional soundtrack.”)

And because I just can’t help myself, here’s a video of TWO of my favorite things, together.

I know some of Hooked’s regulars have their own boat cat stories. Have at it, friends – I’d love to hear about your seafaring felines. (Joel K, I’m lookin’ at you, sir…) And because we’re about inclusivity here, ocean-going dogs are welcome, too. Who’s your vessel’s chief morale officer?





Fishermen’s Thanksgiving

22 11 2012

Earlier this week, a friend asked what I’d be doing on Thursday. When I blinked dumbly at her for a few beats, she prompted, “You know – for Thanksgiving!”

Oh. Right…

Growing up in a fractured family of three insular people far more comfortable with books and work than each other, “the holidays” don’t resonate for me. I’m not down with the history behind Thanksgiving. I’m not a Christian, and Bear the Boat Cat isn’t worked up about presents and pageantry. One of my favorite Christmases was the one I spent alone in a Californian apartment, dog-sitting for the manager of the Ben & Jerry’s shop that I spare-changed in front of. From about mid-October to after the New Year, I’m happiest to opt out of the cultural hoopla.

Joel comes from a different background. His family tree has many branches – siblings, cousins, partners – and holidays are an opportunity for bringing everyone together. They make big meals, play games, go on walks, get loud and laugh a lot and generally show how completely engaged they are with one another. Eight years in, I still feel like I’m participant-observing another species. (A generous, loving species that’s been nothing but welcoming to me.) True to my Aadsen roots, I get a little anxious as soon as there aren’t any dishes to wash or other tasks for me to fuss with. My social skills generally run out while the festivities are still going strong.

(True confession: I’m hiding in his aunt’s room right now. Slipped away as soon as the crab dip was gone. This is one of the reasons I’m so thankful to have weaseled my way into Cap’n J’s family: not only do they know I snuck away to write, it’s okay. Amazing, the tolerance these folks have.)

This all sounds bad, but I’m not a total Grinch. I believe in gratitude. That’s why I celebrate Thanksgiving in September.

*****

Fishermen’s Thanksgiving began in September 2010. The salmon season had ended, and the Sadaqa was making the run south with another troller. Midway down the Canadian Inside Passage, they tied up together in Bishop Bay Hot Springs. Marlin cooked a chicken and Stovetop stuffing, opened a can of cranberry sauce, and offered thanks for the season’s harvest.

Joel and I got in on this tradition the following year. With both the Sadaqa and the Nerka spending the winter in Sitka, we had serious chores to do before anyone could hop on a plane and ditch our boats for six months. But in the midst of all that frenzy, we agreed: there was time for Thanksgiving.

Though smaller, the Nerka was in slightly less disarray than the Sadaqa. So at 6:00, down the dock marched our friends – Marlin, Ross, and Mikey – pushing a fully-loaded cart. They handed over one delicious-smelling pan after another; I struggled to wedge everything into our tiny galley. Marlin roasted a chicken, onions and potatoes in a cast iron skillet. I made mashed sweet potatoes and squash, and a piece of salmon for the non-bird eater among us. In addition to a five-gallon bucket full of Black Butte Porters, Marlin brought a fancy ginger ale for me. Marking a long, challenging season with joyous reflection, we basked in the glow of gratitude for plentiful salmon, good weather, well-behaved boats, durable bodies, and beloved friends.

I credit Marlin with instituting Fishermen’s Thanksgiving as a tradition. One of his deckhands, Mikey, has attended all three years. In a bit of serendipitous timing, he called just as I began writing this piece. When I asked if there was anything he wanted to say about our tradition, Mikey didn’t hesitate.

“Fishermen’s Thanksgiving ruins regular Thanksgiving – or ‘Lower 48 Thanksgiving,’ as I call it. It hadn’t been a super-commercial holiday until pretty recently, but people are promoting the Black Friday thing now to the point that it’s fucking stupid, right? And having that mess sitting right next to ‘Here are my good friends, being thankful for the season we all just shared, made some money, had some good times’ creates a pretty stark dichotomy. Basically, regular Thanksgiving kinda sucks after you’ve had Fishermen’s Thanksgiving.”

*****

My November Thanksgiving did not suck.

It involved a ridiculous abundance of good food, shared in a warm house, among loving family. When we couldn’t eat another bite, we put the leftovers in the refrigerator and scrubbed the dishes with seemingly endless clean hot water. All of us are reasonably healthy and able-bodied – even the 93 year old – and hold similar social justice ethos. Each plate included a bookmark with this quote from civil rights leader Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go out and do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

It was a good day.

And because it was a good day, I felt like that much more of a jerk. Mikey’s analysis of the two holidays rang absolutely true for me. This arbitrary autumn Thursday didn’t carry the profound seasonal punctuation our September gathering had. When Joel and I drove home tonight, we talked about why that was.

“This feels random,” he said. “That’s not to say that I’m not thankful for this time with my family, because I am. But in September, we’re actually marking a seasonal transition. There’s something specific on the line: we’re giving thanks for a safe harvest and a finished season, with friends who are our family, who we’ve just shared these intense months with, and now we won’t see much – if at all – until next summer. We’re marking the end of one side of our life and moving into the other. Thanksgiving in Alaska just has bigger meaning grounded in place and time.”

Maybe that’s what it is. November Thanksgiving provides a day to enjoy family we otherwise rarely see – but for me, it could be any day. Fishermen’s Thanksgiving carries the weight of intentional change. We recognize what’s been with gratitude, while inviting what’s next with openness. As challenging as seasonal livelihood is, it presents a rare gift of reflection. Deliberate demarcations of life.

Still, I know both Joel and I will be thankful tomorrow morning for leftover pie.

Despite what may come across as a curmudgeonly attitude, friends, I hope you had a lovely day, wherever and however you spent it. You’re in my best, most appreciative thoughts, no matter what the season.





Losing People, Compass in Hand

6 10 2012

I’m holding a battered metal compass in my hand tonight. It says my writing desk faces southwest, and that the cat curls her tail northward. It doesn’t say which direction skirts despair, doesn’t guide the path toward hope. Folding it closed, I wonder what good a compass actually does.

*****

Longtime Hooked readers have heard references to my social worker days. From June 1999 to May 2005, I worked with homeless youth in Seattle’s University District. Though more years have now passed than I actually spent there, “the Ave” maintains a tight grip on my heart.

As fiercely as I loved “my kids,” I relied on a few things to carry me through. My colleagues, inspiring souls who shared the trenches as well as intense passion, gallows humor, and a devotion to harm reduction. Our standing “self-care” date at Flowers Bar on Wednesday nights.  A private ritual for grieving whenever we lost one of our kids.

The day came when these tools were no longer enough. Love wasn’t enough. Realizing that I wasn’t doing good work anymore – and that I hadn’t been doing good work for far longer than I cared to admit – I felt like I’d been mopping the ocean, only to be consumed by the undertow.

They say that you shouldn’t try to fight an undertow, so I let it steal me from the Ave. I gave in to the current until it released me in the Gulf of Alaska, returned to my original home and workplace. As I sought solace in familiar mountains, guilt and fear tugged at my raw edges. Guilt that I’d abandoned young people who’d dared to trust once more, after lifetimes of betrayal. Fear that I’d never get to know what happened next in their lives.

(If I’m honest? Fear that I wouldn’t know when yet another kid died.)

Back in 2005, I hadn’t envisioned a Facebook future. Whatever discomfort I have with social media’s ever-grasping tentacles, it’s been priceless for keeping in touch with transient loved ones. I can “like” graduations and family news. I can be a virtual cheerleader for sobriety, offer congratulations on a new job, and celebrate the day of their birth.

And I can receive messages like this one:

Hey it’s SR.
B passed away. He went missing 09-20. He was found unidentifiable on a blanket in the far corner of his mothers back yard yesterday. She said it might be months til they can identify a cause. We wern’t sure if you knew. Sorry.

*****

After all these years, my Ave death ritual remains the same. Alone in a dark room. One candle, crafted by an unknown inmate at the Monroe State Prison. One song, Leonard Cohen’s gravel promises twining through those dark places that candlelight can’t reach.

I will speak no more

I shall abide until

I am spoken for,

if it be your will.

When I try to sing through the tears, my voice crumples like discarded newspaper. Better to sit quietly and remember a young man who was just a towheaded boy when he first arrived on Seattle’s streets.

B came to the Ave as many kids do – gentle, tender-hearted, searching. A brutal introduction to street life stripped the trust from his blue eyes. He toughened up fast, forged a crusty exterior. Yet through all that followed – every sleepless night blurring into a series of sleepless days, every “Oi, oi!” hollered down the block and followed with a hug heartier than his increasingly thin frame seemed capable of, every mug shot gifted like a yearbook photo – the sweet in him still shone through.

I could never anticipate which fresh-faced youngsters would fling themselves hardest down the rabbit hole, but that’s just what B did. He ran his body like it was stolen. His years on the Ave came to a screaming halt in 2002, when prison closed steely arms around him. Despite my best intentions to be a supportive pen pal, new faces demanded immediate response to the same crises. I lost track of B.

Until 2009. A message appeared – Facebook, again. B wrote with warmth and clarity, proud to share the gifts in his life. Re-settled in his home state across the country, he had a job. A house. A wife and young daughter.

Then and now, I never know if my kids are honest about their well-being. Especially in a many-years-gone-by reunion like this. B knew I wanted to hear he was clean and healthy, and that’s what he wanted to report. In the end, it doesn’t matter if I’m told The Truth as someone’s living it, or “the truth” as they wish they were. There are reasons we tell the stories we do, and they all boil down to wanting to please and protect. If I hear lies, I hear them told with love.

Something changed. In 2010, B decided to return to Seattle. I worried – why dance on quicksand when you’ve already struggled free once? – and wrote overly parental lectures. This time would be different, he assured me. “I’m not the same kid I was, Tele. The plan is to be productive.”

Stories are subjective, but I couldn’t misread the color in B’s skin and fleshy cushion over his cheekbones. His hug was solid. Stable. Both of us equally out of place on the block that had once been our universe, we ducked into Pagliacci’s for refuge. I bought him two slices of pizza that he picked at. We traded stories of our new lives, doing our best to level a relationship that’d been built on a steep grade.

At the end of our visit, B walked me to the bus stop. Fishing in his pants pocket, he pulled out a battered metal compass and folded it into my hand. “Here.” When I protested, he insisted. “No, dude, I want you to have it. So you don’t get lost.”

Two weeks later, B wrote that Seattle wasn’t working out as he’d hoped. Once again, he headed across the country for his home state. Still searching.

We traded Facebook hellos here and there. Did I text him a random good wish this summer, during one of those rare moments of cell service at sea? Sounds familiar, but now I can’t be sure. Am I recalling The Truth that was, or “the truth” I wish had been?

*****

A friend and I used to co-teach “Homelessness 101,” training the University District’s new volunteers. Inevitably, someone would ask, “How many of these kids actually make it out?”

We could recite the answer in our sleep. Most of our program guests would find their way into healthier, more stable lives, but that meant something different for everyone. The routes out of street life were as varied and unique as the people taking them; there was no cookie-cutter method for “making it out.”

But tonight, darkness folds around me, broken by the shuddering breath of candlelight, and my faith is shaken. Squeezing B’s final gift, I feel the metal bite my palm. The placement of my desk, the angle of the cat’s tail, the position of north, south, east, west… All irrelevant. So many of us are lost, searching for hope, peace, purpose. A sense of self-worth, and the strength to surpass what we’ve been told about ourselves. Those directions – where do you find them?

I thought you’d found your way, B sweetie – I thought you’d made it out. If you’d held onto your compass, would that have helped?

Let your mercy spill

On all these burning hearts in hell

If it be your will

To make us well.

B’s death leaves a gaping hole in a lot of hearts, and my thoughts are with you all. As you grieve, please ask for help if you’re thinking of hurting yourself. Contact Seattle’s 24-hour Crisis Clinic line at 1-866-4CRISIS, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.784.2433. Take care of yourselves, sweeties, and each other.





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.





Lost at Sea: The Man in the Fish Tote

11 09 2012

Friday, September 7th, is a bad day on the ocean.

With the forecast calling for Southeast winds of 35 knots and 11-foot seas, the Nerka spends the morning trolling in the mouth of Gilmer Bay. We hadn’t expected to be fishing at all today. If we catch anything, we reason, they’ll be bonus fish, and we’ll already be safe in the harbor’s arms when the wind comes up. On Day 13 of a grueling trip, a relaxing afternoon on anchor sounds good.

We eat lunch on the pick shortly after the wind bares its teeth, but any further thought of relaxing whooshes overboard with the building gusts. By early afternoon, eight trollers cluster on the bay’s southern shelf, straining taut anchor lines. Our companions are 48-foot fiberglass and steel rigs, sturdy, seaworthy vessels. As seaworthy as any of us can be. With September’s onslaught of fall weather, no one wants to push their luck. Winner of the tough guy award, the final arrival drops his anchor at 3:00.

Whitecaps slam-dance between boats as the wind holds steady at 39 knots. The gusts are dragon’s breath, visibly rip-snorting through the bay. An elderly wooden troller, located several hours away behind St. Lazaria Island, begins taking on water, and one of our harbor mates drags anchor. As the captain naps, his boat shoots clear across the anchorage as if sail-powered, pausing a quarter-mile from the rocks. Another troller is charging over to alert him, when he wakes in time to avert disaster.

Darkness brings a rare pardon. The man taking on water reports that he’s safe for the night. The gusts let up and the whitecaps come down. The dragon goes to sleep, and so do Joel and I. Deep in relieved dreams, neither of us hear the Coast Guard’s midnight call to any vessels anchored in Gilmer Bay.

*****

Saturday begins at 4:30, when Joel pulls the anchor and we run into the pitch black. Out Gilmer Bay, past Point Amelia, on to Beaver Point. Though dawn is an hour away, so is the spot we want to drop our hooks. After the previous day’s frenzied conditions, the sea’s remaining bounce feels gentle.

When our fishing partner Marlin joins us on the drag, his voice is grave. “There’s a boat missing. That’s why they were calling all of us in the anchorage last night, to see if they’d made it in there.”

He describes a 28-foot troller, “landing craft style” – an open vessel rigged with a couple fishing davits and outboard motors. “I’ve passed it in the straits,” he says. “Can’t remember the name, but they always wave as they go by.”

Fishermen are never a stronger community than in situations like this. When tragedy cuts one of us down, we all bleed. We throw judgment to staunch the flow of fear; our anxiety turns hot, acrid. Envisioning the worst as foregone conclusions, our anger is that of parents waiting for a teenager out long past curfew. We talk about the “big boats” that holed up tight or headed for town, and curse, “What the fuck were they doing out there?”

All morning, the Coast Guard’s orange bird buzzes Kruzof Island. The usual fishing chatter is eerily absent from the VHF. Throughout the fleet, we all turn up the volume, lean in to follow the helicopter’s search updates as they’re broadcast across channel 16.

Midday, the Sitka Mountain Rescue reports debris at Shoal Point. Hearts seize. “Debris” is code for an oil slick on the water, drifting buckets, maritime tombstones marking the site where a boat went down. But the helicopter quickly disputes this sighting. “The debris is tsunami-related, we can see the Japanese writing.” The search goes on.

At 1:40, the State Trooper patrol vessel Courage calls the Coast Guard. “We’ve got one survivor in sight on the beach at Point Amelia. He’s waving, ambulatory, and appears to be okay. If you’ve got a helo you can send, landing’s gonna be tough.”

The response is immediate. “We’re about four minutes out, eight miles away.”

“It’s a very steep, cliff-y area,” the Trooper warns. “You’re gonna have to use a hoist.”

“Roger that. Thanks for the help.”

*****

Though Joel and I are alone on the Nerka, I swear the cabin rings with every other trollers’ cries of relief when the pilot’s voice comes through the speakers. “We’ve got one survivor on board.”

Thanks to the alert man’s explanations, the pilot relays previously unknown details. At 2:30 on Friday afternoon, they went down off Beaver Point. The last troller came into Gilmer at 3:00, I remember. An hour’s run… He would’ve been right in front of them. 

Joel interrupts my pensive thoughts with his own. “Dude. When we smelled gas earlier…”

Trolling along Beaver Point several hours earlier, we’d gotten a sudden whiff of gas. Marlin had, too, asking his deckhand to check that their skiff motor wasn’t leaking. But there’d been no rainbow sheen on the water. The ghostly vapors were gone almost as soon as we’d smelled them.

Now we stare at each other in too-late dawning horror. “Holy shit… That was their boat we were smelling.”

“Shit. I didn’t even think… We should’ve let them know, gotten them on the scene a few hours earlier.”

Guilt is a cold shroud, and I shudder. It’s too horrifying to realize that we’d thoughtlessly puttered over a shipwreck less than a day old, its people vanished.

*****

 Now, thanks to the located survivor, the Coast Guard issues a Pan Pan radio call with additional information.

“The Coast Guard has received a report of zero-one persons in the water in the vicinity of Gilmer Bay. The person is described as a male wearing an olive green float coat, dark blue fishing pants, located in or near a light blue fish tote. All vessels in the vicinity are requested to keep a sharp lookout, assist if possible, and report all sightings. This is Coast Guard Sector Juneau, out.”

Not a survival suit – a float coat. I glance at the clock. It’s been almost 24 hours since they went down. Fear again spits forth as frustration. Oh, for god’s sake – an olive green float coat? Wear stuff that allows you to be found! Ahead, the coastline lurks through Southeast Alaska’s omnipresent ocean mist. Dense dark forest meets a charcoal shore. I glance down at myself – black fleece pants, black thermal shirt – and make a mental note. From here on out, I will select fish clothes as if my life depends on them.

*****

By 2:00, forecasted “light winds” have escalated to a snarling 27 knots. With the wind comes sideways rain. The fish stopped biting after a few good tacks; now Joel and I loiter in the cabin’s warmth, ignoring our empty lines. “This is stupid,” he finally says. “We’ve had a good trip. Let’s stack ‘em and get going to town.”

The logical route back to Sitka is to run south, around Cape Edgecumbe and into Sitka Sound. But it’s gotten shitty, and we’d be bucking right into it. We opt to run up the coast instead, tacking an extra 10 miles onto the journey, to duck into Salisbury Sound and double back down to Sitka by way of Neva and Olga Straits’ blissfully calm embrace.

The Nerka charges along at 6.5 knots as Joel and I follow the radio conversation between the Coast Guard and the Trooper patrol vessel. They’ve combed the entirety of Gilmer Bay and the surrounding area. “Have you looked off-shore?” one asks the other. They haven’t yet, but will run five miles out and begin tacking up.

“If he went off-shore…. That’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.” Joel turns to me. “You know, we’re running this way, anyway. Let’s duck out and keep an eye out.”

I nod. “Sounds good.”

But “keeping an eye out” is easier said than done. With dense cloud cover sitting heavily on the water, visibility has deteriorated to less than a half-mile. The seas are battleship gray, punctuated with white curlers that smack the Nerka’s port hindquarter as we angle off-shore. We take a couple nasty rolls, traveling in the trough. I’m ashamed of my relief when Joel clicks the autopilot to the starboard.

He studies the chart on the computer screen. “The helicopter said they already flew at two miles and didn’t see anything. We’re at two miles now, so let’s angle in and run the one-and-a-half mile line up to Salisbury.”

I perch at the starboard windows while Joel surveys the area to our port, binoculars snug against his eyes. The glasses twitch at every paddling seabird. We simultaneously gasp at a head bobbing towards us. It disappears under the surface, then slowly pops up for a closer look – a head of bull kelp.

He shakes his head. “Amazing how something like this makes the ocean seem like such a huge, lonely place.”

For the next 35 minutes, we stare into the sea. Loud silence settles in the cabin, until Joel breaks it. “Can you imagine what that guy must be going through? Bobbing around in this weather, no idea where he is or if anyone’ll find him…”

I don’t voice my terrible thought: I don’t expect he’s going through anything anymore. Adrift in these conditions all night and all day, no survival suit, totally dependent on a plastic tote that may or may not still be afloat?

Moments later, Joel says what I didn’t. “If they haven’t found him by now… I think that guy’s a goner.”

“Yeah.”

Still we look. Everyone does.

*****

When I leave the window, it feels like kneeling to defeat. I cut an apple, slice some cheese. Neither of us is hungry. The food sits on the table like an accusation.

“THERE!” Joel leaps up from the pilot seat, pointing out the window with one suddenly shaky hand, yanking the throttle down with the other. “What’s that?”

Immediately ahead, sixty feet to our port, a blue tote wallows among the waves like an apparition. The opening faces away from us, listing heavily to one side. A dreadful thought pops into my mind. Is a body weighing it down?

Joel fumbles for the radio mic. “Coast Guard Juneau, this is the Nerka. We’ve got a blue tote in front of us. I can’t see anyone in it, but – “

Our shrieks mingle. “There’s another one!”

Several hundred yards ahead bobs a second sky-blue vessel. This one sits upright – and a tiny dark spot peeks out of the top.

“He’s in that one!” Words shrill with disbelief. “He’s waving – he’s alive!”

While Joel relays our position to the Coast Guard, I run up to the bow. The man in the tote stretches his arms wide overhead, raising and lowering them without pause. I mirror his movements, waving wildly. Holy shit, man – you’re alive!

Adrenaline makes me foolish. I’m scrambling for buoys, lines, wondering how we’ll pull him out of the water, when Joel sticks his head out of the helm window. “The helo’s already almost here; they’ll pick him up.”

Even as he says the words, the enormous thrum of helicopter blades reverberates through our bodies. Suddenly we’re inside a blender; the waves flare up in dense rotor wash as the helicopter descends through the heavy cloud ceiling and hovers above.

We aren’t close enough to shout to the man in the tote. Even if the sea didn’t yawn between us, the wind and helicopter noise would drown our voices. So I stand on the bow and continue to wave madly, hoping he’ll be able to translate the prayer-full thoughts in these frantic gestures. You made it through, sweetie, they’ve got you. You’re gonna be okay, they’ve got you. They’ve got you.

Joel puts the boat back into gear and runs away from the scene, wanting to be out of the way. Then, like good products of a youtube/Facebook culture, we stand in the Nerka’s cockpit and film the rescue. I hold my breath as the rescue swimmer descends into the water – so fast! – and watch him lean into the tote. What does that first moment of physical human contact feel like, I wonder. Had the man in the tote wondered if he’d never again feel touch other than the ocean’s assault, the wind and rain’s stinging slap? Or had he maintained hope through the night’s darkest hours?

Forty-three seconds. That’s how quickly the Coast Guard has the basket down to the water, the man fastened in, and back into the helicopter. They hoist the rescue swimmer back up next, and the helo rises. The abandoned tote shudders in the rotor wash.

Joel climbs out of the cockpit. “Okay… Let’s get going.”

He ducks out of the sideways rain, back into the warmth of the Nerka’s cabin, and the engine revs back up to traveling speed. I stay on deck for a moment longer. Tears I wasn’t aware of mingle with the rain on my cheeks, and my arms open once more in that wide windmilling motion. Slow with gratitude now, I wave to the helicopter, wishing again that body language translated.

You guys are amazing. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

*****

At 4:07, the helo pilot calls the Sitka Air Station. “Be advised, we’ve got the survivor on board.” Asked if they’d need medical services on scene upon their arrival, the pilot replies that it’d be a good precaution, “but his vitals are good.”

The man in the tote lands in Sitka at 4:31 p.m., Saturday, September 8.

*****

Why did the F/V Kaitlin Rai go down? The Sitka Sentinel got the story.  

Visit Alaska Waypoints to view videos of the rescue, taken from the Nerka’s back deck.

Written with the greatest joy for both survivors and their families, and heartfelt gratitude and awe for the Sitka  & Juneau Coast Guard, Alaska State Troopers, Sitka Mountain Rescue, and all of the individuals who respond as if a stranger in need is a loved one. I’ve never been more thankful to be a part of this ocean family.     








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