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. 





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.





From Greenhorn to Graduate: Celebrating Amanda’s First Fishing Season

1 10 2012

Exciting news, friends – Hooked’s guest writer Amanda has completed her first season in the commercial fishing industry! New readers, I urge you to take the time to catch up on Amanda’s journey. From an April morning when I overheard a young woman  say she wanted to go fishing, her pre-season anticipation, the first challenges and triumphs, a mid-season struggle, to these concluding reflections, she’s got a wonderful story and it’s been an honor to have her with us. A green deckhand’s experience is never easy; many newcomers don’t stick it out. Please join me in congratulating Amanda on a successful first season!

*****

Dear Hooked,

My contract is officially over. The weather has turned and the salmon in Chatham Strait are few and far between. I am back to life as a land dweller, grateful for regular access to news and local produce. Tender life feels very distant, especially being down in the Lower 48. By the time I stepped off the Nichawak, I couldn’t wait to talk about something other fishing. Anything other than fishing. Out on the water and tied up at the harbor, it seemed that all talk was of fishing hot spots and the latest boat project.  Now, down South, I find myself looking for opportunities to talk about fishing and feel giddy when given the opportunity to explain the difference between seining and gillnetting, or how to operate the Nichawak’s hydraulic booms.

Some mornings I wake up with phantom pains in my thumbs, as if I’ve just spent a long day “slingin’ cohos.”  My hands are a bit more scarred and my calluses are rougher, as I had hoped they would be.  My upbringing in the suburbs is something that I think is reflected in the look and feel of my hands.  They are mostly smooth and clean, a dead giveaway.

When I was a kid, my dad would assign me yard work chores. I spent more time complaining about them than actually doing them. This truth, embarrassing as it may be, brings me to one of the biggest challenges that I faced this summer: my attitude.

A week into the troll opener in August, we were on our third straight day of work without sleep. In these three days we bought over 90,000 pounds of fish, Skipper Sal, Gerald the deckhand, and me.  I think it’s fair to say that these are difficult working conditions.  That third morning, I remember the sun rising, the sky must have been bright and beautiful.  But I don’t really remember that beauty.  Mostly, I remember being vaguely aware of the colors around me and being pissed off.  I felt the scowl on my face and I heard myself snap at Gerald, “I’ve got this, back off!”

I was tired and sore, I was hungry and overworked, and I had yet to realize that this did not entitle me to be grouchy, nor did it entitle me to snap at my crew. Times like these (yes, this happened more than once) I had to tell myself, sometimes even out loud, to change my attitude, relax the muscles in my brow, get rid of that snarl on my face and get over myself.

Suffice to say, in the beginning I had idealized this experience.  Parts of the dream were realized.  I watched whales breech 30 feet from the boat. I learned everything I could, from telling apart a coho and a sockeye to operating hydraulic cranes. I conquered ratchet straps, I tied clove hitches, I navigated an 80-foot boat around Chatham Strait. I experienced glory and pride and accomplishment.

But there is no getting around it; parts of this experience were just shitty. They weren’t fun, they were hard. I learned a lot about myself this summer and some of these things were difficult to face, severe realities.  I let “grouchy” get the best of me. I have opinions and nothing to back them up. I have too much pride.

Pride.  Such a stimulant, such a barrier.  How did I get to be a person with so much pride? Why is it that I hated asking for help? Why did I balk so much at the idea of someone correcting or compensating for my mistakes? Why could I push myself to work harder and be better only to prove that I could? As busy as the tender life is, there was plenty of idle time to consider these questions.  Yet I never seemed to figure it out: where does pride come from?

This winter I will work in the high desert of Washington State, tending to horses and learning about life as a ranch hand. As of now, I will return to the Nichawak, possibly working for Sitka herring (the fishery where I first discovered fishing!) and probably for another season as a Southeast seine, gillnet, and troll tenderwoman.

I think about why I want to return. I try to remind myself that it is because of certain privileges in my life that I even have an option. I have the privilege of being able to choose what I will do next and make a choice based on a desire for personal growth.  For me, a bit of guilt is inherent in this fact, but I won’t be constrained by this.

So, I think I will choose to go fishing again.  There is still self-reflection to be done, there are skills left to learn, and then there’s good old fashioned pride, a nagging reminder that next year I can be better.

- Amanda





Trading One Deck for Another

27 09 2012

For those of you who responded to Hooked’s last post by voting that it was time to take pity on Bear the (long suffering) Boat Cat… Good call.

From supervising the run south, making sure the bow was pointed in the right direction…

 

…to reuniting with the Bobs, our resident Stellar’s Jays.

 

(She sends her thanks.)





Wake Me Up (When the Season Ends)

20 09 2011

Imagine a small café. Polished bar, creaky wooden floors, an L-shaped jumble of chairs and tables lining the open room. Lights are low, room is packed, whiskey’s flowing. Sitka’s premier rockabilly band, Los Shotgun Locos, is tearing through the 1960’s. When they launch into The Man in Black, the fisherfolk posse in the midst of the Larkspur Cafe erupts. Drinks quake as salt-cracked fists pound the table, skippers and deckhands roaring along.

“Let me go home! Why don’t you let me go home? Well, I feel so homesick, I want to go home!”

Johnny Cash begged his captain for release, but our rowdy group was appealing to a higher power. Between the season’s grim coho run and an early onset of vicious fall weather, our fleet’s been singing the blues since July:

“Been fishing for peanuts all season…They may be small, but at least they’re skinny.”

“This is the worst August I’ve ever seen – and I’m old!”

And, “I’m gonna have to find a yob this winter,” in mock-Norse resignation.

The finish line is just a few weeks away, but judging by the weather and empty harbor, you’d think it’s already a done deal. Even before August surrendered to September, an unprecedented number of folks had thrown in the towel. The high price for tuna lured several handfuls south. Overwhelming doom-and-gloom knocked a few Negative Neds out of the game. (“This season’s a bust,” one of them decreed midway through.) And when last week’s gruesome extended outlook forced the fleet dockside, that was more than most could handle. Many local boats called it quits, and the remaining seasonal crowd streamed south in a mass exodus.

Not Cap’n J and I, though. The boat’s wintering here, so there’s no excuse of rushing for a weather window. We’re here to September 20th’s bitter end, and that’s a good thing. Joel’s spent a lot of time cozied up with the calculator, punching numbers, analyzing conservative estimates of what we’ve made.  No globe-trotting for us, but we should get by on a shoestring winter, sticking close to home, living on fish and rice. Not a bad deal, really.

With a freezer full of coho fillets, we're lucky indeed.

Meanwhile, we’re content to enjoy the unexpected time in Sitka and figure that eventually the weather has to break. A friend mourned that the series of storms has shifted us trollers onto a gillnet schedule. “Three days on, 3 days off – but in our case, it’s been more like 5 days off.”

True enough. As I write this, we’re on our sixth night at the dock. Rain is screaming down in sheets. This kind of rain defies the laws of matter, coming down not as liquid, but a conflicted solid wall of wet. Gusts rip through the harbor, yanking at our spring lines like poltergeists, and the houseboat in the neighboring stall surges as if on anchor. Gazing through the helm windows, I’m looking at the very definition of “It was a dark and stormy night.”

Joel is studying NOAA’s buoy report online. “Holy shit – it’s gusting 46 at Edgecumbe, with 19 foot seas at 9 seconds.”

Nothing like spending a storm snug in your vessel, particularly when no one has to be on anchor watch. Here in the harbor, the Dickinson stove is cranked up, the cat is sprawled on the bunk, and Raven Radio strings Mississippi Delta blues through the cabin like an unraveling spool of indigo velvet ribbon.  I’ve got a steaming cup of tea in one hand, and a palm-sized universe of hope in the other. The wind and seas will come down, the coho will finally grow up, and ours will be among the few remaining hooks dancing in front of them.

Hope pays off: A couple nights later, we got this moonrise over Mt. Edgecumbe.

[This one’s a little out-of-date, friends. Written on September 6th for publication on Alaska Waypoints, it’s now September 20th and we’re back at the dock. Another Southeasterly ripped through the rigging last night. The summer troll season closes tonight at midnight, for what that legality’s worth – every troller I know has sold their final load of salmon, scrubbed out their fish hold, and called it quits. Cap’n J, Bear the Boat Cat, and me, too.  Watching whitecaps merengue through the harbor affirmed that decision.  So we’re now in the frenzied process of winterizing the Nerka, but I hope to have something new for you later this week.]





Heading North, Take Two

8 06 2011

Seems that no matter how much advance planning and preparation time there is for the trip north, our final days are always frantic.  Way back in late April, before I headed off on the Charity, Cap’n J and I set a departure date. June 8th sounded just right… Time enough to enjoy our house after I finished longlining, time to go over the remaining Nerka details together, and time to enjoy several weeks in Sitka before our salmon season starts on July 1st.  A sound plan, indeed.

I was pretty confident in last week’s post.  It’s possible that the universe heard my confidence as cockiness: “With an intended departure date of next Wednesday, the remaining tasks are pretty slim.”  As many times as I’ve been through this process, I should’ve known better.

As you’ve heard before, fishermen’s plans change.   We planned to be slipping loose of the Bellingham breakwater in a half-hour; instead, I’ve got a cup of tea steaming beside me and am enjoying a final communion with the Bobs (you remember, our resident Stellar’s Jays) and squirrels.  Looked like we’d be hitting Queen Charlotte Sound just in time to buck into a Northwest 25.  Do-able, but we’ve got an awfully long season ahead of us to get beat up right out of the gate.

Between avoiding an ass-kicking and this week’s mad scramble of final details, the captain determined that a 24 hour delay would be acceptable.  We should still hit the tide right at Seymour Narrows, and hopefully sidestep the bumpy crossing.  Never a good idea to feel too rushed or locked into one arbitrary intention, we’re breathing much easier this evening.

We’ll have a friend on board for the trip up, someone to share wheel watches and contribute new conversation. Sean was a first-time deckhand on the 5 Girls last season. Every June, Joel and I eyeball the new crop of green deckhands and make a game out of anticipating who’ll make it and who won’t. From the moment we met Sean, we were in agreement: he was going to be the star new deckhand of the season.

And that’s how it worked out. He’s returning for a second round, but needed a ride up to meet his boat in Sitka. He and his partner, Angela – who’s a rock star deckhand in her own right, a powerhouse of endurance, strength and fishing expertise – drove up for a big send-off. It’s a bummer that our plan changed after they got here, so they’re having an unexpected amount of sitting-around-waiting-to-go time, but they’re professionals who know, “That’s the way it goes when you wear rubber clothes.”

Chaotic as the week has been, it’s a fun time to be in the harbor. After winter’s quiet and the slow meander into spring activity, everyone is in full-throttle preparation mode now. The 4 to 5 man (and some women) crews of the seiners surrounding us have been hard at work, repairing nets, sanding rails, all kinds of bustling about. We’re all a constant tide washing up and down the ramp, pushing mountainous carts down to our boats, tossing matching harried grins at each other.  This time of year, the harbor pulses with camaraderie.

Through it all, I try to remember the relief that’s on the other side of the breakwater. As soon as the lines are untied and we’re under way, none of this current chaos will matter. The mental brakes squeal, as we go from a zooming frenzy to a sedate 7 knot cruise. What’s inevitably forgotten won’t end up mattering, or will be dealt with in Sitka.  If our weather holds, we should have about a five day migration, a luxurious exemption from the rest of the world that I’m hoping to use as a mini writer’s retreat.  Fingers crossed.

Below, some photos from the past few days:

Monday: Provisioning, Part 1.

Stocking a Fishing Boat with Fake Meat Product: Oxymoron?

Cap'n J checks our survival suits. Bear, not so into it.

Sean & Ange, our ridealong squeezing himself into an if-he-absolutely-had-to suit.

Fake meat in the freezer AND prayer flags from the rigging? Bunch of hippies on this boat.

Cap'n J & T: frazzled, hopeful, anxious, and eager to be on the way north.

That’s the update, sweeties.  My remaining tea has gone cold, and some overripe bananas are begging to be transformed into bread, courtesy of Joel’s sister’s Ashley’s delicious recipe.  Be well, friends – hope to share some good stories with you by the middle of next week.





Boat-Hopping (& a Request of Hooked Readers)

3 06 2011

I launched Hooked under the grim oversight of the Pacific Northwest’s lingering winter.  Between relentlessly gray days and our “off” season’s luxury of personal time, it seemed the ideal opportunity to start this long-procrastinated conversation.  To spend hours crafting thoughtful tributes to our unique industry, deliberate over the perfect photo to accompany the text, and, when the words weren’t flowing, toss peanuts to the increasingly well-fed jays and squirrels lurking outside my writing window… Add in the unexpected encouragement of supportive readers, and this venture has been even more rewarding than I’d imagined it would be.  I’m thankful to you all for making it such a good time.

Bear keeps a close eye on the Bobs (our Stellar's Jay collective)

As it turns out, my leisurely saunter-through-syntax approach doesn’t work so well in conjunction with our “real” working life.  I’ve learned there’s an ocean of difference between the posts I’d like to share with you, and the ones that actually make it up. Hours spent scraping halibut bellies were surprisingly conducive to composing stories in my head, but the ensuing tasks – icing those fish, baiting up for the next set, scrubbing the deck, unloading, a whirlwind of shower/laundry/groceries before heading back out on the next trip – didn’t allow for much personal reflection. This business of actually being a fisherman has made it tougher to write about what it means to be a fisherman.

The Charity celebrated a safe, successful longline season. Against our initial predictions, we were blessed with beautiful weather, reasonably calm seas and sunny skies the whole way through.  Caught our halibut and black cod quota in two trips, a couple weeks of long hours, good food and music, and much laughter.  By the time we hauled all of the longline gear off the boat and set her up for salmon trolling, the work’s physical demands were a fast-fading memory, evidenced only by some impressive bruises and accentuated biceps.  When Martin handed over my crew share, I marveled at getting paid to spend time with friends in the shadow of the ferociously glorious Fairweather Range, coastline I’d never have known without this profession. Truly, our time couldn’t have gone any smoother or more enjoyably.

The top of a halibut set, flagpole bobbing beneath the Fairweather Range.

(Alaska Waypoints is getting the exclusive dish on my halibut stories, but I’ll post them here 2 weeks after their initial publication.)

I signed off from Team Charity a week ago.  Flew back to the concrete chaos of Seattle, to clenching Joel’s Subaru’s “oh, shit” handle, because zooming 70 miles per hour up I-5 is terrifying after a month of sliding through the scenery at 7 knots.

We didn’t waste any time in shifting over to Team Nerka. Up early on my first morning back, we took her out for a sea trial with the diesel mechanic on board. That went well, and Cap’n J was obviously busy over the past month. There’s a strong new handrail on the port side of the cabin, excess air’s been bled from the throttle and clutch, and the varnished rails are shimmering.  The fuel truck came down to the dock, and 529 gallons later, all four tanks are topped off. Made a quick run up to Canada, to pick up some hot hoochies and other secret weapon gear from their fishing supply stores. And with only a minimal amount of fiasco that was mostly due to a way-too-late lunchtime, we lowered our trolling poles and attached all-new stabilizer lines and chain, hopefully ensuring that the Nerka will have as smooth of a trip north as the Charity did 5 weeks earlier.

With an intended departure date of next Wednesday, the remaining tasks are pretty slim. There’ll be some big grocery trips this weekend, hitting up Costco and Trader Joe’s.  Some final family visits, including moving our houseplants to my mom’s for the next 4 months. (They do better under her care, anyway – this seasonal transfer is an extended spa treatment for them.)  Bear’s been following the piles of salmon-scented clothes, books, and groceries going out the door with an increasingly suspicious gaze, and will know what’s up after Monday’s visit to the vet for a health certificate to travel through Canada.

The salmon season brings a tremendous amount of pressure, as we try to make our year’s livelihood in 3 months, and Cap’n J and I are a pretty driven team. If I’m honest with myself and you, I can already guarantee that the internal conflict between those dream posts in my head and the sparse, sporadic ones that will appear here will only increase over the season. I wonder, what’s most valuable to you, sweet reader?  If Hooked updates are fewer and farther between, what would you most like to read about?  Any fishing/Alaska questions you’d like addressed?  Let me know, and I’ll do my best to put them at the top of the list.

The sun setting on the Charity's longline season, on our final run back into Sitka.








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