Heading North

27 05 2011

“Heading North” is a story from May 2, 2011, and was originally published on www.alaskawaypoints.com, in my column, “Southeast, Variable.”  This post has been slightly expanded from the original.

A low southwest swell urges the Charity’s 46’ frame on. I’m perched on the edge of the pilot seat, as if the slightest forward incline will move us across Dixon Entrance any faster than 7.5 knots. We left Seattle 5 days ago, and with a non-fishing friend aboard for the Inside Passage experience, have been taking it pretty easy.

I’ve crewed for Martin on and off over the past 7 years. When I abandoned my Seattle social worker life, he provided the refuge of salmon trolling with him for several seasons. I ended up jumping ship in favor of working on the Nerka with my sweetheart, Cap’n J, but still return to the Charity every spring to longline for Martin’s halibut and black cod pounds. “You’ve got a lifetime contract,” he assures me.

Former boat kids who grew up treating Sitka’s docks as our private playground, Martin and I speak in the half-sentences of lifelong friends who are as familiar with boat life as we are with each other. I worry that our guest will feel isolated in this foreign floating universe, even as he expresses endless curiosity about our lifestyle. Having an outsider on board reveals how much of our information is muscle-deep, so ingrained that we struggle to put explanations into words.

Two days earlier, we’d clicked the VHF over to the afternoon weather update to learn what we’d be in for with that evening’s Queen Charlotte Sound crossing. The water was smooth, but our faces grew tight as we listened to the ominous forecast. “It’s coming,” Martin said.

Our guest has generously prepared every meal on this trip, and was studying the cookbook for that night’s menu plan. “This might be a good night to have an early dinner,” Martin proposed.

I added, “This is going to be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich kind of night.”

Four hours later, the Cuisinart snarled through roasted red peppers and tomatoes. Glassy waters long gone, the Charity pitched and heaved her way through the increasing chop. Our friend casually added the red puree to sautéed onions, stirring leisurely. Martin and I threw more frequent glances at the stove, contemplating the sauce that slopped closer to the cast iron skillet’s rim with each roll we took. Clearly, we weren’t speaking the same language.

The captain stepped in to assist. Within minutes, metal bowls of pasta and sauce made it to the table. We ate quickly. Our friend sipped some wine with dinner. No big clean-up afterwards, we piled everything into the safe confines of the sink. Things were going to get worse before they got better.

We put on a movie to distract from the building seas. Tossed some handfuls of M&M’s down as dessert. When the movie ended, our friend stood up. “So, I think I’m going to go throw up now. What’s a good place to do that?”

The calm in his voice belied the urgency. He made it out the door, but only just.

“Oh, no.” I followed our friend outside as Martin flipped on the halogens, braced myself against the cabin in his line of sight.  Murmured advice between the retching. Stay low, stay away from the rail, no big deal, it’ll all wash off. A groping hand of water reached through the port scupper, sweeping red angel hair away into the black water.

Today, that night’s discomfort is a distant memory. We’ve passed through empathic guilt – should’ve been more clear about keeping things simple, staying away from acidic sauce, alcohol and chocolate –  and have moved into excitement. As Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest begins to appear in the binoculars, our homecoming can’t come fast enough.

“Right about here, it starts to feel like home,” Martin gestures out the window towards Lucy Island. “I look at these hillsides, and the weight of Down South slides away.”

I nod. There can’t be any distinguishable difference between the ocean on either side of a manmade boundary – logically, I know there can’t – but still I’d swear my soul knows when we cross into Alaska. Shoulders relax, breathing deepens, heart rate slows as an unconscious grin sprawls. Noisy demands are silenced out here: Phone, internet, news, relationships, all left on the other side of the Ballard Locks. Out here, life strips down to true connectedness – us and the sea, trying to stay safe and make our living in this age-old trade.

When we get to Sitka, the work will begin. We’ll borrow a flatbed truck and burden the Charity with a mountain of longline gear. Pick up the other deckhand, who’s green to halibut fishin’, and rearrange ourselves into a coordinated team of three.  We fantasize calm seas, setting in a spot free of sand fleas and dogfish, getting our pounds quickly as the boat and our team work perfectly. We’ll watch the weather and shoot up to the Fairweather Grounds, making up for the emptiness of the hold with the fullness of our hopes. This time of year, everything is still possible.


A Belated Mother’s Day

20 05 2011

Some things happen slower in Alaska. The past few weeks’ frenzy of getting up here and ready for our first halibut trip delayed this post. Though the official day has passed, the sentiment is still relevant.

Robert Fulghum has an essay about Mother’s Day. How, as a Unitarian minister, he gave a sermon on Mother’s Day – not of the flowers-and-Hallmark variety, but one that acknowledged the complications that so often accompany our relationships. This is that kind of story.

In 1986, my parents built the Willie Lee II. For 4 years, we fished her as a family. My dad was thankful for our experiences on the water, but didn’t believe salmon trolling could support us in the long run. My mom disagreed. When they split up, she took ownership of the Willie Lee, with her 13 year old daughter as her crew.

My mom and I have not had smooth seas. Seething with rage and grief following my parents’ divorce, I moved out of her house at 15 to live with a boyfriend. Fishing was our one remaining point of contact: every June, regardless of our estrangement, we’d reunite at her boat and head north, prepared to spend the next 3 months living and working in extremely close quarters under stressful conditions. Throw a hateful 16 year old and an exhausted, isolated parent/employer alone together in 54’ of boat, send them out to sea for a record 26 day trip, and see what happens. Hard times.

Weren’t many women skippers in the early ‘90’s. If you ask her how it was to be a woman in such a male-dominated industry, she’ll declare that she felt completely welcome. She loved the physical labor, the mental demands, and the community. Much of the community loved her right back, attracted as much by her enthusiasm and eagerness to connect with people, as the sheer novelty of a mother-daughter operation on one of the fleet’s bigger boats.

We fished the Willie Lee together for 6 years. She installed a refrigeration system, gaining access to the premium frozen-at-sea salmon market. But the expensive undertaking was followed by a few bad seasons – poor fishing, low prices. My dad’s dire predictions were confirmed: My mom, very nearly broke trying to earn a living doing what she loved, was forced to sell the vessel they had crafted with their own hands.

It’s been 15 years since my mom navigated Southeast Alaska, but she’s still present in the minds of old-timers. Every summer, they ask me how she’s doing, chuckle over their favorite Val stories. One that always comes up is from 1993, when she was trolling off the Washington coast. When the 5/64”stainless steel fishing wire backlashed on its hydraulic spool, she reached in to sort it out, without clipping it off to relieve the tension – exactly what she’d always warned me never to do. The wire slipped loose unexpectedly. All of that line’s weight sliced through her left thumb. Trained as a veterinarian, she picked the 1” nubbin up off the deck and held it in place.

(This is where the fisherman retelling this story will slap his knee and bark a tobacco-phlegmed laugh. “She fished out the rest of the goddamn drag because she didn’t want to take off in the middle and alarm ev’rybody!”)

It was an 8 hour run in from “the Prairie,” where the fleet was fishing off-shore, back to Neah Bay, and another hour to the Port Angeles hospital. When the doctor shook his head that no, too much time had elapsed for a successful re-attachment, my mom shook her head right back. “If you don’t sew it on, I will!”

He got out his needle and sutures.

That summer, she wore a bulbous, grubby bandage swathed around her fragile digit. But the doctor had been right: the flesh had been too long apart. All that season, whenever fishermen asked how her thumb was doing, she eagerly yanked off the covering: “Oh, it’s coming along – look!” More than a few salt-crusted veterans spat out their coffee mid-sip and turned green at the sight of that blackened stump.

It’s tough to live up to a legend. I spent much of my twenties feeling vaguely ashamed of my career deckhand status.  Where fishermen’s smiles carried warmth, I saw measurement. Where they expressed approval, I heard faint disappointment. Thought Val’s daughter woulda got her own boat, done somethin’ more… I still sometimes feel like I’m walking Sitka’s docks in my mom’s shadow.

In the years since she left fishing, she’s pursued another dream, single-handedly turning her 5 acres into a farm, shifting from harvester of the sea to that of the soil. Fruits, vegetables, herbs all flourish under her care, along with chickens, rabbits, and goats.  But her enthusiasm and passion have always exceeded her availability. It’d be tough to manage this alone with all of the hours of the day; she’s struggled to do it while simultaneously working swing shift work – 12 hours on a week of days, followed by a week of nights – as an oil refinery operator.

She doggedly refuses to use the F word to describe herself, yet is one of my earliest models of feminism. From her experience as 1 of 3 women in Cornell’s veterinary program to skippering her own fishing boat, every stage of her life has been testimony to forging one’s own path.

So it confuses me to see this astoundingly competent, accomplished woman tentative and grasping. I’m impatient with her deference to men and naked hunger for my approval, irritated by every expression of self-doubt and each pandering “What do you think, Bud?” to a dismissive companion. How can she be uncertain of the strength of her own two feet, when so much of her daughter’s life has been a semi-conscious effort to fill her boots?

This Mother’s Day, I’m following Robert Fulghum’s lead. No flowers or cards here, the gifts I wish I could give my mom are of a different sort. Like-minded friends who delight in her farm, people who understand the struggles and celebrations of farming. A partner who respects her dreams, independence, and the intense labor she’s given her land. A long, active future of digging in the dirt, cultivating new life and well-being. A daughter more patient with differences, more forgiving of the past and more dedicated to a future of common ground.

Stuff you can’t find on Hallmark shelves.

 Though this post is for Val Aadsen, I’ve been tremendously fortunate to have many strong, inspiring women in my life. MJ, Carol, Joy, Vickie, Auntie Social – thanks to you all for sharing your lessons and love.

Heading Out, with New Ventures

10 05 2011

The Charity is fired up and ready to cut the lines, so I’ll type madly to give a brief update. This is one of the many moments I think how lucky I am to fish with my brother, who sees me twitching for a last internet message and jerks his thumb at the cabin door.  “Just go.” I scurried up to the grocery store next to the harbor, the closest place with wireless. Good thing, too – just realized we didn’t buy any coffee for this trip!

We’re iced up, fueled up, full of groceries and optimism.  Got a good forecast, and ran 500 pounds of frozen-solid humpies through a chop saw this morning, getting our bait ready. (You’re going to have to see a picture of that process – humpy sawdust everywhere – but another time.)  We’ve got a personal quota of 10,000 pounds of halibut to catch, and anticipate being back in Sitka in a week.

Another exciting opportunity came up about three weeks back. A new friend is launching a website for all things Alaskan commercial fishing-related, and invited me to share some logbook-style posts over there. Alaska Waypoints goes live tomorrow morning, 5.11.11, at 10 AM PST.  You can find my column, “Southeast, Variable,” at http://www.alaskawaypoints.com, with a story from our trip north last week. Please do visit and share with anyone connected to the fishing business; it’s going to be a fantastic resource for our folks.

On that note, I’m ready to grab some coffee and run back to the harbor. Funny how the preparation of getting ready to go fishin’ can be so much more exhausting and frantic than the actual WORK of fishin’, itself.  Martin and I are in agreement: It’s time to leave town so that we can get some rest.

Be well, all – please check back in for some new stories in about a week.

The View From Sitka: Home

7 05 2011

We haven’t started fishing yet, but the good ship Charity’s captain and crew have officially entered the first sleep deprived delirium of our season. (It won’t be the last.) Just a quick update to let you know that we pulled into Sitka’s Eliason Harbor at noon today, and what a day it is… Every Sitka homecoming is special, but we couldn’t have asked for anything better than today’s glassy water, blue skies, and beaming sun. Feeling very blessed and thankful, through the sleep dep haze.

The trip north was generally uneventful, just the way we like it. Took a little longer than I’d predicted: we stopped each night in Canada for 4 to 5 hours, and had an 11 hour rest before crossing Dixon Entrance, waiting out 40 to 50 knot wind storm warnings. After crossing into Alaska, we ran day and night to make it here by today, to meet the second deckhand flying in and send home the friend who’d made the boat ride up with us. Only two all-nighters, but Martin and I are both zombies now, more than ready for a full night’s sleep with the relief of the engines off and the security of being tethered to the dock. The Charity did a beautiful job of getting us here safe and sound, as she always does.

Tomorrow we’ll borrow the flatbed truck from the fish plant to start loading all of our longline gear on board, with the hopes of heading out on our first halibut trip on Monday. There’s a good forecast to take advantage of, and we’re ready to get to work.  I’m too tired to explain the blissed-out relief and joy I’m feeling, so I’ll just let some photos do the storytelling this time.

Winding our way through Peril Straits at 5:20 AM, Sitka-bound.

Exiting Olga Strait, Sitka in sight.

Mt Edgecumbe supervising the homecoming.


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