Fair warning, readers – this is an unapologetic love story. Today is a special day that requires some sappy reflection. Those of you stopping by for a hot fish report or our latest wildlife encounter, please come back later and Hooked will be back to the more usual fare.
I was crewing for my friend Martin in 2004. A clipping from The Stranger, Seattle’s weekly paper, rode in my wallet: I will take a reprieve from dating drunks, junkies, and emotional cripples. When Martin saw me eyeing boys on the dock, he was quick to chide, “Remember what’s in your wallet!”
The Charity came back to Sitka when the July king season closed. Responding to the same autopilot driving other deckhands’ feet, my route from the harbor paused at the public showers, then set a course for the Pioneer Bar. The P Bar’s attendance reflected that of the full harbor, with fishermen wedged five deep like boats rafted together.
When the young man on the neighboring stool smiled at me, I did a double-take. I recognized him as a fellow boat kid, five years my junior and just legal to be there. When I was nosing into an adolescence of blacked-out stumbles through Sitka, he was a life-jacketed sentinel on the docks, blissed out with a fishin’ pole glued to his hand. My memories of other kids from that time are silent, matte stills, but the glossy image of young Joel is accompanied by a soundtrack, his excitement bellowing across the water. “Poppa, Poppa! Come see what I caught!”
But this wasn’t a little kid sitting next to me. I studied his clear green eyes and guileless smile, and thought of the clipping in my pocket. I was prowling for a summer fling and he appeared to have grown up well, surely didn’t fall under my restricted categories… No. Hoping this fishing vacation would fend off my increasing tremors of social service burn-out, I was back in Alaska to work. Cute as this boy was, after my previous dating mishaps I didn’t need any further complications.
Of course, sweet reader, you know how those kinds of self-assured proclamations go. The next night we walked through Totem Park, submitting ourselves to a voracious darkness, and spent hours talking on the shore. Discovering a kindred spirit in the Southeast Alaskan rainforest, gently holding each other’s shared history under the chaperoning eye of moonlight as the surf’s faint chuckling approval echoed our words…My guarded heart didn’t have a chance.
The universe was working overtime on Joel that summer, ladling up a full plate of transition. As our relationship developed, he wrangled a winter job in the California crab fishery, crewing for a legendary captain who would become a life-changing mentor. And midway through the season, his dad announced, “I don’t think I want to do this anymore… How about you take over the boat next year?”
And so, at the age of 22, Joel became Cap’n J. The transition was less-than-seamless. The old man had a nose for when to get out, and handed the helm over just as every essential system on board gave up the fight. Joel would have to author his own blog to share the stories from that first season; I still get the willies remembering the mountainous series of mishaps.
Had I staggered free of a season like Joel’s first, that might’ve been it for my fishing career. But to his immense credit, his love for fishing was stronger than the suffering he’d endured. Blessed with a herculean selective memory, fueling his commitment with the recollections of good days, Cap’n J set about reviving the Nerka. Six years and an exhaustive, expensive undertaking later, he’s resurrected her to a seaworthy vessel, a fishy boat that responds eagerly to our requests.
And now, today is Cap’n J’s birthday. He’s turning 29, on the cusp of finally exiting his twenties. His birthday falls in the midst of our season’s annual closure, and in his early years as skipper, this break meant massive boat projects, trying to fend off disaster enough to make it through the season’s remaining 6 weeks. There were several consecutive birthdays that he spent upside down in the bilge, saturated in engine unmentionables and despair. Not this year. Our projects minimal and mostly done, we’re going to celebrate with the luxury of sleeping in – not as in, “I’ll set the clock for 4:45 instead of 4:30,” but “What clock?” – and mosey through the day from there. The harbor’s full of friends to visit, and there’s some snuggling to do while we’re town-clean and still smelling fish-free. About as relaxed as you can hope for mid-season, 4 days before a 72-hour king salmon opening.
I couldn’t ask for a better life than this, working for my best friend in the wild temple where we both worship. Please join me in sending your good thoughts to Cap’n J for a wonderful day – or, as he’s hoping, for a delayed birthday present of giant king salmon and plenty of them, with clear skies and fair seas to boot.
(Happy birthday, Buddy. I’m thankful to have had this decade with you, and am looking forward to many more. Love you.)