I’m talking with you from new ground today, sweeties. I’ve been back in Alaska for a few hours now, camped out in the Juneau Airport’s Glacier Lounge. Starting at 3:30 this morning, it’s been a long travel day with a handful of challenges, but I’ll be in Sitka before midnight.
Meanwhile, I’m watching the snowflakes swirl on the breeze outside. They’re not sticking. Other than the speaker above me blaring what my dad would call “shitkicker music,” the bar’s quiet. Chef/bartender Mike befriended me early on, bringing a glass of water designed to ward off scurvy (slices of lime, lemon, AND orange), frequent hot water refills for my peppermint tea, and a couple free cookies “because you have to have cookies with tea.” The first raven of the trip just glided by the window, and I smiled.
Being back in Alaska outside our fishing season is a rare gift. I’m up here to go to Whalefest, an annual symposium celebrating the humpback whales that make Sitka Sound their seasonal home. I’ve always wanted to attend, but learning that author Seth Kantner (Ordinary Wolves, Shopping for Porcupine) was this year’s keynote speaker sealed the deal. Still, however much I wanted to hop a plane for a weekend visit, this wouldn’t have been possible without Joel’s parents donating their airline miles towards a birthday ticket. I’m thankful.
I spent last week working on an essay to read at this Friday’s maritime-themed Monthly Grind. “Working on” sounds deceptively productive. A personal piece that I hoped would ring true for fellow ocean-goers, I wondered what draws so many of us to the sea that can so easily devour us. Mostly, I stared at my computer screen and thought about fear, loss, and grief. (You know, the usual light-hearted stuff you can count on me for.)
On Friday night, I admitted on Facebook what a struggle this essay was proving to be. Immediately, several Hooked friends responded with encouragement. Be patient, don’t beat yourself up, take a walk. Fisher Poet Pat Dixon advised, “Write what comes. See where that leads… trust the process. …or maybe that’s all bullshit and you need a shot of tequila. Let us know what you decide.”
Since quitting drinking some years back, that only left me one option. And miracle of miracles, it worked. The words did come, and suddenly a finished draft smiled at me serenely. I was there for you all along.
But as I celebrated the arrival of words, the East Coast recoiled from an arrival of a different sort. Hurricane Sandy raged up the Eastern seaboard. Wind, water, fire; the elements joined forces to leave a trail of staggering damage and fatalities. The first of these that I learned about was the 180-foot HMS Bounty. For the second time in as many months, I marveled at the courage and skill of our Coast Guard. They plucked fourteen survivors from life rafts roiling in 20-foot seas.
Fourteen survivors… And the body of Claudene Christian, Bounty crew member for six months. Captain Robin Waldridge remains missing.
For fellow blogger/seafaring writer Chris Wallace, this was more than a tragic news story. Chris, her husband, and daughter are a family of sailors; as crew aboard the Schooner Zodiac, the West Coast’s largest wooden schooner, they’re well-acquainted with the Bounty. We embrace different means of going to sea, yet I suspect we share similar reactions of relief, confidence, and calm on the water – just as Sandy drove both Chris and I to the same uneasy soul-searching. “I am overwhelmed with sadness,” she wrote on Monday, “and have spent the day pondering why people like us are drawn to this life.”
Just as sailors stand with each other in times of tragedy, so do fishermen. Trollers and crabbers in the Pacific Northwest followed their New England kin through the storm, engaged in real-time Facebook conversations with fishermen riding out the storm. “It’s really bad here,” wrote one New Jersey captain. “I don’t know if any of us are going to have a boat left.”
Damaged vessels, harbors, and processing plants, coupled with lost sea time, have a crippling impact on an already-uncertain industry like commercial fishing. Industry outreach program “The Faces of California Fishing” immediately promised East Coast fishermen, “We’ve got your back.” They began organizing, anxious to create a relief fund for fleet members impacted by Sandy. Regardless of the differences and distance between our various fisheries, this generous community spirit is the backbone of our profession. I’ll post donation info as soon as it’s available. Meanwhile, follow The Faces of California Fishing for relief fund updates.
It’s about time for me to continue on to Sitka, friends. I keep circling back ‘round to my and Chris’s original reflection. Why are so many of us drawn to this nautical life? Not only drawn to; we’re mad for the sea, loyal beyond all reason and sense. I haven’t been able to articulate my own reasons yet. How about you?