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.]


From Fish-able to Festivity: The Changing Face of the Fleet

19 08 2011

Any fisherman worth his or her salt water knows there are no guarantees in this business. From beached loved ones craving a stone-solid return date, to green deckhands already calculating the crewshare on fish not yet caught, how often have we explained inherent uncertainties? But years of experiencing the same maddening pattern has taught us that one thing is a take-it-to-the-bank given: After weeks of Variable 10’s, glassy June seas, you can count on the weather turning to shit just in time for the July 1st Chinook troll opening.

Our first few days were those grimly known as “fish-able.” Wind with teeth, Easterly 25, and a sharp-stacked Southeast lump that kept us perpetually clenched in its trough. Stuff stored on the roof launched overboard. I buckled into a rarely-called-into-duty life vest. Wedged into a corner of the bunk, Bear the Boat Cat glared balefully, surely wishing she’d been left in her kennel at the Sitka pound all those years ago. Not fun, but definitely fish-able for a young couple who’d overdone it with a winter of dinero-devouring boat projects.

Bear isn't a fan of "fish-able" days.

We’re motivated to fish tougher this season, sure, but let’s be real: this is the Southeast troll fleet, not Deadliest Catch. So when the forecast deteriorated to two days of gales, Cap’n J and I made a beeline for Lituya Bay. (If that bee’s line was a spray-saturated UpDownSLAMcrash-ridden trek, that is.) The last boat across the bar before the tidal-dictated door closed for the night, we fell into frazzled sleep minutes after the anchor was dogged.

Chaos on the ocean, peaceful oasis in Lituya Bay.

Over the next day, the bay filled with trollers who’d fled every corner of the Fairweather Grounds, including one of the fleet’s elite. An iconic steel beauty, she was on her final trip with the highliner couple who’ve treasured her for over twenty years. Another fisherman had put his money down and the paperwork was complete, but their negotiation was firm: They would fish their baby for one last king opening.

These folks spent their career as reluctant parade masters. Couldn’t shift their tack three degrees without a cavalcade of tag-alongs immediately adjusting course to match. The final trip of beloved community members would require equal attention and hoopla.

“A day like this calls for a beach party,” declared one of our partners. His eldest daughter set off in their skiff, the official taxi service for the festivities. Chronically underestimated by those who don’t see the tough spirit within petite, Swede-pretty packaging, she cranked the Johnson from idle to wide open, rocketing around the harbor with quiet control that belied the outboard’s roar.

One skiff-full at a time, it wasn’t long before the bay’s pristine shoreline was hosting a rager. Four code groups represented, members mingled amiably over a 5 gallon bucket full of Rainier, freshly-caught shrimp, and a fifth of Jose Cuervo direct from one captain’s winter in Mexico. A vat of seafood chowder balanced over the beach fire. As the number of partygoers exceeded the available bowls and spoons, the few we had became communal, scraped clean and passed on to the next person. We ate smoked black cod dripping with oil and gooey-frosted chocolate cake from our fingers, then licked them clean.

It was hard to believe folks could be so casual, forced to take a day off at the start of our time-limited, high-stakes opening, but as one fisherman observed, “Crap weather, crap fishin’…Might as well enjoy our lifestyle.”

Just a quarter of the Sitka sneakers ashore that day. (Photo by Angela Amos)

An intense transition is happening within the Southeast troll fleet right now, as one generation phases out and another steps up. Fishermen I grew up viewing as extended family, pseudo-uncles and aunts who kept a watchful eye on dock rat boat kids, are placing hand-lettered “For Sale” signs in their cabin windows. I’ve rarely seen the changing of the fleet as clearly evidenced as it was on the beach that day. Young skippers joked with the deckhands from whose ranks they were only recently removed, while old timers circled together, marked by the wide-legged stance of men who’ve spent decades urging their bodies to hold fast against the sea. Watching our elders reminisce, knowing gatherings like this would become leaner each season and we would never regain their history and knowledge, I wished the force of their shared memories could stop the relentless passage of time.

History you can't replace, among this bunch.

But when the beer bucket contained only empties and the glacial silt-heavy shore had been reworked into boot-sucking quick mud, the clock began ticking again. The taxi service fired back up. Boats who’d rafted together peeled apart, and trolling poles unfurled like wings. With the forecast giving the go-ahead, rejuvenated trollers streamed back to work the next morning. After all, as Joel and I jokingly remind each other, “We are here to catch fish and make money.”

Midway into the afternoon, we realized we hadn’t seen that legendary boat back on the drag. Turned out her owners had headed back to town. They’d caught enough to fill their freezer for the winter, and truly, how do you follow up the biggest retirement beach party in recent history? So this one’s for you two – you know who you are – with gratitude for your years, from the protective eye you kept on the boat kids of yesteryear, to waving a friendly hand on the tack to the new skippers of today. Enjoy the novelty of a summer ashore, until we see you again. A spot on the drag is waiting, yours to rightfully reclaim, aboard whatever vessel brings you back.

The party over, taking the taxi home.

%d bloggers like this: