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.





For Steve Meier (The Aquila’s Re-Birth)

20 07 2011

This post was originally published on http://www.alaskawaypoints.com, on June 29,2011. This version has been slightly changed from the original. My apologies for the length; the man himself used a lot of words in his own storytelling, and I couldn’t do any less.

Our last trip’s halibut successfully unloaded, the Charity pulled away from the fish plant and quietly cruised down Sitka Channel toward the fuel dock. Ross and I were putting the deck back together when Martin’s astonished exclamations burst from the cabin.

“Holy shit – get in here, Sis!”

Martin has a strict no-halibut-slime-in-the-cabin rule. I called back, “I’m in my rainpants!”

“I don’t care; come look at this boat right now!”

He gestured at an oncoming vessel. “Tell me what boat that is.”

I squinted. It was a serious hulk of boat – steel bow poles speared the sky, a covered deck provided all-weather protection, and the pristine white hull was blinding in the midday sun. Identifying boats from afar is a point of pride to both Martin and I, but I was stumped.

“Uh…”

“You know that boat better than you think,” Martin said. “That’s the goddamn Aquila.”

My breath sucked in, and we stared at the passing boat as if it was a ghost ship. It may as well have been.

Beautiful day, beautiful boat

****

Joel and I were Down South when he got the call. We’d tied the Nerka up in Bellingham two days earlier, after running south with the Aquila. I watched as Joel’s face drained slack.  “Oh my god, oh my god,” he repeated into the phone. “We just made the trip down with him.”  Thoughts that were cohesive suddenly slid against the walls of my skull, as solid ground gives way under our feet after weeks at sea.  Steve Meier had died, and nothing was right in the world anymore.

We were in a code group with Steve for 5 years, lucky enough to spend our salmon seasons trolling alongside the Aquila. Every group has an undisputed highliner, and Steve was ours.  If there was one fish in the ocean, he’d catch three.  Salmon, halibut, ling cod, dungies; the fishery didn’t matter.  Steve was a driver, out there to harvest, and that’s just what he did.

Unlike some highliners, Steve was humble.  When one partner asked if anyone was catching, Steve reported what he had. The partner joked, “Oh, you don’t count!”  Steve came back all offended, “Whaddaya mean?”  The rest of us knew exactly what was meant: if any of us used Steve as the bar that we measured our day’s success against, we might as well go find land jobs.

There’s an entry in our 2007 log, “We beat Aquila Steve today!!!”  Three exclamation points; it was that big of a deal.  He congratulated us that day – “Yeah, you had a good day” – then came back with a vengeance, thoroughly whupping up on us the next.  We shook our heads, knowing that was the natural order of our group’s universe, and imagined him chuckling to himself.  “Heh heh heh.”

Lots of trollers get stuck in a geographic groove, a mental force-field blocking them from venturing too far west, nosing too far south.  Not Steve.  He would go anywhere, try anything, if there were fish to be caught.  He made us all bolder, better, than we would’ve been without him.  We’d have followed him to the ends of the ocean, just for the pleasure of going there with him.

Steve was honest in a way few people are.  He liked you, or he didn’t; he agreed with you, or he didn’t. Either way, he’d let you know. We counted on hearing at least one good “Steve rant” over the radio every season, and man, there were some doozies. With the uninterruptible power of a keyed mic in his fist, Steve was a gale that couldn’t be stopped. So many can dominate a conversation with their views, but few can step back and poke fun at themselves afterwards.  When Steve finally wore himself out, his tempo slowing down and volume mellowing, he’d pause with a self-conscious chuckle.  “And that’s enough out of me for today.  Heh heh heh.”

Here’s the thing about Steve: he found deeper value in people than their differences, focused on the common ground he had with folks whose beliefs he was worlds opposed to.  He told one of our group’s more conservative members, “You’re way over there on the right, and I’m way over here on the left, so we should just talk about fishing.”  And that’s what they did, with mutual respect for each other as fishermen and friends.  “He tried to save me when we first met.  That didn’t go too well,” Steve remembered with his deadpan delivery, followed with a signature smirk. “I did find myself saying ‘fuck’ about every other word around him after that.”

Ferocious as he was, Steve was strong enough to admit his wrongs.  When Joel crewed for him out of Crescent City, he and the other deckhand were packing crab pots from the storage barn to go down to the boat.  They decided to work together, each on either side of a pot.  Steve showed up, took one look, and laid into them.  “What the hell is this?  You’re gonna take all goddamn day doing it that way!  Every man to a pot!”  He ran over to the barn, grabbed a pot, and rushed it over to the trailer to make his point.  Slamming it down, he slowly stood up, hands immediately going to the small of his back as he surveyed the scene.  “Jesus, these are heavy.  You guys must be fucking tired,” he said.  “Keep doing it the way you’re doing.”  He went gingerly back to the truck, nursing a tweaked back that would give him trouble for the upcoming days.

There was no one like Steve Meier.  That was evident at his memorial, where fishermen from all up and down the Coast crowded a North Seattle backyard. One after another, we told stories of this extraordinary man. He’d inspired many there to face their battles with alcohol; everyone agreed, “If Steve could get sober, anyone could.” He’d bailed deckhands out of jail, tried to help young men whose struggles he surely saw his own young self reflected in. One fellow crabber, a mountain of a man, curled his fists and wept openly before the crowd. “At least the sea didn’t get him.”

As devastating as his sudden death was, the thought of illness weakening his body and spirit was worse.  Joel said it best: “Death would have to sneak attack Steve, there’s no way it’d be able to take him head-on.”  Head-on… How Steve lived every moment of his life.

****

The Aquila glided past, her new captain lifting a hand in acknowledgement of our stares.  An unexpected relief swelled through me. “That’s not Steve’s boat anymore.” A beautiful boat, one he’d be impressed by, but not one that wielded the power to gut-stab me when we pass it on the drag.

It’s hard to believe this is our second season without Steve. He’s always with us – smirking from a photo at the helm, constantly memorialized in dock conversation. I walk by the Aquila and can’t take my eyes off of her. Turns out her new owners are a real nice couple. That helps. Seeing the care they’ve poured into making her their own, that helps, too. The raw edge of loss shifts into a quieter, gentler pain.

But Christ on toast, we miss you, Steve. We’ll conk some kings for you, old friend.








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