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.]

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