Heading North

27 05 2011

“Heading North” is a story from May 2, 2011, and was originally published on www.alaskawaypoints.com, in my column, “Southeast, Variable.”  This post has been slightly expanded from the original.

A low southwest swell urges the Charity’s 46’ frame on. I’m perched on the edge of the pilot seat, as if the slightest forward incline will move us across Dixon Entrance any faster than 7.5 knots. We left Seattle 5 days ago, and with a non-fishing friend aboard for the Inside Passage experience, have been taking it pretty easy.

I’ve crewed for Martin on and off over the past 7 years. When I abandoned my Seattle social worker life, he provided the refuge of salmon trolling with him for several seasons. I ended up jumping ship in favor of working on the Nerka with my sweetheart, Cap’n J, but still return to the Charity every spring to longline for Martin’s halibut and black cod pounds. “You’ve got a lifetime contract,” he assures me.

Former boat kids who grew up treating Sitka’s docks as our private playground, Martin and I speak in the half-sentences of lifelong friends who are as familiar with boat life as we are with each other. I worry that our guest will feel isolated in this foreign floating universe, even as he expresses endless curiosity about our lifestyle. Having an outsider on board reveals how much of our information is muscle-deep, so ingrained that we struggle to put explanations into words.

Two days earlier, we’d clicked the VHF over to the afternoon weather update to learn what we’d be in for with that evening’s Queen Charlotte Sound crossing. The water was smooth, but our faces grew tight as we listened to the ominous forecast. “It’s coming,” Martin said.

Our guest has generously prepared every meal on this trip, and was studying the cookbook for that night’s menu plan. “This might be a good night to have an early dinner,” Martin proposed.

I added, “This is going to be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich kind of night.”

Four hours later, the Cuisinart snarled through roasted red peppers and tomatoes. Glassy waters long gone, the Charity pitched and heaved her way through the increasing chop. Our friend casually added the red puree to sautéed onions, stirring leisurely. Martin and I threw more frequent glances at the stove, contemplating the sauce that slopped closer to the cast iron skillet’s rim with each roll we took. Clearly, we weren’t speaking the same language.

The captain stepped in to assist. Within minutes, metal bowls of pasta and sauce made it to the table. We ate quickly. Our friend sipped some wine with dinner. No big clean-up afterwards, we piled everything into the safe confines of the sink. Things were going to get worse before they got better.

We put on a movie to distract from the building seas. Tossed some handfuls of M&M’s down as dessert. When the movie ended, our friend stood up. “So, I think I’m going to go throw up now. What’s a good place to do that?”

The calm in his voice belied the urgency. He made it out the door, but only just.

“Oh, no.” I followed our friend outside as Martin flipped on the halogens, braced myself against the cabin in his line of sight.  Murmured advice between the retching. Stay low, stay away from the rail, no big deal, it’ll all wash off. A groping hand of water reached through the port scupper, sweeping red angel hair away into the black water.

Today, that night’s discomfort is a distant memory. We’ve passed through empathic guilt – should’ve been more clear about keeping things simple, staying away from acidic sauce, alcohol and chocolate –  and have moved into excitement. As Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest begins to appear in the binoculars, our homecoming can’t come fast enough.

“Right about here, it starts to feel like home,” Martin gestures out the window towards Lucy Island. “I look at these hillsides, and the weight of Down South slides away.”

I nod. There can’t be any distinguishable difference between the ocean on either side of a manmade boundary – logically, I know there can’t – but still I’d swear my soul knows when we cross into Alaska. Shoulders relax, breathing deepens, heart rate slows as an unconscious grin sprawls. Noisy demands are silenced out here: Phone, internet, news, relationships, all left on the other side of the Ballard Locks. Out here, life strips down to true connectedness – us and the sea, trying to stay safe and make our living in this age-old trade.

When we get to Sitka, the work will begin. We’ll borrow a flatbed truck and burden the Charity with a mountain of longline gear. Pick up the other deckhand, who’s green to halibut fishin’, and rearrange ourselves into a coordinated team of three.  We fantasize calm seas, setting in a spot free of sand fleas and dogfish, getting our pounds quickly as the boat and our team work perfectly. We’ll watch the weather and shoot up to the Fairweather Grounds, making up for the emptiness of the hold with the fullness of our hopes. This time of year, everything is still possible.

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