Walking on Water with Michael Jackson

26 03 2011

(A note: On March 25, 1983, Michael Jackson introduced what would become his signature move – the moonwalk – during a television performance of “Billie Jean.”  Though many other artists had performed the move over prior decades, it gained worldwide popularity through MJ. This bit of trivia, totally unrelated to women in fishing, becomes relevant later.)

Many aspects of the fishing lifestyle give me great joy.  Living seasonally, in partnership with the environment we’re dependent upon, developing an entirely different sensory system to understand and co-exist with the natural world.  The independence of being our own boss, driving ourselves hard and relishing the satisfying exhaustion that comes from pushing beyond perceived limits of physical and mental endurance.  And of course, working in an office that words – my words, at least – simply can’t do justice to.  Sometimes I look up from the fish I’m cleaning and take it all in – every make-your-heart-ache glacier-laden mountain that supervises our tack, all of the pristine forests rolling like carpet across vast hillsides and on down to craggy shorelines, and an ever-changing ocean as far as I can see.  Even after 22 years of calling this coastline home, I sometimes forget to breathe in the face of the unfathomable grandness of it all.

One of my favorite aspects about our life is the opportunity to enjoy the creatures around us.  Alaska’s waters are dense with life, an urban metropolis bustling around and beneath us.  It’s tough to avoid anthropomorphizing: we may not spend time with other human beings during our two weeks out, but we’ll interact with our animal neighbors daily.  As guests in their natural habitat, we get an intimate look at their behavior, an idea of their likes and dislikes.  They become more real, more relevant, than our human companions.

(Oh yes, I’m aware of the hypocrisy here, that I can write about cherishing wildlife interactions even as we’re out there as professional killers, harvesting life from the very ecosystem I’m exalting.  But that, sweeties, is another post – or ten – for another day.)

Like us, each species has their own unique moves.  Dall porpoises, among the most joyful living creatures, seem delighted by our presence.  They race our vessels, zipping in front, darting beneath the bow so close you catch your breath, afraid that this time they’ll miscalculate the boat’s speed and the water’s chop. They never do.

Grizzlies lumber along the beach, snuffling a spot of sea asparagus here, nudging over a crustacean-concealing rock there.  Though they can run up to 35 miles per hour, I’m content to have only observed their muscle-bound, shoulder-led saunter from the comfort of a boat.

As a corvid fanatic, it’s no big shocker that I think Alaska’s ravens have the animal kingdom’s handle on cool.  The sky is their playground, where they coast on thermals and dive into barrel rolls, exultant in their atmospheric acrobatics.  And it’s something else entirely to walk down the sidewalk behind a raven’s tail-shaking swagger.

I thought I had a pretty good idea of the local creatures’ characteristics, so it was a surprise to learn that the black-footed albatross is a Michael Jackson fan.  The following video was taken in June 2009.  I was crewing for our friends Ben and Betsy, longlining for halibut in Sitka Sound.   We had just finished setting our gear, and were about to enjoy an eight-hour break  while the hooks soaked.   We drifted in the Sound, surrounded by these friends cleverly waiting for our haul, when they’d swarm over our bait scraps.  Keep your eye on the handsome fellow in the middle left.


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