Fishermen’s Thanksgiving

22 11 2012

Earlier this week, a friend asked what I’d be doing on Thursday. When I blinked dumbly at her for a few beats, she prompted, “You know – for Thanksgiving!”

Oh. Right…

Growing up in a fractured family of three insular people far more comfortable with books and work than each other, “the holidays” don’t resonate for me. I’m not down with the history behind Thanksgiving. I’m not a Christian, and Bear the Boat Cat isn’t worked up about presents and pageantry. One of my favorite Christmases was the one I spent alone in a Californian apartment, dog-sitting for the manager of the Ben & Jerry’s shop that I spare-changed in front of. From about mid-October to after the New Year, I’m happiest to opt out of the cultural hoopla.

Joel comes from a different background. His family tree has many branches – siblings, cousins, partners – and holidays are an opportunity for bringing everyone together. They make big meals, play games, go on walks, get loud and laugh a lot and generally show how completely engaged they are with one another. Eight years in, I still feel like I’m participant-observing another species. (A generous, loving species that’s been nothing but welcoming to me.) True to my Aadsen roots, I get a little anxious as soon as there aren’t any dishes to wash or other tasks for me to fuss with. My social skills generally run out while the festivities are still going strong.

(True confession: I’m hiding in his aunt’s room right now. Slipped away as soon as the crab dip was gone. This is one of the reasons I’m so thankful to have weaseled my way into Cap’n J’s family: not only do they know I snuck away to write, it’s okay. Amazing, the tolerance these folks have.)

This all sounds bad, but I’m not a total Grinch. I believe in gratitude. That’s why I celebrate Thanksgiving in September.


Fishermen’s Thanksgiving began in September 2010. The salmon season had ended, and the Sadaqa was making the run south with another troller. Midway down the Canadian Inside Passage, they tied up together in Bishop Bay Hot Springs. Marlin cooked a chicken and Stovetop stuffing, opened a can of cranberry sauce, and offered thanks for the season’s harvest.

Joel and I got in on this tradition the following year. With both the Sadaqa and the Nerka spending the winter in Sitka, we had serious chores to do before anyone could hop on a plane and ditch our boats for six months. But in the midst of all that frenzy, we agreed: there was time for Thanksgiving.

Though smaller, the Nerka was in slightly less disarray than the Sadaqa. So at 6:00, down the dock marched our friends – Marlin, Ross, and Mikey – pushing a fully-loaded cart. They handed over one delicious-smelling pan after another; I struggled to wedge everything into our tiny galley. Marlin roasted a chicken, onions and potatoes in a cast iron skillet. I made mashed sweet potatoes and squash, and a piece of salmon for the non-bird eater among us. In addition to a five-gallon bucket full of Black Butte Porters, Marlin brought a fancy ginger ale for me. Marking a long, challenging season with joyous reflection, we basked in the glow of gratitude for plentiful salmon, good weather, well-behaved boats, durable bodies, and beloved friends.

I credit Marlin with instituting Fishermen’s Thanksgiving as a tradition. One of his deckhands, Mikey, has attended all three years. In a bit of serendipitous timing, he called just as I began writing this piece. When I asked if there was anything he wanted to say about our tradition, Mikey didn’t hesitate.

“Fishermen’s Thanksgiving ruins regular Thanksgiving – or ‘Lower 48 Thanksgiving,’ as I call it. It hadn’t been a super-commercial holiday until pretty recently, but people are promoting the Black Friday thing now to the point that it’s fucking stupid, right? And having that mess sitting right next to ‘Here are my good friends, being thankful for the season we all just shared, made some money, had some good times’ creates a pretty stark dichotomy. Basically, regular Thanksgiving kinda sucks after you’ve had Fishermen’s Thanksgiving.”


My November Thanksgiving did not suck.

It involved a ridiculous abundance of good food, shared in a warm house, among loving family. When we couldn’t eat another bite, we put the leftovers in the refrigerator and scrubbed the dishes with seemingly endless clean hot water. All of us are reasonably healthy and able-bodied – even the 93 year old – and hold similar social justice ethos. Each plate included a bookmark with this quote from civil rights leader Howard Thurman, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and go out and do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

It was a good day.

And because it was a good day, I felt like that much more of a jerk. Mikey’s analysis of the two holidays rang absolutely true for me. This arbitrary autumn Thursday didn’t carry the profound seasonal punctuation our September gathering had. When Joel and I drove home tonight, we talked about why that was.

“This feels random,” he said. “That’s not to say that I’m not thankful for this time with my family, because I am. But in September, we’re actually marking a seasonal transition. There’s something specific on the line: we’re giving thanks for a safe harvest and a finished season, with friends who are our family, who we’ve just shared these intense months with, and now we won’t see much – if at all – until next summer. We’re marking the end of one side of our life and moving into the other. Thanksgiving in Alaska just has bigger meaning grounded in place and time.”

Maybe that’s what it is. November Thanksgiving provides a day to enjoy family we otherwise rarely see – but for me, it could be any day. Fishermen’s Thanksgiving carries the weight of intentional change. We recognize what’s been with gratitude, while inviting what’s next with openness. As challenging as seasonal livelihood is, it presents a rare gift of reflection. Deliberate demarcations of life.

Still, I know both Joel and I will be thankful tomorrow morning for leftover pie.

Despite what may come across as a curmudgeonly attitude, friends, I hope you had a lovely day, wherever and however you spent it. You’re in my best, most appreciative thoughts, no matter what the season.


In Limbo Between Land and Sea: Shipping Out

22 03 2012

I’m typing quietly this morning, friends.

Thick darkness outside, my housemates are still clinging to sleep. All except Bear – I poked her awake and insisted she join me downstairs. She’s been a loyal companion in my writing room all winter, reliably sprawled in front of the propane fireplace while I type, and I want her to share this final morning.

Today is our transition. With a four hour flight, our lives shift abruptly from spacious house on soil to cramped cabin at sea. When we first get settled aboard and the small wheelhouse radiates warmth from the galley’s diesel stove, I’ll view “cramped” as “cozy,” and relieved peace will seep through my body. I’ll feel a wave of affection for the vessel that, for the next six months, will be our everything. Home, workplace. At her best, a trusted friend who ensures our safety in an environment where humans don’t belong. At her worst… Well, something less than a trustworthy friend.

Having such a clearly defined, bi-annual switch between lives lends itself to reflections of what we’re saying goodbye to. On my 24th season of this migrant life, I’m an old pro at leaving, but have felt unusually ambivalent this year. So I take special pleasure with this last coffee and English muffin – neither come out as tasty on the boat – and consider the past week’s bittersweet observations.

The sizzle of chopped onions hitting the hot skillet – won’t hear that for a while. Even when you let a pan sit on the stove’s “hot spot” – right above the diesel flame – nothing ever comes to a full sizzle or rolling boil.

Damn… didn’t get a bath while I still had access to a tub. The only showers from here on out will be infrequent and in the fish plant’s communal stalls.

We didn’t eat enough Thai food this winter. Upon that realization, we splurged on take-out Pad Kee Mao twice, to tide us through the six month drought.

Save that quarter. Between fishing trips, we’ll haul loads of ripe laundry to the Laundromat.

I’ll miss this bed. Say goodbye to sprawling across the queen-size acreage. Carved of peculiar geometrics to curve with the hull, our foam bunk is an optimistic double at the shoulders, but tapers to a tangled, tight squeeze at the foot.

Bear’s not gonna like this. Our girl’s preferred water source is directly from the tap. With the Nerka’s limited water supply to carry us through two-week trips, she won’t get that option.

This migration requires adaptation from all of us. But turned inside-out, regrets reveal gifts, and my attitude shifts to giddy anticipation.

The Backdoor Café! Bernadette and Sotera! Forget the English muffin; I’ll be having pie with my coffee tomorrow morning.

Ravens! My yard birds and squirrels have been faithful visitors, but my heart belongs to Sitka’s hefty corvids.

Friends! In a community of 9000, even strangers are familiar faces. One of my favorite touchstones of returning is seeing people I don’t know by name, but whose continued presence assures me I’m home.

Home. Enough said.

Be well, friends – we’ll catch you on the other side.

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