Heading North, Take Two

8 06 2011

Seems that no matter how much advance planning and preparation time there is for the trip north, our final days are always frantic.  Way back in late April, before I headed off on the Charity, Cap’n J and I set a departure date. June 8th sounded just right… Time enough to enjoy our house after I finished longlining, time to go over the remaining Nerka details together, and time to enjoy several weeks in Sitka before our salmon season starts on July 1st.  A sound plan, indeed.

I was pretty confident in last week’s post.  It’s possible that the universe heard my confidence as cockiness: “With an intended departure date of next Wednesday, the remaining tasks are pretty slim.”  As many times as I’ve been through this process, I should’ve known better.

As you’ve heard before, fishermen’s plans change.   We planned to be slipping loose of the Bellingham breakwater in a half-hour; instead, I’ve got a cup of tea steaming beside me and am enjoying a final communion with the Bobs (you remember, our resident Stellar’s Jays) and squirrels.  Looked like we’d be hitting Queen Charlotte Sound just in time to buck into a Northwest 25.  Do-able, but we’ve got an awfully long season ahead of us to get beat up right out of the gate.

Between avoiding an ass-kicking and this week’s mad scramble of final details, the captain determined that a 24 hour delay would be acceptable.  We should still hit the tide right at Seymour Narrows, and hopefully sidestep the bumpy crossing.  Never a good idea to feel too rushed or locked into one arbitrary intention, we’re breathing much easier this evening.

We’ll have a friend on board for the trip up, someone to share wheel watches and contribute new conversation. Sean was a first-time deckhand on the 5 Girls last season. Every June, Joel and I eyeball the new crop of green deckhands and make a game out of anticipating who’ll make it and who won’t. From the moment we met Sean, we were in agreement: he was going to be the star new deckhand of the season.

And that’s how it worked out. He’s returning for a second round, but needed a ride up to meet his boat in Sitka. He and his partner, Angela – who’s a rock star deckhand in her own right, a powerhouse of endurance, strength and fishing expertise – drove up for a big send-off. It’s a bummer that our plan changed after they got here, so they’re having an unexpected amount of sitting-around-waiting-to-go time, but they’re professionals who know, “That’s the way it goes when you wear rubber clothes.”

Chaotic as the week has been, it’s a fun time to be in the harbor. After winter’s quiet and the slow meander into spring activity, everyone is in full-throttle preparation mode now. The 4 to 5 man (and some women) crews of the seiners surrounding us have been hard at work, repairing nets, sanding rails, all kinds of bustling about. We’re all a constant tide washing up and down the ramp, pushing mountainous carts down to our boats, tossing matching harried grins at each other.  This time of year, the harbor pulses with camaraderie.

Through it all, I try to remember the relief that’s on the other side of the breakwater. As soon as the lines are untied and we’re under way, none of this current chaos will matter. The mental brakes squeal, as we go from a zooming frenzy to a sedate 7 knot cruise. What’s inevitably forgotten won’t end up mattering, or will be dealt with in Sitka.  If our weather holds, we should have about a five day migration, a luxurious exemption from the rest of the world that I’m hoping to use as a mini writer’s retreat.  Fingers crossed.

Below, some photos from the past few days:

Monday: Provisioning, Part 1.

Stocking a Fishing Boat with Fake Meat Product: Oxymoron?

Cap'n J checks our survival suits. Bear, not so into it.

Sean & Ange, our ridealong squeezing himself into an if-he-absolutely-had-to suit.

Fake meat in the freezer AND prayer flags from the rigging? Bunch of hippies on this boat.

Cap'n J & T: frazzled, hopeful, anxious, and eager to be on the way north.

That’s the update, sweeties.  My remaining tea has gone cold, and some overripe bananas are begging to be transformed into bread, courtesy of Joel’s sister’s Ashley’s delicious recipe.  Be well, friends – hope to share some good stories with you by the middle of next week.

Boat-Hopping (& a Request of Hooked Readers)

3 06 2011

I launched Hooked under the grim oversight of the Pacific Northwest’s lingering winter.  Between relentlessly gray days and our “off” season’s luxury of personal time, it seemed the ideal opportunity to start this long-procrastinated conversation.  To spend hours crafting thoughtful tributes to our unique industry, deliberate over the perfect photo to accompany the text, and, when the words weren’t flowing, toss peanuts to the increasingly well-fed jays and squirrels lurking outside my writing window… Add in the unexpected encouragement of supportive readers, and this venture has been even more rewarding than I’d imagined it would be.  I’m thankful to you all for making it such a good time.

Bear keeps a close eye on the Bobs (our Stellar's Jay collective)

As it turns out, my leisurely saunter-through-syntax approach doesn’t work so well in conjunction with our “real” working life.  I’ve learned there’s an ocean of difference between the posts I’d like to share with you, and the ones that actually make it up. Hours spent scraping halibut bellies were surprisingly conducive to composing stories in my head, but the ensuing tasks – icing those fish, baiting up for the next set, scrubbing the deck, unloading, a whirlwind of shower/laundry/groceries before heading back out on the next trip – didn’t allow for much personal reflection. This business of actually being a fisherman has made it tougher to write about what it means to be a fisherman.

The Charity celebrated a safe, successful longline season. Against our initial predictions, we were blessed with beautiful weather, reasonably calm seas and sunny skies the whole way through.  Caught our halibut and black cod quota in two trips, a couple weeks of long hours, good food and music, and much laughter.  By the time we hauled all of the longline gear off the boat and set her up for salmon trolling, the work’s physical demands were a fast-fading memory, evidenced only by some impressive bruises and accentuated biceps.  When Martin handed over my crew share, I marveled at getting paid to spend time with friends in the shadow of the ferociously glorious Fairweather Range, coastline I’d never have known without this profession. Truly, our time couldn’t have gone any smoother or more enjoyably.

The top of a halibut set, flagpole bobbing beneath the Fairweather Range.

(Alaska Waypoints is getting the exclusive dish on my halibut stories, but I’ll post them here 2 weeks after their initial publication.)

I signed off from Team Charity a week ago.  Flew back to the concrete chaos of Seattle, to clenching Joel’s Subaru’s “oh, shit” handle, because zooming 70 miles per hour up I-5 is terrifying after a month of sliding through the scenery at 7 knots.

We didn’t waste any time in shifting over to Team Nerka. Up early on my first morning back, we took her out for a sea trial with the diesel mechanic on board. That went well, and Cap’n J was obviously busy over the past month. There’s a strong new handrail on the port side of the cabin, excess air’s been bled from the throttle and clutch, and the varnished rails are shimmering.  The fuel truck came down to the dock, and 529 gallons later, all four tanks are topped off. Made a quick run up to Canada, to pick up some hot hoochies and other secret weapon gear from their fishing supply stores. And with only a minimal amount of fiasco that was mostly due to a way-too-late lunchtime, we lowered our trolling poles and attached all-new stabilizer lines and chain, hopefully ensuring that the Nerka will have as smooth of a trip north as the Charity did 5 weeks earlier.

With an intended departure date of next Wednesday, the remaining tasks are pretty slim. There’ll be some big grocery trips this weekend, hitting up Costco and Trader Joe’s.  Some final family visits, including moving our houseplants to my mom’s for the next 4 months. (They do better under her care, anyway – this seasonal transfer is an extended spa treatment for them.)  Bear’s been following the piles of salmon-scented clothes, books, and groceries going out the door with an increasingly suspicious gaze, and will know what’s up after Monday’s visit to the vet for a health certificate to travel through Canada.

The salmon season brings a tremendous amount of pressure, as we try to make our year’s livelihood in 3 months, and Cap’n J and I are a pretty driven team. If I’m honest with myself and you, I can already guarantee that the internal conflict between those dream posts in my head and the sparse, sporadic ones that will appear here will only increase over the season. I wonder, what’s most valuable to you, sweet reader?  If Hooked updates are fewer and farther between, what would you most like to read about?  Any fishing/Alaska questions you’d like addressed?  Let me know, and I’ll do my best to put them at the top of the list.

The sun setting on the Charity's longline season, on our final run back into Sitka.

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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