Friday, August 12, 2011

A Fisherman's Commute

The following is an excerpt from the book I'm writing about my adventures fishing. It will be out next spring.  I hope you enjoy.

Morning comes early for fishermen, mine starts at 4 A.M.  The alarm barely gets in a ring before my feet hit cold the wooden floor of my tiny rented room, at Fisherman’s Camp, which was once an old abandoned cannery.  Stumbling around, I gather up the clothes I’ve laid out the night before: a blood stained sweatshirt, and a pair of Carharts, oil stained and dotted with holes from battery acid.  Cold as I pull them on, my garb puts me in the fishing mode as I tip-toe down the dark hallway, and I slip out the door.
My car, a well traveled ‘82 Subaru station wagon, has zebra striped seat covers and luminescent stars pasted on the ceiling, and it starts with the push of a button.  The faulty ignition switch had long since been replaced by fisherman’s creativity.   The engine roars to life, since the exhaust system has as many holes as my jeans. I put it in reverse and hear the rumble of the wooden planks of the pier on which the old cannery has stood for decades.  I turn on to the paved road and head for the harbor in the pitch dark, a full constellation of paste-on stars glowing above my head.  Most nights, these are the only stars I see in Cordova, Alaska whose annual rainfall 180 inches a year.   This is the time I love the best because of the stillness. I find it consuming and comforting.  I pause and savor the tranquil moment, knowing that soon enough my world will be in constant motion from the instant I step onto my boat until I tie up again, secured in my slip.    But for now, I find comfort in the succulent green of the dense Prince William Sound forest, the colors so vibrant, it’s almost eerie.     I have Mount Eccles standing above me to the left and Orca Inlet lies beside me to my right.
 Driving down the dark quiet street, I pass a row of old wooden houses long beaten by the harsh weather of the maritime climate.  The blackness of the night has made a mirror of every window, and I can see my reflection as I drive by.   For a moment, I’m envious of these people, still warm in their beds.  I’ll already be out fishing when they awake.  I think about them going off to work, putting in an8 hour day, coming home to have dinner with their families, and then snuggle with their loved ones.  My thoughts turn to my own day; All the while, I’ll still out fishing, bobbing up and down on each swell, tossed around at whim of Mother Ocean. However, this is a life I chose; to leave  loved ones behind, while I put out to sea alone, not knowing if the weather will allow me  to cook a hot meal, to get a few restful hours of sleep, or even to return safely to port.
Hitting a pothole snaps me back to reality and in just a few minutes I’m at the harbor.  It’s a good thing too--who knows where these thoughts of mine would go if I let them.  But I’m no greenhorn.  Every fisherman knows the risks; we’ve all weighed the stakes and yet, still choose to roll the dice.  We’re all gamblers, each and every one of us.
            Parking next to a log in the harbor, I grab my bags and head to my boat. In the stillness of the early morning, the air smells of the salty ocean.  It’s sweet, somehow fertile, and productive.  The dawn is crisp, cold, and damp with dew.  I mosey down the ramp, trying not to find myself surfing on the wet wooden surface.  About half way down the dock, I finally see my boat. I sigh a sigh of relief that she didn’t somehow sink during the night.  Boats are always trying to sink, you know.  Their natural state is to be on the bottom.
 I climb aboard, and feel the boat move from my weight and it slowly rocks back and forth a few times. I cross over my fish hold and the hollow thud of its emptiness reminds me of my mission to go catch fish.   Morning dew beads on my white fiberglass deck and I leave little foot prints in it with my Xtra-Tuffs.   I un-dog the door and head in.  As I duck inside my little cabin 8 foot square cabin, I am greeted by the familiar smell of boat:  foul weather gear, fish and diesel finished off with the faint musk of mildew.  With a quick glance, I look over my honey-toned teak cabin, to make sure everything is where I left it and that nothing out of the ordinary happened, like a Raven breaking in and eating my butter, again. Tossing my grocery bags down erases my counter space.  My survey starts with my tiny sink, to my left, followed by my Dickson oil stove, which has my orange gloves hanging above it, all turned inside out to dry.  To the aft is my bunk, which is a foam pad, a sleeping bag that is in desperate need of being laundered and an equally grubby pillow.   Coming around to the port side is the sole reason I bought this boat, the head.  No five gallon bucket for this gal!  In front of that is the helm, and my steering station.  Next, I check the engine.
            Lifting the hatch under my bunk to access the engine room, I tie it up while I’m checking things.  I double check that it is secure, as I hate it when my hatch comes crashing down on my head.  Checking the oil, making sure there is coolant, I look for anything out of the ordinary and then turn on the battery switch.  Closing the hatch, I go to the helm.  A turn of the key and the engine roars to life.  The low oil pressure alarm rudely interrupts my peaceful morning. Oh how I hate this alarm, not only its ear piercing, head splitting noise, but also what it represents, a blown engine and a 20 thousand dollar venture. However, it’s a necessary evil and I’m told by other fishermen that I can’t get into heaven without it.  After a few moments, (and I always seem to hold my breath until this moment), oil pressure builds and the alarm turns off.  Now the only sound is the roar of my 200 horsepower, turbocharged Volvo marine diesel.   Like its sound, its exhaust is the only scent in the air.  So much for romance, the silence is over.  
            I turn on my radio, my GPS and my fathometer.  Though old, at least it has the decency to remain silent.  Feeling the boat rock side to side from the wake of others leaving the harbor I am suddenly feeling antsy for this 7 am opener. I fidget and make myself wait for the engine warms up, before I go outside, leap overboard and untie the lines from the dock.  Hopping back aboard and I slip out of my stall while at the forward helm.  The crisp morning air slices through my jacket and threatens to chill me to my bones.  I turn to head back into the cabin.
Like a dance, with movement perfected by repetition, I move about the boat in the same manner every time.  It’s not just efficiency of motion, but prudence dictated by safety and by the confined space.  When scurrying from the bow to my cabin, if I get too excited and muff the dance step, forgetting to turn, I’m reminded this boat was built for a man.   My hips get jammed in the bottle-neck between steering wheel and net reel.  Then I’m condemned to running in place, like a cartoon character from Looney Tunes. 
Heading back to the cabin, ducking through my aluminum door I pivot on one foot, grab my wheel and flip myself into my skipper’s chair.  By reflex, I dog the door tight with my foot.   
Nestled into my chair and I head toward the grey, stone breakwater and out of the harbor where there is an ever present convention of seagulls.  I drive through them and watch them scatter as I check the tide book to see if I can take the short-cut. I think I have enough water and go for it which is not only saving time, but also just kind of fun, if I can get away with it.   This can be a bit dodgy on a falling tide because, as the saying goes ‘the tide waits for no man, and very few women.’
Putting out at a slow pace, with my left hand on the throttle, I rev ‘er up.  As I do so, I feel the bow rise and the stern squat down.  Another moment and a little more speed and I’m up on step and the whole boat rises a bit.  While I am running, I use my trim tabs to even her out.  I bring the port bow down a bit and starboard stern up in order to compensate for my ever present list.  My boat evens out, which is more comfortable and efficient. And I can now sit straight up.    With that, I am on my way. 
            I follow my track line on my GPS and look back to see who is around me.  I can see through my salt crusted window the harbor and the town of Cordova shrinking.  Soon, both will be out of sight. The sun is starting to present itself though I am in the green shade of the mountain.  It’s a rare calm morning.  
            I get to the shallow part of the flats and keep an eye on the fathometer.  My boat draws 2 ½ feet of water, and I’m in 3 feet.  I keep on hand on the throttle and one foot on the door, bracing myself for impact. But I secretly rejoice taking shortcuts, like I am cheating fate or something.   It was close, but I made it through, this time.  No goin’ dry runnin’ to the grounds for me today. I rock in the wake of other boats passing me as my boat is slow.  My thoughts then turn to what it would be like to have a faster boat and not get waked so much. 
             Just past the corner at Big Point is an old house and gear shed which is off to the east, and I day dream about what it would be like to live there.  It has been deserted for years and the windows are all gone.  Some mornings there are bear or moose on the beach. I follow the shore line, pass Shag Rock to the stick channel and head east toward Egg Island.  I’m out of the shadows now and fell the warm sun on my face. The sun is rising and the colors are magnificent, orange, yellow, and reds.   On a clear day like this, the views are magnificent. The mountains stand beside me to my left and the ocean is on my right.  Mount Saint Elias is off in the distance in front of me.  I look at the majestic beauty around me and think of my morning commute and how lucky I am that this is what my commute is like. 
The water is calm here since I am still inside the barrier islands, which stops the swell of the ocean.  I run past some otters lazily drifting around. They float around on their backs and keep their paws out of the water, in efforts to keep them warm.  They look like they are waving at me as I go by.  They bounce up and down on my wake and I wonder if they like that. 
            I’ve been running about an hour when I approach Egg Island, where all the tenders are anchored waiting for boats like mine to deliver their catch.  I turn right at the tenders and I head south to go out of the Egg bar, which is the nicest of the bars and is relatively calm day like today. There are only a handful of 10 foot waves to climb up and over but nothing that will rearrange my cabin.  After that I am into the open ocean.  Heading out that bar is like walking into work.   My focus shifts, as if I had just punched a time card.  And my ever present companion joins me, that old knot of angst in my stomach. Like the hollowness of my fish hold, I now have it to remind me of my mission to go catch fish and to pay off my boat and permit, one fish at a time.  With that, I head east and start looking for jumpers and other boats.  The stillness of my morning is over.

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