Friday, August 26, 2011

Oh Come on Irene....

Oh, come on Irene
I swear on my knees
At this moment
You mean everything to me.

Does anyone else think of this song when they read about the hurricane that is about to blast the east coast? Or is it just me?

Maybe it’s because she does mean everything thing to me. 

Fall.  Fall is a dangerous time of year according to Guido.  (For those of you readers not in Alaska, August is very much considered fall).  Fall is dangerous because you are just coming off the huge surf of energy, adrenaline, high emotions, and downright craziness of fishing.

For me, I’ve been working my butt off since April.  Actually since February.  That’s when I started gearing up to come over here to Cordova from Anchorage.  Getting rid of things I don’t need, cleaning and renting out my condo, packing, buying and fixing up, then selling and buying another camper to live in (see blog post:, provisioning for the 5 months I’ll be here, etc. On arrival to Cordova, I hit the ground running.  Vince and I got the camper set up then I started work.  Between crewing on a gillnetter and mending gear, I was putting in over 100 hours a week those first few months.  Now that things have (finally) slowed down, I have a chance to think about my fall plans.  After coming off all these pent up emotions from the summer, one might wonder if it’s really a good time to be making plans?  Hence the danger. 

Well, probably not.  But I did anyway.  My plan of fleeing to nice weather is the only thing keeping me going during this dreary 3 week stretch of 53 degree temperatures and rain.  There are as follows.  

Come September 9-11 I’ll be performing at the Kenai Fisher Poets Gathering in Kenai, AK.  After that I’m back in Cordova for a few weeks to pack up, etc.  Then I’m arranging my escape late September.  The plan is to pack up the cat and drive down the ALCAN highway to Ohio, hitting hot springs along the way of the 4000 mile journey. I’ll visit the family in Ohio, meet up with Vince and drive south to his beautiful new sail boat the Flight Plan,  a Seawind 1000. 

A Seawind 1000 catamaran
She's a 33’ cat that we plan on sailing south to Florida and the Bahamas for the winter.  It is currently on dry dock in a historically safe place that is supposed to be north of the hurricane zone, in North Carolina.  Yes, North Carolina!  Right in the path of Irene.  The boat is up river somewhere some 20 miles from the coast.  Hope hope hope hopefully, it will survive this weekend.  Hopefully everything and everybody survives this weekend. 

I see that Irene is losing speed, even if ever so slightly. We’ve done what we can, took the sails off, all the rigging we could. Now we just wait and wish for the best.
Wish us luck. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

It's here!

You can feel the change in the air.  It is a bit crisper. The days are getting shorter.  We are losing five minutes of daylight every day.  Sunset and sunrise are now during normal waking hours.  There is actual darkness to the nights. Actual darkness still in the morning.  Northern lights have been spotted.  And then there’s the weather.  That is usually a good indicator that is FISH WRESTLING SEASON!  Otherwise known as silver season.

Yes folks, it’s officially official.  The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) started its silver management on Monday.  They are no longer managing the escapement of reds (sockeyes) they have already come and gone, done their thing.  They are managing for silvers now. Typically, silver season starts with one 24 hour opener a week then as the fish come in and the ADF&G get their escapement goals, it will open for 24 hours twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays. Also typically, Mother Nature schedules blows and snotty weather for those two days. Looking out my window, She must have thought there was an opener today.

Monday’s opener was the standard 24 hours.  Typical to silver season the forecast was for SE 30 and rain.  However, it turned out to be not that snotty and eventually, even, a nice day.  The scuttlebutt is that the fish are small and not too many of them, yet.  When I asked Hammer if he went out, he smirked and confessed “I didn’t go.  And I didn’t feel good about it until everyone got back”.  The fish haven’t really shown up yet, but are on their way.

Silvers are fun to wrestle, I mean catch.  The average silver weighs 8-12 lbs but can get up to about 15 lbs.  Most guys fish inside the barrier islands and this kind of fishing is done by making “fliers” or short sets with the tides.  Since the sets don’t soak very long, the fish are, more often than not, still quite alive.  And fight.  Hence the commencement of the wrestling matches.  In addition to short sets, the water is pretty shallow, too.  So, instead of your net laying straight down in the water, its laying on the bottom and gets all accordion like.  Fish become real tangled.  And wiggle.  A lot.  A fisherman’s job is to tussle them out of the net.  And mind the teeth.  I usually forget this part but am reminded quite quickly.  Reds don’t have teeth like silvers.  I mean, they have teeth, but just in front, like a horse.  Kings and silvers have little razors evenly spread though their whole mouth.  With reds, sticking your finger in the fishes mouth to clear the web is mostly a good idea.  Not so with silvers. 

There is a natural loll between the run of reds and silvers.  This year, it seems like it was a long one, about three or four weeks.  I like to take this time to mend all my aches and pains caused from picking reds.  Sore hands, carpel tunnel, achy wrists and knuckles, those shooting pains the run up your arm, hands going numb at night.  I almost shit the bed one night when I rolled over and felt a strange hand laying next to me. I grabbed it and felt it before opening my eyes.  Only then did I discover it was my own hand, completely numb.

A few weeks off and these complaints tend to mend themselves. But fish wrestling season always brings something new for me, tennis elbow.  I don’t know why, but I get it every year.  I used to just bust out the Bengay. But I find as I get older, I no longer like to make an olfactory announcement of my ailments.  My new thing that I’m trying is to take an old wool knee sock, cut off at the foot, and pull it up my arm.  It makes a nice warm sleeve and seems to help, so far.

Another reason I like silver season it that the fleet is smaller.  Most guys who don’t live in Cordova go home.  Less boats, bigger slice of the pie.  But my favorite thing about silver season is the light at the end of the tunnel.  It means the season is winding down and going to come to an end.  Something I start to think would never happen. 

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.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Sometimes She Blows

You can hear it coming.  Off in the distance the growl starts, getting louder as it get closer.  Then, when it doesn’t seem to get any louder, it hits, making every creak and shake. Things rattle. Make strange noises.  Before I freak out because think stuff is falling apart, I remember what Vince told me.  Those things are made to go down the road at 65 MPH.  I hear his voice in my head and that makes me feel better.  But, then I think if that is the case, I wonder what kind of blow she can take.  I’m afraid before too long, I’ll find out. Granted, it was made to go down the road at 65 MPH but what if it blows 100?  Anyone want to take any guess as to what will go first?  I’ve heard of them flipping before.  It’s not skirted yet, but will be soon.  I do, however, have about 500 lbs of cement anchored to the hitch.  Hopefully, that will help. I close the vents.  I try not to think of my neighbor who lost his roof a few years ago.
The forecast for the Flats recently was storm warnings, winds to 70 MPH.  The forecast for Prince William Sound was gale warning, winds to 45 MPH.  The fast ferry was cancelled due to high winds and sea conditions.
I hear a thud!  Thud!  Another.  And another.  The cat looks at me as if to say “What the hell was that?”  “I don’t know” I reply out loud.  (What, you don’t talk to your pets?)  It’s not even blowing 60 so this thing shouldn’t be falling apart…….yet.
I crack the window and hear the lapping of the waves hitting the shore in the midst of the wind. I squint out between the rain drops and see white caps on top of one foot chop.  I see spruce cones go flying through the air.  Ah, that’s the thuds.  Spruce cones getting launched and landing on the roof.
It started blowing Saturday night.  It blew solid for the next 96 hours.  And I’m not shitting you.  I don’t mean it came down to 10 with an occasional gust I mean it blew at least a solid 30+.  Where does this wind come from anyhow?  How far has it traveled?  I wonder if it is French wind.  Tibet?  Japan?  No, I bet its Cordova wind.  I expect Cordova wind can travel ‘round the globe in four days.
I listened to the announcement.  25 deliveries and 1000 reds caught.  That’s 40 fish a boat.  That’s about 240 lbs and I think the price is $1.60/lb makes a $384 opener.  That won’t even cover fuel costs.  Glad I wasn’t out there.
Nope, I’m taking a break.  Well, not just me, Skipper is too.  And the rest of the fleet, minus 20 poor suckers who went out on Monday. Most guys do this time of year as there is a historical loll between the reds petering out and the silvers showing up.
Finally, this morning, I can walk around to assess the damage. Not too bad but my flowers are ripped to shreds. I mean each of their precious petals are tattered to pieces. Poor things.  I have to deadhead practically all of them.
John, a fisherman who has been here at least since the ‘60’s was telling me he would go to the lake to determine the forecast.  If it’s blowing on the Flats, it’s blowing on the lake, he stated.  Great.  That is exactly where my camper is. Right on the edge of the lake.  The Heney Range is on one side with the Mnt. Eyak on the other.  Lake Eyak is in the middle turning it into a wind tunnel.
I love this view of Lake Eyak and the mountains but I don’t get to see it much from my camper.  I would have to be broadside to the wind in order to take full advantage of it.  Then again, I think my pretty vista would be short lived if I did that. It would be replaced by a clear view of the sky on one side and the ground on the other.  I chose to nose into it.

Lake Eyak right outside my camper (though not today)

I got lucky this spring given that the weather was pretty decent.  It did blow a few times.  When I told my neighbor that I survived my first blow after a night of 65 MPH wind she retorted Oh honey, that wasn’t a blow.  I know she is right.  It can easily gust 100 here and often does in the winter. 
John was telling me about fishing onetime in Egg Island, inside the barrier islands on the Copper River Flats.   A wind came up that wasn’t predicted.  He said there were about four of them anchored up.  “Man, did that make my antennas sing” he said.  “My anchor line was so tight, you could play it. And I had it all the way out.  I finally picked up and ran up towards the markers about as shallow as I could, three feet.  Another boat was out fishing and they got flipped.  I think it clocked 96 that day”.
96.  That’s only 31 MPH more that what my camper was made to go down the road at.  Think it will make a difference?