Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Guitar

Though this one isn't about fishing, it has a bit of it tucked inside...flavored with how hard it was to leave fishing and Alaska for me, and the first steps I took to recover. But mostly this is about my brother, Mike. I feel a need to provide a disclaimer here that is extremely important: I have a wonderful family. Both my brothers and my sister are kind, loving and thoughtful people, and the families they have created, one and all, and I know this is unbelievable to many people, but it's true: are all a fantastic bunch of folks I am proud to call family and delighted to know. This story is just one special example of how I feel about them all... except maybe for Jeff, Mike's son. And my two sons, Dylan and Kessler. Except for them, and oh, yeah, Jeanne. And Amy. And, well, Monte and his daughter Savannah. But that's all. Really. Well, there IS Mike Smith... heh.

________________________



I opened the door of the apartment to find a tall cardboard box on the top step. Reaching over the top of it with his hand holding the electronic signature pad was the man in brown. "Package for Patrick Dixon," he said. "Sign here."

Surprised, I took the pad, signed it and gave it back. "Have a Merry Christmas," he said, and walked back down the sidewalk to his truck. It pulled away as I read the return address, from Mike Dixon in Maryland. No mistake, then. My brother, the woodworker, the musician, eight years older than I, and the one who had shown up unannounced with his wife Alice on our doorstep in Olympia a year ago to help my family get settled three days after we moved here from Alaska, had sent this package. I picked it up and carried it into the dim living room of our cheap rental duplex.

"Who was that?" asked Veronica.
"UPS. A package from Mike." I walked into the kitchen and grabbed a paring knife out of the laminated wooden knife block Mike made us years ago.
"Your brother?"
"Yeah."
"What is it?"
"No idea."
"Well open it and find out." She came into the living room, wiping her hands with a towel.

Of all my siblings, it's ironic that I feel closest to the one who tortured me the most while growing up. Mike sat on my six-year-old chest as a fourteen-year-old and dangled spit in my face and sprinkled handfuls of grass in my eyes and mouth; Mike would play "Patrick is a fat boy," on his guitar just to make me angry whenever the family was gathered around to hear him play; Mike was the one who held the lazy-Susan with his thumb when we were eating dinner one night with mom and dad and I was trying to turn it. When I pulled harder, he let go and the pitcher of milk flew onto dad's plate, spilling in his lap. I was the one who got sent to my room without dinner. Yet it was Mike who loaned us the last $2,000 we needed to seal the deal on our fishing permit when we bought in twenty years ago. It was Mike who decided to come to Alaska and be with me after our mom died, and I couldn't afford to go to the funeral.

I ran the knife along the seam of the cardboard, cut open the top and peered in. A round, black shape was there, made of some sort of vinyl. I put the box on its side and pulled out a guitar case. "Oh, my God," I breathed. "It's a guitar!" Mike had been promising to make me a guitar for two years, ever since he'd converted his wooden cutting board and humidor business into hand-making custom guitars. An accomplished musician, he worked with wood for most of his career, and nearing retirement decided to reinvent himself as a custom guitar builder. I had jokingly been asking him, "Where is my guitar?" every time we talked on the phone since.

What slid out of the case was not a guitar he had made, but one of the several he had collected over the past couple of decades. Hand-built to Mike’s specifications by a craftsman from Hawaii, it was a jumbo cutaway - a guitar I had played and admired the last time we had visited in Maryland a few years before. Inlay abalone doves on the neck, the box was polished bubinga wood with more abalone along the edge of the top and down the center of the back. It was a work of art.




For a brief moment I strummed the strings. The sound was deep and warm, like diving into a tropical lagoon of resonance. It was too much. I didn’t deserve this gift. Mike was an accomplished guitarist, while I fumbled at it at best. Suddenly overwhelmed at what I held in my hands, I felt the crush of what to me had been a year of bad decisions press down upon me. Nine months ago we packed up the home we built in Alaska and moved to Washington for a job at the local state college that hadn’t gone well. For 23 years I was proud to call myself an Alaskan and a commercial fisherman. But last spring we sold the house, the boat and permit, and I nose-dived into a different lagoon: one filled with the cold water of depression and self-doubt. Our family was in crisis. More than once I had gotten into my truck and driven off, intending never to return, heading north, heading east, heading anywhere but here. And suddenly in my hands was this thing of beauty and creativity, and I could neither accept it nor give it back. To Veronica’s amazement, I slid it back into its case and clipped the latches.

“Aren’t you going to play it?’
“Maybe later,” I answered, and for a short moment that evening I did. When my twelve-year-old son Dylan went to bed, I pulled it out and sat on his bed and played in the dark. In a letter I wrote to Mike three months later, I described the experience:

I closed my eyes and played...and the music filled the room. Full and deep, my fingers felt as if they were touching glass, not wood and metal. Even my voice, my rhythm, my soul resonated in ways I never felt before. I played the guitar far less than it played me.

Afterwards, even more besieged by my feelings, I put it back in the case and avoided it. After the emotion of the moment faded, Veronica and I talked it out in the dark of our bedroom and I did my best to explain my feelings, but I’m sure I was less than honest – even with myself – and far from articulate. Inside I continued to dance around the fire of my own self-immolation, burning brightly against the darkness surrounding me, and the gift that my brother sent me sat silent in its case in the corner.

*

By March the rains of that first winter in Olympia began to ease. We bought a yellow house in a wooded neighborhood that promised to be a better fit for us. As we prepared to move, my sixteen-year-old son Kessler was packing boxes in the basement of the duplex. He picked up the box the guitar had shipped in, and out fell a plastic bag with documents about the guitar in it. There were picks, strings, the receipt and a letter. Kessler bounded up the stairs and said,  “Dad! Look what I found!” waving the bag at me.
Indeed.

The letter is dated December 21, 1998. Winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, at 3:00 am. In it, my brother describes the forces that mysteriously wake us up in the middle of the night with their voices echoing in our ears, telling us what we need to do. Somehow he knew how hard my life had become, how the trough of my sea was threatening to drown me, and that this, this gift was not a Christmas present – the timing just happened to be the same, he said – but was a lifeline, a buoy for me to grab to pull myself up to the next crest. In pencil, I still have his counsel:

Use it wisely. When in doubt about future decisions concerning life’s crossroads – meditate with it. It’s like a wisdom tonic if you use it appropriately. Strum it softly and it will speak back to you... it is a magic wand which I can only loan you. I don’t really own it. I just happened to possess it for awhile and then pass it on. Someday you do the same.

After reading the letter for the first time, I walked into the living room where the guitar had spent the first three months of its stay with me, and it was halfway out of its case when I opened the lid. It seemed to leap into my hands. Together we went outside and sat on the step in front of the duplex I was happy to be leaving – the same step I stood on three months earlier when it arrived – and we played. And as we played I began to understand that life is full of changes. Some we control, some we don’t. Some we choose, and sometimes those choices don’t work out as we intended. Some changes come to us dressed in cardboard, yet contain gifts beyond measure. I still play – not as often as I feel I should, but each time I do, I think of my brother Mike – and how lucky I am to have him in my life.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Alone on the Fish Part 2: Broken Down


“Hey Marauder, Skookum Too. I have a problem here, Don.”

Steph, Don’s girlfriend and deckhand, comes back. “Hang on, Skookum Too. I’ll wake him.”
While we wait, Dan drops into the engine room and starts poking around with a flashlight. “Check the fuel lines,” I tell him. “And the solenoid.” This engine, a Caterpillar 3160,  has a temperamental fuel system anyway, and when the device called the solenoid quits, the entire system becomes paralyzed. It has an indicator switch that lets us know when it has tripped off - like a circuit breaker - but everything on it looks fine. There’s no leaks, no loose wires, nothing that would indicate a problem. I turn the ignition to “On,” so the gauges come to life, but don’t turn the engine over, not with Danny so near the fan belts. The needles all snap into place. Water temperature, amperes, volts. Everything looks normal.
Skookum Too, what’s going on back there?” Don’s voice crackles sleepily over the radio.
“Not sure. She just quit running. We’re looking at the engine now. As far as we can tell, everything looks fine, but she won’t start.”
“I’ll come back and give you a tow to the river, “ he says. “Be there in about ten.”
"Roger."
We wait and keep trying to fix the problem, but we can’t figure out what’s wrong. We check battery cables, wires, circuit breakers, in-line fuses to the ignition and the fuel filter. Everything checks out. She still won’t start. When Don arrives, we rig up a tow line from our bow to his stern, and he starts the tow slowly, so as to not snap the line. With a gentle heave we are under way again, but a boat under tow is disconcerting. I imagine it must be a little like sailing, with the only sounds being those of the water rushing past the hull and the wind in the rigging. Add to that the creaking of the line as it strains to pull several tons of wood and fish through rolling waves, and you have an earful. I try to ignore it as I sit in the skipper’s seat, helping steer so we don’t veer off to one side or the other with the swell behind us. Six-to-eight-foot swells are now lifting our stern and pushing us north. A big one rolls under us, and when we ride down its back, the towline dips into it, slicing it like a knife. When the swell catches and lifts the Marauder, the force of the large waves and two boats heavy with fish is too much, and the line parts with a ‘thwaannngggg.’ Dan and I are on our feet in an instant. I steer the boat with the waves while he goes forward and brings the line back on board.  Don puts the Marauder into neutral while Steph collects the line hanging off their stern. Once she has it on board he swings back around. This time we tie one of the old tires Don uses for boat bumpers between the lines connecting our boats. He lashes his end to the corkline of his net that is on the reel so the tow will be in the center of his stern, allowing him to steer better. Steph eases the boat forward as Don stands on deck directly behind the reel and watches to see how the tow will work. Satisfied, he walks in the cabin and closes the door. Not 15 seconds later, the line snaps again, this time between the tire and my bow, and the tire shoots forward like it was attached to a giant bungee. Dan and I both watch in the fading light as it rockets directly over the reel where Don was just standing, rope trailing behind it like the tail of a kite. It slams into the cabin door with enough force to send it bouncing back over the reel to the picking deck. “Jesus Christ!” I shout.  If the line had split 20 seconds earlier, Don would be dead or injured and knocked overboard. This is getting a little scary.
Again he puts the Marauder in neutral. Steph goes out on deck and gathers the line hanging behind the Marauder while Dan does the same on the bow of the Skookum. Meanwhile, Don and I discuss what to do on the radio. “The boats are just too heavy in this swell,” he says. “I’ll try tying off alongside you.” Dan taps on the windshield and points to the bow cleat. As I watch, he steps over to it and lifts the back end of it up. The bolts holding it are almost completely pulled through the deck. No more tows on it today.

Don and the Marauder on a calm day.

The Marauder approaches from our starboard side, the direction the swell is coming from. We get lines ready, and Don comes out of the cabin and climbs the ladder to the bridge for better visibility while he maneuvers in close quarters. Steph readies lines on the Marauder’s deck. The Skookum is full in the trough now, riding up and down the swells and rolling deeply with each one. We’re in no danger of capsizing, but the motion has the sides of the boat rising and falling several feet with each wave. The Marauder approaches us at an angle, bow first. As she swings into us, Steph passes me a line already secured to the Marauder’s midship cleat and straddles the boats while I start to wrap the line on our side cleat and pull the boats together. Meanwhile Dan has secured a line to our stern cleat, and tosses the rest of it into the stern of the Marauder, still four feet away. He dashes by us onto the Marauder and down into the stern compartment to tie off. The Marauder is made of fiberglass, the Skookum wood. I loop the midship line around the cleat just as the Marauder is lifted by a swell, and the cleat and the 4-inch long bolts holding it to the deck of the Skookum slide up through the wood like butter. Surprised at the force of the two heavy boats moving in opposite directions, I look up at Steph, one leg on her boat, one leg on ours. She hasn't seen what has happened, and still has one foot on each boat. The cleat and bolts fall in between the boats as they roll apart, smacking the side of the Marauder. I grab Steph by the front of her jacket with a growl, “You come here,” and pull her on board as the boats surge away from each other. Seeing what's happened, Don throws the Marauder in gear and guns the engine so we don’t crash together on the next wave, and just like that we’ve switched deckhands.
I make sure Steph is well on board before releasing her. “You okay?” I ask. She nods. We watch as Don turns the Marauder around to come alongside again, this time to trade people. He pulls within a foot of us and hits reverse, stopping dead. In an instant Steph and Dan trade positions. Don pulls away again, and he and Steph disappear into the cabin. Dan and I do the same. “Well that was fun," I say into the microphone. "What now?” 
“I don’t know,” Don says. “We can’t tow you, that’s obvious. There’s nothing left to tow with.”
"I'm gonna call Ray,” I say. “Maybe he’ll have an idea.” Ray is the cannery superintendent, and an ex-engineer. He’s seen all sorts of trouble during his years in the industry, and if anyone can puzzle out what our next move is, it’s Ray. I call him on the VHF and we discuss the possibility of rigging a cradle of rope under the boat and around the cabin to tow with, but that sounds a bit iffy to me. "How would we get the line under the boat?" I ask. "Could a tender come help us out?"
“You could drop the line off the bow and walk it back to just aft of the cabin. Then tie off to that line for your tow."
The idea sounds pretty iffy to me. I know the cabin of the Skookum is mostly constructed of marine plywood, and with the stress of a tow will most likely come apart easier than the cleats we'd just pulled out.
"Yeah, Pat. All the tenders are filled with fish and have several boats in line to deliver more,” says Ray. “Besides, I don’t know what they could do, anyway. I could send the power skiff out, but we’d need to wait until the sea calmed down a little. You could toss out the anchor and wait.” The prospect of trying to set an anchor while adrift and without power doesn’t seem like a good plan to me. Plus I don't have a bow cleat to tie off to. I'd have to tie off to the reel in the stern. It’s completely dark now, and the wind and tide are pushing us toward the beach, where the shoreline is riddled with rocks. There's no good decision here.
“Let me see if we can figure out what’s wrong with the engine one more time, Ray. I’ll get back to you.”
Don comes on the other radio. “I’ll stand by here until you figure out what’s going on, Pat.” I know that’s a sacrifice. It’s late, and we’re the only ones out here. We’re going to be the last boats in the river, and even if we do arrive at a solution for this predicament, it’s going to be several hours before we get any sleep. I look over at the dark shape of the Marauder rolling in the sea next to me and see my friend looking out his window at me. I put a hand up. “Thanks Don," I say. It's a far cry from the feeling I have, but it's all I can express over the radio. "I’ll keep you posted.”
I look at the engine and mentally go back to the beginning. Danny and I stretch out on the cabin floor and start inspecting every wire related to the power system. We are tracing one that runs from the ignition to the top of the solenoid when Dan asks, “What’s that dark line?" I shine the flashlight beam along it. There, about two feet from the solenoid, is a pencil-thin crack in the white insulation. I feel it with my fingernail and bend it apart. Corroded by who knows how many days of salt water and air, the wire comes apart in my hands. 
“Get the wire strippers, connectors and black tape,” I say. I stand up and look outside the windows while Dan scrambles for the electrical supplies. Don is still there, his cabin lights reflecting on the black waves between us. I hold the light as Dan repairs the wire. He straightens up and steps back from the fan belts. "Try that."
I sit at the helm and hold my breath as I turn the key. The engine roars to life! "Oh, Yeah!" we exclaim as I gram the radio. “We got it, Don!  Let’s go home!”
It’s 4:00 am by the time we deliver our fish and head to the dock. We’re high boat for the cannery for the first time ever. As I leave the tender in the dark and motor up to the string of boats tied to the dock, I hear a voice shout out, “Goddamn teachers!” It’s Bill, a friend of mine, a full-time fisherman whom I know likes to imagine that teacher/fishermen aren’t as good as “real” fishermen. I also know he watched us as we delivered, and has a good idea of how we did. It’s his way of paying me a compliment. Surprised and tired, I laugh a little too loud and reply, “Yeah, and you call yourself a fisherman!” We tie off to the dock and head for our trucks, exhausted. We’ll clean the boat in the morning, after I hit the liquor store. I owe the skipper of the Marauder, my friend, some beer and a bottle of whiskey. Sitting down to drink it later that evening, we'll both pretend it makes us even.
Don's boat, the Marauder, tied alongside the Watersong,
my boat, the Skookum Too and Don's brother Dean's boat,
the Cheechako, at anchor in Snug Harbor, 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Alone on the Fish - Part 1



Don Lee and Dean Pugh are close friends of mine. Their dad, also named Don, whom we called “Senior,” even though Don Lee wasn’t “Junior,” started fishing Cook Inlet in the 50’s, and brought his boys up to Alaska as deckhands when they were teens. Don started running his own boat for Kenai Packers at 17, Dean at 15. I met the two of them on one of my very first days of running my own boat in 1980, almost a decade later. In the winters senior was a school principal in Bellevue, and their mom Betty was an elementary schoolteacher. She deckhanded for senior as long as they fished together. To my good fortune, both Dean and Don had their parents’ Norwegian blood as fishermen and teachers, and  they took me under wing during my first two years as a skipper. They taught me how to work on boats, mend gear, how to read tides and how to fish. Sitting here thirty years later, I wonder if there was much they didn’t teach me about how to be a fisherman. In the process we became lifelong friends.
I’m writing this on Nov. 14, 2012, three days after Betty passed away. When Don called me with the news I asked him if he wanted some company – that I would come up and spend the night. “You know, I think I’d like that,” he answered. I drove to his house in Snohomish that morning, and spent the past two days with he and Dean and Dean’s wife Michelle and son Chris. We talked, drank whiskey and beer, laughed, cried, cleaned Betty’s apartment, and talked more. These are my friends. They say you can’t pick your family. Maybe not, but you can sometimes pick the one you’d like to be part of. Theirs is the one I picked. Here’s just one story about them, starting with Don Lee:

Don Pugh "Senior" runs his boat, the Sumac, out of 
the Kenai River just behind his son, Don Lee, on the Marauder.

This is how I like to remember fishing: 1983, fishing the Skookum down south on the west side at the end of the day. My deckhand, Dan Rediske, a former student of mine fresh out of high school, is weary after picking 600 fish on our first set of the day and 300 on the second. We move west of the fleet in a building sea, trying to avoid a large, scattered kelp rip, and make what I am already thinking is the last set of the day. The radio reports of fish are few, and the boats that aren’t already heading back to the river aren’t catching much. I see one boat, a speck on the horizon north and east of me a couple of miles - the only vessel in sight. The water is clear of sticks and kelp as we set to the west. A bunch hits the net in a flurry of foam, but it’s quickly lost among all the whitecaps. We are setting the gear while running in the trough, and on the bridge I am hanging on to the wheel as the boat rolls underneath me. It’s hard enough to keep track of my direction with the compass, let alone look back at the net while setting. Dan has his head down, helping the gear peel off the net with his hands. There’s a freshening wind blowing and he’s keeping a close eye on the wind-whipped web so he can pull the brake on the reel if it hangs up on a cork or a snag. Neither of us can really tell if we’re getting any fish or not.
 We finally get the gear out and both of us head to the cabin. The wind is steady and cold, with spits of needle-like raindrops mixed in, and the cabin is warm and dry. Dan asks if I mind if he takes a nap for 10 or 15 minutes. I nod, put my army jacket on over my oilskin bibs, pull on a pair of gloves and a sock cap, and head topside to watch the gear. Even after three years on this boat and two more deckhanding for Jim, I still can get queasy in the cabin on a rocky day, so I figure I stand a better chance of staying on the grounds and finishing out the period if I’m in the fresh air. I go out on deck and put the boat in reverse so I can get some slack in the tow line. I pull it around to the port side and tie it off on the midship cleat so I can tow into the waves. I climb the ladder to the bridge and swivel the seat to face the stern, bracing myself on the life raft rack with my legs. I hang on to the side of the bridge with one hand and steer the boat with the other. I tow the net, trying to keep the gear from “flagging out,” or stretching in the direction of the wind and current, where it won’t catch as many fish. I watch the net as it stretches off to the east into grey, angry waves. I can only clearly see the first shackle, (the first third of the net), and I can barely see our orange buoy bobbing every now and then, tiny in the distance, 300 yards away at the end of the net. I light up a smoke with a good deal of twisting and turning against the wind to shield the lighter, suck on it and watch the net. About halfway down the first shackle the corks bob and disappear. Suddenly the water is lit up with splashes. A good-sized bunch there. A few seconds pass. Another, right behind the boat. And another kicking up foam toward the other end of the gear. The bunches light up for just a second as the fish struggle against the web, then stop. The fish we're catching can’t fight long because of the tension created by the waves and the boat towing so hard, so I’m pretty sure I’m not seeing at least as many hits as I am seeing. This is getting good, and after a particularly large hit, I let out a whoop and scramble back down the ladder to make a fish call.
  There are eight boats in our group, and we communicate well to each other about the numbers and species of the fish we catch, our location and how long the gear has been in the water. We also let each other know when we are on fish and getting activity in the gear, something I know from experience that other groups find difficult.  I spent a couple of years fishing in a group of 22 boats. Not only do some of those guys not talk much, they go out of their way to conceal information from their own group so they can catch more fish. The day I decide to leave the group is when one guy catches 900 fish on one set and doesn’t call anyone in the group until it’s all over and he’s done picking. Afterward, he claims he didn’t see them hit. No one else in the group believes him, but nobody says anything. I start looking for a new group to fish with the next day.
  I key the microphone on our scrambled sideband. “Yeah, I’m getting quite a few hits here in the last few minutes, in case anyone is interested.” I look out the window at the gear while I’m talking, and a bunch slams into the net about fifty corks out. I love when that happens while I’m on the radio, because then I get to say, “Yeah, there’s another good one right now!” Don, on the Marauder answers, “What are your numbers, Pat?” I tell him my latitude/longitude, and he pauses a second before replying, “Do you see a boat a couple of miles north and east of you? Are you off west by yourself?”
“Yep,” I answer. “That’s me. Is that you up there?” All I can see is a gray dot bobbing up and down near the horizon in the direction of the river.
        “Yeah," he says, "We’re clearing out a raft of kelp that hit our gear on the last set. I had to roll it on just to get out of there, and moved west. We’re setting it out again and clearing it as we go. I don’t know if I want to move over now.”
  “Uh, Don,” I say. “This is looking really good here, and they’re charging north. Trust me. You want to move over and get in line with me. I’m still getting nailed here.” I feel a sense of urgency trying to convince him that this little shot is worth the effort. The day is almost over. I know the feeling of being tired and frustrated dealing with sticks or kelp in the gear. But, I think, it’s rare to be out here all by ourselves on a school of fish. I see another hit, and key the mike again. “Yeah, there’s been a couple more since we stopped talking,” I say. “And there’s another one, right behind the boat.”
   A long pause, and then he comes on. “Ok. We still have a shackle to clear. Let me know if it dies off.”

A speck of a boat a few miles away, Cook Inlet, 1977.
  “Will do.” I hang up the microphone, plug in the external speaker and head back topside. Fish are hanging in the gear as far back as I can see. We’re going to have to pick up soon, or we’ll never make it before the end of the period. I look at my watch. It’s just before 5:00 pm. We have a little over an hour to go. I watch as Don moves to the west. I figure I’ll wake Dan in five minutes, start picking in ten. Excited, I light another cigarette. The wind whistles around me until I jump down from the bridge and swing into the cabin. “C’mon Dan,” I yell. “We’ve loaded up again! It’s time to pick some fish!” As he sleepily rubs his eyes and pulls on his boots, I call Don and tell him I’m going to start picking.
  “How’s it goin’ up there?” I ask.            
  “Not bad,” he says. There’s definitely some fish here. We’ve had a couple nice bunches already, and we just got it all out. We’ll wait 10-15 more minutes and pick up then.”
        “Roger that,” I’ll be on the back deck.” Dan and I put on our gloves and raingear while I take off the tow and let the net flag. Picking while using the net as a sea anchor makes for a more stable deck, and it’s impossible to get the fish out of the gear when you’re towing. We bunji the door open and hurry to the back deck. I estimate we have at least 600 fish as we pull the end of the first shackle on board 20 minutes later.  5:30. We’re not going to get it all out of the water by the period’s end. If we get caught by Fish and Game with gear out, the entire catch will be confiscated by the state, and we'll get fined $3,000 to boot. Though the odds are low of getting caught way out here by ourselves, with all these fish I don’t even want to risk it.
   “Let’s pick as much as we can until 10 of,” I say to Dan as we bring on another bunch. “Then we’ll roundhaul the rest.” He nods and grunts as he bends down to pick a fish. Dan doesn’t say much, but he’s a hard worker and good fish picker. We both step it up a notch, feeling the urgency. We barely notice the white-crested waves slapping the stern unless one actually sprays us with ice-cold water. The boat is full and heavy, and rolls lazily even in a crazy sea. It makes for an easier working environment, but she’s significantly lower in the water. I notice the waves are starting to push the sea into the scuppers, holes reserved for water to drain out as we bring the soaked net on board. I have tapered wooden plugs tied to the stern cleats. “Get a hammer,” I tell Dan. “Let’s put the plugs in.” He stops picking and scoots to the cabin as fast as he can. I unlash the scupper plug on my side of the boat, get down on my knees and lean over the gunwale to guide it into place. I reach behind my back and Dan puts the hammer in my hand. A few solid whacks, including one as we roll to the side which puts the plug under water, causing me to splash and soak my own face, and the plug is in. We repeat the process for the starboard side, toss the hammer up by the door to the cabin and start picking again. I am wet and cold and tired, but I still feel great. We are on our best set of the season, and no one has come close to reporting this many fish all day. This is the kind of day I dream about each spring. It's 5:45. We pick furiously, swearing when a fish is bagged in the net or is stubborn and won’t come out fast. I watch the corks behind the boat as Dan finishes clearing a fish out of the gear, only to see another bunch hit!            
“We’re still getting fish!” I shake my head. “Shit. Why couldn’t it be noon right now?”
“Because we’d sink!” Dan smiles. “We can’t hold much more!” I realize he’s right.
“Okay. Let’s get outta here. Clear the deck.” We pitch all the fish at our feet over the reel into the open fish hold. I then press my foot on the treadle that powers the hydraulic motor that turns the reel and roll the net, fish and all on board. We have a powerful hydraulic motor, and even though the fish and gear weigh a tremendous amount we wrap a little over a shackle and some 250 more fish onto the reel. 6:05. We’re out of the water. I figure we have more than 1,600 six-to-seven-pound salmon on board.
 The boat rolls in the trough, so I put her in gear, turn her north, stern into the sea, and race to the bridge where I clean gurry off  my glasses and head toward Don, who is still picking up. Dan starts pulling the net off the reel by hand, and picking the fish off the reel. Don is just bringing on the buoy as we come alongside, and he’s grinning. “That was a great shot to end the day!” He shouts over the wind. “Thanks for that. We must’ve had 400 on that one!”

Don Lee Pugh picks fish from a gill net, c 1983.


“Great! See you in the river!” I yell back. And we both go into our respective cabins and throttle up, heading northeast.  I steer and put TV dinners in the oven as Dan clears the fish off the reel and rolls the net back on. The Marauder is faster than the Skookum, and a better sea boat with more hull above the waterline than we have. He passes us and slowly pulls away as we run home. There are still a few other boats out here, but with the weather turning nasty at the period’s end and the bulk of the fleet headed in early, I’m glad Don’s with us. The lonely feeling that haunts me periodically over all the years I fish, the one that comes over me when I realize how small a boat I am - a tiny black speck on a great big ocean - feels less powerful when I’m running near somebody I know. I never have liked being out here by myself, even with a boatload of fish.
I’m even more grateful for Don’s presence nearby when the engine quits about an hour out of the river. I’m asleep in the bunk when the drone of the engine goes quiet. “Hey, Pat,” Dan calls, but I’m already wide-awake and getting up. It’s almost 9:00 pm under gray skies, and the light is dim outside. “What happened?” I ask as I look out the windows. The boat is coasting with the last of its forward momentum, and swinging into the trough of the waves. The wind down south hasn’t turned the waves into whitecaps yet, but we’re riding a sea swell forecasting the coming storm. I think Danny shut her down for some reason.“I don’t know,” he replies. “Everything was running fine when she just quit.” He slides out of the skipper’s seat and I climb in.  I turn the key. The engine cranks but doesn’t start. We click on the cabin lights over the table and the sink. “Let’s unbutton her and take a look.” I have no idea what I’m looking for, but I’m hoping something will be obvious. While Dan rolls back the rug and lifts the floorboards in the cabin to allow access to the engine, I call Don. “Hey Marauder, Skookum Too. I have a problem here, Don.”

to be continued...

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Rough Beginnings - Stick Rips and Splices



The Skookum Too,  a 32-foot wooden gillnetter, my first boat.

The sky is overcast and dark. Michael is no longer on board, and Danny, my new deckhand passes me a cup of coffee as we head out into the Inlet for a late July fishing day in 1981. The waves are choppy, and I feel the familiar anxiety that I always get when expecting rough weather. As the summer’s salmon run winds down and August looms, the weather becomes less and less friendly on the Inlet.
It's Danny’s first day with me. This has been a particularly rough season, and Michael, my original crew, expressed a desire to leave early if I could find someone else. Danny’s skipper had a girlfriend on board, and he felt like a “third wheel,” so when I offer him the job, he jumps at the chance. We’ve only known each other a year, but we are already friends, and I know he has several more years experience on the Inlet than I. It's only my second year as a skipper, and I know enough to know I still have a lot to learn.
By the period’s opening at 6:00 am we are next to the middle rip off the north end of Kalgin Island. We lay the gear to the west in a light chop. Most of the other boats are stretched out south of us. The tide is running hard, and the most active part of the rip is thick with a huge raft of logs, kelp and sticks. We tow the net to hold it in a hook for northbound fish. It doesn’t take us long to realize there aren't many hits. We're a little too close to the sticks for my blood anyway, so we decide to pick up and move south. Danny takes the boat out of gear and starts picking while I get into my oilskins and boots.
I stand on the hatch covers and pull on my gloves. My eyes follow the white corks of the net as they ride up and down the small waves scooting underneath them. The rip is easy to see, clear on our side, muddy on the other, with whitecaps marking the division between the two. The rip is pulling us toward it quicker that I anticipated. We are seriously closer to it now than when I started getting into my raingear. The orange buoy marking the end of our net is almost among the logs. I step into the picking well at the back of the boat, and Danny stops bringing in the net and ducks under the lines to get on the other side and give me room. It’s standard procedure that the skipper operates the controls in the stern and the deckhand works on the other side of the gear. That way the skipper and deckhand can help each other pick fish, but the skipper is the one in control of the boat.
“I'm going to tow the net away from the rip a little,” I say to Danny. Looking out at the buoy, he agrees it’d be a good idea to get away from the rip. “It's sucking from this side,” he says. “How well does the Skookum tow?”
“Good enough,” I answer, not really knowing and hoping I’m right.

Danny watching fish hit the net from the stern of the Skookum as we tow. 
A rip is seen by the color change in the water near the far end of the net.

During the winter of the previous year I had “stripped out” some of the old, torn up gear I had used the previous season. Stripping gear involves taking a razor knife and cutting the knots of twine that hold the gear to the lines. After stripping, the lines are hung with new web for fishing. Since I didn’t know how to hang gear, I contracted Andy, a friend of a friend, to hang three shackles for me. I didn’t realize Andy had always worked for beach fishermen, who fish fixed nets anchored near shore, and don’t ever their tow nets, putting the extreme pressure on the lines like drift fishermen do.  Andy had never hung gear for a drift fisherman. When he happened to spot a frayed spot in my corkline, he cut it out and spliced in a new section with a "butt splice" by simply laying the two ends beside one another and “seizing” them, or wrapping them tightly with twine. He then wrapped the splice with black electrical tape to keep it from catching the web. What he should have done was knot the two lines together so they could withstand serious stress. Instead, the splice he created was never meant to take the stress of towing.

One version of a butt splice.


As Danny picked the first little bit of net while I was getting my raingear on, he lifted the splice out of the water, but it hadn’t yet reached the reel. It stopped just off the stern of the boat, in that same area of net that receives the most stress from the act of towing. I have not noticed the splice, and am unaware of any problem with my lines until I put the boat in gear to tow. As the propeller digs in, the line parts with a loud pop! The webbing shreds like a zipper until the tear reaches the lead line, which also comes apart with another pop! In an instant the boat is free from the gear, and the surge of it leaping forward almost knocks the two of us off our feet.
I gain my balance and grab the controls in the stern. I put the boat in neutral and we both stare at the net as it drifts toward the sticks. “Let's get the other end!” I shout as I run to the cabin. I take the three steps into the cabin in one bound, land in the skipper's seat and throw the boat in gear. I shove the throttle to full power and crank the wheel hard over. With a roar, a cloud of black diesel smoke belches out of the stack as the Skookum leans into the turn. Danny holds on in the stern with a worried look on his face, pike-pole in hand.
By the time we reach the net, the rip has swallowed it all. I maneuver the boat so the stern swings near the buoy, avoiding the bigger logs that are churning in the waves. Tense, I watch Danny through the open cabin door as he leans out and hooks the buoy line with the pole. I put the controls in neutral once again and run to the back deck to help him pull the end of the net on board and tie it off to the little bit of net left on the reel. The rip is hissing and boiling with the currents churning inside it, and the sound seems alive and malevolent. Once we have lines tied and secure, we look up to see our net filled with sticks, small branches, large branches, and three thirty-foot logs that are three feet in diameter – what had once been trees, but are now barkless, limbless waterlogged nightmares, rolling with the rip and corkscrewing our net around them.
“Oh, man,” I say under my breath.
Danny nods his head. “I’ve seen worse,” he says confidently. “We’ll get it back.”
We begin pulling the net on board and picking sticks out of it. It's slow work. The web catches every small branch, every stem, each piece of bark or wad of kelp that it touches. We bend sticks, break sticks, slide sticks through webbing, peel webbing off sticks, and pile sticks onto the hatch covers for the next twenty minutes. We don’t throw the sticks back into the water for fear they'll be washed back into the net. The pile on the hatch covers gets deep in a hurry. By the time we reassess our predicament we've only brought in fifteen feet of web and lines.
 Hanging in the net just off the stern is a large log that resembles a battering ram as it sloshes forward and back with the action of the waves. My boat, the Skookum Too, is stout enough, but she is made of wood and her 5/8-inch planks certainly aren't meant to take a blow from a waterlogged tree. The leadline is wound around the log in one direction for nearly half its length. Then it joins the corkline and a tangled mass of web, twists around them several times, and continues spiraling the rest of the length of the log. Getting the net back seems impossible.
“Maybe we should cut the lines,” I say dimly.
“No, we’re ok. I’ve seen worse than this,” Danny repeats, sounding positive. “Let’s try cutting out the web and at least get the lines back.”
We take out our knives and begin stripping the web from the lines, me on the corkline and Danny on the leads. We lean over the back of the boat and pull the lines out of the water for as far as we can reach. The big log pulls back at us as we try to roll it out of the hole we’ve cut to no avail. This IS impossible.
I look at Danny and grit my teeth. This is not the decision I want to choose. “We better cut it,” I say more firmly this time. “If we leave now, we'll still have time to get in the river and get more gear before the tide goes out.”
Danny nods his head again and looks at the mess behind the boat. “Yeah, I suppose we better." He pauses a moment, considering the scene in front of us and shakes his head. "I don’t think I have seen it any worse than this.” At any other time, that would be a good joke.
I pull out my knife and without bothering to even save the little bit of line hanging over the stern, I place it on the taut lines next to me. I have a sick feeling in my stomach. Not only are we losing most of the day’s fishing time, I am losing $1,200 worth of gear. With one quick slice the knife slides through the lines. The boat bobs free as she sheds the strain of the heavy net.
“I’ll call Veronica,” I say as I head to the cabin, “and get her to meet us at the dock with more gear.”  I fight hard to keep the discouragement out of my voice. A deckhand never likes to hear his skipper anxious or depressed. “With any luck we can get right back out here.”
Through the VHF Marine operator, I get her on the radio and explain. "Go down to the cannery and get my truck. See if you can get someone to help you move the nets out of my locker to the fuel dock, so we don't have to waste time chasing down the gear. If we run in and crane it down to the boat right away, we might make it out of the river before the tide's too low to get back out here."
  She's obviously worried but holds her questions for later, which I appreciate more than she knows. "I'll call Jon," she says. "We'll do what we can."
By the time we get into the river 45 minutes later, Danny has the small piece of net off the reel and bagged in the stern. The river is empty of boats, and I feel conspicuous as we run by the other canneries. We pull up to the fuel dock to find Veronica and Jon waiting for us with three new shackles of gear in bags, one of them already in a sling on the crane. We load them on board in record time, hoisting our torn-up piece of net off the boat in the process. I blow her a kiss, and with three new, bagged shackles on deck we race out of the river just in time to beat the ebbing tide.

Shackles of gillnet gear stacked along the cannery boardwalk.
In Cook Inlet when I fished there, a boat could only legally fish three shackles,
each one approximately 100 feet long and 20 feet deep.

Half an hour later we are four miles offshore and stop on some streaky water. We set the gear out of the bags slowly, stopping to lace the shackles together as we go. We let it soak a few minutes without seeing a hit, then decide to move on. Danny picks up the net while I call my fishing group on the CB. The strong ebb tide has swept the entire fleet out of sight miles south of us, just barely within radio range. We are the only boat in the upper Inlet that we can see. “Cheryl Lynne, Skookum Too,” I call into the mike. “Pick me up, Thor?”
Thor’s voice is faint and full of radio static as he answers back. “Yeah, go ahead, Pat.”
We exchange information, and to my relief I learn that the fleet isn’t catching much down south. Thor says there's nothing down there to run to. He ends the call by encouraging me, saying, “Maybe they’ll show up there.”
"Yeah, I hope so. Thanks, Thor. Ok, I'm out." is all I can think to say.
Danny finishes picking the set, and we head west to the middle rip once again. The sticks and logs (and my net) have been swept south with the outgoing tide, and the rip is much cleaner and friendlier-looking now. We lay the gear out near it once more.
As we watch the net and drift with the slowing tide, we see an occasional splash on the corkline. Small bunches of fish are hitting the net.  We take a break, have a sandwich and play a half-hearted game of crib, trying to forget the events of the day. An hour-and-a-half later we pull the gear as the fish period comes to a close. To our surprise we discover almost 700 fish in the net! That's one of the biggest sets of the day for the fleet, and my best set of the entire year! We laugh about it and shake our heads all the way home, telling the story to each other again and again. My worst day and my best day of the season have been one and the same.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Rough Days Fishing - Part One


Back to excerpts from my fishing memoir, "The Cards Do the Talking," though I'm pretty sure the title will change. I'm not sure the conceit of permit cards drive the story forward enough. And I'm always open to suggestions, so suggest away! I'm pretty sure the 'Comments' button on here is functioning now. Sorry about that to all who tried using it. Anyway, this bit comes from my early days - the first year I fished as a skipper was 1980.

The tender Chisik Island, waiting for boats to deliver in Tuxedni Bay.

I’m standing on the tender Chisik Island after a long day fishing in 1984, waiting in line and delivering. It’s in the early morning hours, yet there’s still a glow on the horizon where the Alaskan summer sun set a couple of hours ago. I am bathed in the yellow arc lights illuminating the deck, wearing my scaly cannery jacket and pulling on a cigarette that reminds me of how much I need to brush my teeth. It’s been an ordinary day fishing, if there is such a thing. I’m tired of talking about it and just want to get to the dock and go home. I wasn’t a highliner this day, but I didn’t break down, didn’t get my gear in the wheel or get sticks in the gear. I caught more fish than some guys, less than others. I’m learning. This morning I’m weary. Veronica fishes with me, and she’s hosing down the hold as I step into the tender’s wheelhouse with Louie, the skipper, who seems to be the only person on deck who isn’t sleepy. He’s cracking jokes and slugging down coffee, and like usual, he cheers me up.



My wallet is in my pants for the first time since I got on the boat almost 24 hours ago, and I pull it out to get my permit card. Dark green this year. I hand it to Louie and watch as he lays it down on the card stamper, a machine similar to the old manual credit card machines that stores used to use before computers. The letters and numbers on the card are raised like they are asking to be stamped, and Louie obliges, putting the hole in the card over a stubby stainless post, and placing a fish ticket with my catch numbers written on it on top of the card. He pulls down on the arm of the machine, impressing my information: “ R Skookum Too, PATRICK S. DIXON S03H62160A 25829” on the paper. He lifts the handle and hands the card and my pink receipt back to me. Unlike cards, receipts don’t change color each year. Spacey, I stare at the card a moment before slipping it back into my wallet, wondering if a piece of plastic can remember the times and circumstances under which it was stamped.

Louis Gebenini, skipper of the Chisik Island, 1993.

Learning the Hard Way
It was only three short years ago I started fishing my own boat with my own permit - I remember that year's card was used twelve times. At least eight of those were by Harold, skipper of the Beaver, the tender that rescued us when we broke down, yes, eight times that season.
Michael fishes with me this year, and it’s the roughest season any of the old-timers can remember. I’m taking a leak off the side of the boat as we run south along the east side in a 6-8-foot sea, when we start going in circles. What the hell? I wonder. Michael is steering, and when I finish and zip up, I turn back toward the cabin to see him standing in the door holding the wheel in his hands. “When you asked me to take the wheel,” he deadpans, “I don’t think this is what you meant.” Our rudder controls have snapped, and without controls it has slammed hard over, and won’t come back. I squeeze into the stern compartment – the lazarette – to fix the problem, and discover that the wooden block the hydraulic ram that pushes the rudder when we turn the wheel, is splintered and floating in pieces in the bilge. The ram hangs useless in the air above, held only by the bolt attaching it to the rudder. I climb out as the boat rolls in the trough, trudge into the cabin and  call Harold on the VHF. He is heading out of the Kenai River in case anyone in the CWF fleet needs a hand. I tell him our problem and location. “On my way,” he says. “I’ll be there in an hour, hour-and-a-half tops. Throw the anchor out if you start drifting too near shore.”
We close the cabin door, shut the engine down and wait, sloshing around under a grey sky and freshening wind. After running for an hour-and-a-half with the roar of an un-muffled Caterpillar diesel literally inches beneath your feet, when that engine noise and vibration suddenly stops, you immediately notice that your body keeps vibrating. Your arms and legs hum internally, as if every part of you has been tuned to the pitch of the engine, and can’t stop. The noise is quickly replaced by the clatter of cups and dishes in the sink shifting with each passing wave, the roll of buoys on the roof of the cabin, and slap of waves smacking the side of the boat, the groan of hull as she rolls from side to side, the steady whine of the wind in the rigging. We watch the boats go past us on their way to the fishing grounds. They get smaller in the distance, disappear over the horizon. It’s an ominous, uncertain and unfriendly feeling. We’re about two hours in when I decide to give Harold a call. As I reach for the microphone, I suddenly start sweating profusely and my mouth waters. I know this feeling, I think, and without a word to Michael, I jump off my seat and run out on deck. I was doing so well, I say to myself as I heave over the side. Shit!
         The feeling after getting seasick is one of weakness and relief. For a few long, raw moments your stomach actually feels better. I spit and blow my nose over the side, then head back to the cabin and grab an Oreo to kill the taste. I figure I need get this radio call out of the way while I can still think straight - before the sickness returns.

Harold, skipper of the Beaver, c. 1981.

“Hey Harold,” I rasp into the microphone. “How you doin’ up there?” Someone else’s voice comes back. “Hi Pat. This is Corey.” Corey is Harold’s green deckhand, a red-haired kid from Pennsylvania or someplace back east. He’s a hard worker with a good attitude, but you get the feeling that he isn’t really paying attention most of the time. “Harold’s in the bunk. I was just about to call ya. I’m almost even with the east Forelands, right here by the tank farm, and I don’t see any boats up here at all. Where are ya?”
         I take a long breath before answering. Several possible replies fly through my mind before I finally clench my jaw and utter, “ Um, Corey, we are south of the river, down by Humpy Point, not north of it. You’ve been steaming the wrong direction since you left.”
Another, longer pause. I can imagine what the kid is thinking. Finally, after a good two minutes of silence, the radio barks, “Yeah Pat, this is Harold. Sorry about that. I thought Corey knew what he was doing. We’re headin’ the right direction now. Probably take us a couple of hours to get there yet.” This is one of 1981’s good days.