29 May 2014 § Leave a comment
On the Coastal Starlight Amtrak, yesterday morning, observation deck.
Is this seat taken? a man asked. Shane stood at the edge of my base camp, a corner of the lounge car littered with books, pens, shoes, socks, a laptop on the floor, next to a jacket-pillow.
Nope, I said, and removed from the next seat a kitchen of hummus, cheese, and a dive knife sitting on a plate/cutting board/storage bag of the best homemade tortillas in the world.
You look like you’ve been enlightened by travel, he said.
Yes, I replied, enlightened to a world of things I don’t know anything about.
Train culture fascinates me. Indeed, all culture fascinates me, but trains in particular – the blurring of socio-economic lines in public areas; the potential for someone to sit next to you with whom you may have everything, or nothing, in common; that everyone, no matter how rich or poor, who chooses to dine on the train, eats the same microwaved, overpriced garbage. Even a recluse can make friends on a train.
Shane and I stumbled through the first minutes of shallow travel talk as the guide on the PA announced a contest: whomever counts the correct number of tunnels we pass through in the Oregon Cascades gets a prize.
In the uncountable dark tunnels, lit by tiny track lights in the ceiling, we traded stories of big hard lessons from the road, and what it means to have multiple homes. He spent months in a Russian prison circa the fall of the curtain, accused of spying. I told him about hitching in European blizzards, and in the Alaskan winterdark. How we got out of our predicaments: other people. Connections, loved ones.
You remind me of that guy in that movie, he said, you know, he went to Alaska, and he died?
Into the Wild was required reading for me in high school, I said, but I think I’m done hitching. I’m tired of sleeping at truck stops, under bridges, with the mice and mice of men.
I’ve been compared to Alexander Supertramp more times than I care to admit. At first, I felt complimented. I admired his idealism, his thirst for adventure. I wanted to push as many walls over as I could, whilst listening to the real Alaskan bushmen, hunters and fishermen and roughnecks, the fathers and uncles of my teenage years. They said he was an idiot, a moron, unprepared. The wilderness gives two shits about you, they said. Alaska will spit you out. He deserved what he got.
When I moved back to Alaska in my mid-twenties, I connected with the outdoors far more than with people. I packrafted glacier-fed class 3+ rapids in rain slicks, a brand-new hobby, and one I learned by trial and error alone; I bagged peaks in the Chugach and Alaska ranges without any real training or background in mountaineering; I hitched across the state, and took multiday backcountry adventures, sometimes in late fall or early spring. Conditions which, if anything went wrong, could have killed me.
To top it off, I never told anyone where I was going. I lived with my mum, who worked often. I never left notes, rarely took pictures. Often I didn’t know where I’d end up until I got to an out-of-the-way trailhead. My car was registed to a fake address half the state away, and I didn’t carry identification on my person – the useless card would weigh me down, I reasoned.
Maybe I wanted to be like John Muir, to toss some bread and tea into a sack, jump the proverbial fence, and walk into the wild unknown. But Alaska doesn’t really have fences. For two years, my mum’s place as base camp, I trusted my balance, resourcefulness, and growing experience to carry me through my adventures. In retrospect, I’m fairly certain that I didn’t really care much if I died out there.
Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours hit theaters in 2011. Adventure movie by the director of Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later? Inspiration? Please! Sure, I’d thumbed through Aron Ralston’s Between a Rock and a Hard Place amongst mountaineering literature in bookshops, but never read it. The message reached me anyway.
In 127 Hours, the main character – played by James Franco – falls into a slot canyon in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, and his hand gets wedged between the wall of the canyon and a rock roughly the size of a refrigerator. He goes through his gear: climbing rope, flashlight, camcorder, a bit of water; and imagines what it would take to get out of his predicament: eight strong men – who in the film appear as shadows in the relentless desert sun – pulling in sync on a line which might free the stuck young man below.
I pictured myself at the bottom of a whirlpool rapid on Alaska’s Sixmile River, or Sheep Creek (rivers I had no business running alone), or breaking an ankle near the summit of Bold Peak. I imagined facing off with a brown bear in the empty tundra of the Talkeetna mountains, and losing. Realistic situations, given my ambition. Then I envisioned the shadows of eight strong men, willing and able to help, playing cards back in Anchorage, because no one knew to look for me.
The point is that since the dangerous, unlikeable age of 23, I’ve learned some boundaries. My risk assessment is different now: why would I jump from the top of a fifteen-foot boulder, if I could walk nimbly down the other side?
If travel and adventure have enlightened me to anything, as Shane suggested, it is to the fragility of life. We humans are at once resilient and adaptive creatures, capable of creation, destruction, and healing. Yet it takes a relatively insignificant decision to alter the dynamic of life: half a second on a motorcycle, a moment’s hesitation on a mountain, saying a terribly inconsiderate – even if true – thing at the worst possible moment. Perhaps one reason we are so incredibly adaptive is that we are extremely sensitive to set and setting, and those who listen are the ones who learn, and thus, survive.
We’ve got work to do.
20 April 2014 § 1 Comment
In a widely-reported move, Rio Tinto, a major player in the development of Alaska’s Pebble Mine – long a threat to the Bristol Bay watershed and its fisheries – gifted its shares in the project to the Bristol Bay Native Corporation and Alaska Community Foundation. The decision was announced after the EPA said it would consider stopping the mine, citing the Clean Water Act. The White House supported the EPA’s announcement. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski suggested that the Obama Administration may have held more sway in the process.
Last September, Anglo American, a mining company which had invested in Pebble Mine from the start, pulled out of the project. Currently, Canadian-based firm Northern Dynasty Minerals retains shares in Pebble Mine.
Alaska’s government, hyperaware of both how much money Pebble Mine would produce for the state and how much it would devastate the region environmentally and economically, has remained steadfast in “letting science decide” the fate of Pebble.
I’m a Bristol Bay fisherman. The threat of Pebble Mine has loomed over every season I’ve fished like a dark banner under which ornery fisherman gather and complain. Movies have been made in protest. For half a decade, nearly every fishing boat, tender, skiff and processor vessel in Bristol Bay has flown the anti-Pebble flag, the corresponding stickers stuck ubiquitously throughout the region (one remained on my car as I sold it last year in Oregon).
No one in the fishery knows, really, what might have happened had Pebble gone through. It still may, though the chances are minimal. Would we have had four years of decent fishing left, or until the spawn of the last uncontaminated fish died off? Should we worry about other problems now, like Fukushima and radioactive fish, or the Fraser River’s anticipated heavy run, which this year may overtake Bristol Bay as the most abundant salmon run in the world, and plummet our price?
On a smaller scale, I’m fishing this year with Heather on her boat, the Silver Kris. We’ll be running it together. Will everything work correctly? Will we catch fish? Will we lose money on the venture to Alaska? We’re to drive to Seattle today to put gear and food on the barge.
It’s that time of the year. I’ve mostly forgotten or repressed what negative memories of last year’s grind on the Okuma remained, and I’m readying for the northern migration again. With worries and confidence and news of this disaster, or that gift.
Pebble Mine is now in the hands of BBNC, who are, by and large, fishermen. Imagine if the protestors in Egypt were handed Mubarak’s power; if Syria’s government forces suddenly handed its arms over to the families of civilians it has murdered; if Occupy Wall Street accomplished something tangible. We’ve won, gotten what we wanted; the protest of Alaska’s rural communities, fueled by environmental and cultural stewardship, worked. What now?
Now, we continue. We buy food and coffee, rain gear, engine parts; save receipts for next year’s taxes. We visit a friend at the airport who’s on layover toward the fishing grounds. We tend to the passing of the seasons, and adjust the anchor lines for the flooding tide.
We go fishing, because that’s what we do.
6 November 2013 § Leave a comment
Today is our first mensiversary of marriage. We’re biding our honeymoon in the California hills, and I feel neither present nor attentive to the task at hand. This invisible culture, whose industry requires a blurring vagueness here, propels the migratory gypsy circuit into a focused frenzy for a few months of the year. Mornings and evenings I sinfully connect to the internet, an archaic device that tethers me to the outside world.
Five years of seasonal work has taught me this: the twenties fly too fast to not do what I love. Fishing has been the most adventurous and lucrative job I’ve had, my often-told story of life amongst the tides. And, I’m writing a new story. One which up to now I mistakenly thought would have little to do with fishing and Alaska.
For years I wanted Alaskan roots. When I was 12, my mother drove my brother and I north from the New Mexico desert into the Alaskan winter. For a decade nowhere else qualified as home. When my heartbroken version of a vision quest came along, I felt like an upside down Alexander Supertramp running away from, and ever carrying, a cute box half-empty of longing and tragedies. Alaska was my backyard, not some faraway frontier. I needed to go somewhere. But, as Eddie Vedder put it, I was “starting from the top.”
And you can’t do that.
To every man: his own adventure, a set of lessons to keep his honesty afloat, and love.
I’ll be back shortly.
29 July 2013 § Leave a comment
On the water my daily calorie count reached five digits, and only once I mistook and tallied them. It was a bad move because Emily’s eating disorder still haunted me; some days on land I’d eat only carrots, celery, and mustard and weigh myself every morning after I’d pissed and shit and before I drank any water. At lunch I’d tell my friends I’d already eaten, even when we’d made plans prior. Instead I ate alone, sadly and obsessively, pinched the skin on my stomach to decide how much I would eat that day.
These things don’t fly on fishing boats. Not when you burn more than you eat no matter how many brownies, handfuls of trail mix, snickers, or servings of mystery curry and rice you wolf down. Commercial fishing is a dietician’s nightmare; an eating disorder’s daydream. Many fishermen arrive to the boatyard plump; by season’s end our arms are sinewy and strong, our stomachs hard as bin covers. “It’s the once-a-year workout plan,” said Max this summer. As long as the fish show up.
When they do, and we’re enter that blurry stretch of time called peak, when fifteen minutes of sleep feels like hours, and your hands look and feel like lobster claws, brushing and flossing become privileges. You’re not sure how long it’s been but your sandpaper teeth say it’s been ten meals too long, like yesterday, which in Bristol Bay time is last month.
Self-care falls by the wayside, to say the least. Lucky for me, so does self-destruction. If I require a certain amount of animosity to get through my day, which sometimes is the case, it may arrive in the form of a screaming skipper, an insolent crewmate, or 65 knot winds and enough fish to feed Detroit’s hungry children for weeks. The sea provides. more than I can ask for, or give myself. So the day I ate 14,600 calories, then felt guilty and refused to think of her (and therefore did so constantly), instead of hating my consumption I thanked it. Before each bowl of granola or curry, candy bar, piece of jerky or dried mango from the sugar shack, even before that abominable Progresso clam chowder, I closed my eyes and prayed until I was made of gratitude. My adopted disorder a disowned, petulant child who knows well that I haven’t weighed in morningwise in two years quieted as we drifted up and down Ship’s Channel this summer.
By the time July hit, I’d fished two full seasons in two months, and everything inside me was done. Tired and Finished. Tolerant and smart enough to endure the bullshit: “Straight to bed with you,” said the skipper, “you make money, and you sleep.” His implications obvious: Don’t you dare write in your little book, Sean, said his sharp baby blue eyes, you’ll be back on deck before you have a chance to dream.
This is my sleep, mu’fugga. Two sentences later, handwriting the shape of snores and shredded nets, I feel asleep pen in hand.
12 July 2013 § Leave a comment
I need you to be strong, baby.
I need your smile so that I can hold up
the whole universe when you call. And
I need you to know that my goodbyes
translate to ‘until next time’ in every language
spoken near the sea, mountains, and sky.
10 July 2013 § 3 Comments
The first time _ saw the ocean was Huntington Beach, LA, 1995.
Eight years old, and not yet learned in how to contain excitement,
ran out to embrace it.
Swallowed so much salt water,
Hopped back to the high desert
started climbing mountains
so the sea wouldn’t call like that again.
Nineteen years later,
for five years,
I realize that
the sea was but a wound
that wanted to heal.
10 July 2013 § Leave a comment
suspicious sun, an emerald sea -we observers focus on wind, and sail.
what becomes of tides where no waves collide?
what composes human folly, then,
if we decide that lo9ve will stumble
before it falls on us?
who watched in agony the
cliffside chaos, wind caught
chorus, wild music ringing?
sunset’s but some heaven
leasing demons through
a fiery gate, a needle threaded.
10 July 2013 § Leave a comment
I have mere hours before returning to the sea. Our 32′ drift gillnetter, the spectacle they call the Okuma, waits patiently in the Dillingham harbor, for her third departure since April, when we arrived to fish herring in Togiak.
A week ago, my crewmate lost his pinky. ‘I think I fucked up,’ he said. ‘I lost a finger.’
‘Where’d it go!?’ I said, thinking he might be kidding. But he made direct eye contact with me, a scarce event, and he spun in a circle, in shock. His gloves hid the gore for moments after. The skipper yelled to me, keep picking! get the net on board! As he and his wife rummaged through the first aid kit, Pinky hit the hydraulic valve to bring the net up.
You warrior, I said. Go sit down. Take care of that shit.
More yelling from the skipper.
We roundhauled the net aboard, fish and all, and took off for the hospital. We had to save his finger, not a glob of mush at the bottom of a glove. The tides were right to get him to Ekuk quickly, where a setnetter flew him to Kanakanak Hospital in Dillingham. When my skipper called the hospital to see how Pinky was doing, they patched him through to their surgery patient.
‘No, really,’ said Pinky, ‘the doctor is pulling the bone out right now with – wait, what’s that tool called? – something or other. I can’t feel a thing.’
Maybe I shouldn’t have called him before the fishing season. We didn’t get along from the start. I tried to get along with him, and all that came up was my attitude. Pinky was my mirror, a version of myself whom I’d despised for so much of my life, and I disrespected him time and time again. My condescending tone told him what he needed to know about me, and my arrogant behavior in Togiak as it concerned my friendship with the girl he was crushing on was, according to unwritten rules I was not them aware of, completely unacceptable. It placed a rift between us that would make our three months together feel like an eternity.
Before we laid out that set in Flounder’s Flats, he said to me, If only we could go back to town for a couple of days and recharge. His case of red ass spread faster than mine, and it brought him back to town the moment he felt ready. Perhaps the price was too high. We were just starting to get along, to quiz each other on movie quotes and share travel stories, most of which included beautiful women and exotic locations – as if that was why we traveled, ha! – and the end of the season was in sight. It was July second already, and we’d be sipping mai thais on the beach by the 20th, wads of cash crinkled in our pockets. The early salmon run had worked only in our favor, what with catching 28,000 pounds of fish in 65 knot winds on the west line. Over and over.
There’s only so much time now. Pinky’s replacements lasted a week, their grace and chemistry on the deck a miracle that made the days slide my like a slippery fish on the bloody aluminum. Inspiration from a fellow writer, Tim Clemen. ‘You know, you should have backed off in Togiak, played the wingman. You know that, right? Lay down the Cool, he told me.
I knew he was right, just like he was right when he said do what you love. If you want to write, he said, then write, and do nothing else. You’ll succeed, I guarantee it. Five years in audio engineering, five years fishing. Give writing five years of your energy, and you’ll get here, he said, looking around the spectacle they call the Okuma. It doesn’t get better, until you’re in the wheelhouse running the show. Out here, we’re boys, and always will be.
5 June 2013 § Leave a comment
26 April 2013
My fifth annual pilgrimage to the remote fishing grounds on the far edge of the world ends and begins today. The two-prop plane just passed over Kenai your burial ground, and turned west. Snowy mountains as far as I can see, the northern arc of the Ring of Fire encircling me. It’s comforting that no matter how far away I run, some container will hold me.
No step is independent of the rest.
I have taken many, and not always been conscious of my feet. I’ve found that when I continually shift my focus center, each step follows the last, no matter the terrain.
Twelve days ago I asked Heather to marry me. She said yes. Two days ago I embarked on what could be the most demanding work I’ve yet known. Both bear infinite possibilities and great consequence. I’m not sure I’m ready. But I feel more prepared than ever to embrace life.
Thank you for showing me how to rest. My savasana winter, modeled by your eternal permafrost calm, taught me how to place my energy where it thrives, to attract what I want from life unabashed, and to respect the voice within. Or enough at least to know I need not always be commanded by it.
The glacialwhite Alaska Range is flattening into the vast expanse of southwestern Alaska. North, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. South, Bristol Bay, home of my abundance. East, my past, quieted by invisible propellors and my focus on the west, possibility and wonder, love and adventure.
These frozen rivers will soon break, and flow through me, the wide open countryside they quench is space which holds me close, dearly watches me play. it reminds me to step carefully, to move consciously, for my body is a growing temple, always just strong enough for my journey.
Thank you, brother, for doing what seemed most right, for inspiring and teaching me, in your backward way, how to live. So much love. So much.
2 April 2013 § 2 Comments
A viscous yellow dawn lit up the prairie desert. As far as we could see, pale grass and cacti were all that inhabited the earth. Occasionally a dirt road perpendicular to the highway scratched into the unknown. Out my window, north, as foreign to me as the recent past. The rising morning sun, nowhere to be found, warmed nothing. The Greyhound bus rolled at the same fifty five miles an hour it had since San Antonio.
Behind me near the toilet we weren’t supposed to use, three men who’d just been released from Leavenworth gambled candy bars and coins over a deck of cards featuring Playboy models from the 80s. I picked one up from the aisle. “I haven’t seen titties since 1994, son,” one of them said as I handed him the queen of hearts. He should’ve been wearing a shiny purple fedora and diamond studded glasses to match his gold teeth. I returned my headphones to their rightful places and turned up the volume on my discman.
Hey, I ain’t never coming home
Hey, I’ll just wander my own road
Hey, I can’t meet you here tomorrow
Say goodbye, don’t follow.
On Texas highways tears dry quickly. Keeping track of them has for me always been a useless trade. The afternoon before, I’d departed my father’s house. Another home, another family. My pace was quickening. Six months before my mother’d said, energetically, conform or leave. I left. A few weeks before the bus trip west, my father picked up the phone just as I said to a girl that Kansas was a pit of foolish racism and self-hatred, and that I was leaving as soon as possible. He took me to the bus station himself. I climbed into the air-conditioned coach, a final reprieve from the oppressive Midwest swelter. My father stood and cried where we’d hugged.
Many of the moments by which I’ve defined myself have looked like this. Sometimes they take place in airports, other times gas stations. Rarely a smoke filled Waffle House at three a.m. My favorites are bus stations and depots. Always with different people, most of whom I’ve loved. Chances are I love them still. For me there’s nothing like leaving, departing, moving on, embracing the Next, especially when it’s the unknown; a peaceful fear washes over me, and I am left with a sense of balance. Will I see this person again? Will I return? When? From where else will I go?
The feeling used to seem like an oxymoron. Fear does not at once seem peaceful at all – it seems wrenching and panicky, like cowardice. Something to regret. Since that Greyhound bus on the desert highway, I’ve done all I can to say goodbye without looking back. It seemed weak. I wanted to embrace the next step, and honor whom and what I’d just departed because inside I was gone, already giving my whole self, nervous knees and short breath, to the Unknown. From a perspective that says unabashedly and inconsiderately it only gets better from here, looking back for me is a counterproductive burden. If my presence is my greatest gift, then I have given all I can. Thank you for being a part of it. A part of me.
So, to Portland, home of my savasana winter; to the communities I’ve orbited; the playgrounds on which I’ve learned how to manage my energy; friends, tribe, and family, all of whom I love for your contributions to the world around you, for your willingness to do the work it takes to grow and go where necessary to make it to the next step, the unknown – thank you. I’m headed off for my circuitous adventure, another enamoured summer on the seas along Alaska’s broken coastlines. See you on the other side.