It is dusk in Stephen’s Passage, and I am on wheelwatch as the boat travels north from Petersburg, back to the fishing grounds near Juneau. We are into fall weather now… the sky is a leaden grey and the sea is choppy, breaking into white topped curls, the wind blowing the spray off the waves into droplets so fine it looks like smoke. As we pass slowly by Holkham Bay at 8 knots, I check the GPS to make sure we are on course, the radar for any other vessels getting close to us, and scan the sea ahead for logs and icebergs. A break in the clouds to starboard shows me for a moment the mountains of Tracy Arm-Ford’s Terror Wilderness, where a glacier rests in the crack between two peaks, a frozen river of bright blue ice flowing almost into the sea. It is a majestic sight. I think to myself, “Meh. You again.” and go back to playing Solitaire on my phone.
We’ve traveled past this glacier 2-4 times a week for the past month. As the season draws to a close and fishing slows, the company fleet of tender vessels has slowly been whittled down to just a few of us. Contracts have ended and boats have left Southeast to go on to their next job, be it tendering in Puget Sound for fall fishing or heading out to the Bering Sea or Kodiak for crab season. With less boats in the rotation, the Carole B has ended up with the northern section every week. After leaving Petersburg sometime Friday, we anchor up outside Juneau to give out ice on Saturday and Sunday mornings, and then make daily rounds of the fishing areas off Stephen’s Passage; Taku Inlet, Port Snettisham. We anchor at night in a harbor, mostly Slocum Inlet, and end up there or near Juneau again for the closure of fishing at the end of the week. Then 12 hours south back to Petersburg, where we offload fish, get more ice, groceries, fuel and fresh water. After a few hours off in town (if we’re lucky) off we go again.
So this glacier, and the waters of the Inside Passage between Petersburg and Juneau, the whales and seagulls and porpoises swimming in our wake, the ever shifting clouds, the wild sunsets, the leaping salmon… they’ve all become just a little less exciting to me. But the thing is, ‘exciting’ is a consequence of something having value for it’s novelty. And sure, all of this was very novel, exotic to me at one time. But I don’t want to value things purely for some kind of story that I can later tell about it or picture I can show (although, obviously, I enjoy both stories and pictures). My ability to be somewhat bored by this glacier or the porpoises or the sunsets is rooted very much in the intimacy of knowing something so well that it becomes a part of you. I don’t get a rush from seeing a beautiful glacier because something at my very core has changed.
Anchored in Slocum Inlet. Nasty weather today- rain, heavy wind. We are spinning in fairly rapid circles around the anchor. The gillnetters in their tiny boats are being thrown all about in the chop – makes me nervous for fall fishing in Puget Sound. Peaceful day – we left Gastineau at 3:30 a.m. and went up to Auk Bay to ice up the four Lynn Canal boats. Icing was harder today – had to do way more shoveling, with hardened ice and one boat after another. My arms were screaming. Made bacon, eggs and grits for everyone and then we came down to Slocum. I slept. Now the boat is silent. I’m watching the waves and fog out the window and looking through the chart maps. Earlier I was sitting at the galley table reading, Joe and Gwynne next to me and I looked up to find the brightest rainbow I’ve ever seen coming straight out of the water between our bow and the shoreline. I went outside and the wind was so strong I could barely stand upright; it was flinging drops of seawater and rain at my face. It was so beautiful and wild, and I thought again about risk, and how the most beautiful, precious and sacred things are often only shown to you if you take on the risk and danger of finding them. If you make that sacrifice to the gods. I would never have seen the rainbow if I hadn’t gone to work on this boat, unexperienced, with strangers. The rainbow was full, stretching across our bow into the water on either side, and at one end bobbed a small blue buoy… the crab pot at the end of the rainbow. I doubt it could have been seen by anyone not in the harbor and I stood on the bow and laughed aloud at the secret, delicious magic of it all, the rainbow and the uninhabited green mountain behind it, the wild wind and rain, and the company awaiting me inside the cabin. All afternoon the wind has been groaning through the rigging as we turn and turn through the waves. We had halibut fried in Bisquick for dinner and then sat talking for hours. Now another night of sleeping soundly on the rocking of the water.
Last week, everyone was all aflutter that Fish and Game was going to open up the back end of Port Snettisham. A hatchery sits back there and the biologists believed half a million pounds of salmon were there in the water, waiting to go up the rivers to spawn. ADFG announced Friday that they would open the area on Sunday. We got extra ice and on Sunday morning motored slowly through the bay, a beautiful and quiet place, the mountains of the mainland and Snettisham Peninsula all granite and moss rising right up out of the water to ice and mist capped peak. The fog hung in long, thin bands across the water and clinging to the sides of the mountains. Boats were anchored near the rock walls, waterfalls pouring down into the bay just behind them.
You could feel the tension in the air and then it was noon and the nets spooled out behind the boats and into the water. A few hours later we watchd through binoculars as the pulled the nets back in and there we saw… nothing. A fish or two every few feet. Everyone was disgusted. The half million pounds of salmon had all disappeared up the rivers the day before.
We hung around the area for another 4 days until fishing closed on Thursday. The fog closed in. Most everyone left. On the boat we got bored, then antsy, then anxious. The name ‘Snettisham’ will forever be synonomous to me with cabin fever.
From the bow of the boat, I can see the lights of Petersburg sparkling red and yellow in the distance. We slide by Sukoi Island, a black silouette in the middle of Frederick Sound. My cell phone lights up- reception. Contact. I stand at the bow and check text messages as the cold wind slides by my face and we turn into the Wrangell Narrows. A few minutes later the captain angles into the small space at the pump dock and I lean out over the rail to hook the line over the cleat – too far – my foot slips in the Crocs I never wear on deck and I fall forward onto the rail with a thump. I catch my footing, hook the cleat, and tie off the line, my heart pounding. It was a minor scare but the worst I’ve had on the boat so far. I am careful. A few minutes later we all scatter for the evening. I climb up the slippery ladder and step onto the dock and am hit with the now familiar feeling of the ground beneath me seeming to sway. I get more seasick with this feeling on land than I ever do on the boat. I weave through the bright cannery buildings, the processors just cleaning up for the evening, all familiar faces from my time here as an office clerk last year. On the street I see the bright neon signs in the window of the bar and hear music coming through the open door. Town. Dry land. People. After taking care of some business at a friend’s house, I consider stopping in for a drink, but when I poke my head in the room seems claustrophobic and all the people unfamiliar and unwelcoming. I climb back down the dockside ladder and enter the warm, comforting confine of the boat to sleep soundly in my tiny bunk until we begin offloading at 7 a.m.
What to tell of my first 2 weeks on the water? How about the afternoon I took wheelwatch as we headed back to Petersburg from five days in Snettisham Bay. As the captain passed off the wheelhouse to me he said casually- ‘watch for icebergs’. We passed Holkham Bay and there they were, scattered across Stephen’s Passage, the unearthly glow of ancient ice shining in the distance. I steered the boat around them, never closer than a mile, giving them an unnecessarily wide berth. Too many viewings of Titanic. Not much later I saw a black fin cutting the water directly in front of us, and a moment later a huge killer wheel surfaced just below the wheelhouse window, not 10 feet from the boat. She was black and shiny like oil, big white patches over her eyes. Even in that quick moment of looking, she seemed to me to be intelligent, confident. She dove under and when I looked back, I saw her surface and dive again behind us.
The nights on anchor in this or that harbor, the boat swaying gently beneath us and the swishing, sucking, slapping noises of water coming in through the porthole. Or laying down for afternoon naps, the same swaying, watching the reflection of the sea sparkling on the ceiling of my stateroom, 6 inches above my head. When the boat is on anchor I fall into a kind of infantile total abandoment of consciousness, a black depthless rest unlike anything I experience on land.
Then there are the nights that we are running on the water, the diesel engine roaring beneath my head, the anxious memories of every story I’ve ever read about boats sinking keeping me awake until I fall exhausted into nightmare after nightmare about drowning.
The sunsets. Every night, the sunsets over the water and the islands. Orange and pink, blue and purple, even on the cloudy days it breaks through, always a vivid, startling display of color in the sky and shining across the water.
Finishing up wheelwatch a few nights ago just as the sun was setting at 9 p.m., I sat on the back deck to watch for whales. The sea was flat calm all the way across Stephen’s Passage to the mainland. The setting sun had disappeared behind the mountains but still shaded the water a deep rose, darkening to black. Across the expanse of water I could see, here and then there and then there, closer and farther away, the quick delicate flip of a humpback tail as they dove down into the deep water. For a moment the tails stood silhouetted against the dark mountains and the pink water.
Two nights ago, on anchor in Merrisfield Harbor, we were already in bed when a fisherman called on the radio, asking to offload. Five minutes later and we all stood on deck, fully geared in oilskins and gloves, blinking sleepily in the bright halogen glow of the decklights. The lights shine the otherwise inky black water a translucent green for the first few feet. I see a silver sparkle, and then another, and when I peer over the side of the boat I see a school of small silver fish, no more than 3 inches long – the salmon we will be catching in a few years- leaping for bugs on the surface. Their tiny fins flip back and forth at a frenetic speed and they all seem to hover there in unison, and then quick as a blink they are gone.
The work. Shoveling ice into totes, fast as you can, hurry the captain is waiting. Hacking at compacted walls of ice in the hold with a shovel or a sleek, sharp silver chopper. Tying up boats, learning to judge which cleat use, when to pull a buoy up to the bow, when to tighten the line and when to leave slack. Sorting fish cascading wet and slime covered out of brailer bags onto the sorting table, silvers with beady little eyes and metallic streaks in their tails, chums with arrowed tails and vertical stripes of black and yellow like bruises, sockeyes sleek and clean, pinks small and polka-dotted. We go quickly and I am usually still puzzling over the first fish when my co-worker is finished. Learning to never stand under the crane, always watch the heavy metal ball, don’t let it hit anyone in the head, don’t pick up a salmon by it’s tail, don’t lean too far over the rail when tying up a boat, don’t stand between the moving totes and the rail, watch your fingers, don’t fall overboard, if we start to sink wait until the water has filled up the cabin before you try to swim out.
The slow building of strength and competency. The small victories. The moments when it feels like all the strange, random experiences I’ve had in my life have given me the necessary skills to work on a boat. Clean the head? Sure, I used to be a maid. Cook dinner for us every night? No problem, I’ve worked in restaurants and lived in a punkhouse with a dozen people. The balance and grace it takes to jump around on the back deck reminds me of all those nights out dancing. My body knows how to move with rhythm and purpose. After 9 years of cannery work I am almost unphased by any kind of sleep or meal schedule. All those years in Portland with strange, random roommates make it easy to live in close quarters with strangers. All those years in the cannery making it easy to find the common ground and turn stranger into friend.
The compliments, sometimes direct, sometimes overheard. The quick, snapped chastisements. I remember every one and weigh them against each other like black and white chess pieces. Am I winning? Am I losing?
The moments when I feel like a dunce, a clown, a hopeless city girl who will never fit in in this world. Those moments happen too. But they come less and less often.