Yesterday I received a letter from a friend.
Dear Tele, she wrote. Many times I think of you and Joel out on the seas all by yourselves. What a contrast it must be to come back to land, people and cities. I wonder if you have caught lots and lots of fish. I wonder if you are still fishing, heading home, or already home. I have so many wonders.
I, too, have wondered. Returning to the land I abandoned five months ago, I reunite with friends and wonder how to fill the long silence. Every beginning faltered on the edge of my tongue, bit back before it could risk notice. How do you pick up a conversation left hanging, from what feels like another life?
Thanks to my friend’s invitation, I find where to begin.
Begin with migration. Cover 800 miles Bellingham, Washington, to Sitka, Alaska; re-cover a story I’ve told for decades. Begin with arrival, a homecoming one June afternoon, sunny as our spirits, when Mount Edgecumbe appeared on the horizon.
Begin with anticipation, heightened with every day closer to Opening Day. When we finally left town, we exhaled. All guesswork and gambling at that point, no way yet of knowing if we’d chosen the right direction, but at least we were underway. Anchored alone in a quiet cove, we sat on the bow and watched a bear snuffle the shore, a stone’s throw away. We’d shut both engines down that night, one last evening of silence before the trip instituted the generator’s round-the-clock drone. When the bear disappeared into dense Tongass underbrush, we watched her go with our ears, following a trail of snapped branches and shoulder-checked devil’s club.
I’ll tell you about unprecedented abundance. About an Opening Day that surpassed anything we’d seen or dreamed of, king salmon so ferocious it didn’t matter when they’d shredded our lures; they gobbled bare hooks instead. For the first time in our partnership, we fantasized about having a deckhand. (Said Joel at the end of Day 2: “If someone asked me what it feels like to catch this many king salmon, I’d tell them, ‘It feels like I’m going to die.’”) Best was when we got back to town a week later, learning the bounty had been coast-wide. A conversation with a legendary highliner confirmed we’d been part of something special. “Fifty years I’ve been doing this,” he winked, “that was the best fishin’ I’ve ever seen.” Tell about gratitude.
I’ll tell you about the good days, like the sunny afternoon on glassy water with a pod of sixteen orcas, when for a half-hour we abandoned all pretense of fishing. One of our partners called on the radio to see how we were doing. “Can’t talk,” Joel muttered over his rapid-firing Nikon. “Whale-watching!”
Or when, as we went to put the gear in the water on the first morning of a new trip, Joel glanced up to see a Japanese glass float drifting down the port side. How the whole summer felt like that: a rare gift, precious and unforeseen, placed in our hands.
Or how we celebrated our anniversary. Up at 3:45, the first boat out of the anchorage, and met with more abundance – this time the best coho fishing we’d ever had. We never stopped moving that day. The sunset was modest, a quiet orb slipping into a placid pool. We were loud, shouting along with the Chili Peppers as we flung fistfuls of entrails overboard, delirious with disbelief. Lacking the energy for an hour’s run to the nearest anchorage, we shut down right where we pulled our gear, managing to stay away long enough to eat strawberry Haagen Daaz for dinner and soak shell-shocked hands in warm Epsom salts. No commemorative lovin’ this year; we rubbed pain-relieving gel onto each other’s knotted backs instead, then fell into our bunk with matching groans. Ten years together: for us, a silver anniversary.
And I’ll tell you about the bad days, like when I caught a cold in town and felt like death but the coho were still biting like bulldogs and that’s what seasonal work is, you know – “Gotta make hay while the sun shines!” a friend cheerily reminds me – and when I spent the afternoon confined in the negative-38 degree fish hold, glazing 600 coho, all foggy head and aching bones, that was just doing what had to be done. And that’s how it was a few days later, when the Southeasterly came up hard and fast, bullets of sideways rain shooting through any gap in our raingear, and the Nerka heaved and slammed through a world turned gray, and still the coho bit. We called it quits by noon. “Screw this,” Joel said, “Let’s go in.” I cleaned fish while he drove us into the anchorage, a two-hour run in the trough. He glanced back after the hardest hits, checking to see that I was still in the cockpit. When one flung us hard port, my legs buckled and I scrambled for a handhold. Knowing Joel couldn’t hear me over the waves and wind and engines, a protest burst from my mouth. “I do not like this!”
But what I do not like is so soon forgotten, lost in the wake of what I love: this ocean holding this boat holding us; the person at my side and the salmon in my hands.
Here I falter, a self-conscious pause. After a knee injury forced Joel to sit out the 2013 season, this was our reunion tour. I want to tell you what it all meant – to Joel, reuniting with the mountains that have been the backbone of his life; to me, discovering a new certainty in our partnership; to us, matched in our resolve to dig ourselves out of the hole of a year off – but words feel weak. When we pulled our hooks aboard for the last time, we wore similarly tangled expressions. Baffled awe and exhausted pride: our weary bodies knew what our minds hadn’t yet comprehended. Grief: the end of the season meant leaving the place and life we cherish, stepping out of the identities where we know ourselves best. And excitement: feeling ready for the next thing, be it writing, hiking, a good night’s sleep.
We spent our last night in Sitka celebrating Fisherman’s Thanksgiving. Good friends filled the Nerka’s deck; good food covered her hatch. The party was winding down when one guest reminded us we hadn’t yet shared what we were thankful for. We went around the circle, praising healthy salmon runs, the fleet’s safety, easy-to-get-along-with deckhands. We could have gone on, but one friend said it all in a single sentence. “This summer was the perfect storm of greatness and gratitude.”
End with a mid-September night, the Nerka’s last in Alaskan waters, taking comfort in the sunset. The sun’s farewell is always a temporary goodbye. So was ours.