Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Remembrance of Things Lost

If one were to go to the “Black And White” section of my web site and if one were to click on the “A Fish” tab, one would see a picture of me, my mother and a 20 or 25 pound King Salmon. I wasn’t in the boat when the salmon was caught. That honor was reserved to my father and my mother’s father, my grandfather, Bobby. But by the time I had awakened that morning and the three of them had returned with my mother’s fish, a family legend had begun. The tale of how the fish was played and landed – the reel fell off the pole at one point among other near catastrophes – started that morning and grew in family significance over the intervening years.
I wasn’t in the boat that day, but I was in the boat the next afternoon when I caught one of my first fish, a ten or eleven inch trout shaped creature that Bobby referred to as a “salmon trout”. I have thought in years subsequent, when I had learned that it is illegal to keep salmon smoults, that “salmon trout” was a class of fish that Bobby invented on the spot to justify in his mind letting his grandson keep what was, from his grandson’s viewpoint, quite a nice fish. As we were approaching the giant rail ramp that would drag the boat back into the boat house, and I leaped up brandishing my salmon trout proudly to anyone at the boat house who wanted to see, Bobby might have momentarily had second thoughts about the wisdom of his invention, but nothing bad came of it. Only great good came from it. “It” in fact became the beginning of a gallery of memories, of smells, and sights and sounds and feelings and emotions that were incremented every time I found myself on something resembling the open ocean.
The salmon trout incident was in the San Juan Islands in the very early 1950s. The gallery of “it” is populated with additional content from the San Juans; that gallery is populated with material from the North Pacific off the coast of Oregon; it is populated with material from various bays and estuaries which indent the coast of Oregon; it is populated with material from the beaches of Oregon; it is populated with material from the Mid Atlantic off the coast of Florida near Boca Raton. The gallery is an accretion of individual incidents, occurrences and impressions. But they all add up to one unified thing. I call it “it” because I lack a word that describes it beyond that two letter reference. But keep it in mind because it plays an important role in what I am ultimately trying to say in this post.
One need not be catching fish to feel maximally fulfilled when on the ocean. There is too much going on for not catching fish to be a problem. In fact once one lapses into the intense enjoyment of all it is that is going one, one contemplates whether one wants to catch fish anyway. They might just take one’s mind off all the other things that there are to savor.
In no apparent order here are some of those things.
Some jelly fish look as if they have muscles, or something like muscles, because I have seen big semi transparent white ones seem to move rapidly off to the right or left of the vantage point of my place in the boat by seemingly undulating themselves and shooting off in whatever direction they appear to have chosen. Whatever the truth of the matter, hours can pass as minutes when the white jelly fish are swarming around the boat shooting hither and yon and yon and hither and then back again.
On the other hand, being in a vast hoard of red jelly fish, which don’t seem to manifest any ability at locomotion can be equally mesmerizing. They are usually big, the size of an adult human head and they have long, long tendrils of – I guess – stinging cells trailing along beneath and behind them as they flow by with whatever tidal current is in motion.
Kindred in form with the swarms of red jelly fish, although obviously completely different in genetics are the birds. I don’t know much about sea birds. I know a lot about their land based relatives, but not sea birds. But one doesn’t need to know what kind they are to savor a huge never ending flock of some kind of highly aerodynamic pigeon sized bullets streaking past just above the water, probably drafting on some uplift from the waves; they seem to be never ending when they are there; and then they are not there and one wonders if they ever were there; and then they, or some tribe of replacements are there again. They pass in massive liquid swirls.
Not everything that flies by on the ocean is a bird.
The first time I was in a boat on the Atlantic off the coast of Florida I asked if we were likely to see any flying fish. Absolutely I was told, lots of them. “What do they look like” I asked. “Just like a silver pencil” said one of my friends.
That was a perfect description. In fact, without that description, I doubt if I would have known what I was seeing when the first silver pencil sailed by. At times the air was filled with them. At other times there were only a few. Sometimes there were none; and there were silver pencils again. And they came in several sizes. Their size ranged from creatures actually about the size of a pencil through several larger gradations of size and culminating in fish about the size of a salmon trout.
But it need not be alive to be a contributor to the aggregate “thing” gallery of the sea.
Smells abound. There is just the sea smell itself which varies depending upon the temperature, wind, geography, proximity to land and, I suppose, myriad factors which somebody may know, but I don’t.
It is not uncommon to pass through one color of water to another color of water. That water may be quite blue, quite green or depressingly gray. It may just be foamy and white, or at the place where it touches the sand of the shore, it may be foamy brown. And in the water there are all kinds of colors from the white jelly fish through the red jelly fish to the brown kelp to the bright yellow air filled pods of seaweed whose name I have never known.
The water has texture. There are places where several tidal currents get in a fight and an area of amazingly choppy and dangerous water results. These rip tides seem to gather food at their edges and are therefore good places to fish. These rips are not good places for a small boat to fish inside of. The texture of a rip is like the teeth of a bastard file. The texture of some full-fledged waves created by the battle between the fresh water rushing out of a large river like the Columbia and the salt water of an ocean such as the Pacific can produce a texture that resembles the Rocky Mountains. Or that same stretch of water under different tidal conditions can have the texture of the frosting on a maple bar.
To avoid giving the impression that all of that which has so far been described can replace the intensity of feeling that accompanies the catching of fish, the last non-living factor that comes readily to mind from my aggregate gallery of the sea is a sight – the intense spray that a filament of fishing line throws off when being hurtled through the water by the freight train like run away from the boat of a King salmon that has been hooked. That spray is also a sound: I swear one can hear a hiss as that spray flies into the air angling madly off into the distance, but away, always away, from the boat and the fisherman.
The “catching” can be of fish such as the King after the spray has finally run out. It can be of small silvers when one is lucky enough to realize that a school of them has for some reason started chasing one’s boat. When that situation ensues, one puts the motor in neutral stops trolling the herring and starts jigging it off the stern as if fishing for fresh water crappie. A limit of eight to ten pound glittering silver rockets can be the result. Or they can disappear as quickly as they appeared having abandoned any interest in the herring dangled to entice them. Who knew why either occurred? Who even really cared? The adrenalin that got pumped on account of the brief encounter serves to keep the moment fresh for quite some time. And when the King gets finally boated the adrenalin causes the right leg to go into a spasm with the foot tap, tap tapping madly on the floor of the boat.
The “catching” can be of fish of a the species thought-to-be-lesser-than-salmon: the rock fish, the ling cod, the sea bass, or even, when hoards of them are running, of silvery herring that will strike at empty hooks as they stream by the boat. It is possible to catch several herring at a time if one deploys a multi-hooked rig. Since sea bass, cod and rock fish inhabit the depths of kelp forests it is necessary to poke one’s boat into the middle of such a forest and drop one’s herring to the bottom with the impaled bait streaming at a ninety degree angle to the drop line and its terminal pyramid of lead. In the old days hoards of willing victims fought to be the first to be hooked. In more recent times those populations have been depleted, but there are still times when the kelp will yield some kind of highly desirable multiple-pound-weighing thing that isn’t very pretty but that makes a great dinner, lunch or breakfast.
And sometimes the kelp forest harbors something else, something that I have never seen, but something with which I have done battle to unsuccessful conclusion more than once. Not ever having actually seen one, but having felt their power and force and pull more than once, the people and I who have had the privilege of trying to catch them have named them the “Great Something”. I have been told that they are probably halibut. I prefer to keep them as the “Great Something”.
“Catching” sometimes isn’t really catching at all. Sometimes it is digging. That is how one gets a bucket of butter clams. They are dug like potatoes. Razor clams, on the other hand, are different. Although a shovel is used in pursuit of them, they are not dug. A razor clam lives in the sand that is usually under the waves of the North Pacific. Only the lowest tides ever expose them to something resembling dry sand. And even then, that sand is so seldom and so briefly exposed that even when the occasional low tide does make them accessible by somewhat dry land the sand is still more of a liquid than is it a solid. And the razor clam is built in such a way that they somehow motivate through that liquid like sand at amazing speed. The act of harvesting one is like Wayne Gretzky’s approach to hockey: figure out where the puck (razor clam) is going to be and intercept it. That is why the razor clam shovel is a specialized instrument. It is short handled because the digger is going the be bending at a ninety degree angle in the initial thrust and is on his or her hands and knees in the follow through. What the shovel lacks in handle it makes up for in blade. The blade is about half the length of the handle and is narrow. It is designed to be easily thrust into the sand just ahead of the retreating clam – the clams always rush back at forty five or so downward thrusting angle to the surface back to the safety of the waves – such that, if the Gretzkyesque calculation has been successful, the clam runs headlong into the blade. Since even if that level of success is achieved it is at best only momentary, and since the only way to find out if one has, in fact been successful – because the clam is really smart and he or she will feint to the side and be gone in a moment if the digger tarries even a moment – the digger’s next move is to hurl himself or herself to the sand, rotating the handle of the shovel on the way down and thrusting his or her hand into the cavity briefly exposed feeling for, he or she hopes, the razor clam’s shell. If such a feeling ensues, the battle commences. Even if so felt, the clam is moving toward the sea at an amazing speed. At this point the digger needs to try to take advantage of the sand’s liquid state and force his or her hand through that medium down and out toward the ocean, hoping to keep pace with the clam and, ultimately grasping it. Depending upon how deep that capture occurs dictates whether the digger concludes that he or she has the clam or whether the clam has him or her.
Catching can also be more like entrapping.
Dungeness crabs live at the bottom of the near-to-the-coast Pacific Ocean and its associated bays and estuaries. There they wait for food to drop down to them.
In the olden days one deployed a crab ring to harvest Dungeness crabs (rings have in recent times been replaced by foolproof traps; my gallery is populated with events surrounding the use of rings). A crab ring was really two rings, a big one and a smaller one. They were joined as one by a net. They had a triune rope-set tied to the big ring which were, in turn, all three joined to a fourth rope whose length was dictated by the depth of the water in which the crabs were to be pursued. The end of that rope farthest away from the joint with the triune rope set had some sort of flotation device – like three empty Purex bottles – attached to it. The bottom ring – the small one – had a mesh of wire strands woven into it to act as a porous bottom for the crab ring which provided a substrate for holding the meaty fish skeleton that one wired on top of it to act as bait, and which also was of dense enough weave to keep any crab of legal size in the ring once it had been lifted from the bottom.
“Once it had been lifted from the bottom.” Therein lies the trick. Just as with razor clams, nothing involved in the process of “catching” Dungeness crabs with crab rings was ever easy.
The most common hunting ground for the Dungeness was one of Oregon’s or Washington’s bays – Tillamook Bay for example. All that was need was several crab rings, some fish skeletons a small boat with an outboard motor and two or more people to crew the boat.
It turns out that Dungeness crabs don’t just sit evenly distributed all over the bottom of the bay where they reside. They have special places that they like and lots of places that they never go to. The first order of business in being a successful crabber was to know those places. That knowledge usually occurred through trial and error. Nobody was willing to tell anybody else where the crabs resided any more than mushroom hunters are willing to tell anyone where the morels are. But once the trials and the errors had passed through the lives of the incipient crabbers the quarry could be pursued on a fairly successfully iterative basis. Except that the state of the tide also plays a major role as to where the crabs might be at any given time. So that whole process of trial and error needed to be traversed multiple times.
Once that additional process had been traversed all the crabbers needed to do was to utilize their knowledge of the migratory patterns of the crabs and propel their boat to the various locations as time and tide dictated, drop the baited rings into the water – either leaving them in place marked by their floats or tied to the gunnels of the anchored boat – and wait. After the appropriate waiting period had passed – there is a whole mythology surrounding what that length of time ought to be – if the boat has been anchored the next step was fairly easy. All the crabbers needed to do was to, one by one, and only one at a time, lift the rings up to the gunnel of the boat, having been exceptionally careful to have made the initial lift off the bottom as swift and as vertical as possible. If the ring was bumped and allowed to settle and then brought up, or if it was brought up at a very acute angle the crabs, or at least most of them, and for sure the legal ones – they needed to be of a certain size and be males (I actually know how to tell the difference) would have all escaped the ring. Assuming nothing bad had happened and assuming that the lore of where the crabs were supposed to be at the time of the retrieval of the ring had been accurate, the final act was that of measuring and classifying the catch and releasing all those that were not legal.
If the rings had been left in the bay on their own marked by their floats the retrieval process was more like a contact sport. The crabbers needed to identify their floats from all of the floats that were on the water. They needed to approach the float from down current and needed to intercept it just as it passed the very beginning of one side or the other of the craft. And once intercepted the boat needed to continue in a direction and at a speed such that the slack in the rather long rope – one virtually never was in water so deep that the float was directly over the ring – (the more common occurrence was that water was massively deeper than the length of the rope and the float was nowhere to be seen, except at the trough of any occasional waves that might have been present) can be taken up at a speed and efficiency that caused the ring to be initially lifted in a manner similar to that described for the lift of rings attached to the anchored boat. If the slack didn’t come up smoothly and rapidly there was an initial bump with an inefficient subsequent follow-through and the prey was back on the bottom by the time the lift was re-initiated.
The co-ordination required for the free floating pickup was significant. There needed to be a person in the bow directing the person in the stern at the tiller of the outboard motor. The person in the bow shouted directions – “to the right, slower, now a little faster, to the right, now left, no straight, faster, slower” – to the tiller person. Since the bow person needed to be looking forward to draw conclusions about what directions to be shouting, the bow person usually shouted directions forward, into the wind – there was a wind created by the boat’s forward motion, and it was usually augmented by the wind that inhabited the water without any help from a boat’s forward motion. The result of shouting directions forward into the wind was that the directions disappeared into the wind making the tiller person look to be a goon, always shouting “what?” or “where?” while the boat careened about with no apparent relationship to the needs of retrieving the float and its rope and crab ring. Numerous friendships were strained to the breaking point by maneuvers related to retrieving crab rings. Given the even more fragile nature of many marriages, the divorce courts of the North Pacific region teemed with refugees from what had been planned to be a happy day of togetherness and crab ring retrieval on the water.
These are a few of the screen saver-like flashes of personal memory related to fishing, catching, traversing or just being on various portions of the salt water of our planet. In aggregate they add up to that “thing” for which I have no better name. But it is profound and deep and intense and it is satisfying in a manner transcending most other satisfactions of which I am aware.
Since I am, except for the few occasions that I have spent time on the oceans, bays, estuaries and littoral immediately adjacent to the waves, a land dweller, and since my livelihood has never been achieved in any manner that wasn’t completely and exclusively land based I have no idea what the life of a fisherman, oysterman, crabber, or waterman must be like. But I have to assume that a large part of it must consist of the “thing” I have attempted to describe. A major part of the act of going out on the water every day to earn ones living must consist of savoring the reservoir of that “thing” that has been accumulated up to the beginning of each new day. It must include the savoring and the looking forward to the inevitable but, until they occur, unknown increments that will probably occur with each new day. It must be a wonderful way to exist and earn a living. In Fact it must be a great deal more than just earning a living.
And then one must consider the added dimension that many if not most of these ocean dwellers are second, third or nth generation practitioners of their activity. The fact that the current generation not only has the exhilaration of living in the constant state of that “thing”, whatever it may be, and the fact that that it is an accumulation passed from parents and grandparents and from the current generation to children, and perhaps on and on to generations as yet unknown must be a condition bordering on the mystical.
All of this must be true because the life being described is far from easy or safe or necessarily particularly financially rewarding. So making it one’s life work must have a lot to do with that accumulated mysticism.
It is this viewpoint that should provide perspective to one aspect of the monstrous scope of the catastrophe that has been unleashed by BP in the Gulf of Mexico. BP has put an end to a way of life. And that way of life will never return because filling an ocean with poison – oil and dispersant – with no apparent end in sight can have no reasonably expected outcome except extinction of every form of life that had been the carefully husbanded crop that made that way of life possible.
There is no amount of money that can repay for that level of damage. But anything less than whatever amount of money those fishermen and oystermen and all the other men and woman who have had their ways of life abruptly and permanently terminated need to try to start over is an amount that cannot be accepted by this nation, if we desire to continue to have the honor of being called a nation.

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