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Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meaningsby Jonathan Raban
He was walking the dock; a big lummox, yellow hair tied back in a ponytail with a red bandanna, bedroll strapped to his shoulders. His plaid jacket looked like a fruitful research area for some unfastidious entomologist. I took him for a displaced farm boy, a Scandinavian type from Wisconsin or Minnesota, adrift in the new world of the Pacific Northwest. He held a scrap of paper, folded into a wedge the size of a postage stamp to keep its message safe inside. For what was evidently the hundredth time, he fingered it carefully apart and stared at the two words inscribed there in wonky, ballpoint capitals.
"Pacific Venturer?" he asked. The late March sun (this was Seattle's first high-pressure, blue-sky day after weeks of low overcast) glittered in the pale stubble on his cheeks. "That's the boat I'm looking for. Pacific Venturer." He spoke the name syllable by syllable, and I could see him in first grade — a large, vacant, uncoordinated child, already far behind the rest of the class. "You seen that boat, man?"
Three, maybe four hundred boats were moored hull to hull at Fishermen's Terminal. They formed a wintry thicket, over fifty acres of water, of masts, spars, trolling poles, whip-antennae, radar scanners, deck-hoists, and davits. Looking at the names around us, I read Vigorous, Tradition, Paragon, Sea Lassie, Peregrine, Resolute, Star of Heaven, Cheryl G., Cheerful, Immigrant (a green cloverleaf blazoned on its wheelhouse), Paramount, Memories. I saw a Pacific Breeze, but no Pacific Venturer.
"What is it — a purse-seiner?"
He took it as a trick question, staring at me as if I were an unfriendly examiner. He had Barbie-doll blue eyes. "I dunno. Salmon boat." He consulted the piece of paper in his hand. "Yup. That's a salmon boat — I heard."
He stank of the road — of hitchhiking on interstates, diving in Dumpsters, spending nights in cardboard boxes under highway bridges, gargling with Thunderbird.
"I been here since seven."
It was two in the afternoon. Purposeful men were pushing past us, dressed in the local uniform of hooded smocks and black peaked caps, arms full of gear, impatient with the two rubbernecks in their path.
"You better ask one of these guys."
"I asked already."
He shambled off — "Be seeing you, man" — up the next finger pier, and I could see his lips moving as he spelled out the words on the sterns of Oceania, Prosperity, Stella Marie, Enterprise, Quandary, lost among these resonant abstractions and women's names. The working men were giving him a wide berth. On his behalf, I kept an eye out for the Venturer; but if it had ever existed at all, it was probably now steaming for Ketchikan and points north.
The boats were fitting out, at the last minute, as usual, for their spring migration to the Alaskan fishing grounds. The resinous, linseed-oily smell of varnish and wet paint hung thickly in the still air of the terminal, and there was the continuous happy racket of electric saws and sanders, hammers, drills, and roaring blowtorches. Diesel engines were being hastily disemboweled, their black innards laid out, part by part, on afterdecks, while their bloody-knuckled owners muttered to themselves as they puzzled over camshafts and clearances. Pickup trucks, laden to the gunwales, were drawn up alongside those boats that were now most nearly ready to leave, and wholesale boxes of Dinty Moore stew and Campbell's soup and plastic-wrapped bales of toilet tissue were being swung aboard on hoists. On the broad plaza of the net-mending area, a man and a woman were "hanging web": threading white, cigar-shaped floats at two-foot intervals along the top of their quarter-mile gill net. The jade-green, gossamer nylon mesh shimmered at their feet like a river.
In Seattle, the city of virtual reality, it was always a pleasure to come to this last bastion of old-fashioned work, with its nets, crab pots, paintbrushes, and carpentering; to its outdoor faces, seamed with experience; and to its long-established family air, generation following generation into the same industry. Grandparents, now too shaky on their pins to make the trip, were still important figures at fitting-out time. They drove trucks, varnished brightwork, repaired nets, tested circuits; unlike nearly all of their contemporaries, their skills had not dated. And beyond the grandparents there stretched the ghostly presences of European fishing communities on the fjords, bays, and sounds of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Scotland, Ireland, from where most of the families had come. These, too, were commemorated in boat names: Cape Clear, Stavanger, Solvorn, Lokken, Tyyne, Thor, Saint Patrick, Uffda, American Viking. A clever parodist, tired of the prevailing Scandinavian homesickness, had christened his gill-netter Edsel Fjord.
Centuries of seagoing converged on Fishermen's Terminal. Though its corrugated steel buildings, painted in pastel blue and beige, were new, the place felt older than the city in which it stood. Like the fishermen, it went a long way back. Its boats, built for the Pacific, were the direct descendants of the trawlers, smacks, and luggers of the North Sea and the Baltic. The high flared bow and steep sheer that had worked well in the Maelstrom waters off the Lofoten Islands were here re-created for service off the Aleutians. The trollers, with their upswept fifty-foot poles of raw fir, were old acquaintances, for I'd seen their ancient Dutch and Danish cousins. At Fishermen's Terminal the past — and sometimes the far distant past — was alive and usable, as it was almost nowhere else in the future-fixated United States. For someone my age, there was comfort in that. Most days, I found an excuse to drop by. I liked the boats, their redolent names, their house-proud captains, and the amiable, understated gossip of the sea.
Now, with the sun come back from exile, and the voyage north and the fishing season stretching clear ahead, everyone radiated the nervous elation — half high hopes and half cold feet — that marks the start of a big adventure. The weeks to come were full of flawless promise. The reality of the season would take hold soon enough: unforecast gales and groundings, engine failures, fish gone AWOL, lost sleep, lost tempers, and all the rest. In a little while the fleet would be scattered over a thousand miles and more of water, from Dixon Entrance to the Bering Sea. Then each boat would become a stranger to the others; members of the same family, aboard rival vessels, would treat one another as spies. But in the communal ceremony of fitting out, tools and expertise were passing freely from boat to boat, as the moment neared when the last line is cast off, the goodbyes are waved, the screw makes the water boil under the stern, and the passage to Alaska is under way.
I wanted as much of the mood as I could borrow for my own use. For this year I was going too — not to fish, but to follow the fishermen's route; to go to sea in my own boat for the going's sake. I hoped to lay some ghosts to rest and come to terms, somehow, with the peculiar attraction that draws people to put themselves afloat on the deep, dark, indifferent, cold, and frightening sea. "Meditation and water are wedded for ever," wrote Melville. So, for the term of a fishing season, I meant to meditate on the sea, at sea.
In the United States, wherever young men hang out together, on college campuses as in homeless shelters, this story went the rounds: if you could get to Seattle and talk your way aboard a fishing boat bound for Alaska, you could make $1,000 a day. Or more. Someone always knew someone who'd taken home $100,000, sometimes $200,000, for just two months' work.
You could turn your life around on money like that — buy a house, start a business, become captain of your own gold-spinning boat. In the land of self-reinvention, the Alaskan fishery was said to be a magical place where poor men were transformed, at a stroke, into rich ones. Eight weeks was all it took to make a hellacious sum of money.
The young men flocked to Seattle in the spring to make their fortunes. They walked the docks, trying to ingratiate themselves with any captain who would speak to them. They were a pest, this seasonal ragtag band of college kids, druggies, winos, fugitives, unemployed computer programmers, checkout clerks, waiters, pizza-delivery drivers. The sea experience of many of these hopeful applicants amounted to no more than the occasional trip as a passenger on a ferry.
Yet the most persistent "greenies" did eventually manage to get taken on, for a half share (5 percent) or a full one (10 percent) of net profits at the end of the voyage. Of these, a tiny handful finished up with a wad of money within crying distance of the fairy-tale numbers. There were just enough jobs for deckhands, and just enough money, to keep the supply of young men copiously flowing.
The money talked loudest, but the sea talked too, with its antique promise of escape and adventure. Many greenies came from flat inland towns, and the only waves they knew rippled through the fields of standing wheat. But they'd read C. S. Forester, and they pined, in happy ignorance, for the yo-ho-ho of life at sea. In Des Moines, it's easy to dream fondly of the heaving deck, the gouts of freezing spray, the struggle with the net in fifty knots of wind, because nothing like that ever happens in Iowa.
More than that, going fishing in Alaska was the last true western adventure. At the end of the twentieth century, the Alaskan fishery presented itself as a romantic anomaly — an armed, masculine world of unbridled free enterprise, where a rolling stone, a latterday Huck Finn, on the run from the Widow Douglases of civilization, could still walk tall. For the boys (and some girls) at the back of the class, with no diplomas to their names, the fishery was their last shot at the exemplary American life of travel, excitement, and riches.
Alaska liked to advertise itself as "The Last Frontier," a slogan tinged with self-canceling whimsy since it appeared on vehicle registration plates, courtesy of the state licensing department. If the phrase could now be held to mean anything at all, it belonged to the sea, not the land; and the sea around Alaska was a real wilderness, as wild and lonely as any territory in the American past.
The Gulf of Alaska is a weather-kitchen. Pacific depressions, drifting over the ocean from the far southwest, hit the gulf, stall there, and intensify. As the atmospheric pressure at the center of the system sinks, the winds spinning around the hub speed up, to fifty, sixty, eighty knots. The waves build into untidy heaps; the sea goes streaky-white. Made steeper and impeded by the powerful tidal currents that pour out of the narrow passages between islands, the wave-trains turn near the coast into a short, precipitous, hollow sea of rearing fifty-foot crests and ship-swallowing holes in the water. These storms are a regular assignment for Alaska fishermen; for the greenie, they offer a crash course in retching misery and terror, keenly sharpened by the knowledge that every year boats go down in seas like this, all hands lost, due, in the standard phrase, "to stress of weather."
It was a last frontier in another sense, too. The great bonanza fisheries, from the Dogger Bank to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, were dead or dying, wrecked by overfishing, pollution, and disease. The local inshore fishery of the Pacific Northwest, on the Oregon and Washington coasts, had been exploited to exhaustion. In some areas, the chinook salmon — which used to pack the rivers and inlets wall to wall — had been nominated as an endangered species. At Fishermen's Terminal, dozens of little gill-netters, too small to make the Alaskan trip, lay abandoned, rotting at their moorings, with faded for sale notices in their wheelhouse windows. Their owners were on food stamps now, the boats — and the once-valuable licenses that went with them — going at yard-sale prices. Yet the Alaskan fishery went on. It was now more closely regulated than it had ever been, with a maze of small print governing season openings, boat lengths, net materials, and mesh sizes, an increasingly bridled free-for-all. But by comparison with what was happening elsewhere, the fishing in Alaska was still the Big Rock Candy Mountain of far-western fantasy, like the Comstock Lode, or the miles of virgin forest ripe for the chainsaw.
Greenhorns walking the dock, hoping for a piece of this action, would find a frontier that was all but closed. True, you could make $1,000 a day long-lining for halibut. But the halibut season had been squeezed down to a few days, and the captains of the halibut schooners were able to pick and choose from a throng of experienced hands. No chance for the greenie there. Most gillnetters, and trollers, too, were family boats, husband-and-wife or father-and-son concerns with no room aboard for a stranger. A big crabber . . . maybe. A purse-seiner would be the greenie's best bet; though the boats themselves were small (58 feet the maximum length permitted in Alaska), the encircling net was maneuvered in the water by a big, slab-sided aluminum skiff with a 350-horse inboard motor. Crewing the parent boat and its skiff required at least four people, and sometimes six or seven; so purse-seiners sometimes took on an extra hand from outside the circle of family and friends.
As the saying went, 10 percent of the fishermen catch 90 percent of the fish, and the crack purse-seiners in the fleet were known to everyone. When they hired extra hands, they chose people they knew.
There remained the "shit-boat": a floating catastrophe, its captain on the sauce, its hydraulic power-gear on the fritz, its nets riddled with holes, its bronze sea cocks crumbling away with electrolysis and turning into waterspouts. Shit-boats took on greenies.
On the dock, I was summoned by the captain of the Glenda Faye, a 58-foot purse-seiner. "You want to see a living miracle?" He had a paintbrush in one hand, a bottle of phosphoric acid in the other.
"Watch this — "
He brushed a swath of acid across a nasty-looking fish tray that had taken on the appearance of an old, brown, badly oxidized oil painting. As the brush touched the surface, the rust dissolved and the original white metal showed through. "Magic! I never used this stuff before — "
"You could serve it up with a dash of soda and a slice of lemon."
"They do that — in Cana-nada."
The Glenda Faye looked like a crack boat: built of steel and massively deep-drafted, the hull freshly painted in maroon with black trim. It carried more electronic gear than most, the wheelhouse roof fairly bristling with antennae. Through the galley window I could see mugs and dishes newly washed and neatly stacked to dry, spotless teak cabinetry, the wink of polished brass. A tidy ship.
Last year's season had been good, the captain said. In one day, they'd netted $5,000 worth of "pinks." That was their red-letter day, but they'd come close to matching this haul several times as the boat worked round the inlets north of Dixon Entrance. He and his cousin ran the boat together. Each season they took on a crew of two or three. "College kids. Hard workers. No drugs, no smokes." Always family, or family friends. Last year, at settlement time, when the cost of fuel and grub had been deducted from the gross, each kid pocketed nearly $11,000 for his two months' work — big money for a student's vacation job, but a far cry from the legends of instant wealth that kept the greenhorns coming to Seattle.
"Did you talk to the blond guy with the bedroll who was here a bit ago?"
"Which guy? There's a hundred like that."
"Would you ever take on someone like him — a stranger, walking the dock, looking for a boat?"
He laid a lick of magic acid on another fish tray. "Most of those guys? I wouldn't use 'em for bait." Swiveling on his haunches to take a closer look at me, he guffawed at what he saw. "Hey, mister, you ain't looking to be taken on? Oh, boy!"
Happy to contribute to the mirth of his afternoon, I shrugged and went off to do my shopping.
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