Thursday, April 22, 2010

SEA 2 -- Northern Belle

SEA 2 – Northern Belle

There is a solemn tone today at port. A few boats ready their lines, pack on the last of their goods to go north and head out to the Locks. Family members wishing each other off, men casting off for adventure and a living, while women, children and lovers remain behind. The sound of grinders on Steel and hammers resonate within the harbor, taking off a season of rust from the Steel Seiners that will soon make their way out. Yet there is a fleet already plying the waters of SE and SC Alaska, chasing the Herring returning for the season to spawn. This is the prized fish, gaining up to $1000 per ton, just to gain the roe for delicacies in the Far East. Yet this is dangerous days on the Sea, for the churning of storms out of the Gulf of Alaska, swirl, bringing their cold blast occasionally to NW Homeports. These storms create waves that are the likes of large freight trains. Rolling through the dark waters, combining with some to make calm flats, and then releasing to great 4 story towers threatening to toss a boat. It is these waters that claimed a Herring Tender this week, one in which I knew the captain and the crew well.

I heared about the sinking, from a friend in Ketchikan that forward me a Seattle Times link. He forwards me news from the Fleet every-so-often, but as I read through the names began to ring a bell. Such like Northern Belle, Robert and Baxter the dog. As I read through, I remembered standing along the North Dock of Ballard Terminal Talking to Rob, about the coming Herring Season, still trying to decide if the money and the opportunity was good enough to head up for another Season on his boat. With things proceeding here in Seattle, I decided to remain behind, and shook his hand before he left to go pickup his load along the Duwamish. I had not heard from him till now, and this time to hear that his boat was capsized and down off of Cordova. Reading those words took me back to the open bays of Dixon Entrance, and a roller of a wave that about took the Pacific Queen while I was at watch.

Last summer I gained the highest respect for the Sea. For she is the last great wilderness. As man seems to advance himself in technology, he claims control of so many things of nature. He brings oasis to the desert, roads to the sky, clam to wild rivers, and builds his temples to his might in the cities. Having cast out the gods from the Pantheon and replaced it with consumption and technology, there is a certain disregard in the day to day life of the power mother nature still holds. Yet, it is still on waters that all this technology many help you, but ultimately you are still at the power of Neptune's whim.

When you sit in a boat, and begin to take your course across the open sea, you are still bound to all she will give you. Your eyes keep to the horizon, as you are pitched about at 45 degree angles. Quartering each wave, to commit the boat to a smother roll rather then a dramatic chop that threatens to break the keel in two. There is no way around it, and at 7-9 knots an hour depending on the tide, you are sure to endure this for hours. No place to run, no place to hide, just you and your watchful eye, looking out for that roller to try and quarter to make it not your last. For the most part, you get used to the small ones, but you never get used to the ones that come up from behind while you are off your guard.

I read over the list of reasons the boat went down. Too much weight, unstablized load, bad seas, and what not... I suppose those here in the comfort of the city life will cite this as just a greedy captain risking his crew. Or want to enact more regulation to keep people from getting hurt. But they will then go on with their lives, and worry whether the Batista forgot to add sprinkles to their Mocha. Somehow I still feel connected with the life at see and the men who ply the waters. There is something vital to that life, and one who has not been on the waters cannot know it's allure. The sea is deadly and you cannot order a nice day. What is one day a good sizable load, the otherday can be a problem. The men of the sea are always pushed to produce more, and more, it is part of the allure.

Did the captain take on too much? Maybe? But every run across the Gulf of Alaska is a roll of the dice, for her waters are some of the most treacherous there are. Once you make your way out of Icy Straights, and round Cape Spencer, the wild game begins. Some will take their chance and head on a direct bearing for Seward across the Gulf. Others will follow the coast finding refuge from the waves every so often at Lituya, Yakatat and Prince William Sound. Between these places, the highest mountains send their glaciers down to the Sea and a mass of ice the size of Connecticut gives no safe harbor for about a day. Yet each bay, cove and harbor are marked, with names such as Graves Cove, Calm Bay, and Cape Caution. Speaking to the dangers of heading out upon these waves.

Having heard the news I talk with Paul and his brother about Robert, for a day we thought that he was the lost man of the boat, as they only talked about the Captain. We remembered how much a miserable cuss the man was, but a fine fisherman and a man lost for his heart to the Sea. It began to question all that I felt was vital. And the news that he had spent time putting a life vest on his dog Baxter, the stupidest mutt you ever seen, seemed fitting. I reminisced watching him jump into the frigid waters Seymour Canal, to save the dumb mutt that missed the boat while jumping from the Northern Belle to the Pacific Queen. And yet today, I found that the news was mistaken and that it was one of his crew that died. Should that change the way I thought of it all? I don't know? For certain, my heart goes out to the mans family, and yet those you ply those waters know if you do it long enough. If the seasons stretch on to years, one of these days the cold icy waters of Alaska will be your grave.

It is with these thoughts that I talk to the fisherman preparing for the coming Salmon Season here in Seattle. They have seen one of their own go down, and it will not be the last. The sea for all her dangers and risks, has a spell that weaves into these men that a common city habitat could never know. For life while simple seems to make more sense out among the tides and the waves of Mother Natures hand. A place for those who need to feel the visceral qualities of life first hand must go. And yet somehow I find myself remaining behind. Watching those seiners follow north...

Monday, April 5, 2010

SEA - 1 Bear and Raven Steal Fire

Long ago when the earth was new. It was a time of silent darkness,
when there was no light to illuminate across the land at the shores of
the Salish Sea. The people lived at the tide-line of Wy'luge, a great
body of water snaking it's way through the inlets and bays between the
two great mountains. They had lived there many long years, after the
great ice flows had retreated back to the land of the Wind. Huddled in
their lodges, covered with blankets of deer and goat who roamed the
forests. They sat in darkness waiting for the dawn to raise. For
there was no light of fire to illuminate their faces in the night, and
no heat to keep their lodges warm.

The people had remembered brighter days, when it seemed the sunlight
would go on for all time. Yet a darkness had settled into Wy'luge.
Both the sun and fire had been stolen by a great Siskiutl, (split two
headed sea-serpent) that lived at the mouth of the River. The people
of Wy'luge had grown too fat on their prosperity in times before,
taking little care of the world that surrounded them. They had
forgotten how to carve cedar canoes to go out to the waters to fish,
for the salmon came right to their lodges along the rivers edge. So
one day while all of the sententials of the clans were off in play at
a great potlatch, the Siskuitl had taken the Sun right out of the sky
and stolen the fire from their unprotected longhouse. This is how the
dark days came to the people due to their own carelessness. For they
had polluted their waters, and forgot to teach their young the old
ways. The Siskuitl began to eat all the salmon coming near the river,
thus no Salmon went beyond here to the place where the longhouses
stood. Since the people could not go out on the Sea, the grew very
hungry and week, eating only roots and sweat sap, without the strength
of the Meat of the Salmon Spirits.

In those days, the spirits of the world roamed and lived among the
people of the Salish Sea. They would change form to look like man,
during the evenings, but would return to the forest to take on their
wild form during the day. There was two that lived in a village near
the edge of a small river that flowed from the mountains near Tahoma.
These were Raven and Bear. Raven and Bear had been friends for a long
time, since they had been young. Since there was no day, they rarely
took their wild forms, and so began to lose spirits and only longed
for the earlier days of the sun. They both saw a suffering in people,
while some would not see it themselves. Knowing how they came to this,
they set out to the Sea to take the sun and the fire back from the

Bear and Raven knew that the Siskuitl could not take his fire out of
the box, in his home at the mouth of the river. Yet Siskiutl, loved
the taste of salmon smoked upon a cedar fire. He would lash is great
tail about in the deep waters of Wy'luge to create storms and winds
that would force the people of the Salish Sea into their Longhouses.
It was then that he would head to the Sandy beach there at the mouth
of the river, and smoke his salmon without worry of anyone noticing
him. So one such night as the winters came to the mountains about
Wy'luge, Siskiutl whipped his tail in a frenzy and created such a
storm. When wave after wave of rain and wind swept the people back to
their lodges, he emerged towards the fire-pits that lined the shore.

Bear and Raven waited at the edge of forests, changing into wild form
and watching for their moment when the Siskiutl was finished smoking
his salmon, lost in the joy of eating each juicy piece. At that
moment, Bear bolted out and put his great paw on the Serpant's tail,
keeping him from protecting the fire, while Raven Swept down and
grabbed an ember of fire from the still burning coals. Clutching them
in his craw, he flew higher, while his great white feathers were
turning to black as the smoke was fanned into flame. Burning his claws
hard black, he could not stand to carry the ember any more and dropped
it in the smoke hole of the Salish People's Longhouse. Thus giving
back fire to the people.

Mean while Bear struggled to keep hold of the Serpants Tale and the
great Siskiutl return to the Sea near a point of land called Alki. In
his furry, he tipped over the box containing the Sun, casting it out
along the shore, turning the sand to rocky stone at the waters edge.
Bear, seeing his moment reached out and threw the sun up in the sky,
bring light to the land once more. Yet the fire of the sun, also
singed his fir black, except for his brown muzzle that still had
salmon grease covering it.

Dawn rose across the waters of Wy'luge and the Salish Sea. The rains
of the Serpent, Siskiutl diminished and the people began to come out
of their longhouses, to see the new light.

Bear crept back in the forests. Only to come out and watch the people
from a distance in their wild form, while he began to relearn the old
ways that had long been lost in those dark days. Raven remained flying
about the people, always the trickster in their midst, watching that
the people were learning those old ways as well..

-- Adapted from a Salishan Tale

-- Jorj