It’s Only a Picture

ImageFish. Salmon. King salmon. Salmon from the saltwater of southeast Alaska. There is nothing like fresh-caught salmon, nothing. At least not in my world. I like it poached, barbequed, baked, hung on a stick over the fire, wrapped in foil and nestled in the coals, in rice, on rice, as a side to rice. Call me a southeast gal, I’ll gladly do what I can to live up to it. I like king salmon, no doubt about it.

I don’t care for Copper River kings or other fish caught in fresh water. There’s something firm, alive, delicious about a saltwater fish that fights to live among the seagoing predators, is crafty and fast and a sucker for a good flasher or favorite hoochie. There’s nothing like southeast king salmon.

Okay, so I’m partial and biased and prejudiced, and I hope I have the wherewithal to remain that opinionated for the rest of my days. When you buy salmon, be sure of where it comes from, when it was caught, and how it was cared for. It does make a difference.

Getting Warmer

For twenty-five years, the back burner’s been occupied by a plan, a dream, a vision, a life. The kettle contained rubber boots, a few fish hooks, a deckhand license, and not a few recipes for wild foods. There were the nautical charts and square boat buckets, rain gear and cotton liners, all manner of accoutrement to commercial fishing. I hope I’ll find a piece of old, dried kelp frond a daughter had written a message to her mom on, a bit of Green Slime concocted from the summer resident’s stash of Nordstrom creams, donated by her sons to the ingredients list. Maybe a tree fort or two, or at least an old 2×4 with a bent nail hammered in with a rock, and the washed-up sign, R Dreamboat, formerly fastened to the stern of Grampa Bill’s boat. There’s plenty of weather in that old pot – storms and wind and high tide surge. Gulls and eagles and ravens soar in there, talons locked and patience worn thin, a single deadly taunt that ended a winged life and set feathers afloat. Not all the weather is rough; there are balmy summer breezes, a waft of heather from a beach meadow warmed by the sun, and tangy salt air. Lift the lid and the tide is up, or down, and twice a day you can count on the flavor changing.

I’ve given the whole thing a stir. The lid has come off, and it now occupies the front burner, a small flame lit below to warm things up. Surprisingly, it’s hasn’t gone moldy or rancid over the years, lost any flavor or color, and the contents are fresh as when they were added. Alongside is a piece of beachfront, remote enough to satisfy my reclusive nature, near enough to skiff somewhere if I want proof that human life still exists. Mainly, there are bears and beach grass, tall trees and tideline, and plenty of peace. Quiet. Solitude. Aloneness. There will be an enormous stash of oatmeal, a staple of my life; thick-cut, slow-cooked, and eaten with butterscotch sauce drizzled over top. I make my own and it serves well for dessert. One appreciates very simple pleasures.

When I turn up the flame and this pot begins to simmer, I’ll be on my way. Back to a life of Xtra-Tufs, daily beachcombing, exploring, and surviving. I’ll be in life mode again, serving my own purposes, doing the thing I was put on earth for, tending to my own needs. Now, with forward momentum, I look ahead eagerly and with all the energy I possessed when everything was put in this pot and the lid fastened securely, stored safely until I could open it up and start cooking again. It’s been a long, long time since the lid came off for more than just a looksee, and it’s good to pull it forward a bit and begin reheating. One month and we’ll increase the flame, add a little seasoning and give it another stir. Stay hungry, my friend; this is one good meal to look forward to.

Some Days

Some days the sun comes up and shines on the Alaska Range and I think of the beautiful places I’ve lived. It’s not a lucky thing, or blessed, but reality. I wake up at 3:30 a.m. to daylight and a young moose on his knees sampling the grass. He hob-knobs along until something spooks him to his feet and he runs off – he’s a long way from a Sitka black tail cruising the beaches of Hoonah Sound. The other day it rained. Not hard, not long, but it fell from the sky and it was wet. The air is different when it rains, not so much about being clean as it is about being fragrant. I can smell the dirt, the moss, bark and buds, and other green, growing things. Life, I guess; I smell life. I’m in a place where I hear people remark about The Mountain – McKinley or Denali, as you prefer – and how thrilling it was to see the majesty of it from base to summit on a clear day. I agree that it’s majestic alright, but I don’t tell them about the mountains in southeast, the incredible awesomeness of timbered granite rising from sea to sky, how deep the water is where your boat can come right up to rock of it because there’s no beach – that mountain is still descending into the depths below, straight down into the depths. That impresses me.

I deal with people every day, sometimes from as early as 4 a.m. and through the evening until 10 p.m. I go to bed after baking huge loaves of bread for the next day – sandwiches, french toast, breakfast, lunches. I make lots of breakfast, fill sacks with it to go or send lunches with folks who have no idea how long a 10-hour day on a bus can be. I get lots of comments on the stares they get when they open their sacks and pull out huge sandwiches on homemade bread, a couple cookies, fruit, juice, some chips, and the looks of longing and envy from the passengers who were unfortunate enough to rely on the tour-provided lunches. I smile and say thanks, glad you liked it, and think of how good it was when I packed a cooler for trapping or fishing and we’d sit in the boat and unwrap a plain old peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a Thermos of coffee, and some stale cookies or doughnuts as dunkers. Back then I dreamed of a fresh orange to go with, so juicy it would dribble down my chin and, even with a coating of fish slime, I’d not give a second thought to licking my fingers. Maybe not all fishermen feel that way about food on the water, the need for juicy fruit, but when it gets stormy fruit is what I crave. And here I pack large lunches for guests to take on a bus ride, enough to satisfy the slightest hint of a stomach growl and take them through the day until they hit the pub or the pizza place or the frozen Costco salmon bake.

Some days I don’t mind. Some days I can banter and BS and regale with the best of them. I go with the flow and make small talk, but days like today I’m glad for the three empty rooms, the fewer mouths to feed, less conversation and demand for my attention. I like the people mostly, and there are many I won’t remember in two days, but I’m a loner by nature, a recluse at heart, a solitary individual stuck in Grand Central Station surrounded by noise and populace and speed. I offer brief respite and try to retreat from their vacation but more often than not I am found, cornered, and drawn into their amazement, their complaints, their itineraries and curiosity about the place we live in, this massive Alaska.

Today I miss the mountains, the trees, the beaches, rocks, rivers, and tidelines of Southeast. I yearn for spongy forest floors and old man’s beard, witches hair, and ferns. In my mind I taste salmonberries, small sweet wild strawberries, and spruce tips dripping with rain, sweet and pungent green. I miss the gray skies, the sodden air and splash of rubber boots in tide pools. I haven’t turned over a rock to find sculpin or starfish or hermit crab in ages, too many. I miss the smell of flotsam and jetsam and dead things the tide drags up. It’s how I grew up, walking the tideline, discovering life and death, the overturned daily living, and how it ended up after being tumbled about only to lay sprawled among sand fleas and flies and popweed until some kid kicks over the mass of it and discovers new treasure. More than anything, I miss life at tideline.

Here, today, it’s overcast and guests are returning to share tales of the wildlife they saw – moose, caribou, dall sheep, grizzly bears and cubs, foxes, lynx, ptarmigan, and all kinds of critters we see and don’t notice because it’s part of our every day. I’m glad for them, those who will return to cubicles and offices and warehouses where grating music is piped in endlessly and a janitor cleans up the droppings of the day. I’m thankful for my life, so different from theirs.

They say you can take the girl out of wherever, but you can’t take wherever out of the girl. Some days, I long for the life in rain country. Nothing offers the peace of a gray, rainy, misty day like island life in the Alexander Archipelago. Mossy old cabins with cranky wood stoves, an outhouse or a bush for comfort, a hissing lantern to light the night. The smells, the temperatures, the moist air, the resonant drip of rain or rivulet, and jungley old growth, undergrowth, clearcut or rocky beach are dear to my soul. I feel that some day I shall return, for good, and find the perfect, moss-covered stump where I’ll sit in silence and listen to life around me. Some day. One day. In the meantime, I listen to tales of moose and bear and flights over Denali which culminate with a burger at the local brewery.

Some day….

THREE

THE LINE SPUN THROUGH the davit, spooling into the round green tote below. Unsnapping hooks as they came up, Pete clipped them to the rack on the console. He stood with feet apart, one hand on the davit and looking over the side, cigarette clenched in his teeth. Up the line came, hook after empty hook. He grabbed each one and snapped them onto the bar behind him. Occasionally he’d overreach and the hook would drop to the deck of the boat. He ignored the miss, intent on the line rising from the deep.

“Fish on,” he grunted, grabbing the gaff and swinging at the mass of white writhing on the line. With a solid thunk, the hook landed and he hauled back. Grabbing the line, Maggie snubbed it around the post while he took quick aim with the .357 and fired. The halibut stiffened and flexed, and they pulled it over the side. It landed in the bottom of the skiff to flop once or twice and lay still.

“A hundred, easy,” Pete grinned. She was already snapping the gangion to the stern post, slipping over the pile of fish in her way. It would get to the point that she crawled her way to the back of the boat, slime and blood and saltwater mixing to form a gurry nearly impossible to stand in. Once the load of fish leveled off at the gunwales, they’d buoy off and return to the bay where they’d offload their catch to the dock, clean and ice the fish, and head back out to finish pulling the set. The spring opening was one they worked hard every year. It meant groceries and fuel and bait after a long, lean winter, an all-out effort to get caught up and flush for the start of another season, but it didn’t always pay off as they hoped. Some years the first opening was hardscrabble due to weather or cash, but they looked forward to it eagerly despite the odds. It put winter behind them, brought spring in with sweat, sore muscles, long nights and generally a few thousand dollars, enough to fill fuel barrels, buy bait and ice-cream and remind them what it felt like to have a flush bank account again. Not that it lasted long, but it signaled the start of the money-making season and every fisherman understood that.

“Fish on!” Pete shouted, and grunted as the boat heaved to port. “Get to the other side, keep us down!” She scrambled to the starboard side and lay against the gunwale. The fish thrashed and bucked, Pete bent over the side with shark hook in hand. One good jerk and the halibut was secured, and she reached to grab the heavy line threaded through the gaping maw. She heard the gunshot before turning around to see the tail flip once and settle below the surface. This time it took the weight of both of them to pull the fish up, but it was too heavy to pull aboard so he dragged it alongside and left it to hang from the stern. By now the pile of fish had grown, the weight in the boat settling the freeboard to less than a foot.

“Let’s buoy off and head back to the dock. I don’t want to take on too much with the tide changing.” With that he’d cut the line, knotted the buoy onto the end, and turned the boat back toward the bay. She replaced the bat and gaff and settled onto the pile of fish, bracing her feet against the side to keep from slipping off the slimy mound. The boat sat low in the water, but made good speed. Behind them the buoy bobbed easily on the swell until it disappeared in the distance. She peeled off her gloves – heavy orange ones first, soaked and slimy white cotton liners next. Her fingers were prune-like but toughened from the saltwater, stiff and cold from the constant exposure of the morning. She pulled on dry gloves and awkwardly made her way to the middle of the skiff to even the load. With the heavy fish dragging off the stern the boat had a slight wallow, but at least the bow was out of the waves. She leaned back, watching him.

He sat easily on the bench, one arm on the steering wheel, the other elbow on the gunwale, cigarette between two fingers. He squinted easily into the sun and breeze, a faint smile on his face. She knew he loved doing this, fighting to best himself against nature, whatever form it took. Already he’d realized a good day of fishing, the short pull they’d made obviously would pay for fuel. He didn’t look at her, and she turned her gaze to the rocky shore. Here and there the beach opened up to grass flats. Occasionally, an early bear would show up or a deer would be down, but spring was mainly just rotten snow and rain and muddy tidelands so she stared without seeing, feeling the wind and gentle rise and fall of the skiff against the water. She closed her eyes and dozed, taking advantage of the short ride as green water slid passed them.

Nothing to write home about

photo (2)Sometimes I wake up and lay there, thinking about the night. Other mornings I bury myself beneath warm covers and the very soft down pillow I punch and twist into comfort under my head. This morning’s wake-up call was a rude one, the loud ring of the portable phone handset beside my bed. Straight up and out of bed and to the computer before coffee – not a good start to my day under the worst of circumstances, but it garnered me a couple hundred dollars so I guess it wasn’t the worst day to come along.

Speaking of coffee, I bought a couple fabric filters for my Melita. It said to rinse in hot water before use and, normally, I’d just chuck it into the wash before using it but, instead, this time I trusted that was all I should do. The flavor of hemp is not a good accompaniment to fresh-ground, especially the first cup. ‘Nuff said.

Off to the post office before noon and I figured to stop in at my favorite little coffee shop – the one with gaudy jewelry, absurd teacups, and the lovely owner with glittery fingernail polish. She made my day – a large cup of dark chocolate with raspberry, hold the whipped cream. First sip brought back the previous evening’s phone call from my daughter, an apology for not calling on Mother’s Day, and an opportunity to hear the voice of a child I love very much, a love without end, without condition, but tempered by addiction and behavior. Still, the sound of her voice saying, “I love you, Mom” was altogether a complete summation of the day.

Mid-day meal was delicious – oatmeal mushroom steaks with onions and sage and paprika, a light gravy over the mashed potatoes and a crisp cupful of tangy slaw. I thought half a plate would fill me up, but confound if I didn’t finish the other half, too. Perfection and comfort as reward for the brusque kick-off to the day.

The sun’s been trying to shine, to keep up the standard set by the weatherman who hasn’t looked out the window, apparently. The temps aren’t freezing, but we’re a ways from the higher digits forecast. Still, it’s not raining and it’s not snowing, and the birds seem happy enough so who am I to complain?

2:30 and I’m pulling myself out of a funk by sitting here, tapping away about what’s on my mind. I dislike personal revelations on social media, where intimate details are flashed onto every screen associated with anyone you know, and whether or not anyone comments or even cares matters not at all – it was said for all the world to hear and I’m not so sure some things won’t come back to haunt or bite or cause regret. I keep it simple, photographic, or amusing, and let’s hope I continue to consider it an aside to my business of daily life, and not the meat of any real conversation, eh?

Anyway, there’s bread to get made, a fragrant candle to light, and some EMS material to review for the next class I teach. I can write this and you can choose not to read, but when I’m teaching and a student begins to nod off, I take it as a cue to raise the bar next time. Please, God; forbid that I’m ever really, truly that boring…

Two

mistybayTHE PICTURES ARRIVED in a padded envelope, addressed in familiar handwriting. Inside were thirty-some photographs of logs and fishing boats, a dock, cabins, and a house under construction. Familiar with all of them, after nearly twenty years Maggie had asked for them back. Returning them to the envelope, she placed them on the scanner and looked out the window.

It was all she’d expected then, without a thought that it would ever be different. On a summer night, they’d arrived in the wee hours. They set the tent up on the floatplane dock and crawled in, leaving their gear in the skiff. She fell asleep to the noise of the waterfall and when she woke it was to the sound of boots on the planked surface beside her and the sound of an airplane overhead. She peeked out and was greeted by a dark-haired man with a cup of coffee in his hand.

“You must have gotten in late or I would have heard you. You probably want to move your tent before the plane gets here and they start unloading freight. My name is Jase; you must be Pete’s wife.”
“Yeah, we got in late. Nice ride, the water was flat calm. I’m Maggie.” Fully clothed, she kicked out of the sleeping bag and crawled from the tent. Pete was down the dock, talking to a man on a fishing boat.

“Let’s get your tent moved for this plane.” Jase grabbed a corner and she helped him drag it across the float. She placed a full, 5-gallon fuel can in the center, hoping it wouldn’t blow away when the plane took off. They turned as it landed and taxied to them. The pilot jumped out to secure the aircraft, shooting a puzzled look at the tent. He glanced at her before greeting Jase and another man who’d come down the ramp to meet the plane. The pilot opened the back door and a passenger climbed out, a woman in full make-up and very blonde hair. With his passenger safely on the dock, the pilot jumped in and started passing out suitcases, boxes of groceries and a mailbag. The woman, obviously no stranger, greeted Jase with a hug and handed a package to the man, who’d loaded her bags into a dock cart.

“No passengers heading out, Frank. All I have for you is this bag of mail.” Jase handed a yellow bag to the pilot, and turned to introduce her.
“This is Pete’s wife, Maggie. Sorry about the tent; they got in late last night and didn’t want to haul everything up the ramp and wake everybody.” Frank shook her hand and nodded.
“No problem. Be sure you hang onto your tent when I take off so it doesn’t go flying,” he chuckled. “Your first time out to the bay?”
“It is. This dock isn’t very comfortable, so I guess I’d better get the tent set up on something a little softer if I’m going to stick around,” she smiled.
“Not a bad idea. I’m sure Jase will let you stay in the store for a night or two if you need to.” Frank looked at Jase, who nodded his head toward Pete.
“I already offered, but Pete said they’d tent it on the flats until they get their property cleared. Fine with me, wherever you want to stay – nobody out here will care.”
Frank nodded and turned to untie the plane. They stood back while he pushed off into the current and started the engine, watched as it taxied out to the middle of the bay and as he throttled forward, she jumped to grab the tent before it caught the prop wash. As the plane lifted off, she saw Pete heading her way.

“I see you met Jase.” His face was bronzed brown and tough by many days on the water, his blonde hair glinting in the sun. She doubted she looked that good and sighed.
“Is there an outhouse or something around here, or do I claim a bush?” She laughed.
“Head on up; bathhouse is on your right and there’s a bathroom in there. Feel free to use one of the hot tubs.” Jase helped her with the tent as Pete headed to the skiff and grabbed their duffel bags. As they headed up the ramp she wondered just how rough it could be to live in a place with natural hot and cold running water.

She looked around. Sunlight shimmered off the surface of the water. The tide was up, making the ramp an easy hike to the boardwalk above. Across the bay she noticed an opening leading into the forest beyond, and wondered where it went. The waterfall at the head of the bay met the saltwater with a roar, foam and spray flying in the sun. A boardwalk followed the beach around from the dock to the waterfall. In between, several houses – summer cabins, she was later informed – lined the walk. Doors were open and people were outside. One lady was working in her garden, an old bathtub filled with dirt sitting on the corner of her deck. The day was heating up and folks were getting ready to head out on the water. Coolers were loaded onto carts, fishing rods stood next to piles of life jackets, and everywhere the pungent aroma of saltwater, seaweed and evergreens permeated the air. She smiled at the thought of belonging to a place such as this.

…and to the Republic for which It stands…

It’s been an interesting few months; well, years, actually, that I’ve paid more attention to my conservative friends and acquaintances. You know the type – the ones who espouse The Constitution in its unabridged form and intent, get all up in arms over the liberals and socialism. Where before I might have tried reasoning my way through a conversation, I’m now exposed to Fox News on a daily basis, even the morning programs recorded for viewing when time allows throughout the day. Yeah, me. I have no escape short of packing up and moving, so I effect deafness, ignore the snarky television commentary, and engage only in face-to-face discourse. All I can say is thank God I can carry a conversation, and my side of it with strength and conviction.

I’m nowhere near the right or left, tend to ride the fence line without getting snagged by barbs on either side. I’ll check the gaps and tighten up the wire, mend a hole here and there, and make sure things keep contained. What’s interesting about this is the rediscovery of what I learned back in the 60s, remembering the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and the dissection of it, line by line, big word by big word, and the discussion of what it means to me, my life, my family and my country. It has nothing to do with Fox News or HuffPost rhetoric and propaganda.

A few books have been placed in front of me; some I recognized and others that are new and need to be read. “The Creature from Jekyll Island,” a book by G. Edward Griffin about the Federal Reserve; worth your time. “A People’s History of the United States,” by Howard Zinn, “The Best of Times,” by Haynes Johnson, “The Making of America; The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution,” by W. Cleon Skousen and, last, but certainly not least by a very, very long shot, The Constitution of the United States – a remarkably thin little publication every American ought to find somewhere in their belongings.

I’m no fan of Glen Beck or our former Governor or either of the Clintons. I refuse to enjoin myself to the insurance mandate simply because I expect one day it’ll be my time to die and no amount of medical care will change that inevitability. In the meantime, I’ll pay my bill. I share generously, believe churches and charities are charged with helping the less fortunate among us, as are families obligated to tend to their own. I’ve come to see with a little more clarity the direction our country has been headed, the road it travels, and the destination we surely will find looming. I’ve not been idle or slothful in my listening, and it would serve each of us well to listen up, pay attention to our fellows and what they have to say about the State of the Union. Become informed, be a voice, and use that grey matter inside that hard skull atop your spine. Things change in relation to ambivalence, inattention, apathy, and when some of us suddenly realize we’ve been bought and paid for with a false sense of peace and entitlement, will we have forgotten how to use that backbone to stand up and make our voices heard? God forbid.