SITKA – Spring. Finally.
It’s been a strange one, to be sure. Gouts of sun. Squid instead of herring. We prepare to send our chickens to chicken heaven, or “freezer camp” as one friend breezily calls it. Usher in the baby chickens, who have been moved ungracefully from the bathroom (holy chicken poop) to the garage (holy chicken poop). I’m used to putting my foot in my mouth, for sure – but I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve recently put my foot into a slipper to feel that sad awfulness of dank wet chicken turd oozing between the toes. As the prehistoric creatures cock their heads as you flail about, like, what? What’s the problem, big guy?
They’ll be in the coop soon.
Hit an island the other day with friends, including the photo editor from Saveur Magazine, in town to shoot for an article on our trip. Couldn’t have been sweeter. (Witness Colorado and the baby above.) The day before slayed two 75+ lb. halibut. Of course Kiera Lee had to get in on the action.
Feels like just days ago, flakes falling like wet socks from the skies, coating alder branches and truck hoods and boat anchors. Serious snow followed by the right hook of sun. We made a snowman with a torso of ice molded in a five-gallon bucket. Radish eyes. Varied thrush in the maple outside our home, kicking snow from the branches. We order seeds off the internet, Drunken Lady Frizz, wild arugula, leeks. In the sunny days of the past couple weeks dirt warm in our hands, frosty nights with green sheets of northern lights over Gavan ridge. Pulses of red. Our ancestors above speaking back to us.
The herring boats are gone, dragging behind their power skiffs like ducklings. Leaving in their wake a town-wide debate over who has rights to these wisps of fish flashing around the harbor. Fish – Haley still obsessed, although she’s very into the Lion King, and Pumbaa the warthog.
The other day I had the great good fortune to go to visit the sight of the Neva wreck, in 1813. To see where the 26 survivors made their camp, on the far side of Kruzoff Island. To see the rock the ship went up on. I don’t know why I’m so obsessed by it, but I can’t read enough, can’t imagine enough about this sudden unhappiness of the men, women and children aboard. Just miles from their destination, after being at sea for over four months at sea. And wreckage.
Ocean sunfish have been sighted here in Sitka. The slowest fish in the world, moving at 2 mph. (In case you’re wondering sharks are the fastest fish. That’s right, the Great white shark, which can reach 25 mph. I know, you’re thinking what I am. There’s no way Nemo outran Brucie in Nemo. Not fucking way.) In the meantime trollers, right here before their fishery closes, have been catching, but it hasn’t been great. They cancelled the salmon derby in Juneau. Eric Jordan went out the other day and caught nothing. That doesn’t happen often.
A couple years back there were 70 miles of spawn – this year just 13, says Mike on the Thunderbird. Mike not a man prone to exaggeration. A shake of the head, shrug of the shoulders. Ten thousand years. Like that. The big beautiful shiny boats with their jet engines scoop up 14,600 tons, leaving not much behind. On the other hand folks down every night at the docks, using pink glowy lures to jig up squid. Ain’t no fishery for squid yet. We cooked some the other night, slipped out the beaks, calamaried those bad boys up. Let me tell you, you haven’t tasted squid until you’ve tasted them fresh.
But back to herring for a moment. Imagine this: you run a net around a shoal (yes that’s the proper term for it – also an “army” of herring works). Cinch it at the bottom tighten it, tighter, tighter, until fish pock the water, piling up on each other, thousands of them, like a bunch of marbles. Except these marbles have a herd mentality. When they scare they move horizontal in the current, making a collective fist, punching the net. Corks keeping the net afloat sink from the weight. The net goes underwater. A fish goes over the top. Then two. Then two hundred. Thousands, until just a few hundred fish remain. From a 100k set to 1k. Like that.
Always a relief when the jittery, feral seine crews leave town. You can always spot them, quick-eyed, suitcases of Rainier, something of the sea lion in the skiff operator, the rest of them eagles, erupting at the smallest insult, wrists like bull kelp. Seiners sprint. Trollers are the marathoners. My mother made it here just before the fishery, and we got out to see whales, much to her pleasure.
But enough of humans. What about the bears this fine spring, you ask? The bears awake, they do. They awake early, probably because they went into hibernation hungry, due to low pink salmon returns. The other day ADF&G posted a notice of the unusual spring stirring. Out diving for sea cucumber across the channel, a couple friends and I saw one sprinting the length of the beach. I had engine trouble, and tied up temporarily to the F/V Larkspur to drain water from the carburetor.
A pursuit of Bambi on a sunny beach. It doesn’t sound like such a bad way to wake from a winter slumber. At least it’s the real thing and not a cartoon – I’d certainly trade beach-hunting a deer to another iteration of Pumbaa’s wailing over how he cleared the savannah by farting. (As I mentioned, Lion King is the film du moment in our household, specifically “Hakuna Matata.”) We made a very clear rule for Rachel’s 31st birthday, spent at Samsing cabin, that there will be no cartoon warthogs allowed.
This summer I’ll deckhand with père et fils Jordans in hopes of repeating the show three years ago, when fish were on every hook. But again the worry – ocean temperatures and salmon in free-fall up on the Kenai and elsewhere in the state. Which is no good because electric rates will shortly go up in town, to pay for the new dam we put in a couple years back. A wicked rumor circulated that the electric output hasn’t gone up an iota – hence our periodic reliance on the diesel generators. Rumor quickly quashed in a letter to the editor – but you get the idea. Folks are skeptical.
Which brings us to the Adak. (In a strange twist one of these old town generators supplied the boat with a cylinder.) The Sitka Maritime Heritage Society did a nice event recognizing the tug, well-attended at the Larkspur. There was story-telling and history-recounting. Met the son of an old captain of the boat. Also discovered the tug is the last of the 43 tugs of its kind that still has its original engine. We’re going to be applying to be put on the historical register. And the boat will be rented out on Air BNB for the summer – it’s mostly full. We miss her something awful, but she needs to find a way to pay for herself.
Kiera-Lee meanwhile turns into a gorgeous little baby, the two of them knocking me breathless. She’s a snuggle munchkin. Haley enjoying hijacking my boots, my hat, anything she can get her little mitts on. Along with fishing this summer I get to make appearances on Princess Cruise Lines as a real live Alaska author. Paid cruises, better than a sharp stick in the eye, I guess. We’ll see. The family is all excited about gardening. Haley has broadcast seeds of various lettuces, beets and nasturtiums far and wide – I’ll be curious to see what takes route. When she’s not planting she sits on the front stoop, just like a little old Italian lady, making sure the dog behaves himself, and that the plants aren’t thirsty. We got the green light from the fish processor to pick up fish carcasses for the garden, to fertilize the soil. Imagine our surprise when we found a bunch of black cod heads with collars still on them. Goldmine! The harvesting began immediately.
And I guess that’s what spring’s all about here. Jumping on opportunity. Taking it as it comes. Spring cleaning, sure, but also spring adventuring, and learning, doing it in ways you didn’t before. Like clam juice on your nori seaweed, or letting the kid poop on a cedar shingle – literally. No one gets hurt. We still have the rosemary bush shaped like a heart. And the salmon will come soon. They’re lurking out there, I just know it.