Beyond the six windows of our little world is a sea that rises with wind and temper. Nothing is even anymore, the horizon an old lunatic, bashing its head against a tilted sky. White caps form on the backs of swells, the Aleutian volcanoes sleeping behind spitting rain and haze. It’s early season in Bristol Bay, where I work as a deckhand on a commercial fishing vessel for the summer, catching sockeye salmon on the eastern edge of the Bering Sea. Today there is no fishing, yesterday either. We’ve been waiting now for over a week, our gear stored and ready. The fishery is closed, allowing a quota of salmon to swim upstream, keeping the population healthy for future years. Today is another day of the wait.
Its blowing hard from the west so we take the boat up the Ugashik River to hold over the storm. Maggie and Kaya, the two others I live and work with on The Georgette Rose, raft to the muddy bank of the river. They are hunting through tall grasses and tundra for antique glass balls drifted over the decades from Japan. I stay on the boat, pick my cuticles clean, scrape scales from the cabin walls. I see how many times I can wrap a thread around my finger before it unravels. Wire spools off the reel above my head with the cadent sway of the boat, the kettle knocks on the burner. Kaya returns from the tundra with a sprig of fireweed, we put it in a glass honey jar used for catching hydraulic oil leaks; sugar’s still crusted on the rim. Alaskans say when the last flower on the stalk blooms there are six weeks till snow. We’re half way there.
We anchor up Dago Creek, taking shelter from the wind with the rest of the fleet, when a corked bottle floats past our hull, inside a message penned on the burnt edge of a yellow legal pad:
Avoid the bears.
We write a new note in cursive and rhyme and send the bottle off for another fisherman to pull from the brackish water. In the morning we braid hair and mend net, in the evening we smoke cigarettes in the mist, uncork the whiskey, talk of rumors about when the fish will come. Will the fish come? We read first lines from favorite poems in our damp bunks, the river rocks us to sleep.
It’s during the in-between hours that we revise. What is our relationship with time? Soon we will be working twenty hour shifts through the unending light of northern summer. Soon we will have forgotten the twin gifts of sanity and sleep. But right now the tides draw in and out unhurried, only the wind changes, and that too is quelled upriver.
The season itself is exterior to our lives. Summers we return to Alaska, each year slightly more weathered, maybe wiser, always saltier. We put life on hold to reconstitute ourselves in work, wind washes us clean, muddy water absolves our softness. You cannot take your loved ones with you, you cannot really explain to them what it is you do, why you do it. Your daily rituals and freedom gone. We think in stillness, we think nothing sometimes, only wait for the fish to run, the closure to be lifted, to grow into ourselves. We notice by standing still, that each year we do a little more. There is that which we can control: how many cups of coffee and which holes in the net to mend, but most of fishing is relinquishing autonomy, desire, it is to become part of the boat itself, a piston in the diesel machine. Boredom stretches before us, but it’s embraced, a universe twitches open in the stillness.
We take the boat to look for whale bones and walruses, and build a beach fire on the southern shore. We pay more attention to cavitation in the engine, and to dreams. We wake in waiting, we watch for fish, water beads and crawls down the boat windows, the hems of our hoodies unravel. We learn everything there is to know about a day, and someone else’s life. We create new dialogues for cutting open an orange, a whole dialect devoted to the movement of tides, another to keeping the engine running though the next ebb. My favorite new vowel the open sound of light rebounding from grey scaled bodies. I think, this where language was invented, out of the river’s drool, out of mud and honey, out of the west wind, and the wait.