Monday, December 27, 2010

Old Fisherman Goes Zig-Zagging Home

I've stayed awkwardly late at the party. I'm waiting for a bus or ferry that already left. It's the weekend after the semester started and I'm still watching the stars through the top of the cabriolet while she drives the twisting peninsula roads leading from the harbor town of my summer job. It's Boxing Day and the traps aren't up.

The road that was muddy is now frozen to concrete and I'm really enjoying the super heavy socks inside my rubber boots on my walk to the harbor. The same walk where I'd be swishing mosquitoes away and marveling at the dawn chorus of songbirds. I am Held Over. Held over past the time that things are supposed to change to the next phase.

"You'll be cold." Rick tells me from the porch as I walk past. We have a proper blizzard in the forecast. Almost everything is some shade of gray. The wharf concrete. The water. The sea smoke. The clouds to the east, however, are not gray. The band of clouds where we are heading are black. Not like a thunderstorm which is isolated, but a solid band. God is coming kind of black. Old Testament God. Windy and Cold Testament God.

Zig: The clouds and chop and temperature are frightening to a timid person like myself. I am afraid. I want to be back in my jams for Boxing Day. My family was very comfy when I left. But I am a fishermen, even if an inexperienced wussy one. I love it, so I am here.

Zag: The clouds go over us and it is not so bad. The wind dies down some. I am coiling 55 fathom trap lines or "warps," the first of 19,500 feet to be coiled today. I learned how to coil rope much faster this year. What good for a man with 3 kids being a superior rope coiler is, I do not know. But I am good. I do not get behind. I am not afraid. The temperature inside counteracts the temperature outside. I am grooving. We go in with the first load of 50. Captain Clayton says something about thinking we might not get the third load into the harbor.

Zig again: "I don't like the way this wind is coming up. I think if we come back out here it will be some nasty." I hadn't noticed. I certainly notice when we take a wave and a 400 pound barrel of water and lobsters and a tier of traps go sliding to port. Now I have rubbery legs and a tight gut. It gets uglier in a hurry. I see the slate green frowns with white spray crinkled foreheads and knitted brows, all glowering right at me.

On the way in, the trap load keeps fidgeting, but always ever so slightly more to port. I get visions of the load, which is locked together and lashed to the boat upsetting the center of gravity. A surly wave will push us over and its bullying friend will roll us. There will be no time for immersion suits or radio calls. We are far out from land. I am cold. My fingers are soaked and numb. I am not afraid. I am terrified. Probably because I don't understand how stable lobster boats really are. Fear doesn't have to be rational.

Then the traps get trucked. Even though we only got 100 of the 150 we planned on, it's getting dark by the time we're done. 100 traps, 120 or so buoys, 19,500 feet of wet rope.

Zag again. Home is never so sweet and inviting as when I'm cold and nervous on the water. Even with stir crazy kids still in their jams.

Tonight as I write, we're in night number two of the blizzard. Sticky snow, rain, more snow, always copious amounts of wind. Snow is glued to the northeast sides of the tree trunks. After feeding the birds and bringing in wood this morning, the kids and I built the traditional snow fort, but topped it with a matrix of sticks and bows that held the sticky wet snow perfectly. We now have a stick and snow-stucco hut big enough for 1 and a half people or 2 kids to crawl into. Tonight it will certainly freeze solid. Life is good.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Trying to Make a Living in Paradise

Pretty much showing it like it is. This is the saltwater rock music video follow-up to "Haul Em' Up!" Thanks to the fabulous Steamboat Wharf dancers, the old fire truck and the never ending inspiration that is Matinicus Island.

Right now making a living consists of taking up traps, which, tomorrow is likely to be a frosty enterprise, odd painting and carpentry jobs and law geek stuff over the winter. It is all part of the adventure. I need to remind myself of the adventure element when I start getting mopey.

Here we come a wassailing among the leaves of green. Love and joy come to you.

Monday, December 13, 2010

One More Name on the Memorial

The wind seemed heartless and indifferent this morning at around 2. I woke knowing that beyond the walls of my house, past the spruce trees and fields, the rocks and outer barrier ledges, across 30 miles of pitch black December-style Atlantic ocean, the Coast Guard was searching for a man who went overboard 14 hours earlier. The boat was a 77 footer out of Rhode Island, working 50 or so miles offshore.

The marine forecast called for 20 to 30 foot seas as I turned in last night. I'd not seen such a prediction in the 5 years we've been here. The tv news weather graphic showed a boiling swath of precipitation stretching from off the west coast of Florida all the way up to New England.

It doesn't make sense to impute cruelty to the wind or the sea, but that was how I felt when I woke up thinking of that man, his mates and captain, family and the coast guard men and women out there trying to find him. It's cruel misfortune to work a lifetime on the water, get into one tangle with the wrong trap line, and get pulled overboard. After that, according to the Bangor Daily News, David fought back. He cut himself loose successfully in the midst of the mayhem and got a hold of a life ring. Then he let go and sank.

I'm still a newcomer to deck work, and not a newbie in any way other than that. I came to this work figuring that if a hand goes overboard, he can just tread water for a couple of minutes, even if it's cold, until the boat turns around and comes back to scoop him up. All the reports I read and things I hear say otherwise. Much of the time, falling overboard is quick and final.

I don't really know what to make of it when these tragedies occur. David was obviously out there out of necessity, but probably also because that is what he loved doing. I'm old and lazy enough to think that a lot of boats and crews are under too much pressure to go out and stay out in poor conditions. I'll probably always be a lubber. I can't see myself compulsively going out or staying out when the conditions are rotten. I'd rather make a little less money. This attitude would get me flogged in a real fishing operation. Then again, I understand that once you're out, you want to make a trip of it. There is also the primal truth that a rotten day on a boat is still better than a nice day in other work situations.

I'm also timid enough that I don't worry about flotation compromising my manhood. New vests that inflate when the sensor is more than 4" under water and closed cell foam work gear could save lives or at least provide some relief to families.

When I was a kid, I'd never seen a color tv or a bike helmet. Now they're everywhere. Fishing will always be the wildest, most fun, most real occupation, even with a vest on. And it will still be plenty dangerous. And make great color tv entertainment.

Let us pray.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Fisherman as Villain

When the zero carbon lobster project got some media attention last summer, I should not have read the comments. Some were very positive. Some were just nasty. One stuck with me.

" There is no greater destructive
job to the planet than that of the fisherman." -Comment in Huffington Post.

Really? I suppose so as long as we don't consider mining, manufacturing, oil drilling, mountain top coal extraction, box stores, forestry, highway transportation, commercial agriculture or beef, pork, chicken, and soy bean production.

There is no shortage of professionally crafted persuasive and fundraising messages insisting that fishing activity has brought oceans to the brink of mass extinction. Fishermen are portrayed as ruthless pillagers of the oceans. Grisly photographs are shown; the kind we don't usually see in connection with other food production where chicken seems to have come into existence skinless and boneless in a styrofoam tray. Vilification of fishermen also diverts attention from ocean acidification, agricultural, home pesticide, road and industrial runoff, military, cargo vessels, and cruise ships (where does all the, ya know -stuff- go?), and of course grounded oil tankers and exploding drilling platforms.

Perhaps industrial scale fishing, like industrial scale food production of any kind, rapidly depletes resources and causes other degradation of the home we all share. I offer a few points of comparison between fishing and other food production, particularly concerning smaller boats where the catch rarely goes into an intercontinental shipping container.

Fishing works with the natural environment instead of against it. Fish live wild until they are caught. With the exception of methods such as bottom dragging or dynamiting a coral reef, the surrounding environment is left intact. The creatures know when the moon is full. The move about, eat and reproduce as they please. The ecosystem maintains her rhythm.

Contrast this with, say, soybean production, the foundation of so many vegetarian and purportedly green-friendly foods. How much acreage is plowed up? How many trees are removed? How many smaller plants, animals and microorganisms are displaced? How much water is diverted from its natural destination? What quantity of chemicals are introduced into the earth and the oceans?

Food production is a big source of trouble and potential. More local production and marketing means less transportation, refrigeration, processing, preserving. More small scale local production means a broader distribution of economic opportunity and benefit.

Small, local food production means making the most effective use of what your environment is good for. For those of us blessed enough to live and work on the ocean, our contribution to a web of environmentally healthy and economically vibrant food production originates here.

The imagery of the rapacious fisherman is ripe for a little public makeover. We can keep the eye patches for when we really need them, say, Halloween and regulatory hearings.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Chapter 1

The winds were gone. They came in October and stayed until they went somewhere else in April. The wind could have been blowing all over the Gulf of Maine or the northern hemisphere, or just off the shore and only tormenting those on the island, the big wind face hanging off to the northwest all winter.

The winds were replaced by green. Over the course of a week the great climatic dimmer switch faded the gray brown into the kind of bright light green promised by Easter Bunnies and yellow hatchlings.

The ledges and islets were granite one week and emerald scarved the next. The horizon was perfect geometric abstraction after being crinkled by temperature and light distortion all winter. The ocean was flat, blue, inviting.

Yards with rows of lobster traps frozen into the ground and grass stubble reaching out of the ice now had crews mending gear, painting buoys, listening to the radio, talking trash.

Lights were on at night up and down the island and around the harbor.

Fourwheelers raced the dirt road. The some-years detour on Carrie’s Hill where the road turns to truck eating mud pot was a go this year.

Recreational gunfire popped off on the south end in the afternoons.

A truck carcass was pulled from its cocoon off the side of the road, leaving a brown socket that would vanish in a month when every growing thing went rampant. The truck was towed down the road, around Carrie’s mud pot and toward the harbor for loading onto the ferry.

Loading entailed pushing, pulling, bashing, smoking tires, scronking metal, whatever was necessary to get the vehicle onto the boat and off the island. At one point when there wasn’t enough side of the road, yard space, room at the quarry or other dumping grounds, there were something like 125 vehicles heaped onto a barge and hauled to the mainland.

He could have taken the plane out and had a 12 minute ride instead of 2 hours and 15 minutes on the steel and diesel ferry. The first real ferry of the year was rolling gently and topped off with lumber trucks, summer vehicles with furniture, groceries, kayaks and other toys and a new crop of “new” island vehicles destined for short tenures in motion and long dormancy in their own cocoons. What seemed a good deal on the mainland was usually well into its second hundred thousand miles. A couple of hundred- or dozen- island miles would do it in.

Coming around Northeast or No-theast Point was a better sight than it was when Patrick and his family had moved here fifteen years earlier. The green on land and blue of a gentle ocean welcomed him back. That day fifteen years ago had been all shades of aluminum and brown-green-almost-black.

Patrick walked off the ferry with his one bag.

“Well!” What is this?!”
“Hello Art.”
“Hello. What’re you up to?”
“Just coming to check on the place now that the last batch of em is out of there.”
”Yeah, I don’t think they were much trouble. Christ, they weren’t here much after the first month or so last fall. They came and got their shit a couple weeks ago and that was the first I’d seen of them for a long time.”
“What’s new and different here?”
“Not a fuckin thing. Stop by later.”
“Oh, definitely.”

The house looked no different. The tenants did a decent job of clearing out. He walked through each room, the chill and emptiness and echo keeping him safe from actually being touched.

He walked into his favorite upstairs room. There was no southern exposure or vista, but a handsome horse chestnut tree brushed the windows and allowed in a bit of the open northern light peculiar to the island. He turned and faced down the upstairs hall. Then he could hear the pain and anger. Patrick would definitely need to stop in at Puff and Quaff Lane later.

Some of the islanders had fun when the state implemented the new E-911 address system. Puff and Quaff lane was one such location.

In the back yard, the apple trees were budding. “Too late to prune ‘em now” he said to no one.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

These New Winter Blues

I am rolling toward a cliff as the brake pedal smoothly and easily meets the floor. Bills and expenses are the gathering downhill momentum. The cliff is the end of lobster season and income. The brakes just aren't. White knuckles don't make anything slow down.

I am not alone on this ride. Riding shotgun is my old pal Johnny Self-Loathe. "What're are ya doin'?" he says with a grin.

"You're living in a wild and crazy place you don't belong. You've been completely financially derelict without even having any gambling debts, girlfriends, power boats, motorcycles or expensive chemical recreation to show for it. You have a law license and a lobstering license and work 360 days a year and can't make money, can't get health insurance for your kids. How do you pull it off?!"

Johnny sings in a shiny gold jacket with his eyes closed behind the black shades, one hand on the microphone, one fist chest high pointed upward, elbow knifing down. He sings These New Winter Blues.

December 1 is warm. It looks no different than the end of November which was also warm. Knowing that we are into December brings mixed emotions. Confused yet terrified. Discouraged yet panicky.

I took the last 6 potatoes from the garden, together with a handful of chard and one lovely little onion. That's it for this year. It is hard not to feel like it is the end rather than a recess. I know the land needs to recharge, but I'm scared.

I think winter began scaring me when I was in middle school and we had a Glenwood kitchen woodstove in the kitchen as our sole source of heat. Winter felt like a prison sentence with execution stayed until daylight savings ended. Confinement, constant cold. All my memories of those years appear as night time. I came to truly dread winter. Spring felt like clemency.

Some years later I realized that the only way to beat those blues was to get out into winter. It was not macho fear-facing, but just a realization that neurochemically, it's happier to be outside moving around in the cold and warming from the inside. Eventually I came to really love running in the cold, even in wet snow or winter rain. The feeling of cold outside and sweating inside was pretty much a cure-all for the staleness and depression of those months.

Now there are new blues. Uniquely tormenting to a sternman with a wife, three kids and a mortgage is the finality of the end of a lobster season. That's way worse than seeing the last 6 potatoes and one lovely onion. The end of the lobster season means a sternman with some attachments has probably banked 36 hours' worth of winter survival money.

The New Winter Blues will require some remedy. I do not know what it is. Flight? Grow up and get back in the box of a mainland job? Winter fishing jobs? Hunker down, pray and eat spruce bark and boiled leather? Johnny's a great performer and a lousy mentor. Love the jacket and shades, though.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Pick Your Pounding

The wind and waves are into many weeks of consecutive irksome uncooperativeness. Eventually, financial pressure and domestic friction force the fishermen to choose the least bad next day. We had two.

One day was unpleasant, the next offensive. The similarity ends there. Sunday was cracking cold, blowing hard from the north, high glare and harsh brightness. The next was damp and blowing harder from the Southwest.

Sunday wasn't that rough because the mainland is a mere 20 some miles to the north and the waves can't get enough fetch to grow large.

The problem Sunday was the sandpaper cold on my face all day, the creeping chill in fingers and toes that never went away. I normally cannot get cold if I'm working. Not so on Sunday. On the way out to the back side of the Wooden Ball Island, I bagged bait turned sideways the whole way because the wind picked up water and garden hosed it over the port side at a height coincidentally similar to me from head down. The tv meteorologists make much mention of wind chill. They haven't developed a measurement for when you add salt water to the wind and temperature coefficients.

Monday there was plenty of fetch. The 10 to 15 knot forecast seemed short by about half.

Up two stories, down sideways. Tipping and rolling. What is horizontal or level becomes meaningless. I am peripherally aware of the rapid appearance and vanishing of water pyramids, the boat at all angles while my equilibrium is only related to the deck. Despite the wild swinging of the horizon and other normal references of balance, the boat hull is evolved such that it orients itself to the waves by swinging and rolling so my center of gravity gyroscopes along with it. Staying up is relatively easy considering the range of motion. I swing like a spindle top.

My main goal is to stay on the boat, surfing weightless then multiple G-force moments. There is some detachment, not of rotator cuffs, but between the crazed orientation of the boat and the simultaneous routine of me just doing my job. It seems impossible to a short term mariner like myself that the boat isn't flipped, rolled, or folded in half. It just sort of glides up and down, occasionally offering the unexpected snap and sudden tilt. The movement is fine when I'm in the open. I ain't no gymnast, but the autogyro seems to work pretty good except when hard objects with corners do not share my ballet of motion and gravity.

Got to get out of the house sometimes.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Vacation, Staycation, Throw it Awaycation

The wind slows down a little today. Maybe tomorrow, Clayton and I will be back on the water. By my count, we've had 2 nice days since early September. The kind of days where I work with 2 feet on the platform at the same time instead of doing the try to stay standing up dance. What would have been impossible conditions aboard Sweet Pea become normal as fall fades into winter.

Two days ago I flew into town. I kept thinking we must be flying really low because the waves seemed so big. I had no trouble at all locating the wind direction as the tops of the waves were all smeared very straight and long across Penobscot Bay. The plane ride back was fine except for the last 500 feet of elevation, which was only terrifying except for the last 100 feet when it got really tilty and I panicked and grabbed the woman's knee sitting next to me. I apologized immediately. She seemed to understand completely. I'm glad it wasn't a tough sternman sitting next me. That could have been really awkard.

My staycation turned into throw it awaycation. I've wanted to clean out the extra bedroom/dumpster for a couple of years. The junk and clutter offends me almost as much as the lack of space for art, music, and hanging out as well as being utterly embarrassed when offering a place to stay to our friends. Or being too embarrassed to even think of offering any accommodation.

The upstairs hall was just as bad. Hand me downs that were outgrown before they were handed down. Lots of paper from school, doodles and unknown origins. About 172 mateless socks jettisoned by my almost always sockless children. You'd think I'd see them running around all the time with one socked foot judging by the number of singletons I found in the rubble.

After several days of bailing stuffing and hauling (being a sternman was just the training I needed for this) there was a nice, startlingly spacious extra room. A free addition. Probably should get a padlock on there.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

3,080 Pounds of Carbon Dioxide

A hundred times in the last month, I've thought I was going to get back aboard Sweet Pea and haul more traps, or try out my ultra cool electric backup motor. Storms have threatened, good days have gone to making some cabbage for the long, poor winter. One thing or another has kept Sweet Pea sitting awkwardly on the grass instead of swanlike in the harbor. 

Today I started pulling the operation apart and bringing the pieces home. Solar panel, winch, safety gear, trap flipper, bait bags and iron, oarlocks, oars. The boat will come tomorrow, though I really have no idea how to accommodate the craft inside my congested and tiny barn. 

It's a lifetime of 5 months ago that the boat was towed into the harbor. There was no winch, no trap lever to help get the traps aboard. The sail was still a curiosity I'd found in the barn. I had no idea how to sail- still really don't even though I've done it a few times. I had no idea how to row, how to approach buoys, how to haul traps, judge the weather, moor the boat. I had no clue about any of it.

The boat arrived in Matinicus harbor not only lacking proper oarlocks, but having been sent with only one that fit the socket. Great for rowing around in a small circle. I rowed for weeks sitting down, trying to learn the approach to traps, hurting my neck, and, really, everything else. Wind was an invisible bully. Waves and rocks terrified me as I tried to gauge how close was too close without finding out. Pulling up steel traps standing in this very small boat was the hardest physical challenge I've ever experienced. 

By far the most stressful element I can share was the financial realization that poured over me cold and abrupt as a bucket of snow melt. On the worst of those early days, I came home very sore and $25 or so richer. The emotional impact and panic around making the thing pay was far worse than the rowing and pulling on ropes. Shame. Guilt. What have I done!? What will I do now!? How do I get out of this?

It got better. First the standup oarlocks finally came a month later. Then Clayton rigged them to the proper height. Then Dad, bless him, bought me an electric winch. The number of traps per day rose. The time out on the water came down dramatically. I got more comfortable staying out of the breakers but getting into rocks. I sailed. Lobsters were plentiful. The price was decent. There were many beautiful and profitable days on the water, at least for a few weeks after the operation was up and running properly.

Though I'm sure they had their own conversations, incredulous and laughing, the fishermen never stopped helping and advising and checking on me out on the water.

All told, I brought in about 2,800 pounds of Maine lobster this season. Based on a boat using 25 gallons of diesel per day for 250 traps that yield 2 pounds per trap, my harvest saved about 140 gallons of diesel which, according to the EPA, saved about 3,080 pounds of CO2 emissions.

Sweet Pea is done for the year. She did beautifully. The boat was the one thing I could absolutely count on every day. Here's to the Carpenter's Boatshop and to the design, evolved right here on tiny Matinicus Island.

Next time, I'll look at next year, the evolution of my operation, the bigger issues of food, environment, economy and community as well as marketing and logistics.

Thank you for reading!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Why Would You Want to do That?

Good question as I'm doing the staggering drunk orange rodeo clown act in the stern of the Samantha J.

During a particularly absurd sequence where the boat jumped and rolled in many directions simultaneously, I thought I'd be clever:

"Bull riders only have to stay on for seven seconds or something."

Captain Clayton trumped me instantly:

"Yeah, and they get to sit down!"

Why indeed? It's a good question on a day when it's blowing 25 out of the northeast. Not many boats ventured out of the harbor this morning. It's starting to get cold. Norah Jones's warm sleepy soft flannel voice sounds wicked out of place here.

The deeper question is why not? Many of the comments on articles about what I'm doing, many of the conversations I've had and a lot of the obvious unstated points all ask why I would quit being a lawyer and work as a stern man. I have felt disapproval and bafflement from close points in my life and from people who do not know me. Aside from the fact that I never made much money as an attorney, my question is why is that kind of work respected so much more than being a sternman? Like being a lawyer is so great. I've come to realize how much status has to do with it and how stupid status is.

Call me crazy, but I am at least as proud of learning to work on the ocean as of getting through law school and handling cases. Working on the sea has unique challenges and its own language just like the law. Well not just like. Fishing is fun. And it hurts a lot.

"He was just some stern man. They all look the same to me." Lisa and I have heard this a number of times.

Sternmen do arrive here with tattoos, scars, conditions of release, varying phases of opiate dependence, and garnishment orders for child support, taxes and medical bills. That's not all of them and that is not all there is to them, either. I've also found them to be generous, extremely hardworking individuals with surprising amounts of specialized skills and knowledge. There is that status thing, though.

So again, the question is, why would I do this? I was trying to answer it for myself this morning, while also trying to admire the gray wet desolate beauty of the ride out to the westerd (local variant of westward). Then onto the stereo comes Desperado, by the Eagles, that somewhat hokey but extremely well crafted song about a guy who makes life hard on himself out west somewhere. Way out west where they would not know what "westerd" means. I am not a desperado, but the answer to the question came to me while the song was playing.

Somewhere around 1978, the Eagles released a live double album with Desperado on it. The song is preceded by a beautiful string section intro that reminded me of wilderness. Mountains, streams, valleys. I loved that intro. I loved reading Edward Abbey. I also was living amidst some turmoil at 16 , but if I was in the woods, or out in a field, I was happy. At ease. The nagging, itchy square peg divorce kid feelings did not follow me there.

So that's basically it. I like being outdoors, and always have. Status or no. Why give up status and security? Why be so hard on my body? Shouldn't I be doing something respectable and letting my body rot from the inside in a chair or car and then trying to make up for the inactivity in the gym? Won't I have to pay the piper? Oh, probably. Definitely eventually. This day looks like at least an installment on the piper payment schedule.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Salty Hell and Feisty Sweetness

First, I didn’t think we were going. It was blowing hard. Undersides of leaves showing on bowed over shrubs. That kind of wind. Blue gray sky. Really? We're not going, are we? Maybe the phone battery quit.

I walked to the wharf with a slight headache which had all day to grow into a vicious octopus of pain, all tentacles and beak inside my skull. Large seas and sharp chop below Matinicus Rock enhanced the experience.

I’ve been out in rough weather occasionally over 5 seasons. The waves grow, and pile up unexpectedly when you’re carrying a trap or walking around a corner. The lobster tank or bait box digs into the lower back or rib cage as the deck tilts suddenly. Traps fall off the washboard. Knees drop out by reflex to keep the center of gravity inside the boat.

I’ve been out when I personally was many points below a hundred percent. Kids up all night, viruses, one hellacious case of poison ivy. People don’t call in sick in this business.

After 160 or so, I kept thinking I needed to pull the cord and ask to be taken in, something I have not done in 5 years in the stern. I kept thinking and hoping the weather would settle down, or the headache would ease, or that I was just seasick, and it would pass. My head was a bundle of very highly functional pain receptors. I kept thinking I was going to toss into the bait box. My knees got rubbery. After an hour or so of that, stubbonrness gave way to the need to be horizontal. And dry and quiet. At the end of the 18th string, I made the call. “I’m afraid I have to ask you to take me in.” Capt. ‘Brook never hesitated or scowled. “It happens” he said.

I’ve never been through anything like that. Kind of stupid I waited so long.

Apple Festival 2010

A growing season we have had. Apples are no exception. Matinicus Isle from the air looks about 90 percent wooded. This was not so back a few generations. The island was almost all pastured, gardened, or otherwise wide open. Places that seem very removed from each other now were easily visible. And there are apple trees everywhere. Side of the road, front yards, tucked in the woods. For a couple of weeks now, on slower afternoons, the kids and I have wandered around with a shopping bag and a gaff, then made lots of applesauce, apple crisp and 16 jars of genuine island apple jelly.

Wild apples are a lot less uniform and photogenic, and a lot more flavorful. Humble a dish as it is, the applesauce has a zing and depth to it nonexistent in jars from the mainland, from trucks, factories and fluorescent lit retail environs. The flavor journals all the sun, fog, wind, rain and feisty sweetness of the place.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Sweetgrass and Saltwater

Sweetgrass is an excellent movie about sheep herding in Montana. One particularly striking scene showed the flock on a bright green meadow, moving for all the world like a school of fish as the dogs tried to keep them moving in the right direction. The camera was located high above the flock and gradually zoomed out to show how tiny the group of sheep, dogs and one guy on horseback were in the Montana wilderness. As stunning as the scene was, it was the soundtrack that hit home. In the midst of the visual grandeur, the herder was having an all out tantrum because the sheep were trying to move up a rocky bluff where they shouldn’t go. The herder was fit to be tied, and trying to come up with stronger and more obscenities.

I have done this very thing.

Surrounded by hypnotic beauty, interacting with nature and mad enough to split in half. With me it was probably the wind, waves, my ineptitude, lack of lobsters, sore everything. Muttering sometimes, yelling myself hoarse other times. Resisting the urge to smash something. With my luck, that kind of tantrum would probably leave a big hole below the water line.

Since I’m now back in the familiar and comfortable role of sternman, the highs and lows are gone. My few traps have been undisturbed, at least by me for my two days off the Samantha J. The wind has been going and there is big towering surf from Hurricane Igor. As with Bill last year, it’s sunny from horizon to horizon, yet the destructive surge erupts over shoals I didn’t know existed and in great unzipping curls off the ends of the islands and ledges. All of the islands and shoreline are glowing at the margins, fringed in aerosolized salt water. Highway sized trails of foam extend from the lee shores of islands, rocks and ledges.

Beautiful and forbidding of a man in a small rowboat. I stay on shore and have no tantrum today.

Motive power converted from solar energy is coming to Sweet Pea in the next day or two. It will be an experiment.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Sweet Pea Returns, Classic Rock Too

September 10, 2010-

Today was the first day back out on Sweet Pea after Hurricane Earl prompted me to haul her out onto the grass. Yesterday, I got inspired to drag the boat across the grass, then got into the gravel road and wondered if I'd get her across or gouge up the hull, or be tying up the main access to the wharf in my stubbornness. She's way too stout for me to move by myself, I find. Then I rolled the boat with buoys under the keel. After that, Eric and Kyle helped me get her the rest of the way into the water. 

I ventured out this morning and found 4 of my 19 remaining traps gone. Caught a few lobsters and a bunch of big fat crabs which became supper for Ryan and myself. Rowed around Wheaton and the harbor. Hauled up gear and rowed back in a frisky headwind. Me, the boat, the wind, the water, and the lobsters.

September 13, 2010

Clayton has somewhere on the order of 3,400 songs on the official Samantha J IPod, which works out to a random assortment of 1,700 or so, being that I can only hear one side of the stereoscopic field. The IPod vapor-locked 1 second from the end of Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton. Strange because classic rock songs seldom come up in the random mix. Stranger still because then we were stuck with classic rock via old fashioned FM. 

These tunes are what I grew up with. I taught myself Band on the Run, Sweet Home Alabama, and
 a lot of songs in that vein starting in the 5th grade. The problem with this radio format is that it takes a tiny cross section of artists and songs and plays them incessantly. It's a buffet with 200 kinds of mac and cheese, varying only by how mild the cheddar is. I don't prefer to hear 4 Journey songs in one shift in the stern, thank you. Bob Seger has an extensive catalog, but this station thinks he had only 2 or 3 songs to his credit.

Damn the Telecommunications Act of 1996, allowing unprecedented media consolidation and giving rise to monolithic radio conglomerates all pouring out the same tired playlists of Classic Rock. I love these songs, and hate to see them ruined by franchisement. Business-wise it makes perfect sense. Keep people listening to the same catalog and you don't have to develop new material or fresh takes on the older stuff. Play the song, condition the response, deliver the listeners to advertisers having only enough brain function to pull out the debit card and buy the advertised goods and services. 

As much as I'd rather not hear songs that remind me of youth and keep my brain in a soupy mushy place of familiarity, but rather songs that expand my palate and make me look ahead, I work repetitively, so I guess the repetitive format is OK. I sing. I swing traps around. They swing me back. The deck sways-gently today, which is nice. 

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Tug O' War

I saw the ocean for the first time in many days today. Even though I've been working on a boat every day since Monday, Thursday morning, looking across Matinicus Roads at Ten Pound Island, I see the ocean. Ten Pound and the sparkling inlets around it seem empty without my traps there, even though there's no way I could ever see my buoys from here anyway. It's knowing that all the gear is in my yard, that I'm virtually shut down for the year, needing to jump back into the stern and make some winter survival money. 

There were loud voices in my head all spring and summer that I wasn't making enough money, wasn't holding up my end of the bargain, wasn't delivering the goods. Those harsh words and the dire warnings about Hurricane Earl joined forces and panicked me. Now I'm back in the stern, and Sweet Pea is in the grass. 

Last year, I hauled my own traps into November. I took lobsters to my daughter's school fundraiser in October. That was in a little rickety aluminum skiff and me with 5 traps and 0 experience. I ought to be able to stick with it for a little longer this year.

It is a nice day today. Sweet Pea is going back on the mooring. From there, we'll play by ear. There are still 19 pots in the water. The solar gear is working. Random weather, money pressure and landside commitments will be on one end of the rope, and little Sweet Pea on the other. Tug O' War it is then, for a while. I guess it usually is anyway. Dreams vs. practicality. Heart vs. security. Adventure vs. monthly statements. 

Leave a comment about your Tug O' War if you like. 

Saturday, September 4, 2010

There Goes Earl

It’s just before 4 PM on a Saturday in September and I’m intoxicated enough to be pretty sure what is important to me. I’m helped along in this understanding by what seemed to be taken away, and what I’m wanting to get back. You don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone and you decide you’re going to get it back again. I need to back up a few days, before Earl helped me understand.

Matinicus dirt roads are frequently decorated with bright red and yellow-pink lobster and crab shells, full of calcium to keep down the dust. Right now, I’m crushing my eyes closed to keep out that dust. My eyes should know, because my teeth are full of the dust not kept down by calcium, or any break in the relentless sunny and hot weather. Samantha, good soul, saw me dragging up the road with the exhausted look all over and offered me a ride on her four wheeler, having known that look from her own experience. I’m crushing my eyes closed to keep out the dust, jarring my way home on the back of the four wheeler. I’m also crushing them closed because it’s all been too much. How many different boats, figuring out how to keep captain and sternman happy, how many mornings up early, how many unexpected and generous offers of work? How many days rowing and hauling on my own boat worrying about what a joke it is, but also working hard and realizing at the end of the day that I made some decent pay?

It’s all a dazzling, sunstroked conveyor belt of work on the ocean. Until Earl comes calling. Then it’s an alternating current of yes I must and no I don’t need to take up my traps. It’s all over. No it isn’t. I go from Ground Hog Day, the same endlessly long day repeated again, to thinking my crazy dream is over and back around everywhere in between.

Then I’m on Biscuit’s boat wrenching my gear out of all the rocks and cleaves I’ve come to know so intimately. Traps are stacked, ropes coiled, buoys now lifeless on the deck, no longer bobbing along to show me the way toward the magic of pulling the next trap to see what’s there this time. It all happens so suddenly.

I’m in bargaining mode the next day, hoping Earl will pass by, until Wes stops in and he helps me decide I need to take most of the rest up. The next morning, I’m all the way to noon hauling traps from the wharf, untying, coiling, and stacking them in the yard. The rich smell of algae on the rope I normally associate with the holidays now permeates the yard at the beginning of September. I never expected to be done so soon.

The next day, Earl is feeble. Not only that, he’s feeble over by Nova Scotia somewhere. Traps are stacked in the yard instead of gathering lobsters around the island. Sweet Pea is up on the grass between the Centennial Building and the power plant. It’s close enough to the anticipated end of the season that maybe I should just get on Clayton’s boat full time and be ready for next year with all I’ve learned of lobsters, waves, rocks, tide, bait, rowing, sailing, solar technology, wiring, wooden boats and the fierce love of a supporting partner.

I'm not sure when, but Sweet Pea and my green traps and blue and orange buoys will be back in the water. Feeble or no, Earl helped me see how important all of this is to me.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Back to the Stern, Part II and Sweet Pea Goes Solar!

Tuesday, August 24.

I am the Black Lab just enjoying the ride in the pickup truck. The breeze is whipping. The Miss Madelyn is fast. The waves are bright hills of water here west of Matinicus. The wind tears the tops off the great heaving breakers that rear up over the ledge every couple of minutes.

Today is the second day aboard Miss Madelyn, another of the big-boy boats. Fast, roomy and catching many, many lobsters. Yesterday, day 1 on Miss Madelyn, was gray and wet and very rough. We worked the whole day behind “The Ball,” the Wooden Ball Island.

I’ve never seen so many lobsters in my life as I have in the last 4 days of Man Fishing on Cynthia Lynn and Miss Madelyn.

Being a sternman once again is fun. It is frenetic, and not so much like a hockey game as maybe basketball. I never played, but I imagine that when the team is flowing together- anticipating the others’ moves, keeping the ball moving, going where the ball is going to be- that it is like this. I never played sports, but the close, fast moves, independent and intertwined must be similar to this. Except they play for an hour or something and we start at 5:00a.m. and go til afternoon. And our court tilts a lot. And is splashy. Cold splashes down your neck.

What I forgot was: I really like this kind of work. The ocean. The action. The teamwork. The way the pace and the tilting blur together and I find a speed and grace and reflexes (relatively speaking) that no other experience brings out. The Wild.

At a different moment I realize that I’m looking at a fall ocean. Waves, wind and color are of fall even though it’s still August. I start feeling the need to finish up my project for the season. With this sea, sky and wind change and the financial and personal stresses that accompany the project, it feels like time to pull them up.

The feeling passes. At the end of the week, I’m back aboard my beloved Sweet Pea, catching a tiny amount of lobsters slowly, and paying tiny overhead.

Sweet Pea is now solar. The panel says it’s charging my winch battery. I obsess about my wiring and the solar setup as a whole, because I cannot really tell if the battery is getting charged. My amateurish marine wiring is very wet and covered in all manner of marine plant life by mid morning. The winch keeps on turning for the rest of the day, making my job exponentially easier.

The sunlight goes in the photovoltaic window, turns into electrons that run down the wires, through the charge controller and onto the battery terminals, then out into electro magnetic motor of the the winch that turns and pulls up the rope. The sun pulls my traps up for me now. How sweet is that?! Free photons for me and Sweet Pea.

Now for an electric motor...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Return to the Stern

Some nights and early wee mornings, Papa just can't buy enough mockingbirds. No amount of rockabye babies, or hear the wind blow dears is enough. Feeding, reading, rocking, and walking will not do the trick. What really works is a drive in the car. Ahhhh. She's asleep at last. Internal combustion has the soothing vibration that all my daddy tricks can't match.

Diesel engines, especially when they first start up on a cold day, have a very comforting sound to them. Diesel engines, when they quit on a cold day, really make you aware that you don't know what you got til it's gone. Now I've said it. No matter how much my project is about working without internal combustion, diesel power has some things going for it.

I've been asked to sub on a few boats recently. Monday, I went out with June. She's got a 30 foot Repco, surprisingly steady on a choppy day. June teaches more than she realizes about bait, soak time, fishing strategy. She has an efficient operation and runs the boat and handles traps and buoys with deceptive ease. Steering the boat, gaffing the buoy, sliding it forward up the rail so it slides down the rail on its own instead of having to fiddle it out of a tangle of rope on the platform. She flips tiny fish off the washboard with a dustpan, reducing bycatch mortality and maybe paying in some karma. For comedic relief, she has me run the boat and the hauler for one trap.

I worked 4 years in the stern, then jumped to a totally different way of lobstering aboard Sweet Pea. Coming back to the stern felt very comfortable. I also learned from hauling with June in a much deeper way than I would if I'd never been in my own boat hauling my own traps. Duration, location, and luck. I went back to Sweet Pea for two days with those lessons in mind.

I thought I was a mighty fishin' man for hauling with June and then hauling all 150 of my own traps the next two days and probably rowing 15 miles in the process. I came home on Wednesday evening from my tax collector office hours with sand in my eyes and thoughts of a day off the water, a morning to sleep in, time to catch up on neglected housework, paperwork, play with the kids and maybe rest the spine for a day.

Then Robert called and talked me into hauling with him for a day aboard Cynthia Lynn, one of the big, fast, heavy duty boats. There are different tiers of lobster boats, though they all have more or less the same classic profile. I believe you could fit three of June's boats inside the Cynthia Lynn.

The hauling was of a type I hadn't experienced before. On this boat, it's a 10 hour hockey game with two five minute timeouts and no face mask, a dog fight and a wet, ocean debris-covered factory assembly line with a runaway malfunctioning conveyor belt.

Big, heavy duty traps come aboard. The fourteen inch hauling plates bring up a 20 fathom trap line in about 4 seconds. Travis gets the first one down the rail and whips a couple of fathoms of extra rope toward the stern, flips the door open. I get the old bait out and clean the kitchen and middle chamber and put new bait in, with a bait bag, pogey speared through the eye and a crab speared on the bottom, while Travis measures the money crawlers in the parlor. Then he loops out around me to take the first one down to the stern while I get started on the tailer- the second of each pair. I dance over the rope he has to pull around so it stays under the rail. Then he zips behind me to finish measuring in the tailer trap. In between, a couple of lobsters get banded and a bait bag or two get filled and tied shut. Then the tailer gets placed on the stern. The process takes seconds and happens 200 times in a day. It is a fast, long, hard day.

One day aboard Cynthia Lynn is such a frenzy and overwhelming physical challenge that I do not want to do it again. When Robert asks if I'll go the next day, my answer is "no," which means yes a short while later. It's easier the second day, with easier being a relative term. The day is impossibly long, relentlessly fast. We have 300 hauled by 11:30 a.m. It takes me til 3:00 p.m. to haul 75 by myself.

When we reach Northeast Point on our way in for the day, I tell Robert it takes me 23 minutes to row from there to the harbor. After taking a few precautions such as making sure the hose won't explode out of the lobster tank, Robert goes for it. Sweet Pea takes 23 minutes. Cynthia Lynn takes 1.

We hauled 800 furious traps in 2 days. On my own I haul 150 in that much time.

The incessant hurrying, slashing bait iron, spearing on pogeys and a crab, the frantic moves all catch up with me at about 12:30 Saturday morning. My left arm is being pulled apart inside, and poked with needles outside. For all the pain, the arm and wrist are simultaneously numb. Fingers won't do what I tell them. I wake up a dozen times to wake the hand up and ease the pain. In 2 and a half months of rowing everywhere, pulling algae covered ropes tied to steel traps by hand, doing everything "the hard way," I never had any kind of pain like this.

Let me see now, the two days from last week aboard Sweet Pea, then two days of 40 foot, 1,000 horsepower mayhem as a deckand. Counting my door-to-door sales from Sweet Pea. Hmm...

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Secret Summer

While hauling a few days ago, I looked across from Ten Pound Island to Condon Cove. The awareness was immediate. Our good friends' house had its white plywood shutters back in place. It seems only a couple of weeks ago I noticed the white plywood gone and someone inside the window opening the place up. The point was made a little more sharply this morning with our island fellow's departure on the ferry after 2 years of countless contributions, and generous, good humored service to the island. 

People are leaving. Thoughts of school and woodpiles creep in. So begins secret summer.

The runup and passage of Labor Day weekend felt like an arbitrary boundary even before we moved here. Leaving the hayfields and sitting inside a classroom. As a parent, getting kids back into morning routines. Standing on the sidelines at soccer games. It's still summer dammit. It can't be time for desks, schedules and straight white lines on the grass.

Here the sweet weather, warm water, garden growth all stretch out far past Labor Day. Yet so many departures and a lot less traffic change the atmosphere prematurely away from the summer parade. 

This is secret summer. The beach does not know of semesters. The grass is green with no straight white lines.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Not Endless Summer

The ripening breeze so well captured in Jud Caswell's song Blackberry TIme reminds me that summer is not forever, though it may feel that way. I'm on the north shore of the island working from West Point past the end of the runway to Northeast Point. 

The neurochemical cinches around my middle have loosened. I breathe easier. The work is hard, but it is work now, instead of all day panic and discoordination.  I row. I pull traps in the boat. I measure lobsters and put new bait on. Baited, closed, over she goes. 

The north shore of the island looks like it could be the Alaskan coast. Aside from the windsock, it's all cobble beaches with driftwood piles and spruce ranks behind. There are no houses or human activity visible. In the blue distance opposite, there is the mainland, low and miragical.

I'll paddle and tend my way around Two Bush Island, then go back to the harbor, splash the lobsters, get more bait and head back out for a few more.  

The lobsters have dropped off a bit from last week, but it's still worth coming up here. 

By the time I get out south of the harbor for round 2, the wind is thrashing from the southwest. Once a trap is aboard, I slide backward, gaining speed to the point where I need to row hard to keep from hitting the rock walls in Back Cove at 6 or 7 knots. I won't get in my 75 today. 60 will have to be enough. 

I'll do live music tonight on the dock. This tradition began because state law prohibits hauling on sundays in June, July and August. Only three more concert/dance/party nights left this year. Then everybody gets down to business for real; hauling every day that the weather permits, putting in longer days. Then it's firewood and storm window time. 

Right now, though, I'm warm clear through. It takes me til August. I cool off a lot quicker. 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

End of July Report

July is down to hours. I've been out to haul 27 times. I've brought in 1,438 pounds of lobsters. I'm finally ready to start. For real.

I'm also ready to enjoy what I'm doing, though I'm a little superstitious that fishermen are supposed to love what they do, but not irritate the gods by being happy about it. Every morning now, and several more times each day, I'm sharply aware of how privileged I am to be paddling to work on the ocean. To be physically part of the environment. To peer down at the sand, the kelp forests, the eel grass. That big fish that just swam under the boat.

One of this week's lessons is that some things seem like they'll never happen, and then they do.

The oarlock saga-God bless Clayton and his machinist friend- is at an end.

I began rowed sitting down, looking over my shoulder, slow, laborious and obscenity driven as much as by muscle power. Then the stand-up oarlocks finally arrived from Oregon some time in early June.

I discovered a couple of things within the first few clumsy minutes messing about with them in the harbor. First, they were several inches too low, resulting in the hunchback sidecar pumping action, also requiring many horsepower worth of expletives.

I had been doing sort of a semi circle pattern where I bend down to plant the oars in the water, row up in a half circle and then way down to get the oars back out of the water. I must have looked like a strange bird trying to take off across the water.

My second discovery was that in spite of how comical and awkward the motion was, it was far superior to rowing sitting down. I could see just where I was going. I could steer very precisely without twisting around.

Many a fisherman reminded me daily that "your oarlocks are too low." "You need raised oarlocks." "Your life will be a lot easier when you get your oarlocks up where they belong." I had a fresh memory of how long the wait was just to get the proper oarlocks. The thought of starting over was too much. Veins pulsed on my forehead. Eyelids twitching. The pressure to produce a viable catch and make something of a living was strong enough that I just kept going; flapping across the harbor and around the island.

Clayton's friend produced a beautiful pair of stainless steel risers to make the oarlocks about 4 inches higher. We tried them out yesterday. The 4 inches entirely changes the rowing posture. Now I'm learning to row a third time. Now I am a swan. Or at least not an injured herring gull.

July is down to minutes and I finally have the rowing setup I had expected to start out with in May. I finally have all this year's traps in the water. My winch is on the boat waiting for its first tour. The light is green. In a month or so, the light will turn yellow and I'll have to reverse the whole process.
One of the continuing lessons is that when I'm doing something no one really does any more, in a way no one has ever done it, there will be many little problems without a fix waiting at the marine store. We have a thousand accumulated little handy fixes for simple problems. Getting a cork out of a wine bottle is really hard without a corkscrew. Loosening a phillips head screw is hard without phillips head screw driver. We take drain plugs for granted until we don't have one that fits. The wrong sized battery won't be any use. Keys open locked doors. A car with no steering wheel or spark plugs is almost all there and yet completely inoperable.

So it is with my beautiful peapod lobster boat with the wrong oarlock positioning. So it is as well with other aspects of fishing in a discontinued style and a modern adaptation. I can't just go to the marine store and buy a trap flipper or brackets to hold my winch to the hull of this boat or a roller to direct the rope through.

Update Friday- July is even smaller ahead of me. Today was day 1 of rowing standing up. I made it from the end of the breakwater to Northeast Point in a leisurely 23 minutes. Then Weston gave me a tow to West Point. That took about a leisurely minute and a half.

Today was also day one of learning to run the new 12 volt trap hauler. This addition to the boat came about because in the cold-sweat-oh-s--- weeks when I started hauling, pulling the wire traps up by hand was excessively brutal. Harder than anything I did when I was 19 or 26 or 36 or 46. It was not like the old days with wooden traps. One late night conclusion was that I could not pull up enough traps barehanded to make my quota. Or to save my wrists from early gnarlalysis and clawfinger. It hurt a lot. Even though I'm quite a bit stronger and much more comfortable with the task, the hauler will allow me to work longer and pull in more traps and make the numbers work. I'll run it off a solar-charged 12 volt battery.

Another new task that I'm clumsy at. Another construction and installation job that I know nothing of. I've never done any kind of automotive or boat wiring and only the simplest household work.

I never got past the clumsy phase. The winch worked spectacularly until about trap number 6. As I was trying to learn to avoid riding turns where the rope backs up on itself and gobs up the whole works, the thing went unnhhh.... Nothing.

Every previous feeling of failure, foolishness, frustrated rage poured back into my brain and belly instantly. All the progress seemed for nothing.

A little fiddling revealed that a wire connection was loose. Of course. I know nothing of maritime electricianing.

I found the loose wire and tightened things up back in the shop. How many traps next time, I'm wondering. (Turns out, a whole days' worth. Major improvement)

The standup rowing left me considerably less exhausted and crumpled over. It felt lazy by comparison with the previous configurations. I roved around the north shore, Two Bush Island and over almost to No Man's Land. Planes landed yards away at one point. Banks of fair weather clouds never got here.

It's July 30 and the operation is pretty much in place. Lobsters are present. Large ones. Weather is spectacular. La la la. Whistle, whistle. Probably should complain on ceremony just to not be boastful or irritating to the gods.

July 31

I haven't seen any in a while, but offices once had doors with rippled glass windows to allow light and color through, but maintain some discretion for important meetings and office functions. At the Northeast end of Condon Cove, the water has the same shape, but on the other side there is magical green sand and eel grass instead of filing cabinets and coat trees. Polarized lenses on my new sunglasses enhance a view that Pixar can't approximate. Silver blue July sky above, aqua green below. Perfect globe shaped school of baby fishes. Overwhelming beauty.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Snails and Seizing the Moment

This summer has been a good one for ground snails. They climb up plant stems. They make elegant dust trails on the road. I think some of Lisa's many garden casualties- lovely sproutlings snipped off all in a row- may have fallen to these dijon colored organisms. Hmm dijon... Maybe there's a new culinary and commercial opportunity crawling over every soggy square foot of Matinicus Isle. 

These snails presented me with a reminder of how fleeting childhood is. It has appeared especially swift and merciless this summer, as we're going 90 miles an hour all the time. 

One struggle with our life here is providing kids with structure and healthy activity while also trying to patch 7 or 8 jobs and businesses together to pay bills some way other than with a credit card. Answering the phone, working on fishing equipment, keeping the laundry going, cajoling kids into chores and projects, stopping to run to the airport for store deliveries, explaining that no, you haven't gotten to "it" yet- one of the 3 dozen nagging "its" on the list. Of all those personal chowder ingredients, the kids not getting enough input is the guiltiest. 

So one morning, Ryan and I spent a good 45 minutes making a very fancy paper jet. He had his heart set on something a little more sophisticated than the folded triangle kind of paper airplane. We cut, creased, glued, recut, recreased, reglued and created a snappy orange fighter plane shown in the book which should have been titled- Extraordinary Paper Planes that Won't Look Like the Picture. Or fly. All the same, it was sweet, focused time with Ryan at our kitchen table. Precious time together.

A few days later, I found the plane being dismantled under a forsythia bush, by a half dozen or so snails. Snails- Messengers of the finitude of our lives. 

In other news, all my traps are now in the water. Some spots are looking pretty good. Others are not. 

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ignored by Seagulls

In 2000, a few musician friends and I were lucky enough to fly out to McCall, Idaho to perform over the Fourth of July Weekend. Some time after we took off from Chicago, I looked out the window and saw fireworks from above. They zoomflated outward, looking much more spherical from above.

Seen from the mail plane, seagulls do the opposite around a lobster boat. They hover around the boat more or less spherically until the stern man dumps out old bait. Then they implode to one point. The baity point in the water.

Seagulls are not welcome around lobster boats. They hover, dive, harass, crap on the crew, make a racket and occasionally beat you on the head with a wing in the frenzy to get that morsel of rotten herring.

This never occurs near Sweet Pea. They sit on the rocks watching, but do not follow, do not approach the boat, screech or come after the bait I throw out. I am curious. It’s the exact same food. If anything, my boat is smaller, quieter and less threatening.

My theory is that it is conditioning, mini-evolution, newly formed instinct from 50 or so seagull generations being trained that food comes from big boats with loud engines.

I like Lisa’s theory best. She thinks the oars look like wings and frighten the seagulls away. The boat’s hull is bright white and not thoroughly un-seagull like, so maybe they think I am their Seagull God, to be revered from a distance. There’s another good supporting detail. Sam’s trick, which I learned my first year in the stern, is to wave your arms like wings. The seagulls all shrink back 50 or so feet. For a while.

Others think it’s because I don’t throw a sufficient quantity of bait out often enough. I don’t agree. Seagulls are so ferociously hungry for every bite, I think they would fight over my small bits the same way as around the 38 footers.

I probably should not ask this question because if I do start getting aggressive seagull panhandling, there will be no relief in the tiny Sweet Pea. That would be unfortunate because everything else is getting better. The number of traps in the water creeps up. The catch creeps up. I get more comfortable micronavigating in and out of the rocks, rowing and sailing. I watch weather fronts angle across the great sky. Seals visit. The wind and waves are more benign. Our patch of ocean is full of life.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


Bycatch refers to things you get when fishing that aren't what you intend to catch. For me, it consists of snails, baby crabs, codfish, pickerel, flounder that shoot off like the Millenium Falcon when you throw them back, a plastic Bart Simpson head, strawberry jelly squeeze bottle, a full 12 ounce Bud Light and lots of kelp.

I'm squeamish about terms like "self-discovery," or "personal journey," so maybe I should call it "doing something to see what happens." From there, we get to some bycatch.

I've made lots of righteous declarations about the zero carbon lobster project being about energy and food and economics; being about ancestral wisdom, wooden boat evolution and the natural beauty of the ocean. The agenda items that emerge as bycatch include:
a. doing something really nuts to find what I'm made of;
b. doing something really hard to see if I can;
c. discovering things about my relationships with family, friends, community and fishermen;
d. learning not to bail on a good idea even though a lot of experiences and experienced people try to persuade me to come to my senses;
e. Learning not to bail on myself when I've undertaken something really ambitious that isn't really working, but sort of is working, and even though I may be the only one who really believes.
f. Not wanting to turn into a crackpot/novelty act.
g. Being mentally prepared and alert enough to bail when it really is time. If it ever is.

Neighbors, friends and loved ones look at me with sympathy, bafflement, exasperation, worry, admiration, humor and that look that says "I give up- you'll just have to wise up on your own." I have a keener appreciation and gratitude for what people say, what they don't say, how much they care about me even if I seem to be endangering myself for an untenable dream. I am closer to me-good and bad. I'm much more in tune with the people around me. If nothing else the whole goose-chase is putting me more into the middle of my own life. But...

I write all this as though the whole thing is just an exercise in mid-life rebellion. I should also add that I am catching lobsters, I am listening to the fisher-voice inside and to fishermen on the island, I am learning to work the Sweet Pea in very close to the rocks in a variety of surf conditions, I've produced healthy food that saved a couple of dozen gallons of diesel fuel. I get to sail. I am building a model of a truly sustainable commercial fishing operation

It's small scale. It's very tough going. I don't have a reality show, Gatorade endorsement deal or an endowment from a railroad fortune. I do have stiff hands. Someone just pulled up on a Bobcat Excavator. Only so many suspects for that. I'll go check it out. 'Later.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Father's Day

I do not know what other fathers enjoy on Father's Day. I can skip it mostly. This year was extra special, so I'll add these items to a good Father's Day menu. 

Start on Saturday night with music on the wharf. It is cold and windy, but people show up, in particular, a pile of kids. I do a bunch of Papa Goose songs and then a few Diesel and Driftwood tunes. The adult audience members take their hands out of pockets to clap and then hunch back down into the wind, milling about looking for a lee among the trucks and gear on the wharf. "Thank you. I guess we'll call it good on account of the wind and chill." I'm taking refuge indoors with friends when the first of the next wave shows up. My head out the second floor window, I tell them too bad for tonight, it's cold. They tell me otherwise. "We're here. There's more coming."

Playing with cold fingers requires some adjustment downward of the complexity of my playing. This much more so in salt air, which seems colder and finger-stickier, making it very difficult to do much more than strum chords. No matter. This crowd is having a good time. I was going to write that I haven't been anywhere where people would be so determined to have a good time in such uncomfortable conditions, but then again, one week earlier, Fiona and Lisa and I got soaked watching a three act concert- Keith Urban, Dixie Chicks and the Eagles- at Gillette Stadium. From this perspective, I'm honored that my little show with the one guitar and a couple of clip-on lights with colored bulbs goes so late into the night with people dancing, singing and smiling the whole time.

Then there is the more traditional, but just as delightful Sunday morning with me having the rare good sense to sleep in (after running out at 4 a.m. in my skivvies hung over to get the music gear undercover because I was wrong last night about it not raining). 

Pouncing by the younger two kids. Fiona's 20 page book with 20 ways of saying how great I am. Ryan's hearts drawn on his own stationery. 

Lydia and I do many rounds of Mario Kart. One purpose of this blog is to look at the tension between my Peter Pan nature with its selfish desire for adventure and exploration and things like parenthood, mortgage payments and the dangers of working alone on the ocean in a tiny wooden boat. I feel compelled to confess that Mario Kart, being designed for 9 year olds, is a hilarious, sensory overloading, silly bunch of fun. Extremely rapid and intense visual image changes combined with car noise, mario characters flying by and hollering and beeping at me, and hyper-speed recklessness from the safety of the couch.

Lisa and I get a rare chance to sneak off for some nature time. 

That is pretty much the ultimate Father's Day.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

When Lobsters Molt, Think of Something Else

The molting, as I’ve written before, is a time of soul searching. It is a time of traps being heavier because there is nothing inside to eat or sell. Yesterday seemed like the beginning of the 2010 molt. Something like three quarters of the traps were empty, whether bait stayed on or not.

Early in the journey, I was sailing around Wheaton Island- a transit even quieter than rowing- when there was a solid fwushmmph behind me. I was startled and suddenly aware of the tiny size of my wood survival zone. Some sea creature had surfaced and disappeared, leaving an upwelling of water 50 feet behind me. Maybe seals and porpoises just sound a lot bigger in a small quiet craft. Maybe it’s like Lydia said: A Giant Squid.

The southwest wind at 5 to 10 knots called for felt a lot more like northwest 10 to 20. At one point, it was so laborious moving forward that I decided to give up and sail back to the harbor after finishing half my gear for the day. My sail trimming and steering skills are green enough that I slipped sideways and wound up at Two Bush ledge, where I decided to take the sail down before the boat struck rock. I stopped almost on top of one of my 5 buoys and, after a hem and a haw, decided to pull those since I was already there.

After crossing over to the Beach Ledges, I tied up to a buoy to reassess, give the lobsters a break by putting the crate overboard, pump out the boat and have a bite. The wind and waves seemed to have settled enough that I decided to go back out to Two Bush Island, where I’d surrendered earlier to have another try. It was a wrestling match because I left the lee and worked directly in the wind. Pulling up and tending each trapped allowed me to slip 50 feet or so downwind so I had to claw my way back each time. When those were done, I only had five left, very much in the lee, 25 degrees warmer and much easier work.

All these mini adventures had a common thread. Empty traps, one after another. The only real satisfaction was getting them baited, getting back to the harbor, cleaning up and putting things in order. Having brunch tied to a lobster buoy 50 feet from the easterly beach ledge on a summer day was pretty cool too.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Sweet Spot

I feel obligated to report that: Today everything worked really well. The weather made it easy to haul traps and set them back without laboriously rowing back upwind after tending each one. Having traps closer together meant less “steaming” between strings. Stand-up rowing made it possible to cleanly approach each buoy and make corrections without having to stop rowing and turn around to see I’ve missed. The new oars don’t want to slide off the boat every chance they get. There were lobsters in good numbers.

 The sum of all these variables means I made a decent day’s pay, had time to stop and visit with the school kids, teachers and Lisa on Markey’s Beach while they celebrated the end of school, and got into the harbor by noon. The wind started blowing just about the time I got home. Sweet!  Now I’m tired. 

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Red light Green Light Red Light

I’ve not had much to do with lobstering lately. This is because today is day 8 of not being able to haul either due to weather- Tuesday-Thursday, Sunday-Monday; or an off-island commitment- playing music on the main street sidewalk on Vinalhaven on Friday; or Lisa’s many work commitments; or three kids, one of whom just got back from school in Vermont.

This morning, I dutifully arose and flipped the coffee switch at 4:40-something a.m. and packed up to haul. The view from the wharf was not encouraging. I observed a brisk wind and large breakers around all the ledgy places that I’d be visiting. I turned back and worked on a legal project til about 8, then got back in the skiff to go finish my last winter job commitment. Had serious second thoughts about bagging because the sea appeared to be flattening out and the weather more welcoming. After finishing the trail work, I skiffed across the harbor and realized I had no vehicle to get my chainsawing gear home from the wharf. I tried not to make eye contact with people because of irritability cramps and frustration from wanting to get something doneand having to hurry home to be ready for school music after lunch..

At lunch time I decided it was lovely outside and that I’d go haul after school music concert preparations. Of course, by the time I was done at school, the wind was back up with enthusiasm. Well, maybe I’ll at least pump out the boat from another big rainstorm, mount the radar reflector and bag some bait for tomorrow. As I’m drilling the first pilot hole, *drip* in the harbor. Ugly wet gray wool approaching from the west. What I’ve failed to recognize up to now is: This is not a boat day for me.

I put the tools away, row back across the harbor. The pickup is full of cardboard from a large delivery to the store, so I rush to get that in the recycle shed up in the middle of the island before it’s papier mache sculpto-mush.

I’m dry at the moment which is as it should be. Everything else is pretty fetched up. I will vote in the primary and referendum, go to Latin America night at school and let today fall behind and tomorrow wait til the morning.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Rocky Bottom


Rocky Bottom

Today is the first day of getting through all the traps in the water, except, of course, for the very last one which got stuck on rocky bottom behind Ten Pound Island. The wind is blowing hard and I am getting pushed toward the rocks, so I abandon that pot for a nicer day. The boat is very difficult to control as I try to round the corner in a cross wind. Aggravating, physically brutal and scary all at once. It won’t go where I point it. I am exhausted and a long way from the harbor.

Then the sail goes up and everything changes. It’s quiet. The boat wants to go smoothly to the harbor. I stick an oar over the side to steer and slide home with no effort at all. By the time I reach Old Cove and start taking the sail down, I have about 45 minutes’ sailing experience. 15 yesterday, 10 this morning and a 20 minute scoot across to the harbor. Every minute of that is pure magic. I’ve never even been on a sailboat, and now I have a working commercial vessel under sail.

That’s about as good as it got. Things went down hill steeply after that. I ended up being two hours and change late getting in. The afternoon turned to evening and the personal and financial realities started hitting head-on.

I fell asleep on the couch and woke to a muscle spasm in the back of my leg that felt as though it would tear all the meat right off the bone. That wrenching pretty well matched the anguish inside.

I can’t. I can’t do it physically. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The gripping on rope and pulling up a metal box from the sea floor. Every foot of rope requires every bit of strength. By the time I’m rowing into the harbor, my forearm bones feel sprung apart. Roofing, sheetrocking, farming, woodcutting, and being a sternman were all easy by comparison. And I’m a 47 year old guy waking up with a charley horse fit to tear my leg apart.

With all that effort, I’m not making money. Mortgage and power bill are due. I have a barrel of bait rotting on the float because the quantity I have to buy is more than I can use on my schedule. Money gone into the stink of rotten herring. Oh yes, and the boat is not paid for.

I can’t do it physically, financially or emotionally. Now I’m awake in the wee hours wondering how to get the boat shop to take Sweet Pea back. My question to myself is: Is it dumber to give up and bail out or dumber to keep trying?

I hope this is rock bottom.


The next day, Wes and I are sitting in the kitchen. It’s foggy and drizzly on the other side of the slider. I tell my woe and he tells me- again- that, yep, it won’t work. You’ve got to get rid of that boat. “I’ve got thirty years into this. I’ve seen the boats change, the gear change and the business side change. You can’t do it the way you’re trying to do it.”

Then I tell him how great it was to sail on the northerly breeze in the morning and the southwesterly in the afternoon. Then he grins and laughs. “You know, it’s really pretty cool what you’re doing. Let’s go set the rest of your traps right now.” And we do.

Bagging bait, loading 40 on the stern of Shameless, steaming out to Two Bush Island, slogging through rain which turns to downpour when we get in the harbor, getting the outboard stuck on a derelict buoy in the harbor. All of these things he put up with to help me.

That’s today’s lesson. Thanks to the Max, Peter, Frank and all the other predecessors who left tools and boat stuff in the barn. Thanks to whoever left the sail that fits Sweet Pea perfectly and makes me so happy every time I put it up. Thanks to the fishermen watching out for me. Thanks to Lisa tolerating yet another “adventure.” Thanks to Clayton for getting me into the water. Thanks for all the advice, even when it’s directly contradictory:

“You’ve got to get wooden traps. They fish great”
“Wooden traps don’t fish for shit.”
“I loved wooden traps. I bought 300 of them and lost every last one in a storm.”

I’m thankful and relieved to have 100 pots out now. I can visit more of them with a lot less traversing.

I’ve hit walls and taken them for granted, especially where I don’t know what I’m doing, there aren’t suppliers for key things I need and I get advice like “you’ve got to get rid of that boat.” It takes a good night’s rest to realize that I just need to look at the wall and figure out how to get over, under, around or through. The next big wall is getting those heavy wire traps up to the boat. I spent days getting the flipper functional to make boarding the traps easier. I know I can’t hand haul them without some help from Archimedes. Or a good 12 volt winch.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Day One, Take 3


Today is the next Day One. It’s my first day of intending to haul all 50 of my traps in the water. It also turns out to be Generosity Day. Biscuit gave me a ride to the wharf. Darlene gave me a ride back. Dennis gave me a tote of bait. Jamie gave me an electric winch (unfortunately unresponsive, but nice nonetheless). What great support I've gotten from these supposedly tough fisherfolk.

I didn’t catch as much as I’d hoped. This was partly because I hurried things, hauling half the gear on three nights’ set, intead of 5 like I should have. In typical exasperating fashion, some places the bait hadn’t been touched yet, some places it was gone.

My invention, the trap flipper also began its latest demise. One bracket that holds the rig onto the gunwale let go, causing the whole thing to rack around in a crooked fashion. The crookedness gradually chewed up the other bracket, and it collapsed later on. I tied the whole business together with green nylon twine I found in the great barn cleanout of last winter. It was ok for the day, but had to basically be reassembled after each trap. The lesson after another several hours reinforcing with plywood is that: A- maritime work beats the crap out of everything. My flipper-as tough as it seemed, being heavily screwed together out of oak stock, could not stand up to commercial fishing, could not withstand my mightiness. It broke. Lesson B: when you’re making something that nobody has made before, it will evolve by showing you what breaks next. Fix this, that breaks. Now I’ve made the brackets nuke proof with sandwiched plywood, which means one thing. Some other part will break next time. Even broken all over and held together with twine, it works better than pulling the trap over the rail.

Today’s other lesson is that although fog may come on cat’s paws, it comes very quickly. It’s a blinding hot and sunny day until I’m 41 traps into my goal of 50. By 42, it was time to head in. No radar reflector, no compass. Gotta go. Cold and gray in a minute. The harbor was beautiful in the mist. I sold off and despite not finishing, despite the mechanical failure and the short set, I didn’t lose money. After my first essentially full work day, I was no more wiped than I had been after half that many.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Staring Seal


My hauling t-shirt has two big tears, one under each arm. Did I bust out from the rowing and hauling like the Incredible Hulk? I don’t feel that rugged. More like fishin’ E.T.

Today on the north side of Ten Pound Island, I was startled by a splash near the boat. A moment later, up pops a seal, staring. This seal looks big. Maybe it’s the size of my boat that makes him look bigger than I remember. He follows me for 10 minutes or so, coming up to stare every so often.

I’m on the last fifteen pots of the day, having started on the far opposite end of my gear. This was a big day. I did the two extremities of my territory at least an hour faster than last time. I didn’t miss buoys and have to lock the oars back in, go around and retry. The bait stayed on and there were lobsters present. The weather was nice the whole time.

Most importantly, I hauled two days in a row, which sets me up to do two things. First, haul all of the pots in one day next time. The bait and soak cycles will fit together. Second, after 10 days or so of hard, frustrating work and stumbles, I can take a couple of days off. Muscles can recover, other work will get done, home chores can be caught up on.

Oh, yes, there is also the healthy number of lobsters in my crate.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Little Increments and Little Obstacles


Today was the first taste of what I had in mind when I imagined this venture. The sound. The quiet. The water and birds. I’ve never heard birds taking off from the water because of the diesel roar. The sortie was good, most of the way. By the time I got to the last ten, however, the wind was bullying me and I had to row home upwind. When I crawled into the harbor, one foot forward and 9 inches back for every stroke, my hands were screaming. Elbows didn’t seem to fit together any more.

I rowed substantially farther than on previous outings- to the back side of Ten Pound Island, then back past the harbor to Two Bush Ledge. My whacky looking roller and trap spatula worked very well, taking a lot of strain off the back and keeping the center of gravity in the boat instead of a foot out over the water. I hauled 5 more traps this time. Little increments.

I’m a big fan of Roz Savage’s book Rowing the Atlantic- Lessons Learned on the Open ocean. Savage was the first solo woman to complete the transatlantic rowing event from either the Azores or the Canaries, I can’t recall which, and Antiqua. All the doubts, malfunctrion, inexperience and growth seem pretty parallel. Except she went across the Atlantic. I don’t have to do that. I do, however, have to push myself beyond all my physical and engineering limits and then go home and try to be father, husband, lawyer, tax collector and community member. When I got in today, Lisa was in dire need of help with kids so she could open the store for the year. The junk metal truck man, Dan, had this one afternoon to get my scrap metal ready to go on the ferry tomorrow. I start hucking rusted pipes, gutters, mangle bike frames, bed springs and the like out to the road and helped load up. The ferry tomorrow also means I can get rid of the six banana boxes-300 or so- of video cassettes left behind here by our predecessors. OK, except that they can't be in banana boxes for recycling, and I have to remove all the cardboard boxes, stomp those down and bag all of the stuff up. Blisters and barnacle cuts are a distraction. There are dishes to wash, calls to return and laundry to do from 2 weeks ago. Even as I post this, it's 8 minutes before my middle girl's school starts, so I have to have an ear downstairs to make sure she's not late. I'm not getting any traps hauled because my son left the car door open and the battery is dead as a stump. It's windy again. Little obstacles.

I’ve read a few books in the vein of “I undertook a challenge and sorely tested myself and found out the real struggles were not what I expected.” All of those books appear to be written by singles or couples with no young children. In addition to sea peril, physical limitations, and the great one-two combination of too much age and no inexperience, I have Daddy Guilt. Like our family’s move to Matinicus, the children really did not get a choice. I am not yet fulfilling my financial duties to the family, and have doubts about being able to with this fishing business. What kind of role model am I? I like celebrating and modeling intelligent risk, adventure, growth and trying different things. I don’t like modeling recklessness and financial irresponsibility. The truth is, this project is full of both.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Autopilot Through the Darkness

As I write for the first time since the Dark Days, I open my duffle, pull out my computer and see the videos I packed for the kids to watch. I haven’t unpacked from the road trip that began May 4, and it’s now the 17th. Since then, I’ve been back and forth a number of times to get the boat, not get the boat and then get the boat. Clothes, kids stuff books and travel necessities are all still sprawled on my side of the bedroom.

That explains, in part, why I’ve been so frantic and despairing. The Dark Days began a few hours after the boat came last Tuesday. The realization of what I was getting into hit all at once. No experience, tiny boat. Big Ocean. Cold water. Pep talks about rapid, cold and terribly uncomfortable death soon followed. Then I started taking the boat out on Thursday. The brisk southwest breeze spun me lightly around, pushing me, bullying the new kid. I hauled a total of 6 traps- a mighty wrestling match by itself- and then swooshed all over the place getting home, getting the boat moored, getting ashore.

The next day, I went out to haul again. Took some “suckerheads” for bait, thinking I was the sucker, later confirmed by others. Suckerheads are useless as bait. Live and learn. Hauling twenty traps was the most strenuous thing I’ve ever done. It didn’t feel very good thinking I was getting nothing back next time due to bait quality. By the end, every grasp of rope came with a gasp and grimace. Every trap resisted coming aboard and sorely tempted my and the boat’s center of gravity.

At this point the panic and shame set in full force. I wanted to return the boat and find a commune in Montana where I could get a new name. I knew the boat was not set up properly. I also knew that because nobody was doing this kind of fishing anymore, I couldn’t just go get the proper accessories in the local marine store. That meant expense. I haven’t paid for the boat yet, much less more gear. That no one sells. Then I’m thinking about solar panels, batteries and power winches, or better still a solar outboard. Or nuclear, maybe. That’s not really petroleum, right?

By Friday, I felt I had made a huge, expensive and utterly irresponsible mistake. What was I doing ditching my jobs and pursuing this idea? What kind of crackpot was I showing my children?! I hated myself. Fortunately, my autopilot said keep working on it. Go like hell. Lisa- bless her- reminded me that it was to be expected that I’d need to spend a couple of weeks getting properly geared up.

I started trying to design a ramp and lever device to take some of the strain and imbalance out of getting the trap aboard; one of the real vulnerable and strenuous parts of the process. I also started trying to create a roller to reduce rope friction and chafing and take some effort out of hauling the traps up. The trap flipper thing had worked really well on the Blue Note, my little aluminum skiff I hauled a few out of last year. Basically, it tilts the trap out so you pull it up a slant instead of deadlifting it straight up. My new version sucked. It tipped over on the rail, dumped the trap and was unmanageable. My new roller was made from a bike wheel hub. The box around it was also unstable. Next idea: fasten the roller and flipper together so they stabilize each other. By the time I’d confidently assembled this rickety, crude and Mad Max meets the Bayou looking device, it was late on Friday, so I couldn’t test it.

Saturday was very still and overcast- good for hauling. Right up until my boot sole touched Sweet Pea’s deck, at which time the fog instantly became clam-chowder thick and the wind, my new foe, had started. I wanted to go out anyway at least to test the new rig. I went out around Wheaton and started hauling. The flipper was marginally uselful but looking like it wanted to collapse any time. The roller spun well for about the first three traps, then got very reluctant. And tilted.

That day’s 20 traps also wrecked me, and projected a mental movie of my future either destroying myself physically for no money or bailing on the whole fiasco.

Autopilot saved me again. I obsessed and just about burned out my spatial relation cortex trying to design something that would work. I pulled out pvc pipe, vaccuum hose, toggles, a plastic candy cane, pipes, rods and stuff I can’t remember. I took a long walk, stewing, obsessing, visualizing, throwing out one idea after the next. Clayton produced the brass wheel that started things going in a better direction. Many more designs and layouts followed. Many trips across the harbor in the skiff, out in Sweet Pea, and back with a list of failures and another round at the drawing board. Late Monday, I came up with what I thought was the right design. The trap just popped up and in. The sun shone. The water was friendly. I got my first paycheck $42.10.

We’ll see what tomorrow brings. I guess I’m not going to the commune yet.