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.