Saturday, October 29, 2011

Roxanne and the Connection to Nature

A big park is proposed for the North Maine Woods. There was a bigger park proposed. Roxanne Quimby generously offered what to most of us would be a vast land holding to establish the park. I heard her speak on public TV about her efforts to create this wonderful resource. I've heard other opinions. What is missing from the debate is an acknowledgment of the deeper reason why some, particularly those who live in the North Maine Woods, resist the idea of a park.

Their concerns are usually portrayed as just about paper mill and wood harvesting jobs, or the opportunity to hunt, fish and tool around on snowmobiles and 4-wheelers. I think the real reason is that people who live in these areas value something a lot more fundamental than paper mill jobs and deer hunting. I believe residents are and want to remain part of the ecosystem. This means more than kayaking on days off from the office, skiing, leaf peeping and hiking.

This means the basic human interaction with the environment that goes on when we make our living in some way connected to the natural environment. It almost sounds crazy doesn't it? Our veggies come from Chile, electronics from Asia, retail and restaurant chain jobs from some other state, benefit checks from Augusta and Washington. What kind of loonie thinks that we can live and draw our living from our own surroundings?! I think many of us still have a deep-seated sense that we are part of the land, including our activities that take resources from the woods, the ocean, the soil, even when daily life doesn't look much that way.

A park would turn the whole ecosystem into an exclusive playground and sealed off nature exhibit. People are no longer welcome to live there. It's about a whole lot more than post WWII industry or deer camp or snowmobile trails. That's the part I think Roxanne and other park proponents just do not perceive.

I am fortunate enough to live in a place where we still interact with nature in our immediate vicinity to make our lives. It shouldn't be such an anomaly.

A few weeks ago, I drove into my home town through a back road and saw woods, fields and streams- a very rich environment. I looked at the homes and could see very little evidence of a connection between the human occupancy and the blessings of the land. But I know it's there, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels it.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Greenhorn Chronicles continued

Late middle September- We continue with tales of a very new captain:

I've hauled a number of days, getting more comfortable getting in and out of the harbor, onto the mooring, tying up at the bait boat and lobster car. It's a big heavy craft going through slippery water. Aboard Sweet Pea, the movement of the boat was immediate and physical, like a shopping cart or a wheelbarrow. If I moved my arms, the boat responded. Now there are diesel and hydraulic intermediaries between my hands and where the boat goes.

I gradually learn the coordination of throttle, transmission, hydraulic winch in two directions, flipping the trap aboard and running it back off without getting tangled. Every day a little more confidence spreads through my trunk and limbs. The moves get natural. Once again, I'm choreographing all the dance moves as I have for each boat I've worked aboard. Only this time, I am captain and sternman. On My Boat.

I deposit a couple of checks. Not big numbers, but huge for morale.

I've also become a gear and rope preparing machine, thanks to having a lot of gear and rope given to me. Whenever I'm not hauling, I'm in the yard, walking and unkinking rope, patching traps, rigging buoys.

I'm also starting to get seriously burnt out. 7 days a week I've been at it since early August- finding the boat, jumping through hoops, arranging financing, having drivers ed after taking the big rig on the road, learning to get to and haul traps, dodging large swells from distant tropical storms, rigging up more gear.

So I'm simultaneously getting more competent and burned out from total immersion. I start to set and haul pairs of traps for the first time. These guys can do it blindfolded with an arm and a leg tied behind them. For me it's quite a challenge. Setting pairs I quickly found out how easy it is for rope to get into a wretched ball. These hopeless tangles are a lot harder to deal with when there's two traps to haul up instead of one.

Pairs are also a lot harder to get into the boat. My first few efforts are a freak show. I'm grateful that no one is close enough to see how slow and clumsy I am with this.

Last night, today was forecast to have 5 to 15 knot winds. I should have checked this morning. Now as I'm listening to the radio and heading out, there's a small craft advisory for hazardous seas- by which they mean towering offshore swells that hatch monster breakers in places I only vaguely knew had shallow places. On top of the big waves- which are no big deal as long as I'm far away from ledges, shore or shoals- there is a robust chop from the gathering Southwest wind. After 4 hours or so of being sloshed and tilted and slapped around by the wind and water, I surrender for the day, slowly steaming back to the harbor through the very dark green water and slate blue-gray sky.

Towering waves, uncertainty about the winter, certainty of one more horrid financial gap. I've committed to the boat. Here we go. Yippy Ki Yay.


Today started actually last night. Remembered to call a friend at bed time who'd left a message at dinner. Friend advised me of a faux pas on my part. A bunch of them, actually. So I got in my first stew even though I'm hardly up to speed on any aspect of the business.

In the meanwhile, I'm taking care of the year's worth of the island's property tax calculations for the year. That piece of work always hits in the scurrying season with frantic fishing and panics that set in during September when we realize it's September, which means that winter is coming on fast.

It rained all day, and I dove into paperwork, bill paying, property taxes, gathering related signatures, rigging a few buoys and toggles, trying to keep busy enough to stay ahead of doubts and creditors. Off to sea tomorrow.

Sunday, September 25

I set 30 beater traps in dense fog and an unfamiliar area. I really love my radar. Not only because it keeps me from running into other boats, channel markers and ledges, but as a second visual navigation tool. The more time I spend on the water, the comfort level gradually comes up and the rush from learning how to navigate, learning how the boat behaves, reading the current, tending my gear with the amazingly powerful hydraulic pot hauler. So many new moves, motions, angles, sounds and smells to keep track of.

What makes it so special is that it's all been taught here, by my neighbors and friends and aside from the lobster apprentice program and one day coast guard safety course, completely unregulated. No driver's ed, no practice, very minimal instruction on the ONE Afternoon when Clayton and I brought the boat across from Rockland. The liberty to learn, challenge myself in nature without layer upon layer of restriction and constriction is precious.

September 27- At 6:15 or so this morning, I disentangled my skiff in the dusk of the wharf, rowed around the corner to face the harbor and was stunned by the sight of the harbor on a flat still morning, brilliant in the orange gold of the sunrise. The flatness amplifies the effect. This was an extremely unusual day of brilliant sunshine and no wind to speak of- very unusual in September.

I took out ten traps that had been in very close to the shore and put them into pairs with 25 fathom warps off to the norred, short version of northward. Had some tea while steaming over to the days work to the easterd, short for eastward. Am I lucky today? Yes. Unlike the first time I hauled these traps, I can see. Last time around, the fog was so thick I wasn't sure my eyes were really open at all.

What a lucky man I am to work on a boat in September in Maine.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Day 1, Again- How Many Does This Make?

Saturday, September 3.

The new boat, Close Enough, awaits me in the harbor. She's ready. Me, not so much.

Wee hours held many half awake, vague bad dreams about how I was possibly going to mess up driving the new boat. Some of them were comical, some plausible. In that nether state, I somehow believed that if I thought about it enough, I'd have experience that I do not have- I'd know what do do without ever having done it.

I anticipate all the steps- starting up, unhitching, working around the ledge and boulders, docking with the Liberty Risk for bait, get turned around and out of the harbor and heading out to get some work done.

Deep down, I am confident of my ability to learn this newest alien activity, to safely go out, work and come home dry and alive. I am also deeply aware of how little I know and how catastrophic a mistake can be. This isn't a sturdy slow 300 pound wooden boat powered by hand. I won't be just a few paces from the shore.

The other unwelcome night and dawn visitor was the wind.

It's now 7 am and I haven't found anyone to go out. I'm terrified of just getting around the ledge in the harbor and tying up at the bait boat, much less going out into the open ocean and hauling traps for the first time. I go out to the boat anyway, and start organizing. And agonizing.

I open the hatch to turn on the electrical switches and fire up the motor, but can't make my hand push the button and do it. I'm frozen. I'm also having a parental voice in my head saying that despite my probably making an idiot of myself, it is wise to have a second person aboard on this first time out.

I paddle back to the wharf and make a call, leaving a message for one guy and then convincing Craig to come out. This security and company makes all the difference.

We go out in some substantial chop and break me in and introduce the boat to Matinicus lobstering. Every move is unfamiliar. The wind is robust and the waves slosh us around. I manage to haul a handful and feel like that's enough for today.

Every transition is new and tightens my insides. My saving strategy is to go super slow. I approach the bait boat, the mooring, the dock with glacial slowness. Other guys bring in boats to the dock like snowboarders swoosh to a stop at the lodge. Not me. Water is very slippery compared to pavement, gravel or fields, where I've operated big equipment in the past. The water is slippery and boat hulls and docks are very heavy and unyielding.

Craig grabs the mooring for me and the boat is once again safely tethered to the bottom of the harbor.

The next day, I figure I'm heading out for the first real work day; I'll start making some money instead of spending like a congressman the way I have been. Note the "I figure" phrasing. I'm warming up the engine and feeling all captain-like when I notice the voltmeter is low. In instrument panel design, red is bad and green is good. My voltmeter is not in the green happy place. I stop, make calls, stop people in the road, talk to Joe in the harbor. Under 12 volts is not good enough. I decide to try it for a while thinking maybe when I rev the motor, the volts will come up. Think again. Even though the voltmeter keeps slumping further away from Green Land, I get to haul a few pots and catch some lobsters.

Further consultation with the island brain trust leads to the conclusion that I need a new alternator. I head out Monday morning with my handy U.S. Navy manual on the motor and get 95% of the way through removing the alternator- my first introduction to the cramped, awkward, knuckle skinning realities of engine work on a boat.

After loosening and removing the bolts, I smugly move to pull the alternator out, and there is a tug back from the dark recesses. There's one more nut to remove. I can barely fit more than a couple of fingers in there. There are a couple of hoses in the way. When I can get a glimpse of the last item, it looks crusted over with rust and grease. And very hard to reach.

I try open end, box end and socket wrenches. I try liberal amounts of lubricant. I try very liberal amounts of profanity. There is a single 3/8" nut between me and making a living, and it is successfully thwarting every idea, angle, heave and tool I can come up with. I try to fit a hacksaw blade in the space. I try a chisel. Morning turns to afternoon.

Eventually, Weston shows up. We spoke this morning and he told me it was "a ten minute job."
Weston sees something behind the nut that I didn't see and after a couple of "oh this is nothing" remarks that morph into "oh, no wonder you've been on this all day, it's a total pain in the ass," he gets pliers on one part and a wrench of the other, and turns until the bolt fatigues and melts itself into two pieces. The alternator is out. Along the way, I manage to mangle the wiring plug, and will need to get that ordered as well.

Unfortunately, getting the dead alternator out does not put the boat back in working order. Today is Labor Day, so I'm not getting a new one today.

Tuesday morning, Clayton advises me to remove the pulley off the front of the alternator because the new one won't have that piece. OK, I say, thinking that I'll pick up a couple of tools, apply them to the job and remove the pulley. Note the "thinking that I'll" phrasing. After an hour of wrestling, I feel as though I have as much chance of bending the doors on a wood stove with my bare hands as I have getting that pulley off the alternator.

It's a contest of getting a wrench on one part, and holding the rest of it securely. Actually, it's a matter of having an impact wrench. Silly me. I don't happen to have an impact wrench. And at this point, I don't even know I need one.

I'm near tears at this point because I manage to do 95% of the tasks, but get completely stopped in my tracks by the last 5%, simple things like old corroded nuts or things that need an impact wrench. I am ignorant of the world of diesel engines and rusted nuts and bolts and impact wrenches. I can't do the simple parts of these jobs. I need to start making a living starting last year and have been disabled by little rusted parts and things I don't know how to do.

I am in way over my head. Again.

Afternoon comes, and with it a shiny new alternator with no crumbling, rusted bits. The reinstall is a lot more fun than the removal, although I'm haunted by the fear that I have misdiagnosed the problem, and when I start the motor, the voltmeter will still be in the red place of worry and failure.

I feel I've invented cold fusion and won the Nobel Prize as I push the start button, start the motor and watch the needle majestically rise well into the green.

All is well.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

This is Why

'Why keep the church open when nobody comes?' -Summer visitor.

"This is why" said Suzanne as we all sat together remembering a friend. Not an employee of a service provider. Not a delivery person. A part of the community. We gathered as we gather when there are other losses, weddings, holidays. We gather as a community the likes of which I've experienced nowhere else. There is shared experience, hardship, aggravation, conflict, disagreement, joy, celebration. Shared. We are not hermetically sealed off from neighbors, knowing more about Jennifer Aniston's acquaintances than we know of our own. We shared unrehearsed and unpolished thoughts of our friend, Don. We sang. We prayed. We gave three cheers.

The same thisiswhy is why we tolerate the vicious weather, constant unpredictability, financial precariousness and isolation. The ass-kicking. We do it because the rest of american culture seems deadened by factory food, cubicle jobs, antidepressants and a thousand other life-sucking blandifications.

We live. It's not safe. It's messy. This is why.

I Want to be Bored Now

First and most important, Don is family to us, like all the Penobscot Island Air folks. In addition, what happens to anyone here happens to everyone. It's close like that on this island. I am sad.

It also feels as though the mainland just got a lot further away. The wind is cold and dry today. The long winter telegraphs its punch way too soon. I am afraid.

I came here for adventure. I want to be bored now.