(Remember, that to enlarge any image, just click on it.)
The ferry crossing from Victoria to Port Angeles Washington was smooth and uneventful. The border goons were unusually cordial, even cavalier, which left me quite suspicious but I have learned never to argue or jest with them. The crossing was spent in philosophical conversation with another sailor (We have ways of finding each other, like dolphins in the sea) and the ninety minute voyage passed quickly. I soon found myself heading west out of Port Angeles, driving in driving snow.
It is a bleak passage along highway 101 through raped forests, past abandoned mills and homes, derelict machinery, and run-down villages; a weary drive in a mangled world, a movie set for a film about the omega man. After hours of travel I arrive on the southern border of the State of Washington at a place on the Columbia river called Dismal Nitch. It was so-named by the explorers Lewis and Clark. They at least got to see this stunning part of the world in a virginal state, before we raped it. Imagine what they would name it now! Perhaps it was the snow but I’ve never before noticed how devastated the countryside and the communities seem. Perhaps that is why Astoria seems to have so much soul and vibrancy. It lays on the south bank of the Columbia River, across a bridge which is four miles long.
The weather was typical for late winter at the mouth of the Columbia River. Rain, wind, snow and clear brilliant sunlight, all in any half-hour. Much of the town seemed infected with a nasty flu and I hope I did not bring home any souvenirs. One performer came all the way from her studies in Brussels. We all performed our gigs, reinforced our affirmations as writers and water people, made new friendships and had a splendid time. The event has outgrown itself. There were 110 performers scheduled this year to perform in 14 venues. it was a spectacular time as usual and I know no-one went home disappointed. The originators and organizers, now past its 21st anniversary, deserve the highest kudos for their dedication and endeavour. FPG is an inspiration to thousands of people. (The website is fisherpoets.org)
I am one of them. I drove back to the border through Seattle, where it is now always rush hour and arrived safely at the Blaine border crossing for an uneventful re-entry to Canada. I had a wonderful, long-overdue visit with some very dear friends and travelled back to Vancouver Island on the ferry under clear sunny skies.
You may well wonder what all this “Fisher Poet” stuff is all about. A group of people, who make their living in the fishing industry and on the water, gather once a year to read some of their work, sing some of their songs and enjoy the affirmation of being among fellow blue-collared creative people. I am always humbled in their presence. I’ll conclude this blog with a quick sample of my work, written about the ferry ride home.
Herring Season (1)
Last Monday in February ( Background music:
Northbound in the middle of the Strait of Georgia “Tiny Fish For Japan homeward from an annual Fisher Poets Gathering … Stan Rogers) On a BC Ferry, the ‘Coastal Inspiration.’
The mid-winter sunlight has some warmth
but the wind is cold and dense and fine.
I have been drawn toward the bow by music.
I could hear traditional Acadian shanties
accompanied with the throb of our huge engines
and in the shelter of the forward observation lounge
a young man wearing a large home-spun wool toque plays an accordion.
The acoustics under the glass are superb.
I want to praise the musician but cannot bring myself to interrupt,
So I listen with hungry ears to songs I have not heard in decades
and loiter on the starboard forward quarter snapping pictures.
Along the sharp clear blue curve of the strait I can see for sixty miles.
On a common heading, in a row, a mile apart
an armada of fishboats parading northward.
Each has a large power skiff in tow
Each worth a small fortune
Each optimistic for an opening
to earn half a year’s income
which after a wait of weeks
may last for only minutes.
There is an occasional glint of sunlight
reflected from a rolling boat’s wheelhouse window
a white wake streaming out behind.
The intensity of the annual drama begins,
Herring Season (2)
The fleet jammed into the harbour
waiting for the opening of herring season.
Volcanic tensions mounted over the next six weeks
until finally DFO declared the sacred event
would occur on the next Saturday.
Two of the boats were skippered by men
who were Seventh Day Adventists
and would not work on their Sabbath.
Herring Season (3)
If masses of people were randomly slaughtered
while in the peak of procreation
chances are the “managed stocks,”
which we are,
would be much smaller.
“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Gandhi
It is March 2nd already, almost a month since my last blog. The pinnacle of my winter is past now, I’ve just returned from my annual pilgrimage to the Fisher Poet’s Gathering in Astoria Oregon. As usual the event was wonderful, reading and listening to the work of over ninety of us, an affirmation of our blue collar love of the sea, the environmental and political issues and the simple raw passion of being on and near the water. The drive down this year seemed long and tedious, with several detours on the roads and an expired passport, but it is all over now with more fond memories filed away.
I’ve managed to bring home some insidious virus and I’m not feeling particularly energetic. I’m sitting here in my bunny slippers with a schnozzy nose and bleary eyes so this blog will not hold any creative considerations or polemic perspectives.
In my last blog, ‘The Cowboy Jihad’ was written only with available information, which I confessed at the time. There has since been a lot more digging on the subject among myself and my peers. While in Astoria I managed to share brunch with a lady who has an intimate knowledge of the Burns and Malheur Lake areas in Oregon. There is a very different slant to the story when taken from a local perspective. It seems that the radical ranchers who came from various other states to establish the standoff with the feds were not much welcomed by local folks. The community was/is harshly divided, schools were closed as the event heated up, the National Guard was on standby. Apparently the general local consensus was that folks just wanted these outsiders to go back to their home ranches, pay up their overdue taxes and range lease fees (The arrears total many millions) and let the residents of the epicentre get on with their disrupted lives. Many of the facts we received through the media are grossly slanted or blatant lies.
I am a Canadian and a US insurrection is none of my business so long as I can cross through my neighbouring country without being shot or imprisoned without just cause. There are plenty of issues here at home to poke my beak into. My resolve is to maintain and inspire the value of a questioning mind and to
be aware. For example, two days ago when boarding the ferry M.V. Coho for the crossing to Victoria, I reviewed the Canada Customs form I was handed. I noted that items like switchblade knives and bear spray are “prohibited.” Hand guns are “restricted.” What the hell?
All I want to do is go sailing. The muddy waters of our own greed, apathy and resulting misgovernment are leading us into our own figurative Ides. For me, it’s all reason enough to move along and just be, instead trying to make sense of things. If I can’t be part of the solution then I am part of the problem.
It seems, for me, that many great trips begin with a passage on the M.V. COHO to Port Angeles Washington. With a minimum of fuss she backs and turns her 341′ length neatly from her berth in Victoria’s inner harbour, then manoeuvres nonchalantly out for the channel and idles her bulk past the rocks for the open Strait Of Juan De Fuca. Today we cross on a calm sea under a lowering sky. There is a gentle swell on our beam, that siren call of the open Pacific. At least to me it is. The old girl rolls gently and seems to enjoy herself. (You can easily pick out the landlubbers. “Weah not in Iowa no more Doreen!”)
This old beauty is the remnant of the famous Black Ball Line. Built in 1959 she is in immaculate sea-worthy condition. Clean and clearly loved by her non-uniformed crew this old ship is privately owned and actually makes a profit; she keeps on running year after year. The crew perform their duties with practised ease and in far fewer numbers, it seems, than on a BC Ferry. (We’ll blame crewing regulations!)
Her modest self-sufficiency flies in the face of our BC Ferry fleet. This provincially owned and individually manipulated (Note I did not say managed) corporation has older vessels as well as near-new European-built luxurious super ferries. Often rust streaked and grimy, the fleet is run by massively overpaid executives who are constantly trimming services and increasing fares. One recently appointed board member, whom I know, was previously at the helm of a very successful family logging business which had been founded by his father. He ran the business into total bankruptcy. He was soon accepted to help manage our provincial ferry fleet. I’m sure we would find that his annual BCF remuneration package, including benefits would have most of us feeling set for life. Yes a single year’s worth! Yet the corporation consistently tries to increase fares on its patrons. For those readers who are not familiar with life in this corner of the world all I’ll say is that other ferry services, including the one run by Washington State provide efficient, safe and reliable transport. Enough said. It can be done.
I am off once again to the annual Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria. It seems that the last one was only a few weeks ago. Despite several health issues and my hopeless finances I am able to attend thanks to the very generous support of my wife Jill. Once home again, I must find new sources of income, finish refitting and outfitting old ‘Seafire’ and the little trailer then get down to Mexico. Two doctors have now suggested the move. Despite my general disdain for quacks I intend to take their advise this time. I’ve been talking about this dream for long enough. Einstein once said that you can’t solve a problem by using the same thinking that created it in the first place. Maybe, if I put on a tie, BC Ferries would consider me. My financial prowess would certainly put my in line for a position on the board of directors.
Four days later I’m back on the Coho northbound for Victoria. Events at the Fisher Poet’s Gathering are all a happy blur. My performances were all a splendid success and my duties as an MC went without a hitch. My ego has been massaged, my writing and reading talents have been affirmed and I’m heading back to the old dogfight with a slightly swelled head.
On the first night all the performers have a dinner where we share some of our new work with each other. By coincidence, I found myself seated next to a California fishermen whom has the same last name. It was our first meeting.
“No shit, your name is Bailey too!”
“Yep, even the same spelling. But then it’s a common name. I doubt we’re at all related.”
“Probably not but do you know Uncle George?”
“Oh yeah, you know him too!”
“God yes! He must be one ancient old fart by now! How is he?”
“Same old dick he ever was.” And the so the improv banter went much to the amusement of the rest of the table. It’s a great joy meeting other birds of a similar feather and the time passes in a rush as we visit with each other and present our work to the public, some of whom come great distances to see and hear what we have to offer.
I spend my free time there touring and photographing the town which is a lovely place self-resurrected from the ashes of its demise after both the fishing and the forest industries collapsed. Spring is arriving a bit early this year, blossoms were out everywhere and there were some warm, clear sunny days much to everyone’s delight.
I’m posting plenty of photos which help describe Astoria and some of its charms. I’m looking forward to next year already. I’m also happy to report that I have finally successfully posted one of my books, ‘The Water Rushing By’, on Amazon/Kindle where it is available as an e-book or as a print-on-demand paperback. I’ve several other books to upload into their inventory so there’ll be no dull moments.Sideways Ho!
“When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail.”…anonymous
In the London Underground a recording of a woman’s gentle voice with a clipped British accent, chides passengers to “Mind the gap” whenever they are stepping between the train and the platform. Gift shops sell a variety of souvenir clothing items including boxer shorts with the logo and the phrase “Mind The Gap” emblazoned across the backside. I recalled that this morning while driving to the Gabriola Ferry as an anxious young lady hurtled past me on the right and then squeezed through the decreasing gap between me and the massive truck lumbering along in her lane. I was already driving well above the speed limit but, apparently, not fast enough. This person’s superior agenda was calling on her to risk her life to gain a few seconds of the day. She was risking mine too but that was certainly not a consideration I’m sure. It happens every day no matter where one drives. I used to drive like a maniac myself until I realized that for all the dangerous franticism, I never arrived more than a few minutes less late for all those ubiquitous meetings. It was exhausting, hard on the vehicle, burned lots of extra fuel and the only favourable argument was that all the adrenaline kept me awake while on the road. Yeah right! I also used to consume several packs of cigarettes daily.
So many folks through the years have remarked on the dangerous things I like to do at sea and at one time as a pilot. I’ve often pointed out the odds stacked against us all on the roads, where our fate is determined by the twitch of someone else’s wrist, are incalculable. It is a miracle that hundreds don’t die on the roads daily. Of course there are also those who wander, and drive, about in traffic while intent on their texting, or movies, or GPS. The police rocket about with a cell phone stuffed in their ear, at least one police radio and at least one laptop computer glaring into their face. One of their duties is to provide tickets to motorists for distracted driving! Modern gadgets have managed to displace even our most primal instinct, fear.
In Mexico, it seems that dying on the road is an honourable way to die, and at each fatal crash site crosses are planted unabashedly. The crosses line Mexican roadsides by the tens of thousands. It is clear at some places, there are numerous repeated accidents in the same spot. Next please! Driving there, or anywhere in Latin America I’m told, is certainly not for the slow-witted or the faint of heart. The experiences deserves at least a blog all on its own.
Next week I’m driving to Astoria Oregon for my annual Fisher Poet’s Gathering. It is an event which draws folks who make their living at sea from all over the planet. Predominantly, the writers and musicians there fish in Alaska but some of us outsiders are invited to help flavour the stew. It is an orgy of blue-collar eloquence, a celebration of the working water person. Some of the work and the music is amazing. So are the products of the several local micro-breweries. Astoria is the gateway to Coastal Oregon and a truly breathtaking drive south to California on Highway 101. This route begins in Lund BC and eventually ends at the Mexican border in Tijuana. It ought to be as famous as Route 66 and is a wonderful, beautiful, trek that meanders southward along the Pacific Coast.
I won’t tempt the fates with any cracks about surviving the drive. See ya in the movies! Included is a preview of one of the pieces I’ll be reading in Astoria.
“Behind every succesful man is a woman rolling her eyes.”
Breakfast By Desdemona’s
Pouring rain; Astoria, late winter, late morning. I’m hung-under. Ragged black pot-bellied clouds low over the river looking as rough as I feel. Fisher Poet’s time of year, somehow I see it as a hint of spring, an annual ritual for me, an affirmation of proliteriate elocution and blue-collar sensibility, birds of a feather flocking together. I’m from out of town, up the coast, and don’t really know my way around here but I like this place. It’s full of real people, ones who work for a living and say what they mean and mean what they say. We can relate.
My old truck sloshes down the street and across from Firehall Number Two I see a hand-made sign that reads “Breakfast Burrito.” Something about its rustic flare reminds me of real Mexico so far away this morning. I turn in. A wet power steering belt squeals as I park.
Slapping wipers grunt to a stop. I survey the immediate neighbourhood. Next door, ‘The Desdemona Club’ has settled firmly into the ground. It intrigues me. Instead of windows it has a row of bronze portlights along the front. That’s very salty. Another sign a few doors away announces ‘Annies’.There are no clear windows I notice, bars on a solid heavy door with a sign forbidding minors. The faded Neon sign sports a reclining blond and beneath is the weary lettering, ‘Dancers.’ I’m not confused, there’s little diversity, sometimes that’s the way it is. It doesn’t matter, some of the comfort provided is in their universal sameness; a sense of home. I’ve been to biker bars, and every town has at least one ‘Hard Luck Bar and Grill’. Astoria, I’ve noticed, has a few. Annies, and Desdemona’s, I can tell, are places where you’ll find fishing crews hard aground. I wonder how many Alaskan summers have been blown away here in a few nights, or maybe even one. A whole tuna season perhaps gone in a game of poker in one of these places. I’ll bet there’s a fistful of broken teeth out back among the splintered glass,used condoms and cigarette butts. I’m not inclined to visit either place. Two doors up, a sign announces a health food store calling itself ‘The Center Of Balance.’
I’ve seen these sort of places too many times and I’m not keen for more. Sometimes I’ve been persuaded to reluctantly join a friend or a crew, “Ah c’mon let’s just go in; check it out”. They are never a place to go into straight-up sober and you should always make sure to take a seat that puts your back to the wall. I can imagine the purple terry-cloth table covers, held in place wtih elastic under the round edges. Those covers are often beer-wet soggy yet have cigarette burns in them. Chances are the chairs and stools have purple naugahyde coverings tacked in place with heavy metal brads. The walls around the joint will be covered with ancient ball team photos and soon you notice that some of the old fart regulars leaning on the bar were once those same young men in those pictures. There’s a ressemblance, much-faded, but it’s there. You wonder about their lives and what stories they have to tell.
The heavy beer pitchers and glasses are pitted and chipped. You know they’ve been thrown and dropped more than once. Some sorry young woman may be gyrating on a small stage to an incongruous tune. She’ll look weary and bored and plain as she undresses. You can see what she’ll look like when she’s old, in another ten years or so. There might be needle-marks on her arms. You can’t tell if that far away look of disappointment in her eyes is because no-one is watching her, or perhaps because a few are. I wonder what stories she can tell. There’s always an air of menace in these places, especially if you’re not local.
A hand-lettered sign tacked to the back wall, beneath the one that reads ‘Gents’ , reads “No Touching The Ladies.’ There’s a thick patina of nicotine tar on the ceiling and the grey pickled eggs in the jar on the bar look like they’ve had a few anniversaries. There’s a rancid taste to the place in every breath. ‘Seen one, seen e’m all’ I muse, bending myself away from my gloomy vicarious preview. I remember a waitress dealing with a gang of rowdies in a dive somewhere far up the mid-coast. A table of drunks was growing out of hand. One final affrontery lit her temper but this big Haida girl calmly said, “Look you guys, you know I’ve been out there on my dad’s boat for years. You’re not impressing me. You’re all the same. You’re always talking when you should be listening. You catch all your fish in the bar and chase all your women whenever you’re out on the boats.”
When I was wrenching on the packers a fellow engineer, (Shrek, we called him) , closed the bar in Zeballos, talking as usual when he should have been listening. A big old logger tuned him up magnificently. At dawn’s early light Shrek was out on the street where he met his assailant of a few hours earlier. “Y’any smarter today?” Shrek’s face looked like a bowel of plumbs all battered and purple. He leered his classic broken-toothed grin. ‘Hah, ya didn’t get one by me didja.”
A local fisherman in Astoria told me about the good old days. Desdemona’s was known as the “Dirty D”. There was a seiner’s bar and a trollers bar and a draggers bar and so on. I think I’ve been to a few dragger bars in my time.
In the restaurant the coffee is fresh and rich and black. The air is thick with aromas of culinary bliss. I order a shrimp burrito with heuvos rancheros. A belly-full of good food may help stave off the effects of too much rum. Or was it simply some bad ice ?
The waiter comes back apologizing. “Nada fresh shrimp this senor”; perhaps I’d like some ‘Langostino’ instead.
‘Si senor, por favor. Muy buen. Gracias.’ He smiles bravely at my mutilated Spanish and scurries off. Soon a plate is delivered that’s the size of a hatch cover. It’s heaped with steaming goodness and I eat till I’m full. Then I clean the plate. In happy agony I step outside where the sun now ladders down through the gloom. Out on the river, sea lions bellow and an old seine boat bucks up the river against the beginning of the ebb. I watch until it finally dissappears behind a desserted cannnery. Two pickup trucks are parked on the street beneath the faded blond. One has a load of crab pots, the other, a heap of roughly stowed gill net. Fishermen, at one of the bars. It’s hardly turned eleven o’clock. The rain begins again. I turn the key in the ignition. The starter only clicks. Dead battery! I realize I’ve left the headlights on. My front tire is in a pot hole. No hope of a rolling start. Four-lettered expletives!
Water cascades again down the windshield as I consider my options. That doesn’t take long, I don’t have any. First stop Desdemona’s . It’s closest.
I was wrong. It is clean and bright and friendly inside. The freshly varnished tables have no covers. There are no fishermen. I head for Annie’s.