Nonfiction

DECEMBER 2017

Sailing in the Fog

by JERRY D. MATHES II

 

 
  Still-Life Three Salmon Steaks  by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes

Still-Life Three Salmon Steaks by Francisco de Goya y Lucientes

 
 

I SLEEP JUST BELOW the waterline, wedged in a bunk in the forecastle. I dream of fish. Salmon bodies swarm around me, silver flashes brightening the dark water. They swim from the open sea for the rivers and streams of their birth. I see them as they have been for millions of years, before any human thought to catch them. Salmon nose into the smell of the river current fresh as snow bleeding into seawater. They stream under and around the boat only a few inches away, so close I wonder if they can hear me breathe and squirm in the tight space. Navigating the years and the distance and the depths, the fish unwind like a story.

 

THE DAY BEFORE I hauled gear hand over hand with my deck-mate, Tim, the nets so choked with the silver torpedo bodies of salmon they threatened to drag us over the transom into the icy waters of Bristol Bay. My hands ached. My boots slid on the deck and we braced ourselves in the corners until Skipper Scott came out of the wheelhouse and called Jacob the Permit Holder from the bow, a Yupik guy from Togiak who’d been toking from his walrus-tusk pipe while doing his fish dance. The four of us, inch by inch, dragged the yards of net on board.

Hundreds of boats fought for position along the North Line—the boundary of our fishery, famous for one of the greatest salmon runs in the world. No markers existed, so the skippers had to keep an eye on the loran to stay within the area. To cross the line was to risk an expensive ticket from the fish cops, so boats battered each other to stay in place. Crews cursed and yelled as boats careened off each other, and once a gunshot tore across the roar of engines. “Leave the shore, friends no more,” as the skippers said.

After we pulled all the nets onboard, each salmon had to be dislodged with a quick flip of the fingers. Some fell out as they thrashed. We slid the fish into the hold as Skipper Scott raced along the sandbar’s edge to reset.

Skipper Scott yelled to toss the buoy and I heaved it through the horns of the fairlead. The net trailed off in the constant thump-thump-thump of the floats beating off the transom. Tim and I hung on, trying not to slip and fall into the net racing off the deck and get dragged overboard.

The boat accelerated, and the bow came up as the stern dug in. Tim and I grinned at the open sea and the salmon already hitting the nets. Then the boat shuddered. We all fell down. Skipper Scott had misjudged the tide running out. Our momentum skipped us over the edge of a sandbar and into deeper water, but the keel still scraped sand. The engine revved and sand and water spun out behind us like a bunch of hillbillies mudding in a meadow. The boat lurched forward and listed to starboard. Skipper Scott yelled deep water was only a few feet away. Tim and I jumped overboard, knee deep in the sea, to rock the boat into deeper water. Skipper Scott revved the engine and spun the wheel back and forth. Jacob still stood on the bow, smoking and dancing with the sea birds. Salmon swam through our legs and I wondered if the high-revving Hemi motor hurt their ears, or if salmon even had ears.

Skipper Scott killed the engine and all we heard was the ocean, wind, and the ringing in our ears. A few salmon skated through inches of water. The Arctic Ram cruised by in open water, the crew grinning and flipping us off.

Tim and I watched the other vessels fish further and further away and then spent the next hour picking salmon from the nets strung out on the sand and tossing them onboard and into the hold. Several other boats leaned across the bar in afternoon light, having also misjudged that fine, imaginary line. Skipper Scott dropped the anchor and I walked it out a hundred yards and set it. The sand sucked at my boots, but we were glad we hadn’t struck the rocks or Deadman Sands to the north where the silt sucked you down. We all shook our heads at the stories. What a bitch, we said, to run aground only to have the earth swallow you and then in twelve hours have the sea cover your grave when the tide returned. Or so the story went.

 

WE PILED THE EMPTY NETS onto the stern. Then we drank beer, and Jacob smoked weed from his pipe and passed it around. He’d carved it out of a tusk and scrimshawed designs into it. He liked to say he was smoking for the fish. A ritual always makes things meaningful, deeper than just getting stoned. Maybe just getting stoned makes life deeper. Tim and I rolled smokes.

We stretched out, sharing the company of the stranded who knew rescue was a day away. I recited “Crossing the Bar,” “Sea Fever,” and some other poems. Tim recited Robert Service’s “The Men Who Don’t Fit In” and spun off some New Age theory about astral projection and getting back to origins, something he’d discovered while trapped in his cabin by a moose some dark December nights outside of Homer. Jacob told us how he fell off a snow machine during a drunken whiteout and was saved by his seal skins and the timely arrival of his cousin. Skipper Scott bragged about hip Seattle parties he’d been to and sang a twisted version of The Spin Doctor’s “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong” in a nasally voice. Little miss, little miss can’t catch fish.

Jacob laughed at the song. “He should smoke to Fog-Woman.” His grin showed bad teeth and all the joy of a man. “Raven went fishing with two of his slaves. They caught nothing but bullheads and then they got lost in the fog. Fog-Woman appeared on Raven’s boat and guided him back to his village,” so he said. “They married and she brought the salmon to fill the smokehouses. But after Raven’s rudeness she left.” He motioned out to sea with his bony finger. “He chased her, but it was like grabbing the fog. She still comes back twice a year to bring enough fish for us to eat.”

“What did Raven do to make her leave?”

“You know how it is. Some people are just assholes.”

 

AS IT TURNS OUT, salmon have ears. On their otoliths, their ear bones, are growth rings like trees. These rings mark their age, and a scientist can read the fish’s diet and if it endured famine or plenty or some stage of in-between for each year it swam in the sea. It shows if a fish was stressed, the salinity of the water, and the amount and kinds of contaminants, like fuel from a seiner’s bilge, sucked past its gills. In a photograph of an otolith, the contour lines remind me of a navigational chart. Funny how much you can tell about the ocean from small bones.

I wonder if the scientists have a fish fry after a long day of removing otoliths. Sit around, drink beer, and tell stories as the smell of cooking fills the air, which can rightly be called an ancient smell. As ancient as myth. As deep as time.

In my dream the boat pitches. My hands cramp into claws—the dream of the laborers to feel the day’s work all night—and underwater I hear the ravens call to one another over the seabirds’ chuckles. I sleep a shape shifter and slip in and out of consciousness. Even in the hot humidity, with the engine redlining almost below me, I slip between two spaces: the world of mythic images and the world where I roll over to find Tim asking for my compass to keep the devil at bay. I point to my jacket on the hook. He gets it and leaves. I swim in the groggy waters of the Bering Sea as I drown and not drown and then Tim comes to ask how to tell north.

 

AWAKENED, and wet with sweat and not the sea, I staggered in the sea-rocked boat under the weight of uneasy sleep and a hangover. I climbed the steps from the darkened hull into the whiteness of fog, thick like a frosty morning’s breath. Skipper Scott’s mullet hair swayed across his shoulders as he spun the wheel with both hands. The bow pitched up as we climbed swells and dropped as we slid down into the troughs and then we quartered across them, causing the boat to yaw.

“We’re lost, man. We’re lost!” Skipper Scott’s voice sounded hoarse from smoking and cussing God. He looked over his shoulder and back into the fog. “Can you use that to get us back to the river?” Tim held out my compass.

 “You have the loran and the boat’s compass.”

“No good, man. Compass is broke and I don’t know how to use the loran.”

“What? What do you mean?” I couldn’t believe he didn’t. It figured. The guy had never skippered a boat. His brother had scored a deal to get a second, leased boat and, with dreams of doubling the catch, flew Scott up from Seattle. 

“I know how to use the loran, but first slow this boat down before we hit rocks.” I’d spent time in dry dock reading its owner’s manual and programming it.

Skipper Scott pulled the throttle back to an idle. He motioned to the steering compass with his chin. “That one just goes round and round. It’s broken.”

“It’s spinning because you’re steering in a circle.” I took my compass from Tim. “I’ll find where we are and plot a course.”

I turned on the loran and found our position and penciled a dot on the chart. We had been slowly spiraling the boat north toward Deadman Sands. I figured the wind, tide, current, and Skipper Scott’s natural propensity for disaster had been nudging us. “We can use the loran, you know.”

“No. Don’t trust it.”

“That’s irrational.”

“No it’s not.”

“Dude,” Tim said. “Just get us to the river.”

I sighed. I didn’t want to add my name to those who’d drowned or died in boats smashed against the coast. I’d been overboard further north off the Seward Peninsula and had no desire to even come close to that again.

The boat rocked as I held the parallel ruler firm. I traced a pencil line off shore until we were in line with the river mouth. I wrote the bearing next to the line. Then I drew another line from the end of the first leg into the center of the small harbor and wrote down the bearing. When I took out the protractor to find our distance, Tim said, “Dude, hurry.”

“Yeah, man,” Skipper Scott said.

“I’m going as fast as it needs to go.”

I did some quick math, distance divided by a speed of six knots. We would need to motor for about forty minutes. My fingertips slid on my watch as I set its stopwatch to zero. I pressed the button and time ticked off. I held out my compass and told Skipper Scott to steer starboard.

“You sure?” he asked.

“I am.” It wasn’t the time to confess any doubt.

He turned the wheel. After a minute, the rising seas pushed us around. I called out the course correction.

 “What the hell, dude? Stay on course.” Tim’s face was flush with fear and too much coffee.

Skipper Scott snapped at him.

“Starboard three degrees,” I said. Again he turned the wheel.

We sloshed through the fog and Jacob danced like a bird in slow motion on the bow.

My stopwatch hit thirty-nine minutes. “One minute until our turn to the river entrance.”

“Alright, man. We got this.”

Wind carried the fog by us like sheets on a clothesline. We quartered into the choppy seas. We were all at its mercy: an anchor drags in a gale, a freak swell capsizes the sleeping crew, a water spout sucks up fish and miles away they fall from the sky, breaking windows and antennae. It’s no wonder sailors have a history of superstitions. How else to alleviate the terror?

I told Skipper Scott we should be getting close. No need to rush for the rocks. Maybe dial back the speed, just enough to keep making headway and overcome the force of the sea and the river’s current. We stared ahead, searching for a form, the silhouette of a bow or the shoreline. I looked from compass to bow ten times in a second. Tim and Jacob stood on the bow like ghosts and listened for a ship’s motor, the clink of an anchor chain, the surf washing over the rocks. Jacob had a flashlight and scanned it around. The light beam reflected water droplets in the wind.

“Five degrees port,” I said, and the low idle of the engine mixed with the slapping of the sea.

 Tim shouted he could see an anchor light in the dim mist. A pocket carved by light wavered in the whiteness. “Whoa,” Skipper Scott breathed. Tim whooped and danced an Irish jig. I closed my compass as dark shadows began to take shape out of nothing. Out on the bow Jacob danced with his arms out at his sides, flapping, happy in love with Fog-Woman.

 
 
 

Jerry D. Mathes II is a Jack Kent Cooke alumnus and the author of Ahead of the Flaming Front: A Life on Fire, winner of the North American Book Prize; Fever and Guts: A Symphony; and The Journal West: Poems, and Still Life, winner of the Meadow Prize for the Novella. In 2011, he produced a short film, Drinking Sangria in the Cold War, which was adapted from one of his award-winning short stories. Mathes taught writing at the University of Idaho and Stephen F. Austin State University, and he taught the Southernmost Writers Workshop in the World at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station Antarctica. In 2012 he produced a video essay about wildfire. He loves his two daughters very much.