E.S. Fletcher

Dec 31, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

The Beautiful Sea

Ocean waves, which always soothe me to sleep from a distance, slam the jumble of rocks outside the palapa. I listen for a pattern, a rhythm, to the crescendos but detect none. I’m prepared for another sleepless night.

My husband calls my name from the rustic bathroom. “Look,” he points to the sink. “A scorpion.” It is tiny, maybe an inch long, with a curled tail that warned of danger. I lean in for a closer look before my husband washes it down the drain. “The wind must have blown it out of the ceiling,” he says. Above, a sixty-watt bulb dangles from the crossbeam to illuminate the faded gray palm fronds. Here the division between indoors and outdoors is flimsy at best.

The sheets are damp under the gauzy veil of mosquito netting. It is the dry season, yet the rains persist. By morning, an angry rash will cover my arms and legs from the mildew growing in the rough sheets and blankets.

My husband, ghostly through the netting, navigates with the flashlight to the small double bed. The cool humid air makes our skin sticky at the points of contact, and we do our best to give each other space. I watch the leaves of a scrubby bush flutter between the gaps in the woven rattan wall and try to get used to the crash and fade of the Pacific. Exhaustion finally pulls me into sleep.

The strobe effect of lightning brightens the room, followed by a deafening boom. My dream ends violently. Muscles taut, I sit up to orient myself. A constant roar of wind surrounds the hut. Rain blows through the opening at the roof beam and soaks through the netting. Lightning fractures the sky again, and my husband is now awake. He checks his watch—three a.m.

My husband shuffles to the door to survey the situation. “The surf is high but nowhere near the palapa.”

My senses tell me to doubt this, and I join him at the door. A sailboat is anchored in the cove, pitching like a broken metronome. With each untamed swell, the boat’s mastlight disappears.

Despite being attached to the mainland, the locals refer to Yelapa as an island because of its inaccessibility by car. We are cut off from everyone and everything. We have no phone, no radio, and even if we did, our Spanish is limited. The local who runs the hotel lives in the pueblo down the long strip of beach and across the swollen river: out of reach.

“What should we do?” I ask. In my homeland of warnings, worst-case scenarios and lawsuits, there would be instructions posted on what to do. Emergency sirens would alert us to trouble. We would not be left to fend for ourselves.

My husband shrugs and lays down. His breathing gradually steadies and slows. Although I envy his calm, I resent him for leaving me to wait out the storm alone. My anxiety makes the past irrelevant and the future uncertain: there is nothing else but now. I try to relax, tell myself I’m panicking over nothing. We can’t be in real danger or my husband wouldn’t have returned to sleep. Then I recall the broken, empty house just up the hill—a remnant of the hurricane that blew through three months earlier. My heart pounds erratically like the surging waves outside, even that out of my control. I wait for a strong gust to rip off the roof.

This is my fault. I scorn myself for thinking that I craved adventure. For thinking I was different than the crowds who never strayed from the well-worn paths, shepherded by guides who buffered and translated every situation. Now I envy them their dry, air-conditioned rooms and their distant lullaby of surf. What I had craved was a sterilized adventure—one without actual sacrifice or peril.

Fear pushes me to appreciate an ordinary life: making the bed with crisp sheets, shoveling fresh snow from the walks, or cooking dinner with my husband as we share our separate days. I long to return to that lucky life.

Please let the storm taper. Please hurry the dawn. I do not know to whom or what I repeat my silent mantra, but it is instinctive and comforting. It spotlights a question of faith I remain unable to answer, having become something of a spiritual tourist, exploring various practices but committing to none. Still, I picture the Catholic Church in the village: how its peach-painted walls welcomed us during these gray days, how the stone St. Francis of Assisi birdbath with holy water beckoned us across the threshold. I find myself able to translate this piece of the local language, and it brings me solace. Finally, the sky begins to brighten and the fury of the storm recedes.

I resurface from sleep to find a layer of sand, palm fragments and mummified insects blown from the thatch, evidence of last night’s tempest. My husband and I shake out our shoes for stowaways before we abandon the false security of the bed. We trudge across the damp sand as men fight with boats in the surf to unload their motley haul: bottled water, toilet paper, limes. To return to the city, and then home, we are at the mercy of the lanchero’s schedule.

We wait over breakfast. Flies skirt tortillas and black beans on my plate. I no longer bother to swat them away. I’d hoped to find paradise by lounging in the sun and sipping tart margaritas on the rocks. Instead my boundaries shifted like the dunes on the beach—I am no longer as certain of my footing. We look toward the infinite stretch of water, our eyes trained for a life-jacketless boat named The Beautiful Sea. The sun is attempting to burn through the clouds. I finish my coffee and pray for next year’s return.

~~~~~~~~

E.S. Fletcher earned her M.F.A. in Writing from Hamline University. There, she interviewed Junot Díaz for Hamline’s literary annual Water~Stone Review. Her writing has appeared in The Literary Bohemian and Confrontation, and she recently read new work for “City: A Language We Speak” at the Susan Hensel Gallery. She is currently writing a spiritual memoir about her travels in Guatemala.

Hibernal 2012, Overfalls Read more

David Abrams

Sep 30, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

The Tangle River

In my father’s house, fly-fishing was often discussed but seldom practiced, just as my father preached from the pulpit each Sunday about humility, kindness, and occasionally love but rarely put them to good use either.

It wasn’t until years later, the summer we came together in Alaska, that his rabid self-defense of both piety and angling first cracked and I caught a glimpse of something soft and quivering — pink as a just-birthed mammal — within the Abrams armor. I suspect the light slanting off the central Alaska landscape had a lot to do with it. The Last Frontier has an unnerving effect on even the most careful of charlatans, a group for which my father was high priest for many years.

He built his reputation as a fly-fisherman from the weekly newspaper column he wrote for seven years in our small Wyoming town: “Outdoors with Dan Abrams.” Below the standing headline each week, a pen-and-ink fisherman stood hip-deep in a mountain stream.

That fisherman was not my father. He sat at home in his recliner where, when reclined, he could look at the antelope head mounted on the living room wall above him. He read every magazine that came in the mail — Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, Field and Stream — working himself into a fever of machismo, a hot lather of inspiration. Then he spent weeks planning his outdoor odysseys — hunting, fishing, or camping in two-day bursts — from which he drew three months of newspaper columns. When members of his Baptist church asked how he sandwiched so much adventure between weddings, funerals, and sermon-writing, he never lied. “It’s not easy,” he sighed.

My father won numerous newspaper awards for writing about the best ways to dress big-game animals, backpack in the Wind River Mountains, and match dry fly patterns to the insect hatch. Once, he even won the Outdoor Writers Association of America’s prestigious “Buck Knife Award” for a nostalgic article about the time he and I hunted sage grouse near Riverton.

It was one of the few times we hunted together. I shot wild and high when the grouse exploded from the prairie and we drove home empty-handed. He never mentioned my poor aim in his prize-winning article.

On another hunting trip, this time through waist-deep snow in a fruitless search for elk, I carried his candy bars and rifle like an African porter.

We’d moved to northern Wyoming when I was eight years old and, after an initial, euphoric blitz on the area’s rivers, my father’s daily trips to the Snake, the Firehole, and the Yellowstone dwindled to weekends, then monthly excursions, then only on national holidays and, finally, he made a showy spectacle over wetting his line on opening day in April. By the time I was in sixth grade, he spoke of the wild waters like a parent wistfully talks about a wayward child he hasn’t seen in years.

As much as my father enjoyed the Rocky Mountains of the Lower 48, he panted like a horny schoolboy for the Upper 49th. If Wyoming was a fisherman’s Paradise, then Alaska was something higher than Heaven, a fish-filled Stratosphere of Ecstasy. He could never afford the time or money for his great northern safari and so he had to resign himself to living on the banks of what were universally agreed to be the best trout waters of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana.

“Someday,” he said to us in a husky whisper, “someday I’ll make it to Alaska.” We believed him like we’d believe someone who told us the Publishers Clearing House folks were standing outside our front door with an oversized check and a balloon bouquet.

We watched my father with pity as, with eyes closed and a smile misting his lips, he made invisible casts from his recliner, all the time dreaming he was on the banks of the Gulkana or on the decks of a Valdez charter. The salmon leapt into his lap like manna from God.

Fish swam throughout my father’s Sunday services in schools of metaphors. He peppered his sermons with images that described predestined salvation as “God’s well-timed cast” landing upstream where we, as “unsuspecting trout,” waited to be “hooked into the kingdom of God.” Instead of saying productive Christians should “bear good fruit in keeping with their faith,” he altered the passage to include something about “a creelful of keepers.” Few people sitting in the pews suspected he hadn’t got his waders wet in months.

In those guileless days of my middle childhood, I admit he trapped me in his spell. I read his fishing articles and believed he spent his spare time wandering the banks of local rivers. And when I do remember my Father the Angler, these are my landmark images: the nicks in his hands from embedded hooks, the smell of fish oil filtering from his clothes. The times he caught fish — as infrequent as national holidays — he stood at the sink, poking heads, tails and fins into the garbage disposal. His eyes sparkled as the whole house filled with the heavy perfume of trout.
I waited for him to teach me the mysteries of fish, to lead me by the hand along the Snake River, pointing out the character of the current. Nothing happened.

The one time we came together for a casting lesson, it was not on the banks of the Snake but in our backyard.

I stood with my hands in my pockets as he strung up the nine-foot graphite rod and tied a barbless streamer fly to the end of the leader. “You pass the line through the eye of the hook, then wrap the end back around the leader,” he explained, braiding the monofilament. “Then you make a loop, pass it through, then once again through the other loop, pull it tight and there you have it.” His voice was quick and complicated as an instruction manual and he finished the clinch knot before I could even see what his fingers were doing.

“Now, let’s pretend that crabapple tree over there is a pool in the stream you’re casting to,” he said and placed the fly rod in my hands. The cork handle squeaked against my sweaty palm. I was twelve years old and still believed I could please him.

I pulled orange line from the reel and whipped the rod from side to side. I remembered the motion from reading one of his newspaper columns.

“No, no,” he said. “Here, like this.” He stepped behind me, circled his arms around my body and started casting vigorously as my right hand clenched the butt of the rod, trying to feel that secret rhythm of casting. “You bring it to the ten o’clock position and stop. Count to three, then snap the wrist forward.”

The line whistled through the air, the fly popping at the end of each cast, as he took control of the rod and my hands. The cork squeaked in my hand and my teeth clacked as he pumped my arm back and forth.

“Ten o’clock, stop, snap! Ten o’clock, stop, snap!”

I went to bed that night mumbling the magic formula over and over, my right arm throbbing. I dreamed of lines knotted and kinked by the wind, of trout swimming through the grass of my back yard, and of my father standing on the opposite bank of an impossibly wide river.

Many years later, I left home and, like the prodigal son, went my own way. That is to say, I became a practicing fisherman.

I moved to Oregon, Montana and, yes, Alaska where I fished the Willamette, the Madison, and the Chatanika Rivers. When I took my first tentative step into the Madison River and was nearly swept downstream, I realized how little I knew about water. Undaunted, I taught myself how to wade icy streams, navigating the slippery rocks as if I’d been doing it for years. I learned to choose the most trout-tempting fly patterns, to tie secure knots and to remove hooks from the jaws of madly flipping fish.

I did not purposefully look for traces of my father as I walked the cobblestone banks, but, still, I heard his condescending voice in the gurgling current telling me the best way to read the river.

When I mentioned my new interest in fishing during a phone conversation, I received a package in the mail two weeks later. Inside were boxes of flies, reels, leaders, diagrams of knots, and a three-page, single-spaced letter of fishing tips. I vowed not to bring this on myself again.

So, years later, when my father came to Alaska for a visit and we camped along the banks of the Tangle River, I strung up my rod without saying a word, unsure how to act around him as he busied himself with his gear. He’d begun planning this trip six months earlier, when five tons of snow lay heavy on the waters and the fish slumbered beneath the ice.

There was unmistakable tension between us. After all, I’d entered Paradise before him. I’d moved to Fairbanks in the dead of winter seven months before my father’s visit and already I’d cut holes in the ice of Harding Lake and pulled warm trout from the dark water below. Several times that spring, I’d haunted the shores of that same lake, gently assassinating the fish who came to feed at the edge of the ice during breakup. And then there was the early-season salmon trip to Montana Creek, which I didn’t even have the heart to mention to my father during our long-distance phone conversations. His voice was already distorted with jealousy. The forty-five-pound king I wrestled out of Montana would surely break his spirit.

But now here he was, on the banks of the Tangle River and bristling like a child on Christmas Eve.

“Take it easy, Dad,” I said. “We’ve got all day and most of the night.”

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” he said, blowing on the drab fly to fluff the hackle. Nervous spittle from his mouth clung to the tips of the elk hairs.

His fishing vest bulged with nail clippers, hooks, coiled tippets, and enough flies to make him look like a wild fur-and-feather beast. He said his new graphite rod cost more than $400 and by the amount of time he spent attaching the reel and fitting the sections together, I saw he was determined to get his money’s worth.

Finally, he said in a voice that chimed like bells, “Let’s go hit the water.”

The Tangle River is less than two miles long, a short, snake-shaped stretch of water connecting Long Tangle Lake to Round Tangle Lake in central Alaska near the town of Paxson. The lakes, and their umbilical river, lie in one of those shallow valleys for which interior Alaska is famous. The terrain has been scooped by bulldozing glaciers, yes; but it’s also been smoothed and patted back into a gentle undulation of eskers, muskeg, and puddle lakes. The landscape couldn’t have been more different from the jagged upthrust of the Wyoming Rockies in my father’s backyard.

Grayling and lake trout frolicked in the Tangle River, spawning in its glacial waters like hormone-crazy teenagers. The word “tangle” is a descriptive term for the maze of lakes and streams in the drainage system. In the seven square miles surrounding us, hundreds of braided channels and melted glaciers outnumbered patches of dry land where we could be sure of our footing. As my father and I walked with our fly rods held high, it was hard to think of the water as anything but metaphor.

The land around us glittered with the thousand waters of the state’s year-round moisture. The bog slowed us down, sucked at our boots. I turned to warn my father about lacing up tighter, but his face was already wrapped in a dreamy, foggy gaze. He was looking at the New Jerusalem rising from the Alaskan tundra. Any minute now, the Four Horsemen would come galloping across the muskeg.

Instead of the Book of Revelation, I thought of Genesis: this was something closer to Noah, wringing out his clothes after the ark ride.

It was nearly ten o’clock at night when we approached the Tangle River. At two hours short of midnight, the sun still burned brightly. My father, unaccustomed to the 24-hour daylight of Alaska’s summers, blinked and shaded his eyes as he searched the water for what he called “dimples,” places where the trout rose to gulp insects from the surface but never fully broke the tensile strength of the water. A dimple is to a fly fisherman what rustling vegetation is to a hunter. For one brief moment, he can pinpoint the feeding fish before it submerges again to the riverbed. Though hunting requires proper aim and gentle trigger squeeze, fly fishing involves not only aiming and casting but also grace — breathing life into a feather-and-tinsel fly through fifty feet of line.

My father pulled line from his reel with a sharp ratcheting sound and flung his fly halfway to the opposite bank. When it hit the water, he sighed — a sound of exhilaration, long-pent-up inside his chest. I watched as he pulled the line back with his left hand, the fly skimming the slow current like a surfer. A white wake trailed the hook.

“The idea is to work the whole stream,” he said.

I nodded, biting my lip, and moved upriver away from him.

I stood at the mouth of the river where Long Tangle Lake emptied southward. Here, the current was warm and nearly silent, save for the spots where it brushed against the long grass of the banks. The shallow river gradually deepened as it moved away from the parental lake. Grayling the size of minnows flitted among the small rocks. These were the immature fish, the ones who’d bite at anything as they swam in schools less than a hundred feet from the lake where they’d hatched. As I watched the river, twenty mouths the size of pencil tips broke the surface like a quick, violent hailstorm. A caddis fly, dipping too near the river, had just fallen prey to the feeding frenzy. I thought of casting, but knew that even the smallest hook in my box of flies would be larger than the heads on most of these fish.

I heard a sharp “Hey! Got one!” and turned to see my father set the hook. He brought his arms up like a referee calling a touchdown and the five-inch grayling flew over his head, landing in the dirt ten feet behind him.

As I walked downstream to my father, he twisted the hook out of the grayling’s mouth. A tiny ooze of blood seeped from one corner of its jaw. The fish was young and soft. One firm squeeze from my father’s hand would mash it to a pulp of scales, fins and bones.

“Not worth keeping, is he?” my father said as he dunked the fish back into the water. “We might as well throw him back.”

I thought of my father’s sermon on the prodigal son. The same cycle of sermons were resurrected every five years and I’d heard his commentary on the New Testament parable at least four times. I pictured him leaning over the pulpit, purposefully not looking at me sitting in the back pew. As I stood on the banks of the Tangle River, I tried to remember the tone of his voice when he preached that sermon but found I couldn’t. I wondered if he’d found fault with the father who let his son go out into the corrupt world or with the child who rejected the love and security of his family.

There were, I realized, layers upon layers of invitation and promise in my father’s voice (and I’m speaking now of his Sunday voice which, as with most men of the cloth, is different than his Monday-through-Saturday voice). For that hour each week, his baritone was barbed with the mysteries of mercy, the promise of salvation and, as I was now realizing, the tease of a paradise like Alaska.

Suddenly, I remembered its high, lingering pitch. I could almost hear it mixed into the current of the Tangle River and wondered, with a stab of guilt, if I’d been the one to short-change the relationship with my father.

Together, we watched the young grayling swim to the middle of the river. “He’ll be fine,” my father said, staring at the water long after the grayling was gone.

“Let’s move downstream,” I said, hoping we’d find larger, more athletic fish in the stronger current.

“It’s worth a try,” he said. It was a cool evening, but his forehead glistened with sweat. The mosquitoes were out in full force, diving in and out for his blood, but he didn’t even seem to notice their stings. He moistened his lips and looked at the river as if the two of them were lovers reunited after a long absence. I led the way as we walked along the riverbank, keeping pace with the current. I tried to imagine myself doing this when I was nine years old, but couldn’t. My father followed close behind, brushing loudly through the grass.

In that moment, I felt an invisible pane of glass break inside me and a flood of conflicting emotions, strong as the current at our feet, rush and tumble from my heart to my head and back again. Mixed with my bitterness was an unfamiliar feeling of sorrow for my father, for all the moments like this he’d missed. This and every other river in the world had always been here, flowing over the rocks and mud and grass at the same unwavering pace, waiting for him, for us. All the words he’d ever written or spoken had failed to bring us any nearer to the water.

It had taken the land, Alaska in all its prehistoric barrenness, to bring us together. Prehistory. That was it. Maybe this was the river of Genesis, the first river of the world. I stopped walking, caught up short at the irony of the thought.

My father also paused, turned. “What is it, son?”

I looked at him, trying to put the land into words. The water sang, the mosquitoes hummed. “This place…”

“Sure is something, isn’t it?” He cocked his head and eyed the low sun.

“Something,” I said. “Yeah, something.”

“Well,” he shook himself…as if he, too, had seen the chink in the armor. “Those grayling are waiting for us.”

When the Tangle River crossed under the Denali Highway bridge, it took on an entirely different character of water and fish. My father and I walked to a spot where the river was narrow and mean, lashed to a gray froth like an ocean in the winter. Here the sound of a million drops of water roaring across the submerged rocks drowned out all but the most necessary words between us. “There,” he said and pointed at an exposed flat rock, large as a table, ten feet from shore.

I analyzed the architecture of the river with my self-trained eye. I would have picked something a little closer, where I could drop my fly off the rod tip straight into the water and let the current wash it downstream. I’d worked this kind of water before and never had much success. I was frustrated by how quickly my dry flies got sucked under after hitting the choppy riffles. No trout would be tempted by a soggy hunk of feathers and deer hair, I thought.

Just below the rock the river smoothed briefly before breaking up again.

“That’s where the fish are,” my father said, standing at my elbow. I flinched at the sound of his voice. He’d watched me study the river. “Go ahead,” he said. “See where the stream divides around that rock? That’s where you want to put your fly, then let it float down to the pool.” I hesitated and he said, “It’s okay if your fly goes under the surface.”

I looked at him, my face pinching sharply. A drenched dry fly? I didn’t remember reading that technique in any of his newspaper articles.

“Trust me,” he said.

I took the fly between my fingers and blew on the hackle to dry it, then tossed it into the river and stripped out line, enough to reach the rock. Since I was surrounded by a dense ring of willows, I couldn’t bring the rod tip up to the ten o’clock position, so I tried a roll cast. With a tight swirl of my rod, the line spiraled out, flipping the fly upstream of the rock.

“Nice cast,” my father said. He stood on the bank with his rod in his hands. He raised his eyebrows and jutted out his lower lip in genuine surprise at the success of my cast. I’d worked for months to find the right rhythm of the roll cast.

Just as I feared, my fly dipped below the surface, caught in the tug of the river. But then, at the base of the rock, it did a very surprising thing. Instead of sinking to the bottom, it popped back up like a cork and hovered in the pool for several seconds before the line, also caught in the current, dragged it downstream. I knew those few moments on the surface of the pool were enough to catch the attention of any fish below.

“Hey,” I said. “It works.”

“Of course it does.”

I lifted the tip of my rod and cast upstream again and again, working the same lane of the river until finally on the one perfect trip around the rock we saw a small splash and the fly completely disappeared.

I heard my father say, “Now!” But I didn’t need to be coached. I pulled down on the line with my left hand and raised the rod with my right hand. The line filled with an electric tension that hummed between my fingers. If I’d touched my father, I could have zapped him with a shock.

“Bring him in close and I’ll grab him.” My father leaned out over the water, reaching for the leader. Wrapping it between his fingers, he pulled the fish onto the bank and we both stared at the two-pound grayling. It was a thing of wild beauty. It flipped once then stilled under my father’s hand as he spread its large, sail-like dorsal fin.

“Look at that,” he said. “This is one of the biggest ones I’ve ever seen.”

I didn’t doubt him for a second.

He pulled a buck knife from his fishing vest and sliced through the belly. I helped him scoop out the heart, the stomach, the gills and within minutes we both reeked of fish musk.

I held the gutted grayling between my hands and my father took a picture.

“Well,” he said as he washed his hands in the stream, “let’s see you do that again.”

“What about you, Dad? Don’t you want to fish, too?”

“Oh, maybe I will a little later on. But first let’s see you catch some more.” There was a wary catch in his voice — not the confident baritone of Sunday mornings, but the troubled tenor of someone shoved up against a lie.

He nestled his fly rod in the crook of a nearby tree, then lowered himself to the ground. I looked at him, then nodded without saying anything else. I realized my father had come all the way to Alaska, marched the whole distance to his glacial Zion, to watch me fish. He was counting on me to catch my limit, to soak my hands in fish oil.

I blew on the fly and tossed it in the water again, conscious of my every move. I felt his eyes on my wrists, my rod, my fly. I thought of his hands covering mine that day in the backyard as he and I cast toward the crabapple tree. “That’s it,” he’d said then and now. “That’s it.”

Another fish hit my fly. And another. And another. My creel filled with fish — fat grayling, the wily ones who had eluded fishermen for many summers. My father spent most of his time watching my roll casts spiral upstream, the wet thin line sparkling in the sun.

At the end of the day, he said, “I’ll say this much, you’ve turned out to be a darn good caster.” I barely heard his voice above the roar of the water.

After so many years the words were unexpected, like a hook snagging a rock in an otherwise easy stretch of water. I knew it was the highest praise he’d ever give me. I turned upstream so he couldn’t see my face and all that rippled on its surface. After all, in my father’s house the things that mattered most were so seldom expressed.

The Tangle River was first published in the the anthology “Alaska Passages: 20 Voices From About the 54th Parallel,” edited by Susan Fox Rogers (Sasquatch Books).

~~~~~~~~

David Abrams’ short stories have appeared in Esquire, Narrative, Connecticut Review, The Greensboro Review, The Missouri Review, The North Dakota Review and other literary quarterlies.  He regularly contributes book reviews to The Barnes & Noble Review, San Francisco Chronicle and January Magazine.  He retired from active-duty after serving in the U.S. Army for 20 years, a career which took him to Alaska, the Pentagon, and Iraq.  He is currently working on a novel based on his experiences during the Iraq War.  His blog, The Quivering Pen, can be found at: www.davidabramsbooks.blogspot.com


Autumnal 2011, Overfalls Read more

W.F. Lantry

Jun 27, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

Chincoteague

So it turns out small birds actually exist. I’ve seen them, on the eastern shore. Not blue, like those little animated ones circling Snow White as she sang the scales. They’re mostly white, with feathers edged in black lace. And tiny, so small they could almost disappear in the foam if they didn’t travel at least in pairs.

The beach flowed north and south, its lines so straight as they disappeared into the distance they could make you dizzy if you stared too long. Waves came in the wrong direction. I’m used to the Pacific and orient myself to the world by swells rising from the west. These threw me off balance.

Only her sun hat kept me standing: round, woven, almost of the same straw that grew from the dunes behind us. Her hand, held to its brim, broke the glare. Her shoulders helped keep me steady. Always the pearls, but today set off by the printed flowers of her suit, by the long scarf she’d draped around her waist, held by a single knot.

Canoes were waiting in the backwater bay. It didn’t take long to get there. She preferred green. I loved them once, moved around lakes as if their skin were mine, fishing. But my muscles had forgotten the rhythm, and here there were no trees to block the wind. At last, they remembered, and we began to move towards the marshes on the opposite bank.

Why were the horses so small? Why did we try to land? The earth seemed an illusion: as soon as I stepped onto it, grass dissolved into water. I tried again, tried to pull the canoe up. It just kept floating: even a small breeze could turn the hull. I decided to try the inlet’s unbearable silence.

The water was smoother there. Looking back, I could see my paddle’s vortexes spinning away from each other. The only sounds were the buzzing of marsh flies and the breath of the horses as we drew closer. They looked bigger from slightly below and became more than images, their rough coats real, their muscles actually rippling as they moved along the edge. I know you think the stallions are dangerous, but it’s the lead mare to watch. She could swamp you in a moment and turn you into a water creature. It’s not your world.

We moved from island to island, from horse to horse. A south wind kept driving us from the landing. I knew we’d have to face it, I knew it was time. She turned us straight into it, kept us on course. My strength propelled us. The wind kept rising. We didn’t make it till noon.

Photo taken by Kathleen Fitzpatrick

Back to the beach, over the dunes with my burden: lawn chairs, books, an umbrella big enough to shield the sun. Her chair seemed almost like a burnished throne, facing east, attended now by those same small birds, circling, pretending to look for food. I read like a common osprey, scanning the lines for fish. Every so often, I’d dive down with my pen, underlining, dashing a paragraph.

I never know what to look for. I’m easily distracted. Sometimes I look up and just stare into the distance. It was easy there, an afternoon mist hazed everything at less then a mile. I was doing exactly that, gazing into the emptiness, when I thought I saw shadows. I convinced myself they were nothing, a trick of the eye, my mind desiring to see something, anything, to fabricate a reality. But they were moving, and moving towards us.

They became more real with every step. I could tell it wasn’t me bringing them into existence. They were engaged in their own creation, and just as in the marsh, they were rough, angular sketches of horse, reduced. The birds saw them too, and fled back to their breakers, back to flying the lines between the swells, seeming at random.

I could see more than outlines now, the colors, white, a kind of rust-red brown, patches of black sometimes. One seemed almost Arabian. They didn’t match my idea, they were painted rather than grown, pieced together, but walking, tentative, wavering. A few stood in the water or lifted a foreleg through a wave. But they kept coming, moving towards us, towards her.

When I say she’s magic, no-one ever believes me. They expect a mist swirling around her, a face wrapped in light, rays on her gown, or a woman rising naked from the foam, a fire stirring near her when she stirs, burning clearly, even in darkness. But it’s not like that at all. It’s a small wind. You have to make yourself very still to feel it. And even then, you can’t feel the wind itself directly. You can only feel the tiny hairs on your wrist moving. But once you know it’s real, you learn what to look for. You learn to see what’s drawn to her.

The horses were getting closer. What could they want? Maybe they were me and just desired to be near her, to feel the effects of the wind. They stopped a few feet away. They stood there, fully formed, breathing.

The birds decided it was safe to come back and actually landed on the sand. By now it was late afternoon and the sun was behind us. Everything seemed still, as if the world had stopped. Only the breakers kept moving, and even their motion was always the same. I don’t know how long the spell lasted. How could I, when I was involved in it? Do figures in a painting keep time?

But when the long shadows of single trees on the dunes edged past us, the birds were the first to move. They got jittery, twittering at last, one lifted his wings, and all the rest followed. Back to combing the lines.

The horses, reluctant, went over the dunes heading for the marsh. She closed the umbrella. I took up my strange burden again.

~~~~~~~~

W.F. Lantry was born near the Pacific Ocean, lived and sailed along the shore of a midland sea, walked the coast of a southern gulf and now lives near an ocean far from home. In 2010 he won the Birmingham-Southern College National Hackney Literary Award in Poetry, Crucible Poetry Prize, CutBank Patricia Goedicke Prize and Lindberg Foundation International Poetry for Peace Prize (in Israel). His chapbook, The Language of Birds, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, and work has appeared in James Dickey Review, The Tower Journal, Kestrel, blue five notebook and Aesthetica. He is a contributing editor of Umbrella. His website is http://wflantry.com/

Estival 2011, Overfalls Read more

Eloise Grills

Mar 31, 2011 No Comments by Sea Stories

Waterlocked

My feet barely disturb the waterlogged and cold sand, floating in it like in an ether dream.

In the darkness the sea seems louder, the roar no longer displaced by the slack jaw of aesthetic awe.

My night vision is flattened, the portion of the beach I can see in the bleak fluorescence of the street lights is grey, as though the black mass of the sea has sucked the colour out like nectar. One breath in and I am up to my ankles, I look down, my winter coat trailing in the water.

I am one of millions of honey ants displaced from the heaving stomach of the hill, from that red centre. Now the sea threatens to suck me back out. To desiccate me.

I think, would it really matter if one of us, one of these million ants, stopped working, stopped carrying, lay down and rolled, rolled right off the edge?

It is a Sunday night. I am aware of this, as I was aware of myself heading home on the last train. The air sick, sweet; perfumed by warm bodies who converse too loud and too harsh into deaf ears for the confines of the space. I had let my rightful station pass, and the lights of suburbia fade as the right window became a dark square of open water. I was drawn here.

The sleighbells of the level crossing and I am dully aware of my blind toes in the sand.

Think- I could follow some phantom current out to sea, never be seen again. To throw oneself in a perfect arc and skip across the surface like a desert rock. You erode until you disappear.

Vanish in the gurgle of the ripples.

Across the bay, I think of the small town where my holiday house sits. But it is not mine. It is my Grandmother’s. A series of corrections, that grow more and more innocuous. The renegotiation of the line between the sand and the water. They say the mind erodes much like that. In waves.

The beach house. St Leonards.

I think of that road to the beach, the one that flattens around you. Through the grassy plains spread thin to the toasted edge of the horizon with the relentless butterknife of European settlers long dead. I have followed this white-bread finger through the years, as a child and then a feral teen, now my mind returns there. You pass the Cheetham salt farms, expanses of twinkling water which reflect the empty sky, as the vacant eyes of their siren symbol wink through the car windows, her lonely song silenced by the roaring of the asphalt against the tires.

The town sits like a stuffed hobby horse which has long since bucked its riders. The empty fish and chip shop, the newsagent, the ice creamery rise out of the green like the earth’s inessential limbs, they will eventually crumble, I think, be still, no longer wound by human hands.

The caravan park is a deserted carnival ground, the lonely power sockets sticking out of the ground waiting to be surged with too many comforts of home.

I think of the pier, and of the squid ink tags upon it. The black marks are soaked defiantly into cement, betraying a muffled violence like a scream just cut short by a hand. Each squid his own personal Pollock, smashing himself like a fly into canvas, like a Brackhage moth into film. Martyrs in their art. Fishermen here wear comic parkas too large that marshmallow at the shoulder; they are curled and hunched and dried like dead teatrees gnarled against the breeze. Their fingernails eclipsed crescent moons of dirt, or fish guts. Probably both.

Wrapped in black vestments, suddenly I think of the jetty at the New South Wales town of Tathra where a father and two boys drowned after leaping in after a pram. We used to holiday there when I was younger.  The town’s other crowning achievement is the capture of the largest shark ever from a pier. That and the crab races, and the mechanical whale, Winky, who performs in the window each night. The Big Crab. The White Whale. The Big Shark. The drowning seems small beneath these, beneath the pier- I once swum under it, saw the sparkling eyes of the fish hooks hanging off it. I think of dark water, dark purple, the capsized pram in silhouette, the mouths of sharks all white below.

All around the perimeter of this island, I think, fishermen stand in silent vigil mourning the drowned. Their baited hooks drift out, again and again, coming back empty or piercing a gasping fish.

There are the lighthouses with their spotlights bleating, a feeble mother’s cry, over and over again, calling the names of lost boys, calling Our John, our Harry, Our Ernie, calling them back to rooms, back to their homes for tea. The border patrol boats standing at the ready with crisp blankets for the victims gone stiff with the salt air.

I turn away from the beach. I imagine myself…

Back in St. Leonards. Up the rolling-hill in leaps and bounds and you find yourself at the lookout point, and you appreciate the view like an adult. There on the horizon the otherworldly lights form the now familiar Melbourne  skyline, you look down deeply at the red cliffs and see them retreating with erosion, the water’s depth and colour you’ve learned are determined by the tide. You become aware of the shapes that rise out of the plaque overlooking the sea, familiar in a half-memory, in child eyes. They rise up as words now, their meaning becomes apparent as you notice the flowers; they catch the bottom corner of the eye, the petals dissolving into the brown water in cheap jars licked clean of marmalade. The embossed names cast shadows on the bird shit, they make spectres of the two boys; you become aware of the two boys: descending the rolling-hill in leaps and bounds. In some buried day, the boys and I, racing, racing down the hill, we are the Famous Five, lemonade and lashings of tongue, oh yum, the smugglers somewhere beneath the cliffs. Dick, Fanny, me, you, there is nothing to stop up as the day stretches on and on and on until dark, ’til we have to be home for tea.

I am up to my ankles, wading, wading. I follow the boys, cajoling each other, running at breakneck speed into the water, in up to their girlish waits, then the giggling and then the thrashing about, pretend-drowning one another, then one or the other gets sore about it and without realizing they get deeper and deeper, and mother said never to swim out of your depth but disobedience and danger are indistinct entities, like the cold grey skin of the boys and the foam of waves that didn’t look so rough from the sand, they drift further, as their lungs fill, one dunking the other again and again, and then the older one realizes he has gone too far, and the pretend has gotten real, and his feet cannot touch the sand and the other writhes underneath and one tries to save the other but in nature’s cruel irony the instinct is to drown the savior, and then finally lungs are drained of breath which is replaced with saltwater and the undertow is the undertaker and the seagulls sing last rites.

It’s all very well-dressed in a hand-painted aquamarine tint of a black and white negative, a depression era painting, the romance of the drowning. The disappearance and the mystery allow for uncertainty. Better that than the creeping car, and the open door and the eager eyes offering sweets which of course turn sour in the long-run when they try to run and the boys all wrapped up in bonbon papers and deposited in the ground. Better that than the careful measurements and the building of two child caskets. No, the sea has mystery and suspense. The boys dissolve like disprin there.  Right as rain.

Here I stand, wet, like someone waiting for the whales, waiting for the boys to breach a second, fall back down. To discover something new and fresh at the edge of the abyss. I am not alone.

I think I can see the silhouette of Harold Holt in the dim light, I am sure of it. In up to his ankles, wading this, every shore. Imagine him; shedding his arms like wisdom teeth. Ribs open like clams to slit the skins surface, reforming gills. He follows a tremor; muscle memory of water pounds through buried river veins. He is an inland rock, red. The wrinkles in his dry skin inverted rivulets, recalling- the inscribed urge to skip and skip across the surface until… he disappears. Dissolves in the wall of spray. His mouth a plughole bursts open.  His cry fades into sea foam, forms whale song. Made invisible- he escapes through the smoke screen, he is distilled vital particles- Evaporated elsewhere. The frontal lobe swells, breaks its banks, the stream soothes eons of evolutionary ache. The flood diverges into a salt lake. His synapses, a submerged circuit board, flash, flash, surge, surge in cacophony for a second before they die. Lighthouses swallowed by the tide. He fills and fills and fills, finally equalising the external pressure of living on his skin. And now, waterlogged, Our Harold Holt can sink. The Australian dream. A baked body sleepwalking into water.

Down to the sea floor, an abandoned carnival ground, littered with picked bones, melted soft serve bodies. The inverse sun of lava blazes like hell through the fissures, through the cracks.

We are not desert rocks, I think we are tectonic plates, moving back to sea. There is nothing new there, nothing for sore old eyes. The anthill of home not in the heart of this island but somewhere miles away, past the breakers, buried, out to sea.

A mother’s voice, whale song, calling us out. Drowned by the roar.

But now it is too late in the day, and we have to be getting back home for supper.

Being land bound for so long has made me old. My sea legs no longer wobble, now they shiver, the feeling of a child’s exhilaration replaced with the coldness of bones when the waves come in.

And they are coming in, as I feel the rocks tug at my toes- the dead, shed fingernails of Virginia Woolf.

My own fingers find my pockets and I turn back from the water.

No.

I cannot dress up the boys in aquamarine.

The sea howls now in an alien tongue that erases language in its path. I cannot see it, in the darkness, but the force of noise pushes me back.

I am numb, I am dumb.

I am going blind.

The darkness-

There is nothing in the Australian imaginary that can be stitched to this, no sun that can penetrate and bleach the bones, no wattle that can perfume, no poetry that can pretty the waterlogged corpses of the drowned.

The blind cannot paint romance onto the suck of a spitting sea.

I could trace the perimeter of the continent, ask the guardians, the fishermen the why of if all. I can see their faces now, staring back, with empty squid-ink eyes, deep black mouths like whale spouts. Ugly and without art.

They never knew any answer except the roar.

I know now. I now know.

The only more terrifying than the sirens is their silence.

The fishermen will pull me back with their hooks if I should try to escape.

And, I…

I will remain stranded on this island, in the same place where I began.

With my numb feet dumbly feeling the edge of an uncanny sea; with the tide always coming, coming always-

Always closing in.

~~~~~~~~

Eloise Grills lives in Melbourne, Australia. She is currently completing her Honours thesis in the department of English at the University of Melbourne.

Overfalls, Vernal 2011 Read more

Marilyn Krysl

Dec 30, 2010 No Comments by Sea Stories

JUBILATE

Everything—every tree, every blade of grass, all
the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the
animate and the inanimate—is always changing,
moment to moment.

*****************************Pema Chodron

Each morning I wake and imagine I’m that monarch whose slave leans over his master’s shoulder and whispers: remember, one day you will die.
*
Sprawl of Caribbean afternoon, shore sloping down. I entered the water that first day, and swam as though shouting to ocean: I’m back! When I was slaked, I rolled onto my back and gazed up. Sky was an arc I lay beneath, rocking, while sea rinsed the pulse of city out of me. Here in the water no one wanted to sell me something, and sea gave not a damn for who I imagined I was. My psyche’s yapping—oh I am superb, oh I have been shafted, oh I need a cookie—all that mind-dross fell away. Ocean’s profound refusal to speak was eloquent. Oh come off it, ocean seemed to say. You think you’re someone? Everything you’ve done is already gone—and you yourself are going. Just to swim that first afternoon, then roll over and float, all my molecules soothed, seemed enough.
*
As a child on my grandparents’ Midwestern farmland, my ocean had been the wide water of sky and pasture, the sea of swaying wheat, the swirl of dust from the limestone gravel road. I communed with meadowlarks and hawks, the resident cats, dogs, pigs, chickens, cattle, horses. The body language of humans and animals is rich speech—speech which leaves mere human language in the dust. With chickens I was a chicken, with cows I was a cow. When coyotes howled, I howled back. I was sibling even with the quiet ooze of mud in the slough.

I took for granted that animals would always be around, common and continuous as the air that breathed us and which we breathed. Then I was twelve and my family moved to the west coast, leaving every animal behind, even my grandmother’s favorite heifer. The ease of lolling amidst animal abundance disappeared. It felt as though we’d slaughtered the animals ourselves—and with them our joy.

Now Caribbean sea’s abundance calls up my rapturous past. I loll beneath sky graced by pelicans and gulls, and listen to the heave of a wave, which breaks, then falls back into “gone.” This “body” of water is animate as I am, never staying, ever changing—as I am. I don a snorkel mask and float, looking down from the dome of water’s cathedral. Light plunges in vertical shafts to ocean’s bottom. Small Grouper mosey over, and we nose each other. A parrot fish the size of a Thanksgiving turkey platter recognizes me as a fellow being, and hangs around, offering itself.

Seeing and being seen: the rill of pleasure I feel in this visual union reminds me that nothing in this world is every “alone”—so how be lonely? The year before, I’d met six Parrot fish swimming in a circle. In a circle all are equal, and I’d entered, making the circle seven. In medieval numerology the number six stands for the highest perfection possible on earth. But seven vaults this perfection into the realm of “heaven.” The fish swam at a pace I could keep, and joy’s adrenaline pumped through me, a rich, steady urgency, the urgency of joy.

How long did we commune—ten minutes, twenty—high on each other’s energy? When the lead Parrot fish swam off toward the reef and the others followed, I’d rested in slow, lazy joy. Today’s Parrot fish noses me, then goes on. It’s four in the afternoon. In slowly lowering light I stroke forward, feeling the good, hard pull of muscle.

How deep is it here near the reef? A fathom? I glance at the bottom. Suddenly a dusky, gray-brown ray slides out from swaying coral fans onto bottom sand. I’ve seen small ones skittering away or burrowing, but this one is wide as the span of my spread arms. Its gray is overlain with an iridescent lavender sheen—ethereal, yet utterly of this world. The ray is free to ignore me, to flee. Instead its lavender iridescence pulses. It waits, offering itself, regarding me with its left eye. Then it lifts just enough to turn its right eye on me. Adrenaline shoots through me, millions of teeny blasts of light: I see this lavender being fully, as I am fully seen.

To recognize another creature as kin, and then to give myself without reservation: this is my preferred consummation. I float, lifted by salt, light warming my back, no longer that imaginary, single creature, an “I.” This body instrument we call the self is connected to and entirely dependent on what surrounds it, and feeling lonely is an illusion: There is no way to be alone. Thought doesn’t enter into it. The way water fills a clay jug my body fills with yes! Somewhere turbines rev and human animals make money, but the lavender being and I have entered a temporal ecstasy. We do not do: we be, and we be one—one wholeness merged with water and with each other.
*
Don’t tell me there are two worlds, one sacred, one profane. Stop dividing us into separate classes, races, genders. Matter and spirit are one, always have been, always will be, and the ray and I have merged. In this merger each is both giver and receiver, offering and accepting energy from the other. We fuel and are fueled by each other, and our encounter enlivens the surrounding water. A generosity I’d forgotten was in me appears, and I cede my “ground” to this beauty, just as this being cedes liquid ground to me.

If the lavender being had perceived me as a predator, it would have zipped out of sight. Instead the ray lingers, offering itself, communing. Now its rises a little above the sand, glides slowly away from the reef, then pauses and turns, as if to say, are you coming?

I am.

We are one living system of circling, animal energy, a single loop of joy ramped up to jubilance. The word means rejoicing, as in triumph—triumph over the mistaken loneliness. I’ve been graced in a way that millions of human animals never experience. Think of us as an ongoing journey. Over and over the ray pauses, turns: am I still coming? Yes I’m coming, and I am all Yes. Or say it this way: the ray and I do nothing. Instead we are being done—done by the immense energy of jubilation.
*
Before I saw the ray, sea had emptied and filled me with the pleasant clamor of pelican and gull. I’d rested and believed I needed nothing more. Now I’ve been given immeasurably more: the more of two animals become one jubilance. Jubilance is not overindulgence. It’s an excess of joy, and every living creature is entitled to a full pitcher of this excess, and another, and another. Here we come, wheeling though the communion of all things, swimming-flying. I imagine I will never want another margarita. I imagine I will never need to eat or drink again.
*
Stroke by stroke, we go deeper, and the deeper we go, the darker the water. At intervals the ray turns and looks up at me, then on we go, one single loop of energy. But It’s harder to see my companion now. The ray skims slowly along near the bottom, and the bottom slopes gradually further and further down. How many times does this lavender being look back, then go on? No one’s counting. We’re completely busy being bodily company.

All the visible structures of the world—all things and beings, Joseph Campbell said, are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve.[1] Then comes a moment when the ray turns, sees me, glides forward along the bottom—and goes all the way out of my sight. I hang in the water looking down longer, rocked by blue green water. But of course: there is here and now, and then there is gone.
*
The soul seeks nothing, Simone Weil wrote, so much as contact with the beauty of the world.[2] That’s what animals give us: the beauty of their strangeness, and their likeness to us, we who are animals too. They not only befriend us, they confirm us to ourselves, just as our attention confirms them.

The ray and I were an instance of the world’s beauty, but now comes the word over. Half of us has disappeared—but which half? Saints have known ecstatic union and also its inevitable disappearance. They recount their piercing and declare afterward that ecstasy’s signature is incised on their flesh. I’m no saint, just your average human animal, graced and blessed, every neuron kissed. How long do I hang in the water, suspended, looking down at ocean’s invisible bottom as though it’s the shrine at Lourdes?
*
Is the slave pleased? Sea is itself a gentle, wild animal, a sprawling aliveness, moving, sighing, rolling over, rolling on. I stroke toward shore, swathed in skin’s wet, sequined veil. Animals call up our lost Eden, that mythic time when flora and fauna lived in harmony before two footed humans appeared. But that imagined Eden was neither heaven nor hell but both—extremes of comfort and discomfort follow each other, pain and ecstasy come go in endless looping time.

Every day we experience small, quickly disappearing Edens, so many we can’t record them. An ecstatic experience is just that: a few moments of ecstasy which fade. I will prevail a while, then fail—that’s the story earth keeps telling us. I remind myself that now is all we ever have, and I’m here now, swimming stroke after stroke like a ticking clock, scrawling my name on water, water which immediately erases what I’ve written.
*
Shore comes closer, and I touch down and stand in waist deep water. Three kids with shovels and a bucket look at me and stare. Does the reservoir of light inside me shoot all the way to the stars? Has the charge of jubilance made a permanent change in my animal body/psyche? But nothing is permanent—the word itself, as I write it, disappears.

Bathers higher up the sand see my luminosity, and I would share this energy, for there is much of it and its glittering clothes me. As I walk up the slope, lit body spreading the word, I remind the slave that I spent this day being extremely alive. So alive that a woman heading down toward the water looks at me, startled, squinting as though my body is too bright to look at directly. She keeps staring, as though I’ve rising from ocean like a newborn wearing a caul of light. Though perhaps she also sees a woman like herself, coming slowly uphill, jubilant, into her dying.

~~~~~~~~

Marilyn Krysl’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, The New Republic, Pushcart Prize Anthology, Best American Short Stories 2000, O. Henry Prize Stories, Sudden Fiction and Sudden Stories. How To Accommodate Men was published by Coffee House in 1998, and Dinner with Osama (stories) won the Richard Sullivan Prize and Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Bronze Medal 2008. She has also published eight books of poetry. Swear the Burning Vow: Selected and New Poems is a finalist for the 2010 Colorado Book Award.

Jubilate first appeared in Two Bridges Review.


[1] Campbell, Joseph, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press, 1949, p. 257.

[2] Simone Weil, Waiting for God, Harper Torchbooks, New York, 1973, p. 174.

Hibernal 2011, Overfalls Read more

Mary Ellen Vogel

Dec 30, 2010 No Comments by Sea Stories

Trawler Speed

With a cigarette between his teeth, a fisherman tosses the bowline to me, and we we’re off!  AAAARRRRIPP!!  Damn!  Forgot that starboard line.  Halfway down the dock—I guess upon hearing that God-awful sound—the fisherman turns back in time to untie the tortured line.  He throws it to me, cigarette still clenched between his teeth.

That’s the first time I’ve done that today,” yells Denis, my captain and husband.

“That’s okay,” replies the fisherman.  Exhaling, he turns back down the dock, expression never changing, fingers never touching the cigarette.

Gliding away from the dock, I begin to relax to the rhythm of the watery slaps against the hull.  The summer sun is already high at nine, baking the early morning chill from the air.  Our destination is the town of White Rock at the Canadian border, so close we could count the houses from our marina berth in Blaine, Washington.  In less than fifteen minutes, Amble, the new-to-us 1991 DeFever 44, sidles up to the pier so we can clear Canadian customs.  My eyes scour the dock for a fellow boater or maybe even a customs officer to catch the bowline, but there’s no one.  Denis calls down from the helm, “You’ll have to lasso a cleat!”

Lasso a cleat!  Who am I, Annie Oakley? That cleat seems miles from me.  I never had this problem with the Marine Trader, a boat we lived aboard on the East Coast.  The bow was so much closer to the water; I could always just jump off with the line in hand.

My first attempt nearly captures the cleat, so with buoyancy I give it another shot.  It ends in a wild throw, destroying my mood.  I make several more tries, alternating from frustrating near misses to more hopeless wild throws.  Finally it happens.  Such relief as we tie up . . . but where is the customs officer?

Denis sees it first.  The telephone is on the other side of the locked gate.  Is it possible that we are to tie up just to use the telephone?  The telephone on the wrong side of the dock!  Couldn’t we have cleared in via radio?  We’re about to untie and go through it all again when a helpful man with a cell phone appears.  All it takes is a short call.

Again, the gentle slaps of water against the hull lull me, as Amble gracefully ruffles the water of the Frazier River to Captains Cove.  The idea is to have her hauled for repairs and bottom paint.

En route, we discuss my lack of dexterity with the lines and decide that with a longer “lasso,” I could probably handle docking more efficiently.  So we swap the lines, never to see another cleat in Canada.  Their docks use two by fours, which create a space under the board that the line must pass through.  How would Annie Oakley handle that one?

Our less than ideal solution is for me to tie the stern first, allowing an easier exit from the side of the aft sun deck.  However, the new arrangement gives Denis one more concern when docking, trying not to smash the swim platform.

***

Waking at 7:00 a.m., we anticipate the 9:00 a.m. haul in good spirits.  After coffee, toast and yogurt, Denis maneuvers Amble into the small watery conduit adjacent to the large sling that will haul her out of the water.

“How tall is she?” asks a sinewy dock worker.

“About twenty-five feet from keel to anchor light,” answers Denis.

With a tentative look, the dockworker musters the others, who, together, attach the lines and secure the sling around Amble’s submerged, bulging girth.  Roped and tied, she’s hoisted five feet before the inevitable truth; “Sorry, too tall for the lift,”

Banished back to the water, Amble pushes off for Shelter Island Marina.

Damn!  Back to the dock—this time it’s the hose coupling.  It would cost less than a buck to replace, but we’d never be able to find another one, especially where we are going.

Despite the delay, Amble is hauled at Shelter Island by eleven.  Denis pressure washes the bottom, and while it dries, he works on the though hulls and changes the zincs.  We both paint the bottom, finishing with a second coat the next day.

The night is spent on the hard stand.  We can’t let water down the drain as it would soak the fresh bottom paint.  I do the dishes in a bucket and set it on the aft deck for Denis to empty.  A boat out of water just feels wrong; what was fluid and graceful becomes stiff and creaky.

When the second coat of paint dries sufficiently, Amble is once again harnessed and lowered into the water.  Without hesitation, like a sea creature restored to the wild, she delicately parts the Frasier River to Steveston, a quaint fishing village south of Vancouver.  We tie up to the commercial dock with special permission from the city, something they allow if commercial boats don’t need the space.  Amble’s white paint and blue bimini are a contrast to the black hulls of the working trawlers with their rugged rigging.  However, the fishermen don’t seem to hold our sybaritic appearance against us, and we spend the evening in good conversation.

***

The morning is bright as we push off for Pender Harbour.  Cruising away, I spot the hose coupling still attached to the water spigot on the dock.  I call out to Denis.  He reverses the engines, but before we dock one of the fishermen spots the problem and tosses the coupling to me.  I’m a girl.  I catch better than I throw.  With grateful smiles and farewells, we’re off.

There are floating logs everywhere in these waters, and Denis must avoid a hundred before tapping one, thankfully without damage.  Despite the logs, we cruise peacefully, enjoying the beauty of the tree covered islands . . . rapidly becoming misty in the distance.  Fog?  As both the horn and the radio stopped working somewhere between White Rock and Captains Cove, we decide the only sensible course is to double back to Nanaimo.

The air grows cold, and we arrive in sweaters and long underwear.  It had been almost hot in Steveston that morning.

***

Waking at anchor across from Nanaimo, we start once again for Pender Harbour.  The day is clear; the Strait of Georgia is turbulent.  The wind driven waves bang the hull sporadically, catching us off guard and startling us over and over again.  The floating logs are gone, submerged in the rough sea?  We turn back.

Dropping the anchor in the exact same spot as the night before, we sink exhausted into the chairs on the aft deck.  Denis proposes that we rest here for the weekend.  Gratefully, I agree.

It’s warm and sunny, and Natives tell us that Nanaimo, the second largest city on Vancouver Island, enjoys a good climate in comparison to the rest of the Pacific Northwest.  Newcastle Island, a stone’s throw from Nanaimo, is a camper’s paradise with trails through what looks like primeval forest and a pavilion where “tea dances” are held on Sunday.  But our shakedown cruise continues to shake things out, and a leak in the generator raw water pump keeps Denis and I off the dance floor.

Other boaters assure us that sometimes there aren’t so many “floaters,” and while we should be careful of submerged logs, hitting a “deadhead” at trawler speed probably wouldn’t cause a problem.  On Monday morning, once again, we are ready to cross the Strait of Georgia, rough with a five to six-foot chop.

Amble rolls at forty-five degree angles, and we aren’t underway long when things begin flying around.  Denis walks into the saloon just in time to catch the television as it slips out of its lashings.  One of the cabinet doors opens, allowing popcorn kernels to escape to every corner of the boat.  The deck furniture slides back and forth, and I thank God for lightweight plastic.  Despite the load it holds, a shelf flies straight up, scattering books everywhere.  Finally, Denis begins tacking to reduce the severe roll.  “So much for the minimum distance between two points,” he says.

Pender Harbour with its natural rock bank, cool green foliage and red-roofed Pub is especially pretty and quaint, but perhaps this afternoon anything on terra firma would be.  But, maybe not.  Nothing is broken and the rough trip has shown us where our problem areas are.  While I pick up popcorn (which I will do for a week) and put the bookshelf back together, Denis ties down the television and dinghy more securely.  We both remove all superfluous objects into cabinets, and surveying Amble in her more organized state, we feel quite at home.

***

We prolong breakfast on the aft deck, enjoying the warm, yet crisp morning air.  Leaving Pender Harbour just after eleven (with the hose coupling on the first try), we travel though Agamenon Passage to Jervis Inlet, enchanted by waterfalls cascading down mountains that rise straight out of the fjord.

Our destination is Princess Louisa Inlet.  It’s a place that can only be reached by small plane or boat because Malibu Rapids guards the fjord at the bottleneck.  British navel officer and explorer, Captain George Vancouver was convinced that Jervis Inlet, with depths reaching beyond six-hundred feet, would prove to be the Northwest Passage.  He was bitterly disappointed when the inlet ended just beyond the entrance to Princess Louisa.

Entering Queen’s Reach, the northern most arm of Jervis Inlet, at five in the afternoon, we must wait until seven for high tide and plenty of water to enter Princess Louisa.  That gives us two hours to simply drift around in the blue and green reflections.  It’s a perfect time for dinner on the aft deck with the sun still high and the day still warm. Denis fires up the grill and the smell of our barbequed chicken mingles with the mouthwatering aromas coming from the three other boats waiting to do the same thing.

At seven we take our turn with the others and negotiate the slash in the rocks that is tame at slack tide.  It’s as though entering a cave, but soon the inlet opens up, and I’m sure if Captain Vancouver had known what lay beyond, he would have braved the rapids, accepting Princess Louisa as a lovely consolation prize for the Northwest Passage.

The inlet is only five miles long and at most a half mile wide.  Mountains rise to a height of more than a mile on all sides and snowmelt waterfalls trickle down the cliffs.  At the head of the inlet, the sight of Chatterbox Falls takes my breath away with its impressive cascade that vigorously tumbles with a loud watery din into the wet canyon.  Denis has me drop the anchor dead center of the falls.  The current will hold us steady, allowing us to dispense with the line to shore, usually necessary in these waters.

We are a picture in a travel brochure.  I don’t even want to read.  I just want to lounge in my deck chair and gaze.  But Chatterbox demands that I paint it, and Amble is ever demanding of Denis.  I try to concentrate on the composition, but several families and their dogs distract me as they wade and paddle their kayaks at the mouth of the falls.  A Golden Retriever keeps trying to swim against the current, working so hard just to stay in one place.

The inlet is full of seals that poke their heads above water and watch the boaters for several minutes from a distance of twenty or thirty feet while Bald Eagles soar above.  Folklore has it that a seal followed two children for several hours as they paddled about in a kayak.

***

Three days is not enough in Princess Louisa, but travelers always have to know what is beyond.  At 6:30 a.m. we weigh anchor and glide through the canyon toward the rapids, now at high tide.  The sun is already high when the rapids spit Amble out into Queen’s Reach.  I smile atop the fly bridge as I read this passage by Catherine Dock in Darling, Call the Coast Guard, We’re on Fire Again:

The mindless optimism of Voltaire’s Candide is not unlike the state of mind of the average sailor-happiness near akin to mental illness in the face of one disaster after another.  His disasters were social and ours are mechanical, but no matter.  The message is the same.  There’s something wrong with us, but we’re happy.

Yes, I think we are.

~~~~~~~~

Mary Ellen Vogel lives in Pembrobe Pines, Florida, with her husband Denis.  They have spent one year cruising on a 44-foot, Marine Trader trawler in the Bahamas and Florida and close to three years on a 44-foot, DeFevor trawler in Hong Kong, Canada, Mexico and the West Coast of the United States.  She has previously published in the Autumnal 2006 issue of Sea Stories.

Hibernal 2011, Overfalls Read more

Margaret Hart

Oct 04, 2010 No Comments by Sea Stories

Catch and Release
and the Art of Steve Thurston

Legacy

It is Wednesday, April 14th, twelve hours, eleven minutes and 46 seconds until the season opens. A group of colleagues are gathered in the employee cafeteria at the Museum of Natural History to discuss the weeks work over lunch. The cafeteria is in a dimly lit basement of one of the oldest buildings in New York City and Steve Thurston, sitting among them, has that far-away look in his Neptunian blue eyes. I often see that expression in the mirror, so I have to smile; it has been a long, cold winter and his mind is elsewhere.

His distinguished career spans a lifetime of creative achievement in both art and science. Whether it is with a piece of charcoal or the scanning electron microscope, Steve is a master of technique and rendition. But his keen interest in botany and zoology intertwine with a deep rooted passion; Steve loves to fish.

As a young child, in the 1960s, Steve angled for large mouth bass on the freshwater ponds near his home, in Lincoln, Rhode Island.  He scouted every creek for rainbow trout, pickerel, bluegill and catfish. He found tautog grazing for fiddler crab in stony fissures and teased out hickory shad at the breakwaters in Charleston. Where this rugged, rocky coastline eases down from high cliffs to the outwash plain and sand beaches along Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Steve jigged for fluke and flounder in a small skiff, alongside his paternal grandfather.

There, he sketched fern in a freshwater seep behind pitch pine and dune, the shift of verdant shadows in a tangle of catbrier. High above the nest of a wren, woven waist high in the flowering cordgrass, the silvery clouds unfurled like a sail, and unbridled, broke free. A charm of swallows banked in over the rosehips and heather. He painted in concert, the nimble birds, the play of light, the spectrum still searching. Each brush stroke and feather, each turn of a wing, shook loose the lantern, the luster in flight. Each sepia plume, dusky but fleeting, fell muted to sunbeam, and seized hold of its colors. First apricot and violet, then aquamarine. They gathered around him, drenched in pigment and mirth. They swept past his shoulders and up into the wind, like bright, falling leaves. When a fish hawk called out, a sentry and wary, the sharp burst of sound flooded into his heart like a high pitched bell. Down on his belly in the igneous sand, he could feel the faltering waves, unclasp. He traced a fluted facet of stone, silt and clay, and held it up to the sunlight. Steve learned to read the water, to study the fish and their movement. His restless palette came to life; the ocean began to take hold of him.

Ben Thurston spent many decades surfcasting on Cape Cod, Massachusetts; he was an enigmatic man, who was seldom seen off the sand.  While his family enjoyed their weekend visits to the coast each summer, Ben often took up residence there. He would camp out for months and fish along the outer beaches. He lived and travelled in a self-styled beach buggy converted from a U.S. army truck; this adaptation was a rugged precursor to the modern recreational vehicle, and he was not alone in this endeavor. By the late 1950s an entire sub-culture of mobile surfcasters had developed along the eastern seaboard. Cape locals called them the “fishing gypsies.” Anglers traveled for hundreds of miles to fish along Cape Cod. Nauset and Chatham Inlets were legendary fishing grounds and the current at Race Point is famous for holding tremendous numbers of cow bass. Fisherman simply call it, The Race.

To read more and view the artwork, click here:

Cover design is by Steve R. Black
An excerpt of this piece was first published in the October 2009 edition of Natural History Magazine

~~~~~~~~

Margaret Hart is an biologist living on Long Island. Steve Thurston is a scientific illustrator at the American Museum of Natural History. If you would like to learn more about ocean and fisheries conservation, please visit the following websites:

http://www.joincca.org

http://www.blueocean.org

http://www.pewoceanscience.org/mission/mission.php

http://www.oceanconservation.org

Autumnal 2010, Overfalls Read more