Above the dark line of the water, a single white mountain looked ghost-like on the horizon. My thoughts drifted the distance from the boat to the peak. Ocean fishing, much like hunting in the mountains, puts you in a barren-looking world that is full of life you must discover. It’s a humbling perspective that makes you feel small.
It was going to be a long day. I tipped off the dogs while saying my goodbyes at the door: “We’ll be back sooner than it seems,” I said. Whenever I choose to believe the article that states dogs can’t tell time over the one that states they can smell time, I know as well as they do that I will be gone a while.
Also, Steve had fed them an ample breakfast. As creatures of habit, nothing says your people are going to be gone a while as getting two meals at once.
Despite our actions to the contrary, I confessed, “I hope this is not another 12-hour day on the water.” Again, nothing predicts a 12-hour day like hoping against it.
A single saltwater trip once epitomized the romance I felt for the long haul. Never having experienced commercial fishing or the second wind after seasickness, I didn’t know how it was possible to crave a feeling you wished never to have again.
The aluminum hull of the boat slammed the swells that marked the entrance to the gulf across which there was no shore in sight for as far as 6,000 miles. The next exposed curvature of the earth was across a storm-swept arm of the ocean where the world’s largest tsunami had once consumed Lituya Bay. We would soon be in the middle of nowhere with no one to save us.
The captain had said this was why he could never stand to be in jail. Ten-foot waves hit the deck, and we agreed. To fish the way we wanted, we had to head toward a dangerous expanse of water where 100-foot rock pinnacles cover the ocean floor, giant lingcod feast on the violent currents stirring up their prey, and the outer limits threaten to destroy us or set us free.
It’s long been a fantasy of mine to leave the civilized world and live alone for a year in the wild. There, I would get woolly and wise. Instead of being tamed by a curling iron and mascara, the wreckage of my morning looks would be purified by abstinence of all things contaminated and contaminating. Free of hairspray fumes and tinted lip balm, I would instead breathe the mountain air and feel the sun and wind on my skin. My eyebrows would grow together as nature intended, but I would see my image in the river and not know the difference.
The civilized world, on the other hand, provides a set of problems and solutions that do not exist in nature — the economy requires regular employment; the sedentary life necessitates time at the gym; the food industry compels us to diet; pain and boredom lead to medicine and entertainment; technology and safety require security. My inner romanticist rebels and is often too big for her britches. I long for the long-range day trip — the best of both worlds — with the thought that it is as close as I can get to never coming back.
As Steve drove by the espresso stand, he said, “You didn’t want to stop there did you?” As much as I know that he never turns around for anything once he has passed it, he also knows I avoid espresso before fishing. It’s a superstition but also a test of will. I drink lattes during the week as if I am T.S. Eliot measuring my life in coffee spoons. If I am going to dare to catch a wild fish, I ought not to indulge in my regular routines. No makeup, no fancy coffee.
I am not sure when living off the land or the sea changed to “living off the grid,” but I prefer the older idea. Both may share the same ethos that informed the American Dream and the Alaska character — attracted to freedom, frontiers and a better quality of life.
A group of us gathered on the dock at 6 a.m. and committed to a full day on the water even while we secretly hoped to get back to our dogs by 2 p.m. We were fishing to fill the freezer and happy to stay in sight of the shore if that’s all it took. We cheered for each healthy halibut landed, noting the thickness and good-eating size.
With calm seas and blue skies, for the first time in my fishing life, I got seasick. There I was on deck, bundled and bobbing without the benefit of espresso, all to experience an idea of freedom and to catch what for us was a year’s worth of halibut. I thought about how friends had recommended fishing from a kayak for a few peaceful hours and hailed the easy launch and casual day, and I wondered if that wasn’t a better option.
Yet there is something about the longer haul, whether in distance or time. The fish in deeper waters — rockfish and lingcod especially — have a look about them that seems to suggest deep time. You feel your line and the weight of the lead as it extends into the darkness below. There is no land in sight as you wonder what your lure looks like on the ocean floor, and a bigger boat gives you the feeling of being at home on the water.
I feel the brush of a fish or the pull that may be a bite. Is it the slow pull with intent to digest or is it an attack? Will I reel up a monster fish or a creature never seen before? Even if it’s true that every species in the sea has been served with chips, I still enjoy reeling up a rarity.
The hours I’ve spent hunting or fishing have been as close as I can get to living off the land while still living on the grid. We pulled into the harbor at 6 p.m. with our fish in the cooler. After a few hours of driving, we were back home sooner than it seemed, with the dogs barking and their tails wagging the same as if I had been home before dinner.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan and avid hunter who lives in Kenai.