Written by Jay Zimmerman
Joe knew he had to stay awake to stay alive. Saltwater stung his eyes, but apart from that discomfort the rest of his head and body were entirely void of any feeling at all. Even the tight aching in his scalp had long faded. The chills and shivering were over with, too. The first few times the irritation in his eyes had gotten bad he had tried to wipe away the salt spray using his thumbs. They were the only two digits left usable in the mitten-like hands of the bright orange survival suit he wore. But touching his sensory-less face made him more than just uncomfortable. His skin felt lifeless and uninviting. Now he just squinted his eyes tight for a moment and rolled them. It relieved only briefly.
Joe no longer harbored any fantasies about saving himself. If he were to live he was going to have to be rescued. And the odds of that happening were waning fast, as were the brief hours of daylight. The Coast Guard had an airplane overhead earlier, a big orange-and-white C-130 banking low along the coast, lumbering back and forth, fighting the same wicked gale that assaulted the side of Joe’s numb face every time the frigid ocean lifted him up to the crest of another swell. The airplane had left without even coming close enough to bother waving at, and for a long time afterward Joe had told himself that it was just refueling and was sure to be back again to look for him. That assumption was gradually weakening.
But he could still see land. That was the only thing that kept the whole predicament bearable. Hell, that made it all a bit funny somehow. He snorted through nostrils he could no longer feel and laughed at himself. He felt detached, as though he could hover above somehow, up there where the airplane had been, but out of the wind. He could look down and laugh at the orange body floating with arms and legs spread like a dead frog in his father’s pond back home in Litchfield, Illinois.
He was alone in the water now, over a mile off the coast of Kodiak Island. What plight. It was almost November, almost winter. The mountains had been collecting snow for awhile and it wouldn’t be long, days possibly, before the entire island would be covered. All of coastal Alaska was cold, damp and miserable, and the seas were becoming even more unpredictably volatile. Smaller fishing vessels had been advised for weeks not to leave the sanctuary of their home ports.
There had only been the two of them aboard the 38-foot Sand Flea. Gary, the skipper, seemed to die quickly and relatively painlessly. Joe had seen him go into the water without wearing a survival suit. The older man had crawled up on deck clutching the suit, but had been thrown overboard before he could put it on. Once in the water Gary had only lasted minutes. Joe never had time to swim close enough to help. If it had been calmer water he could have kept his skipper alive for a half hour or so before hypothermia sucked the life from him. He may have even been able to get the man into his suit, but he couldn’t reach him. There wasn’t time. Gary stopped moving his arms, rolled face-down in the water and then slipped into the side of a swell. Joe never saw him again.
Joe had been flung over first. He was up on the flying bridge at the time with both hands tight to the wheel trying to have an effect on which way the vessel went. He wasn’t up there to steer, really, or to navigate – by that time it was pointless – he was merely the lookout. He was to yell down below to Gary when they got close to land. The plan was to somehow get into the lee of something, tie off and try to get ashore. That was Plan C, the contingency to the contingency. They had the anchor down, too, as a Plan B, all the way to the end of its chain and it, in theory, would catch and hold as soon as it touched bottom. They were hoping to be blown to a section of coast with a gradually sloping bottom contour. But the northern coast of Kodiak was not the best place to have that kind of bet riding.
Although, if Gary could get the engine running again – that was Plan A – the ordeal would end and be nothing more than a great adrenalin rush and another good fishing story. Gary had gotten the engine running after it quit the first time, so Joe had a lot of confidence, or he did until they got to within one-hundred feet or so of the steep, jagged shoreline. Joe saw small rock outcroppings appearing occasionally in the troughs of the breaking swells and knew then it was going to be up to himself or the anchor to keep them afloat. Either way, it would be hairy.
Originally, the problems had started when the bilge pump quit while they were struggling to retrieve their longline. They had 9000 feet of it set off Sharatin Bay, a little over two miles from shore. The Sand Flea was already riding low, with the two and a half tons of halibut and crushed ice in the hold, and the seawater building up only brought the scuppers closer to sea-level. The deck was almost constantly awash, the hydraulic boom was crashing back and forth and some of the halibut they had managed to pull aboard got chucked back over and lost. Joe locked a leg around the metal frame of the big longline reel mounted on the stern to keep his balance while trying to bleed and gut the fish that were left. They winched in half the longline before the engine quit the first time, and Gary had to cut them free of the line with a gutting knife to keep from being swamped.
The weather was too bad to be pulling the longline set anyway. It would have been better to let the set soak all night. Sure there would be losses. Sharks would tear into the catch, the larger halibut would eventually twist free of the large circle hooks, others would die and get number-twoed, bringing a lower price, but it would have been safer than do what they had done.
Gary had over thirty years experience commercial fishing off Kodiak. He knew better. He stayed alive because of his respect for the weather and the ocean. It was Joe who finally prodded his skipper into action. The older man’s wisdom caved under the younger man’s enthusiasm.
It was not that Joe had a lack of respect for the ocean or how dangerous and unpredictable it could be, or that he was motivated by the thought of a smaller paycheck. It was that he had respect for the fish, too, strung up and dying slowly and grotesquely out there while he sat idle, holed up in the shelter of Anton Larson Bay. It was tough enough for him to be a part of the dead-fish industry in the first place. He was a river junky and a fly fisherman. But he hadn’t a lot of options. He came alone to the island three years before with barely enough money left for a security deposit on an efficiency apartment. As he always had, he took what work he could.
Things didn’t seem too bad after the first engine failure. The wind was taking them toward Port Lions, about four miles across Kizhuyak Bay, and Gary was sure they could radio another boat once they got close. He knew a man, a half Russian, half native Alutiiq, who lived there and would shack them up and help with the boat. But Gary got the old diesel going again and they decided to make the run back to Anton Larson Bay, the same sheltered spot they had spent the last two nights gutting and icing down their day’s catch. There was a gravel road connecting the bay to civilization, so if the engine quit once they were there they could tie up and one of them would hitch a ride. Runnamuck Charters ran a boat out of the area, so there was a decent chance of fishermen being around.
They didn’t make it, though. The engine quit again and this time the wind wasn’t blowing them toward anything pleasant. Gary suggested Joe put on his survival suit. Joe thought that was premature and felt silly taking off his rubber boots and slickers and squeezing into the awkward suit. He did it anyway, but didn’t pull the tight hood over his head. He didn’t think he could without help even if he wanted to. The mitten-like hands made everything he did clumsy.
Gary told him to stay up on the flying bridge to keep watch and give a yell when they got close to land. Then Gary lowered the anchor and went below to coax life back into his boat for the second time.
Three miles later Joe realized it was going to be either him or the anchor keeping them from splintering into the rocky shoreline. He could see they were headed toward Whale Passage and it would only be a matter of time before they collided with Whale Island or one of the northern appendages of Kodiak Island.
Joe yelled down to Gary, who stuck his head out of the cabin for a moment, surveyed the impending situation and then disappeared below again. They were getting dangerously close to the southern edge of Whale Island. Joe could hear Gary on the radio. The Sand Flea and her crew were in distress. They were still almost a hundred feet from shore when the anchor caught on the bottom. Joe felt a wave of relief that lasted only seconds. The hull slammed into rock with a dull thump that sent Joe hard to his knees. The next swell broke them free with a jerk that sent him over the wheel, tumbling off the bow and into the ocean.
The shock of the water was intense even with the survival suit on. Joe’s scalp tightened instantly and his breath was taken away by the cold. When he surfaced he could see the Sand Flea on her side, her wooden hull half out of the water and torn to pieces. And he saw Gary crawl onto the pitching deck with his own survival suit in his hands. He never got it on.
The boat went down quickly. So did Gary. For quite some time afterward Joe felt objects bump against his legs in the waves. Thinking it might be his skipper, he reached for them, but they always turned out to be chunks of crushed ice from the gutted hold, or large, stiff halibut carcasses. It wasn’t long, though, before Joe was blown by the wind and carried by the currents away from the wreckage site. He bobbed and froze for hours, and helplessly watched the big orange-and-white C-130 circle back along the coast for the last time and leave.
* * *
It had been the search for a home river that brought Joe to Alaska. A good home river, according to him, was what gauged the amount of happiness one could expect from life. It was narrowness in vision purposely self-inflicted to maximize what his eyes could catch and his mind could cherish. Joe wanted to enjoy his life, and he hadn’t for most of his twenty-nine years. He survived by ignoring the fast-paced, money-based ideology that surrounded him for the first twenty-six and focused instead on something maybe even less tangible: moving water.
The muddy, carp- gar- and sucker-strewn rivers Joe embraced back in Illinois were less than what he knew was out there. He had read about the Western trout rivers, dreamed and fantasized about them, but in return always felt guilty, as though he were coveting someone else’s lover. It took him eight years of piddling, meaningless jobs and less-than-adequate rivers, after graduating next to last in his highschool class, to realize he would never reach any great heights as either a man or a river-lover without a real river. How could a poet sing magic with ink without any real emotion as fuel? How could an artist spill worlds onto a blank canvas without real love for the world on which the easel stood? How could Joe ever submerge himself in life and let himself be swept away without ever giving himself over entirely to an entity capable of taking him for all he had to give? How could a river-lover live without a real river?
He couldn’t. That’s why he quit stocking shelves at Wal-Mart, changed the oil in his pickup and drove to Alaska. Originally he was headed for Montana, but he got turned around at night in North Dakota after getting gas, wound up in line for Canadian Customs, went with the flow and after the hassle getting out of the U.S. decided to just keep driving north. The urge to ferry to Kodiak came days later, after the busy Anchorage intersections reminded him of those in Springfield and Chicago that always scared the hell out of him.
Joe was scared, too, when he first realized he was going to die out there in the water, within sight of land. But he came to grips with it. He was so tired and numb and the pain in his eyes made him crave sleep more than ever. And he knew with sleep came death. He consoled himself with what was left of his humor and of the still-recent memories of the virtual Eden of rivers he’d stumbled onto in the last three years. They had made him confident and happy for the first time in his life. He loved them all for it, and gave himself over to them fully. Now, he thought, What irony . . . . He was being returned to the same vast mother of waters that had been swallowing his rivers whole for eternity. He didn’t mind so much when he finally accepted he was living the last hour or less of his life in the way he was probably meant to. It all seemed to fit in his mind comfortably.
Joe had fallen in love with the Buskin River first. He camped in a tent alongside it during his first two weeks on the island. It took him that long to track down a permanent place to sleep because the river was such a distraction. The sockeye salmon were just moving in from the ocean and Joe caught his first one – a bright six-pound female – at the end of his first evening before he even pitched his tent. He cast a small olive and white streamer he’d tied himself. It was a fly he liked to use for smallmouth bass and it was still tied to the end of his leader when he dug his rod out from behind the bench seat of his pickup. Joe didn’t know what fly to use, he didn’t even know what kind of fish were swimming in this new river, so he went with what he had on. And he was brought almost to tears after hooking and landing his first one. It ran farther, fought harder and jumped higher than anything Joe had ever had on the end of a line. Kneeling beside the beached fish he felt as though the river had acknowledged him, the stranger standing on her bank, and greeted him. He felt welcomed, and grateful.
Joe killed and gutted his gift of salmon, then wrapped it in aluminum foil and buried it in a bed of hot coals raked from his campfire. He left it there until it smelled done. Then he ate until he could barely roll over. Later that night he picked the leftover salmon flesh off the bones, mixed it into the almost empty jar of mayonnaise he had with him for the entire ten-day drive and fourteen-hour ferry ride. It made enough sandwich spread to last for days, and he ate nothing else.
Joe eventually did get away from the intoxicating enchantment of the Buskin long enough to find a place to live that was more comfortable than his tent – a small, second-floor apartment in town. It was the cheapest place he could find advertized in the Kodiak Daily Mirror.
The first year Joe worked in one of the many canneries on the island. He was made foreman in his first week and had over a dozen young Filipinos in his charge, mostly boys in their late teens who didn’t speak much English. Joe had never been anyone’s boss before and he didn’t like it. He had always found maintaining responsibility for himself challenging enough. It was this that made him leave the cannery after the first year, not the odd hours, low pay or minority status.
Working at the cannery did give Joe a convenient way to meet most of the skippers on the island. He would always make sure to be out on the dock when the boats were there to deliver fish or get ice before their trip out. It was because of this that Gary knew Joe and hired him when he asked. Gary hired on two other men about Joe’s age during the salmon openers, but at the end of the season Joe was the only one kept on for the halibut fishing. That was where the better money was, and Joe was honored.
Joe had road access to two other rivers just as wonderful as the Buskin and countless smaller creeks, but there was just too much good fishing less than twenty minutes from his apartment. He had Lake Ambercrombie on the north edge of town full of chunky rainbow trout, and at the head of the Buskin River was Buskin Lake, both of which seemed to get a make-over every month-and-a-half when a different salmon species moved in: sockeyes, pinks, cohos, and feisty Dolly Varden with light pink spots to tantalize between salmon runs.
But Joe, with all his newly discovered love, died early, before he could even live long enough to deny his thirtieth birthday. His body was found a mile off the coast of Whale Island by an old man, a half Russian, half native Alutiiq.
The old man threaded a line under Joe’s armpits, tied a loose bowline and towed Joe behind his skiff to Port Lions. On the way neither men’s expressions changed. The old man wore a reserved frown, a sad look, but one also that suggested this wasn’t the first dead man he’d towed home. Joe, though, appeared more cheerful. His face pointed skyward and was framed by moving water, a wake that wrapped gently around his head, and it held the same blue-lipped half-smile he’d donned in the last moments of his life. It was a smile brought on by the memory of three beautiful years of loving, and being nurtured by, the most real rivers he had ever known.
His last thoughts were of perfectly clear, running water, and of bright, big-bodied salmon. And he had few, if no, regrets.