We found this beautiful short essay on the Salmon Sisters site, and got permission from the author, Emma Teal Laukitis, to share it. Emma grew up fishing the Bering Sea not far from where we fish. She splits her time between her family home in Homer, fish camp in False Pass, and Williams College, where she is a senior and a member of the women’s crew team. Emma is also a talented artist – she and her sister, Claire, sell their whimsical artwork, which is inspired by their life on the sea, at http://aksalmonsisters.bigcartel.com/.
August ends the game. In the last days, there’s a desperation to leave behind the days of summer that tossed me around in its storms. I’m done being shown up by my big mother ocean, done hiding from her winds, done sneaking around, stealing fish from her while she sleeps. There’s always a point in August when my dad sits in his captain’s chair with his feet up on the wheel and I hear him grumble over the radio that he feels as though he’s cheating. A small boat in the Bering Sea, where calm is no possibility—his crew his two daughters, unlucky in itself. Somehow we found fish, but only because gale warnings brought our boat closer to shore, to a place no one predicted would produce. Somehow we anchored up before the tide turned and the current pulled all the halibut off our hooks. Somehow, when we tied the boat up to the dock to deliver our fish in the middle of the night, my arm wasn’t crushed between creosote piling and aluminum hull. Somehow, but no one knows how, we made it through one more storm, one more night on wheel-watch, one more delivery, and won ourselves one more chance.
The rules of the game are not clear. However, after years of loosing or getting lucky, fishermen contrive the same strategy. It is best to be sneaky. It is best to find loopholes, to look ahead when it’s already enough to be looking straight forward. It is best to cheat, so that one can keep playing—so that one can survive. There is no way of predicting the ocean’s temper, every attempt must be made to avoid being caught feeling too big, having too much confidence. To be successful, one must act with confidence, though to be caught with too much of it is destructive. The ocean will find the boat that has forgotten to tie down its deck, that sails from the calm of port with some left-over security from land, and will harass it until its thousand-pound tubs of bait on the back deck slide back and forth in a dangerously life-sized game of collision. The ocean will find the captain who finally begins catching fish, whose perspective on a good day turns from any fish at all to a deck load and full hatches. The ocean will punish his greed, and while he ignores the wind picking up around him while he sets yet another string of hooks, that string will snap as the waves grow larger and those fish sparkling in his eyes will be lost.
The cruelest part of the game is that it can’t be put away. For almost everyone, every August, the pieces are picked up—the nets, the boats, the hooks, the raingear, and put away in the closet, in the shed, in the net locker. It’s a relief at first, to put it out of sight as it always is when you finally find yourself out of danger. The relief I feel to finally put my feet on land—good land that will not get rough, will not keep me from getting home—is colossal. A sense of self-preservation takes over and outweighs the desire to be tough. I have lost the need to prove anything, ever, to anyone. In a way it defeats us all—the ocean. Fishermen leave after a long summer, with the game back in the box, out of sight. But after a few months of cold-sweat night visions of broken anchors and men overboard, dreams of full fishholds and the simplicity of hard work come as a replacement. There is something about living by the rules of basic survival that haunts us through the winter, brings us humbly back with the turn of the summer tides to the game that’s still cracked open in the box. We have to keep playing, keep surviving, keep cheating our ends as best we can. So we return, pull out the pieces and return to something our instincts told us never to come back to. We find more ways to go unnoticed, we learn tricks, and pretend to be subservient to the ocean so that she does not sense our primal need to play, to win. We play on, we race to catch our fish before the September equinox turns gales to hurricanes, until we are certain that if we stay one day longer, our misconduct will be caught and our punishment assumed.