He began as a deckhand for one of the first halibut guides in Alaska, Orby Sewell, who had a thirty-foot wooden seiner that he outfitted for sport fishing. In 1973, Sewell paid Jeff five dollars to paint the name—Arctic Explorer—on the boat’s stern in black letters. He launched right there on the spit, near where Land’s End Resort sits today, and he used a cable hooked up to a milk truck to pull the boat out of the water each afternoon. Jeff, just a kid, began taking groups of tourists out for day trips in the boat. “Back then, all you had to do is go out about a quarter mile and sink some herring,” he remembered. “Now, you have to run two hours out of Homer to find a decent halibut.” Now the Arctic Explorer, the very first charter, rots in a graveyard of fishing vessels at Mud Bay. Captain Jeff pointed it out to me each time we drove by.
Me? I was fifty and a professor at a declining community college in Wyoming, teaching Black Elk Speaks and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” The students were growing impatient with my shtick. It seemed many of my colleagues were making serious changes in their lives, downsizing and heading off to exotic places. Right before Christmas break, I had lunch with Stan Cunningham*[HF1] , a poli-sci professor who had been promoted to the college administration. He saw no point in teaching the classics and sang the praises of job placement and online classes, though he knew I disagreed. He was gluten-free now, and he told me about it. While we talked, his sea-blue eyes searched the cafeteria, as if looking for some new opportunity for advancement. Not long after that, he quit his job to become a preacher in Belize. His church paid for everything. All he had to do was buy a new pair of swim trunks and show up.
Why couldn’t I do something like that? I’d sometimes made extra money freelancing for the “hook-and-bullet press”—fishing and hunting magazines. For these types of articles, you got in and you got out. They were purplish pieces where you could earn three hundred bucks and meet some interesting people. I decided I might spend the summer in Homer, Alaska, and write a feature or two on the charter fishing industry there, maybe talk my way onto a few boats, get to know the captains. In the winter, I began contacting charter boat owners online, saying I wanted to do a magazine piece on them. I wrote dozens of these blind queries. Only Captain Jeff wrote back.
He said he’d love to have me aboard the Nona’s Ark, the thirty-two-foot catamaran he took around Cook Inlet and as far out as the Barren Islands, about sixty miles from Homer. He even beached her at Augustine Island to dig for razor clams and harvest blueberries at summer’s end. He sent me photos of Chinook salmon he had caught during the brief interludes of daylight that passed for January days in Alaska. He held the “feeder king” salmon in high esteem. The feeder is a Chinook salmon a year or two from spawning; they maraud widely, devouring candlefish and sardines at will. “Feeders are the most succulent and tasty fish that swim in Cook Inlet and beyond,” Jeff wrote. “They’re like swimming sacks of oil.” Most tourists who chartered his boat wanted only halibut, a fish for which Captain Jeff had little regard. He sent me photos of feeder kings, some as large as forty pounds, and pointed out their unique purple hue, their silver bellies. He composed great, detailed paragraphs about them: “It’s really astonishing that these fish are so perfect. They even come with their own deaths, predetermined, built into the design.”
It seemed as if he was writing the piece for me.
• • •
Meanwhile, back in my hometown of Newport News, Virginia, my mother was dying of cancer. She’d tried surgery, various procedures, new drugs with fancy names, but none of it seemed to work. If she ever got to feeling well enough, she said, she wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail one last time with her friend Aileen. A lifelong birdwatcher, she wanted to see a flicker at least once more.
I offered to abandon my plans to go to Alaska and come home to be with her instead, but she told me no, I should head north. Her insistence that I go to Alaska while she struggled with illness was typical of her. All my life she had been pushing me to try new things—summer swim league, the Newport News Greek Festival, a brief, unsuccessful stint in the Boy Scouts. She had always pushed me to finish what I’d started. “Besides,” she said, “you don’t want to be here for this mess.”
Filled with the romance of starting over, crushed by the impending death of my mother, I went online and bought a condo on Beluga Lake, a kidney-shaped floatplane lake that divides the coastal town of Homer. I emptied my bank account and went into debt. It seemed like a good idea at the time. The condo was described as “distressed,” but so was I. Most of the other residents, I would learn, were fishing guides and floatplane pilots who made their living taking vacationers to remote places. The bear-viewing business was booming. Each summer, it seemed, there were more businesses offering to take people to see bears. Pilots flew customers carrying over-the-top camera equipment to the other side of Cook Inlet, where, accompanied by a ranger from the national park, people got to see sows and their cubs testing the waters for early-run salmon. Invariably the tourists returned with the swagger of real adventurers. For six hundred bucks you could rediscover some of the wildness in your soul. I didn’t have that kind of money, but I could have used some mojo.
I drove the three thousand miles from Wyoming to Homer, Alaska, my two black Labs riding in the bed of my truck. When I arrived in Homer in May, the fireweed was already waist-high, and little yellow flowers were blooming close to the ground. The lupine was outrageous. The condo was missing doors on all its closets. There was a leaky sink and a residue on the floors that was hard to remove. I worked on the condo ten hours a day for the first few days, taking breaks only to walk the dogs to Mud Bay or to stroll along the spit, where the marina buzzed with the coming and going of charter boats. I watched men filleting their catch at the public cleaning tables, and crews of Hawaiian kids who worked at Homer Fish Processing hustling up and down the wharf. These young men and women flew up the walkways with totes full of halibut, which they hauled back to the plant for processing or filleted, lightning-fast, at the public cleaning tables for tips.
After a few days of beachcombing, cleaning the condo, and trying to find a handyman who could help me install a new kitchen sink, I located the Nona’s Ark—Jeff had never cared for the name, which he had inherited from the boat’s former owner. She was on a trailer in a parking lot, surrounded by beat-up pleasure boats and pickups loaded with rusting engine parts. An aluminum ladder rested against the side. Extension cords were draped over the gunwales, and I heard the shrill whine of a power drill boring into metal. I climbed the ladder and waited for the noise to subside before softly calling, “Captain Jeff?”
Jeff emerged from the cabin, where he had been cutting panels out of the walls to create extra storage. He welcomed me aboard. He wore a hat with flaps that hung down like the ears of a beagle. At first, I thought the hat was a gag, but he wore it almost exclusively. It covered his thinning blond hair. I’d learn later that Jeff was terrified of skin cancer, so he wore that hat even on drizzly days, which were prevalent that summer. He had mentioned several times in his emails that he was getting too old to be out on Cook Inlet every day, but he moved fluidly aboard the boat, showing me where everything went: the harpoon, the gaff, the life jackets, the hook sharpener, the aluminum baseball bat he used to subdue unruly catch. He stopped suddenly and touched my forearm to get my attention.
“I don’t shoot fish like most of the captains around here. There’s no need for it, I have found,” he said. He searched my eyes for a moment as if he expected me to argue, then began telling me how the fish-finder worked.
There was some obvious feng shui on the Ark. A string of Tibetan prayer flags hung on a wall, and a clay pot of water steamed on the propane stove. Jeff offered me my choice of three varieties of Japanese tea and some organic muffins from the local bakery. We sat down at a table whose laminated top was a detailed maritime map of Cook Inlet. “People like to see where they’ve been, even if they never come back,” he said as I examined the map. He produced an album of fishermen and their catches over the decades. Jeff saw me staring at a photo of a huge Chinook with a crooked jaw. “May 28, 1985,” he said. Dennis Flings and John Nelson were on board that day. John was still alive, if I wanted to call him, Jeff said. Many of Jeff’s stories involved anglers who were now in their eighties and nineties. He mentioned his mentors, men with Nordic and Russian surnames who’d taught him where to fish and how to play the tides. I wanted to write a boilerplate article, but Captain Jeff saw it as an opportunity for a deep dive into charter boat culture. He told me stories I couldn’t possibly work into an essay. He spoke convincingly about seabirds: shearwaters, kittiwakes, and oystercatchers.
Over the next few days, Jeff and I met regularly on the Ark. We drank green tea. I took notes. Sometimes, as he spoke, I imagined we were at sea instead of on a trailer in a gravel parking lot. I tried to keep him on the topic of the Ark, but he kept steering the conversation back to the era when huge king salmon migrated up the coast. He had many ideas about what would make good stories. What bothered him most was that I had not showed up decades earlier, when he was young and strong and the wharf was peopled by unique characters. I’d missed them by thirty years: Sewell, Andersen, Medvedev—they had all cashed out. They’d sold their boats, their homes with the vaulted ceilings and panoramic views of the Kachemak Bay, their log-cabin guesthouses, the Quonset huts where they kept their deep freezers, cleaning tables, wheels of one-hundred-pound test monofilament, and fishing rods thick as broomsticks. Harold Perceval had gone to live the rest of his life in landlocked Arizona. Sven Crump had moved all the way to Costa Rica. All of this was interesting to me; it revealed the truth about charter boat fishing: unlike the bear–viewing business, charter fishing is a dying industry. Every year there’s a new regulation, another species you must release immediately. The magazines I write for wouldn’t want to admit this; they peddle a school of thought that says the sea is all-giving, infinite. Most of Jeff’s stories involved another era, when there were more fish, when you could keep two halibut of any size. He was particularly troubled about the king salmon’s decline.
Leland Olhson was the latest to sell and move south, to be closer to his grandkids. Olhson had worked alone most summers because he couldn’t find a good deckhand—or, if he did find a good one, the deckhand couldn’t pass a pee test, a perpetual problem among fishing professionals in Alaska. Captain Jeff shook his head, topped off our tea, and showed me a photo of a lingcod with a head like a wolf.
And who had replaced these salty sea captains? Young men who had never laid eyes on Cook Inlet and whose businesses had ironic names and slick websites where they sold long-sleeved Ts with pictures of halibut wearing sunglasses. Jeff said it was strange to see Olhson’s boat, the Outer Coast, with some twenty-year-old from Florida at the helm instead of the old man in his blaze-orange hunting cap. Another captain was just twenty-four; his only experience was a summer fishing for steelhead on the Klamath River in Oregon. Now he was piloting the Sea-Girl in rough weather with six clients aboard, looking like avocados in their heavy coats. The only thing these new captains had in common with the old-timers, Jeff said, was their inability to keep a decent deckhand. The newcomers grew their hair long and spoke in a sullen tone. You’d hear them over the CB radio, asking advice on how to remove a circle hook from a client’s hand. Jeff said most would be gone by July. He could tell just looking at them.
One day, about a week after my arrival in Homer, we took the Ark on a cruise across the bay to dig steamer clams. Captain Jeff beached his catamaran in a quiet cove. The tide went out, and the Ark was soon on dry land, so thoroughly grounded we’d have to wait ten hours for the next high tide to free us. With a white bucket and a garden rake, Jeff and I collected eighty steamer clams apiece in a few hours. We ate some, raw, on the beach and watched a juvenile bald eagle snatch a sea duck from the water’s surface. Jeff asked me why I’d come to Alaska.
“Change is what I’m after,” I said. That didn’t seem quite right. “Also my mom’s dying of cancer.”
“I see,” he said. Captain Jeff raked the beach stones and thought for a moment.
We climbed aboard the Ark and listened to music, Dave Matthews and Jack Johnson. When the tide came in, we were back underway, trolling around Grass Island in hopes of picking up a stray feeder king, but pollock kept hitting our bait. Jeff shook them angrily from the hook, explaining that they were so thoroughly infested with sea worms, there was no reason to keep them.
He told me he wasn’t going to sell his business anytime soon: “The Ark is my only retirement.”
Our noses ran freely in the drizzle and wind.
• • •
Jeff lived on the ridge that overlooked town, in a chalet surrounded by hundred-year-old spruce trees with whitened moose skulls nailed to their trunks. On one tree he had attached a basketball hoop. There was also a vintage motorcycle helmet on display. I asked about it, and he mentioned that when he was twenty or so, he had driven a motorcycle down to the Lower Forty-Eight to look around. He liked Seattle, but Alaska was his home. Shelves in the living room held ivory Inupiaq figurines and books about mountain-climbing and Eastern religions. Old maps of Cook Inlet were framed and affixed to the walls. Jeff’s girlfriend, Theresa, a retired school guidance counselor, gardened and kept a pair of goats with the idea that one day she would knit a sweater from their wool and give it to Jeff. I went up there for dinner after a day on the inlet and brought my dogs so they could run around with Theresa’s dog, Willa. Theresa made a rhubarb pie from scratch, and several retired couples who summered in Homer also came to dinner, toting bottles of wine from Oregon, loaves of bread from the organic bakery on Ocean Drive, and slabs of last year’s smoked salmon. Jeff introduced me to one of the men by saying I was helping him out this summer. I didn’t argue. And so I was no longer a composition professor from Wyoming, or a freelance writer covering the charter fishing industry. I was a fifty-year-old deckhand on the Nona’s Ark.
Three days later, on our first trip out with customers, Captain Jeff was telling a story about a sunny day in 1987 off Anchor Point when his clients—a pair of brothers from Baltimore—each caught ahalibut that topped one hundred pounds. He’d been trolling herring, he recalled, in sixty-seven feet of water, when the two great fish hit. While relating this tale, he sprinted about the deck in rubber boots, arranging things, spraying off the bait table. He began showing me how to fillet a halibut, but I was so inept he took over. He stepped around the clients—a family of three from Utah, who seemed interested only in catching their limit of small fish and getting back to the dock—as if they were cutouts and not real people who felt slightly puny at sea. As the coast faded to a distant shadow beneath low-hanging rain clouds, Jeff grew into an enormous character. Our lives were in his hands.
After everyone had caught their two halibut, we headed back to Homer at full speed, and Jeff let me steer the boat. I was so nervous I could hardly breathe. I couldn’t wait to call my mother and tell her about my newfound position as a deckhand. I tried to follow a straight course for Homer, but the electronics were complicated. I turned to see what Jeff was doing and saw him steadily putting everything back in its place, securing lines, checking the hooks for sharpness. Once, I saw him pause in the sea spray, place his palms on the gunwales, and stare out at Cook Inlet as if he were at war.
• • •
Most of our trips that June were painful, unproductive ten-hour voyages. The salmon were hard to find. We caught only small halibut—“chickens,” we called them. The clients were always unhappy with the chickens we caught. They had paid $300 apiece for the adventure, and they were almost always quickly defeated by the rudeness of charter fishing, the slight roll of the sea, the smell of herring, the disorienting sensation of sitting at anchor and waiting for the fish to bite. When a halibut came over the rail, Jeff used a stout bat to subdue it; even a small fish can wreak havoc on the deck of a boat. The clients flinched when Jeff dispatched the fish with one deliberate, hollow-sounding blow. I flinched too. We’d go back to fishing, but the violence of killing a halibut changed the mood.
The customers had saved money for this adventure, often referring to it as a “trip of a lifetime.” They said they wanted to reel up something in the hundred-pound range. Disappointed by the chickens we were catching, disheartenedby the tedium of waiting for the right tide, they’d suggest that we move and look for a better hole. I had been halibut-fishing long enough to know that the best plan was often to sit and wait; a huge fish could turn up at any moment. Captain Jeff had impressed upon me the religion of staying put. But the clients had other ideas. They grumbled that the current was too strong, or that they were tired of catching small fish, or that we had been listening to the same Jack Johnson CD on repeat.
“I expected the fish to be larger,” said one client from New York. “These little ones keep stealing my bait.”
“I see,” said Captain Jeff, who never discouraged them. When they felt sick, he pointed out barely visible volcanoes on the horizon. He put more hot water on for tea. But he didn’t move the Ark because he knew we were on a proven spot.
Seasickness was endemic. Many clients spent the better part of the day in the cabin, sipping hot tea and clearly wishing they were back at the dock. A few collapsed in the galley and slept on top of each other like puppies. I was stunned by how quickly the customers gave up.
Jeff continued to move around them as if they were obstacles. Deep-sea fishing, I was learning, involved little in the way of customer service. It had more to do with taking people out of their comfort zones, allowing them to feel the enormous pull of tides.
Most clients were so layered in camouflage coats and fleece pullovers that it was hard to tell the women from the men. It was always wet and chilly. I found myself desiring a hat like Jeff’s, one with beagle ears. The clients wore ski gloves that interfered with their ability to operate the reels. Receipts from outdoor retailers leaked from their pockets onto the wet deck. They brought coolers full of light beer and energy drinks and meat-heavy sandwiches and blocks of cheese they hardly touched. My heart broke when I saw the small gestures of compassion they gave each other: offering a juice box to an unsteady companion; patting the back of a woman who felt green. Captain Jeff rarely ate. He offered them snacks of dry cookies. His eyes darted around on the horizon. Diving birds distracted him.
When a fish hit the line, the clients—all lifelong anglers, they claimed—could hardly reel in a ten-pound tomcod. Some reeled backward.
Decked out in rain gear Jeff had loaned me, I mingled lightly with the clients and practiced filleting exercises. Filleting requires running a knife between the spine and the skin, essentially by feel. Halibut are white on their bellies, dark on their backs. Jeff advised me to put the fish dark side up on the board. You don’t gut a halibut; rather you remove its flesh and leave the head attached to the carcass. Halibut, being flatfish, are particularly tricky, and with the boat rolling and people watching, I was nervous about wasting meat. That summer fresh halibut was going for nearly thirty bucks a pound at the fish markets, and the customers knew it. I had watched the Hawaiian teenagers at Homer Fish Processing fly through a halibut in a few seconds. But I lacked their confidence. Until I could fillet a halibut properly, Jeff said, he could not pay me. There was always herring to cut for bait. Each herring had to be sliced into three pieces. It seemed simple enough, but Jeff was very methodicalabout how to do this and always complained afterward about my work: He didn’t like the way I angled the slashes. He thought I hadn’t cut enough or had cut too much, thereby wasting money—even though there was no shortage of herring. Then he would lurch off to check our coordinates on the radar, or he would start into a story about the time a retired engineer from Colorado had a halibut rip a $300 rod and reel from his hands at the Hell Hole: “We were in 107 feet of water with an incoming tide. It was August 3, 1997.”
After a full day on the water, Jeff and I would spend another two hours cleaning the gear and spraying everything down with fresh water. As with the herring slicing, Jeff had a specific way he wanted each task done. He grew demanding and surly, but afterward he would invite me over for dinner because he knew I had no one else in Homer.
Theresa cooked amazing chowders, braised moose, and fried mushrooms gathered from the slopes above Whiskey Gulch. Jeff and Theresa had friends from all over the Lower Forty-Eight who came to visit them throughout the summer. Everyone brought a bottle of tawny port, Jeff’s drink of choice. My dogs wrestled with Willa. I drank at these gatherings, feeling slightly off-balance and stinking of herring. I had the nagging feeling that sooner or later I’d have to tell Jeff to fuck off, and reclaim the vast solitude that is my natural state of being. But then again, he took my mind off my mother’s illness with his keen descriptions of seabirds and his ability to recall specific anglers who’d fished with him thirty years earlier.
After dinner the men often went out and shot baskets in the drizzle, dribbling the ball on ground knotted with spruce roots. Jeff, I had noticed, had absurdly large hands that looked as if they belonged to another person. It was challenging playing basketball in rubber boots with half-finished glasses of wine in our hands, and the other guests and I took turns getting beat by Jeff, who had a knack for arching an impossible fadeaway shot off the backboard and through the hoop. He narrated the game like a sports announcer: “Kyrie Irving, fifty-nine seconds left on the clock. He takes the ball, slides left, and shoots over Curry from twenty-five feet.” I played him close but could rarely stop him from banking the ball off the mossy siding of his house or making a one-handed floater.
• • •
By July, my bait-cutting was improving and I had picked up a thick rain jacket the same brand as Jeff’s, but I hadn’t written a word. Mornings, I helped Jeff wrangle the Ark from the trailer into the water. Once afloat, she changed from an aluminum-and-steel hulk into something like a cast–off feather. I was proud to be seen on her. As the summer ripened, catching halibut became easier. Jeff knew the best spots, where we could clean up on chickens and possibly land something over a hundred pounds. I used the gaff to haul the larger fish onto the boat. Once, I sank the hook into the midsection of a client’s fish. “I’m disgusted by the way you did that,” Captain Jeff hissed. His criticism stung mightily.
When the tide was right and the chum bag had done its job, halibut, lured in by herring oil and scraps of fish, would school around the boat, often coming to the surface and hovering in the current. They were woefully easy to catch, and sometimes Jeff would hand me his favorite rod and tell me to reel in one to take home. When we brought a truly large fish to the surface, say anything over sixty pounds, Jeff used the harpoon. Only female halibut get to be the size that requires a harpoon, he said. The males are much smaller. Not once did he offer to teach me how to use the harpoon. I practiced my filleting skills on my own catch, not the clients’, while the Ark bumped back to town.
Jeff hinted that if I stuck around and helped him out, maybe we’d go over to Augustine Island at the end of summer and photograph oystercatchers and other rare seabirds. But first, he said, I had a lot to learn about the Ark. For example, she had twin Honda engines that “sang together” at precisely 3,100 rpm. Could I hear it? Not really. As Jeff sprayed the deck and the clients slept in clumps of wet rain jackets, I piloted the great boat back toward Homer, trying to listen for that harmony. At such moments, if I could shake the dread of having a quarter-million-dollar vessel under my care, I felt good—different from how I had felt just a few months earlier—and my mother’s voice sounded stronger when I called her and told her about the Ark.
My life in Homer was coming together. On my off days I painted. I walked my dogs at Mud Bay. I applied for a public library card. I paid six bucks to see an exhibit of Yupik masks at the Pratt Museum. The collection also included a sealskin kayak, which had a luster like beachstone. I couldn’t imagine how someone could attempt Cook Inlet in one of those. I couldn’t imagine the faith required. I sat in the museum with the kayak for hours and read about the tribes who had lived for centuries by hunting caribou. When the caribou disappeared, the people moved to the coast and taught themselves to hunt seal and walrus.
My filleting skills improved, and Captain Jeff suggested he could start paying me if I passed the pee test. I changed the subject for obvious reasons, but from then on he brought it up with alarming frequency.
Then, one morning, Jeff wasn’t alone when I arrived at the boat launch. He had met another deckhand, named Peter, the day before at the Safeway and invited him to join us aboard the Ark.
“If Peter works out, maybe you two can take turns on the boat,” said Jeff. I loved this idea. I could finally start writing the article.
Peter was roughly my age and, like me, had come to Alaska for a change. Unlike me, he had prior experience with boats. He used to launch small dories into the breakers on the beaches of Oregon. His raingear was repaired here and there with duct tape. He told me he was a born-again Christian, then surreptitiously tried to sell me some marijuana. Peter said he planned to have his own halibut boat someday. He offered me a job on it.
Peter, too, had difficulties on the Ark. His problem was that he knew some things already. He knew how to cut herring, for example, but not the way Jeff wanted. They argued about how deep to set the downriggers. By noon, the customers were soaked and exhausted. They had caught their limit of chickens, but Jeff wanted to catch them a feeder king for their efforts; they had paid extra for the halibut-salmon combo. And so we remained at sea, trolling the kelp beds just west of the Whale’s Tale. I saw the rest of the fleet head in. Jeff instructed Peter to keep the boat moving at 2.2 knots—the perfect speed for trolling—but with the tide ripping and the wind hitting the Ark’s bow, Peter could not find the right speed. We never got a hit.
After we cleaned the boat, I gave Peter a lift to the Safeway.
“Can you believe that guy asked me if I could pass a pee test?” he said. “I could, of course, but I have back surgery in the fall. I’m on all kinds of stuff right now . . .”
Peter and I worked side by side for a few trips. With his blocky build, he took up a lot of deck space. He tried to engage the clients in conversations about religion, and when that failed, he flirted with them. He did tricks for the kids, such as putting herring in his mouth and pretending to smoke them like cigars. He couldn’t fillet any better than I could, so neither of us was on the payroll. Instead we split the tips, if there were any. After a grueling haul out to Perl Island for halibut and rockfish, Peter and I made forty dollars each. I was paying thirty just to have my dogs walked in my absence.
One night, my dogs began to vomit inside the condo. I took them out and walked them in the strips of wildflowers by the brewery. All night they puked, until they dry-heaved. I didn’t get a moment of rest. At four in the morning I texted Jeff that I would be unable to go with him on the Ark at five. I had to take the dogs to the veterinarian.
Having come from the worlds of bartending and teaching, where calling in sick is an art form, I didn’t know that in the dank and sooty society of charter boat captains and professional fish cleaners, there is one unspoken rule: unless you are in jail or the hospital, never bail on a trip. After taking care of my dogs, who turned out to be sick from eating rotting fish and crabs on the beach, I spent the afternoon in the library, writing a short piece about Jeff and the Ark. I sent it to a publisher who owed me a solid.
Captain Jeff did not answer my texts for weeks. Finally, he wrote to say that Peter was working out, and his boat was booked through August. Because Homer was so small, of course I saw Jeff from time to time—in the Safeway, at the post office—but I avoided talking to him. Once, I ran into him and Theresa at the local bakery. We were in line together, and there was no way to avoid saying hi. Jeff launched into a monologue about single-origin coffees, trying to fill the space with meaningless conversation. Then he told me that he and Peter had guided a group of firefighters out for Chinooks. Each guy caught a nice fish in sixty feet of water.
Jeff acted as if he hadn’t heard me. Missing a trip was unforgivable. It also occurred to me that he thought I had conned him out of all those free fishing trips.
• • •
Freed from Captain Jeff’s embrace, I became a wanderer of docks, a nascent birdwatcher, a connoisseur of coffee roasters and organic bakeries. I checked out library books about dying and cancer. With my dogs, I reclaimed my solitude and walked quiet beaches strewn with flotsam and the wing bones of shorebirds. There was an elephantine piece of driftwood worth studying. I watched the daily migration of the fishing boats as they rumbled out of the harbor. The smell of marine diesel delighted me. Often, with my binoculars, I could spot the Ark bumping over gray seas, Peter at the bait table, cutting herring. Hands plunged into my rain jacket, I thought vaguely about returning to my former life. Admittedly, the plan was always to return. I’d heard that Stan Cunningham had come back from Belize and been rehired as dean of curriculum. Undoubtedly he would continue his assault on the classics and the humanities. But maybe there was something to be said for having a reliable enemy.
Honoring my loneliness, I slept in. I talked to my mother on the phone about the gang of six ravens I saw each day at Mud Bay. I said they were beginning to recognize me. I read books about the Inuit mask makers of Point Hope. The Russian priests who showed up along the Alaskan coast had made the Inuit throw their masks into the river. Was it because a mask lets you change so easily? Of course, those priests were quickly made martyrs. I thought about change and what it requires while walking my dogs along the wet roads. The fireweed was in full bloom. I noticed that a whole ecosystem of beautiful flowers grew close to the ground, trembling in the gusts from passing traffic. I didn’t know their names.
One Thursday afternoon in early August, while I was carrying some packing boxes back to my condo under cloudy skies and mist, Jeff pulled up beside me on the highway and told me to hop in. He gave me a lift home and asked if I wanted to go out with a group of three the next day and catch a few halibut. Peter was in Anchorage, dealing with some “legal issues.” I said sure.
By five the next morning I was already regretting my decision. I had only a couple of days before I had to drive back down the Alcan, and I already had enough fish. The wind was up, and it looked like it was going to be rough out there. After a two-hour run, we were anchored at a spot in the inlet where Captain Jeff had caught halibut all summer. But nothing was biting. We decided to make a short run to another spot.
“Halibut are prehistoric,” Jeff said as I hauled up the anchor line. “They move into an area and eat all the clam necks, immature Dungeness crabs, octopi . . . They clean a place out.” The clients were hardly listening. I had heard this same dissertation all summer. I could’ve probably recited it myself.
All day we moved from spot to spot, searching. The three clients had given up and were in the galley drinking light beer when we finally found some fish. There was a storm slouchingover Cook Inlet, but the surface was calm where we sat on anchor. Just beneath the chop, the water vibrated with candlefish. A solitary humpback whale fed nearby. Jeff pointed it out, but the clients were not that interested in whales. The humpback, the candlefish, the vibration of the water all said the same thing: life is here, this is the spot. One of the clients came out and caught a chicken, but the other two didn’t believe anything of value was down there.
“Drop a line,” Jeff said to me.
When the fish hit, I knew right away it was big. Jeff coached me as it took line and bent the stout rod nearly in two. Jeff readied the harpoon and touched my arm to get my attention. He told me it was a large fish and that if I didn’t listen to him, I might lose it.
“Are you sure you want her?”
When the huge halibut came alongside the Ark, it was so beautiful that I stopped reeling and just stared. She was bejeweled with sea lice, her broad tail thrumming steadily in the current. I knew from watching clients all summer that if you didn’t lift the fish’s head out of the water, she would just hover there. If you “horsed” her, if you pulled her head out of the water, she’d go berserk and dive back to the bottom. I remembered that I had too much fish in my freezer. I really didn’t need any more fish to bring back to Wyoming. My mother didn’t approve of killing things either. I thought about that too. But I had put all this in motion, and now, the fish seemed to be the result of these last few months, my efforts at change. Once you start, how can you call it off? Still, I was about to tell Jeff to spare her when he rose on his tiptoes—like a dancer—and drove the harpoon through her gills. A kill shot. She bled absurdly. The clients shrugged and went back to drinking. Jeff hog-tied the halibut and cut her gills. We stowed the great fish in the well of the motors while we prepared for the trip into the harbor. I kept going back and looking over the gunwales at the fish, to see if she was real. Already the emerald and amber patterns of her skin had begun to fade. My sorrow was enormous.
As Captain Jeff piloted us back to Homer, I filleted the clients’ fish. Then I went to work on mine. The fillets were thick as a Denver phone book—enough meat to last me a year, I kept telling myself. The carcass was so big, I had to break the spine to fit it in a garbage bag to transport home.
I let Jeff know that the article I’d written had been printed, and I could get him a copy from Safeway, if he wanted. He said he had a copy. Theresa had bought several copies already. Jeff was going to sit down and give it his attention when the fishing slowed down.
Peter was waiting for us at the boat launch, grinning. He helped us tidy up the galley and squeegee the deck. I told them both I was heading out in a few days, heading back to my life in the Lower Forty-Eight. Jeff crushed my hand with a handshake, and I thanked him again for taking me fishing and teaching me about boats. Peter asked for a hug.
I felt exuberant as I walked home in my rubber boots, carrying the fillets in one bag and the halibut carcass in another. At least I was returning to my former life with a story to tell. I had changed the narrative, defeated the ennui of everyday life, escaped the grief of my mother’s chemotherapy. Dressed in a raincoat and rubber boots, I had blended in with the deckhands at the marina. Only I knew the truth about who I was, and what was next. It was a temporary victory, I knew, but the weight of the halibut felt like something tangible. I thought of Dean Cunningham and his red power tie. Maybe I’d slide him a hunk of halibut if he promised to stay out of the humanities building.
But that night I couldn’t sleep. Things seemed unfinished. The dogs were pacing, feeling it too. The halibut carcass in my fridge was weighing on me. So was the news from Virginia. My mother had decided to end her treatments and accept death on her own terms. She had a few months to live.
By fleeing sorrow, I had arrived at sorrow. It was becoming a habit. Near midnight, I loaded the dogs into my truck and drove out to the public cleaning tables. There was no one around. With a spoon I carved all the meat from the ribs of the fish carcass—a trick I’d learned from the Hawaiian teenagers. Then I worked the meat from the head with a deer knife. When I was done, I had two gallon bags full of scraps.
All that was left of the halibut was her great unhappy grin and leathery tail. The dumpster seemed too crude an ending, so I drove to the end of the spit and walked down the beach face. Dogs by my side, I held the carcass by the tail and, turning like shot-putter, hurled her into the sea. The waves welcomed her back.
I drove out of Homer two days later with an enormous cooler full of frozen fish. I had handed my keys over to a rental agent. With a new coat of paint, new appliances, new windows, the two-bedroom was no longer distressed. But I was worse than ever. Get what you can, I told her. The town seemed to be holding its breath against the coming months of darkness. The fireweed and the lupine would soon return to the earth. Winter would crush everything. The camera-happy tourists would vanish. Bear-viewing would end, and the floatplanes would be hauled to hangars and winterized. Jeff would spend the winter reading Tolstoy and tying leaders. I wondered if one of the boats I saw spraying out of the marina was the Nona’s Ark, and I wondered if Jeff and Peter were arguing about the size of herring.
I called my mother as I drove up the Kenai Peninsula. I told her I’d be driving across Canada for a few days and she wouldn’t hear from me for a while. I told her I’d call her as soon as I came across the US border at Sweet Grass, Montana. As always, she told me to be careful, to make sure I slept. She wanted to hear another story about the sea before we hung up. So I told her about the big halibut and my last day on the Ark. Only in this version, the version I now prefer, when I brought the huge fish alongside the boat, Captain Jeff crept his hands down the taunt leader to the circle hook, where he twisted the hook from the fish’s mouth, and let her go. She hung in the emerald current for a moment. She flared her gills and gulped once. We watched as she faded back into the darkness of the sea.