Potatoes
'98 by Buck Meloy

I know we've probably been here too long when JJ reports by radio, on returning from delivering his load of coho to the tender, that "they are out of gas, out of diesel, out of checks, and have a bilge full of motor oil. The only thing they do have is fresh water."

This is Thursday (Sept 1), and we have been fishing non-stop since Sunday, when we had a short break. I have been on the water since I left town a week and a half ago.

There are probably 150 gillnet boats here, in Controller Bay, which is east of the larger Copper River sub-district of the Prince William Sound management area. We are here to catch coho salmon which, unlike their cousins in the lower 48, have been returning in unexpected record numbers this year. Though a traditional fishery, the surprising strength of the run has resulted in greatly extended fishing time and, therefore, harvest.

And nearly nobody was quite ready for it.

This many fishermen, living on their small vessels, require considerable support just for basic maintenance. Fuel tanks need refilling. Groceries need to be provided. Fresh water must be available for drinking and washing. Ice for chilling fish, stove oil for cooking, spare parts and fluids must all be obtainable. And since the nearest outpost of civilization is 100 miles distant across the storm-swept Gulf of Alaska, all of this has to be provided by small airplanes on floats or by the tenders buying our fish.

This is a complex task under ideal circumstances, and a gargantuan one when productivity quadruples.

Nevertheless, the effort is made, and the fishery manages to happen. The unexpected frustrations, such as being penalized by a lower price for not icing one's fish (because no ice was available), or discovering half-way through refueling that the bottom of the tender's fuel tank had been reached, or having to eat previously frozen Wonderbread and bologna sandwiches because that's all there is, are compensated at least in part by the larger than normal paychecks.

On the other hand, when one is working this hard, and constant wind, wave, and rain guarantee that he is wet, cold, tired, and miserable, little things like something hot to eat, or even just a cup of coffee, can take on a much greater importance.

We can get used to no clean underwear, jellyfish stings, itchy scalp and skin due to heavy sweat and no way to bathe, salt-stiff hair, stiff socks, clammy wet gear, strong odors. But that doesn't mean we like them. In fact, wanting a shower and a hot meal at a stable table is probably the number two thing driving fishermen to quit fishing prematurely and head to town. Number one would be really crappy weather, but really crappy weather usually also prevents travel, so most of us normally just hunker down somewhere until it gets better. Then, of course, we go fishing again.

The third most compelling reason for going to town, besides to do necessary work on the boat to keep it running and floating, is family or girlfriends. Since I have neither in town, this is not a factor in my decision making.

Fourth is the one that starts to move up on the scale at this time of the year: the weather is turning, the days and nights tend to be cold again, and the nights are regaining their length. Bobbing and tossing around, without respite, gets real old. Food cannot be prepared. It is hard to read. It is an effort even to sit. Even in a seat with arms, holding on to them is often necessary to avoid being pitched out.

So today, after grubbing around in the mess that is my larder, I found a sack of potatoes, organically grown in Washington by my wife, that I had hastily dug while enjoying a pre-coho season vacation with my family several weeks ago. The oil stove is running (albeit poorly because I lack the starboard list that makes it run well), so I will slow bake them, drench them in butter, and have them as a main course following a bowl of instant ramen asian soup.

I will contemplate their Finnish yellowness, their smooth texture. I will reflect upon the distant verdant scene, next to my rusting 1949 Chevy pick-up, where they grew in the loose, rich, fertile soil of our backyard, in a raised bed beloved of slugs. I will think of their brothers (or do potatoes have sisters?) still lying in the ground waiting for my return when this is all over. I will remember how, in early August, their greenery was already yellowed, indicating their quiet readiness. This meal, then, will be the moment in my day that connects me with the life I live when I do not ache from overwork, when I do not yearn for rest from protracted lack of sleep, when I do not rock and roll constantly with sea and wind. It will connect me with family, with a life not confined to a space the size of a large closet, with a place where rain is the exception rather than the rule. At each bite, I will be reminded of the lush green and flowering yard that my wife has nurtured so carefully, its myriad berries, apples, pears, its peas and beans, brussels sprouts and corn, squash and tomatoes. I will be lifted out of my 26' vessel, transported astrally to a warm, sunny, solid and friendly environment, will connect with son and wife, with parrot and cats. Slicing the skin of a potato, I will recall my careless haste in digging it, how my digging fork abraded and marked the tender, juicy surface. I will marvel that our household waste -- the scraps, peelings, leavings, coffee grounds, and lost food that spoiled in the back of the refrigerator -- after composting provides such a nurturing and fertile soil for a potato. I will not hear the wail of the wind in my rigging as I eat and contemplate; I will not notice the constant motion of my vessel.

This meal is both physical sustenance and spiritual succor. This meal will carry me forth into another day, for the moment unbowed by the oppressively grey and awful forces of nature that currently define my existence.

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