On Missing the Boat, Speaking for Salmon

Joel and I went to a movie the other night. We finally saw The Breach, an award-winning film I’ve been anx­ious to see since its 2014 release. Described as a love story for wild salmon, it’s a love story in all the truest ways – risk, betrayal, loss, resolve, hope. It took my breath away.


(You can watch The Breach your­self here. Please do. Please.)


After the lights came up, direc­tor Mark Titus joined com­mer­cial fish­er­men Melanie Brown and Marsh Skeele, Anchor­age chef Rob Kin­neen, and Sitka Mayor Mim McConnell for a dis­cus­sion hosted by Sitka Con­ser­va­tion Soci­ety. They spoke of new threats: Cana­dian mines cleared to start work in the Trans­bound­ary head­wa­ters of South­east Alaska’s biggest salmon-producing rivers. Joel and I left the the­ater feel­ing equal parts ter­ri­fied for the species we love and inspired to work for their pro­tec­tion. “We have to get more involved,” we vowed.


Which is why I’m dis­ap­pointed today, upon the pub­li­ca­tion of an inter­view I did with Grist on what it means to be at home on the ocean. Friends shared the link with warm reviews. Jour­nal­ist Eve Andrews has my full respect and appre­ci­a­tion. My dis­ap­point­ment is with myself. Given an oppor­tu­nity to speak directly to the very audi­ence whose help we need to pro­tect Alaska’s wild salmon, peo­ple pre­dis­posed to care and act for envi­ron­men­tal issues, I missed the boat.


Hear­ing this, Joel jumps to my defense. “Of course you feel that way now, since we just saw that movie. You weren’t think­ing like that then; we were just try­ing to get out of town, go back out fishing.”


Go back. Go back to July 14th, the final half-hour in town, when I charged down a slip­pery dock, evad­ing piles of dog shit while jock­ey­ing a cart piled high with two weeks’ worth of gro­ceries packed in card­board boxes quickly los­ing their integrity in a tor­ren­tial side­ways rain. My gait was off, my sil­hou­ette oddly mis­shapen, as I pitched the dis­in­te­grat­ing boxes onto the Nerka’s deck, scram­bled to return the bor­rowed truck, and rushed back to the boat, all with phone pinned between ear and shoul­der. Joel had already fired up the engine and unplugged the shore power. I rifled dis­com­bob­u­lated thoughts for a semi-articulate clos­ing while yank­ing dock lines free, thank­ing Eve for our con­ver­sa­tion as rain ran down the cabin roof, straight down the back of my neck.


(In ret­ro­spect, it’s remark­able that Eve was able to get any­thing use­ful from our inter­view. That the result­ing arti­cle reads so smoothly is entirely thanks to her, not me.)


At the time the chaos struck me as funny. A ludi­crous illus­tra­tion of the bar­ri­ers to thought­ful con­ver­sa­tion, to any­thing requir­ing exter­nal con­scious­ness, when the strug­gle to make a year’s liveli­hood in a mat­ter of months con­sumes us. Now, real­iz­ing too late the oppor­tu­nity I squan­dered, I’m regret­ful. They give us so much, salmon. I wish I had given them my voice.


But you can’t do any­thing about what’s done, Joel reminds me. “What can you do, mov­ing forward?”


Which brings me here: another wet day in Sitka, this time tucked within the Nerka’s warmth, cup of lemon gin­ger tea at my side. The engines are off; no pres­sure to leave for another two days. Rain plip-plaps against the roof, a reas­sur­ing lul­laby, and for the first time all sum­mer, it’s just me and the page. Free to focus, free to gather my thoughts. Free to try again.


This time I intro­duce the fish­er­folks I know, deeply con­sci­en­tious women and men who embody val­ues con­fus­ing for many out­side our world, where killing isn’t cav­a­lier and there’s no cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance in feel­ing love for the lives we take.


I cau­tion that sav­ing wild salmon requires more than respon­si­ble fish­eries man­age­ment. Lack­ing equally focused efforts to guard their fresh­wa­ter habi­tat, “sus­tain­abil­ity” is super­fi­cial. An illusion.


I cel­e­brate the work of Salmon Beyond Bor­ders, unit­ing sports and com­mer­cial fish­er­men, tribal and First Nations mem­bers, busi­ness own­ers, com­mu­nity lead­ers – every­one invested in defend­ing the Stikine, Taku, and Unuk Rivers from some of the largest mines the world has ever seen.


I push words around the lump in my throat, think­ing of Peters­burg writer Chelsea Tremblay’s essay, Sur­vival is Insuf­fi­cient. “Love is what makes a com­mu­nity more than just a group of peo­ple liv­ing in the same space. It’s the col­lec­tive cob­web, invis­i­ble until you run into it.” Gath­er­ing strength from her words, I pause.


This time, asked what it’s like to be at home on the ocean, I look beyond my walls, beyond the win­dows of my own har­ried mid-season expe­ri­ence, and con­sider the sil­ver bod­ies finning past. Home is know­ing your neigh­bors. Look­ing out for them. Salmon begin their lives not on the ocean at all, but deep inland. Land-locked. In this way, being at home on the ocean is no dif­fer­ent from being at home on land. Look care­fully enough, far enough, salmon are our shared neigh­bors. They need all of us.



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Live from the FisherPoets Gathering!

It’s a mag­i­cal day in Asto­ria, Ore­gon: sun on the side­walks, fes­tive chop on the Colum­bia. I’m tucked in the Blue Scorcher Bak­ery (try the car­damom rolls), an intro­vert on glo­ri­ous over­load, try­ing to steal an hour of quiet time to recharge. Red lapel pins reveal the kin­dred spir­its sur­round­ing me — the $15 but­tons our entry into all seven venues — and we exchange know­ing smiles and eager reviews of last night’s favorite per­for­mances, rec­om­men­da­tions of who we’ll catch tonight. We’re two days in the 18th Annual Fish­er­Po­ets Gath­er­ing, and I’m in love with every­one and everything.

Join us tonight from the com­fort of your home, thanks to KMUN Coast Com­mu­nity Radio’s live-stream from the Asto­ria Events Cen­ter. The show runs 5:00 to 10:00 PST. (Review the full sched­ule below; you can catch Joel and me in the 7:00 hour.) Click on “Lis­ten to KMUN/KTCB.” You’ll have a good time, I think.


Sat­ur­day, Feb­ru­ary 28 at the Asto­ria Event Cen­ter
(with trans­la­tion by ASL inter­preters)
MC  Dave Densmore

5  p.m.
Dave Dens­more, Asto­ria OR
Sean Tal­bot, Port­land OR
Wayne Chi­menti, Port Townsend WA

6  p.m.
Hobe Kytr, Asto­ria OR
Will Hornyak, Port­land OR
Lor­rie Haight, Long Beach WA

7  p.m.
Brian Robert­son, Pow­ell River BC
Tele Aad­sen, Belling­ham WA
Joel Brady-Power, Belling­ham WA

8  p.m.
Paul Holm­berg, Palmer AK
Don Pep­per, Alert Bay BC
Jen Pick­ett, Jyväskylä, Suomi

9  p.m.
Bil­lie Delaney, Port Townsend WA
Steve Schoon­maker, Kasilof AK
Lou Beaudry, McCall ID

10  p.m.
Dave Dens­more, Asto­ria OR
On-site Poem Con­test fol­lows at 10:30
(2015 rules announced by MCs at venues)



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Fear, Art, and Love in the Canadian Rockies

Head down, I watch my snow boots creep across the lake, one shuffle-step at a time. Joel doesn’t shuf­fle. He hus­tles, hunched beneath his cam­era bag as he rushes for a dis­tant spot of blue. Ice wiped clean by the wind: the per­fect frame to lead into the fast-approaching sun­set. It’s neg­a­tive three degrees. As I mur­mur into the scarf swathing my face, words form frosty pel­lets in the fibers. I can do this. I can do this. A chant intended for my ears only, the lake responds. Bu-BUM. A deep drum beat, issued from some­where far below. A heart­beat, so much stead­ier than my own.

A half-mile east, tents and propane heaters dot the lake as ice fish­er­men jig for trout. Two of them, John and Ymir, assured me the ice is safe – eleven inches thick. My fear isn’t ratio­nal, yet it’s real. Every step ter­ri­fies me. I fol­low every step with another.


We’re end­ing 2014 with a five day road trip in the Cana­dian Rock­ies. Joel comes up here every win­ter. It’s a sacred place for him; he sang Hozier’s Take Me to Church as we drove the Ice­fields Park­way. This is the first time I’ve joined him. There’s always been some rea­son not to: busy writ­ing Hooked’s pro­posal, busy writ­ing the first draft, busy. I’ve always sent him off with a kiss and wishes to be safe, get some good shots.

Now that I’m finally here with him, I’m learn­ing that “be safe” and “get some good shots” aren’t nec­es­sar­ily com­pat­i­ble goals, and we have dif­fer­ing per­cep­tions of risk. We spent our first after­noon scout­ing sun­set in a mountain-bordered meadow out­side of Jasper. Joel crashed through tes­sel­la­tions of creeks with­out hes­i­ta­tion. I cringed at every crack.

That night, I didn’t keep walk­ing. I dug my heels into a tuffet of trust­wor­thy earth, unwill­ing to go any far­ther, and waved him on. The tree-line on the far side of the field wel­comed him with boughs extended, hold­ing the day’s remain­ing light in green arms full of snow. Back­lit, he appeared dark, an impres­sion of imper­me­abil­ity that was as mis­lead­ing as the sun dog we’d seen ear­lier in the day. Joel is trans­par­ent. He’d wanted so much to share his beloved moun­tains with me, secretly hop­ing their spirit would move me as it does him, that won­der and joy would sur­pass anx­i­ety and dis­com­fort. That I would make his faith my own. Instead we watched the sun­set from sep­a­rate view­points – Joel crouched behind his cam­era at his cho­sen com­po­si­tion, me pac­ing a labyrinth of uncom­fort­able ques­tions. Where are the lines between being there for the per­son you love, and being there for your­self? Expand­ing your com­fort zones, and hon­or­ing your bound­aries? By the time the last embers of color had faded from the peaks above, I’d stomped a hol­low of answers into the snow. I couldn’t read any of them.

Back in Jasper, we talked about our dif­fer­ing reac­tions to the out­ing. It wasn’t any­thing out of the ordi­nary for Joel. The land­scape pho­tog­ra­phers he most admires all work alone in remote set­tings, explor­ing the fringes of the day by head­lamp. My fear baf­fled him. “They were just lit­tle streams; the worst that could hap­pen is you’d get a wet foot.” He won­dered aloud if there’s any­thing I love that scares him. If there’s any­thing I chase the way he chases pho­tos – charg­ing onward to a des­ti­na­tion known only to me, unfazed, while he won­ders why I would pos­si­bly choose to do such a thing. Why I would need to.

Three days later, I am still hear­ing my response, a steady­ing echo behind this lake’s heart­beat and my own. Writ­ing. I believe in sto­ries like Joel believes in moun­tains: lean­ing on them, grate­ful to have found one thing solid enough to hold me up. It wasn’t a sur­pris­ing answer, nor was it what Joel had meant. He’d been look­ing for a phys­i­cal par­al­lel, like the way he delights in scam­per­ing steep ridges and I defin­i­tively do not. But it was a true answer, and like a bone glint­ing in a wound, the true­ness of it mes­mer­ized me. It has dogged my heels through every pre-dawn hike and hill­side scram­ble in the days since, and now, shuffle-stepping my way across this eleven inch ice on a med­i­ta­tion of art, fear, and love.

Joel and I are both artists. Whether by image or by words, we both have a need to cap­ture and share our expe­ri­ences of the world around us. But there’s a dif­fer­ence between his art and mine, and it’s as sig­nif­i­cant as the dif­fer­ence between eleven inches and one. Joel sug­gests I sit these mis­sions out. Know­ing where his next shoot will take him – know­ing how I’ll react – he says sleep in, stay in the motel, we’ll meet up in a cof­fee shop after. I shake my head, unwill­ing to accept kind­ness I can’t return. As a mem­oirist, I tread across ice far less sta­ble than this. I agree to be vul­ner­a­ble, risk­ing expo­sure, judg­ment, shame, for the relief of an hon­est, scary sen­tence – and in doing so, I yank my loved ones onto the ice with me. My art doesn’t include an opt-out. That’s why I’m still walk­ing. Know­ing the priv­i­lege of the option to turn back, I force myself to go on.

Drag­ging my gaze up from my boots, I study my sweet­heart. He’s a char­coal log in the dis­tance, shoot­ing low, lying on his belly to peer through the viewfinder. He can hold this posi­tion for hours. Never com­plain­ing about the cold, never los­ing patience. Fully engaged with his art and him­self. Leav­ing renewed, soul-fed, even if he doesn’t end up with a great shot. This is how I want to know my part­ner, even when I don’t under­stand what he does. Even when it scares me.

He’s spent the past few years teach­ing me how to know him this way. My writ­ing has scared him. He doesn’t always under­stand the places I’m will­ing to go – the places I feel I have to go. But he’s never sug­gested I not write. He’s stood by my art, know­ing my deci­sion to expose my life means expos­ing his.


The sun fiz­zles with­out any of the flam­boy­ance Joel had hoped for. He packs away his cam­era and folds up his tri­pod, and together we walk back to the shore. We talk about what a beau­ti­ful evening it was any­way, and how eager we are for din­ner at the brew­ery next to our motel. My body moves more agree­ably, head­ing towards land.

We’ve just got­ten back to the car when Joel notices a pur­ple edge scal­lop­ing the west­ern hori­zon. “Oh, shit. Is that going to spread?” He stares, wait­ing to see if the rib­bon will unfurl, and glances back to the ice.

Go.” I prod him. “You have to go.”

Curs­ing him­self for hav­ing left his spot too soon, he tears back down the snowy slope and across the lake. This time I stay on the bank, and I watch with a smile.


Joel Brady-Power, Vermillion Lakes


To see some of the shots Joel got from this trip, visit Joel Brady-Power/500px and Joel Brady-Power Pho­tog­ra­phy



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