Bear the Boat Cat: 8.2.06 — 9.4.18
In the spring leading up to the 2006 salmon season, Joel and I had already endured two summers as a couple separated by our boats. As he prepared for his second season running the Nerka, I debated my options: would I continue crewing for my brother, or jump ship to work alongside my sweetheart? My brother joked that I’d pick whoever was the first to get a boat cat. He wasn’t wrong. Joel volunteered, and my decision was made. The promised boat cat was slow to materialize. Other things took priority, as holding the imploding boat together consumed every ounce of Joel’s focus. Months before we actually met Bear, she’d appeared in our family as a negotiation tactic.
There’s a picture in my wallet of Joel, taken midway through that season. He sat at the Nerka’s table, staring down at a useless scramble of engine parts. A friend had helped take the ailing refrigeration system apart. Then he’d gone fishing, leaving Joel alone to reassemble the chaos. His expression was one of utter despair.
It was the look of a man who needed the comfort of a cat. I was sure of it.
The Sitka Animal Shelter staff brushed aside my concern about finding a cat that would be suited to boat life. “The only way to know how a cat will be on the boat is to take a cat and try it out, and if it doesn’t work, bring it back and try a different one.” There were only two to choose from. The tuxedo’ed male ignored me, while the big-boned tabby pressed her face against the bars. The staff saw their opportunity. “This is a nice cat. She’s about two years old, been with us a couple months, since someone dropped her off one night.”
I dragged Joel away from the boat the next day. As if she knew he was the one she needed to convince, she barreled out of the kennel and leapt into his lap. Rubbing the white patch on her throat with engine-scabbed hands, his face softened for the first time in days.
The big-boned tabby came home with us. She became Bear the Boat Cat, the Nerka’s Chief Morale Officer. We became a family.
I started writing drafts of Bear’s eulogy thirteen months before she died. Often, she was curled within reach as I wrote: backbone a fragile abacus, runny-eyed, tired, old. Every time I scheduled an appointment to put her down, Joel canceled it, granting her one stay of execution after another. We watched the end coming so long before it finally did.
In the early years, boat life seemed to suit Bear’s fearless nature. An indoor-only cat on land, she ruled the fourth finger of Sitka’s New Thomsen Harbor. Swaggering up the weathered planks, she vaulted neighboring boats’ bulwarks, rising on her hind legs to peer into unfamiliar cabins. (Regal as she was, she was partial to yachts.) She tore after any dogs trotting past and pretended to ignore the taunting crows. Supervising my pre-season boat maintenance, she left perfect paw prints in freshly-varnished rails.
She ran away from home once. Joel and I had both been crewing on a friend’s boat, gone on a three-day black cod trip. We’d left her with plenty of food and water, but when we got back, Bear had had enough. She slipped out the door and didn’t appear when I walked the docks shaking the bag of food, calling her home. It was a cold night aboard the Nerka, cabin door left ajar. The next morning, I’d started writing Lost Cat posters, tears smudging the text, when a fellow fisherman stopped by to tell us she was with his buddy. We retrieved her from a wooden troller that hadn’t been fishing in years, deck buried beneath Keystone Light empties. The captain seemed sorry to hand her over. “That’s a real nice cat. She hopped right up into my bunk and spent the night with me.”
Away from the dock, Bear preferred to stay in the cabin. She curled up on the day bunk, rolling on her back to soak up any sunbeams. (“Otter Cat!” we exclaimed, stroking her exposed belly.) She hopped into the pilot seat when it suited her, often sitting with Joel as he drove out of the anchorage in the morning, watching the sun rise, front legs stretched in an extender over his knee. She was sitting with him the first time she saw whales. As the enormous black backs broke the surface, she stared out the window, then turned wide eyes to her dad. Did you SEE that?
Breaching whales became background noise, unworthy of her attention. But Joel and I never tired of scanning the shore for grizzlies, inevitably turning the binoculars inward to cheer, “Found one! There’s a Bear Cat!” Like any kid embarrassed by their dorky parents, we could almost see her green eyes roll.
Those green eyes… Bear was hands-down the most photogenic member of our family. She was a fiend for Tillamook cheddar, Haagen Daaz crème brulee, and fireweed freshly cut from the harbor parking lot. She devoured treats few people are privileged to enjoy – Lituya Bay prawns, wild Alaskan ivory king salmon sashimi – and played with her toys only when she thought she was alone, howling like a banshee around the stuffed beaver clamped between her jaws. She was a resilient traveler, enduring long flights and car rides with no more than a single meow of protest. She missed only one fishing season over twelve years. When Joel blew out his knee in the spring of 2013, they sat out the season together. She was a kinder, gentler Bear that summer. She was his best friend.
Uninterested as Bear was in the daily operations on deck, she’d saunter to the bow after the anchor dropped. Instead of gazing at the Tongass coastline, she sat outside the windows and stared inward, tracking her humans’ every move. “What’s on TV tonight, Bear Cat?” we teased. “Anything good?” When she’d had enough, there she was at the cabin door, demanding to be let back in with her distinctive voice. Mrrrr-mraow!
We almost lost her once. It was July 2016, anchored in Saint John the Baptist Bay. Rafted with our fishing partner, it was a late night at the end of a long coho trip, but the shared company rejuvenated us. I nursed a cup of tea while Joel and Greg sipped whiskey, celebrating our full fish holds with a shared Toblerone. I first thought the distant howling was Bear playing – did she take one of her toys outside? – but there was no mistaking the sound of splashing water. Greg’s cool head saved her. While I jabbed the dip net at the dark water, he grabbed a flashlight. Joel intervened with the net, scooping her up just as she was about to give up on us, turning to swim for shore. I wrapped her in a towel and held her, limp and shivering, over the stove. She was back to her ornery self the next day.
And there’s no denying Bear the Boat Cat was ornery. Our friend Mikey summed her up, “I like Bear because she’s a cat, but if she was a human, I wouldn’t want to be her friend.” We issued warnings to new visitors, advising them how exactly to pet her to avoid being bitten. Most listened. Those few assholes who intentionally crossed her boundaries? They got what they deserved, in every drop of blood they shed. She was utterly her own creature, unmoved by others’ wants or wishes. It was one of the things we loved about her.
She stopped playing last winter. Her toys lay where we left them, untouched. The nights were silent. She’d always responded to Joel’s whistle, charging full-force to bound into our laps whenever he pursed his lips in a pygmy owl call. Always, until she didn’t. In the final year, she answered his calls with empty eyes, too weary to move.
If there was a single shining moment of Bear’s life, it was in 2008. I was back on my brother’s boat, crewing for halibut before the salmon season. Bear came with me. We’d been longlining offshore when the weather came up. It was a six-hour run to the nearest anchorage, and we fell into our bunks as soon as the anchor was set, too exhausted by the ass-kicking to be bothered by the afternoon sun streaming through the open cabin windows. I startled awake when Bear, napping with me, launched off my chest and leapt across the cabin. She tried to twist away as I pried her jaws open. Out burst a barn swallow, a blue blur zipping from cat’s mouth to window. Bear glowered and hunched toward the floor. I forced her mouth open once more – and out flew a second swallow. A little more dazed than the first, maybe, but it too made a break for the window and safely back to shore. Bear gave me the cold shoulder for the rest of that halibut trip, furious that I’d thwarted her once-in-a-lifetime two birds, one bite glory.
This last summer, we were fifty miles offshore when a wayward tree swallow flew into the Nerka’s cabin. It lit on the table, chirping loud relief at finding sanctuary. Bear was sleeping less than a foot away. She didn’t budge. Joel and I exchanged a heavy look, silent understanding that our old girl was a shell of the cat she’d once been.
Boat life hadn’t always been fun for her. Like us, she had to regain her sea legs at the start of every season. (There’s nothing more pathetic than a seasick cat, lying limp and hopeless on the floor, drooling ropes of foam from her muzzle.) It got harder as she aged. She started fading in 2015, hyperthyroidism burning away her bulk. Radiation treatment bought her another eighteen months. Then her kidneys started to go, reducing her to constant, desperate thirst. She spent the majority of her last season in a cat bed at the settee, corralled in a cardboard box lined with a heavy garbage bag to guard against accidents. The rare times she’d step outside, it was only to watch the deck hoses gushing sea water before her, or to stare out the scuppers at the infinite, undrinkable blue. When the fishing slowed, I carried her down to her litter box. When the weather came up, I steadied her as she struggled to keep her balance, the bow slamming against the waves. We bore helpless witness to her decline, wondering if Bear might have enjoyed a longer life, better golden years, if she hadn’t been a boat cat.
We let Bear the Boat Cat go on September 4, 2018. She didn’t fight the drive to the vet, but nestled in Joel’s lap and pressed her face into his arms. She didn’t try to jump from the exam table. She didn’t flinch when the needle slid into her leg. We flinched for her. We told her we’d never forget her, we’d always love her, it was an honor to share these twelve amazing years with her. We told her she was the best cat two neurotic monkeys could ever ask for. We told her goodbye.
After goodbye, there’s only thank you:
Thanks to her original humans, who anonymously surrendered the big-boned tabby one night in the spring of 2006, leaving her in the Sitka Animal Shelter’s outdoor kennel. Thanks to the Shelter staff and volunteers for keeping her safe until we met her several months later. Thanks to Dr. Burgess Bauder for caring for her over the years, including a stormy night meeting to sign a health certificate allowing her to travel south the next day. Thanks to the Seattle Cat Clinic for treating her hyperthyroidism, buying her a few bonus years. Thanks to Aunt Ashley, Daryl, and the many, many people who cared for her over the years. Thanks to all her friends – boat kids, land people, FisherPoets, a literary agent in New York City and a blogger in California, strangers who approached us to ask if we were Bear’s parents. Friends who knew her in person and friends who knew by her online presence, all recognizing what a special being she was. Thanks to Dr. Victoria Vosburg and her staff for giving her such a peaceful, respectful end. Most of all: Thanks, Bear Cat. You were the absolute best, exactly the way you were.