How We Will Weather This

August:

The Mayday wakes me. The radio volume is low, but it reaches the fo’c’sle. A man, his voice an octave shy of hysteria, yanks me from the bunk, pulling me upstairs.

“There’s a boat one mile off Cape Addington taking on water! It’s a yellow-and-black troller, wood, two people on board. He’s got three or four pumps going in the engine room and a guy bailing in the fish hold.”

“Roger, Captain, can you spell Cape Addington?”

“A – D – D… It’s on Noyes Island!” The engine screams in the background. “He’s gonna need another pump. I can see four anchor lights from here, I know somebody’s got a pump they can give us!”

We’re anchored in the next bay down from Addington. Us, and a small fleet of fellow trollers. I slide into the pilot seat. Rain washes the night, beading the windows. I don’t turn the lights on. There’s nothing to see except the solid red glow of the VHF. I pin my gaze on that light, willing it to pulse with another transmission.

Fishermen often know boats better than we know the people attached to them. All season we slide past each other on the tack, observing, assessing. Judging. Sometimes not knowing the person aboard as anything more than a miniature figure in neon raingear. Our boats represent us by proxy – our boats, and our disembodied voices on the radio. Identities are impressions, forged by boat maintenance, tack behavior, and radio conduct.

Only one boat matches this description. It’s been the bane of the fleet all season, most recently two days ago, when another fisherman got on 16 to call out the yellow-and-black troller that had turned right on top of him. It was a mild scold, little more than a “what’s up with that” rebuke. The response was an explosive diatribe hot and rank, fouling the airwaves. Our knives stilled mid-gutting as we stared at the deck speakers, stunned at the escalation. The initial caller was taken aback, too. “Whatever, man. You troll like a dumbass. And put a fuckin’ name on your boat, too.” Refusing to cede the last word, the young man shot more venom back.

Fishermen always say that we’re there for each other. That if you’re in trouble, it doesn’t matter who you are, what our differences are on land. That on the water, we’re family.

I want to believe that’s true.

We could be alone here, if not for low-slung constellations of neighboring anchor lights winking in and out of view as boats slowly twirl on their tethers, darkness broken only by the red glow of radio silence. I want to reach for the mic, tell the man someone is listening, someone is out here. But my transmission would be nothing more than interference; we don’t have the spare pump he needs. I want to believe that’s the reason for the rest of the family’s silence, too.

So I just sit in the dark and stare at the radio, arms wrapped around my knees pulled into my chest. The position a marine safety instructor taught, one that will preserve your body heat in the water. One that might help keep you alive.

The radio snaps to attention. “I’m almost to him, should be there in another five minutes! I’m gonna raft up to him and see what we can do.”

The Coast Guard asks for further description of the boat in trouble. The screaming engine threatens to drown the man’s wretched reply. “It’s my son.”

 

September:

The weather hits in the night. We’ve spent the run south pushing to stay one step ahead of this gale, only to have it pounce on the midnight shift.

Caught in the ocean’s convulsions, Joel and I go very still. Him at the helm, me alongside, both of us pinch-lipped and vigilant, hyper-alert. We don’t speak, just watch for what’s ahead. Waiting. The autopilot fights to hold its course. Glass jars chatter in the galley. I stormproof the cabin as best I can. Bear the Boat Cat looks uneasy, sitting stiffly beneath the table. I tell Joel I’m going to make sure her safe space below our bunk is clear. I have a bad feeling she’s going to need it.

The fo’c’sle is a disaster. Cabinets flung open, books thrown from the shelf. Margaret Atwood, Ariel Gore, and Neil Gaiman sprawl across the bunk in a disheveled threesome. I’m shoving everything back into place – some place, any place they might hope to stay until the weather comes down – when the world falls out from under me.

“Oh, fuck,” I hear Joel bark. The engine drops to an idle. The Nerka pitches starboard, an abrupt lurch followed by a crash. Not one crash, but the staggered percussion of many heavy things making sudden, artless impact. Flying up the stairs, I brake hard. All five drawers have launched from the pilot seat, hurled across the cabin in brutal disarray. The space beneath the table is a ruin of wrenches, hooks, and knives.

“Bear! Fuck, where’s Bear?”

Gingerly excavating the debris, I release my breath. No crushed cat. I find her under our bunk, eyes like marbles. She must have zipped down, a whisker ahead of the attack. I stroke her rigid body and murmur apologies.

When we trade wheel watches, Joel isn’t in the fo’c’sle five minutes before returning with a scowl. “There’s no way I can sleep down there, the way we’re bucking. I’m just going to rest up here.” He’s too tall for the daybunk but climbs into it anyway, bracing socked feet against the back of my seat.

Bear slinks up the stairs, too. With a wary glance at the replaced drawers, she flattens herself again under the table, appearing at once boneless and tense. The anchor dips, the guts of a wave shattering against sixteenth-of-an-inch window panes. I stand in a hopeless effort to see over the lunging bow. My fingers clench the console.

Someday, from some safe space on the far side of fear, will I reduce this storm in classic fisherman’s understatement, head tilting to shoulder in minimalistic shrug? We took some green water. Will I gaslight myself? Time does that; time, and our future self’s need to whitewash past danger.

Darkness fuels fear. In a world reduced to black night, white foam, green water, you can’t assess conditions as a whole, can’t brace yourself for anything beyond the next toothy wave. For everything I can’t see, there is sound. The river running down the roof. Erratic one-two, one-two notes tweeted like a canary, a cabinet popping open with each up-surge, closing as we slam back down. The violence of water hitting the hull just so – a resounding smack that, no matter how often I hear it and assure myself it’s just water, it’s just water, always makes me jump. Reflexively, I conduct a mental tour of our safety gear.

I think back to the beginning of our season, when the Nerka first headed out to the Fairweather Grounds. It was so easy to trust the ocean when tucking into that cheerful blue, taking at face value the snake-oil promises of a calm day. So easy to imagine myself unafraid on the water. That was a lie. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it’s not so much that I’m afraid on the water as I’m afraid of the instant when everything changes – the moment you don’t see coming, when you suddenly feel yourself falling from shitty into very, very bad. The moment you realize you’re in trouble is the moment too late; there’s no turning back or avoiding what now is. There’s only the question of how you will respond, and if your response will make a difference.

 

Today:

I’ve been back on land for months. Yet I’m still hugging my knees to my chest, staring at a solid red glow, waiting for someone to break the radio silence. I’m still clenching the wheel, watching green water shatter against the windows, praying they’ll hold, bracing for the next hit. The landscape has changed. It shifts and tumbles, every day newly precarious. I review our safety gear, sometimes wondering if it’s time to grab the go-bag. Wondering, if so, where there is to go.

The yellow-and-black troller survived that August night. Family came through, other boats stepping up to share pumps. And Joel, Bear, and I made it though our night, too; the weather broke with dawn, washing us limp and stunned into a new day. Thinking back to those nights and others, times my heart lodged hardest in my throat, I realize it’s less a matter of going, more about getting through. The ocean gives us everything we need to do this. Resolve; Vigilance. Endurance; Solidarity. Hope. Love.

So I’ll be here, standing by the radio, hands steady on the wheel. I’ll keep going, trusting that even when I feel alone charging into dark, storm-tossed nights, dawn will come. Trusting you’re out here with me – and you, and you, and you – and you’ll do the same. In this way, together, we will weather this.

 

 

 

 

I wrote this in January 2017,  for Oregon’s FisherPoets Gathering. Gratitude to Cirque for publishing it in their Summer 2017 issue, Vol 8, No. 2. Revisiting it now, in November 2017, the words feel like they were written by someone else, someone stronger and more optimistic than I currently am.  Maybe you are that someone? If so, please share this wheel watch with me; tell me how to be a person who trusts in the dawn.

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Gearing Up for the 20th Annual FisherPoets!

We’re less than a week away from Oregon’s annual FisherPoets Gathering, friends! The highlight of our winter, FisherPoets is always special – this one especially so, as we celebrate the 20th year of commercial fishing women and men from across the country (and one from Belgium!) uniting to share stories, poems, and songs celebrating our industry.

I usually try to share something about FisherPoets here, wanting to convey the magic, wanting to lure you to join us. This year, fellow FisherPoet (and gifted writer, mentor, and beloved friend) Pat Dixon has written such a perfect explanation, I’d rather just send you to straight to his words. If you’ve been undecided about making the trip or wonder what this “FisherPoet” business is, anyway, please read Pat’s personal invitation.

What I’ll say is this: those of you able to join us in person in Astoria this Friday – Sunday, February 24 – 26, please do say hi if we’re in the same venue. But if you can’t make the trip? Some of us will come to you! Make a date to enjoy readings from the comfort of your home, thanks to Coast Community Radio’s generous support.

Coast Community Radio will broadcast from the Astoria Events Center on both nights, Friday and Saturday, Feb 24-25, from 6:00-10:00pm PST. Tune in to live-stream the following FisherPoets’ performances:

Astoria Event Center, Friday, February 24
MCs Jon Broderick and Jay Speakman

5 Curt Olson and Abigail Martin, Broadus MT
Danny Keyser, Astoria OR
Annie Howell-Adams, Friday Harbor WA

6 Ryan and Kyle Lutz, Portland OR
Pat Dixon, Olympia WA
Phil Lansing, Boise ID

7 John Palmes, Juneau AK
Billie Delaney, Port Townsend WA
Kirk Lombard, San Francisco CA

8 Jon Broderick, Cannon Beach OR and Jay Speakman, Gearhart OR
Wilfred Wilson, Delta BC
RK and Cherry Rice, Long Beach WA

9 The Brownsmead Flats, Astoria OR
Tom Hilton, Astoria OR
Don Pugh, Snohomish WA
Erin Fristad, Port Townsend WA

Astoria Event Center, Saturday, February 25
MCs Rob Seitz and Tele Aadsen

5 Toby Sullivan, Kodiak AK
Mary Jacobs, Ophir OR
Moe Bowstern, Portland OR

6 Hobe Kytr, Astoria OR
Geno Leech, Chinook WA
Wayne Chimenti, Port Townsend WA

7 Rob Seitz, Los Osos CA
Vicki Horton, Port Townsend WA
Alana Kansaka-Sarmiento, Portland OR

8 Doug Rhodes, Craig AK
Mary Garvey, Seaview WA
Steve Schoonmaker, Kasilof AK

9 Mariah Warren, Sitka AK
Rich King, Kilauea HI
Tele Aadsen, Bellingham WA
John Haggerty, Seaside OR

 

Hope to see you there, friends.

 

 

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Coming Up: 19th Annual FisherPoets Gathering!

It’s almost time, friends! Oregon’s nineteenth annual FisherPoets Gathering is less than two weeks away, with storytellers, musicians, and poets readying to flood Astoria this February 26-28. It’s an immersion into the authentic, captains and crew of diverse fisheries and eras reflecting on the single moments and entire careers that have both nourished and devoured us. It’s an exercise in expressing what has often seemed beyond expression, and the belief that the effort matters. That belief pulls us back, a flood tide, every February.

 

FisherPoets has been the highlight of our off-season ever since we made our first trip in 2012. (I was the only one of us debuting on the program that year, but who can forget this moment, Cap’n J’s rock star emergence at the on-site poetry contest?) Joel’s been practicing his material for months. With the final (final?) revisions of my book due the day we hit the road for a pre-FPG Portland gig (Salvage Works, 7 pm on the 24th!) I may not be as polished as my partner, but I’ll be no less joyful for this annual fisher-artist reunion. Our people.

 

Meezie and Cap'n J

Meezie Hermansen & Cap’n J

 

 

Our people come from all over. A record ninety-five are scheduled this year, hailing from Alaska to Florida, Massachusetts to California. A couple British Columbians. One made the trip from Finland last year. The BBC came in 2014. Just as distance is no match for passionate FisherPoets, neither can it hinder the draw of stories. Our audience members come from just as far, and are just as eager.

 

Fifteen bucks buys you an entry button for the whole weekend. That’s a $15 buffet of two days’ access to six venues of performances, as well as all the special events: workshops, films, photography exhibits, conservation and advocacy discussions, a silent auction, a dance party, Saturday night’s annual poetry contest.

 

Ray Troll & Ratfish Wranglers 2015

Ray Troll & the Ratfish Wranglers, 2015

 

And if you can’t join us in person? Enjoy a private show in the comfort of your own home, curled up on the couch in your pajamas, for FREE. Thanks to KMUN, Astoria’s Coast Community Radio, listeners can livestream the Events Center performances, Friday and Saturday nights, 6 to 10 pm PST. Check the schedule to be sure not to miss your favorites.

 

(One of the first-time acts I’m most delighted to see is Belly Meat from Sitka. I like imagining a giant house party in Sitka – maybe at the Larkspur – of the home crowd tuned in to cheer these guys. They should be streaming about 9:00 on Friday night.)

 

Nineteen years… The FPG’s success is the proof of heroic volunteer efforts. Organizers, MCs, performers: we’re all volunteers. We foot our own travel, lodging, and food. When the weekend’s over and the bills all paid (event buttons, publicity, sound/lighting tech, occasional venue rentals), the committee divvies up what remains and recognizes each FisherPoet a small travel stipend, based on how far they came from.

 

Not to get too NPR-annual-drive on you, but because we have such a full boat this year, I’m making a special request:

 

If you tune in to KMUN’s livestream to enjoy the show from home, consider contributing the $15 that would have been your entry fee. If you’d like to see your business listed on the FPG website as a supporter, consider a $250 readership. If you value this event and are in a position to make a donation, please do. Tax-deductible donations can be made directly through the FPG website, or mailed c/o Tillicum Foundation, PO Box 269, Astoria OR, 97103. We’re grateful for your support in all its forms.

 

All this said, FisherPoets is ten days away, but my book deadline is seven. If you’re planning to make it to Astoria, please do let me know – I’d love to see you. For now, I’m off to work, with love and best wishes until reaching the other side.

 

Astoria Street Musicians, FPG 2015

Photo by Tia Jensen

 

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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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Night Wheelwatch on the Nerka

53⁰23.596’ N

129⁰52.095’ W

11:15 pm, Principe Channel, British Columbia

 

Dusk tames the ocean. Dims it to liquid mercury, a silver sheet with yellow threads peeking from the folds. My favorite kind of ocean. The hillsides bracketing this two-mile wide channel have retreated, sacrificing substance for allusion. Joy and relief rush my veins, a flood tide. We’re less than three hours from Alaska now. I lean forward in the pilot seat, as if that will push us along any faster.

Charging ‘round the clock to reach Sitka as quickly as possible, we’ve broken the watches up like this: me on the wheel 9 pm to midnight, Joel midnight to 3, me 3 to 6. Joel has the hardest shift, the three hours where full darkness reigns. Daytime allows sleep without clocks. We rotate through our bunk. In 45 minutes, I’ll tuck myself into his body’s still-warm indentation. For now, though, it’s up to me to keep us on course. To keep us safe. In his absence, Joel’s trust is a presence filling the cabin.

The sun slipped past the horizon an hour ago. Lingering echoes cast just enough light to deceive. Every wrinkle in the water ahead is a log, a telephone pole about to slam fiberglass, inches from my love’s sleeping head. I drop this pad to stand and stare, claiming reassurance through height. Then, now, still: it’s all water. I fall for the same ruse every sunset, every sunrise. Every season.

Even in the sun’s absence, I keep this notepad braced against my knees, gaze constantly flicking between radar, computer chart, and black water, determined to write blind even though I’ll be able to decipher less than half of this tomorrow. I’m thinking of you, how long it’s been since we talked, and the different sort of darkness I wrote from then. How to summarize the months between that page and this? To chart the path between hollow and peak, including Joel’s reunion with the ocean and our reunion with each other when we leased a permit to spend May trolling for king salmon off the Washington Coast, facing a gauntlet of threats – crab pots, bar crossings, drifting among big ship traffic – completely beyond our Alaskan experience?

A daunting task, and a tedious one at that. I’d rather think about friendship. About how, if a person is really lucky, they’ve got that one person who, no matter how much time passes between visits, they can always pick up exactly where they left off, falling right back into each other’s company with ease and comfort. That’s the kind of friend I hope to be, and it’s the friend I imagine you as, too. Rather than apologizing for Hooked’s long silence or struggling to fill it, I just want to smile at you, reach across this dark ocean, and squeeze your hand. It’s so good to see you again.

There is, however, one thing that needs to be said.

One week before we untied the lines to head north, I tapped the “send” button. One full draft – 406 pages – off to my fearless editor Sarah. The last three chapters are sloppy, more question than solid narrative. It needs a lot of help, but it’s something, and Sarah gave me her blessing to go fishing and not think about it for the time being. (Actually, she said, “Go do something frivolous to celebrate!” Frivolous doesn’t come easy to me, but a celebratory Martinelli’s with my writing buddy Pam Helberg was pretty good.) I can’t tell you how much higher my shoulders are sitting, having handed the wheel over to Sarah. 

Writing a book is often compared to pregnancy. Carrying the story to term, the labor, straining to birth this being that will live on independent of you. It’s an obvious metaphor (and one my subconscious fully embraced last winter, when this devoted non-breeder dreamed of a crowning baby that I didn’t know how to expel from my body.) Tonight, though, I’m thinking that writing a book is like driving a boat up the Inside Passage, traveling non-stop from Bellingham, Washington, to Sitka, Alaska, through dark water and twisting channels, sleep deprivation and unforeseen hazards. A person can’t do it alone. I’m grateful to everyone who’s been here for the ride, including Joel, who fielded two full winters of solo boat work, too much time apart, and more pep talks than anyone should have to issue, and you. Thank you for understanding when I needed to step away from this site, for sending your cards of encouragement, anonymous chocolate, and best writing wishes. As much of this journey still lies ahead, I trust we’ll reach our destination. Safely. Together.

Eleven fifty now, almost my bedtime. When you read this, I’ll be posting from Alaska. Alaskan trollers have a record king salmon quota this year – 325,000 fish, the largest quota since abundance-based management began in the late 1990’s. Translated, that means there’s a lot of king salmon around. Joel and I will be ghosts on the dock as soon as the season starts on July 1, pushing ourselves to make the most of this opportunity, town time limited to unloading, refueling, grocerying, rushing right back out. Turn and burns.

I’ve got a smartphone that I’m far too tech-inept for, and while blog posts on that tiny keypad are beyond the limits of my patience, swollen fingers, and rare service pockets, I’ll post photos from our trips on Facebook and Twitter. No boundaries on a pen, though. If you’d like to find an old-school envelope or Alaskan postcard smiling up from your mailbox, don’t hesitate to send a note. I’ll be at this address through mid-September:

Tele Aadsen

507 Katlian St

Sitka, AK  99835

Until next time, whether we reunite by screen or by page, I’m so glad to see you again. (Smile; squeeze.)

 

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