Into the wild

United States | Massachusetts | Chatham

“Fishermen have a story that generally goes untold. The reason for this is because it’s difficult to articulate those aspects of life on the sea that are beyond language and time. These are highly personal moments that most fishermen tend to keep to themselves.

The vast majority of people would assume that commercial fishing is just another job. They have heard that being a commercial fisher is in the top five most dangerous professions, and that it’s hard work. People have also heard that many fisheries are struggling and that it has become increasingly difficult to earn a living as a commercial fisherman, with the cost of fuel, the expense of purchasing licenses, and the diminished amount of catch boats are allowed to bring in. Still, these men and women go to work on the sea. They go out on boats, with little sleep, under adverse conditions, in a very dangerous profession where accidents are usually catastrophic, if not life ending. Fishermen doggedly go back to sea, usually, until old age and physical challenges force them to stop. I know why they do it, because I do it.

A fisherman’s soul is usurped by the sea. Fishermen give everything over to the ocean. Everything. The sea becomes their punishment, their teacher, their mistress, and their connection to nature. It’s true. Once the ocean finds its way into your heart and soul, there’s no turning back. You have been conscripted to a life on the sea. My first love is the sea. The ocean has given everything to me. Everything that is valuable to me comes from my life on the waters off the shores Cape Cod. I’m addicted and I won’t apologize for it. Here’s why.

Last year, we drove 560 hickory trees into the ocean floor and hung five miles of nets, in March, in an open hulled boat with no protection from salt spray or cold winds, and nowhere to hide. We supported these poles with countless anchors and miles of lines to set up our weirs with the hope that the fish would come. Unfortunately, the fish did not come. For three months we tended our nets and came up virtually empty. Then we had the onerous task of removing all these poles and gear, deep in debt, tired and beaten. One has to wonder why we do it.

Then it’s March 2014, and Shannon, Ernie, John and I are beginning a new fishing season. We are all 100% in it. It’s time to set up the weirs again, even though the last several years have been disappointing in terms of catch and pay. No one was paid much. All of us are operating in the red. Even with that in mind, we set out to build our traps. Ernie said, “It’s great to be on a boat again.”

It’s a cold windy morning and we’re headed out with a boatload of poles. Ernie is at the helm, facing to the stern because each wave we soar over sends a sheet of icy water over the whole boat. Everyone is silent. The ride out is wet and cold. As I look out over the stern of the boat I see the sun rise over Monomoy Island. The ocean looks like mercury, with white and green froth on the crest of each wave. The sky is intense, bleak and endless. There’s no one else out here but us. The diesel engine drones on as we chug out to our destination. It’s just us and the vast ocean. The scene is moody and harsh, but at the same time possesses a kind of haunted beauty.

Days and days follow. Sunrise. Magnificent rays of light streaming down through the clouds. The ocean today is black and blue. Clouds like mythical worlds swirl overhead. The air is hard and cold. John warms his hands on the bare muffler pipe while I sip my coffee. Shannon is sitting on the gunwales, back to the wind, lost in thought. An osprey flies above us and we all turn to see this immense bird in flight. No one speaks. There are no words to describe the magnificence of these great creatures that accompany us on our daily voyages.

Later in the day the sky to the west turns a foreboding dark grey. Gnarly tendrils of clouds and rain hang down from the sky, and up high in the clouds are flashes of lightning. The wind suddenly gusts as the front approaches; we begin to get out of there. Suddenly, the wind rips through and we’re being pelted by hail. The ice is bouncing off the engine block like popcorn, and peppering our backs. The ocean became a foamy green mousse from the barrage of hail. It was one of the most unusual moods of the ocean to witness. It was spectacular!

March blends into April and the poles have been set in a cold, barren, unforgiving sea. The boats are loaded with nets. As the sun comes up, there are pinks and purples permeating the wispy clouds. A few gulls fly overhead, stark white and ash grey. They ride the wind, beautiful and graceful. They are always here with us. The ride out always gives me time to marvel at the ever-changing beauty all around me. Each day is different. Each day is a work of art within cloud formations, color and light.

On the ride home, I sit up in the bow. The sun is up now and casting silvery white triangles across the vast stretch of water, putting on a dazzling light show as we motor into the pathway to the sun. A flock of birds flies by in formation. They know what to do, in unison. As we approach the harbor, the lighthouse stands on the beach as a testament of time. Green beach grass sways in the breeze as if it were being choreographed by an unseen passing spirit. The entire seascape is so unutterably beautiful it defies description.

At home, I have sea legs, which is a phenomenon you get by spending the day on the ocean. You feel like you’re still swaying or moving up and down on the constant waves. You go to sleep like that, upon the rolling sea with images of graceful gliding osprey or curling roiling seas. You dream about it.

The alarm goes off too early. It’s 4:30 a.m. and I get up and walk to the window, pulling the curtains aside to see what the wind looks like. The tops of the trees are swaying. It will be that much windier on the water, which will make for a hard day, a cold day. I pack my things, my gloves, put on my jacket and head down to the shore. I’m the only car on the road.

The boat is waiting at the dock, with that familiar sound of the low rumbling rhythmic engine as I climb down the ladder and get on. Everyone is here, so we push off and head out. We have a lot to do. I’ll wake up with my coffee on the 40-minute ride out to the trap and gaze out at the endless horizon.

The weirs are finally completed. It took six or seven weeks to build them, and we’re headed out again at sunrise to fish them…if there are any fish. In my car on the way to the dock, a red tailed hawk flies alongside my car for about two minutes, right next to my window. I feel like it’s escorting me to the harbor. I get the chills. There may be fish. It’s the one thing on all of our minds. We’ve worked so hard. The last few years have been bad. I have this strong feeling that the hawk is a messenger. It’s a sign. I decide not to tell anyone on the boat about it. I don’t want to get everyone’s hopes up.

We steam out to the first trap. All of us are secretly terrified that this will all be for nothing, but as we approach the weir, we see not one or two, but hundreds of gulls flying above the trap. No one says a thing as we watch in awe. We prepare the perimeter of the trap and then enter through the gate to begin hand hauling the nets. The gulls are going wild. The chorus of noise they are making is deafening. As we draw the nets across, we see a swirl, a big funnel of water in the nets. Everyone knows that means there’s a large school of fish circling in the trap. There are thousands of beautiful fish. Ernie yells out “Mackerel!” Shannon says, “There’s squid!”

It’s unbelievable. It’s like the old days, when the traps were bountiful. We finish pursing the nets and everyone is on a cloud. There’s about 12,000 pounds of fish swimming in the trap, all kinds: beautiful green and black mackerel; shiny pink squid; silvery butterfish; gorgeous purple, blue and silver sea bass; and a frothy pod of green and grey pogies. The colors are from an otherworldly palette.

All of the sudden, the seagulls hovering overhead raise their voices to a deafening, uniform sound. Everyone looks up. I see above me what looks like hundreds of angels’ wings flapping in the crystal blue sky. Over the horizon, the sun is streaming down through the morning cloud break. The water is a deep, deep blue filled with incredible fish. My sunglasses hide the tears that are streaming down my face, my heart filled with wonder and gratitude for the bounty and the beauty of God’s creation. I can’t, in words, adequately describe the presence I felt in that moment. I’ll never forget it.

Fishermen doggedly return to sea, until physically they can no longer return to the hard labor on the ocean. Their story is widely known and wildly unknown. Once you leave the shore, and the sea enters your heart and soul, there’s no turning back. A fisherman’s soul is usurped, and guided by the sea. You give everything to her, because she gives you everything. We are only here to witness a creation that we can never fully understand. Long after we are all gone, there will always be the great ocean.

Some of my friends might think I got a job on a fishing boat, but I know, I’ve left the shore and gone into the wild. I can never come back.”

Article by Russell Kingman, first published by by Edible Cape Cod on July 10, 2014

Pictures by Shannon Eldredge, Russell Kingman and Shareen Davis.

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