It's raining. Always.
Rick's got a 21-foot Alumaweld Intruder. A beat up canvas and plastic cover offers some protection from the wind and less from the rain and spray. There's a 130-horse Evinrude that pushes the v-hull along at about 25 knots.
The water is milky blue-green in the channel. Even full of glacier silt visibility is tens of feet. I can see us zipping past unidentifiable submerged things. I'm thinking that things under the water have no concern for the rain, which is utterly remorseless. Wet is the normal state of affairs in Juneau, Alaska. I'm becoming prime habitat for fungi, lichens, and moss. Underwater I'd be a haven for algae, mussels, and kelp.
In Alaska, all of nature is looking for a free ride.
Every time I look back toward the roaring engine I'm reminded at how when I was a kid Evinrudes were the least reliable outboard in the fleet. We were just as likely to have to beg a tow from a passing yacht as to get back to the boat ramp under our own power.
I don't mention my concern to Rick. This is a new age. It's a new America. Manufacturing is different. Thinking is different. Politics are different. Our senator thinks the internet is the same as the post office only the delivery people are smaller and fit inside wire. He puts his shoes on the wrong feet. He tries to explain that he's not from the real world, but nobody believes him.
This should be on a sign at the cruise ship dock: "Welcome to Alaska: You've left the REAL world."
There's a burp in the engine drone. Rick takes a quick glance back.
"Damned thing is prone to flooding."
"While it's running flat out?"
"Or maybe it's blowing a gasket. Better slide forward. It might explode again."
We're passing Admiralty Island, which is known to the natives as Kootznoowoo. Kootznoowoo means "Fortress of the Bears" in the Tlingit language. If we are forced to beach here, we'll be eaten before we can find a spot with cell phone reception.
In Alaska, every man is food for fauna.
Hurray for the food chain.
Rick says, "Ten years ago we'd be dodging icebergs. When the Taku was calving into the narrows you'd have to navigate around blue ice as big as floating warehouses." It goes without saying that the Taku glacier has receded. No more ice in the waterway.
Hurray for climate change.
The engine burps again. Rick curses and fiddles with the throttle. Admiralty Island slides past. If we founder now we'll be crushed by cruise ships full of drunken senior citizens on their Alaskan holiday.
Rick flicks a forefinger against the screen of his high-end GPS/depth sounder. It cost as much as the boat. It tells you where you are when you are sinking.
"Damn thing. Transponder's snapped off again." The depth reads a thousand feet, then two and a half feet, then twenty seven. He says, "I think the fish are here. Somewhere."
The rain intensifies. I'm thankful. It dilutes the salt spray which is freezing my head.
But my feet are warm, so my body is happy. Juneauites shod their feet in vulcanized rubber boots called "Extra Tuffs". So covered in an impenetrable barrier, the wearer can wade gleefully through the Safeway parking lot, flooded basements, or whale-infested tidal basins without fear of dampness between the toes.
Mine have an extra felt liner for added warmth and steel toes. These are important for kicking the life out of landed killer fish. Put an eighty pound halibut in the bottom of a twenty-one foot Intruder and there isn't enough room for the feet of the two guys who hauled it in. Thus confronted with toes and mortality, the fish inevitably decides to attack the toes, which in my case, are stashed safely behind an eighth-inch of Pittsburgh steel.
Hurray for Pennsylvania.
Wearing Extra Tuffs, one looks exactly the way one has always avoided appearing in social circumstances for the entirety of one's life -- somewhere between categories "serial killer" and "village idiot" as specified by the DSM. But we don't care how we look to the uninitiated, sere rabble in the lower 48. Those people don't know moisture. Juneauites know moisture the way interns know bedpans.
The six-inch swells grow to a meter in three minutes. What seemed like a sheltered patch of sea in the lee of Grand Island is now a tempest. It reminds me of a passage in the book I just read about these waters. Every year swells in the channel swallow many unprepared fishing craft without the need for a perfect storm. The blips on the sounder are sonar echoes off the carcasses of 60-foot charter boats that litter the floor of the fjords, thousands of feet below us.
It reminds me of how little I like to fish, and how interested I am in dying for it.
Just as quickly, the water calms again. Rick hasn't taken note.
In terms of occupancy in the mind of man, life-threatening weather is no contest for hooking a big fish. Eighty-pound halibut on forty-pound test. This will take skill. The only thing in Rick's mind is not losing the fish. Naked supermodels could swim past tossing hundred dollar bills and he wouldn't flinch.
It's all about landing the fish. Get the harpoon.
Harpoon? "There's a harpoon in this boat?"
"Under the gunnels. Get a tip out of the tackle box. Overhand it like you mean business."
I am normal. I am from suburbia. I have never thrown a harpoon.
"You know how to do this?" he asks me, as if there was any possibility I had done time on the hunt with an Inuit whaling community.
"It's easy. Get it through the head," Rick said of a fish as long as a grown man. I'd never been involved in pulling something quite so large out of the ocean that hadn't first fallen there out of a rusting '72 Ford Maverick.
"Through the head. Then what?"
"Then tie the rope around the cleat. Wait. First tie the rope around the cleat."
And so on.
An eighty-pound halibut barely fits in the cooler. You have to cut off the head and tail to get it in. It flops around anyway. The flopping of a big halibut is hardly fishlike. It sounds like your little brother falling out of bed.
"Is it okay in there?" I ask, to which Rick raises an eyebrow.
"It's not okay. It's got no head."
"I mean, can it get out?"
"What's the difference? It's got no head."
I remind Rick I am not concerned for the fish's well-being beyond it making the trip safely to our broilers along with equally dead lemons, dill, and a little parsley. Only, the clips have broken off the cooler. Maybe a six-foot, flopping, bloody ice-covered halibut body can flop itself out. And get guts all over.
Halibut blood is deep red like mammal blood. It congeals in seconds, forming a dark red film. It smells like fish death.
And so on. Five hours later, we've landed two more ten pounders. Those don't require harpooning. Before bringing them into the boat, Rick slices them open with a Bowie knife so they can bleed out into the ocean. Of course, the halibut heart pumps a couple extra times when the fish is aboard, and so we're wading in bloody seawater.
Avast. We are men of the sea.
It's a far cry from catching sunnies in the Rahway river on needle-fine hooks baited with Wonder bread balls. This is cruel fishing. It's fish hunting.
"He's a good size," Rick says of our harpooned prey. He aims us up the side of a swell. Home is on the other side, but Rick's in fish reverie. "But they get to six-hundred pounds." As far as he's concerned, we're about five-hundred twenty pounds shy of an interesting catch.
"How do you land those? Artillery shell tied to a suspension bridge cable?"
"Well. They're easier to maneuver when they're dead. Some guys carry firearms. I prefer the harpoon."
"Guns. For halibut. Rick, they're bottom feeders."
"They have teeth."
And here I am, foolish enough to think I'm safe wearing steel-tipped rubber boots.
The problem with catching fish is someone has to slice up the body into something humans want to eat. The other problem with catching fish is someone has to wash the boat.
The epitome of irony. The boat has to be washed after every use.
You'd think that by now we'd have boats that could stand water. Etc.
But we don't. Three hours of slicing later, we've yielded about seventy pounds of edible halibut. It's going for $12 a pound at Safeway, even here in Alaska. So by my back of the soggy envelop calculation, we've just netted about $840 in fresh fish for about nine hours work.
Some people think this is a good deal.
I get back into my jeep with a plastic garbage bag containing about fifteen pounds of halibut. In the enclosed space I smell enough like dead halibut to disgust myself. But for the first time in nine hours there is no rain on me. My head is happy for that.
My feet are even happier, safe and warm behind steel and rubber and felt.
One day it doesn't rain. Hallelujah. There is sun. Shadows. I can see in three dimensions instead of two. Praise God. Warmth. Dryness. Please, dear Lord, my feet. Dry my feet.
The first time I saw people in the digging ditch at the side of the road, I figured something flew out of their car as the passed, and they were trying to find it. In fact, one sunny day I saw two people in the highway median about half a mile apart from each other, talking on their cell phones. They were kicking at things. As I drove a little farther up the road I saw a Subaru SUV with the back hatch open. Splicing together unrelated events, I imagined their Subaru hatch opened while they were driving and something flew out. They were searching the median looking for it.
That explanation made sense to me. I forgot about it. Until I saw the another group of people in the ditch at the roadside. They were on their hands and knees, digging. I passed them at fifty and saw them in my rearview mirror, receding while they plowed the earth with their hands.
A few days later I was walking my dog and one of those tiny wiener dogs burst from the ditch at the side of the road yapping like a loose hatch cover on a speeding jet. I was seriously thinking to let my Akita eat the poor thing when it's owner, previously invisible in the roadside ditch, came out after it and collected it into her arms.
She said, "Sorry about that." Her hands, face, and clothes were covered in dirt. She rubbed her sweaty forehead with the back of her hand.
"No problem," I said, because it really wasn't. Then, figuring I could get to the bottom of the ditch thing, "You lose something over there?"
"What?" she said, and suddenly finding something interesting about the lack of cloud cover, began to examine the blue above. "Oh, no. I'm just digging up wildflowers."
I was going to suggest to her that moss was not considered a wildflower in the lower 48, but it was too embarrassing to expose her ruse, and besides, if it turned out she was digging for gold, I didn't want to know about it for fear the mania would hit me as well. I have a lot of hobbies and I didn't need to add casual surface mining to the lot.
When I left she went back into the ditch to dig with her wiener dog.
When I went into the ditch, there was no gold. Just a couple dandelions.
It starts raining again.
Weather here is variations on rain density. Light. Moderate. Sprinkly. Hard. Sideways.
Today is a hard rain. The straight-down soaking kind like your shower, only everywhere.
I'm walking from the office to the parking lot where I leave my car and I see some tourist ladies trying to take a picture of the historic Greek Orthodox church. They are from the boat. They are always from the boat.
As I pass they ask me, "Do you know if it will stop raining?"
Of course I know. "Yes," I say, leaving a pause for emphasis because I am becoming as twisted as the rest of Alaska. People here have no need for verbal discourse. We converse telepathically or through encoded small talk. Such as:
"I hear they're running a sale over at Fred Meyer." Which means,
"The idiots in the stocking department sent over a shipment of picnic table umbrellas and they're selling them to boaters for use as sea anchors. Go get one before they're all gone."
Or, "How long have you been living here?"
Which translates to, "Hey, you can get a cheap fishing license now."
Which translates to, "The garbage truck passed my house without picking up my trash, and a bear got into it, and the police gave me a ticket and now I have to pay a $50 fine. So I asked the garbage guys, 'Why didn't you pick up my trash?' and they said, 'Because it wasn't your day.' And I said, 'But it's Friday. Friday is always my day.' And they said, 'Yeah, but not every week.'"
You have to be perceptive, but eventually you get it. Occasionally, when you have to communicate with people from other parts of the world they think you're crazy for staring at them with an entire conversation spinning in your head. So you have to say something. Which takes energy. It's a pain in the ass.
"Is it going to stop?" the dripping tourist lady asks me. She has on a floppy yellow hat. Rainwater is pouring off of it onto her bright blue polyester-panted thighs which extend beyond the rain shadow of her hat brim.
I want to say, "Yes. At the dawn of the next ice age." But I don't.
Welcome to the civilized wilderness. It's rough here. Our houses are growing mold and bears gnaw the limbs of the unaware. This is a hostile, rainy place.
I want to deliver her my pity. It's the pity I have for the town economy when I drive past the docks in the morning and see four bright white cruise ships lined up in a row in the rain and fog, wondering how long this can continue. How many more perfectly sane American vacation goers can come to Juneau in the summer before Alaska is officially advertised as a trip for people with a desire to become asthmatic? How many more embarrassed vacationers will return home unable to show pictures taken from off the cruise ship because the batteries in their cameras were shorted out by rain dripping from their noses?
They don't know what they're getting into until they're here and getting soaked in their Disney World t-shirts and Bermuda shorts. It could be bad for everyone.
I said. "I'm afraid it's like this all the time."
"All the time?"
Well, there is truth. There is the perpetual low pressure zone in the Pacific Ocean that pumps moisture down here. The mountains and islands funnel the winds in the perfect direction to bring the incessant moisture. There are deserts, so there must be rainy places. Yin and yang. Up and down. Nasdaq and NYSE. The mighty Manitou's thirst is infinite.
Can she conceive this wisdom?
But my telepathy tells me she is wondering if God is punishing her by raining on her vacation. I know it is really quite the opposite. Alaska is something to see. It is a blessing. It rains a over hundred inches per year here. You can't see that in Iowa. Where else can you see American homes covered in moss? Where else do high-school basketball teams need to travel by boat to away games? Where else will sunscreen of strength SPF one will not only keep you from getting sunburned, but you will become so deprived of vitamin D you'll develop rickets? Where else can you find an airport where human passengers are incidental cargo on a Boeing 737 with a hold filled with fresh seafood?
This is a thing to see, indeed.
"Because it's a rainforest. Did you see the eagles?" I point, and make my exit while they're looking at some dots in the sky.
Probably ravens. Maybe Stellar Jays.