Unfolding the Map
We get into the nitty-gritty of fishing and fishermen, amid the sound of buoys. In Depoe Bay, I find a lot to compare with my hometown. And, you get some sentimental feelings about my uncles who were fishermen. Fishing is a declining occupation in the United States, fast becoming a piece of America that was. To see where Depoe Bay sits on Oregon's shores, a map is at your disposal.
"A high concrete-arch bridge crossed a narrow zigzag cleft on an inlet leading to a small harbor under the cliffs. Depoe Bay used to be a picturesque fishing village; now it was just picturesque. The fish houses, but for one seasonal company, were gone, the fleet gone, and in their stead had come sport fishing boats and souvenir ashtray and T-shirt shops. In Depoe Bay the big fish now was the tourist, and, like grunion, its run was a seasonal swarming.
"....I went down to the harbor, slipped past the Coast Guard station, and pulled up at the wharf....Cold wind stirred the surf, but the little harbor lay quiet. I heard laughter and a card game on a boat, and from out in the Pacific came the deep-throated dolor of sonobuoys groaning in their chains (seamen say) the agony of drowned sailors."
Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 4
Two things stand out to me in the end of this chapter in Blue Highways. First some setting. LHM pulls into Depoe Bay and describes it as in the first paragraph above. Then he finds a restaurant and talks to a local or two. One guy gives him an earful on how things have changed in the town's main economic activities. The man has a sport fishing boat where he takes tourists out on the Pacific to fish. He used to be a commercial fisherman, but overfishing and regulations have killed the commercial fishing industry. After talking with the man about how the "new fish" are now tourists looking to spend their money, LHM finds a place to pull up his van and sleep down by the wharf, lulled to sleep by the low moan of buoys.
This story is so familiar. This tragic tale of lost livelihood is one that just missed two of my uncles, one of whom fished almost until he died, and the other who is still fishing. This conversion of a town's economy over to tourism is the story of my hometown, which lasted longer in its blue-collar ways than Depoe Bay but eventually fell to the same forces.
My grandfather on my mother's side was a fisherman and a lumberman. He fished when fishing was good, and went logging when it wasn't. He owned his own boat, and taught his sons how to fish. They fished out of a little harbor, Noyo, near Fort Bragg, California. The description of Depoe Bay's harbor could just as easily be that of my hometown. Back then, there was a fishing fleet, and in the morning you would see the line of boats heading out to sea. It might take an hour for them all to leave. In the evening that line of boats came back into harbor.
Fishing is a rough life. You put up with the vagaries of the catch, the unpredictability of the weather and the water, the rough work of putting out your lines or your pots and then hauling them back in, hoping for a catch. The work is cold and wet because the ocean is cold and wet. In Depoe Bay, farther north than my town, the water probably feels even colder. Fisherman's wives constantly prayed that their husbands and sons would come back safely
By the time fishing was taken over by my grandfather's sons, my mother's brothers, it was starting to get sketchy. In California, the catch started getting smaller and smaller. The U.S. territorial waters, once only 3 miles offshore, was extended to 12 miles in an effort to keep foreign fish factories sent by the Japanese and Russians from taking the catch. Unfortunately, even this was not enough. I noticed, even when I was young, that my uncles were fishing farther away from our town. One uncle made regular trips up to the Oregon and Washington coasts. Another uncle moved up to a town on the San Juan de Fuca strait in Washington and used that as a springboard to run up to Alaska. The fishing seasons kept getting shorter, and the permits harder to get. When the halibut season was reduced to 24 hours of fishing, my uncle Elwin would run his boat up from Washington to Alaska and they would fish 24 hours straight, hopefully fill their holds, and then make the run back to an Alaskan town to sell the fish. My uncle Bob, now in his eighties, still takes his boat out to fish salmon, and has taken it as far as Hawaiian waters.
Of course, when you're in a 60 foot fishing boat, you are nothing more than a speck upon the huge ocean, and the farther out on that huge ocean you are, the more chances that something might go wrong. Fishermen are always staving off the hand of Davy Jones, who wants to pull them down into the coldness and darkness of the briny deep. I believe that every fisherman's wife breathes a sigh of relief when her husband decides to hang up his lines and retire.
Another uncle, Rusty, who worked in the lumber industry all his life, bought a small boat in his retirement and took it out regularly to fish. He had also been taught to fish by his Italian speaking father. Some years, Rusty filled his freezer with salmon. But some years, there were no salmon and some years, there wasn't even a season. Now, there's fewer seasons than non-seasons, leaving many frustrated and angry. Now, Rusty's boat sits in a garage.
My town used to have a fishing fleet. Now, our once vibrant harbor is mostly quiet. Only a few boats leave in the morning, and only a few return in the evening. My mom, who once got regular supplies of salmon, crab and halibut from her brothers, and who won't eat a fish unless it's s fresh that its practically wiggling on her plate, is getting fewer chances to have a good fish meal. Where once the sound of boat engines and water rushing over many bows almost drowned out the moan of the buoys, now a silence reigns except for that low wail, so eloquently described by LHM as the agony of a drowning man. At night, when the fog pulls in and everything fades into a monochrome, you can still sonorous moan of the buoys, their sad song almost, but not quite, conjuring up the sounds of a fishing village's past.
I'm dedicating this post to my Uncle Elwin, who died a few years ago after a struggle with prostate cancer. He was a fisherman all his life, and a nice and generous guy to boot. His boat, the Norcoaster, was known from California to Alaska. The song, Fisherman's Dream by Capercaille, always reminds me of him and brings a tear to my eye when I hear it.
If you want to know more about Depoe Bay
Next up: Haystack Rock, Oregon