Northern Exposure

By , August 7, 2014

As one might imagine, we enjoy a great deal of privacy here on our “homestead.” We move about our property unseen most days, although we have learned to be a bit wary of passing ferries and cruise ships, after learning firsthand how much detail a powerful zoom lens can pick up even from that distance. Occasional kayaks, canoes, and other small boats pass unexpectedly, but often do so without knowing they’re being watched. Our days are largely silent except for the sounds of nature.

All of this changes once each year toward the end of July, when the gillnet fishing fleet moves up Lynn Canal, chasing the sockeye salmon run.

We see a parade of fishing boats heading out and back from the fishing grounds most of the summer. But, when the salmon runs pass a few steps off our front yard, that’s where the boats congregate, sometimes in large numbers.

The fishing grounds are right outside our window (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

The fishing grounds are right outside our window (Photo: Mark A. Zeiger).

Suddenly, we find it necessary to readjust our normal routines. Any movement within the cabin must accommodate the sudden presence of many people within view of our large picture windows. Used to performing most morning chores before changing out of pajamas, we suddenly find it more comfortable to dress before stepping outside. For the weeks of the opening, we must remember that any and every move happens in public.

To put this in suburban terms, imagine a stranger parking at the curb outside your house to work on their laptop or conduct other business from their car. It’s perfectly legal to do so, and no one would think of asking them not to. It just feels a little crowded sometimes . . . .

The fisherfolk have their hands full with their own work, of course. It’s not as if we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by pleasure boats. Yet, the work itself forces us to adjust.

Gillnetting requires repeated sets of a long net made bouyant by floats. Each set gets pulled in so that any fish in the net may be harvested, then they set again as quickly as possible. Since salmon often run right along the beach, this means that, from our vantage point, fishing boats come charging right at our rocks time after time! The expert pilots swing around just in time, every time, to drop the end of the net right off our rocks if they choose, but I may never get used to looking up from my work to see a boat apparently about to collide with the land.

Sound carries incredibly well over water. Our property’s geography increases this phenomenon, as we have a natural ampitheater south of the cabin. We routinely overhear conversations between deckhands and between boats. Radios, both VHF and public broadcast, played loud enough to be heard on deck may be heard quite distinctly. Gear clashes and clatters, and the occasional seal bomb (a large firecracker used to chase off net-raiding sea animals) make us jump. Used to silence as we are, all of these disorient, surprise, and unsettle us.

We also realize that we may be heard as well. One evening, several years ago, one of us rang the bell outside our front door to call the others to dinner. We could clearly hear deckhands on a boat situated in our bight joking: “Is that dinner? Do you think it’s for us?” We’ve overheard other commentary from the boats on our activities on shore over the years.

Thankfully, boats don’t anchor in our bight overnight very often anymore. One year, a boat settled within yards of our front door about the time we prepared for bed. At the end of their working day, they cranked the boat’s stereo, blasting hard rock. We went to the edge of the yard, and, in voices raised barely above ordinary conversation level, asked that they turn it down. They did, but we still had a temporary “household” floating right off our yard the next morning as we started our day.

Ironically, while the commercial fishing boats can set their nets at the very edge of our beach, we cannot. Without a commercial license, we’re forbidden to fish for salmon using nets off this property. We need to pack up our gear, and launch a boat north of us, within the subsistence fishing boundaries. The commercial fishers we’ve talked to find this ridiculous. One year, one of them even made a habit of stopping by our beach each time he fished our area, so that he could toss us a freshly caught sockeye! He told us that he had built a home for his sister on the beach, where she, too, watched fishing boats off her land, but couldn’t fish herself. He felt that was wrong, and did his part to settle the Karmic score. Since I can’t catch sockeye off our beach (they apparently almost never bite lures unless they’re in the terminal zone of their natal river) we greatly appreciated his philosophy, and such a generous gift of one of the most succulent salmon varieties.

The brief periods when the fishing fleet gathers off our shore don’t annoy us, they just throw off the rhythm of our lives for a few days. Then, as suddenly as they arrived, they move on, and we return to our quiet privacy.

2 Responses to “Northern Exposure”

  1. Judy says:

    Enjoyed reading this particular essay… even though I usually read most of your postings silently from down here in the San Francisco Bay Area. (Having become a recent widow, I too know what living in silence is like for the most part.)

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    Judy, we’re sorry for your loss. We hope the silence brings comfort rather than sorrow.

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