09 September 2014

Return from Harvester Island

Why do you go away?  So that you can come back.  So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors.  And the people there see you differently too.  Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.
~ Terry Pratchett, A Hat Full of Sky

The Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop was incredible.  I went to write with 11 strangers, and I left with 15 new friends.  In the coming weeks, I’ll be posting my photos and thoughts on both the workshop and the beauties of Kodiak, Alaska.



P
eace equals absence.

The absence of stress.  The absence of critical words.  The absence of anxiety.  The absence of negativity.  The absence of a frenetic pace.

Peace is the space in between ~ where I am free to be myself and free to grow. 

And I found that peace, that in between space, on an island in Alaska called Harvester.

Beauty Inexpressible
From the moment I boarded a 737 (one of eight modes of transportation to get to my destination) to the first white-knuckled, sea-sprayed skiff ride, I felt like I lived in a dream.  Nothing, not even the realities of bathing only twice in eight days and ‘marking my territory’ in a patch of sea grass, dispelled the watercolour surrealism.

Don’t believe what you hear about Texas ~ everything is bigger in Alaska.   

The snow-draped mountains of the Alaskan Range make my Blue Ridge and Shenandoah look like ant hills.  The ice cold, hazel gaze of Uyak Bay is more seductive than Caribbean blue.  The air and the wind and the waves and the rain taste sharper, strip you bare, and caress you deeper, than any you might encounter on the West or East Coasts.

This shouldn’t surprise you ~ the Last Frontier is bigger than Texas, California, and Montana combined ~ twice the size of the Lone Star State.

And the beauty.  My God, the beauty. 

The View from Harvester Island
© 2014 La Belle Dame de Merci
Everywhere you look, in any direction, there is nature, in all her raw and aching glory.  It tightens the chest, fills the soul until you are overwhelmed and breathless, leaves you spent and satiated.  It is almost too much.  And yet, never enough. 

But what is Paradise without some sorrow, some darkness to spice and sweeten the day?  Such glory, such beauty is not enjoyed without cost.

The Price of Wild Salmon
On two occasions, our small band of writers and adventurers sat spellbound in the skiff, clinging to humongous bins filled with the sloshing remnants of ice, sea water, and fish guts.  Our cameras snapping madly, we watched hardy Alaskan fishermen haul up their purse seine nets for their third or fourth salmon catch.  The sun gilded the hair on their brawny arms, muscles bunching and straining against the heavy fish and gravity. 

Knowing that purse seiners go out and do these “sets” as many as twelves times, my heart ached to see jelly fish outnumber the salmon when the net made its final burst from the sea.  Even “pinks,” salmon that is not as tasty as the “reds” that run in May and June, and the “silvers” that run through September, would be a better catch than jelly fish and bull kelp.

So they will lower the seine net and perform this delicate yet back breaking dance over and over, for an hour each time.  If the salmon are running and the schools are big, they may catch two hundred-fifty fish, averaging six pounds each, with every set.  But if the salmon are running thin, they will be lucky to get one hundred twenty-one in a set. The ones we witnessed didn’t have more than fifty fish in one set. 

Nets drying on Harvester Island
© 2014 La Belle Dame de Merci
Working in much harsher conditions than your average postman, “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” nor sleet, hail, or hurricane-force winds stays these stout-hearted men (and a few women) from their self-appointed fishing rounds.

Sitting in that gently rocking skiff, shooting moments of a life that most in the Lower 48 romanticize, I wondered, “What in the world draws and keeps a man to this kind of life?”  Some have never known anything but life on the water, picking fish with their fathers from a young age.  Some come to it as a second or third career, some as a hobby.  Yet they all feel the pull, the siren song of the beauty of this at times forbidding tundra.

You cannot come here, live here, sleep here, without being affected by it.

And you certainly cannot leave here without your heart breaking a little at the goodbye.  This is the real reason I believe they stay ~ the blood that pumps through their veins is mixed with salt-water, fish oil, and sea air.  It is more real, more a part of them then their limbs. 

Perhaps that is why this place, these waters, these mountains, these islands, have burrowed a nest in my heart and my soul ~ I understand that need.  The addiction that keeps one from leaving for more opportunities, warmer weather, an easier life.  Because my blood is mixed with dirt and compost and seeds. 

Eugene O’Hara in Gone with the Wind said 
The land is the only thing in the world worth working for, worth fighting for, worth dying for, because it's the only thing that lasts…
And he was right.  But I believe if he had seen Alaska, had visited Harvester Island ~ he would have added the sea to that observation.

I know I do.

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

What images does this essay conjure for you?  Do you romanticize the sea and fishing?


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