By Bill Scheller
Nord Fjord is a stout and handsome fifty-eight foot white steel-hulled boat . . .
It is eight o’clock in the evening, broad August daylight, and the radio in the wheelhouse is tuned to a station in Vancouver. It’s the Forties Hour, and the voice of a young Frank Sinatra drifts out over Quatsino Sound. Nord Fjord, Halvor Bigset, skipper, is anchored just off the main channel opposite Kains Island. I am spread-eagled on the hatch cover of the fish hold, still bundled up against the cold Pacific winds we left behind when we rounded the point into the sound. The breezes here are light and mild, but I am still shivering with seasickness, which sun and torpor are just beginning to dispel.
Halvor has seen seasick deckhands before, has been a seasick deckhand in Norway in his youth. Now, sixty and compact, his muscles and his light brown hair still with him though his chin-stubble comes in white, he knows that the nausea either goes away by the second day, or gets worse and drives the victim ashore for good. His last deckhand, a twenty-year-old Englishman, had it bad but did not know when to give up — for six weeks he played the Spartan boy, with the fox gnawing his innards, until he signed off weighing twenty pounds less than when Halvor first put his name in the log.
When that happens — or when a deckhand is disagreeable, drunken, or incompetent — the harbor towns on the west coast of Vancouver Island will quickly cough up another. So I happened onto
Nord Fjord, and so I happen to be prostrate on the hatch cover, taking my turn with the fox. Halvor suspects I will survive, and goes about the deck unconcerned. If he wonders about me at all, he probably wonders when I will get up and make dinner.
The evening is breezy and beautiful, and we are moored out of the range of the horseflies that bedevil this coast. Steep forested hills close around the blue sound. Sinatra is singing “Day by Day,” in a voice untouched by time and cigarettes.
“What a singer he was,” I say to Halvor. I am well enough now to sit up and talk.
“Ja, he was popular, that’s for sure.” Halvor has to couch his approval in practical terms; he will not say that Sinatra had a wonderful voice, but must remark upon the practical results of his having it. Halvor is a practical man.
“For dinner we have the halibut, ja?” Of course he is thinking of his dinner. I can think of it myself, now, without revulsion, and the halibut sounds good. Halvor has cut thick white steaks from the little eighteen-pounder I brought up on the bottom leader of my main line this morning, and we will bake them and eat them with canned corn and some of the brown rice left on board by the English deckhand, whose taste ran to natural foods, when he was capable of eating at all.
A wonderful thing, fresh halibut. But halibut is not the reason Halvor Bigset and I are at this mooring on Nord Fjord, listening to Frank Sinatra as the first intimations of dusk gather over Quatsino Sound, and the Kain Island Light begins to flash its warning that here North America begins. Our business in these waters is with a different fish, against which the lumbering, bottom-bound halibut seems an evolutionary joke. Nord Fjord is a machine for catching salmon: the plentiful pink salmon, called a “humpback” or “humpie” for its dorsal swelling at spawning time; sockeye, which leaps across the labels of millions of cans; the silvery coho; and the lordly spring salmon whose plethora of names — Chinook, Tyee, and, for the biggest, “smiley” — reflect its great desirability and legendary status among sport and commercial fishermen alike.
On Nord Fjord , Halvor and I pursue our quarry not with purse seine or gill net but by the artful and persistent means of hook and line. Halvor and I, in this summer of 1981, are trolling for salmon. In both the wholesale and retail markets, trolled salmon are superior salmon. Trollers, Halvor told me, always get a better price for their fish. The fish are in better shape; they are dressed more quickly after they are caught and killed, so that the meat is firmer and has better keeping qualities. Netted fish often die in the net, and aren’t dressed until perhaps several hours later, when the net is hauled in. If a fish isn’t dressed promptly, the blood along the spine congeals, turning to the consistency of pudding. I see this difference myself, between salmon I cleaned right away and a few that I left too long in the “checker,” the wooden box that stands before me in the stern of Nord Fjord , and into which I toss each fish after taking it from the leader. As the blood congeals, the meat gets softer.
“A good buyer can tell net fish right away,” says Halvor. He speaks with the pleasure of a man whose fish the buyer would also recognize, for the better reason.
Winter Harbour lies on the Forward Inlet off Quatsino Sound, and is the northernmost of a string of fishing ports on the west coast of Vancouver Island — Bamfield, Ucluelet, Tofino — and the most tenuously connected, by land, with the towns that face east, along the Inside Passage opposite the British Columbia mainland. It is, in 1981, a town of about fifty people. Perhaps thirty or forty boats fish regularly out of Winter Harbour, although during the peak of the salmon
season, there might be three
hundred boats operating in the
. . . I had no notion of how soon I would know her
No electric or phone lines run into Winter Harbour. Everyone who lives there has a private diesel generator, and uses the radiophone as if they are fishermen out at sea. The houses are strung along in a line between the road and the water, with a boardwalk separating the yards and gardens (vegetable gardens are popular, since you could tie a knot in the carrots sold in the town’s only store) from the little wharves and fishing sheds where the locals keep their boats and gear. The big wharves are farther “downtown” — it’s actually called that — and belong to the fish buyers and the government. The buyers, BC Packers and the Co-op, have their storage depots and icehouses on the wharves. Smaller piers branch out from the wharves, and boats are tied up everywhere. During the few days before I began working, I walked the piers and made a pastime of collecting the names of the boats. I recorded at least a hundred. April, Christine H , Miss Judy , and Peggy M suggested their owners’ attachment to home and hearth; Courageous, Ensign, and Ocean Challenger sounded as if their skippers were onetime Navy men; Svalbard I and Viking Rover were quick reminders of how many men here hailed from another jaggedly-indented coast (as I added Nord Fjord to this list, I had no notion of how well I would soon know her); and Merrimac made me briefly homesick for New England.
Winter Harbour is so remote, so lost amidst tortuous deep waterways that lead inland to nowhere and outward to the immense Pacific, so imperviously surrounded by steep, dark-forested hills that plunge beachless into the cold sounds and inlets, that the fishing boats seem more than anything else like the true links with the world beyond. In Shirley’s Kitchen, the only restaurant in town, the latest newspaper is two days old. That was the last time Shirley’s husband went to Port Hardy. If he stays home for another week, that well-thumbed paper’s events will still have to serve as current.
Winter Harbor wasn’t an easy place for an outsider to sidle into. Under normal circumstances, getting a job on Nord Fjord or any other salmon boat would begin with knowing the skipper or being a coast local. Ordinarily, you don’t start off green back east, take a train to Vancouver, and head out to the island wearing a clean shirt and an affected stubble. But a very old friend had fetched up on this wild coast after dropping out of graduate school at the University of British Columbia. When he wasn’t logging, he was fishing, and he insisted that I come out and try it for myself. He hooked me with a letter that read, in part, “It was crazy, Bill, each line had about a dozen flashers with little red hoochy lures on them and as fast as you could get them into the water there would be fish on them. … And when you’re running your lines in and on your bottom plug there’s a forty pound spring, your heart jumps. There are fish down there that break 80 lb. test leader and straighten size 11 hooks.”
And that was enough to hook me.
Nord Fjord is a stout and handsome fifty-eight foot white steel-hulled boat, a lord among the brightly-painted wooden gillnetters and fiberglass day boats (“Tupperware” boats, their detractors call them) that populate the salmon fleet. In this summer of 1981, she is eighteen years old.
Nord Fjord has beautiful teak decks, which Halvor says will last as long as her steel hull. They are a light ashen gray when dry, and a lovely chestnut brown when they are wet. The decks are often wet, either from the mist and dews and frequent rains of the Pacific Northwest, or from sea spray. They must nearly always have been wet when Halvor took his boat 150 miles out to sea, fishing for tuna one year after the salmon season ended. That trip was easy work for Nord Fjord’s strong Caterpillar diesel, which Halvor says has never needed major work. Halvor climbs down into the engine room at four each morning to bring the beast to life, and, in my bunk six feet away, my deepest slumbers are finished.
A modern trolling vessel like Nord Fjord is equipped with hydraulic winches called “gurdies,”
three to a side. Each gurdy pays out 600-pound test steel line, and up to a dozen leaders hang at
intervals from each line. Each leader has a bright artificial lure at its end. The leaders clip onto the line, which is reeled in hydraulically and stopped when the captain or deckhand sees a leader pulling taut with a fish.
The working heart of Nord Fjord is the open deck aft of the wheelhouse, where Halvor and I spend our days. Here are the gurdies, the checkers, and Halvor’s secondary controls and depthfinder screen; ahead, between the checkers and the wheelhouse bulkhead, is the hatch covering the insulated fish hold with its aluminum racks of salmon packed in ice. But the boat’s personality is in the wheelhouse. Snug and compact, warm with varnished wood even though Nord Fjord is a modern steel vessel, the
wheelhouse is where we cook and eat and spend
all of our non-working waking hours, and where Halvor sleeps for five or six hours each night.
The layman confuses the sound of the word “trolling” with that of “trawling,” although no two methods of catching fish could be more different. The trawler drags an enormous baglike net along the ocean bottom, scooping up fish with even less discrimination than the gillnetter, whose apparatus does just what it sounds like — it snags salmon and whatever other species happen along by the gills — or the purse seiner, who draws his vast pouch snug around a school of fish. The troller gives fish a choice. None of them have to bite, none of them are destined to end up neatly iced in the fish hold just because they were in a certain place at a certain time. It is a clever ruse, this trolling of flashing lures past the hungry, the curious, and the easily annoyed, but it may or may not work. And to make it more of a game, the gear is selected for its exclusive appeal to salmon. Anything else that takes the lure — except for the occasional halibut or red snapper, welcome on the wheelhouse table — is met with curses and a toss of the gaff.
On an ice boat like ours, the fish hold is refrigerated to about thirty degrees Fahrenheit and stocked, at the beginning of each trip, with a ton or more of chipped ice. The catch is packed away each night, and both fish and ice keep nicely provided the trip doesn’t last more than ten or eleven days.
On a freezer boat, the hold is refrigerated to a far lower temperature — as much as forty below zero, the point at which Fahrenheit and Celsius readings converge. The salmon, having each been “glazed” in a salt water solution to prevent freezer burn, are stacked below like cordwood. The duration of a freezer boat’s trip is limited only by the capacity of the fish hold, the amount of food and fuel on board, and the endurance of the skipper and crew.
There are other boats that have no refrigeration at all. These are the “day boats,” so called because they can only make day trips and must come in every evening to sell their catch. Even in midsummer, there is little chance of a promptly cleaned salmon being any the worse for a day spent on board without benefit of freon. The air is cool out on the North Pacific, and the fish are kept moist with an occasional spritz of seawater into the dark, cool hold.
Halvor Bigset was not the first skipper I worked for on a salmon troller. I came to Nord Fjord a veteran of six outings on a day boat, a perfect training vessel for a would-be deckhand.
The charts all say, in small print, “Copyright Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada.” The chart we are using today is one headed “Cape Cook to Egg Island,” taking in a great swath of waters off the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, north and south of Quatsino Sound.
We’re tacking through fog towards Cox Island, nearest of the small chain that trails off from Cape Scott, Vancouver’s northernmost tip. There has been fog for most of the day, and wind, but the wind is dying down as we come into the lee of the islands.
We’ve been having a good day. It’s only one in the afternoon, and I’ve caught forty-two pink salmon, half a dozen coho, and my first big spring — a true smiley, a female weighing between thirty and thirty-five pounds. If this were a net boat, I couldn’t have said “caught” with any self-respect, but I caught that smiley as surely as if I had been standing in a stream in chest waders and handling a fly rod. When she hit the bottom plug on my main line, I wasn’t sure whether she was a salmon or some bucket-mouthed scrap fish, but when she broke the surface as I eased the gurdy to a stop I saw that unmistakable dorsal fin, a full foot and a half from her jaw. I fought her for a good ten minutes. At one point I had her over the gunwale and into the boat, before she threw herself back into the water with one mighty arching flip and took off with the full thirty-six feet of the leader burning out behind her. The leader slotted right into the open salt ulcers on the insides of my knuckles — I was trying to be a tough guy by not wearing cotton gloves — but I had to ignore the stinging and concentrate on working my arm to shock-absorb the line and work the big fish in. After I had recovered the full length of the leader and brought her within range, I landed her with one shot of the gaff, using both hands to heft her over the gunwale into the checker. When we sold our catch at BC Packers in Namu, this fish alone would be worth a hundred dollars.
At ten in the evening there is still a hint of daylight, and we are at anchor in San Josef Bay, just south of Cape Scott on Vancouver Island. We’ve just finished icing down the day’s catch –
177 pinks, seventeen coho, and two springs, including my big smiley. I landed and dressed ninety-four fish today.
Before I go into the galley to cook dinner, hamburgers and canned corn, with a bottle of Chianti to wash it down, we set four or five crab traps so that we’ll have Dungeness crabs to boil in the morning. Halvor likes to munch cold crab at breakfast and throughout the day, and I am getting to enjoy it myself. With a peanut butter sandwich and hot cocoa, it makes a nice way to start the morning. I’ve forbidden myself my usual coffee and orange juice, which are acidic and invite seasickness.
“You know,” Halvor tells me at dinner, apropos of nothing we’ve been talking about, “it’s funny, but people in the north of Norway don’t eat crab.”
“Are there crabs there?”
“Yes, but people don’t eat them. They don’t eat mackerel, either, because they believe that mackerel eat drowned people. It’s silly.”
A full moon has risen. I’m in my bunk by eleven, listening to Halvor snoring in the wheelhouse above, and the anchor scraping the rocky bottom of San Josef Bay.
Nearly everything on board Nord Fjord suggests a slightly cramped but ultimately comfortable summer cottage where a lot of fishing goes on. All in all, it seems a cozy little world. But on a bulkhead near Halvor’s berth is a poster with a picture of a small boat in a vast expanse of ocean. Beneath the picture are these lines of blank verse:
A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.