Tom Hilton is a smooth-talking encyclopedia of the Lower Columbia River. One look at his worn hands confirms this commercial fisherman has walked the walk.

Hilton, 54, is among high-profile speakers appearing at this year’s 22nd annual FisherPoets Gathering.

And the Uniontown man’s efforts to preserve the language of fishers will be on display in its raw, plaid-shirted best.

“I was inspired by a lot of friends of mine,” he said. “I have met some wonderful poets ... When we get together we all tease each other. It’s not just beer and camaraderie, but that feeling of belonging to something that is greater than ourselves — and that’s the freedom of the open sea.”

When Hilton joined the Gathering 10 years ago, he wanted to establish a style different from admired regulars Geno Leach of Chinook, Wash., and Dave Densmore of Astoria.

“It took me a little while to find my identity as a fisherpoet,” he said. “With friends, it’s easy to be yourself, but to go in front of 300 people who don’t know you ...”

Jon Broderick, guiding light for the FisherPoets Gathering, said Hilton is a confident performer. “Tom’s poetry really brings it all to life, just like a song,” he said. “He is quite a talker.

“He’s got the cred, he’s local and he’s got creativity and good performing energy. He works the waterfront. He could be the mascot for the FisherPoets!” Broderick said.

Son of ‘Skip’

Today, Hilton runs Hanthorn Crab Co. and Pier 39 Seafood, close by Floyd Holcom who has fished with him for eons, seeking to promote crab and oysters.

A career on the water was inevitable. “I am the last one — the last generation of kids that grew up when there were still canneries up and down the river,” Hilton said.

All his aunts and cousins worked at the Bumble Bee cannery. Hilton’s grandfather, William, was a longshoreman and gillnetter, and so was his father, Finnish immigrant Art Hilton, known as “Skip” or by his initials A.V.

“I started fishing with my Dad in 1970 when I was 6 years old. My dad was the greatest fisherman the Union Cannery had,” Hilton said. “Then we went to Alaska in 1977 when I was 13.”

“Skip” was one of four members of the “Bunkhouse Gang” whose exploits wrote West Coast folklore. Another was his best friend Bill Gunderson — called “The Swede.” The two died within 24 hours of each other in 2012.

Tom Hilton said they and Wally Nelson — “The King” — were his mentors. “I fished with him when I was 18,” he said. “‘The King’ taught me everything. He knew every grain of sand on that river out there.”

‘Time Bomb’

Hilton sailed back and forth between the Lower Columbia and Alaska, fishing for salmon in Cook Inlet and the Kenai Peninsula, earning the nickname “Time Bomb,” the title of a song by punk rock band Rancid. He also fished for herring near San Francisco.

His one break was earning a bachelor’s degree in speech communication at Portland State University in the early 1990s.

He credits Columbia River writer-historian Irene Martin for paving his way. “She’s the one who preserved the language. She did an amazing job.”

Like her, Hilton cherishes the voices of the Lower River.

“That’s how I started. I was pushed by my friends to do it, and I wanted to carry on the language. I started with open mic and my buddies challenged me to do it.”

One poem was written on a boat grounded for two days. Mostly, however, he taps ideas into the notes section of his teal cellphone, then lets them gel.

“It takes long time to write. I get inspiration driving down the highway,” he said. “I take phrases and mix them around.

“My poetry isn’t like Walt Whitman or Coleridge. Mine is more like prose.

“I will take a phrase, note it on the phone, then I dance around with it and see what fits. They all come from what I have experienced, all with the language of the Lower River.”

End of a dynasty

Much of his best writing is done at the Cannery Pier Hotel, a waterfront site rich in cannery tradition across from the Astoria Maritime Memorial Park, where his late parents, mentors and neighbors are commemorated.

During a brief tour, his fingers poke certain names with a casual reverence. “All that’s left is legend, names etched in a granite wall,” he said, a line from one of his poems. He is especially proud that the outline of his family’s boat, the Thunderbolt, adorns multiple listings.

His son is a professional actor, so the dynasty ends with him.

“There’s a lot of guys who fish that could have Ph.Ds., but fishing allows them to have freedom that nothing else in the world allows them to have,” Hilton said.

“It could be called one-ness, with the tide, everything. It connects us with our past, our present, and with the food that we eat.”

* * *

Poems by Tom Hilton

From the FisherPoets Anthology. Illusions of Separateness.

Tom Hilton notes that he wrote this “to pay respect for the men who fished and women who worked the Columbia River” 

“Uniontown Supreme Court: If The Pilings Could Talk”

All that’s left is legend, 

Names etched in a granite Wall

Black and white photos

Folk Lores For sale 

In the maritime museum store

Boats of wood

Hands of Steel 

Hearts of gold

All races

Colors 

Creeds

A man was valued 

By his word

Firm handshake

His deeds

White aproned Super-models 

Grinning From ear to ear 

Days measured by seasons

Not years

Tattered edges 

Faded Yellow Brown

Ripped 

Torn

Memories of the glory days

When gillnetting was born

Dilapidated docks

Rotten pilings 

Broken tops beneath our tidal view 

Skeleton bones

Partially Submerged

Floating Homes

Lonely Net racks

Empty Bluestone tanks

Broken windows

Moldy musty dusty dank

Wooden corks, 

Lead lines,

Linen nets 

Stripped clean of all their glory

No more Mug up,

Coffee Time

Just Empty Chairs 

waiting for stories

Court is no longer in session

Yesterdays myths

See thru faded 

Transparent 

Not bitter

Jaded

Today's Mono-filament 

Tangle Nets

Jesus Box

Deadliest catch drama

Overstated

Overrated

Prima Donnas

If those pilings could talk

What tales would they weave? Would they be fortuitous of sport fisherman’s greed? 

Countless stories

Work is our Joy  

Fortunes made 

Love

Families

Togetherness

Life

Salmon

Laughter

Heartbreak

Lost

Of Butterflies

And Bowpickers

Double-enders

Power scows   

Cash buyers 

And Tenders 

Four bits a pound 

Clifton 

Brookefield

Altoona

Alderbrooke

Uppertown

Uniontown

Celilo

Where did they all go? 

Salmon Culture

A menagerie of people 

A colorful past

Romanticized 

Plagiarized

Eulogized

By people like me

Fishing is more than Tradition

Governor 

Its a Religious Ceremony

Ebbing current 

Tides shift

Surge of change

Pulling our nets  

Taking us under

These words bury my pain

Black and white photos

Names etched on a granite wall

Let's not forget them

The true legends of fall! 

This mighty river

What It was back then

Full of Salmon Sturgeon

Seiners, Trollers, Gillnetters

Cannery women 

Stomper

Astoria's Fighting Fishermen

The Story is over...

All the Legends have died

Our Eyes welled with wet

Politicians lied

Last of my tears shed 

Cried

So if pilings could talk 

Ask one how it was back then....

It will probably tell you 

Those days are gone forever 

Kid

With a stroke of a pen...

— Tom Hilton

© FisherPoets. Anthology.

“Cause It's One Drift and We All Go Home”

Man,

Now that you've got your ticket

The weather will be great

The reds will be thick

Just enough to keep the boat off the gear

Hangin’ like grapes

The girls will be friendly

Food will be delicious

Jokes will be told

Legends made

And .... chasing dogs is foolish

 

The cast is all gathered

New faces and old

Greenhorns and Legends

Lookin’ for the big score

From Ninilchik, Homer and Halibut Cove

To the west-side set-netters

And the girls on Fisherman's Road

They'll be counting down the minutes

To throw the buoy ball

Looking for bunches hitting

Telling stories in the mess hall

 

Cause it's summertime in Alaska

And along the Kenai Peninsula

The salmon are running, jumpin and finnin

Their way home

They are runnin.....

 

Up, Up, Up, the Inlet

That's how they run

In the Land of Milk and Honey

And the Midnight Sun....

 

Maggots line the college hole bank

Pukers with full boats

The dippies are up their necks in our wakes

An eagle flies alone

 

The south wind blows

Pizza at Paradisos

Sun never sets

Baseball at Oiler's Park

Drive down the North Beach

The boys belly up to Kenai Joe's Bar

 

The smell of blood, sweat and gurry

The gulls shuffle along the tin roof of the bunkhouse

Hurry, squawkin', talkin', sharing a meal

No time to lick your wounds

Or let the bruises heal

Not so young anymore

No youthful zeal

 

Ice in the cooler

Boats cleaned, windows washed

Crank up the tunes......(insert name here)

It's your turn for wheel watch!!!

 

No time for sleep

Looking for jumpers

Radio crackles that sound of squelch

Last sip of coffee

Mountain Dew belch

 

South 210

That's the heading

South-end of the island

That's what we are betting

The red's are layin' along the edge of the bar

Last of the flood

High-water down

Load the boat

Head to Town

 

Cause it's one drift....and we all go home!!!

 

East on the flood

West on the ebb

That's the rules to follow

Look for the Jumpers

Follow the seams

Up, Up, Up, the Inlet

Sunken net in your dreams....

 

Cause it's summertime in Alaska

And along the peninsula

The reds are runnin’, jumpin’, and finnin’

Their way home

They are runnin’

 

Up, Up, Up, the Inlet

That's how they run

In the land of Milk and Honey

And the midnight sun

— Tom Hilton

© FisherPoets. Anthology.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.