On Jan. 1, 1998, I left Alaska, where I had lived, taught school and commercial fished for 20 years. I relocated to Olympia, Washington, where I had gotten an interim teaching position for The Evergreen State College. When we left, Veronica and I were excited to move somewhere warmer, with more light and less snow.
What we failed to realize was how deep our roots had grown during our time up north. Even before the Evergreen job ended, I had a hard time giving up on Alaska and especially commercial fishing. I had my reasons — the kids were still young and I didn’t want to be an absentee father during their middle and high school summers. And not to mention how much I’d miss Veronica. So, in March I sold the boat and permit, and that’s when the tailspin of depression accelerated.
By 1999, I was in the thick fog of losing my identity. I was unemployed, stuck in the incessant wet gray that is life in a temperate rainforest, struggling to find a new path for myself. Fortunately, a fishing friend of mine from Cook Inlet told me about a gathering of commercial fishermen who read poetry and told fishing stories. He’d been the previous year, and invited me to Astoria for the second one.
It sounded like a good distraction, so on the last Friday of February I found myself in Wet Dog Cafe on the Oregon coast, and though the weather hadn’t changed from Olympia’s wind and rain, the atmosphere was like being in the galley of a boat. The bar was packed with people, and for the first time since leaving Alaska, I was sharing beers with people in Xtratufs, Stormy Seas jackets and deck slippers. I instantly felt at home, so much so that I slipped into the back room and wrote a piece that I read at the microphone on Saturday. When the audience applauded, I knew I would be back. Sure enough, I haven’t missed a year since.
It isn’t the applause that keeps me returning each year, however. It’s the community of fisherpoets, songwriters, storytellers and just plain friends that welcome me and give me a new, broader fishing community to engage with each February. I perform with many of them during the rest of the year, and we visit through social media, over emails or face-to-face, hanging out at venues up and down the coast or just sipping whiskey in a living room after dinner.
The FisherPoets Gathering has gifted me a rich extended family, and I invite and encourage you to join us. The experience is entertaining, and there are always pleasant surprises; a poem or story that puts a lump in your throat or a laugh in your belly. It’s absolutely the best way I can think of to spend a February weekend in the Pacific Northwest. Like so many have said before me, “Come on in. The water’s fine!”