May

20

 I am back from my adventure where I learned to kayak on the glacial lakes way up in southeast Alaska. The state is three times the size of ginormous Texas. (That is a favored neologism, bigger than gigantic and enormous.)

To kayak without personal horrors of drowning and overturning in the glacial runoff from Margerie or Pacific Glaciers, or higher north on the southeast Alaskan topography, meant cunningly separating a man from his wife, an intrepid sport who wanted to kayak on her own. So I sat in the front and navigated the teal-blue craft through the mirror-calm waters where every 40 meters or so we would spot the distinctive blow-breath of a humpback in the distance, or the right up-close adorable schnozz of a harbor seal, curious about these interlopers in his private preserve.

Though my partner was a long drink of water, standing some 6'4", somehow he managed to fit into the hole in the back and managed to use the paddle with dexterity, even though he had had some sort of rod implanted in his leg from an injury years ago. Stephen was pleasant to kayak with despite his proclivity to steer directly at any other craft within eyeshot. He thought it funny to threaten the peaceful paddling of his wife or strangers. I had to scramble to avoid hitting more than one of these hapless gliding innocents. He thought it amusing to tell people to look at us rather than the bears on the shore so he got all the good pictures. Still, with Stephen in the rear I was not afraid of capsizing, falling out, or drowning.

And now, the secret of kayaking: The hardest part (if the weather is mild, and the water is not turbulent) is getting in or out of the stubborn thing. Once in, you're good to go, and the serenity and Zen of the sport is healing balm. But keep a buddy on land to help you alight. Or keep your upper body strength at max to lift yourself from that devil well where your legs lie forgotten for several hours at a time.

We observed much natural wildlife — black and brown bears, humpback whales, sea otters, dolphins, seals, sea lions, bald eagles, owls, warblers, wrens, finches, geese, moose, and so on. The scenery was elegiac, similar to but different from the glorious scenery I doted on in Antarctica. The towns I visited had manageable populations –3,000, 12,000, 9,000, or the biggest, 30,000 people. These are quaint and colorful fishing villages, people size, and the lore of the fishermen was fascinating to me, as I worked for many years as a staffer on a hunting and fishing magazine. I spoke with men and their families who fished salmon, halibut, and pollock, those tasty fish that go for huge numbers nowadays. A good-sized halibut, for instance, sells for $4-6 a pound, and a single fish, halibut, can bring in $400 or more!

Many of the fishermen of some decades ago became millionaires. Their homes up there, among the firs and the pines stuck so far north in the winter-frigid zones (it gets to -40 an -50 degrees in the 'cold' months), are amazing to see. Life in these villages is quite expensive with rents not too far different from those in big cities down in the Lower 48. I must have brought the good weather as the sun shone much of the time and temperatures wavered between 35 and 55 Fahrenheit. It rained a good bit but I had the right gear to laugh at that minor inconvenience.

The fishermen go out to sea in their sturdy fishing vessels, with winches and hawsers and nets, staying out for 4-5 days, bringing in their huge catches to offload before the fish go bad. Sometimes company boats go out to meet them so they can bring the haul faster to market.

We enjoyed king crab, but even up there, so much work to eat. I am all about sustainable development, meaning that the hunter and fisher must be responsible with their practices and not over-fish and over-hunt. The sea otter, with its luxuriously silky, millipore fur was almost hunted to extinction by the Russians 150 years ago. They are experiencing a bounce-back now, but it has taken many years to recover.

Likewise, the fish we love to chow down on is caught responsibly with only so many pounds of catch permitted and many laws on the books about permitting escapement for the fry. So thoughtless over-fishing does not destroy the populations.

I mentioned pollock, earlier. The secret to 'fake' crab and shrimp in all the supermarkets is pollock, stamped out and plugged and tinted and colored and sold for those who cannot afford the real thing.

When I was a child in England fish was cheap and not many people seemed to eat very much. My mother baked and cooked it all the time, though back then it was not our favorite. She knew even then how healthy it was. And even though we preferred chicken or beef or turkey, it was in its way lighter and more delicious than we gave it credit for.

Did I have any shrimp in Alaska? Because shrimp (prawns) are not captured with responsible techniques, but by dragging the bottom, harming the beds of many fish and their fry, the careful fishermen in Alaska do not go for shrimp, and conscientious expeditions will not serve them.

Nor, for that matter, will they serve farmed salmon, whose flesh is mushy and not as vibrant and tasty as fish from the wild. The honest fishermen of the north disapprove of the limited allures of farmed fish in general. Their craft has been an honest living for millennia and they don't support the elimination of the wild in their wilderness diet.

Well, there. I have told you far more than you cared to learn, right?

My new job is a short bike or even walk to work, a great savings in time and commutation treasure. It's a good company and a solid opportunity. But all in all, I wonder if I would in the end prefer the more stripped-down, beatific, water-pendant life in quaint Ketchikan or St. Petersburg, where the populations are smaller than that in my Upper West Side condo.

Kathryn Lang writes:

I paid for my last two years of school by working a fishing tender out of Ketchikan. I was hired as cook until I burned the captain's toast a few too many times and got a promotion to the deck. I've often argued that the tenders worked twice as hard as the fishing boats. They would fish all day, unload for a couple hours at night, and then sleep.

We would work all night unloading dozens of boats then spend the daylight hours running back to town, unloading, washing up, and then running back out to meet the boats again as the sun went down. You don't know what tired is till you do that for 168 hrs straight. Sleep deprivation is legitimately a form of torture. I became master of the 20-minute power nap, an invaluable skill for a colicky baby 10+ yrs later. Stories from those two summers have landed me several jobs and even a few dates.

Although the riches had slowed by the time I was there, stories of the 3-day $100k fishing hauls were still circulating. Even in flusher times though, it was too hard and too dangerous to allow weaker bodies to stay on board. Fishing is a true meritocracy - something the readers here should appreciate. Careless & lazy people go broke, sink their boats, injure crew, or drown. Other lessons from those summers: I could out-work and out-perform all my male peers, and education doesn't always come with a diploma. Some of the most fascinating, charming gentlemen I've met never stepped foot in high school.

Oct

19

I was watching the final spin cycle at the Laundromat this morning when a muffled voice broke in, ‘Mr. Keely!’

I whirled to face a former student, an attentive youngster and with a penchant for athletics and girls, to my recall. How quickly they grow up to their own wash.

‘Nice to see you,’ I greeted warmly. ‘You became a cop, but where’s the uniform?’ He confided, ‘After one year, I got tired of the cliques, brutality and hopelessness. Maybe in response to your be-true-to-self stories through high school, I quit. Now I work a different County job that I can live with.’

‘This is serendipity,’ I bid, ’since there is a question on a common issue of handling policemen from a recent event. Will you comment off the record?’

‘You were candid in class, so I’ll return the favor. What happened?’ he asked.

I quickly related ‘Midnight Desolation’ of two weeks ago when a Riverside, Ca. sheriff browbeat me on a dark desert road for consent to search my car. ‘Had I not been a teacher and threatened to spill the beans in every class, he would have hauled me to jail.’

His fist slammed the laundry counter. ‘Where have you been since I graduated, Mr. Keely? Of course he suspected you. Nearly every loner in southwestern California is strung out on meth.’

‘I hardly know what meth is,’ I protested. ‘Must the innocent suffer to catch the guilty in this desolation?’

‘The cops’ world isn’t a classroom of thirty-five students,’ he explained. ‘It’s city blocks of thousands, so the police must profile.’

I threw up my hands in the Laundromat.

‘You’re a character, Mr. Keeley. Look at your wrinkled shirt! You have a choice in the fine legal print: Conform to citizen standards, or get hauled to jail once in a while.’

‘I know the boys down at the local station. I once trained and acted the same way as your midnight cop. The goal of the officer is to get consent to search your vehicle for hard evidence. I press, press, press the perpetrator until he says or does something stupid. I use it to pry his consent to search his vehicle. If he doesn’t break under the press, I look to the vehicle for something wrong to allow me in. If there’s nothing, and he continues to give me a hard time by refusing permission or a reason to search, then I tell him that I suspect he’s driving under the influence. It could have gone easier for both of us, and I take him to jail. The car is impounded, and ultimately searched. The hard way costs me an extra thirty minutes and paperwork, and it costs you a couple hundred dollars tow fee. The pity is that the jails are so full that the meth is confiscated and the offender released.

‘The next time you’re stopped, Mr. Keely, ask the arresting officer to call a supervisor to the scene. Better, call an attorney on the spot, or hook up with an online legal service that fields calls 24-7. When the officer returns with your license, hand him your cell to speak to your counsel. Best, what officer wants to tangle with a teacher of the sons and daughters of every parent in town?’

‘I’ll stand out, thank you,’ I said lowering my hands. ‘And assure them at the cop shop that I didn’t tell any students but wrote a vignette.’

‘Take a copy down to the station and put it on the sergeant’s desk,’ he suggested. ‘They’d string me up,’ I whispered back. He brightened, ‘On second thought, give it to me.’ But I refused.

‘I hate this!’ he said sipping Starbucks. ‘Teacher, let me know when you find a lesson in it.’

The drier buzzed and I opened the door. ‘After reaching voting age,’ I said pulling laundry, ‘give people the freedom to hurt themselves. No more seatbelt rule, illegal drugs, or laws against things that don’t hurt others. Let grown citizens learn the hard way rather than have eternal parents.’

I folded my shirts, shorts and socks knowing it wouldn’t happen in this community where the ex-police would bankrupt unemployment.

I shouldered my wash as he called, ‘Be careful, Mr. Keely. It’s a classroom out there!’

Kathryn Lang replies:

In response to Bo’s bid to allow adults unfettered freedom to smoke, shoot, snort, and go without helmets or seatbelts, I’d like to point out that these are the same freespirited souls who routinely end up uninsured in the ER with head trauma after overdosing and/or being ejected thru the car window. Hospitals pass along these costs to insurance carriers with padded bills (the $12 aspirin), who hand them right back over to the more fiscally responsible. What they can’t pass along they try to absorb, sometimes unsuccessfully, resulting in hospital closures, which in the grand economic picture may be expected, but really stink if you’re having chest pains at 3:00 am. Same theory with your car insurance premium (and who enjoys receiving that bill?). Only two states have no pay-no play statutes (NJ & CA). Trust me, the free soul who enjoys the wind blowing through his hair while on his Harley won’t hesitate a millisecond before filing suit after you cut him off and he fractures his skull on the asphalt. Babysitting statutes aren’t Big Brother, they’re good business sense. Few will “learn the hard way” — they just transfer their losses to the rest of us.

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