Thursday, 25 August 2011

Dream catcher

Alaska: Homer, Kenai Peninsula

There’s an irony at play here, I thought, as I assessed the outfit I was wearing to go halibut fishing in the ocean off Homer, on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.  Checking myself out in the wing mirror of our car, the dawn sunshine breaking through the low clouds, my breath turning to steam, I resignedly concluded that when I go fishing I end up looking like a skier, and when I went skiing I looked like a fisherman. 

The skiing took place 10 years ago in Prince George, British Columbia, with two dear friends, Jacki and Warren, and my younger brother, Richard.  There is a picture of the four of us lined up, ready to hit the slopes, with me at the end wearing a blue fleece and grey rain hat that instantly prompted my brother to ask ‘who invited the fisherman’? I might as well have been carrying a rod for all the good my skiing poles did me as I sped into a snow bank on the side of the slope, ejecting head first from my two skis whose binding tension had been set, with sensible foresight, at extreme liability beginner level.  It was on this same trip that the man sitting next to me on the chair lift to the top of the nursery slope had looked at my old-school elongated skis (another thrift store purchase), and asked if I was a speed skier.  Having absolutely no idea what he was talking about I meekly replied, fear making my voice quiver, ‘er, not intentionally, no’.  Reaching the summit I pushed off the chair lift and confidently skied down the incline for ooh, at least four feet, before taking out two small children, doing a not-totally-inelegant pirouette, and landing on my face, making a deformed snow angel indentation in the snow.

Fishing would be successful, surely? Zipping up my skiing overalls I pushed to the back of my mind images of monster halibut pulling me over the side of the boat, and then taunting me by playing piggy in the middle with my rod.  I was flying solo on this one, the two girls opting instead to spend the morning devouring giant cinnamon buns, although they came to see me off at the dock, Helen pecking me on the cheek and slapping my bum with the instruction to ‘bring back dinner you hairy hunter-gatherer you, grrr’.  As I clomped down the ramp to the dock she shouted ‘Have you got your packed lunch’? after me.  Receiving a look that said ‘stop embarrassing me Mum!’ I joined the other fishers.

The boat was packed with families and groups of buddies, and I was surprised to slowly learn that they were all Alaska residents.  One of the many reasons I love travelling in America is the warmth and hospitality of Americans, and it wasn’t long before I was sat with a family learning about the upcoming marriage of the two grown up children, who sat looking embarrassed as their mom enthused about the flowers, and the food, and the guest list.  A couple of retired pilots, hearing my accent, leaned over and said ‘try this’ offering up the most delicious smoked salmon I’ve ever tasted.  ‘We caught that two days ago and oak smoked it the self-same day’ they explained, ‘you won’t get any fresher’.  With the ocean flat and glistening, the mountains standing on sentry duty around us, and the sun fully emerging from behind the clouds, I basked in the warmth of the kindness of strangers.

Moving upstairs to the open deck I was soon chatting to the only other solo fisherman, a charming bloke who had moved from Colorado to Anchorage simply because he ‘had always had a dream to live in Alaska’.  As he told me his story I was enraptured by his almost childlike fascination with this state, for he was articulating exactly how I felt about Alaska.  Here was a resident speaking with the awe and wonder I was feeling.  He had, he explained, moved up to Alaska in late summer five years ago and had, by his own admission, underestimated how tough you needed to be to survive an Alaskan winter.  ‘Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong’ he gently explained.  ‘I lost my job, the heating in my apartment packed up, and I couldn’t afford snow tires for my truck.  Believe me’, he continued, ‘you need snow tires up here’.  So he had moved back to Colorado, tail between his legs, but instead of giving up on his dream he had worked hard, built up a bit of cash, and tried again three years later, bringing his wife and young son with him this time.  His second crack at Alaska was proving more successful. 

Now, the more reality talent shows colonise our TV screens the more cynical I become with platitudes about ‘following your dream’, ‘never giving up’, ‘giving 1000 percent’ and ‘taking a journey’.  But I couldn’t have been less cynical as my new friend told me his story, fielding questions from me.  ‘What about your wife', I asked, 'does she like Alaska?’ ‘Oh man’, he replied, ‘she can’t get enough of it.  She’s having the time of her life, and my boy has this as his back yard’ he said, gesturing out across the ocean and mountains, just as a sea otter popped a furry head out of the water.  He told me about his new boat and his new Jeep like a child would enthuse about their Christmas gifts, and I lapped it up, smiling at just how happy he was with his new life, with a dream he was now living.  We had become temporary buddies, taking photos of one another with our catch, and against a backdrop that was picture postcard no matter where you looked.

As we drew into port at the end of the trip, the two of us standing at the bow against the bracing sea air, he pointed out his wife and young son standing at the dock awaiting his return.  And chatting to his wife was Helen.  Exhilarated by the fishing, my two halibut waiting for me as a trophy, I had an overwhelming feeling of good will to this man, and his family, and to Alaska and, if I’m totally honest, I had a lump in my throat as his son ran down the dock to greet his father, the two wives happily chatting and following him down the dock.

‘Did you have fun’? Helen asked as I presented my catch to her. ‘I really did’ I replied, waving goodbye to my new friend, ‘it was a dream’.       
Catch of the day
L: a triumphant homecoming.  R: Skiing

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