With fists, with words, with kindness
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In Homer, Alaska, by a floatplane lake, sits a drab building that houses Homer Fish Processing, the scene of much heartbreak and disappointment. Fishermen stand in line in the gravel lot, waiting to drop off their catch, which is almost exclusively halibut fillets already removed from the carcass. There are no fish heads or racks of bones; those are tossed overboard at sea or end up in the dumpsters out on the Homer Spit, a five-mile-long strip of sand and rock extending into Kachemak Bay. The men, most of them here on vacation, hold white plastic bags of flesh. They grip these bags with serious purpose, for they have suffered to fill them. Note the scent of beer. Note the tiny, flesh-colored patches behind their ears — treatment for seasickness. Some took tablets or muscle relaxers. I listen in on conversations. Overall they are disappointed in the size of the fish they have caught. When they came up ten years ago, it was better.
In addition to the main building, there’s a lodge that rents rooms to fishermen and wayward shutterbugs. There’s a loose collection of cabins for employee housing. Two industrial freezers the size of railroad cars shriek day and night. They are bolted to the cement as if, were they not so secured, they might rumble away. The gravel is wet because a taciturn attendant with a bandaged hand has just sprayed off the fish slime and blood. Reggae music blasts from the well-lit work space, where young Hawaiians cut fish, vacuum-seal it, and wheel it in large trays to blast freezers that can reach temperatures of negative fifty degrees. The workers wear oversize gloves to keep from getting frostbite and to protect their hands from their sharp knives.
Like the other fishermen, I am waiting to have the day’s catch processed and flash-frozen for transport back to the Lower 48. A recent vasectomy makes me stand in line at a cant. I shift my weight to ease the dull throb in my groin. Is it supposed to feel like this? Back in my condo I have bags of frozen peas that I use to mitigate the pain. I also have narcotics, which I am rationing by the half tablet. The other men in line are all about my age: fiftyish. I’d like to talk to them about vasectomies and other topics, for these are my people — middle-aged white guys with credit cards, cell phones, ball caps, goatees. One has a sympathetic face, and I imagine he has recently had a vasectomy or colonoscopy himself.
“How did you do today?” I ask.
“About average.” He lifts his bag of halibut fillets.
The only difference between me and most of these men is that I am here for the entire summer, trying to catch enough to feed myself for the rest of the year back home in Wyoming, as I’ve been doing for the past six years. Living off wild fish has become an obsession of mine. I’ve convinced myself that it’s more ethical to eat only what you catch yourself, but I’m beginning to wonder about that.
Bart, the proprietor of Homer Fish Processing, arrives in the drizzle with one of his granddaughters. Handsome and oblivious to the disappointment in the parking lot, he carries a chrome socket wrench and goes directly to one of the freezers, which seems to be singing off-key. Removing a metal plate, he reaches inside to adjust something. Since Bart first moved to Homer from Hawaii, he has been slowly accumulating buildings along Ocean Drive. He owns the processing business, a car wash, three empty lots, and a coffee kiosk. His wife, Star, manages a crew of dark-haired, tattooed young women who flow back and forth between the coffee shop and the lodge, where they clean rooms. One in three has a baby on her hip. A few are pregnant.
More fishermen arrive. Deep in their trousers their mobile phones writhe and jiggle: “Yeah, honey, we’re back. We’re just dropping off our fish and then going back to the hotel.”
In other circumstances the gray-haired man on the phone might command a polished-mahogany boardroom in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. He might have 250 employees and oversee biannual reports that exceed a hundred pages. But here in Bart’s parking lot, his hair matted, his recently purchased rain jacket too big for him, his bag containing a rather pedestrian catch of halibut and a few small rockfish, this giant of the corporate world must wait in line like the rest of us.
When each man reaches the front, the attendant asks if he wants the skin removed or left on. The attendant’s hand is bandaged from a knife slip, so he’s off the cutting line for now. “Are one-pound portions OK?” he asks, pencil poised above a clipboard. The CEO pauses a beat or two to consider this. Reluctantly he hands over his fillets. He asks pointed questions about whether he will get back his fish or someone else’s. He wants a receipt.
There’s a bacterium that infects people who handle a lot of fish. “Fish poison,” the locals call it. I think there’s another kind of fish poison that we are all suffering from. It’s rooted in the myth that the sea is an all-giving source of sustenance from which we can take what we want for eternity. It peddles the myth that nothing changes. Fish poison is particularly virulent these days, because anyone who is paying attention knows that the wild fish are almost gone. You better get yours before they vanish, says a small voice. If you can focus only on fishing, it tells you, you can ignore the loss and despair.
I drop my fish off — fourteen pounds of halibut fillets — and then I’m off into town, skulking through the alleys, already planning my next fishing trip. My friend David Ferreira owns a twenty-six-foot skiff called the Sea Pickle. Once he replaces the coil, she’ll be ready to take us back out to the halibut grounds.
Outside the Homer Brewing Company I encounter Buck Wilde, a wildlife behaviorist and filmmaker. He and I met last summer when my writer friend Kate O’Hara was in town, and Buck’s conversations with me always return to her. A self-proclaimed atheist from Kansas, Kate had come to Alaska with me as my unofficial aide-de-camp and spiritual adviser. She picked up some classes at a Homer yoga center and walked my dogs while I was out fishing. She scoured the desolate, log-strewn beaches and returned to the condo with a pocketful of beach agates: worthless but pretty in a jar on the windowsill. I convinced her to go out on the Sea Pickle with us once, but that afternoon a stiff breeze blew up Kachemak Bay, and the swells became unruly. Ferreira said we’d better pull the anchor and go, but I was reeling in a good fish and wanted to stay long enough to land it.
“Dude,” said Kate, “it’s getting bad out here.” I could tell she was apprehensive.
The short ride back to the marina took over two hours. Big green swells broke over the bow of the Pickle. The windshield was cracked by a heavy wave. We lost bait knives and one of our gaffs.
The rest of the summer Kate stayed on shore, where she attracted deckhands, welders, and fish processors who followed her around like seabirds in a ship’s wake. They offered to take her exploring in their patchwork boats, or hunting for wild mushrooms along the Sterling Highway. I gave her a can of bear spray to take with her on these “dates.” When she met Buck Wilde, he asked how she stayed in such great shape. “I do drugs and yoga twice a day,” she said. He immediately invited her to go with him to study wolves.
Buck intuited that Kate and I had once dated, and he asked how long. “Briefly,” I said. I told him what Kate had told me: my lingam didn’t line up with her yoni. That was over a year ago, when my mother was still alive and talking to me on the phone every day. I would call to tell her about the fish I was catching, the whales Kate and I had seen off Whiskey Gulch, and how we were decorating the condo with garage-sale kitsch.
“It’s so great to have a friend like that,” my mother said. Her voice was strong, but I knew time was running out. She had decided to discontinue her cancer treatment. “But the doctor said he could treat the pain. He was pretty clear about that — I won’t feel any pain.”
When I run into Buck, he invites me to have a beer with him. He is the only one in Homer who refuses to talk fish. He has no interest in fishing. Buck takes wealthy amateur photographers into the wilderness to get close-ups of wildlife. At night they sleep on his seventy-three-foot boat, the Ursus. He has just returned from filming a wolf pack in the Bristol Bay area, he says. For years his clients only wanted to see bears, but lately he’s switched to wolves, even though the money isn’t as good.
Buck Wilde is appropriately wild-eyed from his latest expedition. For three days he watched the wolves catch pink salmon from a stream. He says he got close enough to touch a wolf — but, of course, he would never touch a wild animal. There are, after all, ethics involved.
“The hunters and shamans who used to roam these areas understood things we never will,” Buck says. He’s the type who will grab your forearm to get your attention. When he talks about wolves, I can see a fierce young man emerge from within him. He spent his life working for our government doing who-knows-what in far-flung corners of the world. In a few days he will dissolve back into the wilderness with nothing but a sack of dehydrated food and a tattered copy of Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America.
After a while Buck asks what I’ve been up to. I tell him my mother died this past winter. Grief is the only wilderness I know about. I tell him I want to live unattached, childless, like the holy men of Nepal. All I want is to feel the uncontrollable, wild strength of the halibut as they grab the bait and head for the kelp beds. I want to be at sea with the seabirds and their untamed gaze. He buys me another beer.
Buck circles back to the subject of touching bears and wolves. “Don’t do it,” he says in his strong Pennsylvania accent. To touch a wild thing breaks the code of the land. It’s taboo. And why would you want to, unless it was to brag? Why would you take their wildness from them by touching them? It could only be because of some weakness within you.
According to Buck, wolves are less tolerant of people with cameras than bears are. Pitching a tent in wolf country is a trespass that might doom the expedition. The wolves will leave the area if you try to make them tourist attractions. When it comes to bringing groups of people to see the wolves, Buck has a rule, which he came up with while waiting out a two-day rain in the backcountry: “One is a lot. Two is too many. Three ain’t happening.” He says he’ll go broke trying to observe these wolves. Then he asks me about Kate. “She’s a groovy chick,” he says. “I felt a connection.”
“Join the club,” I say.
Ferreira, the captain of the Sea Pickle, stands shirtless in his yard, forcing freshwater into the vessel’s inboard/outboard motor. Every so often he stops to wipe the no-see-ums off his tattooed forearms and to listen to the engine. What is it he hears? Marine grease has worked its way underneath his fingernails. His thumb is swollen from fish poison.
The captain lets me go out in his boat with him in exchange for gas money, as long as I bring my own bait. The Sea Pickle has a solid hull, sleeping quarters for two, a V-8 engine, a radio, and sonar for marking fish. There is a toilet on board, but we pee in plastic milk jugs splayed open with a bait knife. We wash them out with seawater.
The Ferreira compound is a series of unpainted buildings on City View Avenue. The property has a sweeping view of Kachemak Bay, and on clear days you can see distant glaciers struck blue by afternoon sunlight.
Cathy, the captain’s longtime live-in girlfriend, is in one of the barnlike structures they recently remodeled into living quarters. She weighs and vacuum-seals the day’s boneless, skinless halibut fillets, then writes down the weight of each package. She is trying for one-pound packages, which will be easier to load into coolers at the end of the season, when she and Ferreira will fly off to Mexico to pass the cold months in a retirement village and live off halibut, eating some and trading away the rest. They have set an ambitious goal of two hundred pounds of fillets by the end of the summer.
The captain is worried about the boat engine. While bumping over the chop north of Gull Island, it made an odd noise, and the rpm spiked for no reason. He smelled burning wires. I can’t help him diagnose the problem. I come from a line of men who have never taken an engine apart. My father owned only rudimentary tools: a flathead screwdriver, a few hammers, an adjustable wrench that saw little action. In Alaska I’ve often found myself in the company of men like Ferreira and Bart, who know all things mechanical.
Ferreira’s boat has seen better days. Cathy has told me — in a hushed tone so he could not hear — that she is no longer comfortable taking the Sea Pickle out into Cook Inlet. Motor issues are emerging. The seats are torn; the engine cover is falling apart. Sometimes you can smell burning oil. I can’t separate the Pickle from her captain; they are one and the same to me. I trust her dull-gray hull, even though I know the captain has been rough with her. “The boat is deteriorating right beneath me,” he said once. “I’m just going to let it fall apart.” I often think about the engine parts cloaked in marine grease, the sputtering and possibly corrupted spark plugs, the frayed wires. Fuses blow and give off a slight scent of scorched plastic. But then, none of us are what we once were. As the Sea Pickle goes, so goes its Portuguese captain. So go we all.
Out among the charter boats, Ferreira, Cathy, and I usually catch our limit of two halibut apiece. My job on the Sea Pickle is to cut herring into usable chunks for bait, wipe blood off the gunwales, mash fish parts for the chum bag, and keep the conversation light. Once in a while he lets me steer the boat or help pull the anchor. My new duty this year is to “bleed” our catch before we head back to the marina. The captain has demonstrated several times how to grab a halibut by the tail, hang it over the fish box, and drive a deer knife in behind the pectoral fin.
“That’s the heart,” he tells me.
He does this so that the meat will be white and free of blood clots.
I’m not good at it. I have trouble finding the heart. It always takes me a few tries. I poke and probe and tend to look away, and suddenly the blood flows in an absurd amount. I feel ashamed, even though I take great pains to eat all the fish I kill. Halibut are stoic, even as I bleed them. Out by Gull Island, while I’m bleeding our catch, I have a feeling that I’m taking more than my share, and your share, too. I have an inkling that I’m doing something against the universe. Maybe this shame is something that can’t be avoided. Maybe it’s a byproduct of fish poison.
Being of no use to Captain Ferreira, I return to my condo and take my dogs for a walk on the Homer Spit. The lupine and fireweed are abundant, and so is the loneliness. My mom has been dead only a few months, and I am not getting any better. I can’t take a deep breath without the exhale coming out as a shuddering sob. The urge to dial her number is always there, as real as the lupine and fireweed. I want to call and tell her about the moose with two calves I saw in town by the library. I want to ask what she’s been reading, what she thinks of current events. I look at the bay, at the rips and whitecaps, and imagine she’s out there where the gulls hover over a patch of worried water, where a green buoy tilts.
Trucks pulling recreational boats roar up and down the road, along with RVs and the late-model pickups of weekend fishermen down from Anchorage. There are RV villages and tent communities. Smoke from a campfire smudges the sky. Across the bay I can see the aquamarine glaciers, the shadows of clouds scudding over them. A man with long, flowing hair is doing yoga right in the middle of the path, his eyes lightly closed. I believe he’s in an advanced pose called “destroyer of the universe.” Nearby is a sketchbook with drawings of ravens in black ink.
At the end of the spit I skulk around the fish-cleaning tables, examining the unimpressive catches: the Pacific cod riddled with sea worms, the starry flounder. Some of the halibut are truly young fish that should have been thrown back. These fish never had a chance to be full grown. The knife work is sloppy, not in the league of the Hawaiians at Bart’s, not at the level of Ferreira. I see lots of wasted flesh that could have been salvaged, whole meals’ worth abandoned to the dumpsters. I could live on that for two weeks if I wasn’t too ashamed to reach into the dumpster and retrieve my dinner. I almost step forward and snatch a king-salmon carcass from the bin, but I lose my nerve at the last second.
As halibut age, their tails become ridiculously large, and they develop mouths that can do serious damage. These immature fish have none of that. Ferreira has told me that only the female halibut achieve truly great size. The males are much smaller. I believe him, but he is no marine biologist, and neither am I. We’re just two men who never mastered our desires. Each season the urge to fish drags us here.
I look into a dumpster and spot a single halibut carcass from a great fish, one that topped a hundred pounds, a size you rarely see these days. There’s also the head of the biggest wolf eel I’ve ever seen. I didn’t even think they were edible, but someone filleted this one. Does anyone throw anything back anymore?
It begins to rain, and I start toward town. It’s low tide. Shorebirds swoop along the exposed mud and pea gravel. Trucks from Homer Fish Processing rattle by. The yoga guy is still at it, right in the middle of the pathway, doing corpse pose. Tourists on rented bikes swerve around him. As I pass, I notice he is humming softly. His drawings of ravens are getting wet. The ink runs.
When I get back, Ferreira sends me a text that he has fixed the Sea Pickle and wants to leave the dock tomorrow morning at 4 AM. I quickly arrange a dog walker for the next day, because I never know when we’ll return. If the motor acts up, the boat may need to be towed in to shore early, but if the fish are biting, the captain may want to stay out and see if something big turns up. I pack some boat food: a few underachieving sandwiches and two cans of soda water. I try to read a biography of Walter Cronkite. I call Kate, but she doesn’t pick up. Instead she sends me a photo of a gas station in Wyoming and a note that says I’m not missing anything. I go to bed and can’t sleep.
For more than ten years Kate has house-sat for me during my prolonged absences. She walks the dogs, edits my manuscripts, organizes my home, and negotiates my contracts. I don’t pay her for any of this. She’s not overly interested in money. Instead I trade hunks of frozen halibut for her services. She will also accept parcels of elk and pheasant. Once, I paid her for yard work with a rare hardback copy of Émile Zola’s The Belly of Paris. I am not her only client. She has several other people for whom she works. An artist across town uses her as his model. She gardens for a Holocaust survivor and on Sundays talks philosophy with an older man who insulates her windows and changes the oil in her car in exchange for the conversations. Six months ago I enlisted her help when I had my vasectomy. She drove me to the outpatient facility and handled the transaction at the pharmacy. After the procedure she took me to a Mexican restaurant. I was out of it from anesthesia, still in my pajamas and slippers, as we shared a basket of chips and salsa. I remember going on and on about my dying mother and how I needed to get everything organized so I could return home for the funeral. I told Kate I was swearing off women. My last girlfriend had said that if I went to Alaska to fish again, she’d be gone when I came back.
Kate rolled her eyes. “Dude,” she said, “if you really wanted to be celibate, you didn’t have to get that procedure. You know that, right?”
My insomnia gets me out of bed and sends me walking in my neighborhood. It’s nearly midnight but still light enough for some of the Hawaiians to toss a Frisbee in the empty RV park beside Homer Fish Processing. Earlier a semitruck with thousands of styrofoam containers arrived, and the young men spent the day packing boxes for the tourists to ship their catch home. The night has a feeling of suspense to it, as if something big is about to happen. It’s almost peak fishing season, and any day now the salmon will pulse into the local rivers. Navigating by some strange impulse, they invade Cook Inlet in numbers that are hard to fathom. At low tide you can walk out on the mudflats for hundreds of yards and discover sea stars in a multitude of colors.
Somewhere, someone is cooking king salmon on a grill, and my mouth waters. Bart drives up in a rusted Nissan truck. He remembers me from previous seasons and asks how the fishing has been. He has just smoked a batch of salmon and lets me try a morsel. One of the industrial freezers is still giving him trouble, and he’s got a guy coming down from Anchorage to fix it. “If he can’t work it out, I don’t know what we’ll do,” Bart says. “July Fourth we will be buried in fish. The whole RV park is rented.” But there’s that smile again.
He drives off, a millionaire in a rust-bucket pickup.
Peak fishing season arrives. Octogenarians from Missouri crowd the doorway at the Salty Dawg, and bachelor humpback whales lie sidelong in Cook Inlet to slap the water all day. Buck Wilde disappears into the tussocks and tundra. Some workers at the fish processor have coupled with the dark-eyed young women who clean rooms. The pregnant ones wear sprigs of fireweed in their hair. The Sea Pickle is running like a dream. My groin seems nearly recovered. The dumpsters are full of the bright-red offal of sockeye salmon, thousands of them. There’s a line just to clean your fish.
On July 6 we take the Sea Pickle and our friend Canadian Ed’s bass boat out and snag our limit: six sockeyes each. They fill a plastic tub. In high spirits, Ferreira sings as we bump back to town to fillet them: “We’re coming in loaded, we’re coming in loaded.” He has his shirt off in the brief Alaskan sunshine. I run to buy more bags of ice while the captain and Ed fillet the sleek salmon. The captain’s fillets are perfect. Ed’s are so-so. When he holds one up to the sun, you can nearly see through it. After a few hours we have an enormous pile of fish, and gallons of salmon roe to brine. I bring my share to Bart’s, then return to the Ferreira compound to have drinks and plan the next trip. We want halibut, we want more salmon, we want it all. Cathy and I put the anchor line and chain back in the box on the Sea Pickle, coiling the line to make it all fit. I’m enjoying the work — a drink in my hand, a vague throbbing from my balls. I am learning more about boats. I’m getting farther from shore.
The summer is waning. On the last halibut trip of the year, we fill the deck of the Sea Pickle with fish that weigh more than forty pounds apiece. The captain teaches me how to harpoon the big females: you need to subdue them before you hoist them on board because they are so wild and powerful they can break someone’s leg if they get loose. After the trip he fillets my catch and hands me a huge white tote overflowing with meat. I have enough. We all do. Ferreira says several times that he is thinking of heading to Mexico early this year. Cathy wants to keep fishing, even though we have all we could possibly use. I’m wobbly from being out on the Pickle in high seas. My heartache persists. The misty headlands, the building surf, the wild landscape all remind me of my mother. I see a thousand kittiwakes swirling around Gull Island; I see the vague shape of a whale lazing on the surface of the bay; and I am reminded that I am here and others are not. These are the kinds of sights I used to call to tell my mother about. Instead of going to the hospital in Virginia and being there for her in the end, I roamed about the landscape and reported to her each day.
“You don’t need to be here for this mess,” she said. I took this to be our agreement.
My brother was on hand for our mother’s final moments, and though he is often understated about serious topics, he said things got “very wild, very surreal.” The young doctor who’d told my mother there would be no pain was wrong. My brother was there for it. And yet he seems better somehow. I’m not better, even thousands of miles away amid a growing stockpile of frozen fish.
Walking my dogs on back roads lined with wildflowers, I spot Buck Wilde ambling along with his head down, probably thinking about wolves. I tell him I’m about done in Homer and splitting for the season. His boat, the Ursus, has lost one of her engines, and he’s gloomy about the prospects of getting back to see the wolves. “If I can’t get back to them, I’m not sure what I’ll do,” he says. For him it’s not about money anymore.
Buck and I go for a beer, the last of the summer, and he shows me photos of gray shapes moving across the green tundra. He asks how I’m doing. I give him the boilerplate response I’ve been giving Cathy and Ferreira and everyone else: “When my mom died last winter, I just sort of gave up. Nothing matters, so I fish.” This usually does the trick, but Buck stiffens. “That’s why I got a vasectomy. I’m not bringing a child into this world,” I say. I cite climate change and the war in Yemen and political malfeasance. He snorts, looks out at the drizzle, and spits. I figure he feels the same way. He often rages about the loss of wild places, the damage to the world. I ask if he’ll come to Bart’s with me and help me load my frozen fish into the cooler.
Buck is cagey at the fish processor. The corporate types bringing in their catch unnerve him. He stands a short distance away while I hand the attendant my pink slips, and several young men spend thirty minutes rounding up my fish and putting the packages into a cooler. I buy dry ice for the trip back to Wyoming. Buck helps me load the heavy cooler into my truck, and I hand him a nice-sized chunk of halibut in return. He stands there in the rain, his gray hair wet.
“What you were saying back at the brewery,” he says, “that nothing matters anymore . . .” He’s suddenly so mad he is shaking. “Things matter more now than ever.” He’s in my face, a sixty-eight-year-old man with a ponytail. It occurs to me that he’s lost a lot of what he loves, whereas I’m a newcomer to this kind of thing. Buck may have a rule about not touching wild creatures, but he doesn’t hesitate to poke me in the chest. “Your mother wouldn’t want you to give up!”
He’s right about that. My mother was driving people to the polls to vote the fall before she died. She was reading a biography of Thomas Jefferson up to her final days. She was working on a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. There she was, standing on the frontier of death, and still engaged with the world. How did Buck know that?
He’s shouting now, strands of his silver hair freeing themselves from his ponytail. He waves the frozen fish around in the rain and says the world is vanishing right in front of us, that there is hardly any beauty left. His voice booms in the spruce trees. The men in line at the fish processor turn and look. Buck keeps poking me in the chest. His finger finds the place where the fish poison resides: right in the heart. Buck hits it dead center each time. I don’t mind. Maybe he can drive it away for good if he keeps going.
Buck strikes the heart again and again. He knows exactly where it is.
More often than not I am saddened to bear witness to this moment in time, so I am grateful for David Zoby’s essay “Fish Poison” [July 2019]. I can feel Buck Wilde ramming his finger into my heart, demanding more of me than despair.
For years I’ve mourned the extinction of evocative prose, having been unable to spot any healthy specimens in the wild. Then David Zoby’s “Fish Poison” cut through my digital news alerts and glued me to the page, dropping me brutally, and beautifully, at the end. Bravo.
I appreciate David Zoby’s skill as an essayist [“Fish Poison,” July 2019]. He reveals the connections between personal grief and the endangered world — and our efforts to walk the tightrope between hope and despair.