The axis around which our rural community of Meyers Chuck revolves is the state-installed dock. So we decided to have a boat party at it late this summer to reunite members of our far flung family.
My sister Megan and her daughter Aroon had flown up here after evacuating their home in Miami to escape Hurricane Irma, but were determined not to focus on the disaster. “This reminds me of when we were kids,” Megain said, looking at the two long liners tied alongside each other for more table and deck space.
Unlike today with a nearly empty dock, when we were kids this was a fishing hot spot and the commercial fishing fleet was so big that the boats were often moored three deep. The raucous dock parties had sounded their noise and laughter from one end of the dock to the other far into the night.
My Uncle Rory and Aunt Marion live in Montana these days but continue to commercial fish up here in the summers on their bright red long liner, Isis (named, by previous owners, for the mythical Egyptian goddess). After a car accident five years ago, Marion is now in a wheelchair. Rory refitted the Isis so that it’s wheelchair compatible and Marion often steers while he hauls in the fish. There was no way after a lifetime of commercial fishing in Southeast Alaska that either of them was willing to give up their familiar lifestyle because of a wheelchair.
I seated myself on the rail next to her near the stern and eyed the spread on the hatch cover of the Isis’ hold. There were breaded and fried razor clams (from Washington) with two kinds of sauce, three bean salad, potato salad, quinoa salad, and the fixings for vension/elk burgers that Rory was grilling. Over on the other boat my cousin JoDean (Rory and Marion’s daughter) and her husband Joe were in charge of barbecuing the salmon. “Is there anything you can’t eat?” I asked Marion.
“I can eat anything,” she said. “I just shouldn’t.”
“I imagine it’s pretty hard keeping the weight off,” I agreed. “But I think you’re the first person I’ve talked with in a while who doesn’t have a food allergy or intolerance.”
“Other than a broken neck,” she said drolly, “I’m perfectly healthy.”
The other boat was the Westerner and belonged to Joe, my cousin JoDean’s husband who many of us were meeting for the first time. He fishes up here in the summer while she works as an ICU nurse (having become interested in nursing after her mother’s accident) in Washington.
He was a perfect addition to the family. Rory had thought so, too, and had done some inspired matchmaking, telling his youngest daughter that Joe was the man for her. He was right. “He treats me like a princess,” JoDean marveled. “Here it is, some of the best fishing all year, but when I said we were going to take a vacation, he agreed without hesitation. Please don’t talk about fishing,” she added with a twinkle in her eye to my brother Jamie who was waxing eloquent about the great fishing he’d had all week.
Joe, meanwhile, was hanging on Jamie’s every word. The day before Joe had told us in awed tones, “I got to see the spear. I got to hold it. And the axe.”
We all knew what he was talking about. Jamie’s a bear magent and in the course of defending himself, and once a friend’s dog, he’d killed one attacking bear with a home-made spear and another with an axe.
“Don’t corrupt my husband,” JoDean entreated us, knowing her cousins all too well. “He’s nice.”
Our cousin Darrell was there, too, seated on the side of the Westerner, both legs dangling between the two boats. Jamie, laughing about something, knocked him in the shoulder and almost into the bay. Megan grabbed for him while I tried to get a picture of him going in the drink, but he recovered too quickly.
“What’s next?” he asked in his southern drawl. “Y’all will start singing Snoopy and the Red Baron?”
We burst out laughing. He’d been nearly 20 when he’d first visited Alaska and his young cousins had tortured him by playing a particular song over and over again, despite his demands for us to quit.
“I finally figured out how to get y’all to stop,” he said with a grin. “I just yelled ‘Bear!’” He was referring to how our Mom trained us to climb into the attic whenever a bear got close to the house. “I have to admit, you guys were pretty good at the bear drill, you got it down to an art.”
Jamie tried to interest his 24 year old niece Aroon in another bit of music from our childhood. “It’s a rock opera made from War of the Worlds,” he said. “From the Eighties or Seventies.” He’d been playing it while he was out fishing and insisted that it was a classic that everyone should hear.
Aroon showed resistance to the idea that any music from those decades could be any good. She preferred the idea of going mushroom hunting with Darrell, who was enthusiastic when I told him about Russian mushroom pickling recipes I had.
Joe suddenly laughed and said, “This is the kid boat. You know, like there’s a kid table at a family gathering?” He pointed to the other boat where Rory and Marion were deep in conversation with Steve and Cassie Peavey and Snapper Carlson. “That’s the adult’s table/boat.”
Steve and Cassie have lived in Meyers Chuck for more decades than most of us have been alive, and are living legends in Southeast Alaska (NPR recently did a story on them). Cassie currently runs the post office, but has plans for mooring in Thorne Bay over the winter to see more of her grandchildren on Prince of Wales Island. She gave me a tour of her live-aboard boat that was tied across the dock from the Isis and I was impressed with how homey it was.
Snapper Carlson is another Southeast Alaskan of repute and the father of one of JoDean’s oldest friends. He was staying in his summer cabin in Meyers Chuck just in time to be invited to the boat party.
The party went on until late with first one person then the next saying their good-byes. The “kid boat” had the die-hard hold-outs with Jamie challenging Megan to a combined wine-drinking and pirouetting contest that miraculously did not end in disaster. Rory, JoDean, and I put together a sampling of the food to take home to my parents, who’d been unable to make it, while Marion — now inside the wheelhouse of the Isis and out of the cold evening air — thanked us for thinking of it.
Jamie gave me a ride home in his skiff and I looked back at the two boats moored at the near-empty dock, thinking of those long ago boat parties and the fact that my young niece had experienced one today. As long as there are fishing boats, there will be boat parties at even Southeast Alaska’s most remote docks.
Tara Neilson blogs at www.alaskaforreal.com from her floathouse located between Ketchikan and Wrangell.