Fishermen poets lament, celebrate lives at gathering

Little romance in poems drawn from dangerous industry

Posted: Monday, February 28, 2005

ASTORIA, Ore. - The gathering had its roots in nighttime radio chatter among lonely commercial fishermen on the open sea. One fisherman would tell a story or recite an original poem, and the requests would come in: "Tell us another."

And they did.

Pacific Coast fishermen came to this Columbia River port town for the eighth year this weekend for the Fisher Poets' Gathering, a three-day celebration of the joys and pitfalls of an endangered and dangerous way of life.

"Take it from me, the seafood industry will chew you up and spit you out for sure," sang John Palmes of Juneau but, he said, "I always come back for more."

Palmes said he spent the best years of his life "working on a boat named for somebody else's ex-wife."

The event is based, loosely, on the annual cowboy poets' meeting in Elko, Nev.

While some of the songs and poetry were on the lighter side, it was honest stuff from people who live the life, shelving any romantic notions of how a fish filet gets from the briny deep to a Styrofoam tray.

John Van Amerongen of Vashon, Wash., a former fisherman who edits the Alaska Fishermen's Journal, told a tale of a greenhorn who yearned to leave his shore job to scoop up the free riches of Alaska's Bering Sea.

In Van Amerongen's story, the lad signs on and is tossed like a salad among the 600-pound crab pots that eventually pin him down and cost him some fingers. The poet noted that those fingers eventually fed the crabs the boat was chasing.

It had been six years, the lad in the story relates, "but I still need two hands just to order three beers."

He concludes: "The money may look nice but you better think twice before you fish on the Bering Sea."

"I didn't know what to do with the kid," Van Amerongen said of the poem. "I didn't want to kill him, but I wanted people to know that nothing's free on the Bering Sea."

Brenda Noonan, of Kodiak, Alaska, told of her hands "that felt like the knots that held the nets together," of lying in a bunk considering not getting up "for the sweet and awful work of salmon."

In the cavernous former waterfront warehouse in Astoria, now the Wet Dog Cafe, Whit Deschner of Baker City, Ore., who fished commercially in Alaska for 22 years, lightened it up with:

"Trapped in the fishmonger's fingers

The lingering cod now lingers

Knowing in the fingers of the fishmonger

The ling cod will linger no longer."

The gathering was the inspiration of Jon Broderick, who fishes commercially in Alaska during the summer with his sons when he isn't teaching high school French and coaching soccer in Seaside, just south of Astoria on the Oregon Coast.

He and some fishing friends had dreamed of getting together for a reunion to celebrate their work.

"I knew people were writing about work," he said.

So he contacted Amerongen, who had been including literary snippets among market prices and other data in his publication for years.

Amerongen sent a list of names to Broderick.

"I wrote to 40 of them and hoped maybe a dozen would come," Broderick recalled. "All 40 showed up."

A lot is being written, he said, that would not be if it weren't for the Astoria gathering.

There is a tendency to celebrate "the good old days," he said, but what is being written about fishing is a part of a continuum.

"Just about everybody in the business knows someone who has perished in it," Broderick said.

Admission fees and donations try to cover expenses and pay a small travel stipend for those who come long distances to Astoria.

Broderick said the gathering tries to stay open and unpretentious.

"If you have fished for a living or have fishermen in your family you can have 15 minutes (on stage) just like everybody else," he said.

Geno Leech of Chinook, Wash., who fished for years but now owns a seafood restaurant, is a regular who missed this year because of illness.

He wondered whether the poems might outlive not just the fishermen but fishing itself, an industry curtailed in recent years by limits and restrictions as fish stocks dwindle.

"When one fishery goes down everybody jumps on another one and puts pressure on it," Leech said. "Used to be, a kid could stay on the coast and make a living. Now he has to throw an eye to the city, or to a university."

Astoria is a textbook example. A century ago more than 40 salmon canneries rattled and clanked along the lower river.

They are gone now, victims of dwindling salmon runs. Astoria survives as an unpretentious working port town near where Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1805-1806. Cruise ships do stop occasionally, and the town would like to expand tourism.

At this weekend's gathering, Astoria tuna fisherman Dave Densmore told of "Seasons set with bogus numbers, numbers picked out of thin air" and drew a standing ovation for a long poem about the loss of his son and father on the water 20 years ago.

But, he concluded, "If not for the love of it what the hell else would anyone here do?"

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