Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sasquatch Summer

Sunlight slices a shadow over the Hoopa Valley, peaking over treetops and peering into the windows of the village. A hungry dog trots down the road searching out a scrappy meal near overflowing dumpsters. Only the old and very young are awake at this hour. The hour when nights mystery and spirits begrudgingly cede their territory to the warm golden aura of day, when the valley is exposed in all of it's ugly truth. Two old tribesmen greet the morning sun from squeeky rocking chairs on the porch of the dilapidated General Store near the turn off to highway 299. They are two of only a few from the Hoopa tribe who possess knowledge of the "old ways" and still persist in teaching them to the younger members of the tribe.
A late model maroon Subaru pulls slowly down the dusty road. A white man is behind the wheel and the elders feel the primordial twinge, a tense nervousness. Belaganas on the reservation usually mean trouble in one of two ways: either they want to exploit the culture or arrest someone. Obviously this white man wasn't the sheriff and his beat up Subaru represented more like a ski bum than a preacher.
Chris knew he would be greeted with much cynicism and wariness. Though inexperienced and unschooled in the ways of the Hoopa, Chris did posses the prerequisite patience and had done his homework. He knew enough from talking with some of his fellow HSU Hoopa students that when approaching the elders, one must be patient and let them talk first. Easier said than done in the white man's culture, where silence is seen as awkward and people talk just to fill up the space. Jim Lanshey, from the Lakota tribe, had explained to Chris over coffee that the Indians believed that the true way to wealth was from trading and that cash, although an obvious necessity, was still seen as a tool for the white man's methods of oppression. Jim had explained that although the Hoopa would gladly snatch up any cash presented them, it was unlikely that they would feel any real obligation to reciprocate the exchange. Since information was seen as a valuable commodity, Jimmy had told Chris that he must bring something to offer in exchange for his request. He remembered joking with Jimmy that a gift certificate to Starbuck's was probably out of the question. Jimmy's smile lit up and without speaking, his casual shrug told Chris that, although hilariously wrong, he was somehow on the right track. "Something from your world that they can appreciate."

Chris pulled into the far parking spot and cut his engine. He felt that pulling up directly in front of the aging Native Americans would be too obtrusive, that, even though in broad daylight his headlights would somehow cast an obscene beam into the Hoopa morning and spoil his quest for a bit of their wisdom. He grabbed the bag of ground Starbucks "morning blend" from the front seat of the Soobie like a kid at the prom might grab roses for his date. He thought better of concealing it behind his back and instead let it rest cradled against his forearm and hip reminiscent of a gun slinger gripping his pistol and swaggering through the saloon doors. He checked his cowboy's impulse to stomp right up on the porch and instead he sat patiently on the front of his hood, nodding awkwardly but settling in under their reproachful glare. The stately tribesmen, respected as elders by those in their tribe who still had respect for the old ways, avoided and ignored by the young braves who are brazened and shamed with the stain of alcohol and who hide their humiliation at having wandered away from their culture, stared knowingly at the white intruder. If they were the least bit inquisitive, their faces did not betray it. Chris' face flashed hot under their gaze as he steeled himself to find the courage to sit quietly as he awaited a greeting from complete strangers from another tribe. He felt as though he might have been in Africa with the Zulus.

Moses skips rocks surprised Chris when he broke the silence after only a few moments. "What's up?" he grunted and thrust his chin at Chris.

"Oh, I uh, well, I came her today because, I" with each mumble Chris felt like a heavy truck, spinning it's wheels foolishly as it sank deeper and deeper into soft mud. "I brought you some Starbucks! And I was wondering if you could tell me, er, if you could share with me a few things about the Sasquatch?"

The old Indians looked at each other and broke out into laughter. It was a laughter so full and uninhibited it seemed to the elders to break all of the transgressions ever imposed on them by the white man. It cleansed the pain they felt in blood spilled by generations and they laughed even more. The laughter never stopped but came in waves, waning like a thin moon and then regenerated like a tree-whipping storm when the two old Indians looked at each other again.

"White man brought us Injuns some Starbucks." and it began again. Chris realized that he would've preferred an awkward silence to a full-on laugh attack but he hoped he had broken the ice properly and now he might learn from these Hoopa what they knew of the creature they called "Omah" or "the boss of the mountains".

Charlie Horse Feathers managed to speak through his laughter pained grin, "I seen Sasquatch" he managed, "Sonny One Shoe brought one home from the pow wow last night!" and the onslaught continued.

"I think we saw one cross the highway last week" added Moses Skips Rocks, "he was driving my truck that drunk bastard!" Ha Ha Ha, the laughter resonated through the still morning air and Chris felt eyes peering at him from the nearby residences.

Chris wanted to laugh too but he couldn't tell if this wasn't somehow a test. He knew that the Hoopa loved to have whatever fun they could muster at the white mans' expense. After all, life on the reservation wasn't exactly filled with excitement and whenever they looked around they were reminded who was responsible for bringing their people to this isolated place.

After what seemed like moons, the old Indians composed themselves and assembled their faces back to their original solemn mugs. "Try the creek above Tish Tang rocks, I saw one skinny dipping there when I was just a kid." As quickly and unexpectedly as the laughter had begun, it ceased and the aging Hoopa composed themselves with dignity once again, jutting out their chins and letting their shoulders settle, arms laying on the rests of the armchairs, gazing out into the mountains. They looked at Chris as if to say, "Ok kid, we've had our fun and we've already said too much so beat it." Chris doubtfully thanked them and left the bag of coffee on the porch. He retreated back to his Soobie and was thankful when he'd put enough road between himself and the reservation to crank up Hendrix's "driving south" and groove unconsciously while shaking his head.

Chris double-checked his equipment list at the trail head and stuffed a few more Clif Bars and apples into his pack. Despite his decision to take the trail free of any substances, he grabbed the flask of whiskey and stuffed it into the top pouch. Maybe it could come in handy in an emergency and what difference would a few ounces make anyways? Shouldering his pack and stuffing his keys under the bumper with a patch of duct tape, the trail revealed itself before him and the familiar weight and balance of the hike exhilarated the young explorer. He likened his journey to a vision quest of sorts. Native American adolescents had for eons undergone them in order to find direction in their lives and Chris felt that his time for direction was long overdue.
He reflected on the spirits that haunted him ever since his spring break backpacking trip three years ago, just before he graduated from Humboldt State. Although he found a job teaching Biology that fall and he had felt comfortable, even confident that this was what he wanted for his life, the encounter with the Sasquatch had shaken his faith in science and humanity. It was as though he had been witness to an ancient secret and through that experience had been entrusted with a great duty and burden. Part of him yearned to shove a Sasquatch skull into the face of all those who had heckled, patronized or flat out laughed at him because he had had the courage to share his experience. That part of him however, was just a tiny, candle-flicker of the ego. Somewhere deep inside him was the self-assurance of what he had seen. The knowledge that he had come face to face with something otherworldly. Of this planet yes, but of a culture that no man could ever fully understand. A clan of man-like apes that have survived, even thrived, free from any outside influences since early man crossed the land bridge from Siberia. A creature that could crush even the most astounding human warrior with a single blow, able to scale mountains with ease. Adapted to move through the most unforgiving terrain like waterfowl migrating across the continent. With this brief glimpse into the world of the Sasquatch, a yearning grew in him like a seed planted in fertile soil. He had to learn more; Had to experience their world, whether he was welcome or not; Had to go into their territory and discover for himself whatever secrets had survived and evolved along with the legendary creatures.

The trail meandered gently through aspen meadows, flirting and kissing the waterway frequently, sometimes towering tall over the deep pools, sometimes crossing angry but impotent feeder creeks. The path crossed the creek and the canyon narrowed, it's steep sides pinching the sky above, tickling it with the tips of giant sequoias. Suddenly the trail opened into a meadow of alpine granite, dotted with pools and trickling, leaking seeps. His boots squished over soaking moss sponges and scraped pebbles across the gritty granite. The fresh air felt exhilarating as the trail ducked into a dark stand of redwoods and blueberries. Suddenly a sonic boom seemed to split the mountains in half and shook the sky like a tsunami. He had heard of these "mountain booms" but never experienced one. Realizing for the first time that he was completely alone, he wondered what this sign might mean. A brief, refreshing rain poured briefly and disappeared before it really began. The sky was cloudless and Chris found himself exactly where he wanted to be: surrounded by everything unfamiliar and unexplained.

Camp that evening was a scenic flat overlooking a breathtaking alpine lake. He wondered if there was a master plan for such a beautiful mosaic: calming surface stretched between craggy peaks surrounded by alder thickets brushed on canvas. Or was this just a result of anarchy, only beautiful because humans evolved to actually appreciate beauty and then to see it. Either way, the fishing rod came out of its own accord and a small shiny spinner broke the tranquil surface. A flash was the first signal to Chris' brain that his lure was under attack and then he could feel the strike, first in his hand and then throughout his being. The brook trout struggled valiantly, thrashing to and for under the surface and then accelerating straight away, it's run ending in a breath-taking leap. Time froze as the trout went airborne and flipped a cartwheel before belly-flopping. It paused for a split second and then raced off again, pulling line off the tiny backpacking reel. Eventually the alpine fish began to tire and Chris patiently steered it towards the bank and paused to appreciate it's brilliant markings and stunningly rich colorations. The white highlighting along the tips of the orange fins was Chris' favorite part as it reminded him of the Dolly Varden he had caught with his father in the Brooks Range when he was a youngster. The exotic markings also reminded Chris that the brook trout was not a member of the trout genus at all but rather a member of the Char family. He hated to kill such a thing of beauty but frying in his backpacking skillet with a little oil and salt and pepper, he thanked the circle of life and death for providing him with this meal. A meal he knew would be far more appreciated-and tasty-than anything he could buy at the drive-in or a supermarket: slaughtered, packed and processed in secrecy.
Just before he would slip into his bag, he took a swig of the whiskey, telling himself it would help him drift into a fitful sleep, knowing the opposite would probably be more likely; That his senses numbed would make him more likely to overreact to the slightest movements, keeping him awake too long and then dropping him into a comatose state that wouldn't allow him to hear a thousand pound beast stomping past his tent.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Bachelor Party

Heyman's getting married soon and we had to throw him a bachelor party. Hooters? Nope. Poker and Cigars? Nope. Strip Club and Tequila Shots? You guessed it, not a chance. To throw a bachelor party in true Heyman style, we had to go fishing-all weekend. The plan was to leave early Saturday morning, fish all day, camp and then do it again Sunday. But if you know Heyman, you know the plan can change. He's been dreaming of taking his 22 foot Trophy out to the open ocean for Albacore and the conditions couldn't have been more perfect for a run out to the blue water. So, instead of spending the entire weekend at Ocean Cove fishing for rockfish, we headed home Saturday night after a full day of fishing and prepared for the big trip.
Albacore are the ultimate sport fisherman's quarry. Fast and strong, they take tackle to the limit, defying everything you learned about fishing as a kid. Pops used to tell me, keep the drag loose, don't horse em', let em' run, back when we used to fish for trout and salmon. Not with Albies. For these hard-fighting Tuna, you'd better use heavy line, a stiff rod, and a heavy duty reel with the drag cranked down tight. If you let em run too far, you run the risk of getting spooled and oddly enough, the school will follow the hooked fish away from the boat, spoiling your shipmates chances of hooking up again. It's not uncommon for every rod to go off and have everyone working a rod or two
After an hour and a half drive, we met Heyman's buddy from work, Gary at the Marina in Half Moon Bay at 6am. Pattyo and I have fished for Albies aboard The Flying Fish, I think Heyman went as a kid and Gary is an avid saltwater fisherman and I assumed he had fished for Albacore before. He had some "hot numbers" where some of his buddies from the coastside fishing club had caught fish yesterday and three bags filled with tackle. He was wearing sweats so I assumed he'd put on some waterproof pants on the way out.
Running a private boat out to the tuna grounds is always a risky proposition. Heyman has "vessel assist" insurance but it will only cover out to twenty miles and we were probably twice that far when we heard the "crack". Pattyo yelled "hey" and I glanced back to see the 15hp kicker motor bouncing awkwardly off the stern, bucking at sickly angles like a pissed off bronco. Before we could slow down, the poor engine dropped off, ripping out the fuel line as it bobbed and then sank peacefully down to Davy Jones' Locker. We had a moment of eerie silence as we assessed the damage. With no land or other boats in sight, I thought of Gilligan and the skipper but then snapped out of it. The nearest islands are the farallones and they are most definitely not a tropical paradise nor do I suspect that the dfg biologists who live on it look anything like Mary Anne or Ginger. By a stroke of pure luck, the main motor survived the ejection of it's little brother unscathed and we proceeded as planned only without the kicker as a last resort backup engine.
We trolled for hours without seeing a thing save for a few lonely seagulls. Finally we spotted a school of "breezers" or surface feeding albacore but our hopes were dashed when another fishing boat ran past (the closest we came to any boat all day) and drove the tuna back down. Just when impatience began to rear its ugly head, we spotted another group of Albies on the hunt, busting up baitfish on the surface, breeching like mini-whales and doing like albacore do all day: eat and swim, swim and eat. As they are known to cover distances of sixty miles or more in a day and migrated to this exact location from Japan, it's not always a guarantee that you'll hook up when you see them. Sometimes you simply don't cross paths in the vast oceanic playing field. Often the course can be too aggressive, running right through the middle of a feeding school and spooking them back down to the depths. Regardless, anticipation mounted as we closed in on the frenzied school. Suddenly Pattyo yells out, "on the hook" and a reel starts to zing and the rod pumps. Albies are notoriously hard-hitting and there's nothing like the excitement of that first run. We troll for a few more seconds and two more rods go off in unison, we've got ourselves a triple hook-up. Game ON!
I grab my rod and crank down the drag. The fish slows but keeps pulling off the 60lb. test, intent on a course in opposition to my own. I raise the rod trip and slowly the submerged force begins to see things my way. With quick pumps I recover as much line as I can. As the fish nears the boat I switch the two-speed Penn reel to low and start cranking it up. Finally I yell out "color" and Pattyo flips it onto the deck with the gaff and we start doing our fish dance. This fish is about 28 lbs, on the bigger end of the scale for the fish we encounter here in the Pacific so we know we'll be into some quality fish if we can catch some more. That's when I realize that I'm pumped full of adrenaline. My hearts racing. I'm stuttering and mumbling as I talk and I feel like I can tackle a mountain.
Heyman and Gary each bring their fish up and the deck is a blood-bath of pulsating tuna. The rythmns of tails beating the deck mixed with the thumping of a stick to the head of each tuna is a primordial dance repeated by seafaring humans since the dawn of time. Even if we don't catch another fish the rest of the trip, we have done what we set out to do six hours earlier. We are victorious. We have succeeded.
The congratulations are brief however as lines are checked and tossed back in, the engine kicks into gear and we're fishing again before all the blood is hosed off the decks. The albacore are stashed in the livewell to bleed out before we toss them into an ice-filled cooler mixed with saltwater to keep the flesh firm.
There are days spent fishing when everything seems to fall into place perfectly. The weather cooperates, the fish cooperate and the gear and tackle stand up to the abuse. Today was that day and we enjoyed every minute, repeating the fish dance precisely, rotating only the dancers.
Before we knew it time was running out and there was no more room in any of the four fish lockers. Our 14 football fat albacore would probably yield over 140 lbs of meat and so we went to work with our fillet knives and hose and bags of ice until all of the meat was cleaned and packed and the remaining carcasses set out for the ocean's perfect disposal system.
After two days of fishing, eight hours in the truck and twenty on the water, the bachelor party came to a glorious and productive end.