It is a rainy Sunday afternoon as I write this blog and looking out of the float house window I can just about make out the shape of the nearby islands through the mist and murk.
This morning was beautiful though and a very relaxing four hours was spent fishing for halibut under a sunny blue sky. We didn’t catch any halibut but that didn’t matter as simply drifting with the current, listening to the sound of nature, was reward enough for our time out there.
We watched and listened to a small pod of sea otters as they floated on their backs and chattered to each other, we watched a nearby group of porpoises as they swam lazily through and round a small area alive with herring and then we heard the sound that we always like to hear when out on the boat, a whale breathing out.
It never ceases to amaze me how loud the noise is when a whale exhales and in some locations the noise echoes around between the islands. You can see the mist as they spout in the far distance and then count three to four seconds until the noise reaches you, by which time the whale has disappeared back beneath the waves.
It is most exciting though when you either hear or see a whale surface close to you and that is what happened to us this morning. With our eyes closed soaking up the warmth of the sun, as the boat drifted so slowly that we were hardly moving, we were suddenly brought back to our senses when the sound of a whale spouting came from what seemed only a few yards away.
Fishing lines were forgotten as we watched this wonderful creature work its way along the edge of the rocky island, taking it’s time to feed on the herring. A fin would surface, flail around for a moment or two, before splashing back down and then a large mouth would rise up and swallow goodness knows how many tons of fish and water.
Being near to, and on, the water as much as we are provides wonderful wildlife viewing opportunities and we have been very lucky thus far.
During a recent short trip from our float house to visit one of Jerry’s neighbours on a nearby island we saw a black bear swimming from one island to another. We steered the boat in the direction of the bear and watched in amazement as it reached its destination, climbed out of the sea and pulled itself up a wall of rocks and seaweed with seemingly very little effort.
Thinking we had been extremely lucky to have witnessed such an event we continued on our way for a few more minutes until we had to slow down again as we came across a humpback whale swimming close to the rocky shore of an island, much as described above.
We watched the whale’s antics and admired its graceful movements until it appeared for what we thought was one last time, took a deep breath, arched its back, flipped its tail and then glided below the surface.
Thinking the show was over we were preparing to move away when all of a sudden the whale, travelling at some speed, burst vertically out of the water so that its whole body was for a brief moment suspended in mid air and then it returned to the water with a massive belly flop and a noise that sounded like a canon being fired. What an amazing sight and we weren’t even on a whale watching tour, we were simply popping to the neighbours!
Most of our wildlife viewing is done in the early hours of the morning as Jerry takes us out for a daily fishing trip to catch that day’s breakfast and/or dinner. The sea is most often calm in the morning and the scenery is beautiful, with low lying clouds filling in the gaps between the islands, and all of this is only a couple of minutes away from our float house.
We owe a huge thanks to Jerry for taking us under his wing and giving us an in-depth experience of life in a small community here in South East Alaska.
Jerry is a very special gentleman who I have spent a lot of time with over the last couple of months and initially I thought him to be intriguing and a man of many complex layers.
Now, however, I realise that this is not the case at all and he is in fact a man who is simply living a life that allows him to do what he loves the most – fishing, hunting and a little bit of adventure….but mainly fishing!
He lives with his dog (The Boy), and runs a small oyster farm, located close to his float house, which provides him with a sufficient income to live where he does and do what he loves to do. He recognises how blessed he is to be living here and he gets immense pleasure from sharing his lifestyle and passing on his knowledge and experiences to others.
Much of his knowledge has been gained the hard way and he has told us of a number of occasions when he has found himself in a very ‘tricky’ situation. From crashing his boat in the dark, to getting lost on an island in a storm to nearly coming a cropper when trying to land a huge halibut single handed he has many tales which we listen to with equal amounts of fascination and fear.
Jerry has two rules for living here on the float house. The first is “don’t sweat the small stuff” and the second rule is “it’s all small stuff”! Honestly, the man has a quote for everything!
From the first thing in the morning right up until bedtime Jerry wears two hats (literally). One is a baseball cap and the other is a deerstalker type of thing with a headlight strapped on. After rummaging in a dark recess of his house he will often reappear with the headlight turned on. When you point out to him that his light is on he replies with “you can’t be a beacon if you don’t shine a light”. Chrissie has now started to tell him that the light is on but there’s nobody at home!
We all share a common toilet on the float and on one occasion Jerry came wandering along to take care of his business while I was already on the throne taking care of mine. Feeling slightly embarrassed I called out to let Jerry know that the toilet was in use and in reply he shouted out “hey, no problem Paul. I hope everything turns out ok. Let me know when the paperworks complete” and off he wandered back from where he came from.
He is full of ‘sayings’ and we hear many of them on a daily basis. Most of his quotes are fishing related and we are told regularly that “you can’t fish all day if you don’t start in the morning” and “there’s so many places to fish, so many lures to try and so little time”. He is always wanting to go fishing and will talk about ”whacking and stacking ’em” or “slamming ’em”.
He is, however, the most frustrating person to go fishing with. With great care he will select a spot to drop the lines and if after a few minutes we have had no luck we will be moving to somewhere else. We will set up the fishing lines to jig and then only a few minutes later he will suggest we change the setup to go ‘trolling’. If that doesn’t work we might change again to ‘mooching’. He is constantly worried that he should be using a ‘spoon’ when we have setup with a ‘flasher’ and a ‘hoochie’ or that we should be using a yellow lure rather than a blue one. So many choices so little time!
When fishing we often see other boats from the various fishing lodges in the area and Jerry is always keen to look through his binoculars to see how each boat his fairing. He can be heard to mutter “he’s got a flasher and white hoochie or they’re using spoons or they’re mooching”. God help us if one of them catches a fish while being monitored by Jerry because if they do we are lines up and heading in their direction in a flash.
One of the fishing lodges has 10 boats and they all communicate with each other on a certain radio channel which Jerry tunes in to. They can be heard to tell each other where the salmon are being caught and what equipment they are using. It would be great information to someone like Jerry, however, they speak in code. Jerry has worked out that they have a secret map with letters marked on it for various locations.
A typical message might say “come to area M it is really hot at the moment we have caught a number of good size fish”. I sit and watch Jerry’s frustration grow and grow as he scans the horizon with his binoculars. “For the love of god” he exclaims “where the hell is area M? I need to get my hands on one of their maps”.
It has been Jerry’s mission for sometime now to find a map, however, this week Jerry has learnt from one of the Lodge workers that they have a number of secret maps, with different letters, which they rotate on a regular basis. I can’t begin to describe his current level of frustration! He really does have the fishing fever!
In our short time here Jerry has shown Paul how to fish and, in addition to the early morning fishing trips, he has taken us both on some extended trips to look for the larger fish (salmon, halibut, ling cod etc.). We have both been successful.
Having also shown us the fine art of filleting (which Paul is still trying to master) Jerry has also passed on many of his fish cooking tips (which Paul is also trying to master). He has taken us ‘shrimping’ and shown us how to catch and prepare shrimp for the plate.
He has shown us the ins and outs of oyster farming and allowed us to spend time on his processor preparing the oysters for sale and frequently tasting them as part of quality control.
On a side note I am sure you can appreciate there is a lot of administration involved in operating an oyster farm and Jerry has periodic inspections to make sure everything is in order. He had one such inspection while we were there and we were intrigued to see the inspector arrive at the oyster farm in a float plane. I am pleased to report all went well.
While writing about Jerry I feel I should mention what I believe is his biggest attribute, his generosity. We have seen his acts of generosity on a number of occasions in our short time here, in fact we are often the recipients of his generous nature, and it is this side of Jerry that has led to him being well liked amongst his peers.
That said when you live in a small community it is essential that everyone provides support for each other and that is exactly what happens here. People drop by regularly, not for any specific reason, but just to say “hello” and “what’s happening” and in turn they offer invites to visit them. Most guests leave only after a few tequilas have been dealt with and most guests leave with either oysters, shrimps or halibut and on some occasions all three.
Jerry has introduced us to a number of his friends and neighbours and we have felt very honoured to have been accepted and given a warm welcome by them all. It is often the case that meeting with friends and neighbours leads to some wonderful days out or ‘adventures’ as they call them here.
We travelled to Whitecliff, a remote island, for a cook out with Jerry’s close friends Deb and Joe and recently spent a most enjoyable Independence Day BBQ with them in a small cove not far from the float house. Jerry was fortunate enough to hook up with Deb and Joe when he first came to the island and he couldn’t have done any better in his choice of mentors.
Deb and Joe seem like the bedrock of the community and have so much knowledge and experience of life on this island. We have spent a few enjoyable hours listening to Joe and Jerry reminisce of previous adventures and mishaps whilst they puff on large cigars and sip a tequila or two.
Joe’s background has mainly been in construction and logging and he has worked all over Alaska. His knowledge of trees, wildlife and the ocean is second to none and he is more than willing to share this information with newbies like us.
We have also been invited on more than one occasion to Ronnie’s Bar, a bar cum greenhouse cum workshop which is jointly owned by Ronnie, Deb and Joe. The bar is set in a wonderfully rustic building where select guests are treated to free food and drinks with the largest servings of alcoholic beverages we have ever come across.
Ronnie, behind the bar in the above photo, rarely smiles and is what they call in these parts ‘ornery’. He generally doesn’t have a good word to say about, well, anything and acts like he might punch you in the face if you say the wrong thing.
He comes across as one of the most miserable persons you are ever likely to meet yet with a deadpan face he has the driest sense of humour and he makes me laugh a lot. Underneath that gruff exterior I can tell there is a man that would do anything for anyone, even if it involves a fair amount of grumbling!
Like Jerry, Joe and Deb also live in a float house, only this is anchored to land so they have the advantage of travelling from their house by either car or boat. Chrissie has stuck up a good friendship with Deb and the pair of them have become known as “Hells Nana’s” after leaving Ronnie’s late one night on quad bikes.
Other days out have included a summer solstice party at Eric and Cindy’s house on Marble Island and several dinners at Mike and Corinne’s on El Cap Island.
Eric and Cindy have a house located down by their dock but they have created a wonderful garden a few hundred feet or so higher. It is a bit of a hike to the garden, unless of course you are lucky enough to catch a ride on the quad bike, but the views make the effort worthwhile.
The summer solstice weather was typically rainy but here, in this rain forest area of Alaska, there is a saying that “if you don’t do anything in the rain you won’t do anything at all”. The wet weather didn’t dampen the mood too much and we met around thirty people who were friends and family of Eric and Cindy’s, including Cindy’s Mum and Dad (Bob and Lois) who were full of stories of their life in a remote part of Alaska.
It is at Mike and Corinne’s though that we have both enjoyed the comforts of home that we miss living in a float house, like hot water in taps, an oven that bakes chocolate cake and a garden to grow fruit and veg.
Mike and Corinne have a beautiful house in an isolated cove that was originally the location of the main fish processing and packing plant for this area of Alaska . They are the only inhabitants of El Cap Island and they come out to live here in the summer. We have been lucky to have spent a few wonderful days with them in their idyllic location.
We were even invited to Mike & Corinne’s house for a steak BBQ (while they were in Ketchikan) by their house sitter Scott.
Scott, another friend of Jerry’s, is a lovely man (think cuddly grandad) and we have met with him previously on several occasions. One of the most unusual occasions was when we met Scott at the coffee wagon at Control Lake. We pulled in and Scott was there talking to Ian, the owner of the coffee van and Scott made the introductions. Chrissie said she would like to take a photo of everyone and Ian immediately turned and disappeared behind his van. We were slightly puzzled as to what was going on when Ian re-appeared wearing a stars and stripes bikini over the top of his clothes. To this day we are not sure why.
Scott has enjoyed some travelling in his lifetime and he has been a good source of information on some of the places we plan to visit. I know he is keen to see how our travels go and will be following our progress in this blog so I don’t want to write anything here that might upset him. I know, for example, that he wouldn’t want me to mention his clothes shopping habits, as the last time he went clothes shopping was over 20 years ago, so I won’t!
The final person that we have been introduced to and have enjoyed meeting on a few occasions is ‘Hooter’ (it’s not his real name and we don’t know yet why he is called Hooter but its what we know him by so, Hooter it is).
Hooter (and I hope he doesn’t mind me saying this) is over seventy years old yet he works harder than someone half his age and he’s even retired! He is an excellent carpenter and is currently putting the finishing touches to a timber frame greenhouse while at the same time laying foundations for a house extension. He does pretty much everything himself and reads many books to gain knowledge on anything that is unfamiliar.
He loves hunting and has made his own bows and arrows and has also made several hundred carvings like the one Chrissie is holding in the photo below – this is carving number 343 which we nicknamed “Little Hooter”.
He is also a long way ahead of me in the beard stakes. I have some growing to do to catch up but somehow I don’t think that Chrissie will let me get that far.
Hooter has kindly offered us the use of his yard to service and clean the Land Rover before we leave the island and travel further into the Alaskan interior. His kind offer did come, however, with one condition. He wants to have a drive of the Land Rover! We’ll see!
Guns are an everyday thing here and Hooter, like everyone else we have met, has one for hunting and protection. I did like the warning sign that he has posted.
It has been great spending time with the good people of the Prince of Wales and we hope they have enjoyed our company as much as we have enjoyed theirs. It is also good, however, for Chrissie and I to be able to spend some time on our own and we have made the most of some short breaks from the float house to explore the island and I will give some highlights of these trips in the next blog.