By ANDREW CREMATA
Even at a considerable distance, I could see the heaving surf turn into white foam when it rolled against the rocky shoreline of a distant island. As the boat drew closer, more detail came into focus – mint green ferns cascading over the edge of a high, sheer cliff face, against which large black and white seabirds dived and rolled in the stiff morning breeze.
Minutes later that island was nothing more than a memory, as the boat continued west into the depths of the vast ocean.
I was guest among old friends, visiting Sitka from their various homes down south for a chance to come together in the wind and waves to share memories, enjoy some laughs, and above all, catch fish. Theirs was a gathering in a place where the currents of lives merge for one brief moment of shared experience – all drawn together to partake in the ritual of fishing, unmoored from the worry of the world and set freely adrift in the wilds of the last frontier.
Friendships forged in the salt and waves while plying the depths for fish are some of the strongest a man can make. Fishing with friends is an opportunity to engage in meaningful discussion punctuated by the wild runs and manic displays of fish battling for freedom. What better place than Alaska to enjoy a formal reunion, where fish are plentiful and the eyes only fall upon scenery that is primal and beautiful?
I had already spent three days with this contingent, and in between fish I had gotten to know them pretty well. All were retired, some from professional fields and others from the military. One man was a retired Marine who served four tours in the Vietnam War. A tall and burly man, battle-scarred and tough with a proud, strong chin that hinted of the young soldier who would someday find himself haunted by the past.
Sometimes you meet people who have a secret. Or maybe it’s more that they’ve come into the possession of some secret knowledge or elemental wisdom about the nature of man so daunting and immeasurable that it can’t even be spoken. For a brave man such as this, fishing offers a break from those terrible swarms of memories.
Little of which has to do with the actual fishing. The night before, as we all sat at the dinner table sharing stories and bragging about who caught the biggest, another retired Marine said earnestly, “This is what it’s all about. Fishing with you guys is the only thing I’ve found in life that reminds me of the camaraderie we had in The Corps.”
Camaraderie – now that’s a pretty good word to describe the unique relationship between friends that fish. And when it’s been a while since the last fishing trip, there is time spent catching up before new memories start being created. By the last day of the trip, all of that veneer is stripped away and all you’re left with are the raw ingredients that drew these particular inimitable souls together in the first place.
I’ve fished with a lot of people in my life, but I have never been on a boat where every single person wielded a rod and reel with such expert precision. Sore backs, bad joints,and creaking knees had no trouble putting the fish to shame, and during the brief moments when we weren’t catching fish there were words of encouragement and a welling-up of sportsmanship.
That’s what friends do.
Make no mistake, a fishing trip will change you. When it starts you have the weight of the world to overcome but soon the urgency of the moment, and that fish on the other end of your line, becomes the only thing that matters. That temporary freedom can’t be described, but when you share it with someone they become entwined within the fabric of your life in a meaningful and unique way.
During the boat ride back to shore I could see the look of satisfaction combined with quiet resignation on the faces of everyone onboard. I know that look, and I know the feeling that creates it. All of the anticipation that brews during the months leading up to the trip are suddenly gone and are replaced by the realization that all things come to an end.
On that last day of the fishing trip you can assess your life from a newfound perspective and begin painting the picture that will become everything that happens afterwards. Inevitably, there is talk of the next fishing adventure – dates are chosen, deposits are made, and the spark of anticipation is rekindled just before the flame of realization dies out.
What an incredible place we live in! A place where friends from all over the world converge to experience the most meaningful events in their lives. It would be easy to say it’s because of the incredible fishing, and that is certainly one vital element. Still, there are many places on planet Earth where the fishing is pretty stellar.
There is something more to this place we call home than fillets in a box. Alaska likely means something different to everyone, but I would wager that somewhere between the fiery ancient volcanoes and endless floes of glacial ice, everyone eventually experiences some rare moment of perfection. Especially if they end up on a boat catching fish alongside their best friends in the whole wide world.
When I left for the airport on the following day, that strong ex-Marine reached out and firmly grasped my hand.
Chin held high, he said, “I’m so glad to have a new fishing buddy.”
So am I.
Andrew’s column appears in the second issue of the month, April-September. His columns through 2013 are now collected in a new book: Fish This! An Alaskan Story available all over. Watch for book signings at the News Depot and elsewhere.