Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Early Mornings In The Fog

Fog, chill, damp - such is the constant of mornings on an island - at least in the Pacific Northwest. Limp hair, salmon derbies, runny noses - also part of PNW mornings. Boys had it lucky with their crewcuts and slicked back ducktail toppings. We girls spent every night (after our 13th birthdays) in agony with scalps skewered with bobby pins, helmeted with metal rollers held in place with wire prongs, and if the page boy hair style was to be perfect, empty frozen orange juice cans bobby-pinned to hair ends and wrapped turban-like with a towel. Then, to save the hairdo itself from fog-induced disaster, covered with a wool kerchief. Over the forehead, the kerchief was folded and pinned with more bobby pins. None of this stuff ever seemed to work for me. The back of my neck would be sweaty-wet, itchy from the wool, and my hair lank and stringy. Even if it had been available on the Island, Aqua Net hairspray (the first marketed hair spray sometime in 1950) wouldn't have made it on my mother's shopping list - too expensive and non-essential.

I was never a good fisherman. I did want to win the radio that usually was one of the prizes for the annual Island Junior Salmon Derby. Books and radio dramas were my escape and my very own radio would have been indescribably wonderful. So I endured the cold, dark mornings, the slippery boat dock, the rolling and rocking of the little tubby boat. My sister always managed to catch a salmon. One year I thought I hooked a real live salmon only to pull up a mackerel with another mackerel chomped onto its tail. And I caught my catch just as the Derby's ending horn was sounding. We were late to the weigh-in at the Sandspit so my sister's salmon was too late to qualify. She cried. I never went to a derby again.

Island fishermen all had their favorite choice of bait. Herring or salmon eggs were popular. Monk's Moocher reel was said to be the best way to "mooch" salmon. What's that? Well - Ed Monk, Sr. was a well-known boat designer, an Islander, an avid fisherman, so of course his fishing reel design was used by lots of Island fishermen. "Mooching" is a technique and is a derivation of an original Japanese concoction of sinker, leader line and two tandem hooks for the bait. Mr. Monk designed a reel that was supposed to ease the technique and allow the rod and line to easily imitate the motions of live bait which in turn would lure salmon. Monk's son followed in his footsteps as an architect of yachts and other vessels and was one of my best-liked classmates. We didn't even know his father was famous.

Ferry signals were part of the language of the mariners all around the Sound. Mariners are quite superstitious and curmudgeons about their traditions (I know this because my children's father is a retired ferry skipper). They take fierce pride in their seamanship. Even the way the Captains sound their vessel's bells are unique - say, adding a trill or asserting the last note. One long toot and two short ones in quick succession meant the boat was leaving the dock. Five meant danger! That emergency sounded loud and clear one day when I was about ten. We ran down the Hawley hill and watched in fear as smoke and flames billowed from the smokestack of the ferry tied up at the Winslow dock. (According to the newspaper, "the little ferry San Mateo suffered severe burns when a steampipe exploded." - notice the allusion to the boat's human-ness.) Our perch just above Old Charlie Taylor's boathouse provided an unimpeded view of the dock and its injured occupant. Luckily the fire was quenched but service was interrupted for the afternoon.

Overall, emergencies were few and far between on the ferries. The ferry Kalakala had more than its share. It was a streamlined silver streak but performed like an old clunker. Its crew complained about the darkness of the car deck and the awkward way it had to be loaded. It ran aground quite a few times. Passengers kept their fingers crossed it would not be late. To superstitious mariners, the boat's misfortunes were no surprise - before it was the Kalakala, it was a burned out scow - it had no chance of meritorious service in a later life - ask any sailor. One time, Bainbridge High School cheer and song leaders gathered at Fort Ward Naval Station early, early in the morning to wait for the Kalakala's arrival when they were scheduled to put on a show. The boat was so late the Fort's Commander invited all the freezing girls into his stately home to keep warm and not catch colds or pneumonia.

One of the biggest mishaps was the time a freighter was grounded on the Wing Point side of Eagle Harbor. One side of the huge ship actually rested on the rocky, slimy beach which was at low tide. It had been being towed when its tug towline snapped and the ship drifted from control. It was winter; snow frosted the Island. Hearing about the excitement, my mother, sister, brother, and I slipped and slid from our house on the edge of the Wing Point community to the beach. Along with lots of other sightseers we tromped over the slippery rocks of the beach so close to the ship we could almost touch it. Crew members however, yelled at us to keep clear. It was night. The lights of the boat, houses, and harbor lights all around twinkled and the wind blew. It was a major event for the event-less island. It was not foggy when the vessel ran aground.

The sounds of fog horns, bells, and whistles are the blues, the melancholy ballads of the Sound. In my mind I hear those wordless songs and feel the heavy mist on my face, smell the salt air. Fog is like snow in a way; quieting the landscape, softening footsteps, blurring the sharp edges. It wrapped me, soothing even when I fought youth's tears.

The first radar equipment was installed on the Kalakala in February 1946. It was some time later that all ferries were fitted with the device. Since ancient time, astronomy, experience, intuition, and "ear navigation" served as human radar. The Sound's waterways are filled with bell buoys, fog horns, and sounding boards, Each warning location has its own peculiar rhythm. All the old salts wore their experts' reputation as badges of honor; as proof of their infallibility. Plus, one sailor was always stationed on the bow for the ultimate check point of seeing and hearing any danger.

There was a spot on the Wing Point golf course, a stand of old cedar trees topping a rise, where one could sit and watch the ferries making their way to and from Seattle. If the fog wasn't heavy, the boats looked like they were sailing through the sky above the "wing" of the Point. In the black of night the strings of ferry lights out the portholes drifted ghost-like. My favorite nightscape though, was to sit on the roof outside one of the upstairs windows of my grandparents' house when the moon was full. The Sound was halved by a golden path of moonlight. I imagined floating that highway to some place far away.


  1. Oh this is glorious, Dorothy! I loved your musings on fishing, brought back my own memories and the smells of salt air, kelp beds, CREOSOTE, slippery moss on wooden docks--gosh!
    Carolyn er Woodie Woodpecker

  2. Dorothy. What a wonderful idea. Your writing is so descriptive and interesting.

    I didn't move to the Island until I was 12 and had no relatives there. You are fortunate to have memories of times with your grandfather, etc.

    Good job all around.

    Pat Goff Butcherite

  3. And then Capt Wyatt took out the Seattle docks.
    Get to writing...waiting on the next edition. I have such great Island memories. Unless I am mistaken....I think the golf course was the last one to have sand greens in the US.

  4. Dorothy, We've been reading your Blog and are enjoying it immensly. This is absolutely wonderful! We are so looking forward to reading more!
    Martin and Brenda Mirkovich