The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.
Eight years ago, landscape architect and poet Grant Jones (August 29, 1938 – June 21, 2021) shared an essay that I published as a blog on Salish Sea Communications. It’s a young man’s story of an encounter — an encounter before a long and distinguished career, an encounter full of the force and vivacity that characterized the man in his life. Sometimes it’s rainy and windy in winter, sometimes its freezing, sometimes it’s weirdly balmy; but it’s always a good time to take that boat ride with Grant. The piece is a little longer than what’s allowed in a Community Voices piece, but we won’t ask the author to edit it. Enjoy! —Mike Sato, Managing Editor
It was early August in 1953 at Richmond Beach. I was rowing out after breakfast on the high tide to drift along the drop-off about a half-mile out. I had caught a big English sole 14 inches long on a strip of frozen herring. As the tide ebbed out and the farthest-out sandbars came into sunlight, I came up with a plan.
I wanted to find out if there were still big halibut in Puget Sound. In my fishbox I carried a huge halibut hook four inches on the shank. I tied it securely with a bowline knot onto the loose bight of a 12-inch spool of thick, waxed handline a thousand feet long. I baited it with the whole body of that big sole, working the hook through the back so its white blind side would be exposed to the sunlight filtering into the deep. I then rowed out over a mile beyond the drop off and played out the handline that coursed through my fingers, drug down by a two-pound lead. It took more than a minute, maybe two, for the weight to pull that big flounder all the way down 600 feet to the bottom below. The tide had turned and was flooding back toward Seattle. I hauled the line in a few feet and quickly dropped it so I could feel the lead bounce along the bottom.
Nothing happened for over an hour as I drifted southward from Point Wells toward Duffy’s Point bouncing that flounder off the sandy channel, 600 feet or 60 stories below. Then, almost imperceptively, the line, which had been holding almost straight down, slightly aft from the bow, started to slowly pull between my thumb and forefinger and then play out ahead like a walking dog toward the west. Was I just imagining this?
I let out 20 or 30 feet of slack and tied it off around the front seat, to see if it was just a snag and would hold me suspended in one position, fishtailing me slightly back and forth in the current. Instead the line jerked violently and the skiff veered westward at about three knots, faster than you can walk. Oh, crap!
At six o’clock, after being pulled south in zigzags three miles almost to Jefferson Head, past the Degaussing Station, for two-maybe-three hours, I was getting into the shipping lanes heading for Elliott Bay and would be a threat to navigation. This fish didn’t act like a halibut, didn’t want to head for the beach; it was heading for the deep canyon that reaches 800 feet out in the middle of this great estuarine Puget River. If I wanted to get home that night, I’d have to give up my prize. When I touched my fish knife to the thick, trembling handline, it snapped like a bowstring against my cheek. I noticed that there were two, deep friction grooves in the gunwales of my skiff, one on each side of the bow.
With the severed handline hanging loose in my hands, fear suddenly pressed around me. I started to tremble and the back of my neck felt like burning ice with electric nettles. Had I been experiencing the whole adventure with a friend, this moment would have brought hoots and hollers, but being alone out there was something else, like an all-engulfing prayer, as I fell to my knees out of the wind and felt the warm and fragrant cedar floorboards under my hands to clear my head, as the wind gently rocked the skiff in the riptide.
It was like time had crashed and some huge power of nature held me in its arms. That deep-channel monster fish released me, but in the process became my friend and protector.
It took three hours to row back with the outgoing ebb tide. After dragging the skiff up the beach and over the logs and heaving it on top of the car, I drove the old Falcon station wagon two blocks up the hill to the house and rolled into bed at ten o’clock. It was still light and I couldn’t fall to sleep until after midnight. It was a quarter moon, and its crescent drew a silver line across the sound out to where I had met my 15-foot sixgill cow shark, my own real monster of the deep.
Every landscape can surround you if you’re alive to it. It can embrace you with its monstrous spirit, reaching out to both scare and honor you. In my monster fish, I had discovered an Earth-mate partner. I would never be the same or even think the same way again about my mission. I hope something like this has happened to you. If it hasn’t, maybe you can go out looking for it. A monster fish like this is your guide to powerful spirits residing in the landscape of the Salish Sea. They can awake your heart. For me, this experience with another being made the land and sea breathe. It made rivers talk and mountains groan. And their heartbeats have been with me forever.
— By Grant Jones
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