Thursday, May 31, 2012

Day 173: Lonely Black Hen seeks Charming Rooster for Romance and More…

May 31, 2012

Nearly two months ago, raccoons or something similar broke into my chicken coop and slaughtered all but one wily black hen named, Lucy. Devastated by the loss, I swore off poultry husbandry. I planned to chop off Lucy’s head and eat her for supper and end my chicken-raising ways. But while sitting on a stump with Lucy tucked under one arm and an ax cradled in the other, killing her made no sense. I thought of rehoming her, but never had the heart to write up the advertisement and send her packing. She had been through a lot, and so had I.

It took Lucy about a week to calm down and lay eggs again. She has given one egg per day ever since. Her eggs are large, a misshapen oval with a terracotta-colored shell and marigold yolk. She is an amazing producer, and I enjoy her labor almost every morning.

After the attack, I consulted past issues of Backyard Poultry and read online articles regarding chicken intelligence and psychology. The popular opinion is that chickens are scatterbrained beings without complex processing or memory. This is what I have always thought to be true, but something changed. Lucy changed. I think she remembers.

Before the raccoon mayhem, Lucy exhibited aggression. She pecked hands that snatched eggs, bullied coop mates, and failed to cooperative when it came time to gather the free-ranging flock from the field and return to the coop for nighttime safety. Lucy snubbed the scam of roasted corn kernels rattling in a coffee can, a tried and true lure for the rest of the hens. Lucy refused to follow and refused to be herded like some common sheep. Instead, she made her twilight break for the blackberry brambles, where she remained until extracted an hour later by Jasper, my trusty back lab.

Basically, Lucy was a total bitch of a chicken, and I wished her dead many times. But she lived. She was the least favorite and the only one that lived. It figures. But she has changed. She grew timid, freezing in place when I enter the coop that she refuses to leave. I pick her up now, carry her outside and put her down, only to watch her scramble back to the dark recess of her home. I hold her, and she clucks in a state of agreeable comfort. I rock her in the crook of my arm and talk her through my morning chores.

“Well, let’s have a look at your water,” I say and move to a 7-gallon container that now seems excessive for one consumer. “Yup, yup, still full.” She pipes a couple staccato clucks and draws the third out in a low croon. I pretend she says, “Yes, yes, I told you so.” We cross the 10x10 coop to where a feeder hangs. “Now how about the food, Luce? You doing okay on food?” The feeder looks the same as it did yesterday, filled to the top with about 25lbs of granulated egg-layer pellets purchased from the farm supply store in town. We move to the nest boxes. “Oh!” I say sounding as surprised as possible. “Is that for me? Did you lay that for my breakfast? What a good girl, Lucy!” I pick through the straw bedding to retrieve a still-warm, reddish-brown egg. “It’ perfect. I love it.”

And this is the routine almost every morning since the attack. It’s just Lucy and I going through the motions. The silence of the once busy coop hangs in the stale air. With the exception of the 5-minutes it takes to complete my chicken chores, Lucy spends her days in silence, confined to the nest box by day and perched solo on her roost by night. She consumes very little water and almost no food. I bring her kitchen scraps that I think she might enjoy. She pecks holes in the watermelon rind but leaves an entire bruised apple untouched. She is not the same. I am not the same. The attack on the coop and the death of her flock changed her, changed me, or at least it seems that way.

Lucy is lonely, and I know a thing or two about being lonely. Back in my younger years, men and romance were sweet distractions, temporary fixes to the melancholy of loneliness.  As I grew older and hopefully a little wiser, I’ve come to know loneliness as an inner-affliction, solved not by outside stimuli like friends or lovers. I know this, but Lucy does not. Emotionally, she isn’t there yet. She’s just over a year old and doesn’t exhibit the complexities of an independent and thinking woman. Perhaps she never will. So, I did what any chicken BFF should do. I set out to find her a man.

Finding a rooster is almost as easy as finding a human mate, only sometimes you have to pay a $10 re-homing fee for the rooster, and you’re stuck doing all the driving. Clean-up and caring are also about the same – fetch the food and drink, stroke the plumage, tidy-up after he uses the bathroom… Really there is little difference. And then there is all the crowing and carrying on. Again, it’s nothing new.

I scrolled through Craigslist’s farm and garden section like reading the personals. I wanted a local boy, no geographical obstacles to stand in the way of romance, so I searched by county. As it turns out, backyard coops are a big deal in Kitsap County. Roosters were plentiful and several were free. Most of the listings were for young cockerels or small breeds. Lucy is a big gal, about 6lbs or so. No prepubescent roo or bantam could deliver the goods she needed. She needed a large mate, someone about the same age – striking and confident, but well-mannered. I had to find a bird respectful to humans, mainly me. I won’t tolerate attacks, talons cutting into the backs of my bare legs as I reach into a nest box for an egg or bend over to fill the feeder. I was searching for a real looker and a gentleman. And that’s when I found Gerry.

Gerry lived in a cul­-de­-sac community in Gig Harbor, a city chicken of exotic breeding. He needed a new home because neighbors complained of untimely crowing, sometimes at midnight, sometimes at 3am, and routinely from 5:30 to 11:00 in the morning. Gerry’s dedication to robust morning alerts made him unpopular.

Rachael, Gerry’s human, wasn’t sure of his kind. She only knew that he was an exotic. A mail-order hatchery in Connecticut included Gerry’s egg as an exotic bonus gift with Rachael’s order of fertilized domestic eggs. She thought for the longest time that Gerry was a female, but that was until he began to crow and take piggy-back rides from coop mates.   

One look at his downy-bearded face, compacted comb, flaming plumage, and green-black tail feathers, I knew he was an Ameraucana, or more commonly known as an Easter-egger. Ameraucana hens are prolific layers, producing up to 300 blue or green eggs per year. Of course Ameraucana roosters don’t lay eggs, but their offspring will. I pondered the match, the future chicks of Lucy and Gerry, the possible color combinations of offspring eggs, and I ponder future breakfasts. My first impressions found Gerry ridiculously handsome and kind. I knew I had found my man.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Day 162: Releasing the Ladybug Army

May 20, 2012

I don’t know who first taught me to hold a lady bug on my finger to the sky and sing, “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home. Your house is on fire and your children will burn.” If the ladybug won’t budge, my song is followed by pursed lips and a gust of air, like the blowing out of a birthday candle. I want to make certain the bug tends to her burning children.

I never heard my mother sing the song, and I don’t recall hearing it from my siblings, but I have always sang it, mumbled it, or swirled it inside my head like some kind of meditative garden chant. Perhaps my grandmother taught me, or maybe I learned it from a schoolmate decades ago. I’ve heard different versions of the ladybug song, softened up to adapt to kinder times. In one version the ladybug’s children are all gone, but there is no threat of burning. I sing the burning song, and have done so almost every time a polka-dotted beetle has landed on me.

Folklor origins of this rhyme are debated and may have English roots running through the midieval harvest and destruction of hop plants. Hops, used to flavor beer, are picked from plants trellising over 15 feet high. I’ve seen endless hop fields in Oregon where vines climb to the sky. Every time my mother and I drive by a hop field in Oregon, which is way more common than one might imagine, she tells this same old story about sweltering in the hot sun with my Aunt Barb, the two teenaged girls teetering on wooden ladders, picking all summer long to earn money for school clothes. Hops are harvested by machine now, but it isn’t hard to image her story, especially knowing the gumption and work ethic of my mother and aunt.

Once all the hop buds are harvested, the vines are burned in the field. This is where the ladybug song may have started. Ladybugs live on hop vines, not because they love hops, but because they love to eat aphids, a common pest in the agriculture of hops. Ladybugs eat over 50 aphids per day or up to 5,000 in a lifetime, but they also consume a variety of other soft-body insects like leaf hoppers, scales, and mites.

Burning the fields destroys the summer home of countless ladybird beetles. Adult beetles fly away, and larvae may crawl to safety, but the ladybird pupa burn, destroying a portion of the following year’s beneficial predators. It is thought that farmers would chant the rhyme before setting fields ablaze as a warning for the adult bugs and larvae to move on. And here I always thought the song was meant to send the bug back to her home to save her babies. But really, it’s a song of abandonment.

The hop burning origin is the kinder of possible explanations. Another possible origin has political and religious ties. Ladybird (the English name for ladybug) was thought to be used as a derivative to the Catholic, “Our Lady.” In this version, the singing of the rhyme was used as a warning cry to Catholic recusants who refused to attend the Protestant services as required by the 1559 & 1662 Act of Uniformity. Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot Conspirators were amongst the most famous recusants. Mass was held secretly in fields and attendees were subjected to heavy fines and jail time. Priests were jailed and often executed by burning alive at the stake, or by being hung, drawn, and quartered. The latter origin really zaps the charm out of the little jingle, now doesn’t it?

Today’s release of 1,500 ladybug troops into my greenhouse begins a battle with a mild aphid infestation. It also affords me an opportunity to contemplate, even if just for a moment, the meaning of the ladybug rhyme. Ladybugs crawled from the mesh bag I purchased at the nursery and flocked to the blue glaze of my wine cup. I gently blew them away before they fouled my nightcap.

I encouraged beetles to make a home within the tomatillos. I brushed them from my red t-shirt and scraped them off my orange gardening clogs. None investigated my black yoga pants or my dark hair – yet another reason I’m thankful for being brunette. They crawled up and down my arms and rested on my fingertips. I lowered by hands to the wide-opened eyes of orange and black blossoms and nudged them along the furry stems of tomatillo stalks. I did not sing, and I did not blow – a break in tradition, at least for today.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Day 158: Alaska – Too Much of a Good Thing


I’m tucked inside today on this beautiful afternoon in Seabeck. I have what I can vaguely diagnose as an Alaskan hangover. It’s not a typical kind of hangover, you know, like the kind you get from shooting vodka with your Russian neighbors or tequila with writer friends in San Miguel de Allende.

No, this hangover is one of overconsumption of the wild outdoors. It’s caused from too much fresh air, lack of routine, and 900 miles in an RV with 2 grandchildren, a daughter-in-law, a grown son, and a beagle puppy. Or maybe it’s from mountain vista overload, constant moose spotting, and bumping across waves at thirty knots on a halibut fishing charter operated by young men in their early twenties. I feel beat down from head to toe, and I kind of like it.

I flew into Anchorage on the 6th of May for a week with family. We had a great time, but I forget how much work camping with kids can sometimes be – or how a four year-old giggles half the night, or has potty accidents in your bed, or how loud a two-year-old can scream when she doesn’t get her way, or how much a new puppy piddles or chews on what he should not chew or piddle on, or how irritated even the most loving grandma may become when rattling along in 29ft of living space.

We did put some miracle miles on the RV, traveling to Wasilla for a little Sara Palin spotting. We didn’t see her, and we couldn’t see Russia from her house either. We traipsed in and out of museums, gawked awestruck at Portage Glacier, admired a fuzzy Kodiak cub at a wildlife refuge, and I became particularly enamored with a herd of muskox. Muskox are so damn cool.

We dropped down around Kenai to visit Aunt Barb, a lady I haven’t seen for nearly 30 years. Aunt Barb owns The Inn-Between, a bed a breakfast outpost. She offered me a southern-exposure room with lemon colored walls, downy pillows and a comfy bed, respite from sleeping in the back of the RV and sharing a bed with my 4-year old, giggling camping buddy. I accepted. My camping buddy was miffed to say the least.

Aunt Barb took us to visit Kassik’s Brew stop, a home-based brewery owned by her friends. One of my favorite cousins was already there, sipping a frothy Morning Wood IPA. I “tested” a Dolly Varden nut brown because I liked the name and the label. It reminded me of my fishing trip to Forks where I didn’t catch a steelhead but did catch and release an endangered Dolly Varden trout. Dolly is not endangered in Alaska, the fish nor the beer. The beer was intriguing, like nothing I’ve ever tested before, with hints of chocolate and caramel, dark and toasty, a fragrant blend of malt and hops. I’d love to make something like that at home. I’ll be off the brewery supply store soon.

The final tourist stop was in Seward at the sea-life center. Colton and Cheyenne fell in love with Woody, a 1,500lb sea lion. The kids weren’t crazy about the rest of the exhibits, shrieking and pulling their hands back when I tried to make them touch a starfish or feel the velvet tendrils of a sea anemone. Jellyfish behind glass frightened them, but both would have jumped into Woody’s tank given an unsupervised moment.   

While I did enjoy time spent with my son’s family, I have to say the very best day was after I dropped everyone off at the airport and made my way solo to Homer for a day of Halibut and Salmon fishing. Call me selfish, but I like traveling alone, doing whatever it is I want to do, stopping to enjoy scenes, and eating whenever and wherever I choose. Peaceful travel with others requires a tiring commitment to diplomacy. After a week attempting to please others, my diplomacy tank was empty.

Homer is a decent drive from Anchorage, about 225 miles, give or take. I broke the drive up by stopping off at the Inn-Between again for another evening with Aunt Barb & Uncle Mike. Reconnecting with friends and family has been one of the most beneficial and unexpected facets of my year-long killing spree. There is something so wonderful about slipping back thirty-years, back to the kid my aunt remembers, and enjoying the spoils and spoiling of my youth.

Day 156: Halibut Fishing in Homer, Alaska


I took advantage of an unexpected trip to Alaska and booked a little fishing charter to further explore my killing spree. I was thinking fresh halibut and salmon might just be the ticket to break up my ongoing protein intake of legumes, tofu, oysters, clams, and the occasional steelhead.

I also really wanted to be back on the water, if only for the day. Apart from missing my old crew, one of the worst things about being retired from the Coast Guard is the dryness of it all, the lack of sea-spray, the porpoise and whale spotting, and the rock and roll of the waves that makes me forget all about Meniere’s disease and the ever-annoying state of vertigo. When I am on the water, I feel stable, safe, healthy, and electrified.

Booked through Bob’s Trophy Charters, I selected the Wave Dancer over the Nauti-Lady. The Nauti-Lady is a 50’ 20-passenger vessel, and despite her provocative name, she is popular with the less-adventurous. But I wanted something smaller, something faster, and less crowded. I selected the Wave Dancer, 32’ of fun with the youthful Captain Corey and Mate Joey, both in their early twenties.

Too excited to sleep beyond 3am, I arrived at Homer Spit nearly 2 hours early. Homer Spit in the morning light is stunning. There was no sun to speak of, so there was no sunrise, just a subtle lightening of an eggplant sky to gun-metal gray to periwinkle to brilliant blue (notice I did not use the term, cerulean – even if it was).

I checked in at Bob’s around 6am, and then followed my strip map to slip J-29, the moorage address of the wave dancer. Although we didn’t speak, I shared the trek with a short, stubby man with salt-and-pepper hair and a matching, well-trimmed beard. He smelled of bourbon, but not of a fresh shot. No. His bourbon mixer was the funk of sweat from a fitful sleep following last night’s binge. I stepped out in front of him to stay upwind of his seeping pores.

I climbed aboard the Wave Dancer and was followed by Mr. Bourbon. I looked full into his face, smiled, and offered a morning salutation. He ignored me, or maybe he failed to hear. The bright sky made him grimace. He knitted his eyebrows in a painful way, as if suffering from gastronomical distress.

Corey and Joey greeted us with handshakes and asked where we were from. I was about to answer when Mr. Bourbon spoke up. He took a dramatic step away from me and proclaimed in a voice I found a little too hostile, “Oh, I am not with are not with her.”

Bourbon and I were probably close in age, but I was holding up better in the wrinkle and belly-fat department. Assuming he and I were together was an understandable mistake. I don’t suppose too many women charter fishing trips solo. It would have been a quick fix had Bourbon reported, “Texas,” and I reported, “Seattle.” I always say Seattle or near Seattle because it’s easier than saying, “Washington, as in the state.” The crew would have pondered the geographical separation and concluded that we were not a couple. But there we were, stuck in the morning glow of Mr. Bourbon’s disgust.

Bourbon’s reaction caught me off guard. He acted like I was some sort of sea-witch or maybe a sea-cow. I get it that I was not his type. I get that my fishing attire of ski-pants over yoga-pants over leggings, topped with camouflage parka over polar fleece over thermal top over sports bra, with my wild morning hair, and water-proof but not unfeminine boots, did not flatter my figure or make me very appealing.  But even on my best day, fresh from the salon, I would never be Bourbon’s type. He like’s ‘em real scrawny, half-starved, with bleach-blond hair and stage make-up. His ideal gal comes complete with a set of silicon tits that he bought just three months into the relationship. He owns those tits, owns that woman. No, I would never be his type. Honestly.

Bourbon took a seat in the cabin and I stood on deck, waiting for the rest of the charter to trickle in. Two men hefted a blue cooler over the side. They bantered back and forth, giving away their southern roots. Tom was from Georgiana, Alabama. Rob was from South Carolina. Rob shook my hand and wished a belated, happy Mother’s day and then followed-up with a quick peck on the cheek. Friendly and a little forward, but I didn’t mind. Later I’d learn all about Rob’s mama. He’d even show me the bracelet made from antique silverware stashed in his Carhartt overalls, a trinket picked up for her during his visit to Homer. The bracelet and his open admiration for his mama were sweet, but only at first.

An old man tottered down the dock toward the Wave Dancer. Joey hopped out of the boat to assist. The old guy nodded at each of us before making himself comfortable on a cabin bench for what seemed like the longest and most expensive game of iPhone solitaire ever played. No matter how great the swell or how excited the other passengers seemed, the old man kept his eyes lowered as he fat-fingered the screen.

The last passenger to join was a slight man in his thirties, a radiologist from Fairbanks. He was late, apologetic, and poorly dressed to face the elements. In jeans, windbreaker, and tennis shoes, he was shivering before we pulled from the slip. I offered up a spare pair of waterproof pants, knowing he’d need to cinch them way up and roll the cuffs a few times to fit. He politely declined.

Our first stop was a known salmon hold about two miles from the mouth of the Anchor River. The strategy was to get as close as possible to the river’s mouth in order to entice the King salmon moving upstream to spawn. Two miles from the mouth was the closest legal distance allowed for charter and private fishing, although according to Joey, commercial fishing boats may legally swoop the mouth with nets. I don’t see the logic in the commercial fishing allowance. But maybe I don’t understand the whole story. Or more accurately, I don’t understand the politics.

In charter King salmon fishing, or at least on this charter, the customer does little to nothing to catch the fish. Joey baited and dropped four rods while Captain Corey maneuvered the boat in a circling pattern, dragging the bait across a given grid square. We were instructed to take turns grabbing the rods and reeling once a fish strikes. Mama’s-Boy-Rob suggested that the mama on board catch the first fish for luck. Everyone seemed to agree. I felt a warm blush spread across my face, and before I got out a proper thank-you, we had our first hit. I half-stepped toward the pole, more out of politeness than anything. But in my hesitation, Bourbon pushed by and grabbed a hold. I stepped back like a good sport and watched him land a beautiful King, about 25lbs of wildly delicious protein that I so desperately wanted in my freezer.

The next strike bent the pole closest to the radiologist. He looked at me as if seeking permission. I yelled, “Go! He’s all yours.” It no longer made sense to play the mother card. The first fish was in the boat and the luck was already set.

It was all the radiologist could do to keep the tip of the pole up. This was no normal King Salmon. The fish made a break for it, running out the line faster than the poor guy could reel it in. Joey took over, balancing on the catwalk as the monster circled the boat before entangling the three other lines in its fight for freedom. After a few circles around the boat, the fish was getting tired. Joey gave the pole back to the radiologist for a fight that lasted another 30 minutes. It was clear this was no salmon.

Captain Corey loaded a compact rifle. I’m guessing it was a .22 caliber. Once the fish was brought closer to the surface, he planned to shoot it in order to get it onboard. I really wanted to shoot the fish, but I kept out of the way with camera ready. A mottled brown fish, flat and ugly neared the surface. Corey readied his rifle while Joey leaned over with a gaff. I braced myself for the blast, but Joey hooked the monster in the head with the gaffing hook and pulled it on board. With two whacks of a fish-bonking bat, the excitement was over. The radiologist landed 60lbs of halibut with light tackle meant for salmon. It was an amazing accomplishment, and the guy couldn’t stop smiling.

Time and tide were not on our side. We had less than an hour to each catch a salmon before moving out with the slack tide to bottom fish for halibut. With the exception of the solitaire-playing old man, we stood on the deck and watched for the slightest twitch in the motionless poles.  About an hour passed before Mr. Bourbon serenated us all with the most wretched bout of seasickness I have ever heard.

I don’t get seasick, but I’m prone to a weak stomach. I’ve never been great at dealing with vomit, even my own kids’ vomit. Usually, if someone pukes around me, it doesn’t take long before I’m upchucking too. It’s a family thing. My siblings suffer the same condition and have all through childhood and parenthood. Growing up in my house on a sick day was like one big puke-a-rama.

Had I not been so secretly delighted at Mr. Bourbon’s unfortunate bout with karma, his violent hurling may have triggered my own gag reflex. But all I could do was smile and rename him, “Mr. Chum.” Rob offered Chum a napkin while shooting me a smirk complete with double raised-eye-brows. I almost laughed out loud. Evidently my secret delight was not so secret.

I let Chum suffer three more bouts before offering assistance. Desperate for relief, he accepted and offered up his hands. With my thumbs, I applied pressure to the underside of his wrists, about half of an inch below the start of the palm.

I have a problem with nausea and anesthesia. Actually, I have a problem with nausea and almost everything expect boat travel. I learned about these nausea relieving pressure points after waking from surgery with baby blue cuffs on my wrists. Each elastic cuff was fitted with what looked like half of a white marble. The marbles were situated on my pressure points and held in place with the stretchy, blue cuff. I kept the pressure cuffs and use them from time to time when nauseated by vertigo, long car rides, or migraine headaches. They work. What can I say?

Mr. Chum enjoyed immediate relief and almost seemed grateful. We pulled in our salmon poles and headed for deeper waters and halibut. Mr. Chum landed the only salmon of the day. I tried not to resent him, believing that my poor sports-woman-ship would be punished with a total fish skunking and nothing to show for the $300 I paid for the charter. I wanted fish for the freezer, and I really believe in karma, good and bad.

The Wave Dancer bounced along the swells, making for an outrageously fun ride. I stayed on the deck, knees bent, bobbing up and down with the waves, and clenching my teeth to keep from biting my tongue. But dumb Mr. Chum sat his butt back in the cabin to text and surf the internet. Of course it wasn’t long before the captain had to stop so Chum could heave his guts over the edge. I didn’t offer further assistance and Chum didn’t ask.

We huddled in the cabin while the heaving took place. Joey stayed on the deck to offer support and a paper towel. Rob spoke up first, “Dude’s going to make me yak.”

“No shit,” I said. “I’ve never heard anyone throw-up that long or hard.”

“He gots him a hangover. You can smell it,” said Tom.

“Yeah, hangovers are not good for fishing,” said Captain Corey. “But this ain’t nothing. We see everything out here. People puke so hard they shit their pants at the same time. Try sharing a cabin with that.”

Joey and Chum reentered the cabin. We all went quiet. No one bothered to change the subject and pretend we were talking about anyone else than the guy loosing it over the railing. Chum settled back into his seat and resumed texting. All but the old dude and Chum returned to the deck for the rest of the ride.

Halibut fishing was more fun than salmon fishing, or at least it was more participatory. Instead of sharing 4 rods between 6 people, we each had our own. The rod was short and stout with a 2lb lead weight and a rather huge hook. I threaded a small but edible looking fish on the hook and dropped the line 130 feet until I hit bottom. I could feel the bottom through the vibrations of the line caused by the weight fluxing with the current.

The old dude left his solitaire game to try his hand at halibut fishing. He must have dropped his weight right on the fish’s head. Within seconds he was in the fight of his life and about 20 minutes later he landed 100lbs of ugly deliciousness. Joey whacked the thing to death with the bat and stuffed it in a hold under the deck. Satisfied with his trophy, the old dude returned to the cabin and back to his solitaire love affair.

Rob caught the next halibut, a little fellow about 10lbs. Joey worked the hook from its mouth and Rob tossed it back in. We were each allowed 2 halibut of any weight. Common practice was to hold out for a trophy, like the one caught by the old dude or something smaller but still impressive like the one brought in by the radiologist. But I don’t have that kind of luck. I decided the night before to keep the first fish and then maybe go for the trophy if a second chance was afforded. I did not want to be the fool that threw back a perfectly tasty, small fish only to walk off the boat with empty hands. Rob would catch and throw back several during the course of the trip, and Rob would prove to be that very fool I did not want to be.

I felt a nibbling sensation through the pole, just a slight bump and tug. I fought the desire to rear back and set the hook like you do when steelhead fishing. Halibut takes patience. The halibut nibbles a while before committing to the hook. I waited, growing a little dizzy until I realized I still needed to breathe. Joey watched over my pole, coaching me. But no one had to tell me to reel when that fish finally struck. I felt it all the way through my torso. And I hate to admit this, but I screamed. “Oh my God!”

“We have us an Oh My God!” yelled Joey.

“Can I get a, Help Me Jesus!’ said Captain Corey.

And then I started to swear. Swearing happens when I get excited. I won’t repeat what I said, but it was a filthy string of expletives that shocked Mama’s-Boy-Rob and Tom from Georgiana, Alabama. The radiologist cheered me on while Joey barked advice. I knew it wasn’t a huge fish, not like the old man’s and not like the radiologist’s. I was working hard but I wasn’t struggling as much as the other two men seemed to have struggled. And I couldn’t help but to feel a little disappointed when my fish broke the surface. It was a halibut and I was happy, but I wasn’t ecstatic.

Joey leaned over the boat and pulled it up. “Not too shabby,” said Joey. “Close to 40. Gonna keep him?”

“Yup,” I said, feeling much better about the catch. After all, it was bigger than any fish I’d ever caught before.

“Congratulations,” said Joey as he reached for the bat.

“Wait,” I said. “Can I kill it?”

I was hoping Joey wouldn’t argue or ask for an explanation. I was hoping that I would not have to explain to Chum and the gang that I was on this weird kick and partial to eating plant-based proteins or stuff that I kill myself. But Joey just laughed and gave me the bat.

Now here’s a tip when it comes to fish whacking. There is no polite way to do the job. There is nothing gentle or kind about the process.  Hesitation produced the half-hearted bonk I first delivered and only prolonged the suffering. I believe that the most humane thing to do is to not fish at all. The second best thing, and my preference, is to knock the hell out of it with the first whack. My first victim took about 4 whacks, a fact I am not proud of. Despite the sobriety caused by inept fish whacking, it was impossible not to smile and hold my dinner in the air for a photo.

I needed almost no recovery time before I was baiting my hook and reeling in another. My next fish was small, but not super small. I tossed it back, deciding to go for broke.

I brought in another small fish and decided to release. I repeated this two more times, catching and releasing a total of four fish in search of the monster. The radiologist landed a small one too, but the hook was in deep, too deep. Joey jerked out the hook and scooped up the fish, assuming it wasn’t a keeper. The thing was bleeding like crazy.

“Is it going to live?” said the radiologist.

Joey shrugged, “Probably not.”

“Well, then I want to keep it.”

“That’s fine,” said Joey, and then he bonked the fish on the head.

I liked the radiologist, liked the fact that he didn’t want to waste the fish, that he wasn’t greedy. I thought about my throw-backs, hoping that the hook hadn’t damaged them too much, but how could it not? Each of them bled when the hook had been wiggled free. Joey didn’t rip out the hooks, but still…

My line bobbed with another bite. I reeled in a small fish, only about 15lbs, but still the second largest fish I’d ever caught. I issued one solid thwack, and Joey slid it in the hold below. I reached my limit.

Tom from Georgiana offered up a beer, a Coors Light, not my favorite but a beer none-the-less. I drank beers with Tom and Rob, enjoyed the rare sunshine and fantastic mountain views, let my body rock and roll with motion of the ocean, and listened to the lurching of Chum trying to empty an already empty stomach. Overall, it was a wonderful day.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Day 143: May Day in the Greenhouse


After my little vacation in San Miguel de Allende this February, followed by a few debilitating weeks with pneumonia, I failed to start my tomato seedlings on time. To make matters worse, my winter plantings of cabbage, cauliflower, romaine, celery, and red onions suffered a drought on my trip to Mexico, meaning the boys failed to water. This happen, I suppose, but maybe a little too often. I feel like the little red hen planting corn and asking, “who will help me tend this corn?” and “who will help me pick this corn?” and “who will help me eat this corn?” I have a lot of eaters but not a lot of fellow laborers. It’s disappointing sometimes, but it is my reality.

 I tromped out to the greenhouse to face failure on the 1st of May. I had nothing to transfer to the beds so beautifully manicured by my deceased chickens. Before their untimely deaths by raccoon assault, the hens wintered in the greenhouse, working up the beds, fertilizing, eating grubs and slugs, and enjoying the warmth. They ate composting vegetables and spread seeds.

I opened the greenhouse not expecting to see it alive with bright green seedlings of volunteer tomatillos and heirloom tomatoes. Plants that would have taken up to three weeks to germinate were up and healthy. With the assistance of Mother Nature and my hens, there would be a garden after all.

The beautiful thing about heirloom vegetables over hybrids is that they reseed and produce fruit even without the help of the gardener. Chicken scratching and chicken poop certainly helped. Even in death, my hens just keep on giving. RIP David Bowie, Henny, and the Girls. You all are missed. For sure...

 I grew over 15 varieties of hearty and historical tomatoes last year, and only one variety of tomatillo. I collect and save seeds from all over the world. I have the Siberian Black Prince, the Russian Black Krim, Chinese Violet Jaspers and Golden Topaz salad tomatoes, the Tennessee Purple Cherokee, Ghost Cherries and Snow Whites that look like ping-pong balls, fat Oxhearts from my in-laws in Ohio, a Polish pink so perfectly round, and clusters of Hawaiian red currents, some yellow pear, itsy black-cherries, and juicy red grapes. I have no idea what kinds of tomatoes I will enjoy this year, but I transplanted over 50 plants to my self-watering tomato buckets, and I have at least 100 tomatillo plants to deal with. Thanks to my girls, we will have plenty of salsa and spaghetti sauce this year, and more than enough for the boys to peddle at the local farmers market.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Day 142: A Month of Cake and Clams


April tides further fueled my passion for the ocean and all that she has to offer. I spent a lot of time on the beach this month taking advantage of low tides and filling my freezer with clams and oysters. I have approximately 2 weeks of protein stored away for lazier times. I even collected and dried several batches of seaweed to snack on in the evenings instead of popcorn.

The boys and I dug tons of clams. I love my clams, but clams are not a convenience food. I mean, you don’t steam up a batch and eat them in your car on the way to work, or at least most people don’t. Clams are basically a sit-down meal, but I’ve found a way to take my clams to go. Clam Jerky. To be exact, its horse clam neck jerky, but that doesn’t sound very appealing, does it? Clam jerky is my new beef jerky. It’s wild, pure protein, low-sodium, easy to make, better for me, and simply delicious.

Along with my routine foraging and fishing, my siblings and I hosted an anniversary party for my folks and a 70th birthday celebration for my father. Throwing a party for 200+ folks was more work than any of us imagined. It nearly killed me, but with the help of YouTube, I survived.

I’ve come to rely on U-tube, absorbing short clips ranging from gutting a deer to making coconut-pecan frosting to tanning a hide to rolling out fondant. The free education floating around on the Internet stuns me and makes me question the practical value of my formal education and residual student loan payments. Even though I’ve spent a lot of time sitting on my butt in a classroom, I’ve always been a fan of experiential learning, where I can roll up my sleeves to get my hands dirty.

With Youtube at my side, I’ve grown more confident, perhaps to a fault. It’s also made me frugal, almost to the point of being “cheap.” I see little reason to pay for services I should be able to handle myself. So, I tackled the anniversary invitations, some of the food, and a monster of a cake. I put about 30 hours into the building of a five-layer, fondant covered cake with calla lilies, and I learned how to do the whole thing step-by-step by watching video clips. The cake turned out well, but despite my success, I never want to do that again. I have a new appreciation for cake decorators and understand perfectly why wedding cakes range from $3 to $12 per slice.  I understand, but I’ll never pay those kinds of prices. Frugal or cheap? I walk a thin line.

With the anniversary behind me, I’m looking forward to slowing down a bit in May. I need to stay home, tend to my greenhouse, repair the chicken coop, clean house, and catch up in the yard. But if I know me, I’ll fill May up with more foraging activities, new learning opportunities, travel and adventure. I do love my fine and wild life.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Day 126: Pity Fish


Before I pulled out of Forks to head home from my fishing trip, I swung back into the main part of town and stopped by Olympic Sporting Goods & Yellow Dawg Fly Shop to thank the event coordinator, Bob, for inviting me. Fellow warrior fisherman gathered at the shop that morning to retrieve their steelhead from Bob’s refrigerators. Folks sized up one another's catch and played the "mine's bigger" game.

I had nothing to compare and nothing to retrieve except envy. I admired a 28 pound steelhead, the record catch, and marveled at a few modest 15 pounders. I hated going home empty handed, but it was hard to be disappointed. I had received a free float down the beautiful Ho River by an expert guide. I learned a couple new skills, slept two evenings at a riverside bed and breakfast, soaked in a hot tub, and ate three good meals. The trip was hard to top. Even still, I really wanted a fish.

Sergeant Tucker, a wounded warrior stationed at Fort Lewis, was there to retrieve his two fish. I had made a wager with him the morning of the derby, betting 5 bucks I’d land a bigger fish. Thankful I hadn't spouted off a lot of shit-talking, I paid the man his money. After a gentle ribbing about my fishless state, he offered up a pity fish.

For the record, I’d much rather have caught my own damn fish, but I’m not too proud to eat a pity fish, even when I know it was my girly-ways that landed the catch. A survivor must be rational, fish is fish. The truth is that pity fish tastes just fine smoked up on the Traegger. I thanked Sergeant Tucker for his generosity and headed home for a helping of hot crow and fresh steelhead.

Days 124 & 125: Twilight and Steelhead - Fishing in Forks

4/12 – 4/13

The small town of Forks, population 3,532, is known for its rainfall as well as its rainforests. It receives over 106 inches of rain a year, making it a contender for the rainiest town in the continental United States. But it’s not the rain or the rainforests that draw the majority of visitors. Most folks flock to Forks’ in search of Twilight.

Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series of books, set in this sleepy town, have sold over a 100 million copies. Twilight souvenirs and movie memorabilia line the dusty shelves of the quicky-mart, the local bait shop, and even the hardware store.  Tourist-catering storefronts like, “Dazzled by Twilight,” have replaced the five-and-dime along the town’s main street.

I asked several townspeople, including a few shop owners, if they read  any Twilight books. The answer was always, “No.” The Forks-Twilight phenomenon reminds me of when I lived in North Bend, Washington and the TV series, Twin Peaks, became a hit. Irritated by increased traffic and detours in the roadway to accommodate film crews, I never watched a single episode. International tourism, especially from Japan, flooded the streets of North Bend and stretched long lines outside the Mar-T Café, a spot touted in the series for its cherry pie and damn good coffee. Business at the Mar-T got so hectic that the “homemade” cherry pie morphed into great cans of pie filling dumped into pre-made crusts. Tourists, none the wiser, lapped up the pie and praised the fresh picked cherries and impossibly flakey crusts. I know the cherry pie debacle as fact, because at the time I happened to be one of Mar-T’s pie makers and hash-slinging waitresses.

Unfortunately for the local restaurants of Forks, Twilight characters don't have a favorite pie. Serving an O+ milkshake or Bloody Belle cocktail  seems kind of out of the question. The local diner must continue to rely on the banner, “Edward ate here,” to reel-in famished Twilight fans.

I didn’t come to Forks in search of Twilight. Like the townspeople interviewed, I haven’t read a single book in the series or watched the movie. Instead, I came to Forks for the second-best tourism draw, the steelhead. Pre-Twilight, Forks was made famous for its winter and early spring steelhead runs along the Bogachiel, Sol Duc, Calawah, Quillayute, and Ho rivers.

Each year the Lions club of Forks sponsors a derby for wounded and/or disabled warriors. This year, I was invited. Local fishing guides volunteer their time, boats, gear, and talent to the cause. Area businesses, hotels, B&Bs and eateries donate food, shelter, and merchandise to make the event a success. It was amazing to be part of this year’s event, to witness such small-town patriotism in a time that seems like national indifference to the ongoing dangers our service people face daily. For most of America, military conflict has grown stale, but not in Forks.

My guide was Captain Tuck Harry, an Alaskan native who comes south for the steelhead run and one of the original founders of the event. He volunteered to take me, the only woman warrior and her dog, on a private float down the Ho River. Jasper had never been on a river or in a drift boat, but this was my third trip. I warned Tuck that I’m not only an unskilled fisherwoman, but I’m also very unlucky. I also warned him that Jasper does not swim, or at least does not know that he can swim. Jasper goes to the beach with me to dig clams and gather oysters, but he never wades past his tummy.

Tuck assured me that when it comes to fishing, skill would overcome bad luck. He would teach me a few things that should improve my fishing. He also assured that Jasper, a black lab and born waterdog, surely could swim.

Tuck was right about Jasper. Hoping to retrieve a casted cluster of orange steelhead eggs attached to my line, Jasper leapt from the boat and into strong current. I nearly panicked, but Tuck promised that he hadn’t lost a dog yet and didn't plan to start. He followed Jasper tumbling along in the gentle rapids. Jasper cut diagonally across the river to escape the current and paddled expertly to the rocky shore. He shook the water from his black fur and barked a few lines as if to say, “Hey, Mom. You see that? Jasper swims.” He wagged his tail, looking pleased with himself.

Tuck rowed to shore and Jasper hopped back into the boat. I tethered him to a bench seat, not wanting to test our luck with the lady river a second time. Jasper, Tuck, and I floated another 10 miles down the Ho without further excitement. When I say that, I mean Jasper didn’t jump back in again, and no steelhead struck my line. Tuck had been wrong about my bad luck. We had drifted a total of 13 miles and received one hit, a strike from a wee Dolly Vardon trout about 7 inches long.

The Dolly Vardon is an endangered native fish. I reeled him in without a fight, and without touching his sensitive scales with our hands, Tuck pulled him up, at my urging, for a photo op. I snapped a picture of my Dolly Vardon and disappointed guide, before Tuck leaned over the boat to teach me how to snip the hook and set the little guy free.

I had no fish to take back home and eat, nothing tangible to further my killing spree. But the trip was not a loss, not at all. I did learn that Jasper could swim. Tuck also taught me to tie a fisherman’s knot and how to create a special loop to hold the egg sack just above my hook. These are skills I’ll keep forever. I stayed in a room decorated with over 50 teddy bears at The Fisherman’s Widow Bed & Breakfast on the Sul Duc River. I ate dinner and drank beers with fellow veterans, wounded warriors, and Lions Club members. I ate breakfast in the same café that Edward of Twilight dined. But best of all, I witnessed a brand of small-town patriotism that seems as endangered as the Dolly Vardon trout.