We’re at the government dock in Port Hardy in our red pickup, boxed groceries, duffle-bagged laundry and miscellaneous gear loaded in the back. Three or four fisher folks, hitching a lift with their town stuff, sit in the box of the truck. We back down the cedar-planked wharf head and park next to the hoist and the ramp.
We all jump out, staggering from four days and nights at sea, commercial salmon fishing. We pile the freight at the top of the ramp that leads down to the fingers. Of course, it’s extreme low tide! Below, a small city of trollers, gillnetters and seiners are tied 3 or 4 deep along all the floating fingers. The fishing fleet’s in for the weekend.
Seagulls are flapping and screeching across the small, kelpie bay beside the dock. The mud flats are stinking, buried clams spurting here and there across the muddy, sandy beach; the smell of drying nets drifts up to us, along with a faint aroma of dead fish and someone’s cooking food. We look down the 100 foot ramp tilting at a 45 degree angle to the floats below, and shrug.
We see fishing folks here and there, coming and going on the wharf head; pulling themselves up the steep ramp using handrails and braced feet on the string steps. Below fishermen are clustered in scattered small groups among the floats; a few people are sitting in lawn chairs or perched on side rails aboard various boat, a few leaning out ship windows to chat to passersby.
The 100 foot ramp is made of 6 inch thick wooden planks and is divided into 2 lanes; the left side is made up of stringers, nailed every 16 inches apart, like a ladder with a solid back. The right side is made up of weighty 6 X 8 smooth cedar planks of 12 or 15 foot lengths; aluminum handrails and cross-bracing enclose both lanes, each lane about 18 inches wide.
We jump out of the truck, lower the tail gate and everyone piles out to help stack boxes of supplies and duffel bags at the head of the ramp. We align the duffel bags of clean laundry at the right side and push them over the edge. The bags roll and flop and jounce down the smooth right side, safely landing at the bottom 100 feet below, where a group of people are waiting to climb up the ramp. Many helping hands stack the bags to one side at the bottom, amid banter and bull and boisterous laughter . It’s been a good week for most of us.
We pause to allow those below to bring laundry or garbage bags, or bits and pieces of machinery and electronics up the ramp, gripping and climbing the steeply pitched slope like heavily loaded mountaineers.
Our turn again, we line up our 6 boxes full of grub and supplies at the top of the ramp. We’ve bought tins of food, baked goodies, fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, new rubber gloves, a box of band aids, a couple of novels, some bottles of booze and assorted other stuff, including a tiny potted boston fern, soon to be christened Harry in his new floating home. The train of boxes all aligned, we shove them over with a gentle nudge and away they surf, down the smooth deck of right hand ramp. Picking up speed, the front one hits a bump. All the stuff in the first box bounces up and settles back in the box but the speed bump dislodges the small pack of band aids, launching it 2 feet into the air where it pirouettes and somersaults into the box chugging and scooting along behind. Bravo!
The rescue crew at the bottom applauds and begins stacking our boxes into the rusty red communal wharf wheel barrow. Now, I grip the handrail and step carefully down to the first stringer on the left, wedging my heel hard on the step and leaning back against the force of gravity. About half way down, after several precarious, heart-hammering, mountain-goat steps, I decide to ski down the rest of the ramp. I step to the right, lean forward, bend my knees, release my death-grip on the handrail, raise my arms in the classic skier’s pose, and sail down the steep slippery boards, jumping to the deck at the end in a graceful dancing step, cowgirl boots thumping.
Behind me at the top of the ramp, Snuffy decides to surf-ski down the entire 100 feet of ramp. He steps down on the right hand side and launches forward like a maniac Olympic skier, red curls and beard burning in fiery streaks behind him from the momentum of his sliding rush. He jumps to the deck at the bottom and take a couple of running steps forward, his toes at the edge of the float, waving his arms and balancing precariously, and comes to a stop just before pitching head first overboard into the water. A huge grin lights his face. Darren, heading up the ramp, offers to move our truck off the wharf head and park it in the mud puddle-pocked long term lot.
Rusty red wheel barrow stacked high with our bags and boxes, we weave and wend our way over to the third finger, where Wild Thing is tied outside of 3 other boats. On our way down the float, we see a 4X4 oil stove sitting on the deck, steel cooktop atilt, sides slightly bulged out, and oven door hanging by one hinge dangling off the front at a crazy angle. Above the bedraggled stove, shouts of laughter echo out of the ** boat’s window, along with Will’s profusely ringletted, black-haired head, curls bouncing above his merry dark eyes and beaming red-face. Several friends are gathered round the galley table inside, which sports an assortment of glasses and bottles.
“Yup, yup, blew the top right off her!” Will exclaims, laughing and pointing at the forlorn oil stove on the dock. “The chimney was plugged, so we decided to blow the soot out with a seal bomb.” We’re invited aboard for a wee nip, where four or five fishermen are seated, and a couple are standing around the cabin, glowing with drink and laughter.
Chores first. We hand bomb and hump our boxes and bags across the decks of three boats like obstacle course contestants caught up in a bizarre slow motion relay race. We clamber over hand rails, dance over deck clutter, dodge tie lines and guy wires all the while balancing on the rocking, rolling, swaying decks, to the accompaniment of a melody made up of snapping lines, flapping flags, calling gulls, and drifting music and voices.
We stow our grub in the fridge and the deck cooler. Snuffy lifts the hatch cover and stuffs most of the meat in the ice in the hold. We pour a drink, freshen up and grab a bottle of rum or vodka to add to the partying fun.
Back at Will’s boat, festivities truly launched on a sea of booze, we squeeze in the door with 6 or 8 other people. Will motions us over to the galley table and we sit down opposite him, crowded into the banquette seat. Our bottle joins the party of soldiers on the table, more drinks are poured and we raise a few glasses in cheer. The weekend is here!
Will is describing his chimney cleaning method using the seal-bomb-in-stove technique; he gestures across the cabin, where the stove pipe is suspended from the ceiling attached to nothing but an empty hole where his oil stove used to sit. Will is big and gentle and merry. His dark eye sparkle with glee, and his big belly laugh comes chuckling up from his large chest. His long, black, frizzy ringlets are bouncing across his forehead, neck and down over his ears as he laughs.
He brushes his unruly, frizzy curls out of his laughing, twinkling dark eyes again. “Time for a haircut!” he exclaims, spying a Bic lighter in the flotsam on the table. A flick of the Bic and he brings the flame to his forehead frizz, to the curls just below his left ear, his right ear, and on around the back of his neck and head. A blazing halo blooms and sizzles up the curls and ringlets, and flames around his grinning cherubic face.
“Yup, she’s done!” he says, and begins to pat and smother the flames with his big, calloused hands. Not missing a beat, he grasps his whiskey glass, raises it in a toast and beams around the table at all of us. We’re all sitting there with expressions of bemusement, disbelief, laughter and awe after witnessing the haircut performance. And the laughter echoes again in my memory, as I recall some wonderful coastal characters and good times shared with friends.
H. Mearns photo- from face book post- I told you I was going to use it 😉