Neah Bay: The Tragedy That Almost Was

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My Grandfather was an avid Salmon Fisherman. My Father was not, although he never stopped trying to match my Grandfather's success. Might I add that I believe, to this day, my Grandfather made the best smoked Salmon in the world.

One day, long ago, my father caught wind of some underground news that the salmon were hitting at Neah Bay. We didn't have a seaworthy boat at the time but My dad was not going to let that stop him from bringing in the fish.

What we had at the time was a twelve foot aluminum boat with a five horsepower motor, so that is what we would use.

Now, for those of you not living near a large body of water, an aluminum Jon boat was not what we considered "seaworthy." Sure these boats are fine for fishing in lakes, or even large inlets or bays, but not necessarily okay for fishing in the Straits of Juan de Fuca at the opening of the Pacific Ocean (although, I know now that it can be done.)

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So, not knowing (or caring) of the danger, we threw that boat on the top of camper shell of the truck, loaded all our gear and trekked to the north end of the Olympic mountains into Makah country.

We launched out of the Makah Tribal Marina and were heading out into open water at Waadah Island within thirty minutes. It took us a little longer than expected as the boat was sitting low in the water and probably overloaded with our five gallon gas can, fishing tackle, life jackets, and two coolers full of beer. I couldn't complain though. I was given an entire six-pack of root beer for the trip. Of course, the root beer sat in the bottom of the boat, staying cool by the chill of ocean.

Throughout my childhood, my dad had me convinced that beer had to be kept cool or it would go bad, but soda pop, on the other hand, never went bad and did not need to be cool. I disagreed with this hypothesis for years, until I had children of my own, then I saw the light and not only agreed, but tried to convince my own children of this truth.

We spent a few hours trolling the deep shelf about two miles northwest of Waadah Point with no luck. We'd burned about half our tank of gas and decided it was time to start working our way back toward shore. With no Salmon in our boat, we decided to make our way back to Waadah Point and do a little Cod jigging. Cod is like the chicken of the ocean. It's not as good as Salmon but tasty enough for just about any dish and easy to catch. My Grandfather used to make Cod jigs and sell them.

The Cod jigs we used were basically a copper pipe filled with lead (yes, actual lead) with hooks and maybe a couple flasher spoons attached. That's it. To use the jig one would simply drift, bring the jig to the bottom and then reel it back in a turn or two, then occasionally move the pole up and down.

Back to the story.

As we were leaving our fishing grounds (still about two miles out) we realized two things. First, we realized weather was coming in from the west. The winds were picking up and bringing some low dark clouds with them. Second, we realized the tide was going out setting up a strong current toward the mouth of the Pacific.

This second thing was really not good for an aluminum boat and five horsepower motor. We'd only made it about a mile toward shore before the waves grew and whitecaps formed. Our little boat was getting tossed around like the S.S. Minnow.

Nonetheless, I was oblivious to the dangers before us and was still fishing.

The little outboard was throttled up as far as it would go but we seemed to be making no headway. In fact it seemed, at times, the shore was actually getting farther away, yet I was still fishing. The only thing that favored us in our attempt to reach shore was the wind. Unfortunately, the wind was also churning against the tide to create the huge waves with whitecaps.

Nobody said a word. We probably would not have heard anyway with the little outboard going full-blast. I wasn't scared, although I probably should have been. At my young age, I thought a was a pretty strong swimmer and five miles or so would be no problem if we capsized. Besides, I'd already had my near-drowning experience in the Skokomish River years before, and that's what prompted me to learn to swim.

It was then, with the boat rolling violently, forcing me to hold my fishing pole with one hand and hold on for dear life with the other, that I got a fish on.

"Fish on!" I yelled over the cacophony of the engine and the howling wind.

Even in our dire situation, I could swear I saw a smile spread across my dad's face, twisting the cigarette in his mouth to one side. The cigarette had long since been extinguished by the driving wind and rain.

I struggled to hold on to the fishing pole while reeling in the fish and trying to remain inside the boat. I was sure this was going to be a lunker salmon and would make the trip worthwhile. Yes, with a short stop at Port Townsend on our way home to get the fish to my Grandfather, we'd be eating smoked salmon in a week.

I fought the thing for what seemed an hour before I saw the first flashes of color in the boiling water. My heart sank when I realized the flashes were not of a silvery salmon, rather a muddy brown shark. I continued to reel until the fish came to the surface only to confirm that I had just brought in a dogfish.

I heard heard my dad say, over the wind, to cut the line and let it go but I couldn't do it. This was my prize and I couldn't let it go and remove proof that I hadn't been skunked on this fishing trip.

Meanwhile, the wind and waves continued to rise and realized that we were, in fact, being pushed farther from the shore. I still wasn't worried though. I had faith in my dad. He was my hero and, somehow we would come out of this.

It was at this moment that the engine died. We'd run out of fuel. Now, a small molecule of worry started inching its way toward my brain. With no power and only wind providing the slightest effort against the current of the outgoing tide, our little boat lost all forward momentum and was now heading toward Cape Flattery in into the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.

At this point I thought, if we remained in the boat and were lucky, our bodies would be brought to Hawaii. If we were unlucky they'd find our bodies frozen to the boat somewhere in Alaska.

Well, sure. You must know by now that everything worked out since I'm here writing this and your here reading it. You know, just like in the movies, the hero must be put into the most unmanageable predicament before doing something heroic in order to save the world (or him/herself.)

Although we had no radio, my dad did have a flare gun and a pocket full of flares. By now, anyone who's read my blog over the last eight years has come to learn about my dad's love of guns.

It didn't take long for us to spot another boat in the distance. With a possible rescuer in sight, my dad fired a flare and waited to see if the boat was heading our way.

It took the fishing vessel nearly a half-hour to get to us in the stormy water but they brought us aboard and towed our little boat back to the Tribal Marina. We offered and they even accepted the shark as payment for saving our lives.

I learned something from our experience that day. What? No. I didn't learn to not going into the straits with a small aluminum dinghy. We still did that plenty of times. What I learned was to always check the weather and tides before venturing out on a saltwater fishing trip.