Written by Jen Finn
July 24, 2013
Dances with salmon
I don't keep a list of favorite cities, but if I did Seattle would be near the top.
I don't know a lot about its history, nor do I know its neighborhoods, its best night spots (Kells will do for a starter) or local bands.
But when I get off the plane there and make my way to the baggage terminal at Sea-Tac I mark my progress by the brass salmon inlaid on the airport floor. They wind through Sea-Tac like a brook (the water fountains babble!), and the child in you will want to skip from fish to fish, and many kids do.
I like a city that wears its heart on its sleeve.
Seattle is a seaport, and then some, emphasized by prodigious mountain chains, the Olympics to the west, the Cascades to the east, a city on a hill with Puget Sound and two lakes at its feet.
If you're not on the waterfront, you're probably looking down at it, a vista of container ships and shipyards, ferries and terminals, cruise ships and fishing vessels.
Most of the fishing fleet doesn't tie up downtown, but they're "right handy," as we say in Maine, at Fishermen's Terminal and along the ship canal in Ballard, a neighborhood that's long been home to Seattle's fishing community.
On the dock overlooking Fishermen's Terminal you'll find the Seattle Fishermen's Memorial, a bronze monument to the more than 670 local commercial fishermen who have lost their lives since the turn of the 20th century and the center of an ongoing scholarship effort.
From here to Ballard you'll see trawlers and crabbers that fish the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea, seiners and trollers and pot boats that fish local waters, and iconic wooden halibut schooners nearly a century old — and still fishing.
You can make the case that the fishing business isn't what it was, even in Seattle. But with as many as 420 fishing boats calling the place home, things could be a lot worse. At Fishermen's Terminal, you can buy salmon and tuna off the boat or in a market. You can sample most any West Coast seafood you want at Chinooks or have a cold beer and hot chow at a place called the Highliner Tavern.
If you'd been at the Highliner on May 10 you'd have witnessed another slice of the fishermen's life: storytelling in words and song.
Nominally, "Stories of the Sea" is a competition, and the performers whose work is judged the best are rewarded with cash prizes (offered by National Fisherman, as it happens).
But the evening, sponsored by the Seattle Propeller Club and the Port of Seattle as part of its annual maritime festival, is much more about entertainment, beginning with host and balladeer John van Amerongen, formerly of Alaska Fisherman's Journal, now of Trident Seafoods.
I don't know how many people the Highliner can accommodate, but believe me, they were on hand and saw it all, from the quartet KlapaDooWopella to first-place winner Bud Marrese, who runs a seiner in Puget Sound and Alaska when he's not playing the accordion and singing engagingly about the fishing life.
I'd never seen anything like KlapaDooWopella, who blend the "klapa" — minstrel — music of Croatia's Dalmatian Coast with American doo-wop and sing a cappella. The group did three songs in Croatian and one lusty tune in English, "I'm the Fisher-man," quite reminiscent of Gene Chandler's "Duke of Earl," and no less delightful.
Nowadays Charlie Sheldon is a managing director with the Port of Seattle, but on Halloween night, 1973, he was a crew member aboard an East Coast offshore lobster boat caught in a gale of northwest wind, and his poetic recollection of that night mesmerized the audience and earned him second-place money, which he donated to the memorial.
There were 13 entries in all, and despite a 3 a.m. wake-up call, I hated to see the night end.
In some places fishing celebrations tend toward the nostalgic, but in Seattle this night we were just getting together between openings.
— Jerry Fraser
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