As Cameron Brister sipped his beer Friday night at the bar in the Wet Dog Cafe, the 58-year-old former corporate analyst was considering a new career.
He moved to Astoria about a year ago from Fresno, Calif. From the first time he'd looked it up on a map, he knew that where the Columbia River met the Pacific Ocean would be a special place. He'd been waiting to attend Astoria's Fisher Poets Gathering ever since.
All around the Wet Dog Cafe this night were painful tales of sons lost to the fierce ocean and knee-slapping songs about the old cannery shed. Brister experienced vicariously a lifetime of gale-force winds, the bone-chilling cold and the miserable wet of dangerous work - all salted heavily with a sense of humor.
He and 900 others wandered through the Fisher Poets Gathering, taking in the camaraderie of fishers of the past, present and future. And even though the working days might be back-breakingly long and many yearn for a time when fish were still plentiful, Brister couldn't be deterred from his dream to head out on a professional rig.
"I'm going to give it a try this summer, and if I really like it I might just do it," he said.
"Everyone I've met here has either fished themselves or has a close connection to the industry. That's what this whole town is about," he added.
And from the looks of the crowds sporting green buttons over the weekend, he was right.
This year, about 70 presenters spoke and sang at the 12th annual Gathering, sharing tales - both comic and tragic - about what it's like to live on and off of the sea. Many came from nearby towns, but others came from faraway places like Florida, Arkansas, Rhode Island, California and Alaska. They spread their words through more than seven venues, making coffeehouses and theaters, art galleries and bars temporary places of "worship."
While many of the presenters still earn a living working on the sea, others have left the day-to-day fisherman's life behind. But even for them, the days and nights spent battling the ocean can never be forgotten.
That was the case for Rhode Island-based poet and songwriter Jon Campbell. He said while he got out of the business years ago, the ties remain.
"You don't really get 100 percent of the way out," Campbell said. "I didn't really have the bug like some other guys had, and you really have to have the bug to survive."
This was Campbell's fourth year at the Gathering, and he was MC at the Astoria Event Center as well as a panelist at Saturday's Song Writing for Fisherman workshop. Campbell reflected that times for all fishers are tough these days, but the situation is particularly dire for fisher folk out East. Only the hard-core guys remain.
He recalled lobster prices that were cheaper than bologna, and fishing boats In New Bedford, Mass. with "free" signs on them. Despite the onset of hard times, Campbell feels humor is a productive coping mechanism.
"I think you get more done by pointing things out in a funny way, without making light of it. People can only stand so much," he said.
On Friday night, shrieks of laughter could be heard round the Event Center as Campbell recited a piece about three fishermen enduring hard times and how they decide to cope by trying on a modern hippie lifestyle.
"Y'know what if we got a few tribal tattoos
And maybe we cut back a wee bit on the booze
Stocked the Galley with tofu, green tea and tabouli
And let our hair turn to dreadlocks, instead of just bein' unruly
We might want to research feng-shuin' the boat
And pick up some Rastafied colors for all the totes
Pete said we could tie-dye our long-johns, but we'd be truly exempt
If we convinced 'em our nets were all made out of hemp."
- An excerpt from an untitled poem by Jon Campbell
Many in the audience also found humor in Port Angeles, Wash., resident John Joseph's 1973 tale of fishing with his basset hound, Katie, on a small skiff and getting turned around in a "thicker than the hair on a shaggy dog's back" fog. While lost on the Willapa River, he tied up to a channel marker. When a massive Japanese log ship passed him by a slim margin, he decided to follow it in to port. As the time passed, he knew he'd made a mistake.
The ship was headed out, not in.
"The second hour passed, and I knew I was in deep doo-doo. I was idling my way to Japan ... More time passed. I was out of gas, out to sea and at the mercy of Neptune, and all the beings of the sea, big and small, friend or foe, and even the monsters that came to mind from childhood stories. Sharks, oh God, not sharks," Joseph read.
Fortunately, he was rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard, who treated him to a lesson on compass reading and mapping on the way home.
Having a chance to share such experiences with others who have been there too, is what the Gathering is all about, Joseph said.
"It gives us a chance to tell about near-death experiences and life experiences, and to express the sincere humility and humor that others have no clue about," he said. "You have to be a fisherman to understand fishing."
Some of those who came might not have spent time on board fishing boats, but many, like Bruce Finucane of Warrenton, have given it a try. The son and grandson of fishermen, Finucane and his wife, Cheryl, came out to listen to Friday night's readings.
"It runs through my veins, and look where we are. Of course I'm here, even though there are no fish left," Finucane said. Cheryl Johnston-Finucane said that her husband tried fishing a few times, but couldn't seem to shake disaster, like the time when she was pregnant with her second son and her husband barely made it home from shrimping.
"We just about sunk I don't know how many times. It was 'Nightmare on Elm Street,'" he said. Finucane looked at her across the booth and they laughed at the troubles he had. They were 20 to 30 miles offshore in the shipping channel for about a week, without lights at night.
"We decided maybe something's telling him not to go out again," Johnston-Finucane said. "Really, he's a landlubber. He doesn't have any sea legs."
The annual poetry event continues to draw schools of followers, land-loving and sea-loving alike, year after year. And for good reason, said Campbell.
"There's nothing else like it in the country. There's a degree of voracity and truth associated with this event that makes it unique," he said. Campbell still remembers his strong reaction after coming to his first Fisher Poets four years ago. "I was so stunned, I didn't write for a year."
Today, he feels like coming back each year isn't just about having stage time.
"In equal measures, I both get a lot by coming out and I try to give a lot too," he said.
One might say the same of the bounty of the sea.