Among my favorite relatives were my Aunt Nola and Uncle Kenny Cook and their son Jerry, who was my age. The Cooks lived in beautiful Portland, Ore., and I deep within the arid bosom of the northern Great Plains.
Kenny and Jerry were salmon fishermen and talked about it constantly. I had hardly ever been close to an ocean (salt water is more than a thousand miles from here in any direction) let alone gone fishing on one. So when they invited me to join them on a salmon expedition out of Ilwaco, Wash., I was on a plane flying west in a heartbeat, visions of “real” fish dancing in my head, instead of the bullheads and stocked trout of my native turf. I was not to be disappointed.
The day after we arrived in Portland, we packed up and headed for Cannon Beach, Ore., to the cabin where we would stay.
For the three days, we were up at O-dark-30, racing blindly northward through heavy fog, risking our lives at every unseen curve on that narrow, twisting road. Jerry drove like a maniac and Kenny was no better. Cripes.
Ilwaco is at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River on the Washington side. Our first stop was at Astoria, on the Oregon bank. At the foot of the mighty bridge there that spans the Columbia was a fine little pancake house, wherein we stuffed ourselves with dainty dollar-size pancakes — then continued our mad rush to the river where our boat, the Fiji, was docked. We were moving even faster now, spurred by the thought of the Fiji’s bathroom.
By the time we arrived at the Ilwaco dock, the sun was up but the fog persisted. We groped our way along the dock, and what to my wondrous eyes should appear but a tall, 27-foot-long, vivid green chunk of wood. It was the Fiji, a well-preserved specimen of a fabled Columbia River double-ender. Unlike any other of the many boats at the Ilwaco dock, the Fiji was the only one specifically designed to operate at the mouth of the Columbia, where once in a while the ocean would explode as a strong flowing tide would crash into the massive outflow of the river. I didn’t see it on this trip, but I saw it — the notorious Columbia River bar — in all its raw power the following year, and a terrifying spectacle it was. More about that later.
The Fiji had high sides and you could walk around on the deck, or, if you had to use the bathroom, you could go downstairs. (I, lubber that I am, later learned the proper word, when it comes to things nautical, is “below.” You don’t go downstairs, you go below.)
While Kenny got the Fiji ready to go, Jerry and I took turns going below to the bathroom (properly called “the head” by real sailors.) When Kenny’s turn came, Jerry and I waited until he was firmly seated and then ran side to side, rocking the Fiji hard. Kenny whooped and cursed and threatened us with death as he clung to the facility. He never caught on. We did it to him every day we fished. It was like Lucy promising poor Charlie Brown that she wouldn’t move the football.
But the rodeo was over and now it was time to head for the ocean. Kenny fired up the ancient little diesel engine and we chugged into the current — visibility a max of 50 feet. We crept along, trying to stay in line with the string of buoys marking the way to salt water. Many other boats were creeping with us, becoming more and more visible as the fog began to lift; out of the mouth into the wide bay we all swept.
The Cooks preferred the “mooching” method of fishing. The engine was shut off and the boat would drift, pulling our herring-baited lines behind. No sooner did our baits hit the water than they were attacked by feisty silver (coho) salmon and the fight was on. The 11-pound athletes gave us all the action our light tackle could handle. Holy cow.
We all caught our share but naturally, Jerry, the luckiest person who ever lived, caught the most. He always did. He was the Gladstone Gander of fishermen. One time, he got a hopeless birds nest in his reel and was stripping off line while his herring floated beside the boat. And, of course, a salmon hit it. But instead of streaking off and fighting Jerry’s crippled reel, the creature jumped into the boat.
We easily caught our generous limits on all three days. We were hip deep in fish, even though we ate as many as we could. The rest went to a little cannery in Ilwaco. I brought home several cases of canned salmon, both plain and smoked.
Oh yes. I was going to tell a little more about the Columbia River bar. I went back the next year and took my dad with me. He, too, was a rabid fisherman, although he was rather dubious about a salt-water venture. But he sucked it up and out onto the Great Salt we putted in the faithful Fiji, Kenny at the helm.
Fishing was punk so we headed further out; I think it was 9 or 10 miles. We got caught in one of the most violent bar episodes ever. Waves towered over us; I swear they were 100 feet high. Then the next minute, up we went and could see other boats far below us. A Coast Guard cutter was racing through the melee trying to save people whose less-than-adequate boats were dumped. They were to complete nine rescues that day.
But Kenny Cook was an old hand on the river and he had taken the stout Fiji through years of rough water. Up, up the massive waves we putted, and then down, down the other side. We never faltered, we never even got any spray in the boat. But there was my poor father, seated in the narrow stern and clamped onto the sides of the boat, his jaw clenched, his gray face looking like it was carved of stone. He didn’t have any fun at the time, but for years to come he had great stories to tell his buddies back home.