Knarley Knundrum, by Westley Enigam

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My Texas buddy, Knarley Knundrum, has been coming to Delian for many years. He had the summers off since he was a professor of philosophy, sociology, psychiatry, and political science at Texas M&M University. We called him Mr. Know-It-All. I had recently moved to Delian when I first met Knarley and one of his Texan friends, Ken, traveling by the Alaska Marine Highway ferry from Juneau to Delian. I recognized a kindred spirit right away, his beard, baseball cap with “Alaska” on the front, xtratuf rubber boots, and faded brown Carhartt bib overalls over a green t-shirt with holes in it. His southern accent was also familiar. I soon discovered that Knarley and Ken were living the frugal life in their storage unit and the back of an old Suburban, when they weren’t out and about or fishing. They used the public restroom and shower at the Harbormaster’s building.

My first fishing trip with Knarley was an adventure. One evening I was visiting their manor, enjoying a beer or two, and they invited me to go along the next day. Working for city hall, I couldn’t take a weekday off, so I said that I could go the next Saturday. The next day I asked the harbormaster, aka Harbor Monster, if these guys were safe to go fishing with. True to his nature, the Harbor Monster’s first comment, with a big grin, was a question: “What’s a cheechako’s dream?” It was a rhetorical question, for he had a ready answer. “Two Texans, one under each arm.” We chuckled, then he said Knarley knew what he was doing, and had been doing it many years, and I should go since I might learn something, implying of course that I needed to learn something, even if it was from Texans. That afternoon I met them in the harbor when they returned from the day’s fishing and helped clean their catch.

Saturday morning, in Knarley’s little sixteen foot Lund, with a Hottotrotzu 45 horsepower tiller outboard, the three of us went to Adolph Point for halibut fishing. Going around the tip of Adolph Point, the change in temperature, the chill, felt like entering a walk-in freezer. It’s a place where the cold air swoops down off the glaciers, on its way past Elf Fin and beyond to the Gulf of Alaska. It’s a place of twenty foot tide changes, boiling, swirling water, giant herring schools, many humpback whales, killer whales, seals, sea lions and lots of other marine life, including countless halibut. We timed our fishing during the slack between tide changes.

Those Texans taught me to get my gear in order before arrival at the fishing spot. They already each had a fish in the boat by the time I could get my hook wet. We limited out, two fish each. I partially redeemed myself.

On the way back the weather picked up. It was rough all the way, but the worst spot was the narrow pass between Cheech and Halibut Islands, where the wind and running tide opposed each other. The waves were about four feet, and appeared to be jumping up and down to greet us, each like a goblin or Kooshda under a gray sheet.

Standing waves like that are the worst because they have no rhythm, no regularity to judge how to navigate them. It’s a situation relatively easy to get into. The focus was wanting to get home, the conditions were worsening but not terrible. We got into the worst of it before knowing how bad it would get and it was too late to turn around. Going forward through the quarter mile stretch seemed the only practical option. This was the situation I feared and what prompted me to ask the Harbor Monster’s opinion. I had been in Alaska long enough to know to be very selective regarding who to go flying with and who to get in a boat with. This is what will get a guy dead. This was the exact place where several young people had drowned when their skiff capsized. There is no way to swim ashore in these currents. The cold water just zaps a person.

Ken was in front, laying low on the floor, rain jacket hood over his face to shed the salt spray. I had to watch, but I got low too, like I would in a canoe running rapids. A sixteen foot boat is tiny in this scenario. The motor sputtered and darn near quit running. Knarley had to hand pump the priming bulb on the gas line between the tank and the motor, all the while navigating those Kooshda hopping like standing waves.

It’s something one never forgets. Every time we go through that pass between the islands I remember those hopping waves. The guests and I  call Knarley Captain and defer to his judgment. He has a much bigger boat now, but that is small assurance of safety if bad judgment prevails. He’s remained very consistent with his safety precautions, the first of which is to avoid bad weather when boating. Since that first trip, the Captain acquired a marine radio for keeping up with the latest sea and weather conditions.

Of course this story is often repeated around the evening campfire, each time with different embellishments. Now that he’s retired he shows no outward signs of his former self as a professor. I accuse him of going feral when he comes to Alaska. Knarley is the kind of guy who has many friends, and that’s because he is a friend. He is a natural fisherman, skilled boatman and host. Since that first adventure, throughout summers, many Texas friends, up to four at a time, have joined us for an Alaska experience at our summer fish camp in Delian.

Knarley arrives in Delian each spring while a little snow is still on the ground and migrates south each fall after the first snow, termination dust, on the surrounding mountain tops.

Saltlick Cove is a place where I used to put out subsistence lines to catch Halibut, and where Knarley’s son caught a large Halibut. One evening, as they settled in on the boat and Knarley was cooking dinner, his son decided to jig a little off the bow with a salmon rod. He hooked the large halibut right away, and it took well over two hours to get it in the boat. Of course the event spoiled the dinner and the camping trip. It didn’t seem to occur to them to just release the fish. To keep it from spoiling, they picked up anchor and came back to Delian. They called me on their cell phone about midnight, to come down to the harbor and help them with the fish. We took pictures, and filleted, and got to the house about 2:00 am, and I had to go to work the next day.

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