My first view of the Pacific came after driving through fire. If you’ve been following the news, you know about the wildfires that are blanketing California in a thick haze of smoke. On Highway 299, for pretty much the entire length, the sun barely peeks through and the high parts of the peaks turn invisible. You can smell the world burning. And then, just before the coast, the breezes off the ocean kick in and the sky clears, showing blue all the way to the water.
And then it’s there, laid out in front of you. The biggest thing on Earth, gently snuggling up to California.
And this is where my Uncle Tony makes his home.
He’s a different kind of guy, my uncle. He’s been in this part of the world for over forty years, working pretty much that entire time as a union carpenter. The last time I visited him, five years ago, he was on the brink of retirement.
“If I’m working a day past my sixty-second birthday, you can shoot me,” he said then.
He didn’t work a day past then, and now he’s enjoying his retirement.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” he says.
“It not just about looking pretty?”
“No. You gotta work at it. You have to fill your days. If your day isn’t complete, you have nobody to blame but yourself.”
Tony’s good at making his days complete. Every morning he exercises, then studies Spanish for an hour, followed by an hour of Spanish television. Then he gets on with whatever project he’s working on. At some point in the day, he takes a nice long hike. He cooks his meals, eats from his garden, goes out clam digging and crabbing whenever he can. He has no computer, no cell phone, no answering machine on his landline. He built the house he lives in, and he builds his world from the inside out. It’s a good life, and he enjoys it. It’s also the kind of life that, if you’re on the road for a couple weeks, it’s very nice to fall into.
Tony and the Boston Whaler.
It’s easy to be wasteful on the road. Motion alone keeps you from accumulating anything, and you don’t have to look at any mess you make for long. I try to be conscious of this, but being around Tony throws it into sharp focus. One of my favorite things about Tony is that he simply does not waste anything. Not even time. He drives an old Buick that he’s had for over 30 years, and his crabbing boat is a 42 year-old Boston Whaler that belonged to my grandfather (his father). He got it a new motor a few years ago when the old motor finally reached a point beyond repair, and he just finished a project of re-upholstering the cushions. I used to go out on that Whaler with my grandfather when I was a kid. Now, on the other side of the country, and with a one-day fishing permit tucked into my shirt pocket, I was going out with my uncle to catch dinner.
On the water.
The traps Tony uses are rings lined with mesh, with a second mesh-lined ring in the center where you can tuck away the bait. Our bait was chicken, but almost anything works. Crabs aren’t picky. The crab we were after is called Rock Crab. They’re all over Humboldt Bay and they’re never out of season because most people don’t want them. Too much work for less meat than the more highly prized Dungeness Crabs, which won’t be in season until November. As a result we had the bay all to ourselves, except for one seal that checked us out until we hauled up our first batch of Rock Crab. Then he gave us a look like, Seriously? Rock Crab? Screw you guys. And off he went.
Our system was pretty simple. Bait four traps, drop them on a line on the edge of the channel markers, about twenty yards apart. When the fourth one is dropped, swing back around, haul up the first one, re-bait the trap, drop it again, pick up the next trap.
There’s a technique for hauling up the traps. You want to be right on top of them when you start pulling so none of the crabs spill out over the side. This can be hard to judge because of the currents moving things around, so the best time to go crabbing is within an hour of a low or high tide, when the currents are at their calmest. I hauled up the first trap and there were about a dozen critters inside. We dropped them on the deck and started sorting.
A full trap. The purple ones are Dungeness Crabs, which we threw back.
You don’t want to keep everything you catch. And, in fact, you can’t. There are size limits on crabs. If they don’t meet a certain measurement across their shell, you have to throw them back. There are different size restrictions for Rock and Dungeness Crabs, but Tony doesn’t take anything unless it meets the Dungeness size requirements, even though the requirements are about 30 percent larger than those for Rock Crab. When the trap comes down, it’s time to start sorting.
Getting the crabs sorted quick is ideal, because they’ll start embedding themselves in the mesh and you have to get them untangled without getting pinched (which, I’m assured, hurts like hell). The best system is to grab them by their legs or their butt (crabs don’t have butts, but you get the idea) and toss them over the side, little ones first. Some of the crabs will leave the trap and start moving around the deck, which is actually better because they have less to grab onto when you try to pick them up. Unless, of course, they get a hold of the fuel line. I mention this because one of the crabs nearly pulled this move off, and if he’d severed the fuel line, we would have been dead in the water with a crab laughing at us. And that’s just undignified.
Once all the small ones have been tossed back, it’s time to start measuring (we generally got one or two per trap that were worth measuring). If they meet the requirements, they go in the bucket for dinner. If not, back they go into the water. In one trap, we had a crab that was fit for dinner pull a pretty brilliant escape. As I was throwing back a small crab, the big one reached out a claw, grabbed the smaller crab’s leg just as I was throwing it, and hitched a ride back to the ocean.
“You got to admire that,” said Tony.
Measuring the crab.
In total, with eight traps set, we caught four crabs. About what we expected, and not bad for 90 minutes of work.
We took the Rock Crab home, cooked them up, and got to cracking away. There’s a lot of cartilage in those boys, and you have to fight for some of the meat. But once you get to the meat, it’s as good as any crab I’ve ever had, and it couldn’t be any fresher. I found it hard to believe that people didn’t want these, as tasty as they were.
“Some people don’t want to do that much work,” said Tony.
I figure that I’ve fallen into that category of people who didn’t want to do that much work at various times in my life. Maybe it’s just that I’m older now. More likely, it’s just that I spent some time around Tony. There’s nothing more likely to make you work harder than being around somebody who works hard. Even at retirement.