HARRISON “SMITTY” SMITH passed across the bar on Oct. 25, 2012. He fished and wrote poetry since he was a small child. He learned that a simple poem could earn him special favors with his mother. He eventually became a commercial salmon troller in Southeast Alaska and often wrote topical poems during long dry spells on the fishing grounds. He delighted the fleet by reading them over the radio. Smitty also submitted many poems to the Alaska Fisherman's Journal. When the Fisher Poet's Gathering started in 1998, he was contacted to participate and quickly became a favorite, bringing many laughs to the the crowd. He performed every year at the annual event through 2009. As his health waned, the chaos of the event was too much for him, so in 2010 and 2011 he only appeared at the Sunday final mic, much to the delight of his many fans. He was dearly loved, and will me missed. His wife, Lorrie Haight, has self-published a book of his poetry available from Floating Press, 360-642-8090. Smooth seas, Smitty!
John Elliott's Tribute to Smitty at the 2013 Gathering.
Video courtesy of Brad Wartman, 2013.
Video courtesy of Brad Wartman, 2013.
Here's what it's like on the Fairweather Grounds when the air is crisp and clear.
Fishing forty miles offshore and the foothills disappear
Beneath the ocean surface and all that's left to show
Is a mountain range, clean and white: solid ice and snow.
Knife edged drifts and shadowed crags, the highest peak of all
Is mighty Mount Fairweather: fifteen thousand plus feet tall.
It's looking o're me in silence yet it seems to say,
"This is the place where you belong and this is where you'll stay."
I have no sense of distance, could I extend my hand and seek
To feel the wispy vapor that crowns the lofty peak.
Or touch the sculptured snow fields and chasms bold abrupt
Where sharp and stern, in black contrast, the jagged rocks erupt.
It's hard to take my eyes away, but there are fish to be caught.
Can it be true this land was once for seven million bought?
Yet, I think this was too great a monetary fee,
'Cause I've paid not a penny and it all belongs to me.
Harrison "Smitty" Smith
June 9, 1026 to October 26, 2012
A bronze plaque with Smitty’s poem, “Mount Fairweather”, will be placed in Sitka, AK, his home fishing port. In leu of flowers, memorials my be made to the Harrison “Smitty” Smith memorial fund at Key Bank, PO Box 559, Long Beach, WA 98631, to assist with the plaque.
Crick Robber Gray
I went to a garden party. I washed my hands and face.
Shed fishing duds for city clothes. I sure felt out of place.
I made attempts at conversation with the gathered folks.
Smiled weakly at their cliches and chuckled at their jokes.
Trapped in these surroundings, far from self-assured,
Flowers shrubs and gardens so neatly manicured.
Coming to this party was not of my choosing.
But I felt obligated and that ruled out refusing
The invite from the widow of my long-time fishing friend,
Who now was resting peacefully with no more nets to mend.
To fit in with this party, I’d at least have to try
And find something with which I could identify.
So to the center of the garden I was somehow drawn,
Where my old friend’s fishing boat was perched upon the lawn.
Now just a decoration, stripped of ropes and lines,
Ooed and Ahed at by city folks all dressed up to the nines.
There was no mistaking the grace of line and flare,
Despite attempts to mask its state of disrepair.
Calking seams a gaping, a plank or two were sprung.
Some stainless rigging still shown bright where a fuchsia basket hung.
And the garden keepers notion of a decoration quaint,
The hull now hideous in blue and yellow paint.
A far cry from its former home of river-bend and bay,
Where it proudly wore the color of Crick Robber Gray.
When this boat came off the grid, beginning each new season,
It bore this certain color, and for a darned good reason.
There was a chance that it would drift a few feet off the line,
And have production interrupted by a needless fine.
Because it fished all sorts of weather and on a foggy day,
There was a great advantage to Crick Robber Gray.
Though paint was necessary for the wood’s protection,
Also necessary was freedom from detection.
But discovery now no longer determined by the glint
Or a practiced eye aided by a 7-power squint.
Now all is revealed by loran and radar’s cathode ray.
Put into obsolescence - use of Crick Robber Gray.
Though times have changed, selecting paint from force of habit,
A fisherman sees that familiar can and is likely still to grab it.
‘Cause a fishing boat is special, built for work not play,
Tradition dictates color, that’s Crick Robber Gray.
The garden party’s over. I said my goodbye
To my old friend’s fishing boat a tear came to my eye.
And as I took just one last glance, yellow paint had peeled away.
I saw a few remaining flakes of Crick Robber Gray.
The Ballad of the 40-Mile Bank
Here’s a true story as it was told to me,
By Ferris Saunders of his terror on the sea.
He’d married a lovely Finn girl. Nora was his wife,
Whose family’s long tradition was bound by fishing life.
And in Ilwaco’s harbor, on the fishing float
Lay her father, Anir’s, double-ender trolling boat.
Built nearby on the Willapa in the Louderback shipyard
For this dedicated Finn with plans to fish it hard
And provide a decent living with the money he would earn.
Named for his daughter, Nora painted on bow and stern.
For catching fish and seamanship, Anir was hard to beat.
Known as a highliner throughout the fishing fleet.
The fame of his wife’s father, Ferris held in abject awe.
He hoped he might adopt some traits of his new father-in-law,
Who gained respect and stature by heroic deed not luck,
A tough act to follow by one who drives a truck.
Ferris was determined to shed his image of landlubber.
He’d go out fishing, least look the part, in oilskins and rubber.
So the Nora took on ice and Anir topped the tank.
Ferris kissed his wife goodby and was off to the 40-mile bank.
The ocean had an oily swell as yet no sight of sun,
Gurdies humming constantly the fish came one by one.
Ferris watched in amazement at Anir’s deadly aim.
Lots more than meets the eye to this fishing game.
Ferris lent a willing hand descending in the hatch.
He was learning lots of things, like icing down the catch.
When he came back on deck it still was early morn,
But now the ocean’s surface was covered with popcorn.
Bucking into wind-chop and increasing wind blown spray,
Building swell and mounting seas changed perspective on the day.
Now the Nora turned about and had to troll before it.
Anir struggled with the gear and to his credit bore it
Ferris soon realized that there was more to learn,
Like dealing with the ocean as it slopped o’er the stern.
By weather’s curse, the seas got worse and conditions spoiled,
And so the gear was hauled aboard and all the leaders coiled.
Things deteriorated by the minute, a not too pleasant ride.
Ferris held on with a steely grip and followed Anir back inside.
The Nora pitched and rolled against the ocean’s might,
As waves broke o’er the wheelhouse and dimmed the cabin light.
Cascades of green water intensified his fear.
Incessant howling of the wind foretold the end was near.
Crashing waves and moaning wind, the only sounds they heard.
Strangely though, from Anir’s lips came not a single word.
Perhaps this very silence was to shield him from alarm.
Though he got little comfort in the face of certain harm.
Ferris now was sorry that he’d tried this fishing life,
Not only for himself, but also for his wife
Who’s already lost one husband in the battle of St. Lo.
Now a second to be torn from her in a 40-mile bank blow.
With knuckles white and jaw clenched tight, he huddled in the gloom,
Powerless and hopeless, he awaited certain doom.
Just observing Anir, he seemed worried, too.
Little consolation though, ‘cuz what could Anir do?
Yes, this was the end in coming not long now.
Anit clutched the radio with a tense and furrowed brow.
Ferris guessed that Anir would make a desperate try,
But who could ever find them here? It was their time to die.
The only sound, save that of storm, was static from the speaker,
As Anir struggled with the knobs, Ferris’ will for life grew weaker.
This last resort, though a noble try, the end would not be long,
But then the radio speaker burst forth with a cowboy song!
The strumming of a guitar transformed the somber space.
Anir leaned back and listened with a smile upon his face.
The dismal mood was now lit up by country western tunes.
Anir broke out the Red Bear and began to polish spoons.
Ferris was elated seemed as though he’d cheated death.
It seemed almost forever he was still letting out his breath
Reflecting back upon that day with all he did and saw,
Not only had he a great wife but one helluva father-in-law.
All Ve Can Do is Yust Go Forth and Back
Gloom descends upon the fishing fleet.
All attempts to catch a salmon are ending in defeat.
Is there some kind of reason why fishing is so slow?
I’ll call Ryder on the Victory. He will surely know.
His expected answer will mean a lot to me,
If only because my misery will then have company.
So I call Ryder on my old double sideband set.
And wait for an answer, he’s never failed me yet.
Ryder offeres no solution or even any clue.
He says, “Yust go forth and back. Dat’s all ve can do.”
So I turn my boat around and make another tack,
Considering my options, I yust go forth and back.
Problems of fishing apply to you and me.
So I apply to those of life, Ryder’s philosophy.
Resigned now to our fate on earth, alas and alack
Dat’s all ve can ever do, yust go forth and back.
The Keyhole King
This is a fishing story, and a good place to start
Is a little, tiny spot on the bathymetric chart,
That denotes a sea-mount or subterranean knoll,
And because of it’s peculiar shape it’s known as the Keyhole.
Disruption of the ocean’s flow, fits the story telling
As the Keyhole is unique in nutrient up-welling.
A multitude of sea life therein congregates,
Dependent on this fact to fill their dinner plates.
Clouds of krill on plankton feed they in turn attract
The whales who frolic in their midst and cascade them off their back.
'Mongst hooligans and needlefish, the cod and bass cavort.
Big that eat the little in the game of food-chain sport.
All the hungry critters coming here from miles
Gorging on the herring and rockfish juveniles.
Bait fish mark the surface, seabirds swoop and dive,
Twist them headfirst in their beaks and gulp them down alive.
And salmon, too of course, are not to be left out.
Included is a great Chinook that this story is about.
As a habitat for salmon, this place lacks not a thing,
And this is the story of that Keyhole King.
For it was common knowledge throughout the trolling fleet
That conditions on this offshore spot were gonna have you beat.
Though you’d hook fish aplenty, sea lions would appear,
And with seeming pleasure rip them off the gear.
Not only these sea mammals, who eat but give no thanks,
But lines stripped clean by the fearsome jaws of elasmobrancks.
Now if you are the only boat, that adds to your despair.
There are no other fishermen the loss with which to share.
This tale’s also of a troller who fished this spot remote.
Most often on the Keyhole, he’d be the only boat.
He had a strong compulsion to continue there to troll,
Despite the known detractions out on the Keyhole.
This lone troller was my friend from school days of old,
And at Rose's bar in Pelican in confidence he told
With a look in his eyes, an expression that I read
As truth beyond all doubt, and this is what he said.
“Many years ago, and now please don’t laugh,
I brought up a salmon that I was too terrified to gaff.
In size it was gigantic and it stared my in the eye,
Then spit the hook and swam away, I swear and hope to die.
I pulled the spread aboard and impaled upon the hook,
Was a salmon scale that defied all learning by the book.
"You may think I’ve lost it, or this an hallucinated tale,
Just let me show you something. Take a look at this scale.”
He reached into his pocket and withdrew an old watch-case,
Flipped the cover open and put a magnifier to my face.
The dollar-sized scale, it’s rings enlarged by the glass
Made mockery of everything I’d learned in fishery class.
Where most salmon’s lives end in just six years,
This was unbelievable. “Rosie, two more beers.”
The growth-rings that I counted gave me cause to gasp.
The number and the size was near impossible to grasp.
But seeing is believing and this broke every rule
Accepted as cold hard fact at the U Dub fishery school.
That’s where we had met and pursued our educations.
And for breaks from school we each had different destinations.
Far north mountains beckoned me. That’s where I would go.
My friend always traveled south to sunny Mexico.
After graduation and the final test,
We gave each other nicknames in a friendly jest.
I called him Baja and he dubbed me Saint Elias.
Then we set off to see how the game of life would try us.
Being alike in many ways and in some not the same,
He bought himself a troller and I took a job with Fish and Game.
Though we’d gone our different ways, friendship wasn’t lost.
Some pursuits in common and often our paths crossed.
Now he put me on this story that he’d just told, then,
I asked if he’d ever seen that giant fish again.
“Yeah. Five years ago when I met with near disaster.
I hooked that Keyhole King once more and he came up faster
Than I could wind the gurdy, and he brought the lead up to the top.
He circled all my other lines and fouled them in my prop.
"I was thus disabled sixty miles from land,
Propulsion bound up solid with a snarl of seven-strand.
Drifting helplessly, and making matters worse,
The Keyhole King was taunting me. I flung at him a curse.
All the while on deck, as I rigged a jury sail,
He drenched me with a torrent by his mighty tail.
"At last he swam away as I sailed near the shore.
He hadn’t seen the last of me, and to myself I swore
That when I got untangled and repaired everything,
I’d go back out there and kill that Keyhole King.”
That’s what my friend told me regarding his profession,
And killing that mighty fish had become his sole obsession.
As attention is diverted, I lost touch with my friend.
But I became concerned at the season’s end
Days went by and then came a story strange.
Related by a king crab crew passing the Fairweather Range.
They’d come across a troller in obvious distress.
Half sunk and sinking, the rigging in a mess.
Waist-deep on deck the skipper stood, cursing and a damning
A great monster salmon a circling and a ramming.
Mast and spar and poles, with halyards hanging limply.
A bad situation bode the end to put it simply.
Planks split and sprung, bulwarks inward bending.
The once proud trolling boat was rapidly descending.
What took place next was a shock and a complete surprise.
The crew looked at each other and could not believe their eyes.
The captain waded ‘crost the deck with gaff gripped by the wood.
He leapt upon the salmon’s back and defiant there he stood.
He ignored the crabber’s crew and the life-ring that they cast.
With gaff sunk in the sounding beast he cried out, “Avast!”
They searched the scene but found no trace of man, nor fish nor boat,
Save for a tattered logbook in a plastic bag afloat.
They brought it into Pelican where came from near and far,
The disbelieving curious gathered at Rose's Bar.
For this there’s no explanation, but I’ll take a stab.
He’d signed the logbook Baha, spelled backwards, that’s Ahab.
The Screaming Eagle
From topmost branch of tallest tree a critical eye is viewing me.
Anytime I cast a glance, escaping notice? Not a chance.
At anchor or tied to the dock, on shore afoot by stump or rock.
Seen from his mountain pinnacle, his piercing stare is stern and cynical.
Observing me, the eagle’s eye, knowing that I cheat and lie.
No matter how remote the place, crime is noted with scowling face,
For sure that penetrating glare is focused on me everywhere.
Fruitless thus, to hide my thieving. Myself, not him, I am deceiving.
In darkness, too, he watches still from green side of the dollar bill.
Swindle or fraud, he’s there to call it. Ill-gotten gain inside my wallet.
When more than my share I grab, with his left foot, arrows at me stab.
His right foot grasps peaceful olive bough. Shames my part in a barroom row.
Guilt instead of pride I feel midst image of my country’s seal.
It’s obsolescence also joining. Silver I’m no longer coining.
Lost symbol adds to his disgust. Engraved the words, IN GOD WE TRUST.
Trust without a silver backing. Trust in my fellow man is lacking.
Common metals that I mint. Unsound bank notes that I print.
Demand of interest by the lender. My values based on legal tender.
So typical of how I measure wealth in terms of self-made treasure.
Blinded to authentic worth. Destructive of this bountiful earth.
My folly has been long observed. Receiving what I’ve long deserved.
I listen to his screaming word. Chastised by my nation’s bird.