Submitted by Shannon Currie
The sound of the birds waking was the signal to leave. In silence, my father would rise from the couch, collect his mesh-back baseball hat and tackle box and nod for me to carry down the lifejackets. Kids always wear a lifejacket was my father’s strict rule. No exceptions.
On our way through the workshop, he’d pull down the long poles and hand them over with a look that said, You’re sure you can manage? That would be the mission of my rising adolescence carried into adulthood: proving to my father that I could.
The sun not scheduled to peek out over the horizon for another hour, I made out on the winding stone path to the dock, steering through pitch dark with the long poles, all the while praying not to butt their ends against a hapless cedar. Butting the ends inspired a sharp look from my father; one was not managing.
The path opened to the modest dock and even more modest tin boat with the single outboard engine. My father’s heavy footfall on the dock would cause the rusty hinges to creak and wooden boards to scrape against the tin siding, but otherwise it was only the din of the waking birds that fluttered through the silence of morning.
This was the ritual. The silence being a defining feature. Only in relaying the story of early morning fishing trips with my father as an adult did I realize how strange the understood agreement of silence was and how largely it played in this ritual. No part of the early morning routine was governed by language: getting dressed, boiling the water for oatmeal, sitting on the couch with the window ajar waiting for birdsong; all of these actions were performed in silence, save for the gentle hmm of the stove top light, the only light permitted at this early hour.
The little tin pot bailer scraped against the metal bottom as I would relieve the boat of all the lake water it had let seep through its seams. This was my job as dad would pull out the minnow traps from the shallow part of the inlet he’d submerged days prior. Live bait, that was the key.
The large bait pail and tackle box would be secured safely under the seats. The buoys untied from the side and jammed behind the old wooden oars kept for emergencies, then the launch would commence. The launch was my favourite part. Watching my father wrestle with the choke of that old outboard engine was a kind of voyeuristic magic. It took a lot of force to pull on that choke; the motion looked like the swung punch of a bar room fight, but in reverse. I would watch dad repeat this brutal action over and over again, imagining just how strong his right hook must be; the choke would whip back into the engine with only a sputter or cough, never a sustained whir. This could go on for a while. As seems evident, my father rarely spoke and certainly never swore, but if the battle went on long enough with that engine it seemed to me that he’d forget he wasn’t alone and let loose an exasperated damn, which, to a child, gives rise to unparalleled delight; witnessing a parent behave badly, there’s nothing like it! When he finally got that engine whirring, he’d plop down into his seat in the stern, wiping the sweat from his brow on his long-sleeve shirt and grip that engine arm with his calloused hand, every gear change an execution of force stronger than the last.
The little tin boat would putt out gently as we made our way out of the bay. My father’s eyes would scan the other cottages as we passed them; his assessments striking me as more of a neighbourhood watch than out of envy. As we passed the last boat house and the mouth of the bay opened, dad would grip the arm even harder, the engine spitting and whirring faster like it would give out any minute. My bow seat would tip up and the foamy white wake would break beautifully behind my father’s grip of the old engine. The wind would whip my ponytail into my face, dad would secure his baseball cap down tighter, and I’d watch his eyes and the corners of his mouth squint upwards against the wind; his expression resembling a pain-filled smile.
Some mornings he’d put down the anchor in Pot Crook others at the Big Rock, where my grandfather had welded in a metal marker a few decades earlier so as to warn foreign boats against the notorious finger shoals that make up Hay Bay. My grandfather had long since passed by the time I was going out for fishing trips, but dad would remind me that these were grandpa’s fishing spots. When we dropped anchor I knew we were in a sort of communion with him.
Fishing is a pretty boring activity. It’s all sitting and waiting, which to a child (and even now as a restless adult) is counter intuitive. As the sun rose over the horizon, becoming increasingly hotter, I’d keep my eyes on my red and white bobber and daydream about growing up, moving to a big city and having adult adventures as the silent hours marched on. Dad, who aggressively rebelled against heat, would peel off each layer, wiping the sweat off his face and neck. My father is a svelte man, especially in my childhood, but at the slightest rise in the mercury he’ll perspire like a man three times his girth.
It would be hours after the sun finally came up that he would speak. Sometimes it was a story about grandpa, or a memory of his childhood. It was never conversational, but more parable. It often made me wonder what he had been thinking of to inspire the non sequitur. While he spoke very little, I imagined his thoughts were deep and continuous, the currents of dark water.
As an adult looking back on these early morning fishing trips I can’t help but think this is a perfect encapsulation of my father’s being. From the refusal to turn on any more light than the stovetop bulb to the rusting choke, the tin bailer that was beat up and difficult to use, the involved process of catching live bait, the layers of clothing to fight against in the glaring sun, it was all difficult and I realize in my older years that it was all by choice. That is my father’s complicated joy; overcoming the difficult.
By ten o’clock the sun would be beating down hard, reflecting off the tin floor, torturing the poor minnows in the bucket who’d lived through the lottery to see another day. My father would bring in his pole; I’d do the same. He’d give the tin boat a quick bailing, bring up the anchor, and start up the assault on the engine choke.
Skimming over the waves, the wind whipping up my hair and making me giggle, I’d look to my dad, his eyes and mouth crinkled against the wind, that familiar look of effort that was perhaps his outward show of happiness.