Ships Ashore

When I was growing up 200 miles from the ocean, my strongest memory of the coast was a rainy spring break when we came down to the beach. I remember walking around the Ilwaco boatyard looking at the old trawlers and dreaming.

Out of the water, ships loom over you, paint maybe chipping and their brightwork weathered, but still they somehow promise adventure. The ragged bones of old ships are like kneeling giants above you. They seem full of stored kinetic energy, balanced as impossibly on wood blocks and spindly jack stands.

I remember dreaming of taking one of these old boats and making it into a home on the water. Such a vagabond life, roving the 70 percent of the earth covered with oceans, was a seductive dream to a small town boy with a river at his front door.  My brother and I had dreams of living on Marine Drive houseboats and careers as airline pilots. A gypsy life in a big world.

Yet, a little taste of experience can snuff out the ambitions of ignorance in a 14 year old boy.

In college I went up to Alaska to earn money. Between herring and salmon, we were shut down and a group of us hounded the foreman for jobs to keep us working. Otherwise, we’d end up deep in debt to the company store by the time salmon season finally arrived.

The Naknek Country Club is what we called ourselves. We had occupied a vacant room in the dorm with wool-blanket carpet and blacked out windows. We mixed “punch” with ice from the freezer house walls in a plastic tote. We got a reputation for working hard at any job they would throw at us.

This included painting a boiler while it was still running -- the lead would run out of the paint before it could dry, and cleaning up a mountain of discarded boat batteries that leaked acid onto our raingear. Our biggest job, however, was cleaning up the 82 foot fishing tender Sable.

The Sable had gone down with both engines running and filled with a slime of diesel. Hauled up on a beach near the South Naknek cannery, it was our job to get her clean before she could be inspected by the Coast Guard and hopefully refloated. She was an World War II wood hull minesweeper - converted to a fish tender that took salmon from smaller boats on the fishing ground of Bristol Bay.

She was hauled up on the beach and completely out of the water with the low tide. Shipwrights were already working on the hole on the right side of her bow. Someone had taken a Sharpie and changed her name to Dis-Sable-D.

Clothed in an absorbent white bunny suit, we scraped the oil slime off the walls and floors, out of cabinets and every conceivable surface. It had worked its way all over down below. Finally, we drew straws for who would crawl into the bilge.
On the Sable, the bilge was a narrow trench on either side of the keel -- the lowest part of the ship where water is collected. The trench ran the length of the ship and was maybe 20 inches deep and two feet wide. Here the slime was thick and a little green, the diesel smell strong.

I drew the short straw.

I had to squeeze in on my chest, the space so tight that my shoulders couldn’t move. I used  an empty cat food tin to scrape up the slime and dump it into a plastic cottage cheese container.  When the container was full, they would pull me out by my ankles, my absorbent coveralls scraping the walls of the bilge clean like a human Q-tip.

Something about that job made me realize that these old boats probably had not only endless stories to tell, but an endless amount of work, as well.  

Through our efforts, the Sable was refloated in time for salmon season.

A year later, however, it burned to the water line and sank in Bristol bay.

The Sable’s fiery death was at least more dignified than the derelict vessels that die of neglect and sink at their moorings in harbors and rivers along the coast.

Large boats and ships have a lifecycle - they are sold from owner to owner and as they age, the sale price drops because they become more expensive to keep afloat. Their cheap price means they often end their lives in the hands of people with not enough financial resources to fix their problems, which leads to abandonment. Coastal states have established derelict vessel removal programs, but these efforts struggle to keep up with hundreds of ageing, abandoned boats.

Since that time, I still like to drive by the boatyard if I have a few minutes. I’ve talked with people who have brought old boats back to life -- people with more stubbornness and money than I ever possessed. I admire their dedication and I am always gladdened to see an old workboat being restored to functional condition. Best of all is when I boat I’ve watched progressively restored finally disappears from the Boat Yard.

Back in the water, I think, where she belongs.

Yet when I come home, it is to my old house -- 101 years old and still standing strong and bone dry in the winter mist. For an old house is like a ship at anchor, and our ambitions and sweat equity have been converted into restoring this leaking weatherbeaten ship into a warm home that will stay afloat in any storm.

When we bought this house 25 years ago, the roof leaked and the windows were broken, the paint was peeling off the cedar shingles. We spent weekends and evenings scraping and painting, repairing and replacing. It is solid now, and I count myself lucky to have been anchored here for so long. This ship has allowed me to raise a family and know they are going to be safe and dry no matter how strong the winds, or how deep the waters.

On a sunny spring day, I drive by the Ilwaco Boatyard to admire the hope and enterprise of the boats blocked up on the dry land. The yard is a hive of activity, repairs are underway, somewhere a Skill saw is screaming. Fresh white paint makes the old boats shine in the sun.

Old boats live to float and will do so if given even half a chance.


New Life

Daffodils are stubborn optimists.
They thrust their heads toward the sky when it is still frustratingly winter. A glancing sliver of sunlight between gunmetal clouds is enough to fill them with dreams of spring.
Too often their butter-yellow heads are bowed and battered by hail or snow.
Still they promise something in the thin light of winter days. Often they are too early to seem anything more than a cruel joke.
When the grass is not yet green, and the trees are still naked skeletons stark against the wool-filtered light, the rain slants sideways and swirls in the wind. From high branches, bald eagles stalk smelt running in the dull waters of Grays River.

For the past 25 years I’ve owned in an old house across the field from my father-in-law, Hank Nelson. Each year I’ve had the opportunity to watch new life amid the green fields of the Grays River Valley. Here, the Nelsons have raised polled Hereford cattle for four decades.
It often feels still winter-gripped when the first calf is born at Nelson Polled Herefords.
The house is 100 years old now, but boasts big windows looking out over the fields. Often the cows will find a little shelter against the blackberry bushes to have their calf, but we keep a keen eye for the bright white of their new faces.
It is best to catch a new calf on their first day of life, for they stand quickly after they are born, so their mothers can clean them off and warm them up. Within a day, they will be quick enough that catching them will be tricky without a rope or shepherd’s hook. Each calf is tagged with a bright yellow tag and they are given a number: the year of their birth, and the order of their birth in that year. Thus 1801 is the first calf of 2018 and so on.
The ear tag is like a pierced ear, the daffodil yellow makes it easy to determine if a calf has already been tagged as we walk through the fields.
Their mothers nose close to you while you are tagging them and giving them a little pro-biotic, but our polled Herefords are naturally hornless and are renowned for their gentle nature. Moreover, many of these cows were 4H show heifers in years past. My daughters still know them and call them by name.

Nature’s trick
It seems the weather gets better as the calves in the field become more numerous.
In truth, a warm early spring day sends a signal to the mothers that the time is best to bring new life into the world.
University of Arkansas researchers found that more spring calves are born when barometric pressure is high. Increasing barometric pressure discourages rain and helps ensure dryer weather. Animals take their cue from these weather changes to give their offspring a better chance at life.
Nature’s trick is to be born after the worst storms of winter, but early enough to grow strong and healthy before the next winter comes. The earliest-born calves might come on a dark day, but they may also have much longer to grow and thrive.
It doesn’t take long before the fields are filled with an entertaining herd of spry little calves that run with a gentle rocking motion and seem to weigh nothing in the face of gravity. They run at the slightest excuse and sometimes with no excuse at all. They race each other, they chase each other, they explore the world, pink little nose to pink little nose. They climb dirt piles to get a better look or play king of the mountain. They meet each other hours after birth and make fast friends.
Calf races are the best to watch, and we often stare captivated as the story plays out in front of us. One calf will get another started, another will nudge a socially awkward friend to join in, soon all of them will be running around the field, fearless, and in no direction at all.
Nearby an old babysitter cow might keep watch as their mothers graze a little further away, finding nutrition in the sugar-rich spring grass.

Life is a struggle
Spring here is a fickle thing. A cloudless day may be followed by a bone-chilling dark wind and soaking rain. Cold darkness following a glorious early spring day can snuff the feeble light of your hope for outdoor hikes and garden planning. Resigned, you tell yourself, “It is still only March,” and this realization makes summer seem so much further away.
We all have to live through the darkness of winter, and it is still winter yet.
Even if a day here or there is sunny.
No matter the buds on the trees and the iridescent clover lighting up the fields, we know well enough that there are months of wet and mud and struggle stretching out ahead.
The promise of new life keeps us going.
It is why new life is so prominent a symbol of the Easter season. In high latitudes, where winter is cold and freezing and sunlight a meager ration, most animals try to tie their reproduction to the promise of plenty that comes with the spring. Baby chicks are in the feed stores, new goats and lambs begin to appear in the fields of neighboring farms. New nests appear in the trees. Predator and prey, farm animal and wild — all adjust their evolutionary clocks to chime in the same season.
They do this not in celebration, but in resignation that life is not all sunshine, green grass and cloudless skies.
Life is a struggle. It is not as easy as a loping little calf in the field makes it look.
Yet maybe we can learn a little from the joy they bring to their first days.
Even in the pouring rain.


You can follow the all the new calf faces at @nelson_polledherefords on Instagram or at

On Running, Run On

The First Mile is a Liar
I am not fast.
In high school, I got the nickname “Fast Eddie” because I was a sprinter. Short distances, I guess I was pretty fast. Fast enough to go to state on relay teams and in the 200 meters.
However, it was well understood that I did not run far.
Once I was punished for being late to practice. My high school track coach knew the worst thing he could make me do was run long distance, so he signed me up for the 3,200 meters in a meet. So many of the other runners passed me — lapped me — that the officials tried to get me to quit so they could all turn off the lights and go home.
I kept running.
My senior year I was faster than ever until a knee injury cut my season short. The only time in four years that I didn’t qualify for state. That was the end of running as far as I was concerned. I rode my bike, went to college and forgot about running.
When I became a nurse, something changed.
After years of writing at a desk 60 hours a week, I was fat and out of shape. My biggest challenge was sitting on the couch for three days watching adventure races on TV.
This year I got to finally run with my mentor in nursing and running,
Col Wayne Van Hamme (ret) at right.
But nursing is a job where I’m on my feet 12 hours a day. I found myself working in a busy emergency department where many of the nurses around me competed in triathlons, marathons and Iron Man competitions, even though they were a good deal older than me.
They inspired me to challenge myself.
Like my father, I was a walker and hiker, a trudger. Even in my desk job days, I’d try to get out and walk around the fields to breathe the fresh air and think.
Yet I hadn’t run at all in two decades. 

Mistrust the first mile

I set my sights on the Great Columbia Crossing — a 10K run across the Astoria Bridge. It seemed so daunting. I set up a 3-mile course on the backroads near Rosburg, Washington, and started — slowly — training.
It’s been said that “the first mile is a liar: Don’t trust it.” This runner’s expression means that your body tells you all sorts of things to get you to quit, to turn back. If you can power through all the voices of doubt, you can keep going.
If you can keep going, you’ll feel better, not worse.
For the first mile, my feet hurt and my lungs burned, but once the endorphins kicked in, all was forgiven. The first mile of anything is a mountain of doubt you have to climb if you want a better view.
I found the more I ran, the better I felt. Not just healthier, but better. Exercise is meditation and stress relief. I downloaded audiobooks and podcasts so I’d look forward to running time, so I’d run longer.
Running in the cold rain is challenging, to say the least. On the other hand, it is good to get outdoors and pound out the miles despite the conditions and darkness and mist. It’s fun to learn to laugh when the rain blows sideways as you near the farthest point from home. You can even pretend you are in a commercial selling expensive athletic gear as you splash through the puddles.
The first mile will try to seduce you with songs of comfort, but challenging yourself is uncomfortable by its very nature.
I survived that first Columbia Crossing in 2011, and kept running.

Running for me

Early on, my wife, Amy, started running with me. We took the girls to run local races, and they have carried on into track and cross country. When we started, Amy and I would have to run slow so the girls could keep up, now they sprint ahead and leave us behind.
We especially like running the Shamrock run in Portland as a family, where we find ourselves in a great crowd of people, all shapes and sizes, moving on a chilly spring day. Most are not fast, but they are out there, and they are moving. Sometimes just putting your running shoes on and getting outdoors on a gray day … that can be as challenging as that first mile.
It was Amy’s idea to run our first half-marathon, something I could never have imagined. Since her instigation, I have completed the Battle to the Pacific half marathon three times. I’ve decided that it is my favorite distance. I’ve discovered that everyone has to find their own pace and their own race. Everyone has to create their own challenges and goals.
I am not fast.
My goal is usually to not be dead last in whatever race I run, but I’m getting better.
“Better” is both a goal and ruler of relative success. It doesn’t matter how or what you’re doing, so long as you feel yourself getting better than before.
This month is my 49th birthday.
To celebrate my 50th year on the planet, I’m challenging myself to run four half marathons before my 50th birthday, which will get me a little more than 50 miles (not counting training and hiking). It’s just a little way to remind myself I’m still alive, and in better shape than I was a decade ago.
It probably doesn’t seem all that impressive a feat. After all, I have friends that run 50 miles in one go.
But I’m not running for you and I’m not competing with them.
I’m not competing with anyone.
I’m only running for me.

Ed Hunt is a registered nurse and former newspaper and magazine writer. He lives in Grays River, Washington. His book “The Huckleberry Hajj” is available on Amazon. 

The Heart At Center Court

It is dark and raining sideways.

Yet, there is warmth and life inside the gym.

Honey colored wood glows and shines under the lights high above. Neighbors align themselves on long wooden benches close enough to visit and catch up, but most eyes are down on the floor where boys and girls run about in summer shorts and high top shoes on cold winter nights.

Basketball knits little towns together.

Invented during a snowy Massachusetts December in 1891, Dr. James Naismith’s game was a way to keep restless athletes conditioned during the winter months. His superiors at the YMCA International Training School requested a game that was not too rough, would keep track and field athletes in shape without getting injured and could be played within a standard size gym.

The gymnasium came first, believe it or not.

It’s hard to imagine a high school gym without basketball hoops, but I’ve been in some of those old gyms where the out-of-bounds line was just inches from the wall - built in the days before fast breaks and diving saves were likely to take a player careening out of bounds.   

Originally, things were a little different -- there was no dribbling, only passing. The first game was nine players on each side.

Yet even the first public game reportedly drew a few hundred people to watch.  

Spread by the promotion of the YMCA, the game took root in the still largely agricultural United States. It spread to high schools outside of cities and found a special place in the hearts of little towns all over the Pacific Northwest.

It required only 5 players, so small town schools could easily field a team. The equipment needs were not great - originally two peach baskets and a soccer ball - replaced in 1906 with metal hoops and nets and a “spalding ball.”

At a time when the railroad was the fastest way across the country, basketball spread to every tiny town with a gymnasium -- and towns built gyms so they could play it. Girls basketball developed not long after that first YMCA game. The “gentle” wintertime sport being well suited to the farm girls of the Pacific Northwest.

As Rachel Bachman wrote for the Oregonian in 2010, when Naismith was still alive and coaching in the 1920 and 1930s -- Oregon girls high school basketball had become so popular that some schools had two teams. In towns with just a few dozens students in the whole school, two-thirds might play the sport.
As Louise Leininger, who played for Mosier High near Hood River in the mid-1930s told Bachman, basketball was a natural for the resilient girls of rural Oregon.
"We were farm girls," said Leininger. "We were hoisting boxes with fruit in it and things like that."
A backlash against the “unladylike” sport grew in the cities after World War I, but girls basketball hung on longer in rural areas. The traveling basketball teams -- and the fans that followed -- provided a vital social outlet in the 1930s.
When I was growing up in small town surrounded by other small towns -- we had to combine with neighboring high school just to get enough players for a football team,

Yet, when basketball season came, each tiny school could find enough boys and girls to put on the court. Rivalries grew up over generations with the next town over.

Often, schools like Wishram or Klickitat might only come up with 5 players -- so that if someone fouled out, they had to play one short. I recall one game in Wishram’s tiny railroad town gym where they played the whole fourth quarter with three against our five -- and nearly won.

I myself never played. Too nearsighted to see the basket, too vain to wear my glasses back then.

Yet in little towns, basketball has its own gravity. For a couple games a week, the gym is the place to be. I was in the pep band, and then the boys team manager just so I could still be a part of it.

I’ve never thought of myself as a fan of basketball. I’ve never watched a full game on TV.

Yet there is something different about watching the game in person.

I moved to Naselle during the Lyle Patterson era - a time when the little town was well known on the far side of the state for consistently great basketball. Patterson was hired as a football coach and math teacher at first, then took over basketball duties when the position opened up. Over the next 32 years he took little Naselle to the state so many times that they planned the school calendar around state tournament.

His 623-228 record is the fourth best all time in the state of Washington and includes a mountain of district and league titles as well as five appearances in the championship game.  After Naselle he helped Knappa win back to back championships in Oregon.

What’s fascinating about Patterson’s success is that in such a small school, you have to make due with the kids you have from year to year. Short kids, tall kids, fast kids and slow kids -- to consistently come up with 30 years of winning from such uncertain talent speaks volumes.

Yet rural towns where the winters are dark and inhospitable were fertile ground for basketball to take hold and rich soil to cultivate new players year after year. Every kid probably had a hoop up in the hay barn where they could practice their shots and imagine high school glory.

Basketball stars could be discovered in lower grades, their talent followed by a community. Basketball so easily became THE thing with the ability to draw neighbors out from their homes to sit side by side on uncomfortable benches amid the staccato and the shouts, the squeaks of sneakers and the cheers and groans of the crowd.

The amazing journalist David Halberstam probably wrote all this much better years ago. Examining Indiana’s fascination with the sport in a 1985 article for Esquire Magazine, he observed:

“Small towns, villages often, neither grew nor died; they just stayed there in suspended between life and death. In an atmosphere like that, where so little meant so much, there was only one thing that male and often female children did, and they did it every day and every night, and that was play basketball. It was a sport for the lonely - a kid did not need five or six friends, he did not even need one. There was nothing else to do, and because this was Indiana, there was nothing else anyone even wanted to do.”

Yet if the culture of small town basketball developed because of its accessibility, it became a part of the small town community because adults “needed to see it, needed to get into a car and drive to another place to hear other voices” - rituals essential to fending off the loneliness of long hard winters.

“There were few ways for ordinary people to meet one another. Guests and visitors were rare. There was church, and there was basketball, gyms filled with hundreds, indeed thousands of people, all excited, all passionate. In a dark and lonely winter, the gym was a warm, noisy and well-lit place.”

Now I sit in the Lyle Patterson gym and watch my 13 year old daughter who has come to love this sport. I sit with my wife, who like me, never played high school basketball, but still loves to watch the games.  

Maybe eventually the rise of TV and the internet will one day starve small town basketball of this community function. After all, participation in all high school team sports is now declining for varied and uncertain reasons. Fewer kids may tolerate getting back late from far-flung towns with schoolwork due the next morning.Ironically, too much professionalization may be hurting participation  -- year ‘round leagues may be making sports less attractive to the casual athlete with no expectation to play beyond the high school level. Other opportunities, rising cost to play and cuts to school sports programs may also erode away at high school sports.  

As in all things, the future is uncertain.

In the meantime, I sit next to neighbors and strangers. The heat of so many bodies in a wooden box prompts us to strip off winter coats. Between quarters we ask how so-and-so is doing now that she’s out of the hospital, while toddlers climb up and down the bleachers. Generations watch generations of grandkids, nephews and nieces out on the court. Newcomers to town settle in.  

Gym bleachers are much like church pews, except there is more talking amongst the seated, more cursing under your breath and cheering out loud too.

As the lights from the rafters shine on the glass like gym-sealed maple below, as the near-freezing rain pours down outside, it is still warm and lively in this echoing wooden box.