My earliest memory of a Fourth of July celebration is from Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif. It was 1930, the Depression was in full swing and my father had been out of work for a month or so. I remember several gray-haired ladies’ rowing teams competing on the lake while they wore patriotic red, white and blue sailors’ uniforms and in the evening, there were fireworks.
A month later we moved back to Southern California. For the next 14 years, that’s where I spent my Fourth of July – big and small. There were Depression years when I had no money to buy my own firecrackers, so I watched my friends blow tin cans high into the air with theirs. I remember that if you had a pie pan with some water in the bottom and punched a small hole in the side of the tin can you wanted to launch into the air, it would fly higher because of the water seal around the base of it. That worked well until we wound the fuses of four or five firecrackers together and pushed them through the small hole near the bottom of the can. With each successive explosion, we added an additional firecracker, until finally we just blew the can apart instead of up.
Over the years, I remember small neighborhood fireworks displays on front driveways and sometimes having to put out small fires in vacant neighborhood lots. I also remember the gigantic, expensive displays of pyrotechnical genius I witnessed in many different cites.
Fourth of July 2009, however, was a very different experience for me. My wife and I left the San Juan Islands for a 130-mile trek up the west coast of Vancouver Island for a fishing trip. We were both so excited to get out on our boat that we completely forgot we would be fishing on the Fourth.
From Victoria, B.C., it is about a 100-mile trip to Barkley Sound in the open ocean. Big ocean swells travel there from New Zealand, Japan or Alaska and can throw your boat every which way, including upside down if you are not careful.
Eight hours out of Victoria, we turned right into Barkley Sound and headed for Eagle Nook; the water calmed and the ride was a lot smoother. My friend Bruce Barr, who has taught me almost all of what little I know about fishing, has built a great floating house near there.
On our travels, we had heard a lot of reports of Eagle Nook guests catching 25- and 30-pound king salmon. Our friend Dick Beselin has a salmon mounted on his dining room wall that he caught in Alaska. It weighed 69 pounds. That is one big fish.
The day after we arrived, we rode in Dick’s new 35 mph pursuit to where he said the migrating fish would be. Once there, with the downriggers loaded at 50 and 70 feet, we began to troll with his deluxe Sirius radio playing a melody of patriotic songs.
We were listening to Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite” when a big salmon hit my cut-plug herring on the 70-foot-deep downrigger. My fish ripped out almost 500 feet of line in a short time, which for a poor fisherman such as me, is a lot of fishing line to somehow reel back in with the fish still caught on the barb-less hook.
After about ten minutes, my fish was getting tired and so was I when Dick hollered, “There’s a gray whale!” My line led almost to the whale’s tail as it gracefully submerged.
It was noon on the Fourth of July and whoever staged this Independence Day extravaganza just for me, did everything exactly right. I slowly brought the king salmon along side of the boat, while the whale swam under our boat and then surfaced in front of it.
This was an “Ah-ha” moment for me. I was catching a 22-pound salmon, listening to beautiful music, right in the path of a migrating whale. As I brought the salmon alongside to haul it aboard, I wanted to set it free so it could swim hundreds of miles south to the Columbia River and then up the river to Idaho where it could finish out its life cycle, spawn and deliver a couple of thousand eggs for a lot more salmon.
To the last few bars of the “Grand Canyon Suite” on the stereo, I collected my best memory ever of celebrating the Fourth of July. It is a photo of me holding a salmon, the biggest one I have ever caught … so far. So, while there were no firecrackers for my 2009 Fourth of July, there were some very special memories of celebration.