IT WAS DAYLIGHT on the water. A heaving deck and the smell of saltwater told me I’d awakened to a real-life nightmare.
In the murk of dawn, I could see heavy surf pounding against sheer cliffs that rose into the fog.
The morning tide was taking us out into the Pacific past the ramparts of A-Ka-Lat, the Quileute fortress at the mouth of the river that bears their name.
It was aptly described by Capt. John Meares in 1788.
He said, “The appearance of the land was wild in the extreme.” Nothing much has changed.
A-Ka-Lat was also a burial ground for chiefs and a lookout for spotting whales and enemy raiders.
That’s how the Quileute saw the Russian brig Sv. Nikolai in 1808. She’d lost her anchors and sails in a November gale and crashed ashore. The 20 survivors of the shipwreck headed south for the Columbia River, where they hoped to find a ship. Instead, they were captured by the Hoh Indians.
Of the original crew of 20 — which included Capt. Nikolai Bulygin’s wife, Anna Petrovna, the first European woman to live in the state of Washington — seven died in captivity, including Petrovna.
The remaining 13 Russians and Aleuts were rescued in 1810 by Capt. J. Brown of the Boston brig Lydia. If it wasn’t for the sharp eyes of the Quileute, we might all be speaking Russian by now.
It wasn’t long before we were over the bar of the Quileute River and out into the towering waves of the open sea.
When the Coast Guard says “rough bar conditions,” they aren’t referring to the nightlife. They don’t call it the Graveyard of the Pacific for nothing.
It was just my luck to get shanghaied out into the middle of it.
Getting shanghaied was an Olympic Peninsula tradition from Grays Harbor to Port Townsend.
With the crew jumping ship to go live with the Indians every time they got near land, what was a sea captain to do but hire on the latest crop of farm boys, loggers or stray fishermen who came to town most any weekend for a spree?
There, a stiff drink and a quick trip through a trap door was your invitation to a new career at sea.
It could take years to get back home, if you ever did.
Once upon a time, a captain tried to capture a whole village.
A Quileute tradition described a large sailing vessel anchoring in the mouth of the river. The captain was attempting to entice visiting tribal members aboard the ship to capture and enslave them. An Aleut woman who was a survivor of the Sv. Nicholai happened to be aboard. She warned the Quileute in their language to get away while they could. The Quileute fled to their fortress atop A-Ka-Lat.
I thought that sort of thing had died out years ago. Then I met some shady characters at a boat ramp. They must have slipped something into my cocoa while I was rearranging my tackle box. The next thing I knew, I was headed out to sea.
Soon, we were working the gear, catching salmon as fast as we could reel them in. Until I had my limit and was just getting in the way.
Entering the cabin, I encountered something more terrifying than the Quileute bar, the captain’s dog, a hundred-pound man-hating female Rottweiler who was growling in close proximity to the swimsuit area.
I kept saying, “Good girl.”
She must have known I was lying.
Then I gave her a doughnut and made a friend. It was good to be alive.