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It started out like most family vacations. We packed up essential gear, made a quick trip to the bank for a healthy supply of traveler’s checks and performed a last-minute check of the house. The windows were cracked open, timers were installed on a couple of strategically located lamps and the dog was settled in at the kennel. We were ready for our much anticipated trip out west to the Oregon Coast.
The long, exhausting flight from Minneapolis to Portland was soon forgotten once reunited with our luggage and reassembled in our rented mini van heading down the magnificent coastal highway. With its more than 350 miles of lush rainforest, 32,000 acres of sand dunes (known as Oregon’s Sahara) marine-rich tidal pools and vast ocean scapes, Oregon was far more descript than any of us remembered reading about in geography class.
A good six hours later we reached our destination of Coos Bay, on Oregon’s southern coast. After a couple of wrong turns, my husband, Dave, and two teenage sons, Nick and Chris and I found our way to the lovely meadow overlooking the bay that become our base camp. There we were reunited with Minnesota family who had arrived a day earlier and our Oregon relatives and hosts, who turned our western family reunion into an unforgettable adventure.
Adrianne Lance, my husband’s first cousin, and her husband Ski, seemed well prepared and undaunted by the throngs of relatives that descended upon their Coos Bay haven. Our numbers grew to more than 30 as cousins from L.A to Minnesota’s Iron Range traveled the Oregon Trail to spend precious time with long-lost relatives.
With little more than a few hours of sleep under our belts, Ski roused the troops front and center for a two-day wilderness camping experience on the Rogue River. The caravan of SUVs were packed and loaded with gear that would make even the most seasoned wilderness guide jealous. Hyped as a "campers campout", I opted to stay back, along with my son, Chris, and man the fort when I learned sleeping was in bags on a rocky beach, bears were occasional visitors, and worse yet…there were no toilet facilities within miles! I was sure that someone should stay behind and patrol the vacant campers, trailers and tents that dotted the meadow. Yes, we needed someone to stand guard and I was just the person for the job.
While campfire stories later in the week reminisced about the magnificent scenery, the living-off-the-land shore dinners and the wild pigman of the Rogue River, I felt a little bit like I had missed the punch line of a joke. But, unlike the Rogue contingent, I was well rested and eager for the next coastal escapade Ski had scheduled.
It was to be a day like no other I had ever spent. The extended family assembled in our usual piece-meal way. My family, punctual and impatient, waited until the slow pokes pulled themselves together. We needed to caravan to the location where we’d spend the day doing what many locals consider routine -- crabbing. Now this adventure I was up for. Maybe it was because I knew the succulent reward of a fresh day’s catch or perhaps I wanted to experience what I had only seen in photographs or in beer commercials – a crab boil with family and friends right on the beach.
I was one of the first to volunteer to go pull crab pots, which had been previously tossed into the bay by John Franzen, one of Ski’s fishing buddies. He was commandeered for the day to help us experience some of the local culture.
I quickly dropped my beach belongings and headed for the rubber overalls that lay drying over a large chunk of driftwood. Whoever wore the heavy gear on the last haul must have been much shorter. I loosened the suspenders to allow for more coverage of my jeans, belted up my life vest and climbed on board the small boat. My son, Nick, followed with the same regime.
The bay was calm, according to locals, but each wave sent a jolt through me, which kept my fingers tightly gripped around the metal rim of the craft. Nick, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy the sea breeze in his face, but the strong, salt water stung the sunburned skin on the back of his neck as it sprayed over us enroute to the crab pot buoys. John slowed the boat when we approached one of the markers that identified his crab pot. If a fisherman follows crabbing etiquette, they won’t toss one of their pots near those of another fisherman’s. Etiquette in crabbing circles, like in many other walks of life, isn’t always followed, John told us. Nonetheless, we anxiously anticipated pulling our first cage to the surface.
We got a quick crabbing lesson on the boat ride out. John hollered out his advice over the pounding sounds of the boat hitting the waves. It was brief and to the point. When the boat gets near the marker, grab the rope and pull until it gets really heavy and hard to pull – then pull even harder. We learned the importance of that last step. The hardest pulling comes when the crab cage is at the surface. It needs to be hoisted in the boat quickly or you could loose some of your precious crustacean cargo.
After a couple of missed attempts at grabbing the rope, I finally got the feel for how far I could bend over the boat and still remain inside. I grabbed a rope and pulled till the wet cord burned my bare hands. I handed the really tough part over to Nick who, with steadier positioning, hauled our first catch over the rails and onto the floor of the boat. There were six or seven of them – all clawing their way around the inside of the cage until we unclasped the sides and the crawling mass spilled out around my ankles and feet. In a small boat, I discovered that there isn’t a special crab holding place--they would remain underfoot until we were finished checking all nine pots.
John was a good, patient crabbing instructor. I think it had something to do with him being the middle school principal in Coos Bay, something I learned during small talk as we first headed out from shore. The crabs we were catching were Dungeness Crab, which are harvested commercially in Alaska, Washington and Oregon. The creature has a reddish-brown shell and averages just under 7 inches in width. During molting, when crabs shed their skin, locals refrain from crabbing because the creatures with soft shells aren’t as desirable. Male crabs, which have an elongated flap on their underside shell, are the only legal catch. Females, which have a more rounded flap on their shell, must be released. Learning to determine male from female was important, as the fine for keeping a female or undersized crab was $25.00 per crab.
The male/female thing became easy to determine; now we had to measure each crab, using a special tool, to determine if it met the size requirement of 5 1/2 inches in width. We’d measure in a straight line across the crab’s back just in front of two points that jut out from the shell. Measuring meant handling, and that’s where the tricky part came into play. With a painful pinch inches away, it became very apparent to me that I needed to develop some sort of system.
Flipping and grabbing became my strategy. As soon as a catch was dropped on the boat’s floor, I’d dart in quickly, removing the tendrils of seaweed and kelp that were tangled in the rungs of the cage. Then, I’d flip each little slippery creature on its back, twirling it around and grabbing the two hind legs. Like Marlin Perkins, I’d discovered a way to immobilize the little finger pinchers in this wild Dungeness kingdom. My technique became highly touted among other family members who had trouble taming their catches. Even the seasoned locals seemed impressed with my crab catching prowess.
We headed back to shore, with our day’s catch on board. Those that didn’t meet requirements were tossed overboard, safely swimming back