Written by Christopher Boyce
I sat in the wheelhouse of the Rose M, my salmon troller, studying nautical charts of the Washington State coast. We were tied up at dock in Port Angeles, preparing for sea. In the morning, I would steam out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca with the rest of the commercial salmon fishing fleet, round Cape Flattery into the open Pacific, and be off the tribal haven of La Push for opening day of the ‘81 season. I could hardly contain my excitement.
But as I glanced out the porthole of my wheelhouse, my world turned to terror. Coming down the dock was a SWAT team, dressed in black and heavily armed. It was like a scene from a movie. Emblazoned across their chests were white block letters that read FBI. And they were moving fast.
As I grabbed my pistol, I realized I was trapped on my boat. I had nowhere to go but backwards, into the bay. I couldn’t go back to prison. I readied myself to die.
I watched them through the porthole. They were coming down the dock like wolves, a half dozen of them. Then, something unexpected happened – the armed men stopped and began to circle the salmon troller tied to the dock two boats down from me.
They swarmed her. Moments later, my neighbor was pulled from the boat’s cabin in handcuffs. As quickly as they had appeared, they were gone. It took 20 minutes for my pulse and breathing to slow. I stepped out on the deck and inhaled the salty air into my lungs.
Just get out to sea, I told myself. They can’t touch you there.
I promised myself that once I got out on the ocean, the stress of being a fugitive would stop gnawing at my guts. I longed to be out of sight of land. Out of reach of my pursuers.
Early the next morning, I ran out into the Strait with the fleet, past the extreme northwesterly point of the 48 states. I followed the boats through the rollers of the slot between Tatoosh Island and Cape Flattery, out into the Pacific. The little Rose M, almost 80 years old, struggled through the swells to keep up with all the modern boats as we steadily steamed south to the salmon fishing grounds.
It was the hardest work I had ever done, and the coldest, but it was glorious. My boat puller was a fellow named Hoof. He and I chased the salmon for days on end, trolling through the swells with our fish-finder as our guide.
We hooked the kings on our hoochies, lures and baits. We gaffed them aboard and iced them in the hold. We ran our catch into the cannery at La Push, where we stocked up on beer and chow. Often, we would head over to Peanut Johnson’s little place right there at the mouth of the Quileute and listen to bluegrass while his wife Maggie fried us up a dinner of fresh caught silvers.
In the dusk, sipping a Labatt’s Canadian, I would watch the peregrine falcons with my binocs on James Island. Life was good. And then at dawn we would run back out to sea. Sometimes we would check our crab pots, sometimes we would follow the other fishing trollers, and sometimes we would play our own salmon hunches. Often, we would bring up the kings only to find them half-devoured by sharks or sea lions. At dusk one evening, a pod of killer whales crossed our bow. I gawked from the wheelhouse. They were so big. I hoped they’d eat a couple of the sea lions that dogged us.
I loved the heavy seas. The Rose M was like a cork. As she would struggle up out of the troughs, all we could see was a wall of water in every direction. Up she would putt, climbing the swells, until we went over the crest with her ancient prop spinning completely out of the sea. From the top of the surge, we could see the whole world. And then down we would slide, into the next trough. I would howl in delight at the ride. Hoof thought I was crazy.
But when the real monster storms rolled in, we would run for La Push, scared shitless. If we were too far out, we’d make for Destruction Island and anchor up there on the leeward side to ride out the weather. Though I was regularly seasick, I felt like Leif Erickson with a gas engine.
Late one afternoon, I was in the wheelhouse holding a course for the Quileute when Hoof called out. “We have company!”
A Coast Guard cutter a couple of miles off was headed right for us. I watched her approach with a growing sense of alarm. I looked away to the east and the coast. I could run for it, I thought. Beach her and then disappear into the big timber of the Olympics. But no. I realized I’d never make it. Their boat was too fast and my old double-ender was too slow.
I readied myself to be boarded.
“What do you think she wants?” I asked Hoof.
“Don’t know,” he replied.
I felt that old fear gnawing in my guts. Whatever they wanted, I wasn’t going back to prison. I stepped back into the wheelhouse, put on my shoulder holster and pistol, and threw my pea jacket on. The cutter was closing the distance fast.
“You probably ought to get your boat registration and commercial fishing license out,” Hoof suggested.
I grabbed the papers from the wheelhouse. When I stepped back out on deck, they were coming alongside. I waved for appearances’ sake and did my best to control my breathing.
“Power down!” came the order from the Coast Guard cutter’s speaker. “Prepare to be boarded.”
“Fuck,” I muttered.
She had a visible crew of four that I could see. Two carrying sidearms. No assault weapons in view. I couldn’t go back to prison.
Please, God. It had been a while since I’d prayed, but it felt right. If I have to die in a shootout, don’t let it be these men. Let it be the FBI, with their guns and their SWAT gear. Not these men in their clean white uniforms.
I calculated that in order to survive such odds, I would have to take out the boarding party and then take the cutter. Otherwise, they would stand off and shoot the Rose M to pieces. My body shook.
A single guardsman swung across to board. I noted that he was packing an automatic, but an arresting party would never consist of just one man. His boots hit my deck and he looked us over. I began to hope. Hoof pointed at me, which I didn’t much appreciate.
“May I see your papers, skipper?” the guardsman asked. I thought I detected a note of sarcasm in his voice.
“Sure,” I said, and handed the papers over to the man I was certain was going to arrest me. He perused them briefly and handed them back.
“Why am I being boarded?” I asked. Through the gripping fear, I was grinning like a chimpanzee.
“We’re checking your tackle for barbed hooks.”
“Barbed hooks,” Hoof said. Then, to the guardsman: “We don’t have any.”
Hoof showed the guardsman our apparently barbless hooks. Thank God for Hoof. I resolved then and there to read the fishing regs the minute we anchored back in La Push.
The guardsman took one last look around and swung back aboard the cutter. I waved.
“Try not to drown,” he called out as the Coast Guard cutter pulled away.
Two weeks later, we almost did. The Rose M’s seams opened in a heavy sea, but we managed to limp into La Push, barely afloat, with all our pumps going. Thus ended my one and only commercial salmon fishing season as a fugitive from the law.
Christopher Boyce is the co-author of the book American Sons: The Untold Story of the Falcon and the Snowman. Convicted in 1977 of espionage, his story was the basis for the book The Falcon and the Snowman, which was later turned into a movie starring Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn.