Warren Miller: Fourths from Depression to now
Vail, CO, Colorado
My earliest memory of a Fourth of July celebration is from Lake Merritt in Oakland, Calif.
It was 1930 and the Depression was in full attack mode. 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. In the evening, there were awesome fireworks.
A month later we moved back to Southern California. For the next 14 years, that’s where I spent my July Fourth. I was witness to fireworks shows 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 an eighth of an inch of water in the bottom and had 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 Black Panther 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 high into the air.
Over the years, I remember many 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, which I witnessed in many different cites.
Watching the fireworks on TV is not the same as being there live. The TV can’t convey the deafening noise and the acrid smell of exploding powder drifting through the dark night air.
Fourth of July of 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.
Our trip this time was a gentle rock and roll with large swells that had originated during a storm in Japan and had crossed the Pacific through the worlds’ largest collection of plastic water bottles. The floating collection is larger than the state of Texas and is located in the northeastern Pacific. The bottles have been carried there by the ocean currents that sucked them off of the beaches from Alaska to Central America, Japan and Russia.
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 good friend Bruce Barr, who has taught me almost all of what little I know about fishing, has built a great floating house near there.
In our travels, we had heard a lot of reports of Eagle Nook guests catching 25- and 30-pound king salmon. Our good friend and host at Eagle Nook, 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, and a mark for everyone should try for.
The day after we arrived, we rode in Dicks’ 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 hi/fi playing a melody of patriotic songs on Sirius radio.
We were listening to Ferde Grofe’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 not very good 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 10 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. Whoever staged this Independence Day extravaganza just for me did everything exactly right. With Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite playing, I slowly brought the king salmon alongside the boat, while the whale swam under our boat and then surfaced in front of it.
This was an “ah ha” moment for me. It was an almost silent Fourth of July celebration. I was catching a 22-pound salmon and 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 up a 21.9-pound king 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, just for me.
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff log onto Warren Miller.net