Alaska sea

What Water Holds

By Tele Aadsen

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It’s impossible now to recall a time when the ocean didn’t move within me.

Alone in the cabin, I pour a cup of tea and settle into the pilot seat’s cracked maroon vinyl. With the autopilot maintaining the Nerka’s offshore course, calm seas, and no other boats in sight, my “driving” consists of little more than keeping watch for the occasional log. This is the irony of referring to our travel time as “running”: heading out to the Fairweather Grounds, we might as well be running in place. Few scenic changes inform any sense of here we are from there we were. A kelp paddy, a bobbing chunk of driftwood, a murre’s discarded feather: these things water holds, all references as impermanently positioned as the Nerka herself. Six miles behind us, the coast’s evergreen certainty fades to a hazy lavender suggestion. Sometimes I watch without blinking, trying to divine the precise distance at which Tongass green becomes Alaska blues, but it’s like trying to catch the hands moving on a clock. Ahead, on the far side of water that is 10,000 turquoise eyes winking, the horizon beckons. I wonder how far we could go. Running for the edge of the ocean, where would this course take me?

Excerpted from What Water Holds, by Tele Aadsen (Empty Bowl Press, 2023). All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

What Water Holds, by Tele Aadsen

In What Water Holds, Tele Aadsen examines questions of equity, identity, community, the changing climate, and sustainability with loving, detailed attention, revealing the complexities within their many shades of gray. Weaving stories of what lies beneath the surface and the possibilities beyond, What Water Holds speaks to anyone who has fallen under the spell of the sea, struggled to find their own uncharted path, and wrestled with big philosophical questions—in short, anyone seeking to live a full, deeply considered life.

Learn more and purchase the book.

It takes me back to the farthest-flung corner of my childhood and keeps going, spilling over and into the lives of those who came before. Those who led me here; those who might have been the very creators of this blue world, at least as I came to know it.

My veterinarian dad’s decision to seek refuge in boat building wasn’t as abrupt as it seemed. He came from Scandinavian stock, only two generations removed from a grandfather who’d sailed from Norway, as well as another seafaring ancestor who’d drowned. Boats were in his blood, an internal ebb tide tugging a land-bound Montana farm kid westward. As a college student, he spent one school break helping a friend take a ship down the West Coast. A year later, he hopped aboard a salmon tender, headed north from Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal. This was how my dad met Alaska, delivered to her by way of the sea.  

Even as he built an inland veterinary practice in Alaska’s landlocked Matanuska-Susitna Valley, that longing stayed with him, unspoken yet conspicuous. When my mom flew across the country to join her husband, she discovered her backyard included a partially constructed sailboat. Landing in her own new world, leaving behind everything she knew to join him, she found he’d already initiated their exodus.

In those early years of their marriage, I imagine a complementary audacity allied my parents. They bonded as visionaries, fantasizing a future in which they sailed the South Pacific, resolute dreamers who didn’t flinch from the work or sacrifice required to achieve this dream. Realizing his first attempt would be too small for a family of three, they sold the unfinished hull and began designing the Askari instead—a 45-foot trimaran whose Swahili name summarized her role: protector. The Askari provided a trusted refuge long before she was watertight; my parents deposited their dreams in her emerging hulls. That this was a venture most people wouldn’t undertake was immaterial. My dad frequently reminded us, “We’re not ‘most people.’”  

I wasn’t born with my parents’ yearning. Though lakes surrounded Wasilla, I knew water best in its solid form, in the icicles taller than me dangling from the clinic’s eaves and the backyard puddles I learned to ice skate on. Shards that lacerated sled dogs’ paws bloody if their humans didn’t shoe them with fleece booties; hardpacked snowballs boys on the playground threw. Even my name, Norwegian for tundra, honored frozen ground. My early foundations were fixed, immobile. 

Those foundations washed away in 1985, with the Askari’s Anchorage launch. A faded Kodachrome three-by-five preserves the moment. The Askari hovers in the center of the frame. Suspended between origin and destiny, she fills the sky. This is an action shot, blurry with motion. I am the photo’s only indication of inertia. My back to the unknown photographer, I am a child supervisor in a navy sweatshirt, hands stuffed deep in jean pockets, staying out of the way but not missing a move.

As a child, I believed that if I held very still and studied my surroundings with care, I would see more than what was outwardly apparent to anyone else. As if I’d gained powers of super sight in the womb, absorbing the vision my dad lost in a near-fatal injury, kicked in the face by a horse eight months before my birth. Now, with his ark dangling in the air, I saw my dad strain at the bow, gripping a guideline in leather work gloves. I saw a camera bouncing against my mom’s chest as she dashed down the dock to steady the stern. And, because I was watching, I saw my life cleave into clean hemispheres of before and after. I saw myself there with the Askari, suspended between worlds.

That’s what the photo says, at least. All birth stories require trusting other sources.

This endless, empty blue could have seemed a lonely place, but my distant family had already taught me to find comfort in solitude and companions in the natural world.

Time sprang forward with the Askari’s launch. We’d taken a lifetime to reach this crossroads, only to blow through without stopping. Our belongings were packed. The clinic was sold. Grandpa Jim, my primary caregiver since birth, had passed. So while dock lines held the Askari in check, waiting for my parents’ next move, our family had been cut loose. Adrift, what was left to tie us to Wasilla?


Anxious about their maiden voyage, my parents decided to make the first leg of the journey, Anchorage to Seward, alone. They deposited me with friends. These must have been good friends, trusted with and willing to accept such a responsibility, but I don’t remember them with any sense of familiarity. Their two-story home in the city struck me as strange—it was only a home; where did they work?—and I didn’t like the bathroom with its rooftop window, where their son peeked and laughed at me in the tub. Until now, I’d always been able to mentally place my parents through their absences. Tucked in my bed at night, I knew they’d be working late in the boat barn. At school, I pictured them deworming kittens or stitching up a husky who kept eating rocks. This separation was different. I didn’t know how to place my parents in their new world. Where were they? What were they doing? I wondered if I’d see them again.

I was well into adulthood before I asked my mom who the couple housing me had been. Her immediate, intense response startled me. More than 20 years later, she was still angry they’d never returned a borrowed book and canoe, still angry at my dad, who had pressured her to loan these items. “He shouldn’t have done that! I shouldn’t have had to loan my things to people I didn’t trust!” She didn’t notice my stunned expression. When I spoke, my tone was mild. “Good thing you got your kid back, huh?” She agreed, laughing.

No one who knew my parents would have dubbed my mom the more passive of the two. It would have been easy to underestimate my dad’s influence, his reserve such a contrast to her eager-to-please genial spirit. I imagine even he was unaware of his authority in their relationship, able to perceive only the limitations that resulted from his injury, nearly blinded and newly dependent. Despite her successful navigation of male-dominated fields, my mom had been raised to believe in men’s superiority, her own mother’s early childhood teachings having taken deep root. She deferred to his decision making. Any resistance she felt remained internal, a simmering that wouldn’t boil over for years to come.

The 267-mile voyage took the Askari ten days. It took me less than three hours, driven down the Seward Highway to meet my parents. I don’t remember the handoff. I don’t remember seeing the black trimaran enter the Seward harbor, don’t know if she staggered in, dazed, or glided swanlike and proud. I don’t remember meeting skipper Brad or deckhand Gary, the experienced mariners my parents hired to help us cross the Gulf. I don’t remember reuniting with my parents. And while it seems impossible to have lost the crucial moment, the door opening to everything that would follow, I don’t remember climbing aboard the Askari. I’ve combed every corner of my mind, searching for a glimpse of that seven-year-old girl abandoning the earth, stepping from dock to deck for her first time. Hard as I try to conjure that virgin sensation of the ocean’s infinite give-and-take, the flexing underfoot my first indication that all foundations are not built with the same permanency, that moment is gone. It’s the motion that lives on. An ever-present rhythm deep in my heart, as if the ocean sang me a lullaby, words I’ve forgotten but a tune I carry everywhere. Maybe that’s why our first meeting is gone: it’s impossible now to recall a time when the ocean didn’t move within me.

But a single image lived.

I remember meeting the ocean on a day not unlike this day on the Nerka as we head offshore. The water was blinding, as if the sun’s hard hands had crushed diamonds and flung the fragments across the blue. Several days into crossing the Gulf of Alaska, I couldn’t see land in any direction. No other boats, no outside sound, no reason to believe in human existence beyond the five people aboard the Askari. It was a solitude so total even nature embraced it: a lone black-footed albatross was our only companion, paddling amiably in our wake. When the gap between us grew too great, he extended long, narrow wings and soared back up to the stern. He skidded along the surface on outthrust pontoon feet, creating a wake of his own, refolding those enormous wings with the effort of an elderly man struggling into a cardigan one size too small. This endless, empty blue could have seemed a lonely place, but my distant family had already taught me to find comfort in solitude and companions in the natural world.

Gazing over the Nerka’s bow into that nebulous space where sky lies down with sea, I am looking into a different time, a similar place. This, a faint breeze whispers across decades. Remember this. I would have pushed long brown hair out of my eyes, tugging at the canary-yellow life jacket that was then still a restrictive new garment. (Other times my parents would leash me to the mast, allowing just enough scope for me to play on deck, but not enough to fall overboard. Overboard: a baffling concept when your only previous field of reference had been an earth without edges.) Life aboard a boat introduced new definitions of risk, but searching my young face for fear, I find only awe. I hadn’t yet seen the ocean’s cruel side; that would come later. My brain struggled to comprehend the enormity of this new world called ocean. What little I knew bowed beneath the weight of what lay before… behind… all around me. It was there, at an unknown waypoint in the Gulf of Alaska, on a blazing blue so expansive it swallowed even the memory of land, that I met water. I didn’t know it then, but it was there that I came home. 

Now I can recite a litany of names—people lost, survivors left behind—and map this coast according to each boat’s final resting place.

Though both Joel and I were raised as boat kids, he didn’t grow up transient in the way I did. He spent winters with his family in a quaint Washington town known for its annual tulip festival and antique shops, in the same house until he moved out at 18, and summers in Southeast Alaska aboard one boat, this boat, from infancy to the present. For Joel, the Nerka contains all the best parts of his childhood. She allows him to once again be the shiny-eyed, unbroken boy who believed without question that his Poppa was the smartest, strongest, best fisherman, and the Nerka was the fishiest, most seaworthy, best boat. In returning to his childhood home, Joel returns to a time when neither had yet let him down, when he couldn’t imagine that both would eventually shatter his faith.

After years of making a living on her deck and steering her safely through the nights, I also belong to this boat. Because I love Joel, I allowed myself to love her as he does. I developed my own relationship with her. As much as the Nerka has been my workplace and ocean home, she’s also been my teacher, a guide to alternate versions of myself. Some better, some worse. 

I can’t help but wonder about the relationships my predecessors had with her. How did Mary Jean navigate this space with her husband, particularly in the years before children and deckhands, when she and Don were just two? How many of Joel’s and my interactions, our joys and our discords, unknowingly echo those of his parents, of mine? Do any of us truly create a life independent of those who came before us, or do we simply reenact variations of our past?

This is trolling’s occupational hazard: the detail-oriented nature of our work, coupled with our vessels’ snail pace, the grind of putting a year’s livelihood together one salmon at a time, and too much time in our heads makes us natural navel-gazers. Now, realizing with a jolt how long it’s been since I checked on Joel, I swivel to glance out the back window. Between the two engines rumbling beneath my feet, music blasting on deck, the cabin door closed between us, and my diesel-dulled ears, I wouldn’t hear Joel if something happened. If something happened: fisherfolk shorthand for those things better left unspoken, things you don’t risk breathing life into with your words. But there he is, still in the cockpit, head nodding to the beat, mouth stretched wide as he belts out the lyrics to a Tool song. Feeling my eyes, he looks up and flashes a grin.

Nonfishing friends often ask if I’m afraid out here. My reply is a deflection, a summary of safety gear and the fleet’s community ethos, followed with a gentle reminder that familiarity tempers fear. I’m not being brave. The risks woven into the cloth of your life don’t keep you from wearing that fabric. Rather, it becomes comfortable—the beloved pair of broken-in jeans you reach for first. My carefully worded response is deceptive. I worry more than I want to admit—just not about myself. I keep one eye on the water, always watching for the unannounced wave. I don’t release one handhold before grabbing the next, and I am quick to turn the hose on slippery pools of salmon blood. I trust myself. But I worry about the boat, hearing fiasco in a sudden change in the engine’s pitch, imagining tired rigging giving way in a storm. Mostly I worry about Joel. Where I am cautious, he is quick. Scrambling from cockpit to cabin. Running to answer the radio. Dancing a jig on deck when we’re in fish. His ebullience provokes me. I frown, already picturing myself casting the life ring out to his floundering body, while he shrugs off my admonishments. I’m an excitable boy, he tells me. I bring the enthusiasm.

Worry weighs less than fear. Worry doesn’t diminish the relief I feel being back on the water. My child self’s delight was pure, ignorant of the dangers at sea. Now I can recite a litany of names—people lost, survivors left behind—and map this coast according to each boat’s final resting place. The Fairweather Grounds are overly crowded with the dead. Still we run headlong into a realm where risk and pain are certain and success is not—and we do so intentionally, driven not so much by choice as some primal yearning. Held up to the light of self-examination, it’s absurd. How can a person find her truest footing in a world always shifting? The one place I find a sense of belonging—where I am most confident, most myself—is the place with the power to, without forewarning or sentiment, remind me I don’t belong here at all.



Tele AadsenTele Aadsen is a commercial fisherman, writer, and lapsed social worker. What Water Holds (Empty Bowl Press, 2023) is her first book. Born in Alaska, she finds home in seasonal migrations: ocean summers on the outer coast of Lingít Aaní, Southeast Alaska, aboard the F/V Nerka with her sweetheart, Joel, followed by land winters in the Coast Salish territory of Washington’s Skagit Valley. She self-markets their frozen-at-sea catch through Nerka Sea-Frozen Salmon and performs annually with Oregon’s FisherPoets Gathering. Her name is pronounced “Tell-ah.”

Header photo by Simmons Buntin. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.