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The Fall of the Year

Work at Island Creek concluded a little past five tonight and over a high tide in Duxbury Bay a crisp October evening spread before us.  Many different flocks of terns were visible across the 10,000 or so acres that comprise this remarkable little body of water–the backdrop of this town’s little pageant of life.  In a place where the weather is terrible 70% of the year and the tide is almost always low, an evening like this not spent fishing, swimming, hunting or just plain taking in the view is sacrilege.

Thus, by the time I finished answering emails at day’s end and actually stepped out of our office and onto the dock, all the boats were gone.  The dock was completely vacant as every one of us had succumb to the same compulsion.  So, I wandered over to the harbormaster shack on the town pier and asked the nighttime guard if I could borrow their dinghy.  Dog in stern, I rowed out to the edge of the harbor and dismantled the elaborate anti-bird gear our family boat is rigged with each fall in my father’s perpetual war against avian poo (known colloquially in the American northeast as “bird shit”).  This year, he appeared to be losing.

To the south, just on the other end of the boat basin, I could see a large flock of birds materializing, so I followed it (rather than wait around for them to come drop their stinky payload on the boat).   A combination of drifting and gentle motoring after diving birds and splashing fish led me into a part of the Bay called Eagle’s Nest.   Just this past weekend I had landed quite a few striped bass out of the same boat with the same tackle; however, I was doing something wrong tonight.  Fish were breaking all around me and no matter how many times I changed my lure they wouldn’t bite, which is one of the most frustrating things to happen to any fishermen.  In this bountiful time of year even the fish can be picky about what they eat.  Both the dog and I watched each cast intently.  Ultimately defeated, I had the chance to enjoy the night for what it was.

The air was moist and crisp at the same time—on the brink of being able to see your breath.  Before I went out I had pulled on a black, wool sweater I’ve had since I was 16.  I was glad when I yanked it off the shelf where it had been stowed for the last few months and now I was glad I had it.  The tide was so high that it felt like I was floating around town—Duxbury: Venice of New England.  The water connected each of the houses where warm lights were beginning to blink on as the sun set and the moon dappled the water.

I saw my mother-in-law, in her driveway atop her old Christmas tree farm on this part of the bay, arrive home from work.  Wood smoke wafted languorously down the hill in the cold air, crossed the water and filled my nostrils with the smell of autumn.  The TV flickered in CJ’s window as I drifted by.   After some time a call emerged from the dusk.  I searched the greying horizon to find my wife greeting me on a dock that extended from the marsh.  I picked her off the bank and the three of us—man, wife, and dog—sped off across the Bay to lap Clark’s Island in an attempt to sop up the beauty of this night.

In a Bay that spends most of its time draining out or filling back up, getting a few hours to bomb around at the right time of day in good weather feels like you’re getting away with something.  The Bay feels small and easily crossed.  This compared to snaking one’s way preciously through the tiny guzzles and channels that wind their own way through the many bars and flats—the mess of waterways that grant us access to the shellfish beds where we make our living.  One is work, the other play.  It’s liberating to dash boldly across this marine geography to which we are normally so beholden, like tracking up freshly fallen snow.  It feels both reckless and incomparably exhilarating.

You see, at Island Creek, the end of summer and the fall of the year is really a new beginning.  It’s a time of incredible bounty and bright futures.  The grueling work of summer is over.  The heat is gone and off.  Sure, the cold bite of winter lies ahead, but for now its high tide, the air is clean, the bay is full of fish, there’s a fire going in someone’s wood stove, and we have more oysters than we know what to do with.  In short, life is good—damn good.

This night the water is so calm that as we round the southern tip of the island at 30 knots we can hear the splash of our own wake.  The dog is on the bow, ears flopping in the wind, left one red, right one green from the bicolor nav light.  The two of us are huddled in the lee of the helm.  Skip’s cottage at Saquish stands alone on the point.  It is brightly lit both by the moon and the warm glow from within as he, like all of us, is probably enjoying the peace and solitude that comes with a near-frost.

There are a few times in the life of any Duxburian when it feels as though you are truly living out someone else’s fantasy.  You look up and wait for snow to swirl up around you as some giant child shakes the globe in which you are living.  There are other times, generally on rainy days in February or March, when you wonder in earnest why anyone lives here at all.  I would like to tell you we caught a big striper and shot a goose and brought them home and cooked them over a fire made of a tree we cut from a stand of healthy hardwoods last year, but we didn’t.  We took a cruise, burned some gas for no reason, and went in—beat by the fish, cagiest of creatures.  It was the spontaneity of it all, the very imperfection of it that made it feel just right.

Like everywhere else, this feeling of infinite balance is seldom realized in Duxbury.  Its ephemeral and its like trying to catch a snowflake (or chucking a lure into a school of stripers) but it happens at least once a year and here it’s called autumn.  That annual guarantee is a little bit of the magic that makes this place so special.

★ Chris Sherman is Island Creek’s vice president.  In some circles he is known as “Mr. Autumn Man”.  Follow him on Twitter: @moresaltplease 

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