Every time a commercial fishing boat leaves the harbor, loved ones left standing on shore know one of two things will happen. Their fishermen will return with a bright fresh seafood payload, or they will never see safe harbor again.
Why do they do it? Risk and reward. Ask any gambler. Add addicting freedom, adventure and the pure joy of living in close touch with the ocean and you can begin to understand the soul of the seafarer.
Drew Scalzi was among the fishermen who knew these risks and rewards first hand and who suffered the loss of fishing friends. Ironically, Scalzi died not at sea, but from cancer at a relatively young age (53) in 2005. Before he fell to the scourge of cancer, he orchestrated the creation of a memorial, "A tribute to the living and the lost" that stands as a heart-wrenching reminder of the dangers of the sea and the power of the community that loves the men and women who go to sea to put heathy protein on the tables of the world. It is also a lasting testament to the strength of people pooling their efforts to fulfill a dream.
Around 70 names, along with their vessels and dates they died are engraved on plaques mounted on the inside of the pillars of the memorial. They date from 1934 and include several varieties of vessels, including the "Munson Mail Boat", kayaks, skiffs and canoes, commemorating losses of lives at sea that didn't involved commercial fishing. Several deaths from herring spotter aircraft crashes also have plaques on the inner sides of the pillars.
The memorial is an ongoing project, as the apron of bricks dedicated to loved ones continues to expand. Brass plaques on the inside of the pillars are reserved for those who perish at sea.
The memorial, which originated in the early 1990s with the North Pacific Fisheries Association, was constructed with monies from a state grant, fundraisers and a plethora of materials, supplies, equipment, time and labor donated by virtually the entire community.
Mark Degraffenried designed the sculpture while the design of the memorial structure evolved over time with input from artists and others working on the project. The monument stands 15 feet tall and 20 feet wide. The six-sided concrete pillared structure encloses a seven-foot tall statue of a rugged mariner, preparing to throw his dock line. He is protected by a three-tiered copper-shingled dome. The site is graced with flower beds and a picnic area, and accented by a separate brass bell that Scalzi found in Philadelphia.
A free-standing pedestal seaward of the memorial bears a bronze plaque with a poetic tribute to the power of the ocean, written by Ryan Bundy in 1996. "The sea tells a story. It tells of the life it brings and the lives it claims. Its deep dark waters are home to some, a final resting place to others. The sea tells a story. It tells of the cycle of life running through its waters. Fish spawning, dying, sinking to the ocean floor, returning to the circle that engulfs all life. The sea tells a story. It tells of prosperity, yet how the prosperity can be unforgiving. Nearly everyone will experience its vastness, but some will remain there forever."
The memorial will continue to evolve with the addition of bricks to the apron. They are purchased through the North Pacific Fisheries Association with Barbara Scalzi heading up the effort. Proceeds go toward maintaining the site and a scholarship fund for children of fishermen.
The annual May blessing of the fleet is held at the memorial.
We who remain on shore have to believe that our fishermen will return from each of their ventures out to the fishing grounds. In the past 25 years advances have been made in vessel safety and crew safety training as well as search and rescue. Still, commercial fishing remains one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. Hazards included, it comprises a basic ingredient of life on the Kenai Peninsula and surrounding waters.