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Ebb and Flow

In a beautiful but dangerous fishing village, Thanksgiving, traditions and family take on special meaning.


TRINIDAD, Calif. — They will come to the pier tomorrow, on Thanksgiving morning, to ask for the safety of their fishermen. It is known as the blessing of the fleet, a tradition on a day of traditions.

They do not make reference to a specific deity, God or otherwise, but they ask that whatever forces might come to bear protect those soon to enter the waters in pursuit of the Dungeness crab.

It is dangerous work. The federal government considers it among the most deadly occupations, and the winter months are the most treacherous of all off California's northern coast.

There are days when winds bear down from the north and seem not to care at all about the 311 inhabitants of this village built on a high bluff up the coast from Eureka.

But as they have done for so many years, 20 to 25 boats will leave harbor before dawn on Dec. 1, as the long-awaited crab season begins. This will be a critical season. While prices last year were as high as they have ever been, crabs were scarce, and another slow season could be devastating.

Many have died in pursuit of the Dungeness, and most who come to the pier on Thanksgiving Day can tell you about loved ones claimed by the sea, about the haunting sound of the fog bell that rings 12 times whenever one of theirs is taken.

The people of Trinidad understand tragedy, even more so, perhaps, since Sept. 11. It is a part of their heritage, a history told through tales of timber and sea. They also understand the importance of tradition, and so they will come to the pier, and when they look out on the water and forests, they will see givers, not takers, of life.

Lauren Kirkpatrick, a soft-spoken 41-year-old, lost a brother and two men she once loved. Each year when the air turns cold and Thanksgiving seems lonely, an icy chill runs through her.

And when she describes her family, how everything changed when her brother went down 15 years ago with the Pacific Jewel, and how her daughter's father also has been taken by the sea, she describes a balloon, once filled with air, now mostly deflated and lifeless.

"I think there are a lot of people in New York who know how I feel," she says. Still, she will come to the pier hoping she is not pitied. She says she wants to wish the fishermen and their families well. People die, but traditions must live, she says. Otherwise, what remains?

Some traditions in this small town are whimsical: gatherings beneath full moons, an annual parade in the name of a prostitute, the gathering of men to gamble, lie and dine on cougar meat.

But Thanksgiving is about families. Not everyone will come home this Thanksgiving, the result of war and distance, but people in Trinidad say they will celebrate the holiday the way they always have, with humility and hope.

The Years Bring Changes,

Some Unwelcome

There will be an empty place at the Waneks' Thanksgiving table, as the oldest of their four children, son Joseph Wanek, 20, will not be home. A Marine at Camp Pendleton, he is on call to war.

The Waneks moved here from Santa Clarita in 1997. Like many newcomers, they were drawn by the beauty and chased out by the city. They wanted a slower pace, a quieter life, and they have found both on eight acres of majestic redwoods, where the sound of the surf, like other people's doings, carries easily throughout the village.

It is a place where many longtime residents have roots in lumbering or fishing and in recent years have felt they were losing grasp of what has always been theirs. Among the new arrivals are artists and retirees, some of whom buy small homes and make them big. Then there are wanderers who fill campgrounds with trailers and motor homes.

Enrollment at the school, kindergarten through eighth grade, is in decline, as housing costs rise and young families find it harder to earn wages that allow them to stay.

Debbie Wanek's husband, Craig, sells real estate and works nights at the local bingo hall. As much as they love it here, they miss the days when they were close enough to relatives to celebrate holidays together.

They miss Debbie's father, whose heart gave out four years ago at age 75. He would peel the Thanksgiving potatoes and later sit on the couch with his grandchildren and read them stories. They also miss her 33-year-old brother, killed 15 years ago in a car crash.

Thanksgiving is not the same without them, but Debbie says she will cook the same size turkey she has always cooked and prepare stuffing the same way her mother does, even though her mother won't make the trip up from North Hollywood this year. She will make her cranberries with brandy, same as always, and she will bring out the good dishes and silver, light the candles, because that is their tradition. The Saunders family will arrive at the pier en masse. Son Steve, 47, and his family will come home from Palo Alto to spend the day with his sister, nieces, nephews and parents, Glenn, 77, and Janis Saunders, 72.

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