Leaden skies hang over Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth on Monday March 1, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“Ocean in view! O! the joy.” — William Clark

The other day I was looking at the ocean, remembering what famed explorer William Clark said upon seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time. I have always felt awe at the accomplishments of Lewis and Clark; as I get older, I admire their feat even more.

Maybe it is because of all the books I’ve read about the Corps of Discovery Expedition or the documentary by Ken Burns, aptly chronicling in words and pictures that 4,100-mile journey from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean. Upon reaching the end of that arduous journey, William Clark stood and — in simple prose — exclaimed his joy on what his eyes saw.

Seeing the ocean and thinking those thoughts, I realized: Who hasn’t seen the ocean for the first time and not had a similar sentiment swell from within? Not many of us. Our feelings are personal yet remain a shared experience because of our primordial connection to water. The comforting salve the ocean provides to us in sight and sound causes emotions to bloom —be it a smile or a tear— revealing our joy and wonder when in company with the ocean.

I imagine Downeasters experience the ocean differently every day. Here the ocean is not only something they can see anytime; for many, it, too, is a place of work.  It is a friend when the weather is good, a foe when it turns bad. Its waters harbor life, which in turn sustains other life. It gives, it takes, is always respected, sometimes cursed and can be a friend. But it is always a companion to the waterlogged seaman who plies its waves.

Fishermen here Down East are special. Their weathered exterior adeptly hides that child they once were. They complain on the hard, complain even more at the helm of their boat, motoring with the tide to their fishing grounds. Yet that childlike wonder is always there whenever near or on the ocean.

With eyes constantly scanning the horizon, their emotions sink deep remembering old friends taken in an instant and buoyantly rise when a son or grandson leans in and performs well. Family means everything to the fisherman, and fishing and teaching is what they do — in that order. The ocean is their palette: muddled one day with breakers and tides running; glassy smooth other days with tides surrendering; still they fish, and they teach all they know.

I once asked a fisherman friend of mine what he sees and thinks about when he looks upon ocean waters day in and day out. It must become tedious or at the very least boring, I say to myself. George Sprague did not hesitate with his answer. In all the years he has tended and fished these waters, his feelings when holding hands with the ocean have not changed.

“I never tire of the riches and tranquil beauty of the ocean and am always joyous in its presence because of the memories it holds for me. Some 60 years ago while stepping into every footprint behind my dad on the many adventures we had together on the water, I now take those precious memories and —working with my son and he with his son — teach them, while every day we make more memories on the water, together.”

These are good words, true words, words from the heart, which easily could be heard coming from any brine-soaked fisherman willing to be honest with him or herself. With every trap hauled, a childlike hand reaches up, tugs and pulls on the line, reminding them of why they are here and how special a day on the ocean is every day. William Clark’s words may not come to mind when a loaded trap hits the deck, but I am certain the swell of emotion they feel is the very same when the sun breaches the horizon and tinges the ocean gold.

In the end, when it comes to that feeling I have when in the midst of ocean waters, I know this: They are the same feelings I had when I glimpsed those same waters in my youth. A swell of emotion begins in the gut, makes its way up through the body and tingles as I raise my head to see and breathe in to catch the light bouncing off the waves, salt air in my nose, men in boats big and small who wave, smile and plow through the sea of their youth, too, as they go to work. It is that same feeling I had as a boy: holding it in my sight, all wrapped and glistening in blue paper, sunlight its bow, and I, standing on the beach, a dock, deck or shoreline of granite bold, whispering out loud — “O! the joy.”

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RJ Heller, Down East contributor

RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and many other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.