capelin rollI put on my coat, slip into my rainboots, and walk to the car with a spring in my step. We are on our way to see the capelin roll.

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can learn more here. But in short, the capelin are little fish that come to the shores of Newfoundland in droves. They literally roll in. I’ve been hearing stories of them for the past several weeks and something inside me has been bubbling. This is going to be exciting. This is going to be epic – of National Geographic proportions. I don’t say this to anyone of course – I know it’s possible we’ll see nothing. But I decide we’ll see just what I imagine. I imagine getting to the shore and watching in awe as the capelin roll along the waves, their silvery backs glinting off the water. It will be an inspiring display of genetic memory at it’s finest, working in tandem with the circle of life.

Okay, I know that’s a lot to expect from a bunch of fish, but what can I say, sometimes I let my imagination run away with me.

We pull up to the first spot we’d been told to look and the moment the door opens I smell them. The scent is pungent and strong and takes me back to childhodead capelinod days on the shores of Prince Edward Island. I remain calm on the outside, but inside excitement boils. Trying to minimize possible disappointment, I tell myself it might not be quite as impressive as I hope and … it isn’t. We walk all along the shore looking at nothing but what you see off to the side – a bunch of stinky dead fish. (I know you can’t smell the stench, but trust me – it is there. It’s amazing how that scent changes from one that is hopeful and idyllic to one that represents nothing more than rotting flesh.)

After a few minutes we return to the car, a little less hopeful but not completely defeated. We approach the second spot. There are cars everywhere. Smoke rises from the beach. This scent reminds me of joyous nights by the fire – s’mores and camp songs, and cozying up in a sweater three sizes too big.

The shore is lined with people. Couples, families, children looking eagerly out at the water. Almost everyone has a net or a bucket and they are all just standing there, staring at nothing. Nothing that we can see, anyway. We stand there with them. I can see the capelin have been here. There are more corpses, waiting to rot, but any flash of a fin I see in the water is clearly dead – being tossed by the waves, which are the only thing that’s rolling. And we stand there several more minutes. Finally, I ask my husband – do you think there’s something we don’t know? Do you think they’re going to roll in soon or something? He tells me he thinks we’re supposed to be able to see them breaking through the surface. He points out the birds in the distance, wondering if they signify an approaching school of fish. He says all these people must be here for something. I nod, contemplating. Maybe they’re all just waiting around ‘cause everyone else is, I say. We are.

Just as we’re about to give up we notice a man with a net, his eyes scouring the shore. He looks like he knows what he’s doing. And sure enough, moments later we watch the man cast his net, finagle it for a few moments, and pull out a load of fish, just flip-flopping away. We watch him do this two more times and realize what we thought were just shadows in the water are actually the schools we’d been waiting for – there all along, but invisible to our untrained eyes.

My hands are nearly numb with the cold, and so we decide to head home, perhaps coming back another day when the fish may be really rolling. In the car, sitting on my fingers to warm them, I start thinking about how we easily could have just stood there – staring into the water – and left again without knowing what lay right in front of us. I think of the novels I’ve been writing and editing – I have three on the go right now – and how I have these visions for the emotional impact I want the words to impart to the reader. I know exactly what I want them to feel, to understand, as my characters feel it, as it jumps off the page … But I’m not always so sure it’s jumping, and if it doesn’t, it will be my failing as a writer, not theirs as a reader. And in life this happens too – and then whose failing is it? Ours, or the person we fail to see, or maybe there is no point in placing fault at all.

I’ve been concentrating on this a lot lately, trying to see inside my characters so I can let the reader see too. To practice, I do my best to really open my eyes to the people around me. Focus my vision. It’s hard.

We were staring right at those little capelin, and all we saw was water. How often do we stare at the people around us – the man in line at the grocery store, the woman we pass on the street, maybe even our own family members, thinking we know them, thinking we see them, and that what we see is all that’s there? When in reality there is something more – something alive and vibrant just below the surface. How often do we walk away from someone because we don’t know how to look for the thing in them we’re really searching for?

I didn’t get my National Geographic experience, but I got something else – really cold hands. 😉

What’s a ‘capelin’ moment you had been really waiting for, had all this expectation around, only to have it not turn out to be at all what you’d hoped? Did you end up gleaning anything else from the experience? Share in the comments below.

  1. Interesting article – Even though you found it somewhat disappointing, I still want to go and see it for myself now. It is rather like the salmon jumps, you know it happens, but still want to see it for yourself. Great investigative article!

    • It wasn’t necessarily disappointing. Still a really interesting experience! And now we get a chance to go try to see them again – when they really roll. Apparently they do sometimes look quite like I imagined!

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