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Poulsbo’s Captain Ed Shields ‘crosses the bar’

POULSBO — With his health continuing to deteriorate, Capt. Ed Shields knew he was close to “crossing the bar” last year. The long-time Poulsbo resident also knew that if he didn’t tell the tale of the hundreds of fishermen who had crossed before him, no one would.

No one else could.

When Shields finished the six-year effort, compiling a lifetime’s experience and knowledge of maritime history into his book, “Salt of the Sea: The Pacific Coast Cod Fishery and the Last Days of Sail,” it seemed a heavy burden had been lifted and his sails were ready to set for the last time.

He died Thursday at the age of 86.

Shields grew up in the shadow of his father, Capt. J.E. Shields, a man whose vision and love of the sea made Poulsbo the city is today. But while the “Old Fox” spent 50 years of his life improving the local economy and working to expand the Liberty Bay based Pacific Coast Codfish Company, his son carried on this connection to the ocean’s bounty in both his work and his words.

Ed Shields’ years behind the helm were significantly shorter in number but his eye for detail captured the experiences of his life and times in writing — a fitting tribute not only to the “Old Fox” but to the entire industry.

Soon after “Salt of the Sea” was published, Shields explained why it was so important that he tell the tale of days when huge schooners would set sail for the Bering Sea in search of cod.

“I’m the only person who could do this. If I didn’t, no one would and it would be lost,” he said. “Nobody else could write this. They were not there.”

This fact made Shields’ efforts to finish the book all the more worthy.

His cozy yellow house, located on the former site of the Pacific Coast Codfish Company, has the warm feel of a maritime museum. Huge, black and white pictures depicting the heydays of codfishing encompass the entire north wall in the living room, which also offers a sweeping view of Shields’ first love and possibly his true home — the sea.

Born New Year’s Day 1916, Shields grew up surrounded by vessels, salt water, tales of the “one that got away” and the fishermen he would later emulate. At the time, his father was already manager of the Pacific Coast Codfish Company, owning and operating a small fleet of schooners at the same time. Continuing his plan to buy out the original shareholders, he would go on to own the company in 1928.

Capt. Ed Shields was 17 years old when his father guided the four-masted schooner, the Sophie Christenson, into the Bering Sea and the history books. During the five-month fishing trip, the 45-man vessel set the all-time American record for codfish, hauling in an astounding 455,000 bottom feeders.

According to the Ballard News Tribune, records were also broken for a day’s catch at 16,850 codfish and a for a individual crew member at 1,050 codfish.

One year later, at the age of 18, Ed Shields made his first trip to the Bering Sea as a codfisherman and worked numerous summers thereafter fishing while returning in the fall to further his education at the University of Washington in Seattle. By 1940, he had earned a Masters Degree in Engineering from Harvard but he never once turned his back to the sea.

In 1950, he made his own impression on the history books, taking the famous three-masted schooner the C.A. Thayer out on what would prove to be the final commercial fishing venture on a sailboat in the Pacific Ocean.

While the codfish industry was nearing its conclusion in Poulsbo, Shields’ love for the sea was far from over and his education of all things maritime continued into his final days.

His son, Jim Shields went on to become a captain as well — although in a different capacity . He now serves as the head of Fire District 18 in Poulsbo.

“He was okay. He was ready to go,” Shields said Friday morning about his father, agreeing that “Salt of the Sea” was the “last project” for a man whose life was steeped with projects of all shapes, sizes and mediums.

“One of the things we thought was pretty fantastic was his artistry,” he explained, noting that his father had become extremely skilled in creating brass and wood maritime scenes.

While some pieces are confined to the “living museum” in the family home on Fjord Drive, others decorate the Sons of Norway Lodge. Capt. Ed Shields also made the stained glass window at the entryway to First Lutheran Church but “Salt of the Sea,” his son said, was definitely the “crowning touch.”

“The main reason he wanted to finish that was to get that message out to the public,” Jim Shields said. “He had a lot of projects but this was the big one. He knew if he didn’t do it no one would and the history would be lost forever.”

Capt. Ed Shields made sure it wasn’t.

When his own father died in 1962, he quoted Longfellow’s poem “Crossing the Bar,” in eulogy to the man whose spirit had at long last sailed past the distant bar to the peaceful harbor reserved for men of the sea, casting anchor for the last time.

Surely, he now dwells in the same waters.

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