Corky Dragland tells a story about how he once snuck out his trawler, the Roma, in Alaska two days before fishing season officially started and got caught in a storm with 79-mph gales. Perched atop a barstool, the grizzled 80-year-old slurps bourbon and water through a thick pink straw, closes his eyes, strokes the patch of gray hair on his throat, and remembers the near-death experience like it happened yesterday.
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"I had the ride of my life—oh boy, that was lots of fun," Dragland says gleefully, with a faint Norwegian accent that turns his Ws into Vs. "You know, you got to be real smart to own a boat. Either that or real stupid."
Bellied up to the bar at the Ballard Smoke Shop, Dragland is a living, breathing, heavy-drinking embodiment of what Ballard used to be. Now a veritable retail and restaurant utopia with a hip new condo development on seemingly every other block, the neighborhood was formerly the domain of fishermen, crabbers, and dock workers. The roughnecks are still around, tipping back shots of whiskey and schooners of Rainier, but only if you know where to find them.
The Smoke Shop (5439 Ballard Ave. N.W., 784-6611) is a good place to start. Lighting up indoors was outlawed in Washington in 2005, but that's about the only thing about this dive that has changed over the years. Located a few blocks north of the Deep Sea Fishermen's Union office on Ballard Avenue, its walls are dotted with framed pictures of fishing vessels—including a black-and-white shot of Dragland and his boat, dated 1957—and the drinks are strong and cheap. As at other old-school Ballard bars, there's a bell to signal when a patron decides to buy a round for everybody.
Marsha Erickson, a bartender at The Smoke Shop for 33 years, says once upon a time the house drink of choice was "Norwegian champagne"—vodka and Coke, no ice. Guys would "six-pack" each other, she recalls, by ordering half a dozen drinks all lined up in a row. "They drank from 6 in the mornin' till 2 at night, or until they passed out," Erickson says. "They'd drink and fight and arm- wrestle. The kids these days couldn't hold a candle to 'em. Not a candle."
Down the street at Hattie's Hat (5231 Ballard Ave. N.W., 784-0175, hatties-hat.com), a Ballard Avenue institution since 1904, the original wooden bar is pocked with marks left over from the era when fishermen would hang heavy hooks above their stools to claim spots. Hattie's used to be open 24 hours, with a drinking hiatus from 2 to 6 a.m., but when the commercial-fishing industry began to flounder, the bar scaled back to a regular 3 p.m.–2 a.m. schedule on weekdays.
"The fishermen are a dying breed right now," says Chelsea Osterhaut, the barkeep working a recent Tuesday afternoon shift. "But when they're here, they make their presence known. They will drink any other customer under the table. They can be a handful, but you love 'em, 'cause they're funny and real."
A number of Ballard watering holes are still frequented by fishermen (crabbers reportedly prefer the Lock and Keel), but for pure authenticity and atmosphere, it's tough to top The Sloop (2830 N.W. Market St., 782-3330, theslooptavern.com). Kitty-corner to the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks at the west end of Market Street, the bar has a mural of an angler in rain gear painted on the side of the building. Inside are pull tabs, pool tables, sports on the TV, and "Sloopersize" liter mugs of beer—typically filled with Rainier. "Rainier is Ballard tap water," says Katie Lucas, a longtime Sloop bartender. "That to me is drinkin' like a fisherman, 'cause them boys was raised on it."
The Sloop sells T-shirts with the slogan "Ballard: A sleepy little drinking village with a condo problem." Katie says the neighborhood's gentrification has made Friday and Saturday "amateur night" at the bar, but she can't complain too much: The condo-dwellers are still paying customers, even if they don't tip quite as generously as the seamen.
Back at the Smoke Shop, Dragland, who plays his accordion on Sunday mornings at the Ballard Farmers Market, explains why he has no complaints about the Ballard real-estate boom. He eventually quit fishing, finding more lucrative work as a machinist. Decades ago, he purchased a duplex a few blocks away from The Smoke Shop, and its prime location near Market Street has made his property value skyrocket in recent years.
"It's worth a million dollars," Dragland says excitedly. "Before I'm dead it could be worth $2 million. It's zoned for six stories!" Ironically enough, the biggest catch of the old fisherman's life could turn out to be a future condo development.