All photography by Anderson family
It’s been almost 10 years since I spent a summer in Chignik, I now look back and have a profound respect and admiration for my dad’s line of work out there. Being a fisherman’s daughter is more than just wearing a seaweed tiara and glamorizing the sheen of scales you collect on your skin after a set. No, if you were born into a commercial fishing family it becomes a humbling lifestyle experience from the getgo. It’s all about perseverance, hard work, sacrifice, family and never ever forgetting where you came from.
Some might know my dad for his May 17th, 1988 record herring set
in Togiak, Alaska, yet his bread and butter providing for his family has always been salmon fishing out of Chignik, Alaska. This place is home to one of the richest red salmon spawning grounds in the world and where I spent all of my summers growing up. This is where our fishing legacy all began.
MAPPING OUT THE PAST
My dad comes from a rich lineage of tough hard-working patriarchs and strong-willed matriarchs. Mariners, fur trappers, explorers and pioneers–his great grandfather Oscar Lindholm exemplified all of those. Just as my dad started working the skiff at age 12 for his dad’s boat, one can rewind 100 years back and 5,000 miles away to see Oscar signing up to be a seafarer at the age of 13. Born September 28, 1863, on Aland an island off the southwest coast of Finland, Oscar worked on ships for years before sailing to America. He eventually landed in San Francisco along with several other of his mates. The California Gold Rush was well over with and lucrative fur trapping was in full swing up North. Oscar soon made his way to Alaska to trap and he eventually settled in a place called Chignik Lagoon. In essence it mirrored his homeland of Scandinavia. There, he would make a life for himself, marry a native Aleut woman named Anne Stepanov Phillips, have five children and help pioneer the Chignik Salmon Fishery for generations of families to come. MITROFANIA
I found out later through my dad that Oscar’s early fur trapping base was in Mitrofania where my great grandmother was born. This mystified place just east of Perrysville is one of my dad’s favorite fishing grounds–about a 6hr boat ride from Chignik. The village part of Mitrofania is abandoned but it is where Oscar and his wife had two of their first two children. One of them was my great grandmother Albertina. She had a rough life–just shy of ten years old her mother died shortly after giving birth to her fifth child. Albertina helped raise her siblings but at the age of 18 set off to marry an older fisherman named Pete Anderson who came over from Sweden. He struggled to stay sober during their marriage but she finally had enough. She took off with their four young children, one of them my grandfather Raymond, on a 60′ tender boat bound for Seattle. It was a different place she craved over the village, the only life she knew up until then. This was during WWII and Japanese sub sitings were common off the southeast coast of Alaska. It was a treacherous two weeks, but they made it having survived off only potatoes and dried fish.
One of the oldest seiners in Chignik. It was built in 1962.
Raymond would later come back up to Chignik to fish and start Anderson fisheries with my grandma Margaret (né Lindsey, a 2nd generation Alaskan born in Seward). They would have four children–Gene, Neil, Dean and Rhonda. From crab, salmon, herring, cod and halibut–my dad and his family pretty much cover the major bases of Alaskan seafood.
A LAND FED BY THE SEA
Chignik rests on the western Gulf of the Pacific on the Aleutian Peninsula, west of Kodiak, east of Dutch Harbor. One can only get in by boat or small plane. Just shy of 100 residents, it is part of a conglomerate region with Chignik Lake to the west, Chignik Lagoon in th3e middle and Chignik Bay to the east. Chignik means Aleut for “big wind” but fisherman look at it as big bucks, their source of income and subsistence. This place comes alive in the summer with veteran captains eager to set out their nets again, seasoned crew returning to their respective boats, greenhorns joining (who will never come back home the same) and….
….It’s also a place where a college girl traveled over three thousand miles from home to get a job one summer, met a fisherman and the rest is history. My mom would often give us glimpses into her so-called “courting life” at sea when she first met my dad after a hitchhiking trip to Alaska with friends in that summer of 1978. Out of the dozens of villages she could have picked she chose this little with a funny name and worked for Anderson Fisheries (part of my dad’s family’s business). “Remember that time when you left me on that iceberg and you just started circling around it?” she often brings up about some of my dad’s endless pranks. “That was a test” he would always say.
The permits to fish there are passed down from generation to generation, most guys inheriting their father’s if they were lucky otherwise I heard at one point they were $500,000 in the ’80s–that much money just for the privelige in this region! The highest prices we got out of the 5 species (chinook, coho, chum, sockeye, pink) of salmon that we caught in our net were sockeye–hovering around a record $2.50/lb in ’88. That is when the Japanese were buying up our salmon left and right. Sockeye is the number one sashimi grade used in sushi, in case you were wondering. Our future competetors–the farm salmon industry–was taking notice. In the mid 90s, they had moved in and started infilterating the market with farm-fed salmon (stories would abound over the years of invasive species escaping their pens and threatening their wild cousins). Since farm salmon came along side and stole a lot of market share with their enticing prices in the ’90s, fishing has been a roller coaster since. My dad used to remark “yea, those Chileans work for a $1/hr on the fish farms in South America…” On a positive note, the farming and wild markets opened up salmon to a broader populace and got people to eat salmon who previously were not apt to buy it. Hence, it became mainstream with food culture down in the Lower48 and up their with king crab on restaurant menus.
Just as my dad was still riding on a high from his 1988 high seasons in herring and salmon, the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill would sway him and whole generation of fisherman off their tracks on March 29th, 1989. Chignik is on the southwest side of the highlighted area. We could refer to my little sister Memry as an “Oil Spill Baby” because she was born the following spring of 1990 so go figure something good came about from that summer.
My dad’s boats over the years: Autum Gale, Susan Gale, Sierra Gale and Memry Anne
Full deck load / Photo by Sierra Anderson
The farmed salmon market would continue to have a ruthless effect on us nonetheless: a breaking point came in 2001 when our price plummeted to $0.65/lb. The fishermen, processors, everyone was livid. The fisherman went on strike. After three weeks into an Opener and no one fishing, my dad finally broke the strike by going off to fish. He got everything from boos to life threats–even a homemade effigy when he went to deliver his catch later on at the dock that eve (since no marine vessels were processing and still on strike). I spoke with some of his crew later that summer and they said they literally hid in the cabin by all of the chaos going on outside on the docks. They were scared for their lives. With my dad breaking the strike, they proposed a new game plan starting in 2002 to appease the fisherman: a co op. My dad and the rest of his high-lining (above average catchers) comrades hated the idea, while the average/below average catchers welcomed it. Can someone say Socialism? They found out it was: the board of fish ruled it unconstitutional three years later and we were back to the old school every-man-fend-for-himself days. In 2006 everything was back as it had been since the strike year of 2001.
Just as one problem was solved, another came up. In 2006 we faced the lowest salmon run–it was the equivalent of the Great Depression for Chignik fisherman. There is not extensive knowledge about a salmon’s life cycle but scientists do know a few things about spawning and how each salmon will go back to the place of their birth. A “run” is a generation of salmon, its a term fisherman use to differentiate the waves of fish that are caught throughout the summer and season to season. Peculiarly this low run came about 5 years after the strike. Salmon, in particular the sockeyes, swim wild in the open ocean for a few years before they start heading back to their spawning grounds. So, theory has it, the plummet in salmon stock of 2006 was due to the 2001 over-escapement of salmon during the infamous strike causing a deluge of salmon to be born that next spring. There was not enough food in the lake for the fry to survive, so many died off.
My sister Sierra was very into videography after she graduated college and shot a lot of footage on her commercial fishing family. Someone caught sight of these on youtube and a reality show was born “Hook Line And Sisters.” It lasted a few episodes but was pulled due to not being on the right network. Here is a funny behind the scenes video:
A FAR OFF PLACE
My dad raised us to hustle on a boat while trying to read his hand motions and decipher orders given to us often in cursing language–because that’s how you got things done around here. I felt like an outcast from my normal friends who I pictured spending those months going to amusement parks, checking out aquariums, taking leisure tropical vacations with their families or just simply riding their bike around the coldesac. In hindsight I had all of those, just packaged in a different way. My family’s boat was
the amusement park, essentially from the outside an aquariam where jellyfish and starfish rained down on us when we brought in the net. Inside the cabin all 6 of us would fight over the last avocado (long story short, its really difficult to get fresh produce up there) or call out the person who just used up all the water in the tanks to take a shower in our 2.5sq foot bathroom. Those were during the “Openers” when the DFG had enough escapement of fish up the river they let the fisherman catch as much as they wanted. Openers lasted anywhere from 24hours to two weeks. I always liked closures because that meant sleeping in my own bed at our beach house and catching up with my friends.
You got OG status when you can drive with your baby teeth still in… Sierra would later become one of my dad’s greatest assets on the boat as she operated the skiff for several years in her 20s.
GOT LOX? Sierra and Memry prepping fish for the smoker and brine. Both fished with our dad throughout their 20s
During our short break periods between setting out nets, we would explore uninhabited Alaskan Islands jagged and jutting out of the water like they were straight out of the Jurassic Park
opening scenes filmed in Costa Rica–instead of raptors on the beach you would see bears and in the water orcas passing by! Dinner was always comprised of salmon–if you could think of something Bubba Gump’s family did with shrimp that’s what we did with salmon.
During the school year I grew up in a world away from Chginik, the most quintessential Pacific Northwest suburbia, a place called Mukilteo, WA. I never took it for granted–especially coming back from no-man’s land Alaska every summer. Lawns were trimmed to the T, our cat ran away so we made flyers, and we hosted lemonade stands–. According to one of Outdoor Magazine’s surveys, Mukilteo was labled in it’s Top 10 Towns to Raise a Family in America. Of course that article would come out after
the Anderson fishing clan moved to Colorado in 1996. Yea, get the memo. I grew up in relative comfort but we were never too relaxed around the house, there was always some type of strain when you are a self-employed family. Money was always a topic of heated sorts–my dad’s boat was like his fifth child and it needed more attention sometimes than the rest of the family–that’s when duty called. Often times my mom would stay back home with us while my dad was away fishing for months at a time. My parents never spoiled us though–they kept us working on the boat in the summers and busy with sports in the winters. Going through a Mcdonalds drive thru was a treat, we were banned from watching The Simpsons
(apparently there is enough disfunction to go around with the average American family and we didn’t need any more to interfere with ours), and my unbeknowest soccer mom drove us around in a scrappy dodge caravan which had a mouse living in it at one point (I’ll save that story for another time).
left to right: Sierra, me, Memry, mom and Shelby
In my early years we took the Pen Air small planes to Chignik but started taking the M/V Tustumena ferry when airfare went up. It always reminded me of the soldiers getting home from war as my dad greeted us–We stumbled off the ferry like a semi-homeless family, a little haggard from the ride over. I could never exactly tell from his face what looked like a combination of either overwhelming dread of emotions or gratefulness for us being there to “help” him out for the summer.
THE DEAN MACHINE
This is how I remember it: always in early June, always a couple degrees shy of 60, overcast skies. I see my dad walking in the distance: standard style of blue jeans tucked under his Algae-brown Xtra Tufts, hands in his pockets, shoulders slumped, all serious looking until he starts to crack a smile as he gets closer to seeing us. This guy has more holes in his $20 Kirkland Signature pants than a $70 pair of Abercrombie Destroyed classics. It looked like his pants experienced a shootout because the holes in the front aligned with the holes in the back. It was reminiscent of all the snags and tears working down in the engine room that tore up his clothing. He wore cargo pants in his later years I’ve noticed more–probably realizing the functionality the cargos had in relation to his regular jeans. The cargos had many pockets, the jeans only has two. So, whenever he blew holes through his back pockets he would have no place to put his wallet so he just switched to cargos because he could just put his wallet in different places. He wore a makeshift belt to hold his Victrinox knife (in case of emergencies involving the net) he created it with ducktape and a Grundin’s suspender strap. The belt helped hold his pants up–he often lost weight within the first few weeks of the season opener, especially when my mom was not onboard to feed him. He often forgot to eat, he fed his boat hull with salmon and that would sustain his mental appetite.
The work never stops…my mom makes my dad take a quick break from sewing seine for a haircut (while he catches up on his sleep, too)
He had more strength to pull in rogue net than two guys his age put together. Perhaps it was supernatural or just a combination of his strength and adrenaline. Hovering a little over 5’10” he always seemed taller to me, too–even as I got older I thought he was taller than his actual height. Is it like this with most daughters? Our dad is the first guy we looked up to and maybe we always would think of them as the tallest guy out there. I’ve dated ppl well over 6ft but still my dad seemed taller than those guys. He wore a black leather jacket that was weathered and cracked all over from months and years of salt water, rain and the cold. An embroidered “Chignik Pride” logo was on his left side. (Chignik Pride was one of our first buyers and processors, Norquest and Trident would follow; Chignik Pride would later dissolve and Trident would buy out Norquest.) My dad’s face usually had fisherman’s stubble on it. He had dark brunette hair but his beard was a mahogany red sheen, remiscient of a rusted Bobcat taken over by the elements. The first cologne I ever knew was my father’s: a combination of Diesel engine fuel and salmon masked by his signature Old Spice deodorant (that he put on every other day). Some things never change either, my dad never diverted from his signature scent which is why I was not embarrassed to buy him cologne at Christmas. My dad was aging gracefully, he always had crows feet, but not a grey hair in sight. He had a slightly crooked nose (having broke it twice as a child), hazel almost beedy eyes. His hands one could get confused with an eighteenth century topography map–those lines and blotches, grooves and shadings epitomized the deep blue-ocean collar in him. His back would often bother him and he developed a nagging “ringing” in his ears over the years due to the not-so-melodic sounds of working on a fishing boat his whole life. Me and my sisters would always say “Dad, that’s it we’re getting you hearing aids for Christmas.” My dad every time: “You’re what?!
When you are a child, everything seems a lot bigger, nostalgic moments take slower shape and you are left with a visual that is also made up of every sound, smell and detail surrounding that moment. My dad walking towards us was a sign that the man of the house was back, we were owned for the summer–he was going to put me to work at the plunger again (it scares the fish away as one hauls in the net) and I was going to be seasick half the time. My dad would come inside the cabin at 6am after he already made two halls and woke me up with his cold wet hands against my face “you just missed the money bag!” Ugh go away. My sisters, brother and mom and our other crewman that my dad picked up for the season–we were the common denominators between my dad’s season going boom or going bust. Even on our closures my dad kept us on our toes to get ready for the next opener–there was always maintenance to do, cleaning around the boat, sewing up net, you name it = he thought of it.
Trying to hide from my dad or just trying to escape from each other? We kids all had our places of refuge to chill (I was probably up on the crows nest, out of frame, in this picture)
Whenever I heard that there was a closure I would be the first in the skiff to head back to our beach house. The feeling of the sand as I jumped off the skiff was like sinking into wet brown sugar. The mounds seaweed on the beach were a welcome home “sea spaghetti” as I liked to happily imagine it. The seagulls were squawking as we disrupted their feasting off dead salmon carcasses along the tide line. Eagles would swoop in at dusk. A four wheeler roared in the distance. One of the village boys just skidding by blowing a smoke of dust–his way of showing off–which was a short nostalgic highlight to the mundane village life he knew.
The tide was going out, the wind was picking up. It was a quarter past 9pm and this little Alaskan village was still teaming with life and sunlight during this mid-summer day. Above, the sky was spun like blue and pink cotton candy knotted into massive vanilla white cumulous clouds overcast into a dark sky that dissipated along emerald green mountains across the Lagoon. The sunsets were long and drawn out–the sky was an orchestra of colors, an encore of beauty that would never see itself on any postcard. And we liked keeping it to ourselves. Leaving out the rest of the world was the power of rural Alaskan life–and we harnessed it.
Some of the most heart-wrenching dramas and some of the most heartfelt family-bonding periods would be played out in this secluded coastal wilderness over the span of my life.
Chignik is a place you go to where everything was frozen in time. With the exception of the tide going in and out, some things never changed out here. Over the years I have had more time to reflect on my memories of its mystical beauty balanced out with the tough reality of it–I might have left Chignik and but Chignik will never leave me.
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Susan & Dean: My mom’s trek to Alaska sparked a lifetime of world travel–she has been to over 100 countries and counting. When my dad is not fishing he is an avid skier back in Colorado and also travels with my mom, he has learned to appreciate different forms of adventure. They both reside in Colorado for the winter
Shelby: My brother Shelby joined the army and served for 10 years, he now has a family in Colorado.
Sierra: My older sister is an outdoor adventurist and videographer.
Memry: My youngest sister is a skilled photographer