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We Alaskans

Generation after generation, an Alaska family rooted in fishing

  • Author: Whitney Anderson
  • Updated: April 16, 2017
  • Published April 16, 2017

It was 1988, late spring in Togiak, with fishermen lining up and eagerly awaiting the start of herring season.

With only a half-hour to fish, the herring season is perhaps Alaska's shortest and most-intense fishery — no place for amateurs. Among the 239 seiners was the 49-foot Susan Gale, named after my mother and captained by my father.

In those 30 minutes, my dad would make one of the largest sets in herring history, 660 tons worth $600,000. Two tenders would have to work 48 hours just to pump the fish out the boat.

Back then, there was no internet, just one camera and a few nearby fishermen to witness the scene. Serene yet so powerful, sentimental, nostalgic — those are the words that come to mind when I gaze at the snapshot of one of the largest herring sets ever made. In some ways, it memorializes commercial fishing in its prime — a silhouette representing more than just a boat, but a legacy shaped by the captain himself, my dad.

On May 17, 1988, Dean Anderson in the F/V Susan Gale made one of the largest sets in herring history: 660 tons worth $600,000. (Dean Anderson)

Mapping out the past

Even though my family's prized herring photograph displays the grand side of my dad's work ethic, commercial fishing is, by and large, too romanticized in movies and reality TV shows. Sometimes, dad put so much in and got very little out of it — due to weather, crew, risky decisions, things beyond his control.

Even more bittersweet is the realization that my dad's golden catch fell on the 10th anniversary of his father's fatal midair plane collision in the same region. My grandfather Raymond, also a fisherman, was a spotter pilot who helped discover new herring grounds in 1978. Out of that horrible tragedy would come this picture 10 years later, reigniting the legacy of herring exploration my grandfather left behind and highlighting his son's miraculous harvest in the same area.

My dad comes from a rich lineage of tough hardworking patriarchs and strong-willed matriarchs. Just as he started working the skiff at age 12 for his dad's boat, one can rewind 100 years back and 5,000 miles away to Scandinavia to see his great grandfather, Oscar Lindholm, signing up to be a seafarer at age 13. Born Sept. 28, 1863, on Aland, an island off the southwest coast of Finland, Oscar worked on ships for years before sailing to America.

He later headed across the Atlantic and jumped ship in San Francisco, wasting no time getting involved with the Alaska Packers' Association, founded in 1893, and lucrative fur trapping up north. Oscar soon made his way to Alaska to make his living as a fisherman and a trapper, eventually settling in a place called Chignik Lagoon, a village 400 miles southwest of Anchorage on the Alaska Peninsula.

There, he would marry a Native Aleut woman named Anne Stepanov Phillips, have five children and help pioneer the Chignik salmon fishery for generations to come.

I found out later through my dad that Oscar's early fur-trapping base was in Mitrofania, where my great-grandmother was born. This mystifying place just east of the Alaska Peninsula town of Perryville is one of my dad's favorite fishing grounds — about a six-hour boat ride from Chignik.

The village part of Mitrofania is abandoned, but it is where Oscar and his wife had their first two children. One of them was my great-grandmother Albertina, who would marry a fisherman, Pete Anderson, but later leave him and take off alone with her four young children, one of them my grandfather Raymond, on a tender boat bound for Seattle.

This was during WWII and Japanese submarine sightings were common off the coast of Southeast Alaska. It was a treacherous two weeks, but they made it, surviving on potatoes and dried fish.

Raymond would later return to Chignik to fish and start Anderson Fisheries with my grandma Margaret, a second-generation Alaskan born in Seward. They would have four children — Gene, Neil, Dean and Rhonda — and settle in Seward during the offseason. All four kids would be involved with the Alaska salmon, cod, herring, halibut and crab fisheries.

My grandmother, a savvy and formidable woman in her time, carried on the family business after Raymond passed away unexpectedly and was well known by fisherman throughout the state.

A land fed by the sea

A boat or small plane is needed to reach Chignik. Just shy of 100 residents, the place comes alive in the summer. Veteran captains are eager to set out their nets again, seasoned crew members return to their respective boats, greenhorns join in.

It's also a place where a college girl hitchhiked across the Lower 48 to reach for a job one summer. There she met a fisherman and the rest is history. Mom would often give us glimpses into her so-called "courting life" at sea that summer of 1978:  "Your dad thought it would be funny to leave me on an iceberg (in Prince William Sound, where they were herring fishing) and just start circling around it" is a story she often brought up, though dad's pranks were endless.

Pricey permits

Permits to fish the waters off Chignik are passed down from generation to generation. Young fishermen inherited their father's permit, if they were lucky.

Otherwise, permits go for a few hundred thousand dollars, with the price tag reaching $500,000 in the late 1980s.

Sockeye were the "money fish" among the five salmon species (chinook, coho, chum, sockeye, pink) we landed. In 1988, sockeye prices hovered around a record $2.50 a pound, with Japanese buyers snapping up reds left and right. Our future competitors, the farmed salmon industry, took notice and by the mid-1990s they were flooding the market with farmed fish.

That would harm Alaska fishermen. By 2001, our price plummeted to 65 cents a pound, prompting the fishermen to go on a strike for a couple weeks.

Commercial fishing has been a roller-coaster market for years, but both the farming and wild markets have introduced salmon to a broader populace. More people are eating salmon — people who previously were not apt to buy it but now consider it a nutritious protein source. But my dad's favorite mantra was always, "Friends don't let friends eat farmed salmon."

Stout work ethic

In my early years, we took small PenAir planes to get to Chignik but started taking the M/V Tustumena ferry when the airfare went up. My siblings, Shelby, Sierra, Memry, and our mom, would stumble off the ferry, a little haggard from the ride over. Dad was always there to greet us. I could never exactly tell his thoughts from his face — which looked like a combination of overwhelming dread or gratefulness for us being there to "help" him out for the summer.

In 1996, the author, right, with her siblings Memry, Sierra and Shelby along with their father Dean Anderson prepare for fishing aboard the Susan Gale out of Chignik. (Whitney Anderson photo)

My dad had 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 — reminiscent of all the snags and tears that came from working down in the engine room. He wore a makeshift belt to hold his Victorinox knife, a belt he created with duct tape and a suspender strip from his Grundens waterproof pants. He often lost weight the first few weeks of the season when my mom was not onboard to feed him.

He had more strength to pull in a rogue net than two guys half his age.  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.

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. My sisters remind him over and over to get hearing aids, but he still doesn't listen to us. Regardless of age, his genuine enthusiasm, self-motivation and a hard work ethic will forever keep him going in the world of commercial fishing.

Life happens in the hustle

Whenever we left the Lower 48 for Alaska, I felt like an outcast from friends, whom I pictured spending the summer months going to amusement parks, checking out aquariums, taking leisure tropical vacations.

In hindsight, I had all of those, packaged in a different way. My family's boat was the amusement park, and at times an aquarium where jellyfish and starfish rained down on us when we brought in the net.

Inside the cabin all six of us would fight over the last avocado or call out the person who just used up all the water in the tanks to take a shower in our 3-square-foot bathroom.

My dad would also travel miles to remote areas where there were no other boats because he insisted that's where the fish were. Sometimes he was way off the mark. Other times we hit the jackpot, but he taught me to keep on casting the net.

Even during closures, dad kept us on our toes. There was always maintenance to do, cleaning, sewing up net. You name it, he thought of it.

I learned whether we had a good day or a bad day out there, life happens in the hustle — not just the catch. Fishing is a story of unconditional love between man and boat along with the heritage that brought them together. That's where my dad's heart will always be.

Whitney Anderson is a pop artist, fashion designer and writer. She was born in Alaska and grew up in Seattle and Colorado during off-seasons. She went on to compete for Duke University in cross country and track, graduating in 2009 with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. She has showcased her art pieces in New York City, Miami, San Francisco and Seattle, while her blogs have been featured in various local and national publications. Find her on Instagram @WhitneyLAnderson_art.

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