It was 1988, the end of spring and the dawn of summer in Togiak, Alaska as fishermen were lined up eagerly awaiting the start of herring season. With only a half-hour window to set on fish that day, the herring season is one of the shortest and most intense fisheries out there--no place for amatures. Of the 239 seiners present, there stood out 30yr old captain Dean Anderson on his boat F/V "Susan Gale," a 49' fiberglass beauty named after my mother. Within those 30 minutes my dad would make one of the largest sets in herring history: 660 tons worth $600,000, a job that would take two tenders and 48 hours to pump out. There was no internet, just one camera and a few fishermen to witness the scene. Serene yet so powerful, sentimental, nostalgic--those are the words that come to mind when I gaze at this snapshot of one of the largest herring sets ever made. It's taken 27 years to highlight this family gem: an immortalization of commercial fishing at its prime and a silhouette representing more than just a boat but of a legacy shaped by the captain himself--my dad.
MAPPING OUT THE PAST
Even though the herring photograph displays the grandeur side of my dad's work ethic, being a commercial fisherman is far too romanticized in the movies and reality shows. Sometimes he put so much in but only got so much out of it--due to weather, crew, risky decisions, things beyond his control. What is even more of a bittersweet realization is that my dad's golden catch fell on the 10th anniversary of his dad's fatal mid-air plane collision in the same region. My grandfather Raymond, also a fisherman, was a spotter pilot involved with discovering new herring grounds back 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 hard-working 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 in Scandanavia to see his great grandfather Oscar Lindholm signing up to be a seafarer at the age of 13. Born September 28, 1863, on Åland an island off the southwest coast of Finland, Oscar worked on ships for years before sailing to America. He later headed across the Atlantic, jumped ship in San Francisco and wasted no time getting involved with the Alaska Packer's Association (started in 1891) and lucrative fur trapping going on up north. Oscar soon made his way to Alaska to make a living as a fisherman and a trapper, eventually settling in a place called Chignik Lagoon. There, he would 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.
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 their first two children. One of them was my great grandmother Albertina. She who would later marry a fisherman Pete Anderson 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 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.
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--and settle in Seward during the off season. All four kids would be involved with the salmon, cod, herring, halibut and crab fisheries in Alaska. My grandmother, a savvy and formidable woman in her time, carried on the family business (after Raymond passed so unexpecteldy) and is today a respected and admired Anderson matriarch known throughout her local community and statehood of Alaska.
This article came from the Seward Phoenix Log after Raymond passed away in '78 and she started running a large Herring Roe Extraction plant in Seward throughout the early '80s. Many new jobs were formed and Seward thrived as a whole from the business relations my Grandma was making with foreign countries like Japan.
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, 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 just joining and....
When Dean Met Susan. My mom came into my dad's life just weeks after the plane crash. This year they will be celebrating their 34th wedding anniversary.
It's also a place where a college girl hitch-hiked 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 in that summer of 1978: "Your dad thought it would be funny to leave me on an iceberg an just start circling around it" she often brings up about some of my dad's endless pranks.
The permits to fish in Chignik are passed down from generation to generation, most guys inheriting their father's if they are lucky. Otherwise, they go for a few hundred thousand dollars--reaching all the way up to $500,000 in the late 80s--that much money just for the priviledge to fish in this region! The highest prices out of the 5 species (chinook, coho, chum, sockeye, pink) in our net is our "money fish" sockeye--hovering around a record $2.50/lb in '88. That is when the Japanese were buying up our salmon left and right. Our future competitors--the farm salmon industry--were taking notice and in the mid-90s started infilterating the market with farm-fed salmon. That market would start to have a detrimental effect; eventually a breaking point came in 2001 when our price plummeted to $0.65/lb. and the fishermen went on a strike for a couple weeks. The plummet in salmon stock in 2006 was due to the 2001 over-escapement 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. Commercial fishing has been a roller coaster over the years, nonetheless, both the farming and wild markets have opened up salmon to a broader populace. Now people are eating salmon who previously were not apt to buy it so this seafood is not just a novelty anymore but a nutritious protein source--more sustainable and higher quality in the wild version if you did your homework. My dad's favorite mantra? "Friends don't let friends eat farmed salmon."
My sister Sierra, a talented videographer, captured a lot of the ups and downs of our commercial fishing business over the years. Someone caught sight of her videos on youtube and a reality show was born "Hook Line And Sisters." in 2011. Here is a funny behind the scenes video:
Filming "Hook, Line and Sisters" | Summer Chignik 2011
THE DEAN MACHINE
In my early years we took the Pen Air small planes to get to Chignik but started taking the M/V Tustumena ferry when airfare went up. We--my siblings Shelby, Sierra, Memry, and our mom--would always stumble off the ferry like a semi-homeless family, a little haggard from the ride over as my dad was there to greet us. 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.
Sierra, mom, Shelby and dad on their first boat F/V Autumn Gale (bought after they were married in 1982) | Summer 1986, Chignik
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)
My dad is such a character. The guy 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 working down in the engine room that tore up his clothing. He wore a makeshift belt to hold his Victrinox knife he created with ducktape and a Grundin's suspender strap. He often lost weight within the first few weeks of the season opener, especially when my mom was not onboard to feed him. He fed his boat hull with salmon and that would sustain his mental appetite but not his physical. He had more strength to pull in rogue net than two guys his age put together. 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 hands one could get confused with an eighteenth century topography map. 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 have to remind him to get hearing aids but he 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.
GOT LOX? Sierra and Memry prepping fish for the smoker and brine, Chignik, AK. Both fished with our dad throughout their 20s
Whenever we left from Lower48 for Alaska, 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. 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 aquarium 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. My dad would also travel miles away to remote areas where there were no other boats because he insisted that's where the fish were. Sometimes he was way off his mark and other times we hit the jackpot but he taught me to keep on casting the net in life. 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.
Growing up in this atmosphere, 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.