The life of a professional skier is never typical, but for McKenna Peterson it's especially unorthodox. Follow Mary McIntyre as she takes us aboard the Peterson family's commercial fishing boat, to see what 'off-season' life is like for McKenna. Words and photography by Mary McIntyre.
Devin, one of the deckhands, yanks a pin resulting in a high-speed release of the skiff boat pulling the end of our ¼ mile long net towards the rocky shoreline. His small aluminum craft powers away from us, unfurling the net behind. Finely crocheted webbing flies off the back of the big boat, flinging kelp and water droplets into the air. Its 5am and fishing has just ‘opened’ for the day, though it’s still quite dark. Yellow corks holding the net afloat bob in a sinuous line behind us while the massive latticework stretches 60 feet down into the ocean. After 20 minutes of waiting, hoping that salmon are swimming into the net and not finding a way back out, it’s time to ‘close’.
After meeting Mckenna on a ski trip in Iceland several winters years back, I’ve been intrigued by the salmon boat labor that keeps her occupied all summer. So, when the offer came to work on the boat for a week while one of her crewmembers visited home, I jumped at the chance. Flying into Sitka, Alaska, over the pointy peaks and bulging, Yosemite-like rock faces of the coast range, dotted with high alpine lakes and glaciers, I was already eager to explore the landscape. Our plane slid in low over the water, brilliant blue and dotted with treed islands, before landing on a short runway plopped in the middle of the bay. Once the capital of Russian Alaska, Sitka is a quaint coastal town surrounded by stunning wilderness – to its north is an island with the highest population of bears per square mile of any place on earth. We boarded the boat in drizzling rain and pulled out of the busy harbor, chugging north through narrow coastal channels for hours in order to stake our claim on fishing grounds for the next morning.
Fishing like this, seining, has more similarities to skiing than I imagined – it makes sense that Mckenna is not only a pro, but also thrilled by it. Though there are designated areas and hours when fishing is allowed, captains have to imagine where the fish are likely to be, how the weather will affect their movement, and if it’s better fishing a spot they’re familiar with or checking out somewhere new that might result in a stuck net, beached boat, or worse. Much like hunting for powder, fisherman wanting to avoid crowds, but also glean information on where everyone has been fishing, what they caught, and where they’re going tomorrow, all without sharing their own secrets.
Mckenna’s been working on the family boat as a crewmember since she was 17, and is very much familiar with the ins and outs of the fishing life. After her father, the captain of the FV Atlantis for the past 30 years, passed away in a horrible avalanche accident, Mckenna stepped into the lead role and began learning the intricacies of all the things she’d been observing for the past decade. It’s a lot to learn all at once, and from my first day on the fishing boat I’m blown away by her newly developed skill set. Backing the boat out of our narrow slip in the harbor, directing her crew while pulling in the net, and running the hydraulic lift without even looking at it – she’s insanely capable and knowledgeable.
After a full day of fishing, we power down the coast to a cedar-planked hotspring nestled on the shores of a sheltered bay. We soak in the balmy waters as Milky Way stars bloom brightly across the night sky. In a place reachable only by boat or float plane, we’re joined by two other seining boats and crew, a squad of salmon fishermen and fisherwomen filling the hot tubs to overflowing – taking a moment to relax and talk about the past and future of their trade. It’s the worst salmon return anyone can remember – the amount of fish they’re catching doesn’t even come close to historic amounts. There’s talk of warmer oceans forcing the fish down deeper in search of cold water, of a lack of rain drying out creeks, confusing spawning fish swimming upstream towards home. Will things return to normal, or is this the new normal? Everyone has their own beliefs to cling to, and tomorrow is another day on the water, putting in long hours and trying to think like the fish.Of course, on a vessel with so many moving parts, things don’t always go as planned. After putting out just three sets the first morning, the towline snaps as the net goes taut. “F*$%! This has never happened before! I have NO idea what to do!” Mckenna panics as the skiff boat and the $100,000 net – very necessary for fishing the rest of the day and the rest of the season – go free-floating into the ocean. We have to find a way to get the net re-attached to the main boat so we can use the hydraulics to haul it back in. With several new crewmembers, Mckenna is missing her right-hand man to bounce ideas off and troubleshooting with, but she and the deckhands come up with a plan. After a lot of stressing, yelling, and pulling lines on deck, we finally get the net back on board.
On my second to last day, our generator dies, and it looks like the Atlantis may be stuck in town for several weeks until a replacement is found and installed. Luckily, strings are pulled and within a day of my departure, Mckenna and her crew are out on the ocean again, with fully working parts, for now… It’s a high stakes game, and I’m too bad at sitting still to consider playing for more than a week, but if the season provides a few good days of fishing for Mckenna and her crew, they can live off their earning all winter. It’s a ski bum’s dream come true; not working, skiing everyday, surviving off the fish they harvested months before. My week on the Atlantis provides a glimpse into a world I didn’t know existed, and who knows, maybe I’m addicted. Maybe I’ll be back...