Thank You, Swimmer
By Emma Teal Laukitis
Before I was born my mom and dad bought a homestead on the Aleutian Islands. The place was remote—across the bay from a small Aleut village—but alone on the tundra and surrounded by sea. This place, Stonewall Place, and its proximity to fishing grounds seemed a siren’s call to my young parents on their first married adventure. Salmon were swimming through the pass and into fishermen’s nets. My parents set out to catch their first fish.
With the influx of money from their first salmon seasons, raising children became feasible. My sister was born before the first Area M opener in 1990, and I joined her a year later.
Stonewall Place taught us about survival. Survival was possible with subsistence and self-sustainability. The four of us depended on water to power our waterwheel, driftwood for warmth, and the ocean for food. Our home was isolated, our family insular. We grew strong as an entity—by enduring together and fishing together.
I learned very young that salmon were to be respected. My mom taught my sister and me to weave mats out of long beach grass. These mats became beds for two sides of a salmon, filleted with a beach-found mussel shell. We honored the first fish we caught each summer with a prayer and eagle down in our dandelion-blonde hair. We treat the salmon with respect, my dad taught us, so that when we send the salmon’s remains back to the sea, she tells the others to swim to our nets.
The smell of salmon became our own. When we skipped across the pass to the village for groceries and mail, the postmistress sniffed at us from across the counter. My mom set down a bag of her smoked salmon, the source of our smell, on a book of stamps. The villagers loved Mom’s smoked strips. They called it Aleut candy.
Salmon fishing was my first paying job and early source of entertainment. Too young to be of real use, my sister and I were put to work sliming with butter knives the king salmon my dad brought home for my mom’s smokehouse. While she filleted and brined the fish, we dissected and tasted and squealed. Not many years later, we were Grundens-clad crew on the back deck of my dad’s boat, the Lucky Dove.
My family moved to Homer for the winters when my sister and I were old enough to require real schooling. We were timid and uncertain away from the wild Aleutians. But there was already a common language forming between us and a freckled girl form a fish camp in Ugashik, a brother and sister from an Area M drifter, the spirited daughter of a Dillingham setnetting family. Together we were children of a seasonal tradition, returning with our families each summer in search of salmon, the fish that sustained us and defined our collective lives.
I saved my crew share through high school. My mom helped me open a bank account, and my dad emphasized the importance of financial independence. They encouraged my sister and me to put the money we saved toward college tuition.
I thought I didn’t have a chance at college. My family didn’t come from prestige. I had gaps in my educating from homeschooling for eight years in bush Alaska. I read about different colleges in a hand-me-down catalog and dog-eared pages that looked like they might be a good fit, but I had never been to these places, and I couldn’t claim to know what I was looking for. When it came time to write the applications essays, though, I realized that I did, at least, have a story. And where did this story come from? From those salmon that my parents came to Alaska in search of, that I return to search for each summer.
When I arrived at an East Coast college I found myself a curiosity, and I was proud to be an Alaskan. I felt pride for other Alaskans, who I knew to be hard-working and humble. I developed a new admiration for the life I’d left behind, specifically the culture of fishing that seemed obsolete on this other coast.
It was hard to explain my love for salmon. I was surrounded by people who regarded commercial fishing as an antiquated, borderline, barbaric occupation. “How can you say you love salmon when you kill so many of them?”
I swore that it was a ridiculous question, but I didn’t know how to answer it yet. I watched how salmon, the tradition of fishing, and my sense of place gave purpose to my studies. In the art studio I witnessed my hands roll a whole thawed salmon from my freezer in ink and print it onto butcher’s paper. I felt the way my writing always turned back to some reference to the sea. I couldn’t deny the relief my body felt when I ate a jar of smoked salmon my mom had sent, on the worst day of finals, with a fork in the library. The other jars were saved as incentive for completing the hardest rowing practices and the latest nights loading the boat trailer. Salmon gave strength to my body, contributing to four of my team’s consecutive NCAA rowing championships.
I felt an intense urge to defend the smell and taste of real salmon when I found something called salmon in the dining hall. That meal of farmed fish baked in refried beans and coffee grounds lacked the familiar sensations of healing and strength, the immediate transfer of energy from fish to human, to which I was accustomed.
Through college my sister and I returned to the Aleutians in summertime to fish. One slow day on the back deck we dreamed up a business for someday. We’d call ourselves a clever name and we’d create art and clothing and make our love for the ocean and our pride for fishing known. While in Italy studying at an art school, I learned how to screen print and started creating the designs that would turn into this business. Now, in my first year after college, my sister and I are learning to be small-business owners of our company, Salmon Sisters. In the first year of our online sales of organic apparel featuring salmon, rockfish, and fanciful mermaids, we’ve sent packages to more than a thousand Alaskans in coastal communities from Petersburg to Naknek, from St. Mary’s to Nome. Our clothing has found its way to Norway, Italy, Madagascar. We are astonished by how many people love the ocean and its creatures.
How does one thank the source of her existence? In my dad’s words, We catch God and we eat her. We do that with gratitude. And yet, as we know from the fate of salmon elsewhere in the world, we live in a fragile balance. I wonder if I’ve exploited my relationship with these fish, despite the gratitude I feel and the respect I offer.
When June comes, I’ll be honoring our first fish. My family, in the tradition of Alaskan fishermen, will remain resourceful, humble, and cognizant of our responsibilities. I believe in the salmon with my spirit, my heart, my health. You have provided us, Swimmer, with the tools for a rich and rewarding life.
The truth is, I’m enchanted with salmon, and with those who fish for them. I especially want to celebrate the number of women I know running their own boats and working on deck. These are the women who inspire me. Their hands are slimy and callused. Their hair hasn’t been brushed in weeks. They are passionate about their work.
Salmon have given all Alaskans a common language, a set of values, something to believe in and hope for (at the very least, a strong salmon run). Salmon have kept my family close, physically on forty-eight feet of aluminum but also bonded by a fierce connection to the ocean. Salmon have provided me with an education, have given direction to my work as an artist, have offered me physical strength as an athlete, and have been the single thread woven through my friends and my community. Salmon have given me something to work for, to hope for, and to defend.
This story was originally published in Made of Salmon: Alaska Stories from The Salmon Project. All photography is by Scott Dickerson, except for the image of Laukitis family photos and the Salmon Sisters gallery of images, which are by Brian Adams.
Emma Teal Laukitis was raised on a homestead near False Pass, Alaska. She lives in Homer during winters and continues to fish with her family each summer. Emma graduated from Williams College and now operates a small business, Salmon Sisters, with her sister, Claire.
Scott Dickerson is a professional photographer and motion picture producer. He is passionate about visual storytelling and specializes in aerial and aviation, outdoor lifestyle and surf photography. He lives in Homer with his wife and son.
Brian Adams is an editorial and commercial photographer based in Anchorage. His work has been featured in both national and international publications, and his work documenting Native Alaskan villages has been showcased in galleries across the United States.
Read more Salmon Stories at Salmonlife.org.