Tele Aadsen has been a commercial fisherman since she was seven years old. She grew up north of Anchorage, where her parents had a veterinary clinic. But after her father was kicked in the head by a horse he was treating, clinic work didn’t suit him anymore. So he started building a 45-foot fiberglass trimaran sailboat in the family’s back yard. Seven years later, the Aadsens closed the clinic, packed their life into boxes and sailed across the Gulf of Alaska to the state’s Southeast panhandle to try their hands at commercial fishing. It was not easy. And things didn’t go exactly as planned.
But three decades later, Tele is still fishing, with her partner, Joel. Tele—which rhymes with “bella”—means “tundra” in Norwegian. After growing up on the same docks—both kids of salmon trolling families that fished out of the small Southeast Alaska community of Sitka—the two met again as adults in a packed bar after the close of a frenzied, two-week king salmon opener.
Tele and Joel own a 43-foot fiberglass salmon troller, a boat with tall trolling poles that fold down over the water. The poles drag four main lines that each bear other lines with scores of lures. The couple lives in Bellingham, Washington, in the winter, and they come up to Alaska each summer for the July 1 opening of the Southeast Alaska king salmon troll fishery, and then they stick around through September to fish for silvers, as Coho salmon are called. They head and gut the salmon onboard, and then Tele descends into the minus 40-degree hold and individually glazes each fish with a layer of salt ice. They sell their fish to upscale restaurants and markets in the Pacific Northwest.
I met Tele last weekend in Juneau, where we both led a storytelling workshop for young fishermen. Our workshop came at the tail end of the Young Fishermen’s Summit, an annual event in Alaska that brings together fishermen in their 20s and 30s for networking and informational sessions on everything from boat maintenance to fisheries policy and insurance. And, of course, there are always some late nights at the bar. The idea behind the workshop Tele and I taught was that powerful stories—personal stories of life and work, boats and handed-down gaffs—can influence lawmakers and regulators. And that stories can change lives.
The participants at the workshop were all women. I learned that as a group, they prefer to be called “fishermen” rather than fisher, fisherwomen, or some other contrived term. They were an impressive bunch: a 30-something woman originally from Wisconsin who is one of only two women seine captains in Southeast Alaska; a third-generation Bristol Bay fisherman who occasionally runs her great grandmother’s skiff, the Bluebird; a young woman who grew up in a Southeast Alaska community of fewer than 100 people who fishes alone and for years has been trolling by hand, but who just bought a larger, mechanized boat.
Tele is petite, but there’s a real strength about her, and a toughness. She’s got an elaborate tattoo of salmon wrapping her left upper arm, her nose is double-pierced, and she wears heavy silver dagger-like earrings that weigh down her lobes. But she’s soft-spoken and an excellent listener. She came back to fishing after what she calls her six-year sabbatical, during which she worked with homeless people in Seattle. Empathetic and gentle, Tele was so good at the work, it drained her completely. She returned to the sea to fill back up.
I got to read a few excerpts of Tele’s story before the workshop. They’ll be included in her first book, Hooked: A Season of Love, Sex, and Salmon, which will come out in 2017. One section was about a 15-story-tall ball of herring she and Joel boated over one day out on the fishing grounds. The passage took me out to sea, among the hundreds of black, humped up islands in the midst of where Tele and Joel fish. Her words showed me what the concentration of herring looked like and sounded like, and what it would have felt like had she been able to lean over the gunnel and dip her hand into that tornado of silver fish.
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