Underwater filmmaker/artist Ellie Schmidt, originally from Colorado and recent graduate of Carleton College in Minnesota, spent last summer as a Sitka fellow. She also worked as a deckhand for Seafood Producers Cooperative troller Eric Jordan on his boat the I Gotta. This experience taught her about Sitka Salmon Love and how “fishing for salmon can be an act of respect and appreciation” and how “the people of Sitka hold the salmon in the highest regard, work to sustain them, and never fail to revere their poetry and magic.”
Here’s her story:
I came to Sitka with the Sitka Fellows Program of the Island Institute. As an underwater filmmaker, I brought my equipment, and assumed that because Sitka was on the coast there would be something of interest in the water. I was incredibly surprised when I discovered the vividly colorful underwater world in Sitka. The kelp forests, lion’s mane jellyfish, giant pacific octopi, and all the other life was magical and unexpected.
My favorite experience filming underwater in Sitka, however, was in Indian River. I have never seen a creature as poetic as those pink salmon—swimming in place, changing colors and slowly dying as they moved towards their birth place. I was also especially moved by how the people of Sitka hold the salmon in the highest regard, work to sustain them, and never fail to revere their poetry and magic.
After the Sitka Fellows Program ended, I decided to stick around for a couple months and asked around town for some kind of temporary job. Luckily Eric Jordan was looking for a deckhand on his boat, the F/V I Gotta. During my two months working aboard the I Gotta, I learned to work the troll equipment, spot chum leaps, gut fish, and cook on high seas.
But the most moving lesson I learned was how fishing for salmon can be an act of respect and appreciation.
Eric loves salmon more than any person I’ve met; it’s clear from the way he talks about them that he appreciates them as powerful predators, beautiful works of art, and worthy adversaries. He has even written an account from a salmon’s point of view of what it’s like to be hooked on his gear.
The more I worked with Eric, the ocean, and the salmon, the more I realized that it’s not a fallacy for a fisherman, who kills fish for a living, to love fish more than anyone. As a politically active fisherman, Eric participates actively in the preservation of the salmon runs. As a troller, he clearly enjoys the challenge of finding schools and “workin’ ’em.” Eric would sometimes come out to the cockpit and tell me that I was required to take a moment to appreciate the special Southeast Alaska scenery. Once, after describing to Eric why I loved to clean the fish—to get a close look at their beautiful inner gadgetry, to handle each one individually and respectfully—he encouraged me to try cleaning one without gloves on.
The connection between Sitka and salmon is unlike anything else I’ve seen in the world.
I found the experience of working as a deckhand on a small troller to be one of the most touching and inspiring experiences of my life. I learned that, even in our day and age of massive industrial proliferation, there are still corners of the world where people and nature work with each other, allowing each to thrive. I hope to return soon to Southeast Alaska, its fantastic fishermen and people, and its salmon.
Photos above by Ellie Schmidt, except as indicated. First photo of Ellie is by Sophie Nethercut. Below is Ellie’s award-winning video of life underwater in Southeast Alaska, the result of her work as a Sitka fellow, and a “personal exploration of the perceived/false distinction that exists between humanity and nature, as well as coming to terms with the mortality of the natural world.”