Photos by Scott Dickerson and Camrin Dengel
BY CHRIS COCOLES
Fishing was rooted into the genes of sisters Emma Teal and Claire Laukitis at an early age.
Fishing commercially with their parents by the time they were old enough to go to school, Emma and Claire became obsessed with the lifestyle so many in Alaska embrace. Now college graduates after studying on the East Coast, every summer and into the fall the siblings return to the sea to participate in the family’s harvesting of salmon and halibut.
“We haven’t taken a summer off, so it’s become normal for us to come back,” Emma says.
They are also entrepreneurs. Emma, 24, and Claire, 25, created their own company, the aptly named Salmon Sisters (907-299-5615; salmon-sisters.myshopify.com), where they create fish-inspired apparel, accessories and also sell their family-caught fresh salmon and halibut. After beginning as a venture for close friends and family, the sisters’ idea spawned a popular Homer-based business (Claire was included on a list of 30-and-under people to watch in the outdoors community).
“I am excited that it’s had some success, but I don’t think Claire and I really feel it or let ourselves feel it as much as we could,” Emma admits. “There’s just so much we could do and we’re still trying to figure out how to do things right. When people say good things to us (about the business), we’re like, ‘Really?’ It’s nice to be reminded that we’re doing it for a good reason.”
And that reason was a love for fishing in a place that had few other ways to make a living.
IF STONEWALL PLACE ISN’T the end of the world as far as Alaskans are concerned, you might be able to see it from there.
Emma’s and Claire’s childhood home was land’s end on the Alaska Peninsula and the Last Frontier mainland. A short boat ride away began the Aleutian archipelago. Besides all the resident bears and other critters making up the neighbors, it was just the girls and their parents in terms of a human presence. Since Emma and Claire were separated by just 13 months, they were forced to be each other’s best friend, partner in crime and mischief-maker as little kids.
The closest resemblance to civilization was 3 miles across Isanotski Strait to Unimak Island’s False Pass, population 40 (give or take).
“There were kids over there but we didn’t see them very much,” Emma recalls.
“I look back at it now and think, ‘Dang, it is not the nicest part of the state, location wise and weather wise,’” adds Claire, who now goes by her married name, Neaton. “But it’s still the most incredible place; it’s so abundant and there are so few people that’s it untouched. The amount of wildlife was just so plentiful there.”
Their parents, Buck and Shelly Laukitis, are longtime respected commercial fishing moguls who now have a fleet of three vessels. Buck was president of the North Pacific Fisheries Association between 2001 and 2013.
“We pretty much spent our entire childhood outside. My mom was phenomenal and she had these huge gardens, and she always had the little set net out and we were always trying to catch halibut,” Claire says. “We were home-schooled, which was great, and then we moved to Homer for the winters when we were about 10 or 11 (to continue with school). It was great, but the elements reigned supreme. The weather dictated everything.”
It was quite the unique lifestyle for the sisters. They would go out together on their parents’ commercial fishing vessel for a week at a time when most kids are coping with the reality of kindergarten and first grade.
“When we were about 8 we’d go for about a month, and then by middle school we would be there the whole time,” Claire says. “Our family set-net and then we’d longline for halibut for most of the fall. And my dad and his crew had a lot of patience for having two little girls aboard.”
Emma and Claire felt lucky to be able to learn the commercial fishing game at such a young age and contribute to the family’s business. Especially in younger days Emma had to overcome bouts of seasickness, relying on patches and whatever remedies would help control it.
Emma dreaded fishing inside nearby Morzhovoi Bay, where the wind seemed to blow in demonic gusts.
“It made it miserable, very wet, and it seemed like I’d get blown over every time I’d try to do something,” says Emma, who turns philosophical. “I don’t think I realized how insignificant we were there. It was just a reality check when it would get really windy or stormy. It was just that feeling of, ‘Wow; we just don’t matter.’”
But this was a family where you overcame obstacles like an upset stomach or rough seas. No excuses when there is a quota to reach.
“While it’s definitely a lot of work,” Claire says, “it’s just really rewarding to work as a family.”
Even when not at sea, there were plenty of projects at Stonewall Place to get your hands dirty – some tastier than others.
“There was a lot to do and you could keep yourself really busy. We’d help our mom put up fish and we’d pick berries – there were lots of blueberries and cranberries out there – so we’d make a lot of jam and pies,” Emma says. “A lot of your day was harvesting food or fishing – just finding ways to survive for yourself.”
And the girls had an entire ecosystem to themselves to explore when they weren’t helping mom and dad. When the weather did cooperate, frolicking along the beach – “It could be pretty treacherous, so we really weren’t allowed to play in the water,” Emma says – was a favored pastime. They would dig for clams or find sea urchins along the shore, so it was a little less traditional than your standard swingsets or slides to play on.
It was also a hauntingly spectacular setting – rugged coastlines and tall volcanoes rising in the distance. And there was the local fauna, which included plenty of brown bears that traversed the same terrain as the girls.
“We had to hike around with guns because when those bears smelled fish, they’d wander by. As long as you were smart about it wasn’t a big deal. We had a good bear dog that usually could smell them and start barking,” Emma says. “Our parents did build us this platform that was really high up and it served as our treehouse. It was just something that allowed us to play somewhere that the bears couldn’t get to.”
So it was an exciting experience for a couple of kids who – when they weren’t attending school in Homer after the fishing season ended – mostly leaned on each other for companionship and entertainment. But it was time for Emma and Claire to stretch their legs a little more.
Still, there was always going to be fishing waiting for them back home.
BY THE TIME THEY’D finish high school and were ready for college, both the sisters wanted to experience something different far away from Alaska. They both chose the Northeastern U.S. for school: Emma at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and Claire at the University of Vermont in Burlington.
It was for sure a change of scenery – if not full-on culture shock – for both siblings. Claire jokes that while she would spend her summers away from college back in Alaska on a commercial fishing boat, her school chums flocked to the island beaches of Martha’s Vineyard off Massachusetts.
But their connections to locally sustained fish and goodies provided classmates with treats like salmon caught by the family fishing boats or delectable homemade jam that the girls made with their mom so often growing up. For Claire, Vermont’s DIY mentality and organic vibe made it a perfect fit.
“And the people there have such an appreciation for the outdoors,” she says. “Everyone is incredibly involved with being outside and just doing something, which made it great.”
Williams is a private liberal arts college located just south of the Vermont border in western Massachusetts. Like her sister’s alma mater, it was in a rural area even smaller than Burlington, but unlike Alaska, major metropolitan areas like New York and Boston were just a few hours away.
“It was my first time away from Alaska, and most of my (classmates) were from the East Coast and big cities,” Emma says. “But there were actually quite a few (other students) from Alaska and we ended up competing on the same crew team; all the Alaskans were on the crew team. I guess it allowed us to still be close to the water. I know once the summers came I wanted to go back out fishing.”
Life in the Lower 48 was good. Claire met her future husband in Vermont, and since finishing up at Williams Emma is now pursuing a graduate degree in design at the University of Washington in Seattle. But they longed to eventually return to their fishing and family roots in Alaska.
“We decided that this is what we wanted to devote our lives to,” Claire says. “We’re back, fully, and we wouldn’t want to change anything.”
And they’ve also recruited newbies to their way of life. Claire’s husband and Emma’s boyfriend fish together on one of the Laukitis boats.
“We all get to see each other pretty often, which is great,” Emma says.
It would have been perfectly reasonable for two young ladies who’d spent most of their childhood on the family fishing fleet to consider doing something else, especially after finding new opportunities to pursue from their far-flung college campuses. But they realized right away that, just like their parents, this way of life was in their DNA.
“There are days when you say, ‘This is not worth it.’ You do feel terrible and question, ‘Why are we doing this?’ But I don’t think I ever (fully) felt that in the big picture. It just always seemed worth it,” Emma says. “We were with our family and most of our friends fished, so I don’t think we felt we were missing out on anything. This was our world.”
SUMMERS WERE ALWAYS RESERVED for netting salmon and later on longlining massive halibut to go to market, but what about the rest of the year? Emma and Claire were young and hungry to keep themselves busy.
“We didn’t want to give up fishing in the summer but needed some full-time, year-round employment,” Claire says. “So we started Salmon Sisters.”
The ladies wanted to create a clothing line durable enough to handle the unpredictable conditions for Alaskans, but also with a stylistic and creative touch that buyers “would feel good about wearing,” Claire says.
Claire majored in business at Vermont and figured she would utilize that degree to sell fresh and wild seafood for a processor. Emma’s Williams degree was in studio art and English, so with one sister’s understanding of how to start and maintain business and Emma’s artistic touch – plus their love of all things fish – why not combine it all and make good use of their time in the offseason?
“She’s always sketching something or dreaming (up an idea); she just excels at it,” Claire says of Emma. “I can’t draw anything.”
“I actually get a lot of my ideas from my sister and my dad,” adds Emma.
They started out modestly – creating a few designs for apparel meant for family and close friends. But as they wore hoodies with their own artwork, it started to sink in how symbolic the gesture was and the reaction they received. Claire recalled a defining moment when they were delivering fresh halibut in Dutch Harbor.
“This is us; we fish here and this is our identity and I feel so proud to wear this,” she remembers being told. “It was such a good representation to what we were all about. We started screen-printing rockfish or salmon on shirts and they were received so well by our peers and we were so excited to wear them. And we just can’t thank Alaskans enough for supporting us.”
YOU DON’T HAVE TO just wear what you buy from the Salmon Sisters. They also sell what they catch – offering fresh and wild sockeye salmon and halibut (10 pounds worth per order). Furthermore, with every purchase of Emma’s and Claire’s products, they’ll donate a can of locally caught wild salmon to the Alaska Food Bank.
“As commercial fishermen we’re incredibly proud of what we’re producing,” Claire says.
Says Emma, “I don’t think we ever project anything that we don’t feel.”
A high percentage of customer-driven sales takes place in the sisters’ home base of Homer, but traveling around the state Claire and Emma get a rush when they see random passers-by decked out in their sweatshirts, tees, hats and leggings (they also offer accessories like tote bags and coffee mugs).
“It’s just neat to know that someone would want to find a connection to salmon and our great state and purchase something,” Claire says. “And we feel proud about that.”
And if they can just get some tips on being better sport anglers, that would be nice too.
“When we get off the commercial boat at the end of September, we’ll say, ‘Oh wow, let’s go catch a fish! But we’re just not very good at it,” Claire says with a laugh.
“Emma and I don’t know how to fly fish and a lot of that stuff. But for a lot of our customers, that’s their passion and lifestyle. So it’s great to kind of learn a lot from them.” ASJ
Editor’s note: Like Salmon Sisters at facebook.com/aksalmonsisters and follow on Instagram (@aksalmonsisters). Check out more on photographers Scott Dickerson (scottdickerson.com) and Camrin Dengel (camrindengel.com) at their respective websites.