by Tiffany Borges Photographs by Chelsa Paulk
In Petersburg, where the streets are named for boats and many boats are named for women, bringing your daughter onboard may seem natural. For certain Generation X women from Southeast Alaska, making their way to various helms of marine enterprise feels equally natural. Although the folktales and superstitions banning females from fishing vessels were long ago dismissed, the paths of modern women committed to the seafood industry have been shaped by certain parallels.
2017 marks a twenty year period of progress for a few Gen Xers who recently sat down to reflect on their careers. As the holidays wrapped up, many of the area’s visiting young adults will return to their daily grind at campus and office — having forged their lives and careers far from the densely-forested islands of Alaska’s Inside Passage. Many will return only at traditional academic breaks, and fewer will remain active players in the state’s economy. The effects of ‘brain drain’ are a perennial focus for Alaskan educators, entrepreneurs and legislators. These are the stories of women offering the prime of their professional investment to remain engaged in a lifestyle still considered the domain of men. With their parents now at retirement age, the emerging impact of an aging marine fleet is felt in a particular way in rural communities.
While college provided the credentials needed to cross over into policy and the boardroom, their formation spent among men offered the credibility. This uneasy truce of nepotism and sexism — exposure to the roughest elements of man and nature with your father as skipper — is perhaps ideal. While they’re not bothered those who insist on it, none have an affinity for being referred to as “fisherwomen”, as if it suggests a clumsy or fragile subset of the title they’ve earned —- they are Alaskan fishermen. “You have to keep up. Not be intimidated,” says Cora Campbell of her earliest awareness that she was capable of meeting the physical demands of the fishing grounds.
Campbell, a 1997 graduate of Petersburg High School, intended to return to Petersburg after earning her teaching credential in Washington state. She landed in Juneau and now heads up a subsidiary of Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation from an Anchorage office overlooking Cook Inlet. Of her historic appointment as Commissioner of Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game (2011-2014), she shrugs off fanfare — at 31 years old, Campbell was the youngest Commissioner and first woman to hold the office — in favor of her reality. “I don’t work at my desk or in the field ‘as a female’, I’m just doing my work.” Such a focus, free from self-consciousness, seems innate to Campbell. She speaks happily of her childhood spent on the water, saying it fortified her work ethic as well as her relationship with older sister Kelly, who owns Wrangell Boatshop along with her large family. “We’re incredibly close. She’s running a maritime business and doing very well.”
As President and CEO of Siu Corporation, Campbell is driven in part by a lifelong familiarity with Alaskan Native culture and a personal sense of justice. She relished traveling within the state during her time with Fish & Game, and describes the bounty of Alaska’s interior and coastal regions. “One reason for living in these remote places is the harvest available, both of seafood and other wildlife. Many Alaskans are tired of hearing about their region being the most impoverished census district in the nation.” Siu Corporation aims to return a portion of the material wealth extracted from these regions to its stakeholders.
In their downtime, Campbell and her husband retreat to their cabin near Talkeetna as a way of keeping the rugged skills of Alaskan childhood accessible for their two children. “Anchorage can seem rather confining,” she said, contrasting the city lifestyle and conveniences with the simple pace of smaller towns on the highway and beyond.
To meet Julianne Curry is to quickly realize that the trends and logistics of the fishing world were her first language. A fourth generation fisherman who never sought to leave the industry, her skills have been honed through a marketing degree, tireless travel and networking. Always interwoven was loyalty to her family’s business and by extension, the fishing community. She served as Executive Director of Petersburg Vessel Owners’ Association for six years (preceded by Campbell) which Curry cites as key to broadening her professional scope. Still, she hungers for relief from white-collar work, which she continues to find on deck. “The single best feeling for me is pulling away from that dock, putting the gear away, and being out in Frederick Sound, just taking that in.”
Currently working as a consultant, the advocacy piece of her work springs from a desire to provide Alaskan seafood with maximum visibility. Speaking of the American populace, she says, “There’s a real disconnect about our food source, but the richness of this product is just unparalleled. People are taking notice.”
Angela Christensen, reached by phone from her home in Petersburg, rattles off the lineage of regional boats and permits like a familiar family tree. As an Assistant Fleet Manager for Icicle Seafoods, she describes the fishing fleet as a fusion of business interests and family legacy. “My dad’s generation was maybe a turning point …that pride in their daughters’ abilities. He always emphasized my strength and reliability, the focus was on that, nothing about gender.” Christensen spent thirteen years salmon seining, branched into retail side of vessel supply and now works as a liaison between fishermen and internal corporate interests. She recalls that as a teenager, her peers who were unfamiliar with the fishing industry might jeer, ‘you only got that job because your dad hired you”, but the opportunity remained hers to claim nonetheless. She credits the lessons in teamwork and stamina as the core of her fishing experience. “There’s no portion of that operation which is not my job, no matter how young I was. You can’t call in sick! Knowing that perseverance is the expectation — the norm — that’s crucial. You’ll never be the same after the rhythm of a fishing boat becomes part of your character.”
Copper River Seafoods’ Marketing Director Cassandra Squibb spent the first half of her childhood in Petersburg, and the remainder between Juneau, Klawock and Boston. From these disparate locales grew her parents’ tugboat business. If the fishing world had experienced both first and second waves of feminism by the early 1990s, the timber industry remained largely uncharted in matters of the fairer sex. Squibb recalls assisting ships from Asian ports with the intense technical task of leveraging massive vessels alongside their tug, to secure loads of logs freshly harvested from Prince of Wales Island. Hand signals and flashing light sequences comprise the internationally-recognized directions. Her father would often have to emerge from the wheelhouse to validate that she, a bright blonde teenage girl, was authorized to give these commands.
In describing her unique upbringing, Squibb is now able to appreciate what at the time was considered drudgery. “There is no downtime, with a ship in port, we were conditioned to be ready for anything.” She and her sister Eliza longed for the leisure they envisioned their peers indulging in back in Juneau: summers spent ‘sleeping in, biking to the mall, and here we are, stuck with our parents’”, she laughs heartily. Her early childhood was devoid of clutter and commercial toys, with the natural world being the family’s main source of rejuvenation. She describes beachcombing, playing musical instruments and trips to the public library as prime entertainment. Beyond their standard teenage angst, she does recall a fledgling appreciation for the risk-taking and fortitude of her parents. “I began to see how much they had on the line. I fell in love with marketing around the same time.” She earned her degree on the East Coast in 2000 and returned to Alaska eager to integrate her passion for local, sustainable nutrition and the pulse of public relations. Squibb finds a frenetic work/play balance is still deeply ingrained, but makes time for fishing treks, downhill skiing and ferry trips with her growing family.
Teenage years meant undertaking nautical ‘wheel watch’, effectively driving a prosperous corporation, which fosters self-reliance and humility difficult to find in the average young employee. Eliza Squibb earned her USCG 100-ton Masters’ license before she turned thirty. Their youngest sister Lucy presently works as a commercial deckhand from Bristol Bay to Prince William Sound. Of navigating the waters of Southeast Alaska, Cassandra Squibb says, “I feel like I still have the route from Klawock to Hydaburg memorized.” Of the salty swagger that can typify the fishing industry, she is unfazed. “Anytime guys seem to flinch, like here’s this lady witnessing vulgarities, it gets waved off by people who know me: ‘She can handle dock talk, she grew up on a tugboat.’ ” Upon reflection, all agree that their professional grit was born of a degree of necessity. All of their mothers fished. Across the fourteen children of their respective siblings, only Christensen has brothers.
Along with their individual coming of age, each grew up aware of the devastation that could be unleashed by the ocean. Vessels sinking, catching on fire and families who never returned to safe harbor were part of their consciousness. Endurance and heroism were often gratefully there, too. Squibb was nearly born at sea, and her family narrowly survived a devastating tug fire and sinking just a few years later. Seared into the psyche of Petersburg is the loss of Christensen’s classmate Renee Odegaard, her 1999 death commemorated in the local Fishermen’s Memorial Park. The Odegaard family’s 46-foot boat was overcome by a storm which ripped through the Inside Passage on Halloween night. The imprint of such a loss unites across generations. Odegaard was just 22 years old; her brother Eric, 25, along with their father Jim — each are honored by memorial plaques in the center of town. For all its potential tragedy, there’s pride in the continuity of preserving the trades of their fathers and grandfathers. The adaptability of these women doesn’t override their sensitivities. In some way, they will ‘sail on’ in various capacities for those who went before them, as well as those whose final trips came too soon.
According to Curry, “Women in seafood may be unconventional, but there are so many of us”. Their stories and numerous others give new seasoning to a familiar idiom: when you teach a girl to fish, she’s no more limited by the sky than she is by the sea.