Dotting the coast line of Cook Inlet from Ninilchik to Nikiski are some of the Kenai Peninsula’s oldest businesses. Many of these commercial fish camps are still owned and operated by the families that started them two or three generations ago.
Down in Coho live the Salmon People. On this section of beach near the mouth of the Kasilof River, generations of commercial fishers are back for another season.
As I’ve seen some of these camps in action this summer, the thing that sticks out is the distinct culture around each one.
There are actually a couple camps here, but the crews mingle freely and share a lot. You might call Nancy Taylor the matriarch of this clan. She and her husband Alec bought the site 30 years ago. They didn’t plan to fish. But eventually, they got a permit and learned the ropes. It was a steep learning curve.
“I had a skiff, I was in it all by myself, a little, tiny skiff…and I grabbed ahold of the buoy and I just went around and around and around…I couldn’t get it into the boat,” Taylor says, laughing with Amanda Johnston. She’s part of the camp next door.
The Johnstons (that’s the Salmon People) fished for Alec and Nancy for a few years before buying their own site. Now the second generation is fishing and a third generation is, well they’re kids, so they’re mostly just playing on the beach.
But that’s really the essence of what most of these camps are all about: family.
For three months each year, family come from all over. Or very close friends. And they spend the summer on the beach. This site in Coho is interesting, to say the least. It’s the product of three decades of additions, rebuilds and quick fixes. There’s a row of disheveled looking cabins backed up along the bluff. And each one has its own personality. Some have their own names. Some of those names can’t be repeated on the radio. It’s a kind of lifestyle, living on the beach. And a spartan one at that. They only brought fresh, running water down to the beach a decade ago.
It’s an intimate setting. Even if a crew member isn’t technically family, it feels like it.
“You can tell the way people walk, by their footsteps in the rocks…their stride. How fast (they’re going). ‘Oh, that must be this person, that means we’re almost about to get out, or that’s just Megan with the kids or that’s so-and-so’. When people walk by, you know who it is,” says Amanda Johnston.
About a 45 minute drive up the beach to Salamatof, it’s largely the same story for the Frostad Fishing crew. Sarah Frostad-Hudkins and her husband Jason are the third generation, and their kids are crew members now. Her grandfather built the cabin they all stay in 90 years ago.
“It’s emotional to me in the weirdest way. You don’t get to play and work with your kids this way anywhere else,” says Frostad-Hudkins.
“My happiest moments have been here, my scariest moments have been here. You have different stories every year to talk to people about. It’s the strangest thing,” she said.
Sarah’s father Lars wasn’t around when I visited, but his long-time crew member John Sharp was. This, to him, is family.
“I’m almost in tears because it really is important to me; I know that everybody here loves me as much as I love them. And I’m not related to them. When you get outside and you have television and sports and everything else pulling and dragging away, you come back and you renew that family, that bond,” Sharp said.
Sarah’s daughter Shayla is going to school in Washington to become a teacher. That way she can come back every summer and be with the family.
“It’s so unique. I’d come up here even if I didn’t make an ounce of anything. I would just come up here because I love it and I get to spend every day with my family, working hard, playing hard, having fun, laughing, maybe a couple tears. Just a little bit of everything,” Shayla said.
Back down in Coho, the nickel tour of the camp is wrapped up. I didn’t have any luck getting one of their very original beach games started. The Wheel of Misfortune, I’m told, only gets spun on nights when they don’t have a 5 a.m. set to look forward to. So, they cap the night by pulling out the guitars, singing appropriately enough, about the salmon coming back home.