Fishermen of Bristol Bay: Elma Burnham

Fishermen of Bristol Bay: Elma Burnham

I’ve been vaguely aware of commercial fishing and the people of the industry, fishermen, since my childhood on Long Island Sound in southern New England. My parents’ office was covered in photos of Alaska – Anchorage, King Cove, salmon on the beach, Utqiaġvik (Barrow), pollock ships – and neighbors all over town had lawns full of lobster buoys and pots. Fast-forward twenty-something years and this type of scenery is part of my everyday, whether chatting with Washington fisherman from my desk in Bellingham, WA, or hauling nets over the roller in Bristol Bay, Alaska. 

I grew up on the water, eventually commuting by boat to the mainland for high school, dodging those same lobster pots. In high school, I worked retail for my step-mom and helped out at other small businesses in our small town. It wasn’t until a trip to my parents’ old stomping grounds following my senior year of high school that I ever considered going to Alaska for work. But the wonders of that trip and the amazing, salty old friends of my family, planted the seed. The next winter I called some of them up and said I was interested in spending a summer away, in Alaska, working and witnessing something totally different than I had known thus far. 

I was 18 my first summer in Bristol Bay, working as a nanny for a family that brought their very young kids to fish camp with them. I helped cook for the crew. I processed and smoked our homepack salmon. I watched as two kids under four made a remote beach their complete and total domain, covered in mud. I fell in love with the rhythm of the work, living tide to tide, building full environmental awareness of weather, buyers, fish movements, camp life. I finally got in a skiff and had the chance to pick some fish during my last few days there and knew there was more to learn.

I’ve been returning to Bristol Bay nine out of ten summers since. Today I fish the Ugashik River, Bristol Bay’s smallest fishery but, weather wise, one of the most brutal. I skipped the summer of 2017, thinking I needed a break and wanting to fairly assess what I was missing during my summers off the grid, head down picking fish out of nets for strangers plates. This summer off is when I found freelance work, helping to tell the story of the fishermen working hard catching fish. I am now a contributor at Pride of Bristol bay where I thoroughly enjoy doing my best to bring Bristol Bay to you, our customer. It can be a tricky place to explain, but we try because we want you to know where your food comes from. We want you to feel part of it –  because you are. 

Despite being presented with other great opportunities, I was desperately clinging to threads from the fishing grounds and realized I wasn’t missing much spending a full summer at home. Sure, summer in the lower 48 means outdoor concerts, long days, bike rides with friends, but with the right gear, you can do that any season. What you can’t do outside of June and July is hand over the keys to the tides, the ways of salmon, the boats, the fellow crew, and all the many systems that make up a summer in Bristol Bay. The most redemptive thing about choosing not to fish that summer was finally growing a real garden. Ironically I found myself coaxing food out of the dirt, getting up early to water it, worrying about predators. I was pouring my pent-up energy into another life-source that is controlled by a zillion other factors other than myself but from which I was trying to produce something worth sharing. 

I was okay at it, but after following along with the Bristol Bay season via tender-delivered postcards and KDLG, I knew fishing was the right way to spend my summers. Now I try with all my might to honor the lives of those who do the same – as Program Manager of Bellingham SeaFeast and founder of Strength of the Tides – which I believe will contribute to the sustainability of our fisheries. Your purchase of wild, sustainable, beloved Bristol Bay salmon supports a food system built on small, family operations like the Kurians, and individuals who work with them, like me and Wil Claussen. Even better, your purchase supports efforts to stop the Pebble Mine, the biggest threat to our wild salmon. Thank you for choosing not only quality and taste but also passion and connection. 

Isn’t that what it’s all about anyway? Finding worth in my work, at a young age, while attending a liberal arts school where confusion about majors, internships, and career paths was paramount, has been a recurring gift. As I pack my bags for the bay each early summer, it feels like a no-brainer. Sure, on a slow fishing day in the rain, I’ll admit I’m writing a long list of other things I could be doing. But in the fall as I map my year, a summer in the bay feels like the simple, straight-forward choice.