The Sitka Maritime Heritage Society's first project was to salvage a sunken schooner that had been built in the 1880s, and its projects since its 1999 inception have been similar.
Fisherwomen taking charge 020613 NEWS 1 Capital City Weekly The Sitka Maritime Heritage Society's first project was to salvage a sunken schooner that had been built in the 1880s, and its projects since its 1999 inception have been similar.

Photo Courtesy Of Lexi Fish

Lexi Fish poses with a black cod.

Photo By Charlie Wilbur

Brett Wilbur shows her lingcod catch.

Photo By Ashia Lane

The Sitka Maritime Heritage Society is in the process of restoring this boathouse used during World War II.

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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Story last updated at 2/6/2013 - 1:37 pm

Fisherwomen taking charge

The Sitka Maritime Heritage Society's first project was to salvage a sunken schooner that had been built in the 1880s, and its projects since its 1999 inception have been similar.

The society has a relatively obvious mission: to preserve the maritime heritage of the region. The society's current project is the restoration of the Japonski Island Boathouse into a venue that will serve as a Maritime Heritage Center.

"It's an open frame boat house," said Ashia Lane, the executive director of SMHS.

The boat house was used during World War II to build wooden fishing boats and other types of sailing vessels. It has since fallen into a state of disrepair, and the SMHS is in the process of restoring it for its original purpose, in addition to using it as a maritime educational center.

"The eventual goal is to get it to the point where people can use it for (vessel) repairing," Lane said, referring to the main section of the building that would be equipped with a boat haul out.

The building also has two wings. One will be used as a museum, with a permanent installation including items like an old compass and boat-building tools. Lane said the society also has plans to host a hands-on collection in the museum with information panels and photographs. The second wing will be used as a learning center. Lane said she would like to see classes provided in large and small vessel building, as well as classes like knot tying for various abilities and ages.

The roof of the building was replaced last year.

"The next part is to install a ground source heat pump," Lane said. "A closed loop system that runs to the tide lands, so it's actually going to be the first of its kind that we're aware of in the state."

Lane's grandfather and father were both Sitka fishermen. She said she enjoys her position as it requires the experience she's had working for various nonprofits in addition to her family ties and interest in fishing. She took the position last year. In addition to the executive director, the SMHS is comprised of a six member board.

"The boat house is our tangible effort, but part of our mission is to provide education to generate continual interest," Lane said.

An annual component of the educational mission of the SMHS is a panel held each winter. The topics have varied from different styles of fishing - seining and long lining, to cannery work and halibut and herring fisheries.

"It helps to raise interest in our Maritime Heritage," Lane said. "It generates interest in our local maritime history."

This winter's topic is Women in the Fisheries. The panel discussion moderator will be local fisherman Eric Jordan, who has been facilitating the SMHS panel discussions for the last seven or eight years.

"(The SMHS board) had an open conversation, and they had a really nice sized list of people that we knew would be comfortable speaking in public, sharing their stories," Lane said. "We tried to get a nice expanse, incorporating age and experience."

This winter's topic resonated with Jordan.

"The whole topic of Women in the Fisheries really fascinates me," he said. "I grew up on a small troller with my mother, three sisters and my father. There were six of us on the boat. I grew up fishing with women, and when I started my own operation my wife has been a crucial crew member all along. Some of my partners have been women over the years, and I've been involved in fisheries politics in Alaska forever."

The panel consists of six women who represent a broad spectrum of positions and experience. This year's panelists are Linda Behnken, an active fisherman involved in resource advocacy; Pat Kehoe, who raised her two daughters on a family fishing boat and is also an artist; Kehoe's daughter Coral Pendell, who co-captains a salmon troller with her sister; Marie Laws, the eldest of the group who has firsthand experience watching the fishing industry evolve through the 70s and 80s; Linda Danner, who has been captaining her own boat since 1975; and Tele Aadsen.

Aadsen grew up in Wasilla. Her parents were both veterinarians who, when she was a child, spent their free time building a 45-foot sail boat in their backyard. When she was seven, in 1984, her family packed up and moved onto the boat, crossing the Gulf of Alaska and settling in Sitka.

Aadsen said Sitka was booming with salmon trolling fishing families.

"The docks seemed to be crawling with kids and parents who were making a living that way," she said. "My parents thought it looked like fun, so they rigged up the sail boat to hand troll for salmon and did that for two years. Then realized they would need a bigger boat, an actual fishing boat if we were going to make this work."

They built a 54-foot troller and Aadsen fished with her parents for the next 10 years. By then Aadsen was an adult. She said fishermen children then move into two decisive categories: those who couldn't wait to leave and those who wanted to get in deeper.

"Every boat kid's fantasy is thinking of who they would go and work for if they didn't have to work for their family," she said.

Aadsen spent two years as a crew member on a salmon troller, but the teasing of being a "liberal little college girl" wore on her. She was given the message that she'd outgrow her liberal ideals through more commercial fishing experience.

She took the bait, pun intended, feeling admittedly, "really bitter." She moved to Seattle and worked in social services for a few years. Eventually Aadsen said she was a bit burned out, and inherently gravitated back to the fishing grounds of Sitka. But this time she had the intention of proving to herself and the fleet that one did not need to compromise political and social beliefs to be a successful fisherman.

"I reunited with another boat kid, fell in love, he took over the boat he grew up on, and we're on year eight," she said.

In addition to fishing, Aadsen writes, mostly about her personal experiences fishing.

"What's always interesting to me is that the people who seem to connect most with (my) stories are other women who are completely not connected to the ocean or coastal life," she said. "But something in that experience speaks to them, going out to sea, struggling to make a living and seeing if you can get along with your companions in a space that only gets smaller."

Aadsen said she advertises herself as a writing, tree hugging, tofu-eating, feminist fisherman.

"That is important to me because the very reasons I left the fishery at first were that I didn't know if there was a place for someone like me," she said. "Not necessarily that I was female, but that I was left-lifting. I didn't know who I could work with and remain sane. So coming back and learning that there is, that the fishery is broad enough, that there's room for all of us, that made me pretty happy."

It makes Jordan happy too. He said he's always been interested in the stories of female fishermen.

"I didn't pick this topic but I think it's really exciting because skippering a boat or being a fisheries leader in Alaska is a challenging thing, and the women stepping up to it, their stories, not just skippering the boat but leading," he said, is a force he sees as deserving attention.

He said his position is to facilitate a conversation between the audience and the panel members. The first hour of the evening will be comprised of the panel members' stories. After a break there will be a discussion.

"It's a conversation, not speeches," he said. "The opportunity to bring these stories out of the women fishing leaders is a real privilege. It's quite an honor."

Lane said she hopes that the panel will offer a variety of perspectives on how times have changed.

"I would love to hear people's hopes for the future," she said.

The SMHS Women in the Fisheries discussion panel will be held at 7 p.m. on Feb. 7 at Harrigan Centennial Hall. The event is free and open to the public.

For more information visit

To read some of Aadsen's work, visit

Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at