“Sorry for the smell; I’ve been dying yarn with wild mushrooms this morning,” Michelle apologized. We stepped through the doorway of the small cottage that Micah Ess and Michelle Dockins of Fathom Farmstead and Fisheries refer to as their ‘hobbit house.’ Here, they live and sleep when nights are not spent on the boat during the Alaskan salmon fishing season.
Various colors of yarn - sage green, butternut orange, cinnamon brown - were draped from a laundry-drying rack in the kitchen. Michelle explained that wild mushrooms were abundant in the forests surrounding Cordova, Alaska. In fact, she expressed dismay upon learning that we were leaving town just before the annual Cordova Fungus Festival.
“It kind of looks like a pile of poop!” she laughed as she held up an earthy clump, “...but this one makes a lovely blue-green color.”
In the living room was hung a large map of the Prince William Sound. It included our own route, from Valdez to Cordova, as well as Knight Island, where Micah was homeschooled and grew up fishing. His father and brother also fish commercially.
Micah walked in the door a few minutes later and laughed as he was lovingly attacked by Ruby, their doe-eyed, brown dog.
We sat down around the kitchen and chatted over cardamom-infused venison from a deer that Micah had hunted just two weeks prior. They shared pears that they had dried. Lining the shelves were preserves from locally gathered berries. They gave us a gift of their own canned salmon prepared with alder smoke.
The couple met not in Alaska, but in Colorado, where Michelle was raised. She hadn’t fished commercially before meeting Micah. The two laughed together as Michelle recalled how intense the experience was when she joined him on the boat for the first time. Micah reported that his affection only deepened for Michelle as she took it all in stride.
Now, the two have their own boat, a gillnetter dubbed Bounty Hunter. They took us on board and filleted a few fish on the deck. They very generously sent us packing with two huge fillets. They showed us the cabin of the boat, where they sleep for days at a time during an ‘opener,’ when all of the gillnetters leave the safety of the harbor and head out for open waters. These waters are often wind-whipped, stormy, and tumultuous. There is an element of danger in salmon fishing that is often well hidden behind a beautifully plated King filet served in a fancy restaurant. However, the fisherman and their families know it full well. This could not be more apparent than at the memorial on the Cordova harbor boardwalk displaying bronze plaques reading the names of those lost at sea and what they had meant to the families and community they left behind.
Roadsteaders on both land and sea, Micah and Michelle pack up a teardrop trailer and head for Colorado to see family when the season is over. They take their time to explore new places along the way.
Micah and Michelle’s sense of connection to natural resources, their generosity in passing nature’s gifts on, and their passion for sustainable and ethical fishing practices were inspiring.
Here more from them in the full audio interview below.