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Work Life: LaDonna Rose Gundersen, Fisherwoman

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LaDonna Rose Gundersen, 50, is a commercial salmon fisherwoman. She lives with her husband Ole, a fisherman, and their cat, Keta, in Ketchikan, Alaska.

Because Alaska is so far north, there aren’t many twilight hours in the summer. So our morning starts at 1.30am, when daylight starts to break. The salmon season runs from mid-May to late September. During that time my husband, Ole, and I will live on our boat in the middle of the Misty Fjords National Monument, off the coast of Alaska. Ole is a natural at getting up early, whereas I tend to feel like I’ve just been hit by a truck. But I eventually pull myself out of my single bunk in the belly of our 32-foot fishing boat, LaDonna Rose. We pull up the anchor and set the fishing nets in the dark, to take advantage of the morning bite (when salmon are most likely to feed). Ole and I have been fishing together for 26 years now and for 14 weeks every summer we’ll spend our days aboard the ship, hauling in up to 14,000lb of salmon a day. We work like dogs, but it’s worth it, as we give ourselves the rest of the year off to write cookbooks and indulge in our passion for photography.

After we’ve put out the nets, I’ll make Ole some coffee and get him settled on deck. Then, I’ll go back to sleep. If everything’s going smoothly, he won’t need my help until about 8am, and it makes sense for one of us to sleep – otherwise you’d have two very cranky people on a small boat. When I eventually surface, I’ll head to the galley and make breakfast.

Our kitchen is tiny, but I spend a lot of time in there, making banana bread and pies which we’ll deliver to the other fishermen. For breakfast, though, I’ll usually go for oatmeal or scrambled eggs with salmon. We stockpile a lot of food in the boat – dried goods like oil, grains and spices. But I do actually get a chance to do some grocery shopping out at sea. We have what’s called a tender – a large boat that visits us every day to collect our fish – and every Thursday I’ll give them a shopping list of fresh food like salad and milk which they’ll fax to the local grocery store on land, before returning with the goods four days later.

After breakfast, I’ll feed our cat Keta. She comes aboard with us every season. Then I’ll put on my rain gear, rubber gloves, thick socks, boots and hooded sweatshirt, before joining my husband on deck. The weather is actually quite mild in the summer – about 20°C – but that doesn’t mean we don’t get caught in the odd storm. I wear huge sunglasses and a baseball cap when I fish, too. Not only because I’m aware of my skin ageing in the sun, but because we often get jellyfish caught in our net. They’ll come flying into the air when we haul the net out of the water, and land on our faces.

We’ll fish on deck for the whole morning, bringing up the nets between eight to 15 times a day. The biggest we’ve ever caught is a 47lb king salmon, that’s about the weight of a six-year-old child. We spot a lot of wildlife while we’re on board, too. Like humpback whales, sea lions, otters, porpoises and eagles. We even spot bears and wolves on the shoreline.

For lunch, at about 1pm, I’ll head back into the galley and, if the weather’s calm, I’ll make some soup. If it’s choppy I’ll stick to salmon or egg sandwiches (people always ask if I get sick of eating salmon, but I really don’t). Then, we’ll head back out for another routine afternoon of fishing. When it comes to hygiene, Ole and I will shower every three to four days. There’s no need to do it any more than that, we’re used to the smell of each other by now.

We have dinner at about 8pm. Usually, it’s salmon-based. My favourite recipe is butter and brown sugar salmon, from my cookbook Salmon, Desserts & Friends. In the evening we’ll watch shows like Burn Notice on the laptop, before heading to our separate bunks at about 11pm.

We tried sleeping together, but cuddling and banging into one another ate into the only couple of hours sleep we actually get! It’s not always fun but the hard work pays off. So much so that we spend the rest of our year relaxing in our other house in Florence, Oregon. Or in our condo in Maui, Hawaii. Not bad.

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