Gillnet girls: three generations have made a living salmon fishing out of Sointula, British Columbia

A light gray chop greets the Wolf Point, Linda Sowden’s 36-foot aluminum gillnetter, as we leave the government wharf at Port McNeil on northern Vancouver Island for the half hour run across Broughton Strait to the fishing community of Sointula.

It’s Spring 2004; Sowden has just had a 375-hp John Deere 6081 AFM engine installed and readied for June 4. She’ll leave Sointula that day to fish for sockeye and chum salmon up at the Nass River near the Alaska border.

Sowden has a gillnet license for fishery management Area C, which extends from Cape Caution on the northern mainland to the Alaska border. She won’t return until September or early October. Getting the engine installed is a good start to the fishing season.

“Expect to do average, maybe a little better,” Sowden says, turning from the wheel and smiling.

Sowden, now 51, had the Wolf Point built for her in 1984. The boat is well equipped for one person, which is how she likes to fish. A citizens band radio and three VHF radios are mounted above the front windows. A new auto distress radio is positioned over the galley table. The cabin is clean and roomy. There’s an oil stove that runs on overflow from the diesel engine on the starboard side of the galley, beside the sink.

“With a lot of diesel engines, the engine takes in more fuel than is actually burnt in the engine,” Sowden explains. “The excess is pumped up into a header tank.”

The galley table that folds down into a bunk is on the port side behind the wheel. There are two bunks forward.

Sowden slows the engine and puts out bumpers as we approach the Sointula dock. She ties up and we walk along the dock past a fair sized fishing fleet of mostly local boats and up the ramp to the government wharf.

Sointula, a 100-year-old fishing community on Malcolm Island between northern Vancouver Island and the coast of mainland British Columbia, has a rich tradition in fishing. There’s an active boatyard with three large gillnetters up on the ways on one side of the wharf. Boat sheds–some new, others just skeletons from a foregone era–ring the foreshore of Rough Bay.

After a short pickup truck drive, Sowden pulls into the driveway of the family home. Inside the house a painting of the 37-foot wooden gillnetter Ripple Rock hangs on one section of a living room wall. Pictures of the aluminum boats the family has owned–the Cougar Bay, Wolf Point and the Dawn Treader–hang on another part of the wall.

“When my parents got married, dad had an old troller called the Amulree and mom had the gillnetter the Linda,” Sowden begins. “The Linda was in better shape than the troller so they got rid of the troller and went gillnetting on the Linda.”

Linda Sowden, who would be named after the 32-foot gillnetter, is carrying on a tradition of women gillnetters in the Sowden family. It was begun by her great-grandmother, Ildri Skrondal, in 1897 after her husband drowned while fishing on the Skagit River in Washington State. Ildri’s granddaughter Christine Sowden followed in her grandmother’s footsteps, and Linda, Christine’s daughter, followed suit.

“She had a whole flock of kids to feed,” Linda’s mom, Christine Sowden, 75, says of her grandmother, Ildri Skrondal, as she takes a seat in her living room looking out over a herring skiff pulled up on the beach and the waters of Rough Bay. She’s recalling how and why her grandmother got into fishing.

Ildri Skrondal started gillnetting in a small skiff she sailed and rowed on the Skagit. She would stay out in the skiff as long as she had to, hauling in her nets.

“In those days it wasn’t just two or three hours like they give us now,” Christine says.

We move into the kitchen for lunch. Hauling in nets was brutally hard on the hands but Ildri took it in stride, Christine says. Ildri worked with two nets: one for sockeye salmon that was canned and a falling net for chum salmon caught for their role and for smoking. Net mending was always part of the work.

“It’s pretty handy having your net racks in front of your house,” Christine says, spreading her hands over the kitchen table. “It was hard on the hands.”

Sointula long ago established itself as a village known for its commercial fishing and boatbuilding heritage. But there was a time when fishing and boatbuilding weren’t the only ways to make money.

In the early days making a living on the water was a frontier occupation. Christine’s father, Christopher Skrondal, was a rumrunner in British Columbia’s the southern Gulf Islands. The rumrunners used converted fishing boats. Most of the old timers still don’t like to talk about how their fathers made their money.

Christine never saw her father’s boat and she’s never found a photograph. All she knows is that it was fast, about 36 feet long, and powered by a big 400-hp Liberty engine that did around 30 knots.

“Pretty well all the old timers around the Gulf Islands were involved in rum running, hiding it in wood piles for pick up,” Christine continues. “It’s probably where I got my liking for fast boats!”

Rumrunners worked at any time of the day they felt was safe.

“Oh, goodness they were everywhere,” says Christine, who was born just before rum running stopped.

Her dad’s rum running career ended when he got caught.

“His family doesn’t like to talk about it,” Christine says, laughing. “Most of them did get caught in the end.”

Her father spent the best part of a year in jail on McNeil Island in the United States and then went up to Alaska. He drowned while fishing in 1931 or 1932.

Christine Sowden was the first generation of Sowden women to make her living gillnetting. Her mother, Elizabeth, didn’t fish. But Christine would take up where her grandmother left off.

At the end of the 1940s when she was about 19 years old, she bought an old boat and went longlining for dogfish in the Gulf Islands off southern Vancouver Island.

Originally, Christine wanted to fish for cod, but it wasn’t the right season. Her mother insisted that she catch dogfish instead.

“I had no intention of doing it, actually,” Christine recalls, “but my mother said I had to do something and presented me with a bunch of longline stuff, which I had to pay for. I didn’t want to, but I had a funny family.”

After that first longlining trip, Christine worked as a cook in a logging camp where people were gillnetting salmon, which led her in a new direction. She earned enough money cooking to buy a 26-foot gillnetter, she recounts.

“That poor old boat,” she says. “‘I was very proud of it.”

Her gillnetter had a cabin and a 6-hp Easthope engine. It wasn’t much power but it was a good sea boat for that time if the weather wasn’t too bad.

“I called her the “Who am I” because people would turn around and gawk at me,” she says. “They were just amazed to see a girl running any kind of a boat.”

Christine’s next boat was the Linda, a 32-foot gillnetter with a two-cylinder engine she bought for $1,800 in 1952. Christine was by herself when she picked up the boat. She remembers people looking at her kind of funny when she set out from the dock. But Christine didn’t care. She just wanted to go fishing.

When Christine started fishing, she knew virtually nothing about gillnetting. Then, she met her future husband, Bob Sowden, in the logging camp at Christmas in 1952; he was getting a part in the machine shop when they met. They would marry in 1953.

The couple took the Linda up Knight Inlet and into Johnston Strait north of Campbell River on Vancouver Island. Christine learned how to gillnet by trial and error and by watching anybody else who was a good fisherman.

Soon, the Sowdens were living on the water. “We had a very elderly old float house,” Christine says. A daughter, Linda in 1954, and a son, Mike, in 1956 would also begin life in the float house.

“I liked it very well until the kids got too big,” Christine says.

The float house was towed to where the family was fishing at Minstrel Island 30 miles south of Sointula, and to Port Harvey on nearby Craycroft Island. The Sowdens moved to Sointula so Linda and Mike could go to school.

“We bought some property and dragged the house up the beach,” Christine says. “The whole works of us went fishing in summer.”

The Linda served Christine well. “I brought it up the coast to Port Harvey in 1958, the year of the big sockeye run,” she says.

That year, westerlies blew continually all spring; they seemed to blow almost every day right into summer and pushed in a lot of cold water close to shore. Instead of the main sockeye stocks going down the outside of Vancouver Island, they all came down the Gulf of Georgia.

“The poor old Linda tried to sink herself a few times,” Christine remembers. “There were so many fish.”

That same year, Christine and Bob Sowden sold the Linda and bought the Ripple Rock. The family would spend two months fishing up around Prince Rupert on the north coast of British Columbia living aboard the Ripple Rock. The Sowdens always returned to Sointula at the end of the fishingseason.

Linda Sowden, Christine’s daughter, has been around gillnetters all her life and has owned two boats. Linda fished almost every year with her family. She started on her own and with her brother, Mike, now 49, in 1974 when they bought Ripple Rock from their parents.

The Ripple Rock, named after two notorious shipwrecking reefs in Seymore Narrows on the east coast of Vancouver Island that wrecked 119 vessels and took 114 lives between 1875 and 1958 before being blasted out with 1,375 tons of explosives, almost sank under Linda during a crossing of Hecate Strait in 1977. Linda was teamed up with Mike, who was on Christine and Bob’s new boat, the 33-foot Dawn Treader, which Mike had rented from his father.

“Dad got sick that year and couldn’t go fishing,” Linda recounts. “I stayed with the Ripple Rock and Mike rented the Dawn Treader. We were coming back from the Charlottes and it got a bit rough out there.”

Linda was about half way across Hecate Strait returning to Prince Rupert when the trouble started.

“The bilge alarm came on,” she says. She pumped out the water but more came in. The waves were steep with very short intervals between them.

“She was pounding and, she sprang the garboard seam between the keel and the first plank up in the bow,” Linda recounts.

Mike was standing by on the Dawn Treader but there was little he could do. The Ripple Rock was so badly pounded that all the paint in the bilges under the engine was gone. It took 15 hours to go 25 miles but Linda got the Ripple Rock into a safe harbor under her own power.

“We got into an anchorage on the mainland side and got me dried out,” Linda says. “I had to wash the salt off the engine and the shaft coupling was in the water.” That was the last time Linda took the Ripple Rock Out in Hecate Strait.

“She was a wood boat and when they get older they get rickety,” she says. “She was past it.”

After that season, Linda bought Mike out of the Ripple Rock and he got the 32-foot gillnetter Mystic Won. She fished on the Ripple Rock from 1977 until 1984. Then in 1984, Linda had her gillnetter Wolf Point built. Three years later, Mike sold the Mystic Won and had the 37-foot aluminum gillnetter Cougar Bay built. The Wolf Point and the Cougar Bay remain in the family.

The Sowdens say they’re fortunate to still be in fishing. A lot of fishermen made bad business decisions in the early 1980s when interest rates skyrocketed.

“They sold their boats when they shouldn’t have,” Christine says. “In the early ’80s when interest rates increased there was a lot of trouble then.”

New fishermen were sinking fortunes into new, larger boats, anticipating a herring boom like the one that occurred in 1979 when boats were getting $2,800 a ton. Other fishermen thought the Sowdens were crazy when they hung onto their smaller boats.

But by the spring of 1984, financial institutions were holding 150 west coast fishing vessels. Between 20 and 30 fish processing plants had closed and minimum prices paid for sockeye salmon and herring were plunging.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans said overcapacity in the fleet was the problem. Fishermen said it was inefficient licensing and destruction of habitat. The fault was poor management at all levels of industry.

During that time, Sam Kondrat, a tanned and grizzled man in his 60s, looked up one day from his 38-foot troller he kept in False Creek in Vancouver.

“It’s the real fishermen who will survive,” Kondrat predicted.

He was right. By 1984, when fishermen were parading around in survival suits in front of the parliament buildings in Ottawa saying the west coast fishing industry was doomed, Linda Sowden was having a new boat, the Wolf Point, built on the Fraser River.

Linda learned a lot about gillnetting from her parents.

“My father always hammered it into me to think like a fish,” she says. This meant observing patterns of where the fish are going to be.

“Every year off the Skeena River it seems as if the fish come in a different way,” Linda explains. “One year they’ll be coming down past Digby Airport west of Prince Rupert and other times they’ll be further out from shore. It’s never the same twice. It’s just going out and looking for them.”

Linda looks at the situation, has a hunch and tries it.

“I don’t really like to be in a big fleet,” she continues. “Sometimes you do a little better when you’re by yourself.”

It’s a good feeling when you do well but it doesn’t always turn out that way.

“You get skunked quite often. You’ve got to know where the fish are,” says Christine, echoing the advice Bob gave his daughter. “You’ve got to think like a fish.”

After Christine and Bob sold the Ripple Rock to Mike and Linda they bought the Dawn Treader.

“It was a very good boat,” Christine reminisces. “I sold her almost 15 years ago, one season after Bob died.”

Fishing kept Christine busy after her husband passed away in 1988.

“There were lots of fish and some places, I couldn’t stay away from,” she says, “but it got to be too much.”

For Linda, whatever she can’t do fishing, a man wouldn’t be able to do either.

“A woman basically faces the same problems,” she says. “The physical labor part can be particularly hard for a woman but fishing is a good profession if you know what you’re doing.”

Christine doesn’t think fishing today is much different for women than when she started in the late ’40s.

“The women who don’t really succeed are the ones who don’t learn about their engines,” she says. “So they keep asking all the men for help when something breaks or needs fixing. And the men don’t like it because they have their families to keep and their own work to do.”

By the 1960s Sointula was a hamlet for fishermen. Today about 1,200 people live on Malcolm Island. Many are from fishing families but some have sold their boats and quit fishing. Only about 20 fishing families still live on the island.

But Linda is happy living in Sointula, fishing the west coast; she’s looking forward to June 4 when she heads north.

“It’ll start off as sockeye salmon and move into chum salmon,” she says. “I’ll be going to Prince Rupert for the first bit then north to the Nass River.”

Christine says the secret to the success of the Sowden women gillnetters is simply that they like fishing. Linda agrees.

“It’s just that sense of fun fishing,” Linda says.

TRAGEDY IS NO STRANGER

Tragedy was never far away from a fishing family.

The sea claimed Christine Sowden’s father, Christopher Skrondal. She also lost a second cousin, a fisherman who drowned at sea.

And over the years she’s known quite a few fishing families who’ve lost someone. Loved ones didn’t know until the time came when a fisherman should have been home that he might be in trouble.

“We didn’t have a radio,” Christine says. “You can’t sleep. You worry and you wait and you watch. If you’re living anywhere by the sea you can see what’s coming. It was a way of life way back then.”

In the older days there weren’t many ways to rescue a fisherman who got in trouble. Fishermen are still lost but tragedy doesn’t strike so often.

“It’s not nearly as prevalent from drowning as it used to be,” Christine continues. “Sometimes when the weather report is wrong or someone is silly enough to go out anyway, a boat will sink.”–R.C.

SOINTULA HISTORY

From fishermen who ferried logging industry strongmen trying to organize unions in the logging camps, to those who formed British Columbia’s first registered fishing cooperative back in the 1920s, Sointula’s fishermen played an active role in establishing fishing in British Columbia.

The early settlers, Finish immigrants seeking Utopia, discovered fishing was a natural occupation. But it wasn’t an easy industry in the beginning.

The settlers had a fishing license for Rivers Inlet on the north coast but didn’t have enough nets. The British Columbia government gave permission to build a cannery at Knights Inlet, but there was no money for construction. Still, the abundance of fish would ease the hardships of living in Sointula.

Since 1902 the Finns had drag-seined for salmon and there was no limit to how much fish could be caught. There were many summers when workers at the floating Alert Bay Cannery located 20 minutes south of Sointula packed 14,000 48-pound cases of sockeye salmon from the Nimkish River alone.

By 1906 the Finns were rowing their double-ended rowboats equipped with two sets of oars to Rivers Inlet to fish for sock-eyes. The 70-mile trip took three days. Fishermen had to go through open water around Cape Caution, but there were sheltered bays to pull into when the water got rough.

Once they reached the sheltered waters of the inlet they would rent a 28- to 32-foot skiff from the cannery for the six-week season.

They weren’t the most comfortable boats for fishing.

The vessels had either a cotton tent or a hinged doghouse forward from the main bulkhead for shelter. A miniature wood burning stove that burned bark provided heat. A week’s worth of groceries and an anchor that sometimes consisted of a piece of rope with a rock tied on the end completed the outfit.

On opening day a company boat towed as many as 40 skiffs at a time to the fishing grounds. In those days, fishing meant rowing a few strokes, throwing a buoy attached to the net over the stern then rowing a bit further and releasing more net. Two or three sets were made each day.

At the end of the day, the fisherman would erect his tent and fire up the stove to cook his meal. At dawn the fisherman hauled the nets in by hand. The catch was stored in hatches at the side of the boat.

It was grueling work, but the Finns persevered. And toward the end of the 1920s fishermen began building their own boats. Huge cedar-planked sheds appeared on the beaches and Sointula gained a reputation as a boatbuilding, maintenance and repair center.

About Connie F. Kirkland

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