Alaska’s pristine Bristol Bay stretches for 248 miles as the eastern-most arm of the Bering Sea. This is where you’ll find Heidi Dunlap, along with her business and life partner, Steve Maher, for two months each summer. Like the sockeye salmon for which they fish, the owners of The Wild Salmon Co. in Asheville, North Carolina, return to the same freshwater habitat in southwest Alaska every year.
Heidi inherited her adventurous spirit from her parents. For ten years beginning in the early 1960s, Bill and Karen Dunlap taught school in Alaska, where Bill was a commercial fisherman. When they weren’t fishing, the couple plied the world’s oceans in their sailboat.
“I was born in September, and by December we were sailing,” Heidi says. “My crib was a rubber boat placed on deck, and my mom said I couldn’t crawl when I got to land because I was so used to crawling sideways.” Karen enrolled her daughter in swimming lessons at age three because the toddler kept jumping off the boat whenever her older brother did, spawning Dunlap family rule number one: Stay on the boat.
As a youngster, Heidi spent part of her summers on her father’s fishing boat. “One of my earliest memories of fishing is when I was five or six, we would go out fishing for the week, and on Friday we’d bring our last load of fish into town,” she recalls. “We were there for about six hours, during which I’d fillet as many fish as I could, cut the bellies open and take the roe out. I’d fill up a five-gallon bucket and sell that separately to the cannery. With the money I made, I would go buy Cabbage Patch dolls at the general store in town.”
Her first stint as a deckhand was aboard her brother’s salmon boat at the age of 15, and she hasn’t missed a season since. After graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in anthropology, Dunlap floundered around for a while before she and Steve ran their first boat in 2004.
These days they favor the runs in the Nushagak River, one of four major river systems in Bristol Bay, which harbors the world’s largest wild sockeye salmon fishery. “Once we catch 100,000 pounds, we are starting to make money,” notes Heidi. “Our largest haul—in a single haul of the net—was 23,000 pounds, or about 4,500 fish.” This summer, fishermen on Bristol Bay saw the largest salmon run since 1893.
Heidi and Steve catch 80 percent of their salmon—95 percent of which is sockeye—over a two-week period, during which they fish 24 hours a day. They set their net perpendicular to the flow of the river, where it hangs like a curtain in the water. Then they run the boat from one side to the other, towing the net. At regular intervals they lift up the net with the help of hydraulics, and manually pick out the fish and toss them into an icy slurry of brine. “About every eight hours, we take a two-hour nap,” Heidi explains. “That goes on for about two weeks, until we’re completely exhausted and delirious.”
About every eight hours, we take a two-hour nap,” Heidi explains. “That goes on for about two weeks, until we’re completely exhausted and delirious.”
This season they experienced a particularly high number of storms, with wind gusts up to 40 miles per hour—which can really rock a 32-foot boat. Day two blew in a six-day-long storm, which one deckhand described as “being on a roller coaster in a washing machine.”
Despite the perils, fishing holds an elemental appeal for Heidi, who appreciates participating in a sustainable fishery that has supported native cultures in Alaska for over 4,000 years. “The basic act of catching fish is exhilarating,” she claims. “When we’re up there, we have no cell service, no Internet, no Facebook, no online bill pay. Once we start fishing, nothing else matters except for the weather, the tides, and the fish.”
The rest of the year, Heidi and Steve carve out six weeks to travel, angling for adventure through expeditions like riding motorcycles across Vietnam. When they’re not fishing or traveling, Heidi works 60 to 80 hours a week running The Wild Salmon Co. “I work hard and play hard,” she admits.
“I feel that we have a truly blessed life,” the 40-year-old reflects. “And I give all the credit to my parents. They have always shown me that life should be an extraordinary adventure.”
The Wild Salmon Co. offers fish through online buying clubs and also participates in regional farmer’s markets in May and October. At the TD Saturday Market in Greenville, Heidi sells individual sockeye portions and fillets, as well as codfish that her husband, Steve, catches in the Bering Sea every winter. They also offer smoked king salmon—a sought-after and mild-flavored delicacy rarely found outside the Northwest—as well as smoked sockeye, cold-smoked lox, cured salmon, and smoked-salmon spread. Look for The Wild Salmon Co. at the TD Saturday Market through October; thewildsalmonco.com