Character, Community, and Values Forged in Alaska: Connecting with the Salmon Sisters

Emma and Claire, the Salmon Sisters, walking down a wharf in Alaska wearing their fishing gear

We had the privilege of collaborating with Emma and Claire, the Salmon Sisters, to take our Work socks to the next level – they might be our most breathable socks ever.

What we found during that collaboration though was not just excellent sock feedback, but also two incredibly humble women with values we shared and characters we admired. Not only are they helping us make our socks better, but they’re helping make their community better and now have enriched our community, all the way from Alaska to Vermont. We loved the opportunity to sit down and ask them what shaped their values and community at Salmon Sisters.

Can you introduce yourselves?

CLAIRE: My name is Claire, I live in Homer, Alaska, and I have the opportunity to run Salmon Sisters with my sister Emma. We love commercial fishing with our family and everything about our small coastal community.

EMMA: My name is Emma, I'm Claire’s sister, and we run Salmon Sisters together. We grew up commercial fishing, and I think the thing I love the most about fishing is just being able to work with my family and to be outside all day and to be in a beautiful, wild place.

You grew up with a unique, homestead-style upbringing. Can you speak to how you think that upbringing influenced your life and your character?

CLAIRE: I don’t think we understood the uniqueness or value of our upbringing until we got to college. For us, no is not an answer; we can always figure out how to do just about everything.

An aerial view of a remote home on the coast

Growing up on that landscape required self-sufficiency, independence — it was up to you to figure it out or work with your family to figure it out. There was no one leading the way with an instruction book on how to live your best life or where to value your time or how to value it.

Those themes of courage and independence and leadership and resourcefulness and making the most of any situation and no expectations had been imprinted on us from an early age from the remoteness of our home and how we spent that time, but they didn’t really dawn on us until we were young adults in a larger environment. How we could navigate easily with what we needed and how we felt value day to day, what brought us joy and how we could find it.

We learned the value of time. We were homeschooled, and it was never a pressure to do your work or to do school as a negative. It was such a positive to learn, and such a positive to have resources, mentors, parents, and people in the village who you were just hungry to learn from.

There’s a seasonality to our work; there’s seasons you’re so tapped into what’s happening in the land or on the ocean. How you worked differently and what was the priority in that season has helped us identify in our young adult lives how we want to spend our time, what we value. And being outside is a must. A must must. Interacting with the world around us, meaningful work, and learning, constantly learning, and reinventing what we’re interested in.

Looking across salt flats toward towering mountains of Alaska

EMMA: We also learned strong family values; in our environment and in our family of four, each of us had a role. Growing up with that sense of purpose has really stuck with us.

Coming out of college, when we were wondering what’s our next step and a lot of peers were going into more traditional fields, that was the moment where I realized how different our upbringing had been. I felt like I wasn’t afraid to go and try something of our own. We have the examples of people in our lives that are very entrepreneurial like our parents and our peers’ families.

There’s a lot of people in our small town who have made their own business or are craftsmen or artists or have gone their own way and followed what’s interesting to them. In some ways, that gave us the option to create our own business together.

What kind of influence did fishing have in building the character you both have now?

EMMA: Fishing gave me the feeling that my life had started long before we left school. So, we were working every summer when we were old enough to be on the boat, and we’d leave college and go back home and fish, feeling like we had a strong connection to our community and our work away from school.

Coming home to Alaska felt grounding. The whole time we were going through other things, it was amazing having a really strong sense of community, home, work, and family building in Alaska.

Emma and Claire working with ropes on their fishing vessel

CLAIRE: The amount of responsibility you gain as a young person, being able to see the direct impact of the work you put in and the output as a team or on the vessel is incredible. We were given so much responsibility to rise to the occasion, and taking that in all areas of life outside the water has been wonderful. I don’t think we recognized it was happening at a young age.

And then just stewardship for the lands and oceans you’re so fortune to enjoy and be part of and this spectacular life — it’s so hard to share because so few people get to see these remote places or go through the trials and tribulations with your small crew.

We’re so thankful for that opportunity, and we didn’t quite recognize how it would give us the drive and grit to persevere in small business and other areas of our lives.

Emma and Claire cleaning up fish nets

Speaking of thankfulness, can you tell us about Stanely K? Who was he, who was he to you, and what does the K stand for?

CLAIRE: In our world as kids on the homestead, Stanley Kristensen was an ever-present figure, just like a family member but a new face. He’d come over to the homestead from the village in his skiff and play with us, read to us, tell us stories about growing up on Unimak Island where our homestead was.

He was a reassuring force, always out and about, always catching fish or bringing something over; sharing was such a huge part of our relationship, sharing food, resources, and knowledge. There’s a lot of incredible places on Unimak Island named after his family with the legacy they left behind as early homesteaders out there.

Emma and Claire looking through photo albums at pictures of Stanley K

EMMA: He was an old timer in the village. As a young family, I think it was really nice for parents to have someone to come check on them. They were doing a big brave adventure of their own living out there. They were learning a lot every day, and it must have been reassuring having someone they knew was thinking about them, even if he was across the pass, a boat ride away.

It was always a welcome sight to see his skiff coming over. He’d pull up to the beach and bring a comic for Claire and I or a little treat from the village store. He’d take us fishing down in the bay and taught my dad some of his best fishing tricks; my family learned a lot from him.

As Stanley got older, we were able to help take care of him and go over and help out whenever he needed. He was just a great energy in the village. One of our family’s heroes.

The Stanley K boat, currently in dry dock, a blue fishing vessel

CLAIRE: We wanted to honor him, so we named the boat after him. He made everything possible with our family moving there, homestead life, and then slowly just being a mentor for commercial fishing and persevering. We couldn’t think of a better way to honor him than to have a vessel that is working out there with our family values and practices.

How did you meet Stanley?

CLAIRE: That’s a good question. He was just there as soon as we could remember.

Our parents were in their early 20s when they moved to the Homestead. My dad had fished out there one summer, they were living in southeast Alaska at the time, and he was just in awe of the place. They wanted to move back to the land.

They saw the opportunity, grabbed it, and knew nothing about day-to-day operations. But the previous owner helped them start their first summer at the Homestead. Then Stanley found them in the village, and eventually he just started coming over and was their friend from the beginning. He was always there to help them out.

Is that kind of mentorship common? Have you since seen examples of it in your community, though maybe not at that scale?

CLAIRE: Definitely on the water side. There’s a lot of mentorship between older commercial fisherman and young men and women starting out.

There’s so much pride in their work and wanting to share their knowledge, seeing so much of their younger selves in these young funny go-getters who are throwing caution to the wind and trying to run their own operation. That is a persistent force within our industry.

Fishing wharf in Alaska with snow-covered mountains behind it

EMMA: In situations where young people are open to it, there’s always someone who knows more than you and wants to help you, definitely on the water.

Sometimes with fishing, since it’s a competitive industry, it can be a little hard to get to that place for some people, so they do as best they can when they head out, and they don’t know what they don’t know.

Advice can be taken in lots of different ways, but as long as you’re open to it there’s so much to learn from the people who have been doing it so much longer than the young generation. But we see a lot of really cool intergenerational friendships out on the water.

You speak about “on the water” like it’s a different community. Can you help us understand that?

CLAIRE: On the water, you’re just more contained, the human element. It’s remote, it’s only you and interactions with your tender or another commercial fishing boat during some seasons. Departing land makes this huge difference, the lack of constant connection or the usual routine of 9-to-5 work.

You’re fully present and fully focused on your surroundings, the work at hand and the people at hand. You’re in your own little bubble in so many ways.

Emma and Claire out on the water with their dog, who's licking their faces

EMMA: Being out fishing or being on boats makes it easy to feel like a community, because you have to take care of each other in a lot of ways. There's enough risk where we fish that you don't fish alone, because you know someone else needs to be there in case you get into trouble. Right off the bat, that is a strong force of sticking together and helping each other out.

I know that happens on land, too, in a lot of communities and within friend groups and families, but I think when we're fishing, it's such a big part of your day-to-day, the people that you're around. Sometimes, it's your radio group that you fish with. Sometimes, it's just other people on the fleet or your tender who helps you out at the end of the day. But you see the same people throughout the season, and it's an unlikely community, but a very strong one.

You both moved away from Alaska for a time. When you moved, did you ever think you’d come back to Alaska? Was it a surprise to you when you did move back?

EMMA: I think Claire and I both felt like it was necessary to leave before we came back again. Just go see and get a taste of a couple different corners of the US. We went to school on the East Coast and got to meet a lot of different types of people through college. Spent a few years in the city, in Seattle, and really enjoyed every chapter.

CLAIRE: We knew the summer, the fishing season, we'd always come back to Alaska, we never would miss the return of the salmon. But moving back to our small town, I think it naturally happened where we were here and gave it a chance. Then found we built our own community as young adults here, and that was important and worth staying for. We were able to create something of our own and get involved in other ways.

A large green building in Alaska with a sign that says "Salmon Sisters"

EMMA: After having built Salmon Sisters and feeling like Homer had become home base for us and where the whole world revolved as far as our business and our family, it made a lot of sense to just be here. Homer is a tough place to stay away from; it’s such a beautiful place and the community is strong here. All the people that raised us are here, a lot of our friends are moving back; it’s an easy place to be that takes care of us.

CLAIRE: It leant so well to our style of being on the water all the summer and then returning and having a home base that was still in Alaska and connected to the rest of the seasons and our little coastal community, and all of the remainder of the work with Salmon Sisters that can be done on land and in our town.

How has Salmon Sisters' role in the community developed? How would you say you're perceived?

CLAIRE: I think that nothing has changed for Emma and I in the last 10 years in our passion, why we wanted to start this business, and just how we wanted to interact with our community. We are performing the exact same actions we were a decade ago.

But back then, on the dock, you would bring up Salmon Sisters and people would be like “oh yeah, good luck, you’re making t-shirts, cool.” Now we’ve been able to slowly give, especially young women in our community, an example of how they could be very involved in commercial fishing or start their own business. Anyone can do it if we did it.

The Salmon Sister's boat driving into dock in Alaska, with a view of the other vessels

EMMA: I think we’ve been able to use Salmon Sisters as a platform to support our community in a lot of ways, whether it’s the young fishermen who are just getting started and women who might want to run their own boat or just to get on a boat at all. To the artists in our community and the folks who are making amazing things that we can put in our shops and show people who are visiting Alaska and who have never seen something like that before.

We’ve been in business for 10 years now, and people just have noticed that steadiness. They know we’re here to stay.

CLAIRE: Also our peers are doing such incredible things. We’re just one in the mix of everyone in our community at our age so far, and it’s really fun to have them as inspiration and just be so impressed with them every day. They’re running their own boats or starting new businesses.

But, we’ve definitely gotten to the place where our community knows we’ll be around, and they know that we could just eventually learn a new skill and solve problems with our business, if that’s traceable seafood, or mentorship in the high school for marine trades, creating a specific product need, or just helping people tell their story. It’s fun to learn new things and help people.

You lived in Vermont for a time. What were your impressions of Vermont?

CLAIRE: When I was in high school, I had a very instrumental teacher who told me, go to college where you would love to live or be involved in the community, and he recommended Vermont.

When we ended up there, the beauty is unbelievable, and then the similarities between Alaska and Vermont with outdoor emphasis, local food systems, the people have so many crossovers in value and interest and just the way they’re living their lives. It felt like home in so many ways.

Also, Vermont has all the seasons and all the elements we were used to from home of drastic change and people were living with those seasons and diving into the natural beauty and everything surrounding, place and pride in all. It was really magical.

We love that Salmon Sisters donates to the Alaska Foodbank – our relationship with our own local Foodbank has been instrumental for us. What led to that decision?

Claire holding up a basket full of food getting donated to the Alaska Foodbank

CLAIRE: People are so proud of their work and their catch and how they can share it with their community, sharing that superfood that they’re harvesting is a natural progression. Some people do it in product, donating fish, while some people donate their time with mentorship, involvement in the community, or just taking care of their land and continuing to clean up salmon streams – there are so many different branches of how commercial fisherman give back in their local community.

Food has been such a big part of our families’ lives, how we connect, how we communicate, that being able to offer that to people who are less fortunate in not having access to that protein was natural for us.

Claire and Emma cutting up salmon

EMMA: Giving fish has always been our families way to communicate love or care for other people, and I’d say the same for a lot of families in Alaska who have access to the ocean and are harvesters. We would always send our relatives in other places fish and that would be the greatest gift we could give them.

When Stanley K who was getting to an age where he couldn’t go and harvest his own fish, people would leave fish on his doorstep. There’s a lot of instances of that, the commercial fishing fleet giving to the community; lot of times there’s donation programs set up in small towns where you can deliver your fish to go to the local school or to the foodbank. With Salmon Sisters it just seemed like the most natural way for us to give back to our community and give something that’s so healthy and delicious, in our minds the greatest gift that we could give someone.

How would you define purpose?

EMMA: Purpose to me, as far as our business goes, is trying to get people to feel connected or find connection to the outdoor world, to the wilderness around us. For us, that’s always been through our work.

We were given the opportunity to work on the fishing boat growing up, and being in sync with the seasons and being able to be outside and working with our hands gave us that opportunity to feel connected to the wild place where we live and work.

A close look at the ship compass

As I was writing a cookbook (and am now working on a second one), I've been thinking about purpose a lot, contemplating how people find meaning in their life and work. For us it’s really been through this place that we call home and the work we get to do here.

What words and thoughts come to mind when you hear Darn Tough Vermont?

EMMA: When I hear the words Darn Tough Vermont, I think about our family wearing them. My parents, husbands, Claire, and I have worn them for a long time. Originally without really knowing the team behind the socks, the quality of the product has always been why we wear them. Just knowing that they have a guarantee of lasting a lifetime and knowing whoever made these things really believes in what they’re making.

Now, getting to know Darn Tough more, we love sharing a lot of similar values: family values, we’re both family run companies, trying to support the local area and community through giving back and through employment and partnering with link minded businesses. They’re just good people.

A group of people wearing darn tough socks and laughing

CLAIRE: When I hear Darn Tough Vermont, I immediately think of quality and dedication from start to finish behind the product. Anyone who is able to stand behind something so thoroughly, it’s exceptional at this day and age.

Also grit, providing people with something they have worked so incredibly hard to constantly find improvement and work locally within their state to manufacture, and grow, and give back to their community to create a product that can be appreciated and such a key staple in so many different people’s working lifestyle, daily.

I don’t think people probably tell Darn Tough enough about how their product and what they’ve created have helped them in their daily life. Just having a tiny piece of that, wearing it, and pride in being affiliated with something you share value in.

What words and thoughts do you think come to Darn Tough’s mind when they hear Salmon Sisters?

CLAIRE: That’s tricky. I’d say possibly when Darn Tough is thinking about Salmon Sisters, it might be around a small business that’s dedicated to their place and their people and trying to find solutions for people. A business trying to find ways to give people pride and value in their work and their day-to-day contributions to their community.

EMMA: I think Darn Tough thinks about people who are working hard. Creating something small but meaningful and working with their family, working outside, and celebrating all the good parts of life.

Emma and Claire standing on their boat with other fishing vessel's visible behind them

What do you think the responsibility of a company like Darn Tough is?

CLAIRE: I would say the responsibility of Darn Tough, with their excellence so far, is just continued dedication to their supply chain and manufacturing in the United States. That’s what I’m so impressed by and so interested in learning more about, and I want that to be a staple of these socks forever.

Other responsibility Darn Tough has — it’s already happening: dedication to their team, their community, and the place where they get to live and work.

EMMA: I think the responsibility of Darn Tough is what they’re already doing and good at – to support their local community by offering the training and opportunity to learn a skill that can employ people, making a quality product they can be proud of.

Beyond that, showing the world how things are made is important, that something so useful and practical and good-looking can be made in a small town by real, normal people. Highlighting some of the people who love wearing these socks are stories everyone wants to see and feel included in and will inspire lots of sock wearers.