Shelly Larsen

Deck-hand. Gardener. Firefighter.  

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By Alissa Vanlandingham, Regan Bervar and Alaena Fletcher

 

Shelly Larsen grew up commercial fishing.

Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Shelly used to set-net for salmon with her family on Kodiak Island each summer.

Now 28, Shelly has been fishing commercially in Bristol Bay since 2011.

During the “off season,” which is the entire year outside of the six weeks she spends on the water, Shelly lives in Bellingham.

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She recently bought a house in the Birchwood neighborhood. It is modest in size and painted a dusty blue.

Her roommate’s dog runs around the yard. Shelly has been enjoying the process of decorating the space and cultivating a feeling of home.

In her large yard, she’s installed rasied garden beds where she is growing herbs and vegetables. She also had a chicken coup with a rooster and a number of young hens.

 

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Shelly’s active on and off duty. She works as a firefighter EMT for the city of Lynden as a career. Shelly didn’t grow up wanting to be a firefighter, or expecting to be.

She said she was drawn to firefighting for the same reason she’s always been drawn to fishing: teamwork and the immense bond it creates between people.

When the opportunity to join a fire crew presented itself, Shelly took it and hasn’t looked back.

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“You just don’t get anything like it anywhere else- that bond between people, really getting to know people to an almost unpleasant extent, on their good days, on their bad days.”

When she’s not working, Shelly enjoys mountain biking, trail running and downhill skiing.

Shelly said she can’t speak to anyone else’s experience fishing- it’s different for everyone, every season.

As for her, she’s worked in a number of different environments, some better than others. She said she worked on a boat a few years back that leaked a lot. She’d climb into a bunk that was half salt-water soggy each night.

“Sometimes I think, ‘Why did I go back? That was terrible,’” she said.

She spends six weeks each summer in three pairs of long-johns, working under overcast skies with seawinds lowering already mild temperatures. When she arrives back in Bellingham in the late summer, she said she doesn’t even want to think about being on the water.

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Shelly said around May, she starts getting excited for the upcoming season. She goes through her photos from previous summers, gets nostalgic over pictures of sunsets from the water, starts getting back in touch with fishing friends.

She’s been working as a deckhand on a boat called the Balrog the last few summers.

She says this year, she’ll be working with a few men she’s known since they were only seven or eight years old when their families used to fish together on Kodiak.

“There are a lot of other ways to make money that are easier, but it’s just one of those things. It just gets into your blood and you have to keep doing it because it’s so challenging and fun and difficult all at the same time.”

 

“Commercial fishing is more than just a job,” she said. “It’s just that feeling you get at the beginning of every season… for a lot of people, and I’d say this about myself too, it’s part of your identity.”

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