PenAir King Salmon: where the world meets to fish

Jun 22, 2017

The hub for Bristol Bay's eastside bustles in June, serving the daily jet flight and up to 14 PenAir flights as it funnels through thousands of fishermen, processors, anglers, and other visitors from around the world.

Inbound passengers at the King Salmon PenAir terminal Monday, just a week or so before commercial fishing really gets going.
Credit Caitlin Tan / KDLG

The Bristol Bay Borough swells from a year round population of about 1,000 to closer to 10,000 for the summer fishery. Almost all of the fishermen, seafood processors, and thousands of sport fishing and wildlife viewing visitors on the east side of Bristol Bay pass through one very busy small terminal in King Salmon.

Audio Transcript: Within one hour of sitting in the airport, one sees close to 100 people coming and going, all with either rugged backpacks, fishing poles, coolers, muck boots or rain jackets.

Kevin Richberg, PenAir customer service manager at the King Salmon terminal, said pretty much everyone is here for the salmon season.

“It’s never a dull moment here. You get to meet people from all walks of life here,” he said. “People from different countries and from different states. There’s just so many stories – it’s always something different, which keeps it fresh.”

In the winter this airport only has two flights per day, but during the peak of the summer it serves up to 14 flights daily. The human traffic into Bristol Bay mirrors the sockeye run, but the people aim to be here a few weeks earlier than the fish. Richberg said the PenAir terminal in King Salmon will see 600 to 800 customers pass through in a day.

“It’s probably a good three week span where everyone comes in and then it turns right back around probably starting the last week of July and then all the people leave to go home,” he said.

The airport adds more staff in the summer to help with the influx of travelers, this year hiring 11 interns from Boston. All staff are trained year-round to prepare for the summer rush.

PenAir’s flights have been operating more on time these past two weeks, but getting all of the sport and commercial fishermen’s luggage in can be a different story, Richberg said. Whether it shows up on time or the next flight, or the next one, is part of the game of fishing Bristol Bay.

Kayla Redenberger, from Juneau, fishes the Silver Bow with her family. She was pleasantly surprised to find her bags arrive on time Monday.

“Silver Bow got the bags. It’s a miracle in Naknek,” she said.

Redenberger, like a lot of fishermen, admittedly doesn’t pack just the bare necessities, evidenced by a canvas she carried under arm.

“I’m going to do a little painting on the boat if we have any down time. That’s the plan,” she said.

The airport is small – one main room to house all the incoming and outgoing passengers, plus security, employees and taxi drivers, who all seem to sit around wondering about the other passengers' plans and stories. During the rest of year, the terminal is a meeting spot for folks coming and going, most of whom know each other well, said Richberg.

“You see the same people at church or the same people you see at the local store, it’s a very tight knit community."

In order to keep these thousands of travelers moving, every employee on staff helps check people in, find luggage or direct them to their next destination.

“I think it’s a lot busier than it was last summer,” Richberg said. “When the herring season started, it was a lot busier which got us started. I just got the feel there’s more people here visiting and working.”

It is about a week before the commercial fishing really gets going, and everyone in the bustling terminal appears tied to the fishery in one way or another.

Voodoe Contamy and Abdullah Hamad both just arrived from Africa. Hamad has worked for Trident Seafoods for three years, but this is Contamy’s first.

“Yes I’m excited you know. We were working over here before but now we come back, we come from Cordova right now,” Contamy said. “We come over here to work and get money and you can see that on everyone here, they’re excited and we are excited too.”

Jim Long, another traveler, is up from Portland, Oregon to commercial fish, something he has done since 1989. He stood next to three large coolers filled with groceries.

“It’s just easier to shop at home. Cheaper, well not by the time you bring it up here, but it’s just easier you have it all,” Long said.

This terminal is also a hub for thousands of visitors who come in for the area’s world class sport fishing and bear viewing, as well as normal traffic coming in and out of Southwest Alaska villages. For most, King Salmon itself is just a stop on their various journeys, Richberg said, often short ones.

“Basically they were flying on PenAir, and then [they] take a small plane about 15 minutes away to go watch the bears, and then they leave the same day to go home,” he said.

The King Salmon PenAir terminal, with its daily Alaska Airlines jet service and right now more than a dozen PenAir flights, is reaching its own peak of the season this week. The sockeye salmon run will do the same in early July. Not long after the salmon run tapers off, a great migration will begin again as Bristol Bay's fishermen and processors and the rest head back the other way, towards home.

Reach the author at caitlin@kdlg.org or fish@kdlg.org.