The spring equinox occurred this week, but southwest Alaska is only partly feeling spring-like. The lengthening daylight is readily apparent; we now have over 12 hours of light, with long and lingering evenings which don’t get completely dark until after 10 pm. And the afternoon sun has a strength to it which holds promise of the summer days to come. But so far, it is still really cold. The entire month of March has been mostly below zero—often far below. This morning it was -16F just before sunrise. For the last week, we’ve had afternoons as warm as +10F, which feels so soft and warm, but the overnight lows continue to dip pretty deeply.
On Wednesday I had the opportunity for a new experience: I went manaqing with two of my favorite patients. Manaqing (maa-NUK-ing) is the Yupik term for ice fishing through a small hole with a short stick, and it is a favorite pastime for little old ladies. They often make a day of it.
The Johnson River, a tributary of the Kuskokwim, is universally considered the best spot for pike fishing around here. The mouth of the Johnson is about 20 miles downriver from Bethel. The Ice Road is in excellent condition, and is marked with saplings all the way to the Johnson.
On Tuesday I saw one of my favorite patients, Hannah. She was the teller of my Halloween post
, which included her photo, but I never mentioned her name. She comes to see me monthly and we always have a nice chat. She was telling me about her recent manaqing adventures with Ida, another Yupik elder I know, and I mentioned that I’d love to go with them sometime.
“Well, how about tomorrow?” she responded.
It being my day off, tomorrow was perfect. “Let’s go!” I said.
We left Bethel about 10:30 am for the drive down. It was about 10 below, but the wind was fairly quiet, so not too cold. It was a gorgeous day. They went in Ida’s truck and I followed in mine; they intended to stay until around 6 pm and I wanted to get back earlier.
The Ice Road is well frozen, but has lots of drifts. The road is well marked with saplings frozen into the ice, but you can drive pretty much anywhere. It’s almost like being in a boat. At one point I was about 50 yards behind them and veered a little to avoid a large drift. Suddenly the truck was spinning and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I did a complete 360 plus another 180 and came to rest facing back toward Bethel. It was like a slow-motion carnival ride. Since there was no open water and no solid object anywhere, it was really fun.
When we arrived at our destination, the only other vehicle was a lone Suburban. Two guys had a large gas-powered auger and were just finishing their first hole. An auger is the Cadillac way to go when it comes to putting a hole in the ice, but they are notoriously unreliable. Hannah has one, but she says dismissively, “It never works!” She and Ida both had long red ice picks, a long-handled tool with a 2-inch wide sharp chisel on the end.
It is an arm burning experience to chip a hole in four-foot-thick ice with a hand tool. The best trick is to find a deep crack in the ice; then Mother Nature does half the work for you. We followed a crack at the edge of the river until we found a few spots where people had recently been fishing. Old holes don’t have nearly as much ice in them. Hannah chipped her way through to water in about five minutes. She had me start fishing that hole while she chipped another near by.
Ida was set on re-opening a hole that was not in a crack. She had fished it several days prior, and had pulled out fish as fast as she could put her line in the water. She caught more than forty fish that day, from that one hole. The hole had not been used for several days, and the ice at the bottom was thick. She wasn’t able to get it open with her ice pick, it needed an auger. The bottom of the hole was deeper than the reach of her arm when lying face down on the ice next to it; she couldn’t scoop the ice chippings out. She gave up on it and made two holes in the same crack that Hannah and I were fishing from.
Once the hole is open, you drop your baited hook in and jig-jig-jig until something bites. We were using fresh black fish for bait. Hannah had a small container of cut up black fish for us to use; she kept them in an inside pocket so they wouldn’t freeze. The hook is large and heavy, so it will sink to the bottom. We were in about 15 feet of water. It is attached to a line the size of kite string which is wound around a short stick, perhaps 18” long. You sit at the edge of the hole and bounce the baited hook along the river bottom until you feel a heaviness on the line. There is no hard pull, no running out of the line. When it feels heavy, you grab the line with both hands and start pulling it out. The pike on the hook will be one to two feet long, narrow-bodied, with a huge mouth and sharp teeth. They come off the hook easily, and often you don’t even lose your bait.
Since I started fishing first, it was no surprise that I caught the first fish. Hannah's eyes lit up, and as soon as it was off my hook, she grabbed it and popped out the eyes. She threaded one eye onto her hook and started fishing. "They make the best bait," she said. She quickly caught a fish, proving her point.
We fished for a couple of hours. Hannah and I had holes side-by-side, and between us we pulled in a dozen pike. Ida, the master fisherwoman, had two holes and a pole in each hand as she fished them both. When we stopped for a lunch break, she had 16 fish to our 12.
By the time my teachers were ready for a break I was glad to stop. It was a lovely, clear, blue-sky day, but the wind was pretty brisk, and it was ten below, which means the wind chill factor was about -25F. With my Jeff King suit on I was reasonably warm, but my cheeks and toes were numb. We climbed into Ida’s truck for a half hour of warmth.
Hannah had made sandwiches of salmon spread ("jarred" king salmon she canned last summer mixed with mayonnaise) on white bread. Ida brought dried and smoked king salmon from last summer, sort of a fish jerky. Hers was wonderful. Hannah had some fresh agutuk she had made—a concoction of berries, sugar, boiled white fish, and Crisco. It sounds atrocious, but it is actually quite tasty. And it really helps to keep you warm in the severe cold. I brought a thermos of coffee, some beef jerky, and a bag of good chocolate. We had an excellent lunch.
Another hour of fishing after lunch and I was about ready to head back to Bethel. My fishing partners were not nearly ready to leave, so I gave them a hug and headed upriver alone.
The road was pretty easy to follow. When I got to the village of Napakiak (which is on the opposite side of the river from my village, Napaskiak), I really needed to pee (all that coffee). I decided to stop in at the village clinic and say hi to the health aides there. They recognized me immediately, and were glad to see me. It was after 3 pm, and they were basically done for the day, just finishing up paperwork; the clinic closes at 4 pm. I regaled them with fish tales, used their facilities, and then headed back out to the river. I was home by 4:30.
Hannah called me about 6:30 to make sure I had made it home safely. She and Ida had just gotten in. They caught somewhere between 50 and 60 pike, she said. Of those, I caught four. I have a lot to learn.