The king salmon (Chinook) are running strong on the lower
The king salmon run will last for a couple of weeks. During that time, people who live by subsistence must catch a year’s worth of salmon for their family, fillet it, cut it into strips, brine it, dry it, and smoke it. A family of eight or ten will dry and smoke about 60 large fish. Fish camp is the best place to do it.
The lands along the rivers are held by the various Native corporations and leased to individuals on a yearly basis. There is no power or water service, just access to the river. Families build smoke houses and drying racks for the fish, and cabins to sleep in. The same land often stays in a family for several generations and is added to over time. Some fish camps have elaborate houses and outbuildings and are very comfortable camps to live in.
With over twenty hours of daylight, work goes on almost around the clock. Boats go out with drift nets just before low tide (twice a day). The ideal is to have the net in the water when the tide turns and the salmon surge upriver on their free ride. In a thirty-minute drift, the nets can fill up quickly. Many fish camps also have a set net in the river, anchored at both ends, which is checked several times daily. If it is well placed, a set net may supply several large fish per day.
Most of the fishermen are men, and most of the fish cutters are women. When the men bring the boats in, the women come forth to begin the next step. Fish cutting tables are set up at the river’s edge. The fish are gutted right into the river, saving the egg sacs, and then brought to the table. With brisk efficiency and very little wastage, the fish are filleted and then cut into long narrow strips. Each strip is about a half inch wide and three feet long (or as long as the fish was from gills to tail). The strips are dipped into a salt water brine—for which there are many Secret Family Recipes—and hung on drying racks under a tarp for several days. Once dry, they are moved into the smokehouse for two to three weeks of smoking over a cottonwood or alder fire which is kept constantly burning.
Cutting the fillets into long, even strips can be time-consuming. Some people prefer to make “blankets”. A blanket is one entire salmon fillet (as much as one foot wide by three feet long) in which the bright red meat is sliced down to, but not through the skin, on the short dimension—from back to belly, not head to tail. The slices are made a half inch apart, and when the blanket is laid over a pole to dry, the wedges of meat between the slices fan apart, allowing for even drying.
The product of this work is “dry fish”, the staple of the Yupik diet. The strips have a jerky-like consistency, chewy and full of smoky salmon flavor and oil. Good strips are just divine. It is said that an astute elder can taste your strips and know whether you let your fire go out during smoking—for which you are a lazy slackard, though no one would say it to your face.
Life at fish camp is fun for kids, but they have chores to do too. Five-gallon buckets of water must be dipped from the river and carried to the cutting table for washing fillets, ulus (curved blade knife) and hands. Ulus must be sharpened frequently. Brine buckets full of strips must be carried to the drying rack and hung. Buckets full of dried strips must be carried to the smokehouse and hung. The finished product must be carried into the cabin and packaged for storage. When the mosquitoes are thick, smoky fires are kept burning around the edges of camp to repel them; gathering wood and feeding these fires are often the older children’s responsibility. And with the river right there, the younger children must be watched carefully.
In the old days, the Yupik Eskimo were far more nomadic than they are today. They spent early summer at fish camp, late summer at berry camp picking berries, and fall at moose camp hunting moose. Each camp had a different location, and each family had a traditional place that was their camp for each activity.
Most of the people that I talk to have wonderful memories of their time at fish camp while growing up, and still very much enjoy going there. Fish camp has become a symbol of the freedom of the subsistence lifestyle, living on “river time” and moving with the rhythms of the sun and the tide. And eating salmon fresh from the river at nearly every meal. Fish camp marks the beginning of summer, the favorite season of childhood. And it comes just when everyone is greedy for fresh salmon, and there is plenty.
Photos by The Tundra PA:
1. Fish camp on the Yukon River.
2&3 Fish camp on the Kuskokwim River.
4. Drift net ready to catch fish.
5. Average Kuskokwim king.
6. Filleting salmon with an ulu.
7. Many strips and a few blankets hanging.
Labels: Tundra Life