Kat sent me this story she wrote ten years ago about an eventful fish camp at Howard’s.
Fish Wheel Wars
Notes from the Other Side of the Tanana River.
Dateline: Fairbanks, Alaska, July, 1996
I’ve been gone two weeks to fish camp, and am only now getting shed of the slime and wood smoke smell.
Fish camp, to answer your query, is a time honored Alaskan tradition, an
annual blood ritual that involves decamping to the riverbank and
murdering as many fat salmon as you can get your hands onto while they run—cutting, hanging, drying, smoking, “putting up the fish” for winter, the bush version of making hay while the sun shines. I believe with all my heart that if you’re a basically good person on earth, kind to others and honestly sorry when you cause damage, when you die, you go to fishcamp, where it’s summer all year long and the fish are always running, with kids screaming wild on the riverbank, dogs yapping at their heels.
Maybe I’ll never understand exactly what it is I like about the experience: sleeping on the cold, often wet, ground;, protected from the elements by only a canvas wall tent; tending the fires; cooking three meals a day over an open fire-pit; up all night tending the fish wheel; up all day cutting fish, putting them into brine, hanging them in the smokehouse; sand in your hair; sand in your eyes; mosquitoes chewing your neck, butt and arm; hornets buzzing and biting; no sleep to speak of, but then no telephone either, no email, no fax, no nosy boss, no disgruntoed coworkers. Guzzling scalding hot tea at midnight, wet to the armpits from dragging slimy fish outta the fishwheel, watching the smokehouse slowly fill with bright red fish, listening to the seagulls scream, seeing sassy camp robbers hop about at your feet, fighting over the gut-piles, living on salmonhead soup and fry bread, indeed, fishcamp life is good!
We had sixteen kids at camp this year, from all over Alaska, all between the ages of 12 and 16, all eager to learn about subsistence skills, all
bickering over who’s turn it was to use the scrub board. I finally broke down and made a trek to town to buy two more. Hey, three scrub boards, no fighting! Imagine teenagers squabbling over the privilege of scrubbing their way too large sagging blue jeans on a hand wash board, in water hauled in buckets up outta the river and heated over a camp fire. what a trip! A priceless mental snapshot for the memory book.
And then, when the run hits, it is 72 hours of pulling Kings outta the river, no time to bicker, no time to worry about anything other than keeping the knives sharp, keeping the fish cut, keeping the fire going for soup and tea and drying out. We call this The Alaska Hard Start Program. Subsistence is about knowing that everything you need to have a good life is right here, at your fingertips, ready and available, all you gotta do is add the sweat equity and elbow grease. This is the world I want my children to know, all the kids. I want them to be competent, able to care for themselves and others, ready to face whatever life dishes out from day to day.
Well, we got a dose of reality this year, for sure. Some fellow dropped his fishwheel into “our” spot earlier this summer, a hole directly across from camp, with a deep eddy, where fish hole up and rest a bit on their long trek up river to the birth and breeding grounds. He’s a commercial permit holder (as opposed to our “subsistence” and “educational” permits) and he’s used our spot, with permission, for three summers. This year, without asking, he plopped his wheel into place and when the old man who runs our camp, Howard Luke, went over to ask him to take it out, as we had kids coming to camp and it was time for our wheel to go into the water, basically refused to make way. “I was here first, I’ll pull my wheel when I’m done.”
The kids got one hell of an education in politics in the ensuing week.
Common law has always been that traditionally used fishwheel sites are the “property” of the user. Just like with traplines, grandfather rights have been respected and disputes over usage have been settled not by courts but by the people involved. Turns out, by state fish and game regulations, though, what this gentleman did is NOT illegal. “Wrong as hell,” the fish and game guy who came over to camp to arbitrate the dispute told us, “But not against any state statutes.”
We ended up having a full-blown 60’s style protest out there on the river with many boats and fellow fisherfolk coming up from as far away as Nenana and Minto to float in solidarity with the old man. It was a tense couple days.
We had a TV news crew show up in the midst of the fray, lady anchorperson in cork high-heel wedgie sandals traipsing all over camp, scrambling somehow up and down the glacial silt riverbank in them unlikely footgear, an accident (and lawsuit?) just waiting to happen, her video cameraman at her, uhm, heels, getting live action shots of it all. I was more than a little worried for her immediate safety and well being.
One local hot head was just itching to get out there and shoot himself a commercial fisherman, but thankfully, cooler minds prevailed, and he was persuaded to leave it to merely brandishing firearms. At one point I was concerned that any one of these river rats might just go across and cut the offending fishwheel loose, setting it adrift downstream with the current, the traditional solution to similar disputes. Thankfully, driving rain and a sharp wind helped “dampen” tempers. The commercial permit holder, it turns out, is a teacher in the local school system, and it was public pressure put onto him by the principal at his school and the school board, I’ll bet, rather than all the hollering that went on out there on the river, that finally convinced him to pull his wheel so we could put ours into place.
Me? I just kept on making fry bread, and more and more tea, and offering a bowl of soup to all and sundry. Funny, coming back to this side of the
river, reading the news accounts of the fish wheel dispute, seems to me, everyone missed the REAL story, focusing on the fish wheel war, the drama on the water. The real story is that Alaskan culture is alive and well, that fish camp this year was equipped with seven laptop computers powered by a solar panal, that the kids caught and cut and hung and dried fish and learned to cut babiche and tanned caribou hides and built a bent birchwood dog sled with only home-made hand tools, the old fashioned way, and ALSO logged all their activities onto their laptops and completed science projects for school, including an interesting experiment with cold hole food storage and bacteria.
The kids learned about modern meteorology and built a fully functional barometer but also sat and listened to the elder’s storytalk about how to read the weather from looking at the clouds and the river. Not one of the newspaper or TV accounts spoke to this.
I returned half crippled, carpel tunnel syndrome has me about paralyzed from the shoulders down, making it hell to write client case file notes this week at work, but my holiday has rejuvenated me in other ways, beyond the mere physical. I brought dried fish and smoked fish and pickled fish back to my clients, and learned a new game that basically involves tying a beaver hip bone to a stick with a stout twine, then tossing the hipbone into the air and attempting to catch it through the hip socket hole onto the end of the stick. This activity was taught to me by a 79 year young Athabascan woman who told me it was the only toy she had as a child. Believe me, it takes some practice to master the trick.
I am teaching the skill to anyone willing to learn.
Culture is acquired. It must be absorbed. Fishcamp shows me everything I need to know about how to human be.