Tuesday, February 1, 2011

We Fish Therefore We Are

There’s creature in the Alaskan waters. Its song is heard only by those listening for it, but to them it’s loud and clear. It creates longing in the winter, planning in the spring, mania in the summer and revelry in the fall. It brings torment and joy in equal measure and swims through the veins of many Alaskans as if it were their own life’s blood. It is fish – and by “fish” I mean salmon!
Such a simple word – fish – most would say it’s a noun. But I live in a unique place where it is also a verb, an adjective and yes, even an adverb! Fish is, are, was and will forever be life.
By the time the last Christmas gift is opened, Chythlook minds have turned to fishing. Who, what, when, where – are all questions pondered as the fishing season approaches. We fish for food, we fish for money, and we fish for fun. We fish.
I thought I knew about fishing when I met Gary. My grandpa loved to fish. We’d spend long afternoons in a rowboat or along a mountain stream waiting to feel that tug on the line. How different could it be?
Well let me tell you…
Fishing in Alaska, like everything else, is extreme. When we fish for food, it’s not for a lovely campfire dinner, it’s for all year. We have subsistence nets, dip nets, and nets by the fathom for our boats. We catch fish to split, dry, season, can, vacuum pack, freeze, and sell to canneries by the thousands. We endure combat fishing in the rivers and streams where people are stacked one on top of the other, long hours with challenging and dangerous conditions on commercial fishing boats, deadly mud that could suck you in and feed you to the tide, even bears that lurk by the water, sometimes taking a fish right off the line.
All this fish has taken me some time to get used to being around. My first – and only – summer on the boat I appeased my vegetarian guilt by pushing a few survivors out the scuppers (those are the drain holes on the deck, and yes, I had to ask my husband what they were called). In my defense, those rescued fish were so pretty and unharmed! I was preserving the salmon by letting them go to the spawning grounds. Besides they could fit through the little holes – I mean scuppers! Now that I think about it, this may be why I haven’t been back on the boat.
Since then, I’ve grown to appreciate fish. They feed my family and friends physically, emotionally, even spiritually. They truly are the nourishment that flows through the veins of this great state. The value of fish is nearly immeasurable in Alaska. Fish aren’t just a dollar figure, they are sustenance, cultural identity – for some – they are life.
For thousands of years the Yupik Eskimos have fished the waters of Bristol Bay to feed their families. When commercial fishing arrived, it provided substantial income to those willing to work. It continues to be a driving portion of Alaska’s economy.
Subsistence fishing throughout Alaska not only still feeds families, but it also keeps a connection to culture. What does that mean? Well…it’s like music to me. I’m a musician, always have been, always will be. I teach music, I collaborate on music, I sing music, I even dream with music. My worst nightmare is losing my hearing. Could I live without music? Yes, but not well. That’s how fishing is to my husband, our family and many others. It just is.
Fair warning, I’m about to venture into a very sensitive resource and environmental issue about which I am not any kind of expert. However I am an expert on being a wife, a mom, and a member of this fishing family.
Considering the role of fish and fishing in Alaska, is it any wonder why anything - no matter how much financial promise it holds - that threatens this way of life would invoke vehement opposition. I cannot comprehend my family without fishing. We would not be who we are, and I’m pretty fond of who we are. I expect my children to be able to fish and their children and so on. Risking that is a bit like letting them play in the street. There’s a chance they wouldn’t get hit but I still won’t let them do it!
So here we are on February 1 and the fish talk is on in full force. This year we’re all headed to Dillingham to help. Ella will start to learn how to split fish with her very own ulu and Colton will spend another season on the boat with Gary and his Uppa; watching, learning, working. It’s life, it’s fishing and, after 15 years, I am finally beginning to understand what it’s all about.


  1. Waiting for the continuation of this story during the fishing season! How will Ella do with that ulu? And Colton is already helping on the boat...wow he is growing up and gaining a wonderful education on the water! More stories to come, I'm sure!

  2. Ruth, I can't wait to continue this one! Colton has been on the boat one season before, a year ago and he did pretty well. Gary planned for him to watch a lot, pick the net a little and get used to the whole thing. This year will be one step beyond that. I've heard talk of 10 cents a fish! He has grand plans of making lots of money! Ella is such a good little eskimo. She loves to steam with her Ana and I know she'll love spliting fish just as much. I'm just hoping we don't have to make any trips to the ER!!