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Will Work for Salmon

July is the month King salmon return to our stretch of the Yukon River, and fish occupy the days. Wild Yukon King salmon are a delicacy and a mainstay in the traditional diet of interior rural residents. Many families here in Fort Yukon and along the length of the Yukon River set out large fish wheels that can catch up to eighty salmon per day. Others will set out long drift nets or gill nets that can catch ten or more salmon per day. Some families will move out to remote camp sites on the river called “fish camps” for several weeks and process fish around the clock in the never ending daylight. It is a busy time and a good time, when every meal includes fresh salmon.

Fish wheels and nets need to be checked twice a day, usually in the morning and evening. Our friend and neighbor Heimo Korth sets out two fish nets a couple of miles up river. He has allowed us to check his fish net on certain days and to take a number of his fish each day. It’s very generous, and we appreciate it.

Days spent getting fish are a joy. I wake up and emerge from the house earlier than I normally would on the perpetual Saturday morning of summer. I relish the cool, quiet, early part of the day and am always glad to be out in it. I load up the trailer behind the four-wheeler with gas, battery, PFD’s, paddles, and emergency gear, and putter down to the river to find the boat gently bobbing and waiting. I move out on to the river with my good friend, Bryan Neubert. In minutes we are in the wild, on the river. A few minutes more and we come to a high cut bank and see where the net is staked into the ground and extending out into the current. I power down enough to push the nose of the boat against the swift current and inch our way up to the net. To reach down into the cold milky brown water and begin to pull in the net is to unravel a mystery. Neubert pulls up the thin lines of the net to see what may or may not be waiting in the murky brown water below. We pull a giant from the water. And then another. And then another, tangled in the brown lines with little twigs and leaves that have found their way into the water as well.

We return to the bank and tie off the boat. Back on the four wheeler. We troll to the house with our heavy, slimy catch wrapped in sheets of plastic. Hiemo and Edna live down a little path behind our house, and our lots are densely wooded. Being among the trees feels almost like being in the big woods. Just behind their house, they have set up a table for cleaning the fish. I stand at the table cutting and carefully cleaning each fish with the painstaking slowness of the inexperienced.  The first long and careful cut from the base of the head, along the length of the spine, almost to the tail. The sound of the knife cutting through the fine rib bones with the high plinking sound like running your fingers across the short, high wires inside a piano. Dark red blood trickling across the bright tangerine colored flesh.

Next to the cleaning table stands a smoke house for hanging and drying the long strips of cut fish. The smoke house is a simple A-frame of spruce poles with sheets of black visqueen on the sides and roof that give it the feel of a dark, barbaric, sacred space.  The hanging strips of flesh. The sacrifice. The holy.

After cutting the fish, I drop the long ropes of flesh into a brine solution to rest for a few minutes before draping them over long slender spruce poles stretched across the frame of the smoke house. In a galvanized steel washtub like a primitive censor smolders a cottonwood fire with thick sweet smoke that rises through the hanging and dripping strips of fish before slowly dissipating into the leaves of the trees above.

By the time I’m done checking the net, cleaning the fish, hanging the strips and cleaning up the mess, I am tired. But I know that today, I have been given a gift. I have been provided for. I have provided for others. By taking part in an age old tradition and by carrying out the mundane details of daily life, I have experienced holiness. 

Posted on Saturday, July 15, 2006 at 11:06PM by Registered CommenterBrian Rozell | Comments1 Comment

Reader Comments (1)

Hey Brian, Great description, I couldn't have described it better myself. Oh how I long for those magical July days!

I'm still waiting to read a journal entry about the time that we saw a salmon swimming up river while we were driving home from Circle. He, he, he....
January 26, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBryan N.

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