Whitefish are, well, obviously they are fish. They are a northern specie found in cold waters; lakes, sloughs and rivers. Some are resident in the location all year; some migrate. Now is the time they migrate.
Late fall, before freeze-up is the time local people like to catch and eat whitefish. This is when they are plentiful, fat (did you know fish can be "fat"?) and females are loaded with eggs. The whitefish run is the last of the open water fishing to be had on the river. In a couple of weeks ice will be running and boats will come out (some are out already). There will be some grayling fishing through next month in our local tributary to the main river, but basically fishing with nets will end with the ice/whitefish.
Northern people crave fat. I believe this is due to the harsh climate in which you burn calories aplenty and the lean condition of most local sources of protein. Moose is a very lean animal, so is caribou. Migratory waterfowl by necessity are typically lean (imagine your Thanksgiving turkey trying to fly from Alabama to Alaska and back). Bears are known to be fat, especially at certain times of the year, and that is the favored time to get them; late fall and early winter (locals like to take them out of the den right after they've gone to bed for the winter.) Beaver is a "fat" animal and a delicacy.
Sheefish are "fat" in the spring, so when do you think people want them??? In the spring of course. Same holds true for pike.
Now is the time for whitefish. People will save the guts, which is where most of the fat is stored (you can see the fat when you cut them open). After cleaning, the guts are fried in their own fat and eaten. Sounds really weird to me but local people are crazy for whitefish guts. The eggs too are a delicacy. They can be fried, cooked with the fish, or eaten raw.
I remember years ago giving some whitefish to an old woman. She would cut them open and take the eggs, leaving me the fish to use as dog food. One of them had orange eggs rather than the usual white. "Ummm, these are the best" she said, and popped the eggs right into her mouth. I tried (in vain I'm sure) not to look too surprised, as if I was accustomed to people cutting open freshly caught fish (some were still kicking) and eating the eggs on the spot, raw...just like that! Who cares about the slime and the blood?
The next day I was out checking the net again and I brought along an older man. As we picked the fish out of the net I told him the story. I played it cool but told him I'd never seen that before. "Uh huh", he said as he eyed a particular fish, visually sizing it up. He pulled out his pocket knife and cut it open. Removing the skein of eggs, he tilted back his head and dropped 'em in, slurping a bit for effect. Then, while throwing me a sideways look, he chewed briefly, swished 'em around, then swallowed. "Needs salt" he said with a grin.
In days gone by, a majority of community members participated in house building. It was something akin to "barn raising" for the pioneers in the 1800's. But up here building a house meant a group of men would go out in the spring and "get house logs"; meaning they would select a good location near the water with plenty of spruce trees, from which they would cut suitable logs for building. This would include felling the trees, cutting to length, removing limbs and bark, physically moving the logs into the water, floating/rafting them downstream to the village, then hauling them up on the bank to dry.
A month or two later the logs would be moved to the building site and construction would begin. Each log would be fit into place by hand; in fact everything was done by hand in those days. You can imagine why a lot of people were involved. I have built a house with logs and can testify to the copious amounts of sweat (and blood) that must be invested into the project. It's a hard thing to transform a forest into a house using only an axe and chainsaw, and the old guys didn't even have the chainsaw.
So picture a dozen human beavers working away at a pile of logs; chopping, carrying, sawing, lifting, pulling, pounding and sweating. Over the course of a summer the pile shrinks and a house takes shape...from apparent chaos comes order. Finally, in the fall, the house is done and ready to be occupied. All the men who worked so hard (and the women who cooked and cared for them) are happy and relieved; the job is done. Now is the time to celebrate. Now is the time for the "open house"; a community-wide celebration.
In today's world it's much the same. Most houses are built by the Tribe for tribal members. Most are built using conventional materials such as plywood and lumber. And the project is not on as large a scale as before; only a small crew of 4-6 is needed. But the "open house" is still for everyone.
There was an open house yesterday. Just about the whole village showed up. There were even visitors from neighboring villages who traveled by boat to get here. So many in fact, that we had to move outside; the house couldn't hold every one.
At an open house everybody brings food to share; a common practice in native culture (and many other cultures too). We had lots of fish, some moose dishes (but not that many since it was a difficult hunting season and many people didn't "get their moose"), some "chickens", spaghetti, home made bread, pie, cake, etc.
Later in the evening there was a dance down at the hall. Any dance in a village is a wild affair; a "good time" as it is called. This one included a "punch party" which is little more than a trash can full of fruit juice and rum, and a lot of very intoxicated people (in case you're wondering, I never go to the dances). For the die-hards, the party goes on through the night and continues into the next day. The owner of the new house wanted the party/dance at the hall rather than in her new house because she was afraid the drunks would bust the place up (a safe assumption I think).
The so-called celebration will continue today and tonight and will taper off tomorrow. I included the photo of the truck in the ditch because, to me, it seemed to appropriately sum up the experience, and effects, of an open house.
I'm laying on the ground, under a tarp, trying to sleep. It's dark, the campfire is stoked up for the night. My sleeping bag is toasty warm. My therma-rest pad is...well, o.k. I guess. Dinner was terrible (how people can survive on MRE's I'll never know).
It's the proper end for this day. It was pretty hectic. After rushing around getting everything ready, loading the boat, driving...I don't know, probably about 60 miles down the river then up the slough to this spot, hurrying to get set-up before it gets dark, now it's time to relax and think about hunting tomorrow. And the symphony is playing in the next lake.
Ahhh...the beauty! Listen to 'em go. They're all there and each has a part. Not a note is left out in this waterfowl concerto. The cranes with their "kdddroos", the loons bringing "whooloolooloo", the geese contributing "aaronk...aaaaronk", the entire duck section is too complex to list here, and my favorites, the swans playing bass.
I'm really thankful to be here, alone this night; laying on the ground in the darkness. It's just me, the Lord and the symphony. I wonder how they will be able to fly all day tomorrow if they stay up all night singing. After a while it starts to die down; the cranes are the hold outs but even they seem to be running out of steam. What sounded like hundreds has dwindled to dozens, then a few, then just one.
But one is enough. That solitary crane keeps the momentum going and soon more join in. Within a minute they're all going again. Then here come the ducks, then the geese and all the rest. I didn't know that was the crane solo part in this performance. I was thinking that was the finale. Silly me. It goes on like this until after I fall asleep.
The next day is beautiful; sunny, cool like fall up here should be. After a hard day outdoors it's time for dinner, the campfire, then sleep. What's different? Hey, tonight it's quiet. Another dark moonless night like before but no symphony. It's kinda weird after last night's raucous perfermance; almost...depressing. Nothing but a far off owl and one lonely duck over in the lake. Poor guy; he sounds so forlorn calling out in the darkness. I imagine him wondering where everybody is; thinking something like "I checked my calendar and I know this is the night for the concert" or "I should have listened to my wife. She told me it was scheduled for yesterday".
Somewhere between a boy and a man there stands a moose. He's a big, wild animal; more than half-a-ton of bone and muscle, most of it muscle. He's lived in the wild for years, avoiding hungry bears as an infant and wolves every day of his life. He's alive today only because he survived yesterday, the day before, and a thousand days before that.
Strangely, his best weapons aren't on his head; the big horns (antlers) are seldom used for defense. They are mostly for show during the breeding season and for sparring with rivals. His one true love, the cow moose, has no horns and survives just as well as the bull.
His hooves are deadly; driven by the same brute strength that powers his bulk through deep winter snow and muddy summer swamps. More than one hungry, determined wolf has met its end with those hooves, but they aren't his best weapons either.
So what is it that keeps him alive? It's his ability to be invisible. Amazing, but true. This big beast; the largest animal in the woods, keeps his skin by hiding, by remaining unseen, unheard, undetected. He's a master of stealth, slipping quietly through the trees like a phantom, usually emerging late or after dark to feed. He's always on the alert for possible danger. When he senses something amiss he can silently dissappear back into the shadows from whence he came. A thousand pound animal moving with the discipline of tai chi. He's a chameleon, a mime and a behemoth all in one.
And then, suddenly, everything changes. Fall is in the air and care goes out the window. Our burly ballerina has become...well...a bull! Now he's on the move, searching; looking for a girl to impress and a guy to beat up. He's thrashing brush with his horns and grunting to call attention to himself. As the rut approaches he can even become deadly. Heaven help the wolves who find him now. A big enough pack may bring him down but there will be many casualties; some that won't get up. A grizzly would do well to avoid him now. He's even been known to chase many an armed hunter up a tree, which is where we come in.
In most of the north country fall means moose hunting. For locals it's not about "sport"; it's about food, tradition and a way of life. You won't find any blackpowder, archery or handgun hunting here. What you will find are rifles and men interested in bringing home meat. Moose hunting is what men do. Even some men who've spent the rest of the year inactive, unemployed and unmotivated will suddenly get on the ball. Boys will stay home and play but men will go out and hunt. And the moose stands between the two.
I'm not sure if the first moose is a line crossed or a milestone passed. Maybe it's more of a doorway that a boy steps through. Whatever it is, it's significant. I've seen it happen many times because I take boys hunting every year; boys who want to camp out, shoot guns and play. They fiddle with the camp fire and stay up late talking in the tent. It's every boy's dream; no school, get dirty, eat what you want (one kid threw up from eating too much candy). And they're lousy hunters; noisy, impatient, always munching on snacks, can't seem to get focused on why we're here.
Then they kill their first moose. Suddenly they're proud, jubilant, even giddy. They can't wait to get back to the village because they're bringing home meat...their meat! For many of them it will be the only meat their family will get, so this is important stuff. In camp I see them looking at the meat pole with a pleased look on their face, and when we get home they're hoping lots of people are there to see us unload the meat. They know some one will ask the greatest of all questions, "who shot the moose?" and they'll get to answer "I did".
Everybody will hear the stories and every one will know they killed a moose. All the kids at school will talk about it. Teachers too! Their grandma may even have a special dinner for them; a kind of potlatch to celebrate the first moose. All the relatives will come and old people will say nice things about the boy (it often reminds me of Old Testament blessings).
What I really enjoy is taking them again the next year to see the change. Next year they'll be serious, focused, intent on getting a moose. Next year they'll be hunters. Next year they'll be men!
Imagine your neighbor burning household garbage in your front yard. Not paper; I'm talking the good stuff...plastics, foam, toss in a few batteries, maybe a couple of closed glass jars or aerosol cans. These are great; they make every day seem like the fourth of July, and believe me, this happens nearly every day.
In rural northern villages it's common for people to have a burn barrel in which they (not surprisingly) burn trash. It's interesting to note that most homeowners locate these barrels as far from their own house as possible. A brief moment of thought here will bring you to a couple of conclusions. First, they obviously don't want their trash burning near their house. I mean, who would? We're talking very toxic smoke. What's in that stuff??? Dioxin, and I probably don't want to know what else (if you know post it under "comments"). And this stuff is waaayyyyy smelly.
O.K. second conclusion. If it's not by their house it must be...where? You guessed it; it's by some one else's house. A common tactic is to put it "across the road" and since some one frequently is living "across the road", that puts it (technically) in their yard. What a concept.
These burn barrels are seldom taken to the dump and emptied; they must be full...no over-full...no way past full before they are hauled away to be dumped. Only after every conceivable attempt to stack more trash on top has failed, and even then they don't give up. I've seen "people" (my neighbors shall remain unnamed) gingerly place a bag of trash on the pinnacle of Mt. Burnbarrel (after previous attempts failed with the bag repeatedly rolling off) leaving it balanced precariously. Then it is lit ("Houston, we have ignition").
OK, a plastic bag perched atop a burn barrel that resembles a triple-scoop ice cream cone and put to the match. Next question...what happens when the the plastic bag starts to burn? You got it! All the now burning trash begins spilling out and rolling off onto the ground. Now picture my neighbor (a devout burner) carefully picking up pieces of trash flambe and quickly tossing them back on the pile while trying not to get scorched. It was actually kind of funny to watch.
Really, the whole trash burning thing here defies all logic. It's like there's something in the smoke that adversely affects people, impairing their ability to reason. Perhaps it's yet another "syndrome". I've seen burners attempting to inflame trash when their barrel is covered with 6" of snow. I've seen them attempting to light wet trash in the pouring rain. Not to be dissuaded, the devout burner frequently uses a propane torch for ignition (You probably can't appreciate the devotion this portrays; propane canisters are hazardous and can only be shipped to our village as such, making them quite costly). I've even seen one of my favorite burners start a roaring blaze in his barrel (which happens to be placed "across the road" among some trees) during the big forest fire I referred to in "The hills are burning". It wasn't enough that our community was facing evacuation and possible incineration from natural causes; when Mr. Burner lit up his barrel the flames were soaring and literally scorching the adjoining trees. No joke!
Once I saw a dead dog sticking out of a barrel! It was there for days, at the side of the road in front of a guy's house. Who does that? And who then would burn their trash on top of the dead dog sticking out of a barrel? What must that smell like? Three day old dog roasting a la garbage. Certainly that defies logic; further evidence of a smoke induced syndrome.
This Burn Barrel Syndrome, which is caused by the smoke, affects even otherwise sane and rational individuals, such as my wife (who will probably kill me when she reads this). Earlier, when I looked out my window and saw clouds of smoke billowing from a neighbor's roadside incinerator, I said I was going to take a picture of it (there was so much smoke I was making jokes about a plane crash, terrorist dirty bomb, etc.). "A picture would be good for the blog", I said. My wife's reply, "she (the neighbor) might think that's kind of weird". Kind of weird? Me?? For taking a picture of Armageddon??? I once saw a similar picture on the cover of Time magazine during the Gulf War. I bet no one thought that guy was weird; he probably got a Pulitzer prize or something for that pic, but I might be considered weird. Me, weird? Yeah, right.
It's likely something in the smoke that makes people lose the ability to reason. (Oh yeah, I already said that). Well....something's going on. I'm absolutely convinced this stuff is toxic...no, it's carcinogenic...no, that;s too weak...it's...it's DEADLY!!! There is something in the smoke! This stuff is killing people and they don't even know it!. It's taking over their minds!!Why am I the only one talking about it? Why isn't every one freaked out over it like I am??? It's got to be something in the smoke! I feel like I'm living the invasion of the body snatchers...and I'm the only one left who knows what's really happening here...I've got to do something...I've got to tell others...QUICKLY!...THERE'S SOMETHING IN THE SMOKE!!!
Today is an unusual day...even for around here. Labor Day is one of the "three big days"; big as far as potlatches are concerned. (uh oh, maybe I just opened a can of worms with the word "potlatch". I didn't plan on this being another "vocabulary #101" post)
Potlatches are community meetings/dinners at the hall. They are usually tied to deaths/funerals; the "big three" definitely are. Perhaps I should try a different approach here and just tell you what I've done and will do.
1pm +/-; The phone rings, "Flo" asks for a ride up to the graveyard, wants me to haul up a fence (see photo, "Not just another day...part 2"/july 26).
1:10pm; I pick up "Herman" (Flo's adult son), load up a white picket fence, wheelbarrow and assorted tools, and then Flo. We go to the graveyard.
1:20pm; I unload passengers, fence and stuff. Lots of people and vehicles, everybody raking leaves, cutting weeds, painting fences, etc. Some are really sad, some not; some are drinking, some not; some are working on old graves, some on the most recent...and we have a lot of recent graves (see "Not just another day"/august 16). I talk with a few different people about a variety of topics.
1:45pm; I return home.
2:10pm; I get a call from an elder with plumbing problems. I go to his house and try to help (water heater needs replacement), but he needs the local "plumber" who is currently up at the graveyard (and likely intoxicated). It will have to wait 'til tomorrow, so no hot water 'til then, which is a bummer because his wife is cooking for potlatch (imagine cooking thanksgiving dinner without hot water).
3pm; I return home, select food to prepare for potlatch, begin preparation.
(now I'll jump to the future and predict how the rest of the day will go)
5:40pm; I get a phone call from ??? wanting me to give them a ride to the hall and help "bring their food down".
5:50pm; I drive ??? to the hall. The parking lot is beginning to fill up. Lots of people inside sitting around the perimiter; elders at tables, the rest on benches, leaving the floor open. Three long strips of brown paper line the floor with some dishes and pots of food on them.
6pm; I return home, pick up my food and return to the hall, probably giving more people a ride and bringing more food too. The lot is full, there's a fire going by the back door where people are burning food for the deceased, the hall is full and noisy, few seats available, quite a number of people from out of town, the strips of paper are full of pots, large bowls, etc, there are a lot of "dishes"(large bowls filled with a variety of food, covered with a dishtowel, to be given to those who are "receiving a dish" for a deceased person). I drop my food off at one of the tables laden with maindishes, deserts, etc., and find a seat.
6:10pm; The chief makes the opening speech, welcoming visitors, introducing the new schoolteachers, etc.
6:12; Some one else gets up to make a speech...
6:18; Another speaker, another speech...
6:30; The speeches continue...
7pm; (hopefully) The speeches are concluded and the food is uncovered, those receiving a dish line up in the middle of the hall, seated on the floor, the local Catholic Brother "says grace". Now the elders seated at tables are served and the rest of us move out to the strips of paper covered with a variety of food (lots of moosehead soup, roasted moose meat, fish, waterfowl, spaghetti, pilot crackers, home made bread, dried fish, etc., etc., perhaps there is something "exotic" such as beaver meat or muktuk, [all the food is now cold]) and we serve ourselves, sit on the floor and eat, or take food back to our seat.
7:15; Servers distribute cups of berries, "fish ice cream", cake, pie, etc. and any left over food.
7:30; Potlatch is over, several people ask for a ride "back town", others ask me to come back for them because I don't have enough room, the back of the truck is full of passengers, food and dirty dishes. I bring them home and return.
8pm; I'm back home and still a little hungry (some food at potlatch is very good...some is just alright...some is really scary).
September...month of change. Now begins the time of transition; shifting from one world to another. It's a shift in temperature, color and condition. The old world was warm; the coming world is cold. The old world was green; the coming world is white. The old world literally flowed with life; the coming world will slow...thicken...and solidify into an apparent suspended animation.
You see the signs of transformation every where. The days are shorter and cooler. The nights are actually dark. Many of the birds are going or gone. Even the trees raise their flags of surrender; yielding to the inexorable advance of winter by changing color and dropping their leaves.
All life in the north must cross this line from warm to cold. Some will adapt and survive, more will die, a few (perhaps the lucky ones) will sleep through the season of trial and awaken when conditions are once again favorable.
The sleepers? Bears are the obvious ones, hastily adding fat before turning in for the night. September is the month of the late night snack. If I were a bear I'd be eating Cheez-its or chocolate chip cookies; they seem to prefer berries and "gut-piles" left by moose hunters.
Insects, including the nefarious northern mosquito, also slumber. While many of them perish a few will find snug winter quarters. One favored place is tucked away in the cracks of standing dry spruce trees. I know this because I find them while cutting these same trees for firewood.
Other snow-time snoozers include frogs (we have few but they are here), the blackfish (who can spend the winter frozen in the mud) and I don't know what else.
The winter casualties are many: most of the insects, anadramous fish (such as salmon), many mammals (most of the young won't survive and the sick, injured and old frequently are converted into carrion), migratory birds that missed the last bus, etc.
That leaves the third category; those who must adapt to survive. Some grow heavy winter coats and rely on added summer fat to help see them through (moose, caribou). Some anticipate the coming winter death-toll and live on the corpses (ravens, foxes). Some have stored away provisions (beaver, voles). And some just keep on keepin' on (lynx, chickadees).
In which category would you expect to find humans? You may assume all would adapt, but I'm not sure if this is the case. Certainly many do (I include myself in this group); stockpiling firewood, filling the freezer with moose meat, etc. We work hard preparing for the coming winter and trust our efforts will be adequate (though I personally trust in the Lord and His provision; Luke 12:16-21). But some northern residents do not adapt.
The "snow bird" who flies south to escape the winter seems, to me at least, a cold weather casualty, unable to survive (apparently). These include seasonal workers, summer residents and retirees taking flight with our migratory birds or following the autumnal migration of RVs down the Alcan. They spend the rest of the year in places like California, Arizona or Florida
There are also those who seem to "sleep" through the winter. In this category I would place all who avoid the outdoors during the northern winter months. Granted, life in the Alaskan deep freeze is not every one's cup of tea, but if you live here you should get out and try to enjoy it. It's useful in staving off "cabin fever" and seasonal affective disorder(SAD), and it helps pass the time for those who don't like winter. But sadly, they just live an indoor life and view winter through a glass window like watching television.
Speaking for myself...WINTER ROCKS!!! Snow machines, dog sledding, freedom to travel into the remote. What's not to like? (see "Miami eat your heart out") So what if it hits minus fifty; it will warm up again. And zero is perfect! Not too warm, not too cold. But there I go, jumping ahead a couple months. I'm like the over-eager sled dog; just can't wait for winter.
In rural Alaska we seem to live by the season more than the day or hour. We have a season for fishing, another for hunting, etc. Its a seasonal approach to life. If that be the case, I love September because it's the "Friday" of months; the weekend of winter is just around the bend.