Life Force

by Amy Gulick

[Excerpted with permission from The Salmon Way: An Alaska State of Mind (Braided River, May 2019) by Amy Gulick. (pp 92-77)]

We leave the smokehouse and walk next door to Shelly’s house in the Native Village of Napaimute, located 255 miles upstream from the mouth of the Kuskokwim River. The village is accessed by boat, snow machine, or small aircraft; most people use the river as a road. With twenty-five houses and ninety members, the village population is seasonal, with most people, including Shelly’s family, arriving when the salmon do.

Inside Shelly’s home, six dogs nap on the couch, under the dining table, or on various human laps. Her husband, Mark, is fielding phone calls and texts from people up and down the river asking about the fishing. Their daughter Megan, twenty-five years old and eight months pregnant, is in the kitchen cleaning boiled salmon roe to make a caviar dip. And their daughter Audrey, twenty-three years old and four months pregnant, is nestled between two dogs on the couch. Raindrops pelt the living room window and meld into the view outside of the flowing river. To me, it feels like a lazy rainy kind of day, but to the Leary family it’s one of rest and recovery after several long days and late nights of catching, cleaning, and cutting fish, the results of which I just witnessed in their smokehouse.

“When somebody gives you a bag of dry fish, especially salmon strips, that’s a real gift when you think of everything that goes into it,” says Mark. Megan, who’s mincing onions to add to her dip, looks up from her cutting board. “I’ve learned to appreciate food and all the work involved, to respect the animals that are giving themselves to us, and to be grateful for what we’re getting,” she says. “When I’m fishing with my dad and cutting with my mom, I realize how lucky our kids are going to be, and that they’ll have their grandparents to teach them.”

Audrey chimes in from the living room. “Growing up, I was never really interested in preparing fish and didn’t bother to learn,” she says. “I’d see my mom out there and I never knew how much work went into it. But as an adult, fishing makes me feel more rooted in who I am. And now that I’m going to be a mom, my child will grow up understanding the importance of the fish and traditions to my family.”

Given how much work it takes to put up fish, I ask if they look forward to this time of year. A resounding “Yes!” in unison causes a few dogs to raise their heads from a deep slumber. It’s three days before the summer solstice, and if all goes well, the Learys will soon have enough salmon to see them through the winter. I wonder at what point in the year they start thinking about salmon fishing. “February,” says Shelly, “when it’s cold and dark.” Megan says, “In May, after break-up and we’re wondering when the first fish are going to come.” Audrey adds, “When we run out of white fish and salmon strips, but if you’re my dad, you think about it all year.”

The women laugh and nod knowingly. Mark smiles at his daughter’s comment then turns serious. “We get ready long before we fish,” he says. “It’s important to me, and I teach these kids to be ready. You take care of the things that get you food—your nets, boat, guns, whatever. It’s part of being respectful. When we fished our first day last week, the net was fixed up, the boat was clean, the smokehouse ready.” His words echo those of many people I meet throughout Alaska. There is a widespread code of respect for salmon that extends beyond being grateful for them as food. Respecting the land and the waters that nourish them, the equipment to catch and process them, and family and community members who share them are values held in common by Natives and non-Natives, subsistence, commercial, and sport fishing folks.

I thank the Learys for allowing me to visit with them. As I make my way toward the door, Megan hands me two glass jars of salmon. I salivate yet hesitate. After learning how much work went into those jars, it doesn’t seem right for me to indulge in food that I don’t need to get through the winter. “Thank you,” I say, “but I know how important salmon are to you.”

Megan smiles and presses the jars into my hands. “So is sharing.”

Amy Gulick Bio

Writer and photographer Amy Gulick has received numerous honors including a Lowell Thomas Award from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation, the Daniel Housberg Wilderness Image Award from the Alaska Conservation Foundation, and the Voice of the Wild Award from the Alaska Wilderness League. She is the recipient of both the Mission Award and the Philip Hyde Grant Award from the North American Nature Photography Association. Her first book, Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska’s Tongass Rainforest (Braided River, 2010) is both a Nautilus and Independent Publisher Book Award winner. She lives with her husband on an island in Puget Sound. Follow Amy at amygulick.com. For more information on her book visit thesalmonway.org and https://www.mountaineers.org/books/books/the-salmon-way-an-alaska-state-of-mind.

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