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At Kuskokwim River fish camp, smokehouses fill with fish and tradition

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 19, 2014

ALONG KUSKOKUAK SLOUGH -- On a sunny summer day, the quiet peace of a remote fish camp on a slow-moving branch of the Kuskokwim River became a crazy-busy place of heading and gutting, cutting and hanging.

The salmon were running, and Bethel elders Roy and Ida Alexie, along with daughters, grandkids and extended family, were catching them.

"I'll take the heart!" 6-year-old Alyssa "Frankie" Wassillie called out as her mom -- one of Ida's many nieces -- guided an ulu through the crunch of salmon bone and flesh.

Life at this Yup'ik camp blends deep traditions with modern twists, bursts of intense work with stretches of easy play and relaxation. Kids ride bikes, shoot BB guns and toss fish heads into buckets. Fathers and daughters, mothers and sons pull salmon from nets. Elders check cellphones.

But this year's camp began slowly and stressfully.

At the start of this year's salmon season, managers put strict limits on Lower Kuskokwim fishing to let king salmon pass by. Like elsewhere in Alaska, the number of kings returning to the river has dropped dramatically in recent years. The managers were trying to protect future runs and many villagers backed the conservation measures. Still, villagers depend on the fish and were reeling over the possible loss of their harvest for winter.

By late June, rules had eased, other species of salmon were in the river and fish were slamming into subsistence nets.

On the Kusko and all around rural Alaska, residents were making their annual summer journey from everyday routine back to another place, from villages, hubs and even cities, back to fish camp.

At the Alexie family's summer base on the Kuskokuak Slough, between the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta hub of Bethel and the village of Kwethluk, dozens of fish were draped over the family's drying racks and hanging in the smokehouse.

The family has been coming here for decades. Little wooden houses line a dirt path that leads from one family's camp to the next. There's a two-room steam house, the maqivik. Cowboy coffee boils on a propane stove.

Some Bethel residents have stopped going to distant camps and hang salmon the traditional way by the dozen right in town. Even many villages don't empty out for fish camp the way they used to. For some, it's a challenge to take off work for long stretches of drying and cold-smoking, salting and brining.

Yet tradition with purpose runs so deep it lures the extended Alexie family, like others, to camp no matter frustrations over strict rules or low salmon numbers, rain or mosquitoes.

For weeks each summer, daughter Diane Hlasny, 40, known as "Isty," transforms from Anchorage suburban mom to expert fish cutter.

Ida's connection to the fish camp, 16 miles upriver from Bethel, reaches back to 1940 when her grandfather, Martin Jackson, settled the land there. He fished with wooden traps up at the Kisaralik River and hauled his catch by canoe. Ida's two brothers from Kwethluk have neighboring camps, as does a cousin.

River of fish

At Bethel's small boat harbor, busy with boats heading out to fish, Ida, Roy, daughters and grandchildren pile into Ida's skiff, named Sunny Day.

Roy, 69, is spending his first summer at the camp in 30 years. The pace is calmer than in Bristol Bay, where he was part of the sockeye-seeking frenzy as a commercial fisherman running his own boat. He finally retired.

Ida, 67, retired in 2001 from the state Department of Fish and Game. She got time off in summer for subsistence and commercial fishing.

Earlier in the week, the family had success when managers first opened up that section of river. The Kuskokwim is long, more than 700 miles, and near Bethel it's 10 football fields wide and deep. They caught 217 fish, including reds, pinks and Dolly Varden trout. But many were whitefish or chum, which lack the rich oils of kings and sockeyes.

Just three were big kings. In summers when Kuskokwim fisherman could target kings, the family would aim for at least 50.

To Yup'ik people, early summer is kaugun, "the time they enter the river."

All day to fish

Port cranes, wind turbines and communication towers fade as the skiff heads upriver from Bethel.

The Sunny Day passes a few skiffs with long nets drifting alongside. But mainly the gray water is calm and empty.

Now that fishing is open, Roy has expected to see the Kuskokwim covered with subsistence fishermen.

"They probably got all theirs already with their little nets," he says. Subsistence fishermen could use the "little nets" when the king salmon restrictions forbade bigger nets.

At a big "Y," Roy turns the skiff around and steers up Kuskokuak Slough to fish camp.

The bank is muddy. Pieces of old carpet cover the sloping edge to curb erosion. The family ties the skiff at a little wooden dock.

"Let's not rush," Roy says. "We've got all day to go fishing."

Ida and Roy's camp has expanded over the years. When they were a young family, they packed into a single-room cabin. But as their five children grew and had kids of their own, Roy added on and new buildings sprouted.

Nearby, Isty Hlasny has her own family cabin. She was born and raised in Bethel, where she met her husband, Jason Hlasny. They moved to Anchorage more than a decade ago. She works as secretary for Holy Cross Parish and Jason is a special education director for the Anchorage School District.

She brings their three children -- twins Isabelle and Jason, 11, and Paul, 9 -- to learn traditions and get away from the distractions of city life.

"There's no television ... There's no traffic," she says.

"But there's BB guns!" Roy adds. The kids shoot at old pop cans hanging from a little tree.

The youngest of Roy and Ida's five children is Carvalena Alexie, the 31-year-old everyone calls "Sunny," the one who grew up fishing and never stopped.

"A lot of times, it was just us girls," says Sunny, who took time off for fish camp from her job as a records coder with Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. in Bethel.

Almost two years ago Sunny donated a kidney to her brother, Richard, nicknamed "Giff." Her mother frets about her. But earlier this summer she did a half-marathon.

Good years and bad

Maybe last year's terrible king run -- the worst on record -- was a blip, Ida says.

"A lot of people blame the high seas fisheries. A lot of people blame this and that. But sometimes I think that fish have good years and bad years just like everything else. Like berries," Ida says.

At their camp next door, Ida's brother Alexander Nicori, 61, and daughter Pauline, 32, have deposited a fresh load of fish: one big king, one little jack king, two chums, one red and two pinks.

"It may be a late start cutting fish but it will be worth it in the wintertime," says another daughter, Alberta Nicori, 33. She has three young children and the family just ate their last salmon from 2013. "The kids would be looking for the fish. They'd be wanting fish."

Her ulu rocks through a chum, recognizable by the faint striping on its back. Frankie, her 6-year-old, plops the head in a 5-gallon bucket.

They live just a couple of miles upriver in Kwethluk but fish camp is still an adventure, a place where the kids can splash at the water's edge, tumble into a hammock, run with cousins.

"Right after breakup, my kids were wanting to move here," Alberta says.

Some salmon hearts are saved. The children will roast them like marshmallows.

‘A king salmon!’

The Alexie family heads out in the skiff. They hope for kings and reds.

"If we get 30 or 40, we'll be lucky. If we go home with 50, we'll be very lucky," says Ida.

They split the fish with their grown children and will save some half-dried for Roy's mother, who's 98 and lives in an Anchorage care home. Sometimes she asks for her Native foods.

"Whatever we get, we'll be hanging," Ida says.

Roy motors back up the main stem of the Kuskokwim.

"Right here," Ida tells him, pointing to a gap between two other boats.

Sunny works to set the 300-foot-long, float-topped gillnet. The bottom is weighted by leaded rope. The net is twice as long as the one they were allowed to use earlier in the week, and it's heavy work.

The skiff and net drift with the current. Sunny and the boys watch for salmon to hit.

"See! Right there, in the middle," Sunny says. A float bobs. Something splashes.

Sunshine glints off the wide water. Sparse snowfall last winter means less melt in the spring, so the river is running clearer than usual. Some swallows near shore are catching bugs. Roy spots a young eagle gliding by.

Usually the family gets kings early in the season, when they are still ocean bright and shiny. By late June, conditions are changing. Flies buzz around hanging fish and the family has to check for fly eggs. They worry about rain too. It slows drying.

After about an hour, Roy and Sunny pull in the net hand over hand and pick fish from the mesh.

"A king salmon!" Ida exclaims. "How delightful is that?"

"Are we not supposed to catch king salmon?" asks Jason, the 11-year-old.

"We can catch it now," Ida says. The fish is pinkish, not as silvery as Ida would like.

Salmon hit the tote and blood spatters.

Ten so far, Jason says.

They pull in the last bit of net and pluck out another big chum.

Roy asks in Yup'ik: Should they make another drift with the net?

One more, Ida answers in English.

They get another five, then later in the day another 11, including another king.

‘Can't just go to the store’

The next camp down belongs to another of Ida's brothers, James Nicori, 65, and his family.

His wife, Helen, 65, and daughter, Joy Andrew, 38, are making their way through a tub of 60 fish, mainly chums and reds and one king.

"We may be tired, but in the end -- yum!" Joy says.

The late start because of the king closure doesn't really matter, Helen says.

"We have a Giver," she says. "I wasn't worried."

Roe is drying on tree limbs. Joy says they will mix fresh and dried eggs together.

Earlier they buried fish heads in a pit to ferment as "stink heads."

"The smell to me is No. 1," Joy says. "You guys don't know what you are missing."

Catching salmon is essential, Joy says. Meat is too expensive. So many people don't have jobs.

"We can't just go to the store and keep buying," she says.

Working on fish

By 7 p.m., it's 76 degrees, and the fish drying on cottonwood racks needs tending.

Roy piles the whitefish into a wheelbarrow to hang in the smokehouse and make room for salmon. Grandsons Paul and Jason pitch in.

Sunny flips over thin little salmon pieces that will become jerky. They've saved king salmon eggs too. The eggs, or meluk, will ferment and will be mixed up with seal oil, sugar and salmonberries.

Ida layers king heads with salt in a bucket. They will add water and store the salted fish, or sulunaq, in the smokehouse for a while.

For dinner, Ida cuts slits into a red fillet, pours some pickle juice over it, sprinkles on salt, pepper and a little brown sugar, and bakes it with rice and potatoes. She makes soup with half-dried salmon, potatoes, cabbage and carrots.

The half-dried salmon, or egamaarrluk, is everyone's favorite. Isty dips hers in seal oil and eats it with raw onions and sweet pickles. Sunny is resting. When she gets up, the half-dried is gone. She makes Cup Noodles.

Later, Roy fires up the generator. The grownups all charge cellphones. He starts a cottonwood fire to smoke fish and a driftwood fire for the steam house.

Some of the women take a steam, and then the men. It's so hot that metal jewelry will burn skin.

‘Our food for the winter’

Most everyone sleeps in the next day after working so hard. By 9:45 a.m. only Ida and Roy are up. Ida, who is preparing to be a village pastor, reads from the Bible and prays for safety and the strength to cut and smoke fish.

Then she checks the weather on her cellphone.

At midmorning, Sunny catches an announcement on KYUK that more subsistence fishing by boat will be allowed.

It's time to cut fish. Ida, Isty and Sunny wear their fish camp kuspuks, with elastic at the wrists to keep the sleeves out of the way.

Ida picks her favorite ulu. Roy makes them out of handsaw blades. Ida likes how this one curves only slightly. The wooden handle fits just right.

The cutting is fast and intricate, designed to use most of the meat and to ensure even drying. They rinse the salmon in salted water. They make big slabs, where the back skin stays connected and the fish folds out like a butterfly. They make "earrings," where the two sides of the fish remain attached at the tail. They slice the meat crossways to the skin, angling the ulu so that the cut pieces will open up and dry while hanging.

Cuts on meat left on the skeleton are even more angled to form what they call, descriptively, tongues.

Isabelle uses bits of string from Roy's old fishing nets to tie together slabs and tails.

They will pack some of the fully dried pieces into buckets sealed tight and stored near the permafrost line under their Bethel house. They freeze the half-dried fish and fillets.

As the family loads the skiff for Bethel, Ida checks the hanging salmon. She runs her finger between the cuts to open them. The fish will smoke until dried, maybe two weeks. In July, Roy and Ida plan to catch silvers, to jar.

"Our food for the winter," she says.