My friend John Katzeek can be a little demanding. He called on his cell phone from Seven Mile the other morning and said, "Where's my coffee?" He was fishing for eulachon with his cousin Pete, he said. "We're freezing." (The highway to Canada is full of mile-post names. "Seven Mile" also identifies a bend in the Chilkat River adjacent to the road and a trailhead for Mt. Ripinsky.)
The eulachon (pronounced hooligan), a greasy smelt-like fish sometimes called candlefish because apparently you can light them and they'll burn, are prized by local Tlingits for their oil. Usually the weather is warmer and sunnier when they first arrive, but this year they were early. You can tell when they get here by the birds. Thousands, maybe millions of gulls and terns appear overnight, so many that they look like confetti or even a spring blizzard out over the Chilkat and Chilkoot River flats. The roaring and splashing sea lions are right behind them, and often there are killer whales. Spring arrives not with a green haze on the hills, but rather with the sounds of a nature's band playing its own version of something more like a Purple Haze. It is noisy. I saw the first brown bear of the season rooting around in the tideline the other day, too.
When I arrived at Seven Mile I joined John and Pete. Instead of a dip net, they were using a throw net that works sort of like a little purse seine. You toss the weighted circle out, and pull on the line and it closes like a purse and you drag it in, hopefully full of fish. John tossed and pulled and hauled up a laundry basket full of fish. Then he said we had to wait until the fish forgot the net was there before we threw it again. These eulachon are very sensitive. The old-timers say you shouldn't even let a dog splash on the beach because it will scare them away.
We dumped the full tub into the back of Pete's tarp-lined pick-up. It was already about three-quarters full. He and John would run it up to Klukwan and bury the fish in a pit to season, rot really, and then when they were ripe, simmer them in a pot to render the oil, which is jarred and served on fish, berries, seal meat, and sometimes eaten with a spoon. It is very strong. I find it best taken frozen and swallowed quickly.
John said I needed to head up to Klukwan for the opening of the hospitality house. The new kitchen and bathroom facility is part of the ambitious Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Heritage Center on the edge of the tiny village (pop. 140) about 20 miles from Haines on the Chilkat River.
It was warm inside the sunny, multi-million-dollar, cedar-and-log structure lined with big windows on the river. Plus, there were a lot of people in there, from all of the Klukwan School children to several classes from the Haines School and lots of folks from Haines and Klukwan and even father afield. There was singing and dancing and a prayer from Jones Hotch. He wore a beaded vest over a t-shirt and jeans, moosehide mittens and a raven's tail weave headband. Like his wife, Lani, he spoke in both Tlingit and English. Lani wore a blanket of her own weaving, she is a master artist who uses the old designs in new ways and creates beautiful things full of stories, color, and texture. She said the hospitality house was important, because her people believe in making sure guests are given the best of everything, and without a real kitchen, hall and bathroom, they hadn't been able to do that. Then she said the Tlingit name of the building, and as is traditional, gave representatives from the Raven and Eagle moieties each a dollar bill to rub on the doorway, the way the paper money is placed on the forehead of a person being adopted into a clan, and we all repeated the name. She said that eulachon oil would now be applied to the four corners of the house, and handed the guys a jar of oil. "You may want to open it outside" she said, and got a laugh from those familiar with the strong smell. Then she said while the building and the cultural center were a natural extension of traditional village values, the main reason she and others worked so hard to make it happen was personal. She wants her children close by. "We built this to put our people to work," she said, her voice cracking. "So that our young people will come back with their families."
I know what she means. I have five children raised in the Chilkat Valley. Three are in college and home for summers, two have settled here. One of them is married with a baby. The joy of living so close to my daughter and her husband, of being in that baby's life, is unprintable. There isn't a word I know for how buoyant my whole chest is when I hold her. I want that for Lani. I understand her ache. But this week, my other grown daughter, who teaches second grade at the Haines School and is on the ambulance crew, decided not to sign next year's contract. She has a sweetheart in Juneau and wants to be near him. I hope the cultural center creates jobs that bring the village children home, but sometimes, maybe all the time, the heart has other needs. My friend John takes eulachon oil for his heart's health. He says it's the best thing for it. Luckily, this spring, there's plenty to go around. There's that, and on a clear day, I can see Juneau from the Seven Mile trail on Mt. Ripinsky.
Heather Lende's newest book, Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs, is out now in Alaska bookstores. To read the schedule of her book tour, to contact Heather, or to read her new blog, "The News From Small-Town Alaska," visit www.heatherlende.com.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing