A Season of Firsts

In the three weeks since I’ve arrived in Alaska, I’ve had quite a few firsts. I went berry-picking for the first time, with a group of fellow teachers from both Nunap and another village just two miles upriver. In my head, I had always pictured berry bushes as things that stood at least as tall as I, or not much shorter. Out here in the tundra, that’s just not the case. The marshy ground and the permafrost mean that most plants other than grasses rarely grow knee-high, so the first thing I learned was that I had to look closely where I stepped, so as not to trample the berries. Once I knew what to look for, I could see berries just about everywhere. By the time we headed back to Nunap, I’d managed to pick almost a cup and a half of berries. Lucas and Andy, two fellow teachers, invited me over for dinner, and the berries wound up in blueberry pancakes.

Just last week, I tried moose meat for the first time. As far as texture goes, it’s not that different from beef. The flavor is stronger, however, more smoky. Lucas explained that the meat came from a moose killed by a fellow teacher last year, and joked that maybe next time I’d get invited to go hunting. Well, it’s still too early for hunting, but just this past weekend I did get to go fishing.

When I got the call about going fishing with Wes, a villager who works at the school, I initially said no thank you. I wasn’t feeling all that great, and the thought of sitting on a dock or a boat with a rod in my hands didn’t really appeal to me. It was only after Lucas reminded me that I would be unlikely to get another chance if I turned this invitation down that I said I would go. I’d been wearing a t-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, so I made a quick stop at my house to change. I traded my sneakers for my hiking boots, and pulled a long-sleeve tee over the other shirt. I’ve only been here for three weeks, but I’ve already learned that you don’t go anywhere at this time of year without a raincoat and bug spray. I also grabbed the camera, figuring I might get a few good pictures if nothing else.

Lucas and I met down at the school dock. I wondered about the two folding chairs he had brought; he explained that there apparently weren’t any seats in Wes’s boat, so we had to bring our own. Within minutes, the boat arrived, and Wes and his son Isaac helped us aboard before casting off again.

As the boat picked up speed and the village receded into the distance, I began to realize that I’d been making assumptions again. On the open water, moving at speed, it felt about ten degrees colder than it had back in the village. Suddenly, I was very glad that I’d added the extra layer to my wardrobe. The noise of the wind made conversation difficult, so I spent most of the trip watching the scenery fly by and huddling in my chair to keep as warm as possible.

Half an hour later, we finally reached our fishing spot. I’d noticed rather quickly that there were no rods to be seen in the metal skiff; now, Wes and Isaac opened a gigantic plastic container that took up most of the bow and pulled out a long net. After tying one end to a line in the boat, Wes started the motor again while Isaac and Lucas carefully deployed the net.

Drift fishing like this leaves plenty of time for observing the world around you. The four of us passed the next fifty minutes with idle chatter as the 300-foot net “soaked”. Every so often, we could see another fish hit the net. Finally, it was time to pull in. Everybody donned gloves, and Lucas and Isaac began to slowly haul in the net.

I don’t think more than a couple of feet of net at a time were clear of fish. Sometimes, they were almost on top of one another. Some fish slid out of the net and into the bin with relative ease; others required several minutes to detangle. The smallest fish was as long as my forearm, and most were at least twice that length. After we finished dumping the last of the fish and hauling in the remaining net, Wes moved the boat to another spot about a half-mile upriver. We deployed the net again, this time for about twenty minutes. After hauling in, Wes estimated our final catch at somewhere close to 400 pounds of fish. All were silver salmon; we did catch one chum salmon, but Isaac tossed it back on his father’s orders.

After a brief stop at an old fishing camp for firewood, it was time to return home. Once more, I huddled in my chair against the wind. I was very relieved to see the village; in addition to feeling half-frozen, my backside was rather sore. As Wes dropped us off, he insisted that Lucas and I each take a fish or two. Later that night, my roommate Cole taught me how to clean and fillet the fish, another first.

Of course, given where I’m living, I’m sure that there are more firsts are headed my way. I’ll be sure to keep you posted!


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