Sunday, June 08, 2014

Half-way point - fish, fish, fish

06/07/14, Chefornak, Alaska: It’s the start of day 6 of 12. During the long summer days, Alaskan villagers are busy catching and preparing fish, picking berries, and hunting – all in preparation for the nose-hair-freezing winter. Subsistence fishing/farming/hunting help Alaska Natives survive the long winter. Currently, it’s the height of the fishing season. Later in the summer will be berry picking and hunting. Of course, the specific harvested goods vary from community to community.

I walked to the local grocery store on day 3 to explore Chefornak and get some exercise. Throughout Chefornak, you can see fish hanging on outdoor wooden structures and drying on boards matressing the Alaskan tundra. From the village boardwalk, you can smell fish, which reminded me of my childhood and early 20s – wonderfully familiar scents that wafted through mom's kitchen on weekend mornings and during trips I’d take to old villages in Korea. Each household has a slightly different wooden structure constructed for drying fish in the Alaskan summer heat. Though it was cold when we first arrived, it’s been warm the past few days and the sunshine has been intense.

One afternoon, I was chatting with the Chefornak health clinic receptionist, who mentioned that she was keeping busy outside of clinic hours preparing fish for the winter. Mothers of children I’d been treating in clinic talked about similarly busy summer schedules. In the village, men and boys take their boats and fish on the river, bringing back gunny sacks filled with halibut, salmon, anchovies, herring, white fish, and other river delicacies. Women and girls clean, prepare, and hang the fish to be dried. It’s a time sensitive process (to prevent spoiling of fish and to take optimal advantage of weather conditions to dry the fish properly).

There are apparently dozens of ways to prepare fish. Some fish are dried and then frozen – and eaten like jerky except that it is dipped into seal oil, which helps villagers keep warm in the winter. Other preparations include fermentation and drying, salt curing, and drying then soaking fish in seal oil. I asked the receptionist if we could stop by after work to watch her prepare fish and she warmly welcomed us to her home on the river. I was able to watch her and her three daughters prepare semi-dried fish to be soaked in seal oil. It was an amazing experience.

 We also got to see families braid anchovies onto beautifully crafted ropes made of dried tundra grass.

Most of the fish will be ready to consume in the late fall and early winter. The food preparation activities require intense family effort. I’m not sure how many families involve children in these activities, but from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like most do - and what a great way for children to contribute to the household and stay busy during the long summer days.

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