Monday, June 22, 2009

WAITING FOR KING SALMON: A Yup'ik summer fishing camp

I just returned from Lewis Point, a Yup'ik summer fishing camp up the Nushagak River in Alaska. Catching, splitting, drying and smoking fish defines the summer months for the Yup'ik peoples of Bristol Bay. Each day begins with happy chatter of the nights catch - "twelve kings...fif teen reds...eight dogs" - and ends with the hottest steam bath you could ever imagine!

Sadly, the entire Bristol Bay watershed is under threat from a mining prospect called Pebble Mine ( Its an open pit mine that could potentially pollute the water in the region and threaten the freshwater habitat for some 31 million salmon that return to the 'Bay' each year. If the salmon disappear then so will the happy chatter and a massive part of the Yup'ik way of life.


The Native Alaskans up here are predominantly Yup'ik and subsistence fishing plays a major part of their lifestyle during the summer months. I lived in a little wooden hut along with two anthropologists from the Department of Fish and Game. The days were very long 5am-1am, but slow and patient waiting for the nets to fill with fish on each tide. In the evenings we would all take a steam/sauna men first and then women, rustic is an understatement, but they were funny as hell all sitting naked, an Englishman among Eskimos. Manhood is earnt by being able to withstand the hottest steam bath session and oh my god they like it hot. If you think you have ever been in a hot sauna think again, and then again.

The hut is big enough to squeeze five guys into. Too low to stand, only kneel or sit. There is a big, ragging oil barrel fire in the corner covered with stones and a bowl of water for splashing and rinsing. The temperature rises rapidly once the door is closed and then ladle by ladle of water splashed over the rocks the elder rises the temperature. As the temperature rises your ears begin to burn hot. The end of your nose scalding, the top of you shoulders and shins sting. Then more ladles of water, splashes turn instantly to boiling bubbles and scalding steam. The younger Yup'ik men fold down into the fetal position on the floor lowering their bodies to avoid the heat. More ladles of water, more steam, more heat, temperature rising like he's baking use for dinner. I finally have to collapse to the floor as well and adopt the fetal position. Its hot now, so hot that I'm beginning to get worried that I could get trapped in side forever. I focus, keep still, breath calm and deep, try to use my special mental powers to withstand the heat-waves as ladle by ladle the room turns from a happy washing experience into a dark, burning hell-hut on the Alaskan tundra. And then, one ladle more sends us plunging into a delirious state of exhaustion, I'm finished, I'm scalding all over my body from my toes to my eyelids. Do I even have any hair left? Will I have blisters on my skin when I come out? Will I ever even get out of here alive. I let out a fearful giggle and a screech as if my silly noises could persuade the elder to be compassionate and allow just a little pause in the ladle, ladle, splash, splash, ahhh, ahhh regime that he has subjected us to for the past 8 minutes. But no! I'm wishful and not in luck. Looking down at me, ravines of sweat racing down his face, his skin red, horns growing from his skull, he screams "you know where the door is Nick, leave if you can't handle it!!!!!". And with that he grabs the ladle........"nooooh!" and pours the final one. It singes across the rocks, pillows of steam zoom into the cramped space and milliseconds later engulf my entire body in biting pain like a shark attack of sulphuric acid. I'm done, I'm spent, my mental powers sapped, my manhood destroyed. Without even thinking I rise and dash out the little wooden half-door and dance like a crazed billy goat into the Alaskan rain.

I did steam again, in fact I only missed two steams during my stay there. They were certainly less intense, but still took much of my mental powers to endure. The steam baths were perhaps some of my favourite moments in the village, making jokes, and sharing stories all with a view out the door, down the valley and towards the mountains in the distance. They were sublime times that I will remember for many days to come.