Just minutes after the lightning strikes, a dark plume of smoke rises into the sky. It’s hard for me to estimate the distance of the wildfire in this vast landscape, but a quick glance at the map gives me an idea of its proximity to Nulato. Luckily, this small village is located on the other side of the river, but it still has to be evacuated a couple of days later, as I learn when I’m further down the river. The unrelenting emissions of dense smoke pose too great a risk to people’s health, particularly for children and old people. It’s a problem they have time and time again in the Alaskan summer, especially when it gets as hot and dry as it is this year.
The infinite swarms of mosquitoes are certainly less dangerous than wildfire, but they’re infinitely more annoying in the Alaskan summer to make up for it. And the little black flies that seem to be waiting for me when I get to Holy Cross are almost even worse than the mosquitoes. They may not be as obvious when it comes to sucking blood, but they do love to form swarms with hundreds of their conspecifics and cloak helpless paddlers in the dense cloud, battering brains with their high-frequency humming and their lack of regard for personal space. They creep into your mouth, nose, ears and eyes; they even follow you along the river when the air is calm. And every now and again, they bite.
I admit it, I’m questioning Creation at this point. I reach for my mosquito head net, wishing the storm would come back just for a while. Damn creatures…
Arriving at the village of Russian Mission, I’ve finally made it to the Lower Yukon and the territory of the Yup’ik people. This was originally Russian territory, they first settled in their Alaskan colony in the nineteenth century before selling it to the US for 7.2 million dollars in 1867. The tsar needed the money for his wars, and by this time, the forests and waters had already been obliterated on the hunt for valuable furs. Russian Mission was founded as a Russian trading post sometime around 1836. It was the Russian orthodox missionaries who gave the village the name it still bears today. The old village church stands on a hill at the edge of town as a reminder of the local history, but unfortunately this former landmark is going to rack and ruin in the harsh northern climate.
A couple of miles downriver, I find a sandy spit and decide to pitch camp there. I want to get started early in the morning to make sure I arrive in Marshall on schedule by the Fourth of July. Yup’ik culture may have a greater bearing on everyday life out here in the Alaskan bush, but they obviously celebrate Independence Day all the same.
The parade through the town gets underway around midday. While lavishly decorated floats led by the local fire department, the high school cheerleaders or the war veterans in antique cars make their way through the main streets in the cities of the South, a lonely four-wheeler rattles along at walking pace here on the dirt roads of Marshall. Not only is the driver steering the ATV with expert control, but he’s also simultaneously managing to hold the pole up high with the obligatory flag while making sure the little child is safely seated in the carrier in front of him. More and more villagers join the colorful procession on foot, many of them wearing stars and stripes in the form of bandanas, caps or masks. Cries of “Happy 4th” echo through the air, while mini US flags are passed around and sweets are handed out to the kids. After the parade, they all meet for the obligatory barbecue in front of the tribal administrative building. Hot dogs with pasta and potato salad, all for just five dollars with a can of soda – irresistible.
The stormy winds are back. It’s cool out, and there’s some drizzle. The forecast for the next few days isn’t looking any more promising, but I want to keep going onward to Pilot Station anyway.
“People always say we live in such a pretty village. We live in a nice little valley, it’s nice and green right now in July, in the fall-time it’s red, it’s yellow, orange and it’s so beautiful. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.” And indeed, she never has. Vivian Peters was raised in Pilot Station and wants to stay here forever. Six hundred or so people live here; we’re not far from the Delta now. When Vivian raves about the beauty here, she sure isn’t talking about the houses or the public buildings. They’re functional at best, often dilapidated. But at least many of them are colorfully painted, plus they’re gently nestled between two lines of hills that come to an abrupt halt towards the Yukon. “I love the river, I love the sloughs, the tundra. I love how it provides berries, blueberries, salmon, fish, moose, all kinds of fish. Yeah. And we get clams, too, across the river.” Vivian and her husband Terry picked me up this morning. Right in the middle of a heavy downpour, they steered their boat towards the riverbank where I stayed last night, and they invited me into their home for shelter. I warm myself up with a cup of coffee in the living room, then I follow the two of them to the back of the house, where they’re currently preparing today’s catch: Chinook salmon.
“I’m cutting the collar, cutting down the belly part so that I could have these for half-dried fish and they’re good during the winter. Vivian is leaning over a heavy-duty wooden table, which Terry made. He also built the smokehouse and extended the roof outwards to give his wife somewhere dry to work. She’s responsible for gutting and cutting the salmon. “I learned by watching my mother. I was ten years old when I first learned how to cut fish. My mom would just have us stand on the opposite of her and watch. And of course when we first start cutting our dry fish we made mistakes.” Vivian is focused on her work, chopping the fish with the traditional semi-circular blade used by the indigenous peoples. “My knife is a called ulu. It’s made out of the iron part from skill-saw blades.” Lots of different species of fish inhabit the Yukon River, but for Vivian and others who live along the river, everything revolves around the salmon.
“It’s very important, that’s what we live off, that’s what we eat. Most of us eat fish all summer long. Who gets tired of fish? Nobody gets tired of fish. You can cook it in different ways, you can boil it, fry it, bake it, good over the fire, there’s a lot of families who sit outside together and cook it over the fire and they just sit and visit together and talk. It’s like a family thing, you sit together and cook your fish outside. We can’t live off meat, I can’t imagine eating meat all the time. Even my kids get tired of meat. They want fish, they want salmon.”
And their favorite kind is Chinook, also known as King salmon. It’s bigger and healthier than any other kind, but it’s also rarer. Numbers of King salmon have been declining for years, to the extent that fishing banned, whether it’s for commercial fishing or for subsistence use. The fishing seasons and quotas in Alaska are regulated by the Department of Fish and Game. This authority is responsible for monitoring the migration of the salmon and decides when is the best time for fishing, depending on how many fish there are in the river. Salmon usually swim upriver in schools in a pulsating manner. Chinook salmon is one of three species that live in the Yukon – or perhaps more precisely, it’s one of the species that passes through its waters. Once they’ve hatched in the spawning areas, they head for the ocean and live there until they reach sexual maturity. Then after a few years, they swim back to their birthplace, travelling sometimes over 2000 miles upriver. And when the salmon finally reach their destination, they spawn and die. Nobody really knows why the numbers of Chinook salmon have dropped so drastically.
“I don’t think it’s just one simple answer”, says biologist Kyle Schumann, who works for the fishing authority. “I think it’s probably a combination of a lot of different things. A lot of people are leaning towards it being more of something that’s going on in the marine environment than it is in the freshwater environment. Because even though we’re meeting our escapement goals across the Alaska drainage and getting them into Canada, we just don’t seem to be getting the returns off of them that I think the managers and everybody would hope to. That kind of is pointing to something in the marine environment.”
Kyle is in charge of the fishing authority’s sonar station in Pilot Station. Every summer, he and his team pitch camp and spend months monitoring the trail of the salmon as they migrate along the Yukon River. “This our sonar computer, that’s running the sonar that’s down there on right bank where that buoy’s at.” The sonar equipment provides data 24/7 and tracks how many fish there are rushing through the Yukon at any given time. Test-netting is also planted in the river and monitored on a daily basis. This equipment is vital for determining which fish are swimming upriver when, and in what numbers. Kyle lets me take a look at the data that’s been collected so far.
“So, through July 6 we estimated that 1.2 million summer chum have gone by, almost getting close to 1.25 million fish there. It’s a little low, for Yukon River standards. I think the preseason projection was something like 1.6 to 2.2. million. So we’re gonna come in around the lower end of that. But still, it’s been enough that the managers have allowed commercial fishing and subsistence fishing.”
With drastic penalties for failure to comply with the restrictions – everything from fines and confiscating equipment (including boats), right through to prison sentences –, the authorities and their employees are not always popular with the people here. But history has repeatedly shown that unrestricted hunting and fishing can have dire consequences. Particularly in Alaska, where trappers had almost wiped out the entire sea otter population.