Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Importance of Preparation

A bunch of kids helped my sister, Tanya, seed and water her garden in Huslia in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
We all helped my sister, Tanya, seed and water her garden in Huslia in 2011. Having a garden is one of the only ways to have fresh vegetables in rural Alaska, because you don’t really have much at the local store. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I grew up living off the land. We spent our summers in fish camp from the time school got out to the time school started again. Going into town was a treat.

I learned many lessons growing up out on the land. One thing is preparation. You are always preparing for one thing or another. If you think about it, living in fish camp was all about preparing for the winter ahead.

There were lessons everything. I remember going on picnics in winter or summer, my mother had us furiously preparing for our outing. We had to get lunch, snacks, coffee, tea, layers of clothing, rain gear or life vests, etc. We had a big family so you could imagine the chaos.

After running around and preparing for each boat ride, I was always sweaty and ready for a break. Mosquitoes are usually buzzing around and biting you, and the cool breeze was a welcome relief once you taking off.

Now, I see why my mother did it. We had everything we needed when we went out. We were fed, clothed and able to enjoy being out. Having six kids, I’m sure she and my dad had no choice but to be prepared. Now as I have my own family, I find myself doing the same thing before an outing. 

Tacking down ahead of time keeps your beadwork in place as you sew. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Tacking down ahead of time keeps your beadwork in place as you sew. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Even when we did beadwork, we had to tack down our work. That wasn’t my favorite part, especially when we would probably remove the threads when we were done. In the end, the beadwork turned out better when the moose skin or felt was tacked down first. I enjoy tacking down my work now, especially since I learned a shortcut for tying knots.

The constant need for preparation has stayed with me and shows on my personal and professional life. At work, I do my best to stay organized and can always find something quickly. My photos at work and home are organized by date and are labelled. At home, I do the unpleasant chores first and get them out of the way.

At the same time, you are never a 100% prepared for life. You learn to be flexible. My dad taught me how to solve problems by troubleshooting. I am grateful now for the way I grew up. Alaskans have to be prepared before going out in the wilderness. The skill of preparation can carry over to many other parts of your life.

Alaska life

Fish Camp Life – Koyukuk River

Cutting fish at fish camp along the Koyukuk River. L-R: Lydia, Gage, Eleanor, Chloe, Agnes, Vanessa and Jubilee. Photo by Tanya Yatlin
Cutting fish at fish camp along the Koyukuk River. L-R: Lydia, Gage, Eleanor, Chloe, Agnes, Vanessa and Jubilee. Photo by Tanya Yatlin

My parents, Al and Eleanor Yatlin, still go to fish camp each summer. They are getting older, but still make it work. I grew up in fish camp. I love hearing stories and pictures they share about camping and fishing and about life along the Koyukuk River. They spend time at camp along with their daughter, Tanya, and granddaughter, Lydia. Other relatives and friends camp out with them periodically.

Vanessa learned to cut fish. Her son, Brandon, worked hard when they cut fish in July. Now Brandon has fish for his dogs for the coming winter. Jubilee and Joseph learn little Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabascan language).

Salmon by Eleanor Yatlin
Salmon by Eleanor Yatlin
Koyukuk River by Eleanor Yatlin
Koyukuk River by Eleanor Yatlin

My brother, Johnnie, describes them as: “This is what my parents do. Old school Indians living and surviving off the land.”

“It sure is big difference from town and camp. We use candles, cook a lot over camp fire. It’s quiet. We rest when we go back down to camp. There is too much rushing when we are in town. We hear cranes, geese, ducks and loons. We are always out on the river. It is exciting to see what we catch in our fishnet! Summer sure is going by fast!” – Eleanor Yatlin

Mom and dad live on an island that cut through in the 1990s. It gets a shallower each year and there is only one place to get through right now.  She says, “I close my eyes as we cruise through the narrow opening going to our camp! That is the only way to go through there. Otherwise, we’ll get stuck there. Too much excitement!!”

Highbush berries by Eleanor Yatlin
Highbush berries by Eleanor Yatlin

The camp has a high cut bank. My brother, Al Jr., measured it a few years ago. He estimated the bank to be about three stories high. My parents still climb it today. They have to carry fish, water and supplies up and down the bank. I hope to be as strong as them when I’m their age.

Mom makes jam and jelly out of berries she picks each year. She says, “I am glad we picked blue berries yesterday. It’s raining today. There are cranberries in the area too. You can see them all over. Anaa si baabaa’. We picked high-bush berries, made jam, picked some more and froze it.”

Mom picks blueberries near Huslia. Left-right: Eleanor Yatlin, Dorothy Yatlin, Vanessa Derendoff, Glady Derendoff and Josephine Derendoff. Photo by Al Yatlin, Sr.
Mom picks blueberries near Huslia. Left-right: Eleanor Yatlin, Dorothy Yatlin, Vanessa Derendoff, Glady Derendoff and Josephine Derendoff.
Photo by Al Yatlin, Sr.

We have fun, rain or shine. She counts the fish from a recent trip, two silvers and two sheefish.

Bear captured on my dad's trail cam. Photo by Al Yatlin, Sr.
Bear captured on my dad’s trail cam. Photo by Al Yatlin, Sr.

My dad has a trail cam, and sets it up at various places along the Koyukuk River. Here is a picture of a bear that he recently captured on the camera.

Eleanor Yatlin behind drift wood. Photo by Al Yatlin Sr.
Eleanor Yatlin behind drift wood. Photo by Al Yatlin Sr.

When they go to camp, they set the fish net. They look around along the drift wood for good poles to hang fish on. They also look for logs for their smokehouse. They work hard and enjoy camp life, whether it is warm or cooler. It is starting to get darker as the days get shorter. It is also getting a little cooler at night. My parents have a comfortable tent, and use a small stove to keep warm.

I’m proud of them for living maintaining a subsistence lifestyle and for raising their children camp. They are living ‘the life’! 

Al Yatlin Sr. driving his boat along the Koyukuk River. Photo by Tanya Yatlin
Al Yatlin Sr. driving his boat along the Koyukuk River. Photo by Tanya Yatlin