Alaska life

Summer Fish Camp

Huslia men help put my dad's boat in the water in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Huslia men help put my dad’s boat in the water in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

My dad got the boat in the water yesterday with help from the community. Going on the first boat ride of the summer always gives me the best feeling. My parents are getting ready to go to camp.

Camp is hard work, but it has wondrous rewards. Going up and down the bank is hard, but you get a workout. Being healthy makes you live longer.

The views during the day and night are spectacular. It is quiet and after a while you start to hear and discern the sounds of different birds. You hear loons. You hear occasional howls. You also hear sticks breaking in the woods, and it could be moose walking around. The mosquitoes are buzzing and sometimes drive you crazy. Bug spray is key. We also keep a smutch (Koyukon Athabascan), where we burn punk. Mosquitoes don’t like the smoke from punk.

My nephews, Marvin Jr. and Brandon, collect mountain water along the Koyukuk River in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
My nephews, Marvin Jr. and Brandon, collect mountain water along the Koyukuk River in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Camp coffee and tea are the bomb, especially if you get mountain water from up and around the bend. Camp food is delicious, and you really enjoy it after working in camp. I love mom’s cooking. We ration the food until we go to town to get more food.

You have to communicate because it is important for your safety. It is like a team and the adults always know where the kids are at all times.

My parents teach the kids how to play card games, like rummy. You sip on tea in the evening and sit around after a long day.

My parents will set a fish net, and check it twice a day. They have a raft in down the bank from camp and they cut fish on it. They have a smoke house on top of the bank where they dry and smoke fish.

Rainbow over smokehouse in the fall of 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Rainbow over smokehouse in the fall of 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

We have to keep the smoke going and use dead cottonwood. The smoke gives it a good taste and also keeps the flies away. It also keeps animals away, because they avoid smoke.

My dad likes to listen to the radio at night. He listens to news, talk shows and music. It kind of drowns out the sounds you hear at night.

We also read books and magazines. There is nearly 24 hours of light in the middle of summer so you have light to to read. We read by lamp or flashlight when it gets too dark. Now, we have e-readers with lighted backgrounds, but the battery eventually dies.

I won’t be going to camp until September when we go home to Huslia. I do plan on camping in Southcentral Alaska though. I’ll have to figure out how to get out on a boat ride before then. I love summer fish camp along the Koyukuk River!

Dorothy, Al Sr., Ermelina, River and Princess on a boat ride on the Koyukuk River in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Dorothy, Al Sr., Ermelina, River and Princess on a boat ride on the Koyukuk River in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Koyukuk River Fish Camp Memories

I grew up in a village along the Koyukuk River in Alaska. We went to fish camp every summer from the time school got out to the time it started up again. When I was a kid, I missed playing with my friends in Huslia when I was in fish camp. As I look back, the summers spent at camp were some of my best memories. I had the most fun with my family and cousins.

Fish Camp in 1980
Cousins in 1980 in fish camp. Photo by Eleanor Yatlin

We worked hard all summer on fishing. We set a fish net and checked it once or twice a day. My parents, aunts, uncles and older kids cut fish. The younger kids would also learn how to cut fish too. Younger kids helped by hanging fish, carrying water, and gathering wood. Cooking was also a big part of being in camp. We all had to chip in to make sure everyone was fed.

We had to help take care of each other. Older kids took care of babies while the adults were cutting fish. We cut fish for the winter ahead. If we were lucky enough to get king salmon, my parents would be sure to bring some back for the Elders in Huslia. My dad was a dog musher, so we had to make sure to store plenty of fish for the dogs over the winter too.

We had to keep the camp clean and cut grass and brush. Cutting the grass helped to cut down on the mosquitoes and gnats. We slept in mosquito nets at night, ones made by my mom and grandmother. I loved the fabric and netting my mom used and remember daydreaming and reading under mosquito nets.

The summers were pretty hot in the interior. We didn’t have refrigerators or freezers in camp. My late grandmother, Lydia Simon, kept a couple bags of frozen meat in the ground. We would replenish the supply every couple of weeks when we went to town. We stored food in a big wooden box to keep it dry and cool.

Lydia Simon and grandchildren in camp in 1980s
My late grandma, Lydia Simon, loved to play cards and hang out with her grandchildren. Pictured with her are Soloman, Johnnie and Josephine. Taken in fish camp in the early 1990s by Angela Gonzalez

Grandma Lydia would yell, “Who wants sookaanee?!” We would all say, “Me, meeee!” Sookanee means pancakes or bread in Koyukon Athabascan. My grandmother made the best sourdough pancakes and fry bread. In late July, we would start to pick high bush cranberries. We ate pancakes with syrup or high bush berry jam. We ate a lot of salmon and whitefish all summer.

We would get excited when we heard a boat or airplane and would compete to see who heard them first. We would yell in camp, “First one to hear boat!” or “First one to hear airplane!” Small distractions and games kept us busy. We played card games, dice and other games. My parents played cribbage in the late evenings after they settled down for the day.

Eleanor Yatlin cutting fish 6-11
My mother, Eleanor Yatlin, taught her kids, neices and nephews how to cut fish over the past 40 years. Photo taken in 2011 by Angela Gonzalez

Everyone worked hard in camp and had a role. With the hard work, we also had a lot of fun. We washed the boat every two weeks on a nice day. We got to go swimming. Then, we would sometimes go for a boat ride. My dad would bring us on little adventures when we went for boat rides. We would get mountain water from down river and use it for coffee and tea.

We had visitors in camp every once in awhile. They would spend a few hours or a few days with us. It was good to have visitors. We would hear the latest news from town and sometimes they brought us fresh food or new magazines or books.

I remember playing under the cut bank in the summer. My sisters and cousins made elaborate Barbie mansions out of mud and sand. We played for hours. We climbed trees. The boys had boats carved out of driftwood. The boat would be tied to a string and stick and they had fun making their boats “cruise” in the water.

My grandma made grass dolls and dresses out of grass heads and fabric. She would sew little clothes on them for us. She made a few more like this to sell. The clothes were made out of moose skin and beading. I think they were like $400 or more each. We were lucky we got some to play with. She was a master sewer and beadworker.

We had a couple small cabins and a couple tents that we stayed in. My parents had oil lamps that we used sparingly in the evening to get a little bit of reading time in. We took turns reading comics, books, and magazines. They were worn out by the end of the summer.

We listened to radio all summer. The song of one summer was “Abracadabra” by the Steve Miller Band. Everyone sang along when they heard that song and other popular ones. There was no TV in camp, so we relied on the radio for news. If there was an emergency or someone wanted to reach us from the village, they would send a message over the radio.

We did not go to town very often, and when we did, we took turns going. My parents made sure to bring us to town to spend the Fourth of July holiday in Huslia. There were all sorts of fun festivities for the Fourth of July. We got in all of the races and games for our age levels. After those few days, we headed back to camp.

Mom and dad and kids in 2007
My parents, Al and Eleanor Yatlin, spend as much time in fish camp with their grandchildren, nieces and nephews as possible. Photo take in 2007 by Angela Gonzalez

It wasn’t an easy life, but summers spent in fish camp were some of the best times in my life. I learned how to work hard, to live off the land, and how to have fun. I treasure the stories my grandmother told us throughout the summer. I have a great appreciation for my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncle and wonder how they did it. I try to bring my family back to camp once a year. My oldest daughter spends the summers with her grandparents and gets to spend time in camp. I hope to teach my children some of the important lessons I learned along the Koyukuk River.

Alaska Native culture, Fairbanks

Going Home to Interior Alaska

View of Denali by Angela Gonzalez
View of Denali by Angela Gonzalez

Even in Fairbanks, everybody knows everybody and people are friendly. People ask me my name and where I’m from, and sometimes who my parents or grandparents  are. They may know your family or someone from your village.

You can strike up a conversation with someone while you are waiting at the airport and you may hear stories. An Elder shared a story about the 1950’s. He was driving dogs in the springtime before breakup. He fell through the ice and called his leader to come back. His dogs turned around and the leader jumped in the water and helped him get out. His dogs saved him. It was a true story of survival in Alaska. There are many more stories like this.

Huslia in the fall time
Huslia in the fall time

I love the feeling of going home. I am excited to disconnect from the digital world and go out boating, camping, fishing, hunting and spending time with family. It feels great to be closer to family in the interior. I look forward to seeing family and friends.

I’m going to a place where there are sand or gravel trails, with no paved roads. The main transportation is by ATVs, like four-wheelers or snow machines.

View of a camp along the Koyukuk River
View of a camp along the Koyukuk River

I love the smell of the campfire and seeing wildlife. If I close my eyes, I can imagine hearing loons in the background, an occasional fish jumping, a beaver tail slapping the water, or an airplane or boat near the camp. It is very peaceful. You have to respect the land to survive on it.

It is expensive to travel within Alaska, especially if you have a family. I will continue to plan and save for the trip each year. Each time, I treat it like an experience of a lifetime. I love the Alaska and the interior! There is truly no place like home.

Here is a short presentation my trip to Huslia.
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