Since I was a teenager, I have been enthralled by the far north. Epic stories of high adventure on Alaska’s queen Denali filled my young mind in the readings of early accounts of her ascent. To me, the very notion of Alaska was something of a mysterious and rare prize that few had conjured the gumption to explore for themselves’s. Of course this was far from the truth… Alaska’s history has unfolded in countless ways, spanning multiple races and generations. From the crossing of the Bering Straights untold thousands years back, to the gold rush bonanzas and oil field exploitations of modern memory, the Alaska frontier has always bee a place of not only fascination, but one of an inexplicable location for far fetched dreams and far fetched exploration. And when I first came here in 2011, having ridden my bicycle from the “outside” into her glorious womb, I then felt, as I do now, that Alaska and the untold prevailing of the Yukon and Northern B.C., were to beheld as nothing short of treasures. The first time crossing into the Alaskan frontier, I felt I had somehow stumbled across some great and archaic secret: something that the rest of white society had either forgotten, ignored, or simply knew nothing about. To me, it was a sensation of unfounded beauty and treasure. One that I still do not take lightly or for granted to this day.
Alaska is a place of mystery to most; and understandably. The ways of life here are not of the ordinary… even by un-ordinary standards. There exists a faction that demands one’s attention to detail regarding everyday life, to the omnipotent realization that nature is not only your absolute friend, but your foe at times as well. This balance is what defines this place; a place where you must have a kinship with surroundings and be capable of a transformative resolution on a daily basis. In a nutshell, the ebb and flow of the natural world is always at hand, and one must be not only willing, but ecstatic about it’s rapture and grace.
Every year, in the spring, the salt water inlets of Southeast Alaska are coming alive with life. The seasonal shift from a potentially long and harsh winter begin to unfold into something greater. The river’s break up, the ice floats to the sea, and life in the form of all animals and plants begin to explode in a monstrous display of grandeur.
One of the earliest signs of this magnificent occurrence comes in the form of the early spring smelt runs… At first it is the Herring, then a short time passes and the massive swarms of the Hooligan, also known as eulachon or candlefish, called so due to their high oil content, and once dried, can be lit on fire, begin to run into the omnipotent rivers of the upper Lynn Canal: The Chilkoot and the Chilkat. These precious Hooligan fish have been a staple of nutrition, culture, and economics for the native Tlingit nation for untold hundreds of generations. The fish are small, perhaps six inches long or so, and contain within them, essential fatty oils that are not only prized for there taste and nutritional value, but for their ancient economic value among the historic peoples of the Alaska panhandle and the ability to trade these wonderful gifts from nature to the southern Tutchone and Tagish peoples of the southern Yukon. Hence, the trade routes between the Chilkat Valley in modern day Alaska and the broad valleys and lake districts of the southern Yukon and northern B.C. have become known as the historic “Grease Trails” where the Tlingit natives of the coastal valleys of the Lynn Canal traded with northern interior peoples for such commodities as furs and other goods. These fish are regarded as gold by many, and not only signifies the coming of the summer ahead, but also the fact that the life giving runs of Salmon are not far behind. This is a time of celebration and thanks the the Earth that another time has passed and another will ensue.
I begin to hear the birds at first; the ocean Gulls swarming and squawking, then the Eagles, chirping in their usual ways, but at this time of year, it is somehow greater, as if something is about to explode. I hear these sounds early in the spring Alaska mornings as the light from the rising sun shines itself upon the northern landscape and gracing the land with light at about 3:30 am… something is happening. The North is coming alive; the Bears are awakening, and the fish are beginning to run the rivers on their yearly migration to spawn and dye as they have been born to do for untold eons.
This day opens and I head out to the Chilkoot river, the first of this year’s Hooligan run to inspect. Upon pulling into the narrow river valley, I spy hoards of Gulls and Eagles: A sure sign that the run has started. I peer to the river and notice immediately that is is black with fish. Untold thousands of these Hooligans have entered the river from the Sea and are finishing their life cycle in the form of spawning and dying. There are Brown Bear prints about and the entire river corridor is coming alive.
The next day, this time I return with a bucket, one I have drilled holes in to let the water escape as I scoop the Hooligan. The common method for capturing a harvest of these fantastic creatures is by means of a long handled dip net, but I do not possess one. Instead, my bucket will do… I have not a desire for more than I need, and my needs are small. I dip the bucket into the blackened mass of a million fish, but they scatter as the motion of the bucket rifles the water. Each scoop manages a few scant Hooligan, but after an hour or so, I have what I need. I thank the Earth for this treasure and I return home with my earnings. After inspection of the harvest, it is revealed that I have taken exactly what I need: enough to fill my little smoker and just a tad bit more for the evening’s supper.
After, I look out over the Chilkat Inlet, the scene of the next Hooligan run in a week or so, and revel at how blessed I am to live in such a world.