AK: The simple (subsistence) life

Locals around Bristol Bay know the importance of subsistence fishing and the broader subsistence lifestyle. KDLG’s Shaylon Cochran, having spent several years in Kenai, was somewhat familiar with what subsistence means. But has found this summer that the actual experience means a lot more once you’ve lived it.

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KDLG intern Cate Gomez displays her ulu skills. (Photo by Shaylon Cochran, KDLG - Dillingham)
KDLG intern Cate Gomez displays her ulu skills. (Photo by Shaylon Cochran, KDLG – Dillingham)

Cate Gomez has filleted and stripped more salmon than she can count. She’s one of my coworkers at KDLG, and she’s showing me how to make king salmon strips. Growing up doing this, she deftly handles that razor-sharp ulu.

This is a craft perfected by generations of Native Alaskans over thousands of years in Bristol Bay.  But just this once by me. I’m a white guy from Iowa. Before I moved to Alaska, I knew basically nothing about fishing. Even when I lived in Kenai, fishing was something I did plenty of reporting on, sure, but it was more of a fun pastime than something I really depended on.

But you all know the story. Stuff is crazy-expensive out here. Gas, clothes, renting a movie; but especially food. Fish, on the other hand, are free. It costs only your time and energy to get as much as you can. That’s a special thing.

“My mother always kept me around the splitting table when they would cut fish, and one day I just got super interested in it,” Gomez says. “I was like ‘Mom, can I try this? She said sure, and my step-dad actually taught me how to cut fish.”

In a few days, this fish will be smoked and ready to can up, and I’ll eat on it all winter. Quite thankfully, too.

I wasn’t sure how all this would go a few weeks ago when I went to the fish and game office to get my subsistence permit. I wondered what I was getting into after the first few questions; what area would I be fishing? How many fathoms?  I had no idea. I was just going out with a friend to help pick a net and get some fish in the freezer. But the staff was helpful. I even got a good recipe for chum. (Cook it fresh, diced up with a little butter and garlic and top with mole’ sauce).

So, it turns out, chum isn’t just dog food, though I think it probably is true that some Alaskan dogs eat better than a lot of people. I heard that when I first moved up here, but it didn’t really click until I came out to Dillingham and saw two things: the price of dry dog food and the amount of fish that, for one reason or another aren’t seen fit for human consumption. Usually this means freezer-burned reds. Or fresh chums.

Freshly-cut king salmon gets a test run in the smoke house. (Photo by Shaylon Cochran, KDLG - Dillingham)
Freshly-cut king salmon gets a test run in the smoke house. (Photo by Shaylon Cochran, KDLG – Dillingham)

At any rate, I’m figuring out that I’m becoming kind of a salmon junkie. The first sockeye I pulled out of the Kenai river, I couldn’t even gill myself. It was a totally foreign thing to me. I got over that real quick when it came time to pick my first net with another co-worker, Molly Dischner. Reds, kings and chums were still swimming into it as we pulled it onto the beach.

I’m still no good at picking a net, but I’m confident it will come with time. Maybe after 30 or so years, like a woman I spoke with at Scandanavian Creek. After all that time on the beach, I had to ask why subsistence fishing and the subsistence lifestyle is so important.

“It means that we get to eat really clean, pure food. Man has not munked with it at all. We get to catch our fish, only one hand handles them and we eat on them all year long until the freezers are low, and then we process again. It’s a God-given gift.”

Nearly every time I’ve been to the beach during fishing season, I’ve been offered fish to take home; and so it truly is a gift. And as I was thinking about this bounty, this great resource that comes back year after year, I felt like I needed a little perspective.  I called up an old buddy of mine, Pat. He manages a meat department at a big chain grocery store in Wisconsin.

He says they carry at least three varieties of salmon, including Copper River from Alaska. When I told him about that first night picking 50 fish, his reaction wasn’t too surprising.

“Wow. It doesn’t get much better than that. The freshest salmon, obviously. And you can’t beat the price.”

He laughed when I told him what a pound of boneless, skinless chicken breast goes for; about what farm-raised salmon goes for down there. It’s just supply and demand. That’s such a wonky, economics term. I mean, it’s true enough. It’s just kind of the way of the world. Until it isn’t. Until you have the privilege of feeding yourself with some of the best food anywhere. It’s a privilege I’ve learned a lot about this summer, and something I’ll always have respect for.

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Shaylon Cochran is a host and reporter at KDLL in Kenai. He’s reported on fishing, energy, agriculture and local politics since coming to Alaska in 2011. He has worked at KDLL/KBBI on the Kenai Peninsula, where he picked up lots of new hobbies, like smoking salmon, raising chickens, skiing and counting RV’s. He holds a bachelors degree in Journalism from Iowa State University.

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