For the Yup'iks, fresh salmon is not meant for the grill but for the smokehouse. During the summer, families set up camp along the river and dry salmon that's been cut into long strips. The dried strips are then cold smoked (below 100 degrees for at least 24 hours) resulting in tasty morsels akin to jerky but less leathery. They are eaten as snacks, providing nourishment (and tons of fish oil!) throughout winter's deep freeze.
The final day of salmon season came and went with a wimper, on a quiet note. I went out with Kwik'pak employee Jacob Kameroff, who drove me upriver in search of fisherman Humphrey Keyes, a lifelong Emmonak resident. Earlier in the week, I had spent the afternoon with Keyes and his wife, Ellen, also his fishing partner. We couldn't find their boat, as they returned to shore early, the result of a quiet day. The salmon were few and the pursuit of silver-skinned pink flesh was over—at least for now.
While some fishermen would gear up for a small commercial run of whitefish, many were setting their sights on the winter and supplementing the subsistence larder with moose, geese, berries and maybe even a beluga whale.
In a recent telephone conversation, I asked Humphrey how he felt about saying goodbye to an up-and-down season. Was he relieved, I wondered, and eager to tackle the other work to be done.
"I kind of miss fishing," he says wistfully, in a recent phone conversation. "I miss the days out there, just drifting. The last day, it was kind of bittersweet."
His total catch for the year was 2,023, he reports, a combination of summer and fall chum. "Every one of the fish was done by hand—icing and bleeding," he says. "I'd have to say that's something to be proud of. Now someone down states can sit back and have some of the freshest and the tastiest fish in the world."