The first time my toddler saw a King Salmon, he was both terrified and fascinated. At first, he ran away from it with his bottom lip quivering. Then he came back towards where I was holding the salmon, but clung to my legs. The nervousness is understandable, the salmon was taller than he was and weighed more than he did. At the same time, he had been learning the names of all the animals. So, he pointed at it and said, “Fih?” When I said, “Yes, it is a fish.” He excitedly stomped his feet and said, “Blub, blub.” Once he knew what it was, he proceeded to pet the salmon, getting fish scales all over his hands.
Ten years ago, fresh out of college, I moved to rural Alaska to teach. I had taught internationally for a semester and liked the experience. Alaska seemed like a great combination, geography and culture that were different from where I grew up, but had some of the conveniences of the United States. At first, I was apprehensive about moving to somewhere hundreds of miles away from a mall or a movie theater. However, once I was away from many of the trappings of our rushed modern society, I found that it was easier to connect authentically with people. There are about 2000 people in the town where I live. A quick trip into the grocery store to grab milk is always at least a ten-minute affair because I stop and chat with so many people along the way. I also fell in love with the beauty of Alaska’s wilderness. The ocean, lakes, rivers and mountains here are undeveloped and stunning. When my husband and I had our son, we knew that we wanted him to experience the things we love about Alaska: the midnight sun, the crisp snowy winters, and the fresh salmon.
Each summer, I set a net on the shores of Bristol Bay, my home and home to the world’s largest wild salmon population. This summer the commercial fishers out in the bay caught a combined 27.5 million fish. My goal each year is to catch and freeze about fifty. This amount gives us salmon for dinner twice a week all year. These fish sustain us through the snowy winter that lasts from October to April. My town of Dillingham is in the far Western part of Alaska so it is only accessible by boat or plane. There are no roads that connect us to the rest of the state. This means that the stock in our grocery store comes in on the summer barge or is flown in via air cargo. The salmon I catch help keep the grocery bills low in a town where milk costs $8 a gallon.
In theory, catching these fish is fairly simple. At low tide, I put a net on the beach, during high tide the fish swim into it. As the tide recedes I gather the fish in coolers and plastic totes. Then the real work comes — processing the fish. For my family this involves gutting, filleting, vacuum sealing, and freezing the fish. When I first moved here my knowledge of fish involved buying fillets at the grocery store. I reluctantly explained this to an acquaintance and she let me tag along with her multiple days to learn how it was done. Not only did I learn how to avoid a mangled mess of fish, I also made a great friend through hours of cutting salmon and chatting together.
I now have the added complexity of how to do this work with a toddler in tow. The easiest approach would be to have a friend watch my son for a bit or to give him some screen time. When my hands are covered in fish blood it’s not easy to pick up my toddler and move him away from the table that has knives on it. But, it is important to me that he is involved. I want him to understand that food is not just something that magically appears on the table; I want him to know where our food comes from.
Although fishing is an enjoyable pastime for many, it’s something more than that for us. We depend on these fish to make it through the winter. In addition, it’s more meaningful because it is part of a larger tradition. Alaska Natives have been catching salmon here for generations. Before there were grocery stores here, they practiced this subsistence lifestyle to survive. While I am not an Alaska Native, I still feel this connection to history and tradition each time I fish.
I feel lucky to be able to feed my family fresh, wild fish, but fishing could easily turn into a chore that little ones hate. For me, it is a joyous process. I love being outdoors and I love eating good food; subsistence salmon fishing combines both of these. This summer I have worked to figure out how to make it joyous for my son.
Keeping the little one content starts with preparation. When we head for the beach to get
the salmon from the net I pack rain gear, a bucket, and snacks. As soon as we reach the beach I wrestle him into his blue one-piece waterproof rain suit. I then pull on his knee-high camouflage rain boots so that he is completely sealed against the elements. I know he’s going to get muddy and dirty no matter what; if he’s in his rain gear neither of us has to worry about it. I hand him the bucket and have him fill it with rocks while I fill my totes full of the fish. Although the entire beach is full of rocks, he searches for ones so big and heavy that he has to use both hands to lift them. As I move the heavy fish around, I hear him grunting as he uses his fingers to dig up a big rock. Plop, he drops it in the bucket. After a little while I’ll hear a loud crash, followed by giggles. He has dumped all the rocks back on the beach. Then the whole process repeats itself. Finally, something about seeing the fish seems to make him hungry, so dried fruit, such as cherries or mango, are a necessity.
After about an hour on the beach collecting the fish I bring them home to prepare them. This is where it becomes challenging, it’s a time sensitive project involving blood and knives. Not exactly the most toddler friendly activity. Luckily, one step of the process involves lightly spraying the fish with water to clean it. The puddles from the hose make a great toddler activity. Once he sees a puddle he runs over shouting, “Pudd!,” then stomps both of his feet in it with a look of awe on his face. When that gets boring, sidewalk chalk and other outdoor toys come to the rescue. Even while he’s busy playing I will still pause to show him each fish and talk about what’s happening. As he gets older he’ll be able to be much more involved. As a preschooler, he can wash the fish and move trays of fish to the vacuum sealing station. For now, the goal is just awareness. Obtaining the fish and then getting them ready for the freezer usually takes anywhere from two to five hours, depending on the number of salmon in the net. We do this three to five times throughout June and July until the freezer is full.
The first king salmon that my son saw was also the first one he ate this summer. I cooked it in the oven with some sage and thyme from my garden along with some butter. I gave him a normal child sized portion, about the size of his two fists. He devoured this before I even had my first bite. Then he banged on the table saying, “Moa,” his current articulation of more. I gave him a larger piece. This was quickly eaten and the command was shouted again. Finally, I filled his plastic toddler plate to the brim, thinking that there was no way he would finish it. Minutes later it was gone and he had a happy smile on his face. I also had a big smile on my face, we were eating the freshest food possible and we had some in the freezer for the winter too.