Planet Alaska: My father’s smokehouse

Kaachxaana.áak’w, (Kaachxan’s Little Lake) is the Tlingit name for Wrangell Alaska, where my fishcamp is located. Kaachxan was an elder who lived in a big old smokehouse he’d converted into a livable structure near the inner harbor area, which resembles a picturesque lake at high tide. Seems like a good idea to me. I love smokehouses. My dad built an outhouse-sized one with five racks and a base lined with metal for holding a smoky fire.

 

My grandsons Timothy and Jackson are visiting the fishcamp for 10 days. Today, my dad — their great-grandfather — and I are teaching them to smoke king salmon in the way he learned to smoke salmon from his dad. My grandsons sit at a small table transcribing their great-great grandfather’s smoked salmon recipe. As a way to help them remember, I have each grandchild write the steps for brining and smoking fish.

Later, on our large prep table outside, my dad and I slice the salmon into manageable pieces. Bald eagles congregate in the trees above. I tell my grandsons those eagles are their clan opposites because they are Ravens, T’akdeintaan. The eagles screech at us as we prepare the salmon for smoking. A few squirrels skitter up the nearby alder. We shoo our dogs away. Everyone is curious.

Afterward, Grandson Timothy fills a tote with a garden hose. When the tote is half filled, my dad opens a box of salt for each grandchild to pour into the water. They take turns pouring the salt and stirring the brine with a stick. Next, Timothy puts a large potato into the brine and it sinks just below the surface.

“Needs more salt. The potato has to float,” my dad says. He pours more salt into the brine and the potato floats to the surface. “Perfect.” I repeat the lesson to the kids: use enough salt until the big potato floats.

I think about what our smokehouse means to us and to our family, to the generations to come, and how my children’s ancestors’ smokehouses were once deemed “illegal.” After WWII, the government, acting as the Forest Service, burned or tore down any “unused” cabins and smokehouses from federal land. Those cabins were not abandoned, though, but were summer fishcamps. They considered those families as trespassers, despite having fished there since time immemorial.

Smokehouses were proof of clan ownership, proof of a thriving culture that depended on salmon. Often the colonizers saw an old smokehouse and assumed it was abandoned. My children’s relatives, in recent memory, had to deal with this. Throughout the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, the government destroyed many of the smokehouses and fishcamps in Southeast Alaska.

For us, the smokehouse has been an important part of our lives. One of my early memories is my father smoking fish, bringing smoked salmon inside the house for us kids to try. I have other memories of him giving out his smoked fish in paper sacks to family and friends around town. Smoking salmon is about sharing. Today, I’m grateful I have a smokehouse and I’m able to smoke salmon alongside my dad and share it with my children and grandchildren. I can’t imagine how grieved Tlingit families and clans were — and still are — because the government destroyed their smokehouses. Yes, the Forest Service has since apologized, recognizing the devastating impact on Southeast Alaska Native communities, but the damage to subsequent generations was done.

After brining the salmon, we pour the fish slices from the tote out onto a large screen with a bucket below to catch the water. At each stage of the process, I have my grandsons read the steps on the recipe they’ve written. “What does it say?” I ask them.

“Glaze the fish for 20 minutes or less,” Timothy reads, “until it’s shiny.”

Timothy and Jackson help us arrange the fish onto the prepared racks. After a rack is full my dad loads it into the smokehouse. We repeat until each rack is filled and stacked in the smokehouse. The door is left open as the fish drips to set a glaze.

In 2014, the Alaska Native Sisterhood (ANS) requested an investigation into the destruction and burning of smokehouses. They wanted to make sure the smokehouses were reconstructed and that young people — mainly at-risk youth — and elders be involved in the restoration. I’m not sure if the government has been taking this seriously, but I do know many of those strong women of the ANS live in Wrangell: cousins, aunties, grandmothers, sisters, and friends. Their lives were directly affected by the destruction of a smokehouse.

Now, Timothy and Jackson stand over my dad as he crouches down in front of the smokehouse arranging wood shavings, kindling and newspaper to build the fire. The fire burns hot at first, and then becomes smoky later. “You don’t want to burn the smokehouse down,” he tells them.

We sit outside near the prep table talking while the salmon smokes. Smoke wafts up into the hemlocks and spruce and across the small road behind the fishcamp. We tend to the fire and to our stories for hours. This is the best part of smoking salmon. We hear stories of my dad’s first salmon, and many stories of the salmon that got away. We hear lots of commercial fishing stories. I tell my grandsons about the man who lived in a smokehouse near Inner Harbor. They laugh. I tell them about the smokehouses that were torn down. My grandsons turn toward ours and I know they’re thinking about this.

Hours later, the fish is done and my dad removes the racks from the smokehouse. My grandsons help me take the fish off and put them in pans. Inside the house, we each pick our favorite slice. I choose a slice of white king. My grandsons choose red king.

“Good huh?” my dad says, holding a slice of salmon on a paper plate.

“I love smoked fish,” Grandson Timothy says.

“Smoked fish is my favorite,” Grandson Jackson says.

Later, we call relatives to come pick up their share or deliver the fish. We like to smoke a whole smokehouse full without processing the fish in jars; it’s the “sharing and eating batch” my dad calls it.

At the end of the day, I have salmon slime on my pants and my boots. My hoodie sleeves are rolled up and wet and the sleeves sag. My grandsons are in a similar state. After changing into dry clothes, Timothy and Jackson crawl into their tent cots on our deck next to the sea. My hair and my hoodie reek of alder smoke. It’s a good smell, though. I’m so tired that I don’t take a shower, but collapse in my bed. We all smell like a smokehouse and we dream of salmon.

 


 

Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.

 


 

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