Be a student of life
Fishcamp is a way of life. How can I make this life sustainable? How can I preserve this food or pass on this knowledge? I love learning about the landscape and sharing the knowledge and traditional foods with family. At fishcamp, I’m a student of spruce tips, of rainbow smelt and blueberries. Next year, I’m planning on being a student of gray currents, seaweeds and lichen.
Stop and smell the skunk cabbage
In 2018, I set out to look closer. In spring, I took notice of mud and dirt. I noticed the bear’s huge paw prints pressed into muck. I took notice of trampled green leaves and holes where the skunk cabbage roots once were. Small sticks and dead roots were ground cover for newly bloomed yellow plants. In 2019, I’m looking forward to my spring ritual: Resting a moment in a patch of newly emerged skunk cabbage.
Fishcamp is a place to make art, too. This year, I learned how nature inspires. Thinking like artists, my dad and I traveled the logging roads on adventures, searching out new art ideas. “Art is everywhere in the forest,” my dad said to me. Over the past couple of years, he’s painted an old canoe paddle, designed jewelry from fishing gear and made art from burls. Recently, he’s written his first poem. More art-making in 2019!
Be a student of the fascinating
What can be more beautiful than a little silver fish with sharp teeth protruding from its tongue? Not much, I’d say. I’m a student of smelt. Rainbow smelt are about eight inches long, with bright silver scales and an olive green spine. The fish are anadromous and hatchlings eat water fleas and algae; adults eat seaworms and shrimp and even their own kind. I learned rainbow smelt have a superpower called macromolecular antifreeze, allowing them to overwintering beneath ice. My dad and I have been figuring out when they’ll show up in the harbor. What’s more fascinating than rainbow smelt. The shiny little cannibal superfish are delicious.
Learn from the trees
I learned this past year that I’m obsessed with spruce tips. Well, I already knew. My grandkids know: “You’re always cooking with spruce tips, Mummo.”
Spruce tip humus, spruce tip pesto, spruce tip corn tortillas, spruce tips in salmon tacos, spruce tip hot crab salad and spruce tip mayo. Spruce tip shortbread, spruce tip Oreos, spruce tips in salmon patties. Spruce tip poppyseed muffins, spruce tip/fireweed/salmonberry smoothie, spruce tip water, spruce tip jelly, spruce tip iced tea. Spruce tip/salmon rice noodles, edible spruce tip forks and spoons, spruce tip salt and sugar, spruce tip ice-cream. Spruce tips in clam chowder, salmon chowder, vegetable soup, add to halibut Olympia, season salmon and rockfish. Here’s a tip: Eat spruce tips.
Learn to be flexible
At fishcamp you have to be ready to run out in the boat on a nice day and set the net. Be ready to grab the bait, make sandwiches, grab a snack and water. And you have to be willing to try a fish you’ve never eaten before. This year, I held a skein of brined dog salmon eggs and gently rubbed it over a grate, manipulating the bright orange eggs into a bowl. At fishcamp we caught and filleted dog salmon and made ikura. If I hadn’t been open to new experiences I wouldn’t have discovered I love dog salmon and their eggs.
Discover good grief
I learned to channel grief into unexpected places: art, poetry, the ukulele, walks with my dogs and harvesting sea lettuce. I floated candles on the sea, stacked candles on my seawall, lit them in wind and rain. Mourning rituals vary from culture to culture and even species to species. Tahlequah, a killerwhale from a southern resident pod near Washington state exhibited a refusal to accept death, or so the scientists suggested. After all, she’d carried her dead calf for a 1000 miles. After I learned Tahlequah was carrying her baby around, I wrote down lyrics and strummed my ukulele, singing to the sea. Maybe sound traveled that far. Maybe there was a killerwhale mother who heard the music, who finally opened her jaw and let her calf sink to the bottom of the sea.
Leave some for the birds
My grandchildren and I learn things at the same time. This year I figured out highbush cranberries bloom in May through July and the new berries turns bright red in late summer, early fall. As my grandchildren and I stood beneath tall thin branches surrounded by bejeweled berries, I said, “These berries are winter food for grouse, so don’t pick all of them. Leave some for the birds. And if you spill your bucket, leave them for the critters who scamper on the ground.” The “spilling the bucket” lesson always takes a reminder, because a grandchild’s instinct is to pick up what they spill. I remind them it’s okay; these lessons are for the birds.
Learn to appreciate
I love muskeg. Having grown up around the bog, I took it for granted. I love all the hairy rhizomes, creeping stems, twisted tree trunks, drooping cones, scaly and gray-barked trees that flourish around me. Muskeg life is wet, mushy, juicy, fleshy, tangy, glabrous, globose and glandular. The bog is prickly and sticky, where plants catch bugs to devour them and deep dark ponds catch humans and animals. This year, I plan to take more photographs and explore more muskegs.
At the end of the year it’s OK to smell like fish or the woods
And the end of the day, at the end of the year, I want to have really lived. I choose experiences. I want to pack memories in for the coming winter months. Scientist say that scent is the best trigger of memory: I’m imprinting ones that’ll take me through my elder years. I don’t like washing out the smokehouse fire scent from my hair; that scent triggers lots of fishing memories. I love my hoodie with its fishy scent and my gloves that smell like rain. After my woven cedar berry bucket gets wet it smells so good. I’m turning 58 this coming year and I still love the smell of our dirt roads after the rain and I’m still picking blueberry leaves out of my hair in the summer, finding rocks in the washing machines that I saved in my pockets. I bring home driftwood shaped like seahorses and whales, stones painted by nature with northwest coast designs and raven’s eyes. Every year, through experience, I relearn that life is messy and that’s okay. It’s okay to make mistakes, to fall and get up again. This is how we learn. It’s okay to smell like alder fire, to be untidy, to be so tired you forgot to pick salmon scales off your face before you go to bed.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.