Mickey Prescott checks the smoking process. (Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

Mickey Prescott checks the smoking process. (Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

Planet Alaska: Lessons from the smokehouse

Dear Readers, here are Lessons from the Smokehouse, things we’ve learned in 2021.

By Vivian Faith Prescott

For the Capital City Weekly

In front of Mickey’s Fishcamp, columns of sea smoke rise from the ocean like pillars supporting the low-lying clouds. Behind our cabins, snow hangs heavy on the trees above the smokehouse and piles up against its sides. Our smokehouse is empty of salmon now, but still full of stories and lessons. Dear Readers, here are Lessons from the Smokehouse, things we’ve learned in 2021.

• Waiting: A few times this year, we sat near the smokehouse, waiting. Waiting for the coho to smoke, we told stories. We anticipated the first slice of smoked salmon on pilot bread. Waiting meant sitting with my dad learning more coho know-how: how to identify them by their jump, what bait or gear they like to bite, when to fish them, how to smoke them. A lesson in waiting is to discover where the fish are and sometimes it’s also a lesson in love.

• Relationships: The lessons we learn from our relationships are, at times, difficult. People we love disappoint us, confuse us, and break our hearts. Yet, our world is about relationships: Thimbleberries and salmon and birds have a relationship. The dying salmon provide nutrients for bushes growing near the streams and birds help spread the nutrients. In turn, the berry bushes provide the right amount of shade for spawning salmon. This year it’s been hard maintaining relationships in the middle of the pandemic. Whatever a post-pandemic will look like, we’ll need to give ourselves time to reestablish our relationships. Nature can help teach us those lessons—our Indigenous values stress we are nature. We are part of those relationships to both humans and the natural world.

• Be present: In my Sámi tradition, being present in the forest calms our thoughts and the noise of life. It gives us a new perspective. The forest embraces us and there’s a sense of belonging. In Sámi culture it’s called Iellema Gaerdda—The-Circle-of-Life. Yes, spruce tip bathing provides a mental rest, but so does kneading bread by hand and rolling a snowman to liven up the yard. Being present is not necessarily being still and quiet; it means giving your all to the moment or task. The weaver at the loom and the harvester picking Labrador tea in the muskeg are practicing being present. More and more we’re learning to be present in the moment.

Spruce tip harvesting in a pandemic in Wrangell. (Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

Spruce tip harvesting in a pandemic in Wrangell. (Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

• Appreciate our delicate life: I should call this “Lessons of the Moon Snail.” This past year, every step we took on the beach in Southeast Alaska, we were reminded we traveled a delicate world. In the spring, moon snails were everywhere. We walked carefully, looking in and around the tide pools. When we’re beachcombing, we’re venturing into the home of numerous marine creatures. This past year, we moved through the days like we were exploring a tidepool. We walked and watched our steps. We stayed on the tide pool edges and tried to be gentle. Learn to be gentle and appreciate this delicate world.

• Observe: Are you good at watching? One important Sámi value is observation. It’s okay to not participate and just observe. Observation is an important skill. My dad is good with his binoculars watching killer whales play on the Etolin shore. He’s good at tying hooks and baiting herring. My dad can slow troll all day with the best of the trollers, and he learned a lot of this process from observing his dad. We can learn the lesson of observation from the animals around us like the bald eagle atop the large spruce, observing the snowy beach, watching the tideline.

• Celebrate: All last summer, we celebrated salmonberries. Even now, in the winter, we celebrate them, because we can pull a baggie full of berries out of the freezer and make muffins. In 2021, we celebrated filling our baskets and buckets. We celebrated leaves and sticks in our hair and bowls full of orange and red berries sprinkled with sugar and floating in milk. We celebrated our berries by sharing with others. The lesson of salmonberry celebration is one of enjoying our berries all year long.

A basket holds the salmonberry harvest for the day. (Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

A basket holds the salmonberry harvest for the day. (Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

Undecided: It’s okay to face decisions that take time to work through. Consult experts, Elders, trusted friends, family, science, and oral traditions. In Sámi culture, undecidedness is a season unto itself. We experience this in nature when we say, “It’s as if Mother Nature can’t decide if it’s winter or spring. The seasonal shift from winter to spring is not abrupt— it’s a gradual and hopeful awakening, like a bear yawning or a robin testing the mud for warmth. Being undecided can be a time of awakening. One day there’s a flock of robins in the grass and then next day, or even the same day, there’s a snow squall. The lesson we learned this past year is to take time to make decisions, especially important ones. Even at the smokehouse we might be undecided exactly how long the salmon will take to smoke. It’s okay. We sit and wait and keep checking the smoke.

• Centered: Our smokehouse mentality centers us. The smokehouse, as metaphor, is the center of our fishcamp and the fishcamp has always been centered on family. But since the pandemic began, we’ve been sheltering and staying away from others. What kept us going this past pandemic year was to be centered on something. Going for walks centered us. Fishing centered us. Sometimes it was writing or playing games via Zoom with family. This year let’s center ourselves on a passion, a hobby. Maybe learn to carve or weave. Try gardening or reading a good book, even. Teach grandkids to make pizza dough.

Kéet and Oscar waiting for the fish to smoke in Wrangell. (Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

Kéet and Oscar waiting for the fish to smoke in Wrangell. (Vivian Faith Prescott / For the Capital City Weekly)

• Experimental: A lesson in experimenting is always an interesting lesson. In the Sámi culture, we value learning by doing. In 2021, we experimented with recipes. We tried spruce tips in almost everything. We experimented with making easy ice cream this year. We experimented in ways to bait our hooks. All year long, we tried and failed and succeeded, and we learned.

• Persistence: From most everything we learn more about persistence. Some might call it stubbornness or tenacity. Salmonberries are persistent. Salmonberry bushes can heal themselves. If they’re damaged, they send roots out from the stems, burrowing into the soil to sprout other plants. They keep going. They thrive. The squabble of seagulls in front of our fishcamp are persistent. The charm of hummingbirds at the feeder are persistent. My dad, heading soon into his 82nd year, is persistent. He’s still fishing, still smoking salmon, still picking berries, still plowing snow.

Thank you, Dear Readers, for sitting by the smokehouse with Planet Alaska in 2021. This year, we’ve picked thimbleberries, road the current of currant berries, wondered like a moon snail, and smoked like a hooligan. The smokehouse is an important part of our lives. Now, close your eyes, Dear Readers, and imagine alder smoke wafting up into the hemlocks. Imagine tending to the smokehouse fire and listening to the stories. Imagine a new year as bright as a king salmon, as fresh as a spruce tip, and as promising as skunk cabbage.

• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Yéilk’ Vivian Mork. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.

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