Walking through wet snow, I follow my dad and Kéet to the smokehouse. Dad sets down the panful of fish he’s carrying. Kéet sniffs the bucket. In the pan are shiny silver fish that a local river family has gifted us: Saak (Lingít), hooligan, eulachon — Thaleichthys pacificus— candlefish, ooligan, or oolichan.
My dad fills a small tote with water from the garden hose. After it’s half full, he pours enough salt in until he can float a potato. He dumps the hooligan into the tote, stirs the brine, then looks at his watch and starts timing. While the fish brine, my dad opens the smokehouse door. The smokehouse has been dormant all year and this is the first time we’re going to fire it up. With a couple sticks of alder and some newspaper he builds a small smoky fire in the smokehouse to clean out any spiders. He sweeps them out with a broom as they drop. It’s a creepy duty I usually avoid.
When the hooligan are ready, we drain the salt water and pour the fish into pans on the outdoor table. Hooligan are connected to why Raven opened the box of daylight after he stole it. In the story, Raven saw spirits fishing for hooligan in the dark on a river and the fish looked so delicious that he wanted some. When the spirits didn’t share, he broke the box of daylight on them. Those spirits went running from the daylight and became the land and sea creatures and even humans. So, because of Raven’s craving for hooligan we have daylight. Smoking hooligan is our springtime ritual, welcoming us out of darkness and into light.
All around Southeast Alaska, people are talking hooligan, herring, Sandhill cranes and snow geese, skunk cabbage and salmonberry buds — the season is abuzz. After the smokehouse is cleaned out, I help my dad load hooligan onto racks. We slide the racks back into the smokehouse. My dad starts up a larger fire in the base, making sure it’s smoking good, and then closes the door. Now it’s a matter of waiting, or rather, storytelling.
We pull out old plastic chairs and sit under the nearby trees. Above us, patches of blue sky show through the spruce boughs. Snow drips as the warm spring sun melts it.
In Wrangell we pronounce the word for ooligan fish with the “H” like a hooligan and, of course, the other meaning for hooligan is a “troublemaker.”
Smoke wafting from the smokehouse eves brings a story.“So, you were a hooligan too, once,” I say.
“I was a good kid, mostly,” he says.
I like to hear this story so I pull it out of him again. “Didn’t you once chain the police chief’s car to the telephone pole?”
My dad laughs. “ I was in grade school, around 10 years old. Yeah, that’s when I did dumb stuff.”
The story falls as easily as melting snow onto our sweatshirts:
“The police station used to be downtown where the old fire hall was, near where Ottesen’s True Value is now. There were jail cells in there, too. Every night at 10 p.m. all us kids had to be home. The town had a curfew. It made us mad because we wanted to be out later. There was a large bell, about 4 feet around, suspended between two telephone poles in the back of the police station. It looked like a liberty bell. The chief would go out and ring the curfew bell with a big rope that hung down.
“I was out late. The chief always parked his truck out front near a telephone pole. I don’t remember if anyone was with me or where I got the chain, but I had a big chain. I crawled under the chief’s truck and put the chain around the axel and then put the other end around the base of the telephone pole. I knew he wouldn’t see it because it was dark. After I hooked up the chain I went home. Later, when the chief took off, he didn’t go far. I didn’t stay around for the action. It pulled the axel—rear end—off the vehicle.”
As if part of the story, a large lump of trickster snow plops down beside us, splashing into the mud. We get up suddenly and look up. “Maybe we should move our chairs,” I suggest, as we scoot our chairs away from the tree canopy and sit down again.
My dad continues his story: “He was Chief of Police, the only police we had. There weren’t many cars in Wrangell in those days; there was one less after that.”
We laugh and hooligan stories wrap us in memory: The time my dad made a firecracker cannon; the time he and his friends blew up a homemade dam in a creek; the time some teenagers took apart a model-A car, hoisted it up on the school roof and put it back together again; the time he and his friend Wilfred snuck into the gym to play basketball…
“Yes, tell that story about when you snuck into the gym,” I say.
“We loved playing basketball,” my dad says: “I was about 10 or 11 then, too. When it was stormy out, we needed a place to play so we used to sneak into the gym where the public library is now. There was a big building that housed the gym and attached to it was the showers and the morgue. We’d sneak into the morgue, then go through to the showers where there was a gap in the wall up near the ceiling. We’d go through the gap and crawl into the gym. One time, though, we were creeping through the morgue and there was a dead body on the table. It scared us, so we decided to try to find another way into the gym.”
My dad gets up and walks slowly over to open the smokehouse, checking on the fish. He’ll be 81 at the end of May. I can imagine a short kid with dark hair, and his buddy, sneaking through the morgue, stumbling across a body, and hurrying through the showers and up over a wall just to play basketball.
My dad shuts the smokehouse door again, comes back and sits down. The story continues to weave through the smoke.
“Did you keep going back?” I ask him, “After you saw the body in there?”
“We started sneaking in another way by crawling on top of the roof of an outbuilding that held the gym’s furnace. We got up on the roof and opened a high window into the gym and then crawled down on top of a backboard, and dropped from the hoop down into the gym.”
“Geeze,” I say. “You kids were determined.”
“Another time we found a trap door under the building that led into a utility room next to the gym and we went in that way. We really wanted to play basketball!”
For the next few hours, my dad and I and the dog wander across the slushy path back to the cabin and back out again checking on the hooligan. When the smoke is done, we finish cooking the hooligan in the oven on a low temp until it’s crisp.
Spring isn’t officially here, though, until we light the hooligan torch. Inside the cabin, my dad skewers the hooligan on a bamboo stick and suspends it over a wide mouth mason jar. He lights the fish like a candle — candlefish. There’s so much good grease inside a hooligan that you can light it like a candle. We set the candlefish in the middle of the table and sit down with our hot coffee and a few hooligan on a plate in front of us.
On the counter, our smoked hooligan are heaped in pans, and cooling, ready to gift away. For now, we eat hooligan and sip coffee and, like Raven craving a hooligan, another story breaks open and lights up the kitchen.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.