Alaska Hospitality- Finding A Way Home

“You Want Have Sleep This House Please Don’t Take Anytink.” This crudely lettered message nailed to the door of a trapper’s log cabin near the headwaters of the Yukon River was a harbinger of lessons in bush hospitality whose frequent repetition would enrich my idea of what a home can be.  An unwritten law of the Yukon, was to leave your cabin unlocked and a fire ready to kindle in case a traveler needed to get out of the cold. For the traveler, reciprocity required that he in turn be sure to leave a fire ready to kindle when he moved on.

Over the course of the summer of 1971 I kayaked down the length of the river, stopping in every village and visiting dozens of homesteads and fish camps.  Along the way I began to learn what it means to be a stranger and a guest. There were times when folks actually vied with one another to offer me and my three traveling companions a meal or a place to stay.  We once arrived in a village after midnight and were treated to a full-course dinner and another hour of looking at family photos.  When the salmon runs began, we seldom pushed off for the day’s paddle without an ample supply of fresh or smoked fish for the journey. Salmon became the very currency of hospitality.

One story goes that the salmon live in three great lodges in the sea, one for each of the three Yukon species that follow the ancient imperative to return to the freshwater streams of their birth.  Chinook, Coho and Chum.  It is said that they are traveling to a potlatch, a gift exchange, and are willingly lured into the peoples weirs, fish wheels and nets, thinking of themselves as gifts.  If well treated by their “hosts” and prepared and shared with respect, their spirits will return to the lodges and tell the story of their reception , and others will follow.  The salmon runs will continue and the people will continue as well.

Photo above: Sophie Beans from St. Mary’s at her fish camp on the Yukon River. Photo below of Martha Wasky’s camp at Pitkas Point.

The salmon struggled upriver.  I paddled or sometimes simply drifted down, each day taking me farther from my birth home in the Hudson River Valley than I had ever been before.  I often encountered elders in the villages who spoke little or no English.  My hosts seemed to particularly relish my willingness to try what was for me exotic food: black bear steaks, picked beaver tail, akutaq, “Eskimo Ice Cream” a mixture of fish, seal oil or Crisco, berries and sugar. 

As I got closer to the coast, I began to notice something that seemed quite strange.  Not only were people treating me almost like family… they were beginning to look like family!  I met Yupik elders who reminded me of my grandmother and her sisters, Russian Jews who emigrated west to America and retained in their features faint suggestions of what might be a Siberian heritage. Russian traders had traveled East, working their way up the Yukon in the 1830s, sometimes marrying the Yupik and Athabascan people they encountered.  

Women stood for hours by the riverbank, cutting salmon into strips and hanging them on wooden racks to dry and smoke.  I felt warmth and recognition in their smiling eyes, and remembered that early in the morning, when we were the only ones awake, and I was visiting, my grandfather always cooked smoked salmon and eggs for me. While my parents were still alive, I never made a trip back home that didn’t include the welcome back meal of bagels, lox and smoked whitefish.

With the weather getting colder and wetter as we neared the coast, the hours and the days ceded their clock and calendar time to the flow of the river.  It was the end of a three-month two thousand mile journey and I was running on “river time.” 

I prepared breakfast (Chocolate Bloatena! secret recipe!) over one of my last campfires, and remembered Thoreau’s saying that “he who cuts his own wood is twice was warmed.”  Biting into a piece of gifted hard-smoked King Salmon with it’s rich coppery oil dribbling down my chin, I knew that just a few mouthfuls would warm be and sustain me for the  morning’s paddle into the rain and the wind. I also knew that this gift and countless other acts of hospitality I received that summer would sustain me for a lifetime.

People had not only opened their homes to to me.  They showed me how to make my own home larger, how to open it to others… family, friends, strangers, and finally to myself.  They showed me a way home.

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A Postscript.  50 years after my Yukon paddle, I’ve become known to some of my best friends as Uncle Salmon.  If there is decent smoked salmon available, that’s what I always bring to pot lucks.

Over all those years, from time to time, I’ve been lucky enough to get to Seattle’s famed Pike Street Market, and to purchase Yukon River smoked salmon strips like the ones that sustained me those years back. One year, I brought these strips to my son’s house. I’d been back in Alaska that summer telling stories in libraries, and so stopped at Pike Street on the way down to the Bay Area.    

I was eager to share them with my granddaughter, but she told me in no uncertain terms that she didn’t eat salmon.  I was undeterred.  I told her,” this isn’t just salmon, it’s Food of the Gods.” That was enough to get her to grudgingly try a bite.  The rest of the day, we had to cut the remaining fish into smaller and smaller pieces, trying to make it last.  Now, it is expected of me, almost demanded of me, if I am traveling south from Alaska or Washington… “Where’s the Food of the Gods?!”  And if that isn’t available, I make a trip to the nearest place I can buy bagels and lox, and that does the trick just as well!  

Thank you to the Yukon River Drainage Fisheries Association for permission to use their photos. “YRDFA is a cooperative association of the fishers of the Yukon River whose families and cultures have depended on their relationship with wild Yukon salmon for hundreds of generations. For them, it is an economic and cultural imperative to protect this unique resource—one of the longest salmon migrations in the world.” Here’s their website.

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As always, I welcome and look forward to comments and contributions… what is your experience of home, hospitality and comfort?

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6 comments

  1. Mouth-watering, heart-warming and very inspiring Bob… so glad to have found you and this story. Thank you… Colin

  2. I, too, am a fan of the salmon – baked, smoked, lox (ffrom St. Viateur Bagel factory in Montreal), sushi, upskwee, etc.. My Scots dad loved the stuff. My sister, having learned from her Italian mother-in-law, taught me how to bake it. My son’s mom, who is Nuu-chah-nulth, taught me about upskwee (salmon jerky). Your story of the unlocked cabin reminds me of a friend’s story. René Fumoleau, who died just a couple of years ago, was an Oblate priest sent from France to live with the Dené in the Northwest Territories. Having been raised Catholic, served as an altar boy for many years, and having met many cheerless priests, i’m not particularly well-disposed to priests. But René, when I met him in the 90s, quickly earned a place in my heart. He was a storyteller and a wonderful photographer and just an all-around wonderful soul. He told me of how, as a young priest, wanting to connect with the people amongst whom he was living, and not wanting to proselytize, he tried to communicate the notion of “sin,” only to be greeted with puzzlement. The Dené said they did not understand this notion and did not have a word in their language that corresponded. The people said, “we’ll think about it and get back to you.” When they did “get back” to René, they explained, “we don’t have a word for sin but we have found one thing that fits your description of what is a sin: to lock one’s doors.”

    • Wonderful reply Chris. Ah… locked doors! That summer on the Yukon I met an Dené man, an old timer who was arrested for taking a moose out of season… this was a guy living a true subsistence lifestyle. Reflecting on his experience, he mused, ” Don’t like the jail. Too many locks!” Trappers had (or perhaps still have) a string of cabins along their traplines… so there’s a place to get out of the cold. So it is that these cabins traditionally were not locked, so that others who might be stranded in the bush could get our of the weather.

  3. A dear friend, now of blessed memory, taught me so much about hospitality. I will share only two.

    She and her husband were Iowa transplants from Wisconsin. Evidently a winter custom in her home area was to leave the porch light lit during bad weather. This signaled beleagured travelers that this home was a shelter if they needed one. She also called our local police to let them know that stranded motorists could stay with them. They had a two story four bedroom home about 5 houses from a highway. This offer was accepted many times over the years.

    One summer day the two of us were enjoying breakfast and each others company at a local restaurant. In the booth behind us was a man and two teen age girls talking about the lack of housing in nearby hotels/motels. They had borrowed the restaurant’s phone book and writing down names and phones of places in near by towns. You see, there was a national wrestling tournament at the University and all rooms were booked. My friend left our booth and went to theirs. She said, “Are you here for the tournament? Do you have someone wrestling in it? ” The answers were yes and yes, their son/brother. She said, “If you don’t mind bunking informally, you are welcome to stay with us. We live about 5 blocks from the tournament site.” For the next several days, their household of 6 increased by 3. Some of her children went to stay with friends and others slept on the floor so the guests had two bedrooms to share.

    • Thanks Gail. I understand why a friend like this would be of blessed memory! Stories like this really stick with us. I wonder, how it is that some people grow up to reach out their hands to help while others withdraw.

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