The last frontier of the hunter-gatherer

*****The last frontier of the hunter gatherers
Use of tools is one thing that sets people apart from the other animals that share the planet.  Commercial fishing is the last vestige or the hunter gatherer phase of human cultural development.  The tools of fishing used today evolved directly from those of our ancestors.  Nearly all fish catching devices in Alaska are simply improvements on one of three basic types of devices:  hooks, nets and traps.
Over the years, fishermen have developed increasingly efficient gear designed to harvest specific species.  As harvest efficiency has increased, so has the number of commercial fishermen.  The combined effect is that today’s commercial fishing industry is, in most cases, capable of catching a lot more fish than the stocks can biologically support.
To maintain a long term supply of seafood, government fishery managers develop regulations to limit both total catch and fishing effort.  Regulations dictate what kind and how much gear can be used, establish boundaries of the districts in which fishing can occur, and determine what days (or even hours) fishing will be permitted.
Terry Johnson, Ocean Treasure: Commercial Fishing in Alaska.  p. 19

Commercial fishing is the last vestige or the hunter gatherer phase of human cultural development.  The tools of fishing used today evolved directly from those of our ancestors.  Nearly all fish catching devices in Alaska are simply improvements on one of three basic types of devices:  hooks, nets and traps.

Terry Johnson, Ocean Treasure: Commercial Fishing in Alaska

Here’s my take away and and what calls me back.    Time and space are different in Alaska.  It’s not just in a different time zone.  Not just long days suddenly reversing into long nights.   An ice age flows right into the present in Glacier Bay.   People there sense things differently.  Eventually, you do, too.

Alaskans practice the wisdom of the ages as they move across the waters and the land in search of subsistence.  Natives and settlers alike, share an age old ethic of self-sufficiency that distinguishes them from most other Americans.  Halibut hooks and other tools of the trade adorn totem poles.   Contemporary families budget time and energy to take care of their food needs and look forward to it.

halibut hook

Alaskan waters are so abundant that there is a thin line between subsistence and commercial fishing. Many commercial fishing vessels become the family home during the summer months.

Alaskans are genuine foodies who make most chefs and diners look frivolous.  Of course, they  have supermarkets.   In fact produce is amazingly high quality and fresh and the prices are just fine.   Summer nights are too short to grow corn in Alaska but it arrives with its silk glossy and damp.    Melons do well on the long trip are apricots, peaches and pears are respected and protected.  Local growers turn out beautiful summer salads and greens and families brag about the size of the cabbages in their household plots.    But meat and fish?  Nearly impossible to find at the supermarket.

It was great to see the excitement of the Blough family as they left for their annual reunion and caribou hunt.   All the Alaskan cruisers we met were looking forward to the hunting season.  Everyone takes their annual  allotment of deer, which is 6 small Sitka deer per adult.  Most of them were also hoping to get a moose.   Dianna licked her chops in anticipation while sharing her recipe for bear ribs.  Many folks hunt black bear  but seem to agree that brown bear is not very good at all.   Since Neal and Dianna have professional butchering equipment at home, they also order two cattle and two pigs on the hoof.

At Hoonah Trading Company, canning jars, rubber seals, and canning parifin were flying off the shelves as folks came out of the woods with pailfuls of salmon berries, then blackberries and next huckleberries.


It was the fishing we saw up close.   Every dock has a number of simple fish cleaning tables with a fresh water hose.  Around 4 pm every day people line up to use them.   Huge sockeye, pinks and chum, many males with the hooked jaws of spawning season.    The largest halibut we saw was 170 pounds, but everyday we saw people bringing in lots of smaller ones.

Our cruising neighbors, some from the inland areas of Alaska, have promised to show us the ropes next year.   Most of them clean, cut into portions,  vacuum pack and freeze their catch on their boats.   Out of town sport fishermen take their fish to a small shop behind the Harbormaster’s that processes and packages fish for shipment.   The morning we flew out of Juneau airport, I felt pangs of sheer envy at the huge cartons of frozen fish that many travelers were checking with their baggage.

As for commercial fishing, we’ve had to learn about the rigs of the various fisheries just to navigate past them.   We learned about gillnetting from Joe Upton’s Alaska Blues and from the talkative Arnie.    After LaDonna’s dramatic story of the Wrangell purse seiners, we peppered seiners with questions.  Trollers were everywhere, from the lovely antique double ender in whose company we negotiated Green Rapids to the dozens in Hoonah Harbor.  Our favorite boats there,  moored side by side, are Icy Lady and Happy Hooker.

longlinerWe saw our first longliner leaving Frosty Harbor:  a bizarre non contiguous assortment of red balls and flags stretching nearly across the channel.      We consulted our Canadian charts book, which has good illustrations of  a troller, a gillnetter, a purse seiner, a long liner and a trawler.   Identifying how fishermen in each fishery set their lines and nets is an essential part of cruising the Northwest Coast.   (Alan Sorum’s artlcle “Identifying Alaska Commercial Fishing Boats” has the basics but poor pictures.)

This post has wandered and taken time to write.   As I try to finish things up here, I am distracted and feel a powerful call of the wild.  It’s the end of  August and the wilderness of southern Oregon should be spectacular.    So I’ll end this with quite from an anthology called Alaskan Stories (edited by John Miller) hat I picked up used during my final visit to Juneau’s Rainy Retreat Books.   (And read as I tried  to fall asleep in a hotel bed, which didn’t move the way our bunk on Aurora does.) All the other Alaska books are safely shelved on Aurora but this one sneaked back to Portland, making my reentry all the more difficult.

Robert Coles, the great psychiatrist, teacher and  Children of Crisis author, brings us these words of a fourteen year old Eskimo girl who once spent six months in Fairbanks.

I remember waking up in the house we had in Fairbanks; I went to the window, and I saw – another house.  I bent my neck and looked, and there was the sky, a small piece of it – the size of meat  or fish we have in the middle of the winter, not the fish or meat we eat in the summer.  Everywhere we went there were houses and stories.  We kept looking at walls.  I couldn’t see beyond a street; there were always cars and buildings.  The sky was not the sky I knew.  There was no ocean.  At school there was a playground but across the street there were stores.  My mother said she felt a lot of time as if she wasn’t getting enough air.  My father ended up in bars at night, drinking.  He didn’t see anything except the beer inside a bottle.

One day he came home and said he wanted to go back to our village; he wanted to stand near the ocean and look at the water, not drown in beer.  We left the next day.  My uncle has been in Fairbanks a long time, but we couldn’t stay, and  I’m glad we’re back here.  As soon as we got home, my grandmother told me to go say hello to the ocean, and to the ponds, and to take a walk through the grass, and to watch for foxes and say hello to them.  And to not forget the sky; she never does – she’s always looking at the sky and watching the clouds, and she can tell if the weather will change by the way the clouds go across the sky.   She won’t tell me her secret.  She says I’ll learn it by looking at the sky long enough myself!


Author: Carol McCreary

10 Inside Passages to Alaska. 10,000 miles. 10,000 hours on the S/V Aurora. This is the story of how Jack and I took up sailing late in life and are now finally getting the hang of it.

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