Tag Archives: salmon

Oh I Was Born a Ramblin’ Man

Well, I’m hooked.

Fishing puns aside, ((Brad Dice, I hope you’re reading this) Actually they use nets up here, not hooks), my experience in the YK Delta of Alaska has further affirmed my choice to pursue journalism as my career choice.

Author’s note: I usually put a lot of thought into my blogs, thinking hard on structure and creativity. This one is more of rambling thoughts, quickly putting my thoughts into words for my own sake. Thus, the title. And as a music enthusiast I must pay my respects to those who rambled before me:

The Allman Brothers Band-Ramblin’ Man

Led Zeppelin-Ramble On

Additionally, it’s an excuse to use my SUPER AWESOME FISHING PUN. 

Anyway, I always liked the idea of working a job where I simply had conversations with people, thought about it for a while, and wrote a story. Up until now, my experience with this has largely been confined to what’s known as the “Creighton bubble”. I enjoyed working on stories about my own community, but I craved interaction with people and places different from me.

Well, this trip has more than satisfied that craving.

The people of the YK Delta more than welcomed us. They embraced us.

From visiting fish camps:

 

Chris, Donna, and Zohn's newly discovered and beautifully rustic fish camp
Chris, Donna, and Zohn’s newly discovered and beautifully rustic fish camp

to tasting an amalgam of native foods at the parish potluck:

Seal stew, Moose stew, corn bread, grilled salmon, and friend bread all in one meal
Seal stew, Moose stew, corn bread, grilled salmon, Moose stir fry, and fried bread all in one meal. Not Pictured: Life-changing salmon chowder.

I was afforded an opportunity to peak into peoples’ lives, and that’s a big deal. There is a fine line between observing respectfully and invading rudely. Yet another fine line sits between a story as a vessel of truth and as an objectifying window. The people we have met with, interviewed, and filmed ran the risk of invasion and objectification, yet they trusted us to observe and narrate truthfully.

I really think this team can fulfill that trust.

Our team has been stellar on this project. Each person has prioritized the documentary above all else, including personal comfort (lack of sleep, limited showers, zillions of mosquitos, dirty clothes, the list goes on…). No one complained. Rather, we embraced it. I honestly think that commitment will shine through in the final cut.

Alas, we leave Bethel tomorrow. I have been witness to so many cool/badass/transcendent people and experiences, I need some time to process it all. It’s all jumbled up at the moment. But two experiences in tandem provided a clear bookend for my Bethel experience.

Last night, our crew gathered in the church for a reflection. John encouraged us to sit in silence for a while, practicing the Ignatian spiritual practice called the Examine. Sitting there in communal silence, we each went into our memories to center ourselves and our thoughts. After a while, Carol spoke aloud, expressing her feelings and thoughts on the experience. Every person eventually shared something they were thinking about. Often there were several minutes of silence between speakers. I remember sitting there with my eyes closed, hoping that John wouldn’t call an end to the reflection, simply so that I might spend more time in communion with the people I had worked with, slept with, dined with, played with, and learned with. I went in with a heavy heart and lots on my mind. I came out with the weight off of my chest. At peace.

But the night wasn’t over.

We realized that the clouds had cleared, so Nico suggested that we go to the Tundra to get a time lapse of the sunset. A few of us piled into the truck and went out there. We set up the cameras and sat down to watch:

 

You have seen the river sunset, now here is one on the tundra
You have seen the river sunset, now here is one on the tundra

Nico, Hayley, Hannah, Tony, Catherine, and I sat until nearly two in the morning in a cloud of mosquitos, just talking, looking, and listening.

As they say:

Everything in front of me was beautiful

Everything behind me was beautiful

Everything above me was beautiful

Everything below me was beautiful

Everything around me was beautiful

Quyana

It’s our last day in Bethel…cue the tears. The list of things I will miss about this place is much longer than the list of things I won’t miss (i.e. the excessive mud and the lack of available showers).

Eskimo ice cream
Eskimo ice cream

Last night we all tried Eskimo ice cream. It  sounds yummy…but it wasn’t made from actual ice cream. The only three ingredients in said “ice cream” were Crisco, sugar, and blueberries. It wasn’t bad, but one spoonful was definitely plenty.

The generous gift of a King Salmon
The generous gift of a King Salmon

Also, this morning we were given two salmon by this sweet lady on the left. One King Salmon, and one Red Salmon..YUMMY.

So today we had our last two interviews, which means we are officially DONE recording interviews. Tomorrow we leave early in the morning to fly to Anchorage, then onto Seward. Once we get there we’ll be able to see some more mountainous Alaskan landscape, rather than the flat tundra. We’ll also get to do some tourist activities (such as hike a glacier, woohoo).

Speaking of interviews, I compiled a few of my favorite quotes from various interviews that we’ve conducted throughout these past 11 days.

-“Cut through the bullshit and live intentionally”: Dr. O’Keefe’s daughter told us she learned that during her time here as a Jesuit Volunteer. Everything people do here has a purpose, they don’t waste time or resources.

-“What you share you’ll get back even more of.”: John Active, a Yup’ik we interviewed said this of the philosophy of his people. We’ve seen that firsthand here in Bethel, so many people have shown us kindness and have share with us precious fish and food to make us feel welcome.

-“You must face the pain to overcome it.”: A native Yup’ik, Rose Domnick, focused on that idea during her lecture to us about cultural trauma and the repercussions felt by her own family as a result of the Catholic missionaries trying to convert the natives.

-“It’s not about religion, it’s about how you practice your beliefs.”: Ray Daw, a behavioral health specialist that spoke to us, said this during his lecture last week. I think it can be difficult to remember that just because people may not practice spirituality or religion in the same way we do doesn’t mean that there is a wrong or right way.

-“If you follow Yup’ik spirituality, you’ll be the best Catholic in the world.”: Cecilia, a Yup’ik elder that we interviewed, said this. Yup’ik spirituality puts an emphasis on the sacred value of all human life and of all nature. They see everything as valuable in some way, and therefore have immense respect for both humans and nature.

…Also, a bit of what I’ve personally taken away from this trip so far:

-Gutting a fish is fun, but the fishy smell is hard to get rid of

-Moose stew is my new favorite type of stew

-I actually can get tired of eating peanut butter

-People are more often pretty great than not

This list could go on forever, but I’m happy I could get to know so many Creighton people that I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise… I am so grateful for my 16 new friends.

Quyana (Thank you), Bethel, for all that you’ve taught us.

Life IS so good.

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Blessed to be a witness

Nichole cutting fish.
Nichole Jelinek preparing our freshly caught salmon for lunch.

We’re nearing the end of our time in Bethel and already we are thinking of how we are going to miss the community here, the sunlight (I’m writing this at 11:30 p.m. and it’s bright daylight outside as the sun is just starting to set.) and the amazing opportunities we have to talk to the diverse people here and learn about their lives and culture. We’ve been able to see and hear first-hand about the impact of climate change.

The stories we are hearing are not just technical, science-type stories, but stories deeply rooted in these people’s connection with the land. We’ve heard the tundra — which seems vast and barren at first glance  — described as the “land’s plate” and the “people’s refrigerator” for the rich bounty of berries and greens that helps sustain people all year. Many of the people we have talked to learned about the land and respect for the land, sea and rivers and all that inhabit the environment from their elders. They talk of respect for the land and for the animals they catch, whether it’s salmon or moose or caribou.

Being from Nebraska, I know about sky and Plains stretching all around me. But here in rural southwestern Alaska, there’s more sky and more tundra. People have told us while on the tundra, they feel they can see the whole universe. It does feel that way. The respect for the land and for the elders is grounded in sharing  what you catch and harvest with the elders, widows and, we have found, with strangers. We are overwhelmed by the generosity in fish, cookies, produce and a wonderful pot luck.

It took a while to get back to this blog; now It’s time for lunch, which today is fresh salmon from the test fishery. People working to conserve and preserve the king salmon on the river do test catches to see how many fish are running, what kind and when. The goal is to get enough king salmon to escape to spawn upriver. Part of today’s catch — which is often distributed to elders and others — will end up on our lunch plates. Our story comes full circle.

A Yup’ik Potluck

Last night, we had a potluck with some members of the church. Unlike the potlucks that I’ve experienced in Nebraska, there were no pies or pots of chili. Instead, there was a delicious variety of traditional Yup’ik foods. Here are a few of the dishes that we tried:

  • Smoked salmon
  • Mayonnaise and dill salmon
  • Salmon chowder (my favorite)
  • Moose and vegetable stew
  • Seal stew
  • Caribou stew
  • Herring eggs with oil
  • Spicy beans with ground moose
  • Fried bread
  • Rhubarb and ginger cake

What made this meal so special was hearing hunting stories about the meat I was eating and listening to the way some dishes were prepared. In the case of the Yup’ik people, nothing is wasted. Every piece of meat is taken off the bones of salmon, the scaly skin is sewn together to create a waterproof coat, and the fermented heads are considered a delicacy. While I’m not sure if I’m ready to try a fermented fish head, I’m so grateful that I had the chance to try some traditional foods.

 

Fishin’ Around

Yesterday’s topic of the day was fish, which only seems appropriate, considering the people in Bethel live off of fish.

I mean that quite literally. We’ve seen this theme, living off of the fish one works hard to catch, in many of our interviews. In fact, subsistence and the king salmon fishing restrictions are the main focus of our documentary.

I heard the impact of the fishing restrictions on subsistence lifestyles today at a town hall-style meeting. It was hosted by the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group, a group that makes recommendations about fishing and listens to villagers’ and city residents’ issues caused by the restrictions.

I heard lots of comments about fear of starvation and eventual death because of the restrictions. Villagers, who live both upstream and downstream, are concerned that there are no fish on their drying racks. (After a fish is caught, it is cut and then hung to dry.) One man started to yell, accusing the members that they have fish on their racks but they don’t seem to care about those who have caught nothing.

This is an example of salmon drying. This was taken at Cecilia's house; she has a small shack full of fish that have been hung to dry.
This is an example of salmon drying. This was taken at Cecilia’s house; she has a small shack full of fish that have been hung to dry.

One man went so far to “guarantee” that if the restrictions continue, lives will be in danger. He stated that people were going out with riffles. (We think he means people are attempting to shoot at Alaska State Troopers who patrol and see what people are catching, making sure they are not catching king salmon.)

We stayed for three hours of the discussion, and none of us knew how long the meeting actually lasted. We had to leave because we had a potluck dinner at the church.

Yesterday morning, the C-team got to go out on a boat with a true fisherman (it was arranged because we didn’t get to go on other adventures earlier in our trip). I was freezing. I had five sweatshirts, two layers of socks, a hat and gloves on, but my toes and fingers were still frozen by the end.

Despite the cold, it was a really cool experience. Tad, the fisherman, was going out to check his net as well as his brother-in-law’s nets. He checks them twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening.

He probably caught between a dozen to 20 fish in his nets. The majority of them were red salmon.

As we watched Tad pull his nets into the boat, it was exciting every time we saw fish caught in them.
As we watched Tad pull his nets into the boat, it was exciting every time we saw fish caught in them.

He pulled his net out of the water little by little. When he came across a fish, he untangled the fish from the net. (I tried to suppress my squeals as I saw a fin or gill move.) As the fish fell to the ground of the boat, he put his pointer and middle fingers in the gills of the fish and broke them, causing the fish to bleed out of its gills. He threw them one by one in a bucket full of water.

He threw two fish on top of the bucket, explaining he would feed those fish to the dogs. These fish were rotten; they were previously caught in a net and had escaped only to run into his net.

I have to admit seeing a bucket full of fish and blood was pretty gross at times, but seeing part of the process of preparing fish is probably something I won’t ever see again.

I think back to yesterday, to the fisherman, to the commitment and effort he has to put in in order to catch food for himself and his family and how he goes through that process twice a day. It certainly made me appreciate the fish I was fed at the potluck. (The hard work the fishermen put in definitely pays off; the salmon here is absolutely amazing, by the way.) It also makes me fearful that I’m going to have a hard time going back to eating my mom’s salmon, which is bought at the grocery store.

 

Boat Trips on the Kuskokwim

Nothing says Alaska like taking a boat ride on the Kuskokwim River, eating freshly-caught salmon and watching a spectacular sunset at midnight. In the midst of our busyness, I am thankful to have experienced some of these remarkable aspects of this beautiful region.

On Friday, a group of us had the opportunity to take a boat to the Yup’ik village of Napaskiak to shoot some B-roll footage for our documentary. We could not have asked for a better day to go out on the Kuskokwim River. The weather had finally improved; the blue skies and fluffy white clouds were welcoming after many dreary, drizzly days.

We all piled into the boat and set off on our expedition. It was thrilling to get out on one of the last wild rivers flowing through the United States. The Kuskokwim is so important to the people of Bethel and the surrounding villages for transportation and food.

Along the way to the village, we made a few stops along the river to try to find moose. Even though we never found one, the meadows and marshy landscapes we saw were breathtaking. I am still holding onto hope that I will see a moose before I leave Alaska.

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After the beautiful boat ride, we reached the village. As we got out of the boat, I noticed the peacefulness of Napaskiak and immediately felt that by bringing in all of our cameras we were intruding on the lives of the villagers. We had a limited amount of time to get our B-roll, so I knew I had to overcome my discomfort to find the footage we needed.

The eight of us split up into groups, so Leah, Morgan and I headed off to find interesting shots around the village. We communicated our whereabouts in the village by using walkie-talkies — an incredibly fun and useful addition to our adventure.

As we were setting up our cameras to shoot video, all of a sudden two young girls appeared and wondered what we were up to. Soon more and more curious children started to emerge as we moved around Napaskiak. They were incredibly respectful and stayed behind the cameras instead of trying to get in our shots.

The houses were very small and connected by boardwalks, so villagers traveled to and from different structures by bike or four-wheeler. Napaskiak had a Russian Orthodox Church that we peeked inside. We also chatted with a village police officer, who was very friendly and joked that he just didn’t want us to take pictures of him.

We received word from John via our walkie-talkie that it was time to head out. As we packed up our gear into the boat, the village children swarmed around us saying they didn’t want us to leave. I am sure we are the most exciting visitors they have had for a while.

The team was all set to go, and we all waved goodbye as we started back down the river. I couldn’t help but feel sad as Napaskiak became a faint sight in the distance. I find it hard to imagine winters in such a remote place. Villages throughout the region face great challenges due to their isolation from more populated areas. Despite the difficulties of village life, I am humbled by how welcoming the people of Napaskiak were and will always remember the lively spirits of the children.

During our journey back to Bethel on the Kuskokwim, I witnessed the most spectacular sunset I have ever seen (the one odd thing about it was that it was at midnight). No photo can do it justice, but I was able to capture a photo from our boat. It was a truly wonderful day.

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On Saturday the entire Backpack Journalism crew took a boat ride on the Kuskokwim to a fish camp. We enjoyed a fun and relaxing cook-out of hot dogs and hamburgers. In addition, we had a taste of salmon that had just been caught in the river. I am not a huge fan of fish, but I thought this salmon was absolutely delicious.

Besides eating great food, our evening at the fish camp was spent in the great outdoors enjoying the presence of some fantastic people. It has been just over a week since we arrived in Bethel, and I am so thankful to be sharing this experience with fellow journalism majors, Creighton students and faculty, and friends old and new. Whether we are playing card games, preparing meals or just laughing uncontrollably, I am loving my time in Alaska and will be sure to make the most of my last week here.

 

Sending my thoughts and prayers to the people of my hometown of Norfolk and the rest of northeast Nebraska, especially those affected by the terrible tornadoes in and around Pilger. 

 

My Aha moments.

My “Aha” moments.

Dog selfies on the boat that took us to Stan's fish camp!
Dog selfies on the boat that took us to Stan’s fish camp!

Last Wednesday we had the privilege to participate in an all day long workshop with Rose Dominic, a Yup’ik woman, and Ray Daw, a Navajo man. Rose and Ray hold these workshops for villages allover the main Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and throughout Alaska. These workshops are intended to help the people through their healing process and understand what happened to them when change was brought about so rapidly and suddenly to them. Many of my classmates have already written about the workshop because this day was a very important day for all of us. I believe the workshop really set the course for our documentary and helped us get rid of our Eurocentric views and really understand what life was like when missionaries came and boarding schools were set up. Not only did it help us understand what happened, but I believe it made us feel, know, and understand what it means to be and live in the Yup’ik culture.

My Aha moments so far on this trip:

  • When Ray stopped in the middle of his speech and sang his Navajo song and explained what Aha meant. Aha means when you are experiencing a moment of happiness and wonder that you just have to sing from the mountaintops. That is what an Aha moment means.
  • During Ray’s song I flash backed to standing and looking out on the hill in the tundra that took forever to walk and climb to. We saw all of Bethel on one side and on the other tundra that just seemed to go on forever.
  • Realizing how isolated we are in Bethel. There are no roads, highways, or streets that lead anywhere outside of Bethel. There are only roads within Bethel with no stoplights.
  • Sitting on the bank of a river and diving into my fresh salmon caught 20 minutes earlier.
  • Listening to the Yup’ik people tell their story in all of our interviews.
  • Enjoying the golden hours and the sun set that lasted about 4 hours all with my new friends Arvin and Connie and with my camera crew, Nico, Tony, and Tim.
  • Meeting people that are just so welcoming and will come up and talk to you.
  • Sitting by the warm fire on a cold day at Stan’s fish camp.
  • Going to mass and hearing the Yup’ik songs at the beginning and finding myself catching onto the language and singing along with the Yup’ik hymnal towards the end of the mass.
  • Learning new Yup’ik words.
  • Taking walks along the Kuskokwim river and chatting with friends.
  • People gifting us with native food and just being so generous.
  • Waking up in the morning and walking out to the lake behind our little “cabin” and seeing a complete reflection on the lake
  • Playing basketball Alaskan fish camp style at Stan’s fish camp!
  • Going to sleep with the sun still up and waking up with no alarm to the sun. goodbye annoying alarm!
  • Wondering how blessed and random it was that I got to go on this trip and the trip to the fish camp. The universe has a weird way of working doesn’t it.
  • When Rose explained what a family structure meant in Yup’ik culture. At the heart of a giant circle is spirituality. That is surrounded by the young people and children in the tribe. Around the children is the elders who provide the wisdom and teach the children the ways to live. Around the elders are the women of the tribe who care and nurture for everyone. Then around the women are the men who protect and secure the tribe. She showed us in a demonstration and had us actually sit in a circle. I got to be a child in the center!
  • Realizing how blessed I am and what a great Alaskan family i have here. I know for a fact that these are some great people that I have the privilege to share this experience and journey with them.

Cheers to the beginning of week #2!

Walks along the River are the best!
Walks along the River are the best!

The Definition of Hospitality

Creighton brings in students from many different places around the country. One thing that everyone mentions is that “classic Midwest hospitality.” But the hospitality we’re experiencing here in Bethel outdoes anything I’ve ever experienced.

Despite the struggles of poverty and the tough living conditions in Bethel, people have been so incredibly generous towards us. For example, people here have water tanks that get refilled weekly. What that means is that if you use too much water, until your tank is refilled you’re out of luck. As you can imagine, the 20 of us need quite a lot of water and make a pretty big dent in the water supply. That doesn’t stop people from offering their showers and washing machines though. One lady even stopped me today with the sole concern of making sure we had enough opportunities to shower, and I reassured her that we do indeed have at least two different shower locations.

The people of Bethel have also been very generous with their food. We’ve had 3 frozen (but like fresh frozen, still has eyes kind of frozen) salmon, prepared salmon and sheefish (Google it, that’s not a typo), the most delicious salmon dip there’s ever been in the entire world, plentiful snacks and cookies, fresh veggies, salmon jerky (dad please learn how to make this) a freshly salmon straight from the river and eaten 20 minutes later, and even a fish egg pasta (which was so weird but so great!)

Sorry we ate you little guy!
Sorry we ate you little guy!

And just the people we encounter while we’re roaming around the town. Everyone is so friendly and curious about our purpose, where we’re from, what we study. It’s been incredible just to talk and get to know some of the people here.

A common thread that we’ve been hearing is that everyone loves Bethel because of the people here, and I can absolutely see why why. The hospitality has truly been one of the greatest aspects of this trip and I will forever be grateful that I got to experience it.

Learning from students

This is my fourth Backpack Journalism trip and I’ve found I learn more perhaps than the students do. I learn things about myself, about the world and about them.  We have a great mix of students this year. All are eager to learn. Some are stepping gingerly out of their comfort zones and some are leaping. But everyone is so open to new experiences. It’s so wonderful to watch and so wonderful to talk to them about what they are feeling and thinking and absorbing.

We have been so fortunate to have a day of learning about historical trauma from Rose Dominic, a wonderful morning with Cecilia Martz, an afternoon with Pat Tam and an evening with Brian McCaffery. We are so lucky to have the opportunity, as short as it is, to learn as much as we can about Yup’ik culture and life in this environment.

fish
Getting ready to fix the salmon for dinner.

We’ve had tasty reminders of how generous everyone is: parishioners have delivered delicious fish and vegetables. Cecilia made us her terrific salmon spread. Father Mark gave us salmon for a wonderful dinner (and learning experience as students learned how to gut and fillet a fish.)

Time seems to be going so fast as we learn and soak up everything.