How do residents of Prince of Wales Island know it’s spring time? Well we don’t put on our fancy suits and consult an over-sized rodent for starters. We know it’s spring time by consulting the weather and the water that are so closely linked to our lives as “Islanders”. When you see the whales entering the channels and bays. When you hear the grunting of the sea lions sunning themselves on the rocks. When you smell that distinct blend of fish and brine. That’s how we know it’s getting close.
The last couple weeks of March and the first couple weeks of April herald the new season in an explosive manner. A welcome sound after our Alaskan winters is the word that the first herring have been sighted. And then the flurry of activity begins. We gather the branches of hemlock trees (and in some cases we simply gather entire young hemlock trees), we check the fuel in our boats and don our rain gear. It’s Fish Egg season!
This week I had the pleasure of joining Lawrence Armour, Brian Holter, and Marilyn Bell-Holter in enjoying the weather and practicing a yearly spring subsistence activity. We laughed and joked as we loaded our gear into the boat, “complaining” about how much we “hated work” today. Our gear consisted of a bundle of hemlock branches that we were going to set in anticipation for the quickly approaching herring spawn. After getting gear stowed aboard the boat we began trip out to areas that have been traditional subsistence areas since the first people settled in the areas around Klawock.
As we slowed to observe a mother humpback whale and her calf in the distance we repeatedly mentioned how amazing it was, to be on the water, watching life returning to the area, and how we hoped for a good fish egg season. Herring roe (or as commonly referred to as fish eggs) is one of the first large harvest subsistence foods of the subsistence season. Every year the waters come to life as herring return to these areas to spawn on kelp, eel grass, hemlock branches (placed in the water by local subsistence users), and even the rocks along the shore. It is an important sign that winter is over, and is a greatly anticipated cultural food. It brings people together, they cluster on the docks as the harvesters return, hoping that with the returning boats is that first taste of spring.
We enjoyed the company in the skiff, each taking turns pointing out one or another spectacle of sea life that caught our eye. We stopped at a beach to gather rocks to use as an anchor for our hemlock branches, Brian and I talking about how this season had been years before. Children were taken out of school, entire families piled into boats and headed for the spawning grounds, thick kelp beds along the rocky shores of Southeast Alaska. We reminisced about how the families would gather on the beaches after laying out their branches and everyone would join together. Large bonfires would be lit, and we would share our meals. The last of the previous year’s salmon would be passed around, and crab freshly harvested would be boiled. Children would run along the beaches or play on improvised rope swings.
It was a time of celebration, a fair well to the winter, and a time to gather together and share. My younger cousin Marilyn mentions that it’s not that way anymore, and we look about. There are no children on the beaches, and besides commercial fishing boats we don’t see the skiffs loaded with families coming to celebrate spring with us. It’s a moment that we share of a time that may be passing in our own lifetimes. The bond between the land and our own lives. As more and more families assimilate into a “9 to 5” job, and the culture of our island way of life begins to become more structured we sense that practices like this are becoming less and less “important”.
The spell is broken for a moment, but quickly returns as Brian shouts “They’re breaching!”. We turn to look where he’s pointing, a little too late, as Brian laughs we stand waiting for the next, but that too passes and we turn back to business. We clamber into the skiff and prepare our anchor, tie together the branches and guide the boat to a promising looking area. We’re still a little early, so the water is still dark and not the milky green that shows when the herring are spawning, “Good, we beat them here, we’re early,” Brian states. While we would have enjoyed that fresh taste of herring roe straight from the water we know that they’re coming and our branches will be ready when they arrive.
We zip from kelp patch to kelp patch to check and see how things are looking, the kelp looks healthy but still no eggs yet. We follow the flocks of seagulls, watching for them to circle and dive, a good indicator that a ball of herring is there, but they’re still just moving into the area. We watch the sea lions to see where they’re clustering, another good indicator that the herring are nearby. We get lucky as we watch a small group of whales that have been patrolling the channel, they come in close to the shore and the herring in their desperation to avoid the whales throw themselves into the air. A quick silver flash, a wriggling fish struggling off the rocks and back into the water. We head that way.
We approach a small kelp patch, the water still dark, but not quite as dark as the rest. We pull up a kelp leaf and inspect it, spring and fortune smile upon us as we notice the first few herring eggs. They’re not thick, but they’re there, we note the area, making reference to several of the islands and the shores. Tomorrow we’ll return to lay branches in this area and check the branches we set today. As we turn the boat toward home we can see the water slowly changing color in the kelp patch, from the dark blue of winter to the milky pastel blue-green of spring.
Gunalchéesh herring, our little heralds of spring. We hope that tomorrow we will be able to make a small harvest, we’ll bring some home for our families and our elders so they can enjoy the bounty of the waters, and we will be thankful that winter has ended, and that spring has returned.
We hope to see more families out over the next few weeks, we hope that we can gather on the docks and the shores of the spawning grounds. We hope that we can enjoy the company of our community and celebrate the return of spring again. We hope to share the wealth of the waters and the thrill of watching the life that flows around us.