Friday, June 29, 2007

Fish Fantastic

Esther decked out in fisherwoman's garb, ready to fish! We are parked at Nuvok, at low tide, about to set out the net.
Beautiful Esther in front of my beautiful fish rack and hanging fish: this year's catch. I'm pretty proud of it, and all it took to get it together....
Even though it was full of unknowns, I wanted to catch my own salmon this June -- and I did it, patched together and by the seat of my pants, but I did it. I have gorgeous chum salmon in my freezer and hanging on a rack to dry & smoke, and with a little help from my friends, I did it.

Fishermen checking their net in Hooper Bay by boat.

At first I thought it wasn't going to work out because I was missing so many important factors, like: I had a net, sought out and purchased by mail order from this little place in Anchorage, in March, but I didn't have anchors or anything to keep the net in place, and we couldn't find any in town or by mail order. The old-fashioned way was to use long driftwood poles, to tied the net to the poles at each end and dig them down into the mud at low tide.

I decided to try to find poles, but every time I was out on the beach getting some kind of long log I thought would be a good pole, someone would come along and tell me that it wasn't the right kind, that I had to look for another kind somewhere else on the beach. I bet everyone was giggling at me, the girl slinging all kinds of mis-chosen wood on the back of her honda. :) So that was a pain, and then someone told me that salmon are such strong fish that if you don't use anchors, the fish might pull your net out and you'd lose your net. I didn't want to risk that and end up where I started. So I wasn't sure how it could all work out, and I was having such a fun time camping that I thought it would be OK, this year, to skip the fish, even though I had been looking forward to it all year.
But lack of anchors didn't stop us from enjoying some campfire fish, the best salmon I've ever tasted. It was a gift from Mary & Harvey, before I thought I was going to get fish of my own.

I cooked it with all the vegetables inside the fish, wrapped in tin foil. on a rack over the campfire -- MMMM!

So tasty!
Then our camping neighbors out on Nuvok, Mary & Harvey, said I could work with them this year, learn from them about all the parts of the process, and I could just work on building my wooden drying rack for next year. They are super sweet, helpful, and concerned about us, and it seemed like a dream offer, and I was going to accept until....

My good buddy Tul'uq called and queried, brusquely and teasingly, "Well, are you gonna fish or not?" And over my spluttering explainations, he said,"I'm done with my anchors for this year; I've got enough fish. You can come by and pick them up, and I'll be out later when the tide is low to help you set your net." Jackpot!Here is Tul'uq loading up the front of the honda with the net and buoys.
So this was a Friday afternoon, and low tide, or at least, low enough to set the net out, was around 4:pm, and so Roy decided to help, too, and so we got the waders on, got the net at the campsite, spread out and inspected the net, loaded stuff up, met up with Tul'uq and drove out to the water in good time.

Roy, Esther & Odin are laying out the net to inspect it.
Setting out the net was pretty much what I envisioned it to be: We put out one anchor, pulled one end of the net out to it and tied it to it, then brought the other anchor to the other end.

Roy and Tul'uq are bringing out the net to me, and I am holding on to the anchor's rope. There are little floats on the top of the net, and Tul'uq also let us borrow his bright orange buoys for each end. On the bottom of the net is a line made of some kind of metal, very heavy, to keep it kind of steady. Here is my net, all set in Hooper Bay.
The coolest thing happened when we were setting out the net; the guys had gone in for the second anchor and I was holding on to the end of the net, stretched out, and all of a sudden I saw that I had already caught a fish! My first fish -- a chum salmon caught a few minutes after we set the net.It had just swum right into the net even while I was still holding on to it. We tied the net to the anchor and walked out to inspect it; sure enough it was a nice chum. I was kind of letting my beginner's giddiness get to me and I tried to get it out, but it was very strong and flipping around and I was all silly, so Roy helped. Here is a picture of Roy getting my first fish out:

Esther peering at it from her perch on the honda.
So then I was like, "I have to give it to someone!" because traditionally, Yup'ik people would give all of their first catch away, to an elder, and then the spirit of the animal would feel respected and want to give themselves again to that hunter. I was like, "I have to give it to an elder!" and Roy was totally laughing at me, because, as he said, "We only do that for big things, like seal or whale or something, not a little fish" but I wasn't dissuaded. I mean, maybe it was a little silly, but it just didn't feel right to keep it, especially since it had been caught so instantaneously, and besides, since I am just a marginal member of the community, you know, accepted but not expected to rigidly follow rules, people make exceptions for me alot of times if I make mistakes or whatever, because they just think I don't know any better. SO even if were about to make a big faux-pas in giving this fish away I don't think anyone would call me on it, and it just felt right to do, even if it wasn't quite a thing that people usually did. So I gave it to Esther's great-great aunt Helen, the elder I enjoy talking with so much. Her family giggled at me but I could tell they thought it was great funny, not making-fun-of-me-funny.
So then we just had to wait for the tide to come up, and then fall again low enough to check the net, all the fish being caught during the high tide hours. Lucky for me, that would be in another 12 hours or so, and the tide was even lower at 6:pm, so I figured if I got up at about 7:am I would hit it right.

And I was right: when I woke up in the tent the next morning, Esther and Roy still sleeping, I took the honda out to the net, and it was so low that all the nets were on the mud. At first I thought I'd have a hard time finding the net, with all the nets out there, and then I thought it looked empty, but man, was I wrong! When I finally got up to it, this is what I saw:

My net, the first time I set it out, when I checked it at low tide, full of chum salmon (and other things).
I caught over 40 chums! It was quite a haul. Not that anyone was having a bad fishing year -- I guess this year has been really good fishing. But still, that was more than I expected. I felt really blessed by the ocean.

Then I started the work of getting the fish out of the net -- I suppose to experienced fishermen it's not a big deal but I had a hard time getting them untangled and into my gunny sacks. It took me a good hour and a half to get most of them, and then an older guy drove up on his honda and looked at me, at the net, and gruffly asked, "Where's your husband?" and as I tried to kind of answer that, he just went to work and yanked out the rest of the fish from my net for me, getting about 10 out in the time it took me to get one out. Plus there were all kinds of other wierd fish stuck in my net, including this thing locals call a "devilfish" and it definitely was creepy. I thought it was dead, so I pulled it out (it poked me with its gnarly spines a couple times) and tossed it over on its back. A little while later I saw it, and it was right-side-up. Then I walked towards it, and its big yellow eyes suddenly focused on me -- wierd and creepy! But I'm glad it wasn't dead, needlessly.

What's locally called a "devilfish" -- totally a creepy, spiny thing that played dead and then would focus its big yellow eyes at me when I walked by. I have heard that some people, older people, in town, eat them, and you know, maybe they're OK, but....
So I had 4 gunny sacks of fish, and I decided that I would leave the net in for now, to see how it went. I drove back to the house, put some in the freezer, gave some away, and then drove back to the camp to start cutting the rest of them to dry.

Roy working on the fish drying rack, and the completed rack, beside our camp.
One problem: I didn't know how to cut them! I was totally excited that this fishing came through, and that I caught an abundance of fish, but it all happened really fast and so I hadn't had time to learn from anyone how to do it. And by now it was raining, and I did not feel like being out there all day, but now the fish were caught and I had to deal with them before they got kind of spoiled. From what folks told me, fish spoils kind of easy.

So I took a gunny sack full of fish over to Mary and Harvey's camp, a pitiful petionner, bedraggled and wet, and asked if I could watch and learn. Mary seemed glad to show me, and they totally had a set up, and were cutting fish in style. Harvey had built his smokehouse already, but they weren't using it yet, so they put Mary's cutting table inside that, and even though it was raining outside, it was dry and warm in there to cut all the fish. And the radio was going with the Chevak station, and there was a constant stream of women in and out, helping with the family's fish, conversing on the usual topics of women's gossip. It felt special that they let me be in on their scene; I felt pretty priviledged. I wish in retrospect that I had brought my camera, but I had forgotten it with all that was going on. Bummer.

So I watched them cut fish like they could do it in their sleep, slice through the fish meat with their kinaluqs (women's knives, like an Alaskan ulu) like it was butter. They headed and gutted the fish, then sliced the stomach up to the tail. Then made two slices down either side of the spine, and slid the meat away from the ribs on the insides. Then they would have two strips of meat, with the skin, attached by the tail. Then they would cut stripes into the strips of meat, cut around the fins, and stretch the skin.

I was much more stilted, crooked, and pathetic, but I was making it work -- because I had to. I had so many fish to deal with and I figured even if they were crooked, they would end up being good food, and I would just get better at it as I went along by necessity. It was really nice being a part of the group there, and it was a little sad when I tramped back through the steady rain to my campsite and cutting board on the ground.
My fish-cutting worksite at the camp -- it will totally get some improvements next year! :)
Yeah, all these things are cataloged in my mind for how I'll do things next year -- this is just the experiment year. :)

I spent I don't know how many hours cutting those fish, and I got the process down, though my technique could still use a lot of improvement. Here is the only picture I have of myself doing this whole thing, and it's blurry because it's through the campfire smoke and pouring rain: Roy was not thrilled about being out there all day in the rain, but I did convince him to finish the fish rack and put the tarp up over the top of it, to keep the rain off the drying fish.

My hanging fish... a few days later when it was nicer weather.
So I did it, got all the fish cut, and..... it was low tide again, time to check the net again! I dropped Roy and Esther at home -- he did help a lot by watching her -- and I went back out to Nuvok to the net. By the time I got out there, the tide was starting to come back in, and I was getting increasingly nervous because I had to wade back and forth to the net to get the fish out, and the water kept coming up and up, and I had to keep moving the honda back and back, and then I had to walk even further. I had caught at least as many fish as in the morning, maybe more. No pictures from this experience -- I was too stressed.

Probably to an experienced fisherman, it wouldn't have been a big deal, but I was slightly freaked, being all by myself. So when I saw a boat, I did the most pathetic hands-over-head both-arms-wave, accompanied by a pitiful, "Help!". Lucky for me, it was a guy named Ike, who is Tul'uq's brother-in-law and the father of my good friend, Girla. He knew the whole backstory of why I was out here fishing by myself, so I didn't have to explain. I just asked him if he could help me get out my net because I had enough fish, and I was getting scared of the rising tide. He just pulled the whole thing in, net, anchors, fish, and by the time I had driven back through the beach & town to the dock, he had separated it all out for me, with the fish in a nice pile and my net all folded up. He had even given Tul'uq back his anchors and buoys. Man, that guy was so nice! I told him he was a lifesaver, and he said, "Well, you were doing the work of two men today" and that made me feel proud, like I had earned his respect, even though I was kind of outside the duties for my gender in his opinion.

So! In a span of twenty-four hours I had all the fish I needed, and plenty to give away. I stopped a couple places to give away fish on my way home and then when I got home I just headed and gutted the fish I had left so they would keep till the next morning. I got to bed at around midnight. Phew.

More pictures of my pretty fish... at least pretty in my opinion!
I thought I would sleep well, but I think I had over-used so many muscles I had never used before that I woke up several times to numb, leaden arms and hands. I'm writing this at the beginning of July, two weeks after doing this, and the circulation in my arms still isn't back to normal. Not complaining, just kind of realizing the extent of all what I did in such a short period of time.

But after I finished cutting the fish I had left to do the next morning, and drove out to the camp (in the still-driving rain) with Emily and Rosalee and hung them, I felt really proud and that it was all worth it to have all those beautiful fish hung to dry on my rack.

From left, Rosalee, Esther, & Emily at my fish rack on a rainy day.
Emily, Rosalee and I dug a hole to bury my fish heads -- all the guts and heads I was throwing out anyway, digging holes to get rid of them, and so I decided to try out what folks have been teasing me about for years: to make uqsuq, or "stinkhead" -- which is exactly what it sounds like. Supposedly putrified fish heads are a delicacy, very stinky but taste really good. I can't really even imagine what they are like, and I highly doubt I'll be able to stomach them, but since I was just going to throw the things out, if I end up throwing them out once they're putrified, there's no loss, just a fun experiment. I know all of you out there are freaked out right now, but it's not just a native thing -- there's plenty of upstanding Scandanavians who like putrified stuff, too, I know. :)

Esther watching as Rosalee fills in the uqsuq (fish stinkhead) hole.
That day was nice, too, because we went picking greens at Old Hooper Bay on our way home. I am learning that there are just a bunch of varieties of edible greens that grow at this time of year on the tundra. I thought there was just this one kind, but it turns out there are a bunch, and I'll need to pay closer attention next year and try to document what they are, their names, and where/when/how to pick & use them. Another thing going into the file cabinet for next year. :)

I returned home to a clean house and a goose roasting in the oven -- that was very nice of Roy; though I was so exhausted that I fell asleep on the couch as Esther played in my lap, and I almost slept through a good dinner. Luckily they hollered for me to get up.

So the fish were up, covered, done -- all they needed now was time and fresh air to get dry. I forgot to write that as I cut them, I had thrown them into a brine to marinate for a few minutes, so hopefully they'll be really tasty. It was really ugly rainy weather for several days after that, so I didn't even get out there to camp, but all kinds of people were going through the camp and checking my fish, which was really nice, and Roy went out and turned them over, after the skins dried, to skin-side-in.

My gorgeous fish on a gorgeous day, on my cool rack.
My fish weren't even dry by the time I left Alaska for my mom's house in Indiana, but Roy has reported that they got dry and he brought them to his grandma's house to smoke -- so that, also, will be good. It will be so exciting to return, in August, to a freezer full of dryfish, my dryfish, and it will be good food all winter.

Esther and her cousin Jasmine enjoying some baked salmon at my house.

A bowl of Salmon Roe -- you know, the stuff that makes fancy caviar. I wasn't sure how to make caviar, so I used a recipe from Cooking Alaskan, to make a Roe casserole:

First I simmered the roe in water with peppercorns, cloves, and bay leaves;

Then I layered the roe with paprika, salt, lemon juice, bread crumbs, and a white sauce;

Then I baked it at 325 for 20 minutes or so. It was good! Definitely fishy, but filling; The roe really solidified, and so it wasn't a wierd texture at all, though I almost had hoped it would still be a little jiggly. Not at all!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Camping extraordinaire -- this is why I live here

This was my plan: as soon as we had finished school on last Saturday, I was going to go out onto the tundra. I had a lot to accomplish: #1 set up a campsite, #2 set out my fish net, and #3 build a rack to dry the fish on. I have never done #2 or #3 before --though I've accummulated a bunch of advice over the months. I was just going to do it by trial and error, and by watching what other people did, and if I messed up, then I'd learn from my mistakes.
However, once school was totally over on Saturday afternoon, I was hit by a wave of elation, relief, and disbelief that the entire load of the school year was finished, over, done! (how could I have any other career that just keeps going through the summer, without that rush that accompanies finishing up a whole school year? It's addictive) So I didn't waste any time getting out there on a beautiful day; I packed up the honda:
got out onto the tundra and realized: What's the rush? I've been on this schedule, getting things done, for so long, and now I have all these routine-free days stretching out ahead of me. Can't I forget the mission-mindedness and take it easy for a while? So I just set up the campsite, got a fire going, and explored for a while. Esther and Odin seemed to like this goal just fine. We saw a red fox from a distance, the first fox Esther has ever seen, and it trotted away from us and we didn't see it again. I stained the knees of my pants blue and red from last year's cranberries and blackberries (that were under the snow all winter, and now are all over the tundra, but watery and fermented) trying to find the softest mossiest place to put the tent -- I found a pretty awesome spot: Our spot is on a penninsula between the Bering Sea and Hooper Bay -- in the distance in the above picture, you can see the bay. The ocean is a couple hills behind me in this picture, close enough that we went to sleep lulled by the sound of waves crashing on the beach every night, and close enough for Esther to go play on the beach in the sand every day, often with other kids who are out playing on the beach with their families:Later that first evening, teacher-friends Katie, Moses, and Marta joined us (along with their dogs Honey & Tika), and besides being awesome weather, it was a cool night because we walked a little ways away to Old Hooper Bay, one of the old village sites and checked out the remnants of sod houses that once were there.
Above: Marta with Esther, and the top one is Marta & Katie with the three dogs, as we were wandering the tundra at about 11:30 pm. Yes, lots of great light, still, that late!

This is the remnants of an old sod house at Old Hooper Bay; they were subterranean, so they were half in the ground and domed over with driftwood and sod. It's just so cool to see these, still.
The sun set at around 1:am, which surprised all of us when we realized it was so late that the sun was going down, and everyone but us packed up to go... but it wasn't lonely -- all those years that I camped by myself, I got used to being outside alone, and now with Esther, I don't feel alone in the slightest. Lots of people taking honda rides through the beautiful evening stop by, and so we are never by ourselves too long. We even have neighbors out there, Harvey and Mary, who are a couple dunes over, and they have been doing camping & fishing for three years out here, in this area, and they have quite the system, quite the camp set up. We visit each other all the time, and I am learning so much from them. They get worried that Esther and I are cold, and even though we totally stay toasty, we like to go over and hang out in their huge tent with their fancy stove inside. It's fun to have neighbors!
We sleep so well outside, too, though we often wake up early since it gets bright very early, as the sunrise is around 3 (though since the sun sets around 1, it just is dusky all the time; no night). The next thing I knew it was warm morning in the tent and Esther was saying, "Mom, a snipe did wake me up!" Super cute.
Poor Mosquito-bitten babe! I missed a spot on her forehead when I was using citronella oil on her, and the mosquitos all went to that particular spot. :( In general, though, the mosquitos aren't very bad since there is almost a constant wind, with no trees to block it. The days that the wind lets up are the days when the mosquitos come out, but that's not very often. I wonder: what do the mosquitos do for all those windy stretches of time? How do they eat? Why wouldn't they all just die out? I bet the mice and other animals in the grass are just one huge mosquito bite.

My campsite has gotten fancier over the days; Roy decided to join us for a night and we built a lean-to to put my supplies in, and as an additional windbreak, since it is pretty windy out there, even though it's beautiful. We had a bit of rain this morning, but nothing that was unpleasant. We've been having some fantastic meals out there -- even though it's normal food, cooking it over the campfire somehow makes it amazing.... Now we've slept out there four nights, and we plan to just keep going for a week or 10 days; Esther and I go to my mom's house on June 25. This is one of the best things about living here, that the wilderness is off my back doorstep, and even though I can even see my house from my campsite, way off in the distance, I am in a totally wild place. We often come back to the house for supplies and showers, etc., (and to blog!), and then we just turn around and go right back out -- it's a 20 minute drive, tops. Awesome.
Esther by our lean-to, the Tibetan peace flags waving in the breeze....

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Egg Hunting-- Now my favorite subsistence activity!

I was so determined to go out on the tundra and look for eggs that are being laid by migrating birds that I almost sold my soul! No, I'm joking. I was indeed a woman on a mission, single-track minded until I got myself a ride on a boat going to a place just inhabited by birds... and it was amazing.
Actually I had several working plans that didn't quite work out. First, we were going to drive north along the beach, away from town, towards the bay north of us, the Kokechik Bay. There are three rivers that flow across the beach out into the sea on the way, and the trick is to hit the rivers at low, low tide so that they are able to be crossed by walking or by Honda. I tried a couple times, but the tide always seemed high to me -- I have a lot of learning to do in that area, tides. So Esther and I always gave up and we went walking in the tundra near the beach, just past the sand dunes. We always had a good time, tramping around, and we saw lots of birds and bird pairs, but we never saw an egg. Zip, zilch, nada, nothing.

Esther on the tundra, on one of our tramping days, having lots of fun.
Then we were going to walk Northeast of town, on the tundra, but it ended up being too far that we had to go by walking, as Esther couldn't walk as far as we needed to go and I couldn't carry her and eggs and our stuff. Honda riding is illegal past a certain point on the tundra, to preserve the fragile moss, and I have no desire to be illegal and go tearing up the tundra on my 4-wheeler. So that plan was tossed out.
Then I decided I was going to hitch a ride on a boat, any boat, and pay for gas so that I could get an invitation. It took a little pleading from several different parties, but finally my old buddy Tul'uq took me out across the bay into a river towards the Chevak side of the tundra. He came up to my classroom around 1:25 pm on last Thursday and said, in such a typical Yup'ik way, "I'm going to take my boat out around 2, maybe check my net, check around." Even though my western social senses told me not to be rude and assume it was an invitation and not to invite myself, I knew that in a Yup'ik way, it was totally an invitation, and I need to jump on this opportunity. So I said, hey, I wanna go, do you need some gas? I can get some gas on the way?And he said "yeah but I'm going at 2".
I jumped into action. Since it's the end of the year and there are so few students here, my principal was great about letting me leave with short notice on a half a personal day, and I easily found another teacher to watch the 5 students I had. I called Roy for a ride and to make sure he would be OK watching Esther baby for another couple hours, ran home and grabbed my stuff, and pretty soon I was at the dock ready to go.
It was the first time I've ever really left Esther alone with Roy and not been basically within shouting distance. He's been great for a few months now, so I felt pretty good about it, but still a little nerve-wracking, and I think it would have been if I were leaving her with anyone, really, and going so far away from her that it would be hard for me to get back to her quickly. I had a VHF radio, so I could be in contact if I needed to be, but, still -- and I know I haven't left her barely at all in her life so far, especially compared to other mothers -- I haven't even spent a night away from her in her life! So I felt it was Ok to go, OK to expand the boundaries of going off and doing something by myself without her. Oh, and I wasn't quite comfortable with taking her in a boat, yet, since the lifejacket situation is slightly sketchy and I don't think she has the concept of what might happen if she climbed out of a boat or something like that. So, anyway, I was slightly trepidatious, but also very excited to go, and I felt really good and secure about leaving her this time. She was happy when I left, no tears or wanting me to stay -- she cheerily waved me off, saying, "You go by boat, mom? You will?" :)
I forget how wide open the bay is. We skimmed along for 20 minutes on smooth, deep blue water before I saw the other shore, and I didn't even think that we were still in the bay; I thought we must have gone out into the ocean and were going to some island. But then Tul'uq pointed out a barge near Chevak, and I realized where we were. I asked him, "what's this place called?" and he said, "Qalluvik, like "snowpants"". :) We entered a river on the other side of the bay, and flew along the mirror-like waters until we saw a bird along the edge of the bank fly up, and we swooshed to a stop and put the boat up onto the muddy bank.
The tide was fairly low, so when we stood in the boat, just our heads were above the bank. The tundra was flat and just went on forever, as far as the eye could see, little grassy areas and grassy humps, broken up by stretches of muddy flats. It looks kind of bland, even in my pictures, and so it's hard to convey what an amazing environment it is to explore. The earth is spongy and fresh-smelling, and the mud is even neat. It's got so many different colors in it, and it has the consistency of jello, when the jello is almost done. Then sometimes, in some of these mud flats, there was a layer of slippery stuff on top, with the stuff farther below more solid. I found I could skate along, almost ski, through this mud, in my rubber boots. It was so fun, and less tiring than tromping through the mud and sinking in. Then there are the clouds of bugs on the mud, I'm guessing like gnats or no-see-ums, kind of gross but then it makes sense, with all these little birds running around who need to eat.
"Qalluvik" -- the tundra where we tramped, with grassy places and mud flats and creeks, and Tul'uq in the distance.Tul'uq stood up so he could see over the river bank and looked through the binoculars and said, "There's a bird nest up there with one egg in it" and laughed. I got excited anyway, because I've never seen an egg, a nest, or a bird on a nest, nothing. I knew from talking to people that you would be able to find eggs by watching for birds to fly up from the ground as you walked along the tundra, and by going where they flew, you would find eggs. The first Egg I found. You can judge its size against my hand, though I do have fairly large hands.
But I had a completely different picture in my mind of how a bird would sit on the nest. I was thinking chicken, you know, because I have had chickens and seen them sit on their eggs, even for a little while, all sitting up and stuff. But tundra birds are so smart! They totally hunker down over their nests, stretching their necks out along the ground to camoflague themselves. You'd think that I would be able to see the birds as I walked along, especially since the tundra is not even full of tall grass right now -- the grass is brown and still pushed down from the snow being on top of it for so long. However, I never once saw a bird on a nest when I was walking along, not until they flew up. I only saw the one through the binoculars that first time, and then a couple, later, who had nests along the bank and I watched them hunker down and stretch their necks out as we drove by in the boat.

In fact, Tul'uq was totally laughing at me because I walked by so many nests with eggs in them. He wondered how I could miss so many! I have no idea, because I thought I was looking! But I felt like I started to get better at it as the day went by. But anyway, the nests were AWESOME. It looks like the birds swirled some grass around, then plucked out some of their warmest down to line the nest. Then they would lay eggs inside that, inside that totally toasty place. Most of the eggs I picked up were still warm! And they were so big -- like two or three chicken eggs at least.

Here is a lovely warm nest of greenish eggs. I'm not sure what bird laid these, but I left these ones alone in the nest where I found them. I tried to figure out which nests to leave alone -- The Fish & Wildlife department published a booklet about which eggs to pick up and which to leave alone, and sometimes I could do it and sometimes it was difficult(by the way, that same booklet legitimized my ability to gather eggs: egg gathering is open to any permanent resident of the area of Alaska I live in, and by their definitions I am totally a permanent resident. It's different from marine mammals, who are just supposed to be hunted by Alaska Native people, as far as I understand. So I was totally legal.

I asked Tul'uq if we should leave some eggs in the nest for the bird, and he said they just come back and lay more. I know from chickens that they do in fact have lots of eggs to lay, and they lay often, so I inuitively felt OK about this. Plus, as I would walk along, sometimes I would see old footprints going to a nest, and I would see more eggs in the nest -- I mean, it must have been that the footprints were from someone who picked the eggs a few days earlier, and now there were many more eggs in the nest. I guess I had thought, also, that the birds would abandon a nest if it had human scent in it. But it seems like they go back to their nests and just keep laying.

And it's not like there were very many footprints-- just here and there I would see some. It was almost reassuring to see them, though, because at times I felt like I was out at the end of the world. There was no sign of any kind of human habitation for as far as my eye could see, and sometimes I got separated far from Tul'uq, because we were walking in different areas, and as we walked we would have to cross little creeks, and somehow we just got more and more separated. He had put a big pole in the bank with his jacket on it so that we could remember where the boat was anchored, and as soon as I got a little ways away I saw the extreme sense in that, because I would never have figured out where the boat was -- in fact, the jacket seemed to grow exponentially smaller as I got a distance away, and it seemed to hover or float -- a wild optical illusion.

But, essentially, I felt like I was so far away from everything and everybody in the world -- human, that is. I was surrounded with hundreds upon hundreds of birds, all different kinds: tons of different species of geese and ducks, also swans, cranes, and little seabirds like arctic terns and plovers, snipes, sandpipers, seagulls. The birds would notice me and fly up in great flocks, but, honestly I felt like I was insignificant to them, because they had all kinds of drama going on, with big birds swooping down on little birds, and little birds retaliating in groups against loner big birds. It just felt like birds were perfectly adapted to this place of grassy humps and mud flats, like I was in a bird land, or bird world. I almost felt like I was in this discovery channel movie that I had been showing to my students, about scientists' guesses about what the world might be like in 100 million years, when everything is really hot and there are muddy and salty plains all over the place, and there are no humans, just animals. Yeah, it was like that, like I had fast-forwarded through time and I was the only human left in this world of birds.

A small flock of Emperor Geese glide by.
Not that I would have really liked that in reality, but it was a fun feeling to be so out of time and space. I got that wonderful feeling of time just not passing, which the sun helps since it doesn't set till late at night these days, and so it doesn't move much from up in the sky for much of the day. It rained a couple times, and then cleared up, and the sun was very warm. I am positive that I haven't walked as much as I did that day for pretty much all winter, but though I felt tired, I didn't even feel like I needed to stop; I felt like I could keep tramping around forever. I just love that wide expanse of tundra so much, like finally I have enough SPACE. I was totally in my element. I don't even know how long we spent out there.
And then, the eggs, Bonus! I would be surprised every time, when a bird would flap up with a rush of wings and air -- the closest I ever got was around 3 feet away. I actually really wanted to catch one on the nest, before it flew away, to get a picture, but they always surprised me and flew up before I had the chance. And then there would be these gifts, these wonderful HUGE eggs, all warm and lovely, many times in cool colors.
Finally we got back to the boat, had some snacks, and turned the boat to go. The tide was even lower at this point, so we got a little stuck in the sand a few times, even once we were out in the bay. But Tul'uq is such a pro at boat stuff that we were able to get out into the deeper channel again. We stopped on our side of the bay, very close to Nuvok, to check his net. He put everything back, because he had caught only things he didn't want. But in the interim, I saw that there was a rainbow across the bay -- and the fantastic thing about living on the tundra is that you can see rainbows from start to finish, from end to end. From where I was looking, one end of the rainbow was sitting on the spit of sand that is Nuvok, which is littered with remnants of whale carcasses right now. So my big joke is that I found out what is at the end of the rainbow: a bunch of dead whales!
So after we docked the boat and Roy & Esther picked me up, on the way home with my almost-five-gallon bucket-o-eggs, we saw Esther's great-grandma Bridget standing on her porch, and so the very first thing I did with the eggs was to give a great big colander-full to her, and she was really surprised and happy. It felt great to give her something that I had collected myself.

When I got home, I divided eggs into other little parcels to give away, to Roy's other grandma and his mom, to my friend and classroom aide Norma, to my neighbors, and to another elder who has been helping in my classroom these weeks, Nellie.

Here I am cooking a goose egg and a seagull egg -- the gull egg has the darker yolk.
I kept a bowl aside of some of the rest in the fridge, to use for us the next couple weeks, and I froze the rest. I looked up on the internet how it's totally OK to freeze eggs, and it gave me a couple different methods. People in the village usually just freeze them as is, in the shell, in the freezer. I tried that, and as I expected, they got a crack from the expansion, but they seem ok. Some I tried by putting them in a bowl of water and freezing that whole bowl, and those seem to be fine, though when I thaw them I'll have to use all of those particular ones at once. But the way that I learned on the internet and seems the most user-friendly to me is to crack the eggs, whisk them together, and then pour them into ice-cube trays. When they froze, then I popped them out of the trays and put them into a ziplock, so I have perfect serving-sized eggs to use for later.

Here is the production line: crack & mix them, pour them into ice cube trays.

I think I am having success in raising Esther to be a good Yup'ik eater, because as I was cracking the eggs to mix & freeze, a couple times I came upon an egg with a bird embryo that was pretty developed. I called her to me to show her the baby bird. Her immediate reaction was to say, all in a rush, "Ooo! A baby bird I wanna eat it!". Ha! So I cooked them for her, and she munched on her bird embryos and pronounced them "really good, mom!". :)

And, then, cooking them, of course, has been fabulous. Tul'uq found swan eggs yesterday and gave me one -- it was enormous, as you can see! The egg, when I cooked it for breakfast, filled up my entire skillet, and seemed like a large omelet in intself. I can't contain my excitement about all of this... this egg stuff is just too fun!

Remember, I have large hands, so this egg is enormous!

From left: a Swan egg, a Sandhill Crane egg, a goose egg, a duck egg, and a chicken egg from the store. Wild, huh?

Cracking this egg I had a flash of memory of the cartoon "The Flintstones", when Wilma would crack a dinosaur egg? yeah, it was just like that. :) This is a 10 inch skillet.

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