As a very young child I remember visiting family in Nenana, a small town in Alaska on the banks of the Tanana River. Every once in a while my father would wake me up early in the morning and say it was time to go for a boat ride. My father would “bundle me up” in a warm coat and a life jacket and we would walk down to the waterfront, where we would meet one or two of our cousins at their boat. These boats were big sturdy wooden river boats with high sides, outboard motors with big “live wells” in the middle part of the boat. To a little kid, these live wells were enormous, about 3 ft wide by 6 feet long.
After putting a bunch of gear in the boat, we would climb in, fire up the motor, and head down river for about 20 minutes. There, we would come upon the first of my cousin’s fish wheels. After tying up to the fish wheel raft, my cousin would start moving the fish from the live well on the wheel raft into the live well in the boat. The salmon were almost as big as me, flopping around in the live well, splashing everyone in the boat. After unloading 10-20 salmon, we would head to the next fish wheel, about 10 minutes away to unload its live well. My cousins had 3 or 4 fish wheels and a typical catch over a 2 day period would be 40-50 salmon.
Returning to Nenana, we would be met at the landing by several other relatives who would help unload the live well on the boat and start gutting and filleting the salmon for the drying racks. This was how people living along the big rivers in Alaska put food up for the winter. “Low quality” salmon were dried for storage and used to feed dogs, the primary method of getting around in the winter before snow machines. “High quality” salmon were dried and put away for human consumption.
Years later, when I worked on the Tanana and Yukon Rivers during the summers, several times a day we would go past some rather large fish camps along the banks of the river, where families would spend their summers. There the family would stay in cabins or semi-permanent camps, harvesting fish in the spring and summer, and hunt for moose, caribou and pick berries in the fall. Some of these camps with cabins would even be used as trap line shelters in the winter.
To this day, many Alaskan families spend their summers in fish camp. Just before breakup the stores in Anchorage and Fairbanks are busy selling supplies for the summer to families heading out to fish camp. After breakup, around Memorial Day in the spring, the cities are like “ghost towns” before the summer tourists arrived. Fall is the opposite, with the city people wondering where all the people and traffic is coming from after families arrive back at the end of summer.
When these pictures were taken, many of the fish camps also cut firewood for the river boats to burn as fuel and occasionally sold fish or moose meat to the crews for food. In exchange, the boat would drop off staple supplies and fuel for the smaller boats.
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