By Robin Mayo
Ask any Rural Alaskan what they are up to, or how they are doing, and the odds are very good this time of year that their answer will include the word “busy.” Especially as the endless sunlight starts to fade into autumn, we wear our busy-ness as a badge of honor, proof that we are keeping up with the pack in the nonstop race that is summer.
And really, how could we not be busy? For many of us, this is full-throttle season at work. Resource managers and –ologists are cramming in as much fieldwork as possible, and anyone with a seasonal or tourism-related job is making every minute count. Hikers, paddlers, climbers, bikers, and backpackers are doing their thing. We are also wedging in building projects and visits from friends and relatives.
And on top of all this, we are filling our freezers, pantries, and woodsheds with food and fuel for the winter. I don’t know of a household in the Copper River Valley that doesn’t harvest fish, meat, berries, vegetables, or firewood for the winter ahead. Many of us do all five, which is a tall order.
On WISE’s Copper Country Discovery Tour, we visit with Princess Tours guests from around the world, and share our lifestyle with them. One of the things that amazes 100% of these people is how much Alaskans are able to subsist from the land. In most developed parts of the world it is uncommon, and we’ve had many people exclaim, as they nibble on a berry or fresh willow leaf, that this is the first time they have eaten something straight out of the wild.
How does it feel? Exhilarating, empowering, and even a little dangerous. I had one guest ask me to please stop encouraging her husband to eat things, she was terrified he would inadvertently ingest an insect, apparently a fate worse than death! For others it triggers fond childhood memories of picking berries or canning preserves with an older relative.
For me, subsistence is a fierce pleasure, a love song to the land. I run my fingers along the jars of amber smoked salmon and golden sauerkraut in the pantry, feeling like that ambitious ant in Aesop’s fable. Recently I posted a picture of freshly caught Sockeye on Facebook, which not surprisingly touched off a small debate amongst friends, some of whom were feeling deprived of their yearly fish with the early-season closures.
One facebooker stated the opinion that subsistence fish should only be shared with family, and that these special seasons should only be available to those who only live in “real” subsistence villages, which she defined as off the road system. As you can imagine, there was a small tsunami of Copper Basin and other Alaskan residents defending our tradition of sharing with all, and our legacy as a place where subsistence is a truly traditional way of life. It was a wonderful affirmation of how these activities not only fill our bellies, but fill our hearts as well.
Busy? Overwhelmed, even? Don’t worry, soon enough the long dark will be here, and there will be time to read that book, clean that house, or knit that sock. For now, I’m thoroughly enjoying the headlong rush of summer into fall, and the feeling of urgency to pick those berries, cut that wood, fill that freezer.
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.