Kuskokwim “dream job” was learning experience
Sometimes in life, if we’re extremely lucky, we stumble into the perfect dream job. That was my fortune in 1971 when I landed a job with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and was assigned to the Kuskokwim River—near Sleetmute.
The project for the Sports Fisheries Division was a Sheefish food habits study that involved gathering a considerable amount of data on this biggest member of the whitefish family. In the Kuskokwim drainage adult Sheefish reach 35 lbs., but on the Kobuk River to the north, 50-pounders are not uncommon. Sheefish are also known for their tail-walking acrobatics.
Back then information on this species, Iconnu, was rather scant—at least in this country. The biologist in charge had spent considerable time having Russian texts translated—one of his few scientific references. Because of the paucity of information on Sheefish, he decided to try a virtually untapped source: the Athabaskan Indians of the Kuskokwim River, which is where my partner Mike and I came in.
Part of our summer job was taking length and weight data from Sheefish, and extracting scale samples, for determining age. The preferred method for acquiring the data was to catch the fish on a rod and reel. With practice, we could bring a fish into the boat, obtain data, and get the fish back into the water in less than 30 seconds, virtually unharmed. In short, a big part of our summer job was fishing.
We also caught some Sheefish in gill nets and extracted stomach samples so the biologist could determine food habits. We always gave these fish to local residents.
Another part and perhaps more important job was talking to the local folks and sponging as much information as we could. We found that part much more challenging than landing 20-25 lb. Sheefish all day long.
At the outset, one of Sleetmute’s elders, Sinka Sikar, warned us that he wouldn’t tell us anything because he knew we were game wardens and he didn’t want to get arrested. On several occasions we assured him that we weren’t game wardens—that we were only helping the biologist collect information about Sheefish. “Sinka,” Mike said, “if I looked at you straight in the eye and told you I wasn’t a game warden, would you believe me?”
He’d always walk away saying: “ya sure, sure.”
One day as we were in the midst of our usual fish-catching labor, Sinka and his grandson anchored their boat at a spot nearby for some of their own fishing. Sound carries on water, and we heard Sinka whisper to his grandson, “be careful around those guys. They’re game wardens and they try to arrest you.”
On another day, between landing 20-lb. Sheefish and with some actually jumping into the boat, a guide pulled alongside with clients who looked like they’d been outfitted by Eddie Bauer or Cabellas. They were from Florida and had paid thousands of dollars to get to this spot.
“What are you doing?” They inquired.
“Sheefish research for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game,” we answered.
“You get paid for this?”
“Someone’s gotta do it,” we shrugged our shoulders.
Not all of the summer was idyllic. There were mosquitoes … clouds of mosquitoes like I’ve never seen anywhere in Alaska. The best escape was to anchor in the middle of the river — the Kuskokwim is wide — more than ¼ mile across in this area. But you only had about two minutes. That’s how long it took for them to home in on you from shore. Without head nets, oceans of Deet and green pic repellent coils for inside our tent, we would have been reduced to twitching, simpering basket cases.
We were camped on the Holitna River — a few miles upstream from its confluence with the Kuskokwim. The Holitna was (and I’m sure, remains today) an important transportation corridor for local residents, a river highway to good fishing and hunting areas. Whenever we could, we’d offer passersby hot coffee, cookies, whatever we had. Even old Sinka stopped by once to pay a visit. His eyes darted around our camp apprehensively—I’m sure he still thought we were game wardens.
Late one night in early September, a full two days before moose season opened in the area, we heard a boat motor droning upstream. Very early the following morning, about 4 a.m., we heard it stop at our landing, and then quickly move on downriver. Crawling out of the tent, we were amazed to find a plastic bag containing a large chunk of moose meat.
“Either they don’t know when moose season begins, or they trust us,” I remarked.
“They know when moose season starts,” Mike rejoined. “Maybe they finally don’t think we’re game wardens.”
We didn’t stay on the Holitna very long after that… we had another job further north. But during our last few days we seemed to have achieved a higher level of acceptance among locals, even Sinka Sikar. As we boarded our boat and bid goodbye, we could hear him yell, “So long…you guys aren’t too bad…for game wardens.”
The next phase of our job involved driving a river boat up to McGrath—where I’d be met by the biologist for a further foray to the headwaters of the Kuskokwim to study Sheefish spawning habits. Our journey took us more than 100 miles all the way to Highpower Creek and Swift River—as far up the Kuskokwim as you can go and still call it the Kuskokwim.
We learned a lot about Sheefish that summer, but we learned more about trust and sharing—and human relationships. Without the help of people along the Kuskokwim—from Aniak to Sleetmute to Medfra to Telida—we wouldn’t have been able to do our work.
They also helped us laugh—a good part of the time, at our own expense. In in a strange way, I think it helped earn their trust and respect…that we were willing to laugh at ourselves.
Picture two college students flailing their arms desperately at mosquitoes, tangling outboard motors in weeds and snagging fish hooks in mosquito head nets. There was probably plenty to laugh about.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.