Article — From the May 2009 issue

Fast Fish, Loose Fish

Who will own Alaska’s disappearing salmon?

( 2 of 10 )

If you compiled a list of the hundred best sites in the Yukon Delta to place a village, the squishy ground of Emmonak would not be on it. The Yupik themselves never thought to build anything more than a seasonal fish camp there. They would catch and smoke king salmon all summer, then in the fall would make the fifty-mile trek to an old volcano that poked through the delta muck, where they could find things like clean drinking water and moose to hunt. That rhythm lasted more or less from the end of the last ice age, when the Yupik’s ancestors wandered across the Bering land bridge, until the 1800s, when Russian fur traders came to Alaska bearing smallpox. The Jesuits who came soon after found a ruined culture. They collected the survivors and started the first schools in the area.

In the 1950s, the federal government took over the job of educating the Eskimos. The story goes that government planners had meant to travel upriver to locate a new town on the high ground. But they didn’t know how to navigate the shallow Yukon, and their boat kept getting stuck on sandbars. At the site of Emmonak, they gave up. They put up a Bureau of Indian Affairs school and a post office. Houses were hacked out of the alders. In winter some Yupik tried to move to their high-ground homes, but town officials came and dragged the kids back to school. Eventually everyone else followed.

Emmonak is now the largest town for a hundred miles. Nine months of the year it is frozen; the other three, it is a soupy marsh. The houses stand on posts, like women pulling up their skirts to cross a stream. In the 1980s, streets were built out of dredged mud, and they remain the highest ground in town. Haphazard paths of wooden pallets lead from the streets to the houses.

Within a minute of stepping off the bush plane in Emmonak, I was covered in mud. My new Muck Boots, bought for the trip, didn’t look new anymore. But they got plenty of attention in town. “I was just looking for those in the L.L. Bean catalogue,” said an old man who stopped me on the street. “I bet they’re really light.” I let him try one on. “Oooh, nice. And warm.” Not that long ago, everyone in town would have worn sealskin mukluks. Now they wear plastic waders, except for the teenage girls, who wear Crocs, mud squishing through the holes.

Gordon Westlock, an Emmonak resident in his fifties, remembers his first pair of rubber boots. In the 1960s, some evangelical Christians had tried to start a new church in town but were having difficulty luring the Yupik away from the Jesuits. So they offered free rubber boots to anyone who attended their services. Gordon was twelve. He went. He got his boots and felt very proud. But when he went home, his mother asked, “Where did you get those boots?” He told her. She said, “Eskimos don’t wear rubber boots. Get in the boat.” She drove him to the mouth of the river, eleven miles away, and pulled ashore. She said, “Get out of the boat.” He got out. She said, “I want you to think about who you are,” and left. She didn’t come back for a week. He drank the river water. He had no food. But he knew that the mice in the Yukon Delta excavate shelters under the tundra. They dig up roots and tubers, roll them into little balls with mud, and store them in the tiny burrows for winter food. Gordon uncovered these caches by feeling for soft spots in the tundra and ate the “mouse nuts.” “I was so happy when they came to get me. I was so hungry.” It took him another forty years to come back around to rubber boots.

Others in town have put up less resistance to modernity. Unpainted plywood shacks long ago replaced the traditional sod-and-wood huts. The shacks bristle with moose antlers over the doors and satellite dishes on the roofs. Most of the houses have a dog chained in the yard, but cats are nonexistent. After an evening of whale hunting, the Yupik go home and watch Dancing with the Stars, snacking on ptarmigan dipped in seal oil and washing it down with sugary soft drinks.

This town of 200 households boasts 200 boats and 400 snowmobiles, but with gas at $7.70 a gallon in the summer of 2008, more and more of the vehicles sat idle. There are only a few trucks in town, since they arrive by barge with an $8,000 shipping charge attached. Midsummer days run in the fifties, the sky eternally obscured by Bering Sea fog. On the rare occasions when the sun comes out and the streets dry, clouds of ATV dust choke the air. Diesel is the predominant smell. No one in Emmonak except the youngest children walks anywhere. When the Yukon River thaws and floods in May, the streets become unusable and residents get from house to house by boat. Icebergs come barreling down the river like runaway trucks.

Nothing leaves Emmonak, and nothing is hidden. The city limits are heaped with refuse. The only way in is the airstrip, which is attached to the town by a quarter-mile of dirt road, and the first thing to greet a visitor is a row of rusty refrigerators lining the road, awaiting final disposal by way of a barge the EPA prom ised to send three years ago. The town dump follows. Then Emmonak proper: old oil drums and metal shipping containers and rotting wooden fishing skiffs, a grid of electrical wires over everything. Emmonak would have dissolved into the marsh long ago if it didn’t look out upon the best salmon fishing grounds in the world.

Rowan Jacobsen is the author of, among other books, Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis and The Living Shore: Rediscovering a Lost World.

More from Rowan Jacobsen:

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