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Surviving off the land

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Fish camp living continues

JOHNSONS CROSSING, Yukon - With the sun beating down, relief was provided
by a cool headwind. At 30 knots, the driver talked about the lake's
shoreline, pointing to a spot in the distance.

There was nothing particularly stunning about that area or even
distinguishable from other locations nearby. But for the pilot, this trip
invoked immediate memories.

Born and raised along Mile 816 of the Northwest Highway System, information
that's on his birth certificate in lieu of a hometown, Jim Smarch continued
boating along Teslin Lake for another half hour past the site of his
childhood home. This journey not only took him to a specific place in the
present, the water also brought him back to another time.

The American army started its quest to build the Alaska Highway in just
eight months during the second World War. This construction altered the
landscape of northwest Canada and impacted the local First Nations with the
arrival of outsiders in the 1940s. Traditions of surviving off the land
slowly eroded for the local Tlingit as federal laws and social pressures
changed centuries-old lifestyles.

However the Smarch family remained tied to Mother Earth. In spite of the
upheaval surrounding the community, their old way of life was not going to
be surrendered.

Jim Smarch, 57, was re-embarking on a cultural mission that had been
missing from his life for a decade since the death of his mother. Now a
grandfather, he returned to a fish camp downstream that had been such a
vital component in his earlier years.

"Once it's been a part of you for such a long time, it's hard to let it go
by without thinking about or doing something because it's who I am and a
part of me," he said.

Four generations of Smarches converged upon a tree-lined embankment along
the Teslin River to pay homage to an honored custom. Joined by another
half-dozen families, this camp became a generation-bonding, self-sustaining
commune for 10 days in August.

The goal of this endeavor was to obtain enough chinook salmon to last the
winter. This protein-rich and tasty, fish would be dried on site for
immediate preservation.

Everyone had a role to fulfill. While the men chopped wood and clear-cut
space to erect new smokehouses, the women had food preparation duties such
as filleting the salmon or maintaining the kitchen.

The salmon were able to dry fast and evenly with small cuts made every
couple of inches. "After all the work, you don't want it to go to waste,"
commented Jim's older sister Grace Dewhurst.

She too had come back to the camp after a decade-long absence. Without
hesitation Grace said she acquired her skills from her mother.

"Everything I have she left and that's what I hope to do with my children
and grandchildren," Dewhurst said as she sliced open another salmon.

Children too had a job: Observing and getting involved.

"When they fish the [Arctic] Greyling and smaller fish, they get to
practice and look after them," said Smarch. "That's their apprenticeship
for when they get to look after the salmon."

The Tlingit of southern Yukon have always known about the quality of the
chinook during the annual late summer runs. The fish have a high
nutritional content from the oil in the fat stored for the great distances
the fish travel.

Spawning in Teslin Lake or its tributaries, the salmon will spend a year in
the fresh water before heading downstream. While this part of the Yukon is
only 150 miles from the northern tip of the Alaskan panhandle and a gateway
to the ocean, these fish migrate the entire length of the Yukon River
toward the mouth that pours into the Bering Sea. Upon their return from
western Alaska, they will have traveled 3,500 miles to their birthplace to
spawn, then die.

"My dad used to say 'Don't take fish from the lake,'" Smarch said. "He
didn't say why but they were the spawners."

Stocks of salmon in the territory appear steady, in part because of the
efforts of the Yukon Salmon Committee. This group consists of Aboriginal,
governmental and scientific interests that monitor the fish and their
returns.

Unlike the protection afforded to Native Alaskans and their inherent right
to fish for sustenance, First Nations in Canada only have that privilege if
the stocks have been determined sufficient.

"We're reluctant to implement any closures or impositions on these
fisheries [camps] and only if there's a concern with conservation that
we've asked them to voluntarily monitor their catch," said Patrick
Milligan, a stock assessment biologist with the federal Department of
Fisheries & Oceans based in Whitehorse.

The Teslin Tlingit, for their part, might be the only Native council on the
continent to impose voluntary closures and spot checks on fishing within
their territory. In its fifth year, those along the Teslin River respect
the weekly 48-hour ban.

Still, as there are so few camps in operation, lamented Smarch, it's a
testament to a lifestyle that's changed in three generations since the
highway was built. As far as getting other families to come, the offer is
there but the response has been minimal.

"We've brought other members down here but when they saw things, they
thought it was too much work," Smarch said.