Alaskan Village Science
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Alaska Native Knowledge Network
Alaska Native Knowledge NetworkUniversity of Alaska FairbanksP.O. Box 756730Fairbanks, Alaska 99775-6730
1997 by Alan DickAll rights reserved.Printed in the United States of America
Previous pilot edition printed April, 1997First printing August, 1999
I thoughtfully dedicate this book to my mentor of manyyears, Sinka Zaukar of Sleetmute, Alaska.
He was one of the most articulate and intelligent peopleI have ever met, yet his name can be found in no schoolrecords.
As I have written this book, I have heard his voice manytimes in my head and heart, and have recalled the sameimages that were present when we talked and did so manythings together.
Without him and his perceptions, this book would notexist in any form, nor would my life be remotely the same.
vTo the StudentsI wrote this book to share with you some of the things I have learned
over the years. If I were to teach you in person, we wouldnt follow theformat of this book, but this is the best I can do from here.
I have lived in the Alaska bush since 1966. My wife, Helen, is from LimeVillage, a small place with only forty to forty-five people.
We are both over fifty now and have five children, Anna, Elizabeth,William, Rachel, and Wayne. You might know them, or your older brothersor sisters might have played basketball with them. They played their highschool years in McGrath. We have eight grandchildren, the oldest is ten andthe youngest is almost one. We have lived mostly on the Kuskokwim Riverfrom Bethel and Aniak upriver to Sleetmute, Red Devil, Lime Village, McGrath,and Telida.
I have always loved science because it has made the world less threat-ening. While the world is certainly filled with mysteries that I will neverfathom, the basic physical principles by which it works have remained thesame for thousands of years. The same principles that keep the earth inorbit around the sun operate in the clutch of a chainsaw. I like that. It makesthe physical world more predictable. Understanding science has kept mefrom being stuck in out in the woods lots of times. I can figure things out.
I have shared my ideas in this book as simply as possible. In my nextbook, I will show you the thinking skills I used along the way. This book ismainly facts and activities. I hope you enjoy reading and doing it as much asI have enjoyed writing it.
Thanks for using my book.
Chapter 1: Cutting & Drying Fish1
Chapter 2: Sharpening Tools11
Chapter 3: Nails, Pegs, & Lashings21
Chapter 4: Falling Trees &Small-Scale Logging
Chapter 5: Guns35
Chapter 6: Chainsaw Clutch & Chain47
Chapter 7: Ice pick53
Skills, Tools &Craftsmanship
Cutting &Drying Fish
Traditionally, fishing has been the core of subsistence life throughoutmost of Alaska. Oldtimers always said, Fish as if you wouldnt catch any
animals all winter. Then if you do catch something, you will do well. Ifyou dont catch any animals, you will get tired of fish, but you wontstarve.
Until recently, there were no freezers and people had to find ways topreserve the fish they caught. Oldtimers made drying fish an art form.
Some families made better fish than others, but all families recognized thelife and death issues involved in putting fish away for the winter.
Many of the same principles involved in drying fish also apply to dryingmoose, caribou, seal, and other meat.
There is opposition to those who attempt to dry fish: Bacteria that cause rotting Blowflies that lay eggs that turn to maggots Ravens and seagullsOne of natures purposes for blowflies is to consume spawned out salmon
so their dead bodies wont contaminate the river for the whole summer. Blow-flies and the resulting maggots can remove a whole fish in only a few days.There are more blowflies upriver than downriver because their purpose isnaturally fulfilled at or near the spawning ground. Downriver people havemuch less problems with blowflies than upriver people.
Many people on the coast of Alaska dont use a smokehouse. There arefewer flies and more wind. However, fish hung in the open must be protectedfrom seagulls and ravens.
Our objective is to put food away when there is an abundance so wemight eat in times of lack.
A 2, 14, 15B 1, 3C 3D 1, 3
10 PART 1: SKILLS, TOOLS, & CRAFTSMANSHIP
There are three ways of preserving fish: Freezing solidifies the water in the fish and lowers the temperature
below which bacteria are active. Salting in a barrel removes much of the moisture and creates an inhos-
pitable environment for the bacteria. Drying fish in the presence of cool, dry smoke removes the moisture
necessary for bacterial growth.
There are a couple of conditions necessary for fish to rot: There must be enough moisture for the bacteria to grow. Drying re-
moves the necessary moisture. The temperature must be above freezing for bacteria to flourish. As the
temperature goes up, bacteria become more active. However, fish oilcan chemically decompose apart from bacteria at temperatures wellbelow freezing.
BlowfliesThere are two conditions necessary for blowflies to reproduce on the fish. There must be moist places on the fish. Once a crust is formed, the
blowfly eggs cannot mature. The first few days of drying are critical topreventing maggots.
There must be a healthy environment for the blowflies to thrive.Smokehouses are constructed to create an environment that the fliescannot stand. They have an excellent sense of smell and easily find thefish, but cannot penetrate the smoke to lay their eggs. We often put thefreshly cut fish closest to the smudge pot. Once a crust is formed, thosefish can be moved to make room for fresh fish.
Some people leave their fish outside for the first day or two to get a gooddry crust on them and then bring them inside the smokehouse. Other peoplebring their fish straight to the smokehouse. Many people soak the fish in saltand/or sprinkle them with pepper to keep the flies off the fish. Salt and pep-per add to the taste after the fish is dry.
CompromiseThere is a delicate balance between smoke and fresh air. Many
smokehouses have doors and vents that can be opened or closed to controlthat balance.
There is a tradeoff. If there is a lot of fresh air around the fish in thesmokehouse, they dry fast, but it is hard to keep smoke around the fish witha strong breeze blowing.
Rotting is slow. Blowflies are fast. I tend to err on the side of slower dryingwith adequate smoke.
Chapter 1: Cutting & Drying Fish 11
Smokehouse roofs often have a rather shallow pitch to holdsmoke down around the fish. Since blowflies need wet or dampfish to lay their eggs, a good smokehouse roof is most important.A leaky roof brings them a banquet. Days later the sun might beshining, but inside the smokehouse it could be raining maggots!Even fish that were once dry can become maggot infested ifrained upon. Once they have infested a fish, it is not likely to
dry. Smoke repels mature blowflies but not maggots.People have tried screening in their smokehouses to keep the flies out.
This helps a little, but blowflies have an amazing ability to crawl throughcracks. Few people who have screened once, try it again.
Temperature and Materials
Fish need to be kept cool or they will rot. A hot smokehouse creates sourfish. Steel siding absorbs and conducts heat, making the smokehouse veryhot in the sun. Much better are plywood, lumber, spruce-bark slabs, or spruce-bark sides. Spruce bark is wonderful. It is cool, and allows a gentle flow of airthrough the knot holes and other cracks. It is not very durable and definitelynot bear proof. Skill is required to remove the bark from the tree in usablepieces. Ask the local elders how it is done.
When oldtimers were trying a new place to fish, they didntwant to spend a lot of energy building a smokehouse until theyfound out if the location was good for fishing. For a temporarysmokehouse, they put poles on the sides of the smokehouseand wove brush in and out of those poles. This is an easy andeffective way to keep smoke in, but after the brush dries, it is areal fire hazard. I made a smokehouse with brush sides onceand was very satisfied. However, the second year, when thebrush had dried, it became a firetrap.
Fish cannot become drier than their surroundings. Damp ground makesdamp fish. Most smokehouses are on top of a bank so they can catch a gentlebreeze as it blows up and down the river. If the smokehouse is by a creek ina narrow valley, the fish will be damp because of the closeness to the creek.The drier the ground, the better the fish will be. Some oldtimers located theirsmokehouses on small hills beside the fishing site so the fish could dry well.This meant carrying each fish up the hill, but it was worth the effort.
Most people cut brush and grass surrounding their smokehouses to in-crease the air flow and to remove where bears might hide.
12 PART 1: SKILLS, TOOLS, & CRAFTSMANSHIP
The weather has a tremendous effect on the fishing operation. If the fishisnt dry and put away before wet weather arrives, they are apt to mold. Inour region, silver salmon are seldom dried because they arrive during thewetter part of the summer.
If the weather is damp, fish cutters make the blanket fish and strips thin-ner to dry faster. One time I cut eating fish too