Time passes slowly at Bethel fish camp

Posted: Thursday, June 29, 2000

BETHEL (AP) -- Time at fish camp passes not by the hour but by the task: the length of a downriver drift, the tending of a smokehouse fire, the meticulous strikes of an uluaq slicing a king salmon into narrow strips for drying.

Fish camp isn't far from the on-the-clock world -- it's only a one-hour flight from Anchorage to Bethel and then minutes by boat. But it's far enough.

The Kuskokwim River, more than a half-mile wide here and a long way from its beginnings in the Alaska Range, resembles a lake more than a river. Its surface rises and falls on the tides of the Bering Sea 80 river miles to the south. So does the fishing.

Kings have been moving upriver since the beginning of June, and most of the subsistence camps on the river around Bethel are filled with fish strips.

Joan Hamilton runs the camp with her husband, Brad Kehoe. It is only about five minutes from the Bethel smallboat harbor. Driftnets and setnets are generally used for the subsistence salmon harvest in this area. During the king run, most families use gillnets with an 8-inch-square mesh to capture salmon between 20 and 35 pounds while letting smaller fish pass through. Later in the season, as reds and chums begin to arrive in greater numbers, they'll switch to a smaller mesh.

Fishing can be slow, very slow. Repeatedly hauling in an empty net is exhausting and frustrating. In four days of drifting, Hamilton and Kehoe caught only five kings and two reds.

The good weather blamed for low catches is good for drying the strips quickly on outdoor racks. Salmon can spoil in damp air before they're ready to go into the smokehouse, ruining days of effort.

To dry fish, raw strips hang on open-air racks for a few days before being moved into the smokehouse, where a smoldering alder fire completes the process after about a week.

Hamilton cuts the fully cured strips into 6-inch pieces and freezes them in sealed bags.

Once the catch picked up, Hamilton and Kehoe made up for the slow days within a week, harvesting 30 salmon, 25 of them kings, in two evenings.

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