“Plan? What’s my plan? Well I guess my plan right now is to take a little nap, and then in two hours I’m gonna try to get this string of fishburners up and moving, and head for Elim.”
- An Iditarod musher, overheard answering a reporter at Koyuk, 1992 race. (Just might have been Charlie Boulding…)
It is an arcane mental leap, I admit, from the glimpse down through clear water to the white belly of a lake trout (which is a char, in fact, not a trout at all) or a salmon, wriggling in a gillnet – and from there to the bouncing yellow toggle that connects a tugline to the X-back harness of a sled dog. And yet it is a solid link, a connect-the-dots pathway of energy, wriggling fish-belly, bouncing toggle. “Fishburners.” Get it?
Somewhere back in the dim beginnings of the human-dog story, it must have dawned on one of the two-legged protagonists, struggling to keep a helper-dog or a team of helper-dogs fed and healthy, with game scarce and hunting poor… fish! Eureka! They will eat fish! A gate swung open, a new possibility for survival, maybe even for abundance and ease, to get these amazing four-legged help-meets through seasons when fat red meat was scarce.
It is no accident that Alaska and the Yukon have always been the hard-core Mecca of mushing, for that is the region of the North where winter is long enough to make mushing truly worthwhile, and where salmon runs and salmon-fishing are a basic part of life. What penniless aspiring dog musher could afford to feed a team, or a kennel, without a dependable salmon run? Back in the day, before this brief historical blip of high-octane dogfood and low-cost trucking that we have lived through (and, pssst, guess what, is now ending), fish and huskies went together like gasoline and Fords. “Fish head stew, fish head stew, fish heads lookin’ back at you,” goes the refrain of a song by Libby Riddles, first woman to win the Iditarod. A musher without a dogfood cooker and a pile of fish was in for a tough season. Over here in the deep Interior east of the Yukon, far from salmon (although they are coming closer every year), it used to be whitefish and lake trout and inconnu, those oily cousins of the whitefish, that got most dogteams through the year.
Wolves will eat fish, too, and that option helps to get many a pack and its pups through that lean period of June, just after whelping, up on the edge of the tundra, when the caribou herds have passed north toward their calving grounds and the wolves are forced to fall back and make a den and tend a batch of tiny but insatiable pups. This is crunch time for these tundra wolves. No big warm-blooded prey at hand, and the hunting mobility of the pack severely limited by the tiny pups at the den. This is mouse-and-lemming season, ptarmigan-and ground-squirrel season… and fish season. Suckers might be running up a shallow creek near the den, or grayling might be sunning in the shallows of a lake. A wolf can make a meal of that, and a mother wolf can make milk from that meal. It’s survival, any port in a storm.
As a neophyte musher forty-some years ago, I came right away to the notion of huskies as fishburners. My mentor Duncan Storlie made an annual spring trek to the shore of Lake Superior, to spend some long nights dip-netting bucketloads of smelt, then freezing them in milk cartons. Smelt are not salmon, but a hundred pounds of fish is a hundred pounds of fish, and smelt are oily and abundant. The dogs gobbled them up. We ate them ourselves, too, happily and often.
Years ago, after sincere and sustained effort and some blessings from the local powers-that-be, we secured a “domestic fishing license” to set a hundred-yard gillnet in the waters of McLeod Bay, our front yard. This is lake-trout and whitefish water mostly, with the occasional pike, a sucker or a burbot now and then, and, rarely, a grayling big enough to get caught in a 5-inch mesh. Last year around the last day of October we lifted the first inconnu out of our net, but we haven’t seen another one since. And still no salmon, but stay tuned. Times are changing.
We tend the net daily from June through the end of October. In summer it is just a tiny scrap of old net, lest we take more than we can use in warm weather. In mid-September when the first frosts come, we start stockpiling for winter, hanging the split fish on a double-stick rack. This becomes a pretty fragrant collection until the deep cold comes, so the cache is surrounded by wire mesh and corrugated steel. The martens, foxes and ravens are thus mostly stymied, but I have no delusions about a visiting bear. The motion-sensor alarm (the nearby dogyard) would likely give us a chance to take up with a marauder before too many hard-earned fish disappeared.
This year winter has been slow to start, and the net is still in. Nearly November now, and not a speck of snow on the ground. 1998 was like this, as we recall. (“Much joy in the weather,” as ever. Especially when it’s up to some new trick. But lest you get the wrong impression, this is indeed an ominous and weird autumn, and the facts are not lost on us.) Despite a slowdown in the netting over the first half of October, we are now back at it and catching up day by day. If we can hang a few dozen more fish before boating becomes too icy and the job of handling and cutting fish gets too cold and miserable, we will be doing well.
And soon, all these fish will slowly, steadily, come down off the rack and go into our long-suffering soot-and-grease-slathered cook-barrel, there to boil hard enough to kill any parasites and to thoroughly cook the rice that is in there with it. Then when it cools we will cut in some more fat, some scoops of kibble, then go ladle that rich stew out onto the packed snow of each dog’s dinner-place.
Tails will wag. Winter coats will grow thick and glossy. Tuglines will be tight, and miles will be made. Every now and then in the depth of winter, as I cruise along at ten miles per, with nary a sputtering piston or muffler for miles around, I will think back to mornings in October drizzle, leaning out over the pitching stem of the skiff, looking down through some of the clearest water on the planet at the flash of a fish-belly. Calories, and the myriad species of poetry in motion: fish in water, sled dog on the trail. Energy, going around.