National Geographic : 2017 Apr
racing the thaw 149 hunt, or fish,” he says. “My grandpa used to say, if you don’t have wood, fish stored away, berries, birds, you might as well be dead, because you don’t have nothing.” Early August, when the excavation is in full swing, is a busy season for the villagers as they tap nature’s larder. Berries are ripening across the tundra, and fat coho salmon, known here as silvers, are swimming up the Kanektok on their way to spawn. In keeping with Yupik tradition, Misty Matthew helps her mother, Grace Anaver, gather food for the winter. On the days she goes berry picking, Matthew drives an ATV deep into a flat, green landscape dotted with others on the same mission, hunched over as they fill their plastic buckets. Salmon- berries ripen first, one small, sweet, orange cloud per plant. Then blueberries, with a vivid, sweet- tart flavor that no supermarket fruit can match, and low-growing black crowberries that are crunchy and subtly sweet. No one here thinks in pints. It’s gallons they need. Matthew stirs up some of her haul with sug- ar and fluffy shortening to make a snack called akutaq, or Eskimo ice cream. Then she makes jam in her grandmother’s old stainless steel pot, and jelly with the leftover juice. But the bulk of the picking goes into big chest freezers in a backyard shed. She opens all three to show me what her mother already has gathered. One is stuffed with berries in clear plastic bags. Another has berries, salmon, seal oil, trout, and smelt. The last holds moose, clams, geese, swans, caribou, and two kinds of wild greens. “It’s good to be fat in this village. It means you’re eating well,” she says. “ You’re supposed to have three years of food stored away to get you through the lean times.” On another day, early in the morning, Matthew and her brother, David, take out their family’s mo- torboat to net salmon on the river. An hour later they bring 40 silvers, easily 20 pounds each, to the wooden drying racks along a quiet side creek where their mother is waiting. The two women spend the rest of the day gutting the fish, cutting fillets, and slicing strips for brining, drying, and smoking—everything done with deft strokes of their ulus. Like many people who grew up here, Matthew has sometimes left Quinhagak to find work, but the people, the tundra, and the river keep pulling her back. Yet even after years away, she can see that the natural rhythms of life are out of whack. “Everything’s two or three weeks ahead now,” she says as she cuts into a fish. “The salmon are late. And the geese are flying early. The berries were early too.” iF there’S one thing everyone in Quinha- gak agrees on, and talks about often, it’s all the changes brought by the weird weather.