"On the Kanatak Trail"
Excerpt from Paul Boskoffsky and Lloyds Mattson,
Alaska: A Man From Kanatak, the Story of Paul Boskoffsky
(Duluth, MI: Arrow Printing, 2002).
My best memories of Kanatak go back to our hike over the mountain and boat trip down big Becharof Lake to Egegik. Each May, men, women, kids, and dogs would leave the village for jobs in the fishing industry, their only source of income. Some went to Chignik, Ugashik or Kodiak. We were among the families that traveled on foot and by boat to Egegik on Bristol Bay, about a 90-mile trip. That is how I came to be born there on July 10, 1935, in the small cabin provided by the cannery where my dad worked. I was the first of seven childrenone baby sister died.
Excitement always ran high as we packed for the trip. We had to carry on our backs everything we would need for the summer. The trail began at the steep shale slope leading up from the village, then through alpine meadows past Lake Ruth to Fish Village, a year-around settlement the old-timers called Marratuq. That is where we kept our boats. Grandpa Ruff had a cabin there.
Here and there piles of stone marked the trail for winter travelers. It had been the main route between the Pacific and Bristol Bay for longer than anyone knows. Eskimo and Aleut traders followed the trail in the old days. Later, dog mushers and oil prospectors hauled their loads over the trail, and for uncounted generations, families like ours hiked the trail on the way to Egegik and summer fishing.
The trip was always fun for us kids. At one place lay a big boulder with a hole in it where we kids would put small stones for good luck. It always seemed like a long walk, but we looked forward to reaching Fish Village, where a few friends and relatives would be waiting. We would sit over tea and tell stories of our hike and then load our boats and wait for safe weather to head down the lake.
Becharof Lake is big, over fifty miles long and twelve miles wide in places. It is noted for sudden storms and dangerous winds. Sometimes we had to wait several days until Grandpa Ruff, who had the best weather eye, would say, "It's time to go now."
In the early years, families traveled by oar and sail. When we got our first ten-horse Johnson, we thought it was a miracle. Each year we kids looked forward to reaching Egg Island. We would stop to gather seagull eggs. We would race to see who could pick the most. Our mothers preserved the eggs in brine of some kind and they kept all summer, saving us buying costly fresh eggs in Egegik. Fried or boiled, seagull eggs taste strong. Mother used them mainly for cooking.
People often ask how we could tell which eggs were fresh. If a nest held one or two eggs, we were pretty sure they were O.K. If a nest held more than two eggs, we would leave them all. Sometimes we put them in a bucket of water. Those that floated, we would return to the nest. That way, there were always plenty of baby seagulls and we were reasonably sure of fresh eggs.
From Egg Island we faced 50 miles of dangerous open water to the Egegik River. For the first half-mile the river curled around huge boulders, some of them hidden. It takes skill to get through those rapids with a powerful engine. Imagine running them in a skiff with oars or a small kicker!
Once beyond the rapids, we breathed a sigh of relief. The rest of the trip was easy except for a wide place we called the Lagoon. There the ever-changing channel led through shallow tidewater, which could be hard to follow. At the Lagoon, we often saw caribou traveling south. Why they always headed that direction was not known. My guess is that they headed south to drop their young away from the bears that favor higher country.
As the river left the lake, the water was crystal clear, but at the Lagoon milky silt from the inflowing tide clouded the water. That always brought excitement for we knew we were getting close to Egegik and friends were hadn't seen since the summer before.
What a great life! Tourists pay big money to enjoy the trip we took for granted year after year. I still go up river and over to Kanatak every chance I get. I built a small cabin on my Native land claim near Fish Village.
"Pieces of the Wind"
Excerpt from Leslie Leyland Fields (editor), Out on the Deep Blue: Women, Men, and the Oceans They Fish
(New York: St. Martin's Press, 200]).
"Stories of Pilot Point begin and end with wind. Wind so steady that when it quits, you look up suddenly at as though someone's missing.
At night, there are ghosts in the abandoned cannery, Chinamen rising up from their laundry chores at China Lake, fishermen wisping in on the fog. At the base of the green bluff below the village, throwing shadows across Pete Hansen's shack, history sprawls in a huge complex of corrugated red tin: warehouses, crew quarters, canning rooms, net lofts, and the mess hall with its MUG UP sign over a boardedup door. We creep into the sprawling catacombs of memory by inching our way through a broken six-pane window. The crunch of glass underfoot echoes up two stories to the tall ceiling beams; fir 2x12xfifty feet long that Alaska Packers shipped in by schooner in the 1890s when the river still ran deep by the dock out front, before the mud filled in and shut the whole place down. We're trespassing on both property and time.
Upstairs, wire-mesh lockers sag open, cages that once over-wintered fishermen's gear now drain old cotton web, soggy life rings, rusted Coleman stoves. In one corner wooden corks are scattered like tiny torpedoes in the dust. The stories of the fishermen hang in the air like moonlight through dusted glass. The wind lifts a loose piece of roof tin and bangs it over and over with just the same rhythm as the river; water and wind relentless, silting over men and history and fortunes made and lost again.
"Helen Neilsen: Life on a Blue Fox Island"
Excerpt from The Cama-I Book: Kayaks, Dogsleds, Bear Hunting, Bush Pilots, Smoked Fish, Mukluks and Other Traditions of Southwestern Alaska (England: Anchor Books, 1983).
Papa started building the fox farm around 1925, but as the years passed, the prices dropped so low that we couldn't keep the fox farm going. Everybody had foxes, raised them on their own islands, but we had Nakchamik. Living on the island was nice, I liked it. We had some fun on the island, not just caring for foxes. Wintertime we would go skating, sliding. That was fun.
When we started, we bought a pair of foxes from another island, and they increased fast. I've never seen a lot of foxes, but there were quite a few around. I've never seen a litter of baby foxes either, but my papa has. We never could catch the kittens running around, cute, but I've never seen them myself I'd say the female fox had about six or eight pups, something like a dog you know, and they had babies only once a year. We didn't keep the foxes in pens or anything, they would run wild on the island. It wasn't very hard caring for foxes. We did a lot of walking, but it was okay.
The foxes weren't real tame, but they were planted and fed by us; you couldn't go out and pet them or anything though. Some of the foxes were tame on other islands, but ours never got tame. I don't think you can really tame a fox; they don't get that tame. If we had a fox for a pet, I wouldn't trust it; it probably would bite. We never kept any as pets; some people did, but we didn't. We had other pets, like chickens, pigs, and catsno dogs, but lots of cats and chickens. The foxes never bothered the chickens or anything; they were so wild they never came near the house. We never had any problems with the foxes as far as I knew.
While my brothers and I went to summer school in Chignik, my mama and papa stayed on the island and cared for the foxes. In the winter, they would come and get us and bring us back to the island. The foxes survived real good in the winter; we'd see them sitting outside their burrows, just sitting there, watching. They would burrow into the ground, under the rocks, or into a bank or something. Sometimes they would walk the beaches and look for food along the waterline. They would find dead fish and clams and things like thatthey ate all that. Sometimes the foxes would burrow in on the beach, in the cliffs, under the rocks, and the tide would wash in there and would wash them away. A few got lost like that. We would see where they had been and the water had gotten up to them. There was no real danger to the foxes, animal wise. Only the eagles, I think, carried the little ones off if they were out in the open. Other than that, we didn't have anything else on the islands except squirrels and mice, no big animals.
We enjoyed feeding the foxes, taking care of them, raising them; that was pretty nice, easy to do. The killing part wasn't very nice, but we had to do that because that was our living. We had no one helping us raise and care for the foxes, just my brothers, me, and my papa, that's all. While my brothers, my papa, and I cared for the foxes, my mama cared for the family, like cooking and caring for the younger children. She also helped cook food for the foxes when she had time.
The foxes depended on us for their food; we had to feed them to raise them. We carried lots of food with us when we'd go to feed them. I guess it was hard, but we were young at that time so it didn't matter. We'd take our sled, load it up, and take off. We had a bucket of food for each place we went to; there was a group of foxes in each feeding place. The foxes would sneak around so they saw us, and they would come and eat as soon as we'd take off. They knew when we'd come, they'd be waiting around. We could walk past them while they were eating, but they didn't let us touch them or anything.
Everyday we'd go around the island to every feeding place and feed them. I'd say there was about a dozen places we had to go each day. Some of the places we didn't go to everyday; we'd go maybe once a week 'cause we had to go far away to the other side of the island. The feeding places around our big lake we'd go to every day cause we could cross the lake on a sled over the ice and bring the food.
We'd feed the foxes bran mixed with fish or sometimes mean, like seal meat, sea lion, and fish; mix it with bran and cook it. We'd always go fishing and bring home lots of fish for the foxes. We'd go seal and sea lion hunting also. The foxes ate anything wild. Sometimes we'd bake the fox meal into loaves of bread, then we'd slice it up and give the foxes so much each day. 'Course they ate that!
Once a year, in the fall, we had to go into Chignik and load up with bran and stuff, and take it back to the island. The bran wouldn't last if we didn't mix it with wild food. We had this meal, it's a fox meal with all kinds of grain and bran in it; we mixed it with wild food to make it go further, that way we'd have enough food. I can't remember us ever running out of food for themwe always had some.
When it came time to kill them, we'd set the box traps where we regularly fed them before, at the feeding places. The way we caught the foxes was we'd set a bait in the box trap, and the fox would get in and get the bait. When he gets the bait, he shuts the door, it automatically shuts him in. We'd go there every day, get them out of the trap, and kill 'em. We'd use tongs and get them around the necks, and haul them out through an opening at the top of the box. Then we laid them down and put our knees on their hearts until they died. I didn't like to do that, but we couldn't hurt the skin, we couldn't hit them or anything. This was the way the places that brought them wanted them killed; we couldn't damage the skin. I didn't mind trapping so much because most of the wild animals were already dead when I came to trap. I didn't have to kill 'em. But when you fox farm, you have to take the fox out and kill it, that wasn't very nice. That was the bad thing of fox farming.
The foxes were full grown when we killed them, but I really don't know what age they were or anything. We didn't kill the very young ones; they had to be maybe a year or so. I don't know how my papa could tell, but he used to know. I think we could kill them about December; I'm not sure but it was in the middle of the winter sometime. I think my pap killed about fifty foxes each time, once a year. I think it was around that much.
I didn't do much of the cleaning on the foxes, my papa did that. I had to kill the foxes, but I didn't help clean them. My brothers and Papa did that. After we skinned the foxes, we just threw the carcasses in the dump; my papa had a place to throw them. The eagles and crows would eat them.
We sent the furs in and would get a check back from the company who bought 'em. At different times, we got fifty dollars for some furs, and I guess forty. I think they went as high as seventy-five dollars a fur. We got a good price, I know! Some were better than others, thicker fur. The heavier the fur, the more they cost. We sent our furs to, I think, Seattle Fur Exchange and to New York. We sent some to New York, but most of them went to Seattle Fur Exchange. It wasn't very easy at that time to get a check back; we would get mail maybe once a month. I'd say it was about two or three months before we heard from the fur company since we had sent the furs out.
Before we sent the furs out, we had to clean them, stretch them, and dry them perfectly dry. Then we turned them fur side out, folded them up nice, put them in burlap bags, and sent them out. When we quit fox farming, we just left the rest of the foxes on the island. There was a few foxes on the island when we left, and right now there is still some, but they haven't increased too much, I don't think!
Last Updated: 03-Aug-2009