Whether dependent on a specific resource for income or for subsistence survival, Alaska provides a variety of natural resources for its inhabitants to utilize. Two major methods of harvesting resources in Alaska which can provide either economic or subsistence benefit are fishing and hunting. These two methods are frequently incorporated in many of the stories from Mergler’s The Last New Land, as many Alaskans are highly dependent on these methods for survival. Some similarities between fishing and hunting are, they are dependent on weather, things can and will go wrong while working in the wilderness, and at the end of the day your labors are not always fruitful.
Salmon has been a resource which my family has relied, as my father has been a commercial troller for over twenty years. I immediately connected to Joe Upton’s excerpt Southeastern Alaska, as the story seemed to capture a sentiment like that of what my father has shared with me and his experiences as a troller over the years. Commercial fishing is a major resource in Alaska, and Upton wonderfully captures the essence of the troller. Fishing can be unpredictable, and you can go for days in inclement weather, spending money on fuel and food, without catching a fish to break even.
|My Dad’s boat the Wendy A. Dad working in the stern.
Stressing the fisherman’s struggle with the weather Upton writes, “It’s a wild spot to fish, but when the fish come by, a fellow can do well even in a small boat — if the weather will let him fish.’(1) Two other elements of unpredictability in fishing are selling prices and loss. I can remember my dad talking about fish breaking off a line and being lost, Upton sums up the experience, “Lost what looked like a 40-pounder today-dammit-had him right up to the boat, ready to lay that gaff alongside his head, and he just took off and broke the leader…it hurts to lose those big babies-that one today was a $50 bill.’(2) Trollers are a disappearing breed. One of the least environmentally impactful methods of fishing, they often face long slow working hours, deal with unpredictable markets and dwindling fish populations. Salmon is an amazingly diverse resource which people all over Alaska benefit from.
|Seal hunting in the Arctic. Art by Gordon Miller.|
Hunting is another resource which many Alaskans are dependent upon, especially in remote places. Both Richard Nelson’s and Barry Lopez’s excerpts are wonderful examples of how hunting offers uncertainty of the kill, how the elements can become unpredictable, and how those who often seek resources can fall to becoming a resource for bears as well. In Richard Nelson’s excerpt from Moon of the Returning Sun we follow Sakiak a seasoned Eskimo hunter. Nelson points out in various ways the lengths, which people acquire food. Risking their lives, Eskimo hunters venture out on the frozen ocean to hunt for seal, “Hunters who ventured onto it were suspicious and watchful, constantly checking wind and current to be sure the ice would not break away from the landfast flow.’ Risking their life in another was is to share hunting grounds with Polar bears, Nelson writes, “Now he was careful to look behind him every few minutes, to be sure no bear was following. Bears often followed a man’s trail over the sea ice, especially if it was scented with the blood and oil of seal.’(3) Hunting resources are so vital to survival, that many people put their lives on the line so they can provide food for their family and even village.
|Arctic Ocean. Artist unknown.|
Biologists also depend upon hunting and fishing resources to identify the climate and health of populations. In Barry Lopez’s excerpt Tornarssuk(Ursus maritimus) The crew learn the difficulty and determination of hunting, and like fishing, the unpredictable nature of the method. Lopez writes, “Always we were hunting. This particular habitat, the number of cod in the water, the time of the year-everything said ringed seals should be here. But for us they weren’t.’(4) Lopez also makes the connection that he does not have as a hunter, being indigenous to the land, when the crew encounters a polar bear. The polar bear, like humans, are dependent on resources to survive, “We watched him move off across the ice, into a confusing plane of grays and whites…A snow shower moved quickly through, and when it cleared we could barely make him out…A young and successful hunter, at home in his home. He had found the seals.’(5) Resources such as hunting and fishing are critical components of both subsistence living and the Alaska economy. These three excerpts, have allowed me to acknowledge and appreciate the people who for generations and even centuries have lived and worked on the land and sea to assure the survival of future generations of Alaskans.
(1) Wayne Mergler, Last New Land: Stories of Alaska Past and Present (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest, 1996), 304.
(2) Wayne Mergler, Last New Land: Stories of Alaska Past and Present (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest, 1996), 305.
(3) Wayne Mergler, Last New Land: Stories of Alaska Past and Present (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest, 1996), 409.
(4) Wayne Mergler, Last New Land: Stories of Alaska Past and Present (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest, 1996), 432.
(4) Wayne Mergler, Last New Land: Stories of Alaska Past and Present (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest, 1996), 433.
Image Wendy A., John Carver photographer. 2010
Image Seal Hunter, the Canadian Encyclopedia. https://thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/native-people-arctic
Image Arctic Ocean, Universidad de Navarra. https://www.unav.es/grado/marine-biology/courses