On the way to the Smelt Derby…



Kids at this year’s Smelt Derby might have been bundled up like kids everywhere in more modern parkas but they were keeping alive a long, proud tradition. Photo: Dr. Daniel S. Neuman between 1911&1920

You know how sometimes you start talking about one thing and something much more intriguing comes up?

In a recent post I mentioned Victoria has reported the beginning of the river breakup in Ugashik.  One of our commenters,  problem child, wondered about traveling between villages during breakup.

“I imagine that there is an interim period when the river is not safe enough for snow machines or open enough for boats…”

I asked Victoria about that:

“It’s ALWAYS dicey, even when we have 4-6 foot if ice. It can be thin in areas; it can be broken underneath by a heavier vehicle going over it – like cars and light trucks. Roland and a friend got caught in that this year, when all looked safe.

They went over a spot a number of light trucks had gone over that day on the way to a Smelt Derby…”

Smelt Derby?  Time for a momentary subject change!

Smelt are a little fish that swim many rivers in the west, both Alaska and other areas. Maybe like a big sardine but not as strong tasting.

The derby happens each year during Winter Carnival in PIP. ALL ages drill or chop a hole in the river in this one traditional area on certain day and during a 3-5 hour time limit, they see who can catch the most smelt. It is just done a stick, line and homemade hook.

Most times lately it is  a young lady who wins. Prizes and much bragging rights are awarded for the winners. Even the littlest, 4-5 years do it.

Getting back on topic, Victoria’s husband and a friend broke through ice that looked safe on top:

“…Getting wet even a mile from the village can be life threatening. John, our friend did get wet up to his thighs, 6’4” guy, and had to be rushed home to thaw.

We have a month or more, depending on weather when it is plane travel only. No boats can go and traveling by snow machine is out as is the 4 wheeler.

Ice goes through a few stages before it breaks up, opaque looking and then needle or honeycombed where it looks good ‘til you step on it.

Lakes that freeze all the way to the bottom now are thawing so they have lifted off the bottom and the ice floats. It is probably still safe in places, but you must know them lake by lake. In our area between PIP and here are about 10 lakes of all sizes we cross to get there.

Creeks are the fist to open and might be only 2-3 feet across but 6-10 foot deep – VERY deceiving.

We have some lakes and creeks that are ‘warm’ meaning they seldom freeze completely. Having life long knowledge or access to someone who does is a lifesaver here.”

Like problem child pointed out…

“…If flooding occurs there could be other transportation issues. So let’s get the villages well-stocked up before spring springs some more issues!”

So true problem child!

~ Jane

6 Responses to “On the way to the Smelt Derby…”

  1. the problem child (an aunt, also) Says:

    Smelt — we have them too (east coast Canada). They run in the spring and used to be so abundant you could just scoop them out of the river with a bucket…and have a bucketful of smelt. Not true anymore. Like your salmon, and our salmon, they appear to be in steep decline.

    Hey, thanks for using my comment as a jump off — I can’t imagine having no roads and relying on rivers only for transportation. Every year here at least one person ventures out on the river ice either before it is thick enough or after it starts “rotting”, and pays the ultimate price. And there is no good reason for it, since they are snowmobiling (as we call it) or 4-wheeling purely for fun, not as a necessary accommodation to life without roads. Stay safe, all!

  2. anonymousbloggers Says:

    problem child-

    Thanks for raising the question.

    It’s one more facet of bush living we don’t stop to consider but is so interesting once the subject is addressed.


  3. JuneauJoe Δ Says:

    Neither Palin or the AK legislature has done anything for the villages yet! Little was accomplished this session. A do nothing session for the villages and Alaska.


  4. Say NO to Palin in Politics Says:

    I enjoyed reading about the ice thaw issues Jane, thank you for doing that.

    The kids ice fishing derby must be a blast. We used to ice fish in Colorado, the noise ice makes takes some getting used to! It was fun sitting in chairs, enjoying the warm high altitude sun and sippin hot coco and peppermint schnapps. We caught trout.

    well, it seems like Palin’s claiming bragging rights……..she makes it sound like she’s done so much, she also makes it sound like the state supplied more food than it really did, at least I thought so when I read it.

    how much of this was due to her actions? I think much was brought about by others.


    “Current efforts include the mobilization of five state departments. The Department of Education has made multiple food shipments. Emmonak received 2,452 pounds, Mountain Village received 1,463 pounds and the Bristol Bay Native Association received more than 2,444 pounds. Additionally, the Department of Public Safety transported Food Bank donations of 4,700 pounds to Kotlik and 1,000 pounds to Kipnuk. The Department of Fish and Game extended the moose-hunting season to allow residents another opportunity to put food on their tables. The Department of Health and Social Services is conducting outreach and signing up eligible individuals for the available cash assistance programs.”

  5. Secret TalkerΔ Says:

    I remember when a group of us lived on Wreck Beach in Vancouver BC during the time that the smelt were running. If you went into the water you could see and feel them swimming past. We would scoop them up with whatever we had. Then we layered them in aluminum foil and cooked them over the fire. We lived on them until we all started smelling like smelt.They were so bountiful…

  6. Secret TalkerΔ Says:

    I guess I should add that that was in 1970 or 71.

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