Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Klukshu Summer Fish Camp

From Palmer we finally reached the Yukon Territory the following morning after a night’s stay in Tok.  I had marked the seasonal village of Klukshu on the map, thinking it might be an interesting stop, we weren’t disappointed!  Klukshu is a traditional fish camp of the southern Tutchone of the Athabascan people.  Several camps were in the area during earlier times but Klukshu is the only camp still in use today.  Each summer, families from Champagne and Haines Junction come to Klukshu to catch and dry salmon from the Klukshu River.  

Summer Cabins, Klukshu
From what we saw, the cabins seem to be well cared for at the site.  In the early days people traveled with tents, setting them up during the salmon run.  Long before the white man reached the interior, the Southern Tutchone were trading tanned skins and furs with coastal Tlingit’s for oil, herring eggs, shells, baskets, and woven blankets.  

Summer Cabins, Klukshu
Later the Tlingit’s brought kettles, knives, axes, and muzzle-loading guns from Russian and American trading ships.  Jack Dalton was the first white trader to establish a post in the area; he followed a traditional Tlingit trading trail into the Yukon and set up a trading post at “Dalton Post” near the Tutchone trading center.  Native men hunted caribou near Dalton Post while women and children collected berries before moving in late July to the fish camps like Klukshu.  Each fishing place had a cache or two where dried meat and fish were stored for the winter.  
Cache and Drying Rack
Today the Southern Tutchone still use the traditional methods of cutting and drying salmon.  After the salmon are caught in fish traps or gaffed along the riverbank, the fish are fastened to a string and left in the water until they are cut.  Since the flesh of the fish hardens when left in the water, they are easier to cut.  The fish are boned and sliced horizontally, leaving the skin intact.  They are then hung over drying racks, flesh side out, for a day or two.  A second horizontal cut is then made so the fish is one large flat sheet and is hung again.  The fish racks are protected from sun and rain by a pole roof covered by metal or a tarp, brush was used in earlier times.  
Drying Rack, Klukshu
A small wood fire is kept burning under the salmon for about 10 days.  Drying racks are still used at Klukshu and we would have loved to witness the process.  Unfortunately we were early in the year so the camp was devoid of people, an eerie peaceful feeling hung over the village.  When the salmon are ready to be stored, they are folded back into their original shape (skin out) and tied into bundles of 50 with heads in the same direction.  
Regional Map, note Klukshu Lake/River area
The bales are stored in raised wooden caches.  According to the reader-boards, Elders remember making several trips along the trail between Klukshu and Dezadeash (a nearby lake), carrying the heavy bales to caches at the end of the season.  Wooden fish traps are also still used at Klukshu.  
Klukshu River
The trap or box is open on the upstream end, fish enter the box and once inside, sharp sticks prevent them from swimming out; to keep the fish from jumping out, traps are placed in shallow water.  Salmon are pulled out of the traps by the tail and killed with a quick blow to the head.  It was customary for the Tutchone to let some of the salmon continue by to spawn, providing fish for future years.  
Archival Photo - Fish Traps
In the early days the traps were made of spruce saplings lashed together with willow roots.  Today they are made of wooden cribbing with chicken wire.  
Archival Photo - Cabins and Cache at Klukshu
Salmon runs used to be plentiful but have been much smaller in recent years so the Government Fisheries and First Nations Council meet each spring to determine when and how many days salmon can be caught.

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