Learning in New Waters
November, 27, 2017
By Emma Hodgson
It was just after midnight when Abe Stewart asked if we all wanted to go for a boat ride down to where the Peel meets the Mackenzie River. No one could say no to seeing the junction of these two massive waterbodies; the fact that it would be during a stunning, hours-long August Arctic sunset just topped it off. We hopped in our boats – Abe with his sons, and the six of us (four researchers and two youth from the community), oohing and awing the entire journey. A mixture of oranges and reds lit up the sky and reflected off the surprisingly calm waters, it was a moment of pure joy.
It had been our first official day out at fishing camps along the Peel River, setting up a community-based data collection program. In the Gwich’in communities where we are working, whitefish is a foundational food fish. Harvested primarily for people now, it used to be harvested in larger amounts for dog teams, before people used skidoos. Yet, whitefish has only received intermittent attention from scientists in the last few decades with no established management plan in the Gwich’in Settlement Area.
Abe Stewart’s was the first camp we visited. He returned to the land in 2010, re-establishing himself as a community member that fishes and hunts, selling dry-fish in Fort McPherson, NWT. We spent a couple days with him, showing him all the measurements to be done: cutting open the head to take out the ear bone (to learn about fish age and migration), measuring length and weight. He continued to take measurements on the fish he caught through September and into October. Over the next week we moved onto Mary Effie Snowshoe’s camp, where her family has been set up for generations, and lastly, on to working with Alice and Ernest Vittrekwa. No matter where we went, we were greeted with incredible generosity, sharing of delicious whitefish (dried fish, fish strips, fish eggs, boiled fish, fried fish), coney (inconnu) and Dolly Varden. Moreover, there was sharing of stories; stories of joy on the land, of mishaps and adventures, of the pleasure the community shares, each year from watching the ice break up and flow down river in the spring. And challenging stories, about residential schools, both personal experiences and troubling accounts of lost siblings and traumas, and of tragedies and triumphs in the deep struggles against alcoholism.
As someone who did a PhD in quantitative fisheries ecology, plugging away at models on my computer, field work was a whole new arena. Being out in the field, cutting open fish and working alongside people whose ancestors have lived on this land for thousands of years was a new experience, deeply layered and incredibly special. Being in McPherson, more than any other place, has taught me that it is the people that make a place what it is. This was only our first year up there, forging relationships and learning how to work with the community, but I am already excited to return this winter to talk to school groups and community members, and again next summer to head back out to fish camps. And hopefully in the years to come I will be lucky enough to see many more long, August sunsets.