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Photos: Fishing a family affair in Unalakleet

Sid, Paul and Lena fishing near Unalakleet.
Laureli Kinneen photo
Fred Jay and his children fish for chum salmon in Unalakleet.
Laureli Kinneen photo
Fred Jay fishing near Unalakleet.
Laureli Kinneen photo
Paul Jay in his dad's fishing boat near Unalakleet.
Laureli Kinneen photo
Laureli Kinneen

We hang out today and it makes me laugh that we couldn’t stand each other when we were little. We always argued. Always. Today I admire him. And learn from him when we spend time together.

“I started using twine after watching Auntie Eva put ugruk meat away,” he tells us. Our family used to just hang the raw, thin pieces of ugruk, or bearded seal, meat right on the driftwood poles. After a day or so you had to flip all the pieces of meat so the underside could also dry. Now my brother has us tying two pieces together so the meat dries better. Faster. The pieces of dark purple spin in the wind at the fish rack. Eventually they turn black. After two days, they’re dry and we put the meat in Ziploc bags. “The soft ones will be good to put in seal oil,” Fred Jay says.

His first job was as a commercial fisherman – following my dad out on the ocean as soon as he was able to walk. In sixth and seventh grade, he was the youngest fisherman in Unalakleet, taking Dad’s boat out in the ocean when he was just 12 years old to check the net and deliver salmon – by himself. I ask him, laughing, if that was legal. He just laughs and doesn’t know or care if it was. Papa Ralph was so proud of him.

Today Fred Jay works as the senior crew leader for the regional CDQ, the Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation. He enjoys it. He doesn’t spend his energy thinking about politics and the controversy of the program. With his paycheck, he’ll buy gasoline. His kids’ braces, basketball shoes and .22 bullets, which he says are difficult to find. Norton Sound has a fisheries research-and-development program, and one of their projects is king salmon incubation. They plant fertilized eggs in the South River, hoping to revive our dwindling king salmon returns. As of June 30, fewer than 50 kings were counted in the Unalakleet tributary. Fred Jay is the guy who gets and cuts the fish and fertilizes the eggs for the incubator. He also keeps the motors running, oil changed, boats cleaned and nets mended for the project. He enjoys it. It gets him outside – up the Unalakleet River. He works with fish. All summer.  

And then there’s his other job. And that quote from Confucius: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Fred Jay’s job – the job that gives him purpose and identity – is not the time he spends working for the CDQ. That keeps him moving and gets the bills paid. Ask Fred Jay about hunting, fishing and gathering, and he can go on and on - especially about his kids. Lena is only 6 years old and named after our mother. One time, Dad and Fred Jay went ugruk hunting and “Dad said no kids,” meaning no kids were allowed to go hunting with them that time.

“Lena was mad,” Fred Jay said, laughing. His wife Yanni said Lena was bored all night, thinking of her dad ugruk hunting and wishing she were with him. Fred Jay loves that story. He loves that she loves the ocean. His son Paul is 9 years old and loves to talk. He’s one of the happiest kids in the world.

“Paul likes ugruk and seal hunting better than moose hunting because out in the ocean he doesn’t have to be quiet,” Fred Jay says, laughing again. We all laugh with him. From those stories, you learn Fred Jay’s real passion and desire deeper than his marrow lies in providing for his family from the ocean. From that beautiful river. From the greens on the beach and berries by Old Musk Ox Farm. From the hundreds of humpies he catches in his seine and brings down to us on the fish cutting tables. His job is providing moments with his kids in a country so rich it will feed them for life. He knows this. He began taking his kids out on the ocean before they could walk. He knows his family bonds in unquantifiable ways in the 24-foot boat a dozen miles from town.

I think about what they learn out there. Respect for the ocean. Respect for the seals that we truly believe give themselves to us. Gratitude for the simple beauty of the water, the air and our beloved Besboro Island.

Later, Paul and Lena will realize how much they trusted their Dad – the ability to read the waves, the wind and simply when to stay home and when to head out. On a recent trip out to check the king net, the usually goofy, jovial Paul says with a seriousness that makes me pause, “One of my favorite things in the world is going out in the ocean.”

“Me too,” Lena said, matching his tone. They didn’t need to learn that. They inherited it.

“Me too,” I said, smiling.

Their dad is a master out there and he’ll tell you he learned from our Papa Ralph. From our uncles. And from our father – the man I completely trusted without a thought when I was Lena and Paul’s age. And today, if Fred Jay tells me we should tie the ugruk meat, I will tie it. If he says today is a good day to check the net, I’ll go with him. Most likely Lena and Paul will be in the boat with us and I’ll smile when they argue a bit.

Just like Fred Jay and I used to.

Laureli Kinneen, the news director at KNOM in Nome, grew up in Unalakleet on the eastern coast of Alaska's Norton Sound. She now lives in Nome, where she enjoys raising her two children, Joe and Sidney.