Editor’s note: Excerpted from “The Salmon Sisters: Feasting, Fishing, and Living in Alaska,” by Emma Teal Laukitis and Claire Neaton. Published by Sasquatch Books (2020, $24.95).
FISHING BOATS TRAVELING west out the Aleutian chain toward the Bering Sea remember passing an unexpected site among smoking volcanoes, treeless hills and wild whirlpools: two girls waving from the beach against a backdrop of outbuildings with sauna chimney smoking, fishing net set, garden beds and greenhouse, a trail leading from the beach to a main house on the hill.
Fishermen hundreds of miles from home wondered about this fish camp tucked between two reefs in a narrow pass between Alaska’s mainland and Unimak Island, surprised that a home could be found in a place so remote, with weather so wild. A radio call from a captain’s wheelhouse to “Stonewall Place” reached our family’s living room there. The homestead acted as a waypoint, a lighthouse for boats passing by, a glimpse of human life in a place otherwise far from it.
Stonewall Place is the homestead our parents, Buck and Shelly Laukitis, bought when they moved to Alaska in the years before we were born. The original owners were Ellen Rockwell, who worked as a nurse at Peter Pan Seafoods in False Pass, the village nearby, and Chuck Martinson, who worked as the cannery’s radio operator while running the stockroom. He reported the weather forecast to the fishing fleet, gave the general fishing announcements and coordinated with tenders bringing fish from the boats back to the cannery.
Chuck and Ellen lived at Stonewall Place for more than a dozen years and spent their winters there much as we did — reading, keeping the woodstove stoked, tinkering in the workshop and cooking from scratch. The Stonewall kitchen came stocked with Ellen’s cookbooks. Most pages in these books had her careful notes in the margins for substitutions and alterations to make the recipes work with the ingredients they had on hand.
Chuck’s ornate calligraphy labeled rows of glass spice jars on the shelf — from saffron to mustard seed, cloves to tarragon. Chuck and Ellen’s food system was based on simplicity; self-sufficiency; and, also, necessity. They ordered bulk food from catalogs to reduce packaging and waste, as they had to burn their trash or take it in their small boat to the village landfill. They made all their food from scratch, as groceries were also a boat ride away, and they pickled and jarred many of their garden vegetables because there was no freezer or refrigerator at the homestead.
Our parents had to learn many of these methods for growing, eating and preserving food themselves when they moved to the homestead, and they have become integral to the way we still eat and live today.
The homestead was originally a trapper’s cabin, which Chuck and Ellen built into a small camp run on hydroelectricity from mountain streams and a water wheel, with a main house, wood workshop and greenhouse. When our family moved in, we maintained and repaired the existing buildings and hydroelectric system, and also added a chicken coop, wood-burning hot tub and sauna, salmon smokehouse and stone-foundation outhouse.
We lived at Stonewall Place year-round through harsh winters and magnificently abundant summers. Our childhood was rich and remarkable, though its reality was challengingly remote as well as extremely dependent on the seasons and the bounty of the land and sea.
We were home-schooled part of the year because it was too challenging to get across to the small village school in our skiff during the winter weather. Large floating ice chunks clogged the ocean passage between the tip of the mainland where we lived and Unimak Island, where the village of False Pass and the school were. Bering Sea storms with strong winds and angry waves kept us on our side of the pass, reading books at our kitchen table.
Though learning at home meant drawing; creative writing; net-mending; knot-tying; gardening; and studying ecology, biology, botany, history, mythology and astrology with our parents, we loved going to school in the village. There were other kids to play with; new books to read; and a big, bright, warm gym to run around in.
A rotating cast of teachers who came from the outside usually stayed a winter or two, running the K-12 classroom and teaching all kids within it. In a typical year, there were eight to 15 students.
ASIDE FROM OUR home-school lessons and our time spent exploring outside, our childhood at Stonewall Place revolved around the procurement, preparation and preservation of food. Our grandparents in Seattle loaded a pallet twice a year with dry goods and a few treats they knew we’d never otherwise experience, like a pineapple or bananas, not guaranteed to survive the two-week journey on a freighter ship. Otherwise we found a limited supply of canned foods, boxed milk and frozen meat at the cannery store in False Pass. The rest of what we ate, we grew or caught ourselves.
We mail-ordered seeds from catalogs, and chickens, too. The chicks came in a cardboard box to the village post office. The postmaster would call across to our living room on the VHF radio to let us know that a cheeping package had arrived, and if the weather was nice enough to get across in our skiff, we’d take a trip to town.
The chickens provided fresh eggs as they matured, and when they stopped laying, became soup and stock and meat for winter. We named our chickens, Guinevere and Columbia, after songs we’d heard or stories we’d read, but we learned to let go of our attachment after a traumatic morning when a brown bear got into the coop.
The village locals taught us about the wealth of the natural landscape. We hiked the tundra hills above the house, always on the lookout for brown bears, our eyes trained for boletus mushrooms, mossberries, blueberries, cranberries, fiddleheads, pushki and sorrel. July and August meant salmonberries; highbush blueberries; and small, sweet strawberries. We wore our rubber boots everywhere and carried 5-gallon buckets up the creek beds, picking fat, ripe salmonberries to help our mom make jam, pies and wine.
Fresh fish was the king of our wild foods, demanding the most work and the most reward. We set a subsistence net in front of our house on our running line in the summers and caught all species of salmon, as well as kelp. We often picked salmon from the net in our kayak, or pulled on waders at low tide to walk out and retrieve the fish from it. These we filleted at our outdoor fish-cleaning table, cutting and packing their tender meat into freezer bags, or stripping them to brine in salt and brown sugar for the smokehouse built on top of pilings, above a brown bear’s standing reach.
We spent afternoons in the skiff, stopping at beaches nearby to look for cottonwood logs, which gave off the best flavor in the smokehouse barrel stove. Logs were chopped with a chisel and ax, and kept the fire stoked throughout the day and night. After a few days of wind and smoke, the salmon strips hanging in the smokehouse rafter could be carried down the steep ladder, cut into small pieces, packed into canning jars in our kitchen and loaded into our mom’s pressure cooker. These jars of smoked salmon fed us through the winter.
The Stonewall kitchen was always alive with preparation. Giant bowls of bread dough rising beneath a kitchen towel above the warm stove, flour sprinkled across the tile countertops, fresh eggs from the chicken coop in a bowl ready to be washed, stalks of rhubarb on the kitchen table, jam jars awaiting labeling by a steady hand. Racks of spices and grains lined the walls; an old ship’s porthole window made the perfect cooling spot for hot pies; basil and chive plants sunned themselves on the windowsill; the tea kettle kept itself busy on the stovetop.
Life at Stonewall Place revolved around these food rituals — gathering, preparing and enjoying the surrounding homegrown and wild ingredients. On special evenings we were visited by fishermen friends, who anchored up in front of our homestead and joined us on our large porch on the hill overlooking the ocean. They brought from their boat a fresh salmon to grill, and we made fresh salads overflowing with nasturtiums and geranium petals, warm whole-wheat bread, pesto-lemon pasta and rhubarb custard pie. Fishing stories on the evening air ebbed and flowed into quiet moments reprieved from the drone of the boat’s loud diesel engine and into the nurturing hillsides of the Aleutian Islands.