KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) — On Monday afternoon, and before any large raindrops fell, Ketchikan Indian Community moved a few yellow-tape barricades and opened its parking lot at Stedman and Deermount streets to a line of cars that stretched past Stonetree Veterinary Clinic where they waited for the annual KIC Herring Egg Giveaway to start.
The event is part of KIC’s initiative to get traditional food back to the Alaska Native people and along with the help of many community volunteers and the Ketchikan Police Department, who directed traffic around the event, KIC was able to serve 600 people each with a 10- to 15-pound bag of herring eggs on hemlock branches.
About 15 volunteers and KIC staff members operated a production line that was stationed to the rear of the property and away from the curbside pickup location. The volunteers on the line trimmed the hemlock branches to a smaller size until they could fit into a small plastic grocery bag. The herring roe either clung to the hemlocks or collected in big jello-like piles.
Within the parking lot and along Deermount Street, a couple KIC staff members operated an information collection point where they collected a name and how many family members they were supplying. After the information was collected, a KIC volunteer delivered the final product either through a motor vehicle’s window or directly into its trunk. A line of pedestrians arriving on foot were also served at that location.
The herring eggs are found near Egg Island by Howard “Howie” Walcott of Klawock. About four years ago Walcott, who is a part of the Alaska herring spawn-on-kelp pound fishery, reserved several of his kelp beds for Ketchikan Indian Community’s newly founded Herring Egg Giveaway. Instead of kelp, Walcott followed an Alaska Native tradition and used hemlock branches. During a spawn, when the herring are released into the pens their roe cling to the spikey hemlock branches just as it does to the kelp blades. Walcott is responsible for the first half of the process in which he harvested the hemlock branches, caught the herring, pound the roe, and finally trimmed the hemlock with the herring eggs grown to it for easy transport off POW.
In Alaska Native culture, herring eggs signal the coming of spring and the annual herring return is celebrated by sharing herring eggs with one other. KIC volunteer Trixie Bennett described how herring eggs are like other traditional food and connect Alaska Natives to each other, their past, and to the ocean.
“It reminds us who we are,” Bennett said. “I’m really glad KIC leadership has made activities, like this, around our foods, a priority.”
On Sunday Bennett traveled to Prince of Wales Island aboard an Inter-Island Ferry Authority ship with a flatbed truck and trailer in tow to collect the pound. On the same trip in past years, she returned to Ketchikan with about one bin of herring eggs. This year the spawn was much larger than previous years and she returned with seven large 4-foot by 4-foot bins full of herring roe on hemlocks.
With smaller fishery yields in past years and prior to the restrictions due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, KIC operated the giveaway out of a flatbed truck and just made a simple post to the community on Facebook. But with health mandates and concern for the well-being of their employees, as well as the public, KIC Social Services Director Lynn Quan, with her team combined of staff and volunteers, created extra safety measures and set up a curbside pick within the KIC parking lot.
“Everybody was just collaborating and it’s been kind of an unprecedented collaboration among our departments to make sure this thing went without a hitch, especially with the COVID-19 concerns about social distancing and making sure staff, volunteers and the community are safe while we do this, because while it’s unlikely that someone may get COVID-19 from food, we’re distributing food to a vulnerable population so we’re taking every precaution possible to make sure that we don’t put anyone at risk.”
Every volunteer that worked the event received a health screen. Quan did a health screening on every volunteer by taking their temperature and following a questionnaire of symptoms related to exposure to COVID-19.
“I document that for our medical staff to review just to make sure that we are questioning people about if they are having any symptoms, any cough, any fever, have they had any discomfort with their taste and smell and hopefully they are not having any of those more latent symptoms,” Quan said. “We’re just exercising precaution every step of the way.”
Quan also organized three vans to carry 130 bags of herring eggs to three separate remote locations on the island.
“Lee Wallace and Cape Fox are volunteering time to deliver door-to-door in Saxman just so people don’t have to come out and risk being exposed and being in the public,” she said.