Tlingit fishermen say the recent eulachon harvest was robust enough to provide subsistence needs for another year.
The smell of their success hung over pullouts near 4 Mile Haines Highway recently, as the annual production of eulachon oil got under way.
On Friday, May 17, Alden Paddock and Richard Warren stood around their respective vats full of nearly-boiling water and rancid fish carcasses, carefully nursing the mixtures for hours on end in order to produce the desired result: gallons of eulachon oil to be consumed locally and traded all over the country.
Paddock has been cultivating the oil, a Tlingit tradition, since 1971. He was out Friday teaching and assisting Warren, who is processing the oil for his second time.
“I got wrangled into it because apparently I’ve been told I’m one of the best... I do it because it’s a dying art and I’ve always done it. I do it because I want to teach people,” Paddock said.
The process begins with the harvesting of the eulachon. After being plucked from the nearby rivers, the small, greasy smelt are placed in a lined pit in the ground and left to rot for seven to 10 days. Paddock pulled a blue tarp away from his eulachon pit at 4 Mile, revealing a massive pile of fetid fish, adding that he hadn’t changed his clothes in about four days to avoid contaminating his wardrobe with the tenacious scent.
After the eulachon have sufficiently decomposed, the carcasses are mashed up in simmering water and monitored so as not to come to a complete boil. Warren periodically sprinkled water from a watering can over his batch to keep it from getting too hot or foaming.
“You’ve got to know when it’s done just by looking at it,” Paddock said. “If you add too much heat for too long it boils up and it will take the oil right back out.”
Their metal tubs, heated by fires underneath, were different colors, as the two had started heating their batches at different times and used varying amounts of eulachon.
After six to eight hours, the two planned to skim the resultant oil from the top, Paddock said. He estimated his larger batch would yield maybe 10 gallons, while Warren’s smaller one would produce maybe five.
Paddock said the oil can fetch about $500 a gallon, but is largely used to trade with people all around the country for commodities not found here, like caribou, buffalo, black seaweed and gumboot chiton.
“This is the only place that gets it. We have the corner of the market,” Paddock said.
It’s also kept for local use and used as a condiment on pretty much anything, Warren said. “Potatoes, fish, rice, anything you want. If you love it, go ahead and put it on there,” he said.
Warren said the two would likely remain at the 4 Mile post for at least five days cultivating batches of the oil.