by Valerie L. Johnson
I am Valerie L. Johnson, Bear Clan, Carrier Nation.
I live by the mouth of the river; Carriers say Tachek.
It is on Fulton river by central Babine Lake, BC.
I grew up around the seasonal smokehouse. Each year, we would start preparations as early as May. Gramma Wheezie’s cabin was thoroughly cleaned and it was there that we would mend and prepare nets, do landscaping around the smokehouse, and set up a wood burning stove for cooking during the fish camp. We sharpened knives, cleaned poles, got the Carrier river boat ready and anything else we needed was either purchased or made. This included scrub brushes, freezer wrap, freezer tape, and markers. We used to freeze our salmon in a 4L milk jugs filled with water; it stayed fresh frozen. Freezers were purged and cleaned.
My maternal grandmother, Louise Michell would rub all the smokehouse poles with sockeye salmon roe. The oils in the roe were absorbed by the poles to prevents the sockeye salmon from sticking to them. We put them in the smokehouse to cure. This was all part of the preparation process.
For our family, the smokehouse has been oriented in our Carrier culture by my Maternal Aunties and Grandmother. We refer to this as fish camp, as we lived and worked around the smokehouse for two or even three weeks.
For a long time we used my mother’s smokehouse, it was previously owned by my paternal grandparents. Most of the frame of the smokehouse was still standing and sturdy so my late father started the restoration of his parents smokehouse. It’s located on a tiny island. My three eldest children grew up around the smokehouse where every family member has a duty to fulfill, gradually moving up to gutting Sockeye Salmon and making traditional Carrier style cuts for smoking it. Carrier style is family oriented. It is culture and tradition. A few years ago the roof of my mother’s smokehouse caved in and at that point in time we were unable to repair it. So it was left, in hopes that we could repair the roof. Unfortunately, it was not possible.
The Carrier style smokehouse is usually alongside the river. People that don’t know our Carrier culture have put a strain on where our smokehouse was to be located. Traditionally we have my Gramma Wheezie’s spot but a family member has laid claim to that spot along the river and that is why I decided to use my front yard. My husband suggested the backyard but that had a road going by so that was not appropriate place to build, besides I didn’t want to give easy access to thieves.
I wanted a mini smokehouse to process some sockeye salmon. I discussed this with my husband Wayne and gave him my description verbally and showed him a couple pictures of a smaller one but our family consists of five children and five grandchildren; I needed a smokehouse a little bigger! It took my husband three days to build my mini smokehouse but on the third day we had a family crisis. I’ll leave that story for perhaps another time. All of our energy and efforts went into our crisis resolution. We were able to resolve the crisis thanks to family and community, but we were emotionally and physically exhausted.
My eldest daughter, Daisy Charlie works as the Tachet health coordinator. She plans workshops, information sessions, and various support groups according to what community members need. Daisy is the one that informed me of the Smokehouse Project, where participants of any age can learn how to run a smokehouse . In the past a mentor would have two helpers and ten participants, but because of covid-19 each smokehouse project has five participants. At first Daisy offered her mini smokehouse but there were some complications. Although my mini smokehouse was still in the works, it was decided that my mini smokehouse would be used for the smokehouse project.
Fort Babine is a reserve on the western tip of Babine Lake and is a two hour drive on the back roads from our little community of Tachet. Fort Babine fisheries fence is on the Babine river and it is there where Sockeye salmon are caught by scooping them out of the fence and put into bins with ice. Lastly, they are delivered to us.
August 21, 2020 was the start of the 10-day smokehouse project with a delivery of sockeye salmon from Fort Babine fisheries fence (as most people don’t have fishing nets and boats). Sockeye salmon is delivered every second day.
Day one is to make beh, Carrier term for whole sockeye salmon fully smoked dry. This process takes seven days of around the clock smoking.
Half smoked is similar to smoked salmon bought in the stores. Carriers call it half smoked because it takes half the time of fully smoked salmon; smoking for only three days around the clock. The Carrier traditional cut is made to hang sockeye salmon. Our family prefers using alderwood for smoking. It keeps the sockeye salmon palpable and less dark on the meat.
The smokehouse project has a mentor to teach participants how to run a smokehouse. That mentor choses two helpers. My second eldest daughter, Roberta. C. Johnson was chosen as a mentor and she chose her Dad as a helper because he was good at building things. The second helper Roberta chose was Jacquie George because the week before, we did our own personal smoked Sockeye Salmon and Jacquie was an excellent help. I was not able to help because I had my second full knee replacement surgery in June 2020 and had physical limitations; especially heavy lifting and there is a lot of it during fish season. Plus with all the standing to gut fish; it takes about two hours to gut 90 Sockeye Salmon. Traditional cut for the smokehouse is a standing position but, I did help with a few things.
The smokehouse project is funded by a grant that Lake Babine Nation applied for and is for participants of any age to learn how to process Sockeye Salmon in the smokehouse. Thanks to Crystal Harwood who submitted the application for the grant.
Each participant received: A fully smoked dried Sockeye Salmon that Carriers call Beh. Half smoked, strips = Sockeye Salmon jerky. Fresh frozen Sockeye Salmon and a couple cases of canned salmon.
My mini smokehouse fed twelve households including our family Elders, my Mother, my Auntie and my Uncle.
It blessed my heart to see people being blessed by my mini smokehouse. Throughout the fish camp, days were filled with many visitors, including people wanting to buy smoked salmon.
There were eighteen smokehouses in the five communities of Lake Babine Nation and my daughter was one of three chosen to do an extra five days. This extension was for LBN members living in the cities. I was able to help during those the five days.