I can still smell the smoked fish on my jean jacket and I smile. It means I have been home to the Northwest Territories. At the end of August, I went home to my family’s fish camp.
August is when the Arctic char (also known as Dolly Varden, Salvelinus malma) are running through Big Eddy.
Roasted fresh-out-of-the-river char filets on an open fire is my happy place.
Some other fish harvested in the Mackenzie Beaufort Delta are whitefish, coney, loche, trout, herring, and crookedbacks.
Gwich’in fishermen like my grandfather are hired as monitors during the period when fish are migrating upstream.
They collect biological data on fish caught by themselves and other beneficiaries throughout the late summer at such Rat River monitoring locations as Aklavik, Husky Channel, Big Eddy, the mouth of Rat River and Destruction City.
The many rivers that meet here are like the lifelines of the land.
Long before this program, catching fish was – and continues to be – our way of life. My family have various cabins that are used on a rotational basis as the harvesting seasons change.
August is my favourite time of year: it’s when we gather together to fish for our family while foraging for berries, mushrooms and herbs. The sheep in the mountains are watched for a potential hunt.
We cut and smoke our fish and freeze it for over the winter.
I am the cook at camp, and this year was no different. The journey is worth it.
The journey home is a long one, from Dawson City it is a 12- to 15-hour drive up the Dempster Highway towards Inuvik, NWT.
I caught a ride up with family and watched the colours of fall brighten the further north we got.
Once in Inuvik it’s a two-and-a-half-hour boat ride starting on the east channel of the Mackenzie River that connects to the Peel River at Aklavik, NWT. From there another hour and a half boat ride to the cabin at Big Eddy.
Big Eddy is a connecting branch off the Husky Channel that connects to the Peel River. After such a journey, I was ready for the quietness of the cabin.
It took little time to settle in. The fish smoke house was stoked and ready for the next few days’ work. From net, to cutting board, to smoke house, to plate, it is a cold and slimy task that is well worth the numb fingers.
I decided to make a chowder after speaking to my grandpa, full of fresh char and burbot (their scientific name is Lota lota and they are also known as loche) that was in his net that afternoon.
He mentioned the chowder I made the year previous; I like that he remembers. There is nothing like family time on the foot of the Black Mountain, which is part of the Richardson Mountain range.
The air is crisp and so is the feeling of quiet. No cell phones. No internet. Just fish bliss. Below you will find my chowder recipe, favoured by my grandpa.
Arctic Char and Burbot Chowder Recipe
Makes about 10 servings
2 lbs of char fillets, skinned and cut into cubes
1 lb of burbot fillets, skinned and cut into cubes
1½ cups of flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper
5 cups of fish, chicken, or vegetable broth
¼ cup of butter or oil plus a few tablespoons for sautéing
2 medium onions cut into ¾-inch dice
1 head of celery cut ¾-inch
2 pounds Yukon gold, Maine, PEI, or other all-purpose potatoes, peeled and chopped into ⅓-inch thick cubes
½ cup of spruce needles, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to season
2 cups of cream
Mix flour with 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of pepper and mix together in a bowl, pour onto a plate to dredge the cubed fish fillets lightly. Set aside.
Heat up frying pan on high heat adding generous amounts of butter or oil. Add the fish and simply fry quickly just enough for an outer crust, remove from heat.
In soup pot melt 3 teaspoons of butter and sauté onions and celery for about 4 minutes on high. Add potatoes and broth. Bring to a boil. Cook for about 10 minutes or until potatoes are tender.
Add the fried fish, the coating acting as a chowder thickener. Cook for 7 minutes or until fish is cooked through.
Add the spruce needles and salt and pepper to taste. Add the zest of one lemon and the juice of one lemon. Stir, then simmer for 1 minute.
Remove from heat, then add the cream. Stir and taste; season with salt and pepper.
Serve with lemon wedges bread and butter.
This is such a nice, warming chowder for a cold autumn day along the river.