Don and Jan Woodruff were interviewed on August 3, 2021 by Marcy Okada, Subsistence Coordinator for Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, at their home in Eagle, Alaska. In this interview, Don and Jan talk about living a subsistence lifestyle along the Yukon River in a remote cabin on the Kandik River and in Eagle. Don talks about building a cabin, the daily routine of life, catching and processing fish, trapping and preparing the skins and fur for sale, and traveling by dogteam and canoe. Jan and Don discuss building friendships, learning subsistence skills and what living this lifestyle has meant to them. They also talk about running dogs, having a garden, the busy lifestyle of seasonal food gathering and processing, and changes in the environment and salmon populations they've observed.
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Don and Jan Woodruff's personal backgrounds and coming to Alaska
Don's first experience with life on the Yukon River
Living on the Kandik River, and working in Eagle and Bristol Bay to earn extra money
Jan moving to Eagle
Building a cabin on the Kandik River
Daily routine of chores to support cabin life
Catching and processing fish
Learning the skills for living a subsistence lifestyle
Berrypicking, and salmon fishing and canning
Trapping, preparing skins, and selling and using furs
Hunting and eating ducks, guns, subsistence values, and porcupines
Traveling to town and lining a canoe upriver
Building friendships, sharing subsistence skills and knowledge, and keeping in touch with family
Having dogs and a dog team
Dog team saving his life when he fell through the ice
Challenges of living in a remote location with extreme environmental conditions
Personal meaning of living on the river and in Eagle, and getting involved in subsistence and fish and wildlife management councils
Changes in the environment and fish and wildlife populations, especially with the size and number of salmon
Gardening, and falltime processing of subsistence food
Special aspects of life on the Yukon River
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MARCY OKADA: So my name is Marcy Okada. I work for the National Park Service. And today is August 3, 2021, and I’m here interviewing Don Woodruff and Jan Parish? JAN WOODRUFF: Woodruff. MARCY OKADA: Woodruff. Jan Woodruff. At their home here in Eagle, Alaska. And so, I am going to be asking interview questions, and throughout the interview, I encourage you to just share any stories that come to mind that, yeah, that bring up memories, you know, as we move along through the interview.
I’m going to start with your personal background, and we’ll have Don go first. Um, where were you born and raised, Don, and educated? And who were your parents?
DON WOODRUFF: My parents, uh, were Elmer Lee Woodruff and Patricia Woodruff, and they were both born in Long Beach, California, and that’s where I was born. And my father was in the military, and so we moved, like every three years. So one of my fond memories was being on a ship going to Japan. We were stationed there for three years in Kyoto. Beautiful place with, you know, the cherry blossoms. It was just -- just beautiful place.
And then we were transferred back to the states, and then we went to Germany for three or four years, and I was quite a bit older then. I wasn’t this size. I was more like, you know, waist-high. And we had a great time in Germany. We traveled all around the country and different places in Europe. And that was basically my upbringing, other than, you know, going to high school in California when my father retired. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
DON WOODRUFF: And um, that, I guess, formed a foundation for travel in my older years. Yeah, so an example of that would be in the '70’s, I went to Europe and traveled around for a year. I wouldn’t say I was avoiding the draft for the Vietnam War, but I was definitely not communicating with anyone, so.
I think -- oh, educated. I was educated at Long Beach Junior College, and then I came up to the university in Fairbanks and studied ceramics at the art department. And I had a job at the same time with the water resources people. We went around the state sampling water. Wonder Lake, Harding Lake. And so that formed a lot of my biological, you know, interest in science. That’s pretty much it.
MARCY OKADA: Ok. We’ll move to you, Jan. JAN WOODRUFF: Um, my parents are Albert Helpenstill and Helen Helpenstill. They were in the military, so we traveled everywhere, up and down the East Coast and the Gulf Coast. And when I was sixteen, turning seventeen, my father got transferred to Cordova, so that’s how I ended up in Alaska.
And I went to nursing school in Key West, Florida, and came back and just traveled around. Finally found Eagle and decided to move here.
MARCY OKADA: Um, seeing that you both are a couple, um, you spent time separately in Eagle and on the Yukon River before you had met each other. So maybe we’ll just go through that early life and then kind of lead up to both of you meeting each other, and then your life together.
So maybe we’ll just start off with Don and your experiences. DON WOODRUFF: Ok, so -- MARCY OKADA: What brought you to Eagle area? DON WOODRUFF: One of my fond memories of floating down the river for the first time was stopping at Logan Creek, and I had my wife, previous wife, Jane Trainor Woodruff, um, and two kids. One kid.
And we got to Logan Creek, and there were Charlie and Cher and Little John were living there as a triplet couple, and -- MARCY OKADA: Could you repeat their names? So it was Charlie, Sharon? DON WOODRUFF: Cher. MARCY OKADA: Charlie, Cher -- DON WOODRUFF: And Little John, yeah. MARCY OKADA: And Little John. DON WOODRUFF: And I think those are all made-up names. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: That’s what they went by. MARCY OKADA: OK.
DON WOODRUFF: Um, and so they invited us into camp, and we -- for some reason we were cold. It was summer. And we were just slurping bear meat and bear fat like crazy. And it was just like, wow, this is powerful food, you know.
And um, the next day we proceeded downriver to Washington Creek, where I was invited to stay with a friend for the winter. And I thought this would be a great opportunity for my kid. And my wife was like eight months pregnant, or seven months pregnant, and she was showing quite a bit. And I thought that this would be a great place to raise kids and interact with nature and sort of get back to the basics of subsistence.
And for years, I either lived there -- I built a cabin that winter and had a daughter in that cabin at Washington Creek. And then a few years later, to open up my horizons for trapping and other activity more remotely, I went up the Kandik River and built a cabin there and the same year, built the Mouth cabin with Larry Ricketts and Jean Trainor. MARCY OKADA: Ok, so -- DON WOODRUFF: And, uh --
MARCY OKADA: So you came into the country what year? DON WOODRUFF: ’78. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. And um, it was just a phenomenal rebuilding of the spirit after, you know, going to school and living in California, you know, in the craziness of the -- that’s down there with the overpopulation.
So, yeah. So I lived on the Kandik with the kids and the wife. And they weren’t -- she wasn’t particularly happy in the Bush, not being able to interact with people. And she did have her sister at the mouth of the Kandik. It was like fifteen miles away. So she could hook the dogs up and go down and visit, and then freight a load of supplies back, mostly fish.
And then we split up, and I lived on the Kandik for about ten years alone, and would come to Eagle in the summer to work jobs, i.e. carpentry jobs, and I got a job with Fish and Game, just for a few months a year to count salmon, either by sonar or in a tower. MARCY OKADA: Huh. DON WOODRUFF: In Bristol Bay. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
DON WOODRUFF: And it was really difficult at that time of the year, in the spring, to go to work down at King Salmon and not have the funds to pay for the plane tickets, almost 500 bucks to get there. So I’d often have to either rely on my family until my fur check got processed. ’Cause I always sent my fur to auction ’cause I could get ten percent more for money, but you have to wait for months, you know.
And uh, in the process of being in Eagle, I met Jan, and we proceeded to move on a more substantial basis down onto the Kandik as a family.
MARCY OKADA: Ok. Um, thank you. So then, we’ll move to Jan. You know, the pre -- pre-Don life, so to speak, and then we’ll go from that until your merged lives. I’ll start asking questions.
JAN WOODRUFF: Well, I traveled a lot in different places when I was younger, and when I came back to Alaska permanently, I worked as a nurse. Um, I was an LPN for a few years while I worked for -- to get my RN. And lived in different areas of Alaska.
Wound up in Seward, 'cause my parents had decided to retire there. And had decided that I wanted to go back out where there wasn’t as many people. MARCY OKADA: Um-hm.
JAN WOODRUFF: ’Cause I had spent some time with friends at Ellamar in the Prince William Sound and places like that, and I knew I wanted to go back to that kind of lifestyle. And I found Eagle and decided to move here. And I moved here in May of ’97.
MARCY OKADA: Ok. Um, I guess I -- before that, I’d like to go back to Don and your experiences building the cabin on the Kandik. How did you build the cabin you lived in, and what were your positive and negative experiences while you were building that cabin?
DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, so I had help. You know, Larry Ricketts came upriver, and Harvey Kurzbard from Fairbanks came and helped. And it got to be late August, and we’re thinking, oh man, it’s going to be moose season pretty soon and stuff. So we just -- we had most of the roof poles peeled. So we basically threw a roof on with a loft as a -- the loft pole as a -- the ridge pole. And then the next year we went ahead and made the loft sort of with a sloping roof.
And the only negative aspect of building that cabin was that Jared Roberts and George Moore and Kelly Moore and Seymour Abel, they were all there in February, and it started thawing, and the roof started dripping. So we’re all kinda sitting in the corners of the cabin, trying to stay out of the drips. 'Cause at that point it was sort of a, you know, flat roof. That was the only negative aspect of it.
And the Kandik has a history of removing cabins, uh, because the river channel changes so much from side to side on the valley. And there’s several cabins now that were up the Kandik that have just been washed away.
MARCY OKADA: So was that a concern of yours at the time, or -- that the cabin would get washed away? Or you said, the Kandik has a history of just taking what it takes, and --
DON WOODRUFF: Right. So yesterday -- I mean, last summer, I met a couple Parks employees that were doing a cabin survey and taking photographs. And they were up just above the gorge, and there’s a cabin ruins there from Grinnell’s time in the ’40’s. And the river got it. They couldn’t find any sign of it. And it would only then, four or five years before that they had photographs of it. So it’s marching that direction on that bank.
MARCY OKADA: Ok. What were your daily -- what was your daily routine like? You know, imagine there was lots of chores to get done as you were living out there. And I guess this is going back to your pre-Jan life, so to speak. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah.
MARCY OKADA: You know, what were some of your daily activities, um, that just had to get done from season to season?
DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, so in the summer, you know, we were pretty wide open as far as what we could do and where we could go, but we never had an outboard motor. So we always had to walk the canoe up the bank. It’s called lining the canoe. So the canoe’s out in the water 25-30 feet, and you’re walking on the shoreline or, you know, knee-deep water, depending on how shallow it is.
And so, we could go just about anywhere except at high water when the river kind of pushed everything up into the willows, you know, and then you can’t really navigate very well.
And I would stand on the bank. It’s a steep cut-bank in front of the cabin because without a cut-bank, there is no cabin. The river would get it during break-up. And break-up on the Kandik is a lot like the Yukon. It just roars big chunks of ice, cabin-sized chunks of ice down the river.
And in the summer, I would fish for grayling with rod and reel, and pull the fish up on the bank, flopping around on the end of the lure. And I’d have one loose dog there, and I’d flip the fish to him, and they’d chunk it down. And after three or four fish, I’d rotate the dogs. So that was one way to get some food into the dogs, you know, in kind of a recreation kind of way, a fun way. MARCH OKADA: Yeah.
DON WOODRUFF: And, of course, the chores are, you know, you have to do wood and water every day, and, you know, wood meaning, you go out with the chainsaw and get wood up, you know, the back forty or whatever. Or the other side of the river. And the dogs transported it to the cabin.
MARCY OKADA: Ok. So you’re getting wood in the summer? DON WOODRUFF: Oh no. MARCY OKADA: Spring time. DON WOODRUFF: It’s a day-to-day kind of thing. MARCY OKADA: OK. DON WOODRUFF: I never got more than a week or so ahead of time. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah.
MARCY OKADA: And then water, what did that entail? DON WOODRUFF: Just go to the river, get a bucket, and dip it. MARCY OKADA: Ok. So you were getting water from the Yukon? DON WOODRUFF: Well, from the Yukon, yeah. So you know, you can let the water settle out, let the silt, you know, and the debris settle out. And you can use that. It clears up overnight. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
DON WOODRUFF: But there’s always, you know, little trickles and creeks and stuff that flow into the Yukon, and most of the time we’d camp there. Where there was a fresh water source. MARCY OKADA: Hm.
DON WOODRUFF: Unless the dogs decided it was time to camp, and most of those decisions were made by jumping on porcupines. It just turned into, uh, we gotta pull quills all day. So you’re camping right there wherever, you know, you can catch the dogs. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. How many dogs did you have at that time? DON WOODRUFF: Oh, five or six. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
You had mentioned a little bit about grayling fishing, feeding the dogs that way, but we’re going to move more into the fishing scene -- season in general. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. MARCY OKADA: I mean, rod and reel fishing for grayling is what you were talking about. Could you expand upon, um, the overall type of fishing you were doing?
DON WOODRUFF: Sure. So uh, with three-inch, or three-and-a-half-inch mesh nets, we would fish in eddies along the Yuk -- the Kandik and sloughs. And we’d get pike and suckers and whitefish. And most of that was dog food.
But I recall spending a whole two or three months at the mouth of the Kandik during break-up, and besides eating ducks, we ate pike every day. And so, yeah, fun.
MARCY OKADA: And how were you, I mean, how were you processing and storing this fish? I mean, or it was just daily catch that you guys were eating? DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, that’s -- we’d mostly only get a bucket of fish. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: Five-gallon bucket of fish that way.
And then for our seasonal harvest of salmon, we would fish on the Yukon in an eddy. Usually on a bluff. Because the eddies are formed by a medium avalanche, and then that causes a backwater in the Yukon, and you can set your net without it getting, you know, washed away by the river. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
DON WOODRUFF: And we’d put up about 800 salmon, and we’d split ’em and dry ’em. MARCY OKADA: Ok. So you had drying racks? DON WOODRUFF: Right at the mouth of the Kandik. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah.
MARCY OKADA: I guess my question that comes to mind is, you know, you came into the country in 1978? DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. MARCY OKADA: And you met various people, you know, and worked with various people to build this cabin. How did -- how did you learn things? Was it just learning as you go, or were people, you know, providing some -- some of their experiential information as well, or what was the learning process at that point?
DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, so I’m not sure that I knew how to build a cabin. The first cabin I built on the Washington Creek was a six-sided cabin because my wife couldn’t really handle logs being eight months’ pregnant. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. DON WOODRUFF: And so, I could handle that size logs. And I would throw ’em in the crick and then float ’em down to the cabin site, haul ’em back out of the river, up on the bank. By hand in the summer time. MARCY OKADA: Um-hm.
DON WOODRUFF: And then I put the six-sided cabin up. But there was definitely some errors made. You know, I put it on a tundra flat. MARCY OKADA: Um-hm. DON WOODRUFF: And it was permafrost, so after a couple years of heating the inside of the cabin, the floor gelled, sort of like when you stand on the bank of the Yukon. It sort of quivers a little bit.
And so, what we had to do was put plywood down over it, and then -- that’s one reason we moved up the Kandik was ’cause it had become unusable. MARCY OKADA: Ok. Hm.
DON WOODRUFF: So cabin building, I think it’s fairly basic, you know. You make a notch and you set a log in it. And if you look at old ruins of cabins, most of the saddle notches that are up? MARCY OKADA: Um-hm. DON WOODRUFF: Which means you cut down into the log, and you set the next log down into it, those were rotted out, the notches.
And if you did the reverse, you make the saddle or the notch above the log that you’re using, it tends to make the cabin last longer, whether it’s intrusion of water or whatever. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
DON WOODRUFF: And then there’s always the negative impact, of course, of wildlife getting in the cabin. MARCY OKADA: Um-hm. DON WOODRUFF: And my experience, and still is, that if you take the food out and the books, hard-bound books, because bears like the glue in books, then you leave the doors and windows open, and they don’t break in, and they don’t destroy your cabin. They just come in, look around, and leave. And it’s still working.
And I made the mistake a few times of closing it up with shutters, and they got on the roof, tore the roof off. Well, that just basically ruins the cabin, with the rain and everything that comes in.
MARCY OKADA: This is bears you’re talking about? DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, so. Bears are a big deal. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah.
MARCY OKADA: So we went -- we were talking about fishing, um, summertime, how about berry picking? How about any of -- DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, I didn’t put up that much berries, but I did know of some good berry spots that, you know, we would harvest enough for the summer. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: But I never put up enough for winter.
MARCY OKADA: Ok. So now we’re moving into falltime and all the falltime activities that that brings up. Um, maybe go a little bit into that. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, so that’s a real busy time of the year because, from my perspective, I had access to salmon. A lot of people on the Yukon and Kandik River and Nation River didn’t have access to salmon because they lived so far up the river. MARCY OKADA: Hm.
DON WOODRUFF: And so, I could fish and hunt at the same time, which is kind of impossible because of time straints. Uh, and so, I pretty much felt that the sure thing is that salmon will be there, and that’s where I’m going to focus my attention. And if a moose happens to swim by, ok, go get him, you know. MARCY OKADA: Um-hm.
DON WOODRUFF: And there were many winters that I did without, but I always had jars of salmon to get by with, you know. And it wasn’t unusual to have eight dozen jars of salmon for the winter.
So that’s the fall freeze-up, you know. And then, there’s the winter trapping season, which is -- MARCY OKADA: Yeah. DON WOODRUFF: A whole different kind of harvest. You know, we didn’t harvest moose in the winter unless we were starving, and that didn’t really happen because of the salmon jars.
And I didn’t focus on trapping any wolves unless they were coming too close to the cabin and messing with me and the dogs, you know. But I got -- consistently got 30 or 40 marten every year, and that maintained the population in the area, and was just enough to buy gas and maybe replace the chainsaw or -- MARCY OKADA: Um-hm. DON WOODRUFF: And the little essential things that you need cash for. Bucket of peanut butter.
MARCY OKADA: So let’s talk a little bit more about that. Trapping. The animals you were trapping, you had mentioned not really targeting wolves unless it was -- there were some dog-wolf interactions, but mostly focusing on marten. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah.
MARCY OKADA: What were your strategies and techniques for that? DON WOODRUFF: Oh, a lot of that depends on the fur price, but um, I mean, I’d certainly harvest less fur when the prices were low because the prices didn’t dictate my harvest. You know, if they were $100 each, I didn’t harvest 100 of them, I still only got 30. And if they were $35 each, I didn’t harvest 100 of them, I still only harvested 30 because I wanted to leave plenty of seed for the next year and the next year and the next year.
MARCY OKADA: Um-hm. So you were hunt -- or you were trapping year to year to year? DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. MARCY OKADA: With that type of strategy? DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, and it worked. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah.
MARCY OKADA: What was that like, to run a trapline? For example, going out to, you know, set and check the traps? You know, what kind of routine did that provide? Maintaining the trail. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. MARCY OKADA: The trap trail and what-not.
DON WOODRUFF: Well, for the beginning of the season, I would go out on snowshoes and clean up the old trails and in these really steep bank creek crossings, I’d build little bridges, temporary bridges, to get across. And I’d drop a couple trees across and put a brace in the middle and then throw brush over it, and then shovel snow on top of the brush. And that would be the creek crossing.
And after two or three years -- I mean, it’s just really a ditch, you know, it’s not really a creek. And it just too steep on both sides for the dogs to mush through it.
So I’d do that for four or five miles, maybe, each day at the beginning of the season in different directions so that I could get the dogs out of the yard and on a trail a ways. Get ’em worked out, you know, get ’em stretched out and then stop and then continue with the trail, brushing it up and improving it.
MARCY OKADA: Ok. So like you said, it was like a five-dog team? DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. So it was a five-dog team and -- MARCY OKADA: Check the traps. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, if you had a whole lot more than that, they only wanted to stop for a few minutes for you to check your set, and then they were blasting off again, so you had to be cognizant of the timing. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: With the dogs, ’cause they don’t want to sit too long while you’re baiting a trap or freezing your fingers.
MARCY OKADA: So you had -- you had an efficient way of doing things, so to speak? DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, I -- yeah, yeah, time management. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah.
MARCY OKADA: Um, mostly targeting marten, but you would get some incidental -- DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, I did. MARCY OKADA: -- other species?
DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, in the springtime, spring being February, I would go out and trap beavers under the ice. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: And I was quite successful with that. And Randy Brown taught me how to do that, putting snares under the ice. MARCY OKADA: Hm.
DON WOODRUFF: And it was a lot of food for us and the dogs, and some really nice hides. The average price for a blanket or super blanket, beaver, is like, fifty or sixty bucks, if it’s taken care of well. You know, it’s not all cut up when you skin it and stuff.
MARCY OKADA: How about processing? I mean, you must have had a system for that. I mean, if you’re catching 30 to 40 marten a season. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. MARCY OKADA: I mean, the whole processing system must have been pretty down pat also?
DON WOODRUFF: Right. So I never got so many marten that I had to be like, backlogged for skinning and stretching, but there were often times I’d get seven marten in a picking.
And so you basically turn ’em inside out, take the hide off the carcass, and stretch it over a specific size form that auction houses often give you the -- a paper pattern that they prefer, the size and shape. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: You don’t just stretch ’em over a bent willow or something, you know.
And then the carcasses, the meat from all these critters, went to the dogs for food. And then at the end of the season, I would clean up the dog yard, and anything I could find that wasn’t buried in the snow, I would take away from the cabin and put it in the woods, and the foxes would come right away and get it. Eat it up and clean it up.
MARCY OKADA: So were you just feeding -- how were you feeding it to the dogs? Were you just -- DON WOODRUFF: Just raw. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, I didn’t cook the marten. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
DON WOODRUFF: And there were some dogs that liked ’em, and some dogs would only eat the legs off. I think the gut section, they weren’t too fond of it.
MARCY OKADA: Ok. Um, and then you mentioned that you would always sell them through the auction ’cause you got a bit more for that. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. MARCY OKADA: So that was your way. Um, how about keeping any of the furs for yourself? Was there any processing?
DON WOODRUFF: Well, we did, uh, we did have this book called "The Secrets of Eskimo Skin Sewing." And my first wife, Jane, she took a class at the university in skin sewing.
And so, the first year that I caught seven lynx, I think, we made a fur coat and tried to sell it in Fairbanks. We didn’t have too much success. I think I made maybe what I would’ve sent for the fur to go to auction. We did put a silk lining in it.
But we are not Martin Victor with a label and all that stuff, you know. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. DON WOODRUFF: And so, we didn’t have a market, so to speak, for it. If we’d have had a, you know, fancy label in it, it might have been a lot different story.
MARCY OKADA: So speaking of which, so you said marten, lynx, and then -- DON WOODRUFF: Fox. MARCY OKADA: Fox, and --
DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, the other furbearers would be mink, muskrat -- so we’d harvest muskrat. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: In the springtime or in the fall with .22 rifles. MARCY OKADA: Oh, ok. DON WOODRUFF: That’s another trapping method, you know, technique.
And the muskrat we would eat, and the hides we would make stuff out of. Hats and -- MARCY OKADA: Gloves. DON WOODRUFF: -- ruffs, yeah, stuff like that.
MARCY OKADA: Um, you had just touched on, you know, catching some ducks in the springtime. Was there any real focus on that, or it was just, you know, whatever you saw. You weren’t specifically going out looking for geese and ducks, but you were just happened to, you know, see some, and you’d get them and be done? DON WOODRUFF: No. Totally the opposite. MARCY OKADA: Oh.
DON WOODRUFF: We would go and set up blinds. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, so just downstream from the mouth of the Kandik, probably 300-400 yards, there was this huge grassy area that would come up with that primal grass. We called it goose grass.
And then along the bank in the woods, we’d set up blinds that we could travel in the woods, not out in the open where any animals would see us or birds would see us. And then crawl up behind some big logs and, you know, poke the rifle over. You had to be very careful ’cause in every group of ducks or geese, there’s somebody designated, watching. And if they see you, they’re gone. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. DON WOODRUFF: And you can’t, you know.
We didn’t hunt with shotguns, we hunt with .22s for the economics of it. And the fact that a wounded duck, you could chase it forever, you know, and -- You know, at that time, there’s just an open lead, which is basically, you know, a big crack in the ice with water flowing by. And you wouldn’t want to be putting your canoe in to go chasing ducks in that. It would be disastrous. MARCY OKADA: Huh.
DON WOODRUFF: So we got, I don’t know, the first year we probably ate -- me, Randy Brown, and Larry Rickets, we probably ate over 150 ducks that spring in about six weeks’ time.
And we would sit right at the fire pit at the mouth of the Kandik and pluck the ducks ’cause we wanted the fat that was right by the skin. And by the end of the season, it looked like it had snowed there in the middle of the season.
And we’re always like, "Well, I wonder what the Park Service is going to think about this?" But we never had any interactions at that time of the year with ’em. MARCY OKADA: Huh.
DON WOODRUFF: And then the -- the vegetation would just eat it all up. MARCY OKADA: Oh, ok. DON WOODRUFF: The growth of the plants in the soil would just eat all those feathers up.
MARCY OKADA: I imagine some would’ve blown away also. I mean, they'd scatter-- DON WOODRUFF: Somewhat, but I mean, it’s surrounded by rosebushes, so they didn’t go far. MARCY OKADA: Huh. That’s interesting. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah.
MARCY OKADA: So you had mentioned shooting with .22s, not shotguns. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. MARCY OKADA: Was there anyone reloading? Were you reloading, or? DON WOODRUFF: I did, on my big rifles. Yeah, the .22’s not really something you can reload very easily. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. Yeah, but I mean --
DON WOODRUFF: And at that time, you know, 100 .22 bullets were only two dollars and forty cents. MARCY OKADA: Hm. DON WOODRUFF: So it was pretty economical to, you know --
And subsistence isn’t about, you know, blasting, you know, into groups of ducks or blasting into the groups of caribou or moose. It’s more like specific chest shots, so you don’t have to chase a duck. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. DON WOODRUFF: Or a goose or moose, miles just to get a meal, you know. MARCY OKADA: Yeah.
DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, so I had a .243 for hunting moose and bears, and it was very effective. And most people would probably say that’s just a deer rifle, but it worked just great. MARCY OKADA: Hm.
DON WOODRUFF: And there was very little recoil, so I was very accurate with it, you know, within a few inches of where I was always wanting to shoot it.
MARCY OKADA: So I guess it just brings up a question in my mind. You had mentioned, you know, coming from California. Up until that point, I mean, had you grown up shooting things or -- ? DON WOODRUFF: No, I never shot a weapon. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: Until I moved to the Yukon. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah.
And I didn’t shoot any weapons in Eagle. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: When I was here in the summertime, really, except maybe to get a porcupine. MARCY OKADA: Hm.
DON WOODRUFF: Some of the elders in the village wanted any porcupine they could get, so when I saw ’em, I got ’em because they’re the nemesis of a dog. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. DON WOODRUFF: Or a dog team, in particular.
So an example of that would be, I would be lining up the Yukon, walking the canoe, and the dogs would just be loose, running around, ’cause you can’t put ’em in the boat and you can’t put ’em on leads. You know, they’re just walking with you, basically.
And you look downriver, and they’re standing out in the river, paw in their face, and it’s like, "Oh no." There’s two of them, and they just -- they like tried to shred a porcupine, you know. MARCY OKADA: Yeah.
DON WOODRUFF: So it’s like, oop. Time to make camp, make some popcorn, and sit on the dogs and pull quills for hours.
MARCY OKADA: You ever had a sled dog that never just -- DON WOODRUFF: Recovered? MARCY OKADA: Or that never -- that knew better without any interaction with a porcupine, or -- ? DON WOODRUFF: Never. MARCY OKADA: Ok, they, that’s just instinct?
DON WOODRUFF: They always attack the porcupine, because the porcupine has an attitude that’s like, "I’m gonna move on at my own pace, and if you bite me, you’re gonna be sorry." MARCY OKADA: Yeah. DON WOODRUFF: And it’s -- they’re still like that. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. Huh.
And then there’s no lessons learned from that dog, either? DON WOODRUFF: No, they get kicked by moose, and they go right back in within a few minutes. MARCY OKADA: Interesting. Ok. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, I’ve had ’em bleeding out of their nose from getting stomped, and they just go right back.
MARCY OKADA: So there’s no lessons? DON WOODRUFF: No, except if the moose kills ’em, then that’d be the lesson. MARCY OKADA: Yeah.
Um, so let’s move on to going back -- to and from town. DON WOODRUFF: Oh, yeah. MARCY OKADA: Um, back in the day. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. MARCY OKADA: And how is that -- DON WOODRUFF: So it’s a week. MARCY OKADA: That was done.
DON WOODRUFF: Takes a week to line the canoe upriver from the Kandik to Eagle. And that’s about twenty miles a day, lining, walking the bank.
And then when you get to a cut-bank where the current’s too fast, you can’t go along that way, so you have to cross the Yukon. Put all the dogs in the boat, cross the Yukon to the other side, which is most likely gravel bars and stuff, or islands for a ways.
And then you go up that bank until you hit a bluff or a steep cut-bank where the current’s too fast to go around it, cross to the other side, go up that side. So it’s a long process. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. Yeah. Huh. DON WOODRUFF: You can’t be in a big hurry.
MARCY OKADA: How often were you coming into town? DON WOODRUFF: Once a season. MARCY OKADA: Oh. So once a season meaning once in winter? Once in -- DON WOODRUFF: Once a year. MARCY OKADA: Ok. Ok.
DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. So in particular, uh, Larry Ricketts, Randy Brown, and I lined up the Kandik, and then -- I mean, up the Yukon, and then when we got to Eagle, we got in Larry Ricketts’ truck, because neither one of us had a truck, and then we drove to Fairbanks and bought supplies. MARCY OKADA: OK. DON WOODRUFF: And then turned around and go back.
I think in one of those trips, Randy Brown met Karen, his wife. MARCY OKADA: Driving? DON WOODRUFF: Well, being in town, you know. MARCY OKADA: In Fairbanks? DON WOODRUFF: Yeah.
MARCY OKADA: Ok. So you mentioned Randy Brown and Larry Ricketts. And it sounds like you spent considerable time with them. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. MARCY OKADA: And, you know, maybe made some lasting bond or friendship, would you say?
DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. With them and their family, because it wasn’t uncommon when you'd go to visit someone, whether it be summer or winter, you would light the sauna. MARCY OKADA: Hm. DON WOODRUFF: And we’d all take saunas together.
You know, and so, that’s kind of a, you know, kind of a bonding situation right there because you’re all just kind of sitting around, doing the basics. MARCY OKADA: Um-hm. Chatting and sharing stories. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, talking about hunting techniques or whatever.
And that’s a lot of what we did when we got together, you know, besides eating a lot of different kinds of food, you know. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. DON WOODRUFF: Was talking about hunting techniques or fishing techniques. MARCY OKADA: Hm.
DON WOODRUFF: And that was how we exchanged, you know, knowledge for skills and stuff. MARCY OKADA: Ok. Hm. Interesting.
So coming into town once a year, I mean, I assume you’re checking your mail also? DON WOODRUFF: Oh, yeah. MARCY OKADA: Coming into town. DON WOODRUFF: We didn’t get mail downriver. Nobody -- nobody brought us mail. MARCY OKADA: There’s no mail service. DON WOODRUFF: Never.
MARCY OKADA: Um, keeping in touch with family Outside, perhaps, or, I mean, just, you know, coming and checking -- DON WOODRUFF: Oh, I had, you know, kind of a little diary of things that happened over the course of the winter to my parents, you know. This is the date, this is what we did, you know. And maybe once a week, I’d write a little paragraph, and then we’d have this composite letter to send off in the springtime. MARCY OKADA: Hm.
DON WOODRUFF: And that changed a little bit over time. I mean, in the '90’s, Park Service would go by with their snowmachines doing patrol on the Kandik, and I could put a stake out on the trail with my mail on it in a plastic bag, and then when they --
whichever day they came back by, I wasn’t just waiting for them to hand ’em the mail. They’d pick it up and haul it to town, you know. MARCY OKADA: Oh. DON WOODRUFF: With a few, you know, little bit of change because we didn’t buy stamps and stuff like that ahead of time. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. Huh.
DON WOODRUFF: And the compendium would come that way, and we could comment on the compendium. MARCY OKADA: Oh, ok. So at that point there was some -- DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. MARCY OKADA: Interaction going on. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. Yeah.
MARCY OKADA: Ok. Um, so let’s -- let’s move to -- to, you know, both of you at this point. And thank you for your patience, Jan. Um, so um, let’s talk about memories.
You know, both of you have -- have lived out here for -- for quite a while. And just, you know, are there any memories or stories that stand out in your mind of -- in particular.
I mean, you know, essentially when you’re out there, or even here in Eagle, or just going out on the landscape to go hunting and fishing, you know, is there any -- anything that just sticks out, where you’re just like, yeah, I remember that one time, you know, such-and-such happened. And you know, it’s something you just don’t ever forget because it just -- it lingers in your mind, so to speak.
JAN WOODRUFF: Well, I remember the first time I got out on the Yukon, and I remember thinking, "Boy, this is just really, really what I’ve been missing."
And then, of course, the fishing and learning how to process the fish. That became important my first couple of years here ’cause I got into some dogs.
Then, um, I just remember thinking, this is full circle because my grandfather was a subsistence fisherman off the coast of North Carolina, a little island called Ocracoke. And it was -- I have really fond memories of watching him make his nets, and then I came to Eagle, and here I am, fishing with a net, and it was just -- just something that struck me.
MARCY OKADA: Yeah. So it sounds like, you know, you were living in Eagle, and you had an interest in having dogs in your life. And then, um -- JAN WOODRUFF: Yes. MARCY OKADA: They became a pretty strong part of your life. And then you met Don, who also had dogs in his life. So how did that all merge together?
I mean, you eventually brought your dogs and, you know, he brought his dogs, and it became a dog life together, so to speak. JAN WOODRUFF: Well, for the first couple of years we were together, there were his dogs. MARCY OKADA: Ok. JAN WOODRUFF: And my dogs. ’Cause my dogs were essentially pet dogs that I ran, you know, the local trails with. His dogs were trapline dogs that worked hard. MARCY OKADA: Ok. Working dogs.
JAN WOODRUFF: That was his -- yeah. That was his main means of transportation in the wintertime for many, many years was strictly the dogs, so -- you know -- Then he slowly started training my dogs to work with his dogs, and everybody ended up being our dogs. MARCY OKADA: Ok. JAN WOODRUFF: That’s how that ended up. MARCY OKADA: Just one big pack of dogs? JAN WOODRUFF: Yeah.
MARCY OKADA: Any -- I mean, I imagine -- over the years, you’ve probably had just, I mean -- I mean, what do you -- it’s dozens of dogs at this point. I mean, hundreds? Or -- Well, dozens at this point.
Any -- any, you know, every -- every lifetime of dogs, people have a handful of dogs that particularly stand out in their mind because they were either exceptional or perhaps the opposite, you know, they had their -- they were just unique in their own way. Any stories like that? Where, yeah, you know, such-and-such dog. I’ll never forget such-and-such dog, 'cause, you know, he either saved your life or whatever?
DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, so. Yeah. Um, some of the negatives about dogs and dog breeds was that somebody gave me a Newfoundland. MARCY OKADA: Oh. DON WOODRUFF: Which is a big dog. MARCY OKADA: Yes. DON WOODRUFF: And it knew how to mush, but it was a hell of a fighter.
And I ended up having to put it down because it just kept chewing up the dog team. And you can’t have a dog team with flat tires by being wounded all the time, you know. MARCY OKADA: Yeah.
DON WOODRUFF: And unfortunately, I didn’t -- didn't have extra dogs. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: To, you know, only pick out the best dogs. So then, you would have to either breed up to replace the ones that either went down from whatever reason, you know.
And then, over the course of 40-something years, a sled dog’s lifespan is only like ten years, really. You know, we’ve got some retired ones here that are going on 14. And so, you know, there’s four or five dog teams right there that we’ve lived through, you know, and um,
I can’t say that there were a whole lot of exceptional dogs, except of course for the leaders. You know, you don’t forget them, and you treat them pretty special.
JAN WOODRUFF: Peppy saved your life. When you went through the ice. DON WOODRUFF: Oh, yeah, so I was going downriver one time in November, which the river is pretty non-navigable by dog team in the winter time. I mean, in November, because the ice is too thin, and I went through the ice, uh, to my neck. MARCY OKADA: Hm.
DON WOODRUFF: And the sled sunk. I could see it. I could see the -- you know, the -- it sunk from the back end down, so -- I was in a slough, and the back of the runners touched on the bottom. And the curl on the front of the sled or toboggan stuck up. And the dogs were still standing on the ice, so it was just a big hole with me and the sled in it.
And I tried to swim to the shore side of the hole, of the ice, and the ice kept breaking, and I couldn’t get out. So I swam up to the front of the sled, and I had a carabiner on the sled. And unhooked the carabiner, which unhooked the dogs from the sled, held onto the carabiner and said, "Go." And they dragged me up on the ice. MARCY OKADA: Hm.
DON WOODRUFF: And then I took all their tug lines off and -- so that I had one long piece of rope, and wrapped it around my waist, and we started hiking, of course, to the nearest cabin because I was turning into a popsicle. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. DON WOODRUFF: It was only 20 below, but it was still cold enough to have some serious consequences. MARCY OKADA: Yeah.
DON WOODRUFF: And I survived that by getting to the Rock Creek cabin, which is -- got burned up in a fire quite a few years later.
MARCY OKADA: And so Peppy was the lead dog on that? DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, Peppy was the lead dog in that, and -- wouldn’t necessarily say he saved my life, but he was instrumental in sort of guiding the other dogs along the shore if they -- you know, so that they didn’t go back out on the ice and get into trouble themselves.
MARCY OKADA: So that brings to mind maybe some of the challenges that you experienced living out there from season to season. You know, obviously winter has its own set of challenges, maybe more so than summer. And then, you know, freeze-up versus break-up time of the year. And just being out there trying to traverse the landscape safely. Um, maybe describe a little bit about that?
DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, so we -- the thing about working in a remote location like that and working with nature, whether it be the timing of the river freeze-up or break-up is that you have to be very patient with the envir -- with the elements, ’cause if you push it, you’re gonna be really sorry. You know, you can’t push the river, and you have to have a lot of respect for the river, because it can get you if you’re not careful. Or you have an experience, you know, canoeing in the, you know, freeze-up ice.
Often times, I would go down to the Kandik on my last trip, at the mouth of the Kandik, on my last trip with groceries and dogs and sled piled on top, and, yeah, you had to be aware that if you’re not on the bank that you want to get out on, the ice could -- 'cause the ice is flowing pretty steadily.
You know, there’s -- there's little places, say, as big as a cabin between the icebergs that you could paddle around and maneuver to shore, but if you weren’t on that shore a couple of miles before you expect to be, you ain’t gonna get there.
And I’ve always -- before, I would put a stake or have a marker or something that I could get to shore and quickly tie the boat off, 'cause the ice -- as soon as you get to shore, the ice is banging onto the boat, the side of the boat, trying to send it downriver, so you have to get out on shelf ice, which is ice that’s just floating, sticking out from shore, and then scramble up to shore and tie the boat off and then start unloading and get the boat out of the water because it’s going to ice in that night. So it’s a long day.
And, you know, getting the dogs out of the canoes, drag out your chains, chain ’em up, picking ’em all out in the willows, and then start unloading the boat.
MARCY OKADA: Huh. Just in your mind, you’re planning ahead? DON WOODRUFF: Oh, yeah. MARCY OKADA: Always planning ahead. DON WOODRUFF: Always. Yeah.
MARCY OKADA: Um, so and this question could -- could be really to both of you, ’cause you’ve spent time out on the river. Um, what do you like about living off the river? What does it mean to you, you know? What kinds of feelings does it conjure up?
JAN WOODRUFF: For me, it’s -- it's peace. I don’t like to be around a lot of crowds and um, I just enjoy the solitude. And you can hear nature, the birds, the wind, the river. And that’s it. You don’t hear traffic, people noises, and that kind of thing. So it’s the serenity I enjoy.
MARCY OKADA: How about you, Don? DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, so for me, I think the most remarkable thing is that it’s a renewal, or a revival of your spirit when you’re out in nature like that. And to just see how magnificent it is. And it just sort of, you know, fills up the void that you would have necessarily living in with crowds of people and stuff.
Although now, you know, I do go to, you know, federal subsistence meetings, and, you know, Eagle AC (Fish and Game Advisory Council) meetings, and Federal RAC (Resource Advisory Council) meetings, and I enjoy that, too, now. And I wouldn’t have ever been able to communicate very well 40 years ago with people about stuff like that, about subsistence.
MARCY OKADA: So why do you think that is? Like, what -- what path were you taking that has led you up 'til now being able to talk about it and wanting to share information at those types of meetings? DON WOODRUFF: I guess I could thank the Park Service for their ability to push me a little bit more into the public realm, you know, and -- MARCY OKADA: How so?
DON WOODRUFF: Well, yeah. So I’m -- I matured a lot, you know. I wasn’t quite such a rebel, so to speak, and being --
Here’s an example. I was camping on the bank of the river with my first wife and two kids in a pup tent, or a little tiny tent. And we were probably 20 feet from the shore of the river, camping on a -- next to a drift pile, so we had plenty of wood, and there was a little creek coming in there. And right there, we could put the net in and fish for chum.
And here comes a Park Service employee in his canoe. And he pulls out, and he says, "Hi, I’m from the Park Service. And I have a 3x5 card, and this is your permit." My first permit, first time I’ve actually interacted with the Park Service. And I signed on the card, you know, at the bottom of it or whatever. And now it’s forms and forms of legalese that we have to fill out in order to absolve ourselves of responsibility and the Park Service. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: Is the way I see it, you know.
MARCY OKADA: So what you’re saying is, back then in the '80’s -- ’cause that’s when you were out there in your pup tent was in the 80’s, that permit was just a small little card? DON WOODRUFF: Yep. MARCY OKADA: And that was the entire process? DON WOODRUFF: That’s the entire process.
MARCY OKADA: And then what you’re saying is, you bring it 'til now, and the process has just -- has turned into --
DON WOODRUFF: Well, the process has changed a lot. But then, there’s all that history of all the different permits that I’ve signed, you know. Some of them were one page long, and then -- Basically, they convey to the federal government all your activity as far as buildings. The building site, it’s not yours. The cabin, the cache, the sauna, the outhouse. None of that belongs to you. It’s yours to use temporarily.
The federal government’s not giving you anything, really. You know, they’re not giving up anything, they’re just giving you a chance to sort of lend-lease.
MARCY OKADA: Ok. Um, so let’s -- let’s move a little bit more into that. Since you touched upon how things have changed over the years in regards to Preserve management and your use of the Preserve, do you have any other examples of that? You know, you’ve been around a long time, and you’ve seen -- you’ve seen the -- DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. MARCY OKADA: The evolution, so to speak.
DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, I think I have a reputation for being outspoken now, you know, to say what’s on my mind or what’s in my heart. And I think that most, I should say, of the park employees respect that, you know. I respect where they’re coming from, whether it be, you know, Montana or wherever. But it’s, you know, here we are in the woods or on the river, and that is the prevailing dominant factor, you know.
And we all are just here on this planet temporarily. And in order to get along -- and so I decided well, we’ll just communicate with these people, you know, because they’re not going away, you know.
And at first, I thought, I’ll just fade off in the woods. And I did that a few times when Park Service would come to the mouth, and they’d say, "Where’s Don?" They’d be talking to Larry and Jean at the mouth, and he said, "Oh, he left when he saw you coming." MARCY OKADA: Oh. DON WOODRUFF: And they were like, "Oh, ok."
MARCY OKADA: So that’s the '80’s that you’re referring to? DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, the early '80’s. MARCY OKADA: It was just -- DON WOODRUFF: And then I thought, well, this is not going to work, you know. This is never going to work. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. DON WOODRUFF: It’s much better to communicate with people and have things up front.
MARCY OKADA: Um, so speaking of which, because of your longevity out there, what have you noticed in regards to fish and wildlife resources, for instance? The numbers of fish and wildlife, changes in the river, the river environment along the Yukon, changes in seasonal patterns. You know, basically those types of things. If you would like to share.
DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, so um, over the past 40 years, I think that -- I wouldn’t necessarily say climate change, but the changing in the global patterns of weather has changed the dynamics of harvest in the winter for example. Because the snow’s a lot less, and as a result of that, the wolves have a little better time getting the moose.
And for twenty years, Yukon-Charley’s had the lowest, some of the lowest anyway, moose populations in the whole state. And I see now over the course of time that it's -- has improved quite a bit.
And there’s a lot more twinning of calves and successful wintering of twinning calves, which I learned at the last subsistence working group meeting from the biologists, wildlife biologists.
And in the summer, I would say the fish size, salmon size, fish size has decreased remarkably. Last year, we had some very short openings for fishing at the beginning of the season, before the -- you know, first run of fish come. They were called tricklers, the fish that start trickling in at the beginning. And 90 percent of those are males, small males, like 10-pound fish.
But, last year, I got some grayling-sized kings, which was just disgusting to me to think, "Oh, here -- they’re counting this as a fish passage." It should’ve been a 30-pound fish. And had, you know, hundreds of thousands of eggs instead of a -- you know, 1-pound or 2-pound fish.
And as a result of that, my ability to harvest has changed remarkably. MARCY OKADA: Hm. DON WOODRUFF: To where I’m now -- if they say, ok, you can use a 7.5-inch mesh net, I’m using a 5.5, because I want to use the net not to get the big fish, but to get the medium-size fish, you know. I can get a 20-pound fish in a 5.5-inch mesh net. And that’s plenty big for our subsistence needs and all the elders and people we share fish with. People that have, you know, lots of kids, they need more food.
And that’s pretty much the over time changes. And these last two years, I wouldn’t say the fish have been in the toilet, but we haven’t made escapement in Eagle, and we haven’t met our boundary agreements with Canada as far as escapement. And escapement is enough fish to get to the spawning grounds for the recovery of the next year’s species. Which is sad. But we’re all working on it. I mean, we’re not fishing this year for salmon. MARCY OKADA: Yeah.
DON WOODRUFF: And the philosophy and history shows us that if you don’t fish, and you let ’em, you know, just go and -- go spawn, they will rebuild. It just takes time.
MARCY OKADA: You had mentioned prior to the interview even starting that, you know, this year your garden is providing for -- you know, your garden is doing well. And, I mean, that’s also subsistence here in Eagle. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah.
MARCY OKADA: It’s not out in the Preserve, but maybe talk a little bit about gardening and some joys from that.
DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, so the first time I tried to grow potatoes was on the Kandik, and we had an itinerant teacher that would fly in for school from Tok. And they always asked us, "Can we bring you food, or do you need anything?" And all I ever asked for was some seed potatoes.
And so, there was a pretty good-size island just downriver from where the cabin was located, and so I’d pull the weeds and cut the willows and put the -- the seed potatoes in and took some dog shit down there and fertilized the potatoes. And a flood came and washed it all away. MARCY OKADA: Oh.
DON WOODRUFF: So I’ve learned a little bit more about gardening. And here in Eagle, I can grow enough food to share with most people in town that don’t garden or don’t have a source like that. MARCY OKADA: Ok. DON WOODRUFF: Out to the village for the elders. And like I said before, lots of people that have kids, you know.
Most people that have a group of kids, have a garden. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. DON WOODRUFF: Because they know the value of it. My neighbor Sonja, she grows six or eight hundred pounds of potatoes. And -- I mean, I’m not at that level, you know, because I don’t have that need for it, but I do grow enough potatoes to share with the people that, you know, have no source.
And unfortunately this year, the garden is feeding us better than the fish net, which is a tragedy, but it’s a positive thing, too.
MARCY OKADA: Hm. What else are you growing? I know, potatoes. DON WOODRUFF: Oh, potatoes, peas, green beans, cabbage, lots of squash, zucchini, collards. JAN WOODRUFF: Carrots and beets. DON WOODRUFF: Carrots and beets.
MARCY OKADA: So how does that relate to one another? I mean, I know you’re not really catching fish, but usually the processing of your garden vegetables and whatnot, does that coincide with the processing of fish so it’s like a massive production? JAN WOODRUFF: Um, usually this time of year we would be processing both king and our garden. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
JAN WOODRUFF: And um, Don would check the nets in the morning, and I would get the fillets. And I always dry mine before I put 'em directly in the freezer. MARCY OKADA: Oh, ok. JAN WOODRUFF: I let ’em air-dry.
Lately I’ve been putting fans on 'em. And once they’re firm, the skin’s firm, I’ll package 'em up and put 'em in the freezer or can them, depending on what I’m doing.
And then in the afternoons, while I’ll be smoking some fish, 'cause we have a little smoker, I’d be doing the vegetables. I would either freeze them, dry them, or jar them. MARCY OKADA: Ok. JAN WOODRUFF: So yeah, and that’s all happened, sort of, it’s a busy time. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
JAN WOODRUFF: Yeah. Usually I had fish laid out all over the kitchen, on every flat surface, drying. Or in the smoker, smoking.
MARCY OKADA: Yeah, so it sounds like the processing, I mean, you guys got it down pat also. You know, you have your system laid out. JAN WOODRUFF: We have a pretty good system and it works for us. Yes.
MARCY OKADA: Ok. Huh. Um, one of the questions was, you know, about leaving the life out on the Yukon, but you folks haven’t really left it because you’re still, you know, spending time out there. Um, this question was more for people that have completely, you know, moved in or moved to Fairbanks or whatnot.
But um, I do kinda just want to end with a positive note, so to speak, and just maybe end with -- and you -- I’ve already asked this question, but I still like to end with it, is um, you know, just -- just what makes the Yukon River life special?
DON WOODRUFF: Yeah, I guess it’s not just Yukon life, really. It’s -- it's the whole picture of being a subsistence person and being able to share your subsistence harvest.
And an example of that is that we would get bears periodically in the summer, and we would often, because we couldn’t keep the meat for very long, we’d often go to our nearest neighbor, either at Washington Creek, or up at Glenn Creek, or up to Trout Creek, Mike Sager’s place, and take them bear meat. It didn’t matter really how far away it was, you just didn’t want to waste it, you know.
And Mike Sager’s mother was at the cabin one time, and I was dog-packing some legs of bear meat up, and that’s the only thing she remembers about me, is bringing them meat. She doesn’t remember my name, she didn’t remember much about where I came from, but she remembered me bringing her meat. And I think that’s special.
MARCY OKADA: Hm. Ok. Well, I just want to say thank you for your time. I really appreciate it. You know, especially -- I realize now I have the chance to interview you ’cause like you said, normally this time of year, it’s a big production of the processing. But I still do appreciate your time today. DON WOODRUFF: Yeah. JAN WOODRUFF: Yeah. MARCY OKADA: I just want to say thank you. JAN WOODRUFF: We appreciate -- DON WOODRUFF: We appreciate the opportunity to be able to communicate a little bit. MARCY OKADA: Thanks.