Saima Chase slid onto the ice at Kotzebue Sound, her arms loaded down with two five-gallon drum buckets filled with an ax and pick.
“When were these holes last opened?” Chase asked her cousin Juanita Henry, who sat quietly in the sun, ice fishing with about 20 frozen tom cod in front of her.
“Last night,” Henry told Chase as she flung another fish off her line. It quickly froze in temperatures that hovered around 20 degrees.
Chase, and many people here in Kotzebue, hunt and fish to feed their families. Chase says if she shopped at the local grocery store, her monthly bill would be about $1,000 a month. Because she hunts for all of her meat and only buys vegetables, pasta and rice, she can keep it closer to $200.
Chase enjoys fishing, but says it’s also necessary “if you want to eat good, and free.”
The two women stayed on the ice for about an hour. Every few minutes they caught another fish.
Tom cod, which are bottom-feeders, taste somewhat like halibut. Typically, they're boiled before diners pick the meat off the bones. Henry says she likes to dip hers in seal oil, and the eggs are considered a treat.
As dusk started to settle Chase decided to head home to make dinner. She recently shot a few caribou and was eager to make caribou curry. She butchered the meat herself and had it flown back to Kotzebue.
“As a woman you kind of feel empowered,” Chase said as cut caribou meat with her ulu knife, a short, curved traditional Eskimo blade. “Usually you don’t get to go hunting, but I was given the opportunity to go, so I went.”
Chase stopped eating pork a few years ago and keeps her own chickens for fresh eggs. She’s also had a few turkeys and meat chickens. Her friends lovingly refer to her as "Chicken Mama."
Chase says she spends a lot of her time, almost every day off from work, making sure her family has enough to eat. Her husband, John Chase, is also a well-known hunter. Saima says she expects him to shoot ptarmigan and seals this winter.
To avoid waste, Chase looks for any opportunity to reuse parts of the catch. The bones and intestines from the tom cod will be fed to her chickens, so will their own eggshells and the leftover vegetables from the caribou curry.
“You gotta take care of stuff, and they’ll take care of you,“ Saima said.
Contact Rebecca Palsha