For many residents of the Kuskokwim River, June is the most important month for subsistence salmon fishing. But in a small community, death can put a hold on that essential practice. A series of recent deaths in Kasigluk means that many families have barely begun putting away fish for the season.
Along the Kuskokwim River, Saturday was a day to drift, harvest salmon, and cut fish. It was only the second opening this season for subsistence users to target salmon with gillnets, a brief window in another year of tight fishing restrictions. But outside Kasigluk, a town of 650 people, only five boats were on the water. Everyone else was at the Russian Orthodox Church. A man in his early 30s, Misha Charles, had died. Saturday was his funeral.
Mary Alice Tinker lives in Kasigluk with three of her children. Since her husband's death a year and a half ago, her son-in-law has become her family’s subsistence provider.
“My son-in-law was planning to go out fishing, but since we were close to Misha, that was my son-in-law’s friend, he didn’t go out fishing," said Mary Alice.
The day of Misha’s funeral, her son-in-law was at the service and Mary Alice had awakened to another tragedy.
“I found out the bad news just before 6 a.m. in the morning,” she said.
Her 23-year-old daughter, Cassandra Tinker, had been killed just hours before in a hit-and-run car accident while crossing a street in Anchorage. Cassandra had planned to return to Kasigluk a few days earlier to help with subsistence fishing, but had missed her flight.
“She was so excited to come home and be with family, spend time with us," Mary Alice said. "And she was excited to come home and eat fresh strips.”
Cassandra had moved to Anchorage to work as a Certified Nurse Aide at the Alaska Native Medical Center. She was living with family in the city, working her first professional job, and saving money to rent her own apartment. Mary Alice says that she is proud of her daughter.
“And you know what she said to me, ‘I can’t believe I’m adulting,'" said Mary Alice, laughing. "She was happy about herself.”
Cassandra’s body arrived in Kasigluk on Wednesday, and Anchorage police are continuing to search for the driver of the blue Chevy pickup who struck her and fled the scene.
This was the fourth death of a young person in the small community since April. It has been a tradition in Yup’ik communities to provide for a family that has lost someone, allowing them a full year to grieve without worrying about subsistence activities. But when a series of deaths occur, the entire village can become strained. Families have been shortening their mourning periods, and this year in Kasigluk, the entire community is behind on fishing.
Mary Alice says that her family caught a few salmon early in the season and will resume their subsistence later in the summer when there are silver salmon in the water. She hopes to get enough fish to cut plenty of fresh strips, Cassandra’s favorite.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is delivering fish harvested from the state’s Bethel Test Fishery to Kasigluk on Thursday.