Auburn-haired, angular and animated, Ann-Britt Malden sits on the sofa's edge in her Ashland cottage. She's resumed her "normal" life as a product photographer, beginning printmaker and cosmetology student, but it's clear where her heart lies: Far to the north, on the shores of the Yukon River, where she spent a month last summer at a remote fish camp filleting salmon, tending sled dogs and communing with the vast Alaskan wilderness.
"It's my third year in that little canyon, moving with Mother Nature," Ann-Britt says. "The red of the wild raspberries, the muddy colors of the boulders and water, the gorgeous orange of the salmon and blue of the sky "» and I saw wolf tracks bigger than my hand!"
Ann-Britt first met fish camp proprietress Linda Johnson seven years ago, when she ended up at the home of Iditerod dog musher Joey Reddington Jr. as part of a family trip to Lake Minchumina, Alaska. The braying of 90 sled dogs drew Ann-Britt to the dog yard out back.
"Linda is their neighbor and when she came over, we started talking," Ann-Britt recalls. "She immediately became one of my woman heroes: She is single, 61-going-on-40, and has been living the bush life since her teens."
The two women corresponded regularly and, in 2007, Ann-Britt asked Johnson whether she might need some help on her fish camp that summer. She did.
"I remember the first thing she told me was that all I'd need to bring was mosquito dope, a pair of pants and a shirt," says Ann-Britt. "I had no idea what to expect and, honestly, my biggest fear was that I'd have to beat each fish over the head."
Ann-Britt was so taken with the wilderness experience that she keeps making the long trip to Fairbanks, where she boards a tiny float plane. The bush pilot (a friendly chap named Sandy) drops her off at "The Rapids" — a seasonal community of around eight fish camps located about 25 miles up the Tanana River and another 75 miles up the Yukon River.
Upon arrival, Ann-Britt makes her way to Johnson's camp and scurries from the dock up a hill. Camp is built on top of an embankment so the Yukon's vicious spring breakup doesn't destroy the structures: a one-room cabin with bunk beds and propane stove/oven; a "screen shack" where fish are filleted, brined and hung; a three-story smokehouse where Johnson plies her magic; and a sauna for unwinding and cleansing after a long day of hard work.
Johnson has been catching and processing salmon here for more than 30 years.
"She's a one-woman show," enthuses Ann-Britt. "Every year she loads her skiff up with her gear and 19 sled dogs and spends three months here. She never knows what she'll meet — from a bear to the winter ice having destroyed something."
Daily activities at fish camp are fairly predictable: Dressed in yellow, waterproof Helly Hansen bibs and Xtra Tuff rubber boots, the women head to the fish wheel. About 20 feet across and 10 feet wide, the spruce wheel spins like a Ferris wheel. Two large, chain-link baskets are attached to the wheel and every six to 10 rotations, a salmon slips into a basket. The fish moves through a wooden chute and drops into a drybox ("its coffin," says Ann-Britt ruefully). The salmon is sorted, then the load is skiffed down the river to a fresh-running stream where cold water keeps the catch fresh as Johnson decides how each fish will be processed. Premium Yukon kings are treated with kid gloves, destined for white-tablecloth restaurants. Filleting starts at a nearby table; by the end of the session, each woman has filleted 10 to 25 fish; the booty is packed into totes and brought to the screen shack for stripping and eventual smoking.
"It's all about coordinating the salmon run, the wheel and how many we can realistically process that day," Ann-Britt says. "We don't want to take any more live fish than we can handle, but whenever the run's going, we're always busy — it's all about the fish."
Every few days Johnson calls pilot Sandy on a satellite phone to collect a shipment. Each time, up to 400 pounds of salmon — fresh and smoked — gets weighed, bagged and flown to Fairbanks, where it's sold to individuals and restaurants all over Alaska and the rest of the country.
Much of the chum salmon is cooked up on-site for dog food; the rest of the chum is frozen and canned for the dog's winter meals.
"This is Linda's main livelihood," explains Ann-Britt. "She gets fish to feed the dogs and to raise money for the winter, when she hunkers down."
Meals at the fish camp are a ritual. Bread is baked in the cabin oven, fresh rhubarb gets turned into jam and salmon is made into delectable salads and entrees. Johnson, a hunting guide, also stocks the 4-foot-deep "cold hole" (deep enough to touch permafrost) with plenty of moose, venison and other meat.
Recreation consists of swimming in the "surprisingly warm" Yukon River, taking evening strolls with a few of the sled dogs, relaxing in the sauna and having long conversations over dinner. A couple days during Ann-Britt's stay are designated for art; this year, she brought linoleum blocks and tools, and each woman created her own block cutting.
"No matter how hard we're working, we're always enjoying ourselves," she says.
Ann-Britt's favorite moments at fish camp always include the dogs. She loves preparing their food, feeling like "a witch stirring her cauldron's brew" that brims with eyeballs, gills and fish skin. She ladles the stew into each bowl then makes sure the dogs have water and their area is clean. As she leaves the animals, she's always touched by their "talking."
"It is the most beautiful choir I've ever heard — it pulls at my heartstrings and gives me chills," she says. "They're thanking me for caring for them."
In return, this northerly life seems to nourish and care for Ann-Britt Malden's adventurous spirit.