Sonja Sager was interviewed on August 3, 2021 by Marcy Okada, Subsistence Coordinator for Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in the garden outside her mother, Elisabeth Sager's, home in Eagle, Alaska. Near the end of the interview there was too much background noise of other people and dogs, so Sonja and Marcy moved and finished the interview inside the old Sager family cabin nearby. In this interview, Sonja talks about growing up in a remote cabin on Trout Creek, a tributary of the Yukon River, and living a subsistence-based lifestyle both at Trout Creek and in Eagle. She also talks about the Native history of the area and the relationship between the Natives and non-Natives, developing friendships, and the joys and challenges of living out on the river and in a small town. Sonja also shares her thoughts on changes in fish and wildlife populations, predator and prey management of wolves and caribou, and the National Park Service and land use management issues. Finally, Sonja emphasizes the value of a subsistence lifestyle, the importance of maintaining subsistence opportunities, and her great love for the land and river and her connection to this area.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve
Date of Interview: Aug 3, 2021
Narrator(s): Sonja Sager
Interviewer(s): Marcy Okada
Transcriber: Ruth Sensenig
People Present: Elisabeth Sager
After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.
Memories of her childhood in a cabin on Trout Creek
Daily life at Trout Creek
Remembering when her sister, Iris, was born
Dogmushing and traveling to trapline cabins
The role of women in their remote subsistence lifestyle
Childhood toys made from natural products, and being intrigued by plastic
Dog mushing, getting her first dogsled, and maintaining and feeding a dogteam
Speaking German as a child, and moving into Eagle and making friends with other children
The social connections of living in a community, having spring carnival, and going on group outings
Using Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, and creating memories and a sense of connection to place for their children
Hunting, fishing, trapping and running their dogteam in and around Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve
Skin sewing and making fur hats
Springtime subsistence activities, and berry picking
Learning to use a gun, and the gun she hunts with
Processing the game and fish harvested
Relationship between Native and non-Natives in Eagle, and Native history of the area
Challenges of living a subsistence-based lifestyle
Quality of the construction of old houses in Eagle
Management issues in Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, and relationship between the local people and the National Park Service
Connections between use of public lands and connections between rural and urban life
Importance of subsistence, and the stresses of supporting a family this way
Dealing with environmental change, and trying to get management regulations to better match the changing seasons
Fire management, clearing trees from your property, and the importance of wood in their subsistence lifestyle
Impact of wolf control on caribou populations
Environmental change, such as timing of freeze-up and break-up, extremes in weather, water level in the river, and adaptation
Importance of connection to the land and people
Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.
After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
MARCY OKADA: My name’s Marcy Okada. I work for the National Park Service, and I’m here today interviewing Sonja Sager, um, here in Eagle, Alaska, at her mom’s home. Um, and today’s date is August 3, 2021. So let’s go ahead and just start with, Sonja, where were you born and raised? Where did you --
SONJA SAGER: Um, I was born about fifty yards from here in that old house right there that was built by John Powers in about 1901. And um, my mom came up from Trout Creek, where we were staying, which is about 45, 42 miles downriver to have me here in Eagle, because there was one midwife here, Elva Scott. She sometimes assisted with births.
So my mom felt -- she was 27. It was her first child. I was her first child, so she felt safer being here in town. And my sister was then later born downriver, but I was born here. MARCY OKADA: Ok. SONJA SAGER: In 1979, July 13.
MARCY OKADA: Ok. And if you could just say who your parents are. SONJA SAGER: Uh, my mom is Elisabeth Sager, and my dad is Mike Sager. And they’re no longer married, but they still both have that last name, as do I. I’m married to Mike McDougal, so there’s a lot of Mikes.
MARCY OKADA: Um, and then where did you primarily grow up, and what was your childhood like? SONJA SAGER: Um, I grew up in -- at Trout Creek, which was just basically -- it was a cabin, a homestead, that my parents, um -- they got there in ’75, I believe. And um, they left there when I was about seven.
And they lived at Trout Creek, which like I said, it’s about 40 or a little more. The closest river to that is the Nation, which is below that a little ways. And it’s on the same side of the river as Eagle, Trout Creek is.
And it’s kind of a -- a pretty good-sized creek, actually, but it’s a tight valley, so you don’t get a lot of sun, especially in the winter. But it’s a beautiful place, so -- beautiful brown creek water, high-bush cranberries, you know, moss. It’s in an old burn as well.
Um, they built a cabin there before I was born, and I grew up partly in that cabin, and then when my sister was born, the preceding year, trying to get ready for her birth, my dad built a new cabin on the side of the creek away from the river, which is still the one that I’m the permit holder on now. So --
MARCY OKADA: And what -- what are some of your fond memories growing up there? SONJA SAGER: Well, I actually only have fond memories of growing up. MARCY OKADA: Oh, ok. That's even better. SONJA SAGER: I was a really lucky child that way, so I can remember, um, you know, back to when I was about three. And I think being in the same place all my life has helped me to retain those memories, because there hasn’t been a lot of upheaval in my life. So I feel also like, when I go back and I see those places, it kind of prompts my memories.
So some of my first memories are just wild rhubarb, first of all, growing in the glade where I kind of lived. And little blue butterflies that I would kind of chase around.
They allowed me a lot of freedom down there, and I had a dog that was like my mom. She had a bell around her neck. Her name was Menoo (sp?). She was about 105 or more pounds. She was closer to 110 or something. Maybe even over that. And she was a malamute. So she would accompany me, and they could hear the bell. So they’d know where I was, kind of.
Um, and she also protected me. There was a lot of bears. So I do remember, one of my earliest memories was actually running into a bear that came up from behind a rotten log where I was digging. And then I turned around and left really quick.
And I used to also love to climb the hill behind the house. It’s really steep, where we would go when the break-up ice got high or anything like that. And so, I remember climbing that hill and rolling down it, just for fun, you know, in the moss. That was fun.
I remember sitting on the porch when I was about three and watching the ice come through the trees. And then, my parents would -- they took the dogs up the hillside with me. It wasn’t hard ’cause the hill literally started right behind the house.
That house is still standing, but it’s kind of -- there’s a lot of trees on the roof, let’s put it -- you know, that way. It’s not in good shape, so.
MARCY OKADA: Um, and just um, you know, just what -- what was your average day like? I mean, you mentioned, you know, going up the hill, playing with the dog, the dog accompanying you. SONJA SAGER: Yeah, well, so those were some of my earlier memories, and our days varied a lot depending on what subsistence activity was happening at the time.
So um, for instance, like when we were fishing for king salmon, or later in the fall when we were fishing for chum, I would walk with my parents across -- we would paddle across the slough and then walk across the island to the far bank which is near the main channel, and we would spend all day there, fishing.
And I would just walk up and down the beach. I had a sandpiper friend. It might not have always been the same sandpiper, but I thought it was, so that was good enough, you know.
And um, it was -- what I think what my kids would even consider boring, you know, but I didn’t see it that way, mostly because I had been raised this way the whole time. So, they would give me like the heart of the salmon when it was beating, and I would try to keep it beating for hours, which you can do if you like, bathe it in cool water. The heart will -- if the heart is beating when they take it out, which happens occasionally, you can keep it beating a long time. And fish are like that, you know.
And also, sometimes when you cut the salmon, the -- the swim bladder comes out intact. They would give me that and it would be like a little balloon. So I could swim that around in the water, you know. And I would wear my life jacket. That’s something I still make my kids do at the beach.
Um, so there was the fishing aspect of it. There was a lot of days in the winter where we would go out and uh -- uh, cut wood or something like that, you know, and then come back late and have hot hibiscus tea.
Um, there was a lot of mosquitoes, obviously. When Iris was little, we had to keep her in a cardboard box part of one summer. Maybe my mom mentioned that, ’cause it was just with a netting over it, you know, when we went out, ’cause a baby can really suffer with bugs. They can actually be sucked dry. It can kill them.
So it’s just like, you know, stuff like that. I do remember, you know, a lot of things that we did were just kind of keeping up our stuff. Like my parents had a really neat homestead, so like, when their boat needed to be recanvassed, they hauled it up in the trees and peeled the canvas off it and recanvassed it. That was for me, actually, even boring, because I had to, you know, sit around and wait for that to dry and whatnot.
And um, I liked best probably just -- I had a really happy home life 'cause my mom was like continuously doing projects with me, and, you know, keeping me busy. A lot of educational-type projects and art. She was drawing me a lot of pictures.
Um, I remember going out to -- actually I think we were dumping a slop bucket, and we saw a black wolf across the creek, just kind of staring at us. There was often black wolves there, but they never harmed anything.
And I always -- I think my mom might have told me this, you know, to make me less afraid of wolves, or something, but -- which I wasn’t to start with, but um, she said maybe, or I got it in my head that our lead dog, Pots, had some kind of pact with the wolves so that they would not bother us, and that did seem to be the case. ’Cause other people on the Kandik had trouble with wolves, but we never did.
They were always -- probably, in retrospect, the logical explanation is that they go into the high country, into the Mission Creek valley and stuff, and they have good hunting there during the winter. So we would hear ’em all around.
When I was down there this winter, again, a wolf came and checked out our dog team. I could hear it, you know, howling in the morning. We followed its tracks. It had come over from the island, and um, just to check us out.
And when I had the kids down there once, um, about ten years ago, there was another wolf down there that they saw. They got to see it running along the creek, so it’s one of the things there is that there’s a lot of bears, and there’s a lot of wolves.
MARCY OKADA: So how many years was it before your sister was born? SONJA SAGER: Um, we are four and a half years apart. MARCY OKADA: Ok. SONJA SAGER: So she was born on Christmas Eve in the new cabin. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
SONJA SAGER: Um, it was a really warm Christmas Eve, melting. I remember it really well. And I wasn’t supposed to go upstairs, ’cause, um, she was giving birth up there, but I snuck away from the people that were watching me, so --
My mom was the best cook on the river, and all the people had congregated for this turkey that she was cooking. And it was just like she was overdoing it, and she ended up going into labor, so the turkey had to be cooked by the men, which didn’t work out well. I think they burnt the -- the bird.
And uh, the Christmas tree had to be got by the neighbor with us kids. And it wasn’t up to snuff, either. My dad’s very picky about the Christmas tree. But he was busy being the -- assisting, you know, her delivery.
And she -- I just remember her coming out, and she just had a lot of hair. I remember that. And I was also a little bit, you know -- they called me back down and were like, "You weren’t supposed to see that." Not my parents. They were too busy. But the people who were watching me.
MARCY OKADA: And then how many years would you say before you had a little playmate out in the woods with -- ? SONJA SAGER: Um, well, Iris, my sister who was born in 1983, was my playmate. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. Yeah.
SONJA SAGER: I asked -- I was really looking forward to her birth, and then when she was a few months -- after she started walking especially and getting into my farm. I had a little farm set and all this stuff. And after she started getting into my toys, I was like, "Can we bring her back?" And my mom explained that there was actually no return policy, and we were lumbered with her now.
And so, I would do mean things like run around the house outside, and she would chase me as fast as she could, and then I would duck into the house and play with my toys, and she would still be going out there. My mom would get wind of that, and say, "You can’t do that to her, she’s exhausted." So um.
MARCY OKADA: But just real good childhood memories of just being out there? SONJA SAGER: Yeah. And I mean, that I definitely owe to my parents.
So you know, my parents have never used any drugs. That includes marijuana, you know. And they always took care to -- especially my mom would take care to keep things really neat, you know, nice. Not spotless, I’m not saying that.
You know, I did grow up in the winter nomadically, actually, traveling from different trapline cabins to different other trapline cabins up on the -- on the Black River. We would go up the Kandik and pass over the divide. MARCY OKADA: Oh. SONJA SAGER: Into the little black -- the Bull Creek, it was called. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
SONJA SAGER: So, there and then also on the other side, Michigan Creek. And so I spent a lot of time in the sled bag, and I remember that. MARCY OKADA: Huh.
SONJA SAGER: You know, she was able to keep me warm, you know, even at like forty below and traveling. She would put a cream on my cheeks so they wouldn’t freeze.
And um, so yeah, I have good memories, because I think they really took care. And my mom -- like, if you would want anybody in the wilderness taking care of your child, it would be her. She kept me alive, so. (to Elisabeth Sager) Oh, man. They’re beautiful. Thank you. ELISABETH SAGER: For you.
SONJA SAGER: Yeah. Um, so once my sister Iris was born, the nomadic winter lifestyle kind of dried up, 'cause we had, you know, too many little -- you know, to travel with an infant in a sled bag is very dangerous, actually. They can suffocate. And I actually later knew a child that that happened to, but not in our family, luckily.
Um, ’cause my mom was also always very careful that I had air coming into me and a warm water bottle, but not sleepy and in the sleeping bag, you know. That can be very dangerous.
So we -- after that, um, after having Iris, my parents got to -- started to do the thing where my dad would go trapping for three months at a time and my mom would stay home and watch us. And I think that’s what contributed to their divorce, also.
So um, they divorced when I was about eight, but they started the process probably at least a year earlier. And my dad fell in love with another lady who -- Jean Trainor, who’s my sister’s mom. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
SONJA SAGER: And so, uh, that’s another person that spent a lot of time. She was together with a man named Larry Ricketts, and they built the Kandik cabin. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
SONJA SAGER: And that’s why I mentioned that women were often involved in building the cabins, doing half the work at least, and um, at the same time as like, raising children, doing a lot of the --
Like when the men, like my dad, was trapping a lot, she -- my mom was taking care of the fur. So it’s not that he didn’t skin, he did, but she was really the -- and still is, really good with the fur. She even tanned her own fur. She could, you know, brush it out just so. And all the turning.
And it's -- it’s a real process, and if you don’t do it correctly, you don’t get as much money for your fur. So the, um, people who were really skilled at that were super valuable to the trapping.
Um, not just the, you know, men that were out there for, you know, months getting it. Which was super hard as well. They were living in wall tent, or whatever, and -- a lot of the time. So there’s a lot that went to that.
And I used to get a marten when -- when my dad would bring 'em back, marten, they would let me sleep with one of the less valuable ones for a few days. And it would be all squishy eventually, and then they would have to take it from me, and I would love that feel of the body, you know. I mean, they’re dead, but at the same time, beautiful fur. MARCY OKADA: Soft. SONJA SAGER: Soft. Um, and in the winter things don’t rot that quickly.
So because it -- my mom knew that I really got attached to these marten, she eventually, when I was maybe three or maybe even a little younger, she made me Mickey Marten, which was a -- they picked a young female marten that wasn’t going to bring as much on the market, um, and they -- she stuffed her and then embroidered her eyes, and put leather pads on her feet.
So I had that marten, and I still have it somewhere, but it’s really old now, like forty years old.
MARCY OKADA: Huh. So speaking of which, it sounds like your toys were just -- they were natural byproducts from -- from anything that could be -- SONJA SAGER: They were. So they carved us a lot of wooden toys. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
SONJA SAGER: And I -- Actually, that’s how I ended up with this real obsession with plastic as a kid, ’cause I didn’t have a lot of plastic things. And when I saw that, especially anything pink, like a pink flamingo in the driftwood pile or whatever.
But plastic in general just held this real allure, because it was actually better than the plastic they make nowadays, I think, also. Which you might remember that the -- you know, when we were kids, the plastic had a better feel to it.
MARCY OKADA: It was hardier. SONJA SAGER: It was harder, and it was like the color was richer. I don’t know, you know. So I just had a real liking for it.
Um, of course, now I would prefer my old wooden toys, which many of which I kept. I still have the carvings. They made us for Christmas one time a set with um, a man, a woman, and two little girls, that was us, and then a moose, a wolf, a sled with the dogteam, all carved out of wood and then painted by my mom, so.
And the -- the care, I think, like, that she took with us was enormous, ’cause like, to tie our braids, we would have little antler things that you wrap the rubber around that had little -- mine had like, little smiley faces.
And little necklaces that had things burnt into the antler. You know, mine had a snail because I was a slow walker, so she called me "schnecke," which means little snail. My sister’s had a little bean, because she was the little bean.
So, yeah, and then, naturally, you know, Eagle was always the closest town, so I have a real connection to this place being born here, but then also, a couple times a year, you know, in the summer, we would come here. And sometimes also in the winter. That was a two-day trip for us with the dogs back then. MARCY OKADA: In winter.
SONJA SAGER: Yes. And the first time I mushed it on my own sled, I was six, and I just had one dog. MARCY OKADA: Was it a little kick sled, or was it just -- SONJA SAGER: It was just a little sled that, you know, you would put -- actually, my dad made me a sled when I turned six. That’s when I started mushing.
I was kind of a wild child, so when I went out for Nikolaus, which is a holiday on the sixth of December where you get things, you know, little treats usually. And also, traditionally if you’re bad, you get coal or switches to be, you know, a signal of this badness. Or not listening, in my case.
So I went out and in the boot, which you put out the mukluk, you know, I had a bouquet of willows covered with some candy, you know, they had some -- some mercy there. But also there was -- I didn’t even hardly see that, ’cause there was like a dog sled leaning against it. So as soon as I saw the sled, I was like, I’m going mushing!
So the mushing -- the first time I tried it, not so good. Like, I fell off into the snow, and my -- I just remember it was very beautiful under the snow, and the light was filtering in. I could barely hear the screaming of like, "Whoa, whoa," you know.
And I was kind of like, enough of a dreamer to appreciate that for a moment. And uh, yeah. So I’ve been mushing since then.
MARCY OKADA: Maybe -- maybe go -- let’s go a little bit into that. Just your experiences with the dogs, and like, your observations, and, you know, you’re taking everything in at that age and learning everything. SONJA SAGER: Yeah, so from an early age, I was in the sled bag, like I said. MARCY OKADA: Um-hm. SONJA SAGER: And um, usually my mom’s sled.
Later, at some times, my dad’s ’cause my mom would have Iris. ’Cause my mom would be behind my dad, usually, and much more careful, you know, controlled, which is important when you’re mushing with children. MARCY OKADA: Yeah.
SONJA SAGER: And we had the big kind of dogs that I mentioned, the malamutes. They were at least -- they weren’t pure bred, but they were mostly malamute, and they were over a hundred pounds, often.
So we would only have, like, three or four in a team, and they would plow through the snow all day with their heavy chests. They were able to break trail, which is a little different than the dogs they have today. We have -- our kennel has forty dogs, and they’re um, kinda -- they’re Alaskan huskies, so they’re a little lighter. We kinda went from the heavier dog and gradually came to the lighter dog.
So a lot of the dogs I run now are about, you know -- I can go to Trout Creek in like five hours, if the trail’s good, or less. Um, so that’s -- they can run way faster on a good trail. But if there’s no good trail, then it’s not like those dogs that you could take -- They were like the off-road vehicle that could go in the high valleys, up the ravines.
Uh, my parents -- my mom made all the harnesses by hand and sewed them with like, antler toggles. And they were hitched in single file back then, whereas now we often run them tandem, you know.
ELISABETH SAGER: Your dad did a lot of sewing, too. SONJA SAGER: Yeah, ok. My dad also did a lot of sewing. ELISABETH SAGER: On the harnesses. SONJA SAGER: On the harnesses. Yeah, sorry, I wouldn’t know that, because I was little. ELISABETH SAGER: That is true.
SONJA SAGER: And uh, the -- like the big dogs were so different also in temperament, you know. They took less feed per dog, ’cause back then we didn’t have commercial dog food, so we fed dry fish in the winter. MARCY OKADA: Um-hm. SONJA SAGER: So that all had to be put up. And, of course, like, mixed sometimes with rice or other things.
But nowadays, we feed commercial dog food, and we still rely heavily on salmon, but we haven’t been able to fish the last years. So the last -- this year and last year, we weren’t able to fish, so we had to switch to complete kibble, which is quite the trip.
But, uh, so it’s come a long way, but it’s been a constant thing that I’ve done all through my life, um, to varying degrees, you know, all -- all through the whole thing.
That and getting on the river. And riding, but I would say, if I can get on the river and mush, then that would be the two things, so. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
SONJA SAGER: I had to pick two. Of course, family comes first, so -- Kids before that. But um --
MARCY OKADA: Your mom had mentioned, you know, German was your first language. SONJA SAGER: Yeah, it was 'til I was four. And that’s why, um, I still can speak it fluently, although I’m missing all the like, bigger words, the political words, um, special words that I never learned. You know, things like that.
But basically, I can still speak it fluently, and English, you know, as learned young enough to where I don’t really have an accent, but I can make it appear if I want to. You know, like I could change it around, so --
MARCY OKADA: Um, and then, you know, you moved into Eagle, but because you had already been coming into Eagle off and on, you knew -- you already knew kids your age. SONJA SAGER: I did. I was really actually -- I think what it was is I was an extroverted kid that was raised to be an introvert, kind of, because of the situation.
So I’m very comfortable being alone now, but I -- even back then, I had these kids that I thought of as my friends. They probably barely knew me, but I was sure they were my best friends.
So Leif and Art who lived downriver, and my friend Emily, who was basically a baby when I picked her out as my best friend, and she is still my best friend. I tell her that sometimes. I was like, I did a good pick. You didn’t know any better, but --
And her big brother, Zack. And I would compulsively, you know, draw pictures of them and say, you know, I have friends.
And so, when we moved, I -- moved right next to Zack and Emily here, and this neighborhood was really great for kids. There was all kinds of families with kids here.
Um, there was kind of a division in the town between the religious children and the non-religious and Jewish children. I was in the non-religious and Jewish children segment of town, and so -- And actually, Emily’s family was Catholic, so it was kind of the misfit block here, but we had probably -- we had the biggest population of children in a single block. We were always building forts, welcome at every house, whether we were celebrating Hanukkah or, you know, Christmas, or whatever. So we had a really cool neighborhood here.
ELISABETH SAGER: Oh, mention, um, Forrest Dunbar. SONJA SAGER: Yes. And Forrest Dunbar. Yeah, so a lot of the people in the neighborhood that grew up here, grew up to do some pretty cool stuff. So Forrest just ran for mayor (of Anchorage) and lost by a hair. Um, but he is, in his own right, like, one of the premier politicians in Alaska, I believe.
Like, I once tuned in some years ago to the radio, and I -- the first thing I heard was, “Gay rights are human rights.” And I was like who’s that, you know? Who is that speaking? And it was Forrest.
And um, you know, so -- and then Jed, who was -- Jedediah Kallen-Brown, who's Iris’ other friend, grew up to climb most of the major peaks in the world. And his kids are mountain climbers even -- little tiny mountain climbers. ELISABETH SAGER: He was a math genius.
SONJA SAGER: Um, so Karen and Randy Brown are definitely people, you know, that, you would need to talk to. There’s just so many people, um.
So then we came from downriver to this very social, at that time, post-hippie, I want to say, um, situation where a lot of people had young families, and they had a lot of, you know, things that they wanted to share as far as just like, their skills that they had learned. But they were ready to be part of a community.
And so, our spring carnival was amazing, you know. Um, there was a lot of switching of partners, sometimes, that went on. As a kid I remember just thinking like, what is this, musical chairs? You know, like, I mean, I just -- You know, it was neat because the kids could have fun on the periphery of that without being the objects.
So nowadays when -- when they have spring carnival -- after I stopped organizing it, it kind of slipped a little bit, but when they have it, it’s more like, let’s have a bean bag toss for the kids. Let’s do this for the kids. But the kids sense that, and it’s not the same as when all the grown-ups are young and having fun, and they’re off in a corner eating leftover food and having a good time while their parents are busy, you know. That’s a whole different level of fun.
And we had so many events that spring carnival had to go on for two days. And now they can barely stretch it over two hours, you know, so it seems. So um, things -- the demographic really changed.
ELISABETH SAGER: We also planned a lot of outings as families. You know, used to go -- SONJA SAGER: Yeah, there was so many outings. Those were called “fun runs.” There was even the organized fun runs on Saturdays or Sundays, maybe, every week when the weather was warm enough and permitting. People would take their dogs, snowmachines, and they would -- we would -- ahead of time we would agree on a place.
And the travel time was usually an hour to an hour and a half, and the time there was several hours, maybe, you know, a few hours. And then there would be a fire. People would bring food, and all the kids would be transported there to play, basically, and the grown-ups would sit and talk.
And that was the part of it where there was that sense of community, because at that time, people still felt like, wow, we’re like an outpost. We’re out here. We’re really doing this. We gotta get to know people to survive, you know.
And there was a real sense that even if people were different, you know, you still needed to work with them. That’s not so much now, and our demographic is much older now, and we’re sort of at a point where it’s almost like a retirement community, you know. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. Yeah.
ELISABETH SAGER: And it's also, the last year, the politics just really -- SONJA SAGER: Yeah, of course. I mean, we could go on and on. There could be books written about that, I’m sure, as a -- as a -- you know, cracks turn to rifts.
But there’s also been some, um, bridging. So I used to, as I said, be pretty alienated from the religious community, the evangelical far right, whereas now I have many friends among them. And somehow we have made a way that we can, you know, come together on certain -- certain things. And so, I really appreciate that part of it.
There’s a lot of good things happening here, still, but it’s a very different town. And growing up, you know, there was a -- so when my parents, they both moved here, they both got together with a new partner, and they both had one more child, so it’s very symmetrical. So there’s four of us sisters. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
SONJA SAGER: And so, my sister Alida, who works in subsistence fisheries, has the same dad that I do. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. SONJA SAGER: And my sister Hanna, um, who lives here with my mom, has the same mom as I do.
So there’s a -- you know, we had a pretty good-sized family. We often did things together. Um. And that was a really good thing that my parents managed to somehow, you know -- not easy to do that. Uh, not without a lot of, you know, difficulty. But they managed to have at least our childhood be like that.
And um, so now, I still -- like with my husband, I still use the Preserve a lot. Back to the Preserve. MARCY OKADA: Yes. SONJA SAGER: Like, still a permit holder down there, still using that for hunting a lot. It’s still a feeling of coming home to me when I get down to Trout Creek. Um, it -- yeah.
MARCY OKADA: Yeah, maybe we can talk a little bit about that. So you, you know, spent your childhood down there, and yet still go back there as a permit holder you mentioned. But what kind of memories are you hoping your kids have?
SONJA SAGER: Well, I hope that they just have a, kind of a sense of the place and what it means to me and -- and get their own memories. And we kind of -- I did that with my youngest daughter. She had not been there. So she had been there when she was in utero, so when she was about two and a half month in my womb, we took a trip down there as a family. And we took five kids that were real young, like ten and under, and two dog teams, my husband and I.
And we took a -- it was a five-day trip or, you know, it took about, yeah, two days down. Spent a couple days -- so it was more like a week. And then two days back and -- epic journey.
And while I was down there, I called my mom on the SAT phone, which we had at that time. In the old days, we didn’t have those kind of things, but I thought, may as well make use of it. And I told her I was pregnant over the SAT phone, so she couldn’t kill me. ’Cause she thought that five was enough. And even though three of them were adopted in 2007, um, you know, even though that was the case, she still felt that five -- raising five, was enough.
And so, Flora, who I was pregnant with at the time, that’s our youngest daughter. She’s ten. And my husband and I took a trip with just her down to Trout Creek this -- this winter. It was March, and yeah. It’s still really cold, though. It was thirty below when we spent the night in the wall tent at Ford Lake. I mean, at Lord Lake Trail.
And so, we actually broke the trip down into two days, and then we realized that the trail was so good, we didn’t have to do that. So on the way back, we just came all the way back. We spent a couple days down there, and she had a lot of fun. We took her up the creek, and she loved the cabin, all the old pictures, you know, hanging there, and all the old, just artifacts, I guess, of life, so --
MARCY OKADA: Hm. So speaking of which, and use of the Preserve, um, maybe we can just talk about, um, whether you still -- in what ways do you still use the Preserve? You know, is it moose or -- ? SONJA SAGER: Ok, so the number one use is, uh, hunting. MARCY OKADA: Yeah.
SONJA SAGER: So for us -- since we actually fish here and not in the Preserve anymore. We used to fish in the Preserve. MARCY OKADA: Ok. SONJA SAGER: But that required fish camp, moving to fish camp. And lately the seasons for the fish have been so -- we would move to fish camp and just get it done. And this was before all the closures started to happen. So now we can’t do that.
So we’ve been fishing up here mostly, but the hunting is still something that I do in the Preserve just ’cause I know that area. And so, you know how when you’re hunting, if you know the area, it really helps you. So you know where everything should be going. You know where the game trails are. I still go hunting there, so.
Boy, I never did get my water. I might have to make a short pause and get a water ’cause my throat is croaking. MARCY OKADA: Uh, would you like to stop it for a moment, or -- ? SONJA SAGER: Um, maybe if my mom comes out, she’ll bring me a water. MARCY OKADA: Oh. SONJA SAGER: She said she would, but then she forgot, so.
MARCY OKADA: How about use of the Preserve in the -- in winter? SONJA SAGER: Uh, yeah. So yes, trapping, but that hasn’t been continuous, but we still kind of maintain that, uh, the trapline up to Michigan Creek. MARCY OKADA: To Mission Creek, you said. SONJA SAGER: Uh, Michigan. MARCY OKADA: Oh, Michigan Creek. SONJA SAGER: I’m not mispronouncing it. There’s Mission Creek is here, and Michigan Creek is there, so. MARCY OKADA: Yeah. Yeah.
SONJA SAGER: Yeah, and um, mostly just travel with the dogs for, basically, I guess you could call it recreational purposes, but also fixing up the cabin, making sure it’s secure for bears the following year, stuff like that, so.
Um, people also do stuff like beaver trap, but we don’t do a lot of that, so mostly travel and recreation. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
SONJA SAGER: Which is really in my mind super important, ’cause, you know, if you’re going to feed these dogs, over $400 a year per dog all year, you might want to get out with them. You know. And you might want to realize some of the benefits of that relaxing, very light on the land.
So when you travel with dogs, you are -- you're traveling a very light way. It’s not that you don’t have a carbon footprint, 'cause you sure do by, you know, having them, by feeding them, but when you’re out there on the land, they -- virtually none. Like, you can go anywhere, leave no trace except for their little paw prints, so yeah.
MARCY OKADA: Um, so you had mentioned your mom, you know, your mom and dad both skin sewers, making dog harnesses and whatnot. In regards to that being passed on to you, um -- SONJA SAGER: Yeah, a little bit.
So my mom, definitely. After she and my dad divorced, she actually made -- partially made her living by sewing fur hats and other things. And tanning furs for people. And, you know, handing them over a beautiful fox hat.
But I never got to that level of it, but I do like to make marten hats, and -- and so I have been making fur hats when I have time, and she has shown me how to do that. So that’s one thing that -- the girls are starting to show some interest in that, too.
Um, so yeah, it’s definitely -- the fur hat thing is very important for us, 'cause there is nothing that keeps your head as warm as that, and you won’t get the earaches and stuff, so.
Mom, could I get a little glass of water? ELISABETH SAGER: Oh, I forgot about this. SONJA SAGER: Thank you. ELISABETH SAGER: I would (unintelligible). Sorry. SONJA SAGER: It’s just so -- like, one of those things, so.
MARCY OKADA: Um, how about spring? Springtime harvests, if there’s any -- ? SONJA SAGER: Yeah, so downriver, we did have -- you know, when we lived down there, we obviously -- wild rhubarb roots and fireweed salads, which I’m still --
I actually brought the seeds from Trout Creek of the wild rhubarb and planted them in my yard, and they’re just starting to get at home there. So I’m hoping for those shoots eventually, for the salad, you know, in the spring. And fireweed is everywhere, so I don’t have to worry about that.
And um, uh, down there more cloudberries than there are up here. Here we do a lot of lowbush cranberry, blueberries, stuff like that.
But as far as spring goes, we were never big waterfowl harvesters, but that was one time, you know, in the spring when we were out of meat, it’s good to get a little bit of waterfowl. (to Elisabeth) Thank you.
Um, and that’s still pretty much like, the spring one duck, that was what we got. My son got his first duck. He's fourteen. He just waited for it very patiently, and he got a young male, and then he ate it. And Grandma made a big fuss, ’cause she doesn’t like duck shooting, so.
It’s like -- I just told him, you know, don’t feel bad. It’s -- I want you to be able to survive out here, and if, you know, you eat a duck once in a while, it'll be all right, so.
MARCY OKADA: Um, were you -- were you raised to -- to hunt with a firearm or -- ? SONJA SAGER: Yeah, let’s see, like, um, oh my gosh, there’s the cat with a vole. Oh, that is disgusting. Ok. Yeah.
Anyway, yes. I don’t hunt nearly as well as this kitty, but when I was ten, I started using a .22. I actually started at Trout Creek, 'cause my dad was down there with Jean, his new partner or um -- and baby Alida, my sister, trapping.
So I took my first-ever plane ride in the winter, um, first-ever plane ride, but it happened to be in the winter, with my dad’s friend Mark Lynch, who used to be a pilot. He's since passed on, but he was the best bush pilot around here. And he flew me down there, and my dad started teaching me to use the .22. And then both my dad and my sister’s dad, Andy Bassich, they taught me how to shoot.
Um, sometimes -- I just had too much mentorship. I was like, "No, go shooting with me." "No, why don’t you come with me? I’m better at it." Blah blah blah, you know. I was like --
It almost burnt me out on it, but luckily, I needed to hunt so I came around. You know, and then eventually they both got busy with other things, but at least I knew how to hunt and I’ve just been doing that ever since.
I got a .270 for my seventeenth birthday. That’s still the gun I hunt with. I’ve only had that gun, so it’s -- some men call it a peashooter, but I totally disagree. It’s very flat-shooting, very strong. I’ve killed a grizzly with it. I’ve killed moose with it, every kind of game.
The only way you could mess up with it is maybe if you’re too close, and you blood-shot your meat. ’Cause to be that flat-shooting, it has a lot of velocity. So um, yeah. I think it is not a peashooter, as Wayne Hall refers to it. You know, some guys think that the number, .270, is not large enough.
MARCY OKADA: Oh. Um, maybe we can talk a little bit about, just processing the various, uh, game animals and fish, and -- SONJA SAGER: Yeah, that’s really where the work begins. Like, shooting it is the easy part compared to -- MARCY OKADA: Yeah.
SONJA SAGER: It’s the part where you need the most luck to connect with something, but the work is actually after. After you shoot it, obviously.
And um, taking -- like, we really do believe -- I know this is going to sound like one of those things where people say, "Well, that’s, um, you’re not a Native person, do you really believe this?" But we really do believe that there’s some things that increase your luck hunting, and so, among those would be taking care of the meat properly. Never letting it spoil. Using it all. Using all the parts of the animal. Um, making sure that the -- is packed really clean, you know, and --
And also the other thing that apparently -- I’m sure this is true, 'cause it has borne itself out, is you must -- if you give some of it away to people who have less than you, you’ll have better luck then, so. MARCY OKADA: Hm. SONJA SAGER: Yeah.
MARCY OKADA: Um, once you did move into Eagle, was there interaction with the Native village Eagle side, also, 'cause -- ? SONJA SAGER: Yeah, a lot of my friends are Han. Or part Han. Or half Han.
At the time -- so at the time that I was growing up the -- it was very mixed in school. There was -- the school had actually just moved from -- from Eagle Village. And I had not attended that school, but I remember it. It had moved from there to Eagle.
So -- but that really hadn’t totally changed -- there was still a lot of -- so my class was, you know, very -- it was not just, um, white kids. There was a lot of Native Han children, and those are the children that I’m still -- or the people that I’m still, you know, friends with today, so. Probably about half my really close friends.
Although, I guess to answer the interaction part, not as much as there should’ve been sometimes, so. MARCY OKADA: Ok. SONJA SAGER: Um. MARCY OKADA: Ok.
SONJA SAGER: And we’re still struggling with that. So one thing here that I’d like to say is that when -- when miners came to -- to this part of the country, they displaced the Han settlement from the mouth of Mission Creek, right down here, the good highland and the mouth. That was all a -- a permanent settlement, actually, which a lot of people don’t want to talk about, the historical society.
I made a map for them in 2004, and I wrote that on the map and uh, I had to -- it was just a sentence saying that they were displaced from there. And that caused great controversy. I had to fight like hell to keep that on the map. They did not want to have that be publicly acknowledged.
Right where the Park Service building sits now, there is actually -- the area, um, and that is a long-standing source of pain to Eagle Village, that that area -- they were pushed upriver first a little ways, like a mile and a half, then three miles, then it --
After the flood in 2009, the permanent -- that destroyed the village. Which was painful to all of us, not just -- mostly to the people who lived there, but also to us who spent time there. It was very painful when that was destroyed in the 2009 flood. And now the center of the village is like, nine miles up.
Um, so there’s a lot of history there, and just as in anyplace, not good -- So the not-good part being the -- the epidemics at the turn of last century that killed so many Native people. That has left such a -- a hole, a scar, you know, on Alaska. (voices in the background) The entire state lost so many people. People still grieving those people, but don’t have any way to really deal with that, you know.
So for our area, I think, I can’t really speak to it. You’d have to really speak with people like Karma (Ulvi), who grew up the same -- she was actually at one point in a trapping cabin not far from me. We joke about that. We were never really introduced as little kids, but we were so close together, you know, yet so far apart.
But, um, she’s a chief there now, and I would highly recommend speaking to her and her mother and her aunt, who are two of the last Han speakers, fluent Han speakers.
So we do certain things like, um, when we catch a king salmon we always say "mahsi cho," which means "thank you very much" in Han. Like, for every fish, which I’m sure, again, some people would say, "Well, is that genuine?" But it really is genuine. I mean, that we are so thankful for that.
And I feel like, if you’re going to talk to king salmon, those "łuu cho," (sp?) the big salmon, you should be talking on, like, you know. So yeah. (voices in the background)
MARCY OKADA: Uh, um, maybe if you could just talk a little bit about challenges between seasons, you know. You know, summertime, obviously, has its own set of challenges versus winter time. SONJA SAGER: One of the biggest challenges is just finding the time to do these subsistence activities that have to happen now. Like right now, I’m stressed ’cause I’m not out picking blueberries. I gotta have this happen.
I think what people don’t understand about subsistence is, the weather's so key. So when people have like, a fish opener, and the weather or the water level’s wrong, it just really messes things up, because, you know, you don’t want to be picking blueberries in torrential rain where you can’t see a grizzly bear five feet away. You know, there’s certain times for certain things. MARCY OKADA: Yeah.
SONJA SAGER: And finding the time in our modern busy -- busier lives, and trying to make that subsistence thing the priority. That’s the challenge.
And then also, the difference between the seasons is so extreme. There’s hardly any place on earth where there’s such an extreme temperature and just, difference. You know, you look around you, we’re having record-breaking heat. Yesterday, we broke a record here that has stood since 1911.
Um, adapting to, first of all, the change we already have in an interior continental climate. So from these extremely hot summers to these extremely, you know, forty, fifty-below winter possible temperatures. That is a big deal.
You stand on the river in the winter. It’s covered in ice. (to people making noise in the background) Hey guys, can you be more quiet? And it’s covered in ice, and you can’t imagine it being running water.
And the same thing when you’re on it in the summer, you know. You can’t imagine that this -- that there’s no green in winter, that this is all ice. It’s an ice highway, you know, in the winter. And you just think about those, um -- (dog barking and kids talking in the background)
SONJA SAGER: Yeah, we’re going to run into a bunch of noise, now. Hold on. We’ll just pause for a minute. 'Cause maybe we can go somewhere quiet and wrap it up, and I (unintelligible). Um, here, come this way. Let’s go this way. Can you move it, or -- ? MARCY OKADA: Yes. SONJA SAGER: Ok.
Let’s go -- shortly over -- we’ll go right -- And you’ll see the house where I was born. That would be fun. So -- Guys, I’m going to take about ten more minutes to wrap up with Marcy, ok? I’m going to go sit over in the old house, shortly. Can you guys just hang out and then we’ll have the root beer floats? KIDS VOICES: Yeah. SONJA SAGER: Will you be ok with that? Ah, yes. Is it still running? MARCY OKADA: Yes.
SONJA SAGER: Ok. Well, I know we got some wind, so I thought we could sit in the old house. I could show you this house was built by John Powers. MARCY OKADA: Ok. SONJA SAGER: Back in around 1901, like I said.
And it happened to belong to some friends of ours when I was born, so that’s why she came here. And now she owns it. MARCY OKADA: Oh. SONJA SAGER: She bought this entire half a block. MARCY OKADA: Wait, who owns it? SONJA SAGER: My mom. MARCY OKADA: Oh, ok.
SONJA SAGER: The roof is still made out of these old Blazo cans. MARCY OKADA: Oh. SONJA SAGER: They used to take Blazo cans and flatten them. And that’s the hallmark of a really old house here in this area.
We’re losing at least one old house every summer, when people are tearing them down, or, you know, things like that.
But this one’s still here, and you can see the care that the people around the turn of the century took with their houses. And you can see the carpentry skill that they also needed to possess for these, like, you know, these porches aren’t straightforward. So if you ask somebody nowadays to come up with these angles and build this by hand, they’d have a hard time, probably, unless they were a carpenter.
But, yes, please have a seat on one of these dog food bags. MARCY OKADA: Ok. SONJA SAGER: I just thought this might be a good quiet place.
MARCY OKADA: Yes. Thank you. Um, let’s see. So we were talking about, uh, um, the importance of subsistence. SONJA SAGER: Subsistence activities, the timing involved in it. The um, --
MARCY OKADA: So maybe we can go into that a little bit further. Um, how do you -- how do you think things have changed in regards to preserve management? The management of Yukon-Charley? SONJA SAGER: Oh, I’ve seen so many changes in that. Oh, my god.
Like when I was a kid, um, there was a time when this interview probably would have been deemed impossible, you know, because there was such bad blood between the National Park Service and the people that lived down there.
Um, not even as much between my family, uh, just because I think my parents, coming from Europe gave them a different understanding of park lands, or like, the way that personal freedoms kind of had to balance with --
See, in Europe it’s much more crowded. So they had kind of a deeper understanding of how lands might be managed, in contrast with here, so forth.
So that kinda gave me a little bit of a different look into it. Also, because they would take me to Europe and show me that, and I was like, "Oh. We could be here."
Um, so, but the -- the basic thing that happened to cause this was, it became a preserve. The people that were there, they had come often from the East Coast or places to seek a place where they could kind of realize their wilderness dream. And then they were told that they couldn’t realize it there anymore.
And so, some people’s possessions were destroyed. There was, I think, one incident of a burning of a camp or house, you know. So the -- this really, for the people there, even though they had come from somewhere else, they had sunk everything into this dream, and when that was destroyed, it was really bad blood.
So I was growing up with kids that would never even be allowed to work for Park Service or even think of that.
Um, so when I started doing, like, the sensitivity training, which I thought was really important, and I know that sensitivity is not the word that we like, but cultural, you know, just insight. Sort of what we’re doing now. Like, this is what we do, this is why our -- we need our eddies or our barrel cache or whatever. That was a big step for our family, too, you know.
And we have been trying to kind of work with -- as it changed. 'Cause I’ve seen a lot of different changes. You know, a lot of, um, management changes, even, you know, and just management --
Like at first, there was no liking by the government to have these permits. But then, gradually, the climate changed a little bit. Now we have been maintaining Trout Creek this whole time, but for the first part, at least, we were always in fear, and still sort of do have this, you know, fear that we will lose the permit. Because it’s not a sure thing. I have to reapply for it all the time.
But what we’re doing is maintaining that cabin, basically as it was, you know. Just -- it is not a sore on the land. It’s actually really pretty and it needs upkeep. Because no cabin can just be left, you know. It will molder into the ground. No matter what you do to it previously, it needs the human touch occasionally, so.
Um, so I think the permits are a good thing. I think, you know, for a long time we had these meetings, which I grew quite disillusioned with, but they did serve their purpose at the time, trying to open up communication.
But unfortunately, many people are way more disillusioned than me, and they wouldn’t attend the meetings that were between Park Service and local people.
So I think what I’d like to see is just a continuation of the stated policy of being able to use the Preserve as a hunting -- having hunting, you know, rights there. Being able to use public lands, you know, for things like gathering, hunting, fishing.
’Cause as long as we have that, we have that food security, as well as the kinda connection to the land, we’ll be able to sustain ourselves. And I know that people are like, "Well, this is just a few people. Why does it matter, and why do they get to sustain themselves while the rest of the, you know, world, doesn’t?"
But the answer to that is, there’s still, all around the world, there’s a lot of communities, there’s a lot of indigenous communities, and there’s a lot of other, you know, communities that have formed, um, where they do sustain themselves partially off the land, and that -- when that breaks down, what you see is a mass refugee to the cities kind of movement. We see that in a lot of countries. It’s usually due to war or losing their land rights under certain governments.
So public land rights, they allow people to thrive not only in the city. As soon as you lose that, the cities become really, you know -- you end up with the tent towns, and, you know, slum towns around the city. It’s not good for anyone at that point, because the city actually gets food and other things coming in from the countryside, if it’s working properly, you know.
Like I always say to people, Fairbanks and Anchorage are great, you know, but they’re -- they're serving a lot of people that live out in the Bush. It might be just a few here and there, but it all adds up, you know. It adds up to business, and it adds up to --
We should be strengthening those connections, not weakening them. So one way to strengthen it is to make sure that the people in rural areas still have that connection to land so that they can subsist.
'Cause I think about sixty percent, I always say, of our food comes from subsistence. And I came up with that figure just by trying to figure out how much, you know, in a week typically, and then aggregate it, do we eat that comes off the land, versus, you know, that you "shoot with your wallet," as my husband Mike says.
And it’s about sixty percent that we eat off the land. And then when something happens like the king salmon run is so low that we can’t fish, that knocks that right back a little bit. ’Cause that percentage, which is like ten, of what we would be eating king salmon, we have to then buy something to replace that. Or hunt harder, you know.
There’s so many things we have to then do to try to come up with something to replace that protein. ’Cause we can’t afford meat in the store really. Uh, very, very expensive. Not even the good quality that you would expect for spending that amount of money. It’s just like, "This is what I’m getting for this?"
And we just don’t have access to it, you know. We just -- We need to have the --
The protein, the meat, that’s the hardest thing to get, and it’s super stressful. So when we’re down there hunting, we’re not having a leisurely feelings that people who are trophy hunting or up from Wasilla, you know, "Well, maybe we’ll get one."
We are pretty much stressed, because we’re thinking, "If we don’t get one, we might be facing weeks without meat." You know, we have growing kids. My son grew ten and a half inches in the last three years. He’s continuously hungry. You know, it’s just like, "What am I going to do if I don’t get a moose?" That’s what we’re thinking.
So we have this kind of underlying level of stress that I think that hunters from other places that come here don’t understand.
’Cause we’re also seeing, you know, boats with racks going by, you know, and we’re like, "Man, you know --" ’Cause every one that goes is not one that we’re going to get. So we’re trying to wait. Often we wait until the other people leave to try to get what’s left over with greater skill.
So we’re like, going out there, and we’re using all our skill, trying to get, you know, the bigger moose once they come into rut later.
We’re working against climate change, 'cause we need to be able to preserve the meat. It’s not like -- we don’t have a johnboat that size to throw it in. We need to be able to hang it, come back for it, you know. Like, put it in our freezer, you know. And when we lived downriver there was no freezer.
So we -- you know, as we’re trying to work with our AC's (local Fish and Game Advisory Council), trying to push the hunting season back a little bit as the climate is changing.
So we have -- now we have these hot Septembers. You can’t hang meat half of them, you know. So now we’re like, we need to change this, because the rules aren’t changing fast enough to reflect the actual change on the ground. The climate change that we’re seeing, the change of conditions, you know.
And so that’s really kind of the frustrating part of trying to adapt is, not only do you actually have to adapt, you gotta adapt with the rules, and the rules have to come along with it somehow, you know. Man. It’s not easy.
MARCY OKADA: Um, how about fire management? ’Cause there’s been some fires down near Trout Creek, or on Trout Creek. SONJA SAGER: Yeah, there has. It’s very fire-prone.
Um, yeah. You know the best fire management is clearing out around your property. Um, not clear-cutting, but what we call a shaded fuel break.
And that’s good for the forest, and you can keep your birches and your willows and stuff like that, but if you have black spruce, you should be -- At least 100 feet from your house, you should not have black spruce in thick stands. You can have a clump here or there, maybe, but you really should --
And that is a lot of work. We’ve been doing that on our property across the river for years now, and we’re still not done.
So it seems wasteful, but I mean, in some ways, you know, you’re thinking, like, "Now I have to cut thirty feet of black spruce. Isn’t that terrible?" But when it burns, you’re endangering people’s lives if you don’t have a defensible space, you know.
So in the greater scheme of things, you know, it’s -- I think it’s worth doing. But I also really feel like there’s no place for things like sheer blading or just plowing down trees or inviting -- that just invites native sp -- it invites invasive species, and it, you know -- We need to keep it to working with the forests.
So I don’t agree with people who think that we should change the valley’s biome to be less spruce-y. Spruce is always the most valuable tree for subsistence.
So everything we do is done basically with wood, you know. Everything from burning only wood all winter, uh, you know, a lot of which is also driftwood, but also the things we use are made out of wood. The houses we live in are made out of wood. Fish wheels. Everything is made out of wood.
So the spruce is so valuable, and to try to change the biome, that’s defeating the purpose. The purpose -- We live in the taiga, you know, and the spruce is the king of that. We need to try to hang onto them.
And when we see them getting sick -- there’s a new sickness, bugs, you know, are getting into them and stuff, and that’s really not good for us, so.
MARCY OKADA: Um, and then maybe let’s just quickly touch a little bit on how things have changed in terms of fish and wildlife resources. You know, the numbers of things. And I -- I know you’ve already touched on the salmon. SONJA SAGER: Well, one thing I gotta touch on if you know me is that I am very opposed to aerial wolf control.
So predator control programs in general, unless they’re very carefully implemented, I’m opposed to, because the -- subsistence in my mind, it has to be sustainable. So it’s not sustainable to overhunt a caribou herd, but neither is it sustainable to kill the wolves in direct competition, which is what’s been going on.
So in 2002, around that time, this epic battle started between some local people like myself who didn’t want to see aerial wolf control taking out up to eighty percent of some packs, and in some cases, the entire pack. You know, genetically, we lost a lot of genetics. Now it’s all in upheaval.
Now, big surprise, but not to us, the Fortymile Caribou Herd exploded and is over-grazing their range. Uh, part of the reason is because they took out some of these wolf packs that were historically, you know, following the caribou and -- and by historically, I mean in the Pleistocene, you know, like, historically.
So wolves and caribou are two things you cannot unhitch. It’s like the trailer does not unhitch from the car, you know. These two things always coexist. Always.
And when you go in and decimate the wolf population in an area, you’re just asking for trouble. Like -- and now the trouble is here, and I’m very sad about it. Because not only did hundreds of wolves get slaughtered from the air, some of which were wearing park radio collars, you know. Not only that.
Not only did we -- we were not able to trap wolves for years, because we were seeing how many were dying, and we couldn’t bring ourselves to kill the few remaining for a ruff, you know.
That was a subsistence thing for us. Is like a wolf ruff is very valuable. A wolf is very valuable. And just to see them wiped out like that was very -- I cannot say how painful of an experience.
To put it in perspective, top five in my life. That’s including, you know, all sorts of loss and, you know, what we all go through. The -- Seeing the wolves decimated like that, definitely in the top five.
And for me personally, also, it was very personal. And for a lot of people it was. And for a lot of other people -- like Jeff Gross (Area Biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in charge of management of the Fortymile Caribou Herd), I condemn him for not listening. You know, and for continuing not to listen. That’s just, like, they are responsible and no other. Because they pushed it when it didn’t have to be pushed. That program, you know.
MARCY OKADA: Um, changes in weather and timing of freeze-up and break-up. In your lifetime, I imagine you’ve seen an incremental -- just change in -- ? SONJA SAGER: There’s been a lot of change, but people don’t live long enough to see the gre -- you know, the whole scheme of it.
So we’ve seen a lot of changes, and the biggest change we’ve seen is a swing towards extremes. So climate change, some people are like, "Oh, it’s so cold, there’s no climate change." You know. And the point is, that it’s becoming more erratic, as anyone can see.
It’s kind of like -- someone described it as like, the fire hose starts wavering, the fire hose being the jet stream, you know. And the water pressure’s off, or something, and it starts to meander. We’re seeing that.
When -- when they have storms down in the Lower 48, we have it balmy warm, you know. I mean, there’s a lot of meandering, and there’s a lot of extremes.
Right now, Western Alaska has record rainfall. They’ve been in the rain all summer. We are really dry here, and we have been since mid-June. And like I said, we just broke that heat record. It’s August. We don’t usually have that, so.
We’re seeing a lot of extremes. Of course, that -- like, the forest fires are gonna be way worse and have been worse, you know, because of that.
We -- a couple of years ago, we had the lowest water on the river. Warm, silty water, and it was because a glacier had retreated so far that the water started to flow towards the other side of the Pacific, the Continental Divide. And so, the river wasn’t getting as much water.
Now we have better water again, glaciers are melting really fast. So what -- what that makes me wonder is, and what went -- what happens when they’re gone, you know? I mean like, the ice cube is melting, and we’re sitting here just kind of watching, trying to keep up.
But luckily, we don’t have to worry too much ’cause our lifespan is so short in comparison to these changes. You know, it’s -- I think about my kids, and I think like, they’re going to really have to adapt here, you know. This is going to have to happen fast. Um, not -- the problem is that we can’t all adapt that fast.
There’s certain places that are going to be hit so much harder than others. So just -- just ’cause you don’t produce a lot of carbon does not mean that you’re not going to be the hardest hit, as some of these low-lying island nations that don’t burn anything have been finding out, you know.
It’s just going to be pretty random, and the -- unfortunately, I really feel like a lot of indigenous cultures are going to bear the brunt of this, so. I’m really unhappy to hear that, and I can see it, you know, happening. Pretty much. So.
MARCY OKADA: And then, I guess just to wrap off, um, what -- what -- you know, you’ve lived a Yukon River life your entire life, and -- and what is most meaningful to you about that? SONJA SAGER: Um, for me, it’s a sense of place. So, for me personally, the most meaningful thing about being born here and still living here is that I can, you know, look up, I see the same hills, and I feel a sense of connection.
Also, a sense of connection to people that have passed on. Like Isaac Juneby and stuff. People who love the river. My friend Max Beck, Flossie. Um, you know, I -- if I know they felt that same way about something, just by being there, I can get that connection.
But it’s actually even more than that. It’s -- it’s, um, not even about people. That’s the people aspect of it. But it’s about the connection to the land.
So even if, um, it’s just me and the river, you know, I feel like a sense of at home. It’s not that I don’t know that the river can be very dangerous. That’s not the point. You know, everything can be dangerous. It’s not that. It’s just a sense of being at home and being where I’m supposed to be and feeling like I’m at peace, you know.
Not -- not traveling. Like when I’m traveling on the river, I may look like I’m traveling, but I’m home, you know. And this stretch is -- this river’s quite long, so this feeling stretches a long way for me.
And it feels like this place is the center of the world to me, so, you know, people are like, "How can you live out there?" And I’m like, somebody from not the center of the world is talking to me. They apparently don’t understand that this is the center. Um, it does feel like that to me, you know, so. That’s -- at that level.
And then as far as the importance of this place, it’s huge. Like, this is one of the biggest free-flowing rivers. The fact that the flood plains are intact, the migratory birds that come through here, the animals. I mean, just the -- the value of this river is -- you can’t even begin to describe it.
And when I was a kid -- I was a weird kid. I would live in fear of that they would dam it. I still -- that’s one of -- like, nuclear power, don’t like it. My grandma was -- grew up near Chernobyl.
Uh, dams, very bad, you know. Just -- it’s like a nightmare. They used to talk about exporting the water to California, and I must have heard that. They were going to build a pipeline at one point to pipe the Yukon water to California. And I was just like, of all the things, you know, that you -- you can’t do here, it's dams.
And when I think of the fact that people in China have actually suffered that, you know, and lost -- things that you would -- not only are they irreplaceable to them, their lifestyle, to humanity, to the world. Like, not -- forget humanity. To the whole world, is irreplaceable.
You cannot, you know, dam something like this river and expect anything ever to go right for you again. Like -- Everything will go directly wrong after that.
So that, if -- if I could have one thing, you know, that would make me feel better when I pass on, it would just be to know that my kids could still use this land.
Like, the Preserve especially, because that’s how I -- where I feel most at home. That they could still have a connection to that land, and that it would not be ruined by people, which we tend to do, so. So that’s why I like it to be a preserve, actually, because I want it to stay that way.
MARCY OKADA: Thank you, Sonja. Thank you for your time. I know you have a lot of busy things to do ahead of you. SONJA SAGER: Yeah, I gotta rescue my laundry.