Biologist and Expert on Sheefish, Whitefish, and Cabin life
Randy Brown first started fishing for whitefish when he was 18, living alone on a remote tributary of the Yukon. Sheefish was tasty and healthy, and gave him a good source of protein when the salmon stopped running. After 15 years during which his main jobs consisted of hunting, fishing, and bowl-carving, Randy moved to town with his wife and two kids and studied biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Today he studies sheefish, humpback whitefish, broad whitefish, and other whitefish all over interior and arctic Alaska with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ensuring these populations stay healthy for others who depend on them.
—AS TOLD TO AND EDITED BY MOLLY RETTIG
What brought you to Alaska when you were only 18?
I grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which was a great place to grow up, but for some reason the whole idea of living out in the woods and fending for yourself, getting food, fishing, building cabins, it really intrigued me. Plus back then, in high school, I was only making about $1.35 an hour working at a restaurant, so why not?
Where did you settle?
I built my first place on the Kandik River, between Eagle and Circle, 30 miles upriver from the Yukon. I apprenticed with a guy who showed me how to build and showed me the ropes of living out there. I built my cabin with a bow saw and ax, using a two-inch auger to drill holes for pegs. I’d notch the corners of the log and pack two or three inches of moss in the gap between the logs, which forms a gasket. It lasts forever. There’s no better way to build.
What was it like living out there alone?
People think it sounds hard, but actually it’s pretty simple. Although, I wasn’t meeting a lot of single women out there, and after a couple years I started feeling lonely. So in the summer of 1980, I built a raft, floated down to Circle, and hitchhiked to Fairbanks with my backpack, rifle, and dog. At the Solstice Fair, I met Karen, who was there listening to music with a friend’s dog. She was studying at the university and wanted to teach in the Bush. After a couple hours I asked her if she wanted to live in the woods. She said no, but took my address.
How did you stay in touch when you moved back to the Kandik?
That summer, she wrote a few letters to my general mailing address in Eagle, and the postmaster would give them to someone heading downriver to deliver to me. She invited me to go to San Francisco that Christmas to visit her brother. I showed up in Fairbanks in my fur clothes and mukluks, and had to go get some new clothes to fly in the airplanes. After that trip, she got a teaching job in Akiak, so I flew down in a Cessna 185 and we spent the rest of the winter there. We lived in the jail because there wasn’t enough teacher housing at the time.
That must have been an experience!
It was. They had built a new jail but hadn’t finished it yet. It had cells with doors made out of 2-by-4s nailed side by side, but no insulation in the floor. There was no other housing in the village and the council wasn’t too excited about me pitching up a wall tent, so they came up with this idea that we could lease the jail.
The next summer, we got married on the river and built a new cabin on the Kandik, because my bachelor’s cabin was not something a woman would necessarily want to live in.
What did you do for work out there?
I was trapping and carving bowls, but we didn’t have a lot of income. When we ran out of money, she would get a teaching job and we’d go live somewhere a couple years and come back.
Why did you end up studying biology, and what drew you to whitefish?
From living out there, I knew the species pretty well. But back in the ‘90s, nobody knew where sheefish lived. There were a hundred different opinions, but no one really knew. One summer, we were doing a radio telemetry study on chum salmon and had set up towers along the Yukon to track the salmon upriver, so I put transmitters on sheefish too. We’d catch a bunch in a fish wheel and put radio transmitters on them, pushing it through their mouth into their stomach. That told us they lived in the brackish water near the ocean, and went upriver when it was time to spawn. Thanks to the towers, we could see how far up they’d go, past Rampart, but not past Circle. We had no clue where they went after that, so we started flying up all these smaller tributaries like Beaver Creek, Birch Creek, and the Porcupine doing aerial surveys. Three days later we still didn’t see them.
So where did they goto spawn?
The Upper Yukon Flats, between Fort Yukon and Circle. It’s a wild, braided piece of river, so few people wanted to go boating there. Nobody had a clue that it was probably the biggest single whitefish spawning area in the state. About 10 years ago, when the state was getting ready to build a bridge over the Tanana [to connect the Richardson Highway to a military training ground on the other side] they wanted to dredge the riverbed for material. It was the same stream morphology as the Upper Yukon Flats, and when we put a bunch of radios in these fish, we found that—sure enough—that’s where they go to spawn. When the EPA found that out, they said, “There’s no way you’re going to dredge the riverbed in this habitat of national significance.”
We hear a lot about the impacts of climate change on salmon. How are whitefish handling all the changes?
My perspective is that the whitefish are doing okay. It’s true that some of these lakes are drying out as the permafrost is thawing, but the changes in the freshwater environment are not as profound as the big ocean issues. If we keep people from dredging their spawning areas, I think we’re good.