Sunrise was about an hour away when Cynthia Ford and Suntayea Steinruck started the fire for sand bread.
They had dug the pit three days prior, filling it with gravel from beds near the surf, and spent Tuesday keeping the alder logs burning. By noon the heat was so intense, gravel-sized red splotches speckled Ford and Steinruck’s arms, shoulders and shins.
“If you look on the beach, you’ll see the gravel,” Ford said. “That’s the gravel that the smelt run in, so it’s kind of cool.”
Roughly 70 people from the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation and the Bear River Tribe, including elders and youth, spent the morning on the beach near Windcrest Drive in Smith River. While Ford and Steinruck taught their young counterparts how to bake sand bread, Pyuwa Bommelyn and Jaytuk Steinruck led another group how to construct the dip nets used to catch the smelt.
They will camp on the beach for about two weeks waiting for the smelt run. But it’s been about three seasons since they have returned to their gravel beds to spawn, said Jaytuk Steinruck, who works in the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation’s natural resources department and has been part of a smelt study for about four years.
“When we were kids there were so many it looked like little sticks in the water,” he said. “We would pick them up with our hands and put them in the bucket, and the fishermen will get most of them out of the dip net.”
The Tolowa have been harvesting smelt and drying their catch in the sun on grass beds just off the beach “before time began,” said tribal member Marva Jones. They will spend about two weeks camping because that’s how long it takes the fish to dry.
“You turn them three times a day,” she said. “They have to go head to tail, head to tail and they can’t touch each other.”
Drying smelt has been a common practice for indigenous people up and down the North Coast, including the Yurok, Pomo and Wiyot peoples, Jones said. Tolowa people have harvested smelt on Kellogg Beach near Fort Dick and have even used fish from as far south as Gold Bluffs Beach near Orick. If the catch is especially good there will be fresh and dried fish to share with both Tolowa and Yurok elders, she said.
The smelt run in five-year increments, said Jaytuk Steinruck. Those fishing for them can tell when they’re about to come ashore due to the behavior of the pelicans, cormorants and seagulls feeding on them. One reason why the smelt may not be returning to spawn may be due to the number of people that have begun to frequent the beach, he said.
About two years ago Steinruck said he was watching a school of fish coming in to spawn while a group of about 70 people were using the beach. He could see the birds following the run as it made its way to shore.
“It was a church group,” Steinruck said. “Everybody has access to the beach — there’s nothing against that — but they were in the water and those fish turned around and went back out. You could watch the whole flock of birds moving with the fish. That for me was like, well that’s why we were taught that you stay out of the water, especially when the fish are running.”
Steinruck said the last time there was a decent smelt run was about three years ago.
“It was maybe about 700 pounds,” he said. “And that 700 pounds is what we gave away as fresh fish and for dried and smoked. Last year they didn’t run at all when we were down here.”
Bommelyn, the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation’s cultural director, noted multiple generations also share in the task of harvesting the smelt.
“You’ll see a lot of parents and kids here and then their grandparents,” he said. “It’s home for a lot of kids here that grew up here.”
While many of their peers were finishing up lunch, 16-year-old Bryce Haney and 17-year-old Mitchell Larson were busy shaping a piece of cedar into a dip net frame.
“A lot of people don’t know how to make these things,” Larson said. “I didn’t know when I started. I think it’s pretty cool once you know how to do it.”