Interior Alaska’s once numerous fishwheels dwindle in number
It may surprise people that the picturesque fishwheels that are so much a part of Interior Alaska life, and so often associated with Athabascan Indian culture, are not indigenous to Alaska or Canada. Athabascans customarily used weirs, nets and traps for fishing, but adopted fishwheels when the new technology was introduced at the end of the 19th century.
Their origins are unknown, but fishwheels have been used for centuries throughout the world, including in China, Japan, Europe, Scandinavia and the United States. Fishwheels in the U.S. date to 1829, when they were used to harvest shad from North Carolina rivers. Their usage soon spread to nearby states.
In 1879 fishwheels were introduced to the Columbia River, where they gained favor in intercepting migrating salmon. By 1905 over seventy-five commercial fishwheels operated along the Columbia, harvesting enormous quantities of fish. According to a 2005 article in Subsistence Management Information newsletter, in 1913 one Columbia River wheel captured 70,000 pounds of salmon in a single day. Systematic over-harvesting of Columbia River salmon led Oregon to ban fishwheels in 1926, and Washington to follow suit in 1935.
Canneries may have introduced fishwheels to Southeast Alaska. I found a 1908 photo from the University of Washington archives showing an industrial-looking Taku River fishwheel with a basket at least 20’ wide, undoubtedly used commercially.
However, it was goldseekers and their followers who brought fishwheels to Interior Alaska and the Yukon during the Klondike gold rush. In the late 1890s and early 1900s fishwheels sprang up along the Yukon River from about Anvik on the Middle Yukon, upstream into Canada. Fishwheel usage eventually spread to other river systems, including the Copper, Kuskokwim and Skwentna Rivers.
Athabascans and Westerners both used fishwheels, and in 1918 there were 393 fishwheels operating along the Yukon and its tributaries. The Subsistence Management article states that fishwheels were ineffective on the Lower Yukon with its meandering waters. Hudson Stuck, in his book, Voyages on the Yukon and its Tributaries, states that with the Lower Yukon’s abundant salmon runs, traditional methods of catching salmon were more than adequate and fishwheels unnecessary.
The drawing, which shows a fishwheel with rounded-end basket (common on the Yukon River) is based on a historic photo taken in about 1950 near Fort Yukon. The publication, Fishwheels and How to Build Them, states that while modern fishwheels often incorporate naturally-occurring and store-bought materials, fishwheels can be built entirely of birch or spruce logs, poles and wooden pegs. It appears that the only store-bought materials used in the drawing’s fishwheel were the wire mesh for the basket, and possibly the milled lumber for the fish catch-box and paddles. Older photos depict wheels with even the catch-boxes constructed of cribbed logs.
Another common variation of the fishwheel uses squared-end baskets. The book, Alaskan’s How To Handbook, quotes expert fishwheel builder and long-time Interior resident, Bill Taylor, as saying that square-ended fishwheel baskets, with their sturdier basket frames, are stronger than rounded-end baskets, and more suitable to debris-laden rivers such as the Tanana.
Once, fishwheels were common even on the Chena River. I have an acquaintance who remembers, as a child, watching fishwheels just downstream from the Cushman Street bridge.
The number of operational fishwheels throughout Alaska has declined over the years. In rural Alaska, snow machines have replaced dog teams (prodigious fish consumers), and declining salmon runs in recent years have contributed significantly to the reduced number of fishwheels.
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, only 69 fishwheels operated along the Alaska section of Yukon River and its tributaries in 2015, and fishwheels on the Chena River are now just a memory.
- Alaskan’s How To Handbook. John Dart. Interior Trapper’s Association. 1981
- Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Area Salmon Fishing History. Steven Pennoyer, Kenneth Middleton & Melvan Morris. State of Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 1998
- Fishwheels and How to Build Them. Adult Literacy Laboratory. Anchorage Community College. 1979
- Photo of Yukon River fishwheel taken by Frank Whaley. In the Wien Collection at the Anchorage Museum
- “Wheels spin into 2nd century in Alaska.” In Subsistence Management Information newsletter. Vol. 5, No. 1, March 2005