Jars of pickled sea lion flippers sat neatly aligned; upside down in the center of the room to allow a clear look at the chunks of meat marinating together inside. Across from that, green tin cans labeled “fish 2022” in felt marker were stacked three to a bag. As we left the preservation room and walked outside, my curiosity to see what was inside the 12-foot by 12-foot wooden structures covered with mossy cedar shingles and meat-scented smoke seeping from the weathered cracks was at peak state.
My guide who was also the food preservation teacher, pointed out some Alder wood just outside the door. Alder is harvested from the marshy areas in the region and is orange in colour when it’s still damp; optimal for smoking. The wood's sweet scent, ability to burn slowly and smoke made it the perfect choice to smoke meat with. She then pushed open the smokehouse door, we both reeled back our heads to avoid meat-scented white clouds as they escaped into the open air. The room cleared enough to reveal long thick strips of sea lion meat hanging from boards above the glowing Alder wood. Wow, this was a whole new level of smoked goodness.
I've seen commercially smoked meats in large smokers, I’ve seen hobby enthusiasts using mini fridges turned into smokers, and weekend warriors with bbq-style smokers. This was my first time walking inside an active smokehouse with sea lion meat sweating away. The scent was sweet and meaty like bbq-ing pork loin with a brown sugar rub, but this was no commercially raised pork loin.
Lonny welcomes me over to the truck and his son Anthony puts down his wrench to shake my hand. This truck is going to be Anthony’s graduation present this summer if they can get it up and running again. On its 3rd engine, the Ford is still solid enough to endure some more miles. Anthony shows it off and proudly points out that his truck has Cherry Bomb exhaust, a company whose slogan is “Disturbing The Peace, Since 1968”. He adds that he can’t wait to drive it to graduation so everyone can hear him coming. I see that not much has changed in the eye of teenagers since my first truck that had a stereo worth more than the truck itself!
Lonny asks me what it is I want to know about local foods? Geographically I’m out of my element and don’t really know where to begin or what I’m looking for. Instead, Lonny takes the reins and walks me behind the house to his smoke shack. Empty at the time, he says the family uses it to smoke salmon, moose, deer, sea lion, and whatever else they want to preserve.
This is where it all begins. “Wait, what did you say Lonny, sea lion? You smoke sea lion in this?” I want to be sure I didn’t miss something. “Yes, not right now, but I think they may be smoking some down at the community smoke house and I’ll take you there later," he says. Up until this moment, I was sure there wasn’t a single kind of meat in Canada that I’d at least heard of eating.
Realizing that he’s dealing with a blank slate, Lonny decides it’s best to start at the beginning and tells me to hop in his car, we’re going for a ride out to the lava fields. The topic wasn’t just food, Lonny was going to give me a history lesson on the way. He explains the volcanic eruption that happened here in the early 1700s blanketing the ground and entombing more than 2000 people. During the history lesson, he pauses here and there to point out various flowers and berries in the area that have traditionally been used by the locals as food: in addition, adding what times of year are most optimal for harvesting.
As the student- teacher dynamic continues on throughout the day Lonny informs me that the Nisga’a live by a food harvesting calendar that typically starts in March with the Hobiyee Festival. A New Year’s Festival based on the first crescent moon, a symbolic reflection of the Nisga’a spoon pointing upward that foretells the potential for food abundance in the upcoming year. The calendar outlines the most optimal fishing, gathering, hunting, and trapping in each month of the year. Their entire way of life revolves around food.
The calendar starts in March with the arrival of the saviour fish or oolichan / eulachon. A tiny smelt-sized fish that would provide a source of much needed nutrition after the long, lean winter months. So oily it’s nicknamed the Candle Fish. Once dried, it can be fit with a wick and burn like a candle. Picture that glowing on your bedside table. Once harvested, the oil is then separated from the fish and has a viscous golden shine. When cold, it may turn to a butter-like thickness and be used in a similar culinary fashion as a spread or condiment.
The Nass has been an incredible source of sustenance since before anyone can recall and since this time the Nisga’a have been harvesting the oolichan; etching out “grease trails” that stretch from here to across the Pacific Northwest. Historically hauling bentwood boxes full of grease for trade, a trade that still exists locally to this day.
The calendar known as the Traditional Nisga’a Harvesting Seasons, is a wealth of knowledge. It breaks down the most optimal times for hunting, gathering, harvesting, and trapping. March and April months are shown as being great for gathering liquorice fern root, hunting bears & ducks, as well as trapping wolves & beavers. Whereas May was noted for chinook salmon fishing, harvesting things like seaweed and lava berries, and hunting animals like deer & geese. It continues for each of the passing months and seasons. This is an incredibly detailed look into what has been keeping the locals surviving and thriving for so long now.
A few hours into the Nisga’a food & history class, Lonny lets one small detail slip that might risk the safety of his entire family. He subtly mentions that they are having sea lion stew for dinner. My eyes balloon open like I’ve just seen a unicorn, then there’s a pause…
I think Lonny is doing the mental math on what his family is going to say if he invites the random stranger who’s been holding a camera and microphone in his face all day pestering him with questions, for dinner. He never says it, but I’m sure he has been questioning my motives since I showed up. Criminal, con artist, bum, what is this half-frozen biker doing at our house in April and should he be allowed at the kitchen table?
Too nice for his own good, Lonny invites me in and here I am. A random stranger with his camera on, documenting sea lion stew night with a herring egg appetizer at the family's kitchen table.
Meaty, with soft flavors, the mixture of stewed vegetables, noodles, and sea lion meat could have been chunks of mushroom if no one had told me otherwise. I was expecting something much more brash and fishy, it was anything but. As dinner wrapped up they realized that I was not going to make it to my hotel room in Gingolx an hour away before they closed. The no cell reception also meant I couldn’t so much as find the hotel number or my reservation. Luckily Lonny's daughter knew someone who worked in the tiny village and arranged to have them meet me in an hour and let me in. After a stunning motorcycle ride winding along the Nass River I arrived to the curious greeting of some of the younger locals and the lady sent to meet me. She let me into a barracks-style hotel where I was the only guest for the weekend. On Sunday it was back to Lonny’s for a meal I’ll cherish for the rest of my days. Smoked Sea Lion Ribs.
I gave Lonny a 24-hour break from me before asking him about sea lion ribs, a dish he said was one of the best parts of the sea lion. I was coming back to Lonny's town of New Aiyansh (Gitlaxt'aamiks) to learn about sea lion smoking on Monday and he invited me back Sunday night to have ribs with the family. Flustered with excitement, I managed to get lost for the second time, arrived late, and Lonny held back dinner until I got my act together.
An animal that is not uncommon to reach eight hundred pounds and seven feet long, the ribs and the roasts he said were two of the best cuts of the blubbery beast. When butchering, the heart is either sliced thin and used for stir fry, or stuffed and baked. The kidneys are also stuffed but are a dry acquired taste Lonny says. As for the ribs; first, they are smoked in the smokehouse for four days, then, they are boiled for 5-6 hours with some salt & pepper, a bit of soya sauce, brown sugar for flavor, and often a can of Coke. This is added to help tenderize the meat and sweeten it up. As it boils the marrow melts and the flavour penetrates the meat.
The ribs were finished on the BBQ with some of Lonny's homemade bbq sauce. His recipe echoed most of my mental recipes. There were no measurable quantities, though the ingredients are usually the same. It goes something like this; a good amount of ketchup, some honey, brown sugar, and pepper. Add a bit of hot sauce, garlic salt, soya sauce, and vinegar for some zing! Mix, let stand in the fridge for at least a few days and heavily brush across the ribs while cooking.
When it came time to eat the ribs they were huge, and reminded me of beef ribs! On the side, Lonny had oven-baked potatoes as well as boiled cabbage and carrots. There was no seasoning set out for the baked potato, instead out came a couple of jars of oolichan grease appeared.
Mentally, I was picturing the grease to have an oily, fishy taste that coats your mouth and lips when eating canned sardines and braced myself for impact. As my spoon dipped into the grease jar, Anthony looked over at me and asked if anyone warned me about having too much. “What’s too much I asked?” He said “If you’re new to oolichan grease you should start off with no more than a tablespoon full as it will clean you right out!” One tablespoon it is then. After drizzling the grease across my potato I put the spoon in my mouth to get the full effect. This rich flavor like warm baked salmon swept across my tastebuds, it was delightful!
I went to pick up the sea lion rib and ended up with just the bone as the meat slid away back onto my plate. I carefully picked up another, grinned with excitement, and sunk my teeth in. The meat was incredibly tender, rich, sweet, and pulled away like a pork shoulder that had been stewing for days. It was amazing, I couldn’t believe I was eating a sea lion rib! It’s one thing to hear about something like Kobe beef or caviar and its opulence, you get this idea of what to expect based on the mental picture that has been drawn up by others. Sea lion though, I’d never met anyone who had mentioned eating or heard of eating sea lions, I had no reference point to work from.
The flavor comparison didn’t hit me until the next day when I was at the community smokehouse staring up at sea lion meat sweating from the rafters. It’s here local students on a two-year stint learning the trade were organizing the jars of flippers, cans of salmon, and salted fish to distribute to some of the 160-elders in town. These elders were no longer able to hunt and gather for themselves.
One of the ladies said that a year earlier someone from the community had been at a ranch in Alberta; they were eating dinner one night and had asked what the meat was as it reminded them of sea lion. Bison, they were eating bison. That was it, the sea lion ribs reminded me of bison! Not the fatty fishy taste I had been expecting, but a lean meaty taste sweet from Lonny’s sauce.
You can’t legally buy sea lion meat, you can’t sell it in a restaurant as it can’t be inspected in any way for resale. The locals have been hunting them for food no different than first nations people have been hunting bison on the prairies for as far back as anyone can remember. The meal, as well as the experience, was literally priceless. A chance encounter in a part of the planet I was going to skip right past.
A week earlier I’d been taking a photo of a mossy house in Haida Gwaii and bumped into a legitimate cameraman taking photos of the same house. He said if I’ve come this far, I better not miss the Nass, and now here I was.
If you’re looking to restore your faith in humanity, get to know a culture that is wildly proud of its heritage. Discover dishes that have been quietly evolving down the Canadian routes less traveled since those routes were established. Then, the adventure for both you and your tastebuds should wind through the historical Nass Valley and the four Indigenous communities that start at the lava fields and end in the once isolated community of Gingolx (Kincolith). Some of the most priceless moments in life happen around the family kitchen table and this time the moment was mine and the table was Lonny’s.