The lineage of known fishing families meets lineage of the unknown at Graveyard Point each summer, when the salmon return to the fabled Kvichak District in Bristol Bay. Tiel Smith was born of a father who fished his nets from sailboats in the district and walked his first steps in the abandoned cannery that served as the family fish camp.
“My dad is Alaska Native, and my mom was German,” says Smith. “Mom wanted us kids to work hard.”
Smith, 53, fished with three older, adopted brothers, two younger brothers and a sister, and the family grew to accept the thick and thin of fishing the Kvichak. Smith remembers all too well sitting on the beach for an entire summer in 1974, when a run failure caused the closure of the season across Bristol Bay.
“That year was tough,” he says. “I remember as a kid not worrying too much about how much money we’d make; it was more about a grubstake for the coming winter.”
At the same time, other activities kept the family occupied. The Smiths hunted hard for ducks, geese and caribou with the shorter days of autumn.
“We built our skiffs those years,” Smith says. The Smiths and other families living at Graveyard Point ordered the unassembled frames, stems and planking for their 22-foot skiffs and had them shipped north from Seattle each spring.
The lifestyle changed abruptly for the family with the huge harvests and high ex-vessel prices of the late 1980s.
“It was no longer about going fishing,” says Smith. “It was about running a business.”
Since then, Tiel Smith has taken over the family drift boat and permit, and the pieces have fallen into place for he and his wife, Erin, to raise their sons, Ben and Alec, and daughter Myah in the fish camp each summer.
“It’s a beautiful life,” says Smith. “I’m addicted to family time and hard work.”
As for the place, Graveyard Point becomes home to about 130 setnetters during the height of fishing season. Recent erosion of the bluffs above the beach has revealed the coffins and bones of unknown fishermen and cannery workers — a testimony to those who gave it their all in the hardscrabble years of the Bristol Bay fishery more than a century ago.