Fishing, family and faith: Life at the Nick's camp in Dillingham

Jul 7, 2017

Father Victor Nick and his wife Lena pass down values of faith, family, and hard work each year when they bring their family back to fish camp in Dillingham.

Lena and Father Victor Nick at their camp near Kanakanak Beach in Dillingham. The Nick's commercially set net nearby, and put up their annual subsistence fish, too.
Credit Zoey Laird

When asked how to take down a bear, Father Victor Nick laughs and says that question belongs to someone with more experience. “I had to do that out of necessity, we have children here,” he says. Elena “Lena” Nick, his wife of 27 years, nods in agreement, watching her children and grandchildren come and go through the camp trailer’s door.

Close to Dillingham’s Kanakanak Beach, a nuisance bear was recently posing a threat for the Nicks and families around their camp. Father Victor heard his neighbor hollering, walked over with a loaded rifle, and killed it.   

Though this was his first fatal confrontation with a bear, Father Victor’s telling is brusque and free of bravado. “It was a two year old, big enough to attack, it was ready to charge, I had no choice,” he says. He simply kept danger at bay, and Lena wants to be prepared for a similar situation if her husband’s not around. She’s only fired a BB gun, and she stays at camp with her daughter and grandchildren when Victor goes fishing.

Credit Zoey Laird

“So just the other day I was telling him, ‘you need to teach me how to shoot,’” she says with a laugh.

Victor and Lena Nick are light hearted but their resolve is strong: protect and provide for family, guided by faith in their creator.

The Nicks were both baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church, and Father Victor has worked as a priest since the two married. “With my family, church life is the most important thing,” Lena says. The Nicks moved to Dillingham in 2001, where Victor was parish priest of St. Seraphim Of Sarov for 11 years.

Now relocated to Kwethluk, Victor’s home village, they return to Dillingham annually for the summer fishing season. “We’ve known this place more than any other place that we’ve lived… we call it our home,” Lena says, remembering the frequent moves for Victor’s vocation. “We have to do what our bishop tells us to do. We have to listen to him. Before we came we had to ask permission from his grace, our bishop, for his blessing to come and fish here.” With the bishop’s permission, the family returns to the land they purchased in Dillingham and set up camp every year. “It’s a family affair for all of us,” Fr. Victor says. The men subsistence and commercial fish, both to prepare for the winter and make money, and this year they built their own smokehouse and drying racks. Two sons, two daughters, two grandkids, and three hired crewmembers live at the camp this season, and Lena hopes for more family. “God willing, my parents will start coming here too. They’re both alive, I’m still blessed with that.”

One year old grandchild Sava happily pats dirt outside of the trailer, bibbed and lolling in the sunshine. Juliana, his two year old sister, waddles between family members in pajamas. Lena’s youngest child, Ana, is almost nine and she bursts into the dining room with a caterpillar to share. In this household, the children generate a sense of constant motion and energy. “They are my joy. So wonderful to have them here,” Lena says. In a Yup’ik family like the Nicks, caring for young and feeding the family are traditionally maternal jobs, and Lena relishes her role, which she learned from her mother before her. “Everything I know came from my mom, watching her, helping her, preparing the fish and everything else,” Lena says, referring to her own fish handling operation, where her goal is to avoid wastefulness. Whatever is not consumed is saved for later, and her practice exemplifies what she wants to teach her offspring, “Whatever you are given, you see that as a blessing.”

Father Victor carries the same spirit of gratitude when fishing or hunting, which he learned from his grandfather. He doesn’t over harvest, and he doesn’t let his game touch the floor, placing a board or a blanket between the body and the bare ground. “We were taught to treat anything we catch as sacred,” he says, and then he recites a Yup’ik wisdom given to young hunters from elders, their thankfulness “like a prayer for a more prosperous catch.” He still observes this religious respect for life amongst village hunters, where “80 percent of what lands on the table is from what they catch.” Jobs are not dependable in remote villages, so without consistent income, gathering food is vital for families to sustain themselves. “I’ve watched in the village, young boys who are nine, ten years old, holding a box of shells. It’s a real big deal to them to experience going out and hunting for birds.”

He passes Yup’ik village values to his children on the water during a fishing season that will last through the end of July. 19-year-old Wassillie and 27-year-old Timothy fish with their dad, and Ana, eager to get on the skiff, will join them this season. “It’s something I really enjoy doing, teaching my children,” Fr. Victor says.

The property is well provisioned but not excessive, modest but for the abundance of family and tradition. Father Victor gestures proudly towards the camp, indicating that every net used is made by his sons and himself. He rubs his fingers together, imagining the feel of net. “Handling, mending, hanging, making nets has always been my joy. I like the feel of the webbing and the cork line and lead line.” By their hands’ work, Lena and Victor weave a way of life for their offspring; speak fluent Yup’ik, practice Christianity, and fish for food.

Their eldest, Timothy, holds a fishing permit, and their future here seems as secure as the salmon flooding into Bristol Bay every summer. Under a bright sun, Lena tends to the smoking salmon, Father Victor makes nets, and the camp calmly waits for the start of fishing the next day. As Lena says, every fish is a gift worthy of gratefulness, “Because everything that is out there, is created by God.”

Reach Zoey Laird by email or by calling 907-842-5281.