Inside the cuddy cabin of our C-Dory 22 Angler on our first trip up the Al-Can in the summer of 2009.
We were living in Sacramento, California when in the summer of 2009 we decided to hitch Gillie, our C-Dory 22′ Angler fishing boat, to our Tacoma pickup truck and make the 3,200 mile drive up the Alaska-Canada highway.
One mighty truck and one yar boat parked alongside Kluane Lake in Canada’s Yukon Territory. In subsequent trips, we upsized the truck to a Chevy Silverado and added a cozy Lance camper. Gillie, the C-Dory Angler in the above photograph, is still with us as we explore the waters of the Alaska Gulf near The Chigniks. She makes for a fine camper both on land and on water. (Summer, 2009)
We spent about a month of that 42-day road trip in Alaska. Energized by seemingly endless days under the midnight sun, we only grudgingly gave in to sleep as day after day presented new sights, fresh experiences and long dreamed of adventures. We piloted Gillie 90 miles across vast Prince William Sound to run a half-marathon in the remote village of Cordova, dug enormous razor clams at Whiskey Gulch beach, caught our first halibut, drove through steep valleys where glaciers clung to craggy mountains above slopes caped in lush shades of green, listened in awe as wolves howled in the distance at a roadside campsite, soaked up culture in museums, art galleries and small towns and engaged in countless conversations with people who called the Great State home. As we approached the Alaska-Yukon border on our drive back to California, one of us turned to the other and said, “We need to move up here.” To which the other replied, “Yes!”
Huge Brown Bears catching salmon, delicious Razor Clams and our first-ever halibut were among summer of 2009 highlights. The glaciers we saw stunned us. No coffee table picture book, no documentary film, no recorded image prepared us for the overwhelming feeling of awe inspired by seeing these massive rivers of ice in person. Above is Blackstone Glacier, a few miles outside the port town of Whittier as viewed from the deck of Gillie.
Fourteen months later, we found ourselves living and teaching in the Eskimo village of Shishmaref, located on Sarichef, a small barrier island in the Chukchi Sea just south of the Arctic Circle. It was there that Barbra decided to begin this blog as a way to record unique experiences in our lives, to share photographs, stories and thoughts and to keep track of recipes.
A common theme this past decade has been new friends of all ages. These girls invited us to go berry picking with them in Shishmaref, Alaska. (September 18, 2010)
In those early days, we saw Cutterlight as a journal – a place to record the things that interest us, that we wished to document and remember. And so, yes, there are lots of recipes on Cutterlight. With an abundance of gourmet seafood and fish, a surfeit of wild berries and forageable plants and superb wild game meat, Alaska is truly one of the world’s great food destinations. Living in bush villages we’ve enjoyed the time and resources necessary to experiment with new foods. It’s been a deeply satisfying part of our journey.
Fly-rod caught Silver Salmon topped with Alaska Scallops and the salmon roe we cure make for a sashimi feast hundreds of miles from the nearest restaurant. Moose pie, Beluga chowder, Bowhead Whale pizza, Black Bear burgers, Caribou stroganoff and Dungeness Crab ravioli have all featured in our Alaska kitchen.
So too have been the unique experiences that have been central to this past decade. We’ve hiked miles across frozen Arctic seas, participated in whaling, fly-fished for salmon in rivers rarely fished, picked wild berries by the gallon and wild mushrooms but the bushel, fished the Alaska Gulf among breaching whales, Sea Otters, Salmon Sharks and Dall’s Porpoises for halibut, salmon, lingcod and species we’d never before heard of, learned to make our own beer and got first-hand looks at wild animals we’d only seen in photos and films. We even spent our early summers in Alaska living on a sailboat in Seward, a lifestyle we’d long wanted to try. And when an opportunity presented itself to live abroad, we took a two-year hiatus from Alaska and headed for Mongolia. We find ourselves drawn to roads less traveled.
Our two years in Mongolia included a trek to the Gobi Desert’s famed Red Cliffs where we found a fairly intact fossilized skeleton of something large and prehistoric, fulfilling a hope Jack had had since he was eight years old and read a book which featured dinosaur bones and eggs from this very same landscape.
Prior to moving to Alaska, we had read about “terrifying winds” sweeping across trackless Arctic landscapes. The word “terrifying” leapt off the page. What would those winds feel like? Sound like? For three long days, hurricane force winds in the depths of winter brought the village of Point Hope to a standstill. In Shishmaref, a sudden windstorm carried a blizzard of snow from across the frozen sea and piled it in powdery drifts that all but buried the village. And right here in the Chigniks (an Alutiiq word that means “big winds”) we found ourselves cut off from the world one January when hurricane-force winds came up out of nowhere, flash-froze Black Lake where we were camping in a tiny, remote cabin, and forced us to melt chunks of lake ice for our cooking and drinking water.
The forecast had been for mild, variable weather. The night the winds came up, the tiny, wilderness cabin rocked, shook and shuddered like no structure we’ve ever been in. Temperatures plummeted. We woke the following morning to a lake locked in ice.
In communities where the only practical way in and out is by bush plane, we’ve gone for weeks without mail or freight (including groceries), watched the sun set in early December not to rise above the horizon again for a month, stood in the tracks of polar bears, wolves and some of the world’s largest brown bears, and tucked ourselves in for days on end while gale force wintertime “pineapple winds” shook and rattled our snug home and raked it with seemingly endless torrents of rain. Here in Chignik Lake, when such weather sets in we turn to fly-tying, Scrabble, writing, reading and planning out our next adventure. When the weather clears, we hike out into a landscape that fewer than 100 living people have seen.
Living in off the track places such as Point Hope, an Eskimo Village above the Arctic Circle, made getting into photography a logical step on our path.
Over the years, our interests have expanded to include photography, birding, wildflowers and, recently, the guitar and so these topics, too, have become part of the Cutterlight menu. In the summer of 2018, at the ages of 52 and 59 respectively, we fulfilled lifelong dreams of taking on a bicycle camping trek. Experience? None. Trepidation? Some. Motivation to fulfill a long-held dream? Huge. And so we flew to Hokkaido, Japan and embarked on a clockwise coastal lap covering most of the island. Sixty-five days, 1,300 miles, five national parks, one World Heritage Site, nine Brown Bears, two rare birds, a whiskey distillery, several vineyards and I don’t know how many fantastic meals later Barbra’s bike broke down, bringing the trip to a halt. But what a trip! We’ve been talking about a return to explore the west coast of Honshu, Japan ever since. (Hoping that 2022 will be the year!)
Bike trekking made us feel like we had turned back the clock to the warm sunshine and cool breezes of youth, life pared down to essentials, free to dive into a summer of fly-fishing mountain streams, exotic birds, quiet campgrounds and new friends, taking on steep inclines with zen-like frames of mind, rewarded with long, easy, sun-on-our-faces-wind-in-our-hair coasts down the other side. The food in Hokkaido was, of course, amazing. Among our favorite restaurants was Bonten Tempura on Rishiri Island (above). Ever had tempura uni? The best word to describe it is “Wow!”
Fly-fishing has become a passion. Since coming to Alaska, we’ve taken all five species of Pacific Salmon, Rainbow Trout to 29 inches, trophy-sized Grayling and beautifully marked sea-run Dolly Varden.
“Living Well Off the Beaten Path” remains Cutterlight’s central theme, but in recent years a modest hope has come into this publication: that readers will find on these pages a source of inspiration that might lead to new adventures of their own. Whether one wishes to begin figuring out digital photography, pick up a paintbrush, sign up for cooking classes, dust off the exercise equipment, write the first lines of that novel that has been percolating, really get to know wine, take up fly-fishing, learn a foreign language, move to a place long dreamed of or take on anything new, large or small, our hope is that these pages serve as a testimony to possibility.
While we don’t adhere to lists, we do have ongoing conversations about things we’d like to try. Both of us had long wanted to backpack and camp in truly remote country. That itch was scratched in Denali National Park a few years ago. Our tent was the merest of specks in a breathtaking landscape where we encountered no other person. We watched Caribou and Dall’s Sheep grazing in mountain meadows, woke each morning to strange music of nesting ptarmigan calling “Potato! Potato!”, encountered wolf and wolverine tracks and abruptly altered our course when a muscle-shouldered male Grizzly emerged from a willow thicket. But the thing we remember best about this excursion – and others like it – is the sense of discovery, of a journey in which the outcome isn’t know, of being in the moment of Now.
Destinations and achievements are mirages. The point isn’t attainment; it’s the effort and the journey and the freedom of slipping out from under the oppressive weight of ego, status-seeking and striving. Embarkation is its own success. Forget about expectations and the doubts that go with them – yours as well as those of others. Take the first step. See where it leads you. Nothing has been discovered until you discover it for yourself.
We wish for everyone happiness and contentment along their own path in life. And drop us a line. We love stories!
Jack & Barbra Donachy
Chignik Lake, Alaska – January 2021