One of the great privileges in our life was to live for three years in the Inupiat village of Point Hope, Alaska. Lying 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle and still deeply connected to a whaling-based subsistence culture, it is said that the Tikigaq Peninsula has been inhabited for some 9,000 years, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in North America. It is a place of aqpik berries and caribou, snowy owls and arctic foxes, fierce winds and frozen seas, a full month of darkness and the most magically soft pink, gold and orange morning and evening light we’ve ever seen. One day in early fall we hiked out to the end of the peninsula, stood on the beach, and watched in wonder as thousands upon thousands of murres, puffins, auklets and other seabirds streamed by on their way to the open ocean to spend the winter, their nesting season complete – surely one of the planet’s greatest migratory events. We endured a mid-winter three-day blow of hurricane force winds that forced most of the village to huddle together in the school which had its own generating system and could offer warm shelter and hot meals. Polar bears sauntered through the village right past our house and there were nights when the Northern lights danced above our heads in electric greens, pinks, purples and reds. And it was a place of friends, some of the toughest, most generous people we’ve ever known. Tikiġaġmiut – the people of this peninsula in the Chukchi sea.
April 18, early morning
The big picture window with a view across the lake was open just enough when the first group came through. Honking, chattering, noisy, at first distant then growing closer and then distant again till a silence was left where they had been. When the next group came through, I scrambled from behind my desk and dashed out the door, searching the morning’s gray sky till their thin, fluid lines came into view, sentences of sorts arcing northwest toward the big bays on the other side of the peninsula – Mud, Henderson, Nelson’s Lagoon – waters far from any town or village, remote even by standards up here.
All morning it was like that, wave upon wave of Canada Geese having decided that this was the day. When Barbra and I went for an evening walk, they were still coming, clamorous, easy to identify in the good light with their clean black heads and necks and bright white chins against the blue sky.
That night I opened the bedroom window a little, lay on my back not wanting to sleep, listening as the geese continued to write their way home even in the dark.
December 2, 2017, looking downriver from The Bend on Chignik River: Younger versions of ourselves would have described paradise differently. Now, this place, Chignik Lake, is paradise to us.
This has been a fall of rain. Rain falling steadily like music on our metal roof, rain driven by gale-force winds lashing our home from every side, icy-cold drizzles saturating the earth, downpours filling the feeder creeks to overflowing. Early in December, we took advantage of a break in the sky to get out into our paradise. Launching our 2-person pack raft from Chignik Lake’s shores in front of our home, we floated a ways down the Chignik River. The wind was still and although the skies were mostly overcast, the water was calm.
Although it’s not unusual to encounter foxes, brown bears, river otters and even moose and wolves, it was a relatively quiet day. Here and there char and salmon parr dimpled the surface, and a few chickadees called back and forth from the mix of alder, willow and winter-brown salmon berry stalks along the banks. Bald eagles soared overhead or stood sentinel on bare branches along the bluffs. Kingfishers rattled by as they flew from one favorite perch to another. A Yellow-billed Loon ignored us while more wary Pacific Loons, Golden-eyes and mergansers eyed us from respectable distances or zoomed overhead on their way up the valley. The usual magpies chattered with each other in the brush and off in the distance a pair of ravens carried on a conversation in their ancient language of deep-throated croaks.
Abandoned until spring, these buildings are associated with a weir the Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife places across the river in order to count salmon. The weir has been taken down for the winter.
As we neared our take-out point, a harbor seal popped its head up inquisitively and swam closer for a better look. After hauling the raft out at the landing, we looked downriver and noticed expansive, dark patches of what appeared to be ducks covering the shallows two hundred hards below our take-out point. Through our binoculars we could see hundreds of them: a few Golden-eyes, buffleheads and mergansers were mixed in with hundreds of scaup! As we packed up our gear for the hike home, something suddenly caused the birds to take wing. The sound was startling – like a roaring waterfall.
The hike back to the village: We followed the only road in the area – three miles of dirt and gravel connecting the boat landing on the river to the airstrip at the village. The water in the foreground is the Chignik River – the real highway out here. The water behind that is Chignik Lake. Our village, which covers only a few acres, can just barely be seen on the left shore of the lake, tiny against the Chignik Mountains. Beyond the village there lies mile upon mile of wilderness.
This is paradise.
Below is a short video of part of our float.
Hot spiced lingonberry juice – a magical potion.
When we were in Mongolia, we were served hot fruit tea, particularly sea buckthorn berry tea. Based on our experience with teas, we expected this drink to be made from tea leaves along with dried fruit. The tea we were served was not really tea, but heated fruit juice infused with spices. Although we’d both previously enjoyed hot, spiced cider, it hadn’t occurred to us to heat other juices and enjoy them this way. Thank you, Mongolia.
Fast-forward to the present. Now is the time to pick lowbush cranberries in Alaska. We’ve been told for years to wait until after the first frost to pick these bright red beauties. In Point Hope, the first frost often coincided with snow and the first Arctic blasts from points still further north. By the time this happened, it was painfully cold to go out and pick these gems. Chignik Lake lies at a much lower latitude, and mornings that begin with a glaze of frost have been warming up into the 50’s. So, we’ve been picking lowbush cranberries by the gallon. Lowbush cranberries, otherwise known as lingonberries, are the wild cousins of the big juicy cranberries that appear in stores around Thanksgiving. Because of my recent experience with Mongolian fruit teas, I processed my lowbush cranberries into juice, saving the remaining pulp to make delicious cranberry sauce to go with dishes such as roast turkey and grilled pork tenderloins.
Making the juice was easy. I combined four cups of berries with two-and-a-half cups of water. I brought the water to a simmer for about ten minutes. While the berries were simmering, I took a silicon spatula and stirred and squashed the berries. After ten minutes, I hung a piece of cheesecloth in a tall food storage container and placed the berry mixture in the cheesecloth in order to separate the pulp and the juice. I froze the resulting juice in ½ cup portions. I also froze the pulp to be made into cranberry sauce later.
After all this lingonberry processing, I was ready to sit down and enjoy a cup of hot berry tea! A steaming, aromatic cup of this juice spiced with warm wintertime flavors was a perfect reward for my work in the kitchen. I can’t adequately describe how satisfying this tea is. The aroma and flavor evoked the best memories of a warm, cozy home on cold winter nights, kind of like mulled cider. At the same time, I felt like I was pouring some incredibly healthy elixir into my body. It is something like the feeling, I imagine, of drinking a magical potion from a friendly witch.
Hot Spiced Lingonberry Tea
- 1 cup brown sugar, packed
- 4 cups lingonberry juice
- ½ tsp allspice
- 1 stick cinnamon
- 6 whole cloves
- dash ground nutmeg
- Place juice and brown sugar in a pot. Whisk until well blended.
- Add allspice, cinnamon and cloves.
- Simmer 10 minutes.
- Ladle tea into mugs through a fine wire mesh sieve.
- Grate a dash of nutmeg onto hot juice and serve immediately.
Zaru soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles) topped with Thai-seasoned Alaska spot prawns makes a perfect summertime meal. See recipe below.
The windshield has a crack running through it, there’s a little rust and a dent or two on the body, and some of the paint is chipping off the hand-lettered sign affixed to the vehicle’s side, but we look for Patrick Johnson’s little black truck every summer when we’re cruising around Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula and we hit the brakes when we find it. If we don’t happen across his truck, we go find him at his Shrimp Guys Seafoods shop in Soldotna. Patrick sells sashimi-grade seafood smelling as fresh and briny as the seas it comes from.
Maybe it’s my East Coast upbringing, but experience has taught that fancy shops with glitzy signage are usually not the best places to look for quality seafood. The first time we saw the above sign, which is attached to Patrick’s older model black pickup truck, it took me back to days in the Carolinas where small-time operations were hands down the best places to pick up fresh blue crabs, white shrimp, oysters and maybe a flounder to enjoy with a bottle of something white and dry for the evening meal.
Alaska’s prized spot prawns, ready to be peeled, seasoned and treated every so briefly and gently with heat.
There are two secrets to great seafood: cook it while it’s fresh, and don’t cook it long. If seafood smells bad, it is. That “bad” smell is not seafood; it’s bacteria growing on seafood. A quality seafood shop (or the seafood counter in a well-run grocery store) will smell pleasantly of the ocean – a little briny, vaguely sweet.
As to cooking shrimp or prawns, a former mentor in South Carolina gave me advice that applies to everything from broiled salmon to fried summer fluke. He was showing me how to prepare the white shrimp I’d caught in a cast net and iced earlier that day. (Read in a slow, South Carolina drawl.) Jack, a little butter, a little lemon and a little garlic – that’s all they want. And a minute-and-a-half in the pan. Remember, they’ll keep cooking after you’ve removed them from heat, so a minute-and-a-half really means you’re cooking them for two minutes. But get them off the heat before two minutes, or you’ll ruin them.
Smaller than spot prawns, these Alaska side stripe shrimp have the soft texture and signature sweetness of the ama-ebi served by sushi chefs. They are excellent served raw and dipped in soy sauce with a hint of wasabi. Any leftovers make a superb omelet or open-faced shrimp melt sandwich.
Zaru Soba with Thai Seasoned Spot Prawns (serves two)
Ingredients (This recipe is a snap to make with pre-made seasoning and dipping sauce.)
- soba (Japanese-style buckwheat noodles)
- 6 spot prawns, peeled, vein removed and cut open butterfly style along their length. Give them a squirt of lime or lemon and set aside.
- 2 tbsp coconut oil (or olive oil)
- Spicy Thai-style seasoning mix, or mix your own from powdered chili peppers, powdered garlic, cinnamon, nutmeg and sesame seeds
- green onions, sliced thin
- English cucumber, cut julienne – about 1 1/2 inch of cucumber per serving
- nori (dried seaweed) cut into thin strips
- mentsuyu – chilled dipping sauce – available at Asian grocers or in the Asian section of most regular grocery stores. Or make your own from soy sauce, mirin, sake and bonito flakes.
- Use a bowl to coat prawns in seasoning and let stand.
- Boil soba according to maker’s directions. Rinse thoroughly in cold water and drain.
- Mix mentsuyu with cold water, according to maker’s directions. Mix in wasabi to taste and add a few slices of green onions.
- Heat coconut oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add seasoned prawns. Use tongs to turn so that both sides are cooked – about 90 seconds total. Place on a plate to stop cooking.
- Place cold, drained soba noodles on two plates. Add prawns. Garnish with cucumber, onions and nori. Serve with individual side bowls of cold mentsuyu dipping sauce.
Enjoy this dish with a chilled bottle of Bianchello – a beautiful white wine from Central Italy that seems to have been created for light seafood dishes.
For sashimi grade seafood, contact Patrick Johnson at 907-394-4201 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can find his shop at 44526 Sterling Highway, Soldotna, Alaska
The dancers in this short video are 6th grade students at Tikigaq School in Point Hope, Alaska, an Inupiat village 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. They are performing traditional songs and dances, passed down through the generations, sung in their native language.
The annual school Christmas program in Point Hope is a little different than in most communities. Yes, there are seasonally popular songs and carols, but many of them are sung in Inupiaq, the language of the Tikigaqmuit, the Inupiat Eskimo people of this small whaling community on the edge of the Chukchi Sea. There is also lots of drumming, singing and dancing performed according to traditions that extend back in time beyond memory. The drums – which resonate much more loudly than one might suspect them capable of at first glance – are made from material such as the membrane of sea mammal organs stretched over wooden frames. The beautiful mukluks (boots) many of the participants wear are hand sewn from seal, caribou, beaver and other natural materials.
The dances celebrate the past and the present. Aaka Irma (Irma Hunnicutt), who volunteered her time to come to our school and teach the students these dances, has an honored place as an elder in this village. Although the students speak mainly English in their day-to-day lives, these celebrations give them the opportunity to honor their language and heritage. This is a place where traditions are still passed down generation to generation; where some of the clothing and much of the food is still provided by the surrounding land and sea; where traditions are alive and vibrant and honored.
On this occasion, the students and Aaka Irma invited their classroom teacher to dance with them.
Wind and cold sculpted this mixture of sea spray and snow into a delicate arch. The sea ice has been late in coming to the Chukchi Sea this year. This photo was taken at 3:00 p.m. with the winter sun already skimming low on the horizon. Our month of day-long darkness will begin December 6.
The thick, slushy sea ice hisses and softly moans as it moves with the current past ice already frozen fast to shore. The hissing is vaguely reminiscent of a soft autumn breeze filtering through the dry leaves of oaks and maples in my native Pennsylvania. The moans sound like the muted voices of whales deep below the sea. All else is still, the ice stretching out as far as one can see. There is no wind, and there is no other sound.
This sea jelly, entombed in shore ice, is about the size of a polar bear’s paw.
We searched for signs of life, perhaps a seal out on the ice or a snowy owl coursing the shoreline, or even the tracks of an Arctic fox. There is nothing, just the steady hiss of the ice as it flows before us. We walk along the pebbled beach for maybe a mile and finally spot a small group of ravens. Tough birds, making a living up here during the winter.
If you look closely among the rocks along the Point Hope Beach, it’s common to find jade. Less common are fragments of mastodon tusks.
Thick ice prevents the shore from eroding during winter storms. Polar bears depend on the ice to hunt seals. Things are changing up here. The ice seems to be coming later, and there is less of it. Red foxes are becoming more common, pushing out their smaller Arctic cousins. Once winter truly locks up the sea and the sun sinks below the horizon, there is no place on earth that is quieter. It is cold and stark but beautiful.
We don’t always take our big cameras along on walks. Today we relied on “Little Blue,” our Cannon PowerShot D10, our trusty point and shoot.