Paul Klaver’s 13-minute film, Alaska the Nutrient Cycle beautifully captures the critical role wild salmon play in sustaining a rich, diverse ecosystem. Unscripted but with beautiful background music, this breathtaking footage speaks for itself. This is why wild salmon and their environments are worth fighting for, and illustrates why we oppose farmed salmon.
The mid-summer sky is reflected on one of Alaska Railroad’s GoldStar coaches on the Coastal Classic train. Mountainsides of magenta fireweed and, mixed forests, moose, Dall sheep, eagles and glaciers (and sometimes bears and caribou) were part of the 114 mile train trip between Seward and Anchorage.
Trains are magical. Whether we’re talking about Northern California’s quaint Skunk Train or Japan’s lightening fast, silky smooth shinkansen (bullet trains), we love the rhythm and glide of moving through the countryside on steel rails. As we brought our summer to a close this year, we decided to take the train from Seward. We departed at 6:00 PM and four hours later arrived in Anchorage energized and relaxed.
Fireweed, startling in its vibrance, lines the tracks along the Coastal Classics route through Kenai Peninsula forests and mountains.
Large windows and the freedom to get up and walk around are part of what make train travel so pleasant. After a very good meal of almond-crusted Alaskan cod accompanied by a glass of wine, we made our way to the rear of our GoldStar car where an open deck allowed us to take in the sights, converse with fellow passengers, and enjoy the warm (for Alaska) summer air.
The Coastal Classic passes by three large glaciers: Trail, Spencer and (above) Bartlett.
Scanning the terrain for animals from the observation deck of one of the double-deck GoldStar cars, we saw moose, eagles, beaver lodges and Dall sheep. Bears – both grizzly and black – and caribou are also frequently sighted. We’re already looking forward to taking the train from Anchorage to Seward when we return in May next year.
The evening sun reflects off Cook Inlet though the car’s upper deck windows. After a wonderful four-hour trip, the train pulled into the station at Anchorage. Early the following morning, we boarded a plane for the Alaskan bush and our other home.
Above: Removing the pin bones from a Sockeye fillet. Of the eight species of Pacific salmon, Sockeye (red salmon) have the firmest flesh and are second only to Chinook in terms of fat content. These attributes make them a perfect choice for sashimi or seared tataki.
Among Pacific salmon, there is a direct correlation between how far each species travels and how much fat or oil the meat contains. Chinook, which may run 100’s of miles up natal rivers, have meat so laced with fat eating a piece of an upriver bright can be akin to letting a piece of of light, fresh, creamery butter melt in your mouth. While sockeye aren’t quite that fatty, their relatively long spawning runs during which they don’t feed necessitate ample amounts of stored fat. Bluebacks (another name for Sockeye) have rich, oily meat – self-basting on the grill and ideal for sashimi.
Marbled with fat, the belly meat of Sockeye is comparable to toro – the highly-esteemed belly meat of tuna.
The term “Sockeye” is derived from similar sounding native American words meaning “red” – which is both the color of sockeye meat and the color they take on during their spawning run. The fillets are beautiful, and given the relative abundance of wild Sockeye and their generally reasonable market price, it’s puzzling that they aren’t utilized more often by sushi restaurants. Unfortunately, most sushi restaurants serve farmed Atlantic salmon – a bland substitute for wild fish.
Butterfly-filleted, seasoned with salt and pepper, and ready for the grill this ocean-caught king salmon (Chinook) shows this species’ characteristic orange color.
Since producers are permitted to dye farmed Atlantic salmon to match the color of wild fish, looks alone are not always a good way to determine whether or not you’re making a sustainable choice when you purchase a piece of salmon at the market or order salmon at a sushi-ya or other restaurant. Look and ask. If the menu merely says “salmon,” it’s a sure bet the product came from a farm. Wild Chinook are highly prized and command a higher price than farmed fish; therefore anyone selling wild kings is going to accurately label them as such. The meat of sockeye has a distinctive red coloration and is noticeably firmer than that of other species. Sockeye, too, are highly prized and are almost certain to be accurately labeled.
The upper part of Sockeye fillets, the back meat, is beautifully colored and wonderfully firm.
Sockeye are primarily filter feeders. They have more gill rakers than other salmon, and these gill rakers help them sift out small crustaceans such as krill. These crustaceans are rich in carotene which give red salmon their red color. Krill are also loaded with oil, giving Sockeye their rich, oily flavor.
A sashimi-grade Sockeye fillet fresh from Alaska’s famed Copper River is ready to be sliced into thin, bite-sized pieces and dipped in soy sauce with just a hint of wasabi. Enjoy with a favorite craft beer, a good daiginjo sake, or a lightly-chilled Chablis. *We strongly advise readers to freeze salmon and other fish for at least 24 hours before serving raw in order to kill parasites.
A two-mile hike into the canyon, a scramble down a steep bank, a piece of river with no one else in sight, and a run of red salmon hugging the shoreline, pushing upstream, heading home…
Chalky-brown with glacial silt and bank erosion, the broad river sweeps by below, swift, powerful, wild. If we’ve timed it right, the piece of water we’ve chosen to fish will be full of sockeyes. Fireweed has just begun to bloom, and the forest trail above the river is lined with bluebells and pink wild roses.
Barbra fishes an eddie where the fish swim close to the bank on their journey to spawning grounds further upstream.
This is not the fishing of hackle and thread carefully presented on graceful, arcing casts, nor even of Pixie spoons heaved out and fluttered through clear riffles. The net our friend Nathaniel Wilder has loaned us measures roughly three feet across and four feet long and is attached to a 12-foot handle. The rig is cumbersome, made more so by the surging tug of the current and we take turns bracing the handle against a slate rock outcropping to keep it steady in the river’s flow. When a fish hits, the net comes to life.
With a salmon in the net, the scramble for solid footing begins.
They come one, two and even three at a time and average six pounds apiece. The limit is 30, and it’s quickly apparent it won’t take long to put that many on the bank. A small, ice-cold stream cascading down the canyon wall provides the perfect place to clean the catch. We’re happy to have packed in a scrap of wood to serve as a filleting table.
The two-mile hike back to our camper, our backpacks loaded with 90 pounds of fish between the two of us is work, but a good kind of work. Back home, we’ll smoke and can the bright red fillets. The roe we’ve kept will be cured and made into ikura.
Brilliant red-orange and marbled with fat, these sockeye fillets are ready to be brined and smoked, seasoned and broiled, grilled on a cedar plank, or sliced thin and served as sashimi. As per standard practice in Japanese sushi shops, we freeze salmon (and other fish) for at least 24 hours prior to preparing raw.
Warm weather in Alaska has meant quickly melting ice and high water.
Above left: Bluebells, horsetail ferns and salmonberries take over the ruins of an old train trestle. Right: Dense patches of wild rose perfume the air along the trail. Below: We hiked out of the canyon at midnight, just as the Alaskan sun was setting.
For an excellent recipe for brining and smoking salmon, see: Smoked Salmon with Soy Sauce and Brown Sugar Brine
For an easy ikura curing method, see: Ikura: Curing Salmon Eggs
Lightly sautéed in olive oil with a pinch of salt, these tender fireweed shoots and fiddlehead ferns compliment fresh rockfish on a bed of pasta.
With the beautiful warm weather we’ve been enjoying this summer in Seward, spring flew by before we knew it. So we had to do some climbing to harvest the purple-colored fireweed shoots and young fiddleheads we wanted for the rockfish dinner we had planned.
Eleven hundred feet up Mount Marathon, near the last patches of snow at the edge of the timberline where the cold had extended spring we found what we were looking for. We filled our stainless steel water bottle with a couple handful’s worth of these delicacies, added clear, icy water from a rivulet to keep the shoots cool and hiked back down the mountain. The perfect time to pick fireweed is when the young shoots are still purple.
Right: The town of Seward is a nearly vertical drop below the timberline of Mount Marathon. The day was sunny and shorts-and-t-shirt warm and even with a bit of haze in the air the view of mountain-rimmed Resurrection Bay was spectacular.
Below: This well concealed nest added to the sense that we had turned back the clock a few weeks to earlier in spring.
Back aboard Bandon that evening, we poured out a little bourbon into a couple of tumblers, seasoned a fillet from a rockfish we’d caught the day before, and panfried it along with the fiddleheads and fireweed.
There is something incredibly satisfying about harvesting one’s own dining fare – whether from sea or river, garden or mountainside. If you are lucky enough to live where you can gather wild plants, we hope you will. Keep your best spots secret, leave plenty to sustain regeneration and a healthy population, and maybe pick up a little bit of the litter less considerate people have left behind on your way out. Bon appétit!
Light, crunchy and mildly sweet, Lemon Vanilla Biscotti (see recipe below) was the perfect accompaniment to an evening of sampling Port Wines, Sherries, Madeira and Muscat.
Lesson 8 in the wine appreciation course we’ve been taking this summer focused on fortified wines – ruby Port, tawny Port, fino Sherry, Amontillado, Madeira and Muscat. We wanted something sweet but not overly so to finish an evening that began with roasted wild grouse, squash risotto, Brussels sprouts and the sweet wines.
Baked three times, biscotti has a satisfying crunch. This lemon vanilla version could be drizzled with icing, but we enjoyed ours unadorned.
Although served on a warm Alaskan June evening, the meal took us to visions of late fall evenings and Autumn-colored forests where wild grouse thrive. The grouse and the squash risotto (one of the best we’ve ever enjoyed) were courtesy of our friends Bix and Krystin at Alaskagraphy.
Lemon Vanilla Biscotti
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 3 large eggs
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 tsp lemon zest
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
- Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.
- Combine flour, sugar and baking powder in medium bowl. Set aside.
- Whisk eggs, vanilla and zest in a medium bowl.
- Add flour mixture to wet mixture and stir until combined.
- Scrape dough onto parchment-lined baking sheet.
- With floured hands, shape dough into a flat rectangle (about 10 in. x 5 in.).
- Bake for 50 minutes.
- Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes.
- Slice into 1/2 inch long pieces with a serrated knife.
- Lay the slices on their side and bake again for 15 minutes.
- Remove from oven and flip the biscotti to the opposite side and bake for 15 more minutes.
- Cookies should be lightly golden and crunchy on each side.
Finished with a roasted tomato and bell pepper sauce, freshly caught halibut charcoal-grilled atop Peruvian potatoes and lightly filled with a purée of olives and garlic provided the plat de résistance in a meal celebrating three days of terrific sailing and an evening tasting champagnes and sparkling wines.
The opportunity to grill and serve a halibut in the whole doesn’t come along every day, particularly in waters where 50-pound fish are more commonly caught than five-pounders. But I could feel the characteristic thumping of a halibut 130 feet below Bandon, and I knew the metal jig I was fishing might have found just the fish we were looking for. Barbra expertly netted the five-pound flatty and everyone aboard gave a little cheer as the first fish of the trip hit Bandon’s decks.
Earlier in the week we did a little casual (very casual) racing in Resurrection Bay. Crew from the sailing vessel Carpe Ventos shared this photo of our Island Packet 350 under sail.
We were on our way back to Resurrection Bay after a three-day sojourn around the cape with our friends Krystin and Bixler from Carpe Ventos. The weather had been beautiful and the sightseeing excellent as usual as we encountered seals, sea lions, otters, Dahl porpoises, whales, eagles, oyster catchers, puffins and a dozen other sea birds near Alaska’s mountainous, glacier-scarred shoreline.
Right: We grilled our halibut on a deck overlooking Resurrection Bay, but this dish could easily be prepared at anchor on a propane grill.
Although we continued fishing (and came back with limits of rockfish as well as a second halibut), we knew we’d already scored the fish we wanted for the centerpiece of an evening in which we planned to sample six different champagnes and sparkling wines – Lesson 7 in the Everyday Guide to Wines course we are taking this summer.
A bed of sliced heirloom Peruvian potatoes, herbs de provence, a little Chardonnay, butter, lemon juice and olive oil provided the liquid for steaming this fish. Kept whole, the halibut was essentially filleted without entirely removing the meat from the bones. A thin layer of paste made from puréed olives, olive oil and garlic was spread inside the openings created by the semi-fillet technique as well as in the stomach cavity.
After about 40 minutes over fairly low heat on the grill, the halibut was came out flakey, moist and enhanced with a smokey, charcoal flavor. A nice-sized summer flounder from the East Coast or a Japanese hirame would serve equally well, and this dish could easily be prepared in the oven.
As to the champagne… After years of drinking what we all regarded as fairly good California sparkling wines, all four of us became instant méthode de champenoise fans. With finer bubbles creating an elegant mousse, lots of well-balanced fruit and a toasty, creamy finish, the bottle of Marie Weiss Brut was the perfect wine for this meal.
These Pacific razor clams freshly dug from an Alaskan beach are ready to be cleaned for New England style clam chowder, a fry (see recipe below), fritters, or sautéed with garlic and served on pasta.
Two summers ago on our favorite clamming beach we couldn’t dig ’em fast enough. Each time we spotted a tell-tale dimple and sunk our shovel or clam gun into the wet sand, the disturbance would cause a half dozen other clams to show. The beds were dense and we sometimes dug up prized razors two at a time. It took us barely an hour to each fill our 60-clam limit – and a good bit of the afternoon that day to clean those 120 clams.
This year the digging was considerably slower. Heavy winter storms had wreaked havoc on the beaches, washing out beds and decimating populations. The Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife lowered the limit from 60 clams to 25 per person, but few clammers are finding even those numbers. Still, with low tides exceeding -5 feet and a morning in late May filled with sunshine, there was no reason not to go. It was warm enough to dig in nothing more than sandals, shorts and a a short-sleeved shirt – clamming attire I hadn’t worn since the days when I used to dig in Oregon.
With king salmon fishing closed or limited on the Kenai Peninsula, our “secret” beach had a few more fellow clammers than we’d seen in the past but it still wasn’t at all crowded. And there were the usual assortment of bald eagles, sandpipers, gulls and a whimbrel with its long, beautifully curved bill prying the sand for worms and silvery little sand lances that had been left exposed by the neap tide.
There were clams, too, but we had to work for them. We arrived at our spot about two hours before dead low and dug till the tide turned and began coming back in. Thirty clams between the two of us. Thirty-one counting the stray butter clam we added. Barbra had the eye for the shows on this morning, allowing us to do considerably better than most of our fellow clammers. The state’s decision to reduce the razor clam limit to 25 seemed both wise and in a way unnecessary, as we suspect very few clammers found anywhere close to 25 clams.
Overall, the size of the clams was good and the reward for our morning of digging was a feast of fried razors and New England Style Clam Chowder. We paired this meal with three different premium sakes, the first wines of this summer’s wine appreciation course we and another couple are taking.
You can follow this link to our Alaskan Clam Chowder Recipe. After years of making fried razors a number of different ways, following is the recipe that gets the most frequent requests. (Incidentally, this is also an excellent recipe for onion rings.)
Fried Razors (Serves four with two medium to large clams per person)
Ingredients: Have ready a cutting board or plate on which to position breaded clams, and another plate with paper towels to drain fried clams.
- 8 medium to large razor clams, shucked, gilled and cleaned. It does not matter if the “foot” of the clam remains attached or is separated. (See note below.)
- 1 or 2 packets Saltine crackers, crushed medium-fine
- 1/2 cup all purpose flour
- 4 eggs
- 1/2 tbsp Cholula sauce or similar chili-pepper-based hot sauce
- healthy pinch salt
- 1/8 tsp freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 tsp rub/seasoning such as a Southwest rub, mesquite rub, or other rub featuring chili peppers. Our own blend features smoked chipotles, smoked paprika, oregano, and arbol chilis.
- 2 quarts light olive oil or other frying oil (This can be reused.)
- lemon wedges and tarter sauce
- In a Ziploc bag, mix flour, salt, pepper and seasoning to taste.
- Place crushed Saltines on a plate.
- Place eggs in a wide bowl. Add Cholula and thoroughly whisk together. Position in this order: cleaned clams, flour mixture, egg mixture, Saltines, plate or cutting board for breaded clams.
- In a deep fryer or on the stove in a deep pot, heat olive oil to 350 degrees F or slightly hotter.
- Use tongs to drop clams one-at-a-time into flour bag. Shake so that clam is thoroughly coated. Next, coat clam with egg mixture. Lift clam from mixture and let excess egg drip off, then roll in cracker crumbs. Set breaded clam on cutting board to rest. Repeat till all clams are breaded.
- Oil is ready when a few cracker crumbs bubble when placed in oil. Use tongs to place clams two-at-a-time in oil. Do not overload. Breaded clams should bubble fairly vigorously. Cook for one minute. Remember, clams will continue cooking even after they are removed from oil. Do not overcook. Place cooked clam on paper towels to drain. Repeat till all clams are cooked.
- Add a squirt of lemon and dip in tartar sauce. (Beaver tartar sauce is our favorite.)
Serve clams with a quality daigingo or junmai ginjo sake, a crisp Oregon Pinot Gris, or your favorite Alaskan craft beer.
Note about cleaning clams: Even if you crack a few shells when digging, the cleaning can go quickly and it should be possible to serve sand-free clams and clam chowder. Here’s how to do it.
- Rinse clams in very cold water.
- Have an ice bath ready for clams: salted ice water in a large pot
- Meanwhile, in a medium-sized pot, bring salted water to a boil.
- Use tongs to place clams one or two at a time into boiling water. The instant the shell pops open, remove the clam and plunge it into the ice bath. The shell and most of the sand will now easily come off. Additional rinsing after cleaning will remove residual sand.
The drive from Anchorage to Seward can usually be counted on for wildlife viewing. Grizzly bears, black bears, Dall sheep and moose are all possiblities, and eagles are a given. On our first trip of 2013, we found a young moose grazing on pond weeds and willow buds.
Last year at this time we were shooting with a Nikon D60 and a D90. Our three most frequently used lenses were a Tamaron landscape lens, a Nikon 60 mm prime and a Sigma 50-500. We got some really good photos with this gear, but we were eager to make some upgrades.
Although it’s late May, Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula is still pretty brown and you don’t have to go very high in elevation to find everything covered in snow. But spring is definitely here. Today (May 24), temperatures in Seward broke 60 under cloudless blue skies.
After months of reading and research and lengthy discussions with a new friend who knows way more about this than we do, we purchased a D800, a D4 and several new lenses. Equally important was taking Joel Sartore’s 24-lecture course Fundamentals of Photography, a first-rate DVD course offered through The Great Courses. We had been reading all kinds of articles and books and we subscribe to Outdoor Photographer. We had also taken a few courses at Ritz Camera back when we were living in Sacramento, California. All of this was useful. But none if it provided the learning experience Fundamentals of Photography gave us. Armed with our new gear and committed to faithfully following Joel’s lessons, we could see our skills improving from week to week.
Our usual MO while driving Alaska’s highways and hiking the trails is to have either a landscape lens or a normal lens on one camera body and a larger wildlife lens on the other. We still talk about the time when, new to this part of the world, we saw two magnificent bull moose feeding near each other at a small lake. “I’m sure we’ll see lots of these now that we’re up here,” one of us said as the other kept driving. Needless to say, we’re still looking for another shot like that one. Lesson learned.
Hopefully this summer will be another Alaskan safari – packed with birds, fish, mammals, wildflowers and the kind of scenery that causes one’s jaw to drop and hang.
An umiak with its recently sewn seal skin stretched tight sits on the Chukchi Sea ice, waiting for whaling season to begin in March.
May 17, Point Hope, Alaska: Near-blizzard conditions forced a one-hour delay to the start of school yesterday, the day before the end of our school year. A little snow and high winds notwithstanding, all 30 of our 3rd, 4th and 5th grade students eventually arrived. It’s much more calm today. Scattered snow flurries have been breaking up an otherwise sunny day, and at 19 degrees Fahrenheit, the McKay’s buntings and gulls that showed up a few weeks ago when the weather was warmer (in the low 30’s) are out again. Looks like clear weather for our flight out tomorrow.
Near shore, the going is easy across the frozen sea. But the ice ridge on the horizon hints at the arduous work involved in breaking the trails that will allow whaling crews to get their boats and gear out to the lead (open water).
This marks our third year in Arctic Alaska. We’ll be back for a fourth in August. We’re up here in Point Hope at a time in our lives when Time to study, Time to write, and Time to hone our skills as photographers, writers and chefs is especially valuable. Yes, it’s cold – brutally so at times-, and there is the entire month in mid-winter when we do not see the sun. But that’s part of the narrative. So are the dazzling displays of northern lights, the sublimely sweet cloudberries that grow only in these extreme latitudes, and the Arctic foxes, snowy owls, polar bears and whales that are part of the fabric of life up here. Learning to stock a gourmet kitchen in the bush nearly 1,000 roadless miles from stores in Anchorage has prompted us to master “from scratch” cooking to a level of expertise I doubt we would achieved had we remained in our comfortable bungalow back in California.
A fresh dusting of snow powders ice sculptures that were pushed up when shifting winds caused massive plates of ice to collide. Anytime you’re out on the ice, you’re mindful that another shift in the wind could push the ice apart again, leaving you stranded. You learn to keep an eye on the cracks.
By this time next week, we’ll be in Seward living aboard our summer home, the sailing vessel Bandon. Among other things we’re looking forward to is an intensive wine appreciation course we’ll be taking with another couple. We’re also eager to do some serious shooting with our new Nikkor 200-400 mm telephoto lens- a tool that should help us get intimate photographs of the amazing wildlife in and around Resurrection Bay. Daughter Maia will come up in July for our annual visit centered around fishing, hiking, great meals (and great conversation) and general catching up. The puzzles of turning out excellent meals from our small galley, figuring out where the salmon are in the nearby sea, experimenting with our new tenkara fly rods on smaller streams and maybe finally getting good photos of wary tundra swans are among other things that will keep us happily occupied in the coming months.
A whaling hook marks the trail out to the camps. This was a good year in Point Hope – five bowhead whales, lots of beluga whales, and everyone came back safe. Each whale represents tens of thousands of dollars worth of groceries that didn’t necessitate a river being drained for irrigation, fertilizer being spread (that ends up over-nutrifying nearby water systems), or a single drop of pesticide being sprayed. Nor were barrels of fossil fuel burned getting this food up here.
An important part of our summer in Seward involves seeing to our own provisions. When we return to Point Hope in August, we’ll bring with us 200 pounds of salmon, halibut, rockfish and lingcod fillets – enough for us and for gifts for our friends up here. We’ll also be making shopping runs to Costco and other stores and ship up the usual bags of flour, rice, beans and sugar as well as everything from jars of Kalamata olives to tins of anchovies.
Wherever this summer finds you, we hope you’ll be following your dreams or taking steps to make those dreams come true. And we hope you’ll continue reading CutterLight.
Sincerely, Jack and Barbra