Another Great Year in Point Hope: On to Seward!

uniak on ice waiting_n

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.

hiking out on ice_n

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.

ice sculpture chukchi sea_n

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.

jack and bar on chukchi_n

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.

jack and bar on chukchi b_n

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

Nose Pressed to Glass

Sea Ice1_n

Sea ice fascinates us. Our village can be seen in the upper left of this photo. At the time of the photo, north winds had blown much of the ice away from the land. The “sticky ice,” the ice which clings to the shore, can usually be relied on to be safe to walk on. Even this sticky ice is subject to the whim of Mother Nature’s strong winds and current. 

Sea Ice2_n

Piles of ice form along pressure points of the frozen surface of the sea. There are many histories of boats navigating too late in the season and becoming stranded or crushed between these pressure points.

Sea Ice3_n

Recently, wind from the south has closed this lead – the open water to the right. The view from our village today is solid ice as far as the eye can see. The villagers are readying their seal skin boats to go whaling. Soon the bowhead migration will begin. When the north wind blows open a lead, the whaling crews of Tikigaq will patrol the open water in hopes of catching animals that are in their Spring migrations. These whales make up a critical part of the subsistence catch in this Inupiat village.

Project Chariot_n

I’ve recently been reading the book The Firecracker Boys. This true story is about a crazy post WWII idea some engineers and scientists had for using a nuclear bomb to blast a harbor between the peak in the center of this photo and the ridge on the left. This is about 25 miles east of Point Hope. The proposed  H-bomb  was to be 163 times the strength of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Scientists and engineers promised to sculpt the land based on human requirements. It was part marketing (using bombs for good) and part wild scientific experimentation. It’s a shocking and crazy true story!

PHO 1_n

Nose pressed to glass, I peered out from the bush plane window as we lifted straight up, like a helicopter, in the 40 m.p.h. north wind. It seemed scary on the ground. With gusts well above 40 m.p.h., the plane arrived, landed on the airstrip and never turned into the usual parking area. I fought my way toward the plane, slipping along the airstrip as if being pushed down by a strong arm. Once in the plane, I felt calm and safe with skilled bush pilots at the controls.

PHO 2_n

From the air, the village looks like a patchwork quilt as rooftops peak above a blanket of snow. If the snow and ice were sand, Point Hope could be any beachfront real estate in the world!

Yummy Homemade Cheddar Cheese Crackers

Cheddar Crackers_n

Warning: These crackers are highly addictive. 

Last year, I made graham crackers from scratch with excellent results. That success started a whole serious of “I-wonder-if-I-could-make…” questions. The graham crackers I made at home were far more delicious than any store-bought, boxed variety. Armed with the right recipe, it seemed anything made from scratch had to taste better. Time seemed to be the limiting factor. As wonderful as the graham crackers were, a batch of a dozen took quite a bit of time to create. Saltines? We use a lot of them for breading fried clams and fish, but it seemed like a waste to bake a batch only to smash them to bits for a single recipe. The next cracker I contemplated was Cheez-Its.

Cheddar cheese crackers are tiny, with lovely ridged edges and cute little holes. I researched several recipes and discovered that these tasty little snacks required only five ingredients and a couple of hours total, most of which is chilling time in the refrigerator.

We have noticed a huge difference in the flavor of our food when we use excellent ingredients. The addictive quality of these crackers came from the combination of high quality flour, cheese, and butter. The flour was Bob’s Red Mill unbleached all-purpose. Everything we’ve baked with this flour tastes noticeably better. The butter was Tillamook’s unsalted organic, and the cheese was Kerrygold Dubliner sharp cheddar cheese.

We’ve used these crackers as croutons on salads and can imagine they would be perfect alongside a homemade bowl of soup or chili. We may have to keep imagining this, as the crackers are disappearing by the handfuls!

Cheddar Cheese Crackers

Ingredients

  • 8 oz. shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 tbsp ice cold water

Directions

  1. In a stand mixer (fitted with paddle attachment), mix cheese, butter, and salt on medium speed until well-incorporated.
  2. Add flour.
  3. Mix on low speed.
  4. Slowly add ice water. Dough should form into a ball.
  5. Wrap dough in plastic and refrigerate for an hour.
  6. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
  7. Split dough in half.
  8. Roll one half into a rectangle, about 10 x 12 inches. Dough should be thin, about 1/8 inch.
  9. Use a fluted pastry cutter and cut dough into 1-inch strips. Cut strips into 1-inch squares.
  10. Place squares on baking sheets, they can be close together, but not touching.
  11. Prick center of each cracker with end of a pointed chopstick.
  12. Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden brown.
  13. Cool on wire rack.

Zaru Soba: Chilled Buckwheat Noodles with Seared Scallops and Ikura

Buckwheat soba w seared scallops & ikura_n

Chilled buckwheat noodles topped with whatever imagination and taste comes up with and served with tsuyu dipping sauce combines the terms “gourmet” with “healthful.” Recipes follow.

A favorite food memory from the days I spent in Japan is the combination of sultry summer afternoons and lunches of refreshingly chilled buckwheat noodles. The first time I was served zaru soba in a Japanese restaurant, I knew I’d begun a life-long love affair.

Soba refers to thin noodles made from buckwheat, which in Japan is mainly grown in Hokkaido. Zaru refers to a seive-like bambo tray the soba is often served on, although these days it is popular to drain the soba in a colander and to then place the noodles on a tray or dish. Often served plain or with thin strips of nori and perhaps toasted sesame seeds, the noodles are almost always served with tsuyu, dashi, mirin and sweetened soy sauce mixture. The mixture is typically refrigerated or chilled with ice, and just prior to serving wasabi and scallions can be mixed in. Chopsticks are used to gather up a portion of soba which is then dipped into the tsuyu and, at least in Japan, the noodles are eaten with loud, appreciative slurps.

Buckwheat soba w seared scallops & ikura close_n

In addition to being tasty and very simple to make, soba is an especially healthful food. Easy to digest and packed with energy, soba contains all eight essential amino acids as well as antioxidants and important nutrients such as thiamine.

Soba and tsuyu are available at Asian grocers and in the Asian sections of many grocery stores. Tsuyu can be fairly easily made from scratch, provided you have on hand the necessary kombu, katsuo (bonito) flakes, mirin and soy sauce. Cooking up a serving or two of zaru soba – or several – for lunch or a light dinner is a breeze.

Zaru Soba with Seared Scallops and Ikura (for 2 servings)

Soba Ingredients:

  1. Two serving’s worth of soba (It generally comes packages with ribbons used to tie off serving-sized bundles.)
  2. Water to boil the soba
  3. Salt

Prepare according to package instructions much as you would pasta. Drain cooked soba in a colander and rinse thoroughly with cold water, using your hand or tongs to toss. Place rinsed, drained soba on plates, top with seared scallops, ikura and strips of nori and serve.

Seared Scallop Medallions

Directions:

  1. Select 4 large sea scallops. Cut them into medallions (approximately 1/8 inch (o.3 cm) thick.
  2. Dust medallions with seasonings of your choice. (We like a mixture of sesame seeds, chili pepper, powdered garlic, cinnamon and nutmeg. Commercially prepared Thai seasoning blends work very well.)
  3. In a frying pan, heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil over medium heat till a drop of water placed in the pan sizzles. Sear medallions on each side for just a few seconds. Use tongs or chopsticks to flip.
  4. Immediately remove medallions to a cool plate. Cover and refrigerate if they are to be used later.

ikura cured salmon eggs_nTo create sushi grade ikura in your own kitchen, see our article Ikura: Curing Salmon Eggs

Readers might also be interested in:

Alaskan Shrimp Harumaki with Lime-Infused Ponzu Dipping Sauce

Arctic Anpan Two Ways: Sweet Azuki and Caribou Cha Sui

Tikigaq School 5th Graders Perform Point Hope Eskimo Dances

The rhythms are played on traditionally-crafted drums; the dances have been passed down from generation to generation. These fifth graders demonstrate that Inupiat traditions are alive and well in Point Hope, Alaska.

With the help of village elder Aaka Irma, my fifth graders and I learned an old Point Hope Eskimo dance that hadn’t been performed in some time. Under the guidance of our Inupiat language teacher, Aana Lane, the students also practiced popular traditional Point Hope dances. The students performed these dances for the Christmas presentation last month to an enthusiastic crowd.

The group of students I have this year is very connected to their culture and heritage, particularly when it comes to dancing. It’s amazing to see every student in the class become so completely engaged in a cultural tradition. During their performance in December, the students captivated the entire audience. The performance culminated with the students inviting one and all to join them on the gym floor in the closing Common Dance – a dance familiar to virtually everyone in our village.

Winter Light and Polar Bear Prints, Point Hope, Alaska

Sun, 3 PM Dec 22, Point Hope_n

This photo was taken on December 22, 2012, a day in the midst of the month during which the sun does not rise above the horizon in Point Hope, Alaska. 

The sun dipped below the horizon 31 days ago on December 6 and did not rise again till yesterday, January 6. And yet, there was light each day, dim, brief, often breath taking.

We walked to the beach on one of those days when the sun didn’t rise. It was about 3:00 pm, and the sky was filled with shades of red, violet, amber and gold. The sea, which lies just 300 meters or so from our doorstep, is locked in ice. This time of year, polar bears are always a possibility as they roam the ice, searching for food.

Maia's hand in Polar Bear Track, Dec 22, 2012_n

Maia’s hand is dwarfed by a fresh polar bear paw print. 

Edging the beach where ice met land was a fresh set of polar bear tracks. The evidence that we share this environment with these magnificent animals was thrilling – but also a reminder that caution is in order. We scanned in every direction as far as our eyes would take us. No movement. The bear had probably passed through in the dark of early morning.

Polar Bear Tracks on South Beach Dec 22, 2012_n

Arctic foxes often follow polar bears in hopes of dining on scraps of the bear’s kill. Above, you can see the small paw prints of a fox near the bear’s tracks. Notice the tell-tale scrape marks in the snow on the forward edge of some of the bear tracks. Their long claws leave these scrapes as the bears amble along.

We waited and watched and listened. The wind moving over the seemingly endless frozen sea was all we could hear. In the distance to the east, we could see Cape Thompson’s snowy cliffs bathed in light etched against the pink horizon. As we walked along the edge of the sea, we found a murre, apparently exhausted, tucked into a snowy alcove against a bank of ice. The bird was lucky the fox had already passed by. Although the murre found the strength to take flight as we drew near, it is doubtful it went far. The Arctic winter is unforgiving.

Maia walking to ocean Dec 22 Point Hope II_n

Walking west, toward the sea, on a December day in Point Hope…

Daughter Maia was in the village for a two-week visit over winter break from college. Unfortunately, the Northern Lights didn’t cooperate, but the sky still put on some amazing displays.

Point Hope South Beach Dec 22 3 pm Nikon D90

Ikura: Curing Salmon Eggs

Ikura, transluscent, close_n

Like fire opals lit from within, freshly cured salmon eggs are ready to be served as ikura sushi, sprinkled on a bowl of rice (ikuradon), as a seafood garnish, with cream cheese and rice crackers, or simply gobbled by the spoonful!

At $40 to $50 a pound wholesale (and more expensive than that at the grocery store, when you can find it), cured salmon roe is not a regularly featured food in most kitchens. But if you catch your own salmon – or are friends with someone who does – it can be. Although the process of curing fresh salmon roe is somewhat time consuming, it is not difficult, and with patience almost anyone can turn out a sushi-grade batch of this delicacy.

Salmon eggs, King, in sacs_n

These two matching skeins of eggs, or roe sacs, from a Chinook salmon were frozen this past summer and went into one of our ice chests when we flew to our home in Point Hope, Alaska this fall. Japanese chefs typically prefer the eggs of chum salmon (they’re big), but the eggs from any salmon species are fine. In fact, very attractive cured roe can be made from the smaller eggs of large char, too.

Whether you use fresh or fresh-frozen eggs, the first step (once the roe is completely thawed) is to separate the individual eggs from the skein. The riper the eggs, the easier this process will be. There’s a trick that makes this process much easier than it might otherwise be. Bring a pot of water to a temperature of about 120 degrees Fahrenheit and plunge the whole skein into the hot water. Remove the pot from heat and gently swirl the eggs around. You’ll probably want a pair of nitrile or plastic gloves for this. As you do this, you’ll notice the eggs becoming opaque – cream colored. They’ll look as though you’ve ruined the batch. You haven’t.

Ikura after soaking in hot water_n

Hot water temporarily colors the roe and makes it easier to remove from the membranous roe sac. Provided you have kept the water temperature below 140° F, do not be concerned if your eggs become whiter and more opaque than those in the above photograph.

Next, pour the eggs and the water into a strainer. Plastic colanders, with their smooth surfaces, work well for this step. A lot of the extraneous tissue will drain off at this point. Place the strainer with the eggs in a large pot, fill with cold water, and continue to swirl the eggs around. The fat and other unwanted tissue will tend to rise above the eggs and can be skimmed off with a wire mesh skimmer. Some of the eggs will still have tissue attached. These can be cleaned by hand.

Ikura before and after being cured_n

Left: Salmon roe separated and cleaned and ready to be cured. Right: the finished product – fresh, salty ikura.

The next step is magical. For each cup of salmon roe, add just less than a teaspoon of salt. Finely ground sea salt or kosher salt works best for this step. Gently but thoroughly mix the salt into the eggs with your hands. The eggs will immediately begin to turn bright and translucent. Taste and roe and, if desired, add additional salt.

Finally, place the eggs in a strainer one more time to allow excess liquid to drain off. The cured roe will keep for several days in the refrigerator. It can also be kept in the freezer in tightly sealed jars.

Ikura on plaice plate_n

One you get the basic method down, you can substitute soy sauce for some of the salt or add a splash or two of sake (酒) to create subtly different flavors.

We serve ikura on everything from scrambled eggs to seafood pizza, as well as on traditional Japanese dishes such as chawan-mushi and zaru soba. Below, they add a splash of color and flavor to crepes wrapped around smoked Alaskan salmon and herbed cream cheese.

Crepes w smoked salmon & herbed cheese_n

Tufted Puffins, a Name Change and Best Wishes for 2013

Tufted puffin near Homer I_nUnmistakable with their toucan-like bright orange beaks and combed back white tufts of head feathers, tufted puffins (Fratercula cirrhata) are among Alaska’s most familiar ambassadors.

When we began this blog a little over two years ago, it was for ourselves. The blog was to be a place to catalogue our recipes and keep a photographic record of our travels and adventures. And so we named it Frozen Moments and didn’t think too much about it. It seemed an appropriate name for a blog where photographs are highlighted (frozen moments) and especially so since our home nine months of the year is in Arctic Alaska (frozen months).

Tufted puffin near Homer II_nBut as we got more into it, we discovered that Frozen Moments was a little too obvious. Others were already using the name. We realized we’d eventually want to make a change. CutterLight has its origins in two sources. Cutter derives from our summer home in Seward – our cutter-rigged sailboat. To us, the term evokes images not just of sailing, but of travel and adventure in general, as well as a spirit of being willing to learn and experience new things.

Tufted puffin near Homer III_nLight, too, holds multiple meanings for us. There is of course the “light” which all photographers are concerned with. As our skills and interest in photography grow, we are finding that we are becoming, inevitably perhaps, obsessed with light. It permeates our world now in ways it never did before, and this newfound awareness affects everything from the way we watch movies to how we perceive the world around us to how we deal with the deceptively elusive basic elements of photography.

Tufted puffin near Homer IV_nBut Light holds a second meaning – one which is perhaps even more central to our lives. As we move forward toward fulfilling our goals as writers, photographers and sailors, we have pared away much of what we once considered necessary. Not much fits on a 35-foot sailboat. A succession of yard sales and donations to thrift shops allowed us to part with most of our possessions before we moved to Alaska three years ago. Since then, every new item we add to our lives is carefully evaluated for the value it brings in terms of utility and pleasure. Few items make the cut. We are moving forward with a life that feels lighter yet stronger. It is a wonderful feeling.

Lower Cook Inlet near Homer_nLooking out over lower Cook Inlet from the bluffs above Homer, Alaska.

As we look back on 2012, it is with a deep sense of appreciation. Many new friends came into our lives this year, and we also were fortunate to have had some really special reconnections with people from our former lives. We are happy, too, that our blog is finding an appreciative audience. We wish one and all fair winds and following seas in the coming year.

Jack and Barbra Donachy

How Have Long Life: Life Philosophy from Alaska’s Longest Reindeer Herder

winter sky_n

The sun doesn’t rise now. In its absence, there is darkness and dusk. And there is beauty in the pink hues and  blue silhouettes of midday.

Words to live by from the longest reindeer herder, Chester Asakak Seveck.

For long live and joy life,

I believe these things –

Keep busy and do good work.

Have much good exercise.

Eat good food,

no waste anything

and every day enjoy what it gives

and do not spoil this day with much worry of tomorrow.

Be happy.

I know this way

how I be “Longest Reindeer Herder.”

Start 1908, finish 1954,

altogether 46 years herd reindeer.

From Longest Reindeer Herder: A true life story of an Alaskan Eskimo covering the period from 1890 to 1973, by Chester Asakak Seveck

The Light before the Fire (First Sea Ice, Point Hope)

There’s not much sun now –

three hours or so from dawn to dusk

and in those three hours, the sun doesn’t climb very high

so that on clear days the world is bathed 

in soft pink and lavender and gold

the horizon rimmed in turquoise

beneath a pale sky

until one day the wind shifts,

and gathers sheets of ice

already formed at sea,

and pushes the ice to shore

where it gathers the light,

and you forget about the things you thought you missed…

the life you left behind

in that moment

before the sun sinks to the ice-covered sea

and everything turns to fire