Five degrees, calm, a raven’s throaty croak echoing across the ice. Gaining about four minutes of light each day now, the earth moving into position to give us back our beautiful sunrises.
After a big Sunday morning breakfast we hiked across the lake and up into the foothills for a couple of miles. Otters, mergansers, other ducks and a pair of Pacific Loons in the little bit of open water where the lake empties into the river. The acres of tundra where we picked berries this past summer locked beneath two or three inches of hard ice, the result of snow melt and rainwater accumulating atop frozen ground and another cold snap. Icy snow firm as hardpan. Soft crunch under our boots. Easy hiking.
Once in a while a Red Fox trots across the lake or along the frozen shoreline. Arctic Hare tracks everywhere the snow is soft enough to show them. Yesterday I counted 80 birds at the window feeders – Pine Grosbeaks, Redpolls, Black-Capped Chickadees, Oregon-race Juncos, a couple of Pine Siskins. Bears denned up two months ago. Gulls and eagles gone. Wolf tracks lacing trails just beyond the village. We keep watching for a wolverine in the place we’ve seen them before. Tomorrows forecast says rain. Hope not.
Warm rolls stuffed with cranberry banana jam, a fried egg and a freshly brewed cuppa joe – what a great way to start a day!
August through early September see the peak of the berry picking season here at Chignik Lake. We start with salmonberries, move into blueberries, wineberries (aka nagoon berries), and crowberries (aka blackberries) and finish up with lingonberries (aka lowbush cranberries). Somewhere in the middle of all that, we can find porcini (aka bolete) mushrooms. But, those aren’t a berry, are they?
Berry picking has always been a joy for me. Something about finding little sweet edible treasures is pleasurable, but it’s more than the happiness of the find alone that I love. A couple of weekends ago, we went across the lake to pick cranberries. The berries grow by the bucketloads on little hillocks in and around boggy areas where blueberries and mushrooms also thrive. The air was sweet and pure, the breeze was soft. Sitting on the little hillocks, you can grab small handfuls at a time of the small red gems. At their varying stages of growth, they range in color from candy apple to a deep merlot. Their sizes, too, vary – with lunkers attaining the size of a large pea. Some people like to use a rake-like scoop (that works a lot like a bear claw) to pick the little berries. I enjoy picking them by hand. I find it is more satisfying to pick this way and it produces a cleaner haul.
The hike to the bog that day was beautiful, the trail colored up with the fiery reds and oranges of fireweed and wild geranium leaves, and the yellows, golds and browns of fall willows and grasses. Sometimes we pick together and talk quietly. On this day we were in sight of each other, but enjoying our immersive experience separately. I got so engrossed in my task, I didn’t notice the others who had joined us in the picking until movement in the corner of my eye caught my attention. About a football field away was a mama bear and her two fat cubs. The big babies were tussling about while mama raked up berries with her long claws and feasted. I looked over at Jack, who was also a football field away from me in a different direction to see if he noticed. Sure enough, he and his camera were capturing the scene. The mama bear sniffed in our direction to ensure her babies were safe. Having detected no need for concern, the little family grazed for a while longer and then ambled on their way. What a place we live in, where we can safely berry pick alongside these great beings. The only other sound the entire time we picked was that of the breeze rustling through the vegetation and a few late sparrows chirping from the hillside.
When we got home, I rinsed and dried the berries and then popped them into the freezer for later use. Today’s recipe is made with one of my favorite jams, banana lingonberry. The recipe comes from a publication put out by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. It might seem like a strange combination of fruits as both bananas and lingonberries both have strong flavors. However, together they are quite complementary. Of course, the breakfast roll recipe can be made with any flavor of jam. These lingonberry gems were made in honor of the beautiful outing picking berries.
Wild Berry Jam Breakfast Rolls
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
¼ cup whole wheat pastry flour
½ tbsp yeast
1 ½ tbsp granulated sugar
2 tbsp milk powder (can use whole, nonfat, buttermilk)
Generous pinch salt
½ cup warm water
2 ½ tbsp unsalted butter, room temperature
6 tbsp wild berry jam
In a stand mixer fitted with a paddle, combine ½ cup all-purpose flour, whole wheat pastry flour, yeast, sugar, milk powder and salt.
Mix in water and butter.
Beat in remaining flour, ½ cup at a time, until dough pulls away from sides of bowl.
Switch to dough hook and knead for a couple of minutes. Dough should be smooth, soft, and springy.
Transfer dough to an oiled bowl. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise until puffy, about 60 minutes.
Grease an 8-inch cake pan or a 9-inch pie plate.
Cut dough into 8 pieces.
Roll dough into balls and place into prepared pan with space around them.
Using your thumb, make a depression in the center of each dough ball.
Cover pan with a double layer of plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Remove from refrigerator 30 minutes before baking.
Divide jam evenly into each depression in the rolls.
Place the pan in a cold oven and turn the heat to 350°F.
Bake for 25-30 minutes. Rolls will be golden brown when done.
Let cool slightly on a wire rack.
Serve warm from oven as is, or drizzle with powdered sugar glaze, or dust with powdered sugar.
Summertime around here is almost indescribable. At this time of the year, hundreds of thousands of salmon are ascending our river. Many shades of green have raced to the tops of the surrounding hillsides and to the highest points of all but the very tallest peaks. From riverbanks to the edges of mountaintop snow patches, there are flowers popping open in every imaginable color. And now the first berries of summer are starting to ripen – salmonberries. It is a well-documented fact that Alaska’s wild berries have an astonishing amount of health benefits due to our long sunlit days. But that’s not really why we pick them and eat them. They are beautiful and luscious.
The rainbow of colors that adorn ripe salmonberries is bewitching. They can be found in alluring golds, bright oranges, and deep reds. They can be as small as raspberries or as big as what I like to call lunkers, berries as big as a yellow school bus. I have a strong affection for all berries, but salmonberries in my opinion are the most beautiful.
This muffin recipe is inspired by the classic dessert – Peach Melba. This dessert showcases the complementary flavors of poached peaches and fresh tart raspberries. I’m sure this muffin recipe could be improved with the substitution of fresh peaches in place of canned. But thousands of miles from a fresh peach, canned sufficed in my remote Alaskan kitchen. What makes these muffins work so well is the technique of tucking the berries into the middle – a lovely surprise for diners.
These muffins taste like a celebration of summer. We enjoyed ours this morning with a big cup of French Roast coffee, a fried egg and a thick slice of our friend Michelle’s homemade bacon. Now we’re fueled up and ready to go for a hike up one of those beautiful green-sloped mountains.
Salmonberry Peach Muffins
¼ cup sugar
3 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
½ cup milk
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ of 15 oz. can peaches in light syrup, chopped
½ cup fresh or frozen salmonberries
Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C).
Grease 6-muffin tin (I use a silicone pan without the butter).
In a bowl, whisk together sugar, egg, butter, and milk.
Stir flour, baking powder and salt into the mixture.
Carefully stir in chopped peaches.
Evenly divide ½ of the batter into each muffin cup.
Evenly divide salmonberries on top of batter.
Cover salmonberries with remaining batter.
Bake muffins until golden and springy to the touch, about 25 minutes.
Let cool in pan on rack for about 5 minutes before removing muffins.
Serve warm as part of a delicious summertime brunch.
A few years ago, something happened. Was it the weather, the climate? Did something happen to the soil? Or just a part of a greater normal cycle? That year there were very few berries growing around the Lake. We were worried. Was that the end of our precious little fruit? There’s nothing like a year of berry paucity to make a person like me anxious every year to see how the wild berry crop will be. Not only are berries a favorite fruit, we rely on them through the winter as a means to keep fresh fruit regularly in our diet. Of course, picking our own berries is much more practical than ordering berries to be flown out to our remote locale – from a freshness and a financial perspective. Blueberries are the only berry that will ship out here without rotting on the way. And interestingly, studies have shown that our wild little berries pack more nutritional punch than the farmed variety most people see in grocery stores. The long, light-filled days of summer have a farther-reaching positive effect than meets the eye.
Every year, since that berry drought year, we make it a habit to hike around to our favorite picking spots early in the season to check on the flowers. A nasty rainstorm at just the right (wrong) time can knock all the flowers or young berries down, so just seeing buds doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods. But it is a worthwhile and enjoyable task to go out and check. A few days ago, we finished our round of exploratory hikes. Those walks revealed flowers. So many flowers! The salmonberry flowers are already turning to fruit. And the berry bogs are loaded with buds. It’s looking like it will be a banner year for berries. I can already taste all my favorite creations – syrups, jams, jellies, fruit butters, and IQF (individually quick frozen), which makes up the majority of our kept berries.
Inspired by the upcoming picking season, I dug into our freezer to see exactly how many berries remained from last summer. My search revealed several bags of IQF blueberries and IQF salmonberries. Hurrah! There were enough to whip up a taste of summer to tide me over before picking season. And it happened that friends invited us to dinner, which gave me a ready excuse to get baking.
I have created many recipes featuring berries. For this dinner, I wanted to bring something that really highlighted the berries. I also wanted something I could carry easily without bringing a dish or pie pan to deal with later. Blueberry hand pies, or turnovers, would be perfect. I could pack them with fruit and they would be easy to carry over in a little box.
And they were extremely easy to whip up. Pie dough, berries, sugar, lemon juice, clear gel, vanilla and Done! They are perfect as is. But to add an aesthetic Wow factor, I drizzled icing made with powdered sugar and lemon juice on the cooled pastries. That did the trick. My friends oohed and aahed and requested the recipe (a true sign that a dessert hit the mark).
So, friends, here’s the recipe for Wild Blueberry Turnovers.
Wild Alaskan Blueberry Turnovers
1 small egg
1 ¼ cup wild Alaskan blueberries, frozen or fresh (other berries can be substituted)
2 tbsp packed brown sugar
1 tbsp clear gel (corn starch will work)
1 tsp lemon juice
1 tsp vanilla paste (vanilla extract would work)
Single pie crust
Heat oven to 400°F (200°C).
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Whisk egg with a teaspoon of water in a small bowl for an egg wash. Set aside.
In a bowl, gently mix blueberries, sugar, clear gel, lemon juice and vanilla.
Divide pie crust into 4 portions.
Shape pie crust sections into circles, about 1/8” thick (3mm).
Place crusts on prepared baking sheet.
Divide blueberry filling evenly onto pie crust circles.
Brush edges of the crust with egg wash.
Fold dough over, creating ½ circle-shaped turnovers.
Crimp edges with the tines of a fork.
Cut slits on the top of the turnovers to allow steam to escape.
Brush with remaining egg wash.
Bake for 20-25 minutes. Pastries will be golden brown when they’re done.
Let cool on wire rack.
Serve as is, or drizzled with lemon icing, or with your favorite vanilla ice cream.
Although halibut can be caught any time of the year, I think of them as summertime fish. The images that come to mind are of calm seas and sunshine and Gilliedrifting in a light breeze over a bottom of reasonable depth, something around 5 to 20 fathoms. We look for “chickens,” the young 20 to 40 pound flatties that eagerly hit jigs, aren’t too much trouble in the boat, and fillet into firm white pieces perfect for the kitchen. Fired, baked, broiled or served as sashimi or in a soup, halibut are as versatile as any fish that swims. The thick fillets are just right for stuffing with shrimp, crab or, in this case a classic accompaniment, bleu cheese. Halibut cooked just right flakes beautifully. To achieve those moist flakes, avoid overcooking it. The meat is very rich. Barbra and I typically share a six to eight ounce fillet.
This is our favorite halibut recipe. In the photo, it is served on sautéed parsnips and saffron rice, but this works well as a sandwich, too. You don’t have to marinate the fillet… but you’ll be happy you did.
Panko Crusted Halibut with Bleu Cheese (for a 6 to 8 ounce fillet)
6 to 8 ounce halibut fillet, skin on, patted dry
1 heaping tablespoon all purpose flour
1 egg, beaten, with a dollop each of soy sauce and Cholula mixed in
panko in a shallow dish
equal portions extra virgin olive oil and butter (about ⅛ inch in frying pan)
For the marinade: In a dish just large enough to hold the fillet, or in a small sealable plastic bag, mix together…
½ tablespoon soy sauce
½ tablespoon Chulula
juice from ½ lime (about 1 tablespoon or more)
mesquite (for the smokiness) to taste
a chipotle-type dry seasoning to taste
½ tablespoon brown sugar
cold water (sufficient to completely cover fillet)
For the filling: Mix together while bacon is still warm…
1 strip thick-cut bacon, fried soft and cut into small pieces
crumbled bleu cheese
tarragon (just a hint)
Use a very sharp knife to cut a pocket into the fillet, taking care not to cut all the way through the other side.
Marinate the fillet in the refrigerator for 20 minutes up to about 2 hours. Remove and pat dry with paper towels.
In a small frying pan, melt the butter into the olive oil over medium heat.
Fill the fillet pocket with bleu cheese mixture.
Spread the flour on a cutting board and roll the fillet so all sides are covered.
Dip the fillet in the egg mixture to evenly coat.
Roll the fillet in panko to thoroughly coat.
The cooking oil is ready when a panko crumb placed into it bubbles and sizzles. Place the fillet in the frying pan skin side up. Make sure the fillet is sizzling, but that the oil is not so hot that the panko burns. Cover, reduce the heat a little, and cook for three minutes. Covering the fillet at this point helps ensure that the fish is properly cooked through. You might want to take a quick peak a couple of minutes into the cooking to make sure the panko is browning up properly.
Remove lid and continue cooking for one minute. (Four minutes total per side).
Carefully turn over the fillet so that it is now skin side down, presentation side up. Do not cover. Cook for four minutes. Adjust temperature as necessary to ensure panko is browning, not burning. Periodically spoon some of the oil-butter mixture onto the top of the fillet. Don’t worry if some of the filling melts out; it’s an indication that the fillet is cooked through. During the final minute of cooking, you may want to use tongs to hold the fillet so that the edges are properly browned.
When serving, you can spoon a little of the oil-butter mixture onto the fillet and offer lemon wedges.
Each fillet serves one hearty appetite or can be cut into two portions. This dish pairs well with Chardonnay or a cold, crisp lager.
From the bumpy dirt strip where small aircraft land and take off, about three-and-a-half miles of even bumpier dirt and gravel road threads through the village of Chignik Lake. This photograph was taken at the road’s terminus, the boat landing about four miles up the river from the ocean estuary and about two miles downriver from the village. Nine, 10 and even 11-foot tides push enough water up the river that we sometimes see ice and other objects flowing backwards up the lake.
Tides aren’t something we’re accustomed to thinking of on rivers, but we quickly learned that you’ve got to be mindful when it comes to parking your skiff: a rising tide will snatch away an unsecured boat; a falling tide can leave a skiff high and dry. Relaunching is no fun if the vessel has much weight to it. And you’ve got to be careful running the Chignik on a low tide. “Million Dollar River,” it’s been called for all the props and lower units it’s claimed over the years.
Fairly large boats are able to navigate the river on the big tides. Barges deliver building supplies, personal vehicles, heavy equipment and fuel to the landing – stuff that won’t fit on a small bush plane but that is necessary for building and maintaining a semi-wilderness village. Without these flood tides, there wouldn’t be a village here. You’ve got to watch where you park your truck though. (I bumped up the ISO on this hand-held shot.January 14, 2018. Nikon D800, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/200 @ f/8, ISO 1000, 70mm.)
In the first month of 2017, temperatures dropped into the single digits and stayed there. Coinciding with this, the Chignik’s infamous winds abated for a few days. Skim ice began forming on January 16. The following morning we woke to find the lake frozen solid.
Scattered around the lake close to shore, we found a few of these exquisite ice sculptures. Intricately crafted by natural forces, they looked to us like fine crystal. Upwelling – subsurface springs – may have played a role in their formation. Beyond that, they were mysteries.
They didn’t last long. Eventually the wind came up and piece by delicate piece they were dismantled. We never again found such beautifully detailed arrangements, and so I’m glad to have made a few photographs. The ice in the photo suggested to us a swan on a placid lake, or a sailing vessel. (Nikon D5, 105mm f/2.8, 1/125 @ f/14, ISO 125)
Barbra and I call the stream in the above photo Post Office Creek for its proximity to the former post office here in Chignik Lake. The post office has since relocated, but during the first three years we lived here, we regularly crossed this creek on foot as we traveled back and forth. Although our home sits just 60 paces from a lake full of water, this tiny creek holds an especial appeal and anytime I am near it, I find myself drawn to it, approaching stealthily for a careful look into its deeper pools.
From mid-spring through fall, there are char and sometimes salmon parr and one year a pair of Pink Salmon spawned in a riffle below the culvert where the road crosses. The char are wary, but by approaching quietly and giving one’s eyes a few moments to adjust, fish a foot long and even larger might be found. A cottonwood overlooking the mouth is a favorite perch for kingfishers, and when salmon are in the lake eagles can also be found there. Loons and mergansers regularly hunt the lake’s waters outside the creek mouth and yellowlegs can often be found wading and catching small fish along the shore.
During wintertime, there generally isn’t much evidence of life in the creek’s clear waters, but it’s there – char eggs waiting to hatch, caddis larvae along with mayfly and stonefly nymphs clinging to the undersides of rocks, a visiting heron catching small fish where the creek enters the lake, fresh otter and mink tracks at the mouth some mornings.
In summertime snipe nest in a marsh that seeps into the creek, and bears use it as a thoroughfare so that even in the village, you’re wise to carry bear spray if you’re walking that way. The dense thickets of willow and alder near its banks are a good place to look for warblers and thrushes. In fall Coho gather just below the creek’s mouth, resting before traveling to larger tributaries further up the lake. As Roderick Haig-Brown observed, a river never sleeps. Nor does Post Office Creek. I made this picture on January 13, 2021. (Nikon D850, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/50 @ f/22, ISO 400, 24mm)
Right down to his black-gloved claws, male redpolls are strikingly handsome fellows. The species is a regular wintertime visitor at the lake, though they’re unpredictable and irruptive flocks or a few individuals or none at all might be encountered in any season here. Two springs ago, Barbra saw one carrying nesting material. That same late spring we saw a number of what were surely brand new fledglings. In recent years they’ve joined Pine Siskins and Pine Grosbeaks in what has become the annual late-spring Feast of the Dandelions. As the little yellow flowers go to seed, these finches descend on the school yard and elsewhere to gorge on the tiny seeds. This occurs in large part due to Clinton, the school’s grounds-keeper, whom I’ve convinced to put off mowing till after the main part of the dandelion season is over.
I’m hesitant to say with certainty that the bird in the above photo is a Hoary Redpoll, but he’s got the smallish bill, light side streaking and pinkish breast associated with that species. There is a lot of morphological variation among redpolls. The matter brings up what is to me one of the most interesting questions in biology:
What is a species?
When do two groups of similar flora or fauna differ from each other enough to merit taxonomic separation? The question creates divisions between “lumpers” who advocate for leaning toward the simple “can they interbreed and produce viable offspring” test and “splitters” who observe that even though two types can successfully breed, it may not be useful to group them together as a single species.
My interest in ichthyology has led me to place myself firmly in the “splitters” group. Applying the simple “can they breed and produce viable offspring” test, fisheries managers of bygone eras decimated genetically unique stocks of salmonids (char, trout and salmon) through nearly indiscriminate hatchery breeding policies and stocking programs. What was learned – the hard way – is that although, for example, Chinook Salmon from two different rivers might seem to be the same thing, biologically they aren’t. Each population of Chinook represents a unique genetic strain, specially adapted to the conditions of its own home river. A strain of salmon transplanted from one river to another is unlikely to thrive. Thus, the best approach to ensuring healthy salmon populations is to protect their habitat – river by river, right down to individual spawning tributaries.
Which brings us to the matter of redpolls and the question as to whether there are two species in North America, Hoary and Common, or whether a redpoll is a redpoll is a redpoll. Based on what I’ve read, in addition to any phenotypic or genotypic differences that might exist between the two types, they tend to nest it different areas. Hoaries prefer tundra or other open areas; Commons like more brushy habitat. Which suggests to me that they are different enough that we need to protect both types of habitat if we want to continue to have both types of redpolls. (Nikon D5, 600m f/4 + 2.0 TC, 1/1000 @ f/8, ISO 1600, 1200mm
By the calendar, this isn’t strictly speaking a winter shot. But on April 1 of 2017, there was still lots of snow with more to come. Ice had only just begun to relinquish its hold on Chignik Lake. No one was seriously trapping that year, and the inhospitable landscape had driven several foxes into the village where food was easier to find. Several of us at The Lake are happy to occasionally oblige these visitors with a handout of fish or whatever else we might have in the fridge. So, full disclosure, the fox in the above photo, whom we named Speck, had long ago dropped his guard in favor of scoring an easy salmon head dropped from our living room window.
We learned quite a lot about Red Foxes that winter, starting with the fact that each is an individual, distinguishable by both physical features and character traits. In all, we came to recognize (and subsequently name) five different foxes that year: Speck, Frost, Kate, King and Skit. Each had its own unique personality, and each had some special physical trait, such as the spots on Speck’s face. He was a favorite, and along with a little female (we think she was a female), Frost -named for the white on her face -, he could often be found sleeping and loafing below our window.
Is it ethical to feed wild animals? It depends. Certainly it’s a bad idea anywhere the species in question is being hunted or trapped. It’s an equally poor practice in parks or other areas where animals might become a nuisance. No one wants to sit down at a picnic table only to be besieged by squirrels, gulls or jays. And we oppose the practice of baiting animals – that is, feeding them in order to shoot them, whether with a rifle or a camera. But we feed birds in order to help them and because we enjoy their company, and in the depths of winter we sometimes put out a salmon head or something similar for foxes. Here at The Lake, most fishermen will leave salmon and trout carcasses on the beach for the benefit of eagles and bears – a practice that is illegal most other places. Foxes have evolved so that an encoded part of their behavior is to follow larger animals – bears, humans – in hopes of obtaining a few scraps of food. People have undoubtedly been sharing with them for as long as there have been foxes and humans. (Nikon D5, 70-200mm f/2.8 + 2.0 TC, 1/1250 @ f/10, ISO 1600, 400 mm)