The Arctic Foxes at Tikigaq Cemetery

Stunning in their soft, white coats, Arctic foxes (Vulpes lagopus) are common in this part of Alaska. The size of a small dog and as soft on their feet as a cat, these omnivores forage on whatever is available, from berries to insects to small mammals and birds – and it appears, big, fat marine worms!

In the past few weeks, there have been spawning events on our beaches near Point Hope. A couple of weeks ago, we were hearing about small fish – probably capelin (smelt) – coming ashore with the surf. More recently, we’ve been finding large marine worms on the beach. The size of Ball Park Franks, the appearance of these worms has coincided with egg cases in areas of coarse sand and gravel. In turn, these spawning events have drawn numbers of snowy owls and Arctic foxes looking for easy meals to the point of land west of town.

Morning sunlight slants through the jawbones of bowhead whales commingled with crosses at the Tikigaq cemetery in Point Hope, Alaska.

Not so long ago, National Geographic Magazine ran an article about domesticating foxes. Apparently there’s been some success, as breeders in Russia select the most gentle, friendly, trainable and inquisitive offspring generation upon generation. At an average size of six to eight pounds, Arctic foxes would be just the right size to curl up on the sofa for an evening of popcorn and a movie.

Like ribs pushing up from the tundra, these bowhead jawbones mark the resting place of one of Tikigaq’s last shamans.

The diversity – and sheer number – of animals and plants that manage to hack a living out of this cold land amazes us. Far from being the vast, frozen desert the Arctic has often been described as, each season brings with it an astounding number and variety of flora and fauna to the land and sea around Point Hope. Tracks in the snow near our house reveal that we have a weasel or two living beneath our porch!

Tikigaq Cemetery

Weathered jawbones of bowhead whales form a fence around the cemetery in Tikigaq, (Point Hope) Alaska).

After four consecutive weeks of daily rain – a precipitation rate almost unheard of in this semi-arid region of the Arctic – we’ve had several days of brilliant sunshine. The past three mornings, the gravel that makes up the ground here in Point Hope has been hard underfoot. Frost. The cloudberries are over, and the frost means it’s time to go pick cranberries. In the old days, the dead were not buried. “The land all around was our graveyard,” I was told by one of the people of the village. But when the missionaries came, they told the people of the village that the dead must be buried. And so this cemetery was created. 

Today while Barbra and I were eating lunch, we saw a snowy owl outside my classroom window. Last week a brown bear – a grizzly – passed by the edge of town. This might be a good weekend to get up early and walk up the beach in hopes of seeing a walrus.

Homemade Cloudberry Syrup – For Belgian Waffles and Italian Sodas

Although ripe cloudberries are golden amber in color, the syrup they produce is a luminescent dark pink. Thick and flavorful, mixed with carbonated water, the syrup makes refreshing Italian sodas. This morning, it topped our Belgian waffles.

We’ve already turned about 20 pounds of freshly picked cloudberries (click here to see cloudberry photos) into two kinds of jam as well as sorbet. Our most recent venture out on the tundra yielded another eight pounds that I hadn’t counted on. When I asked a berry-picking friend what she thought I should make, she enthusiastically replied, “Syrup!”

The syrup, which is easy to make, turned out a beautiful dark pink color. I hadn’t expected this because the fruit I started with was a lovely salmon color. The seeds seemed to color the juice. I made freezer jam with the remaining pulp in order to save every luscious part of the berries. I thought if the “pulp jam” didn’t look good, it could still be used as a key ingredient in fruit breads. Any kind of berries could be used to make this syrup with an adjustment to the amount of sugar used.

Aqpik (Cloudberry) Syrup

Ingredients: (Yields 4 cups syrup)

  • 10 cups of berries
  • 4 cups of water
  • 3 cups granulated sugar

Directions

  1. Place berries and water in a large pot. Cook on medium high heat.
  2. Boil berries for about 15 minutes.
  3. Line a strainer with cheesecloth. Elevate strainer over a bowl so that syrup can drain through cheesecloth and into the bowl. (I used a strainer that stands by itself set on a wire cooling rack set on a large mixing bowl.)
  4. Place berries in pot and puree them using an immersion or stick blender.
  5. Pour pureed berries and all liquids from pot into cheesecloth lined strainer.
  6. Let berries sit in strainer for at least two hours to drain off liquid.
  7. Take the liquid that has drained into the large mixing bowl and put it in a pot.
  8. Add sugar to the pot.
  9. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring frequently, until syrup boils.
  10. Skim off any foam and discard.
  11. Pour juice into canning jars to freeze or into decorative bottles to refrigerate.

A Year’s Worth of Food: Provisioning for the Alaska Bush, Part I

Salmon, halibut and rockfish fillets from fish caught in Resurrection Bay, vacuum sealed and flash frozen for fresh-from-the sea taste, ready to make the trip north to Point Hope. And a plug for Alaskan seafood: it’s wild, sustainable, healthy, and some of the best-tasting on the planet!

One of the biggest challenges living in the bush presents is provisioning for a year’s worth of meals. When we  moved to Alaska, Barbra and I brought with us some of the skills we’d acquired in our lives in Oregon and California.

For starters, we’ve always had Costco memberships and we use those memberships to stock up on bulk purchases from rice to olive oil to meat, fish and poultry. To make this work, we use a FoodSaver vacuum-pack system to repackage meat in smaller portions, which we then freeze. In addition to having some of the very best meat, poultry and fish available – and at prices well below specialty stores carrying products of comparable quality – Costco also carries the best frozen fruits and vegetables we have found. Their Executive Membership, which costs more than a regular membership, offers a 2% rebate on purchases, and thus more than pays for itself, meaning that we don’t incur a membership cost. But even if we had to pay a nominal fee, we’d still be Costco members. They treat their employees well, and they offer quality products and service. And buying in bulk is green: less packaging (much of our repackaging material is reusable), and fewer trips to the store means less fuel consumption.

In our life before Alaska, we were already harvesting most of our seafood and freezing (and smoking) it. Annual berry-picking pilgrimages provided us with a year’s worth of blueberries – a fruit that not only is delicious and versatile, but which freezes well, too.

The challenge we faced upon moving to the bush was getting all this food, and other supplies, out to the village. Here’s the short explanation of the solution: Rubbermaid Roughneck Totes and Coleman Xtreme 52-quart coolers.

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Left: Drilling holes in lids and totes to be zip-tied shut for parcel post. Right: Empty coolers at the post office, ready to be mailed south where they’ll be filled with frozen and cold food at the end of the summer and checked on our planes north to the village.

We drill the Rubbermaid totes so that the lids can be zip-tied (cable-tied) to the tub. Rubbermaid totes are tough and unaffected by cold temperatures. Cheaper totes don’t hold up, and in the long-run are expensive because they have to be replaced as they break down. All of our dry good are mailed up parcel post in these tubs. We’ve mailed hardy vegetables (squashes, potatoes and onions) and hard cheeses in these tubs as well. In Alaska’s cool temperatures, they’ve been fine.

The coolers travel on the plane when we fly up. There are better coolers than Coleman Xtremes, but so far these have been fine. The price is right, they’re tougher than really cheap coolers, and they weigh in at a reasonably light weight – an important consideration. The 52-quart size is manageable even when fully loaded with frozen food.

We stuff at least eight of these coolers with as much fish, meat, chicken and frozen vegetables and berries as we can and pay the extra luggage fee. We’ve been sealing these coolers with duck tape, but this summer we’re planning to experiment with a solution that won’t require having to use and throw away a roll or two of tape each time we ship.

New York Strip steaks (left) and filet mignon (right), purchased in bulk from Costco are packaged with one of each per vacuum-sealed pack for a Porterhouse without the bone. Meat, poultry and fish packaged and frozen this way will keep for over a year; the result is that we waste virtually nothing.

Whaling Camp: Frozen Seas and Icescapes

Ball and Pyramid, Chukchi Sea, Alaska: This icescape, photographed with a Nikon D90 and a Sigma Bigma 50 – 500 mm lens, has been slightly processed to increase contrasts. The operative word here is “slightly.” Even to the naked eye, these frozen-sea icescapes are other-worldly.

Evocative, perhaps, of a scene from Star Trek, winter hikers venture across the frozen ocean out to a whaling camp. The gun the lead person is carrying is for protection. Although we saw no sign of polar bears on this day, friends of ours who took a slightly different path encountered fresh tracks.

Seal-skin boat at the ready, these men stand vigile for bowhead and beluga whales. Note the light blue block of ice they’ve cut out and positioned near their gear as a shield. These men are standing on sea ice just a few feet from the open sea. Last year was a good year for whaling in Point Hope, with three bowhead whales harvested. The hunt is dependent on the right ice conditions, which can be elusive. So far this year, no whales have been taken.

A well-equipped wall tent, complete with a supply of propane, serves as one of several whaling camps near the village. These camps are set up on sea ice, and may be anywhere from a few hundred yards to several miles offshore. The hunters travel out to leads – areas where the ice is open. Winds and currents can open and close leads quickly, underscoring the need for whaling crews to be constantly alert.

Sea ice seem to be lit from within by blue light. Heaved up in pressure ridges and broken into fragments weighing several tons, it is easy to appreciate the arduous work “breaking trail” entails as hunters go out onto the ice to set up camps. 

A black and white composition heightens the contrasts in these massive blocks of broken ice.

There’s a sense of being somewhere other than Earth…

And then a flock of common murres skims across a lead…

The Birds are Back in Town!

Feathers puffed against the cold, a female McKay’s bunting warms herself in the radiant heat from a rock. Daily highs are reaching the teens and even the twenties now, and today’s sunshine stretched from sunrise at 7:00 AM to sunset at 11:13 PM. The midnight sun is back, and so are the birds! 
Gripped in the heart of winter, an Arctic landscape can be one of the quietest places on earth. Save for a few hardy ravens that manage to make a living off dumpsters and the local garbage facility, most birds head for warmer climes. There are no tree branches for the wind to whistle through, no dry grass to rustle, and on the coldest nights, even the village dogs huddle up and stay mum. Dark settles in, and the waiting begins.
For the past couple of weeks, we’ve increasingly been hearing the welcome twitters and chirps of flocks of the snow birds of the north, snow buntings and McKay’s buntings. It’s been weeks since the last windstorm, and these days we can feel the warmth of the sun on our faces. It feels… wonderful.
I’ve always admired passerines – songbirds. These snow buntings have become some of my favorites.

Butter Toffee Almonds

Plain, cayenne pepper, or rock salt. We liked all three. Which will you make?

We don’t like to visit friends empty-handed, especially when we invite ourselves over to watch a sporting event on TV. In bush Alaska, there aren’t six-packs of beer or bottles of wine to grab at the store. Our ready gift is usually something we’ve created in the kitchen. Recently we were running late for one of the March Madness basketball games and had nothing already prepared, so a few whirls in the kitchen and we had buttered toffee almonds – three ways. The original plain version is quite tasty. Two other versions were made by sprinkling cayenne pepper on some for that back-of-your-throat-bite and by sprinkling large grains of sea salt for another pleasant surprise. All three versions were tied for first place. This recipe was finished in 15 minutes. Lucky for us, the walk over in sub-freezing temperatures cooled the almonds enough to eat as soon as we entered our friends’ home.

Butter Toffee Nuts Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup butter (2 sticks)
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 3 cups whole almonds (or use 3 cups peanuts)
Directions
  1. Use a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan to heat all of the ingredients, except the nuts. Stir the mixture constantly to prevent scorching. Using a candy thermometer and medium heat, bring the mixture to 300 degrees. The temperature will rise as the water is boiled off, and this can happen quickly, so be prepared to lower the heat or remove the candy from the heat as needed.
  2. As soon as the mixture reaches the desired temperature, remove it from the stove and add the nuts. Mix until all nuts are coated. Pour the nut mixture onto a greased cookie sheet spread into an even layer. Let fully cool. This step works well on parchment paper.

Recipe adapted from http://www.life123.com/food/candies-fudge/toffee/making-butter-toffee-almonds.shtml.