May 1, Tuesday Morning, frost: Eagles are once again daily encounters as they take up familiar roosts and join the village in watching for salmon. A few fish have trickled in, but usually it’s June before the run really gets going. A couple of nice char have been caught. Catkins on the willows, leaf buds everywhere ready to burst. A small flock of Pine Grosbeaks was in the village yesterday, the males as brilliant pinkish-red as they’ll ever be.
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.
Pumpkin pie for breakfast – it’s either just after Thanksgiving or Christmas, or we’re nearing the end of another year in the bush. In fact, we’re almost having to pinch ourselves to get our heads around the fact that there are just four days till the end of Barbra’s school year. With a very early summer vacation in sight, we’ve been in the process of clearing out our freezer. Several months ago we roasted and freezer-packed a couple of butternut squashes. When we rediscovered them last weekend, they were still in excellent condition thanks to our manual defrost freezer.
Having never perfected crusts, I got out of the pie baking business when I married Barbra, but she still uses my pumpkin pie filling recipe – an adaptation from Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook. She put a bush twist on the recipe this time, substituting Hoosier Hill Farm Premium Heavy Cream Powder for real heavy cream, which can be notoriously difficult to get out to the bush. The pie came out just fine.
And so this past week we’ve been starting our mornings right with one of our favorite breakfasts: Pumpkin Pie with a Fried Egg and a cup of joe. Our sparrows have begun returning, Cranes are starting to nest up on Black Lake, the bears are up and about and this morning I think I saw a salmon jump down at the bend. C’mon summer!
For our favorite pumpkin pie/squash pie recipe, see: A Cookbook for the Ages: Pumpkin and Pecan Pies from Craig Claiborne
This immature Bald Eagle was perched, scanning the lake shore for fish a couple of days ago. It takes five years for a Bald Eagle to attain the bright white head and tail, bright yellow eyes, beak and talons and overall dark plumage of a fully mature adult. The bird in the above photo appears to be in its second year. Note the brown eye. Until the salmon arrive in full force, eagle sightings are sporadic around Chignik Lake, but from summer through fall, multiple sightings are daily events.
Low weather ceiling today. Probably no mail.
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.
Time tested and true, there are three keys to this recipe:
1. Start with a thick pork chop. Costco offers an excellent value on a package of exactly the kind of boneless pork loin chops this recipe calls for. If Costco quantities are too much, visit your local butcher. You want a two-inch thick (5 cm) chop, preferably one with a bit of fat.
2. Pick a great rub. Our favorites feature a balance of powdered chilis such as ancho, cayenne, Aleppo and chipotle as well as other seasonings such as mesquite, black pepper and paprika. Penzeys Southwest Seasoning or their Northwest Fire are good examples.
3. Use a sufficiently thick frying pan (one with a lid) to ensure even heating and to avoid burning the meat. Nonstick Swiss Diamond and Scanpan cookware handle heat well and make clean-up a breeze. Good stainless steel or well-seasoned cast iron pans are also good choices.
Once you’ve got the pork chop, the rub and the pan ready, the rest is a breeze. We find that one Costco-sized chop served with rice is plenty for two diners. In fact, we often have enough left over for a killer omelet the following morning.
I should add a note here: Stoves and pans vary. You may have to fine tune the heat, but once you’ve got it, you’ve got it. The same approach works for perfecting your favorite cut of steak, chicken breasts or thighs, or fish fillets.
Click here for an easy raspberry chipotle sauce.
16-minute Perfect Pork Chop
1 pork chop, 2 inches thick, rinsed and patted dry
chili based rub such as Penzeys Southwest Seasoning
soy sauce (or substitute sea salt)
1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil
Gently rub in a generous amount of seasoning on all sides
Meanwhile, in a frying pan, heat olive oil at a little higher than medium heat till it’s sizzling hot. Don’t allow it to smoke.
Set timer to 16 minutes and place chop in pan. Cover and cook for 1 minute to sear. Use tongs to turn the cutlet to the other side, lower temperature to medium-low, cover and allow to cook for 8 minutes.
Turn chop back to the side you first seared, drizzle with soy sauce, cover and cook for the remaining 7 minutes.
Remove chop and place on a wooden cutting board. Cover with a bowl or tent loosely with aluminum foil and allow to rest for 5 minutes.
Cut into two pieces. Top with raspberry chipotle sauce and serve with rice, couscous or potatoes.
It was one of those days when we woke with no plans, and now the day was making a plan for us. The sun slid through a few thin clouds hovering above snowcapped mountains downriver to the east, casting a silvery light across the glassy lake. From our dining room window we could see fish rising, leaving little rings on the lake’s surface.
“We should do a float,” Barbra said. “It’s beautiful.”
“I’ll get breakfast going if you’ll start putting our gear together,” I replied.
Within an hour we were on the water, our inflatable canoe gliding down the lake to the narrows where the water quickens to become Chignik River. Magpies and chickadees called from the banks and as we slipped past the White Spruce Grove we could hear a cacophony rising from the 30 or so Pine Siskins that have spent the winter here. Salmon fry, fingerlings and parr dimpled the river surface all round us, occasionally leaping clear to add a shimmer of silver to the morning light. A kingfisher rattled as it flew overhead. With the shoreline suddenly teaming with small salmon and sticklebacks, our kingfishers will soon be back in numbers. Maybe this will be the year I find a nest.
Behind polarized sunglasses we let our eyes to adjust to the water’s clear-green depths, searching the cobblestone riverbed for the year’s first Sockeyes, a big Dolly Varden or a rare steelhead. No luck, but a neighbor has already found two ocean-bright salmon in his net, the year’s first. A million more are on their way, and with them eagles, harbor seals and bears.
With the wind down and as much time as we cared to take to float the two miles to the barge landing, we let the easy current do most of the work, dipping in our paddles mainly to keep a true course. Being the first boat on the water, we had a good chance to encounter any ducks or swans that might be around. And you never know: bears are just beginning to wake up, and the shores are frequently patrolled by foxes, otters and mink and less frequently by wolves, lynxes and wolverines. We spoke softly, scanned the banks, and listened.
Long before we came around a bend and saw them, we could hear Tundra Swans and mallards honking and quacking in one of their favorite stretches of water. There were just two swans, stately, regal, gracefully gliding along the shoreline to our left. The mallards were a bit of a surprise. There must’ve been 20 or more drakes and hens paired up, feeding on vegetation in the shallows, warily bursting into fight as our raft drifted close.
Further down the river, we came upon a pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes, a rare species in the Chigniks. We sometimes get Common Goldeneyes in the dozens, but years go by between reports of Barrow’s. It’s possible that they might nest here if they can find the right sort of rocky crevice or opening in an abandoned structure of some sort.
On the North side of the river there’s a feeder stream we’d been talking about exploring. So when we came to it, we beached the raft, tied it down and began hiking. The stream is just eight to 15 feet wide on average and shallow enough in places to cross in Muck boots. But the water runs cold and fast and clear over clean rocks and gravel, pooling and eddying in ways that are attractive to salmon. Peering into a riffle, I noticed what appeared to be one long, continuous set of redds – salmon nests – before I thought to give the banks a closer look.
On both sides of the creek, the vegetation had been trampled down in broad swaths, a sure sign that bears heavily use this stream. Sure enough, when we looked down we found the area littered with the winter-bleached spines, gill plates, and tooth-filled jaws of Pink Salmon. We agreed that we’d have to make sure to fish the stream this fall when sea-run char marked in spectacular greens, reds and oranges would follow Pinks into the stream to pick off eggs that aren’t successfully buried in the redds. In places where stands of alder choked down foot traffic, the narrow trails had been worn inches deep into the soil, the work of centuries or perhaps millennia of brown bear comings and goings. Along the shoreline, every patch of sand held a carpet of fox tracks, some old, some fresh.
By the time we returned to our raft, the morning sun was high and temperatures had climbed into the 40s. Millions of tiny black midges were hatching, skittering across the water as they struggled to free themselves from the husks of their pupal stage – activity that was eliciting slashing rises from pinky-sized salmon as well as a few larger char. Mixed in with the midge hatch were a few dark stoneflies as well as big, creamy-brown caddisflies. With days warming and insects hatching, our swallows should be on their way.
Drifting along the rocky bluff across from the salmon-counting weir that the Department of Fish & Game operates from June through September, we came across two large piles of sticks in the still leafless alders – active magpie nests, egg-shaped and roughly the size of a couple of basketballs. Our chickadees, too, seem to be establishing territory and selecting mates, and everywhere new green shoots are pushing up through winter-browned grass.
We beached the boat at the barge landing, deflated it, rolled it up, stuffed it in a backpack and began the three-mile hike home. Along the way we took note of bright green salmonberry shoots, the beginnings of wild irises, an unfamiliar warmth in the air. Earlier in the week it had snowed. But winter’s fighting a losing battle at this point. And every living thing knows it.