Two-Cheese Stuffed Artichokes Appetizers – (Shhh! It’s really a meal)

Days on end with temperatures stuck below zero, occasionally warming into the single digits or teens to snow. Winter is here, a time when comfort food is never more comforting.

For the first time in several days, we woke this morning to temperatures above 0° Fahrenheit. With the relative warmth, a fresh layer of snow is beginning to accumulate. Black-capped and Boreal Chickadees are nearly constant visitors to the feeders outside our living room window, and from our home’s southwest windows is a view of a river locked in ice.

Aside from summer-caught salmon fillets and wild blueberries, lingonberries and mushrooms gathered near our Newhalen home, most of our groceries come to us by small plane from Anchorage. Out of the asparagus we’d asked for, our shopper at Costco recently substituted artichokes. They’re beautiful, but other than steaming them and creating some sort of buttery dip, we don’t have much experience with this vegetable.

As it happens, we’ve been watching Italian Food Safari, a show created in Australia where Italian families have lived for generations preserving and expanding on the gustatory traditions they brought with them to their new country. It was in one of the show’s episodes that we were introduced to the wonderful idea of stuffing artichokes.

While this dish requires a certain amount of passive preparation time in the form of soaking and steaming the artichokes, the actual preparation is fairly simple. Create a mixture that will steam well and compliment the vegetable, chill a bottle of Pinot Gris or dry Riesling, prepare couscous, brown rice or something similar as a bed for the finished artichoke, and if you’ve never served an artichoke this way before, prepare yourself to be amazed.

Directions

  1. For each artichoke, cut the stem off so that the artichoke will sit upright in a steaming pot. Then cut off the top 1½ inches or so of the artichoke as these ends are mostly prickly and inedible. Next, use a melon baller or paring knife to remove the fine, thistle-like down (the choke) in the center of the artichoke. Taking a moment to do this will result in a more pleasant dining experience. Soak the artichokes in cold water for 30 minutes. You will want to use something to keep them fully submerged. This will ensure they steam nicely.
  2. There are probably all kinds of ingredients that would work well as the stuffing, but you’ll want to avoid items that will overwhelm the subtle flavor of the vegetable. We started by peeling the artichoke stems, chopping them fine and placing them in a bowl. To this, we added chopped garlic, crumbled feta cheese, grated Comté cheese, panko, Italian herbs, olive oil and fresh lemon juice. The cheeses were sufficiently salty that we didn’t add additional salt. Adding a splash of sherry or whatever wine you plan to serve works well. Although we didn’t add any type of meat or seafood to this mixture – and after serving the artichokes agreed that most meat and seafood wouldn’t work very well – we did think that Dungeness or Blue crab might do the trick. Italian-style breadcrumbs would work well as a substitution for the panko. Mix the ingredients together.
  3. Remove artichokes from the cold water where they’ve been soaking and push and pull the petals apart to create spaces into which the mixture can be stuffed. Fill as many of these spaces as you reasonably can.
  4. Arrange the stuffed artichokes stem-side down in a steaming pan – one you’ve prepared so that the artichokes can steam without being immersed in water. A canning rack, or even canning jar lids, works well for this. Steam for 45 minutes.
  5. Finish the artichokes with a drizzle of olive oil and a dusting of smoked paprika. Serve hot on a bed of rice, couscous, quinoa or something similar and celebrate the day with a glass of Oregon Pinot Gris. Don’t forget to provide a bowl for the discarded petals.

 

Where in the World is Newhalen, Alaska?

The red star (just right of center) marks Newhalen, Alaska – our new home at the mouth of the Newhalen River on the shores of Lake Iliamna. Temporarily up in the air this past spring with the closing of the school in Chignik Lake, we’ve landed in the heart of some of the best trout and salmon fishing in Alaska – and hence in the world. 

On June 21st, we said our goodbye-for-nows to friends in Chignik Lake, boarded a small bush plane, and bid farewell to the tiny village in the Alaska wilderness that had been our home for the past three years. Our summer has been something of a whirlwind since.

A parting view of our wonderful village on Chignik Lake. The red dot (near center) marks our home there. The good news is that in late July, a family with children moved to The Lake, so the school is restored to the minimum enrollment necessary to open this fall. 

From The Lake, we flew straight to Newhalen and began familiarizing ourselves with our new community. The house we were to move into was still occupied, so we quickly tucked ourselves into a nearby apartment, boarded another plane, and flew across Cook Inlet (the large body of water on the right side of the above map) to Homer where our truck, camper, C-Dory fishing boat and canoe have been in storage. The scramble was on.

It’s hard to believe this photo of Gillie was taken over 10 years ago in Cordova, Alaska. She’ll be happy to be exploring Lake Iliamna and other nearby waters near our new home.

Six days later, we’d made the drive to Anchorage to take care of errands, appointments and catching up with friends, drove back to Homer (450 miles round trip), delivered the truck, canoe and boat to a transportation company to be barged across Cook Inlet, driven on a haul road to Lake Iliamna, then barged across the lake to our home, returned the camper to storage in Homer, then flew back to Newhalen. Two weeks later, our house-to-be opened up and we began moving in. Since then, we’ve been engaged in daily projects large and small, turning this house into our home.

Meanwhile, we’ve been sandwiching in regular runs in preparation for the half-marathon we’ve signed up for in October, tying flies, catching salmon and putting away 100 pounds of beautiful Newhalen River Sockeye in our freezer, squeezing in a little guitar practice, picking blueberries (gotta have berry security for the coming months) and managing to still have time for our traditional evening games of Scrabble or chess. We’ve barely touched photography and writing during this time.

A thick mattress of soft lichen makes sitting or kneeling to pick blueberries quite comfortable. There is also an abundance of lingonberry (low bush cranberry) along with crowberries and, here and there, cloudberries.

We have begun to get the lay of the land. For about three weeks in mid-July, a nearly steady stream of tens of thousands of salmon ascended the Newhalen River. The fish get temporarily bottlenecked at The Rapids – a spectacular piece of unnavigable white water that forces the salmon close to the banks were anglers (such as ourselves) attempt to get a fly into their mouths. Where there are salmon there are bears, and although we haven’t seen any yet, there are signs of their presence. We have seen a couple of foxes, a set of moose tracks, and a number of interesting birds including ospreys, merlins and loons. The landscape is a mix of tundra with berry patches everywhere (and I mean everywhere) and taiga forest predominated by black spruce and some white spruce. The horizon is shaped by mountains.

With very limited roads, Hondas (ATVs/quads) are a great way to get out and explore. There are extensive trail systems lacing through the area.

With only a few miles of road and no practical way in or out of the village except by plane, this is till the Alaska bush. But coming from truly remote Arctic villages such as Shishmaref and Point Hope as well as Chignik Lake nearly 300 miles down the Alaska Peninsula, Newhalen and its sister village five miles up the road, Iliamna, are like no bush village we’ve lived in. Some of the roads here are paved! This is a hub for commercial fishermen, sport anglers and eco-tourists, and as such, the area has a decidedly cosmopolitan feel about it. Fairly large planes fly in and out, there is a modern, fully-staffed health clinic, a small grocer and a slightly larger, exceptionally well-stocked general store that carries everything from food to hardware to clothing with even a little fishing tackle in the mix. And get this: we can now get same-day delivery from Costco. It almost feels like cheating. “Cush Bush,” we’ve heard it called. Or “Bush Lite.”

Iconic Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park is just 90 miles – a short bush flight – from Newhalen. (Photo Credit: NPS/Michael Fitz – https://www.nps.gov/media/photo/view.htm?id=76833AAD-1DD8-B71B-0B3BA028DA419061)

At the same time, there are only about 300 residents between the two villages. During our three to five mile morning runs along the main road, we’ve never seen more than a handful vehicles. And the people here are super friendly. New friends at the airport call us when we have freight, and folks at the post office are happy to do the same when we’re expecting something important. Whether we’re on our bicycles, running, or driving our pickup, virtually everyone waves as they drive by. And it’s quiet. Not Chignik Lake quiet, but aside from an occasional plane, once we’re beyond the edge of town all we can usually hear is birds chattering and the distant roar of the Newhalen River. Inside our home, we hear almost nothing from outside. There are no police officers, virtually no litter, and most people don’t bother locking their doors.

Coho Salmon will be arriving in the river soon. A few miles beyond the village the Tazimina River is renowned for trophy-sized grayling and rainbow trout over 20 inches. Fly fishermen catch rainbows that large and larger at the mouth of the Newhalen, a 15 minute walk from our home. We’re a short bush plane ride from Katmai National Park, famous for the Brooks Falls where massive brown bears gather to intercept migrating salmon. As part of the Bristol Bay watershed, rivers that fill with salmon, not to mention trout and char of huge proportions, lie in just about every direction.

When I was a young boy, sometimes my grandfather Donachy would let me have his old issues of Sports Afield, Outdoor Life and Field and Stream. I’d pore over those magazines, reading them cover to cover and then reading my favorite articles again and again. That’s where I first learned of Lake Iliamna, this massive body of water fed by streams and rivers filled with fish, its shores patrolled by wolves, bears and moose, a few isolated Indian villages dotting the landscape, bush planes the only way in… It was the stuff to make a young boy dream.

Well. Here we are.

Fireweed flowers are near their finish, but here and there harebell is in full bloom. We’ve finally got our cameras out and are beginning to really dig in and explore this exciting part of Alaska, so stay tuned!

 

River Heart

What a wonderful name – Chocolate Lily. They’re blooming everywhere, including right outside our door.

As a soft drizzle fell in the small hours this morning, I could hear bears on the beach outside our bedroom window, thick pads pressing into wet sand with subtle, sandy crunches. Salmon have begun showing up. Not in the numbers the river is accustomed to receiving – by now a couple of hundred thousand Sockeyes should have passed through the weir downriver -, but some. Tens of thousands. It won’t be enough to allow the local commercial fishermen to set their gear, but enough for friends and neighbors to set nets for subsistence fishing. Each day now when the tide is right they launch and then later return to the beach in their skiffs, 18-foot Lunds sporting faded maroon stripes around the hull. These days they bring back salmon and since a lot of those fish end up being cleaned right there at the lakeshore, eagles and a few gulls hang around during the day. The bears come at night, looking for heads, spawn sacs and other scraps. A mother and two cubs have been showing up almost every night. It’s not worth trying to make a picture in the dim light, but we get up to look anyway. “Petting the whale,” Joel Sartore calls it – setting cameras aside to simply watch and enjoy.

This mature bald eagle has been coming around to fill up on salmon scraps left on the beach. One of the things we’ve most enjoyed about our life at The Lake has been the live and let live attitude toward wildlife that generally prevails. A few moose and an occasional caribou are taken, but no one begrudges our eagles, bears and foxes what’s leftover after the salmon have been split for smoking and canning.

Our plane, the bush plane that will fly us away from this village we have called home to our new village in Newhalen, will arrive sometime this afternoon. At this point the cupboards and shelves in our house are empty and our voices echo – a hollow sound that reflects the hollowness in our chests. Twenty-six places. I listed them up the other day as I was writing to a friend. During my adult life, I’ve lived in 26 different communities for at least a month. I’ve rarely stayed anywhere longer than a couple of years. I like to see new places. I like change.

Cinquefoil, I think. More specifically, Norwegian Cinquefoil. Maybe. Most people around here don’t really have lawns. A palette of salmonberry brakes, lush wild grasses and wildflowers line the dirt and gravel thoroughfares and continue without interruption right up to porches and doorsteps. Our own house is surrounded by a thick growth of Horsetail Fern, Fireweed, Chocolate Lilies, Dandelions, grasses, Cinquefoil, Nootka Lupine and Wild Geranium.

This time is different. We wanted to stay. The simple story is that Chignik Lake School, where Barbra teaches, didn’t make the minimum enrollment of 10 students necessary to stay open. The school board voted to close the school and to transfer Barbra to another, larger school up the peninsula. It has been difficult to reconcile leaving this community, these mountains and this river.

Redpolls (above), Pine Siskins and Pine Grosbeaks have been visiting daily to feast on Dandelion seeds around the playground outside our door. We watch them out the window as we cook and wash dishes and have been heartened by their cheerful songs and chatter  throughout the day as we come and go. I cautiously eased open our front door and took this photograph from our kellydoor, the local nomenclature for mudroom. If you haven’t checked out our video of these Dandelion seed eating finches, you can find it here: Finches of the Dandelion Jungle

I grew up near the Clarion River, had favorite trout streams and lakes in Pennsylvania and went out into the world to find myself living within easy distance of other waters – close enough to certain rivers, streams, bays and beaches that I could duck out at halftime from watching a March Madness basketball game and be back before the game’s end with a couple of Sea Trout for dinner, hop on a bicycle and be on one of Japan’s top Sea Bass venues, walk up a small river to cast flies for Rainbow Trout after college classes, or watch Largemouth Bass chase smelt from the balcony of my apartment. There were other waters, too.

We love our big, orange and yellow Bumble Bees. And our Lupine.

But I’ve never had what I would call a home water. I don’t know how others might define such a thing, but Roderick Haig-Brown’s accounts of his life along Vancouver Island’s Campbell River used to tug at me with an emotion that lies somewhere between awe and envy, an I’d like to have that one day feeling.

A pair of Golden-crowned Sparrows nested beneath a willow thicket right next to our home, and although we’ve heard the young ones chirping for food, we’ve never bothered to look too closely for the nest for fear of leading Magpies to the location. Keeping the little ones fed appears to be a full-time job. I got this photo yesterday morning.

The Chignik did not immediately fill the longing for a home water. We fished. We caught fish – a few char but mostly salmon, mostly Silvers – and it was very satisfying. That we could actually see fish coming up the lake from our dining room windows, lift our fly rods from their pegs on the wall and walk down to the water exceeded anything I’d ever expected to have. But this abundance and proximity by themselves did not make the water feel like home.

One of the first flowers to appear in spring, only Yarrow will still be blooming in autumn when the last pale purple Wild Geranium petals fall to the ground.

There were the otters we came to recognize, mink prints in wet sand, the bears we encountered and got to know, the eagles that watched us. There was the way that, over time, we came to know the river’s music – the flow of the river itself and the lapping of waves on the lake shore – but also the kingfisher’s rattle, ducks quacking, Tundra Swans bugling, the raucous music of Sandhill Cranes, the fierce Chignik winds that filled the valley and whistled and howled and sometimes shook the house, snipe winnowing softly in evenings, the startling sound of a salmon leaping and falling, unseen, back into a downstream pool. There were nights when we would like awake in our bed, listening quietly as Harbor Seals chased down freshly arrived Coho in the dark, catching them and hurling them into the air to chase down and catch again… evenings and dawns when the eerie, supremely wild howl of wolves echoed across the lake and up and down the river valley… bears grunting and splashing on the beach below our window… winter days when heavy, wet snow put a hush on the world. We came to know where the Great Horned Owls roosted in a grove of spruce trees at a bend on the river where we caught our first salmon, a place where Barbra found a perfectly knapped stone knife Native fisherman long before us had undoubtedly used to split salmon and where we picked berries by the gallon.

Young Eagles waiting for someone to come in with fish.

Through all of this and more, The Chignik came to feel like home, and while I could list many more of the river’s attributes and our experiences along its shores and on its waters, I suppose what it comes down to is love and I don’t have the words to explain that.

Just a few more seeds… Look at that swollen crop! This Pine Grosbeak seems determined to cram himself as full as he possibly can. One of the first things that struck us about our home on The Chignik was the shear abundance around us. Vegetation grows as thick and lush as in a jungle, local Brown Bears are some of the world’s largest and a season’s tally of salmon isn’t measured in thousands or even tens of thousands but in hundreds of thousands and millions. 

I suppose it is natural, upon leaving a place, to consider the things that were left unexplored, stones unturned, projects unfinished. I topped off at 75 the number of bird species I was able to identify in and near the village, but just two days ago I got a glimpse of something that may have been new – an Arctic Warbler? It would have been one of several “first documentations” for this area. I can’t say for certain, and so the matter must be left at that. It’s time to go. We were still learning about the fishing, still getting to know our friends and neighbors, still savoring every day here.

We thought we would have to leave before my favorite flower, wild Irises, came into bloom. But in these past few days, they’ve begun bursting open. We’re glad we got to see them. 

He Wasn’t Our Dog – a Tribute to Our Friend, Buster

If there was ever a more naturally contented being, we’ve not met. But there was often a lot going on inside that big, lovable head.

 He wasn’t our dog.

Shortly after we moved to The Lake, he began showing up, handsome with his barrel chest, slim hips and soft brown coat. Instantly lovable with those floppy, puppyish ears, sparkling brown eyes and that big head he liked to push into a hand to be petted. We didn’t know his name. So we called him Friendly. He seemed to always have a smile in his eyes, his bushy tail swishing back and forth hopefully whenever he saw us. We’d seen it before, a semi-feral village dog making the rounds, looking for a scrap of meat here, a bone there, maybe a dog biscuit or a bowl of last night’s leftovers.

But there was something different about this dog. In fact, there was a lot different about him. For starters, he traveled alone, doing his best to assume a live and let live attitude toward other dogs. He didn’t slink or skulk, bark or yip without good reason, beg or cower. He presented himself as a perfectly happy, intelligent, calm, confident being, and yet no one really seemed to own him. The backstory, we found out later, is that he had spent part of his early life as a truly feral “dump” dog, getting by on whatever he could scrounge. We were told that someone had eventually adopted him, but although he had places where he could often count on getting a meal, no one seemed to consistently take care of him.

It turned out that his name was Buster. When we began addressing him as such, it was apparent that he knew his name.

“We’re not going to start feeding him,” we reminded ourselves.

After all, he wasn’t our dog.

Hurts to look at. With the closest vet two bush flights and hundreds of miles away, removing these quills was difficult for the people involved and excruciatingly painful for Buster. This was his second such “lesson.” What is it with dogs and porcupines?

Even without the incentive of food, Buster began hanging out with us. On my daily birding walks, I could usually count on him to show up, seemingly out of nowhere, and falling into step. It seemed that he recognized the cadence of my stride and, as sometimes happens between two beings, that he’d taken a liking to me. When I arrived at wherever I was going to set up my tripod and camera for the morning – looking for ducks out on the river or lake, or songbirds at the White Spruce Grove – he’d position himself as closely to me as he reasonably could and then quietly, patiently and faithful watch alongside. Buster loved to be petted, and he had an endearing habit of pushing his head into my leg to remind me how much he loved being petted. For my part I couldn’t have asked for a better fellow birder. He had the capacity to remain still for a very long time and his alertness probably helped keep me more watchful. And so we spent mornings like that, enjoying sunshine, enduring rain and snow, staying low against the wind, documenting birds that in some instances had never before been recorded on this remote peninsula.

As I packed up and slung my tripod over my shoulder at the end of those birding sessions, Buster would spring to his feet, jog ahead of me a few paces, look back and give his head a little jerk in the direction we were heading, back to my house. It was as if he was saying, “C’mon, Jack! Let’s go get something to eat!”

There are bird dogs and there are bird dogs. Buster had the kind of toughness about him common to village dogs. Weather? What weather?

That’s how it started. A friend comes along and keeps you company for hours on end like that, both of us heading home hungry… You can’t not fix your buddy something to eat.

At first I’d dig around in the fridge for whatever leftovers might be on hand – a piece of salmon, gristly scraps of moose, or bones I’d left a little extra meat on for him. But before long dog biscuits and a quality dog food became part of our regular grocery orders. And of course a good friend like Buster needed a proper bowl. And a brush.

Between the good food and the regular brushings, which he loved, our already handsome friend was soon sporting a beautiful coat. His visits to our house became more regular and lasted longer until at some point we realized he was showing up almost without fail for breakfast each morning.  In fact, quite often he was spending the entire night sleeping below our bedroom window.

We, who had vowed “No dogs, no pets,” were being adopted.

Buster, the quintessential outdoors dog, never did get used to coming into our home. Although he was always welcome, he usually would only stay for awhile, and only as long as he could sit or lie next to one of us. Indoors seemed to be too warm for him. So he was content to lie outside our windows, all the better if his vantage point provided him with a view of one of us working at a desk or cooking in the kitchen. As far as I could tell, he’d never been trained, not even to sit. But he was one of the most well-mannered dogs we’ve ever known. Every so often he might give out a single, throaty bark – Buster’s way of mentioning that he might be ready for a snack.

And so it went for two years. The three of us hiked together up to Clarks River and along other trails for miles in all weather. He accompanied me out onto the ice that first year when the lake froze hard and ducks gathered in a small area of remaining open water. There were no trappers in the village that year, and so along with lots of birds, many of which were new to us, a number of foxes regularly showed up in the village and a family of river otters patrolled the lake and river. Every other dog in the village went dog-bonkers anytime one of these wild mammals was present.

That first winter when the lake froze, the wildlife viewing was enthralling. I spent hours on the frozen lake almost every day while it lasted. But on this morning out on the ice, I was collecting landscape pictures. Buster had his eye on a group of ducks milling around in open water.

Not Buster. In the spirit of full disclosure, the first time we encountered otters together, he did run off toward them… And promptly found himself sliding off a ledge of thick ice along the bone-chilling Chignik River, his eyes wide with panic as he looked to me for help and tried to scramble out. I guided him downriver to a break in the ice, asked him if he’d learned anything about ice while he shook himself off, and then we went home where I dried him with a warm towel and we both got something to eat. We saw otters after that, but he never again chased after them – at least not in my presence.

And the foxes? He was curled up in the snow outside our window one evening when a certain fox came by. Buster barely looked up. Instead, the fox started barking at him!

Bears and wolves were a different story though, and we came to appreciate Buster’s selective vigilance. When he let loose with his deep-throated bark, you could bet one of these two predators was around – and that Buster was doing his duty to keep them moving along.

Toward the end, when the mere act of standing was painful, a wolf – probably a pack scout – had been showing up in the village fairly regularly. An enduring memory is of Buster one evening pulling himself to his feet, propping himself against our house, and letting loose a barrage of fierce barking. The courageous old General, still on duty.

It was those slim hips that ultimately were his demise. When we returned to The Lake late this last summer, it was clear he was beginning to have mobility difficulties. He still had that optimistic smile in his eyes and an expression of sheer joy upon seeing us, and he was still getting around pretty well, but he was beginning to walk sideways. We knew our friend might not see another spring.

Through fall, Buster continued to be a constant companion. But as winter settled in, I had to begin discouraging him from trying to accompany me out into the field. It hurt us both, made worse by the fact that I’m sure Buster didn’t understand why his pal wouldn’t let him come along anymore.

He was losing control of his hind legs. He began falling down. Eventually he stopped trying to follow.

I am indebted to Barbra for taking pictures of me and my friend. A Tufted Duck – an uncommon to rare visitor from Asia to parts of Alaska – had mixed itself in with a few scaup, and I was spending a lot of time at The Bend on the Chignik River attempting to get photos. That’s where Barbra found us when she finished teaching on this snowy January day one year. 

But he still came by our house nearly every day. One especially nasty winter night Buster showed up at our front door quite ill. His nose was dry and hot to the touch, his eyes watery and listless. Fearing the worst, we had him come inside. I rolled out a sleeping bag on the kitchen floor so I could stay with him while he slept on the cool linoleum. The next morning he was greatly improved… for the time being.

Buster’s final days were difficult. In his last weeks, a small dog became his constant companion, watching over Buster as he hobbled around. Little Rex would chase magpies and other dogs away from Buster’s food dish, reach out with his paw to touch Buster and then curl up and sleep next to the old man. For Buster’s part, he showed enormous courage. He was in pain, and I have to imagine beyond frustration with his inability to get around as he once had. But there was still the brightness and optimism in his eyes that had drawn us to him the first time we met.

All the time we had known Buster, there was nothing he enjoyed more than a big bowl of food or a couple of biscuits. He was, after all, a dog, though perhaps much like many of us, food presented by a friend or loved one carries with it the additional pleasure of conveying a sense of being appreciated, loved and cared for. But toward the end, he wouldn’t begin eating until we petted him and talked to him for awhile.

He wasn’t our dog.

We had to keep reminding ourselves of that, and that decisions about how his last days should be handled had to be left to his owners. What we could do was help Buster be as comfortable and as loved as possible any time he came to our house, which he was still somehow managing to do almost every day.

What a wonderful friend. I don’t think we’ve ever known a being with a greater heart or a more optimistic outlook toward life.

He wasn’t our dog. He was our friend. And he is missed.

In Dandelion Sugar

More than halfway into my first 500 hours on the guitar. Irresistible to take it outside into the yard today, sunshine, swallows swooping, sparrows chirping and singing, warblers chattering from bare alders and newly leafed out willows. Working on my Travis picking patterns. Barbra took this photo for posterity.

After starting off the new year with three consecutive months of not looking at the news, I got sucked in again. A mistake. Monotonous. Depressing. It doesn’t matter which news source you look at, there’s nothing like it to simultaneously rile you up while making you feel powerless. There are better places to focus energy. In fact, we’ve decided to go back off TV altogether. Extra time on the guitar. Extra time to write. I think I’ll start reading Ted Leeson’s The Habit of Rivers this evening.

Still trying to get a decent photo of our Hermit Thrushes. Of course, if I could capture an image of their otherworldly song, that would be the real trick.

I imagine someone will let me know if we go to war.

These final days at The Lake, I want to savor it.

In dandelion sugar.

Waiting for Salmon

Infinite Patience – Bald Eagle scanning for salmon, Chignik Lake, May 20, 2019

Each year from June 1 when Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists begin counting at the weir on Chignik River till late summer when they remove it, an average of over 700,000 Reds (Sockeye Salmon) are tallied making their annual spawning run up this watershed on the remote Alaska Peninsula. In 2015, the number was a staggering 1,123,898 and that’s after a million Reds were taken by commercial fisherman in Chignik Lagoon, the saltwater estuary the river debouches into. Because Alaska persists in the foolishness of allowing “intercept” fisheries further out at sea, it can be difficult to determine precisely how many salmon are headed for the Chignik watershed – perhaps two million on average. Nonetheless, over that past nine years an average of 780,000 Sockeye Salmon have been counted at the weir.

Last year that number plummeted to just 540,000, and that was despite a nearly complete closure of the commercial fishery. It was, quite literally, a disaster. The cases of beef stew, generic peanut butter, lentils, canned fruit cocktail and boxed mac and cheese freighted in by government agencies didn’t begin to offset the economic and psychological hole the Sockeye collapse created.

As I write this, eager neighbors are already setting nets. Here and there an early-returning fish is showing up. But “early” is the operative term. Even in good years, the run doesn’t get going until the first week of June. Sometime during the second week of that month, the first counts of 1,000 fish a day might begin. Later in summer, daily counts will top ten thousand. The Chignik’s feeder streams will be carpeted with spawning fish. Brown Bears and Bald Eagles will be everywhere.

In a good year.

For now it’s still early.

Everyone is waiting…

…and hoping.

They enter the river with muscles of steel, bright as new dimes. By the time they’re ready to spawn, they will fill clear tributaries in a carpet of crimson. They are the lifeblood of the Chigniks. Reds…

 

Full Moon over Frozen Lake: Chignik Lake, Alaska

Full Moon over Frozen Lake – Chignik Lake,6:56 PM January 30, 2018

Twilight, that sliver of light between the day’s last direct sunlight and darkness, is often the prettiest light of the day. I was happy that Fred has his lights on. This shot was taken from the beach in front of our house. (Snowing here this morning, May 6.)

Sometimes it’s the Little Things: Farm Fresh Vegetables in Bush Alaska

Courtesy of The Farm in Port Alsworth, a newly-arrived box of fresh vegetables fit to inspire any food-lover.

Once a week flown in a little bush airplane, a box shows up packed with freshly picked vegetables. It’s like having a birthday each week!

We’ve written a number articles about how we get food out to the tiny, remote Alaskan bush villages where we live. There’s a story about carefully packing a year’s worth of food from Costco into durable Rubbermaid tubs. More recently, we’ve been ordering much of our food from the Fred Meyer grocery store on Debarr Road in Anchorage. The people there take great care getting our groceries out to us, sending us impeccably wrapped and packed goods usually within about four days of the request. Amazon’s grocery store is another great way to get groceries, although sometimes that involves a wait of several weeks. When we lived in Point Hope we discovered a company in Washington called Full Circle, which mails farm fresh gourmet vegetables to select communities in Alaska. We would get multi-colored carrots and Swiss chard, yellow beets, and pink haricots verts. These premium veggies came at a premium price, but I will admit that after eating frozen vegetables our first year in the bush, we threw our budget to the wind in the name of fresher, tastier fare. Besides, it was fun to experiment in our cooking with colorful and interesting ingredients.

When we moved to Chignik Lake, we heard about “The Farm” in Port Alsworth. It was almost spoken as a whisper – a secret to be kept tight within an inner circle. The scoop was that they would sync orders with local flights and ship boxes filled with vegetables picked that very morning. Freshly picked veggies? Right to our door? The same day they’re picked? Our response – “What’s the phone number?” In the same secretive way we’d first heard about this magical place, we were handed a phone number. Imagine a folded slip of paper passed from one to another during a knowing handshake. When I looked up The Farm in Port Alsworth on the internet, I was surprised to discover that there was no evidence of such a place. I took out the note with the scrawled number and called.

“Hello?” an informal voice came through the receiver. Oh, dear. I must have a wrong number, I remember thinking. They should have answered the phone with a jaunty, “The Farm!” Right?

Tentatively I asked, “Is this The Farm?”

“Yes!” came the cheerful reply. Sometimes things in Alaska don’t come about the way one might imagine.

“The Farm” is actually “The Farm Lodge.” Located in Port Alsworth on beautiful Lake Clark, the lodge is operated by the same company that runs Lake Clark Air, which we regularly fly with. The lodge features a picturesque greenhouse, inviting grounds and accommodations for guests who travel to Port Alsworth for nature viewing, hunting and fishing expeditions. In addition to world class salmon fishing and wildlife photo opportunities, the lodge boasts excellent home cooked meals featuring, of course, their garden fresh vegetables. Since Chignik Lake is a regular stop for Lake Clark Air, we benefit from the surfeit of fresh produce grown in their greenhouse.

They may not have multi-colored beets or artisan green beans, but they nonetheless offer wonderful produce. We’ve received many of the crisp favorites one might find in a typical garden – cucumbers, green-leaf lettuce, tomatoes, chard, beets, radishes, bell peppers and sugar snap peas. With long hours of summertime daylight, Alaska is famous for the truly humongous size certain vegetables attain up here. The cabbage that came in our box last week was as big as a large mixing bowl – and yet it turned out to be only half the original head!

The only downside to The Farm’s service is that the growing season ends in October. But until then, we have all the fresh vegetables we can eat to go with meals of the equally fresh salmon we catch in the river in front of our house!

If you are in our area and would like to participate in The Farm Lodge’s special deliveries, here is the secret phone number (907) 310-7630.

Out of Chocolate! Now What? Chewy Almond Thins to the Rescue

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These candy-like cookies are ridiculous. Chewy and flavorful – a cure for a terminal sweet tooth.

At the end of most evening meals, Jack and I enjoy a piece of dark chocolate or a little something sweet with a cup of tea. I have a terrible sweet tooth that seems to be sated by this little habit. Thinking that I would bake more than I have been, we didn’t send out very much chocolate for our après dinner tradition. Now our chocolate is all gone – at least till the next Amazon order arrives via bush plane.

In these kinds of emergencies, my Williams-Sonoma Baking book always seems to save the day. It is a solid baking book with a number of foundational recipes that can be followed directly or easily adapted. I remembered a quick cookie recipe loaded with almonds that I hoped would do the trick. The authors of the recipe called these cookies Almond Crisps. Mine turned out beautifully flat and a bit lacy. They were pleasantly chewy, like a really satisfying caramel. I think this is due to the combination of sugar and brown sugar. Delicious. I adorned these cookies with a chocolate drizzle made from a few semi-sweet chips I had stashed in my pantry.

Our problem now is that three dozen of these cookies have up and disappeared!

Chewy Almond Thins

Ingredients

  • ½ cup unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • ¾ cup all purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • pinch salt
  • ½ cup finely chopped almonds

Directions

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream butter.
  2. Add sugar and continue to beat until sugar and butter are well mixed.
  3. Add egg and vanilla into mixture. Mix on low speed until well mixed.
  4. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt together.
  5. Stir flour mixture into butter mixture.
  6. Stir in almonds.
  7. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C).
  8. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  9. Drop teaspoonfuls of batter onto prepared baking sheets. Space cookies about 2 inches apart. They will spread.
  10. Bake 5 minutes. Edges will be golden brown, but cookies will still be soft.
  11. Let cookies cool on baking sheet for exactly 5 minutes. Then remove to wire rack to finish cooling.