The Fourth at the Weir

Fourth of July girl, Easton

“Hey there, Yukon Jack, we’re gonna meet at the bend, down there just past FRI and float down to the weir. You and Barb wanna get your skiff and join us?” It was Willard on the phone. Temperatures were pushing just past a balmy 70° and the Alaska sun was high in the sky. With the prospect of tasty grilled food, cold beer and Fourth of July fireworks, why not?

“People are gonna be floating down on their Shamus and I don’t know what else. We’ll meet you there in about 20 minutes,” Willard continued.

“Cool. See you down there.” Shamus?? This oughta be interesting.

Taxiing up from the weir in a trusty Lund modified V-haul – the Ford F150 of The Chigniks.

We quickly threw together a few things, walked to the lake beach in front of our house, fired up the skiff and cruised down to a gravel bar where Alaska Fish & Game weir summer staff were assembling with a variety of floating devices – including the “Shamu” Willard had mentioned. Before us was a wilderness river and the perfect day for a Fourth of July float.

The splashy start of the regatta – a two-mile race to the weir

With about half the participants already on the gravel bar, we waited around for the other half to taxi up by boat from the weir. Salmon parr dimpled the surface of the river and an occasional Sockeye showed itself with a splash. Eagles soared in the distance, and directly across the river, a Brown Bear found a shaded spot beneath an alder and plopped down for a rest.

As races go, this one was pretty casual.

With boats beached, docked or deflated, Willard (right) and his son William got things going with live music. The talented Lind family has been playing all kinds of music on all kinds of instruments for generations.

The weir makes an unusual backdrop for a game of horseshoes. This is where the Chignik’s salmon are counted – hundreds of thousands of fish annually. While we were playing, thousands of salmon – mostly Sockeyes but also a few Chinook as well as a couple of seals – were milling around behind the weir. There’s an escapement opening in the weir – you can see it indicated by a fenced corral area between these two horseshoes participants. Seals as well as salmon use this passage. Cameras connected to monitors inside the weir station record ascending fish.

I hadn’t played horseshoes in 40 years and was game to jump into a 10-participant tournament. After knocking the rust off my tossing arm, I even managed a couple of ringers and a leaner! I rewarded myself with samples of the seven basic food groups – moose, King salmon, chicken wings, baby-back ribs, scallops, cheeseburgers and, for dessert, a perfectly charred, deliciously salty hotdog all hot of the grill. For “salad,” I dug into slices of apple pie and rhubarb cake. No one makes friends with salad! 😉

Heading back upriver to our tiny village on the lake

It doesn’t get dark till after midnight this time of year in the Chigniks, and besides, some of us had to make the upriver run back home. So the fireworks came out while there was still light in the sky. A few pops, bangs, sparkles and smoke, and another Fourth had been properly celebrated – Chignik Style.

Almost home, we came across mama bear and her two cubs. With the early salmon run down compared to previous years, she’s looking a little thin. Hopefully things will pick up with the late run and everyone will get all the fish they want.

Here’s hoping everyone is having a safe, happy summer!

Delightfully Sweet and Delightfully Sour – Lingonberry Chess Pie

While baking, tangy lingonberries, also known as lowbush cranberries, rise to the top of a custard-like pie filling. The combination of the tart berries and the sweet, creamy filling all in a crispy pie shell is possibly the best reward for shoveling out a driveway’s worth of fresh snow.

It’s been endlessly snowing for the past day. Our Alaskan home now resembles the Alaska home I imagined before we moved to this famously frozen state. As I left home this morning for my very short walk to school, I was surrounded by blinding white. The trees were covered. Rooftops were blanketed and fringed with shimmering icicles. A splash of bright red peeked through two feet of snow where our ATVs are parked. My first-floor classroom windows have shoulder-high drifts piled a quarter of the way up. The plow crews can barely keep up, and Jack has become the John Henry of snow shovelers. Sitting on her trailer, Gillie is up to her gunwales in a sea of white. We’re socked in with snow like we have never before been socked in. I love it!

With only two months of school remaining (unbelievable!), we are at that time of year where we challenge ourselves to empty out our freezer and pantry. There is one lonely gallon-sized bag left from one of our treasured fall harvests – lingonberries. Most of the lingonberries we picked have been baked into muffins, upside down cake, and fruit breads or pressed into juice for hot lingonberry tea. The snow outside spurred me to action last night. Baking is not only entertaining but also has three wonderful outcomes – a warm house, a delightful aroma, and of course, the delicious results. This recipe was slightly adapted from my favorite baking book, The Williams-Sonoma Baking Book. According to the recipe book, chess pies may be named such because they keep well in traditional storage cabinets, otherwise known as pie chests. Another explanation is that “chess” is a corruption of the word cheese, derived from a chess pie’s cheese-like filling. Whatever the etymological origins may be, the way the folded in lingonberries all rise to the top of the pie during baking is magical – and visually quite appealing. The effect when you eat the pie is interesting as well: The sweet and the sour are notably separate and in so become complementary flavors.

As to the shelf life of chess pie… It’s unlikely one has ever lasted long enough to tell!

Lingonberry Chess Pie

Ingredients

  • dough for a single crust pie
  • 1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • pinch salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 cup all purpose four
  • 1/3 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 tsp cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp orange zest, finely chopped
  • 2 cups frozen or fresh lingonberries

Directions

  1. Roll out pie dough to cover a 9-inch pie dish.
  2. Trim off excess. Leave plain or pinch edge to decorate.
  3. Chill dough-covered pie dish in refrigerator for 30 minutes.
  4. Place oven rack in lower third of oven. Preheat to 375° F.
  5. Blind bake pie by covering it with foil, weighting down the foil with rice or pie beads and baking for about 20 minutes. Crust should be very lightly browned and no longer look wet.
  6. Leave oven on and slightly cool crust on a wire rack while making the filling.
  7. In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, butter, salt, eggs, flour, yogurt and vinegar.
  8. Stir in orange zest.
  9. Fold in lingonberries.
  10. Pour the filling into the pie shell.
  11. Bake pie until top is golden brown and filling is firm, about 50 – 60 minutes.
  12. Cool on wire rack completely before serving.

After the Fog Burned off – Eagles

As swallows swooped and soared, this pair of Bald Eagles began a chorus of their characteristic high-pitched piping. The sunshine must’ve felt as good to them as it did to us.

Two days in a row we’ve woken to heavy fog here at The Lake. It wasn’t forecast either day. Yesterday by mid-morning, the mist had burned off. When it did, the birds came out in force. From our vantage point on the deck outside my “office,” Barbra and I saw or heard Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, Redpolls, Wilson’s Warblers, Ravens, Magpies, Golden-crowned Sparrows, American Robins, Fox Sparrows, Violet-green Swallows, Tree Swallows and out on the lake a small group of Black Scoters and a few passing Glaucus-winged Gulls. But the stars of the morning were a pair of mature Bald Eagles that took up perches on a favorite utility pole near the lakeshore.

This was the view from our dining room window yesterday morning just after dawn. The village of Chignik Lake lies only a few miles upriver from a bay on the Alaska Gulf, so we get our share of wet weather. 

As the sun began peeking through the fog, the first eagle to arrive did its best to dry its soggy wings. Either that, or this is one of those rare Peacock Eagles.

His (her?) mate hadn’t yet arrived and I moved a little closer to capture a portrait. Once the fog lifted, we had a day of blue skies. Temperatures climbed into the 60’s so we took the opportunity to work on our “Alaska Tans” – defined as tans that cover the backs of one’s hands, face and neck down to the level of a shirt or coat collar. But by early afternoon, it was warm enough (mid-60’s) to sit outside in a just a shirt, shorts and bare feet and read (Barbra) and play guitar (me).

While I worked on photos, Barbra scanned for birds from the deck outside her former classroom. Off in the distance to the right, along the far edge of the lake, the second eagle can be seen soaring low. (You might have to enlarge this photo.) The duplex in front of Barbra is where we live – on the righthand side. 

There are at least 50 nesting boxes in this bird-loving village of only about 50 to 70 residents. The boxes are occupied almost exclusively by either Violet-green or Tree Swallows. Both species seem inclined to investigate anything out of the ordinary in their neighborhood – us, eagles, other birds. The real threats to swallows are Chignik Lake’s abundant Magpies – notorious nest robbers. In years past, Merlins, Northern Shrikes and occasional Sharp-shinned Hawks have also posed a threat, but none of these species appear to be present this year – at least so far.

A mated pair? Siblings? Friends? (Do eagles have friends?) It was interesting to watch these two repeatedly mirror each other’s behavior. We’ve read about these dreaded Dracula Eagles – another rare sighting.

As I mentioned, we’ve had two consecutive mornings of heavy fog. Inspired by the way the morning cleared up yesterday, last evening we prepared our pack raft in anticipation of doing a three-mile river float today. Unfortunately, the weatherman got it completely wrong. The fog only grudgingly lifted late in the morning and instead of the calm that had been forecast, winds – the bane of rafting – kicked up. So I spent the morning working on photos. Yet hope springs eternal. The prediction for tomorrow morning is for partial sunshine and calm, so perhaps we can get in one last river float before we have to pack up the gear and mail it to Newhalen. Every hour of these final days at The Lake is a time to savor.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to see some of the birds mentioned and more of the landscape around Chignik Lake, check out the link below:

Morning Nature Walk, the Chigniks

Hope your day is going well!

Shioyaki Wild-Caught Alaska Salmon – It couldn’t be Easier, Even if You aren’t an Experienced Cook

Sea salt, olive oil and heat are the only ingredients you need to turn out great salmon every time. Particularly if you’re just getting into cooking and you try this recipe, we’d love to hear from you with any comments or questions and of course a report on how your salmon came out!

Over the years, one question has repeatedly come our way: “I really don’t do much cooking, but I’d like to be able to make salmon. Is there an easy recipe you know of?”

Not only is the answer to this question a resounding “Yes,” the recipe happens to be our favorite. I learned about shioyaki (salting and cooking) when I lived in Japan where shioyaki can refer either to charcoal grilled fish or, more commonly in home kitchens, broiling.

In addition to being the definition of simplicity, the genius of this recipe is that, unlike more elaborate recipes, the salt brings out rather than masks the flavor of the fish. This is exactly what you want when dealing with a fresh, wild-caught salmon. On the other hand, because the flavors are simple, the finished dish is easily enhanced with toppings. Try it with raspberry chipotle sauce (easily made at home) or with Mae Ploy Sweet Chili Sauce. Here’s how it’s done.

Ingredients & Preparation

  • You’ll need a broiling sheet. A standard cookie sheet works fine, but a heavier sheet is even better.
  • Salmon fillets – any species of wild-caught salmon
  • A favorite kosher salt or sea salt. We’ve found coarse Grey Sea Salt to work especially well.
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Directions

  1. Place oven rack in center or one position below center. (This is the one “trick” you might need to experiment with. Ovens vary. So don’t be discouraged if your first attempt doesn’t work out as you expected. Adjust the rack position and go for it again! Once you have this dialed in, the rest is a snap.)
  2. Place the broiling sheet in the oven and preheat on Broil. (10 minutes is generally the right amount of time.)
  3. Meanwhile, rinse salmon fillet(s) in cold water. Pat dry with paper towel and place skin side down on cutting board.
  4. Sprinkle salt on fillet.
  5. Put a little olive oil on the hot broiling sheet – enough to cover the area where you’ll place the fillet.
  6. Place salmon fillet skin side down on prepared sheet and place in oven. It should vigorously sizzle when it touches the sheet. If it doesn’t, simply place the sheet back in the oven and continue preheating.
  7. Cooking time will vary depending on fillet thickness. 8 to 10 minutes is usually about right. An oil-like liquid will begin to emerge from the top of the fillet when it is done. Again, if your first attempt produces an undercooked or overcooked fillet, make a note, stick it on your fridge, and adjust the cooking time. If the fillet comes out overly dry on top or burnt, you probably need to lower the rack. Keep simple notes till you get it dialed in.

Fillets prepared this way are superb served on rice, on pasta, served along with tartar sauce or avocado spread as a sandwich or broken into pieces to top a superb Alaska-style pizza. Going for an added touch with a glass of wine? It’s tough to beat a lightly chilled Chardonnay.

See also:

Alaska Silver Salmon Pizza

Raspberry Chipotle Sauce Recipe

Broiled Salmon Spine: Getting the Most out of Every Salmon

 

 

 

 

 

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.

When Evergreens are too Precious to Cut, Why not Craft Your Own Christmas Tree?

A beaver obliged by stripping the bark from the trunk of this hand-crafted holiday tree. A drill and a few Alder branches were the only other materials required. With almost all of our Christmas ornaments in storage in Sacramento, California, we had fun hanging items on hand here in Chignik Lake. 

The few White Spruce trees around Chignik Lake are not native to the area. They were brought from Kodiak Island and are too valuable for what they add to the landscape and as refuges for birds (they love the dense cover and the cone seeds) to even contemplate cutting for use as Christmas trees. So we crafted our own tree using abundant Alders as branches and a section of a beaver-gnawed stick we’d found while out hiking.

When we lived in Shishmaref and Point Hope, we had a tree we’d crafted from driftwood from the beaches of Sarichef Island where Shishmaref is located. It was nice, but we like our new tree even better. With all the decorations from that first tree carefully packed away and put in storage when we moved to Mongolia for two years, we didn’t have much on hand when it came to decorating our Alder tree. So we used our imaginations.

An assortment of seashells, brass bells (presented to us for good luck), tiny decorative birds and carved wooden trout we’d collected on our recent bike trek in Hokkaido were rounded out with some of our more colorful salmon fishing flies. We placed our collection of Japanese glass fishing floats beneath the boughs along with a decorative lamp made from recycled glass we also sent back from Hokkaido. Two strings of fairy lights competed the decorations.

Lights on we stepped back…

…and had to agree that of all the trees we’ve put up over the years, this is our favorite.

Shishmaref, Alaska on Sarichef Island

February 13, 2011: Flying into Shishmaref. Situated on the Seward Peninsula Near Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Sarichef, the sandy barrier island upon which Shishmaref is located, is just 2.8 square miles and shrinking. The highest point above sea level is perhaps just over 20 feet. In the photo a frozen lagoon in the foreground and a frozen Chukchi Sea in the background surround this village of fewer than 600 Inupiat inhabitants. The nearby tundra provides wild berries, caribou, musk ox and moose. The seashore waters and a nearby river provide sea run char and salmon. Seals are also hunted and relied upon for subsistence. This is one of the few places in the world where one can reliably encounter McKay’s Buntings. For nine months from late August 2010 through May 2011 we made our home here. It was a fascinating introduction to Alaska.

First Silver of 2018

Ocean-bright and full of fight, Barbra’s 12-pound Coho today is the first and only salmon we’ve put on the bank this year… so far.

In each our previous six years in Alaska, our fish for the coming months were long ago caught, cleaned, freezer-packed or smoked and canned and put away.

Not this year.

Like a lot of salmon runs around Alaska, here on the Chignik River its been a mere trickle of fish compared to other years. In fact, for a few weeks in July fishing was closed altogether. Still, we were confident upon returning from our bike trek in Hokkaido that we’d be able to get the couple of dozen or so fish we need.

That was nearly a month ago. Admittedly, it’s not like we’ve been hitting the water every day. But the few times we’ve been out, it’s been discouraging. When lots of salmon are around, so are bears, eagles and seals, and we can generally see lots of jumpers – salmon fresh from the sea and full of energy spontaneously leaping for whatever reasons salmon spontaneously leap. But it’s been eerily quiet; the usual eagle roosts have been empty.

Even in this down year, hundreds of thousands of Sockeyes ascended the river, and there will undoubtedly be thousands of Coho as well. It felt great to finally get one. Pasta with fresh salmon is on the menu tonight.

Whale Bones and Crosses, the Cemetery at Point Hope

Whale Bones & Crosses, Point Hope, Alaska

Perhaps its most iconic landmark, the cemetery at Point Hope, Alaska, is enclosed in Bowhead Whale ribs positioned as one would a picket fence. The above image was made at 2:25 PM, November 7. At that time of year, there are slightly less than six hours between sunrise and sunset. By early December, the sun sinks completely below the horizon and will not show itself again for 32 days.

In 1890, three years after a commercial whaling base called Jabbertown had been established near the village, the first Christian missionary arrived in Point Hope. A doctor by profession, it is reported that John Driggs performed “heroic” medical work, but his attempts at converting the village’s inhabitants to his religious beliefs were unsuccessful. In fact, the Episcopal Church that sponsored him reported that Driggs had become “eccentric and absent” in his duties to proselytize. Nonetheless, by 1910 Christianity had become predominant throughout Arctic Alaska. By this point the new religion had been spread from village to village by converts among the Inupiat themselves.*

*See: The Inupiat and the christianization of Arctic Alaska, Ernest S. Burch, Jr., Etudes/Inuit/Studies,1994