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.)

Alaska White Bean Soup With Salmon Sausage and Reindeer Sausage

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This zesty, robust soup will take the chill off even the coldest weather. 

We’d been thinking about creating our own salmon sausage for quite some time, but it took the beautiful recipes in our recently acquired copy of The Tutka Bay Lodge Cookbook to get off the stick. Turns out, there’s nothing to it. Use a food processor (or a stick blender with a nut chopper) to grind up salmon (or just chop it up fine with a sharp knife), mix in your favorite seasonings, and bind with egg whites. Tightly roll up this mixture to the thickness desired in plastic wrap, put a twist in the middle to separate the sausages, twist and tie off the ends, boil for 10 minutes, and voila! Salmon Sausage. Although we used Coho Salmon fillets from one of our summer catches, this same method would work beautifully with canned salmon. And there’s no reason to confine yourself to salmon. Chopped clams, halibut, rockfish, crab, scallops or some of Alaska’s spectacular deep water prawns could go into this sausage as well. We can’t wait to try this recipe again with some of our smoked salmon.

As to the soup… We created a minestrone-type broth using canned tomatoes. To that we added white beans, oven-roasted carrots, salmon sausage, reindeer sausage and Swiss chard. We also added sweet onions, colorful Swiss chard stems and garlic that had been sautéed in olive oil. Seasonings included oregano, marjoram, a little thyme and a splash of white wine. We finished the soup with smoked sea salt. Served with toasted sourdough bread and a homemade hefeweizen, this is a bowl that takes the chill off!

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.

Eight-Weights: Alaska Peninsula Summer Trek – Going Off the Grid for Salmon, Trout, Char, Grayling and Pike

Early last Friday morning we put the finishing touches on packing for this summer’s (potentially epic) fishing-centric trek on the upper Alaska Peninsula. Two Salsa Fargo bikes equipped with semi-fat tires, to be loaded with Big Agnes Rattlesnake Mountain Glow tent, down sleeping bags, Alpacka pack rafts, tenkara rods, fly rods, freeze-dried camping food, cookware, compact stove, minimal camera gear, blank writing journals, waders, rain gear, and (for me) just one extra pair of underwear. We then borrowed a pickup truck drove the gear to Chignik Lake’s airstrip and loaded it onto a Lake Clark Cessna headed for Nondalton.

I’ll turn 58 on this trip and I’m a little apprehensive – not as sanguine in my physical endurance and strength as I was in the old days. For the first time in my life, I am aware of physical limitations in a way I’ve never before felt those limitations. But I want to get out there and try this and see if I can handle it. I think I can handle it. If it comes together all right, this trip will set the stage for the next several summers. Fortunately, Barbra has greeted the prospects this summer holds forth with unbridled enthusiasm sufficient to douse my doubts. “Pace yourself,” a friend advised, and although that two-word phrase is anathema to the way I’ve gone about things most of my life, I have to concede that on this series of treks, it’s probably the most prudent recommendation I could receive.

Iliamna Lake is the epicenter of the world’s most prolific Sockeye Salmon nursery.

Nondalton is a perfect starting point. The Newhalen River threads together some of Alaska’s (and by extension, the World’s) most storied fly-fishing waters, including Lake Clark upriver and legendary Iliamna Lake downriver. Along with their nearly innumerable tributaries, the entire watershed constitutes the world’s greatest Sockeye Salmon spawning grounds and nursery. Oh, there are kings, silvers, pinks and chums, char, grayling, white fish and pike, too – and at the right time and place lots of them and large ones. But the keystone species is the Sockeye, and it’s because of these millions of spawning salmon and the ocean-borne nutrients they carry upriver each summer that the watershed is home to some of highest numbers of large rainbow trout found anywhere. Trout 18” and up are common. How far up? The Kvichak River, which flows out of Iliamna and into Bristol Bay, gave up a 23-pounder in 1999, and while there don’t seem to be as many super large trout as in the past, fish well over 20 inches are still abundant, as are large Dolly Varden Char, Arctic Grayling, Northern Pike and Lake Trout. In fact, when I ticked off a list of modestly-sized personal bests for the species we’ll be targeting this summer, our friend Jerry, who talked us into this trek, kind of laughed and replied, “You’re gonna break all those records right here on Six Mile.”

After exploring the Six Mile Lake area, the possibilities are practically limitless. Virtually every lake, stream and river in this part of the Bristol Bay watershed is a world class angling destination. So it’s almost a given that we’re going to catch a lot of fish. And camp, and hike, and pick wild berries, and raft, and swat mosquitoes and see bears and moose and cap an especially good day with a bourbon toast from a small flask a fair distance from anything that looks like civilization.

But it’s not all gonna be blueberry patches and easy trout. We might have to bush-whack into some places, and we won’t use guides or take float planes in to the best water. We’re determined to make the fishing our own, and that will mean fishless stretches at times as we explore, and it might mean tough going at times. That’s the price for getting off the beaten path.

If we each get a few personal bests this summer and have a few fish-after-fish-after-fish days, a few memorable wildlife sightings, a few meals of freshly caught fish… If we learn a few things, experience a few new things…

It’ll be a great summer.

JD

And with that, the staff of CutterLight is off on vacation for blessed weeks on end with no phone service, no computers and no news. Look for accounts of our adventures when we resume publishing toward the end of the summer. 

May 1 Plane Crash near Chignik Lake: A Tribute to our Bush Pilots

A nine-seater from Grant Aviation cuts through the mountains just after leaving Chignik Lake this past March.

They’ve been called Alaska’s cowboys, and life without them would range from difficult to impossible for those of us in the remote parts of Alaska that make up most of the state. They’re our bush pilots – the men and women who navigate the trackless wilderness between population hubs and the isolated communities we and thousands of other Alaskans call home. They bring us everything from mail to grocery staples to visitors (when we’re lucky enough to have them). With skill and confidence, these men and women navigate through weather that can change in a blink (it alternately was sunny, rained, snowed, hailed and rained again as I wrote this morning) and through winds most of us wouldn’t even want to take a walk in. We complain a little among ourselves when the planes don’t fly (earlier this year we went for over a week with no mail as our Brussels sprouts and other groceries languished in King Salmon) and we grumble when grounded flights mean truncated vacation time or a delay in friends reaching us. But we understand – safety first. And we know that if it’s possible to fly, the pilots serving Southwest Alaska – our pilots – will be in the air.

Yesterday we lost one.

By mid-afternoon word had swept through the village that a Grant Aviation plane – a Cessna Grand Caravan, the nine-seaters that are fairly standard in the bush – had gone missing. It was en route from Port Heiden to Perryville (see map at end of article), scheduled to arrive at 2:15 PM. At 2:00, just 15 minutes out of Perryville, the plane’s Emergency Locator sounded. The pilot, making a cargo and mail run, was the vessel’s only passenger.

This photo was taken near Perryville, a coastal community about 28 miles southwest of Chignik Lake. The Aleutian Mountain Range sprawls across the Alaska Peninsula. It’s breathtakingly rugged country where high winds can spring up out of nowhere. The name Chignik means “Big Winds.”

Soon afterwards, a Coast Guard C-130 and an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter began combing the mountainsides, tundra and lakes around Chignik Lake. In fact, the chopper landed here to take aboard volunteers to serve as additional pairs of eyes out the helicopter’s windows. At 5:49 PM, 3,000 feet up on a steep mountainside at a place known as Windy Pass, the wreckage was spotted. A rescue swimmer was subsequently lowered to the crash site where he confirmed that the pilot had died. Given the difficult terrain and cloud cover, recovery of the pilot’s body and the cargo he was carrying will be challenging.

Gabriele Cianetti, 54, the pilot of the downed Cessna 208B, touched many lives, including ours. Our thoughts and condolences go out to his family and friends as well as to his extended family at Grant Aviation. Additionally, our deep appreciation is extended to the men and women of the United States Coast Guard: Semper Paratus – Always Ready.

The Chignik Lake airstrip at dawn. The pilots who serve our community and Alaska’s other bush communities are true heroes in a land where air travel is not a luxury, but a necessity.

The above map includes Port Heiden, where the plane departed from and Perryville, where the plane was heading. Chignik Lake is marked in red.

Additional details for this article were pulled from KTVA news and Alaska Dispatch News.

Ink and Light: Double Limits! 120 Razor Clams & lines from Steve Kowit

Double Limits!* 120 Razor Clams near Whisky Gulch, Alaska

Big, tender and tasty, Razor Clams are avidly sought along Pacific Northwest beaches. The year these were dug, the limit in Alaska was 60 clams per person.

…drop to your knees now & again…
& kiss the earth & be joyful & make much of your time…
For although you may not believe it will happen,
you too will one day be gone.
I whose Levis ripped at the crotch for no reason,
assure you this is the case. Pass it on.
     Steve Kowit – Notice, 2000

– In 1966, Steve Kowit (1938-2015) sent the U. S. Army a letter: Were he drafted to fight, the letter stated, he would fight for the other side. He then married the love of his life and spent the next few years in Mexico and Central America before returning to the U.S. to live in California.

dg nanouk okpik’s Corpse Whale – Sifting through Myth and Time in the Far North

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Reading these poems is reminiscent of carefully digging through an archeological site located in Arctic permafrost as fossils, bones, carvings, memories and spirits emerge.

While looking for a few words to accompany a photo of umiaks (seal skin whaling boats) framed in Northern Lights I’d made a few years ago, I came across these lines from dg nanouk okpik’s poem “Tulunigraq: Something Like a Raven:”

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Okpik arranges her images across the page in a manner that forces the reader to go slowly, to breathe slowly, to see, and to hear, and as Barbra and I read, we felt ourselves being taken back – to Alaska’s North Slope, to the village of Point Hope and to other places we’d been in the far north, and then further back, to places we’ve never been – to old Tikigaq, to villages and settings scattered across Alaska and Greenland and beyond, to a time, indeed, “before iron and oil.”

Okpik’s writing is sure and precise, at times reminiscent of carefully sifting through an archeological dig, creating anticipation for what might be found and reverence for what is found. The place she invites the reader into is one of myth-making, spirituality, subsistence hunting and gathering, veneration of elders and ancestors and an intimacy with sinew and bone and cold. The landscape is of ice and sea, of magma cooling and the vast sweep of the tundra. Threaded through this are spirits and caribou, whales and ground squirrels, edible plants and seal oil lamps, Eucharist wafers and hooligan jigs. Okpik has given us poems that take us to places and to times few of us have experienced or will experience. The journey is mesmerizing.

Ink and Light: “Point Hope” – The Aurora Borealis & Jack London

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Point Hope: Point Hope, Alaska

Solar winds disrupting Earth’s magnetic field cause the Aurora Borealis. They are often most spectacular on finger-numbingly cold nights in the depths of winter.

Point Hope is an Inupiaq Eskimo village of about 750 inhabitants located 200 miles above the Arctic Circle on Alaska’s North Slope. Originally known as Tikigaq (index finger for the slender peninsula that once extended into the Chukchi Sea before erosion took it away), the area is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in North America. Subsistence hunting for caribou and Bowhead Whales continues to be an important part of the culture. With no roads existing beyond the village, the local airport (lit up in the above photo) is an important lifeline to and from the outside world.

…the aurora borealis flaming coldly overhead,
…the stars leaping in the frost dance,
…the land numb and frozen under its pall of snow…
Jack London – from The Call of the Wild, 1903

  – Jack London (1876-1916) was one of the first authors to become wealthy writing fiction. Mostly self-educated, after stints as a hobo, a sailor, and 30 days in the Erie County Penitentiary in the state of New York for vagrancy, he made his way to California where he attended high school and began writing in earnest.

Wildlife Wednesday: The Short, Happy Life of Chippy the Long-Tailed Weasel*

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Alas, poor Chippy. I knew him, Barbra; a fellow of infinite jest; of most excellent fancy…

I was probably about 12 when I read Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain. In this book, which surely ranks as among the greatest adventure stories for young people ever written, the 15-year-old protagonist, Sam, leaves his parents’ confining New York City apartment and strikes out for his great grandfather’s abandoned farm in the Catskills. There, he takes up residence in a hollow Hemlock Tree, catches trout, raises a Peregrin Falcon and…

Finds a weasel in a box trap he’d set in hopes of catching animals for sustenance. Sam allows the weasel to come and go as it pleases. The weasel hangs around and Sam bestows on it the name Barron for its bold, confident demeanor. How cool. wanted a weasel like that.

Imagine my thrill when, shortly after moving into our place here in Chignik Lake, one of these spry little fellows practically ran across my foot as he darted past me and dashed under the steps of our Arctic entrance as I opened our front door. The steps, while inside the foyer, are open and the foyer itself sits atop earth. It is a haven for voles, shrews and, of course, weasels. Chippy (I named him or her almost immediately) spun around, sat up and looked at me through the steps. What a handsome, self-assured creature with those large eyes, round ears, pink nose and whiskered face, dapper in a brown coat and white underbelly. In truth, I only saw Chippy a couple of times after that, and only for the briefest of moments each time. Nonetheless…

We had a weasel living with us.

But winter came, and neither of us had seen Chippy for quite some time. Occasionally in the early morning after a fresh snowfall, we’d see weasel tracks and although they could have belonged to any number of weasels (there is no shortage of them here in the village), we liked to imagine they were Chippy’s, evidence of happy nights spent chasing voles and other small creatures.

Meanwhile, the area beneath the owl trees has become a veritable boneyard. Magpie feathers, skulls and wishbones litter the ground along with smaller avian skulls, vole-sized pellets of mashed together bone, teeth and fur, jawbones of small mammals and…

The skull of a weasel. We’re very happy that our resident Great Horned Owls are making it through this unusually cold winter, but… Chippy, we hardly knew ye.

Short-tailed Weasel, Mustela erminea (Photo Credit: Steve Hillebrand, USFWS on Wikipedia)
Also known as Stoats and Ermine, Long-tailed Weasels are related to otters, mink, martens and wolverines. Although they’re only about 10 inches long (25 cm) from nose to tail tip, like their biological cousins, they are fierce predators, sometimes preying on much larger animals. In winter, their fur becomes snow white except for the tip of their tail which remains black. Six years is a long life for a Short-tailed Weasel.

*It is unlikely that the skull we found beneath the White Spruce Grove is actually Chippy’s – or that this is the only weasel Chignik Lake’s Great Horned Owls have dined on.

Fans of Shakespeare will recognize this passage from Hamlet’s musing on mortality as he holds in his hand the exhumed skull of a favorite court jester, Yorick.

This is the first article for Wildlife Wednesday, a new column on Cutterlight. Stay tuned (or sign up) for weekly articles on birds, mammals, insects, wildflowers and more.

Ink and Light: “Amber Eyes” with a quote by Sir David Attenborough

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Amber Eyes: Arctic Fox, Point Hope, Alaska

The thick, soft fur of the Arctic Fox is the most efficiently warm of any land mammal.

It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.
David Attenborough – BBC Life documentary series, 2009

Knighted in 1985, Sir David Attenborough turned 90 in 2016. The world’s most recognized narrator of natural history films, he remains in possession of amazing vitality.