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.

Roasted Moose? Put it in a Pie and serve it with a Nut Brown Ale

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Tender roasted moose, caramelized onions, potatoes, parsnips and mushrooms pulled together with moose gravy, topped with a flaky, golden-brown crust and served with our home-brewed Nut-Brown Ale. That’s how we do it in Alaska.

This has been a good year for moose hunting in Chignik Lake, and while I’m not sure we’d know what to do with a twelve-hundred pound bull, anytime a friend offers up a few pounds, we’re in. This moose pie is a long-standing favorite recipe, easily adapted for other wild game or beef. Start with a pound of tender roast, toss in your favorite vegetables, add time-tested seasonings and a little gravy, top with a savory pie crust and bake at 375° F for about 25 minutes. Serves four Alaska-sized appetites.

Rustic Moose Pot Pie

Ingredients

  • 1 3/4 cups beef broth or moose broth
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
  • 1 2/3 cups potatoes, cut into 1/2″ cubes, skin on
  • olive oil
  • 1/3 cup flour
  • 1 pound roasted moose meat, cut into 1/2″ cubes
  • 1/2 cup sweet corn
  • 1/2 Brussels sprouts, quartered
  • 1/2 cup carrots, sliced into discs or chopped coarse
  • 1/2 cup parsnips, sliced 1/4 inch think x 1/2 inch
  • 1/2 onion, cut into slices and caramelized
  • 1/2 cup mushrooms, chopped coarse
  • 1/2 rounded teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon dried sage
  • 1/2 teaspoon thyme
  • several generous grinds freshly cracked black pepper
  • salt, to taste

Directions

  1. Place a baking sheet on the center rack of oven and preheat to 375 °F (190° C).
  2. Place broth in a pot, add bay leaf. Taste to determine if salt needed.
  3. Add potatoes. Simmer potatoes till just tender, but do not overcook. Save broth and remove potatoes to a large bowl.
  4. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, add olive oil to cover bottom and bring to sizzling hot over medium/medium-high heat. Brown the mushrooms, remove and set aside. Add onions. Season with salt and pepper and cook till caramelized. Remove onions and set aside.
  5. Add additional olive oil to frying pan as necessary and continue heating over medium heat. Add Brussels sprouts, parsnips and carrots. Season with salt and pepper. Cook till Brussels sprouts are browned and all vegetables are just tender, stirring occasionally. Remove vegetables from pan and add to bowl with potatoes.
  6. Over medium-low heat, place approximately 4 tablespoons olive oil into a small frying pan. When oil is heated but not sizzling hot, briskly stir in flour a little at a time. Continue stirring until mixture thickens. Remove from heat.
  7. Heating beef broth over medium heat, stir in oil and flour mixture. Combine thoroughly. Simmer till reduced to a thick gravy.
  8. To the bowl that already has the potatoes and vegetables, add the moose meat, mushrooms, gravy and the remaining seasonings and mix together. (There are a number of ways to make a thick gravy. Try using a dark ale to deglaze the pan you used for roasting the moose.)
  9. Pour meat and vegetable mixture directly into a deep pie dish. Cover with a crust. Be sure to make holes in the crust to allow steam to escape. Brushing on a beaten egg will help create a golden brown crust.
  10. Place on baking sheet and bake at 375 °F for 25 – 30 minutes or until crust is golden brown.

Although a full-bodied red wine such as an old vine Zinfandel, Malbec or Cabernet is a classic choice with this dish, a full-bodied ale pairs equally well.

Fine Dining for Two: Broiled Char or Trout

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A hint of thyme compliments the delicate flavor of wild char, one or our favorite fish. No wild fish available? Look for Arctic Char at the fish market. They get high marks for being responsibly farmed and are delicious.

There’s something about wild char and trout that calls to simplicity. Among all species of fish, they are among the most demanding of unspoiled environments. Where streams, rivers and lakes are clean and lightly trammeled, these species often thrive, both their numbers and the setting they inhabit evoking bygone times. It is in such settings that light harvest of a few fish is sustainable.

When presented with such fish in the kitchen, the most basic ingredients are all that is wanted. Salt and butter, perhaps a little pepper or a pinch or two of an aromatic herb. A little lemon can be nice, too. Root vegetables such as potatoes, parsnips or rutabaga roasted or pan fried in olive oil and soy sauce make the perfect accompaniment on the serving platter.

Broiled Char or Trout for Two

Ingredients

    • 1 char or trout of about 16 to 18 inches (40 – 45 cm) (between 1 and two pounds, dressed)
    • fine sea salt (we use Grey Sea Salt in all of our salmon and trout recipes)
    • two light pinches of dry thyme (or about double that if you have fresh)
    • 1 lemon cut into thin slices, peel cut away
    • butter, sliced into thin pats
    • olive oil or canola oil
    • broiling pan. We use a Swiss Diamond cast iron griddle for this kind of broiling.

Directions

    1. Place a broiling pan near the top shelf in the oven and preheat on broil. You want the pan to be very hot when the fish is placed on it. This prevents the fish from sticking. Do not oil the pan yet.
    2. Rinse the fish in cold water and dry with paper towels. Make sure the gills and viscera have been removed.
    3. On a cutting board or platter, position the fish with its it’s open belly toward you.
    4. Using a very sharp knife, cut shallow, oblique slashes spaced about an inch apart (2.5 cm) down both sides of the fish. You want to break the skin without cutting all the way through to the body cavity.
    5. Rub fish inside and out with fresh lemon juice.
    6. Salt the fish inside and out. Sprinkle a little thyme inside the cavity on the sides.
    7. Place a few thin slices of butter inside the cavity and on top of the fish’s side.
    8. Place pieces of lemon on top of the fish’s side.
    9. Spread olive oil on broiling pan. A basting brush works well for this. Return pan to oven for about a minute to ensure that oil is very hot.
    10. Place fish on broiling pan or griddle. The fish should really sizzle when it hits the pan. Once the fish is on the pan, do not move it. (Moving a fish just after it hits a pan can cause it to stick to the pan.) Return to the oven and broil for 5 minutes.
    11. Remove pan from oven and gently flip the fish. Do this by rolling the fish on its back using spatulas. This will prevent the cavity from draining. Place additional pieces of butter and fresh slices of lemon on the up side of the fish and return to the oven. Broil for 3 or 4 more minutes.
    12. The fish is done when the slashes have opened, the skin is golden brown, the tail is crisp and the eyes are opaque.
    13. Serve with roasted root vegetables on warmed plates. Compliment with a light Chardonnay or a crisp ale.

Winter Landscape in Black and White: Spruce Tree with Mountain

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I made this photo just a few feet from my home in Chignik Lake. The challenge was to somehow clean up the assortment of utility poles, wires, satellite dishes and the dissonant array of scrub alder closer to eye level. I actually knew as soon as this assignment (Winter Landscape in Black and White – the second weekly assignment from Outdoor Photographer magazine) was posted the scene I wanted to shoot. I put on a long lens, waited for the right light, and got this frame.

Next Thursday: Patterns of Winter