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. 

On the Grill: Smoky Maple Rubbed Wild Chignik Salmon and Lemon Garlic Fireweed Shoots

It’s not yet the official start of summer, but nothing feels like the season more than sitting outside in sunshine grilling our supper.

Some people say Chignik River salmon are The Best. Who are we to argue? The vacuum-packed fish we caught last fall taste like we just pulled them out of the water. We love these salmon. They are fun to fish for, delicious and are a beautiful part of this environment. We feel fortunate to have them as part of our menus at least four times a week. Yesterday, we thought we would try a smoky maple rub we were gifted awhile back. It worked perfectly on the grill, giving a nice smoky, sweet layer of flavor while still letting the salmon shine through.

The star of the meal were the fireweed shoots. If you’ve never tried these beauties, now is the time to do it. Around here, they are popping out of the ground in a plum-colored frenzy. Early in the season, the shoots can be picked and used just like asparagus. The leaves are tender and the stems have a satisfying crunch. Later in the summer, the plants will produce fuchsia-colored flowers that climb up the stalks like a calendar of the summer passing. These flowers are edible, as well. We’ve used the pink blossoms in tossed salads and have stirred them into homemade honey ice cream for an added visual pop. But I digress…

Preparing the fireweed shoots is simple. Give the shoots a thorough rinse to remove any dirt. Then mix together soy sauce, lemon and garlic to taste. Toss the mixture with the fireweed shoots. Place a couple of pats of butter beneath the shoots and another couple on top. Grill in foil until the butter is melted and the mixture is bubbling. We like our shoots pretty crunchy, so we only grilled them for about 4 minutes. And if you’ve prepared a baked potato on the side, any extra sauce from cooking fireweed the fireweed makes a delectable topping. Bon Appétit!

Wild Alaska Salmon Lox – an Edible Treasure

Miniature three-inch bagels are perfect for a snack-size taste of Alaskan salmon lox.

The winter holidays are a time of canapés and party food, which makes this post relevant to the holiday season. For us, agreeably salty lox on a fresh homemade bagel slathered with cream cheese is just plain good food anytime of year. With a river with strong salmon runs flowing right past our home, getting the main ingredient for these sandwiches isn’t a problem. In fact, we normally get plenty of fish for our own needs as well as a few additional fish to give to elders in our village. 

Making lox takes a bit of time, so there is some patience involved, but the method itself is easy. Simply pack salmon fillets in a salt-sugar-pepper mixture.  Let the salt draw out the excess liquid. Turn the fillets daily for about a week. It’s a fairly magical process, in the end transforming the fillets into firm, bright orange jewels. Sliced thin, lox is perfect in scrambled eggs or atop blini as well as on the traditional bagel du jour smeared with cream cheese and sprinkled with capers. Delectable, Wild Alaskan Salmon – an edible treasure.

Homemade Lox

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. fresh salmon fillets, skin on. The fillets need not be scaled, but do take pains to ensure that all bones are removed.
  • ¼ cup coarse sea salt
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp freshly ground black pepper

Directions

  1. Rinse fish and dry thoroughly.
  2. Remove any pin bones in fillet with tweezers or needle nose pliers.
  3. Mix together salt, sugar and pepper. (This recipe works well when multiplied. Our last batch was 5 pounds of fillets.)
  4. Pack salt mixture around fish. Do this skin side down.
  5. Sandwich two pieces of fish together, flesh against flesh, skin side out.
  6. Pack any leftover sugar mixture onto exposed fillet.
  7. Wrap sandwiched pieces tightly with plastic wrap. Leave sides slightly open so liquid can drain while the salmon cures.
  8. I use a large plastic container with a top. Place a smaller food storage container inside the large one to create a raised place for the fish to set. This will allow the juice to drain away from the fish. A fish poacher with a bottom insert that allows drainage also works well.
  9. Place sandwiched salmon in container from step 8.
  10. Finally, you need to ensure that the fillets are tightly pressed together. This can be accomplished by placing full canning jars atop the fillets if you’re using a fish poacher. As I was using a tall plastic container, I simply placed another smaller container on top of the salmon pieces. The smaller container was just the right size so that when I put the lid on the larger container, it pressed down firmly on the fillets without squishing them. The idea is to create just enough weight or pressure to facilitate squeezing out excess moisture as the salt pulls liquid from the fish.
  11. Place container in refrigerator.
  12. For 7 days, every 24 hours pour off liquid from the bottom of the container and flip the fillet sandwiches.
  13. At the end of 7 days, take the salmon out of the plastic wrap and thoroughly rinse using very cold water.
  14. Thoroughly pat dry.
  15. Slice very thin and enjoy!

Store leftovers in refrigerator or wrap tightly in plastic and freeze in airtight containers.

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.)

Not yet done with Winter: White Bean & Butternut Salmon Sausage Soup

A great read,* a hot bowl of soup, memories of last fall and dreams of summer…

A cold snap has fallen on Chignik Lake. Middle March, and once again our our world in this remote corner of Alaska is blanketed in snow. This morning we woke to find our lake glassed off with ice, the flocks of Goldeneyes and Scaup that had gathered in the view out our window gone to find open water. Now and then our resident family of otters appears on the ice to take advantage of new fishing opportunities in mid-lake openings, happy to bask in the late morning sunshine. The silver bright salmon of last autumn have long since spawned and died.

As recently as January there were still a few late-run salmon clinging to life in feeder streams. Even those fish are gone by now, returned to gravel stream beds, becoming nutrients in the web of life their offspring will soon depend upon. Even the char have disappeared, huddled together somewhere in deep water, waiting for spring.

March is a month for tying flies and sorting through gear, a month for evening games of Scrabble and tucking into a good book. March is a month when the next generation of salmon are stirring in their redds and you imagine those tiny fish and even though the water is covered with fresh ice,  you think to yourself, “Spring is coming.”

March is a good time to make big pots of soups and big plans for summer. This soup is one of our favorites. I prepared the salmon sausage without using eggs and I added chorizo to give it some zip. I seasoned the sausage with an Italian herb blend and added additional ground fennel, which came through nicely. It’s soup, so experiment with ingredients to make it your own.

White Bean & Butternut Salmon Sausage Soup

Ingredients

  • 6 cups white beans (3 16oz cans)
  • 1 butternut squash, roasted or steamed until tender, rind removed, cut into cubes (or used canned pumpkin or squash)
  • 6 cloves of garlic, sliced thin
  • 1 shallot, sliced thin (or substitute a small sweet onion)
  • 3 cups chicken broth (enough broth to thin the bean & squash mixture)
  • 1 or 2 lbs salmon sausage (see recipe here). Or substitute any sausage.
  • sea salt
  • 1 tablespoon of a favorite spicy mix featuring powdered chipotle (See “Jack’s”)
  • olive oil

Directions

  1. Add a tablespoon or 2 of olive oil to a frying pan and heat over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic and sauté until soft. Remove from heat and set aside.
  2. Using a stick blender, food processor or conventional blender, purée the beans, squash, garlic and shallots, adding chicken broth as you do this to create a thick soup.
  3. Add the purée to a large pot. Add additional chicken broth to achieve desired consistency. Stir in seasonings, bring to a simmer and cook for a few minutes. Taste to determine how much salt is needed and if additional seasoning is required.
  4. Add the salmon sausage and gently stir in. Allow to simmer for a few more minutes.
  5. Ladle into serving bowls, drizzle with a favorite olive oil, and serve piping hot.

*A River Never Sleeps, Roderick Haig-Brown, 1946

Burn Barrel Love (Valentine’s Day)

Burn Barrel Love, Chignik Lake, Alaska

Waking to heavy snowfall a few weeks ago, we went out looking for wildlife. At the White Spruce Grove, Pine Siskins, Chickadees, Golden-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos were happily filling up on cone seeds and the food in our feeders. We’d heard there was a lynx in the area, and there are always foxes and wolves just beyond the village. We didn’t see much – just this pair of Ravens hanging out and enjoying a snowy moment at one of their favorite meeting places.

 

Cranberry Days

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Framed in a boggy, wet miniature world between yellowing willow leaves and a lime-green horsetail stalk, clusters of ripe low-bush cranberries (lingonberries) push up through densely growing crowberry plants. Chignik Lake, Alaska.

The savannah sparrows that have been passing through in small flocks are absent today. The last of their kind, they’ve joined the white-crowned, golden-crowned and fox sparrows along with the wrens and warblers that flew south back at the beginning of the month. With most of the passerines gone, the shrikes, too, will soon go, following their prey. It’s been two weeks since we’ve seen sandhill cranes and at least that long since loons were gliding across the lake. This morning following a spectacular, fiery red sunrise, the light broke almost white. Winter light.

Making my way through the village toward the trail to the berry meadow, I spot a kingfisher perched stalk-still on a dead alder along the lake. A few glaucous-winged gulls wheel and soar low over the lake, calling listlessly as others sit placidly rocking on the windblown water. In the sky overhead, a pair of ravens show off their vocals with deep, resonating qua-orks and are gone. As the trail enters the dense growth of willow, salmonberry, alder and fireweed stalks gone to cottony seed, I can’t help but notice the absence of birdsong. Not even the chickadees are out. A mile later, up in the bog, there is only wind blowing through the raggedy last of the cotton grass and bowing the sedges in undulating, yellow-green waves.

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Remains of summer: Sandhill crane footprint and raven tracks on the edge of an ephemeral pond near the berry bog.

I enter the berry meadow quietly from downwind and scan for moose and bears. There are tracks and other sign in the soft mud, but no animals. A sudden gust sprinkles my face with cold, misting drizzle.

I pull a five-cup container from my backpack and begin walking the edges of the watery meadow looking for mounds of crowberry plants. Cranberries seem to like growing among these mosslike plants. It’s not long before I find the perfect mound. Looking carefully among the needle-shaped crowberry leaves, I see the tell-tale maroon that gives away the berries I’m after. As my eyes hone in on this specific shade of red, I see more. And then lots.

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We sometimes find moose tracks at the berry bog as they come to feed on nutrient-rich sedges.

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Brown bears (grizzlies) come to the meadow looking for the same thing that draws me – an abundance of bog-loving blueberries, crowberries and cranberries. Even with the nearby river and feeder streams brimming with salmon and charr, it’s common to find piles of bear scat loaded with little but berries and berry seeds.

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Red foxes love berries too, and are frequent visitors.

Picking goes fairly quickly and by lunchtime I’ve filled two containers with perfectly ripe, agreeably tart, firm berries. These I’ll clean and add to the two-and-a-half quarts Barbra and I picked yesterday, making well over a gallon. Freezing these lingonberries will sweeten them up a bit. After that, we’ll turn them into syrup to add to our Soda Stream fizzed water and into sauces for grilled pork cutlets, roasted chicken and Thanksgiving turkey. 

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Wild geranium leaves turned orange-red add a splash of color to one quart and one cup of low-bush cranberries… No one with a stash of gold ever felt wealthier.

While picking, my mind follows its own path in and out of dialogs and dreams but I try to remain vigilant to the possibility of animals. In addition to bears, moose, foxes and an array of birds, wolves, too, occasionally travel through the meadow. Just as I top off the second container, I hear a succession of three distinctive snorts directly downwind. Something has picked up my scent. A bear? A moose? I slowly stand and look. Whatever made the noise is buried deep in alders some distance away. I probably won’t get a look, but just in case I check the settings on my camera, make sure my canister of bear spray is handy, and pack up for the mile-long walk home.

Along the trail back to Chignik Lake, crimson fireweed stalks accent the gold of autumn willows. Up on the mountains, the season’s first snow.

As I come around a bend in the trail a snipe explodes into the air, it’s back marbled in browns and streaked with white. Sunshine breaks through the September clouds and the meadow and hills and distant mountains light up. I recall a story about a boy who fell asleep, and when he woke couldn’t determine if he was still asleep and dreaming, or wide awake in a new land.