Scarlett’s Letter August 27, 2013

It may have seemed like a perfectly ordinary Tuesday, but it wasn’t. Today was “National Just Because Day”. That could open the doors to many exciting things and to an extraordinary day! Just because.

I decided to go for a run this morning. I didn’t run at all last week. I had every intention to run while traveling, but the logistics always get weird with unusual surroundings, dinners in restaurants and showers and running and impending darkness. I had lots of excuses, and that just makes me feel worse; using all those excuses.  So I went out to one of my favorite running areas today, Dry Creek Road and did a fast four miles. Okay, well, fast, for me. Dry Creek Road is on the western edge of the Oak Knoll District and is one lovely vineyard after another. I kind of knew this, but not really. I sailed past one vineyard with a sign roadside that had beneath the vineyard name, “OKD” and it only took me a few minutes to figure out that meant Oak Knoll District. Well, I had a little help, perhaps, from a sign about a quarter mile up, on the opposite side of the street that spelled it out for me, “Oak Knoll District”. I sailed past that sign, too. Well, maybe I felt like I was sailing, I probably looked more like I was shuffling, but we’ll just say I was sailing past, just because. Other than it being quite sunny and not too shady, because of all the vineyards, and, so, a bit warm, it is a lovely place to run and is quite populated with other runners, walkers, dog walkers, stroller pushers and cyclists. It was a fine morning for a run, a fast four in the OKD. Just because.

As I run I often am struck with brilliant ideas for writing; topics, themes, sayings and word play. Today, I thought, since I was running in the OKD I should find a winery to taste at today, in the OKD. Tasting Tuesday. Why not? Just because, right?  After I got home and did my core workout, took my cool shower and answered a few emails, I went online to find a winery in the OKD to try. I perused several wineries and decided to find one as close as I could to where I actually ran. I settled on Trefethen (emphasis is on the middle syllable). I’d never been to Trefethen before, so that made it an even better choice. I like trying new things; just because.

I prompted Siri with the address, since it was just a few short miles from home, I figured Siri could handle the job and I wouldn’t need Armando and all his bells and whistles. Armando is my voice activated Garmin Nuvi that supplies lane assist, superior graphics, speed limits and how far in excess you are of the speed limit, as well as an ETA. For a quick trip in a familiar town, Armando is a little overkill. Siri, however, took me a longer route than I would’ve chosen had I known precisely where the winery was. Siri got me within about a mile and instructed me to park along State Route 29 and walk the rest of the way. I almost made Siri walk the rest of the way. Instead, I followed my keen navigational instinct and turned right, off of State Route 29 onto Oak Knoll Avenue, where the address was listed and where, at the intersection, was a winery sign. Perhaps my keen navigational instinct wasn’t really necessary, but I got Siri to the winery and she was still yacking about me continuing on to the next major intersection and doing something. Just because, I guess.

The drive into the winery was pretty impressive. I think the driveway was nearly as long as my trip up State Route 29! The winery is housed in a very impressive building, as well, not ostentatious, but statuesque, definitely. I was greeted as soon as I walked inside and the Napa Neighbors discount was happily recognized. A free “Classic Tasting”, four wines from a list of eight; four whites, a rose and three reds. I was introduced to the sommeliers who were knowledgeable beyond what most winery staff are. I was told the details of the estate; purchased in 1968, just one year after my family moved to Napa. It is the largest contiguous estate in the Valley and all of their grapes are grown on the estate. They grow enough grapes for their own production and are able to sell 30% of their crop to other wineries. They provided a map of the estate, for reference, so you could see the source of the grapes for each wine you tasted. I love visual aids! This was the best thing since the three-dimensional relief map at Ceja! As I am fonder of reds than whites, I was first given the 2011 Pinot Noir off the more expensive, “Reserve Tasting” list. It was fantastic. I then worked my way down the list of reds on the Classic Tasting with the 2010 Cabernet Franc, the 2010 Merlot and the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon. My official four tastings were spent, but, still, I was offered more. I moved to the “Reserve” list and decided, based on the exclamations of others in the tasting room and the price per bottle, on the 2010 Dragon’s Tooth. I decided to cap things off with the S.I.N. – Summer in Napa, 2012 Rose. Just because! I didn’t taste anything I didn’t absolutely love! I was hard pressed to decide which ONE bottle to buy to take with me to Alaska this weekend. While I pondered my purchase, I was offered a taste of the 2011 Late Harvest Riesling, which isn’t on any tasting list, but, “just happened to be opened”, just because. Again, as I’ve said before, and I think I’ve made a liar of myself, I don’t like dessert wines. The last four, of four, dessert wines I’ve tried, I really enjoyed. It may have something to do with the fact that I’m always told they would be delicious with bleu cheese. I think anything is delicious with bleu cheese, and I think this may influence my palette just a bit.

Tasting Tuesday, just because on National Just Because Day!
Tasting Tuesday, just because on National Just Because Day!

I finally settled on the Cabernet Franc, of all the wines I tasted, I think my Sweetie will enjoy this one the most with the hint of cherry, tobacco and raspberry. I will save it for my trip. And I will share. Really I will. Just because! I also bought a silver horse head wine spout aerator. I first spotted it wine tasting in El Dorado County and have been lusting after it ever since. I found it online, but there isn’t nearly as much romance in having purchased it online as there is in purchasing somewhere you can talk about. Right? So, now, in the trunk of my car, along with two DSW bags, is a lovely carrier bag from Trefethen Winery in the OKD. Living with Mom is quite a bit like being married, I have clandestine purchases I feel like I have to sneak into the house. The aren’t really clandestine, but I just can’t take the remarks when I bring home “more shoes,” or “more wine”. And now that it’s kind of a game, it just makes me want to buy MORE shoes and MORE wine! Just because!

You have to admit you have a problem in order to have a problem. No problem.
You have to admit you have a problem in order to have a problem. No problem.

Alas, it is Tuesday. Do you know what that means? It’s Taco Tuesday! I love tacos. I can find a way to make almost anything into tacos. There is just something about putting food into a warm tortilla, folding it in half and having it spill out all over the plate, the table, and your lap that makes it so much more delicious! I made my meal into tacos last night, it was Mexican Monday. Tomorrow is Wrap Wednesday. I planned on having salmon salad for lunch and ended up having an apple, a carrot and celery with peanut butter, instead, in the interest of not having a lot of preparation and dishes mid-day. I really wanted salmon salad, I mean, I “helped” catch the salmon. Not physically, but I did offer a lot of moral support. I did behead, gut and wash the salmon alongside the Copper River at Chitina, then helped jar them, so I have a personal connection with these jars of salmon. So delicious! So, I made salmon salad tacos for Mom and me for dinner tonight. It may not sound very traditional, but they were very, very good and I’d eat more, now, if there were any left! Just because!

I have a very personal relationship with this jar of salmon.
I have a very personal relationship with this jar of salmon.
Taco Tuesday. Salmon salad tacos. Just because.
Taco Tuesday. Salmon salad tacos. Just because.

It is getting late, Mom has just gone to bed and that means I can now sneak my DSW bags and wine purchases upstairs. I managed to move them from the trunk of my car to a hiding place in the garage on the pretense of “taking the recycles out”, which is another clandestine operation. “Recycles” are usually one or two more empty beer or wine bottles than I think Mom would approve of, so I wait until she has the TV on, with a game show, the news, or Chopped on full blast, and I take the bottles out to the bin so she won’t hear them “clink” and so I’ll have enough time to shuffle the newspapers over them. It’s kind of a sport. And a way to avoid the inevitable question “did you have a second beer tonight?” Maybe. Just because.

Scarlett’s Letter July 11, 2013

Such an amazing day today!

My man had to work this morning, so I found myself “home alone”, and, when home alone, I am usually going to misbehave in some way, big or small. This morning, I had a Cali girl moment. Truthfully, though summer here, I have been just a little cold, ever since I’ve arrived. It is warm enough outside, which means two things; there are mosquitos in hoards and, because there are mosquitos, I’ll have to wear a flannel to keep them from devouring me whole, which is both uncomfortable and weird. A flannel in summer! So, today, I misbehaved. I took a nice, long, hot shower and got ready. Long showers are wonderful, but in an effort to not be perceived as “high maintenance” or “taking forever to get ready”, I have been taking very quick showers, just twisting my hair into a bun with a clip or a hairband, and applying a minimal amount of makeup, and only to act as sunscreen, of course. This morning, unsupervised, unobserved, and with “all the time in the world”, I decided to exploit the situation. After my long, hot shower, I took the time and luxury to get all the way ready, to my complete and total satisfaction. I had a commitment today, actually, I needed to be at “the shop” by early afternoon to receive a canoe that needed patching for an adventure planned for tomorrow. So, I was on a schedule, but a very relaxed schedule. In other words, I had time to write. And take a long, hot shower. And get all the way ready to my complete and total satisfaction.

I got beautiful, in that luxurious manner that I only get to savor on rare occasions when no one is waiting for me. And, when I was ready, I went downstairs to make my coffee, enjoy my plain yogurt and honey, and to write, leisurely, until I had to head in to town. It was chilly in the house. I was cold. Even with my usual cardigan on. So, I misbehaved. I turned the heat on, only a little, I just bumped the arrow up a couple of degrees. Being an Alaskan home, there is insulation upon insulation within the walls, retaining heat during the bitter cold winters, but also retaining coolness when it is warm out. And barely warm out, for a NorCal girl. So, even though it is July and everyone else is complaining about the heat, I turned the heat on. And I did something I haven’t done for many, many, many years.

As a child, I grew up in a split level home in Napa, my bedroom upstairs, with hard wood floors. Napa has a mild climate. I live there, again, now, and, honestly, in the mornings, when the marine layer is resting, low, upon The Valley, it is fricking cold. I have always tended towards being cold, so, for me, this is more pronounced. And, though fifty now, I have not yet entered the world of hot flashes that most of my peers complain of. I almost look forward to being warm, for the first time in my life. For now, I am cold. As a child, in my room, I was cold, especially in the morning. Year round, for winters are cool and summer mornings are cool. Which I really don’t think is so cool. So, as a cold child, in the morning, when the heat turned on, I would sit over the floor vent to warm myself. I would hold my nightgown down over the vent, creating sort of a tent, in which I could experience true warmth. It was bliss. And this activity usually caused me to be late for school, or for swimming lessons in the summer, or for whatever activity I was to be readying myself for. This morning was no different.

And so, this morning, as the heat kicked on and I sat at the dining table and felt no effect, I took a trip back to childhood; I sat on the floor, immediately in front of the heater vent and absorbed the warmth. As an adult, I had my coffee at hand, my super fuzzy, glittery, bedazzled, leopard print Jessica Simpson slippers on and my computer in front of me, and I made good use of my time as I absorbed the blessed warmth while I wrote. It was heaven. I figured I had a few hours to myself and made myself quite comfortable. I had the key to the “shop”, for the planned canoe reconnaissance. With only one article written, though, I received a phone call from my man, “where are you?” My man was done with work and at the shop, without a key. He had another way in, so I agreed to head in to town, shortly, to meet him. I wrapped things up, turned the heat back down, and rolled into town. I might have had the heat on in the car. Just a little.

I made it to the shop a little before my scheduled canoe reconnaissance mission, met my man there, and we headed off for lunch. We returned to the shop and I managed to post an article or two, thanks to my MiFi, from there. When the canoe arrived, visiting began and writing was abandoned, which is why, at this moment, more than a week later, I am still just a bit behind. But that is so okay! Two things I can do from virtually anywhere when there is nothing better to do; sleep and write. I will never choose one of those activities over any other. Ever. As much as I love them, even. And, I will usually choose to write over sleeping, if given the option and my eyes are willing to remain open. Time enough to sleep when dead.

As the canoe was patched, I had the opportunity to go bee keeping! And, so, I did! A friend I’ve made in Alaska not only keeps bees, but teaches others about keeping bees. I am a huge believer in the health benefits of including “local” honey in my daily diet. I, honestly, eat local honey absolutely, positively every day. Let’s talk about this a bit.

As a child, I was plagued with, really, life threatening allergic asthma. I was admitted to Children’s Hospital on a fairly regular basis, with pneumonia, as a complication of allergic asthma. I vividly remember, and I do mean vividly, being in an oxygen tent. I remember, vividly, being left alone in a hospital when my parents went home for the night, when visiting hours were over, as a toddler. For my entire childhood, I received allergy shots in an attempt to mitigate the effects that ordinary, everyday substances had on my ability to breathe; dust, pollen from virtually every tree, grass and weed, animal dander, mold. I was a freak. And without modern medicine, I doubt I’d have lived through my childhood. There are few of us that truly know the helplessness of not being able to draw in an adequate breath. It is terrifying. And frustrating. And humiliating. And limiting.

I like to think, as a result of my tenacity and sheer “mind over matter”, I began to overcome this condition. From the first moments I can remember as a small girl, I wanted a horse, more than breath, and when I was eleven, I spent my savings on just that; my very own horse. From that point on, much of my life was spent outdoors, in the fields and, usually, riding through a cloud of dust, and, presumably, pollen. And I was, for the most part, fine. From that point on, I only struggled with asthma during times of high stress, like midterms and finals. This may have been as a result of all those years of desensitization from allergy shots, or as a result of sheer will. Likely, both.

As an adult, I began, again, to suffer from allergies and related asthma. Fortunately, at the time, I worked for an allergist/pulmonary specialist and I had, readily available to me, allergy shots and related care. This, again, worked. Or was it sheer will to not have to live a life dependent on drugs and shots? That was twenty-five years ago and I don’t have any symptoms now; not a sniffle, nary a sneeze, never a wheeze. I am active, mostly outdoors, I live a completely full and active life, free from any allergic or asthmatic symptoms. I take no medication, prescription or over the counter, whatsoever. How can this be? Honey. In part, honey. Local honey. And sheer will. Okay, and stress management.

I will admit, for several years, in those “in between years”, in between allergy shots and discovering honey, I did rely on over the counter medications such as Allegra and Benadryl, and, against recommendations, sometimes both. After learning of the long-term, adverse affects of these remedies, and in particular, those of Benadryl, I stopped. And, out of sheer will, I made it through each and every pollen season, grass, weed, dust, smoke, mold, medication free. I didn’t have any discomfort, really, a few sniffles here, a sneeze or two there, teary eyes now and then, but certainly nothing I couldn’t just power through. I’d heard of using local honey as a means of desensitizing oneself to local pollens, many years beforehand, but had never considered it. A couple of years ago, I began to use local, organic honey as a substitute for sweeteners in things like yogurt and oatmeal, replacing refined sugar, and thus, realizing a double health benefit. I will never look back! I am 99% allergy and asthma symptom free, year-round. Learning to manage stress and keeping physically and emotionally healthy and fit, I strongly believe, have also been key contributors to a symptom free life. And while I can’t guarantee that this will be the case for everyone with chronic symptoms, it may be worth considering. You decide what’s best for you. If you truly do need medical intervention to prevent serious complications from allergies and asthma, I’m not one to criticize or to suggest that you don’t. I don’t. I’m blessed. And I feel I have the honeybee, and the power of positive thought, to thank.

I bee-lieve in bees! And I am terrified by the fact that the honeybee is facing difficulty as a result of climate change and the common use of pesticides and herbicides. Do you realize that if bees don’t survive we cannot survive? Without intervention. Unwelcomed intervention. When I say we can’t survive, I mean every living being on the planet, not just people who use local honey to desensitize themselves to local pollens, I mean each and every one of us. Bees pollenate all of the plants from which food is derived. And, yes, in an Orwellian world, this could probably be done manually, mechanically, artificially. But, being against genetically modified anything, I, too, am against the manual or mechanized pollination of, presumably, genetically modified plant organisms. The world, as designed, as it is intended, for our survival and for our health, relies on bees to pollenate plants from which we will derive our food, and from which the animals we consume derive food. In my opinion, we aren’t nearly as smart as we think we are, and replacing processes that have functioned perfectly for so many millennia seems a bit egotistical, on our part. True, we may understand the concepts and the mechanics and the chemistry and the science behind what happens, but I am certain that we don’t have all the information and skill and aptitude that nature has, after all, she has been practicing far longer than we’ve even populated this world. How presumptuous of us to assume we can even begin to do a better job, or even an adequate job replacing bees and pollination.

So, I bee-lieve in bees and all that they do for us. And today, I got to meet many, many, many, local, Fairbanks honeybees! I donned a legit beekeepers suit. I put legit beekeeper tools in my pockets and set off for the hives that were kept behind a garage in a residential area of Fairbanks, Alaska. In the next hour or so I was instructed on how to check the hives for several activities; honey making, worker and drone larvae, fertilization, and, hence, recent activity from the queen, ensuring she was both alive and active in the hive. I learned to spot tiny, rice grain like eggs in the honeycomb. I spotted the queen in a couple of the hives. It was exciting. It was fascinating.

I couldn’t have had a better teacher in all things bees! Dawn Cogan, of Science Based Art of Alaska, LLC, very knowledgeable and patient instructor and friend, gave me a thorough and very interesting and entertaining introductory lesson in beekeeping. Through Science Based Art, Dawn routinely instructs people interested in beekeeping and posts related information of their blog. I don’t know that I could, viably, be a beekeeper, at this stage in my life, with extensive travel for both work and pleasure, but, at some point in time when I decide I am able, again, to grow roots, I would love to consider it!  Until then, I am happy to pay a little extra for local, organic honey! And while beekeeping may not be possible for many of us, I do promote the inclusion of local, organic honey in the daily diet for two reasons; the personal health benefit and for the promotion of awareness of the vital part that honeybee plays in our environment.

Once we were done tending to the bees, ensuring that all was well within the hives and that they’d be busy as bees producing honey and pollenating and all those wonderful things, we strolled down the street a ways to discourage the guard bees from following us. At this point, we were safe to remove our bee suits. I can only imagine the sight, two people strolling down a suburban street, in bee suits, disrobing, and strolling back. Not a sight I’ve ever witnessed on the suburban streets I’ve inhabited! We made it back to the car, safely, with only a couple of bees following us, but, fortunately, no one was stung.

After a fun and educational afternoon of beekeeping, we returned home where day three of the “salmon saga” continued. Today, we stripped! Not what you’re thinking! Tsk, tsk, tsk, shame on you. We took a few salmon filets from our catch and stripped them for drying. I loved stripped, dried salmon as much, maybe even more, than Oreos. For real! So we sliced strips of salmon and soaked them in water salted enough to float a potato. Really. We patted them dry and placed them on racks in the smoker, outside, to dry in the warm air. No smoke, yet, just a screen held in place with magnets. Once the fish dry a bit, develop a “skin”, then we’ll smoke them to finish the drying process and to add the addictive flavor of alder wood smoke to the addictive flavor of red salmon.

What a great day! Learning about and helping in the preparation of two of my very favorite foods; honey and smoked salmon strips. Oh, and that bit with the heater, the coffee, my slippers and my blog! Heaven! To “bee” sure!

 

Misbehaving in the morning; me, coffee, and MacBook in front of the heater vent!
Misbehaving in the morning; me, coffee, and MacBook in front of the heater vent!

 

A day of "firsts". My first Philly Cheesesteak. Ever. OMG.
A day of “firsts”. My first Philly Cheesesteak. Ever. OMG.

 

Me and bees!
Me and bees!

 

An introduction to the keeping of bees with Dawn of Science-Based Art of Alaska LLC. I'm the one on the left.
An introduction to the keeping of bees with Dawn of Science-Based Art of Alaska LLC. I’m the one on the left.

 

Salmon strips cut and ready to soak before drying.
Salmon strips cut and ready to soak before drying.

 

Salmon strips are soaked in salt water with enough salt to soak a potato.
Salmon strips are soaked in salt water with enough salt to soak a potato.

 

Salmon, after soaking in salt water, ready to take out to the smoker.
Salmon, after soaking in salt water, ready to take out to the smoker.

 

Salmon will dry in the smoker for a couple of days before it is actually smoked.
Salmon will dry in the smoker for a couple of days before it is actually smoked.

 

Salmon drying in the smoke with screen in place to keep bugs out. I don't know about bears, but bugs can't get in.
Salmon drying in the smoker with the screen in place to keep bugs out. I don’t know about bears, but bugs can’t get in.

 

Scarlett’s Letter July 10, 2013

When I woke up I was in bed, not the truck , and it was late morning. The salmon saga was to continue. There were two large coolers full of fresh caught, wild red salmon. Have you priced this in the stores lately? Precious, fresh caught, wild, red salmon. A valuable commodity that took an incredible amount of time and effort to obtain. We needed to be sure it was all taken care of as quickly as possible to maintain its freshness.

As we pulled the first fish out of the cooler it was still in rigor mortis. A good sign. Once this stage has passed, the freshness has already deteriorated. Did you know that? So, how fresh are the chunks of cellophane wrapped fish you buy at the market? Or the super expensive ones, on ice, in the fish case? Or the “flash frozen” filets you buy by the bag out of the freezer case at Target? The ones that you pay extra for because the label says “fresh caught wild salmon?” They’re stiff only because they’re nearly frozen. Or are frozen. Or they aren’t stiff at all. I promise you, they aren’t still in rigor mortis and aren’t as fresh as the fish we unloaded from the cooler onto the kitchen island today. What a rare treat for a suburban, Cali-Girl, Whole Foods shopper! And I live near the coast. I still can’t buy fish this fresh.

We enlisted the help of the neighbor which made the work much more fun and much more efficient. Of course wine and music were involved! The work, itself, consisting of fileting some of the salmon and putting them in freezer bags for freezing. Fileting salmon is a skill and one I didn’t personally take on. Just yet. I did observe and even took a video so I could do it, if I had to, on my own, some day. Just in case the opportunity to fish for salmon presents itself when I return to California, or return, again, to Alaska. Which it will. And which I will. In fileting a salmon, everything is preserved and used. The fins are often given to friends with sled dogs to be incorporated into their feed. The “backs”, so, the spine and ribs, are placed in another bag for later enjoyment. A real treat, and considered almost a delicacy by those who have had them before. I, personally, could eat salmon, in any form, just about everyday, and I actually come pretty close. I eat small portions, so one of these fish would probably last me about twelve meals. I think. We froze some larger portions and some smaller portions. I am, in fact, enjoying, at this very moment, some salmon strips I brought home with me. I like them more than Oreos, I swear, and have been known to just stand with the Ziploc bag and eat one after the other until they’re all gone. They are a treat that don’t last long and should be savored and rationed, but I just can’t seem to help myself. Nom, nom, nom!

We also “jarred” some fish, this actually being the preferred salmon of many. When “jarring” salmon, the common practice is to leave the skin and bones intact, providing calcium and other nutrients with the fish. The fish is cut and placed into canning jars, a little salt added, sometimes some jalapeños, too, for a little kick. The jars of fish are then prepared for canning and pressure cooked for an hour and half. You can eat the salmon, as is, out of the jar, or use it for salmon recipes or sandwich filling. Good stuff! Really, it may not seem like “canned” fish with the bones and the skin would be very appetizing, but it is fantastic! And it makes for the very best salmon sandwiches you’ve ever eaten, not at all like buying canned salmon at the grocery store, this actually has taste and texture and nutritive value with minimal processing.

As focused as I am on the food I eat, the number of processes any food I consume goes through, the nutritive value, the quality, the source, the handling, the purity, etc., being able to see the fish caught, cleaned and “processed” was a very rewarding and fulfilling experience. One of the things I so appreciate about Alaska and the people, is their reverence for food and the amount of time, effort and dedication that goes into catching, hunting, growing and gathering much of the food they will depend on for the long, dark winter. Brief is the summer and the long days of daylight. Every waking moment, and there are more waking moments in those long hours of daylight, is devoted to preparing for the long winter cold. And yet, there is joy and fun and fellowship in all that is accomplished. There are ample opportunities for recreation and adventure because that is as much a part of life and preparing for the winter months as the sun is to the summer. I am in awe and have so much admiration and respect for this way of life.

For lunch, as we waited for the first batch of jars to pressure cook, fish backs were fried up, with much anticipation by everyone, and a little trepidation by me. They smelled delicious, of course, and when done are eaten much like corn on the cob. You pull the salmon meet gingerly off the rib bones and spine with your teeth, and, truly, there is nothing like it. Nom, nom, nom! I could eat these all day. For the sake of modesty, I think I quit at four.

We continued jarring the rest of the afternoon and into the evening. Dinnertime rolled around and, again, salmon backs were fried up! I couldn’t be happier! Salmon, wine, friends, music, and a task to keep the hands busy. To some, a day of cutting up fish, bagging and jarring it, then eating the scraps, may sound like penance for some misdeed. Until you’ve actually been involved in the process, from start to finish, I don’t think you can ever truly appreciate the joy that comes from “farm to table”, as we like to call it in Cali, from source to supply. Bon apetit!

 

A cooler full of the freshest fish ever!
A cooler full of the freshest fish ever!
Rigor motris! Yes!
Rigor motris! Yes!
Filet of fish. Not McDonalds style.
Filet of fish. Not McDonalds style.
Jars.
Jars.
Preparing fish for jarring.
Preparing fish for jarring.
Preparing fish for jarring.
Preparing fish for jarring.
Patience.
Patience.
Fried fish backs! Nom! Nom! Nom!
Fried fish backs! Nom! Nom! Nom!

An Effort to Evolve

All done! Jarred salmon! Yum!
All done! Jarred salmon! Yum!

Scarlett’s Letter July 9, 2013

When first planning this trip to Alaska, our hope was to be able to go gillnetting for king salmon on the Yukon River. We planned dates around the likely opportunity for this adventure. As an Alaska resident, my man is entitled a specific number of different species of fish as “subsistence”. I’m not a resident, and am not so entitled, and fishing for salmon for me may either not be allowed, may be catch and release only, or prohibited altogether, depending on numbers. Last year, for example, the kind salmon numbers were lower than usual, and as they come up the Yukon from the sea, Canada is “guaranteed” a certain number of fish, so Alaska has to make sure there are adequate numbers of fish to meet that obligation and provide for healthy spawning for future generations of fish. Last year, the king salmon fishing on the Yukon was brief and severely limited. This year ended up being the same. Hopefully, next year, the numbers will rebound.

For many years, my man has gone to “fish camp”, a place along the Yukon where there are “cabins” and other somewhat primitive resources for subsistence fisher people. I planned to go to “fish camp” on the airboat with my man and a former neighbor of his, a dear elderly man of ailing health. The elderly man has only been “allowed” to go to “fish camp” in recent years because his wife trusted he would be in good hands with my man. This year, sadly, the elderly man’s health has deteriorated to the point where he would not have been able to go to “fish camp” at all.

On top of all of this, the regulations had changed as to the size of gill net that could be used. Again. Apparently, seven-inch nets (I presume that means the openings in the net) were the standard for all of time. In recent years, the fish and game folks changed that regulation to six and a half inch nets and provided a monetary allowance for retrofitting existing nets, which my man took advantage of. Now, the regulation has been changed to six-inch nets and there isn’t an allowance available for retrofitting existing nets. I have never seen a gill net, but they are quite expensive and there really isn’t an option for buying a new, compliant net this year.

With the freezer fast being depleted of salmon, and “fish camp” not being likely, we had to come up with another solution to stock up for another year. There were red salmon, but fishing for them, too, was being carefully monitored and controlled. With a seven hour drive, each way, 80 gallons of gas and likely more than twenty four hours of driving, fishing and driving involved, there was much to consider. The limit was fifteen for subsistence, and this early in the season there would be only “wild” fish, being somewhat smaller in size than the hatchery fish. Economically, this really wasn’t a practical means for restocking the freezer. Eighty gallons of gas at four dollars a gallon, so, three hundred twenty dollars just in gas, for fifteen smaller fish, that’s twenty-one bucks a fish. I can do better at Whole Foods three thousand miles away.

This morning, though, with a quick call in to the fish and game hotline, the limit had been increased for the next twenty-four hours to twenty-five. Now we’re talking twelve dollars and eighty cents per fish. Now we’re talking! Now the math works out a bit better. We mobilized quickly. A fast shower, gathered gear, packed extra clothes, I slapped some sandwiches together, we grabbed some beer and some fruit, put the “sleeper” on the old blue Ford truck, gassed up, grabbed a couple more sandwiches at the gas station and headed south to the Copper River at Chitina.

The road trip southward was punctuated with rain, which, according to the weather resources, was not supposed to be happening. We would be arriving at Chitinia late in the evening and would likely “dip net” all night, rain or not, until the limit was caught, and then, depending on time and the level of fatigue, we’d head home or sleep over, or head home and sleep along the way. Rain was not going to be pleasant while dip netting. And, truthfully, I had not included in my suitcase what I would consider appropriate attire for a rainy adventure. I have piles of “technical clothing” for virtually every outdoor situation, but, I just didn’t have room in my two suitcases for such practicalities. I had shoes. And tank tops. And glittery ass jeans.  So I packed layers. Layers and layers of really cute, not very warm, jewel, glitter and sequins bedazzled clothes. There must be some sort of redeeming benefit to jewels, glitter and sequins in outdoor survival situations, I just can’t find any sources on Google. Yet. As a non-resident, again, I would not be able to actually dip net for fish, but I would be assisting in many ways, and true to my nature, though I may act and appear as a girly girl, high maintenance city girl, I am not. So not.

After many hours, we approached Chitina, and though somewhat cloudy and threatening and very windy, it was not raining. We planned to, as my man usually had in the past, hike up O’Brien Creek a ways and find a back eddy to dip from. As we arrived at the confluence of O’Brien Creek and the Copper River we saw, or I saw a magnificent sight, something so memorable and awe inspiring I can barely describe it befitting it’s glory; a purple and lime green espresso stand lashed to a skid, there to capitalize on the fisher people, or their girly girl, high maintenance city girl girlfriends. I was delighted, as I’d made no provision for morning caffeine other than the one Excedrin left in the bottle I carry in my purse at all times for just such emergencies. How I was down to just one, likely expired Excedrin, I don’t know. Measures that must be taken, just in case I am forced to survive a coffee-less morning. Second, we were met by folks who said “everyone” was catching their limit within a few short hours right there at the confluence. We looked at the shore of the Copper River, just beyond the parking lot and the espresso stand, and sure enough, there were multiple people dip-netting there. And they were hauling fish in.

While adventure is wonderful, and I probably had a compromised experience by not going up the creek, our mission was fishin’, and in the least amount of time and with the least amount of effort possible. Hopefully before it rained again. So, we walked the short walk to the shore at the edge of the parking lot, claimed our spot along the bank, and my man started dipping the net into the river. The wind was strong and the muddy current was treacherous, the river was swift and wide. One misstep and you’d be swept away and likely drown, or die of hypothermia before you washed ashore again miles downstream. The net goes in, is swept along the shore, and drawn out, fighting the force of the river with every dip. If a salmon is swimming upstream and enters the net, the net has to be hauled in, against the current and now laden with a good-sized fish. This was not easy work. Neither is finding a parking spot at Whole Foods, but this is a whole new level of effort for good salmon.

It wasn’t long before one fish was netted, and with that, a lesson, for me, in how to behead, detail and gut the fish, wash it, bag it and put it on ice. I knew I’d be involved in the process, I guess I was only a little startled, at first, with just how “in depth” my involvement would be. About elbow deep in fish blood and guts, to be exact. But no worries, if you eat ‘em, you’d better be ready to clean ‘em. My man is a great teacher, and quite patient, especially with me, as I always seem to have a bit of a “learning curve”. I am always eager to help and eager to learn, in all things I am involved in. I think it is my eagerness that is the root of my “learning curve”. I listen, I watch and I’ll ask for clarification, and I just want to succeed. Immediately. But I will almost always botch up a time or two before I get it. This was no different. I cut the head off a bit awkwardly on the first couple of fish. My man cut it like butter, I felt like I was sawing a hardwood log with a dull saw. The fish looked like he got his head caught in machinery, not cleanly severed with a sharp filet knife. I managed to cut and twist the tail off and it reminded me of trying to cut through really stale Red Vines with those dull, rounded tip, safety scissors they made us use in kindergarten. Slitting the fish up the gut was where I really went wrong. I held the knife like a dagger, clutched in a white-knuckle clench, and I stabbed away at the fish like Jack the Ripper with the prostitutes of London. Which was wrong. How did he do this with so much ease, finesse and grace? I’m thinking, “man, I gotta do more push ups!” I massacred the first two fish I was left in charge of. And so, I asked to watch on the next, one more demonstration, a little closer observation, a bit more clarification and I learned that the slit up the gut was done shallow and sort of gingerly, like Julia Child cutting phyllo dough or something. I got it, and the rest of the fish were cut perfectly, head, tail and gut. I became a fishing beheading, detailing, gutting machine. He would catch and club, I’d retrieve, slice, slice twist, cut, cut, twist and then slit, hold tight, wash in the river, bag, and then run bags with three to four fish back up to the truck where we had big ice chests waiting. The sooner the fish was “bled out” and put on ice the better the finished product would be. So, as soon as the fish hit the shore and got whacked in the head with a stick, I retrieved it to do my duty. Now, let’s talk about the actual murder weapon; the stick. There isn’t much quality wood on the ground around here, most of it having been scavenged and used already. So, when asked to find a “stick”, what was in order was something with a certain amount of heft, density and weight, what I found was really not much more than a piece of driftwood. After a good whack or two to the head, I’m pretty sure the salmon was only slightly phased on not actually dead. At that point, I’m to cut its head off with a filet knife. I found myself talking to the fish. Really. Kind of apologetically explaining what I had to do. “I know you’re not dead, but I’m going to lay you down on this terribly bloody, slimy piece of plywood, which in itself, if you think about it, is disgusting. Don’t think about it. Then, I’m going to take this filet knife that is about five fish past being sharp enough and I’m going to quickly cut your head off, one side at a time. I have to measure the angle, from just under your fin, along the gill, to the top of your head, which, oddly enough, reminds me of how I use a brow pencil to find the arch for my eyebrows, carefully lining it up with the corner of my nostril to the center of where my pupil is when looking straight ahead. Then I’ll flip you over and do it again. And somehow, you’re still trying to escape my grasp, so I’m going to try to cut your tail off. I have to turn you precisely like this and cut like this, the flip you over again and repeat. Then twist. I’m going to throw your head, attached guts and tail into the river for your family to watch float by, which, I’m pretty sure is why the rate at which we’re catching fish is beginning to decline. I mean, really, if you saw your cousin’s disembodied head, guts and tail go sailing past would you really venture in the general direction from whence they came? Yah, me either. “ Yes, I’m still talking to the fish.

On my first trip back to the truck, bag of fish in hand, I was met by a nice man a few vehicles down. I must have looked like a fru-fru coffee sort of girl, maybe like a girly girl, high maintenance city girl who would want a skinny no whip half-caf dirty latte at some point in the morning. He was the espresso stand vendor and wanted me to know that he’d be open at 4:30 AM. I was elated and had visions of a hot cup of black coffee before hitting the road home, hopefully after a few hours of sleep. That was at about 7:30 PM.

During a brief lull my man pointed out the “gulls” just up stream from us. I’d seen the seagulls, but not the ea-gulls. There were two bald eagles helping the one thousand seagulls take care of the fish scraps that had been left behind by the many fisherfolk before us. I have never seen bald eagles in the wild, until this trip, now I’m up to five. Wow. Every time I see one that’s all I can say. Wow. I grabbed my camera, and as soon as I set one foot in the direction of the “gulls”, they eagles took to the wind and gracefully floated, against the wind, up the canyon. No picture, no proof, but I swear it to be true.

Five hours later, we’d caught our limit of twenty-five, with no rain. It was about 1:00 AM and we were exhausted. My man, more than me, having driven and then dipping for five straight hours, with blisters on his hands and fatigued muscles from such hard, steady labor. He is my hero.

I had visions of bundling up and getting some rest, me in the sleeper, which only fits one, my man on the bench seat of the truck, or vice versa. I was willing to give up the comfort of the sleeper to my hero. But, no, the plan was to hit the road and get back home, or as close as possible, before getting sleep. No espresso stand hot black coffee at 4:30 AM. Damn.

We headed out in near darkness, which was interesting, being further south and experiencing darkness to the point of having to turn the headlights on. Experiencing darkness for the first time in, like, two weeks, like it is totally foreign to me. But it seemed so. We stopped at “The Hub” and I bought three large cups of gas station coffee, two for my man, one for me, so I could stay awake and keep him awake. Fail. I didn’t realize I slept quite that much, but, come to think of it, the drive home did seem much quicker. I felt like I was awake for all the really important stuff, like seeing moose. Twenty-six of them in a ten-mile stretch. I think I’m Andy Rouse with my little digital Sony camera I bought at Times Square one trip to New York, on impulse, when my iPhone battery died at 10:00 in the morning. I’m actually trying to photograph moose on the side of the road with my point and shoot camera from a pickup truck doing sixty. “No, that brown blur is a tree, that one is a late model Subaru, that brown blur is a bald eagle. THAT one is the moose.” So, brilliance, I have my helmet camera with me. But no helmet. But, really, what would you say if you saw some chick, wearing a helmet, with a camera attached to it, slumped over and snoring in the passenger seat of a speeding pickup, clutching the biggest cup of cold gas station coffee a dollar and a half can buy? Right? Best I don’t have a helmet. So, for those brief, lucid moments, I hold the helmet camera up, roll down the window, stick the camera out the window while the truck slows to forty and hope for a better result. “No, really, the rack on that moose was over fifty! The moose is that thing you can almost see move between those two trees, behind that one rock, down that embankment. Close your left eye, you’ll be able to see it better.”

And so it was with the remainder of the trip home. A blur. Like the moose in my pictures. A blur. And then I woke up to two coolers full of salmon (the salmon saga continues tomorrow, which is already today, but in another letter).

The Painted Mountains
The Painted Mountains
The espresso stand!! <3
The espresso stand!! <3
All geared up
All geared up
The first catch
The first catch
My job
My job
Still baggin' fish
Still baggin’ fish
Like the moose in this picture, the drive home was a bit of a blur!
Like the moose in this picture, the drive home was a bit of a blur!