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Archive for the ‘Natural harvest’ Category

Highbush cranberry

Highbush cranberry

I had a dog who smelled like this when he was wet. Not completely unpleasant; the iconic fragrance of Alaska autumn.

Iconic, because the odor is wild; tangily sweet-tart, musky, a little doggish. It smells red. I envision the bears feasting, the ptarmigan and their offspring gorging, the kuspuk-and-raingear clad women braving wind and wet to bring home a harvest of these fat, succulent packets of concentrated vitamin C.

It is the overriding aroma of my cycling forays at this time of year. Especially on sunny days the crisp air is pungent with highbush cranberry and wet, decaying leaves, that winey fall essence of change. In the year’s dying I am energized, deeply alive to the wild beauty that is my privilege to call home.

I ride.

I breathe.

I smile.

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Summer in the Valley

Today was just one of those days–you know, when rather predictable, mundane chores turn into something else again. I started the day by driving into Palmer for an appointment, but was met at the door by the office manager who told me that it had been cancelled, as the physical therapist thought we were finished. Well, OK, that left more time to get into Anchorage for my afternoon appointment and a bike ride. So Tom and I loaded up the bikes in anticipation of a spin along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, always a favorite of ours.

However, the state troopers had other ideas. Seems they had the highway closed for HOURS, chasing a bad guy between Palmer and Anchorage. We cooled our heels in standstill traffic for over an hour before we could exit and  turn toward home.

I just couldn’t stand wasting the day however, so I had Tom drop me back in Palmer, where I changed into bike togs and hit the road. One of my favorite rides is around Farm Loop Road. There are several Community Supported Agriculture farms on this route; you know, where you buy a “share” and get a box of produce each week, allowing you to feast on whatever is in season. There are also several nurseries and greenhouses here–Palmer is the premier agricultural area in our Southcentral region. Here we combine two-to eight-foot topsoils with 19.5 hours of daylight in the height of summer to spectacular effect.

Earth Works Farm’s vegetable and flower offerings

There are hundreds of acres of flowers, vegetables  and hay grown here in the Mat-Su Valley, and I am very fond of telling my guests on the train all about the agricultural colony that was established during the Depression in 1935 in Palmer. Part of the New Deal, it aimed to settle the country, showcase Alaska as capable of supporting farms, and assist struggling farmers from northern states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan.

Such a sweet little Colony barn.

There are still some fine examples of period homes and barns, like the one to the right here, still in existence. And though only about 20 percent of those relocated farmers were still on their land after five years, agriculture is again a staple of the economy here. With the surge in interest in local, organic foods, farming in Palmer is experiencing a renaissance. Even before the “locavore” movement really got rolling you could find locally grown potatoes, carrots, cabbage and greens in the grocery stores. Now there is everything from summer squash to herbs to cheese, milk, meat and eggs available at the farmers’ markets. There is really no excuse for not eating well in the Valley!

Matanuska River and Knik Glacier in the background

On the ride home I stopped at the Matanuska River overlook, about 500 feet above that braided-channel, glacier-fed river. Recently, swollen first by melt due to fine weather and then by heavy rains, this river has carved a new channel, chewing through established banks to claim several homes and outbuildings in its relentless rush to the sea. For years I have watched the river’s depredations, swearing that I would never purchase property in its flood plain and ridiculing those who had. Now, all I feel is sympathy for those folks, losing their dirt, their home, their dreams to the iron whim of Nature. The Matanuska is beautiful, powerful, unpredictable and sometimes grim, reflecting the larger reality of life in the Last Frontier.

Matanuska River panorama

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quack

We have ducks.

Well, rather, Tom has ducks. We have not named them, even though they are cute, funny, a riot to watch and listen to. After all, they will be dinner this winter, and we consider it rude to make friends with beings that we will later eat.

After our dog Roxy was hit by a car last summer, Tom and I had a very serious discussion; we agreed that we would not have animals again until we stopped travelling so much. It’s really hard to find a reliable person to watch one’s livestock, and patently unfair to one’s pet to leave it with others for months at a time.

However, this summer we not only have ducks but have also been caring for our son’s blind, diabetic, aged husky. So much for resolutions, for laws laid down, for lines drawn in the sand. The heart decides otherwise.

At least all these animals are temporary. Son Tim will come home from his North Slope job and retrieve sweet Oliver. Tom will gird his heart with stoniness, remind himself of how wonderful duck grease is to cook with, and butcher the nameless ones.

First Sockeye!

At least it’s easier on the conscience to kill fish. They are not cute, though they are beautiful. We spent three days on the Kenai Peninsula with friends, harvesting and processing salmon. The first sockeye to hit my net leaped free when I pulled it in, a flash of quicksilver against the leaden sky, then gone. When I landed the next one, it slid silver and lively to the deck, slapping its tail with abandon, offering its beauty for my winter sustenance. I offered my thanks, grateful for the river’s bounty and my friends’ generosity.

Yum!

Once home the real work began. Tom cut and smoked the fish, and then I packed the glass jars and pressure-cooked them to preserve that smoky, oily goodness. There is nothing quite so satisfying to me as contemplating shelf after shelf of smoked fish, pickled beans, home-made jellies and canned cherries that I have put up with my own hands. Tom finds the same kind of heart’s-ease in gazing on three or four well-stacked cords of firewood that he has cut, linked and split; a job well done, necessities put by for the winter.

Satisfaction

Six cases done, eight more to go!

Today it is 72 degrees and sunny. Times like this, it’s nearly impossible to imagine winter. But the fireweed spikes are in bloom nearly halfway up, my peonies are finished, and I have harvested almost all the strawberries. I have potatoes and carrots to look forward to, and berry picking in the fall rains. The exquisite sweetness of the short Alaska summer fills my heart today; my soul knows that winter will come in turn, but we are well prepared.

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“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy…”

Clearly neither George Gershwin nor DuBose Heyward ever lived in Alaska. “The fish are jumpin'”, and that’s just part of the problem.

“Dances with fish”

“Fish on!”–or is that “in”?

Dipnetting for reds opens this week on the Kenai River. For those who don’t know, this is a fishery that is available only to Alaska residents, wherein one employs a long-handled dipnet of no more than 5 feet in diameter to catch sockeye salmon at the mouth of the Kenai River, the net being deployed either from shore or from a boat on the river. The head of a household qualifies most years for 25 fish; each other member of the household adds 10 more to that total.

Most years Tom and I bring home 35 reds that we catch in about two hours, thanks to our friends Brian and Traci. Theirs is the boat, the nets, the fuel, the expertise, the airplane ride to Kenai, the cabin we stay in, most of the food, wine and fun.

Home, home on the river…

Our intrepid pilot

Red salmon, green peppers–it’s Christmas in July!

Later in the season, Tom and I host what Brian cleverly calls our “Amish Weekend”.  We brine, cut and hang the salmon to glaze, using the stepladder in the garage as a rack. Tom and Brian smoke the fish for a few hours, then Traci and I load glass half-pint jars with salmon, adding jalapeno slices for just that hint of heat, and for beauty.  We gather around the propane burners and 32 quart pressure canners, drinking beer and red wine, laughing again at the fun we had on the river, grateful for the sacrifice of the fish, their silver, slippery, thrashing lives given for our sustenance.

During these canning marathons, we each put up more than 16 cases of jars–that’s almost 200 beautiful little packages of smoky, oily goodness. And believe it or not, we can gift and eat our way through almost all that in just one year!

The ladder makes a great glazing rack!

At solstice my home is bathed in over 19 hours of sunlight. The bounty of our Alaska summer is a result of those amazingly long days, and the work involved in harvesting and processing that bounty requires each and every one of those hours. Plant your seeds and then spring back; like Jack’s beanstalk, your pea vines may clip you in the chin if you don’t!

Potato harvest–purple, red and gold

In May the summer stretching out before me seems endless. By July, when the fireweed is just starting to bloom and traffic to the Kenai is crazy, I feel a sense of urgency coming on. Fishing, weeding, camping, weeding, biking, grilling with friends, canoeing, weeding–do I really have time for a job? But how to finance these habits without? By August, when I can finally see the stars again, I find myself already looking forward to next summer. I dream up plans for all the great bike rides, camping excursions, fishing forays and road trips I want to take, forever living for the future. Then the present chores and joys grab me by the shoulders, shake me hard and set me straight. I’m loving the now; let future pleasures lie. Soon enough they will come around.

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