Archive for the ‘Nature’s bounty’ Category

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESI’m always startled into nostalgia when I come upon fireweed growing in Missoula. It’s such an Alaskan connection, my favorite wildflower and a vivid reminder of the decades I spent making the Last Frontier my home.



The alleyway that divides Missoula Textiles from Adventure Cycling is decidedly industrial. Walking back from my usual morning coffee I was delighted and surprised to spot this tenacious pioneer, struggling up through cracks in the hardscape. Like Alaskans, the fireweed is blossoming in a harsh environment, bringing beauty and a resolute spirit into the world and making me smile at the persistence of life.


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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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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.


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.


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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