Wednesday, October 28, 2009

It's Almost the Same Thing

But instead of rotting fish, the trail smells like rotting fruit.

Instead of mosquitos, there are fruit flies.

Instead of stopping to pick wild cranberries, I stop to shake a guava tree and catch the ripe ones that fall out.

And instead of finding snow and ice and Dall sheep at the top of the mountain, I find a view of this green green island and the blue blue ocean all around.

Welcome to Hawaii.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Not Scared. Not Scared At All.

This is what my sister says. What she means is: "This situation is not at all to my liking and there is a heck of a lot that could go wrong, but I've assessed all the factors and feel I can keep rising panic at bay."

This pretty much sums up my night. (Except I picked the situation because it was very much to my liking. But still.) The wind was making my tent scratch in such a way that I was constantly assuring myself it was not animals. The cold was threatening me from every angle but I kept repeating to my limbs: you are warm; you are warm. Etc. etc.

The nice thing about being on edge all night is that when it's over, you feel very much like you've conquered something. Even if all you did was sleep through it.

Especially when you wake up to snow landing on your tent but the fire starts up anyway. And you sit there waiting for the water in your bottles to thaw (frozen solid, even though I kept them inside my tent all night) watching seven swans take off up the slushy river, land, float back down, and repeat. It was their honking that told you to get up in the first place, since it's always dark deep inside a mummy bag.

Alongside the Nenana River, for a night of reflection and fulfilling self-challenge. Brr, it was cold. Overnight low of 12, I'm told. I feel ready for winter. Haha! no winter for me! I needed to experience at least a taste of it before heading off to Hawaii.

And hiking Mt. Healy the next day (after it stopped snowing) was perfect. Up at the top it was sunny - above the clouds - and warm. Well, warm is a relative term. But I felt toasty, heated as I was from the hike. And no wind. And lots of sheep.

The drive back was harrowing at times - 4 inches of slush on the roads that were clear when I drove the other way. But I made it. And loved it.

I will be back.

Friday, October 16, 2009

You Eat Funny Stuff when... are leaving town and trying to finish the last odds and ends of food. Especially when you didn't buy much of that food yourself, but it was bequeathed to you when everyone else left.

For example:
black bean-butternut squash-chipotle wraps
beer-buttermilk-lemon crepes
lentil-squash curry

It's actually been surprisingly good. I made some regular crepes and was so disappointed in them that I went back to the beer-buttermilk recipe. And who knew that you could put butternut squash in everything?

Of course, there's also those splurge meals where although you've vowed not to buy any more food, you suddenly find yourself at the farmer's market in Homer with the best looking fresh vegetables in your hand and it suddenly turns itself into a gourmet, $80 a plate meal for 5.

Kachemak bay oysters on the half shell? Yes please. Especially ones bought that day from the grower's association on the Homer Spit.

Seared blackened tuna? Yes please. Especially when it's hand-delivered by the woman who caught it in Mexico and served up with bleu cheese.

A bed of organic greens? Oh, yes please. I also won't complain about caramelized carrots, delicious organic strawberries, or organic lemons.

Clos du Bois merlot? Ok, if you insist.

Cranberry Pear Crisp with Vermouth and sweetened milk? Oh, you want me to have indigestion, do you? Well, lucky for all of us, such fresh food doesn't weigh us down even when we do overeat.

And to top it all off, a night of wonderful company with three old Bohemians and one young one too. Hooray for me.

It looks like a cute fuzzy bunny.

Well, it was a cute fuzzy bunny. Until it got eaten. Now it’s a pile of guts that have sprouted inch-long white tufts of fine, fibrous mold. And I get to walk by it every day on my way to work.

I love living here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I Couldn't Let It Conquer Me

So I went back.

Back to Skyline Trail, where I fell off a cliff and ruined my body forever.

Okay, melodrama aside, I fell off some rocks I was scampering on and sprained my ankle. But it was a really bad sprain - 3 torn ligaments. I was on crutches for 3 weeks and it hurts even now, 12 weeks later. It definitely put a damper on the second half of my summer. I refused to let it get me down mentally, but it was a bummer not to participate in all the hiking and backpacking I had planned.

Fortunately it didn't stop me from leading the fall fire field trips - a 2.5 mile hike - though it was a challenge at times. Now, even though my ankle aches and stiffens up at the slightest exercise, I feel confident that I can do anything on it. Gingerly, but anything.

So I knew I needed to conquer Skyline before the summer ended. Columbus Day, a day off that dawned a magnificent sunny blue sky and an unheard of 50 degrees: a day to hike! To put old adversaries to rest!

Rachel, Emily and I hiked to the tippity top of the trail. From there the view is spectacular. Could we see Denali? Maybe that huge white beast way past Anchorage is her, visible 700 miles away only because of refraction.

The recent wind storm knocked all the leaves off the trees, and even knocked a huge cottonwood across the trail. Despite the bizarre warmth and lack of snow at the upper altitudes, fall has indeed passed us by. Only the last vestiges cling, a few moldy spots of yellow in an umber landscape. It feels like resolution; it feels like time to leave.

Dried seed pods and crisp brown flower petals crinkle along the trail and invite thoughts about fertility, decay, cycles and seasons. It feels right to be a woman today. It feels right to be three strong women on a mountain top, bareing ourselves to the view and the wind and the turning tides.

From my ankle's point of veiw, the exercise was anticlimatic. The way up presented no challenge. On the way down, thanks to the tension and precision needed to keep myself from waah-tumbling down the mountain, both feet cramped up, but I kept moving, and soon we were eating yummy veggies, homemade hummus, and green hempseed butter. Our bodies felt good! fresh! alive!

It was a good day.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Paths Are Paved With Gold

The multi-hued yellows from aspen, birch, and cottonwood adorn the trails inches thick under every tree. When the leaves land this way, the winking yellow glitters; when they land that way, the pale underbelly gives depth to these alchemist's cobblestones. Gold!

The spruce trees - greedy bastards - not satisfied with keeping their green, also want to adorn themselves with yellow and gold. Jealously they cling to leaves spurned by their deciduous counterparts. Now evergreens boast, as well as needles, leaves plastered to their boughs.

It reminds me of hair, wet blond hair stuck to the ruddy faces of shivering fourth graders learning about pH and macroinvertebrates hiding in 41 degree water.

It's the kind of weather we love to hate: grey, drizzly, winter's coming sort of weather. Leaves shake off the trees as if a gale blows them down, but really it's just grey that whips their frenzy.

The leaves look like the gulls hovering in the air, catching the updraft, testing it for temperature and moisture content. Is California calling them yet? Is it time to wing it outta here? Are we blowing the wind or is the wind blowing us? Who knows.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Tale About Smoking

Smoking fish, that is.

My dad had a smoker that got used a handful of times during my childhood. I have vivid memories of seeing it chugging away in the back yard, covered by that old quilted blanket, but I don't remember ever liking anything produced from its smoky belly. Dried out hams and turkeys, I think. My poor father - generally an exceptional cook, but always the experimenter. One too many failed smoking projects and he lost all support from his family to attempt again. We wanted a dinner we could eat, after all.

Here in Alaska, smoking fish is a perfected science. It provides an easy way to preserve fish or use up those not-quite-grillable pieces. Last week a friend had some lingcod belly pieces left over from a deep sea fishing expedition. We smoked them up in some coconut rum-ginger-lime brine with hickory chips, which gave it a very smoky, vaguely sweet taste. This week it was some fish I found buried in the back of the Common's freezer. Now that everyone is gone except me, all property reverts to the last man standing.

With my not-so-grillable salmon rescued from the freezer coils, I made a brine of coriander, black pepper, dill, yellow mustard, celery (all in seed form), crushed bay leaf, and fresh garlic. These I heated in some water to release the aromas, then added to a salt, lemon, brown sugar and water marinade.

The salvaged fish went into the brine, and was forgotten for a while. In the meantime we ate a feast:
Lingcod steaks grilled with lemon peel
Home-grown oyster mushrooms sauteed with soybeans and garlic
Caramelized dill carrots
Brown rice with tomato and parmesan
Homemade wheat bread
Red wine (of course)
and for dessert, my absolute favorite, Flan

Ok, now that you're drooling, back to the fish. After brining for 3 hours, we laid the pieces out on the smoker rack (my pitiful salmon scraps only filling one shelf - compared to Rachel's lingcod which needed two batches to fit it all). Then the serious business starts: smoking.

I used alder chips for a more mild smoke flavor (and because the bag said it was the best for fish) and Dominic's hot smoker. The coil in the bottom of the smoker (a metal box about 3x2x1 ft) heats up a pan of wood chips sitting on top of it. The chips slowly smolder and fill the box with heat and smoke. Every 45 minutes to an hour, the blackened chips must be tossed over the deck railing and the pan refilled with fresh ones. We started smoking at 10:30. I was up all night.

Ok, that's a lie. The hot smoke works relatively quickly, and by 2:30 I was done resetting my alarm and snuggled down on Dominic's couch to sleep the rest of the night. The salmon sat outside on the deck in the unplugged smoker until morning, inviting all sorts of creatures to investigate and steal it. Fortunately it was still there in the morning.

And delicious! I'm so proud of my little fish babies. Now I just have to figure out what to do with it, since I can't take it with me...