Saturday, May 23, 2020

Rainy Day Food Plans

A cold wet day at the lake with swans, scaups, and golden eyes practicing touch-and-goes through the rain. A land otter was working the shore last night, feeding on salmon smolt, popping up like a seal periodically to stare at me through the rain. It’s the kind of day for soup or a good pot of beans. 
I’ve always been a fan of beans, — as a kid, I even would drink the hot bean juice ladled off the top of the pot— and chilly, damp day calls a pot of it simmering on the stove with cornbread in the oven. It’s one of those meals I grew up with and kept loving as an adult. I know for some people the food of their childhood has no appeal when they grow up, but for me a pot of beans simmered with a ham bone or bacon rind is full of flavor and memory. 
  American tradition holds a pot of beans in low esteem and harkens back to the Great Depression or other times when food was dear and meat was a luxury unless you could butcher a moose, pluck a chicken, or hook a salmon. For me, it’s a memory of the finest days of my childhood when we were all together in our green-log cabin with dad at one end of the table and mom at the other, anchoring our vessel in any storm. 
Back in early April the grocery store ran out of dry beans and cornmeal needed to make complementary cornbread. Such a run on stable food made me wonder if people were really eating that much cornbread and beans or just stocking up for the apocalypse. Or maybe I’m not the only one that is comforted by such basic foods. 
My mom bought beans in twenty-five-pound bags and the same for cornmeal. She was from Kentucky where she was taught that only livestock and white trash ate yellow corn. Upstanding white folk ate white cornmeal. Needless to say, by the time we were Alaska homesteaders we had moved beyond that and in fact I think we all preferred the coarse texture and flavor of the yellow cornmeal. Cornbread is a quick bread with simple recipes that pairs nicely with a big bowl of beans. Sometimes we split a chunk of cornbread and ladled the beans over the top, my sister liked to smear her cornbread with butter and crumble it on top of her beans. Now I like to keep them separate. 
  Mom had to make a ton of cornbread because there were seven of us a the table and sometimes a local stray. Not only did we need enough for the meal but also for dessert. Dessert was a chunk of cornbread spread with butter and rhubarb jam or honey. Not my dad and I, dad liked to crumble his cornbread into a tall milk glass, add a spoon of sugar, and top it off with milk. I followed suit, and we ate our makeshift pudding with a spoon out of our milk glass. 
  Beans are easy to cook and they can be pretty bland without flavoring, but Mom would add ham hocks or an old ham bone with trimmings and some chopped onion. OF course, we didn’t always have those luxuries around, but we did buy bacon by the slab. Slab bacon came with the fatty skin attached and she would filet that bacon skin from the rest of the slab and slice it to simmer in the beans. Some clove and bay leave added to the smoky flavor of the bacon rind, and the rind turned tender and tasty. With the hot cornbread, some diced onion, and a bowl of cottage cheese the table was set. Yes, we topped our bowls of beans with a dollop of cottage cheese —and for me a good sprinkle of pepper. 
Let it rain, I say. Let’s dig out the bean you stashed for emergencies, and make a skillet full of cornbread.



Monday, April 20, 2020

Back in the Day, A Undocumented History of Forty Years in Seward

The Walkers, 1980
This is a piece I prepared for a public reading scheduled for this spring in Seward. That reading, of course, never happened, so I offer it here. 
Back in the Day, before cruise ships, tour boats, and kayak guides, people came for the fish. They came in wooden halibut schooners older than the town, and they came in limit seiners and gillnetters converted for longlining. 
Back in the day before the oil spill of 89, the flood of ’86 and the quake of ’64, people came for the jobs. They came for longshoring on the pipe ships for the oil patch, herring stripping, and salmon canning, jobs that fringed the waterfront like beachgrass, beholden to the sea. 
Back in the day, we had the railroad, the Tustumena, the Army Rec Camp, and the Skill Center to pay our wage. Seward Fisheries and Anderson Seafoods let you squeeze herring until your wrists froze up like a rusty pump. The fish meal plant cooking —That’s the smell of money!
Back in the day, churches and bars were running neck and neck. We had Tony’s, the Yukon, the Pioneer, the Showcase, Breeze Inn, The Pit, and the FlamingO to take our money and ease our pains. We had the churches too: Episcopalian, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Church of Christ, Lutheran, and even the Mormons and the Pentecostals showed up to save our souls on Sunday after Saturday’s debauchery. 
Back in the day, the most variety of groceries was at Seward Trading Company but the best produce was always at Bob’s Market. The best meal was breakfast at the Pioneer or the crab salad sandwich at the Harbor Dinner club. Yeah, we had Apollo Pizza too, Back in the day.
Back in the day, we had charge accounts at Mcmullen's and Seward Hardware and Seward Building Supply. Just sign the ticket and away you go, we’ll send you a bill. If you can’t find what you are looking for you probably don’t need it. 
The author with brother Dave and Father-in-law
 on a moose hunting trip.
Back in the Day, we had TV but not much: PBS, WGN (Chicago) and RATNET. Only sinners and old women watched daytime TV back then, Soap operas and Jim Baker’s PTL Club. PTL stood for Praise the Lord but it looked more like Pass The Loot.
Back in the day, the four seasons were winter, breakup, fishing season and hunting season. In the fall it didn’t quit raining it just changed to snow. Then it snowed so much that come Fourth of July we had to pile it up and burn it. 
Back in the day, Seward had Seward Bakery, and a barbershop, Dreamland Bowl, Lechner’s Machine Shop, the Liberty Theater —Family Night on Wednesdays, and First Video, the best video rental in the state. Highlights of the year were the 4th of July, the Salmon Derby, and the Purple Bubble Ball, the winter gala at the Elks club.
Brian Walker on the Maxine
Way back in the day, we had a Dairy on Dairy Hill and Lumber mill on Bear Lake, and Mark Walker ran the Breezin’ Along and then the Maxine, big wooden boats that chugged out the bay a hundred days a summer take Army Rec Camp people fishing. One day each summer, one day, he loaded the boat with birders and the fishing rods stayed in the racks. “Who would think,” he said, “that people would pay perfectly good money to go for a boat ride and look at birds.”
Way back in the day, a school teacher named Monty Richardson took his buddies fishing in his fourteen-foot skiff if they brought the beer. Then he found out strangers would pay money and bring the beer to go fishing, so he let them until the Coast Guard said he needed a license, so he studied, took the test and had a legal charter boat. Not the first man to say, “I’m going to need a bigger boat.” 
Our first house in Seward,1978
Back in the day, Herman Lehrer said, “We oughta have a road out to that glacier up the valley, and he made a road with his dozer and stubbornness —Permits are pending. That’s how they say it happened. Then people went to see the glacier and said, “Wow, they oughta make this a national park.” The Feds did make a national park west of town and at first, nobody noticed. When they did notice, people said, “Where is Kenai Fjords?” Because there was the Bay (capital B) and the Gulf (capital G) and the Sound (capital S) but where in the Hell was the Fjords (Fa-jords, capital F)?
Back in the Day, Don and Pam Oldow saw those people willing to spend good money to look at birds and whales and glaciers. They were glad to take that money and give ‘em a ride on their boat. And then they needed a bigger boat, the Spirit I think, and Pam said, “Let’s call our business Kenai Fjords Tours.”
Back in the day, we found out there was a fifth season, tourist season. Don’t know how we were able to fit that in because the calendar hasn’t changed since back in the day, so it must have been cut out of fishing and hunting season. 
That’s how it was back in the day when we came for a visit and stayed forever.


Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Sunny Promise of March


I’m long past late on posting to the Bear Lake Journal, and you can thank (or blame) my buddy, Paul Tate for prodding me in this direction.

Looking out my window at the white expanse of the snow-covered lake one might think we are in the dead of winter, but the bright sun high in the sky and the pavement-hard snow will tell you we are well into spring. The young bare branches of the willows are turning red as the sleepy plants start to wake and the siskins and grossbeak add movement and song to the scene. The snow has blown or melted off the trees and the steep banks along the shore are starting to show dirt and grass. The driveway is a mix of bare gravel and treacherous ice pans that have already taken me to the ground when I baby-step across to feed the dogs.

On the mountains above the lake, the snow is deep and wind-carved but the rugged shoulders of rock are poking through, creating accent and depth. After four days of false breakup with temperatures in the high forties, we have turned cold again, so that the ski trail doesn’t soften until late afternoon and even then it’s a noisy grating crust with little give to it. Even the moose are crossing the lake without post-holing.

People who love the outdoors find March in Alaska a most special of times, especially when the skies are clear of clouds. By mid-March, mornings are light early and the sun is high enough in the sky to bathe most of our valley in the sunlight we missed during the heart of winter. By the end of March, the evenings are light until after nine, and we are out of energy long before we run out of light for work or play. For the next six months, we will be burning daylight. When I was young I could use all that daylight and have a second wind after supper, but now I mostly admire the beauty of it all.

I remember as a boy in Happy Valley that these crisp March days opened up the acres for my play because I could run across the clearing and through the forest on top of the snow peering into tree wells for treasures like fallen bracket fungus or lost toys. My sisters and I played hide seek this way hiding behind stone-like snow berms and dropping in the sheltering bowls around the trunks of trees. Instead of trapped on the shoveled paths and driveways, we could range wide on the crust gift of March mornings.

Yesterday I took advantage of the crusty snow to drop a dead tree and buck it up for firewood. This is excellent wood getting weather with hard dry snow for walking on in the woodlot and cool air for hot
work. While the snow on the lake is clean and white like a rumpled bedsheet, the snow in the woods is dusty and peppered with fallen spruce needles and littered with branches and bark blown off of trees during the harsh winds that scoured our lake most of the winter. I add my sawdust to the litter.

This is the time we look ahead to summer, and the signs are all around the place by the time we turn the calendar to April. The south-facing front porch smells of potting soil and seeds, the snow shovel has fallen over in place where the snow has melted around it, and nuggets of dog crap appear from under the snow to expose our winter negligence. We wonder aloud how many days of skiing are left in the ablating snow on the lake and anticipate the return of migrating waterfowl and the distant call of sandhill cranes passing overhead. But not yet for the mornings are still crisp, the wood stove is still warmer than the sun, and there is snow in the forecast.



Tuesday, July 9, 2019

What I Learned Under the Dome


July 9, 2019 Bear Lake — AKA Smoky Bear Lake

The heat dome has been covering Alaska for a month now, making the sturdiest of sourdoughs beg for mercy. Whether you call it global warming, climate change, or just really hot dry weather, the state is getting drier and drier and more wildfires torch daily. Temperatures at Bear Lake were in the eighties for the first several days of July and during those days the smoke from wildfires was so thick that our mountains were mere silhouettes, two-dimensional cutouts of themselves. Fifty miles to the northeast a large wildfire is reshaping the biology of the National Wildlife Refuge.
Because of the heat and in spite of the smoke life is in an altered state. We get to wear clothes that we usually only take on vacation, and much of our time is spent outside or on the porch overlooking the lake (we are long past the age of lying in the sun like white brauts on the grill). The lake is warmed to comfortable swimming hole temperatures, and morning coffee on the patio feels like a trip to the lower latitudes. The grandkids have become marine mammals, in and out of the water constantly like river otters. We close up the house during the day to keep out the heat and open it at night to cool, just like they do in hot places all summer long. But here in Seward, Alaska where a sixty-five-degree day is just fine and often as good as it gets, keeping the house cool is usually not an issue. Finally, we start missing the rain.

I learned something during the strange, hot, smoky interlude of summer, many things in fact. Here is a list: 

— It’s possible to have a tropical heatwave in the near Subarctic. As close as I can understand, a heat dome occurs when warm tropical air moves from the ocean to the land and gets trapped under a high-pressure zone. AKA heat wave, a tropical heatwave!  Wait! I know that song.

— Things can always get worse. We drove across the Kenai Peninsula the first week of June and complained about the long delays for road construction. On the way home, we drove through the thunderstorm that started the Swan Lake Fire and saw some of its first smoke, a white plume no bigger than a bonfire might produce. A month later we are chocking on the smoke from that fire and driving across the Peninsula has been even more challenging. Looking back what’s a short delay for construction?
— I can now recite the fire evacuation levels, Ready, Set, Go. Level One (Ready): A fire is in the area; make a plan to evacuate and organize what you take and leave behind. Level Two (Set): Get your shit together so when it’s time to go, you can grab the car keys and hit the road. Food and water packed in the escape vehicle, Documents and papers collected and loaded in the vehicle; pets, kids, wife, and mother-in-law all rounded up and kept close. Level Three (GO)  Evacuate with all things and people you planned to take, Check in with Red Cross so you are accounted for. Don’t return until things are clear.

—Dogs are smart, smarter than humans often, this human anyway. My old Alaska sleddogs have no interest in working when the temperature is about seventy. While I was splitting firewood at eighty degrees they were lying in the shade napping. They knew we didn’t need firewood right now and there would be plenty of fifty degree days between now and winter to do this splitting. No need to work when the thermometer says eighty. 

— Never say never. Here in the northern rainforest, we don’t fret much about fire. That changes now. After a month without rain and high heat and wind working across the land, we are drier than the proverbial popcorn fart. We are only one careless camper away from our own wildfire.

— More women in Alaska own bikinis than you’d think. Everyday folks show up at the lake in their swim trunks bikinis and less. It is rare to see the lake dotted with people in swimsuits in country where  Extratufs, jeans, and hoodies are standard issue. I’ve seen more skin this month that all the rest of my ten years on the lake. Not complaining, just sharing data.

—The beauty of nature comes in many forms. Some summer evenings I paddle late across the lake and look at the setting sun, soaring mountains, and maybe a bear or moose. Under the heat dome with temperatures in the seventies well after dinner, I paddled across the lake and around the north end of the island to find something new, three nubile young women, sitting on a rock sunning their legs and sipping beers. They were as surprised as I was, but I think I was more pleased. 

The heat dome appears to be weakening and rain showers are in the forecast. It may well be years before we experience something like this again. But then again, it could be the new norm. One thing is for sure, life in Alaska is only boring if you’re not paying attention. 



Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Fine Trip? It's All in How You Look at It


So, the other day my gal and I took our thirty-five-year-old Albin out to Humpy Cove for an overnight. It was supposed to be a two or three-night trip, but things changed like the weather forecast being sloppy, and our energy being low and the boat not really clean from a winter sitting in the boat harbor. 
We were a month late on the usually things one does to get a boat ready for summer cruising like sorting out what got crammed in lockers when we put it away in a hurry last fall and drying out area of the boat that got wet and wiping down the algae that built up on the outside and the mildew that formed on interior surface. Okay, we were really six weeks late. We spent a few hours down that the boat harbor getting the first layers of grim off the old girl, but it wasn’t a pleasant spring experience it usually is. A crew of pile drivers were working in the background, and our old backs were soon aching from bending and stooping to scrub all those little corners and edges that need cleaning every spring.
We had wisely blocked out a week for potential boat trips each month and this was the first week and by God, we were going, hell or high water —an idiom that doesn’t work very well with boating since boats like high water. Anyway, we set out for Day Harbor, a four hour trip in our slow trawler. No, the boat wasn’t totally clean, and no the gear wasn’t all stowed, but we had food, water and all systems that needed to work were up and running. The seas were sloppy once we passed through the narrows exposed the boat to the Gulf of Alaska and the winds were forecast to blow up in the evening. We decided we didn’t feel like being knocked around, and staying inside Resurrection Bay didn’t look like a bad option. The sun was shining, the humpbacks were showing their fins so all was right with the world. 
We ditched the Day Harbor plan, did a tour of Fox Island and Sunny Cove, then headed for Humpy Cove where we hoped to anchor in the protected creek mouth in the Cove’s south end. This tiny anchorage was empty so we dropped anchor, had lunch and then tackled some of the sorting and cleaning jobs we meant to do before we left the harbor. Suddenly the arduous task of boat cleaning and maintenance became a pleasant afternoon’s distraction between reading, talking to seals and sea lions, and napping. By dinner time we had sorted through all the lockers and storage tubs, cleaned windows, and decks, and started a list of things we needed. 
The next day we rowed around the cove in our dinghy, logged more naps, and filled a garbage bag and a tote bag with things to go home or to the trash. Our mantras were: “Do we really need this? And Do we really need more than one of these? For example, we found one locker near the steering station had four knives and two knife sharpeners. These don’t include the knife I always have in my pocket, the one hanging in easy reach in the wheelhouse and the several knives in the galley. We found flares expired in 2007 and phone charging cords that didn’t fit any of our phones. We were fighting weight creep and proud of it. (weight creep is the addition to the boat’s weight a few pounds or ounces at a time by bringing things on and not taking things off.) Working in a quiet, scenic cove made the work a pleasure not drudgery like it was in the boat harbor and the afternoon beers were well earned. When I took a break from cleaning, sorting and napping I had New York Times crosswords and Mark Twain feed my brain. Madelyn disappeared into historic China for several unaccounted hours.
We weren’t without company in our private natural retreat. The guillemots and sea lions stopped by to visit and a harbor seal kept us under close observation all during our stay. A few kayakers paddled by and waved and an inflatable hauling three Anchorage teachers stopped by to admire our the Albin. Another local retired couple motored in to anchor after a day of fishing and we had the three-part catching up talk of family, health, and winter travels. Finally, come evening, it was time to leave and we pulled anchor and starting bouncing our way home with a south wind and the usual chop of Resurrection Bay in total agreement that it had been a fine escape. 
It wasn’t until we were abeam of Lowell Point that Madelyn complained of smell the exhaust that came from having the wind on our stern. Then she checked the aft cabin to close the ports before docking and found it more like a sauna than anything else. “It’s really hot back here,” she complained. 
“It always heats up that cabin when we’re running,” I answered. 
“but we’ve got steam coming out the engine vents,” she replied. At that, I looked back and saw steam or smoke pouring out of the aft cabin. 
“Take the wheel!” I yelled and jumped to the engine hatch. I opened the hatch to a spray of saltwater and steam. “Cut back the throttle and put it in neutral! And watch the temperature gauge!” I yelled. I had to figure out where the spraying water was coming from. I thought we’d blow a coolant hose, but the temperature was holding at 190, and oil pressure where it should be at fifty. It only took a second or two to see that the cast iron elbow that connected engine manifold to the four-inch exhaust hose was broken, and we were pumping saltwater into the boat instead of out the stern where it should go. We weren’t on fire, we still had power, and we weren’t sinking, yet.  
“Keep it slow and start motoring toward town,” I said, “And turn on the bilge. I think I can rig a fix.” I pushed the broken pieces together and by holding them in place, got most of the exhaust going where it should. I jumped to my now well-organized rope locker and found a neatly coiled length of 3/8 inch line. That morning I had sorted through a heap of mooring lines and various lengths of rope and coiled and stowed them in a tidy tub. I knew just the one I needed.
The rope was just the right size to lash the broken parts together and get things back to near normal in the engine room. Now, most of the exhaust was going into the hose where it belonged. 
With a collective sigh of relief, we continued toward the boat harbor at low rpm and even had a laugh at how good it was that we knew where everything was during the emergency because in the last twenty-four hours we had literally touched everything on the boat. We made a plan for any problem we might have during the last two miles to our slip at the boat harbor, and Madelyn cleaned up as much of the mess as she could. 
We made our landing without incident and opened beers to congratulate ourselves on being a good team when the emergency hit, and we toasted our luck that this happened only a couple miles from home instead of out in Day Harbor or around Aialik Cape where we often cruise. 
That night when I crawled into bed, Madelyn reached over patted my shoulder. “Thanks for a great trip,” she murmured, ”I had a wonderful time.”  


Tuesday, October 23, 2018

What am I Doing Here?

I used to say that when I could --that is when I quit teaching school-- I would leave Alaska during October. The dark, wet fall of the eastern Kenai Peninsula is dank and depressing like no other time of year. The long stretches of rain and flood, the deep darkness of nights without stars, moon or snow are the darkest time of year. Even the October holiday, Halloween, is not my cup tea though I honor those who embrace this celebration of death and branched trees standing skeleton like in the dripping forest full of shadow, clothed in mourners colors of black, brown, and grey. 
I wanted to be somewhere and be dry and light during October, camping in the Valley of Gods or hiking the Gila Wilderness, but here I am during the third week of October,  looking out at the rain driving against the window and behind it the dark silhouette of the willows with the last wilted leaves clinging to the branches like used Kleenex. 
If I had packed my bags and grabbed a middle seat on some southbound redeye what would I miss? The rain ‘heavy at times’? The wind gusting to 55 mph like it is today? Repeated flood advisories, warnings, watches?  Would I miss soggy newspapers and scattered porch debris? Maybe even the two trick or treaters that manage to find my house?
But I didn’t leave, and instead, I was here when the swans blew in on a storm honking their horns like they had won the election, their wings big as sails. Instead, I was here when the eagles quarreled over the salmon on my yard and the flocks of migrating ducks came by to feed on the rich lake margins and stay until the last storm before the ice comes. I was here when I could walk the lake trail and see deep into the forest because the umbrella-sized devils club turned to gold then dropped to rot in the mossy forest floor. I was here to bounce my grandson on my knee and meet his cousins at the bus. I was here for saunas and firewood fetching and watching Molly cut the last flowers from Nana’s garden.

I got to drink coffee with my gal on the world’s best porch and watch the otters play on our dock, cavorting and looking over their shoulders like neighbor kids who know they aren’t supposed to be there. I got to putter in my shop or write through the morning. I got to be in this place where I've been longer than I’ve been anywhere else and there’s a good reason for that.  

Yeah, it’s still dark and wet and depressing like no other month but soon it will pass and after those two treat-or-treaters come to share my bowl of Reeses Cups on Halloween, we’ll be into the cold, windy November. And who wants to miss that?

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Women Rocking the Boat


A few months ago when famous men were getting a long-overdue ass kicking for mistreating women, women stood up and elbowed their way to the front of the room. I watched male power figures fall, and I thought, wow this is the year of the woman. Then, during the Olympic Games it seemed that only American women were winning medals, and I said it out loud, “This IS the year of the woman, and I’m diggin’ it.”
Ready for the Water!

My point was proven in a personal way this month when Madelyn and I traveled to Port Hadlock, Washington to visit a project started by a group of women to resurrect a piece of maritime history, a twenty-three foot sailboat, the Felicity Ann. 
In 1952, a hapless British widow with little sailing experience and an iron spine, bought a twenty-three foot sailboat, stocked up on food and water then sailed across the Atlantic to America. She sailed alone, teaching herself navigation and seamanship as she battled wind, tide, and current as well as self doubt and fear. She was the first woman to sail solo across the Atlantic.  In doing so, she broke one more barrier for women and became a national hero. Unfortunately, today few people know the name of Ann Davison.
Most of the hardware is original from the boat.
Lots of new wood.


Felicity Ann's graceful stern.
Our relationship with the Felicity Ann and the amazing Ann Davison started just north of Seward on the shores of Kenai Lake, where we met two woman who had owned the boat and stored it in their yard for a number of years. Realizing that the project was bigger than they were, they passed it on a man in Haines.  Left behind were the port and starboard navigation lights, which we purchased and brought home along with the story of Ann Davison and her little boat. Over the years, we read Ann Davison’s book My Ship is So Small, and kept track of the Felicity Ann through the Internet and Wooden Boat magazine. 
Madelyn poses in Ann
Davison look-alike
From all that I can gather, Felicity Ann spent over fifty years like a needy foster child, bouncing from one home to the next when she proved to be too much work. Restoring a wood boat is a time and money black hole and the longer it’s put off the bigger it is. After the home in Haines didn’t prove out for Felicity Ann, she headed south to the NorthWest School of Wooden Boat Building in Port Hadlock, Washington, where the skills, knowledge, and tools existed to make her whole again. All that was missing was energy. That momentum came in the form of a group of women at the Port Hadlock Community Boat Project. This outfit wraps their energy around boats and young people, and Felicity Ann was a natural match for them. 
Community Boat Project Shipwright,
Wayne Chimenti, and Felicity Ann's new
Skipper, Nahja, admire the navigation lights
we brought to Port Hadlock.
So now this historic relic has been brought back from the brink, and this summer her keel will be wet for the first time in decades.  Our little piece of this adventure was returning the navigation lights to their place with the boat and being rewarded with a tour of Felicity and her new home in Port Hadlock.
This summer Felicity Ann with be launched into the waters of a different ocean, but still with a woman at the helm, thanks to a group of sailors who wanted to remember that while women rise up today there were strong women in the past who ignored the bias and the boundaries put up by men and moved forward to do great things.
--- Ann Davison’s book, My Ship is so Small, is a great read and the following websites will allow you to follow Felicity Ann’s modern story:
The Felicity project is also on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/FelicityAnnBoatProject/