Category Archives: Alaska

Goats and Oysters

What does a New Mexican hill top farm strewn with goats and an Alaskan bay filled with buoys have in common? Not much, except if you’re in the business of high end organic food.

In Alaska, it was oysters. In New Mexico, it’s been cheese. Both are businesses that got started because of one singular passion. For Mike, it’s the ocean. For Nancy, it’s rugged mountains. Both are paving a new way in their states’ organic food industry.

Pile o' oysters!

Overlooking Homer's Kachemak Bay

Oysters are not native to Alaska. I learned this within my first few days with Mike Nakada’s Northern Lights Oyster Company back in July. A lucky break had landed me there after finding Mike’s oyster farm on the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) website. I had emailed him on a whim, saying I could work for him sometime in the next week. He called me five minutes later. “Can you be here tomorrow?” and “Do you have boots?” were his only two questions. Sure, and no I didn’t have rubber boots. “That’s alright, we’ve got some somewhere around here.” We hung up and I kind of wondered what had just happened.

Christa, novice-turned-expert filleter

Can't get much better than home made smoked salmon

I arrived at his yurt in Homer the next day. His friend Bill had brought in close to 200 salmon from a recent run and the front yard was a dizzying mix of silvery bodies, knives, freezer bags, and the bright red of flesh and eggs. I dived right in and spent the afternoon learning to filet and smoke the salmon. (I was, for the record, horrible at it but the big German lab at my feet didn’t seem to mind the extra scraps.)

Setting out for the bay in the skiff

Homer likes to claim it's the halibut capital of the world, though nearby Seward says otherwise! Oh, fishing town rivalries...

The Susitna, home sweet crab boat

We set out for the farm a few days later in a small skiff that Mike kept docked on Homer’s spit. Leaving the harbor, we pass fishing boat after fishing boat coming in with their halibut catch, or what locals like to call “chickens,” the cornerstone of the Alaskan fishing industry. We pass a cruise ship (Alaska’s other cornerstone) and then hit the open water. The wind pushes the swells higher and doesn’t let up until forty minutes later when we turned into Jakolof Bay. Our bay. Our “farm.”

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“It’s a Great Place to Meet Someone”

I wrote this a while ago but held off posting it. Now, on the eve of starting my journey West, this feels like the right story to share…

I didn’t know Tyler well but we were a part of the same family of sorts in college. A really rambunctious, adventuresome family — known affectionately as “PWild” — that loved to take incoming freshmen backpacking every fall.

I got my first taste of PWild as a nervous, wide-eyed freshmen in 2003 when they bused us off to the wild woods of Kentucky to hike around for a week. I came back dirty, confident, and with the key to fall quarter freshmen happiness: friends.

I was hooked, became a counselor, and was out in the woods every fall for three more years to help a bunch of really great kids jump start their own college experiences.

Along the trail in northern Minnesota - 2004

"The Rock" at Northwestern after PWild got to it - 2004

Exploring Michigan's UP lakeshore - 2006

PWild was more than just these trips to me. It became my lifeline in college. It was my bat phone to like-minded, loving-life people who knew when to take a break, when to get serious, when to reflect, and when you were in need of just a really good big spoon. It’s also the family that showed me what a marvelous place the woods can be and how it can open you up in ways that is sometimes harder to do in the day-to-day spaces of life.

This spring brought devastating news that Tyler, a former PWild counselor too, had died in a sailing accident. Words can’t really express how news like that hits you. The overwhelming feeling was this: “please no, not Tyler.”

Because Tyler was special. He was warm, fun, smart, strong, handsome, and wise. Most importantly, he was someone who, in the instant you met, you knew had a grasp on life. He found joy in everything and everyone. And it radiated out through his big smile — one friend called it his “soul shine.” Continue reading

Dogs

There are many people — friends, family, total strangers — who have shaped my travels the past three months, some who have already shown up here and others who need to. But I’ve had some unexpected companions too — of the canine variety.

I, historically, have not been what you’d call a dog lover. I rarely am the first person to pet a dog as it enters the room. (And am rarely the one dogs are drawn to either — they always seem to sense my awkwardness.) But, in Alaska, all this changed. I don’t know why exactly but, dogs and me, we just started to get along.

This is not to say my childhood was devoid of furry friends. There was that week we had a golden retriever that my Mom found under our blueberry bush one morning, shivering. She had gotten spooked by the fourth of July fireworks and swam across our river. I came downstairs blurry-eyed and ran smack into her. I named her “Missy,” fed her cheese, and we were becoming pretty good playmates until her real owners finally came and brought her back to the other side of the river.

There was also that time my Mom and I drove an aggressive (but lovable) pitbull named Saki all the way from Nashville to New Hampshire. We unfortunately had to give him tranquilizers the whole way because, while Saki was fine around women, would jump and devoir any man in sight.

The closest thing I had to a dog growing up though was Goldie, my uncle and aunt’s beautiful mutt with a purple tongue. She also hated men, but loved to lick and go on adventures so that was good enough for me.

But it was in Alaska, and now back in the Lower 48, that I really got the sense of a dog as a companion — as a wonderful creature to share the world with and, in doing so, experience places in a whole new way.

Luna along the Lazy Mountain ridge, Palmer AK

My “gateway” dog was the one and only Luna in Palmer, Alaska. I stayed with her owners, Margaret and Michael, in their amazing cabin in the woods at both the start and end of my stay (and they are two people who, while appearing here now for the first time, really deserve much more mention — and soon — on all the ways they made Alaska for me).

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The Alternative Flute

Written last night after a long (but satisfying) day working on a family construction project at our lake house in upstate New York:

I stopped and started writing a few other things tonight but writing this story on this evening just feels right.

I’ve barely had time to think about where I was ten years ago today: Mr. Gunn’s eleventh grade U.S. History class. It was our first day and we were supposed to take a test on our summer reading, The Unredeemed Captive — the story of Eunice Williams captured at age 7 by the Mohawk during the Deerfield Massacre. (I don’t remember much of the story other than Williams decides to not return to her family in Massachusetts and, instead, lives out her whole life with the tribe — a choice that left an impression on me.)

I remember franticly looking the book over to cram for details before class. Before Mr. Gunn walked in. Before he sat down and told us about the “Twin Towers.” Before I had any idea what the Twin Towers were or looked like. Before September 11th was a date that meant something.

I remember by our afternoon English class everyone was talking about the draft — that this would become our Vietnam and all the boys I knew would go off to war. I remember thinking that was a pretty rushed conclusion to come to in a day but feeling the fear of it all the same; feeling like it could become real. And that possibility alone was enough to make the world suddenly become a place that was terribly unknown to me.

And this feeling has lingered. It’s lingered through a decade of choices from our leaders and everyday American responses that I can’t understand. I remember standing next to a man on that March day in 2003 when President Bush declared war in Iraq. I was in Florida with my family on vacation. He was cheering at the television. I felt so isolated in that moment — by his response and by my own nation’s.

This past decade has been filled with many moments like these for me; moments where I can feel the widening chasm between the collective actions of our country and my own beliefs.

But I don’t want to spend tonight dwelling on that. I want to close this day with a story about peace. It’s about making peace in your own corner of the universe, however you can:

The night before the fourth of July this year I was in Seldovia, Alaska. Originally established as a Russian fur trading post in the late 1700s, Seldovia is now a fishing town of 300. There are no roads connecting it to the rest of Alaska so people use boats or planes to get there. In true Alaskan charm, the tides are so high that houses are even built on stilts in some sections of town. (In fact, originally, the whole town was just a system of stilts and boardwalks.)

Sign going into Seldovia's bay

View of Seldovia's deep water dock at low tide

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Glaciers

“All men who come here live but a part of the truth; tomorrow will not be the same as today. The true reality of this land is change. The snowflake melts. Mountains crumble.” –John Milton, “Nameless Valleys, Shining Mountains”

Matanuska Glacier, northeast of Anchorage, AK

Aialik Glacier, Kenai Peninsula, AK

It is truly awe-inspiring to see a glacier, and even more unreal to stand on one. I don’t know exactly why, but it got me. Maybe it’s because, for the first time, I was seeing with my eyes how earth as we know it formed. Standing at its terminus, I could feel the process and it was alive and loud and powerful and beautiful and as old as old can get.

All my life, all our lives, we experience the results of glaciers — lakes, valleys, polished rocks, striated rocks, precarious boulders on the sides of mountains or that stray one in a field — and they speak to us about a process that has come and gone. Maybe you’ve passed a brown sign on the highway that says “something-Moraine State Park” or “Drumlin Trail”? All are words that describe what glaciers have left — ridges and hills.

Even now, I’m sitting here in an armchair overlooking a rainy day on Lake George, a lake formed on the edge of the Adirondacks by the Laurentian Glacier a very long time ago. Here, I grew up learning that words like “kettle” are for the deep holes found in rocks where glacial water dripped, dripped, dripped for years. (Probably my first unsuccessful attempt to fully grasp time. Something can drip and make…a hole…in a rock?) The Native Americans back in the day would ingeniously fill these kettles with wood to cook: a natural fire pit. Nowadays, The Kettles is a restaurant up the street and I’m not sure most people get the name.*

That’s why seeing real, live, breathing glaciers in Alaska left such a big impression on me: I’ve been living at the end of the story and finally got to go to the beginning. I feel more complete for it.

Here’s a tour through what I saw… Continue reading

It Started By The Fire

This story starts with a fire — like most good adventures. A fire. A fiddle. A hike. A lesson. A tsunami. And then, a beer.

On the top of Mount Marathon. Yes, that's a fiddle. Read on.

It’s June 22, the day after the solstice in the coastal town of Seward, Alaska and my first night in my new home aboard the Tumbleweed, a 36-foot sailboat in the small boats harbor (I’ll save that story for another day). I go for a walk to find something warm because living on a boat, although pretty much my ultimate fantasy, does get cold at night.

Out by the shore, I find a fire pit with some embers still glowing and a convenient log left by a family who bailed and went to bed. I’m standing up, warming my hands, when I see a kid strolling down the path with an old red hiking pack with lots of things strapped on. I’ve been in Alaska long enough to spot one: a traveler.

Around a fire is a great place to make a friend!

He’s got these tan arms that look like a man’s but his face is all boyish charm. And there’s another thing singularly traveler-like about him: he’s got the walk. The walk of a person who knows how to walk and walk and walk and walk some more. A kind of walk that has a purpose but doesn’t have a purpose at the same time. His whole life is in that walk. I invite him over.

He tells me his name’s “Chip,” or at least that’s what he goes by, and offers me some dried mangos he quickly digs out from somewhere. What follows is a night straight out of a Woody Guthrie song. (I know this for a fact because he later produces a mandolin, one of the many things strapped to his pack, and plays me a Woody Guthrie song.)

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Tourism and the Whale

Another thought.

There is another side to Alaska that I sort of knowingly excluded from my description of the whale that day on the solstice. And that’s a system that I was, in my own way, a part of  — tourism.

It was not just me on the bay that day seeing the humpback. It was me and the ten other people in our water taxi. And the hundred people beyond that in the tour boat. And, you know, the 5,000 other people beyond that on the cruise ship. Granted we weren’t all looking at the same whale (in fact ours didn’t start breaching until we were the only boat around), but you get the picture.

The two big economic engines of Alaska side by side: tourism and oil (Seward, AK).

So why did I exclude this side? I think because of ego. Because we as humans often operate from this intense, individualistic place that tells us we are special. This becomes particularly pronounced as a tourist: you want to find what’s unique. You want to experience what no one else has. I wanted to be Hemingway’s old man alone on a skiff with the great fish swimming.

But I wasn’t. I really felt at odds with this reality throughout my time in Alaska. And it got me thinking a lot about how we humans interact with a wild place. Continue reading