Saturday, December 22, 2007

Our Annual Seattle meet-up!

Our Annual Seattle trip was full of great visits with truly awesome friends, who stay close friends regardless of the time and distance between us in the rest of life. And of course Esther and Ya-Ya had the best time together!

Here are Esther and Ya-Ya under the amazing aquarium at the Rainforest Cafe.

Esther with Adriana and Sandra -- Esther and Adriana are destined to be best buddies:

We got to meet Lucas Hunter Marshall, the newest addition to the Marshall family, and he is so super cute and STRONG!:

And it was great to stay with our heart-friends Joyce &Erik (and we even caught a glimpse of Sylvia!):
We also had a great dinner and evening with Melissa & Dan and Carrie & Kara. It was a great trip, and for the first time in years, (knock on some major wood!) I didn't get stuck in the airport either direction.... :)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The first snow: Early October

What a gorgeous surprise to wake up to, one Saturday morning in early October: our first snow, and a substantial one, too. Esther had cousins Avery and Jasmine over for a sleepover, so we all got dressed to go "play out."Jasmine making snow people on the porch.
And of course, a roll down the hill was necessary:

Our sweet new Addition

She's just the best dog. We rescued her from certain Hooper Bay dog death, and I think she knows. She is probably around a year old, and she is the spitting image of the dog I fell in love with, here, two years ago -- must be the original Odin's daughter. She came with the name Abby and I was going to change it, but then it just suits her sweet nature.
She's excellent with Esther, as you can see, and she's very happy being an outside dog. In fact, she seems to think her little house that we built for her is the bomb. She has also caught tundra mice in the grass on our walks, so I am really afraid to let her in the house with my kitty Ping. Best to just keep them in their separate realms, I think!

She's just the perfect dog for us: not small, but not too big, really nice coloring and a good thick fur coat, and a very lovable demeanor. Note that the stripe down her snout goes all the way onto the black of her nose! Cute.

The Fall Tundra

Fall on the tundra lasts a millisecond -- it's good to capture it while it lasts:
Behind Esther, to the right of her, you can see the small arch of a rainbow.
Esther catching a ride on Tuluk's shoulders.
In this picture, it's early October, and already the sun is rising so late that I could take this sunrise picture from my classroom window during the first hour of school (so around 9:30am), I think.

Esther's first boat ride: Across Hooper Bay to Chevak

The Sunday of Labor Day weekend, Tuluk chauffered us to Chevak on an amazingly calm, sunny afternoon. The water was so smooth:It was Marta's first time out on the bay, and to Chevak, as well.
Esther loved it so much that she fell asleep. It was super-cute, though, thinking of her getting so much healthy fresh air that she zonked out. :)

Merry Manuqing

On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, Marta, Esther, and I joined Tuluk a short walk from town to spend the afternoon manuqing.

Fishing for little fish in the tidal rivers around Hooper Bay is called "Manuqing." We fish for little flatfish that are a type of flounder, delicious buttery fish called a tomcod, and then we catch lots of (but don't keep) the infamous devilfish. Supposedly elders eat them and think them delicious, but I'm not ready to go there yet!Tuluk is casting with a regular fishing pole, but I prefer the low-tech traditional stick with a string on it. The hooks are tied on to the end of the string, and the string is unwound from the stick to cast. When you cast, you are supposed to say "Aqfau!" which is a Yup'ik command to the hook to "Go get it!". I always say aqfau without fail, and I really think it helps!:) Anyway, the best part about using the low-tech stick manuq is that you can stick it down into the mud on the river bank, then, and have several manuqs going at once. But then it gets difficult to keep track of which one has a fish tugging on the end of it. Here Esther is going to try reeling in her line with a fish tugging on the end of it:
And she caught a little "nadukanuk," flounder. Way to go, little fisherwoman! Marta & Esther showing their catches:
And I had luck, too.

Yum -- the best part -- cooking them up! Mainly they are poached in some shallow boiling water in a pan, this is them just mostly cleaned up and ready to cook. There is one nadukanuk in this pan, but all the rest are tomcods.

Beautiful, Bountiful Berries

We spent a blissful day on the tundra plucking lucious berries for our winter enjoyment in August. We went farther out on the tundra than I've ever been in the summer, almost to the mountains to the north.
Lovely Salmonberries -- pinkish-orange, tangy, burst in your mouth.
Black berries
Blueberries -- they look just like Indiana blueberry bushes, but they are much smaller, and very close to the ground.
Tuluk was our guide on this outing.

On our way home, we realized the tide had come up in the marshy creeks we had to cross to get home. We were scouting out good areas to cross, and I decided to take a picture of Esther waiting for us on the honda. And about two seconds later I stepped backwards and went up to my chest into one of those creeks-- not scary or moving fast, just still, deep water. And so I had to say goodbye to my camera -- it was a good one while it lasted. Luckily our school district had just issued every teacher one to use for the school year!

Friday, June 29, 2007

Fish Fantastic

Esther decked out in fisherwoman's garb, ready to fish! We are parked at Nuvok, at low tide, about to set out the net.
Beautiful Esther in front of my beautiful fish rack and hanging fish: this year's catch. I'm pretty proud of it, and all it took to get it together....
Even though it was full of unknowns, I wanted to catch my own salmon this June -- and I did it, patched together and by the seat of my pants, but I did it. I have gorgeous chum salmon in my freezer and hanging on a rack to dry & smoke, and with a little help from my friends, I did it.

Fishermen checking their net in Hooper Bay by boat.

At first I thought it wasn't going to work out because I was missing so many important factors, like: I had a net, sought out and purchased by mail order from this little place in Anchorage, in March, but I didn't have anchors or anything to keep the net in place, and we couldn't find any in town or by mail order. The old-fashioned way was to use long driftwood poles, to tied the net to the poles at each end and dig them down into the mud at low tide.

I decided to try to find poles, but every time I was out on the beach getting some kind of long log I thought would be a good pole, someone would come along and tell me that it wasn't the right kind, that I had to look for another kind somewhere else on the beach. I bet everyone was giggling at me, the girl slinging all kinds of mis-chosen wood on the back of her honda. :) So that was a pain, and then someone told me that salmon are such strong fish that if you don't use anchors, the fish might pull your net out and you'd lose your net. I didn't want to risk that and end up where I started. So I wasn't sure how it could all work out, and I was having such a fun time camping that I thought it would be OK, this year, to skip the fish, even though I had been looking forward to it all year.
But lack of anchors didn't stop us from enjoying some campfire fish, the best salmon I've ever tasted. It was a gift from Mary & Harvey, before I thought I was going to get fish of my own.

I cooked it with all the vegetables inside the fish, wrapped in tin foil. on a rack over the campfire -- MMMM!

So tasty!
Then our camping neighbors out on Nuvok, Mary & Harvey, said I could work with them this year, learn from them about all the parts of the process, and I could just work on building my wooden drying rack for next year. They are super sweet, helpful, and concerned about us, and it seemed like a dream offer, and I was going to accept until....

My good buddy Tul'uq called and queried, brusquely and teasingly, "Well, are you gonna fish or not?" And over my spluttering explainations, he said,"I'm done with my anchors for this year; I've got enough fish. You can come by and pick them up, and I'll be out later when the tide is low to help you set your net." Jackpot!Here is Tul'uq loading up the front of the honda with the net and buoys.
So this was a Friday afternoon, and low tide, or at least, low enough to set the net out, was around 4:pm, and so Roy decided to help, too, and so we got the waders on, got the net at the campsite, spread out and inspected the net, loaded stuff up, met up with Tul'uq and drove out to the water in good time.

Roy, Esther & Odin are laying out the net to inspect it.
Setting out the net was pretty much what I envisioned it to be: We put out one anchor, pulled one end of the net out to it and tied it to it, then brought the other anchor to the other end.

Roy and Tul'uq are bringing out the net to me, and I am holding on to the anchor's rope. There are little floats on the top of the net, and Tul'uq also let us borrow his bright orange buoys for each end. On the bottom of the net is a line made of some kind of metal, very heavy, to keep it kind of steady. Here is my net, all set in Hooper Bay.
The coolest thing happened when we were setting out the net; the guys had gone in for the second anchor and I was holding on to the end of the net, stretched out, and all of a sudden I saw that I had already caught a fish! My first fish -- a chum salmon caught a few minutes after we set the net.It had just swum right into the net even while I was still holding on to it. We tied the net to the anchor and walked out to inspect it; sure enough it was a nice chum. I was kind of letting my beginner's giddiness get to me and I tried to get it out, but it was very strong and flipping around and I was all silly, so Roy helped. Here is a picture of Roy getting my first fish out:

Esther peering at it from her perch on the honda.
So then I was like, "I have to give it to someone!" because traditionally, Yup'ik people would give all of their first catch away, to an elder, and then the spirit of the animal would feel respected and want to give themselves again to that hunter. I was like, "I have to give it to an elder!" and Roy was totally laughing at me, because, as he said, "We only do that for big things, like seal or whale or something, not a little fish" but I wasn't dissuaded. I mean, maybe it was a little silly, but it just didn't feel right to keep it, especially since it had been caught so instantaneously, and besides, since I am just a marginal member of the community, you know, accepted but not expected to rigidly follow rules, people make exceptions for me alot of times if I make mistakes or whatever, because they just think I don't know any better. SO even if were about to make a big faux-pas in giving this fish away I don't think anyone would call me on it, and it just felt right to do, even if it wasn't quite a thing that people usually did. So I gave it to Esther's great-great aunt Helen, the elder I enjoy talking with so much. Her family giggled at me but I could tell they thought it was great funny, not making-fun-of-me-funny.
So then we just had to wait for the tide to come up, and then fall again low enough to check the net, all the fish being caught during the high tide hours. Lucky for me, that would be in another 12 hours or so, and the tide was even lower at 6:pm, so I figured if I got up at about 7:am I would hit it right.

And I was right: when I woke up in the tent the next morning, Esther and Roy still sleeping, I took the honda out to the net, and it was so low that all the nets were on the mud. At first I thought I'd have a hard time finding the net, with all the nets out there, and then I thought it looked empty, but man, was I wrong! When I finally got up to it, this is what I saw:

My net, the first time I set it out, when I checked it at low tide, full of chum salmon (and other things).
I caught over 40 chums! It was quite a haul. Not that anyone was having a bad fishing year -- I guess this year has been really good fishing. But still, that was more than I expected. I felt really blessed by the ocean.

Then I started the work of getting the fish out of the net -- I suppose to experienced fishermen it's not a big deal but I had a hard time getting them untangled and into my gunny sacks. It took me a good hour and a half to get most of them, and then an older guy drove up on his honda and looked at me, at the net, and gruffly asked, "Where's your husband?" and as I tried to kind of answer that, he just went to work and yanked out the rest of the fish from my net for me, getting about 10 out in the time it took me to get one out. Plus there were all kinds of other wierd fish stuck in my net, including this thing locals call a "devilfish" and it definitely was creepy. I thought it was dead, so I pulled it out (it poked me with its gnarly spines a couple times) and tossed it over on its back. A little while later I saw it, and it was right-side-up. Then I walked towards it, and its big yellow eyes suddenly focused on me -- wierd and creepy! But I'm glad it wasn't dead, needlessly.

What's locally called a "devilfish" -- totally a creepy, spiny thing that played dead and then would focus its big yellow eyes at me when I walked by. I have heard that some people, older people, in town, eat them, and you know, maybe they're OK, but....
So I had 4 gunny sacks of fish, and I decided that I would leave the net in for now, to see how it went. I drove back to the house, put some in the freezer, gave some away, and then drove back to the camp to start cutting the rest of them to dry.

Roy working on the fish drying rack, and the completed rack, beside our camp.
One problem: I didn't know how to cut them! I was totally excited that this fishing came through, and that I caught an abundance of fish, but it all happened really fast and so I hadn't had time to learn from anyone how to do it. And by now it was raining, and I did not feel like being out there all day, but now the fish were caught and I had to deal with them before they got kind of spoiled. From what folks told me, fish spoils kind of easy.

So I took a gunny sack full of fish over to Mary and Harvey's camp, a pitiful petionner, bedraggled and wet, and asked if I could watch and learn. Mary seemed glad to show me, and they totally had a set up, and were cutting fish in style. Harvey had built his smokehouse already, but they weren't using it yet, so they put Mary's cutting table inside that, and even though it was raining outside, it was dry and warm in there to cut all the fish. And the radio was going with the Chevak station, and there was a constant stream of women in and out, helping with the family's fish, conversing on the usual topics of women's gossip. It felt special that they let me be in on their scene; I felt pretty priviledged. I wish in retrospect that I had brought my camera, but I had forgotten it with all that was going on. Bummer.

So I watched them cut fish like they could do it in their sleep, slice through the fish meat with their kinaluqs (women's knives, like an Alaskan ulu) like it was butter. They headed and gutted the fish, then sliced the stomach up to the tail. Then made two slices down either side of the spine, and slid the meat away from the ribs on the insides. Then they would have two strips of meat, with the skin, attached by the tail. Then they would cut stripes into the strips of meat, cut around the fins, and stretch the skin.

I was much more stilted, crooked, and pathetic, but I was making it work -- because I had to. I had so many fish to deal with and I figured even if they were crooked, they would end up being good food, and I would just get better at it as I went along by necessity. It was really nice being a part of the group there, and it was a little sad when I tramped back through the steady rain to my campsite and cutting board on the ground.
My fish-cutting worksite at the camp -- it will totally get some improvements next year! :)
Yeah, all these things are cataloged in my mind for how I'll do things next year -- this is just the experiment year. :)

I spent I don't know how many hours cutting those fish, and I got the process down, though my technique could still use a lot of improvement. Here is the only picture I have of myself doing this whole thing, and it's blurry because it's through the campfire smoke and pouring rain: Roy was not thrilled about being out there all day in the rain, but I did convince him to finish the fish rack and put the tarp up over the top of it, to keep the rain off the drying fish.

My hanging fish... a few days later when it was nicer weather.
So I did it, got all the fish cut, and..... it was low tide again, time to check the net again! I dropped Roy and Esther at home -- he did help a lot by watching her -- and I went back out to Nuvok to the net. By the time I got out there, the tide was starting to come back in, and I was getting increasingly nervous because I had to wade back and forth to the net to get the fish out, and the water kept coming up and up, and I had to keep moving the honda back and back, and then I had to walk even further. I had caught at least as many fish as in the morning, maybe more. No pictures from this experience -- I was too stressed.

Probably to an experienced fisherman, it wouldn't have been a big deal, but I was slightly freaked, being all by myself. So when I saw a boat, I did the most pathetic hands-over-head both-arms-wave, accompanied by a pitiful, "Help!". Lucky for me, it was a guy named Ike, who is Tul'uq's brother-in-law and the father of my good friend, Girla. He knew the whole backstory of why I was out here fishing by myself, so I didn't have to explain. I just asked him if he could help me get out my net because I had enough fish, and I was getting scared of the rising tide. He just pulled the whole thing in, net, anchors, fish, and by the time I had driven back through the beach & town to the dock, he had separated it all out for me, with the fish in a nice pile and my net all folded up. He had even given Tul'uq back his anchors and buoys. Man, that guy was so nice! I told him he was a lifesaver, and he said, "Well, you were doing the work of two men today" and that made me feel proud, like I had earned his respect, even though I was kind of outside the duties for my gender in his opinion.

So! In a span of twenty-four hours I had all the fish I needed, and plenty to give away. I stopped a couple places to give away fish on my way home and then when I got home I just headed and gutted the fish I had left so they would keep till the next morning. I got to bed at around midnight. Phew.

More pictures of my pretty fish... at least pretty in my opinion!
I thought I would sleep well, but I think I had over-used so many muscles I had never used before that I woke up several times to numb, leaden arms and hands. I'm writing this at the beginning of July, two weeks after doing this, and the circulation in my arms still isn't back to normal. Not complaining, just kind of realizing the extent of all what I did in such a short period of time.

But after I finished cutting the fish I had left to do the next morning, and drove out to the camp (in the still-driving rain) with Emily and Rosalee and hung them, I felt really proud and that it was all worth it to have all those beautiful fish hung to dry on my rack.

From left, Rosalee, Esther, & Emily at my fish rack on a rainy day.
Emily, Rosalee and I dug a hole to bury my fish heads -- all the guts and heads I was throwing out anyway, digging holes to get rid of them, and so I decided to try out what folks have been teasing me about for years: to make uqsuq, or "stinkhead" -- which is exactly what it sounds like. Supposedly putrified fish heads are a delicacy, very stinky but taste really good. I can't really even imagine what they are like, and I highly doubt I'll be able to stomach them, but since I was just going to throw the things out, if I end up throwing them out once they're putrified, there's no loss, just a fun experiment. I know all of you out there are freaked out right now, but it's not just a native thing -- there's plenty of upstanding Scandanavians who like putrified stuff, too, I know. :)

Esther watching as Rosalee fills in the uqsuq (fish stinkhead) hole.
That day was nice, too, because we went picking greens at Old Hooper Bay on our way home. I am learning that there are just a bunch of varieties of edible greens that grow at this time of year on the tundra. I thought there was just this one kind, but it turns out there are a bunch, and I'll need to pay closer attention next year and try to document what they are, their names, and where/when/how to pick & use them. Another thing going into the file cabinet for next year. :)

I returned home to a clean house and a goose roasting in the oven -- that was very nice of Roy; though I was so exhausted that I fell asleep on the couch as Esther played in my lap, and I almost slept through a good dinner. Luckily they hollered for me to get up.

So the fish were up, covered, done -- all they needed now was time and fresh air to get dry. I forgot to write that as I cut them, I had thrown them into a brine to marinate for a few minutes, so hopefully they'll be really tasty. It was really ugly rainy weather for several days after that, so I didn't even get out there to camp, but all kinds of people were going through the camp and checking my fish, which was really nice, and Roy went out and turned them over, after the skins dried, to skin-side-in.

My gorgeous fish on a gorgeous day, on my cool rack.
My fish weren't even dry by the time I left Alaska for my mom's house in Indiana, but Roy has reported that they got dry and he brought them to his grandma's house to smoke -- so that, also, will be good. It will be so exciting to return, in August, to a freezer full of dryfish, my dryfish, and it will be good food all winter.

Esther and her cousin Jasmine enjoying some baked salmon at my house.

A bowl of Salmon Roe -- you know, the stuff that makes fancy caviar. I wasn't sure how to make caviar, so I used a recipe from Cooking Alaskan, to make a Roe casserole:

First I simmered the roe in water with peppercorns, cloves, and bay leaves;

Then I layered the roe with paprika, salt, lemon juice, bread crumbs, and a white sauce;

Then I baked it at 325 for 20 minutes or so. It was good! Definitely fishy, but filling; The roe really solidified, and so it wasn't a wierd texture at all, though I almost had hoped it would still be a little jiggly. Not at all!

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