Sunday, September 27, 2009

Smoking salmon

Winter drifts in the cold fall winds and white coats on distant peaks tell of a frosty future.
There's still much to do before the cold sets its teeth over this place, and with the weather looking foul on Thursday evening, I pulled two smoker loads worth of mostly silver and some sockeye to smoke this weekend.
I'd never smoked any meats before I moved here, but it seemed like something I might enjoy both doing and eating, so I gave it a try my first summer and found I was right.
More, Joe really enjoyed the product, and not paying rent and all, I figured it was a small way to repay the favor.
I like smoking this time of year, after the last of the salmon have come in and the freezers are humming and full, its a nice way to feel reconnected to all the work of the months gone by.
While I much prefer a piece of fresh salmon on the grill, there's nothing like reaching into my pack on a long day in the saddle or on the board for a smoked salmon and cream cheese on a bagel for a mega calorie and morale boost.
Here's how I smoke my salmon, the pictures are not from this weekend, but sometime last fall.

The ingredients call for the obvious, fish, and a brine mixture consisting of kosher salt, dark brown sugar and garlic.

Usually I try and shoot for one smoker load of fish, but it's a pretty arbitrary measure. This weekend I was looking to get a lot done so I pulled a bunch.
I much prefer to smoke tail meat for two reasons. The tail meat is tough and dries easily when grilled, it's just not as good as the shoulder cuts. Since smoked meat is inherently dry and tough, it makes sense right? Additionally there are no pin bones, tiny bones that point off at an upward angle from the spine on either side of the fish. They're a real pain to remove, but when plucked make for a cleaner product.
I usually like to pull the fish the night before or in the morning so it's thawed by dinner. After, I'll begin preparing the cuts.

I'll take care of the garlic first, chopping it finely.

The garlic is added to a dry brine of sugar and salt. I've tried several different proportions ranging from 1 part salt, two parts sugar (very salty fish) to 1 part salt, 4 part sugar, fairly sweet. This past weekend I did a 1:3 proportion. I do about three pieces of garlic per cup of salt.

Then I sort and organize my cuts by small medium and large pieces. This is important for placement in the smoker.

The pieces are cut into candy bar sized vertical strips that go through the meat but not the skin.

Each piece of meat is coated in the brine mixture on both sides, making sure the to get in between the strips.

The cuts are laid out in a plastic or ceramic, though never metal, container, skin to skin, flesh to flesh, three or four deep. The containers are covered and stored in a cool place for 12 hours or more. You cans see already timing is everything. If the preparation is started at night, the fish will be ready in the morning.

Almost immediately, the brine begins to draw the juices out of the fish, making a dark syrupy liquid that surrounds the fish. After 12 hours the meat is removed and gently but thoroughly rinsed. I usually prefer to do this outside at my cleaning table where I don't have to worry about making a sticky mess.

All rinsed and clean.

The cuts are then laid out on the smoking racks. This is where the size organization comes in. It helps to keep the bigger pieces together so they can all go on the bottom where the heat will be strongest, while the smallest pieces go up high where it's coolest. I prefer, if not packed tightly, to keep the tails pointed outward as well, as the edges of the smoker are often cooler and will be less likely to get crisped if done this way.

Once laid out the meat needs to be left in a cool dry place for at least an hour to an hour and a half to air dry. When the meat's ready it will have a tacky feel to it when touched with a finger.

After a half hour to 45 minutes of air drying I get the smoker going. I start with a wood chip mixture. For salmon I'm a big fan of a 3/4 inch layer of hickory for its richer flavor, blended with about two and a half inches of alder, which makes for a clean crisp flavored smoke.
I fire the smoker up on high and run it for about a half and hour with nothing in it. It takes about 10 minutes before it even gets the chips going, and then gets dark and foul.
After 30 minutes the smoke will be clean. That's when I put the racks of fish in.
Water is added to a pan above the chips to make steam, which helps the smoke penetrate into the meat I think.

With the fish in I close things up and sit and watch until the smoker is holding steady at 200 degrees. Depending on the wind and the weather, it may take several adjustments of the knob and the vents to get this right and the smoker is sluggish to respond, so I pull up a chair.
After that I let it go for an hour and a half after the fish initially went in. At that point I take a look and make sure nothings burning. If the fish needs more time then such is the case. Usually two hours total does the trick.
For much of the time the fish is smoking there won't actually be smoke, which is fine. Think how quickly and how permeating the smell of wood smoke is when near a camp fire. The meat only needs a little, the rest is sealing that flavor in.
I usually kill the smoker and let the meat cool for 20 minutes, then vac pac and freeze it right away. Usually one piece just ends up being a piece of skin by the time I finish, strange how that happens.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Seasoned thoughts

My colleagues at the paper, Mike and Jeff, recently moved from their old home on Kalifonsky Beach to Kenai. On Wednesday I stopped by to snap a few photos from their "front yard" before they moved out.
Mt. Redoubt



Sea Otter.
The first winter storm of the season is in full force as I type.
Driving home I passed a tree alight after it toppled on a power line, and we've only just come back on.
With the wind howling I can only imagine how much longer it will stay so.
No snow has fallen down low and the mountains still looked bare this afternoon, so this one might just be a lot of rain and wind, an entrance with much gesture but little talk if you will.
Since I'll doubtfully do much for riding I've pulled my first large batch of fish and it lies frozen on the floor. In the morning I'll pluck the pin bone from the shoulder cuts and brine them through the day for smoking in the evening. I was thinking I'd wait until October but really it was the weather I was waiting for I suppose.
Here's a piece I wrote last weekend:
Not everyone believes in a thing called God, but most are grounded by something like it.
I believe not in a supreme creator, but the value of place.
On cold mornings, the dew still hanging on bright golden leaves;
On the sides of steep mountain faces, speckled white with a herd of grazing sheep;
On glimmering teal bays and lakes viewed from a ridge above,
I see holiness.
In a sheer force wind slicing over a rocky peak;
In a dark dense growth where the unknown watches from the shadows;
In a mountain pass sculpted eons not so long ago by blue ice,
I find I’m more spiritual.
A path leads ever upwards, through snow, through rock, through a place where paths have never been.
Pain, suffering, hurt, sacrifice and prayer drive me on.
For this:
The winding trail that rolls down the other side, arcing across mountain sides, through valley bottoms and along the shores of lapping waters; a visitor I’m in this cathedral of golden canopies among creatures twice my size I cannot see, inhaling deep the air, yet untainted my man’s foul breath.
Two wheels roll on along a coursing line through the tundra with the ease and flow of two eyes following an ancient verse scrawled across a thin leafed page.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

To Hope and back

To Hope and back, kind of epic sounding. Another title for this post might have been, "The full Resurrection." Also pretty out of this world.
Both are fitting.
On Saturday I went for it, and took off 40 miles one way on the bike from the Resurrection Trail Head in Cooper Landing north bound to Hope, no return shuttle.
The original plan was to go there and back, all on the trail, +/- 80 miles of Alaska backcountry single track riding through peak foliage.
While I made good time from Cooper Landing, climbing a little over about 15 miles with 2,200 feet of elevation gain to the pass in just under three hours, the 25 mile descent to the northern trail terminus took another two hours.
I found the north side of the pass was soaked compared to the very dry south. The trail itself is also rootier.
While 40 miles in five hours is pretty good on fat tires, it was 2:40 in the afternoon when I hit trail's end, and I knew the climb back up through the slop was going to be much slower.
I made a few mistakes on this trip.
First, I really should have started much earlier, I rolled out at 9:40 a.m., way too late to be trying to push such a big day this time of year. With the sun setting at 8:15, I knew I'd be just getting off the trail if I could make the same time on the way back, and that dusk period is a time of the day I also refer to as bear:30 around these parts.
More to the point, there was no way I was going to make the same time going back. The best advice I've ever been given about long rides is this: try to to envision yourself powered not by a truck motor, but a rechargeable battery.
It's 100% true, nurse your juice and use power wisely you'll go far, but eventually you'll drain. I was definitely more than half done when I hit the Hope side.
Second, the trail was slimy and with a low profile tread on my rear tire, I'd be spinning my wheel or chugging real slow, not to mention all the roots would be keeping my momentum down on any dry sections.
On top of all this, I needed water and had no purification tabs. Up high I don't worry about filling up from smaller streams I can see pouring out of steep gullies, but down low its a real crapshoot, no pun intended.
Going a few more miles down the road to Hope to fill up would guarantee a long climb back to the parking lot and an assured ride in the dark with the bruins.
The other thing that could seal the deal on that trek in the dark was the always possible mechanical, and looking at the coating of mud from the descent, I knew my chain would have plenty of time to slather itself in more clay muck on the upward slog. Bringing a sport bottle to fill with stream water and spray off the grime might have prevented that.
Maybe next weekend?
I had no choice but to hit the highway and take the road home.
While riding next to Anchorage-ants hauling arse through the mountains at mach-10 in their Ford and Chevy monster trucks is just as scary as being caught in the dark in bear country, not to mention longer mileage wise, I could make better time on the asphalt and knew I'd get back to the car before dark.
While the map below says the route is 90 miles, it quite clearly fails to take into account the switchbacks and contouring of the trail, and having done many a long ride, I'm comfortable saying this was a 100+ mile day, 40 trail, 60 road.
On the plus side to the highway ride, I got to see Hope. It would have been a real shame to ride all that way through so much country just to miss it.
I've never been to the little town, pop. 137, accessed by the Hope Highway which spurs off the Seward Highway between Turnagain and Summit Pass. The other pupular route to Hope is the the the Resurrection Trail.
Think about this, I've never visited this town, so I got on my bike and rode 40 miles through the backcountry over a mountain pass to get to it; where else can this happen?
Hope is one of the few places you could ride a bike past and never see if it weren't for the fact that the road ends.

Glass calm Juneau Lake

Weeds growing from the sky. To see how much the camera can wash out the sky, I rotated this shot 180 degrees. The reflection on the water's surface is certainly more reflective of reality. This is the only shot posted that's upside down, but I'm leaving it.

Spruce grouse. I saw over a dozen on the whole course, 10 in one five mile stretch. If I had a sure shot I could have brought home a bag limit. I may be back next weekend

Swan Lake.

See anything interesting on that hillside?

How about now?

This is as good as it gets with a limited zoom, but the slope was covered in grazing sheep. Both pictures may be enlarged.

Swan Lake.

Check out the tie-die colored out wash at the base of that peak.

Resurrection Creek

Hope airstrip. The mountains in the distance are on the other side of Cook Inlet.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Not recommended reading

Every now and then I like to talk a little about something I'm reading and whether I'd recommend it.
Most the time it's Alaskana literature, but here's some reading that has nothing to do with the Greatland, nor my recommended list.
Anything that involves the GRE, or Graduate Record Exam.
Why would I be talking about this, let alone reading about the GRE?
In my last post I let onto some fodder for another post.
Here it is:
When I say that I expect to be doing something quite different this time next year, or at least be on track for it, I mean that I intend to be back in school working on a masters in Environmental Science.
That's the short of it right there.
The long of it started last winter.
I can tell you the exact hill on the Wolf Loop of the Tsalteshi trail system I was skiing over when I started pointing my tips in the current direction they seem to be headed.
During the deep cold snap last January I was doing a lot of classic skiing since the snow as too tacky for the skates.
Being in sort of the worst of it, both weather wise and darkness wise, and maybe getting a rush of blood to my head coming over the crest of the short incline, I decided, this place isn't so bad, I think I'd like to stick around a little while, if I can.
In the next few kilometers I built the base for an inner-conversation on how that was going to happen.
Through the rest of the winter and spring my life plan changed almost daily.
One day I was going to be a teacher, the next a nurse, the next a doctor and the next solving some environmental problem.
By the end of the week I was ready to say screw it all and learn to drive a snowcat at a ski resort and call it good.
I menaced friends, family and people I knew through work about their jobs, what they liked, disliked, how they got where they were.
I fretted it to no end.
Then summer came along and I got too busy to think, at least consciously.
When the fishing season finally wrapped up though, I think the dust settled enough to start to see where I wanted to go.
I'm not going to say that I know what I want to do when I grow up.
I think if I've heard one recurring phrase through all of this, it's that no one really knows what it is they want to do.
That being said, this little dream I'm living will eventually come to an end, and if I'm not ready with a plan, there's a good chance it'll go from heaven to heck in a hurry.
What's become evidently clear is that regardless of what it is I want to do next though, it's going to require more education and credentials, both in this economy and this part of the country.
And as for why environment?
I've received a lot of encouragement to follow a career that makes use of my ability to communicate.
That seems to be an easily recognizable quality, and I imagine that I'll find a way to put it to use on my own.
What I'm not clear about is where I should be going to make sure I'm doing something that both compensates me fairly and provides me with a sense of meaningfulness.
I'm not sure that makes sense, but I know my passion is in the environment, and I think as I get more into it I'll suss my career track out.
Last weekend when I was in Anchorage, part of my agenda was learning a little more about the programs offered at the University.
I met with the head of the environmental program. The dialog I had instilled a lot of confidence that while I don't know exactly where in the field I'm headed, the degree is broad enough to let me figure that out.
It's all quite strange to be honest, this sense of clarity after so much indecision.
In someways I fear that the bottom will fall out tomorrow or next week, and I'll regret this post and the work I've put into it, yet, there's a confidence in me like I haven't ever felt that this is where I need to go, and now is the time.
Until then, I'm going to need to study.
I'd be much happier getting back from my rides and plunking down on the couch with some good Alaskana lit, but I'm afraid the GRE study book is getting the attention.
So unless you're on the same track, I'm going to have to say, I'm not recommending my current read.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Priority express

This weekend, racing through the brilliant fall foliage on two knobby treaded tires, a friend told me I needed to get my priorities straight.
The situation momentarily caught me off guard.
I went back up to Anchorage on Thursday to bring my friend and former co-worker Matt to the airport. Matt was departing for the east coast for a little time off before starting a new job as a sports reporter in Hawaii.
Matt's announcement and pending departure for his equatorial leap has left me digging even deeper at a few prying questions about my own future; so much so in fact I awoke to a start one night a week or so ago convinced it was I who was making the leap.
Alas I've no such plans for the immediate future.
I suppose it's more than just Matt's decision however that has me realizing I have to make some of my own as well.
It's been almost a year now since I started working at the Clarion and essentially locked myself in for the winter up here, something I didn't intend for when I left in May '08.
It's obviously been pretty good, but it can definitely be tough.
The comment that spurred this post was made by my friend Tony and was entirely contextual and friendly in nature.
We were ripping along on a hammer fest of a ride (hence the lack of pictures) on the trails in Palmer.
Tony was doing his best to set the hook and get me to race in the 24-hour event held on the same trail system in June.
As I said to him, 'I'd love to, but late June is a busy time for me at fish camp.'
Part of the reason I took the job at fish camp was I felt it would force me away from the intensive amount of riding I was doing by my senior year.
That it certainly did.
Cleaning fish is a pretty intensive and doesn't leave me with a lot of time or energy for much else. This summer I was able to ride once a week from mid June to the third week of July. I didn't touch a bike again until late August.
Now though, the fall season is rapidly progressing, and I'm trying to squeeze in as much riding as possible before the snow starts to fly (any day).
This has left me wondering, do I want to do fish camp again? Clearly the break has done well by me. I feel completely recharged on riding.
Working at fish camp has given me far more than a needed break from pounding the pedals though.
It has let me explore new activities like skiing and hunting while I've learned more than I could have ever imagined about fishing. I have the priviledge of catching fish all summer that others will pay thousands of dollars for just a week.
In the meanwhile it's afforded me the chance to live up here essentially free of charge. I pay my rent for the year with 6 weeks of hard slimy work.
But that's not going to last forever either.
I can’t spend my summers cleaning fish and winters writing for cheap until the end of times.
As a result the wheels of change are in motion and I feel confident when I say that this time next year I’ll be in a different place or on track for a big change.
The specifics of those changes are fodder for another post though.
What was still unanswered as Tony and I buzzed in and out of single track and double track trails, was whether I’d be riding the race next June.
The result, very unlikely.
Yep, fish camp is hard sometimes, and it doesn’t let me ride much, and gosh I really do want to ride my bike more.
At the same time, I’m positive that in 5, in 10, in 30 years, I’m not going to look back and say, ‘Boy am I glad I gave up that one last summer I had to work at fish camp so I could ride my bicycle more.’
Somehow I have a good feeling that in 5, in 10, in 30 years I’m more likely to be thinking that I wish I could go back to fish camp. If you need furthur evidence of why, see the link below.
Non-face book users may view my summer fish camp photo album here.

Signs of the season
Earlier and earlier sunsets, as seen from the hillside trails overlooking Anchorage on Saturday evening on my second ride of the day.

Bright foliage on Greatland St.

A dead spawned out sockeye beached in front of camp.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sometimes after work

I'm headed to Anchorage this afternoon to bring a friend to the airport, so this post will be short, but I think it sums up how I feel about life right now very well.
Here's a clip from an email to a friend from earlier in the week.

"Really nice evening here. Joe came out and we caught both our limits (now at three per person) plus one for Mary's proxy, lost three or four. Cleaned the fish as the moon rose across the river. The air just smelled so rich with fall, and the fish were all really cold and firm feeling, it was a little overwhelming for a Monday night. Sometimes things feel so perfect it's hard to imagine this all real. I'm not gloating, just being in continual awe of this place I guess."

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Road trip

Here's a few photos from my weekend trip north to Anchorage and Palmer to explore some local mountain bike trail systems there.
Being a holiday weekend, I did the opposite of everyone from the big city, many of whom fled south to my backyard.
I went up to theirs while they were all gone. Pretty sweet how that works.

On Friday Chris and I rode the hillside trails in Anchorage. Anchor town has miles of bike trails, but the sweetest bunch zig zag their way up the gas line trail from the base of the Hilltop Ski area, swooping back down with lots of banked corners and switch backs. Along the way we met up with Ethan and Josh, who'd ridden from across town. They were about ready to do battle with the bears for some rotten berries, so we made another lap or two and went back into town for brews and food at Josh's.

Anchorage Bowl.

Looking down the gas line trail.

Saturday was another unbelievably gorgeous day. Ethan, Chris and I loaded up the suby and drove north to Palmer where we went to my friend Tony's shop.
Tony gave us the 401 on some Mat-Su Valley trails he's been talking up for some time.
The goods were better than good, lets just say. The Palmer trails are one of a kind in these parts. The single track portions connect high speed sections of double track. In the woods the narrow trails whip between tight boreal forest growth and open hardwood sections. The end of the loops passes though the University of Alaska Fairbanks Matanuska Experiment Farm (LINK) sends riders through lush grassy green field with panoramic views of the Chugach and Talkeetna Mountains.
With all the fall foliage nearing peak and the pastoral backdrop I felt like we should be going to pick apples and drink cider after the ride.

The trails are complex and pretty well marked, but we had to stop at many an intersection and re-orient. Chris kept us on track.

Tearing through the narrow little trails the colors all blur together like some kind of two wheeled psychedelic trip, man.

Could almost pass for a trail system in New England on an early fall day.

Except the views are definitively Alaska.