"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Into the Insanity of the Kenai River

We headed into the insanity of the third weekend in July, driving south towards the Kenai River, and knowing full well that wiser folks would stay at home.  A mile from home, on a hot and sunny Sunday afternoon, we found bedlam.

Tern Lake, the junction of the Seward and Sterling highways, where those lucky enough to be on the Seward Highway have the right of way.  Those on the Sterling must come to a full stop before turning onto the Seward and driviing north to Anchorage and beyond.   Look left, right, then left again if they didn't want to get center-punched by a vehicle that appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, coming downhill around the toe of a mountain.  It's always best to look left again.

Jammed up at the junction was a line of vehicles stretching as far west as I could see around the lake.    See the motorhome crosswise in the picture behind the truck/camper in the foreground?  That motorhome is going to turn left and head uphill in one of the two lanes of traffic going north towards  Anchorage.

I was going to turn left turn going into the picture, and that motrhome just might be waiting for me.  I felt badly for the folks waiting in the line that wound around the lake, but I was sure glad I wasn't in that line.

A mile later there was enough of a gap that I could tell the next string of vehicles were newcomers to the Tern Lake junction traffic jam.

Sorry about all the boring photos of cars and trucks and RVs, but a string of stalled traffic a mile long is pretty darned unusual in this part of Alaska.

What's with all the traffic?  And why the third weekend of July?   Simple: Salmon.

Salmon in the Kenai River, more than a million salmon in the river within a few days, daily bag limits raised from three fish to six fish, bright silver sockeye salmon.   The second run of salmon, the largest run of the year, was heading  into the river.

With rod  and reel or a long-handled net with a gaping four or five foot diameter maw, go get your salmon.   Ninety thousand orange-fleshed sockeyes passed the upriver sonar counters in ONE DAY.  And, what seemed like ninety thousand fish-hungry people went after them.

With Pablo riding shotgun on top of his little travel cage, we braved the going-home onslaught of vehicles for more than forty miles, until we reached our turnoff.

Immediately, and I do mean immediately,  behind me was my little 19 foot travel trailer, Pablo's favorite home-away-from home.

Wade out into the mouth of the river on the incoming tide, wade out farther than the guy in front of you and hope your waders don't leak.   Stick that long-handled net out as far as you can and wait.  Wait for a salmon to run right into your net, for Pete's sakes. That's called dipnetting.   It's a form of subsistence fishing for residents, and I'll admit right now I don't know what the bag limit is because I am never going to get into that madness positively never ever again in my life, amen.

Some essentials:

 Don't forget the most important part:

Or, go down and flog the river with a hook on your rod and reel all day if you want, but those in the know wait until late evening, after the hordes have headed for their motel rooms, RVs, or tents (or gone home and gotten into a traffic jam at Tern Lake).   By then the fish have pooled in bankside eddies, resting for the next leg of their journey, and the pressure of shore-bound idiots casting those crazy-colored artificial flies and bouncing sinkers of their heads has ceased.  Almost.

That's where you catch them--right where the quiet pool water meets the river current, right when the fish don't suspect anything.    Right when most people should be in bed, but then this is Alaska and it's still light at midnight.

And here's a fresh from the river salmon, hooked right in the mouth.

Then you sit around the campfire with your friends and stare at the growth rings on a log burning in the firepit.

Walk back to the river when the full moon comes up and try to hold still because you neglected to bring a tripod.

The next day, it starts all over.   Even Pablo likes to watch the fishing because he knows what this is all about.

He skips the Corona, thanks anyway, but eats the slice of lime.    And waits for the best part:

Panko-covered salmon cakes with fresh basil and sauteed vegetables, baked in the oven, served with cayenne pepper sauce.

Much tastier than the popcorn he scattered all over in the travel trailer.

And it ends with another beautiful sunset.

Friday, July 19, 2013


So you've been taking photos of the sunset at regular intervals.

 And a few minutes later...

And about 11 PM you step out for one more shot...

And you catch a whiff of wood smoke....

What would you think?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Hawaiian Luau in Alaska

I should have known.   When I received the invitation, I should have realized the party theme would be Hawaiian, because the occasion was the 80th birthday of the guest of honor, Auntie Jean, who came from Hawaii many decades ago.

Honestly.   Can you say oblivious?

Auntie Jean, 80 years old

Auntie Jean has lived in Girdwood, a small former gold mining town and now a popular ski resort, ever since I met her, which was back in the 1960s.

I didn't even catch on when I read the invitation.   Enclosed in the envelope was a small tag with a pin, designed to be worn by the invited guests.

I saw one lady wearing two as earrings.

Anyway, when I arrived at the destination, a young lady welcomed me with a shell lei.   Another clue that went right over my head.   Even the guests showing up in Hawaiian print shirts didn't give me a light bulb moment.   The day was very nice and warm, so why not?  Why do so many Alaskans have Aloha shirts?   Alaskans LOVE Hawaii.   We frequently escape to there during our long winters.

I had to stop and admire the evolution of a log home in which I spent many happy hours as a guest of the original builder-owners and their good friend Hermann the German.   At that time, the upstairs was not yet finished, so we assembled downstairs before a massive rock fireplace built by Hermann.

While I stood there looking for anyone I knew, it was not my eyes that found a friend, but my ears.  The lovely sounds of a zither drew me towards none other than said Hermann.

Imagine those hands that worked with wood and concrete and rock all his life playing such a delicate instrument.

Then I spotted the original owner of that log house, Polka Dan.   We chatted for a while and when it occurred to both of us that something momentous was occurring on the other side of the dining tent, we realized we had been invited to a real luau.

Polka Dan

I had to wait a long time for a hug from Hermann because he was still playing the zither, so I wandered off to see the "momentous activity."   And there it was--the underground imu (pit) where a fire had been built, lined with rock to retain the heat, and covered with banana leaves.   The pig was placed onto the leaves, covered with more leaves and wet burlap, then covered with soil.   Six or seven hours later, voila!, kālua pig.

The uncovered imu in the foreground.

The previous resident of the imu.

Pupus were being served and it would be a while before dinner was ready, so I roamed around the party scene spread between two homes.   Here's the second one:

This home had a lovely little greenhouse and deck where I sat and talked with another long-time Girdwood resident, and took this photo looking towards Turnagain Arm.

Huge rhubarb leaves with fireweed and pushki (Cow Parsnip) front a view of the mountains across Turnagain Arm, with dead trees in the foreground.  This land sank four to six feet during the March 1964 Great Alaskan Earthquake,  and the trees died when saltwater from high autumn tides flooded that area.  

I've mentioned Turnagain Arm on this blog many times, but I'll do it again.  It's one of two arms of Cook Inlet, named after renowned British explored Capt. James Cook.  And who did Cook send up Turnagain Arm to see if it might be the elusive Northwest Passage?

None other than his boat captain, William Bligh, who would later be on the losing end of a set-to with Christian Fletcher and be summarily bounced from the HMS Bounty.   Bligh had to maneuver his small boat through the channels and bends of the arm many times, hence the name Turn-again Arm.

Along one portion of the 50-mile long arm.

Back to the party.   I ran into my former landlord, who charged me $60 a month to live here:

One room with an unheated room and Arctic entry, or porch.   I loved this cabin.
Add caption

Now, doesn't he look like a landlord?  He built a nice home behind my cabin.   Polka Dan and the Usual Suspects named the whole thing Hooperville.

At the time, my cabin was the oldest inhabited cabin in the valley.   Inside the kitchen cabinets, someone had noted his financial status in cash, gold, and gold dust, dated circa 1920.   Gravity-fed running water in the sink with a bucket underneath the drain.  An outhouse completed the facilities.   It was a deal!  The cabin is often in my dreams

All this time, Polka Dan was playing his concertina, Hermann was accompanying him on a guitar, and their bud John was playing the gut bucket  (washtub bass).  Oh, boy.   Memories, memories. Memories of dancing the night away to Polka Dan's concertina and Hermann's zither at the Double Musky (up the valley on Crow Creek Mine Road) before the Musky became a world-renowned Cajun restaurant.

My former landlord hadn't brought his spoons, so he didn't join the trio.

More party people:

This pretty and very gracious lady is Hermann's wife.  They now live in southern Aridzona    (oops, sorry)  Arizona and she was freezing while we Alaskans were glorying in the nice day.  In her defense, the sun HAD slipped behind the mountains.
Auntie Jean's daughter.

My first ski instructor.

And speaking of skiing, here's the man who for many years guy managed Alyeska Ski Resort up the valley, along with his wife, who is the published author of romantic novels and travel stories.   She also makes the very best German potato salad.   I know because I've had lunch with them in their second home in Austria.


And some party decorations, all of which I'm sure came direct from Hawaii:

The guy with his back to us, in the white Aloha shirt?   It's from him I get my supplies of litter bags and grab sticks!

These petunias didn't come from Hawaii, though.  They were in front of the log home.

Petunias love Alaskan weather.

Another band took over and the dance floor was crowded.  Except while we were eating dinner:

This young lady's dancing style was a combination of freestyle infused with gymnastics.

Oh, dinner!    Zowie!!!

In addition to the kālua pig, this site produced more goodies:

Resulting in my plate:

Bottom, clockwise from bottom:  chicken longrice, teriyaki beef, potato salad, pineapple, coconut pudding. shrimp-pepper salad, kalua pig, and
  noodles with sautéed veggies..   Wish I'd taken a plateful home.

Can't tell you what wonderful memories this whole affair evoked.   Even the location, once known at Polish Circle (because Polka Dan and two other Polish men lived there), though it's now called Toadstool Road and none of the Polish friends live there anymore.

Many changes have come to Girdwood in the decades  since Polka Dan and Hermann the German entertained us at the Double Musky.  It was an era that many of us now consider very, very special. 

While I was collecting and giving dozens of hugs, it occurred to me that while much has changed, including our hair color, one of those changes is by far for the better: Hugs.   Back then, friends didn't hug.   Now we do, and I hope that never changes.

Happy Birthday Auntie Jean.  You really know how to throw a party.