Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Cleaver Beaver

This morning - oh, wait, it was early afternoon by then (dang endless daylight! Gets me all confused!) Where was I...? Oh, yes. This afternoon I was driving out of my driveway in search of coffee when I noticed that one of my aspen trees had fallen down. This was to my right on a steep slope above the lower arm of my drive, and while the trunk was entirely on the slope, with none of it laying in the drive itself, I made a mental note to clear it when I got home.

But you know how quick thought is. As I drove past it, after a single hasty glance, a whole bunch of thoughts popped into my head. It took only a fraction of a second to think: Wait a minute. That's a young tree, not likely to be rotted in the trunk, so why would it have broken? Also, there was no wind last night to knock it down. And did I mistake it, or did that one microsecond I glanced at the break-point show what look like chisel-marks...?

So I put on the brakes, backed up 10 feet and squinted up the hill, hunched over my steering wheel to get the angle. Hmmm. Suspicious. I put it in park, told Finn to stay put and got out. The hill there is extremely steep, not conducive to climbing (or at least, not unless you're a quadruped of some description), so I only went up about 3 feet, just far enough to get a better look. Well, hm. That DOES kind of look like chisel marks. Peering closely at the dirt and leaf-litter on the slope, I thought I might be discerning a little trail of some kind - but it's pretty subtle, so I might be making that up. I ponder for a few seconds, shrug, make my way back into the drive... where I notice that the upper part of the tree has been sectioned into two or more lengths of trunk (two that I can see, anyway). There are multiple small branches that appear to have been chewed off the trunk, raggedy-edged, scattered here and there. The leaves of the aspen are just now wilting, and the exposed wood is still slightly damp. The short sections of trunk also have the scalloped appearance of chisel-marks at the ends, and there is a flattened area a foot wide in the weeds at lakeside.

Well, what do you know. I have  a beaver in my lake.

Then I think: Hm, do I really? because I haven't seen any signs of it, and the lake has no stream of running water in or out. But then I think: Well, streams aren't essential. I've seen beaver lodges in swampy wetlands. The main things seem to be deep enough water to sustain the beavers both summer and winter, and enough trees nearby for food. So maybe I DO have a beaver.

I've lived in this house for 13 years, and never seen hide nor hair of a beaver anywhere near here before, which is what makes it hard to believe I have one now.  On the other hand, it's quite a bit harder to believe that some human agency is responsible; what person would climb six or seven feet up that steep and slippery hill to cut down - with an axe, mind you, not a chainsaw or some more convenient device - a small, not-that-spectacular aspen tree on private property? And then chisel it into smaller sections, and drag those across the drive and toward the water? To say nothing of apparently gnawing the small branches off with their teeth.  There are, after all, any number of larger, more conveniently-placed trees to vandalize. Although those aren't aspens - which I like, and am not best-pleased to have gnawed down, damn it all. But that's wildlife for you. The moose eat my birches when I'd rather they eat my willow and alder, and the beavers apparently want to eat my aspen when I'd rather they eat... well, my willow and alder. Beasts these days. No consideration for my landscaping preferences. Ah, well. What are you going to do?

By now I'm pretty sure I'm not just hallucinating the potential presence of a very large semi-aquatic rodent setting up house right next door to me, because I can't put together a logical explanation that does not include a beaver. I can't picture some person doing this, particularly at night - because I'd for sure have noticed the tree down yesterday evening, around 6:30, when I was on my way to my friend Lori's house for socializing and general girlie debauchery. I did bomb in and out pretty fast  - zipping home after work to feed and walk dogs and collect bratwurst and a movie, and zapping back out equally fast to go to Lori's. Moreover, as it happens, I was out late that night. This was necessary, as we grilled the brats, drank beer, talked about boys (and mutual guilty pleasures such as "True Blood" and "Spartacus Blood and Sand" and any movie that includes horses, sword fighting, or - preferably - both) and generally enjoyed ourselves. For a while we picked over agates and other interesting rocks, some rough and others polished smooth and satiny, that Lori picked up at an agate beach she knows and flies to from time to time. Lori is an excellent pilot (and in fact, if you need a flying adventure in AK, I highly recommend you contact her at SkyTrekking Alaska so she can fly you around for fishing or hunting or Iditarod or what have you. She'll land you safe, and she seems to know everyone and everywhere interesting in Alaska. Apart from which, she's a ton of fun to hang out with. But I digress).

Anyway, we watched "Dear Frankie" (a truly charming little gem of a movie which no one seems to have seen) and by the time all was said and eaten and drunk and done, it was well past midnight. We're at that stage of summer where midnight is dusk, now - not full dark, but not exactly the full-light twilight it's been for the last few weeks. So it's possible, on the way home, that I missed seeing the downed tree when I pulled into my driveway at one in the morning.... but I don't think so. So I'm fairly certain that my little stealth tree-faller was at it between one a.m., when I got home, and 6 a.m., when I was up and about and letting dogs out. Certainly before 2 p.m. when I left the house in search of coffee. I'm 100% certain that it didn't happen earlier than 6:30 last night. Being as how beavers are largely nocturnal, the beaver theory would fit with the timing. And I'd just about guarantee that if a person was in my driveway messing with my trees, my dogs would have gone ballistic. So even if my other logic were faulty, I still can't see another theory that fits better than the Marauding Beaver theory (aka the Castor canadensis caper).

So now I guess I'm on beaver watch. I'll have to try to protect my remaining aspens. I love them - their quivering leaves flashing green and silver in the slightest breeze, their straight white trunks, the way they change their silver-green leaves into shimmering golden coins in the fall; the way they cover my drive in gold leaf like alms before winter. So while I'm sympathetic to the needs of the local wildlife, I really hope there's something else out there they can be convinced to eat, instead of cleaving down the rest of my aspens.

Years ago, a friend of mine's little boy had a sore throat. Meaning to tell his mother that he had a hot scratchy throat, he tried to say he had a fever in his mouth. But because he was learning to talk, he said instead "Mom, I have a beaver in my mouth." So despite the depredations on my aspens, I guess it could be worse. I may have a beaver, but at least I don't have a beaver in my mouth.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Smoking Fish

I know. Fish don't usually get going so fast they smoke.

Recently I unexpectedly came into some salmon. This is a Good Thing, nearly as exciting as coming into money. For one thing, salmon tastes way better. For another, it actually can be used as a means of barter, nearly as good as monetary exchange, (although much more satisfying, as in: I'll trade you two pounds of Dall sheep for a King salmon fillet, or I'll trade you a jar of bear meat for a couple of silvers – you know, that kind of thing.)

How did this happen, you ask? Well, my boss wants to go fishing next week, but he's on call. I volunteered to take his on-call, and he volunteered to give me a fillet. But as it turns out, he didn't give me a fillet. He gave me a good-sized Playmate cooler FULL of fillets. Have I mentioned that I like my boss? And also anyone else who gives me free salmon. Just sayin'. I also got some rockfish in with the mix, but my boss assured me it's a bland and boring fish, and needs to be prepared in a way which adds flavor to it. Okay, I'm game. I love making crap up when it comes to cooking. The victims of my culinary excesses may not love it so much, but since I'm congenitally incapable of following a recipe as written, it's probably a good thing that I am perfectly willing to try any number of weird concoctions – and if they turn out to be complete crap, it's a further good thing that my dogs are willing to try even weirder ones.

So all of a sudden I've got salmon. Which is almost as good as having crab legs – which is great, except for how hard it is to wear pantyhose, since the spiny bits make it just about impossible to pull your pantyhose on without getting a run in them. That has nothing to do with smoking fish, of course –although anyone who has crab legs is, by definition, smokin' – but smoking fish is a whole other challenge. I tried to smoke a fish last year, actually. I got it lit, but I couldn't get it to draw.

Okay, lame-ass jokes aside, this is my inaugural fish--smoking year. I've lived in Alaska for 16 years, which means I've been pushing the limit. I'm pretty sure that if you haven't smoked or canned or otherwise preserved some subsistence-type food item within 15 years, they revoke your citizenship and boot you out of the state. I've skated under the wire by consuming many such items and also freezing a few – but freezing, though it is a means of food preservation, hardly counts. Freezing is sort of automatic up here, if you wait a little. It doesn't take any special talent. If you wait long enough in the season, all you have to do is chuck it outside and it freezes. No special talent required.

Still and all, it was only a matter of time before the fish-smoking police would have caught up with me, so – even as we speak – I'm sitting on my back deck, typing this and keeping an eye on my smoker – which is starting to smell pretty good, if you want to know the truth. I have a Border collie (yes, Finn, still feeling well) at my feet basking in the sun, and I'm being dive-bombed by dragonflies, but the mosquitoes are largely done for the year – at least at my house. And in any case, if the alder smoke wasn't enough to keep them at bay, there is always the Two-Foot Rule, to wit: Any mosquito that comes within two feet of me will be summarily killed without mercy. If they stay two or more feet away – well, live and let live. The bats and dragonflies need something to snack on, after all. I'm not greedy. Well, not about mosquitoes, anyway. On the other hand… did I mention the smoker is starting to smell pretty good? Like smoke and carmelizing brown sugar and salmony goodness.

Now here's the thing about salmon: It's my second-favorite fish - second only to halibut, which (if you don't know) is food of the Gods, ambrosia, mana in aquatic form. It would be one of the "Two G's" – good, and good for you – except that to call halibut "good" is to insult it with faint praise. It's more like "exquisite and good for you".

Salmon is, however, a very fine fish indeed. They're packed with antioxidants (all those lovely omega-3 fatty acids) and are an excellent source of high-quality and very tasty protein. Besides, it's pretty hard to make salmon in any way that isn't yummy. Bake it, broil it, poach it in wine, make it into chowder, smother it in herbs and grill it, cook it with sliced lemon and dill and garlic, slather it in sour cream, bury it in fish-packs or massage it with dry-rubs – practically anything goes, with salmon. It's a very robust fish, and a forgiving one as well, and the flavor allows you to pull off a myriad of gastronomic feats with aplomb. However, I confess that of the many delicious ways I've eaten salmon, it's possible that smoked salmon is my favorite. Especially the way I've had it up here.

There are lots of people in AK who smoke salmon so good it will make you weep. Your knees will go weak as all your blood rushes to your tastebuds. Angel choirs will sing. You may have a religious experience. You will be reluctant to swallow, to let that flavor escape from your tongue, so you will be tempted to communicate for several hours by means of gestures and grunts so as to be able to keep that delectable flavor in your mouth juuuust a little longer.

Now, I'm not saying my maiden voyage into the smoky waters of cured fish will be anything quite so special… but I will say I relentlessly quizzed several of my fish-smoking pals for tips. There are some common themes – for instance, the fish I like best is always done with a brown-sugar brine. However, techniques and spices vary. I went with a dray-pack method, in which the salt and sugar and spices are mixed together dry, and the prepared (filleted, sliced and towel-dried) fish is layered with the dry-pack and kept cold overnight. By morning, the dry-pack has sucked moisture out of the fish, which is much firmer, and is now marinating in a thick molassesy brine, heavily sludged with undissolved sugar and salt. I've elected to use alder wood for my smoke. In an hour or so I'll need to check to see if I need to put more wood in the smoker, but the "busy" part of the program is over. And now I'm hanging out, watching the squirrels and the birds, admiring my six-foot-high fireweed (flowered out only about halfway up the spike, if even that much, so according to legend, there's plenty of summer yet ahead) and generally keeping an eye on things. So far it's been relatively simple, thanks to the generously-shared knowledge of my Alaskan peeps.

I've noticed, however, that there are certain things that people fail to mention about smoking fish.
  1. For one thing, you will get sticky. Very, very sticky. I've discovered that having a pack of Wet Ones on hand is a good idea. If not for that, I would still be trying to unglue my fingers from the paper towels.
  2. On that subject, you're going to use up at least half a roll. Maybe more.
  3. Your dogs will try to help you with this project. Don't let them.
  4. Even if you don't let them, avoiding smoking a little Border collie hair in with the fish is a bit of a challenge.
  5. Pam is your friend. I mean the cooking spray, not the vampire.
  6. After you have finished cutting fish into brine-sized pieces, packing it into the brine (or the dry-pack mixture) and washing and drying your hands the approximately 27 times it will take to get rid of all the sticky, you will discover that somehow, many small circles of plastic, about the size produced by a regular three-hole paper punch, have mysteriously appeared, adhered tightly to your skin. This is not plastic. These are random leftover fish scales which have cleverly eluded the best efforts of soap and water. Despite appearances, you are not stuck with them until the end of time. You can eventually peel them off your skin. Don't give up. They make wire-bristle brushes for grills, you know. Just sayin'.
  7. If you want to keep inquisitive insects, lint and random dog hairs off your fish while it is drying after the brine (so that it forms a useful little skin called a pellicle, which helps keep it moist during the smoking process), a few yards of ultra-cheap tulle from the local fabric store are worth the $3 investment.
  8. Fish scraps will occur – bits and pieces of skin or fragments of flesh that come apart during the preparation. Another word for these scraps is "dog food". Or so I am assured by every dog in my house.
Now, I've tried to make sure I followed all the rules, so that I don't end up poisoning myself or others. For instance, when the fish is drying, they say it should be kept cool – which, according to the books, means no more than 65 degrees – and that a fan may speed the drying process. Hmm. When I got up this morning, my back deck was 50 degrees, and there was a light breeze blowing. Perfect. Fans? We don't need no stinking fans. Well, not that kind of fan, anyway. This is Alaska, dude. Cooler than 65 degrees is kind of normal.

I'll let you know how it turns out. It's really not that much work, once you figure out the little handy tricks. And if I don't actually poison myself… well, I did mention that smoked salmon is my favorite, right? I can vacuum-pack it and have smoked salmon aaaaaaall winter long. Just so long as I manage to have periodic amnesia and forget there is smoked salmon in the freezer, because otherwise I'll just eat it all in a week.

In the meantime: Smoking fish. In Alaska, it's not just a good idea. It's the law.

Update: Having eaten several pieces of fish thus prepared, I have not suffered ptomaine poisoning, botulism, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, coma or death. Grimaces of disgust were completely absent, and if I didn't precisely hear angel choirs singing, there was at least definite loud humming. These observations make me think it's mostly safe to eat. There is one small problem, though, since it is evidently kind of addictive. I probably need to adjust my brine. Less cocaine and more Monkey-Butt powder, probably. Okay, I'm kidding. There's no cocaine in it.