Living Off The Land

Taking a breather during a fall hunt in Uganik.

Taking a breather during a fall hunt in Uganik.

The pressure canner is bubbling again today on the stove, sweating up the windows, heating up the house. On its second load of the day, it’s now got 16 wide-mouth pint mason jars of venison sausage cooking away inside, part of the fruits of our morning hunt.

Fall may very well be our favorite season, chiefly because our activities this time of year run deep with tangible connections to our northern ecosystem that gives us year-round sustenance. Hunting and gathering wild plants to feed ourselves, body and soul, we feel at one with our environment.

Most of the food we preserve using the trusty old pressure canner, because, once it’s jarred up, it requires no energy or chemical preservatives to keep shelf stable. Since our power comes from the sun or wind, we currently don’t have unlimited electricity with which to run such things as freezers, so we live what might be called an old-fashioned life in some ways. To us, the food we put up in mason jars is deeply satisfying and as tasty as any other option. On the shelves now we have a plethora of goodness from land and sea, each jar with a story, a history, a connection, a sense of rightness.

The canned Tanner crab (also called snow crab) will be rationed out sparingly until and unless we get more – it is very, very labor intensive to fill jars with meat we’ve painstakingly picked out of the shells. These jars’ worth we caught in early September with our subsistence crab pot using nothing more than memory and what Adelia’s dad called “felt sense” to find them - no GPS marker or anything fancy like that. It made it all that much more exciting when the crab pot broke the surface, full of bright orange creatures from the deep. We shared some with neighbors and ate some for dinner, and then decided to can a few so that, in the depths of winter, we’ll be able to easily enjoy the ocean’s bounty.

More of that bounty is found in the jars of salmon – sockeye, king, and coho – that we put up over the course of the summer. Some of it is smoked and some is just pure salmon, and each jar hold our passion, our joy, and our hard work. If we had nothing else in our pantry, we’d know we would be alright if we at least had our own canned salmon.

Looking at the cases and cases of pure bright raspberries (no sugar or anything else added), we are filled with appreciation for the piece of property we have here. When we bought it, it was devoid of any buildings and had been for many decades, but it has a rich human history, having been the site of a Native Alaskan settlement, then a Russian Orthodox church (during the time Alaska was part of Russia), and most recently, an old cannery which was destroyed by the watchman who went off the deep end, according to local lore. Somewhere along the way, raspberries were planted here, and though they aren’t native to Kodiak, they proliferate with abandon! What a gift it is to have this massive patch just steps from our door. The deer love it too, and it seems that even with their nibbling, the patch just grows and grows. Tollef trims back the alders, hacks down pushkie and pulls out fireweed to give it room to spread and prosper, further rewarding us. Opening a can of raspberries in the dead of winter brings to mind warm fall mornings spent in the raspberry patch, surrounded by bushes higher than our heads, picking away to our hearts’ content with the background noise of a few bugs humming, wind swishing through the leaves, and waves gentle on the beach.

Next to the raspberries we have jars of apples, also a piece of the history of this location. You wouldn’t think that apple trees could produce in a climate like ours, but it is so calm and protected in the little island group that we call home, that the apple trees planted by the old homesteaders, Nan and Daniel Boone Reed, 50 years later still bear fruit. Our friends who now own the homestead invite us to pick apples, since there are more than they can use, and unpicked apples are an invitation to the bears to come visit. Yesterday we found one of the oldest trees pretty torn apart, the lowest branches ripped and sagging, surrounded by many piles of bear poop. We were too late for those apples!

Here and there, high bush cranberry bushes sparkle with the most lustrous red berries. Though they have a rather particular pungent scent, they are delicious when canned up as ketchup. It’s best to get them after a frost, but it’s been so warm here this fall that we haven’t had one yet. Nevertheless, they are on the list for gathering soon (hopefully we’ll beat the bears), to be made into sauce that goes so well with our meat.

We’ll combine the cranberry picking with another happy chore, gathering leaves. Since the weather has been so mild and unseasonably warm, not all the leaves have fallen - maybe 60 percent are on the ground. Good enough. They aren’t raked on a green lawn and bagged for trash, no. Bags of leaves are like gold when you are growing your own food. Gathered from our paths and open areas, they are used in two ways: first as mulch for the outdoor garden beds, to be broken down by the elements, worms, and microbes to enrich the dirt; second, for making leaf mold in bags where they slowlybreak down and create a bloom of mycorrhizal organisms ready to make our plants healthier and tastier. The greenhouse smells amazing for months with those leaves becoming dirt and replacing lost nutrients. Along with the kelp in the compost, it’s possible to grow more food than one can eat with a bit of concerted effort, perseverance and understanding of what plants need in order to grow in our northern environment.

In search of deer for our winter meals, we will hike up the mountains, 2000 or more vertical feet, but since our time here is running short this fall (we’ll soon go to Minneapolis), and bad weather was predicted for a few days, we decided to stay at sea level this morning to hunt. It was calm when we set out by skiff, bundled up with a thermos of tea in hand, and we had ideas of heading far out the bay to the exposed capes. However, as we traveled along, we noticed a dark line on the water and wind starting to come up ahead. Immediately, we limited the hunt to the shoreline close by, which meant motoring in close to the beach, careful not to kiss the lower unit on rocks, to see what we could spot with the naked eye (we’d both forgotten our binoculars). Soon enough amongst the driftwood we spied three tawny shapes treading slowly across the black shale coastline. One of them had little horns – legal for us to take with the rifle – and so we were able to bring some meat home, enough for several canner loads. We aren’t sport hunters - we’re not looking for trophy animals or bragging rights about how big they are – we simply want to ensure we have enough food to sustain us for the year, and spikes are tender, good eating. There’s a feeling of thankfulness and vibrant, latently powerful energy in every jar we open.

‘Living off the land’ is a phrase sometimes used to describe how we and our very few neighbors choose to live, removed from grocery stores and the convenience of proximity to civilization. But, to our sensibilities, we think it is better stated as ‘living withthe land.’ By necessity, but also out of appreciation, we are attuned to the natural world around us, to the ocean’s moods combining with the surrounding mountains, creating vegetation to feed and shelter the wild critters and ourselves. Though we aren’t purists by any means – we depend on civilization as much as anyone - filling our pantry with local food gotten by hand not only ensures we’ll have healthy meals for future seasons, it also fills our souls with the pleasure of gratitude.

This desire to have connections to our food is also what leads us to wrap up our fall time activities here and, in a weeks’ time, board a plane for Minneapolis, where we will also be linking appreciative eaters directly with their own piece of what sustains all of us and the environment in health. If we don’t take care of salmon’s habitat then how will they take care of us? Eat well and appreciate the journey of these fish go through. And on that note, it’s time for dinner. We’ll leave you with this unique highbush cranberry ketchup recipe we like to use, which is our adaptation from the classic cookbook, Cooking Alaskan, by Alaskans.

-Tollef and Adelia

Highbush Cranberry Ketchup

6 pounds highbush cranberries- do not substitute regular cranberries

1-1/4 pounds onions, chopped

3 c water

3 c apple cider vinegar

6 c sugar

1 T cloves

1 T cinnamon

1 T allspice

2.5 T salt

1-1/2 t pepper

Put berries, onions, and water in large pot, cover, bring to boil, and then simmer until onions are very soft and berries can be mashed easily with the back of a spoon. Line a colander with double layer of cheesecloth, set over a large bowl, and pour the berry mixture into the colander. With large spoon, mash the berries against the colander, then pull up the sides of the cheesecloth and squeeze out the rest of the juice. You may have to do this in batches, depending on the size of your colander/cheesecloth setup. Rinse out the pot you used, and then return the juice in the bowl back to the pot. Compost the mush that is in your cheesecloth. Add remaining ingredients to the bot, bring to a boil, then reduce heat a bit and cook until thick and ketchup-like in consistency. Don’t worry – this will take a while. Keep waiting and watching, stirring frequently to keep it from sticking. Pour into sterilized canning jars, seal, and immediately process 10 minutes in a boiling water bath. Use it as a sauce to go with any protein, or as you would regular ketchup.

Adelia Myrick