Of Salmon Backbones and Banh Mi

Since trad­ing boat life for a house, Joel and I have been rev­el­ing in the lux­ury of a full-sized kitchen. Can you guess our favorite ingredient?

 

Frozen at Sea, Glazed Salmon

 

We some­times hear from friends who would like to buy our salmon, but are hes­i­tant to work with a whole fish. (“Whole” mean­ing headed and gut­ted, but not fil­leted or steaked.) Removed as most of us are from our food’s ori­gins, deal­ing with any­thing other than plastic-wrapped por­tions can be intim­i­dat­ing. It’s also an oppor­tu­nity for deli­cious discoveries.

 

Coho Salmon Backbones

 

Salmon back­bones are my new obses­sion. Hard to believe that, with decades of catching/cleaning/cooking/ lov­ing salmon, I only recently grasped the ver­sa­tile glory of a scraped coho spine. (Added bonus: refram­ing inner dia­logue from “Oh god, I’m such a ter­ri­ble fillet-er,” to “Look at all that meat I left on the back­bone! Lucky me!”) I’ve shared pho­tos on the Nerka’s Face­book page of our tasty exper­i­ments with salmon burg­ers, tacos, spring rolls, and banh mi sand­wiches. Last night was Jade Dumplings with green curry sauce, thanks to our endur­ing favorite, Fishes & Dishes.

 

When a friend requested our banh mi recipe, I decided to post it here. But writ­ing this felt oddly famil­iar. Come to find I shared this a few years ago, when we hadn’t yet started using the back­bones. So, options! Read this one if you’re using fil­lets (and want to hear sto­ries about Team ’77, one of my favorite deck­hand­ing expe­ri­ences). Oth­er­wise, here’s our approach to Salmon Banh Mi with pat­ties upcy­cled from back­bone scrapings.

 

To a mix­ing bowl of salmon scrap­ings, add salt, pep­per; minced gar­lic; finely grated gin­ger; a cou­ple green onions and some lemon­grass, both finely chopped; some lime juice. A cou­ple dol­lops of oys­ter sauce; some sesame oil. An egg – make it two if you’re using a full back­bone; mine was only half. A cup or two of panko.

 

(I can sense the purists twitch­ing. Apolo­gies. Joel’s the one who cares about recipe pre­ci­sion. But it’s okay – really, this will be deli­cious no mat­ter what. Trust.)

 

Mix and form small pat­ties. Coat the sides with more panko. They’ll want to come apart, so let them firm in the fridge as you warm a cou­ple baguettes and gather your top­pings. Cucum­ber, red onion, jalapeño, cilantro. Car­rot and daikon that you pick­led a day or two ear­lier if you thought this far ahead, a few hours ago if you’re like us. (Pick­ling does war­rant more pre­ci­sion. We use Bat­tle of the Banh Mi’s recipe.)

 

Salmon Patties

 

Heat some oil in a cast iron skil­let and fry up your pat­ties. They’ll cook quick, just a cou­ple min­utes on either side. Dress the warm baguettes with a mix of may­on­naise and chili gar­lic sauce, then layer with veg­gies. Enjoy!

 

Salmon Banh Mi

 

 

 

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How was your salmon season?”

Yes­ter­day I received a let­ter from a friend.

Dear Tele, she wrote. Many times I think of you and Joel out on the seas all by your­selves. What a con­trast it must be to come back to land, peo­ple and cities. I won­der if you have caught lots and lots of fish. I won­der if you are still fish­ing, head­ing home, or already home. I have so many wonders.

I, too, have won­dered. I’ve won­dered how to fill my long silence. Every begin­ning fal­tered, deleted before it could risk notice. How do you pick up a con­ver­sa­tion left hang­ing, from what feels like a life­time ago?

Thanks to my friend’s invi­ta­tion, I learn where to begin.

 *****

 Begin with a June after­noon, sunny as our spir­its, when Mount Edge­cumbe appeared on the horizon.

Mt Edgecumbe's Welcome

 

Begin with antic­i­pa­tion, height­ened with every day closer to July first, Open­ing Day. When we finally left town, we exhaled. All guess­work and gam­bling at that point, no way yet of know­ing if we’d cho­sen the right direc­tion, but at least we were unplugged and under­way. Anchored alone in a quiet cove, we sat on the bow and watched a bear snuf­fle the shore, a stone’s throw away. We’d shut both engines down that night, one last evening of silence before the trip began. When the bear dis­ap­peared into dense Ton­gass under­brush, we watched her go with our ears, fol­low­ing a trail of snapped branches and shoulder-checked devil’s club.

The Nerka Heads Out

Sunset over Salisbury

Opening Day on the Fairweather Grounds

 

I’ll tell you about unprece­dented abun­dance. About an Open­ing Day that sur­passed any­thing we’d dreamed of, king salmon so fero­cious it didn’t mat­ter that they’d shred­ded our lures; they gob­bled bare hooks. For the first time in our part­ner­ship, we fan­ta­sized about hav­ing a deck­hand. (Said Joel at the end of Day 2: “If some­one asked me when it feels like to catch this many king salmon, I’d tell them, ‘It feels like I’m going to die.’”) Best was when we got back to town, learn­ing that the bounty had been coast-wide. A con­ver­sa­tion with a leg­endary high­liner con­firmed that we’d been part of some­thing spe­cial. “Fifty years I’ve been doing this,” he winked, “that was the best fishin’ I’ve ever seen.”

Tell about gratitude.

Hatch Full of Kings

Full Fish Hold

 

I’ll tell you about the good days, like the sunny after­noon on glassy water with a pod of six­teen orcas, where for the next half-hour we aban­doned all pre­tense of fish­ing. One of our part­ners called on the radio to see how we were doing. “Can’t talk,” Joel mut­tered over his rapid-firing Nikon. “Whale-watching!”

Orcas

Orcas

 

Or when, as we went to put the gear in the water at the start of a new trip, Joel glanced up to see a rare Japan­ese glass float drift­ing down the port side. How the whole sum­mer felt like that: a gift, pre­cious and unforeseen.

Joel's Glass Float

 

Or how we cel­e­brated our anniver­sary. Up at 3:45, the first boat out of the anchor­age, met with more abun­dance, this time the best coho fish­ing we’d ever seen. We never stopped mov­ing. The sun­set was mod­est, a quiet orb slip­ping into a placid pool. We were loud, shout­ing along with the Chili Pep­pers as we flung fist­fuls of entrails over­board, deliri­ous with dis­be­lief. Lack­ing the energy for an hour’s run to the near­est anchor­age, we shut down right where we pulled our gear, man­ag­ing to stay awake long enough to eat straw­berry Haa­gen Daaz for din­ner and soak shell-shocked hands in warm epsom salts. No com­mem­o­ra­tive lovin’ this year; we rubbed pain reliev­ing gel onto each other’s knot­ted backs instead, falling into our bunk with match­ing groans. Ten years: for us, a sil­ver anniversary.

Anniversary Sunset

Epsom Salt Soak

 

And I’ll tell you about the bad days, like when I caught a cold in town and felt like death but the coho were still bit­ing like bull­dogs and that’s what sea­sonal work is, you know — “Gotta make hay while the sun shines!” a friend cheer­ily reminds me — and when I glazed 600 fish one after­noon, all foggy head and aching bones, that was just doing what had to be done. And that’s how it was a few days later, too, when the South­east­erly came up hard and fast, bul­lets of side­ways rain shoot­ing into any gap in our raingear, and the Nerka heaved and slammed through a world turned gray, and still the coho bit. We called it quits by noon. “Fuck this,” Joel said, “Let’s go in.” I cleaned fish while he drove us into the anchor­age, a two hour run in the trough. He glanced back after the biggest rolls, check­ing that I was still in the cock­pit. When one flung us hard port, my legs buck­led and I scram­bled for a hand-hold. Know­ing Joel couldn’t hear me over the waves and wind and engines, a protest burst from my mouth any­way. “I do not like this!”

September Sideways Rain

Shitty Day on the Water

 

Safe in the Anchorage

 

But what I do not like is so soon for­got­ten, lost in the wake of what I love: this ocean hold­ing this boat hold­ing us; the per­son at my side and the salmon in my hands.

Salmon Heart, Salmon Love

 

Here I fal­ter, dis­guis­ing a self-conscious pause with a sip of tea. After a knee injury forced Joel to sit out the 2013 sea­son, this was our reunion tour. I want to tell you what it all meant — to Joel, reunit­ing with the moun­tains that have been the back­bone of his life; to me, dis­cov­er­ing new cer­tainty in our part­ner­ship; to us, matched in our deter­mi­na­tion to dig our­selves out of the hole of a year off — but words feel weak. Pulling our hooks aboard for the last time, we wore sim­i­larly tan­gled expres­sions. Baf­fled awe and exhausted pride: our weary bod­ies knew what our minds hadn’t yet com­pre­hended. Grief: the end of the sea­son meant leav­ing the place and life we cher­ish, aban­don­ing the iden­ti­ties where we know our­selves best. Excite­ment: being ready for the next thing, be it writ­ing, pho­tog­ra­phy, a good night’s sleep.

End of Season 2014

 

We spent our last night in Sitka cel­e­brat­ing Fisherman’s Thanks­giv­ing. Good friends filled the Nerka’s deck; good food cov­ered her hatch. The party was wind­ing down when one guest reminded us that we hadn’t yet shared what we were thank­ful for. We went around the cir­cle, prais­ing healthy salmon runs, the fleet’s safety, easy-to-get-along-with deck­hands. We could have gone on, but one friend said it all in a sin­gle sen­tence. “This sum­mer was the per­fect storm of great­ness and gratitude.”

Fishermen's Thanksgiving

 

End with a mid-September night, the Nerka’s last in Alaskan waters, tak­ing com­fort in the sun­set. The sun’s farewell is always a tem­po­rary good­bye. So was ours.

Last Alaskan Sunset 2014

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Night Wheelwatch on the Nerka

53⁰23.596’ N

129⁰52.095’ W

11:15 pm, Principe Chan­nel, British Columbia

 

Dusk tames the ocean. Dims it to liq­uid mer­cury, a sil­ver sheet with yel­low threads peek­ing from the folds. My favorite kind of ocean. The hill­sides brack­et­ing this two-mile wide chan­nel have retreated, sac­ri­fic­ing sub­stance for allu­sion. Joy and relief rush my veins, a flood tide. We’re less than three hours from Alaska now. I lean for­ward in the pilot seat, as if that will push us along any faster.

Charg­ing ‘round the clock to reach Sitka as quickly as pos­si­ble, we’ve bro­ken the watches up like this: me on the wheel 9 pm to mid­night, Joel mid­night to 3, me 3 to 6. Joel has the hard­est shift, the three hours where full dark­ness reigns. Day­time allows sleep with­out clocks. We rotate through our bunk. In 45 min­utes, I’ll tuck myself into his body’s still-warm inden­ta­tion. For now, though, it’s up to me to keep us on course. To keep us safe. In his absence, Joel’s trust is a pres­ence fill­ing the cabin.

The sun slipped past the hori­zon an hour ago. Lin­ger­ing echoes cast just enough light to deceive. Every wrin­kle in the water ahead is a log, a tele­phone pole about to slam fiber­glass, inches from my love’s sleep­ing head. I drop this pad to stand and stare, claim­ing reas­sur­ance through height. Then, now, still: it’s all water. I fall for the same ruse every sun­set, every sun­rise. Every season.

Even in the sun’s absence, I keep this notepad braced against my knees, gaze con­stantly flick­ing between radar, com­puter chart, and black water, deter­mined to write blind even though I’ll be able to deci­pher less than half of this tomor­row. I’m think­ing of you, how long it’s been since we talked, and the dif­fer­ent sort of dark­ness I wrote from then. How to sum­ma­rize the months between that page and this? To chart the path between hol­low and peak, includ­ing Joel’s reunion with the ocean and our reunion with each other when we leased a per­mit to spend May trolling for king salmon off the Wash­ing­ton Coast, fac­ing a gaunt­let of threats – crab pots, bar cross­ings, drift­ing among big ship traf­fic – com­pletely beyond our Alaskan experience?

A daunt­ing task, and a tedious one at that. I’d rather think about friend­ship. About how, if a per­son is really lucky, they’ve got that one per­son who, no mat­ter how much time passes between vis­its, they can always pick up exactly where they left off, falling right back into each other’s com­pany with ease and com­fort. That’s the kind of friend I hope to be, and it’s the friend I imag­ine you as, too. Rather than apol­o­giz­ing for Hooked’s long silence or strug­gling to fill it, I just want to smile at you, reach across this dark ocean, and squeeze your hand. It’s so good to see you again.

There is, how­ever, one thing that needs to be said.

One week before we untied the lines to head north, I tapped the “send” but­ton. One full draft — 406 pages — off to my fear­less edi­tor Sarah. The last three chap­ters are sloppy, more ques­tion than solid nar­ra­tive. It needs a lot of help, but it’s some­thing, and Sarah gave me her bless­ing to go fish­ing and not think about it for the time being. (Actu­ally, she said, “Go do some­thing friv­o­lous to cel­e­brate!” Friv­o­lous doesn’t come easy to me, but a cel­e­bra­tory Martinelli’s with my writ­ing buddy Pam Hel­berg was pretty good.) I can’t tell you how much higher my shoul­ders are sit­ting, hav­ing handed the wheel over to Sarah. 

Writ­ing a book is often com­pared to preg­nancy. Car­ry­ing the story to term, the labor, strain­ing to birth this being that will live on inde­pen­dent of you. It’s an obvi­ous metaphor (and one my sub­con­scious fully embraced last win­ter, when this devoted non-breeder dreamed of a crown­ing baby that I didn’t know how to expel from my body.) Tonight, though, I’m think­ing that writ­ing a book is like dri­ving a boat up the Inside Pas­sage, trav­el­ing non-stop from Belling­ham, Wash­ing­ton, to Sitka, Alaska, through dark water and twist­ing chan­nels, sleep depri­va­tion and unfore­seen haz­ards. A per­son can’t do it alone. I’m grate­ful to every­one who’s been here for the ride, includ­ing Joel, who fielded two full win­ters of solo boat work, too much time apart, and more pep talks than any­one should have to issue, and you. Thank you for under­stand­ing when I needed to step away from this site, for send­ing your cards of encour­age­ment, anony­mous choco­late, and best writ­ing wishes. As much of this jour­ney still lies ahead, I trust we’ll reach our des­ti­na­tion. Safely. Together.

Eleven fifty now, almost my bed­time. When you read this, I’ll be post­ing from Alaska. Alaskan trollers have a record king salmon quota this year – 325,000 fish, the largest quota since abundance-based man­age­ment began in the late 1990’s. Trans­lated, that means there’s a lot of king salmon around. Joel and I will be ghosts on the dock as soon as the sea­son starts on July 1, push­ing our­selves to make the most of this oppor­tu­nity, town time lim­ited to unload­ing, refu­el­ing, gro­cery­ing, rush­ing right back out. Turn and burns.

I’ve got a smart­phone that I’m far too tech-inept for, and while blog posts on that tiny key­pad are beyond the lim­its of my patience, swollen fin­gers, and rare ser­vice pock­ets, I’ll post pho­tos from our trips on Face­book and Twit­ter. No bound­aries on a pen, though. If you’d like to find an old-school enve­lope or Alaskan post­card smil­ing up from your mail­box, don’t hes­i­tate to send a note. I’ll be at this address through mid-September:

Tele Aad­sen

507 Katlian St

Sitka, AK  99835

Until next time, whether we reunite by screen or by page, I’m so glad to see you again. (Smile; squeeze.)

 

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