Cooking For A Fishing & Hunting Lodge in Alaska I
Larsen Bay, Alaska
Working & Living in the Alaskan Bush
Dallas introduced herself to me by sneaking in the lodge with her mutt friend, Samurai. I was alone that afternoon on May 2007 in this 5,000 sq. ft. lodge when I heard clip-clopping on the wooden floor. I knew that all the guests were gone fishing, and the other people working for the lodge were some place else, so, whose clip-clopping were those? The sounds were not human. There she was climbing the stairs to the kitchen, wagging her tail and saying 'hi there' and following behind her, Samurai, almost reluctant to approach me. "How did you guys get here? You are not allowed here!." I coached them out to the deck with a treat. I guessed that much that the yellow lab was the instigator. I thought that the mutt was more behaved, but subservient to the lab. I thought what a smart ass dog that lab was!.
The next morning, after all the clients left for fishing, I came out of the deck only to find the smart ass dog waiting....for more treats. The mutt was not with her. That confirmed that she's indeed smart. She knew where she could get food.
When we didn't have any clients, I did not want to be alone in the lodge with all these stuffed animals. The second floor where I slept had a stuffed grizzly bear. The first floor had a wild goat and a cougar. My imagination was running as wild as that movie "The Night at the Museum." These animals could come alive at night and I was all alone. I had to ask the lodge owner if the yellow lab could keep me company so I could sleep peacefully. The lodge owner owned the seven month old yellow lab, Dallas. From what I was told, Dallas was the only yellow lab amongst her black siblings. Even her birth mother was black. The lodge owner and his family kept her and gave away the rest of the brood. Granted permission to have her stay with me, her status amongst the other dogs in that family had just been elevated.
Having Dallas around at the lodge when there were no guests was a joy and a relief. Besides giving me peace at night, she was my companion wherever we scoured the village and its seashores for shells, for sea glass; wherever we trod along to pick wild flowers and raspberries.
You see, this is bear country. Humans and bears co-exist in Larsen Bay, Alaska, just like in any other part of remote Alaska. Just how remote? The big island of Kodiak. To get to Larsen Bay which is southwest of the island, take a 30 minute plane ride or 12 hour boat ride from the city of Kodiak in Kodiak Island. Riding in "small planes" in Alaska is an adventure. The plane could be a four to six seater including pilot. The baggage could include people's baggages, a dog, groceries for the locals or whatever necessities or luxuries the plane could carry. To me, the best thing about the bush plane ride, was the comfort seeing Dallas behind my seat. Apart from these, on a clear, unwindy flight, from way up there, looking down, was spectacular. Every landing approach, the locals would be waiting on the runway to greet the plane, pick up their clients, their employees, their groceries, their dog(s). This small village has a short landing strip with no aviation frills, just like any other 'bush' Alaskan village. Bush means remote--Alaskan speak.
When you cook in the Alaskan bush, you keep up with the challenges....which are constant. Boats are more economical to transport groceries, dry goods and everything else. But these boats are not scheduled daily, or are not reliable because of predictable reasons like the weather or the 'boat breakdown. Reasons or excuses are typical why the boat could not be on schedule. Thus, the plane preference, which is (almost) daily (weather-dependant) and cost a helluva lot of money.
The challenges I faced were enormous, ironic and hilarious. Receiving wilted herbs, expired milk, wrong products were the norm. Getting the basic groceries from one remote area (Kodiak) to the bush (Larsen Bay) was a cacophony of anxiety. I never knew what surprises were awaiting me. To cut down on some predictable surprises, I opted to plant my own herbs delightfully awakening my green thumb that solved most of the fresh herbs issues. Vegetables would be que sera sera except when our local housekeeper, Marlene, would bring me her fresh produce of carrots, rhubarb, and whatever extras from her garden. I took the liberty to buy eggs from her also. Marlene, an Aleutian, conscientious and industrious, was the best housekeeper and local Alaskan Native I have come to like and respect. I owe Marlene the excitement of learning Alaskan island-subsistence living: gathering sea gull eggs, raking for sea urchins, digging clams, scraping the mussels off the rocks and catching octopus.
Cooking for a fishing and hunting lodge had its rewards and drawbacks just like any place or any job. I never appreciated halibut and salmon as when I was presented with the fresh catch of the day. Halibut, tender, sweet and....free. Salmon of different species. Trout. Rockfish. I was in gills heaven. The privilege to cook and serve the bounty of Alaska's waters would spoil me rotten. My culinary spirit was ecstasy personified. Yet, I opt not to corrupt the sweetness of the species' own natural flavor. I believe that I won the stomachs of all my clients because I had received generous tips. The clients during the fishing season were more my type of people. They were friendlier and generous unlike the clients during the hunting season. The hunters wanted me to serve them freshly-shot deer. This added a notch to my culinary skill.
Bush cooking was hard work. Long hours from 12 to 16 hours a day depending on how many staff the lodge would employ and how many clients at any given day. I should say that my lodge work was a paragon of a one-person-team most of the time. I metamorphosed from chef to hostess to server to dishwasher to housekeeper to interior decorator to gardener. I could barely walk at the end of the day or night, and yet, I had to to take Dallas out for a stroll on the beach every day, or night and not begrudgingly. Heck, the commute was a lot easier, from bedroom to kitchen on the same floor. The few steps I saved were helpful. How could you beat that Los Angeles!
My vanity in the appearance department took a backseat. "Mirror, mirror on the wall....yuk, that's not me at ALL." Sacrifice vanity for simple plain-ness, if you must call it that; because I was too physically exhausted to repair and pretty-fy me. Living and working remote, I did not have to pay for rent, utilities, car fuel and food. The upshot on this job were free airfare to and from Anchorage, salary plus tips. Count the island's weather-dependent internet and TV connections and the absence of no substance user friends as my un-favorite things. My existence was almost monastic. And yet, the moments of staring at pristine wilderness, at encountering a bear on the beach, at watching the eagles fish, at simply beachcombing for 'treasures,' I could go on schizophrenically on Alaskan bush living.