Clamming season is upon us once again with the negative tides of last weekend. Due to the emergency order, I half expected that Polly Creek would be seeing a sudden influx of visitors due to the lack of restrictions and the exhilarating experience of clam digging in this area. Although I have had some pretty frightening experiences out there, had I known that it was slow I probably would have made arrangements to go.
For unknown reasons, an abundance study conducted in February discovered that mature razor clam populations were down 80% from averages dated from 1991 to 2012 in the East Cook Inlet Area. This bodes very badly for the normal clamming population that frequents Clam Gulch. This is an extremely popular location, seeing many small aircraft and ATVs during the typical April and May low tide season. Generally speaking this crowd will not make the journey across the inlet to the Polly Creek area for the reasons that I have outlined below.
Western Cook Inlet is a different story altogether. Polly Creek is a difficult location to reach, only accessible via aircraft or small boat. The mud flats that are near the beach are virtually horizontal. This means that even the smallest vertical movement of water causes long stretches of horizontal reach. This is greatly exaggerated by the extreme Alaskan tides. These tides have resulted in a few deaths, which is particularly unnerving for me because I happened to be there on the day that five commercial clammers perished. All of that being said, the risk of danger is relatively low and the adventure is high and that is one of the reasons that I do enjoy this trip.
This is a true to life Alaskan adventure. There are basically two routes to get there coming from Anchorage or Mat Su by air, which is my preferred mode of transportation. From Anchorage, one can travel south over Turnagain Arm and follow the coast to Nikiski before crossing Prince William Sound. You should be gaining altitude by at least a few thousand feet above ground level before crossing because the distance over water is about 5 miles and that is a cold swim. Alternatively, one can depart from Merrill Field or Lake Hood, cross over to Point Mackenzie and after clearing Ted Stevens airspace follow the coast down to Polly Creek. This is by far the longer yet safer route.
Landing on the beach or mud flats is another adventure in and of itself. While not being any salty-dog high hour pilot, I do walk away from every flight knowing that I have learned something new. Back in the trip that my accompanying pictures detail, I still had smaller tires on my trusty Cessna 170A but since then I have learned that the flats can be deceivingly soft and that big tires are better suited for Alaska's environment. Anyone familiar with Alaska for a long time can repeat one of many tales concerning danger on the mud flats. Silty mud prevalent in Southcentral Alaska has a tendency to very very slowly suck in anyone or anything that sits resting in one spot for too long. I witnessed this event a few years ago with a 172 that got stuck, albeit temporarily. We managed to get it's main wheels out of the mud with a little bit of effort and a few of us pushing. It is not a major problem, and probably doesn't happen often but it certainly left a mark in my memory to double check the firmness of where I land when I am out on the flats. It also pushed me along in the idea to get bigger tires on my airplane.
For the actual harvesting of Razor Clams, I have seen many people use clamming guns and shovels both. Razor Clams burrow very quickly, and I prefer using a clam gun for this reason. They are very quick little creatures, and when digging with a shovel one must move very quickly. They rest only a few inches down and can be seen by little holes in the surface of the mud, but as soon as they sense the ground being disturbed and can get down about 24 inches or more with an astounding ease.
Cooking the clams is very easy if you have practice and patience. Cooking them too long, however, will make them very tough and chewy. The idea is to fry them for only about 30 seconds per side. I like to bread them and season with tobasco or other hot sauce and fry them in a vegetable oil. They go very well with a side of biscuits and a sweet vegetable like corn.
It is unfortunate that the clam population is suffering on the east side of the inlet. I hope that we do not overcompensate by overharvesting on the west side as well, but if you do have the opportunity to get out and get a few it really is an exciting trip!
Image credits for first row:
When I was young, Hatcher Pass was an almost mythical, magical place. I guess part of it is because when you are a kid, everything new is that way. I can remember a few of the times that my dad took us up there, most notably (to me) was the time that my cousins came to visit us. I don't remember exactly what time of year it was, but I do remember that there was green and I can still remember the smell of chamomile and blueberries in the air, so I suspect it was probably late summer or early fall. It is one of those memories that I will never want to lose.
As we drove up from the east entrance from Palmer-Fishhook, we stopped at a scenic viewpoint to make some sandwiches and admire the view of the valley. From where we were, it was a perfect view to Pioneer Peak. Traffic along that stretch of road casually creeps along because the majority of travelers are fixated on how majestic it all is. It seems like after we packed back into the truck it all breezed by until we got up to Independence Mine, at the top of the road and a trip in it's own right.
Like many places in Alaska, Hatcher Pass is not a singular place to do a singular activity. There is such diversity in things to do, it always feels rushed to me each visit because we find ourselves skipping one thing to do another. I could spend weeks up there and still feel like I left adventure out. On this particular trip, our activity of choice was gold panning. As a youth, it was unimaginably awesome when we gathered our few little flakes in the glass vial. For a moment in time, I was the richest person on earth. I knew that somehow, someway, I would top it only by discovering a solid gold nugget if only I looked hard enough out the window of the truck when we finished up. I clutched that vial so tightly in my hand, I am surprised it didn't break.
Because I hold it in such fond memory, Hatcher Pass was actually one of the first places that I took my bride to be on a date when I first met her. We had no plans, and certainly we weren't equipped to do much of anything other than take a drive and enjoy the view. One of the first things that told her in one of our first long phone conversations was that you can spend a lifetime in Alaska and still miss out on some of the adventures. There is that much to do. We drove as far as Hatcher Pass Lodge on that trip, pulled over to the parking lot on that cold February afternoon, sat and talked and took pictures. Everything was breathtakingly beautiful that day. The scenery outside was okay too.
The last time I was up there was last August. Stephanie and I decided to drive from Willow through the pass and over to Wasilla. Like many of our excursions, it was just for the heck of it. It was August and a beautiful day. When we got a few miles in, I decided to pull over and pick some blueberries. We didn't have the scoops that make the job more efficient, we just had some zip lock bags and determination. We ended up getting a fair amount for the effort, but will be better prepared this fall when we go back.
I have yet to take Stephanie on a gold panning trip, I think this summer might be a good time to do it. Leila is a little bit younger than I was, but I think old enough to be amazed as I once was. I just want to see that look of accomplishment on her face the same way that I'm sure my dad once did on mine.
Image credits, as watermarked:
Patrick Thun, https://instagram.com/alaska_scenery/
Last night, we had one of the best Northern Lights shows I have ever seen in my life. Stephanie and I, not wanting to miss it despite being worn out from two sick daughters, stayed out until well past 1 am just enjoying the show from out on our dock at Seymour Lake. At that moment, I once again realized just how lucky we are to live here.
We talked about how many people will never get to see the Aurora in real life because of how one has to perfectly time the weather, solar activity, and time of year. It obviously makes it very difficult for anyone who doesn’t live up here in The Greatland to get to time it that perfectly. It was literally a perfect night. Rather than write a long post, though, I have included a few pictures from last nights show. I think that these images can tell the story so much better than I can. None of these images are doctored, it was really this good looking.
Image credits, as watermarked:
Dora Miller, (Aurora Dora) www.auroradora.com
Patrick Thun, https://instagram.com/alaska_scenery/
Today I opened one of our last packets of smoked salmon from the previous year. As I was peeling every last morsel of the meat off of the skin, I was a little bit sad that we have gone through all of it but a little bit excited because that just means that we are one day closer to the next season. I do have a few fillets frozen in the freezer that I might end up smoking this weekend just so that I have a little bit longer before we are completely out. I think that this coming up year, we are going to do things a little bit different though.
Every season for the past few years I have an ongoing debate with myself about where we are going to go to get our fish. Starting in the late winter / early spring I am always dead set on hitting Kenai because of the quality of the Sockeye that come out of there. The fish are much larger and much fatter there than they are at the next fishery down the road. Because the fish are more desirable, though, there is a large crowd to deal with and that is why I end up going to Kasilof.
According to Fish and Game, Alaskans harvest 130000 – 540000 out of the Kenai dipnetting fishery. This of course means that there are a LOT of people there. Typically this is my biggest complaint about the fishery itself. Kasilof on the other hand, tends to be a little bit less crowded from the beaches and even more so when fishing from a boat. This is in part because the fish tend to be smaller and less fatty and so less people like them. The highest number of Kasilof Sockeye harvested since 1996 was in 2013 and the count was 85,528. Here is the record of counts for the last 18 years up until 2013.
This year I think we are going to do things differently. While finishing my salty-smoky-sweet snack I was reflecting on if I should go to Kenai again this year, like I always think I am going to do. I think we might end up going to the Chitina personal use dipnetting fishery instead. The expedition itself is harder, the cost of entry is slightly higher, and there is more risk involved. The fish however, are world class. Literally. Copper River Sockeye are the best Sockeye Salmon that money can buy in the retail market. In fact, the first shipment of Copper River Salmon arriving to Seattle is kind of a big deal, with a professional Cook Off occurring within 24 hours within catching the ceremonial first catch. Fortunately they are available for a little bit of work and a small outdoors expedition. Ideally, this trip will give my daughters the opportunity to participate in the harvest and everything it includes without dealing with the crowds so much like we would on the peninsula. I want them to know where their food comes from and how it goes from living in the wild to landing on the table. To me it is something almost spiritual, to be able to connect with life and be involved with processing the things we eat on our own.
It's only been a few weeks since one of my personal favorite holidays. It's the day that makes the next 12 months either a marathon of excitement or an agony until the next time it comes around. Non-hunting spouses everywhere equally await the outcome of this fated day, not knowing until the event passes whether or not the budget will be bent to it's limits. The day I am talking about, of course, is the day that the drawing results come out from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for the drawing hunts.
Every year I put in for a few specific hunts and then base the remainder of my hunting and fishing seasons around that. Of course there are always the hunts that every hunter wants to participate in. For me, those are: Bison (DI403, and DI404), and Antlerless Moose (DM406, DM402, and DM403). Of course, I put in for Bison every single year, and of course inevitably, a first time entrant gets one of these rare prized tags. I know that one day I will get it and that the money goes to a good cause (almost like voluntary tax dollars that support Fish and Game) so I continue to put in for it. On the beautiful side of things, out of the two times I have put in for Caribou (DC482), I have gotten it both times.
Many people might not fully understand what I am referring to in all of this jargon, so here is a quick explanation. We are a rapidly growing state, and some of our more prized hunting areas and animals are subject to heavy hunting pressure which might endanger the continued use of the natural resources. As a way to more effectively manage this, Fish and Game has a lottery system that costs a small fee per selected hunt. A large amount of people enter, a few people get selected to hunt this area and species.
The hunt that I drew for is in the west side of the Denali Highway, west of Maclaren River. It is a landscape covered in wild expanse larger than I think most people could ever realize without seeing it with their own eyes. It is truly remarkable country. This year, because we were drawn for hunting there we plan on spending a week berry picking, caribou hunting, and sightseeing. I highly recommend this trip to anyone looking to see what “real Alaska” looks like from one of the best places to see it on the road system.