Good Things in the Great Land

When I sail to Alaska, as I have done five or six times now, I always look forward to waking up early the first morning we have arrived in the Great Land. I’ll spring out onto the balcony at dawn — which, in Alaska, is 4:30 or 5 in the morning. You know immediately by the towering snow-capped peaks, forested isles and placid waters of the Inside Passage that you have arrived — the bald eagles carving the sky and spouting humpback whales confirming the fact.

Willa and Immy in the woods near Dewey Lake, Skagway, Alaska

Willa and Immy in the woods near Dewey Lake, Skagway, Alaska

As evidenced by its sheer mass, Alaska is a land of big things. The mountains are big, the glaciers are big, the animals are big and the sky is big. Also big is the abundance of food — if you’ve not seen a salmon run on an Alaskan stream, you have no idea why there is so much of the fish in the supermarket at this time of year. The bears become so sated and picky that they will eat only the skin and discard the rest of the fish. The long hours of sunlight enable Alaskan farmers to grow those giant cabbages and pumpkins you’ve seen in pictures.

Witnessing the abundance always makes me want to cook. Which I am usually unable to do because I am on a ship and being cooked for. The two exceptions to this were the time I was on a cruise many years ago, discovered a grove of porcini mushrooms on a hike in Skagway (which I smuggled back onto the ship inside my jacket), and was invited by the voyage’s guest chef Celestino Drago to cook lunch with him in one of the ship’s restaurants; and the time my wife and I spent five days at a beach house in Ketchikan and were able to make good use of local salmon, clams and crab, as well as the bounty of wild raspberries, blueberries, huckleberries and other miscellaneous berries we found strolling in the woods of the Tongass National Forest.

Relegated to the role of diner, I am compelled mostly to observe. I watch the fishing boats hauling out of port already certain of their catch. I watch every stream we see, clogged with sockeye or humpies more out of water than in. I watch the berry vines, curling around telephone poles and spreading across yards, not recognizing fences and boundary lines.

Walking back toward the harbor in Ketchikan from the salmon hatchery where we took the kids to show them the place where Mommy and Daddy got engaged, we find berries. The first we see are pale orange with large lobes, much like the cloudberries my Norwegian friend  Pål brought to dinner one evening. (“Maybe they are cloudberries,” Leslie offers. “We’re about the same latitude north, aren’t we?”) They are tart, subtly sweet and deeply complex. A bit of research upon returning home confirms that cloudberries do, in fact, grow in Alaska. (Where they are often unsurprisingly referred to as “salmonberries”.)

A little further along, we are greedily gathering raspberries that grow like weeds around a boarded-up home. It seems as if the vines themselves are consuming the house, pulling it back down into the ground. The kids fill their hands with the sweet fruit, and I imagine how much a similar amount would cost me at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market back home.

Gathering raspberries outside abandoned house

Gathering raspberries outside abandoned house

Full on berries, we next find ourselves in a cute Alaskan-owned gift shop, where my kids play with totem poles and I chat with a Tlinget guy and look at buck knives. We purchase foodie souvenirs to bring home — smoked salmon, huckleberry syrup, locally roasted coffee, Alaska Jack’s sourdough starter (Despite his resemblance to exactly the caricature you might imagine of an Alaskan, I didn’t actually see anyone who looked like Alaska Jack in Alaska). At another small shop, I tried spruce tip sea salt and birch syrup. Chatting with my friend, Debra, however, I remember a simple truth:

“They never taste the same when you get them home.”


An ineffectual attempt to hold onto a moment and bring it home with you. That Ketchikan trip I talked about earlier, we brought back bags of frozen wild berries and razor clams, and were long to use them.

I guess you could say that I’m smitten with Alaska, returning home with more Alaska on the mind. Within days I am on, looking at houses I could vacation swap for in Anchorage, the Kenai, Denali… And I bet I could buy that abandoned house in Ketchikan for a song.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Ant Patty
    Aug 16, 2013 @ 02:42:36

    I can’t leave a short and sweet “comment” – I need to share stories of our adventures of Alaska. This may be my favorite post of yours thus far.

    Love, Ant Patty


  2. russianmartini
    Aug 16, 2013 @ 03:50:14

    This is almost eerie because one of my favorite childhood memories is gathering raspberries outside an abandoned country house in Russia. Every time i taste a good raspberry since then it transports me right back to that time as a kid
    This could be a memory your children hold dear for years to come, never know!


  3. glennis
    Aug 18, 2013 @ 23:45:22

    Never been to Alaska (always wanted to) but your post reminds me of parts of Western Washington…. the berries, especially! Blackberries grow like weeds – people think of them as weeds – and you can pick a pie’s worth on the side of the road. Living in Seattle, you’re always so much aware that it’s the jumping off point for Alaska – we had many friends who went back and forth; one friend had a crab boat he’d go out on in the summer. Alaska was always a presence just a little bit over the horizon.


    • scolgin
      Aug 18, 2013 @ 23:50:56

      Yeah, it’s actually not that far away from Seattle — B.C. sort of got scammed out of most of their west coast. The blackberries grow like that up in Northern California, too. I didn’t see any blackberries in ALaska, but a lot of other interesting berries. (The raspberries were like weeds the way blackberries are in No Cal).


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