Sun Kissed Cheeks with a Smell of Smoked Salmon

I want to apologize for dropping off the radar for the last two weeks. A lot has been happening, one adventure in particular of which I will tell you about...

For the last 6 months I have been alone, accomplishing my own life without my other half, my partner Dane.  I have been to Germany, moved to Seattle, started a new school, and have made new friends, all without him. My life has been pretty organized, regimented, and lacking the outdoor adventure that usually fills my life when Dane is around. However, last week Saturday I received a call. “We are finished and on our way back home,” Dane said,  “and guess what, we are flying you up to Sitka on Monday to meet us!!” The excitement in his voice lingered in my ear; I couldn’t believe that in less than 48 hours I would be on my way to see Dane.

Two days later, the captain’s girlfriend and I walk down the ramp into the Sitka arrivals terminal. With full packs and bags filled to the brim with warm clothes and all the local fresh fruits, veggies, and even farm fresh eggs from Bellingham, we run towards our hard-worked, rugged, and radiantly smiling fisherman. Nervous and excited I take a deep breath and run into his arms. Every year this moment is different, but always pure and sweet like the taste of summer’s first fresh strawberries. Once again I feel safe and at home.

As quickly as we arrived, no sooner do we depart on our new sea-bound home, the Western Freedom, a 58 ft aluminum long-lining commercial fishing boat. As long as Dane has been working as a fisherman, I have not had the chance to experience his second life without me. After a long day of travel, I quickly fall asleep into my first slumber at sea.

At 4:30 A.M., the captain and old friend Garrett Elwood stumbles down into the focsle hole to wake us up; it is time to switch out the wheel watching shifts. Sleepy eyed, Dane takes the captain’s chair, and I lay down on the day bunk next to him. Everything is dark, but the wheelhouse is lit up with multiple computer screens, and a dim red light gives everything a secretive glow. Now all we do is watch and listen in the quiet of the night. I close my heavy eyelids, to rest my eyes, and before I know it its already 6:30 A.M. and the light of dawn is creeping in thru the windows. Dane, still awake, drinking his morning coffee, and reading a book, looks over his shoulder and smiles at me, “Good morning beautiful, sleep well?” With a small grin on my face, I nod. “Sorry that I fell asleep.” I slowly get up and sit on his lap, curled up like a little cat. Content and cozy, we finish the last few hours of wheel watch together.

Our adventures led us to many places, and through many different weather patterns. Our first afternoon at sea, we stopped at Baranof Island, an island famous for its beautiful hot springs right next to a roaring river. It was raining, but that just allowed us to sit in the hot springs even longer. The minerals and the warmth thoroughly relaxed our sore muscles. As a group we decided to extend our journey half a day and stay overnight to enjoy another early morning soak. Relaxed and fully rested, on Wednesday morning, the four of us pulled in the ropes and set off on our long journey to Bellingham.

Weather can change from one minute to the next at sea. I knew we would probably see a little rough weather, with rain and high winds, but little did I know exactly what I was in for. After an afternoon passing through Frederik Sound, riding some 3 ft rollers, feeling nauseous, and stumbling around the cabin, I thought I was weathered in for life on the boat. Yet what was to come the following day, made the previous afternoon seem like a breeze. As we entered Clarence Strait Thursday afternoon, the winds hit highs of 40 knots, with swells of 6ft. All of a sudden the swells hit all at once rocking the boat back and forth. It was a thrill, like a roller coaster reaching its height and plummeting to the ground every 10 seconds. Within a blink of my eye, the boat had thrown me across the wheelhouse to the floor. Immediately my heart rate shot through the roof, and the look on my face must have shown the terror in my eyes. Where we going to make it through this alive, I asked myself? It is pretty funny how ones imagination can carry you into another world within an instant. I looked up at Dane as he rushed up the stairs to the wheelhouse, and I heard the urgency in his voice. “Garrett, I’m putting in the stabilizers.” “Roger that” replied the captain. Once Dane returned windblown and soaked through and through, he looked at me with a grin on his face, and I knew we were okay. No SOS, no survival suits, no freezing waters. PHEW!! After a  few more hours we crossed over to Tongass Narrows, where relatively calm waters awaited us. With a last minute weather update of incoming 50 knot winds with gusts up to 70 knots, we decided to wait out the weather and moor up in Ketchikan for one night.

Ketchikan is one of the rainiest cities in North America. It is has a big commercial fishing port and makes most of its income during the summer months when huge cruise ships unload tourists for 4 hour Ketchikan shopping sprees. Torrential rains and winds greeted us as we stepped off the Western Freedom Thursday evening. We wined and dined that night, in Ketchikan’s Bar Harbor Restaurant. Happy to have found a warm and tasty kitchen ready to serve us, we collectively rooted for team freedom. With our right hands in we yelled, “Go Freedom!” However, my head was spinning. I felt as though the whole room was moving, and my brain was being smashed from both sides. What was going on with me? Here we are with delicious wine and everything from ribs to Alaskan scallops spread across the table. Why do I have to force myself to be in good spirits? I found out later that this feeling is called “land drunk”. After a certain time at sea, your body has a hard time to find equilibrium after returning to solid land. The only thing that could help me was movement and fresh air. As soon as we returned to the boat I quickly retired to the focsle hole. Although my freshly made blackberry crumble was calling my name along with a good game of Banana Grams, I decided that some much needed shut eye would be the best medicine for me.

After all had a good nights rest in Ketchikan, we got an early start south. The weather had passed us by, and calm seas were awaiting us. What a treat, a full day of travel with sunshine! When the sun is shining the spirits are high. Everyone has a silly grin on his or her face, and life feels like it couldn’t get any better. The scenery as we pass through the inside passage from Alaskan waters into Canadian, is absolutely beautiful. As I stand looking out my window, while working on removing hooks from their long line fishing gear, I see humpback whales breach for air, and birds soaring through the bright blue skies. The temperatures have reached a high of 70 and life is good. I wave to the Alaskan ferry that passed us by, and smile as the passengers happily wave back. My favorite spot is the open walkway on the right side of the Western Freedom. It is the perfect perch to feel the afternoon sun on my face, yet be as close to the water as possible. My feet dangle over the edge, and the breeze tickles my cheeks. The sun warms my chest, and I start to drift off as the XM radio station plays jazz in the background. This is the life, right? So many people would pay to be where I am right now. Garrett walks over to me and hands me a fancy cocktail in a mason jar, whisky, cold coffee, Irish cream, and all topped with whipped cream. Oh, and lets not forget the blue straw! What could be better than to spend the morning watching whales, and then spending the afternoon lazily reading and drinking a fancy cocktail in the sun? Dane comes up from behind me and give me a hug and a kiss on the neck…yup that just tops it all off!

Oh, and I forgot to mention we have even made our own at sea gym. With a yoga mat, a rope, some heavy anchors, and a hang board attached to a beam, we are all set for any sort of work out you can dream of. Want some cardio? Jump rope for half an hour. Want to do some abs or stretching? Then enjoy the beautiful view on the top deck on the yoga mat. Want to build your arms? Then do some pull-ups on the hang board, or lift some small anchors to replace dumbbells. We got what you need! All in the fresh air, in the sun, and in complete nature. 

We usually fend for ourselves for breakfast and lunch, but dinner is a communal event. Dane and I cook, or Garrett and his girlfriend take the role as chef and sous-chef, either way there is always too much good food, and wine to be had. We have had steaks, black cod, halibut, and octopus, cooked, brined, marinated, grilled, or poached, you name it. Everything turns out delicious and different. It is a foodie paradise aboard the Western Freedom, even Martha Stewart would approve!

Sometimes I feel the urge to pinch myself, as if to remind me what a dream we are living. The real life is only a couple days away beckoning our return. I smile and push it out of my mind a little longer. These days are purely beautiful, no stress, no guilt, no responsibilities, just a lot of love, delicious food, friendship, and the abundance of mother nature in its purest unadulterated form. After a full week of fun and adventure, two fisherman and their girlfriends arrive sun kissed, windblown, and smelling of smoked salmon, into the Bellingham marina. WELCOME HOME BOYS! 

As a little taste of our trip I want to share something with you, something that has been shared with me, and will always remind me of this wonderful experience Dane and Garrett have given me. It is a recipe for pickled black cod. You may be weary and cautious, and you may be curious, but let me persuade you to try it yourself. It is not only a delicacy but it is also very delicious. As a true and tried traditional recipe of the Elwood family, it has surpassed all taste tests, and won every time. If you have mixed feelings initially, allow it to grow on you. It is a new flavor, and it is intense, but it is unique and different in a very good way. For any foodie that loves seafood, this will be a sure hit. I recommend eating pickled black cod with crackers, in sandwiches, or even as part of a hors d' oeuvres plate.

Pickled Black Cod
Makes 2 quart sized mason jars (about eight 8oz mason jars)
Pickling Salt
8 cups cool filtered water
1 egg
8 cups of cubed fish (Black Cod)
2 cups white vinegar, plus additional for brining 
1 1/2 cups organic sugar
1 cup white wine (chardonnay)
2 Tblsp pickling spices
1 large onion, sliced
1/4 cup organic lemon juice

1.  Place 8 cups filtered water into a large ceramic or glass bowl (do not use a metal bowl) and mix in enough pickling salt to float an egg in the water. 
2.  Brine the fish for 24 hours in the salt water.
3.  After 24 hours have passed rinse the fish well in fresh water, and drain. 
4.  Cover the fish with white vinegar and soak for 24 hours. Rinse well and drain. 
5.  Heat sugar, 2 cups white vinegar, and spices to a boil and allow to simmer 10 minutes.
6.  Cool to room temperature. You do not want the brine to be warm because this will change the texture of the fish. 
7.  Sanitize the mason jars by steaming them in a large pot. First fill the large pot with water, set in the mason jars, and then heat to a steady simmer for 10 minutes. Remove the jars from hot water and place onto a clean kitchen towel. They are now ready to be filled.
7.  Once the brine mixture is cooled, add the wine and lemon juice. 
8.  Layer the onions and fish into the mason jars and cover with cooled brine, including spices. 
9.  Store in refrigerator for 3 days prior to serving. 

Optional: Add a chile to each of the mason jars to add a spicy kick.
If you are interested in ordering fish from the 2013 season, feel free to contact the Western Freedom.

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