The ringtone of the emergency boat phone woke me sometime after midnight.
It's an ancient flip phone that we take with us when we go anywhere in the skiff, but I keep it at my house beside my bed in the event of a family crisis since my parents don't have a signal in their bedroom. I sat up instantly, wide awake, my mind flashing from one family member to the next. When I saw the caller ID was my older brother Jamie, my heart sank. My nephew Sterling (Jamie's oldest son) and his entire little family, were in the process of moving South--had something horrible happened?
It was actually a momentary relief when Jamie said laconically, "There was an 8.2 earthquake in the Gulf, off Kodiak. A tsunami warning has gone out."
When the size of the earthquake and the position of it registered I realized we'd definitely be in the path of any tsunami from it. My first thought was, "Oh, great. Now I won't be able to make the dinners for my parents' 50th Anniversary."
My sister Megan had ordered the makings for a lobster tail dinner, while my second youngest brother Robin, who is renowned far and wide for his incredibly scrumptious coffee-rubbed prime rib roast, was sending out the makings for a second dinner. After all, a 50th wedding anniversary deserved to be recognized twice!
I already had the dessert Megan had sent in my freezer, but the makings for both dinners were supposed to come out in the mail tomorrow on our once-a-week, weather permitting mail day.
After I got off the phone with Jamie, I tried getting enough of an Internet signal to find out what was going on with the earthquake. The official tsunami warning was on my tablet but I couldn't find a usable signal. I called my sister Megan in Miami. There's a four hour time difference between us so it was pushing five in the morning her time and she's an early riser--but she's well aware of the time difference and would know something was wrong with me calling at the hour. I could hear the expectation of something bad in her calm voice, much like the time I'd had to call her when Robin was in a near-fatal car crash.
While I talked to her I slipped on warm clothes and put things in my two emergency backpacks that were already stocked with survival supplies and important documents--we'd been through tsunami warnings before. My Maine Coon, Katya, wasn't in the house, but I trusted that she'd get to high ground in time to avoid being swept away.
I went over to my parents' house to wake them up, though I hesitated. We had a tsunami safe spot, the only high spot on the tip of this peninsula where we live, but it was quite a trek up a rocky, seaweed strewn beach, around and over a tangle of drift logs, a long walk and then a steep climb up to Tsunami Hill. Both of my parents have mobility issues and I didn't think either of them would be able to make it through the obstacle course of the drift logs, let alone the rest of the way. So should I just let them sleep? Odds were the tsunami warning would be a false alarm, like all the others we'd gotten over the years.
But the size of the quake and the position of it were just too ominous. I decided they had to make the choice themselves of whether they'd try to get to our tsunami safe spot or not.
I woke them up and gave them the bad news. My mom, for one, felt the same relief I had. She said she thought I was waking them up at that time of the night to tell them something bad had happened to one of their kids. Her mind went immediately Megan and her daughter Aroon for some reason--maybe because of the worries we had when Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Miami a few months back.
When I told her the even worse news, that if there was a tsunami they wouldn't get their anniversary dinners, she laughed and then added wistfully, "And no dessert!" She shared that she and my dad had been brooding about the dessert they knew was in my freezer for the last week. When you live out in the bush, locked in by winter, these are the sorts of things that can quickly develop into an obsession. It sounded like they'd been planning a commando raid on my freezer to liberate the dessert before their anniversary.
Both of my parents were matter-of-factly certain that they wouldn't be able to make the Iron Man trek to Tsunami Hill. My mom insisted that I go, though. I knew it was a mother's need to keep her children safe, but she cunningly added, to get me to comply, "That way someone will survive to help me and Dad." I couldn't fault that logic.
I contacted my sister again to get more information before setting out into the cold night, and to relay to Jamie who lives in the nearby village. He had a woman and two kids staying with him and had to worry about the need to get them to high ground in time. My dad was working the other phone, too. At one point we heard that the city of Seward, the first place that would be hit by a tsunami, had been evacuated and/or already wiped out. Megan's next news to me confirmed that there was definitely a tsunami. A tsunami buoy in the Gulf of Alaska near the epicenter of the quake had detected a thirty-five foot change in sea level.
Again, my first reaction was relief. "A thirty-five foot tsunami headed our way? Good. Now I don't have to climb Tsunami Hill." The hill was only thirty feet high--at low tide. And the tide was coming in. I might as well stay with my parents.
We figured out that their house would probably be the safest. Mine was closest to the trees and would be crushed into splinters by the weight of my parents' house and their large workshop. I carried my backpacks over there and heard that the wave was due to hit us four hours after the earthquake. We worried about all of our friends in Alaskan towns that were right on the ocean, like Sitka and Craig. At that time the warning was going out for the entire West Coast of the U.S. and I worried about friends and family in Washington, Oregon, and California.
Around three a.m. the tsunami warning was canceled for our area. As it turned out, despite the massive, shallow quake--later downgraded to a 7.8, followed by hundreds of aftershocks--only a few small waves, under a foot high, were generated. The tsunami buoy that registered the 35 foot wave was actually so close to the epicenter that what it recorded was seismic energy affecting the seafloor rather than the surface.
Katya seems to have suffered the most from the false alarm. She has some post traumatic issues from returning home in the middle of the night to find me gone, all the lights on, and the hated, horrible backpacks out (which usually means I'm going somewhere). In the nights since the tsunami warning she's taken to lying on my boots so I can't leave and glaring at me. When I try to reach for them she swats at me, or lightly bites me. Unbeknownst to her they're actually my summer boots--my winter boots are a couple sizes too big so that I can wear bulky, warm layers of socks in them. But whatever gives her peace of mind is fine with me.
At any rate, the anniversary dinners were back on!
Robin rubbed his roast the next evening, despite a sleepless night and a long day at the Shipyard in Ketchikan where he works. He packaged it up, put in some wine, garlic cloves, mashed potato mix, and--being the bush kid he is--threw in a bunch of flashlights. You can never have too many flashlights in the bush. He got up at four a.m. to get the package to the floatplane airlines to make sure it got out on the mail plane that day, and we'd be able to cook it as soon as we got the mail. He was assured that the weather was good and the plane would be on its way that morning.
However, our community is so tiny--only about twelve year around residents--that the sole floatplane company that handles the mail for this entire outlying region, routinely puts us on the back burner. We rarely get our mail on the scheduled mail day. Sometimes that's due to bad weather, but far more frequently it's because the airlines will put other community's needs, and paying customers, ahead of our mail. Which was exactly what happened this time.
Both anniversary dinners, having survived a tsunami, were now sitting in storage. (We weren't even sure that Megan's dinner had made it to the airlines. My parents called them, and then the store she ordered it from, but no one seemed to know where it was.) The next day the floatplane came out, but by then the tide was out and our skiff was high and dry and wouldn't float again until after dark. We wouldn't be able to pick up the mail from the post office. Jamie picked it up for us, having to break through ice with his skiff to get to the post office, but after he took the mail back to his place the tide went out on him, too. The dinners were a little bit closer to us, but were still in transit. We were most concerned about the pre-rubbed roast--it had been traveling for longer than most roasts are intended to travel--or marinate.
But finally the roast made it to us, a couple days before my parents' anniversary. Rather than wait until the day, we cooked it almost as soon as it came in the house. Marinating it for that long in the coffee rub turned out to make the roast even more succulently tender and flavorful than usual--and that's saying something! I've included Robin's recipe below. But I'm not sure you'll enjoy it as much as we did without the tsunami warning, floatplane hassle, and tide issues!
ROBIN'S COFFEE-RUBBED PRIME RIB
This recipe is for an 8-pound prime rib roast cooked to medium rare.
Combine the following:
1 cup instant coffee ground to a fine powder
1 1/2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon Lawrey's season salt
1 teaspoon celery salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon sage
1/2 teaspoon red pepper
Pat the roast dry and then liberally apply the coffee rub to the entire roast with your hands until the rub stays dry. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes as you preheat the oven to 500 degrees F.
Put uncovered roast in a skillet or roaster [we put a rack in and film of water under it] and surround with garlic cloves. Cook for 20 minutes.
Remove roast and re-seal using some of the remaining rub any place that has peeled back. Replace in 350 degree oven. Check every 30 minutes for peeling back outer shell and repair with rub. Cook until center of roast reaches 120 degrees.
Remove from oven and let sit for 10-15 minutes. Roast interior will continue to cook. [Ours was a little too rare and we had to put it back in for another 10 minutes.[
"Cut huge chunks of flesh off and enjoy the juices running down your chin as you devour it!" --Conan the Barbarian (a.k.a., my brother Robin.)
Finding a pizza order form in our old school newspaper lurking in the old dairy crate made me think about how if there is one luxury bush dwellers envy city dwellers for, it's pizza delivery. When I was a kid every teacher of the bush school I attended decided this was an exploitable situation and used it in order to help finance school field trips.
Along with other fundraising activities, our school's pizza delivery gambit (and the school district generously matching every dollar we earned) allowed us to go on trips along the Inside Passage to visit Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, and Haines. We also managed some international travel to Prince Rupert and Smithers, Canada. Later, Hawaii was not beyond the school's reach, thanks in large part to wilderness residents' hunger for delivered pizza.
How it worked was that the school would buy the ingredients (or accept donated ingredients) and would make the pizza dough ahead of time, storing it in freezers of locals living in and outside the village. In the school newspaper, delivered to every resident, was a pizza order form with a list of ingredient choices to be checked for up to two pizzas.
Then, on the designated pizza night, the dough was gathered and the kids, with teacher supervision, would have an overnighter at the school, using the school's and the attached teacherage's ovens to cook the pizzas.
Every school kid from the oldest to the youngest had assigned duties, from grating mounds of cheese (watch those fingers!--the less said about that the better), to crying over diced onions, to compiling the pizzas, to delivering them.
Delivery was my favorite job: Carrying our warm boxes of pizza into the cool night, smelling the cheese, tomato sauce, Italian seasoning, and pepperoni mixing with the gasoline fumes from the outboard and the musk of low tide as we skiffed from one village home to the next. We'd walk up private docks or beaches to a door, shining our flashlights, hearing a private generator purring. The door would open, revealing an electric light lit scene of anticipatory faces gathered around a table.
Because my family lived so far out in the bush, my parents agreed to have their pizza delivered to my grandparents' home in the village, and they'd stay the night and make a party of it. I could tell they were enjoying not only the luxury of delivered pizza, but a night away from the kids.
We didn't hold it against them. We were having a blast away from the adults. After the last pizzas were delivered and clean-up had concluded, the teachers faded to the sidelines and even fell asleep. The kids had the run of the school all night long and we made the most of it.
Some of our inspired ideas included piling bean bags below the upper story loft, climbing onto the half-wall and leaping into space, landing (hopefully) on the bean bags. We played a version of volleyball on the play deck that we fondly called "kill ball" with a complete disregard for anything approaching rules, or concern for life and limb. Lights were often casualities.
When we tired of that we played flashlight tag, ghosting through the dark playfield, through the forest surrounding the school, or darting from one foundation piling under the school to the next. Each of us had a flashlight clutched in a sweaty hand, breathing fast as we peered into the blackness, ready to stab our fellow with a spear of light at the slightest movement, but terrified of giving away our position and being speared in turn.
The entire school, plus chaperons, about to board the ferry on a fieldtrip. Back row left to right: Bret, Jamie (my brother), Marion (my aunt) Tara (me), Romi (my mom), Megan (my sister) with Lulu on her shoulders, Sue. Front row: Robin (my brother), Sarah, Eve, LeAnn (my cousin), Josh, Molly, Chris (my brother), Traci.
One year my sister, a schoolmate, and I cleverly climbed into the large ball box to hide and accidentally locked ourselves in. It was a long time before anyone found us, despite our yells and pounding, and during that time we discovered that our schoolmate had a gaseous reaction to eating pizza. In the entire history of tag, never have kids wanted to be "tagged" so desperately as we did that night. To this day my sister has claustrophobia issues stemming from that incident.
We played "The Oregon Trail" and "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" on the computer. Highly non-educational movies were put on the school's educational TV and VCR and we'd lie around on gym mats watching and munching popcorn and guzzling homemade root beer that a schoolmate's parents had donated. The things we did with the school's copier are best left unrecorded.
I remember wandering around the school in the early morning when things had wound down, and gazing upon an apocalyptic scene of desks and chairs piled hapahazardly, burst bean bags oozing their pebbly entrails, and students lying about in various attitudes of post-debauchery exhaustion.
I came across my little brother Robin perched precariously on a stool just outside the kitchen. He was surrounded by empty root beer bottles, had one clutched in his hand, and was slumped over, snoring.
Pizza night was officially a success.
One Person Gluten-Free Stove Top Skillet Pizza Recipe:
I'm gluten-free these days and have created an easy recipe for those times when pizza is immediately required.
Crack 1 large egg into a small bowl. Crush 1/2 cup Rice Chex cereal. Mix cereal with the egg to form a stiff dough. Film the bottom of a 3.5 inch cast iron skillet with olive oil. Press the dough into the skillet until it reaches all sides. Cook on one side under medium low heat (on the stove top) for five minutes and flip, turning the heat down to low. Spread pizza sauce on the cooked side, arranged grated cheese on it, and add what toppings you desire. Cook until cheese is melted. Enjoy!
NOTE: A version of this story first appeared in Capital City Weekly, May 10, 2017.
When you go for a walk at this time of the year in the SE Alaskan rainforest you're going to find a wide variety of mushrooms popping up everywhere you step. It seemed to me, as I made the trek to pump water, that there were more mushrooms this year than I'd ever seen before.
As I took pictures of them I thought about how my Russian and Irish forebears would have been on polar ends of a debate on the merits of fungi.
For instance, I have an old Russian cookbook which devotes an entire section to mushrooms. "For many centuries," the book proclaims, "mushrooms have formed a part of the staple diet of the Russians. Consequently it is natural that the Russians eat many varieties of fungus which culinarily less adventurous people avoid mainly because they fear poisoning."
The Russians have no such fear, and, in fact, celebrate with gusto all things mushrooms, but particularly the gathering of them. "No one would hesitate to cancel an important engagement if it should fall on the day of the mushroom gathering," the cookbook's author assures us.
The Irish, however, could not be blamed for developing a fear of fungi, even of the non-poisonous variety. Fungi, for the most part, live discreetly and decently on dead organic matter in soil and decaying wood. But there is a separate breed of fungi that have taken up evil habits. They have become parasites of living plants and animals.
The Irish discovered this to their great cost. In 1845 to 1860 the great Irish Famine was caused by a potato blight, a fungus disease which destroyed the main food crop of the Irish population. This particular parasitic fungus was responsible for the deaths, by starvation, of a million people. Another million and a half were forced to emigrate, many of them, including my forebears, setting off for America.
On the other hand, both the Russians and the Irish might find common ground in their love for the produce of one particular form of fungi: Yeast.
It's true that some yeasts are harmful, but let's not forget that yeast is essential for the production of beer, an assortment of breads, and various cheeses.
I have to say that the love of all three has managed to survive through the generations down to this day in my family.
Many locals here like to gather mushrooms at this time of the year, careful to select only the edible ones, avoiding the poisonous. (I'm not an expert on mushrooms, so I haven't named any, in case I'm wrong.) Always make absolutely sure you can identify a mushroom before you pop it into your mouth.
Since I can't eat mushrooms I left the ones I came across in my autumnal trek where they were, prey for slugs, but otherwise living a happy, if damp, life.
For those who would enjoy a common Russian treat, here is a recipe for Marinated Mushrooms:
2 lb small mushrooms
1 pint vinegar and water mixed
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon peppercorns
Wash mushrooms, remove stalks, and cook gently in hot, salted water until tender. Drain and leave until quite cold.
Bring the vinegar-water with bayleaves and peppercorns to the boil, simmer for 10 minutes and leave until cold. Strain.
Pack the mushrooms into jars, add the vinegar-water, and cover tightly. Leave for several days before using. Or pack the mushrooms while still hot into scalded jars, cover with the marinade, seal tightly and leave for 2 weeks in a cool place before using.
(Recipe taken from Russian Cooking by Robin Howe, p. 44: "In the days before the Russian Revolution country housewives pickled mushrooms by the barrel.")
Tara Neilson (ADOW)