Elaina Spraker prepares a smoked salmon dip to go with a marinated moose dinner last week. While some families will opt for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, others will feast on food they've gathered themselves.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
When Steve Scott ventures into the woods in search of wild mushrooms, he's amazed at the abundance he finds.
"We (the Kenai Peninsula Mycological Society) had a foray in September. We went up the Lost Lake Trail from the Primrose Campground side. It was a phenomenal trip," Scott said. "At every bend of the trail, it was just that much better as far as abundance of edible mushrooms. We just filled our baskets we could have filled wheelbarrows."
Scott said in one spot, the group got into a patch of huge king boletes, 3 or 4 pounds each.
"There were 100 or 150 of them there. There were more in that spot than most people would see in a lifetime," Scott said.
Indeed, the Great Land refers not just to the size and space of this place, but also to the abundance it provides. For thousands of years, Alaska's natural resources have provided for the people living here. It's a tradition that continues to this day as many residents supplement their diet with foods gathered from the land.
The peninsula boasts a bounty of salmon, halibut, moose and caribou. All are versatile foods for home chefs.
A winter's worth of fish can be pulled from the Kenai
Peninsula's lakes and streams, and from the waters of Cook Inlet. Wild game moose, caribou, dall sheep, mountain goats, bear, fowl can be taken across the peninsula. Berries come in all shapes and sizes, and fill many pantries with jams, jellies, sauces and even liqueurs.
Even mushrooms can be found in abundance, preserved and stored for the winter.
"Alaska does have just a tremendous quantity of things when they fruit. On that Lost Lake Trail trip, we got out of our cars and started seeing mushrooms right out of the campground. They were basically untouched. Nobody else was picking there," Scott said.
Brian Bell has called the peninsula home for about 30 years after first visiting in 1966.
"The visits just kept getting closer and closer until I finally put roots down here," Bell said.
Bell said he enjoys gathering shellfish along the peninsula's beaches, and even goes shrimping in Prince William Sound when the opportunity arises.
"Clams, snails, limpets, whenever they prevail," Bell said of what he collects between the tides. "... I grew up in a fishing family. (Gathering food) has always been attractive to me. It just came natural, picking berries, catching fish. I don't hunt much anymore except hunting fish."
Bell counts fresh razor clams dug from peninsula beaches among his favorite foods.
"But it's hard to beat those Prince William Sound prawns, too those are good any which way," Bell said.
His family also gathers berries from the woods, mostly red currants as the cranberry yield hasn't been as good in recent years. Usually, they collect enough for jams and jellies, and in years where they harvest a bumper crop, Bell said his wife makes liqueur.
When Elaina Spraker talks about gathering food from her back yard, it's more literal than for many peninsula residents the Sprakers recently finished what she describes as their dream home on 40 acres on Tote Road.
"We've seen just about every species indigenous to the area here caribou, moose, wolves, coyote," Spraker said.
With construction done, Spraker said she had a chance to explore her "back 40" this fall, picking cranberries for homemade sauce.
"Whatever the land has to offer, I try to make something out of it that's what's unique about living here, using the resources to do that," Spraker said.
Spraker said she grew up in the area. Her family "followed the game trail" from California north to Alaska when she was a very small child, and hunted all over the state.
"I remember, as a little girl, traipsing behind (my dad) hunting," Spraker said.
Her husband, Ted, was a longtime Fish and Game biologist and is now a member of the state Board of Game. Both are avid hunters they took "his and hers" moose this fall and Spraker has earned some recognition with her cooking as one of her fish dishes was a finalist in the "Fish Alaska" magazine recipe contest.
"I just really enjoy cooking, I guess it's a hobby of mine," Spraker said. "There's little tricks I've learned over the years. A lot of people don't care for wild fish and game, but to me, it's the best."
Wild fish and game are staples of the family's diet. Spraker said they eat bacon with breakfast and deli meat on sandwiches for lunch, but dinner is almost always something wild.
"I have to say, my salmon recipe is my favorite. That's where I get my most positive reaction from people I've had a couple people tilt up their plates and lick them," Spraker said. "My kids' favorite meal is moose steaks, chicken-fried with cranberry sauce."
Spraker said she's been "a good mother" and cooked up grouse or ptarmigan when it's been brought home, but was somewhat spoiled by the pheasant, quail and chukkar she hunted as a child in Oregon.
Spraker said she's enjoyed experimenting in the kitchen with fish and game.
"A majority of people don't really like to cook it's something they have to do. I just really enjoy it, creating new stuff. There's so many spices and different things out there, you can change the texture of the meat."
She said she sometimes soaks fish in milk, particularly if it's been in the freezer for a while, to keep it moist and take away some of the fishy flavor. She uses that trick on occasion with game meat as well. Soy sauce and lemon juice are indispensable in the kitchen, too.
Spraker said some of the best meat she's ever tasted came from a black bear taken by her son.
"It was excellent. It was so mellow and sweet and good," she said.
Her favorite also happens to be the most work to get dall sheep.
Likewise, Scott, the mushroom hunter, said mushrooms can be found with such a wide range of flavors, they can be paired with just about any dish conceivable.
"Most people are used to what you buy in the store. There's mushrooms you can stew up and use for dessert, they're so sweet. ... There's so much variety out there, and tastes are so much richer than what you buy in the store," Scott said.
Not only are the flavors richer, the fare is healthier.
"I can tell with my family, if we get to eating too much domestic meat, my body has kind of a reaction, I don't feel as good," Spraker said.
In fact, Deb Nyquist, a health educator with the Dena'ina Health Clinic in Kenai, said focusing on eating traditional foods is a tenet of all of the center's wellness programs.
"Whatever your traditional foods are, it's a healthier way of eating, a healthier way of looking at food," Nyquist said.
Nyquist said the health clinic has a wide range of wellness programs, from diabetes prevention to tobacco cessation. A healthy diet is a key component to each one.
"Even folks who are trying to quit smoking, if they have a healthy diet and are getting adequate nutrition, they're better able to quit smoking than those who are eating fast foods," Nyquist said.
Bell said most of his catch is salmon, and while fishing opportunity isn't what it was 30 years ago, he still is grateful for the opportunity to put food on the tables that has been gathered from the land. There's fish on the table once a week, occasionally two times a week, and Bell said it's nice to be able to count on Mother Nature to supplement his diet.
"It's gratifying to do that," Bell said.
Will Morrow can be reached at email@example.com.
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