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On Remote Cabins and Grayling Fishing

October 28, 2014

A little over a week ago, we woke up to our first hard frost. We noticed that the sun no longer reaches our backyard and we find it more difficult to wake up every morning with a 9 am sunrise. Outside perpetually looks like late afternoon sun, and it is cold. And we aren’t talking about that “let’s put on a light jacket cold.” This is the “holy crap time for snow pants” cold and “what the hell, why is the deck still icy?” cold.

Our last two weekends were occupied by visiting Crescent Lake, north of Seward. We’ve covered in the ins and outs of using the Forest Service cabins at the Crescent Lake Saddle (here and here) and at the end of Crescent Lake, so this post offers more of a commentary on our observations at each cabin.

Crescent Lake Saddle Cabin

Our favorite cabin of the two is by far the saddle cabin. This was our first weekend destination and we were excited because the saddle cabin is the ultimate in remoteness for being relatively close. It lies along a difficult ankle-busting primitive trail that keeps most of the daytime mountain bikers away. The cabin sits on a bluff overlooking the lake at ground zero for any potential winds that might pipe up in the afternoon. We’ve spent many a night at the saddle cabin listening to sheets of rain and the wind rattling the door. However, the wood stove is skookum and we’ve slept comfortably in below zero weather.

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The saddle cabin has amazing views on either side of the crescent.

We were lucky enough to pick a weekend where the weather was agreeable to the point a fog formed on the lake our last day. We had excellent views of sheep and goats on Wrong Mountain across the cabin and the night air was so still we actually heard an earthquake traveling towards us before it hit the cabin!

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Our last day at the saddle cabin looked like this. An eerie fog had formed over the lake and the surrounding foliage was frosty white.

The only problem with this cabin along with many public cabins is that they are public. The saddle cabin was a mess when we arrived. No wood, dirty, filled with trash and a summer’s worth of crap. Time better spent cutting and storing wood was spent burning heaps of garbage and packing up the non-burnables. There seems to be a huge disconnect between the type of people to visit during the summer months and those during the winter months. The “summer” crowd notes in the log how they left a used sleeping bag or expired coffee for the next users (how generous!) while the “winter” crowd only grumbles about said “presents.” We’ve starting becoming stewards of the Kenai Peninsula cabins and packing out enormous quantities of trash because this is our home and these cabins are technically owned by the American people.

After cleaning and gathering wood, we spent the rest of the weekend trying to catch Arctic Grayling. Grayling are an elusive fish and picky eaters this time of year as their watery world starts to freeze. The cabin is generously provided with a rowboat (which was stolen at one point during the summer according to the cabin log) that we used to pursue these little fish at some islands on the lake.

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The USFS sure has a lot of faith in cabin users by providing a row boat.

Bixler nabbed one on the spinning reel and Krystin got one right out in front of the cabin by dropping a dry fly on top of the water just above it. Cabin users note that grayling are far more abundant at the end of the lake where the lake dumps into Crescent Creek. This is also the location of the Crescent Lake Cabin, our adventure for the following weekend.

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Bixler stands proudly showing off his grayling.

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Krystin contemplates which fly to use to catch the grayling sitting in about four inches of water nearby.

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Krystin’s grayling caught on dry fly. Check out the size of that fish!

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Dinner that night in the saddle cabin using a frying pan we salvaged from a junk pile. Yum!

Crescent Lake Cabin

The cabin at the end of Crescent Lake is almost identical to the saddle cabin with a slightly different layout and fussier stove in dire need of a new gasket. The trail is far more agreeable to beginning backpacker with a gentle grade up to the lake. It follows Crescent Creek, and much to our surprise, there was a fair amount of snow on the trail!

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There was much more snow and much colder temperatures the following weekend at the end of the lake.

When we arrived at the cabin, we were expecting the scene to be the same. Luckily for us we were surprised to find a clean cabin stocked with wood. There were still a few junk items we packed out, but overall we were pleased to see that some cabin users actually posses a soul and think of the next users down the line when leaving the cabin.

Like the saddle cabin, we made use of the rowboat and enjoyed the calm weather. This weekend was significantly colder than the previous, and the lake was edged with ice that extended more and more to the lake center each day.

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Each morning we awoke to more and more lake ice along the shores of Crescent Lake.

We were excited by the possibility of catching our limit of grayling, but had a heck of a time catching them. We speculated that it was because the water is near freezing and the fish were shutting down for the season. However, we were reading the cabin log for this cabin and noting that people were catching 100 grayling a day catch-and-release. This probably makes some of the fish slightly skeptical when an easy meal sparkles in front of them. We are all for catch-and-release if regulation mandates it, but sometimes it just seems like torture for the fish. We get so much pleasure out of catching one grayling and eating it and wish others could feel the same.

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Bixler poses with his grayling catch after a full day of fishing.

We managed to catch three for home consumption using the spinning rod to lure the fish up from the deep. We met a few other people who had hiked or biked up to try their luck fishing. Most people are courteous to cabin users, but some disregard the sign near the cabin and just wonder in.

We were fishing near the river mouth on the row boat when we saw two people standing on the bridge pointing to us. Bixler had a hunch they were headed to the cabin, so he rowed as fast as he could to the cabin beach. As Krystin got out of the boat, sure enough the hikers were right on the cabin porch. A stare-down and gesture later and the intruders were gone. Go Krystin.

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Well, this isn’t obvious or anything…

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Wayward visitors nearly stepped inside our cabin being warmed by the wood stove. Thank goodness Krystin was there to scare them away!

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The only intruders that were welcome to our cabin were the nearby camp robbers looking for a quick meal.

Because of the relative accessibility of this cabin, it attracts some interesting people. The cabin log provided by the USFS is always a treat to read and Krystin even found a previous drawing she had made from last year’s visit. Some of the logs are simply a “we did this, we did that” description, but others are a real riot to read. A fellow from out of the country visited the cabin and berated Alaskans for calling eagles scavengers (they are) and fellow Alaskans commented about how they had to share the cabin with cold Californians, and then added “Californians with sleep apnea.”

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Krystin points to her drawing of a rabbit (sitting in a recliner and holding a glass of wine) she made last year (Krystin, age 29 1/2) next to a child’s giant rabbit drawing (age 7).

We always leave a decent blurb about our weekend. When Krystin was filling out the log before we left on Sunday, Bixler was retrieving water from the lake and getting ready to brush his teeth. Krystin’s pen wasn’t working too well because of the cold and Bixler came in and noted his boots were frozen. He picked up the toothpaste and tried to squeeze it. It was frozen solid. We laughed and Krystin added it to our blurb.

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The view from the cabin and the pathway to our water source. As the temperature dropped we argued over who would be the lucky person to get water.

You might encounter dirty cabins. You might find yourself packing out more than you packed in. You might even find that the fish aren’t biting. But hey, sure can’t beat the view! Especially at Crescent Lake, one of our favorite corners in Alaska.

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Crescent Lake at sunrise. Can’t beat the view!

Holy Mole! California Style Goat Fajita Burrito Smothered in Homemade Mole Sauce

October 14, 2014

People always ask us, “do you miss anything about living in California?” Our one and only response: Mexican Food. And we aren’t talking about the kind of Mexican food you find in Anchorage. We are talking about the kind of Mexican food where you have to look up your dish on your iPhone because you don’t know what it is. Ever heard of an Alambre? Yeah, that was a new one for us. Another new invention is the California-style burrito, popular in southern California. It goes a little something like this:

California Burrito = Regular Burrito – Rice + French Fries

And it is awesome!

What can possibly make it better? Smothering it in mole (that’s pronounced mol-aye) sauce and using wild mountain goat as the base meat, cooked fajita style.

A burrito can have just about anything in it you like, but to make it a California Style Fajita Burrito, you need some essential components. Oh, and you must serve it with horchata!

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See those french fries? Yep, California style!

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The same burrito rolled up and smothered in hot mole sauce.

Horchata

Horchata is a refreshing rice milk drink that pairs well with spicy Mexican cuisine. It must be be made several hours in advance to allow the rice to absorb water and meld with the flavors. The longer you let it sit, the better the flavor. For a quick version of horchata, try using rice milk instead. We used this recipe, but soaked the rice much longer than what was called for.

Ingredients

  • 2 cups of milk
  • 1 cup uncooked long grain rice
  • 5 cups of water
  • 1 tbsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2/3 cup of white sugar

Directions

  1. Mix the rice and water and let sit at room temperature for up to 4 hours. You can use it in as little as 45 minutes, but the longer you let it sit, the better the horchata.
  2. Blend rice and water mixture thoroughly. Strain out rice particles and discard.
  3. Combine rice water with milk, vanilla extract, cinnamon, and white sugar. Mix thoroughly.
  4. Chill in the fridge and serve on ice with your favorite Mexican dish!

Mole Sauce

Mole sauce is a rich sauce used in Mexican cuisine that balances the heat of peppers with the richness of chocolate. If you’ve never had mole sauce, you probably haven’t lived a full life. It is one of the best sauces to use, but should be used sparingly because it is both time consuming to make and quite rich on the palate. If you plan on attempting mole sauce we recommend you invest in an immersion blender like they always use on Chopped. This way you aren’t constantly transferring your sauce between sauce pan and conventional blender. Our recipe turned out awesome and it makes a vat, so have some Tupperware handy to freeze it. We modified this recipe and our version is transcribed below. Many of the dried peppers can be found at specialty food stores and they are pretty common. We were able to find them in Anchorage. Again, we recommend you make this ahead of time to allow the flavors to meld and because it is a relatively involved recipe.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups of chicken broth + extra for thinning sauce
  • 2 dried guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
  • 2 dried ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded
  • 3 dried chipotle chiles, stemmed and seeded
  • 1 slice sourdough bread, chopped into half-inch squares
  • 2 small flour tortillas, cut into inch-long strips
  • 2 tomatoes, cut in half crosswise
  • 5 tomatillos, cut in half crosswise
  • 1 tbsp of lard
  • 1 onion, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 head of garlic, pealed and sliced
  • 1/4 cup of dried cranberries
  • cumin, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, and thyme, to taste
  • 3 ounces 100% dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 3 ounces 60% dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 3 tbsp white sugar
  • 1 tsp of salt

Directions

1. Heat 2 cups of chicken broth in a large sauce pan until it starts to simmer, about five minutes. Turn off heat after reaching a simmer.

2. In a dry cast iron skillet (because every house should have one), toast dried guajillo chiles, dried ancho chiles, and dried chipotle chiles until warm and aromatic, about 3 minutes. Transfer to sauce pan with chicken broth.

3. Toast sourdough bread pieces and tortilla pieces in a dry cast iron skillet until browned, about 3 minutes. Transfer to chile-broth mixture.

4. Allow the chiles, sourdough bread, and tortilla pieces to fully absorb chicken broth, about 10 minutes. Using an immersion blender, blend the mixture until smooth. If you are having trouble blending, try tilting the sauce pan and adding just a touch of broth.

5. Roast the tomatoes and tomatillos in the medium-hot dry skillet, until soft and blackened, about 3 minutes a side. Transfer to the chile puree.

6. Melt lard in a large skillet over medium heat. Stir in onion, garlic, and dried cranberries. Add spices liberally. Cook and stir until onions are golden brown, about 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer to chile puree. Blend tomatoes, tomatillos, and onions until smooth.

7. Reheat chile puree over medium heat. Stir in chocolate, 1 cup of chicken broth, sugar, and salt. Bring to a simmer and stir until chocolate is melted. Slightly reduce the sauce and let it sit to allow flavors to meld. Reheat when you are ready to use.

Duck Fat Fries

To make a burrito “California Style” you must include french fries in the burrito. We enjoy making duck fat fries because the duck fat adds a nice flavor to the fries along with a good crunch. The key to making excellent fries is frying them twice. First in a neutral-flavored oil like vegetable oil (canola gives the fries a “fishy” flavor) and then in duck fat. Here’s how we make our fries.

Ingredients

  • Potatoes, cut into fries. We use Yukon Gold since they are common in Alaska.
  • Vegetable Oil
  • Duck Fat
  • Salt

Directions

  1. Heat vegetable oil and duck fat in separate pans. Be sure to monitor each oil so they don’t burn. Once oil has passed its smoke point it becomes unusable.
  2. Soak fries in an ice water bath until the oil is ready.
  3. Fry the fries in vegetable oil first, until cooked, about 5 – 8 minutes
  4. Using a slotted spoon or tongs, lift and drain the fries. Immediately drop them into the duck fat and fry until golden brown.
  5. Transfer fries to a plate with paper towel to dry. Add salt to taste.

Add the duck fat fries to the burrito with your favorite Mexican fillings and smother in the homemade mole sauce. We ended up making too much, so we invited our friend Jesse over who just completed the Northwest Passage. You can read his adventures at Empiricus Embarks. He inspired Bixler to buy a pair of those classic red long johns with the butt flap. Both wore their long johns went eating the burritos and we finished the night playing some music!

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Jesse and Bixler jam to some music in their matching long johns. Yep, this is our life…

Up and Over: Devil’s Pass/Summit Creek Loop

October 6, 2014

A weekend ago, a friend of ours joined us for a backpacking excursion that would take us into the high country of the Kenai Peninsula. Alaska has many terrains and while the spruce forests of lowland Seward are bountiful and beautiful, the alpine tundra above the treeline is hands down our favorite Alaskan terrain. Nothing beats a view of the high country.

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This ridge overlooks the final few miles of the Devil’s Pass Trail. Believe it or not, there is a small herd of mountain caribou in these parts!

This time of year, the tundra is a smattering of colors like an impressionist painting. Blueberries are still abundant, though mushy after the first frost, and the ptarmigan are nearing the white stage.

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The changing colors of the tundra…eat your heart out, Van Gogh!

After our November trek up to Devil’s Pass Cabin racing the sunlight and surviving the cold to view the magnificent aurora, we eagerly booked a two-night adventure and invited our friend down from Anchorage. Our route was simple: hike up Devil’s Pass Trail (10 miles) to the cabin, spend a day exploring, and hike out the Summit Creek Trail (8.4 miles). Simple right?

Devil’s Pass Cabin is far above the treeline. The Forest Service installed a diesel stove to help travelers cope with the cold and to avoid cabin users from hauling wood from the below the treeline. The only drag is that you need to cart diesel (or in our case kerosene) 10 miles up to the cabin. Last November we got by with two gallons for one night and so we decided to double that.

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The Devil’s Pass Cabin with a splash of fall colors in the background.

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The diesel stove is a trooper and definitely hot boxed the cabin. We cached the remaining fuel for a future trip over Halloween weekend.

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Can’t beat the view from the cabin!

We distributed 4.5 gallons between the three of us and started the trip up Devil’s Pass Trail. The trail is an easy uphill grade and we have little to report from the first 8 miles other than a very large brown bear feeding on a hillside across the ravine. A few mountain bikers passed us, one of which we recognized entirely by her teeth. As we approached the cabin, we passed the sign that said “cabin permit holders beyond this point only” only to find said biker exiting the cabin. This was only the beginning of frequent visitors at odd hours to our cabin.

When we first arrive to our cabin, we unpack and sort our food supply. Bixler and Krystin packed up a variety including home-dehydrated potato bark and ratatouille, smoked trout, hooligan dip, Annie’s Mac and Cheese, coconut oil, homemade granola bars, beer, wine, Mountain House, Starbucks Via brews, and other snacks. A previous traveler left a hearty batch of Krusteaz and syrup in the cabin (don’t worry, we burned all the other crap left behind). Our friend’s contribution: Mary Janes (no apostrophe) Organic freeze-dried food.

We thought we had enough food, but we quickly learned that the Mary Janes Organic food sucks. There is really no other way to artfully describe the utter crappiness of this backpacking food.

After sorting, resting, and exploring the nearby hillsides, we settled in for the night. We had a great first meal, being careful not to consume all of the food after the arduous trek. One can only lick the creme brulee packet clean so many times and we still went to bed with hungry stomachs. Tomorrow we would take it easy and the following day would be just another downhill trip (or so we thought…).

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Bixler was so hungry that most of his food missed his mouth and ended up on his clothes.

The next morning we awoke to delicious pancakes and horrible Mary Janes Organic oatmeal. We set out for a day hike in search of the mythical mountain caribou herd of the Kenai Mountains and to crest Resurrection Pass.

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Oh look, a married couple at Resurrection Pass!

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The area between Resurrection Pass and Devil’s Pass is quite possibly one of our favorite corners of Alaska.

Just as we saw the Resurrection Pass sign around a willow bush, the three of us spooked a giant flock of willow ptarmigan. Changing into their white form, the birds were skittish having lost their protective color pattern. Immediately, Bixler and Krystin took off in pursuit of the flock while our friend combed the trail for a decent viewpoint. We spooked the flock again and lost in, realizing that our Ruger 10-22 was not the gun for this hunt. Empty-handed and hungry, we reconvened at the trail to share some smoked trout and hooligan dip. After arriving at the cabin, we took a much-needed nap.

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“Hmm…this looks good,” says Bixler.

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“I wonder if I should wait before I drink this…naw,” thinks Bixler.

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“F**K HOT!!!!”

We awoke to still find our friend asleep and decided to change clothes right as another pair of mountain bikers arrived. Obviously, they didn’t read the sign again and instead it took a direct shot of Krystin in her underwear to get them to turn around.

Our friend continued to sleep and we set out to forage and hunt. Krystin picked blueberries while Bixler climbed the mountain behind the cabin to pursue white tail ptarmigan, which are less skittish than their willow cousins. Krystin came back with an entire bag of blueberries and Bixler with two ptarmigan.

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The view from our ptarmigan ridge.

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Krystin forages for blueberries near the cabin. They were slightly mushy from the frost, but boy did that make excellent pancakes!

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A happy hunter poses with his ptarmigan. These birds were only half changed compared to the willows, which almost entirely white. It made for an easier hunt since they weren’t nearly as skittish.

We passed another set of mountain bikers resting just inside of the sign. Bixler tried to make idle conversation, with a gun and two birds in hand, that went something like this:

Bixler: Hey, how’s it going?

Bikers: *Humph* Fine.

Bixler: Nice day, huh?

Bikers: * Idle Grunts *

This third set of mountain bikers twisted our nerves a bit, but we instead focused on the task at hand: feeding us. We were still hungry from carting up all the extra weight and the additional day hikes. Krystin started to rehydrate the food while Bixler set to butcher the birds. Our friend awoke from her four hour nap to witness our success and was delighted, considering we basically ditched her last Mary Janes Organic. As Bixler was admiring his ptarmigan, he pointed to the bluish foot on one of them and said, “someone was eating blueberries!”

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Hmm…someone has been eating blueberries!

We created a stew with blueberry-fed ptarmigan, potatoes, and ratatouille that was quite possibly the best backpacking food we’ve ever consumed. With full bellies, we finished the last of the dessert granola bars and watched the sunset. Bixler and Krystin snuggled down to read on their Kindles like the technologically-advanced adventurers that they are.

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Not your typical backpacker food: ptarmigan, ratatouille, and potato/carrot mash.

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After dinner we watched the sunset, which is always a show from Devil’s Pass.

The next morning we awoke to a stunning sunrise and frosty conditions. We had explored the Summit Creek Trailhead the day before and headed north along Resurrection Pass before cutting across the tundra to the trail. Unlike Devil’s Pass and Resurrection Pass, which are all too obviously improved to be mountain bike trails, Summit Creek is entirely unimproved and disappears at times. It starts across the alpine lakes near Resurrection Pass and climbs a steep hillside before dropping down.

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The top of that distant saddle was our destination. You can see the zig-zagging switchbacks as you near the trail.

We consumed the last of the Krusteaz, amply mixed with blueberries, and the rest of the syrup. Bix and Krystin held back two granola bars and our friend had a fig bar. We left the cabin after caching the remaining kerosene.

With packs full of trash and light on food, we started the climb up the Summit Creek Trail after crossing frosty tundra. The sun was just starting to fill the valley below as we begin climbing switchbacks. Near the trail, we heard the distinct sound of ptarmigan clucking like a gathering of women for a ladies weekend at a wine tasting in Santa Barbara. We paused while Bixler tried to pursue the birds with no avail and continued our steep climb.

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Our friend climbs the Summit Creek Trail, nearing the top of the first saddle. Little did we know we would have to do that all again!

We reached the top of the saddle and were greeted with astounding views of the valleys below.

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At this point we felt like we were standing on top of Alaska.

From everything we’ve read about this trail, it is generally a downhill trek back to the highway.

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We head down along the trail thinking the entire trail was an easy downward trek.

Our sources used the words “generally” very loosely as we discovered as we dropped down into another valley that had no end.

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Hmm..that doesn’t look like the highway…

We hiked along an eerie lake among dead willows only to find another saddle to climb. At this point, we had already consumed our emergency food saved for what we thought was the one and only uphill climb of the day. Turns out we had another one to do!

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Climbing again in utter silence.

We continued in silence as we climbed again, having completely expended our available energy and moving onto reserves. No amount of crow berries could sustain us and the sweeping valley views were the least of our concerns. As we reached the top of the last pass, we met a few hunters looking for bear and chatted with them while recovering.

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The final descent was a steep, long, hot, and hungry one. We dreamed of large burgers and cold beer during the last stretch.

The final drop down to the car was virtually endless and we had all reached “hangry” status. The three of us shut down non-essential functions (this actually includes talking) and walked in silence before hitting the car.

Exhausted, we returned to Seward. We dropped our stuff off at our house and immediately sat down at a table at Chinooks. While smoke scalloped mac and cheese is a favorite, a meaty burger was on the menu for the three of us. We gorged and sat back happily. Between gulps of beer and bites of burger someone murmured, “that burger was so much better than those goddamn Mary Janes Organic backpacking food!”

Advice to the discerning backpacker: if you plan on doing this loop, do it in reverse. And trade those Mary Janes Organics for some peanut M&Ms.

Fin, Feather, & Fungus: A Taste of Rez Pass Trail

September 17, 2014

Six months ago, we eagerly awoke early in the morning to reserve three cabins along the highly-popular Resurrection Pass National Historic Trail. The trail is a 39-mile odyssey that spans from the tiny towns of Hope to Cooper Landing, following an old gold miner’s route established in the 1890’s. The trail is part of Alaska’s boom-and-bust history and has been popularized in nearly every backpacking article around. It has numerous campsites and US Forest Service cabins throughout the route. The trail is so popular that hundreds of people make the year-round trek over the 2,600-foot Resurrection Pass. The moral of the story: it is really hard to get a cabin.

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This is why people hike this trail! Beautiful views and clear skies make the trail oh so much better!

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It can be difficult to get a cabin along the Resurrection Pass Trail, even when fall is in the air.

Three mornings in a row in snowy March, we booked three consecutive cabins hoping for descent weather during the stormy month of September. Of course we were wrong, seriously wrong. The remnants of a typhoon from Japan were pushed up to Alaska and six inches of rain was dumped in a single day on the Kenai Peninsula – the same day we planned to crest the pass. Unfortunately, we were forced to abort on the first two cabins. Instead of fun, we did boring married chores like fixing up some of the vinyl siding on the house and winterizing Carpe Ventos.

Good night, Carpe Ventos. We left your mainsail on for the hopes of sailing sometime this winter, but we are essentially done for the season.

As the weather cleared on Saturday, we decided last-minute to push nine miles to Romig cabin on the shores of Juneau Lake for a brief respite from the lousy weather.

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View from inside Romig cabin on the shores of Juneau Lake.

The consensus: WOW. Now we see why this trail is so popular. After the initial and somewhat painful 4.5-mile uphill climb, the valley levels out into a blueberry-and-spruce valley of epic proportions. Coupled with cooler temperatures, fall colors, and clear skies, it whetted our appetite to complete the trail in its entirety. We are going to attempt the full trail over Halloween when the bears will be in hibernation, the ground frozen, and all the mountains snow capped.

Our destination for this one-day hike was the last cabin reserved in our line of three, Romig cabin, on the shores of remote Juneau Lake. Juneau Lake, like so many lakes in Alaska, is home to wild trout, whitefish, burbot, lake trout, and the elusive arctic grayling. Yep, fly rods were in tow.

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Romig cabin is a relatively new cabin right off the trail.

We arrived to Romig two grouse richer and a handful of hedgehog mushrooms. The downside of most of the hike was the the trail was relatively mushroom-free, except for the patch of hedgehogs near the halfway point. We figured they would bump up our usual meal of Mountain House, which dearly lacks in things like fiber causing a consumer to run to the outhouse the next morning. On a side note, we purchased an Excalibur Dehydrator as a wedding gift to ourselves and have been using it dearly to make our own dehydrated food for such adventures. On tonight’s menu: ratatouille made with all the leftover veggies from our wedding.

Romig is a plush cabin with the same layout as the Devil’s Pass Cabin we discovered last year. The woodstove is finicky, but being woodstove fanatics we figured it out and ended up opening the windows at one point. The cabin is equipped with a canoe instead of the usual rowboat (the USFS has a lot of faith in cabin users supplying woodstoves and boats), which we were highly skeptical about. Luckily for us, the cabin was mostly clean thanks to the previous users who we met on the trail. They packed out most of the junk, but refused to touch used soap and dirty socks, which we promptly burned.

Before our packs hit the floor, we assembled our fly rods and hit the lake. Have you ever tried to canoe by yourself in a breeze? Well, it’s difficult. Bixler found that out when we came back complaining that canoes are for girlscouts and kids at summer camp. Krystin joined in waders and we canoed over to a sweet spot to catch trout for dinner. We eventually reached our limit as Bixler raised his fly rod and snapped the tip off of it. Oh no! Down one rod!

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Bixler attempts to row the canoe in a stiff breeze.

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Bixler poses with the day’s catch: two grouse and four trout!

We returned to the cabin and gorged on ratatouille, wild trout stuffed with mushrooms, and a Mountain House. Bixler tried his hand at fishing for some of the other species in the lake, but had no luck. We spent the evening playing cards while Bixler eyed a can of buffalo chicken soup someone left in the cabin. Every hand he said something along the lines of, “I wonder what the soup tastes like” or “Should we eat that soup or leave it?” Finally, he broke into the soup. It was disappointingly bland, but at least he got to try it out.

The next morning we awoke early to hit the lake when the water was flat. Fall has come to Alaska and the cool weather caused an eerie fog on the lake.

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A loon paddles through an eerie fog on Juneau Lake on an early September morning.

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With the first official use of gloves and ear warmers of the 2014-2015 winter season, Krystin paddles into the fog looking for fish.

Rises were everywhere, but we had no luck catching anything.

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Bixler tries his luck casting from the canoe with our one remaining fly rod.

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We’ve become quite the experts at fishing with heavy duty gloves on!

We hiked out that morning bagging one more grouse and meeting a friendly couple from Northern Europe (we think) and a duo from the east coast heading into Romig. The new Romig occupants were lighthearted and had a slew of questions about the trail. Their packs were twice the size of ours and all we could say about the 4.5 mile uphill grade was “good luck.”

We reluctantly returned to the car and went to Wildman’s for our customary single scoop of ice cream before heading home. Wildman’s always raises our spirits before our return to the real world of doing boring married stuff like working (yes, we do have real jobs). But soon it will be October and we’ll be cresting the pass on Halloween. Stay tuned!

Honeymoon Backpacking Trip Along the Russian River

September 8, 2014

So guess what? It finally happened. We got married on August 30th! Carpe Ventos was the venue and the turnout for the ceremony and after party was a great mix of family and friends. Even a non-conventional wedding was stressful for us. It took us a few days to recover. Our poor cat Jupiter slept for three days straight after the last wedding guest left our house.

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We tie the knot. Literally.

“Where are you going on your honeymoon?” many people asked after the wedding. Sorry, no Hawaii, Tahiti, Bora Bora, or any of the conventional destinations. An outside-of-the-box wedding deserves an atypical honeymoon. Ours is broken up over the next two months backpacking through the Kenai Peninsula’s many trails and a fly-in hunt on Afognak.

This past weekend we packed up our packs and headed to out to the Russian Lakes Trail for a two-cabin, 21-mile one way haul. The first half of the hike follows the mighty Russian River, a confluence of the Kenai River that hosts a massive salmon run and is home to many resident wild rainbow trout. The second half of the trail continues through alder and spruce at higher elevation before reaching Snug Harbor Road. You start and end in Cooper Landing, rounding the same mountain for the entire 21-mile trail.

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The upper waters of the mighty Russian River.

We packed fly rods, bear-protection, food, and fun and headed out to Aspen Flats cabin for the first night, 9 miles from the Russian River campground. Already, our sailing season is essentially over with storms appearing in the Gulf of Alaska and rain pounding Seward. We started our backpacking season early to enjoy the warmth and added sunlight. The tradeoff: high brush and tourists. Eager fishermen, along the first part of the Russian River portion of the trail, which is open to salmon fishing, were surprisingly friendly.

Through drizzly rain, we trekked to Aspen Flats cabin, stopping only to pick King Bolete mushrooms. A few weeks ago, Krystin picked an unknown bolete mushroom and opened up a whole new kingdom for us to gather and preserve. Even during the wedding madness, we were taking mushroom hikes to gather, chop, and dehydrate mushrooms before they all disappear. Because of our limited capacity while backpacking, we limited the mushrooming to King Boletes, our favorite.

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Mushrooms and fly fishing. What a great combination!

Bixler has taken mushrooming to a whole new level and stopped to check every bolete on the 9-mile path. Krystin eventually pushed him forward and we arrived at the nice-and-clean Aspen Flats cabin.

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Married mushroom harvesting. Standby for more cheesy photos.

Located along the upper Russian River, Aspen Flats is a favorite of ours. The cabin is nestled far off the trail along a river bend in an area sparsely inhabited by spruce by high in blueberries, now turning fall colors for the season. We tried our hand at fly fishing with no luck. The trout have moved upstream in the river following the red salmon to Upper Russian Lake.

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Aspen Flats cabin is a favorite of ours, nestled among spruce and tundra.

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Mergansers packrafting down the river. They are hanging out along the Russian River to eat the many available salmon eggs from spawning red salmon.

We spent most of the evening relaxing, listening to the rain pelt the cabin roof. Bixler mixed the boletes with smoked salmon and nori for a delicious, non-Mountain House dinner option.

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Married matching leatherman knives, for cutting married mushrooms.

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Krystin thoroughly enjoys a dinner of Mountain House and mushroom smoked salmon.

We were still tired from the wedding and slept a good 14 hours before awaking to clearing skies the next morning. Next stop: Upper Russian Lake Cabin!

A mere 4 or so miles from Aspen Flats brings you to Upper Russian Lake, the headwaters of the Russian River. The lake is huge and remote. Remnants of a fishing lodge are somewhere along the lake, though we never bothered to look. Bear sign was everywhere and the salmon were thick in the lake and river.

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Krystin scopes the headwaters of the Russian River…

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….now married!

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Red salmon were thick in the river. You can see their little red backs popping up all along the river.

We arrived to the cabin a bit early, about a half hour before the designated noon arrival time. We even stopped to shoot our first grouse of the season along the way in an attempt to delay our arrival.

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Married grouse hunting.

With only a half hour until noon, we pulled off the trail to allow the previous cabin visitors to pack up. We ate lunch near the river mouth and observed the fishing opportunities. After a summer of intense saltwater fishing, we were eager to fly fish in the calm, serene surroundings without the hum of engine motors or playing bumper boats.

Around noon we headed to our next destination. As we rounded the corner, the previous cabin users were still there packing up their packs. They looked at us awkwardly and through the language barrier they said something along the lines of “you’re early.” We responded with, “No, you are late.” The National Forest cabins have a noon-to-noon occupancy that these people still on European time didn’t quite understand. Had they been nicer about it, we would have chatted with them. But no, in typical fashion they were completely cold about it, feeling that they did no wrong. People always look at us like we are a bunch of idiots with guns and fly rods sticking out of our packs.

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We were able to explore the cabin surroundings and pick berries while the other cabin users were packing up.

We dropped our packs and started picking highbush cranberries while the previous cabin users packed up at a glacial pace. Finally, when they gathered everything and paraded off the scene, we moved into the cabin.

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The Upper Russian Lake Cabin still has that old Alaska charm.

The Upper Russian Lake cabin was inherited by the Forest Service after being built by hand before Alaska became a state. The solid log cabin had an old-timey feel and the information binder even contained a collection of historical photos. Unfortunately, the cabin was in complete disarray from a summer of abuse. The previous users left the woodstove burning and neglected to replenish the wood supply. Junk was everywhere in the cabin: pool mats, beer bottles, rocks, trash. We gathered the unnecessary items and had ourselves a bonfire. Everything that couldn’t be burned we packed out. The cabin returned to order.

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Bixler disposes of the burnables to return the cabin to order.

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Ah. much better.

The sun emerged and we soaked up some rays on the deck, watching a Steller’s Jay hop around the cabin steps.

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A Steller’s Jay joined us for some sunbathing on the cabin deck.

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“Are you going to eat that?”

Though the wind was up on the lake, we decided to try our hand at fly fishing. Bixler went first in the cabin-provided skiff and hooked up and landed a beautiful trout. Krystin ran out in waders and started casting. We eventually went into the river to avoid the wind, trying to coax trout to take our flies. As the salmon start spawning in the river and lake, the trout hang out waiting to get a quick meal of salmon eggs. The trout were often interested in our flies, but an angry salmon would chase them away, thinking that our egg flies were one of their eggs. In the end, we caught three beautiful wild trout, two of which came home with us and one of which would become dinner.

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Bixler fly fishing in the cabin’s skiff out on Upper Russian Lake.

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We moved to river fishing, where all you need to do is find the salmon and a patient trout.

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Bixler poses with is mega trout! Sorry for the bad exposure on the picture…

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Krystin poses with the day’s catch.

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Married trout fishing.

How do you make a vegetarian dish awesome? Add meat. Try this: 1 vegetarian Mountain House (or other brand) + 1 trout = AWESOME!

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Turning a vegetarian dish into awesome.

We checked in late after playing cards and Bixler’s second round of fishing. The wind on the lake was not about to slacken, so he came home empty-handed.

Our hike out the next morning was beautiful under a sunny sky. We shot one more grouse and picked numerous mushrooms along the trail and along the road out to Cooper Landing. A stop at Wildman’s for ice cream and a short drive home ended the perfect weekend.

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A fantastic weekend!

Perhaps we had broken the spell of last year’s backpacking, where every time we came home something bad would happen.

Ah, married life.

Hunting the Quintessential Alaskan Moose

August 26, 2014

If you dislike hunting or images of hunting, don’t continue reading. We warned you in advance. Remember, we do live in Alaska where this is a regular thing!

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Who says you need a giant truck to hunt? A CRV can pack a full moose, camping gear, and an excellent supply of beer from Two Beers Brewing Co.

We loathe Homer. There. We said it. Living in Seward, it is obvious for us who wins the great “Homer vs. Seward” debate. Yes, we have friends who love Homer and yes, most people point out that Homer has better weather than Seward (better weather being measured in number of sunny days, of course). Of all the times we’ve visited Homer, we’ve discovered three possible things to like about the area. Sorry, the Kilchers are not on the list.

  1. K Bay Coffee. Honestly, throw your bitter Starbucks crap out the window and get some K Bay Coffee. The coffee cup near Safeway in Seward uses nothing but K Bay in their coffee and we carry nothing but K Bay’s Dream Blend at home.
  2. Starvin’ Marvin’ Pizza. Bixler nearly slammed on the breaks mid-traffic when he saw the Starvin’ Marvin’ Pizza Restaurant near the spit in Homer. We buy their frozen pizzas at Three Bears in Seward as a Sunday treat after sailing and enjoy the calorie bomb.
  3. DM546 Antlerless Moose Hunt. Also known as the “Homer Cow Moose Hunt,” this draw (lottery) hunt is one of the most highly sought-after draw tags because it is a road system hunt that pursues cow (female) moose instead of bulls (males), and a strictly meat hunt. The chances of drawing a DM549 tag? Between 2-5%.

In February, when the draw hunt results are published, Krystin drew the rare DM549 tag. Her first impression was excitement. Hunting the largest of the deer species and the one animal that is quintessentially Alaskan is going to be a treat, especially if you don’t have to worry about rack size like in most bull moose hunts. Her second impression was, “oh no, we need to go to Homer…”

The western, or “flat” side of the Kenai Peninsula is moose country and cow moose are virtually everywhere. The Homer hunt area is relatively small compared to most hunts we’ve done and unlike most hunts there is a fair amount of private lands. The reasons why we dislike Homer are virtually endless and the list could be in a blog post in itself, but the lack of public land is a big one. The draw tag warns hunters of this and probably leave the average hunter standing in a lot scratching their heads.

Thank goodness Bixler has worked as a Geographic Systems Information (GIS) professional for last five years and has six years of college doing the GIS behind him. He used the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s GIS layers along with some voodoo magic to place both the hunt boundary and public lands onto our GPS and into Google Earth. Krystin then visually picked out access points to the public lands and then transferred the points to the GPS. The finished product looked something like this:

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Thanks to Bixler’s mad GIS/GPS skills, we made this map of all the public lands (shaded) and potential access points. Paper copies were printed and this entire thing was loaded into our GPS.

Full of confidence, we loaded up the car and headed to Homer to spend Day 1 vetting our access points and hopefully bagging a moose. Our red meat supply at this point was extremely low since we didn’t get any bears and only have a handful of goat steaks left. Have you every wondered how much meat you eat in a year? Lots. Fish is great food, but in the dead of winter when it is below zero outside, nothing really beats a hearty steak.

Our plan of attack for this hunt was to look at each access point and hike along any promising trails. Of course, on paper, this is plenty easy, but in reality it is extremely frustrating. Most of the western peninsula is muskeg with the occasional spruce thicket except for Homer. The terrain changes abruptly to spruce pockets and open fields of the most gigantic fireweed we’ve ever seen. Our first viable stop was along a powerline easement where the fireweed and grasses grew so tall we could hardly see anything even when hiking to the top of the hill. Most of the fireweed appeared undisturbed meaning that even a moose wouldn’t traipse through a fireweed thicket.

One-by-one we crossed off access points. Some where blocked by private parcels, others were just plain inaccessible. We found a few promising “trails.” Apparently trails in Homer are either ATV roads to access powerlines or flat-out bogs. Most people will tell you, “Oh, there is great hiking in Homer!” only to add the footnote of, “but it’s across Kachemak Bay.” You know what else is across Kachemak Bay? The mountains, the camping, and probably the moose. Ugh.

The last and most frustrating hike led us into said bog along a waterlogged trail where both of us ended up knee-deep in a quagmire. “So this is hiking on the Homer side of Kachemak Bay…” we said in unison. Our spirits were pretty low at this point. The only moose we had seen all day were two calves and no cow to go along with it.

Frustrated, we fought the traffic and road construction back to Safeway to get some food and regroup. Homer has an ecclectic personality that can be observed through the people-watching opportunities. The Safeway in Homer reminds us of a grocery store out of Los Angeles but with more of a hippy vibe from the local art community juxtaposed with the Russian Old Believers in traditional dress. All of this was observed while sitting in the parking lot observing the locals walking in and out of the store. Bixler nearly spit his juice out on the dash when Krystin pointed out a grungy shopper walking into the store barefoot.

At this point we debated about heading home. It was getting late, but reaching that “magical hour” of the night when animals seem to appear. We took a drive back to one of the promising areas to scout for moose. As our luck would have it, a cow moose was grazing in the open on a small public parcel! She was close to a spruce tree and a house was just downrange of her, but it was the first cow we had seen since leaving Seward at 4 am. We frantically stopped the car and assembled our hunting gear. Krystin took off through the fireweed thicket and tried to close in on a good shot. The moose reappeared for a second near the spruce tree. Behind us on the road, an ATV zoomed by. The moose bolted.

Krystin ran off after it trying to track the moose. The trail went cold quickly and we searched in the nearby grasses and fireweed. We didn’t find the moose, but we did discover that both of us are allergic to something in the vicinity. We both exited the brush back to the car sneezing and sniffling. Krystin got the brunt of it and struggled to breathe as we figured out what to do. Somewhere during that entire episode, Krystin’s dad called about what to wear at our upcoming wedding and mentioned that moose hunting is best in the early morning. Hmm…

We took one last drive around before deciding it was too late to drive home and settled on camping in Homer. Do you know how much a hotel in Homer costs a night when trying to make a last-minute summer reservation? $250. And no, that’s not the presidential suite. That’s your run-of-mill room, probably in between the elevator and the ice machine.

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Homer’s Number 1 campground!

Discouraged by the lack of hotels, we tried to find a quiet campground. Here is another thing about Homer that brings it further down the list of Places We Like to Visit in Alaska: there are NO campgrounds other than the Spit. This time of year getting to Spit involved torn up roads and pilot car moving at a snail’s pace. We finally arrived to the limited camping area and set up our tent in a comfortable place.

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Our tent looked so comfortable and inviting, having been constructed on a sandy, grassy, rock-free area. Too bad our camping neighbor was the biggest a-hole that ever walked this earth.

The setting sun, serene water, and sandy beach would have made a peaceful campsite if it were not for the roadway right next door and our camping neighbor. If you ever want to hear about how someone hates their ex-girlfriend, we know a location where you can listen to that all night long. All. Night. Long. Couple that with drunkness and trying to open our car repeatedly, we can ensure you that camping along the Spit is not a restful way to sleep.

We switched back and forth sleeping with earplugs and keeping tabs on our belongings. By morning we were livid and drove by the noisy tent honking our horns before heading to Safeway to get some food. We entered the grocery store in our full camo and several people asked, “are you going hunting?” At this point we were so exhausted we couldn’t respond with a snarky remark such as, “no, we are going fishing,” or “actually, we just really like to wear our camo in public.”

We loaded up on donuts and coffee and headed back to where we saw the cow moose originally. As we approached the hunt area, a cow moose crossed the road in front of us. A good sign. Further into the hunt area, a young bull ran awkwardly down the middle of the road. Another good sign. We continued onward.

On a side note, during this time we were reading the smut novel Fifty Shades of Grey. It is an oddly addicting book that we find hilarious. Bixler had just reached a part in the second book that Krystin already passed. The conversation went something like this:

Bixler: I like that part when Christian Grey takes vanilla ice cream and drops it down Anastasia Steele’s stomach and starts licking from her belly button down to her…MOOSE!

We rounded a corner and a cow moose was standing in the middle of the road. We grabbed the paper maps and GPS and confirmed that we were on public lands. Krystin hopped out the car and chambered a round into the .30-06. Bixler prepped the tripod and returned to the car for videoing equipment (yes, we have this on video).

The moose was in the middle of the road grazing on some of that nine-foot tall fireweed. Shooting on a drivable surface is illegal, as is from and/or across it. We had to wait for the moose to get off the road on the side where the road curves away from the moose. The moose appeared to be heading towards that general direction, so Krystin stepped off the road and set up the shot in anticipation. Bixler held back to give the signal. When the thumbs up came, Krystin fired a shot. The moose staggered and then ran.

“Did you miss?” Bixler asked.

“I think so,” said Krystin.

Krystin rarely misses a shot, especially on a fairly large target like a moose. So we were both perplexed when the moose ran away, though she did run awkwardly. We drove up to where we saw the moose disappear behind a spruce thicket and headed into the fireweed. The fireweed was damn near impassible meaning the moose did not go that way, so we opted to go in front of the spruce thicket. Krystin, with rifle and tripod in hand, climbed over a log and happened to peer into the spruce thicket. There stood the moose. Their eyes met. In a complete surreal moment of understanding, the moose laid down on the ground rather than run. She was obviously fatally wounded, a shoulder shot that penetrated a lung as well. Krystin shot her again through the heart to give her a quick and honorable death.

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Krystin poses with her first-ever moose!

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One doesn’t realize the size of a moose until you try to dress it out from under a tree…

We both rejoiced at the successful hunt. This was an especially large cow, estimated at well over the 1,000 lb mark. It took us three hours to skin and quarter the moose, but we had the fortune of only hauling the quarters, ribcages, and all the delicious odds and ends 100 feet to the car. The meat looked fantastic: bright red, fat in all the right places, and best of all, hormone and antibiotic-free. If you are looking to be on the ultimate Paleo Diet, then this is it!

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We aged the moose overnight in our garage. Thank goodness the temperature is starting to drop, so we didn’t need to worry too much about the heat. A tender cow moose only needs to age for about a day while an old bull can be up to a week.

Giddy, we removed five inches from the front of the lower jaw and turned in the tag and jaw (a requirement for this hunt) to Homer Fish and Game. We said a thankful goodbye to Homer, hopefully never to return unless we draw the same tag again (both K Bay and Starvin’ Marvin’ can be purchased in Seward). We stopped in at Kenai River Brewery where a round of congratulations were in order. Krystin had yet another allergy attack where she was spilling not tears of joy, but tears of “get me to the other side of the effing peninsula.” A shot of bourbon and a Benadryl completed the day after hanging the meat. We spent the entire next day roping in friends to make vacuum seal bags while we butchered up the moose. Our dog friend Chugach received all the bones and spent the evening gnawing on a shoulder blade.

So how does a cow moose, aged overnight, taste? Oh. My. God. Amazing. Can’t wait to experiment with the meat this winter!

Cruzin’ the Sound: Part IV

August 12, 2014
PWS Route - Week 4

The last week we focused our attention on the southwestern portion of the Sound. There was a lot of back-and-forth that was dictated by both the weather and shrimping opportunities.

The last leg home always ends in the southwestern portion of the Sound. Nearing the end of July and into August, the faintest hints of autumn are around. The grass looks a little more golden, the blueberry leaves a bit redder, and something is bound to break on Carpe Ventos.

Well, nothing really broke, but we had a minor issue.

Upon pulling anchor in Nellie’s Rest, Bixler noted that the autopilot failed to turn on. After a complete overhaul of each cord in the system, he determined that the entire system was receiving power. The day before he had hit the display with the cooler setting it into a calibration mode, but the old “on and off” of the switch usually fixes it.

As Bixler was diagnosing the autopilot, our chartplotter kept spewing out low battery alarms. The voltage was cycling and a thorough assessment determined that our batteries were dead. Flat dead. Dead to the point that the combiner that charges from the alternator wouldn’t even put electrons through to the batteries.

Frustrated, we dropped anchor back in Gunboat Cove outside of Eshamy Bay Lodge. We speculated the cause: corroded connection on the alternator, loose belt on alternator early in the trip, no power in Cordova, old batteries, etc. Lucky for us we had the common sense to bring a Honda generator that spent the afternoon topping off our batteries.

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Gunboat Cove has always been a sunny destination for us, until now. Our battery issues brought on numerous clouds and showers.

As the generator hummed and Bixler fixed the corroded connector on the alternator, the lodge’s owner came over to see if everything was okay. We explained that we had the situation under control, but he offered a charger to take with us. The batteries were charging and nearly topped off, so we declined, but said thanks anyway for the thought.

That day in Gunboat was a low point for us. We weren’t talking to one another for a number of reasons (we can’t remember what now) and the salmon snagging on shore was nearly impossible. Whereas the last few years in the Sound each stream was boiling with salmon, this year there were barely distinguishable schools. Mike, the Cordova fisherman/marathoner said that many of the fishermen were already calling it quits this year.

Bixler managed to snag a few pinks and a fresh dog for the freezer, now running happily off our batteries. Our shrimp pot in Eshamy produced four shrimp, which we introduced to the heat and dipped in soy sauce. We left Eshamy and debated on where to head next. Paddy Bay was on the list, but an ugly rain cloud hung over the bay. 7-Fathom Hole was next from Paddy, and with the potential for increasing salmon and shrimping, we skipped Paddy and headed to 7-Fathom Hole.

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7-Fathom Hole emerged as a bright spot in an otherwise dark few days. The clouds were clearing and the seas calming.

7-Fathom Hole had no discernible salmon, but it did have sunny weather with the occasional squall. We took a dinghy tour around and ended up at a river in nearby Em’ur’luq Lagoon that was lined with salmonberries. Our guidebook talks of remains of a cabin in the woods that we never found, but it was a nice walk nevertheless.

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We didn’t find the old cabin, but the river was sure interesting to explore.

We spent the rest of evening reading and discussing why 7-Fathom Hole is so wonderful. The cove lacks glaciers or waterfalls or astounding views, but it feels so wonderfully nestled and pleasant. And it has saved our asses from a number of nasty summer storms. No trip to the Sound is complete with at least three visits to 7-Fathom Hole, whether we want to or not.

The next morning we pulled our pot and harvested 16 shrimp before re-dropping nearby for a long soak. We then started backtracking to Paddy Bay. Bixler, wanting to always fish, insisted we fish an area where we’ve never caught anything. Krystin was less than inclined to fish and gave up shortly. As she said “there are no fish here” Bixler hooked up to something that “hit like a tank.” The fish took off as Carpe Ventos started drifting slowly to the shallows. With adrenaline surging, Bixler barked the usual orders: “grab the gun, grab the GoPro, get the gaff, mark a point!” With a lee shore coming up, Bixler muscled up a 65-lb halibut, roughly half the size of the 140-pounder caught by Seward. It was still a sizable fish and it took several bullets to the gills to dispatch it. With our ears ringing and hearts pumping, we slid the fish into the cockpit and headed to Paddy Bay. Bixler called his mom on our satellite phone to inform her should we need to plug in another freezer before we got home.

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According to Bixler, it “hit like a tank.”

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Bixler, who was having a rough morning dealing with a fiancé who didn’t want to fish, is all smiles after catching this 65-pounder.

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The fish was about 51 inches long, give or take an inch.

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This corresponds to just under 65 lbs, with just under 50 lbs of yield. That’s one way to fill an icebox!

We anchored in Paddy and set to clean halibut and deck. Bixler filleted the giant fillets out and Krystin bagged them and buried them in the icebox. There was too much fish to fit in the little Dometic freezer, so we opted to pack the fish in glacier ice.

After hours of cleaning and scrubbing, we detoxed and discussed another long-planned adventure: packrafting on Eshamy Lake. For the past two years we’ve milled over the idea of hiking in rafts and fishing on the lake. Before we lost interest, we pulled everything out and decided to do it.

We hiked in packrafts and fly fishing gear on boggy tundra to Eshamy Lake. We’ve never anchored in Paddy when it wasn’t raining and expected rain at the lake. Eshamy Lake was entrenched in rain and a foul wind. We knew the odds of catching fish were hopeless, but we assembled anyway and set out on the lake. Blowing winds, pouring rain, and wet clothes were all we caught on Eshamy Lake, but we were glad to have accomplished a goal.

We returned to the boat and settled in. The weather grew considerably colder than the previous weeks on our trip, probably due to the return of actual darkness at night. We nestled into the v-berth under a pile of blankets listening to rain hit the deck of the boat.

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Paddy Bay was calm and pretty, but we’ve never seen the cove on a clear day.

The next morning the weather had cleared slightly and we headed onward to Gaamaak in Icy Bay. We stopped at a fishing spot where Krystin hooked up to something big. Unfortunately, her line on her reel had tangled around the level-wind making it impossible to fight the fish. In eventually snapped the 50-lb test line. Bixler had thought she was just being dumb about setting the drag, because, you know, girls don’t know how to fish and immediately provided unwarranted male fishing advice. But the scour in the level-wind was obvious evidence of an unfortunate tangle.

We pressed on to Icy Bay and were greeted by foul headwinds coming off the glaciers. Our destination, Gaamaak, was awash in wind. We tried pushing up the fjord to a small anchorage called Tiger Bite, but it was chocked with ice. Regardless, we gathered ice for the halibut and any future fish and decided to return to 7-Fathom Hole. A revision in the route was in order.

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We had an excellent view of Tiger Glacier, but a nasty wind was blowing off the icefield behind the glaciers.

7-Fathom Hole was peaceful as always and we dropped anchor in our usual spot. Krystin slaved away in the kitchen preparing a Captain’s Platter of fried seafood: cod, shrimp, and rockfish with side onion rings.

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Dinner of champions: Captain’s Platter with onion rings. We had run out of potatoes at this point.

After dinner, we returned to the usual salmon stream only to find a handful of salmon. We set out berry picking instead when Bixler noticed flagging tape wrapped around a small tree. Krystin set of berry picking while Bixler narrated his findings. Next to the tape was a stack of rocks. “I think it’s a geocache!” Bixler thought as we started dismantling the rock stack. Wrong. Way wrong. Bixler did find a box, but it turned out to be the ashes of someone who wished to spend eternity to 7-Fathom Hole.

Bixler was mortified. He returned the box to its rightful place and restacked the rocks. We debated about putting a cross or something, but maybe this fellow wasn’t religious. Krystin picked some flowers and said a few words of apology and told the deceased he had picked a great spot.

Bixler, who proclaims that he doesn’t believe in ghosts, spent the rest of the evening speculating on whether or not we would be haunted. Krystin assured him it would be okay, having watched enough of movies like Poltergeist as a kid and learning that you need to build a subdivision on graves to really piss off the Dead.

The fear of haunting passed the next day and we pulled our shrimp pot to a dismal return. We headed out of 7-Fathom Hole towards Whale Bay and dropped the pot on a precariously steep undersea hillside before heading to Eleshansky Cove.

Eleshansky Cove is a small bight well up Whale Bay that is beautiful but ill-protected from winds. The southerly winds were up, blowing ever-more high pressure into the northern Gulf but forcing Carpe Ventos to buffet around all night. Regardless, we were secure at anchor and set off to hike to the top of the mountains surrounding the cove to get a full-blown view of Bainbridge Passage and Knight Island.

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On our hike, we discovered a species of sundew, a bug-eating plant. Thank goodness because there were plenty of bugs on this hike.

We marched through boggy wetlands, blueberry thickets, and biting flies. The heat was intense, but after some bushwacking we arrived at the top of the hill and were rewarded with an awesome view of Knight Island and the start of Bainbridge Passage.

It was here that we got our first glimpses of fall. The mountains on Knight Island were craggy and scored with shadows – something not well defined in the midnight sun. The air was cooling rapidly as we began our decent back to the boat. We got hopelessly lost at one point, but managed to follow a bear trail back to the beach, where the winds were raging. With all the spray we received on the short dinghy ride back, we determined a shower was out of the question.

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The view atop of Eleshansky Cove. Wow!

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We found a mysterious lake, too.

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A closeup of a windblown hemlock near the lake.

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The wind sure picked up on our hike….

The next morning, we awoke to a cool, clear morning with hardly a hint of wind. We returned to our shrimp pot, pulled it, and struck pink gold. The pot was loaded with 38 of the most giant and juicy Prince William Sound Spot Shrimp we’ve ever seen. Some of these shrimp were the size of small lobsters.

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A shrimp motherload, for newbies anyway.

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Like small lobsters, they are! Bixler holds up our prized catch.

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On the shrimp permit, one reports the catch in gallons. This was our first full gallon!

We debated about staying in Whale Bay, but Bixler had his heart set on Thumb Bay on the south end of Knight Island which has remains of an old herring saltery. So, we packed up the shrimp and pot and headed towards Knight, which was gusting williwaws off the south end. Thumb Bay is a beautiful cove, but unfortunately wind-prone, even in mild easterlies. We dropped anchor anyway after dropping our pot just outside the cove.

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Thumb Bay was beautiful, but windy. The skiff in the picture belongs to the saltery-now-eco-lodge.

The weather was warm, but cool winds gusted around the boat. We took a dinghy tour over to the old herring saltery, which was once a lodge but is now under new ownership. Schools of salmon were darting under the boat, so we returned to the boat to grab our fishing gear to give snagging a try. We beached near the now-defunct lodge and Bixler immediately snagged a fresh pink. A seal tried to nab it as he reeled it in.

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A former saltery, a former sawmill, and mysterious 55-gallon drums dot Thumb Cove.

Meanwhile, someone hopped in a kayak over at the nearby “lodge” and paddled over. Oh, no, someone to come and yell at us about something, we thought. We tend to attract a number of people wanting to offer us “advice,” and, after not seeing people for several weeks, we weren’t looking forward to the forthcoming advice. Luckily for us, the bearded fellow in the kayak was just remarking at the beautiful day. We asked him about the building and he mentioned it was purchased by one of the parties that sued Exxon after the 1989 oil spill and is currently being renovated into an eco lodge.

He bid us farewell and we returned to the boat one fish richer. After a full stream shower, we set out planning the rest of our route. Tomorrow we wanted to fish the lingcod spot, but the final destination would be dependent on the number of shrimp in our pot.

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Shrimp pasta made with the day’s catch. We had basically ran out of everything else to eat at this point.

The next morning’s pull resulted in two small spot shrimp which meant we were heading back to Whale Bay. We first diverted to our lingcod hole, where Bixler immediately pulled up a barely legal (“that’s the way he likes them!”) lingcod and Krystin pulled up a nice rockfish. Both went in the freezer while both carcasses – including the entire lingcod – went into the shrimp pot next to the shrimp pellets and a can of catfood.

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Bixler’s lingcod and Krystin’s rockfish went straight into the freezer!

We returned to Whale Bay and dropped the pot in the same spot as before. We dropped anchor in Orca Cove, another deep anchorage, but close to the pot and beautiful. Last year, we sat inside the boat while rain poured outside, but this year the weather was perfect in the cove. We took a long beach hike and found a waterfall. A few salmon were making their way in, but the streams were so low from the lack of snow and rain that it seemed hopeless for the fish.

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Last year it was pouring rain in Orca Cove. This year we got to enjoy the cove in full sunshine.

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Pink salmon struggle with the lack of water in the river.

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With the river so low, we were able to hike up to this small waterfall.

That night as we headed on deck to check the anchor, Krystin spotted a giant smack of jellyfish under the boat. We thought for a second we were running aground, but we realized the situation when the water column started to glow from the jellyfish.

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Bixler places the GoPro on the gaff to get a great shot of the jellyfish.

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The view from the boat near the anchor. What a strange sight to see.

We went to bed dreaming of shrimp wondering into our pot. We had given them a smorgasbord and hoped the pot would be loaded.

And it was – 73 shrimp! Finally, we were able to bring some home with us! We had been dining semi-exclusively on shrimp for the past few days, feeling slightly guilty for the lack of shrimp in our freezer. But 73 shrimp headed fills two gallon-sized freezer bags and weighs about 10 pounds. Into the freezer they went. Oh the meals we can make!

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Oh yeah, fully loaded. Hmm…we know a boat by that name that pointed us to this area…

For most of our trip, the weather had been good, though the transmission station seemed to be having issues. When we finally received the weather later that morning, the news was dismal: Friday was good, Saturday was okay, but starting Sunday (our transition-back-to-Seward-day) a series of low pressure systems would be marching in along the northern gulf.

Yikes!

We revised our plans and headed out of Prince William Sound to Goat Harbor in Puget Bay. It was a horribly sad transition. We had spent the last four weeks moving at our pace exploring the Sound in detail. We were not ready to head home, but several obligations await us: our cat Jupiter, our hot tub, and filling Krystin’s moose tag, to name a few.

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We headed out from the Sound a day earlier than planned going through the narrow Bainbridge Passage to the Gulf.

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After fighting a 4-knot current, we were greeted by Bainbridge Glacier and ocean swell.

After an unsuccessful fishing attempt, we dropped anchor in Goat Harbor. Last year at this time, Goat Harbor was empty, but this year there were several other boats. Obviously others were taking advantage of the good weather in the late summer to get some fishing in.

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There were several boats in Goat Harbor with us, including this giant schooner from Seattle.

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Goat Harbor is always a beautiful place to visit.

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We filled up our water jugs one last time in this stream. The weather was so hot we were drinking our water faster than usual.

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Xtratuf footprints on the beach at Goat Harbor.

We went to shore to walk around and stumbled upon a flattened tent cabin with two camouflaged, locked outbuildings. Hmmm….suspicious. We explored the surroundings and discovered an impoundment notice from the Chugach National Forest. Apparently someone had been squatting at Goat Harbor and had gone to great lengths to conceal the cabin. Naturally, we found it right away.

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Hmm..someone had been squatting in these parts…

Unable to get the weather, we instructed Bixler’s mom on how to look up the NOAA forecast for the “Cape Cleare to Gore Point” forecast zone. She said there would be showers. He said, “No, the marine forecast.” She talked about how Jupiter is behaving himself among other things. Somewhere among that, along with a delay from using a satellite phone, Bixler determined that the weather for Saturday’s crossing would nice.

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We woke up early to pull our shrimp pot and start our crossing. The light was just barely touching the glacier at the head of Puget Bay.

Leaving Puget the next morning, we awoke to a fall scene with light spilling over the mountains from the rising sun. We had dropped our shrimp pot experimentally outside of Goat Harbor and only got small tanner crabs, which one cannot retain.

After securing the shrimp pot, we headed west towards Resurrection Bay, picking up a few fish on the way. The boat traffic increased with the charter fleet heading out to Montague to serve their clients. Carpe Ventos got into a chicken fight with the charter vessel Hope, who thought it was funny while we showed them the middle of our five fingers as the disappeared in the distance.

As we rounded Cape Resurrection, boats appeared on the horizon everywhere. It was obvious that the combination of the silvers (coho salmon) being in and the nice weather had brought everyone onto the water. We grumbled at the sight of people. After two weeks of wilderness, we returned to usual madness of summer in Seward.

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The crossing back to Seward was pleasant, except for the boat traffic.

Channel 16 (distress) on the radio was a flurry of chatter of course. Throughout our trip, we had listened to Channel 16 as a form of entertainment, especially when the Coast Guard gets involved. Here are the highlights of Coast Guard Sector Anchorage from this year’s Prince William Sound trip:

  • A man gets a fishing hook stuck in his eye. Helicopter 6006, known as “the six” is nearby to airlift him out. The helicopter pilot has an awesome radio voice.
  • A vessel is on fire somewhere in the Sound. The Coast Guard asks for a cell number to call about the medical conditions. Those radioing the Coast Guard say, “I’m pretty sure you can’t get cell service out here.” Coast Guard tries to call anyway.
  • A jetboat (small, flat-bottomed boat designed for rivers) sends a MAYDAY call after their engine explodes and spews oil everywhere. A charter vessel is relaying and asks the vessel in distress if they can anchor properly while the Coast Guard is asking the relay vessel if the vessel in distress can don lifejackets.

Channel 16 is blurting names off and on as we drop anchor in a familiar cove near home. Immediately, we start halibut soaking and spend the afternoon napping and reading on the deck. Krystin wakes from her nap, fresh to seize the day while Bixler starts preparing the pink salmon for dinner. In the middle of dinner prep, one of the rods starts to bounce and Krystin rushes to attend to it. It bounces, it clicks, and then whines as the fish takes off with the hook. Slowly, Krystin increases the drag to gain control of the fish. Bixler drops his dinner prep and clears the deck. By the way it is fighting, it can only be a halibut. She reels it to the surface. Bixler takes a shot and hits it in the meat. The halibut dives and Krystin reels it again. Bixler takes aim and shoots the gill plate. We pull it aboard. A nice 40-pounder! And a redemption halibut for the one lost in the Sound!

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Oh look, another halibut in the cockpit!

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Oh yeah, halibut success! Krystin didn’t even put her shoes on to reel it in!

After cleaning and burying the fish in ice, we continue to soak while Bixler makes dinner. The night begins to cloud over, but we relax sitting on the deck and reminiscing on the trip. There is only one destination left after four weeks of traveling: home.

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Both home and fall weather are just around the corner!

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