One month ago today, I boarded a plane to Cordova, Alaska, ready to explore the Copper River Delta and the sustainable wild salmon industry, one that has resulted in an ever-replenishing supply for generations to come. Little did I know it was going to be so much more than that. A trip that would truly change me forever, move me in a way I never could have imagined.
The land. The people. The salmon. The passion.
They all exist because of one another…… the most beautiful circle of life I’ve ever witnessed.
My passion for sharing the story behind real food with all of you is what spurred the journey, a collaboration with the wonderful folks of the Copper River Salmon Association. Already an advocate of consuming sustainable fish (and all plants/animals), I welcomed the opportunity to dig deeper into the meaning of “eating wild”.
For 5 days we (myself, Chef Tim Labont and his wife Julia, Eric Lucas from Alaskan Airlines magazine, and Amanda from The Wholesome Dish) were able to immerse ourselves in the community, seeing and experiencing each detail of this industry – from the incredible life cycle of the coho salmon (the last of the three species, including king and sockeye, to make a run each year), to the sequence of events that occurs so we can enjoy this nutrient dense fish on our own plates. So many hands and hearts involved, beginning with the Alaska Fish & Game, to the 541 fisherman/fisherwomen (number of permits controlled by the state), to the processors, and the supportive community.
I remembered learning about the life cycle of salmon in 7th grade science class, but until I saw the hundreds of spawning (dead) salmon in the river stream did it hit home. These beautiful fish essentially live to reproduce, and then perish. Adult spawners journey for hundreds of miles to return to the waters their parents spawned in, and where they themselves were born. If they make it back, eluding all sorts of obstacles, the males and females court and breed. At that time, the male releases sperm and the female releases eggs at precisely the same time. As soon as they lay their eggs, giving life to hundreds of baby salmon, their time is done. From there, the little ones, known as “frys” will spend 1-2 years in freshwater streams, then make their way to the ocean where they live for 4-5 years. And then their calling is to go back to those freshwater streams, just as their parents did.
And here in lies one of the biggest differences of Copper River Salmon: they travel 300 nearly miles to reach their streams, leading to a lean body, higher Omega 3 fat content, and incredible flavor.
At the crack of dawn on Saturday morning, we took a trip down to the Eyak River bright, ready for a morning of fishing to see if we could reel in a big one for ourselves. Breathing in the freshest air, my eyes were in awe, a scenic backdrop with thick fog rising.
As we passed other sport fishers, standing in waders and flannel shirts, chatting amongst one another, it reminded me of hunting traditions here in Minnesota.
My line dangled in the water for quite awhile as I tried to perfect my cast.
After nearly two hours and almost calling it a day, there was a tug on the line that I’ll never forget. The sparkling silver coho fought hard, and with the instruction of our guide, I ran him up the shore, until finally I had my prize, standing in one of the most pristine natural resources in the world.
We spent that evening in one of the local’s homes, sharing delicious homemade food (salmon of course) and stories.
As these fishermen spoke about their craft, I could see, hear, and feel the love and pride from every single one of them…… Integrity that translates to the highest quality wild salmon you could ever wish for on your plate.
It was at that moment that the meaning of “eating wild” changed for me. It strikes a cord each time I pick up a filet, knowing those were real hands and hearts that pulled in the line, giving their every day to bring us nourishment.
That is beautiful, real food at the core. That is what sustains me, and fuels my passion to share these stories with you because they certainly aren’t meant to be a secret.
I’ll leave you with some of my favorite pictures that capture moments that words can’t quite describe. And I sincerely hope you are able to experience wild Copper River Salmon soon, which you can find locally at Coastal Seafoods and Whole Foods, or directly from one of my favorite fisherman I met, Rich from Senasea Foods. I’ve also been working on a fantastic recipe, so stay tuned for that, plus tips and tricks to cooking with salmon.
From the bottom of my heart, the biggest thanks to Copper River Salmon Marketing for giving me the experience of a lifetime, and the vibrant community for taking me in as one of their own. xo
The Cordova Harbor, which houses all of the 541 boats.
Taya, one of the fisherwomen, had a dog I fell in love with (not surprisingly). He had his eye on an sea otter while we were in the harbor. Can you spot it?
And despite the photo opp, he still wouldn’t take his gaze off the sea otter. :)
In a float plane, we soared over the entire Copper River Delta, and saw everything from the greenest mountains, incredible glaciers and lakes, snow covered mountains, river streams, and the mighty ocean.
I ate a lot of salmon. I mean A LOT. So when we ate at the Orca Adventure Lodge after our fishing trip, I took a break with this delicious plate of pork two ways with sticky rice and guava sauce.
We were also fortunate to be there during the town’s annual foraging festival. This gal was giving a demonstration on using native mushrooms to dye fabric. Incredible.
We were also invited into a woman’s home for an afternoon of cooking, where I learned how to make gravlax. They preserve so much of what they forage because they mainly live off the land, like these pickled fiddlehead ferns and twisted stalk.
And the most breathtaking scene of them all, Sheridan Glacer, which we were able to walk around on the last day of our trip.
I certainly hope to see it again.