Excerpted from Living Within the Wild, by Kirsten Dixon and Mandy Dixon, copyright 2021. Used with permission of Alaska Northwest Books, an imprint of West Margin Press.
It’s an early July morning in Southcentral Alaska. The sun is streaming through low-lying clouds as a gray fog shrouds the harbor. It’s a moody weather day for summer, but perhaps it will improve later. La Baleine Café, with its twinkling lights, is an inviting bright spot against the intense blues and grays of Kachemak Bay. If you peek inside one of the café windows, you’ll see a warm and convivial scene of a room filled with fishers and locals, tourists, and weekenders from Anchorage.
Mandy is cooking eggs and grilling salmon in the tiny kitchen. The thing about owning a small café in a seaside town in Alaska is how quickly you learn to know the most colorful regulars. There’s Breakfast Mike, who likes his egg sandwich cut in half so he can eat the other half later. And the Friday Morning Breakfast Club, a group of long-retired friends that meet once a week to talk about any adventures they’ve had. There’s John, the owner of a bear-viewing guide boat who lives in Alaska year-round. He brings in his entire eclectic work crew for big meals. There’s Don, who lives up on the mountain with his horses. He comes in almost every day for a plate of baked beans and greens. The cast of characters goes on, and they all breathe life into the place. The people who inhabit this space create a kind of kinetic energy that inspires Mandy to work hard, to do her best, and to be creative. She doesn’t ever want to let these people down.
Across the bay, about twenty-five minutes by boat, Carly is setting out yoga mats onto the large wooden deck overlooking the ocean. The sun has broken through, and tiny beads of dew are evaporating around her. Grace Ridge, a 3,100-foot rise in the lush maritime landscape, looms just to the east of the lodge, displaying a hundred colors of green in the early morning light. The lodge is coming to life, hummingbirds dart in and out of the feeders surrounding the back deck, and the aroma of coffee fills the dining room. Carly faces her students and begins her morning routine, stretching and breathing in the salt-kissed morning air. Down near the tide, naturalist guide and resident scientist, Karyn, is guiding a group of guests along the shoreline, pointing out creatures so small they would otherwise go unnoticed. Tiny oblong nudibranchs, mollusks that abandoned their shells a few million years ago, swirl amidst the bits of algae, amongst the anemone and sea stars. Karyn is gathering bright green sea lettuce into her basket to dry and use in the kitchen. Later in the afternoon, another lodge naturalist guide will ready kayaks on the deck for the guests she’ll take out after lunch. The group will silently paddle along the edge of the deep fjord of Tutka Bay into the Herring Islands looking for whales, sea otters, and the dozens of shorebirds pointed out along the way.
The thing about running a lodge in Alaska is that every little detail is essential. The lodge-based team is required to remember the arrivals and departures of the day, special requests, who is going bear-viewing or deep-sea fishing, which guests have special diets or want to go sea kayaking. They must organize and remember the menus of the day, which employees are off, what lodge chores need to happen. A thousand details are orchestrated, from music playing softly in the background to flowers on the table.
Kirsten is making her way along the tall wooden boardwalk that bridges the lodge and the cooking school, wrapping around the back lagoon. In her tote bag, she is carrying a new cookbook to add to the school collection, a few culinary items she’s carried down from Anchorage, her black Moleskine notebook she carries everywhere, and packets to give to students for today’s class. On the schedule: make a summer dish from the garden and a wild salad from foraged greens, topped with crab from the Bering Sea. But Kirsten is not quite as “in the moment” as Carly is. On her mind, as she walks along to the school, is the sizzling sake-yuzu dumplings she wants to make later in the day for appetizer hour.
At both Tutka Bay Lodge and to the north of Anchorage, at Winterlake Lodge, managers are overseeing final touches to the morning guest tables; herbs are picked from the garden to press gently into butter; fresh juice is squeezed; and napkins are folded just so. These and other small luxuries of lodge life are practiced throughout the day, the small grace notes to the rhythm of our lives. Kirsten and Mandy will fly later in the week to Winterlake, where the lodge flora and fauna (and the menus) are entirely different than its seaside sister. In summer, the landscape at Winterlake is splashed with rich, vibrant greens and thick ribbons of steel-blue riverbeds that braid across the valley. And, in the winter, deep white snow glitters against pink and blue skies, showing off a low-lying winter sun. Winterlake is surrounded by spruce and birch forests and a million-acre mountain range that feels like a private park. All things here are about the dense forests, the sled dogs, the bears, and the sheer wildness of the land.
So, how do we, this adventurous and hard-working band of women, along with our equally formidable male counterparts, a precocious, third-generation Alaskan boy, as well as twenty sled dogs, manage to run two far-flung lodges, one busy café, and a cooking school? It’s a piece of cake. Literally. Our favorite cakes that get us through any situation: Zucchini Cake with Miso Glaze, Lemon Honey Cake with Ricotta, White Russian Coffee Cake, Steamed Chocolate Beet Cake, Black Currant Jam Cake. Our solution for stress or worries: pick any one of the above cakes, find the recipe in this book, gather, scoop, stir, pour, and bake. Then, sit down at a table with a lovely view, and glide a fork through a healthy slice. Take in a deep breath and realize that nothing is quite as busy or bad as it may seem.