Each year, we go dipnetting as a family. In a matter of 24-48 hours, we catch enough salmon to last us all year. I’ve explained the dipnetting process here and even shared our salmon recipe if you want to know how we cook it weekly.
Florin and Penny were solid contributors. There are two ways to dipnet: Stand with your net in the water and wait for a fish to jump in, or add more poles to make it longer and walk as the tide goes out. The walking way catches more fish, but it also takes more mass and strength as the pole is longer and you have to put it in the water, walk with it, and then pull it out and carry it to do it again. This was the first year Penny was big enough to do it. She caught one and promptly quit, but at least she learned how to do it. Florin loves dipnetting while standing. She caught 5 of our 33 this year.
How did we do? The salmon counts were really low so there was hardly anyone on the beach (compared to the THOUSANDS which come when the salmon is running), which was lovely. But despite the low numbers, the fishing was pretty average. It wasn’t too terrible and it wasn’t fabulous either. Total count: 33 salmon. – This equals 77 lbs of fillet meat (over 88 lbs if you count the salmon bellies that we’ve already smoked!). The fish were also pretty small this year, just like last year. Our smallest fillet: 11 oz. Biggest fillet: 29 oz (42 oz is our record). Our average fillet was 19.3 oz.
Every year I calculate all the expenses associated with dipnetting to see just how good of a deal we’re getting on our salmon.
$40 – Fishing licenses for Mr. T and I.
$21.59 – Ice to keep the fish cool after catching.
$50 – New netting for Mr. T’s dipnet – his had lots of holes that we’ve had to patch over the years.
$28.08 – Gas for the car
$60 – The cost to camp on the beach two nights and drop our stuff off.
$22.75 – Blizzards at Dairy Queen for the whole family on the way home.
$FREE – New waders for Mr. T (I won a $500 Amazon gift card from Ally Bank earlier this year and used that to cover the waders)
Total Costs: $222.42
Total Cost Per Pound: $2.89
This exactly matches our lowest price per pound (in 2016).
This year, we decided to embark on a new adventure learning to tap birch trees and make birch syrup. The new house came with a small birch forest and we were all home all the time so we decided to add a new element to our “urban homesteading”: Birch Syrup.
Now, before you start this process, let me start with two disclaimers:
DISCLAIMER #1: You should not do this for the cost savings. Making birch syrup is not at all cost-effective. You can buy 8 oz. of birch syrup from the professionals for $29. Because birch syrup has a 100:1 ratio (meaning it takes 100 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup – compared to maple which has a 40:1 ratio), it takes a lot more work.
DISCLAIMER #2: Birch syrup, if boiled, tastes bitter and molasses-y. This can still be used as a delicious glaze on things, but is not pancake syrup. If someone says they hate birch syrup, they likely haven’t tried it cooked correctly. Because birch sap consists of a different kind of sugar than maple, you can’t just boil it. In fact, if the sap goes above 180, it will burn. This means you can’t actually boil it at all.
The combination of the 100:1 ratio and the fact it can’t actually be boiled means you really can’t make a good birch syrup without a reverse osmosis system. This allows you to pull out around half of the water from the sap without heat at all. We DIY’d our reverse osmosis system using the instructions provided by Souly Rested (if anyone deserves the Amazon affiliate commission for providing useful content, it is them with this post).
How to Tap Your Birch Trees
Being new to this, I attended webinars on the topic and read every available resource on the internet. Ultimately, what you need to know was written up by the professionals in their article: Tapping a Birch Tree. Be sure to check if your birch trees are at least 25″ in circumference. Smaller than that can hurt the tree. If you’re doing it as a family like we did, I recommend the Molly of Denali episode called: Sap Season. Molly of Denali is a FABULOUS cartoon all about life in Alaska and they do a great job explaining how to do it.
When to Tap Your Birch Trees
This was the hardest part. We wanted to start right away! And I checked every single day and saw people reporting that sap was flowing in Fairbanks and the Mat-su Valley and our trees were dry! We even saw someone on the other side of Anchorage getting sap three full days before we did! But, based on my research and our experience this year, we learned it’s best to set up 2 test taps in different locations in your yard when things are getting close. How do you know they’re getting close? Well, I’ve heard many things: after you’ve seen 4 mosquitoes, when the base of the trees are out of the snow; but mainly, it ends up being after about 3 nights above freezing and 3 days above 50 degrees F. All of our trees starting flowing at the exact same time. So, our two test taps started dripping within an hour of one another. It was a notably late year according to the experts; the sap started flowing April 23. Next year we’ll set the test taps and stop freaking out so much.
How to Process the Birch Sap
Birch sap can go bad quickly, so it has to be collected daily and stored somewhere cool (we buried our collection barrel in a mountain of snow before the snow melted and we collected all the sap in the barrel each morning). If you’re doing more than 15-20 trees, you’ll also likely have to start processing the sap each day so you can keep up.
Our process was:
Collect all sap in the barrel each morning
Run the reverse osmosis system – the pure water output would be piped to buckets, the sap runoff would be sent back into the barrel so it could run continually until we turned it off. Generally, we would keep it running until we’d pulled out about half the water (ie: the water in the buckets equaled about what was left in the barrel).
Pour the remaining sap from the barrel into our steam table pan on the camping stove
Heat the sap until about 160 degrees F (we had a meat thermometer probe attached to the side of the pan)
Turn on the bubbler at 160 – This was something we hadn’t initially planned on, but it turns out, it takes FOREVER for the water to evaporate out of the sap without boiling it. So Mr. T built a bubbler contraption out of CPVC pipe with holes drilled in the bottom attached to an air mattress pump we got at Target. This blew bubbles into the sap to simulate boiling at a low temperature and helped the water evaporate WAY faster.
Bubble the sap around 170 until the liquid level is 1-2 inches deep (too low for the bubbler to help). Don’t let it go above 180! (We set an alarm on our thermometer so we could run out and turn the heat down before that happened.)
At this point, if we had the previous day’s sap we had completed to this point in the fridge, we would combine the two and then let it bubble again until it was 1-2″ deep.
Use the refractometer to check brix levels. Birch syrup is done at 67 Brix (same as Maple). It took several combined days to get up to 40+ and then we had to complete it to 67 in a turkey roasting pan on the stove (again, don’t let it get above 180 degrees!).
Strain through coffee filters (it will take several filters as the sediment that’s created when heating the sap will clog it quickly) while it’s hot and put immediately into jars and seal.
Other Birch Syrup Info
Birch syrup is very distinct. It tastes nothing like maple and is kind of hard to describe. It’s sweet and woodsy.
Early run birch syrup is lighter in both color and flavor than late-run birch syrup. The sap starts to yellow as the sap flows, resulting in the change in color.
Taps should be pulled out when the sap turns cloudy (usually when the buds burst into leaves on the tree).
Holes should be left unplugged and if you tap the same tree the next year, it should be at least 6″ away from this year’s hole.
How Much Does Birch Syrup Cost?
Components for the Reverse Osmosis system: $388.47
After about 17 days and nearly 200 gallons of sap, we ended up with 2 gallons of syrup. So…
TOTAL COST PER GALLON: $441.74 – remember how I said you should just buy it from the professionals?! Well it actually turns out that if you’re buying it for $30/8 oz from them, it would cost you $480 (lucky for you, they also sell it in 32 oz jugs for just $105).
Hopefully next year, we can bring the cost down significantly since much of the cost this year was one-time purchases. Overall, we really loved the process. It was fun to do each day as a family, and it comes at the perfect time (the 2 weeks before the trees get leaves, so we’re all antsy for spring and needing something to do until it comes!). Also, we’ve got the neighbors on board and we may be doing a street-wide birch tapping blitz next year! I’ll let you know how it goes. 😉
This year, we decided to take our family on the Alaska Marine Highway from Dutch Harbor to Kodiak – a 2.5-day journey and often referred to as the “ferry to the end of the world.” The trip was worth it and wonderful and here’s what you need to know:
Why We Did it:
I’ve been wanting to take this ferry since moving to Alaska. We live in a weird and wonderful state and I want to explore as much of it as I can. The push to actually book the trip this year was the Governor threatening to cut all Alaska ferries. These ferries are vital to connecting Alaskan communities and were never built to be a money maker. That is why they called them the “Alaska Marine Highway System” because roads also don’t make money. They make communities. All of the communities on the Aleutian ferry can only be accessed by ferry or plane. Many are too small for a landing strip.
We flew to Dutch Harbor and rode the ferry up the chain to Kodiak. We were told by ferry staff that we rode the “locals route.” The tourist route is the opposite one: Homer or Kodiak to Dutch Harbor/Unalaska (The harbor is called Dutch Harbor, but the town is called Unalaska, so you fly into Dutch Harbor, but the town and the island it is on is Unalaska). Ferry staff told us that during the “tourist route” the tiny towns come out in full force at each stop with stopover tours, local donuts, and tiny souvenir stands. Though we’re sad we missed the tours and donuts, we’re glad we got to see the ferry exactly as it is used by fellow Alaskans.
As a tourist, I would probably recommend you take the other way. Homer is a 4-hour drive from Anchorage, but one-way rentals are hard to find which is why we chose to end in Kodiak. We flew into Dutch Harbor from Anchorage and flew back to Anchorage from Kodiak. Flights to these areas (especially Dutch Harbor/Unalaska) can be very expensive, costing hundreds of dollars for a one-way flight. This can be a good use of Alaska Airlines miles. Instate flights are cheap using Alaska Airlines miles – Dutch harbor can be as low as 7,500 one way and Kodiak 5,000. Keep in mind that inclement weather cancels flights in Dutch Harbor very frequently, so add a few days of a buffer in your trip if you get stuck in Dutch Harbor at the end of the journey so you don’t miss your Anchorage flight home. We left Dutch Harbor at 4pm on Saturday afternoon and arrived in Kodiak on Tuesday morning at 2:15am. The ferry journey was $361 for each adult, $181 for kids 6-11, and free for kids 0-5. Our 4-person cabin with bathroom was $635, so we paid a total of $1,719 for this ferry journey (and used miles to pay for flights each way).
While it is legal to duct tape a tent to the top deck of the ferry, this route isn’t the best to do that. We watched a family try, but nearly lose their poles to the wind. Eventually, they gave up and headed inside. One man did set up just a cot in the solarium at the top deck (it’s both covered and heated but very, very loud). We got a 4-person cabin and one of the kids slept on the floor between the 2 bunk beds. Our cabin had a small bathroom in it, but many don’t. There are, however public bathrooms and showers on board. You’re also able to sleep in the lounge chairs or the few booth tables in the lounge, but booth benches fill up FAST by locals that ride the ferry frequently. I recommend a cabin. It was worth sleeping in a bed in darkness (reminder: Alaska doesn’t get dark all night during the summer).
Food on board is available in the full-service restaurant on the M/V Tustumena. The restaurant is only open 1-1.5 hours for each meal and has a limited menu with prices $10-12 per entree (and no tipping servers because they are all public servants and can’t accept tips). Also, they are limited to ingredients on board. After the second morning, they ran out of syrup for breakfast. There are also 2 public microwaves and a Keurig that offers free hot water. We ate two meals in the restaurant, but ate the rest using the microwave and hot water options. We brought oatmeal and hot cocoa packets for breakfast, lots of snacks for lunch, and just-add-water pho bowls and microwavable indian food and rice packets for dinner. We brought our own microwavable bowls (cups were available for coffee) and never had to compete for the microwave.
Also, the ferry is in the open ocean for much of the journey in a very windy/rainy part of the world. We lucked out with 5-8-foot swells but the crew said 20-30-foot swells aren’t uncommon. I was definitely on Dramamine for the ride.
The ferry has a “movie room” where the purser will load movies during the slower times on board – the days with fewer stops. She played a few kid movies and a couple Alaskan documentaries. We also brought lots of games to play as a family. My kids also had Kindles and workbooks for when we needed them to calm down on the boat.
Bring a good camera and binoculars and be ready to just watch the waters. We saw cute otters, some fin whales, a pod of orcas, some porpoises, tufted puffins, horned puffins, and many, many other kinds of birds. Bring lots of coats and hats and gloves because sitting outside the boat in the wind and rain can be very cold.
Since we were on the “locals’ route,” we didn’t have offered tours and most of the towns weren’t close enough to walk all the way into “town” (they’re all really small) during our small stop, but we made sure we got off at each one and walked around the dock and took pictures. We also got good views of each town as we pulled up and drove away on the ferry. Akutan is the one town that is right at the dock. The whole town is car-less and has boardwalks between all the houses for 4-wheelers. In 20 minutes we were able to walk all the way from one of town to the other. Each town has its own cute little Russian Orthodox Church and most have fish processing plants.
Who Rides the Ferry?
There were 5-6 other Alaskans that took the governor’s threat seriously and bought a ticket like we did and there was one explorer from California, but the rest of the people on board were using the ferry for real life. We were there at the end of the school year, so there were 4 teachers from several of the islands that were moving to other villages to teach the next year. There were sports teams riding to compete with other villages. One family was moving from Dutch Harbor to Colorado. Two of the towns are on the same island but have no road between them. One town has the airport and the other has the harbor. Many residents of one town got on the ferry to get to their fishing boats in the other.
We spent a lot of time at each stop down on the car deck watching them load and unload all sorts of things onto and off of the ferry with the ferry’s unique car elevator system. The dock at each stop is at a different height, so the car elevator allows vehicles to be loaded and unloaded at each stop despite the height differences. Every stop was a complete logic puzzle. They loaded garbage trucks, semis, several boats, many 4-wheelers with trailers attached, and a whole carnival of rides!
Was It Worth It?
I absolutely loved the trip. It was beautiful and crazy and fun. It was so fun to talk to locals about how they use the ferry, talk to the staff about how they ended up there (many, many crazy stories), and see the landscape of the Aleutians. We were also able to learn a lot more about the history of WWII in Alaska in Unalaska and Kodiak which are important stories all Americans should discover (you should at least know about the Battle of Attu and the Aleut Relocation Camps). We were able to explore old bunkers and lookout points at both Unalaska and Kodiak.
The boat ride through the tree-less cliffs of the Aleutians was unreal. It was a scene from a movie and I am so glad I went!
All through June, there were dismal salmon counts reported thanks to a “blob” of warm water that stunted spawning off the coast of Alaska a few years ago. There were fears there would be no fish to catch! We had planned to go fishing on Monday, July 16, but the fish counts were still unseasonably low, so we postponed until Wednesday.
We got down there Wednesday and fished Wednesday afternoon/evening and Mr. T and I caught a combined 9 (I only caught 1 of those). Mr. T got back in the water Thursday morning and only caught 1. Then, during the low tide Thursday afternoon, we both got back in the water with our nets and the fish came! It’s always so fun to see a spike in fish while you’re in the water. It starts boiling with salmon and we were just throwing them out of the water. We filled our coolers and had to stop because we couldn’t fit any more!
Our friends joined us Thursday night and we watched their two teenage sons catch 20 before we all ate dinner. We got home Friday around 5pm and Mr. T and I washed and filleted salmon until around 10:30pm and then packaged all the fillets with the FoodSaver for the freezer until about 2am Saturday.
We ended with a total of 34 sockeye salmon! (though our household limit is 65, we never need that much!) That equals 91.8 lbs of edible salmon fillets!
Biggest fillet this year: 34 oz
Smallest fillet this year: 12 oz
Because you know I like to calculate all of our costs, here is everything we spent for this year’s dipnetting trip:
$107.46 – 2 new camping pads for Mr. T and I. After waking up on our $7 cheap inflatable pads with leaks and being extra sore for the second day of fishing, I decided we were too old for this and immediately ordered some nice camping pads for next year. So, even though we didn’t get to enjoy them for this year’s trip, I’m counting them as part of this year’s costs.
$60 – The cost of 2 nights of camping on the beach and a $10 drop-off fee (we’ve only ever stayed 1 night in the past, but quite enjoyed being there a second night).
$42 – Gas for the car for the roundtrip.
$6.58 – Ice to keep the fish cool.
$17.34 – The annual Blizzards at DQ for all five of us post-dipnetting on the way home (Mr. T and I split a large to cut costs).
$12.35 – Some PVC fittings and a plastic container: Every year I descale the fish while Mr. T fillets. I’ve been doing this in our coolers in the grass, but the bending over gets harder each year. This year, Mr. T developed a sort of sink think that drained the water out and he clamped the hose to the side so I could do everything standing up. It made it so much easier!
$58 – Fishing licenses for Mr. T and I.
$69.90 – 1 new net (just the netting) and 2 new pole extensions. After catching very little last year with my short net and dumb netting, we got me new netting and 2 pole extensions to make my net as long as his. I’m happy to report I was a very successful fisherwoman this year with the new gear!
$66 – The cost to get 12 lbs of our fish professionally smoked.
Total Costs: $439.63 – A much more expensive year than usual thanks to new gear and staying an extra night.
Total Cost Per Pound: $4.79/lb
It was a record-breaking year for us on poundage (the most edible meat we’ve ever caught!) but it was also a record-breaking year for our cost per pound (in a bad way). Check out Dipnetting 2015, Dipnetting 2016, and Dipnetting 2017 to compare. $4.79 is still pretty good for market rate fresh sockeye salmon that we eat weekly. If you end up with some salmon, be sure to check out Mr. T’s perfect salmon recipe!
Today is Alaska Day and the day that I like to reflect on how awesome this state of Alaska really is each year. You’ve heard me brag about it all before, but here is my current list of why I love Alaska so much:
Our annual dipnetting trip this year was out of the ordinary. First off, the fish weren’t there. Usually the fish come in droves around July 15-17. We went down on July 17-18 and the fish still weren’t there. Here’s a graph comparing this year’s sockeye salmon run numbers throughout July and August (the red line) and last year’s numbers (the black line). See that big spike in the black line where it dips in the red? Yeah. That’s when we went fishing. It got so weird that they even talked about shutting down dipnetting for awhile to let more salmon get up the river, and the counts finally rose a week later only when they shut down the commercial fishery for a few days.
Despite the lack of fish in the river, we actually did quite well. We caught 21 salmon and they were pretty big this year. (I only caught 1 and Mr. T caught 20… but his net is significantly longer, so he was the only one in our group that actually managed to catch any fish.)
Hey friends! We’ve updated our newsletter to be a weekly email that goes out on Saturday mornings complete with blog post links, random spattering of other interesting links from the interwebs, and some friendly updates on the Banks. Sign up on the sidebar. Try it out. If you hate it, unsubscribe after the first email! I won’t be offended. I have heard several express interest in knowing more about the kind of things I read outside of the blog. I’ve changed our newsletter to share those interesting things that just don’t seem to fit here (and there are loads!)
You may have noticed last week I posted our UK post without pictures. It’s now updated, so check that out. The reason? The reds were running! If that phrase makes no sense to you, I’ll translate: “Over 50,000 Sockeye salmon are running up the Kenai river every single day and everything must stop so we can go catch them!”
I wanted to write a post highlighting the financial benefits of living in Alaska. With oil prices low, the state of Alaska isn’t in a great financial position. The state’s operating budget has counted on major income from oil and that income is now severely lacking. Because of that, many of these things may change this next year. But as things stand now, despite our high cost of living, there are several major perks for living in the state.
The Iditarod started yesterday and we wouldn’t be Alaskan if we didn’t talk about it. In truth, I love the Iditarod. The Iditarod, in part, celebrates the great serum run of 1925. Nome was hit hard with diphtheria and needed medicine.