The summers between my years of college, I worked on a tour boat in Prince William Sound, Alaska. No other place on earth has ever filled me with the same degree of awe. Maybe nostalgia amplifies beauty, just as love does. I worked for a friend’s family’s tour business based out of Valdez. Every spring, around the time of my midterms, I’d start longing for that place and those summers that were about the friendships I had with the people I worked with, some of whom I’d known for many years. That period of my life, the end of my teenage years and transition to early adulthood, was a time of great emotional intensity; my craving for those with whom I had a relationship was at its greatest.
Every morning, we’d motor out of the Valdez boat harbor past the fishing boats and tenders and sailboats, past the Alyeska pipeline terminal, out of the Port of Valdez and into the Sound. On the trip to the Columbia Glacier, we took in a miracle of marine life. On a good day, we crossed paths with whales: sometimes minke, sometimes humpback, sometimes orcas. Dall’s porpoise swam alongside the boat with some regularity. Rafts of playful sea otters were everywhere, more gregarious than any animal I’ve ever seen. Sea lions sunned themselves on buoys, or fought with each other in their jockeying for a position. When we got close to the shoreline, we sometimes spotted mountain goats, seeming so perilously perched I couldn’t look. The thing I remember most clearly is the bracing, clean air once we got to the glacier on those summer days. Seals and their babies populated the icebergs. Once in a while, we’d see an iceberg red from the birthing process. People from all over the world came on our tour: groups who arrived in buses, couples who’d driven the Alaska-Canada highway in an RV to get there, those who flew in and traveled by rental car. Every night I was left with something to think about from a conversation I’d had.
After work most nights, I’d take a walk along a dirt road bordered by mountains over 5000 feet in elevation. Waterfalls, lupine, fireweed, columbine and forget-me-nots flanked the path. It was a holy place.
Sometimes on a day off I’d go out with a friend on his boat and pull shrimp pots. Back at the dock, we’d feed the shrimp heads to a sea otter. We’d boil the shrimp just until they turned bright pink, stand at the kitchen counter to peel and devein them, then dip the succulent meat in a bowl of melted butter before devouring it.
I learned from the people I met who were there vacationing, from those I worked with, and the residents of the town I got to know. I understand better than I would otherwise, from my experiences those summers, that there are many ways to do, and look at, everything. More than once, I thought about what it would be like to make Valdez my home.
Now, I live in a less-northern location at the water’s edge, in a setting that is a pale version of Prince William Sound. The mountains out my windows are more distant, but still magnificent. I watch them change with snow and cloud cover and light. Gulls and eagles and other sea birds are part of my everyday life. Now that spring is here, the low tides are dramatically low, and we take long excursions on the beach that allows further passage. We walk on and around the emptied out shells of cockles, moonsnails, oysters and mussels; recent meals for another creature. The large rocks we encounter are barnacle-encrusted, with purple sea stars clinging to the sides of them. Sea anemones are smooth raised nubbins on the sand, awaiting the return of the tide. Soon, we’ll see the Canadian geese in the water with their goslings. I imagine these images will populate my boys’ memories, and perhaps shape their perceptions of natural beauty.
At home, our yard is at its best in spring. I planted a tiny bleeding heart a few years ago that has since grown into an impressive bush, now in its full glory. It withers in the heat of summer. Two lone irises come up and bloom every spring in a flowerbed otherwise inhabited by hellebore. Our lilac tree is blooming. Next to our perennial supply of rosemary and mint we now have sorrel and chives, and I harvested our first batch of rhubarb over the weekend.
I’m perfectly happy to stay home when the weather starts getting nice. I want to work in the yard, or spend time on the beach, or just relax with my family. I force myself to make plans for at least once during the weekend, assuming my hermit-like tendencies aren’t good for the kids or for me. But maybe I over-think things. Maybe it is enough to love one’s home and one’s family, and roast your rhubarb when you can.
I’ve roasted rhubarb with water and lemon zest, and with wine. I recently experimented with freshly squeezed orange juice, and we liked it best of all. The acidity of the orange juice really complements the rhubarb.
2 pounds trimmed rhubarb, cut into 2 inch pieces
½ cup packed brown sugar
½ freshly squeezed orange juice (juice from approximately 1 ½ oranges)
Place a rack in the lower third of the oven, and preheat the oven to 350F.
Mix the rhubarb, brown sugar, and orange juice together in a deep, oven-proof pot. Bake uncovered for about 30 minutes, or until very tender, stirring a couple of times as it cooks.
Serve warm or cold, with greek yogurt or ice cream or all by itself.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings