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Ruminations: An Unconventional Catch

Photo: Vermont Herdsman by Nicole Wolf

In the late summer of 2010, Rachel and I honeymooned in Ketchikan, Alaska, on the Northern Dream, a 27-foot aft-cabin trawler. Captain Al is a relative of Rachel’s, a crusty, septuagenarian from Long Island, New York, who’d spent every summer for 20 years on that water. What could be more romantic than 10 days on a 27-foot boat with a surly old man? So we packed our sweaters and filled a large cooler with our handmade, raw milk cheese and whey-fed pork, hoping to bring it home full of fish. We caught halibut, ling cod, shrimp, and crab, but as our trip was drawing to a close, we had yet to catch a salmon.

On our last day at sea, we motored into Misty Fjords, where vertical cliffs rose over 1,000 feet from the ocean. Streams appeared along the precipices plummeting to the sea. It was glorious, even if we still didn’t have a salmon. Looking to put down anchor, we rounded an island and entered a wide bay; fishing boats bobbed in the distance across the sound. The salmon catch was on. A large flat-decked packing ship was moored in the bay’s midsection, and a supply ship was moored near the packer.

Suddenly, a boat with a broad high prow and a tender attached to its stern appeared—chugging into the bay. Another followed, and then more. They took turns dropping off their catch and moving on to resupply before chugging off to drop anchor for the night. Captain Al got on his radio, “Betty Sue! This is the Northern Dream.” No response. “Betty Sue! This is the Northern Dream. We have a famous cheesemaker from Vermont on board. Will you trade salmon for cheese?” 

“Northern Dream! This is Betty Sue,” the radio crackled as Betty Sue’s captain replied. “We’ll come over to you. How much cheese do you have?” Captain Al answered that we had five pounds of Parish Hill Creamery cheese, including hunks of Kashar, Humble, and Vermont Herdsman.

We assumed the crew would meet us with the tender, but the Betty Sue headed straight for us, and she was big. As she neared our port side I climbed out onto the narrow gunwale and got ready to hand up a bag holding big wedges of cheese. A woman appeared at the prow, reaching down to take it. She handed a three-foot salmon to me; I grabbed it by the gills and swung it onto the deck. The Betty Sue was getting too close for comfort and began to drift away. As I turned to thank the woman, she attempted to give me another fish. I missed it. The salmon splashed andsank beneath the ocean’s dark surface.“Hang on,” she exclaimed, “I’ve got a steelhead for you!” She was back in an instant with another large fish. She made a good throw, and I caught it. We waved goodbye. Captain Al thanked the crew of the Betty Sue.

By nightfall the bay had turned into a village of fishing folk, their dwellings glittering atop the black water. We headed back to Ketchikan the next morning, motoring through rough chop most of the way. A day later we were bidding the Captain farewell, a cornucopia of seafood in our cooler, including the two salmon I caught.

This essay is from a book Peter Dixon is writing about his life in cheese.

Peter H. Dixon

Peter H. Dixon is an international dairy consultant, educator, and creator of some of Vermont’s most beloved cheeses. He and his wife, Rachel Fritz Schaal, opened Parish Hill Creamery in Westminster West, Vermont, in 2013.

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