Our excellent adventure with Dr. Andrew Weil, Chef John Pisto, and company

by Randy Hartnell

I love nothing more than showing off the astonishing natural beauty of southeast Alaska's Inside Passage: a wild, rugged region of mountains, islands, and fish-filled waters that Vital Choice co-founder Dave Hamburg and I came to know as commercial salmon fishermen (That's me, Andrew Weil, M.D., and Dave at Baranof River Falls).

Since our last newsletter, we spent an exhilarating, inspiring week aboard Captain Dennis Rogers' 60-foot Alaska Adventurer, wending our way among the big islands and broad channels of the Inside Passage with six invited guests. The gang assembled in Dennis' home port of Petersburg, Alaska. Founded by Norwegian fishermen in the early 1900's, Petersburg is the vibrant center of the local salmon industry, whose fishing folk and processors supply us with premium quailty wild Alaskan salmon.

The plan was to give everyone a close look at salmon in their native habitat, and how they're harvested and processed. Along the way we also witnessed the fabulous natural features of the Inside Passage, including humpback whales, seals, sea lions, eagles, orcas, bears, snow-covered mountains, rain forests, glaciers, hot springs, lakes, rivers, and awe-inspiring waterfalls.

The Cast

  • Andrew Weil, M.D. is a Harvard-educated physician and ethnobotanist, the author of three New York Times bestsellers about nutrition and complementary medicine, and a frequent guest on CNN's Larry King Live. Dr. Weil also founded and directs the Program for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. Despite the distraction from pleasurable pursuits like fishing and reading, Dr. Weil answered the on-board gang's health questions with patience and grace.
  • Chef John Pisto operates four acclaimed restaurants in Monterey, California (Abalonetti, Blue Moon, Domenico's, Whaling Station), and hosts “Monterey's Cookin' Pisto Style” on the GoodLife TV Network. John is famous for his trademark Californian-Mediterranean cuisine, and was a founding member, with the late Julia Child, of the International Institute of Food & Wine. John's spectacular preparation of the fresh fish and shrimp we caught left us all measurably heavier by the end of the trip.
  • Barbara Howard is a seasoned marketing pro in the natural health field who now works for MindBodyTravel.com. Barbara is organizing a September, 2005 “Total Health and Healing” cruise of the Inside Passage, with stops in Vancouver, Juneau, Skagway, and Ketchikan. The cruise will feature yours truly and a group of holistic health experts in seminars, meditations, yoga, and more.
  • Andre Fasciola is an experienced body work professional who plies his healing trade at Arizona's acclaimed Canyon Ranch spa, and occasionally accompanies Andy on adventurous travels. As much as we all secretly yearned for one of his mind-boggling massages, we managed to refrain from begging for any, and Andre managed to refrain from offering any.
  • Patrick Dougherty is the Monterey-based cameraman/producer who shoots and edits the footage for John Pisto's TV show, among others. As former pro fishermen, Dave and I can't really forgive Pat for landing the biggest catch of the trip: a huge 130-pound halibut. We won't be inviting Pat again any time soon… too humiliating!
  • Craig Weatherby is the communications consultant who produces our email newsletter, Vital Choices, and co-authored 1999's The Arthritis Bible. Thanks to a serious caffeine addiction, Craig was almost left behind at the remote but espresso-equipped Baranof General Store. (Good thing he saw us leaving the dock and can really yell!

The Crew

  • Dennis Rogers is the owner/captain of the Alaska Adventurer. We've known Dennis for 20 years, since we all worked as fishermen in these waters. His beautiful, sturdily built 60-foot Alaskan Adventurer is the perfect platform for experiencing wild Alaska up close and personal. Dennis is the ideal tour guide, with his unsurpassed knowledge of the waters and creatures of southeast Alaska, and great good humor. (His experience is reassuring when a 300-foot tower of ice falls from LaConte glacier and you're wondering how high the very impressive splash wave still will be when it arrives at the boat!)
  • Jake Schas, the Alaska Adventurer's first mate, is a seasoned expedition chef with eight Antarctic tours under his belt. In addition to an extensive collection of chili-pepper pantaloons, Jake boasts an uncanny ability to conjure culinary magic out of odds, ends, and a galley designed for midgets. None of us escaped Jake's devastating dinners, desserts, or sharp wit, unscathed!
  • Emilie Sperl, Dennis' delightfully dry-humored 20-something second mate, grew up on a Petersburg-based fishing boat, and boasts the maturity, equanimity, and muscle-power to prove it.  Want to know how to fillet a monster halibut, set a shrimp trap, or divine the difference between port and starboard? Ask Emilie.

An Inside View of the SE Alaskan Salmon Fishery

Rather than expend a thousand words describing the sights seen—which the accompanying photos do much better—I'd like to focus on our experience of the SE Alaskan salmon fishery. Some 80 percent of SE Alaska, including the islands of the Inside Passage, is part of the Tongass National Forest: the largest intact temperate-zone rainforest on Earth.

At 17 million acres, the Tongass is the nation's largest national forest, and an important habitat for grizzly bear, bald eagles, migrating birds, humpback whales, and salmon. It is bordered to the east by the world's highest coastal mountain range, and is home to dozens of spectacular glaciers. A voyage through the Inside Passage on a small boat like the Alaska Adventurer gives you a close-up panoramic perspective on SE Alaska's amazing beauty and natural bounty.

Starting at the End: The NorQuest Processing Plant
Before boarding the Alaskan Adventurer, we toured the NorQuest processing plant—a major salmon supplier to Vital Choice—with manager Dave Ohmer as our guide. (NorQuest also supplies the wild Alaskan salmon that the award-winning Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain now features on its menu.) Dave's family founded their business in 1903 and owned it until recently. NorQuest is now owned by Seattle's Trident Seafood, but Dave still runs the plant like a family business, with exacting attention to product quality and worker safety.

We saw salmon being hauled from the decks of fishing boats right onto the NorQuest wharf, and watched workers sort them by specie before they went into the plant to be quality graded and processed. While some salmon is shipped whole, most of it is expertly hand-filleted and machine de-boned before being flash-frozen: processes we watched as Dave explained the fine points.

Perhaps the most interesting part of our tour involved the salmon roe room. There, egg sacks are carefully removed by rolling the roe sacks over a mesh screen.  Sharp-eyed workers hand-clean and wash the roe further, before it is sent on for curing.  The entire operation is overseen by a Japanese manager expert in production of salmon roe, which is prized as ”ikura” in Japan. (Most Alaskan salmon roe is sold to Japan for use in sushi.) We were able to taste the fresh, uncured roe, which is both delicious and utterly non-fishy.  Cured ikura is even better, and Dave kindly gave us some to take on the boat, where Chef Jake served it as an appetizer over rice. (At the moment, we're fresh out of ikura... check our Specials page from time to time, and look for announcements in this newsletter.)

Watching the Salmon Catch

Midway through our cruise, Captain Dennis sailed over to where he knew the salmon seiners would be setting their nets to catch the huge schools of pink salmon streaming past Point Gardner on the southwest tip of Admiralty Island, on their way to myriad home rivers to spawn. (Admiralty Island boasts more bears per square mile than any place on the planet!)

We motored close to the F/V Jean C, a purse seiner (say-ner) out of Petersburg operated by long time Alaskan fisherman, Clyde Curry. We watched as the boat set its net around a large school of pink salmon and then winched the ‘purse' line aboard, closing up the bottom of the net and trapping the salmon inside. As the crew worked the purse seine back onto the boat we witnessed the thrilling sight of a net full of boiling, jumping salmon.

Finally, the net was hoisted out of the water and over the side, depositing hundreds of splashing silvery fish on deck in an explosion of salmon energy.  The crew then pushed them into a large hatch filled with ice-cold seawater that would preserve their quality until being offloaded back at NorQuest or another plant.  Once the fish were safely below deck, the Jean C and her crew raced off for another one of the dozen or more hauls they would attempt to make before day's end. Quite a sight!

As we were preparing to leave, two other seiners rushed past us, racing to set their nets at a prime spot just up the coast. It's a real race, since every set of the net means more fish, and more money for the crew. Yet, despite the large nets full of salmon we watched being landed, the catch is dwarfed by the vast numbers of salmon that make it past the gauntlet and up the spawning streams. For example, we later spent two nights at the heads of Red Bluff and Endicott Bays, both of which form the mouths of salmon rivers, where we saw countless pink, silver and chum salmon patiently waiting their turn to swim upstream to spawn and die.  Clearly, the Alaskan salmon fishery management system leaves ample amounts of uncaught salmon untouched, to continue this amazing cycle of life.

Full circle: a savory salmon "taste-off"

As recounted in our interview with Dr. Weil (see "A Few Words with Dr. Weil," in this issue), Chef Pisto prepared a delicious salmon taste-off by cooking fresh salmon of four varieties: sockeye, pink, coho, and chum.  It was tough to choose, but the consensus placed sockeye at number one, with coho and chum following. Pink salmon—the salmon species usually consigned to cans—brought up the rear, but surprised all with its very considerable culinary appeal.

Those of you who've enjoyed our marbled King salmon will relate to the exclamations of delight our group voiced when we tasted the succulent marble salmon served up at the Alaskafe café in Petersburg the night before our departure on the boat. Alaskafe owner and molecular biologist Melissa Crawford, who also crews aboard the humpback whale research vessel M/V Evolution.  Melissa couldn't tell us why some King salmon develop this red-and-white marbled flesh, but such questions dissolve into insignificance compared with the great taste of this rare Alaskan treat.

The best possible Alaskan Adventure(r)

All of our guests agreed that this tour was one of the best experiences they'd ever had. It is hard to match the flexibility and intimacy available on a small, sturdy boat like the 60-foot M/V Alaskan Adventurer.  We were able to stop wherever we wanted, fish every day, hike up to hot springs and lakes, kayak with whales, and enjoy the freedom of no schedule.

No captain is more knowledgeable, careful, and accommodating than Dennis, who brings 20 years of regional fishing experience to bear on his uniquely satisfying tours of the Inside Passage. The Alaska Adventurer was even featured in a summer 2002 American Express TV commercial with Jerry Seinfeld, both because it's a beautiful boat, and because the producers heard, correctly, that Dennis was a great guide who would find them the best backdrops.

We all felt a debt of gratitude for the incredible experience Dennis and crew gave us. I urge you to consider your own Alaskan adventure with him!  To learn more, go to yachtalaska.com. To request detailed information, and a DVD that shows you just what to expect, send an email to info@yachtalaska.com or call 888-772-8588. And tell ‘em Vital Choice sent you!