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Marsh Skeele knows that if you’re looking for the best camping spots in Southeast Alaska, you’ll have to share with the bears. “It’s where you find the salmon streams and bushes of wild berries,” he explains. The fisherman and co-owner of Sitka Salmon Shares, a community-supported fishery that delivers impeccable seafood directly to consumers across the country, learned early on that the cleanest fish, the ripest berries and the most distinctive herbs are found deep in the Alaskan wild. “Food here has its own terroir,” he says. “It’s a beautiful, untamed place, and you can taste it in every ingredient.”

Every summer throughout Skeele’s childhood, his family traveled from their western Washington home to Port Alexander, Alaska. Situated on the southern tip of Baranof Island, this 80-person town is accessible only by floatplane or a choppy 12-hour boat ride. They would pack up the necessities and move into their rustic cabin constructed from reclaimed cedar from an old fish cannery. It was deep in the bush, with no electricity or refrigeration to speak of. Whatever food you needed, you had to find in the woods or on the water.

Skeele’s dad, a commercial fisherman, would spend all day on the boat, while his mom smoked and canned salmon. “It was an amazing way to spend summers as a kid,” he says. “My sister and I would pick wild blueberries for that morning’s pancakes or forage for edible seaweed. It taught me that the best food comes from the best environments.”

Photography by Diana Zalucky

By age 12, he was helping out on his dad’s 40-foot boat, pulling in salmon and halibut off the coast of Port Alexander. He had no intention of going into the family business and only picked up deck hand gigs while going to school to make some extra money. But in 2011, an opportunity arose to buy his own boat. “I knew that being a captain was very different from being a crewman,” Skeele explains. “The risk, the reward, the glory and the failures all fall on the captain.”

Alaskan salmon is one of the last great abundant wild foods. Catching it and maintaining its freshness is hard work: Every fish needs to be bled, gutted and chilled on ice immediately. Skeele quickly realized that the quality of his very perishable product was completely lost once it made its way through the many steps of the traditional seafood chain. What was the incentive for a fisherman to take care of his bounty if it was only going to bounce from supplier to wholesaler then sit in a display case? 

Skeele’s pal Nic Mink, a professor of sustainable food systems, proposed a solution: He began selling the fish directly to his friends and colleagues at Knox College in Illinois. What began as a campus-wide buying club soon spread across the Midwest to Chicago, Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Madison. By 2012, the duo had launched Sitka Salmon Shares. Now fans from coast to coast can get pristine seafood — every piece traceable back to its fisherman and the day it was caught — straight from this community of sustainable, small-boat fisheries. And  starting this summer, customers can buy seafood, attend a fish fry and more at the company’s first brick-and-mortar outpost in the renovated Garver Feed Mill in Madison.

Skeele now lives in Sitka, Alaska, year-round. When he’s not on the water or at the docks overseeing hundreds of pounds of incoming fish, he can be found deep in the woods, foraging for mushrooms, beach greens or rose hips. But this isn’t the kind of roughing it you might be picturing; you’ll never find him without his trusty cast-iron skillet, a pair of sturdy tongs and a cooler full of good wine. He feels at peace surrounded by the towering pines (and in a Forest Service cabin — remember, bears).

“This is my kind of camping: spending all day by the fire, sipping on a glass of pét-nat and cooking an elaborate meal with whatever I can find,” he says. Whether that’s a fillet of freshly caught salmon smoked over a cedar plank or meaty spot prawns bathed in miso butter, it’s bound to be one of the best meals in Alaska. When the air smells of smoldering alder and Skeele’s fingers are stained with blueberry juices, he swears he can taste the wildness of the last frontier in each bite.

Brown Sugar–Smoked Sockeye with Spruce Tips

Makes 4 servings

One of Marsh Skeele’s favorite summer meals is a whole side of salmon cooked low and slow over a fire until it is tender and has absorbed a smoky flavor. For garnish, he tops it with spruce tips: edible buds with a citrusy, woodsy taste that are fresher and more vibrant than any herb he can buy in rural Alaska. (If you can’t find them, dill is a fine substitute.) Serve at room temperature on a bed of tangled greens and drizzled with a mustardy vinaigrette or hot off the plank with a cooling sauce of Greek yogurt, lemon juice, dill and capers.

¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup kosher salt
1 1-pound skin-on sockeye salmon fillet
spruce tips for garnish (optional)

1. In a small bowl, combine brown sugar and salt. Rub mixture over salmon and let sit 30 minutes. Rinse and pat dry.
2. Meanwhile, soak a cedar plank and 1 cup alder or cherry wood chips in water at least 30 minutes and drain. If using a grill, place wood chips in a smoker box or wrap in foil, poking a few holes in packet.
3. Heat grill to 200°F by piling a small amount of charcoal off to one side or turning a gas burner to low. When hot, set wood chip packet directly on coals or burner and let it begin to smoke, about 5 minutes. If using a wood-burning fire, adjust grate to sit 12 inches above heat. Let wood burn down to a low-burning coal base then scatter over wood chips.
4. Set salmon on cedar plank and place on grate over indirect heat. Cover (if using a grill) and cook until salmon is just cooked through and its flesh flakes easily, about 30 minutes on a grill or 45 minutes over a wood-burning fire. Transfer salmon to a work surface and let rest 10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, garnished with spruce tips.

Wine Pairing
Skeele recommends pairing this hot-smoked salmon with a light, juicy red that can take a bit of a chill. Try the Brick House 2017 Gamay Noir from Oregon, a drinkable red with hints of tart cherries and a bit of minerality.

Spot Prawns with Miso Butter

Makes 4 servings

Spot prawns have a rich, sweet tail meat much like a cold-water lobster. While they make for a next-level shrimp cocktail, they’re incredibly decadent as a main course when tossed in a savory miso butter spiked with sake. This recipe calls for the stovetop, but you can easily make it on a grill or over a campfire. In this case, Skeele recommends making the miso butter in advance then adding it to your skillet to warm with the prawns. Serve with plenty of crusty bread or grilled naan for sopping up all of the unctuous sauce. 

2 cups sake or dry white wine
¼ cup rice vinegar
¼ cup mirin (Japanese rice wine)
2-inch piece fresh ginger, sliced ¼ inch thick
medium shallot, peeled and halved through the root
4 tsp. white miso paste
5 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cubed and softened
kosher salt
2 pounds spot prawns or large wild shrimp, peeled and deveined
julienned scallions for garnish
lime wedges and crusty bread for serving

1. In a small saucepan, combine sake, rice vinegar, mirin, ginger and shallot. Bring to a boil over high heat then reduce to low and simmer until thickened and reduced to roughly ½ cup, 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and discard ginger and shallot. Whisk in miso paste and 4 Tbsp. butter until butter is melted and sauce is smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Keep warm over very low heat.
2. In a medium skillet, melt remaining 1 Tbsp. butter. Add prawns and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until beginning to curl, about 1 minute. Add sauce to skillet and cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until prawns are just cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes more.
3. Divide prawns and their sauce between 4 shallow bowls. Garnish with scallions. Serve with lime wedges and crusty bread for mopping up the sauce.

Wine Pairing
Skeele’s ideal pairing for these full-flavored prawns is a fruity, slightly savory orange wine. The added skin contact (which gives the wine its signature color) provides balanced tannins. Cantina Marilina Sikelè Grecanico from Sicily tastes like a dry cider, with a ginger-like spiciness.

Wild Blueberry Clafoutis

Makes 4 to 6 servings

Clafoutis is a custardy, pancake-like dessert that can be made with any fruit you have on hand. Because wild blueberries are abundant in Alaska in the summer, this version is Skeele’s go-to. If you’re camping, pack up the heavy cream in a large glass jar and pop it in your cooler. Pour a cup into the batter then use the jar to shake up any remaining cream for a whipped topping. To make this recipe over a campfire, use a cast-iron skillet or pot with a heavy lid to replicate an oven. Nestle the pan into the low-burning coals so the clafoutis cooks evenly.

large eggs
½ cup sugar
2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 tsp. whiskey
1 cup heavy cream, plus more whipped for serving
½ cup all-purpose flour
2 cups wild blueberries

1. Preheat oven to 325°F. In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, sugar, butter, whiskey and heavy cream until smooth. Add flour and mix until just combined.
2. Pour batter into a 10-inch cast-iron skillet or large pie dish and scatter blueberries on top. Bake until clafoutis is puffed, golden brown and just set in the middle, 35 to 40 minutes. Serve immediately with whipped cream on the side. 

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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