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Charlie’s Café—comfort food, good-humored service in the best tradition of American breakfast places.

Charlie's Cafe voted best breakfast by Remarkable Journeys

A newcomer comes through the door and calls: “Hey, Charlie.”
“Nope. The name’s Ted,” Ted smiles. “Charlie’s not here anymore”.

It is a sparkling clear Sunday morning, the sky so blue it could freeze in place. No matter cold or hot, rain or shine, spring or fall, Sunday morning at Charlie’s Cafe in Norfolk, Virginia is a ritual, perhaps even a religion. The vittles are the definition of comfort food. The service is top deck, and the hands are a mixed bag of interesting characters all wearing the black “T’s” with the inscription, “Charlie’s Café,” broadside across the back.

It doesn’t seem to matter what time you turn up on Sunday morning or on other days, either, the scene is always the same: short line waiting while couples at tables and the counter eat breakfast and read the paper, groups of four converse at tables in happy tones, an occasional group is boisterous: a lady at the corner table has a deep guttural laugh that overrides every sound in the place.

The efficient cook staff is busy on the other side of the counter, spatulas banging, pots twirling, fry pans dancing, toasters popping, pancakes flipping. They are all business preparing comfort food and “Killer” omelets ($19.99) for those willing to meet the challenge: a dozen eggs topped with habanero salsa and a stack of 8 Charlie’s Pancakes. Eat it all in an hour, don’t leave the table, “keep it all down,” then it’s on Charlie’s and you get a free Charlie’s T-shirt too!

Young couples at wedged together tables sit across from each other with mooning eyes; the couple at the long counter, sitting on burgundy stools that turn like at an old drug store counter, chat intently, he shoveling food and she daintily choosing while her elbow rests on her Daytimer on top of her Bible with a certain place marked by a red, silk, narrow ribbon outlined in gold.

A huge lady, bursting at the seams, struggles at a table to keep from falling off her chair while she scrapes the last of her breakfast into a white foam tray to take home. Her friends laugh uproariously at her antics but she is a lady who knows what she likes and to hell with being skinny.

There is a guy in a flannel shirt seated on a counter stool, his glasses resting a way down his nose. Intently, he reads his book in one hand and forks at an enormous, puffy omelet with the other, sloshing his coffee mug held firmly with two middle fingers in between forkfuls hardly even looking at the plate.

An older couple dressed up for church speak happily to Ted as he counts out their change. She is thin with gray hair and wears her pearls with distinction while he, intent on Ted and the check, adjusts his camel overcoat collar encouraging Ted with a big, head-nodding smile.

On the high yellow walls are a collection of local art mixed with portraits of Charlie’s Cafe, a series of posters of Marilyn Monroe in net stockings and images of her on stage during filming of her films, and some neat handcrafted artworks like a decorated Ukulele covered with flowers.

At the far end of the room a waitress makes the corner from the kitchen with a covey of hot plates balanced on hands and arms. Her hair, the color of a lion mane, has a classic Guinevere twist knot style falling half way down her back. She is an attractive gal with a pleasant way about her. My bet is she earns big tips.

Another waitress has “girl-next-door” good looks with a ponytail and jeans and a Marie Osmond smile. Always paying attention to details like making sure we have sugar free syrup for my pancakes and my poached eggs are done perfectly.

Meanwhile the guy in the printer’s hat buses the tables and fills in pouring coffee refills. He has a shaggy beard and a very long, thin red face, like a Gustov Doré Don Quixote illustration come to life. And, nearly always, a tall, gentle, mountain of a man seems to be everywhere at once, serving food, taking orders, attending the cash register, his manner one of true sincerity.

The butter comes in little, gold, teaspoon size tubs. Thrown on top of your meal and may or may not be all melted depending on how long they have sat on the hot pancakes. At Charlie’s you butter your own toast. Water and drinks are served in mason jars. A new twist is  “Charlie’s orange juice Mimosas” served in a mason jar with a foot like a wine glass. Made with 100% locally made orange juice, the latest rage in Ghent* I hear.

Whatever suits your fancy, breakfast or lunch—it’s there seven days a week from 7 am to 2 pm and on Friday and Saturday nights, 6 pm until 3 am. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Built around 1905 Charlie’s building was the residence of one of Norfolk’s finest…. a firefighter. James Harper and his wife Berta bought the lot at 18th and Granby Sts and constructed the single family Victorian home. Later it was converted to a confectionery, a hot dog bar (“Swanky Franky’s”) and later Charlie and his mother opened “Charlie’s Home Cooking.” Kathy Lawless bought it from them and introduced the famous “killer omelets” to the scene that are still served today. Now it is Ted who oversees the tradition. He is tall and thin, prematurely gray, bobbing about making certain everyone has the best he can serve to a very thankful community.

*Ghent is a popular area of Norfolk, VA where Charlie’s is located.

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We do all live in a yellow submarine!

Adventure. Fantasy. Wonderment. Sense of Discovery. Camaraderie. Tolerance. Ingredients, all inclusive, when the Beatles ran up the flag on the song “Yellow Submarine.” As a statement, a philosophy, it spoke to our sense of playfulness. It was written purposefully as a child’s song, a memorable human ditty.

“Yellow Submarine” symbolizes disparate ideals. Adventure seems to be at the forefront: Peter Pan, Swiss Family Robinson, The Castaway, Edward Abbey, John Muir, Eliot Porter, Ansel Adams; multitudes of life stories represent human journeys imagined or real. So many things yet to be discovered. We all yearn for excitement in our lives and easily understand that, in effect, each of us can live, symbolically, in a yellow submarine. The secret is to seek out and embrace our dreams, large or small, and live them.

The yellow submarine on the side of the road in British Columbia.

We have seen many of nature’s masterpieces along the road of adventure during this Remarkable Journey, but one forest experience, near Yosemite, was so simple yet so exquisite, so elegant, it lent us to singing the happy song of the Beatles. This brought on, I am sure, because in British Columbia we wandered upon a wonderful bit of fantasy. Someone had taken an old propane tank and redefined it capturing the adventure and the novelty, the fun and the possibilities opened by the Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine.”

The magical hand of the craftsman cleverly captured the spirit of the “Yellow Submarine,” his research and welding skill bringing magic to his creation. From the periscope to the perforated steps to the propeller, it had a sense of authenticity. The little vessel, complete with port holes, sat proudly on his lawn announcing to every passerby that this was a house with keen imagination, a zest for adventure, abounding in playfulness.

The whole image of this friendly vessel,  sitting aside the road,  brought immediately to mind the people we have met along the way who commented on our journey: “Oh, I have always wanted to do that,” or, “That is my dream, to travel and see America first hand.” It is really nice to be living everyone’s dream, especially since it has been my own life-long dream. My life philosophy excludes acrimonious intolerance and thrives on imagination and curiosity. The “Yellow Submarine” for me reeks with excitement, joy of possibilities, make-believe or real. I find my friends on the premise that everyone is my friend until they prove otherwise. I find great joy in sharing my life journey with anyone who is interested enough to listen and to feel the magic of it.

The aforementioned forest experience occurred one night (quite out of the blue you might say) at Jerseydale Campground Sierra National Forest near Yosemite National Park in California. The night sky presented us with a “Yellow Submarine” evening by full moon. The starry, starry night sky was wonderfully agleam with an unimaginable amount of stars, including the Milky Way. Soon the moon rose, sending shafts of light through the stand of redwoods, ponderosa pine, and hemlocks nearby our campsite, coloring them softly with silver highlights. The sky was indigo blue with bright stars shining through despite an even brighter moon. And old Mr. Moon smiled down upon us, as he always does when full, his presence seeming to bend the trees as they reached high in the sky to meet him.

 

This evening magic began at sunset, October 7th, 2011. The forest came alive with orange rim light as dusty, golden shafts of sunlight lent a cathedral appearance around us. We were alone there. Not another soul in the campground. I lit a warm fire of split, dry cedar logs some kind, previous camper left for us at our campsite. The orange flame and gray smoke warmed our spirits and set our hearts aglow with joy for life in the forest.  We listened to the “baying-moos” song of the cow herds close by as they returned to the feeding area from the high mountain fields. Choruses of crickets, frogs, and night birds filled the twilight air. A sort of enchantment came with the evening dew as it lightly coated trees and flora. Highlights of orange-yellow sunset light danced about as cooling night air came on the gentle breezes.

Our fire sent warmth in all directions for several feet, abating the dew and warming our seats as we peered away into the night. As the darkness settled round about, the forest became a graphic study of light and shadow, heavy with deep green, solidified by 16 to 30 inch diameter tree trunks decorated with barks of every description, pitch black in the low light. Soon the moon rose bringing with it a magical moonlit landscape. Lifting chins high, we met the wonder of nature’s lace work, branches extending wide from 100 foot high trees silhouetted against the indigo night sky. Twinkling stars were complimented by rushing, shining satellites racing across the sky like late-for-work commuters. It was at once a singular forest beauty but not unlike walking in a great city with tall buildings glimmering with rhythms of window lights and casting huge shadows down dark alleys. When a shooting star burns its way into our atmosphere it’s like a message. Things magical can happen here if you allow your sense of discovery and adventure to lead you into nature’s wonderment, into the land of the “Yellow Submarine.”

 

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A cautionary tale: cape flattery, washington; dark night, kind stranger

The walkway steps were made of coarse, rickety, irregular shaped, unevenly spaced spruce planks. Hand-bumping knots and dips decorated rustic pole handrails crafted from young, strong saplings. As if in a Harry Potter movie, the winding stairs seemed to lead down and down to a magical, mysterious place. The forest darkened, the evening sun setting orange-purple through the trees. As the forest closed around us we quickened our step. descending anxiously to reach the sea. Though we love and appreciate the beauty nature places before us, one should not think we are serious hikers. We are better called strollers for we have no distance agenda. On the contrary, walking is the way we find nature’s gifts of flowers, vistas and pure mountain streams as well as seeing the sea. The zig-zagging serpentine trail was not as short as anticipated, ruggedly steep and just over half a mile in length. No matter. The magic of Cape Flattery had captured our imaginations leaving caution to fend for herself. In the fading light, the round protruding roots of the forest trail were tangled and hazardous. We struggled to keep from falling but wasted not a moment, the sweet smell of spruce filling our nostrils. Sounds of Pacific Ocean birds, crashing waves and a fog horn amplified as we grew closer to our destination. Being in the moment, we enthusiastically reached the craggy cliffs just after the sun had dropped below the horizon, while the bluffs still shone with quiet, glow of sunset. Our excitement turned to a kind of frenzy as we struggled to get cameras operating and pointing in all directions at once before the light faded. Light and dark shadows shown mystical over a glistening, rolling green sea of whitecaps pounding against the rocks, tossing waves of spray and mist into a light haze. The white-orange horizon spilled upward into a violet to deep purple sky. The ocean cliffs, surf-pounded for centuries, eroded by winter storms and glacial ice, were ragged and stiffly adorned with cypress and spruce; fjords carved deep into the cliffs by an ever eroding, rolling sea. Cliffs decorated with wildflowers and sea grasses all bending toward the onset of coming fall weather. They abruptly met us, head-on, with all the grandeur nature can muster at the farthest northwestern point on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula,  Sheer rock walls housed hundreds of flying seabirds, rising and falling on air currents and sea spray, kiting and swerving, diving, swooping and fishing, performed for us and surely they were having the grandest time imaginable.

The trail spilled onto precarious overhanging view platforms. Cameras clicking, we took in the views, jumping one platform to the next on spruce boardwalks and grassy mounds. Rays of light from a bygone sun swept the purple sky above a fog bank sitting at sea level offshore. This, just beyond the island home of the last operating US lighthouse northward on the Pacific coast until one reaches Alaska. The lighthouse shape, the island rooftops and the trees were in silhouette; scores of shorebirds, and sea birds danced in quick flight at days-end. The wind blew hard that night carrying a light evening mist. Our fellow visitors began to fade away up the trail. We continued to study the scene and I commented to a photographer perched outside the rail on the precipice. He answered abruptly, muttering something like, “I am busy.” My eyes searched the, now, almost black stone cliffs for signs of animals and birds. Breaking waves, silver crested, rushed swiftly to the blackened shore.

The photographer, whose name we learned later was John, quietly collapsed his tripod and stowed his camera, a sign that he had achieved his goal for the night.

“Getting dark, and I broke my cardinal rule, no flashlight,” John announced, “Cougar warnings here at the point. Be careful. Stay together.”

We glanced at each other in acknowledgment and clicked our final images. The dogs needed to be lifted from the main platform to the ground. Doing so in the shadow of it, I realized just how dark it had become. No flashlight for us either.

We began the trek back. Admonishing herself for wearing barefoot sandals, Kate took the lead following Betsy whose nose bloodhounded to the ground in leadership, wandering back and forth on the curvy trail catching our incoming scent. In a few minutes we were enveloped in such darkness that I occasionally flashed a picture to help us get our bearings. This was really dumb. I kept thinking, “Why don’t I have a small flashlight in my pocket?” and began to whistle along to the tune of “Yellow Submarine.” Kate jumped in with her bright and cheery singing voice, “We all live in a yellow submarine!” We sang together as we marched up and up the dark trail, home of a thousand cougars waiting for their chance to attack! I punctuated each line of verse with a deep “Yahoo,” almost a dog bark, to fend off the waiting predators, thinking about the next day’s headlines: “Careless couple attacked by cougars, cocker-spoodle saves the day!” Thanks Betsy.

I carried little 12 lb Minna the Shih Tzu, whose scratchy breathing indicated how out of shape she was, my own lungs straining for air as we climbed ever upward. Suddenly up the trail, a piercing red light shown down on us like the laser light of a gun sight. I helloed out loudly and John the photographer called back. He had gotten a light from his car and, though very wary of nearby cougars, he had returned to make certain we arrived back safely from our Cape Flattery adventure.

John is from Colorado, tenting his way across the northwest. His random act of kindness is not atypical. We have witnessed many such deeds before in our recent travels. Peoples of North America are extraordinarily kind, observant and quick to offer a helping hand. Such acts of selflessness are totally unexpected and add a certain rare goodness to life on the trail. We have met so many people, young and old, giving their gifts with no thought of repayment. Another fellow named John, John Hope, we met early on in our journey put it best, when I offered repayment for help. “A good handshake and a ’Help-out someone yourself’ will be enough payback for me!”

 

 

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Like Heaven’s Gate, Archangel Valley, Hatcher Pass Alaska

Hatcher Pass near Archangel Road

Archangel Valley

Archangel Valley is richly decorated with extraordinary low-to-the-ground, colored vegetation, intermittent with tough green bushes on a stony landscape. This encapsulated mountain environment is remarkable for its unique plant variety, rich texture and vibrant earth tones (not a misnomer, earth tones can be bright!) Located in Hatcher Pass, Alaska not far from Anchorage near Wasilla, this valley is luxurious in its mountain plant growth and exhilarating panoramic scenic vistas.

Rock Cleft Archangel namesake

Tumble down boulders line the valley hillsides, brought down by earthquakes and after shocks, earth vibrations and crust movement. From boulder to boulder, a soft flora blanket offers secure footing as each footstep settles on nature’s granite staircase with thick carpet cover, each trod a surprise of softness on a solid base.

Plant covered boulder steps

The variety of rock-covering plants causes the mind to almost tremble as it attempts to correlate this mountain environment with others these feet have walked upon. This is a fairyland, denser than any grassy knolls I can recall, firmer than dirt mounds, solid as felt covered marble. There are no tripping branches or toe-tying roots lying about. Instead, the plants are soft as princess pine, a joy to tread upon.

Tiny white-greenish mushrooms protrude like golf tees in grass, like tiny white Shrek ears that bugle out

Tiny mushrooms peek through flora

through the gray-green lichen, up through the narrow, tiny leaves of tundra plants: crowberry (Empetrum nigrum), bog blueberry (vaccinium uliginosum) and lingonberry (vaccinium vitis-idaea,)* multi-green plants that cling to the granite surface awaiting your next step. (*Thanks to Betty Charnon, Kenai Peninsula Zone Ecologist for your indispensable help identifying the plants.)

No green mosses embrace these arctic boulders. Our shoes sink-in through

Wild things peeking?

the foot covering softness of alpine plants to the underlying strength of granite upon granite, a millennia worth. There are deep, dark holes between the boulders. Could there be Maurice Sendakian “Wild Things” peeking and giggling at a wanderer whose foot treads upon their secret place?

A cauliflower of white flowers—no not flowers, lichen, decorates the boulders like off-white frosting or perhaps creamy toupees. Tiny pink flowers wink amidst the ground covering plethora of unknown plants. No common grass grows here. This is a Christmas carpet of plants, fawning delicate,  but heartily decorating like ornamental wreaths draping a landslide of fallen boulders torn by avalanches from the craggy mountains above.

Reindeer lichen (Cladina rangiferina) decorates rock tops like toupees.

Cascading glacial stream moisturizes the valley

Icy blue-green glacial streams caress the stone as they bubble and wrestle their way over piled rocks creating tiny waterfalls and gushing arches of white water against clear running water undercurrents. Miniature leaf-boats, afloat on rivulets, glide by making voyages to unknown, faraway valley places where greater river currents run strong and swift and huge salmon fight their way upstream seeking the little watery glens of their birth. Tiny tributaries, awash with spring moisture, are seeking the path gravity and geography have laid out for them, tributaries leading to streams leading to rivers and the sea. Clear water, cascading through such valleys as this, is nature’s gift to earth, flowing tumbling spring water through each little glen. The water opportunes to be water source to plants of multiple greens, mellow yellows, fiery reds, and sunset oranges of the alpine landscape, delivering nurturing spring water to assure this valley remains the wonder that it is.

Friendly toad stool umbrella

Swertia Perennis (felwort)

From the road edge down to the canyon floor, one feels like Fred Astaire dancing with the grace of a gazelle, gliding down a long, curving movie staircase. Flowing briskly at the bottom are the crisp clear waters of a mountain stream. A bank lined with plants like milkweed and thistle; peppered with a mixed packet of short and tall wildflowers, small dells of cotton grass decorate bog surfaces along with lower growing, almost ripe, wild blueberries. Large mushrooms break through in brown or tan or yellow-red, providing shady spots for elves and leprechauns of the north to rest.

Shiny, smooth ponds are formed by beaver industry: beaver dams woven from sticks, ragged brush and water plants entwined, hold back the tide. The water surfaces are slightly higher than the adjacent stream. These dammed up ponds are surrounded by stick walls and higher ground. Water teeters at a tipping point on the brink, a hair’s breadth below the woven edge. One pool feeds into the next, then another; like wide, watery rain-soaked steps on a patio. Strangely, there are almost no visible waterfalls yet, sight unseen, one knows that somehow these pools flow into each other following the course of the stream.

Beaver ponds step down the hillside adjacent to the mountain stream.

Ptarmigan flushes.

A nearby ptarmigan, the Alaska state bird, passes, clucking her peculiar call. Her chicks follow slowly behind with bursts of running as if uncertain or afraid. Behind them, the cock follows his family, nudging stragglers along with his orange breast and feathered feet. Feathered feet make walking on snow an easier feat. Some, not all, ptarmigans turn completely white for the winter months as a protection against predators.

American Bald Eagle

High-pitched calls of bald eagles are heard in the distance, life-mates flying in concentric circles, studying the canyon below with an eye that causes each shrew to shudder. Flight shadows speed by sending tiny mice diving for cover, causing bunnies to pause in stone-like paralysis with only noses twitching, eyes rolling as marbles, ever searching the clouds for signs of danger. Small wildlife is subject to many earth-bound predators, but cold winters mean no snakes slither through the Edens of Alaska.

Here and there a path of flattened brush and plants indicates the passing of a bear or a moose on the way to fresh water and tender young shoots or tasty berries at the water’s edge. Sometimes there is a shady, tamped down spot in deep grass where an animal has lain down to rest and observe the valley before it.

The sky rolls by in gray, misty clouds huddling tightly around craggy peaks like puffy white wreaths encircling Santa’s cap. The rain drizzles down spattering leaves and stream surfaces, turning paths to sandy mud where a misstep can sink ankle-deep in thawed permafrost.

There is a rich, musty plant odor in the air, a pleasant smelling cool draft of nostril-filling wildness. Under rich, thick cover, small streamlets of water occur around pools one must jump, hump to hump, to preserve dry feet. Imagine this place in winter snow, covered in deep, white coldness, where a snowshoed person can pass and never be wise to plant life awaiting spring to burst from the rich earth below. One looks about here in the summer months watching sharply for waving bushes indicating where large, predatory animals might march along their marked territory edges searching for sustenance and guarding against intruders like me.

My eye follows the road edge above me at the top of the valley. Reassuringly I spy Kate, head and shoulders protruding out of the truck sunroof, binoculars in hand and a steady eye to be sure that if trouble comes she can warn me. If I should fall she can rescue me. Or perhaps admiring from a distance the joy in my heart at visiting such a remarkable place as Archangel Valley beneath nature’s sculpting of an Archangel on a cliff wall above.

Kathryn Wood keeps eagle-eye from rooftop.

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Just for the HALIBUT…. or perhaps for two King Salmon.

Garrett McLean, 20 year old expert. Cleaning the catch is an admirable talent.

It’s all about the fishing. Alaska is THE fishing ground of the Northwest. The warm months bring fishermen from the northwest true, but really from everywhere: Florida, Ohio, Vermont, Minnesota, Colorado, even Germany. RV Camping is the lodging of choice, and there are grand RV palaces, trailers, pick-up caps, tents; I even saw a guy sleeping on a picnic bench with his gear in his hand. Daylight is practically all day in the land of the midnight sun. Never really gets dark in the summer months, just less light.

Six foot, 200 lb. halibut

The sun sets in the west but in a short time it’s coming back around and it’s dawn. Unlike the stories one hears, you can get accustomed to it quite easily, especially if you like to fish!

Garrett McLean at 3

Garrett McLean was born in Alaska twenty years ago to Bruce and Charlene McLean. “The art of fishing and cleaning fish comes naturally to him,” Bruce says. “At three he said he wanted to go fishing so I took him along. He never looked back.” Garrett was cleaning fish when I met him at Reel’ Em Inn, Ninilchik, Alaska. Huge Halibut. He is a full time student at University of Alaska but in the summer he very happily works fishing and cleaning the catch at his Mom and Dad’s charter fishing business.

An Anchorage “Fishing Uncle” at Deep Creek State Recreation Area, Ninilchik, was cleaning up his gear to go home when I asked him how he did (fishing.) He told me he did very well.

Chinook "King" Salmon

“You freeze your catch?” I asked.
“Usually, for home,” he replied “but this year I have a special project. My nephew is getting married soon. The reception is going to cost $13,000. He asked the caterer what he might do to cut costs. The caterer replied: ‘You bring me 70 lbs of salmon and 70 lbs of halibut and it’ll save you 25%.’ Fishing Uncle heard this and said: ‘OK, tell you what. I’ll go fishing and I’ll catch you 70 lbs of each and that will be your wedding present.’  How special is that I ask?

Fishing for cod on Homer Spit at Kachemak Bay

A Homer, Alaska “Cod Catcher” was up to his knees in surf when I found him with a fresh caught cod. “They’re bite’n plain hooks,” he laughed.
What a sight to see. It is a banner fishing year here, everybody is fishing Alaskan waters and nobody goes home empty-handed!

A “Subsistence Fisherman” came to the Kenai Peninsula and happily fished until he caught two KING SALMON (roughly 225 lbs of fish). This will keep him in fish for the entire winter.

The “Kenai Salmon Frenzy” brought Alaskans from around the state to the shores of the Kenai River for salmon spawning. The Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game announced that record numbers of fish were running. The Kenai River was opened for Personal Use Dip Net Fishery 24 hours per day, beginning at 11 p.m. Wednesday, July 20, through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, July 31. (Open to Alaskans only.) A new sonar system recorded the number

DipNet fishing in the Kenai River

Happiness is bringing home the salmon!

of sockeye salmon passing up river to spawn: 231,000 passed the counter, Sunday July 17, followed by another big surge, 177,000, Monday. On less fortunate years, the peak totals don’t rise beyond 100,000, meaning this is a banner year on the Kenai Peninsula for sports fishermen, dip netters, set-netters, subsistence and commercial fishermen alike. Even with dip netting, too many fish are still escaping to swim up the Kenai River and spawn. By opening the corridor to commercial fishing over the weekend, Fish and Game attempted to diminish the flow. Too many spawning fish in the river taxes the food supply, causing a die-off of juvenile salmon and hurting the future runs.

It’s all about the fish. Icy fresh, sweet, grilled fish with olive oil and dill. Perhaps a touch of heat:cayenne, Tabasco, chili powder. Do what suits your fancy, but do it very lightly. No need to gild the lily.

Seagulls catch carcasses left on the beach, crabs get the rest with rising tides.

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