My garden, my teacher.

My humblest inspirations seem to occur in the autumn when I’m putting the garden to bed.

It’s fall and the garden says, “I am growing old.” The potato vines are limp and the tubers huddle underground in their rough, weather-proof skins, waiting to be dug. Is there any greater treasure hunt than digging for potatoes with your hands? The calendula flowers have withered, transitioning to seeds faster than I can snip them off. So I let them have their way.

bumblebee, bee, pollinator, Kodiak, Alaska, garden, flowers

Meet the white-tailed bumblebee, one of a dozen or so wild bees that frequent Alaska’s skies and flowers. This is a female bee. You can tell by the number of segments (12) on her antennae. Males have 13. Marion Owen photo

A large spray of mustard greens, tipped with bright yellow flowers that tower over me, continues to lure pollinators in for the last supper. It’s no accident that a few plants are going to seed. Every year I purposefully pass over a few broccoli and kale plants and allow them to mature. It’s my gift to late foraging bumblebees and flies, and selfishly, I’m able to stretch my opportunities to photograph them.

So these days, I tend to lug my camera out to the garden more frequently, hoping to capture the last bee, the last fly, the last bug. I watch for White Butt, a fuzzy, white-tailed bumblebee adorned with a white band on its behind.

In the high tunnel, I yank out the last vining tomatoes and I’m reminded of the tenacity of plants and their relentless urge to grow. Hidden behind the vertical cucumbers that have climbed up blue and red strings, I find clumps of tomato seedlings. They look like miniature forests. Time-elapsed photography would have revealed a ripe cherry tomato smashing on the ground and spilling seeds on welcoming soil.

I think of a time in the late 1980s when I was hired by Alaska magazine to do a story about Juneau gardeners. At one of the gardens I visited, a trellis, covered by honeysuckle vines, greeted me at the garden gate, their pink and white flowers stopped me with their sweet fragrance.

“Would you like a cutting?” asked my host. “I can put it in a plastic bag for you.”

When I got home, I planted the sprig behind the golden chain tree. And there it suffered in the dappled shade, ignored and forgotten for almost seven years Then one day, while weeding next to the house, I came across some out-of-place, but vaguely familiar leaves. “Oh my God. I don’t believe it.”

I dug up the shoot and gave it a spot in the sun, where it flourishes to this day.

poppies, blue poppies, Himalayan poppies

A top-of-the-world plant that thrives in cold climates, blue poppies are one of my favorite flowers. As such, I admit to growing them in locations around the garden that provide the best camera angles! Marion Owen photo (reprints available)

And sometimes I can only apologize to a plant when I lop a branch off accidentally. “Sorry,” I whisper, “I just did one of those stupid human things,” and it continues to grow, in spite of my foibles.

The garden is one of my teachers and I can’t help but nod my head to Luther Burbank’s wisdom. Here was a man who, as a botanist, horticulturist and pioneer in agricultural science, developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants (including the Shasta daisy and the russet Burbank potato ) over his 55-year career. He regularly meditated and baffled fellow scientists by shirking traditional scientific research methods, preferring to follow his intuition and keep scant notes on napkins and scraps of paper.

“There is no other door to knowledge,” he said, “than the door Nature opens; and there is no truth except the truths we discover in Nature.”

Speaking of discovery, we’re entering the season when we can look forward to the planning of next year’s raised beds, containers, hoophouses and hanging baskets. A little wiser from another year of experience, I think it’s one of the most pleasant occupations in the gardening calendar.

Vita Sackville-West, English poet, novelist and garden designer (1892-1962) said of fall garden tasks:

“This should make October and November particularly pleasant months, for then we may begin to clear our borders, to cut down those sodden and untidy stalks, to dig up and increase our plants, and to move them to other positions where they will show up to greater effect.”

“People who are not gardeners always say that the bare beds of winter are uninteresting; gardeners know better, and take even a certain pleasure in the neatness of the newly dug, bare, brown earth.”

Miracles happen in that bare, brown earth. Take cuttings, for example. Propagating plants by cuttings is nothing short of miraculous. Beverley Nichols, author of “Down the Garden Path,” one of the world’s best-loved and most-quoted gardening books, was also amazed by the miracle of starting new plants from severed twigs.

He described it in human terms, perhaps to jolt us into appreciating the plant kingdom.

“It is exactly as though you were to cut off your wife’s leg, stick it in the lawn, and be greeted on the following day by an entirely new woman, sprung from the leg, advancing across the lawn to meet you.”

“Surely you would be surprised if, having snipped off your little finger, and pushed it into a flower pot, you were to find a miniature edition of yourself in the flower pot a day later?”

At times I’m humbled and surprised by how much my own yearly plans revolve around plants. Maybe not quite to the extent though of what’s described in “The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World.” Journalist Michael Pollan presents case studies that mirror four types of human desires that are reflected in the way that we selectively grow, breed, and genetically engineer our plants: The tulip beauty, marijuana intoxication, the apple sweetness and the potato control.

For me, it’s much simpler. Oh sure, I admit to maximizing photography opportunities by moving blue poppy plants into a position which ensure a simple, un-busy background and I plant nasturtiums in pots right outside the front door so I can grab six blossoms as I dash to the boat for the evening’s Galley Gourmet dinner cruise. They decorate desserts (we encourage guests to eat them like an ice cream cone, packed with a morsel of cake and whip cream).

And today, rejoice! I spotted a female, white-tailed bumblebee diving headfirst into a yellow mustard flower. By this time, gentle reader, you may have guessed that my favorite insect is the bumblebee. And what of my favorite fertilizer? Compost. My favorite garden tools? My hands. And my favorite lesson? Thou are the grower, not I.

Thank you, so very much, for visiting.

seasons, fireweed, Alaska, Kodiak, sunrise

Red fireweed is another sign that winter is approaching. You can see the City of Kodiak and adjacent harbors below the rising sun … Photo by Marion Owen (Reprints available)


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Summer eagles of Kodiak: A feathered photo essay

Eagles around Kodiak are plentiful as crows during the winter. Perched shoulder-to-shoulder with their fellow raptors, they haggle over fish scraps, those leftover bits that fall below seafood processor radars. In summer though, these large birds of prey embrace a parental role by taking up residence in lofty nests to raise chicks.

It’s this parental role that we witnessed as rare scenes of eagles in action. From June through August, I documented their lifestyles during photo walks and from the deck of our boat during dinner cruises and wildlife viewing trips. Now it’s almost September, and I can finally enjoy some free time to process photographs. I selected a few images to share with you here:

Eagle baby food

In early July, I picked up vanilla latte at Java Flats and drove out the road with several photo friends to Pasagshak (puh-SAG-shak), a large U-shaped bay about 50 minutes south of town (Kodiak) to check on this nest. Lo and behold, the parents were actively feeding their only child. We set up our tripods and watched the adults shred portions of mystery meat and carefully present it to the eager chick.

bald, eagle, nest, Alaska, Kodiak, chick, immature, raptor, Haliaeetus leucocephalusFor me, the act of feeding the young bird was special to see, but I was drawn to the adults’ talons and how deftly he/she maneuvered the prey on the floor of the nest to get just the proper morsel for junior.

I thought about my father-in-law, who graduated from Kodiak High School in the 1940s. He, like many Alaska residents in the day, profited from the territory’s bounty program: Since bald eagles fed on salmon, they were considered a menace, and so for each pair of talons brought in, you were paid $1.50; big money back then.

Got coffee?

One morning in July, this female eagle (females are about 25 percent larger than males) flew in a circle and then perched on a tree limb above the beach in plain view of our deck. Our B&B guests were delighted. We sipped coffee and listened to this disgruntled eagle scream at the world. She looked, angry, as if crying, “Where’s my coffee?”

bald, eagle, Alaska, Kodiak, raptor, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

When eagles become ducks

I’ve photographed bald eagles in many scenarios: Feeding on garbage in a landfill and yanking bits of fish from a net on the back of a fishing boat. But diving in the water and then swimming to shore?

We spotted this eagle from the boat, swimming–no, rowing– toward the shore. We assumed he’d nabbed a salmon, which is normal.  Now bald eagles are the second largest North American bird of prey, (next to the California Condor), and carry a 6-foot-plus wingspan. It wasn’t until he scrambled up the rocks and turned around to look at us, that we noticed he was clutching a young Common Murre.

See the feathers around the head and along the leggings? They look more like carved wax.

bald, eagle, prey, bird, Alaska, Kodiak, murre, raptor, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

A week later, we observed an entire strike-and-kill sequence. An adult eagle swooped down from a rocky outcropping and plunged, talons first, into a patch of kelp. Then he started making his way toward the beach, scooping his wings and swinging them forward, like a swimmer doing the butterfly stroke.

bald, eagle, Alaska, Kodiak, murre, raptor, Haliaeetus leucocephalus



Suddenly, a long, slender black beak popped up behind the eagle. A murre! As the eagle jerked itself toward the shore–a good 100 feet away–the murre fought for his life. He flailed, poked at his captor, and yanked his upper body side to side in an effort to free itself from the talons’ grip.

Once on the beach, the eagle dragged the murre onto the rocks and clamped its beak across the murre’s head. Finished. It was hard to watch it all unfold, though we realized it was an extraordinary event to witness. We started backing up the boat as the eagle pulled and spit out feathers…

How do you eat this thing?

Touring around the bay at low tide one morning, Marty and I saw the white, “golf ball” head of an eagle bobbing up and down on a stretch of beach. It was feeding on something but we couldn’t make out what it was. So we maneuvered the boat closer…

Amazing. Here was an eagle trying to eat an octopus. This was certainly a first for us. Perhaps for the eagle, too. The Giant Pacific octopus by the way, (named by ancient Greeks meaning “eight foot”) is the word’s largest octopus species, a challenge for the eagle.

bald, eagle, Alaska, Kodiak, feeding, octopus, raptor, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Grab. Pull. Stretch. Repeat. It was almost comical. The eagle would lift up part of the mantle, let go, and then try for an arm. (Funny, eagles aren’t even listed as a predator). Alas, the tide was going out, so we had to leave, but I’ll never forget the look on the eagle’s face.

Flying the coop

For the last photo in this essay, I though I’d leave you with a chick update. In June, in one of the nests we monitored on our almost daily boat tour, we spotted three chicks, a high number, according to Cornell Lab or Ornithology’s fabulous online directory, The Birds of North America. Bald eagles often have two, sometimes three, but rarely four chicks. By mid-August, all three birdlettes had fledged and were still alive.

The other day, while returning to the boat harbor, we spotted one of the chicks in front of the “No Wake” sign at the breakwater entrance. I caught myself feeling a little motherly. “My, how you’ve grown,” I thought.

Maybe the eagle’s gourmet diet had something to do with it.

bald, eagle, Alaska, Kodiak, immature, raptor, Haliaeetus leucocephalus


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This fudge cake recipe disguises three veggies

Okay, this photo of cake batter might look scary and unappetizing, but trust me, the finished product makes the best fudge cake that’s ever tiptoed across your tastebuds.

cake, recipe, fudge, vegetables, instant, pudding, chocolate

Are you a ‘sneaky nutrition’ cook? This recipe is the epitome of hiding healthy food–in this case, three vegetables–for unsuspecting eaters.

Best of all, it’s easy to make. It must be easy, since I serve it on our Galley Gourmet dinner cruises here in Kodiak, Alaska. True, I make a special effort to prepare most of the menu items from scratch (and use as many veggies, herbs and flowers as possible from the garden ), but not desserts. Frankly, I don’t have time. Well, unless it’s a rhubarb cobbler. So without further adieu, here’s the recipe:

Three Veggie Fudge Cake

1 package Devils’ Food cake mix
1 package (3.4 ounces) chocolate instant pudding mix
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 cup grated carrots
1 cup grated zucchini
1 cup grated beets
1/2 cup sesame seeds
2/3 cup orange juice
1/2 cup vegetable oil (soybean, canola, etc.)
4 large eggs, slightly beaten
Zest from one orange

Place cake mix, instant pudding, spices and sesame seeds in a large bowl. Add grated carrots, zucchini, and beets. Toss with a fork to coat veggies with dry ingredients. Add orange juice, oil, eggs and zest. Stir by hand using a wooden spoon for about 1 minute. Scrape the bowl with a spatula and then mix for another 30 seconds. (You might find it odd that I don’t follow the instructions on the box and blend with an electric mixer. In my experience, directions on boxed cake mixes result in flat, dense cakes. I’m certainly open to suggestions). Bake in oiled pans at 350 degrees F. for the following times (times are approximate. Do the toothpick test: Done when it comes out clean):

  • 9×13-inch pan: 45 minutes
  • Two 9-inch pans: 35 minutes
  • Bundt pan: 55 minutes
  • 24 cupcakes (1/2 to 2/3 full): 25 minutes

carrots, zucchini, beets

I hope you enjoy the cake. It’s so fun to fool fussy eaters. Experiment with other combinations, such as spice cake mix (use vanilla pudding mix, 3 cups of grated carrots, or diced rhubarb, 1/2 cup raisins and more cinnamon).


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Get in the pink with rhubarb pickles

Just when you think you’ve tried all the rhubarb recipes on the planet, then comes…

Rhubarb pickles

It’s a blast to play with new recipes. Oh, sure, you can find rhubarb pickle recipes on the web, but I found most of them to be impractical, with silly ingredients and silly instructions. My motto is to keep it simple, tasty, healthy and quick, which I tried to accomplish in my last recipe, First Rhubarb: My excuse to dream up a new recipe where I make rhubarb muffins, starting with a homemade, multi-purpose, whole wheat muffin mix.

Rhubarb pickles

There’s life beyond rhubarb pie. (Marion Owen photo)

Back to the pickles > We put up many quart jars of rhubarb pickles and serve them on our Galley Gourmet dinner cruises in Kodiak, Alaska. We top salads and bake fresh salmon stuffed with the sweet and sour chunks. Guests are pretty surprised at the idea of eating pickled “pie fruit.”

Either way you serve ’em, rhubarb pickles are not only rosy-pink beautiful, they’re inspiring, prodding you to try new things. Once you get your creative [pickled] juices flowing, you’ll discover all kinds of ways to add them to dishes. They’re a pickle lover’s pickle, and you can re-use the liquid, too.

Here’s the recipe. Please share, experiment, and let me know what you think. I bet they’d be great sliced thin and packed on a hamburger! (Any takers?)

Rhubarb Pickles

2 cups vinegar (cider or white)
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons pickling spices
1 piece (1-1/2 inch) fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
Peel from 1 orange
3 cups fresh rhubarb, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch pieces

In a non-aluminum medium saucepan, combine the vinegar, sugar, salt, pickling spices. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Slice orange peel into strips and add with ginger to the pan. Cool liquid cool to room temp. Spoon rhubarb into glass jar(s). Ladle in the cooled brine mixture. Cover and refrigerate pickles for one week before eating. They will keep refrigerated for several months.

How to eat a rhubarb pickle

Let the fun begin! You can add dices and slivers to coleslaws, fruit salads and tossed greens; soups, stews and tuna salad. Slice them up for sandwiches and decorate your favorite chicken and seafood dishes (pack a salmon with sliced pickles before baking or grilling). When all the pickled bits are gone, use the leftover vinegar for an awesome salad dressing base.

Thanks for stopping by. Enjoy!

Kodiak, Alaska garden

The Alaska Marine Highway’s ocean-going ferry, the Tustumena passes by our garden in early June–rhubarb harvest time.

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First Rhubarb: My excuse to dream up a new recipe

In coastal Alaska, it’s traditional to celebrate the season’s First Salmon, usually around May 15. Well, we live in coastal Alaska (and love salmon), but we celebrate another  “first”: The First Rhubarb. And such a momentous occasion deserves a new recipe, don’t you think?

Red rhubarb stalks

First Rhubarb! A cause for celebration.

It just so happens that for this season’s “first pick,” we had rhubarb-loving, B&B guests from the Carolinas staying with us. They told us a story about how a future daughter-in-law loved rhubarb and that the best way to make a good impression was to make a rhubarb custard pie.

“We hit every store in the area, dozens of them. No luck. We finally settled on a package of frozen rhubarb. It was better than nothing.

“The pie turned out okay, but there’s nothing like the real thing.”

In my opinion it’s unfortunate that anyone should live in a part of the world where you can’t grow rhubarb.

For this year’s celebration, we decided to share the first pick with our Carolina friends, by creating a new recipe: Whole wheat muffins with rhubarb, apples, fresh grated ginger, and teff. (More on teff later). As you’ll see, it’s actually two recipes: The first is a multi-purpose muffin mix and the second one is a variation on the theme.

Whole Wheat Muffin Mix

This is a fabulous mix–a kitchen staple–that I depend on for most of my muffin (sweet or savory) and quick bread recipes.

Rhubarb muffins in a muffin tin

A new recipe in an old muffin tin. Love it!

4 cups whole wheat flour
4 cups all purpose flour
1-1/2 cups nonfat dry milk
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup wheat germ
1/4 cup baking powder
1 Tbl salt
1-1/2 cups butter or shortening

In a large bowl, combine dry ingredients. Then using a pastry blender or two knives, cut in butter or shortening until the mixture is crumbly like coarse cornmeal. (Tip: It’s easier to cut shortening into half the amount of dry ingredients. Once the mixture is crumbly, add the rest of the dry stuff). Store mix in an airtight container, in a cool, dry place. Makes about 14 cups.

TO USE: Measure 4-1/2 cups mix into a bowl. Add 1-1/4 cups water and a beaten egg. For sweet muffins, add 4 tablespoons sugar and 1 teaspoon vanilla extract. Bake muffins at 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes. Makes 14-18 muffins.

To make Rhubarb-Apple Muffins: Add 4 tablespoons sugar to the batter then fold in 2 cups chopped rhubarb, 1 cup chopped apple (don’t bother peeling), and a healthy tablespoon of orange zest. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar before baking.

Rainbow appears over Kodiak, Alaska garden

Rainbow over the  garden in Kodiak, Alaska.

By the way, if you don’t know what teff is, make friends with it. As the traditional grain of Ethiopia, it’s gluten free, has a mild, nutty flavor and very nutritious. It’s great added to oatmeal, stews, pilaf or baked goods. Cooked whole grain teff is great on its own. You can add teff to veggie (and regular) burgers, cakes, rice, muffins, cookies and breads. Toasted, sprinkle it on yogurt and custard.

Thanks for visiting, and Happy rhubarbing!

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Family, photography and reflections of a water cloud

Portraits and landscapes make up the majority of images we see. They’re also the most difficult to take. Why is that? I have a theory.

Portraits are difficult because it’s not easy to capture the essence of a person in a single frame. And when it comes to interacting with our fellow humans, most of us struggle with boundary issues.

As for landscapes, composing your shot means trying to create some semblance of order out of the chaos in front of you, while visualizing a fresh image of the natural world. “Succeeding at this,” said photographer Galen Rowell, “gives our lives new meaning.” Trouble is, we have this silly habit of cramming as much as possible into the viewfinder that often leaves the final image gasping for air and the viewer scratching his or her head in confusion. More is not always better.

That’s where simplicity steps in. Ask an experienced photographer (notice I didn’t say ‘professional’) what the the secret to making a striking portrait or landscape is, and–if she’s worth her salt–she’ll say, “You need to keep it simple.”

photography-booksWe all want to make amazing images, but how to do it? Here’s what Bryan Peterson, author of Understanding Exposure and Learning to See Creatively (books that I use in my photography classes) says:

“Photographs that demand the most attention involve commonplace subjects composted in the simplest way. They’re powerful because they are limited to a single theme or idea.”

Be inspired: Get “Learning to See Creatively” and open to any page.

In my 30+ years of making photographs (somewhere in the world, there’s a picture of a young Marion wearing a polka dot dress and clutching a Kodak Brownie Instamatic camera), I’ve come to respect the power of the single theme and the magic of being receptive to chance encounters in nature. To be receptive begins with being calm and quiet. Only then can intuition come through.

Screen Shot 2015-05-09 at 8.11.07 PM

Last night I was walking along a trail that connects the greenhouse to the garden beds on the other side of the yard. The trail, a depression in the lawn created by wheelbarrows and Muck boots, winds along the top of the cliff above the ocean.

I paused for a moment to look out over the water. My eyes rested on a white, corn-puff cloud reflecting in the blue water. The vivid quality of the reflection surprised me because it’s unusual for the water’s surface not to be dimpled by boat traffic, diving gulls, sea lions on patrol, kayakers, and breezes (yes, the gentle ones that spawned The Perfect Storm).

Without hesitation, I pulled my iPhone out of my pocket, composed the shot and pressed the shutter button. My decision to not include the shoreline in the background or trees in the foreground was intentional. I continued on my garden trapline, inspecting newly-planted marigold and kale seedlings.

clouds reflecting on the ocean

I was not alone on my little pilgrimage. From down the road, bald eagles shrieked and territorialized (is this a word?) from their spruce tree nest, their calls sounding more like squeaky doors than loaded threats. And from the base of our cliff, a group of passing sea lions let out great “puh-UFF” exhalations when they rose to the surface to breathe.

As I entered the front door, my phone buzzed with a message from my husband Marty, who was visiting his aunt a mile away. She’s fighting for her life, though from what illness, we do not know. Christian Scientists don’t speak of such things.

I sat on the bench, leaned back against the wall and pulled my iPhone from my tattered garden jacket. I scrolled to the water cloud photo. Just a cloud in a pool of blue. Simple shapes and color. A quiet calm, one that’s hard to describe, came over me. “It’ll be okay,” said The Voice.

~ Thanks for visiting.

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Green eggs and waffles: A recipe my grandmother would avoid

On a rainy Sunday morning, I had a waffle epiphany: If I can add kale to smoothies, why not add it to our favorite oat-bean waffle batter? After all, kale is king these days, having risen from lowly plate decoration to nutritional giant. I decided to give it a try.

Following the basic recipe, I tossed rolled oats, water, salt, sugar, a little oil, beans (soaked overnight) and several kale leaves into the Vitamix. I cranked the dial to 9. BrAAHHH.

Green waffle batter

It ain’t easy being green waffle batter. Have faith, though. The little dots are teff, a tiny grain from Ethiopia.

Okay, so the batter looked a bit too ferny, but the finished waffles were crunchy and tasty, with a slight nutty flavor. We topped them with maple syrup, homemade jam and dabs of peanut butter. I think going the savory route with sprinkles of parmesan cheese and smoked salmon would be equally yummy.

How to make award-winning (insert your smile here), green waffles:

To four cups of batter in a blender or food processor, add 2 or 3 kale leaves or a handful of spinach leaves. Blend until it looks good to you. Keep in mind, there is no leavening in this oat-bean waffle recipe, so over-blending is not an issue. But if you are adding greens to a normal waffle batter, then I suggest processing the kale separately, then folding it into the batter.

Gluten free waffles

To 4 cups of batter we added 2 or 3 kale leaves.

Like I said, be prepared for a batter that is quite green. You might want to hide the batter from squeamish kids and Doubting Thomases until the waffles are cooked. My husband Marty (usually a brave and adventurous eater) was dubious at first. “Well, that looks different.” But he came around.

Cook the waffles at the temperature and time suggested by your recipe (the oat-bean recipe calls for a full 8 minutes). As you can see here, the veggie waffle on the right is nicely toasted, ready for whatever topping strikes your fancy.

Waffle recipe with kale

Regular oat-bean waffle (no eggs or dairy) on the left. Green kale and spinach waffle on the right.

What’s the next waffle chapter?

Now that we’ve experimented with green waffles, I’m ready to try orange ones with this year’s fresh carrots. Stay tuned, and thanks for visiting.

carrots, harvest, Alaska, organic, gardening

Washing fresh carrots, just pulled from the garden.

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Pink ribbons at low tide: A pictorial week in Kodiak, Alaska

As I left the greenhouse and walked toward the house, I heard a loud puhhh-HUP behind me. I twisted around and took two steps toward the ocean, just in time to see an orca whale’s black, dorsal fin disappear below the surface.

I’m always humbled by gifts like this; surprise snippets of life. Like this morning: I looked up from doing dishes just in time to see the gibbous moon appear between puffy clouds. My hands paused in soapy water.

And so goes my life in Kodiak, Alaska. Here is the first of seven images I’d like to share from a week on the Emerald Isle…

Peaceful river

Speaking of moons and other celestial things, a photographer friend and I drove out the road on Sunday morning, my camera in the passenger seat, in search of whatever inspired us. We pulled over by the Olds River bridge and was stunned to see the water calm and unruffled.


Dining with dolls

On Monday, I had a craving for borscht, so I stopped in to Monk’s Rock coffee shop. It’s a coffee shop and restaurant on one side and a gift store filled with orthodox books, icons, prayer ropes, you name it. While waiting for my order, I explored the quaint shop, stopping at this collection of Russian nesting dolls.

IMG_6141-russian-nesting-dollsOn asking permission

Coming back from the gym on Tuesday morning, I noticed the clouds were forming horizontal bands across the sky, announcing a cold front brewing. I’d always wanted to photograph this particular rock and tree (which reminded my of the Lone Cypress in Monterey, California, probably the most-photographed tree in the U.S.) but I needed permission from the property owner to cross their property onto the beach.

We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot. ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

I’m not very good at doing such things but, gym clothes and all, I knocked on the door, talked with the guy-at-home and got a thumbs-up. So I dashed home for my camera and tripod. Midday, harsh shadows, not great light; but I shot it with black and white in mind.


Trail sentry

Continuing on a tree theme, I love the Sitka spruce trees in Fort Abercrombie State Historical Park. Any weather. Any time of year. They are like old friends as I walk the trails. Late one evening (it was getting dark) I was almost back to the trailhead when I passed this expressive tree. I turned around and set up my tripod. Back at my computer, I played with the texture and color in a program called Topaz Labs, giving it a painterly, impressionistic look.

Good morning, moon!

A friend agreed to help with garden projects, so I agreed to pick her up. As she settled into the passenger seat, I noticed that the clouds were blushing with pinks and blues. “We need to take a detour first,” I said.

We drove about three miles to the end of the road, where a salmon stream flowed into the ocean. The frozen grass crunched under our feet as I walked in circles, evaluating the scene. “Look!” she said, “There’s the moon!”

Another one of those surprise snippets of life.


Food risers

The librarian at Kodiak College recently retired, so the staff put on a party to celebrate her next step in life. The food–from rhubarb tarts to dipped strawberries–was beautifully displayed on these risers made from spruce logs. I didn’t know what else to call them. Food risers? Toadstools? Supports? I’m open to suggestions.

Note: After posting these photos, a suggestion came in for the food risers: Sweet Seats! Perfect, isn’t it?

IMG_6150-library-foodLast, but not least, another morning adventure…

The blue hour

The tide was out, the sky was blue, and the sun was lighting up the clouds in an oh, so special way. You see, for centuries, artists have treasured this rich light, called the blue hour, a period of 45 minutes or so before sunrise and after sunset. On this morning, light reflecting in the tide pools created beautiful ribbons of pink and blue. (Based on the response I’ve gotten, I might have to make prints of this scene to sell in the art gallery we built in our Cliff House B&B).


Back to the killer whale sighting I told you about at the beginning. (You’ll have to read this to get the punch line).

Having watched the whale slip under water, I glowed in humbled awe for a few moments. Then my thoughts skipped to a comment a marine biologist friend made recently when I asked, “How was your day at the office, Kate?”

“Oh, I was out on the boat all day sampling whale scat. Now if you think whale breathe is bad [it’s very fishy, in case you wondered] then you aught to smell whale farts!”

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Is your lawn organic? (Think barefoot kids and wild salmon)

When spring arrives in Kodiak, Alaska, we’re normally coping with snow and ice. But this winter has been the warmest in 30 years. Hundreds of bald eagles have returned to town, on schedule, to feed on fish scraps, and commercial fishing boats are shuffling in and out of our harbors like a giant video game. But purple crocuses are already poking through the green lawn way ahead of schedule. Did I say green lawn? In Alaska? In March?

Purple crocus poke up through the lawn, Kodiak, Alaska

Weird but true. And that’s why I’m writing this post:

I want to share our favorite way to jumpstart a lawn and maintain it—without the use of chemicals.

Accomplishing this feat took some experimenting, though. Kodiak Island, after all, is a temperate rain forest by nature. The soil is very acidic, low in organic matter, and it’s mostly volcanic ash. The method is very easy and basic, and I’m sure it will work for your patch of green, too.

We started our lawn from seed on a base of peat moss, shredded kelp and compost. Our bed and breakfast guests and visitors touring our gardens are amazed how green it is. We work at keeping it healthy, so it can withstand heavy rain and snow, moisture-sucking northwest winds, freeze-thaw periods, and the pressure of many, many footprints.

Don’t tread on me

In the spring, it’s natural to grab a rake and start scraping twigs, branches, spruce cones, plastic toys, dog poop and other debris. Be gentle. Give it a light combing with a leaf rake, but step lightly when you do it. In other words, try to not walk on your grass too much. It’s one of the worst things you can do to a lawn—especially a soggy one. Wait until it has dried out a bit and the ground is not mushy.

At first the damage occurs underground where you can’t see it. Here’s what happens: when you walk on a soggy lawn, you squeeze out the air between the soil particles. In time this pressure creates a hard, compacted soil. Without these air “highways”, water and nutrients can’t reach the root zone. And then one day, something doesn’t look right and you wonder, “Why does my lawn look so pathetic?”

Turf grass thrives on the same kind of soil found in your garden: Rich, well-drained soil that is high in organic matter.

I don’t know about your situation, but perfect, well-drained soil doesn’t come naturally in Kodiak, so we have to create our own. So what you can do to help your lawn realize its greatest potential of being green and healthy?


It’s easy being green

Now the green part is easy, whether you use organic or chemical fertilizers. There are differences, though. Organic methods enrich the soil which improves root growth. Your lawn survives drought and extreme weather conditions better, it holds onto nutrients longer, and it becomes more sustainable itself. So eventually less maintenance is required.

One thing about organic lawn care I need to interject here: The way you mow your lawn makes a huge difference. Keep your mower blades sharp and leave your grass 3 inches longer. This improves your lawn’s health because the leaves of longer grass have more access to sunlight, which helps the grass grow thicker and create deeper roots.

Real green thumbs are not from chemicals

Chemical fertilizers on the other hand, might turn your grass an enticing, day-glo green, but it’s at a price. (All the promises on the packaging are lies). Chemical fertilizers wash away in heavy rains, and the toxic runoff ends up in lakes, streams, and oceans (we love our wild salmon folks). To say nothing of letting your pets and kids run around the lawn after you’ve applied a load of chemicals. Chemical fertilizers have been linked to cancer and poisonings, and since most Americans follow a “more is better” attitude (to the tune of 3 million tons per year), all that overfertilizing damages the soil and kills helpful microorganisms and fungi with toxic salt buildup.

With an organic lawn, you’re not simply putting down fertilizers four times a year; you’re initiating cultural practices to nurture life in the soil, and in turn, the soil sustains the grass.
~ Paul Tukey, author of  The Organic Lawn Care Manual

Healthy soil = healthy lawn

You may have guessed, I’m a cheerleader for organic lawn care. So here you go:

The one simple step every lawnkeeper should follow is to spread sifted organic matter on your lawn.


We try to do this twice a year, when the lawn is relatively dry, but before a good rain or watering with a sprinkler. Recipe ideas (no exact science here) depend on what’s available in your location. For us in coastal Alaska, the list includes:

  • Spreading a combo of peat moss and compost, or
  • One part peat moss to  bags steer or cow manure, or
  • Straight finished compost plus sifted kelp, or
  • A manure-compost blend

Well-aged manure is like a good wine

You can also mix in soybean meal, cottonseed meal, well-aged manure (like a good wine!), finely shredded leaves and compost. Blend ingredients together in a wheelbarrow and dump it on the lawn. Yes, right on top. Shake it through a screen, toss it by the shovelful, or cast it about as if scattering feed to the chickens. After you apply the organic stuff, spread it around with a leaf rake with a combing, fluffing up action.

Okay, your lawn will look horrible (really bad) for a couple weeks, and the neighbors will probably think you’re crazy. But then something magic happens: new, green growth emerges and the brown stuff settles into the ground and disappears. Your lawn will be ten times healthier, you don’t have to worry about your kids running around barefoot, and the neighbors will stop whispering behind your back.

Thanks for visiting. And may you enjoy every minute when you’re out in nature.

Marion Owen, photographer, organic gardener, Kodiak Island, Alaska

Purple crocus poke up through the lawn, Kodiak, Alaska

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My favorite smartphone photo apps for travel

Florida Everglades by bike -- fat tire!

Bike riding, fat tire style, in the Florida Everglades.

Every winter, Marty and I exit Alaska in search of new hiking trails and a Vitamin D fix. This year was different. First, we traveled by land-yacht (RV), and second, I vowed to play with my iPhone’s photo apps. How did it go? Well, I perfected the art of grilling a PB&J sandwich in a one-fanny kitchen. And I dove into photography with Crayon-like enthusiasm–all helpful stuff for when you hit the road with a frying pan and a smartphone. I’ll show you what I mean…

An evening with giant cauliflowers

On a late afternoon in February, we drove into Joshua Tree National Park, a natural and geological stunner of a desert landscape. Heaps of boulders and cliffs rose from the high desert floor, parched from a 4-year drought. A dusting of snow, a ranger told us at the entrance gate, brought some relief in December. “But we could use more. You gotta love those Joshua trees, though. They just keep hanging on.”

Sunset was 30 minutes away, so while Marty managed the winding, 2-lane road, I searched the landscape for curvy horizons and shapely Joshua trees. “Let’s pull over by this grove,” I said. “Wow, they look like giant cauliflowers.”

I perched my tripod near a tree that felt grandfather-ish. (Joshua trees don’t have normal tree rings, so I guessed 100 years). It was the “blue hour”, a special time of day when the colors of sunrise and sunset share the sky with the blue dome of midday. I took a series of photos with my Big Camera and then pulled out my iPhone.

Here are the before and after shots, followed by the two basic steps to get there:

Before and after image using snapseed and Perfect Image app. photo tips, photography tips, photo apps, Instagram, Joshua Tree National Park, Arizona, National Parks

The left photo is the original image. Great potential here. After working with it in Snapseed, I looked at the dark base and thought, “What a fun place to put some text.”

Step 1: The Snapseed app

I began by processing the original photo (left) in Snapseed to saturate color and adjust contrast. Let me pause for a moment to say something about contrast: Even a little adjustment goes a long way.

Increasing the contrast of your photos is one of the most important steps before posting your images online.

There are an astounding 2.5 million apps but Snapseed (free) is one of the most popular photo editing apps available for iPhone and Android, offers a variety of powerful photo-correction tools and filters. To learn how to use the different features of this app, Google has an excellent Snapseed Help Center.

Below is the opening page of Snapseed as it appears on your iPhone or Android screen. The left side shows some of the photo editing options, the right side, a sample image before replacing it with your own.

Snapseed, app, photo editing, Nik, Google, android, iphone, photo app

The Snapseed home page showing some of the processing filter options.

After making adjustments in Snapseed, I saved the photo in my iPhone’s Photo Library. I could have stopped there, but I thought a mini-poster (with text) would  be fun to share on my Marion_Owen_Photography Instagram page.

Step 2: The Perfect Image app

Perfect Image, photo app, iTunes, photo processing, iPhone, Marion OwenTo create my mini-poster, I wanted to add text on top of, and below, the image.  So I re-opened the picture in another powerful app called Perfect Image, a free app available through iTunes. With it, you can add a gzillion special effects with ease.

One of the best things about these two apps is that they are non-destructive, which means when you save your picture after applying the effects you like, a new copy is made, leaving your original untouched. Another thing: you can share your masterpiece photo instantly on Facebook, Instagram, via e-mail, or messaging.

Black and white photos rock!

There’s no art more exquisite than a well-done black and white image. They sing with texture and tone in ways that color images can only dream of. As a former darkroom junkie, what can I say?

So take a look at these two examples. Both were processed in Snapseed in another 2-step process: First, I enhanced the clouds a bit to make them pop as if I used a polarizing filter. You can see the results in the left photo. Then I selected the Black and White filter, lightened the shadows a little and created the photo you see at right. Which one do you like best?

snapseed, polarizer, polarizing filter, photo tips, photography tips, photo apps, Instagram, Joshua Tree National Park, Arizona

See how changing the color image to black and white makes the clouds and textures in the rocks really pop?

Camels on Route 66?

RV-ing the right way means being flexible and open to surprises. Take Kingman, Arizona, for example. Straddling Route 66 (off Highway 40) in the western part of the state, Kingman is part tourist trap and part legit stopover. Back in 1859 though, Kingman was the twinkle in Lt. Edward Beale’s eye. While in the service of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, he was charged with two tasks: Survey for a wagon trail and test the feasibility of using camels as pack animals in the desert. Beale’s wagon trail eventually became a road and part of Route 66…

We arrived in Kingman on a sunny weekday, pulled into a local park and piled out of the RV to stretch our legs. Marty was craving Italian, so he took off in search of restaurant while I roamed around looking for potential sunrise shots. The next morning, I got up at 5 AM and drove to Mr. D’s Route 66 Diner. Some of the staff had just arrived and turned on the lights. Perfect.

Here’s another example of using Snapseed and Perfect Image together:


I created a border and saturated the color using the HDR (High Dynamic Range) filter in Snapseed and then added the retro, “Get Your Kicks” in Perfect Image and placed it at the bottom. I really like the playfulness of the final photo.

In conclusion: Sharing what I learned

Firstly, cooking in a compact space was an easy adjustment for me, since every summer I prepare gourmet dinners for small groups aboard our 40-foot yacht in Kodiak, Alaska.

As for taking pictures, I said at the beginning that I dove into photography during this trip with Crayon-like enthusiasm. You see, I’ve faithfully used 35mm Canon gear for my professional work since the mid-1970s. But lately I sensed a subtle lack of fizz toward my photography, an art form  I’ve enjoyed since my parents gave me a Kodiak Brownie camera when I was eight. But hey, I don’t blame it on the lack of inspiring subjects though. I love to just get out and look (I can find cool stuff in a spruce forest or a junk yard).

Using the iPhone and experimenting with Snapseed and Perfect Image taught me something. No, more than that…it helped me out. I started using my Canon gear with a lighter step, a refreshed attitude. Isn’t that one of the reasons to hit the road?

Thanks for visiting. I’d love to hear about your adventures on the road.


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