Man v. Sea Cu­cum­ber /



Brav­ing the depths for a spine­less, spiky del­i­cacy

Hunter Mann-demp­ster, pro­fes­sional sea cu­cum­ber diver, lives on Bara­nof Is­land in a house built on cedar pil­ings, a short ram­ble to the ocean through a copse of spruce and hem­lock. He greets us in long un­der­wear, mug of cof­fee in hand. Over the years I’ve come to no­tice divers in the Great North ap­pear ane­mic, as if the cold has trimmed fat from their bones. Hunter is no ex­cep­tion. Like a medieval squire ready­ing ar­mor for bat­tle, he lays out hoods, gloves, and dry suits over the lid of his hot tub. It’s Fe­bru­ary. The wa­ter is in the 40s.

Hunter dips his head into a neo­prene hood, cleans the glass of his face mask. Per­haps we’d have some luck, he won­ders, across Eastern Chan­nel at Pi­rate’s Cove? “The ot­ters have been kind of bad, so it might be good to find a place with some cur­rent,” he says. Far­ther north, in Peril Strait? To make that work we’d need an­other 5-gal­lon jug of ga­so­line for the boat. If the weather held we’d make it back in time to cook the crea­tures on the Adak, my World War II tug­boat tied up in the chan­nel. But what I’m re­ally think­ing about now is a post­dive dip in Hunter’s hot tub. I know it gets up to, like, 104 de­grees, warm enough to melt the ice cubes we will surely be­come while chas­ing sea cu­cum­bers.

Here along the state’s south­east coast, a place that travel guides call the In­side Pas­sage, Paras­ti­cho­pus cal­i­for­ni­cus—“cukes,” af­fec­tion­ately—use tubed feet to an­chor them­selves to rocks, slip­ping into trenches, screw­ing them­selves into the sea floor, sur­viv­ing on sea mulch float­ing down like snow from above. On Mon­days and Tues­days, from Oc­to­ber through De­cem­ber, about 200 per­mit-hold­ing divers set out in pur­suit of the elu­sive, horned, squishy crea­tures.

In 2005 I took a job aboard the Heron, a 48-foot Cana­di­an­built seiner. Its skip­per had a con­tract to col­lect cukes from dive boats and sail them north to the pro­ces­sor in Juneau. We’d leave Sitka in the early hours of the morn­ing, the aurora bo­re­alis shiv­er­ing chartreuse over the moun­tains, drop the hook, and go on chan­nel 16 to ad­ver­tise our price per pound. Around two in the af­ter­noon dusk hit. We’d flip on the mast light, throw down the fend­ers, and un­load dive boats with names like Moon Shadow, Chilkat, Wild Alaska. We wore emer­gency-orange fish­ing bibs and cot­ton glove lin­ers that re­sem­bled noth­ing so much as ball­room gloves. Af­ter our

last boat un­tied, Grant, the skip­per, threw steaks into a ca­st­iron skil­let, made muffins from black ba­nanas, and popped in a VHS. We were kings aboard the Heron.

But if you’d asked me then if I had any in­ter­est in eat­ing a sea cu­cum­ber my­self, I would have laughed. These warty, slimy, sausage-shaped gas­tropods slosh­ing around in plas­tic bins held fast to the stern deck by ca­nary-yel­low truck straps? Try clean­ing four thou­sand of them (each one earn­ing me about 38 cents) while keep­ing a diver alive on the sea floor be­neath you. The last thing you want to do when you get home is see an­other one, es­pe­cially in the kitchen.

It was a del­i­cacy best ap­pre­ci­ated by some­one else. The In­done­sians, for in­stance, who be­gan har­vest­ing trepang off the Aus­tralian coast in the early 1800s. Or the Chi­nese, who eat the knobbed crea­tures smoked, salted, or dried, and pow­der the skins to use as an aphro­disiac for rea­sons clear to any­one who has seen a sea cu­cum­ber. Or the Ja­panese, known to en­joy cukes raw or salted and fer­mented. Some eat the skin, the in­testines, the dried ovaries—the list goes trou­blingly on.

We dropped our prod­uct at Alaska Glacier Seafoods in Juneau. Work­ers in yel­low aprons tacked the cukes to scarred plas­tic boards un­der flu­o­res­cent lights, a nutty stench thick in the air. They used ra­zor knives to slice open the dun-col­ored bel­lies, scrap­ing out five strips of ivory mus­cle run­ning the length of the ra­dial body. Out­side, dudes smoked cig­a­rettes in the rain and spoke in hushed tones while stir­ring caul­drons of boil­ing skins. I bit into a swatch of skin—curled and yel­low. Briny. Spongy. But not bad.

As the tide comes up, and the sun low­ers on the hori­zon, we plow our cove, finning back and forth, scour­ing the ocean floor. Un­der­wa­ter eel­grass heaves in the surge. Re­ced­ing glaciers cleaved fjords be­tween the moun­tains ris­ing on each side, the ice leav­ing gashes on the rocks be­neath us. Cones of speck­led limpets and gum­boots are stuck on tight. I come up for air, the win­ter sun white and round through a scrim of clouds. Hunter’s got a hot tub, the man has a god­damn hot tub, I keep re­peat­ing to my­self. Hunter dives deep, this time with oxy­gen, his progress along the ocean floor marked by boils on the sur­face as he works the ledge.

Af­ter I spent a year on the Heron, Spencer Sev­er­son, a mythic diver fea­tured in the doc­u­men­tary Eat­ing Alaska,

in­vited me to deck­hand for him. He worked off the Snorkel,

a gun­metal-gray 28-foot Radon­craft dive boat. We’d mo­tor out of town, Spencer’s straw-col­ored hair blow­ing in the wind, some­times run­ning as far as 50 miles to our spot. As I came to dis­cover, div­ing for sea cu­cum­bers makes king crab­bing in the Ber­ing Sea look like a tea party. It is, by far, the most lethal job in Alaska, per­haps the world.

As a cuke deck­hand, your job first and fore­most con­sists of mak­ing sure your diver sur­vives. The key to this project is the com­pres­sor, which pro­vides sur­face-sup­plied air through a yel­low hose, a diver’s hookah. The hose can get fouled in the fly­wheel of the com­pres­sor. Or the boat pro­peller can slit it. Or the line tan­gles and you drag your diver along the bot­tom of the ocean. Or your com­pres­sor isn’t prop­erly main­tained, and you send car­bon monox­ide in­stead of oxy­gen into his lungs, as hap­pened re­cently to a cuke diver in Ketchikan. (Charges for man­slaugh­ter are pend­ing.) Or a killer whale comes along and mis­takes the diver for a seal.

Or your boat flips and sinks. Which is what hap­pened to Spencer, when he was work­ing with a part­ner. The two men swam ashore and spent the night in the woods in dry suits,


keep­ing warm by us­ing branches as cover, and cud­dling. They walked 18 miles be­fore be­ing dis­cov­ered by a searc­hand-res­cue team.

Per­haps be­cause of this con­stant prox­im­ity to death, divers are a quiet, lanky, whey-faced bunch. There was Burgess Bauder, who drove the Death Barge IV, the grim reaper em­bla­zoned on the star­board side. And there was Blades, who lived with his fam­ily in a float­ing house that switched lo­ca­tions de­pend­ing on the fish­ing sea­son. Blades, who died while search­ing for cukes. “Cold and wet is nor­mal, cold and wet is nor­mal”—this was Spencer’s mantra on the Snorkel.

A mantra he passed along (with boat and diver’s per­mit) to my friend Hunter Mann-demp­ster. Now we’re re­peat­ing it—“cold and wet is nor­mal, cold and wet is nor­mal”—as glacial wa­ter floods our hoods, set­ting off an ice cream headache to the power of mi­graine. Our bod­ies are lit­er­ally re­act­ing as if they’re dy­ing, brain telling the heart to slow by half. “A weight belt would prob­a­bly help,” Hunter says as I try to go un­der.

Although I would like to, I can­not say ex­actly where we found our quarry. (Hunter would never talk to me again.) I can tell you Hunter emerged, hold­ing two tan­gles of dis­tended sea cu­cum­bers at ei­ther side of his head. Also that we saw a griz­zly bear chase a Sitka black­tail on the beach, that the en­gine on our skiff came close to dy­ing, and I had to suck ga­so­line to clear ice from the line. That we saw per­haps 50 hump­back whales along the way, along with a Zo­diac packed full of Coast Guard cadets that pulled us over and gave us a ticket for not hav­ing a float­ing seat cush­ion. (Thanks guys.) And fi­nally, that Hunter’s hot tub did not work.

Sad­ness. Ex­treme sad­ness.

It starts to snow as we walk the docks to the Adak. On deck I drive a 16-penny gal­va­nized nail through a sec­tion of ply­wood and im­pale our cukes. Slit open the belly, and be­gin strip­ping sheets of meat into a glass bowl.

Com­poser and pian­ist Erik Satie ref­er­enced sea cu­cum­bers in his 1913 piece Em­bryons desséchés. Food critic Jonathan Gold waxes lyri­cal over the vari­a­tions he’s sam­pled at Asian restau­rants, in­clud­ing some dis­cov­ered in a Viet­namese shop­ping cen­ter on the out­skirts of L.A. At Sai­son in San Fran­cisco, sea cu­cum­ber skin has been trans­formed into chichar­rones, and their “ribs” grilled over an open fire. In France and across Asia, cukes are thought to be good for the skin, pro-li­bido, anti-aging. But rarely do these folks prais­ing them ac­tu­ally dive in the wa­ter to get the crea­tures.

Four years back, Scott Bry­lan­sky, my men­tor in all things sub­sis­tence, showed me how to process, pre­pare, and eat cukes with­out gag­ging. Then sud­denly I was search­ing for the crea­tures at low tide, ask­ing around for recipes. Scott shared a cou­ple of fa­vorites, in­volv­ing wild pars­ley, lo­vage, local greens that sprout in our tem­per­ate rain­for­est. Now, when­ever I get the chance, I’ll dig around at low tide, with the aim of work­ing them over my mo­lars.

In an an­cient Chi­nese man­ual of gas­tron­omy, it’s said that sea cu­cum­bers “have lit­tle to no taste, are full of sand, and are re­mark­ably fishy in smell. For these rea­sons, it is also the most dif­fi­cult in­gre­di­ent to pre­pare well.”

I dis­agree, but don’t take my word. Lis­ten to Co­lette Nel­son. The chef and owner of Lud­vig’s Bistro here in Sitka, she slices the cukes thin, dredges the meat in semolina, flash-fries and serves it all with a squeeze of lemon. “They’re sim­i­lar in tex­ture to ra­zor clams,” Co­lette says. She should know—she once was em­ployed pro­cess­ing them. She’ll also sauté them in olive oil, with gar­lic, chile flakes, salt and pep­per, and fin­ish them with lime juice, cilantro, and bread crumbs.

I fol­low the rule of keep­ing wild foods as sim­ple as pos­si­ble. I cooked our cukes in but­ter and gar­lic. And I made a sea cu­cum­ber ce­viche, cured with local Sitka spruce salt, lemons, limes, and pep­per.

Cold tine of the fork, sea salt, and lime—but also the fishrot smell of whale spume, sweet scent of ga­so­line, aloe of the Coastie’s hand san­i­tizer. Miles of sea floor, tan­gle of pink in­testines, the long drive home. Scrape as skin and flesh sep­a­rate, spark of fire on the stove. White mus­cle crush­ing be­tween your teeth.

Is it worth the ef­fort and the risk? To an Alaskan, it most cer­tainly is.

A diver with his catch, Paras­ti­cho­pus cal­i­for­ni­cus, the giant Cal­i­for­nia sea cu­cum­ber com­mer­cially har­vested in Alaska. Here, in the icy wa­ters off the state’s south­east coast, div­ing for cukes along the ocean floor is a risky pro­fes­sion.

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