There is a picture of Kirsten Dixon cooking in her kitchen. Dressed in a black chef’s coat, she smiles while prepping some fresh herbs. The picture is featured on the website for the adventure company that Dixon and her husband, Carl, own and operate in the Alaskan outback. Across from the photo sits this quote by Rachel Carson: “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
The quote is not eloquent filler; it’s there for a reason. You see, the Alaskan outback can be an awe-inspiring yet unforgiving place. And from it often come tales of adventure and inspiration. And, as in Kirsten Dixon’s case, survival.
She first went to Alaska in 1979 when she took a job as an intensive care nurse at Alaska Native Medical Center. There, she met her future husband, Carl, an audiologist with a pilot’s license. The two had something special in common — a love of the outdoors. During a day of flying around the outback, the two discovered, from the air, a cabin with a for-sale sign. That was a pivotal moment, for it brought them face to face with what would become their destiny.
The two, who work opposite schedules, were looking to make a change. “We didn’t know [the cabin] would become a lodge, but we followed our instincts,” Kirsten recalls. “We quit our jobs at the hospital because we wanted to build a life living and working together and being close to nature.” In 1983, the two opened a wilderness lodge and took in guests from all over the world, who came to fish for salmon. Carl and Kirsten jumped into their new roles: “Carl was the guide and I was the cook,” she says with a laugh. It wasn’t long before Kirsten realized her love of and talent for cooking. And at the encouragement of a guest from France, she pursued that love, attending Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Paris and earning a master’s degree in gastronomy from the University of Adelaide in Australia.
By 2009, they had expanded their business, Within the Wild: Alaskan Adventure Lodges, with the purchase of two additional properties: Winterlake Lodge, a secluded, fly-in-only lodge located on the Iditarod Trail, with five cabins and breathtaking views of the Trimble Glacier; and Tutka Bay Lodge, an upscale summer-only retreat situated at the end of the rugged Kachemak Bay. Both inns are known for their adventure activities, wildlife viewing, and indulgent spa treatments. And while those things can be hard to compete with, it was often Kirsten’s cuisine that created a buzz among the guests.
In 2010, after years of giving informal cooking lessons, they opened the Cooking School at Tutka Bay on a two-story, repurposed crabbing boat, the Widgeon II, moored at the shore just outside the lodge. There, with the help of her daughter Mandy, a trained pastry chef who worked at the renowned Ad Hoc restaurant in Yountville, Calif., and runs the family’s La Baleine Café in Homer, Alaska, they teach guests how to prepare three-course meals from around the globe. Each meal offers more than just sustenance — it offers purpose.
This became true for Kirsten in 2013. After a routine mammogram, she was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer, a rare and aggressive cancer in stage 2. “It was the beginning of our busy season; I train all the crews that come in and work at our lodges, so I decided to have a mastectomy so that I could still do that,” she says. Eventually, though, the effects of chemo, including neuropathy in her legs, forced her to switch gears. “I didn’t want the guests giving me sad eyes and trying to comfort me. I didn’t want to intrude on their vacations.” So she packed up and headed to Homer, staying in the family apartment behind the café. There, she helped Mandy with the business, and the two began collaborating on a cookbook, The Tutka Bay Lodge Cookbook: Coastal Cuisine from the Wilds of Alaska.
The mother-daughter duo decided to frame this book differently from Kirsten’s first book, The Winterlake Lodge Cookbook: Culinary Adventures in the Alaskan Wilderness, which featured seasonal meals cooked up at the lodge. “Tutka Bay is only opened in the summer, so we decided to do the chapters by the time of day,” she says. “We started thinking about what we do at the lodge in the morning — what we see and smell — and grounded it that way in a culinary theme.” Chapter titles reflect life at the lodge: “We Look for Seashells in the Morning,” “Let’s Take Our Luncheon By the Sea,” and “At the Table We Share Our Stories.” Kirsten and Mandy chose only those recipes that had special meaning to them or the Tutka Bay guests. Kirsten’s famed Apple Cheddar Waffles, crispy Salmon Bacon, and mouthwatering Alaska Fisherman’s Stew are a few of the favorites included.
“Writing a cookbook while going through a strict chemo regime — I wouldn’t recommend it,” she says with a laugh. “But the act of cooking was very cathartic, and the writing was therapeutic.” And when chemo presented challenges to Kirsten, like causing her to lose her sense of taste and have a foggy “chemo brain,” Mandy was there to pitch in. “As I was writing the book, I really relied on her to refine the recipes; she would test them and she helped with the editing. It was truly a collaborative process.”
For Kirsten, a former nurse and a strong woman by nature, battling cancer proved tougher than expected. But she drew her inspiration for survival from the land and lodges in which she lived.
“I think I had a pinch of nostalgia when I was writing this book. I don’t think it was reflective of my life but more appreciative of things in my life,” she says now that the book is completed. “At Tutka Bay, there is a big deck that looks across the mountains. Those colors change every morning, and many times I have ignored it to check my phone or do some small chore. Now I’m am reminded to be present, and I live my life focused on what’s important: my family, our lodges, our guests, and, of course, my cooking.”