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Board profile: Kirsten Dixon, chef and local salmon advocate

Kirsten Dixon is renowned for using fresh Alaskan ingredients in world-class meals at her Tutka Bay Lodge. Learn why she promotes salmon aquaculture.

by | July 26, 2023

CIAA board member and chef Kirsten Dixon.
CIAA board member and chef Kirsten Dixon. Photo courtesy of Kirsten Dixon

If you are a foodie in Alaska or beyond, then you are probably already familiar with Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA) board director Kirsten Dixon. She’s an award-winning chef and operator of some of Alaska’s most beloved backcountry lodges. Kirsten is also a wholehearted advocate for sustainable living and the future of Alaska’s natural environment — including its salmon fisheries. 

Kirsten’s early years in Alaska

Like many Alaskans, a job brought her to the state. Kirsten earned her nursing degree from Syracuse University in New York, with a scholarship from the U.S. Public Health Service, which required her to work in Native health for two years. In the late 1970s, Kirsten began her career as a nurse in Anchorage at the Alaska Native Medical Center’s ICU. 

It was there that Kirsten met her future husband, Carl, an audiologist. A year after they married, they quit their jobs to pursue Carl’s dream to live closer to nature in remote Alaska.

From medics to lodge owners

The couple moved to Lake Creek, a fishing community on the Yentna River in the Susitna River basin. They built their first lodge—Riversong Lodge—where they lived for 20 years as they raised  their daughters Carly and Mandy. 

“We just really learned how to do things on our own. We lived in a little cabin in the beginning with no running water. It was kind of a magical time then,” Kirsten said.

Carl already had his eye on another piece of property higher up the West Susitna Valley. Kirsten and Carl purchased the property and renamed the existing lodge to Winterlake Lodge, which is the Finger Lake checkpoint on the Iditarod Sled Dog Race. They also purchased a hunting camp on the west side of Cook Inlet at the entrance to Lake Clark Pass, and named it Redoubt Bay Lodge. For about ten years, they operated the three remote lodges simultaneously. 

They eventually sold Riversong and Redoubt Bay lodges, recognizing that these areas had seen increasing population pressures from users such as bear watchers, fishermen, and hunters. “We wanted to bring people into more rarified places; to bring people in away from planes and crowds,” Kirsten said. 

A new start in Tutka Bay

The couple purchased Tutka Bay Lodge in 2008. “We have really loved being here, in Kachemak Bay. In 2008 and even now, we are totally new to the maritime community and culture because we lived in the Interior so long.” 

Kirsten and Mandy started the La Baleine Café on the Homer Spit in 2013. They sold Winterlake Lodge in 2022, making their transition to coastal living complete.

After 42 years of living totally off the grid, Kirsten and Carl were ready to wind down a bit on the backcountry lifestyle, so they purchased a 35-acre peony farm in Homer last year. This is now their home base. Kirsten recently made a decision to stop being so busy, and to focus on more local matters. This includes learning about and conserving the natural spaces within Kachemak Bay and on the Kenai Peninsula. 

Her love of cooking blossoms

It was that first lodge—Riversong—that fueled Kirsten’s love of cooking, especially dishes she calls “country food”— like ham and mashed potatoes. 

“When Carl and I quit our jobs, I got so excited because at the time I was working at the ICU where everything felt like tragedy. I wanted to be in the brighter part of life, where people are happy. I was so excited to cook for others and I had no idea how to do that,” Kirsten shared. 

The lodge hosted a lot of European guests, including chefs, who shared various cooking skills with Kirsten. She formed a friendship with a French couple that frequently stayed at the lodge. They invited Kirsten to live with them in Paris, where she went Le Cordon Bleu culinary school and learned about cuisine in a more formal way. 

Kirsten wrote her first cook book in the 1980s—The Riversong Lodge Cookbook: World-Class Cooking in the Alaska Bush. Since then she has written Winterlake Lodge and Tutka Bay Lodge cook books. Living with the Wild: Personal Stories & Beloved Recipes from Alaska is the title of the most recent cook book that she co-wrote with Mandy. She weaves in personal stories with her backcountry recipes. 

“I feel really glad that I have an interest that I could never master. There is so much to learn, to do, and to see,” Kirsten said about being a chef. 

Kirsten  holds a master’s degree in gastronomy (food history) from Adelaide University and a master’s degree in creative writing from Goddard College. Kirsten has also completed leadership programs at Stanford and Harvard Universities. 

Kirsten Dixon's new home and peony farm in Homer.
Kirsten Dixon’s new home and peony farm in Homer. Photo courtesy of Kirsten Dixon

Board leadership supports sustainable salmon

What inspired Kirsten to join the CIAA Board of Directors was when former Executive Director Gary Fandrei went to Tutka Bay Lodge to talk to food writers and chefs about hatchery-produced salmon as part of a culinary tour sponsored by the Alaska Salmon Marketing Institute. Gary also provided a mini salmon anatomy dissection. 

“He popped those eyeballs out and we looked at the otoliths [ear bones]. He was always so approachable and answered my questions,” said Kirsten. 

Kirsten went with a culinary group under the James Beard Foundation to Seattle to participate in a program on fish hatchery production around the world. The group learned how hatcheries supported ocean health and that really intrigued Kirsten and helped her decision to join CIAA in 2018. 

One of the successes Kirsten has seen since she joined CIAA has been opening up of communication with the public. She believes the board has taken steps to really do what is best for the future of the constituency as well as the health of the fish. Kirsten said that the addition of board members with diverse voices has been really powerful and it has made CIAA a better organization. 

Volunteering for CIAA has been an enriching experience for Kirsten. She has learned a lot about the complex landscape of Alaska fisheries from all the members of CIAA. 

“I want to feel like 100 years from now, I somehow contributed to the success of our ocean and fisheries health, and the survival and balance of our fish populations,” Kirsten said.

Kirsten encourages the public to participate in CIAA, saying “Those who come together that try to make change, they are moving the needle.” 

She is certainly doing her part to help move that needle to ensure CIAA continues to provide and protect Cook Inlet’s precious salmon fisheries for all. 

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