Salt, Soap, Tattoos and Turtles: Episode Two (Good Lord, My Spirit Animal Is . . .)

Now I’m not trying to torture anyone, but we do need a bit of backstory before I can answer the question posed.  Here’s a hint, though.

Blue Tang fish

The mystery deepens, as it were.

One of the things that I’m most thankful for to the UUH is that he showed me the marvels of What’s Under There (and by “there” I mean the surface of the ocean.  Get your mind out of the gutter.).  I’m not a strong swimmer and have about as much body fat as a stick insect — which means the iconic “Dead Man’s Float” they teach you in swim class really IS — so I’d always been cautious to the point of paranoia about getting water deeper than my (bony) knees.  Clamping a clumsy plastic mask to my (terrified) face and trying to breathe (without hysterical gasping) through a ridiculous plastic tube was not first on my list of priorities.  But when you’re in St. Croix, you’re in one of the most extraordinary places on earth to snorkel, and the UUH eventually coaxed me into it.

Now it’s one of my favorite things of all. I have a list of favorite places to go, certain fish I want to say hello to, and the usually justified expectation that something utterly surprising will happen at least once during any swim.

The UUH is way ahead of me on this because he’s a certified diver.  On the last trip, he bought an underwater camera.  He’s seen sharks,

I would have levitated out of the water back to the boat.

various pretty bubbles and things,


and a barracuda named Psycho that hangs around a certain reef, waiting for the divers to off a few lionfish for its lunch.  (Lionfish are a destructive introduced species that are destroying fish and reefs everywhere they go.  Certain divers are authorized to carry spearguns to kill them.)

This is Psycho the barracuda. He’s about four feet long.

Now I don’t usually do quite so much dramatic sightseeing, but our last trip to Buck Island was extraordinary.  I’ve mentioned in past posts that Buck Island is a National Marine Reserve, and contains a marked snorkeling trail through its reefs that everyone should try at least once.

Part of the Buck Island snorkel path. Sometimes even the natives need directions.

As we’d been to Buck Island a few times, I took a different direction than the rest of the swimmers.  I was poking around the corals, minding my own business, when I was surrounded by hundreds of blue tangs in a matter of moments.  They streamed past me on all sides — I was in the center of this amazing moving tribe — and while a couple of them gave me the side-eye, most of them were utterly unconcerned by the appearance of this odd-looking creature amongst them.


A small part of the Blue Tang Clan at Buck Island. There are hundreds more.

Blue Tangs (in the Caribbean, Acanthurus coeruleus) vary in shade from dark to robin’s egg blue, eat krill and algae off corals, and can group in gangs to beat up damselfish for the best buffets.  No joke.  These guys have a “caudal spine” near their tails (that’s the yellow marking you can see in the first photo) that when deployed is sharp enough to slice through a wetsuit and leave you with a nasty infected cut.  Some even are thought to have poison glands at the caudal spine, which is pretty cool if you think like a twelve-year-old, like I do.

The more usual way to see blue tangs.

The more usual way to see blue tangs.

On our various trips, I’d seen a lot of blue tangs, but nothing like this massive flow of fish.  I swam with them for at least a half hour as they wended their way through the snorkeling trail, grouping occasionally to pick algae off the corals, and then surging away again.  When they finally streamed off through a gap in the reef to head out into the open ocean, I turned back to the boat, where I sat for a while like a person who’d just been hit with a skillet in a cartoon.

The Blue Tang Clan was on my mind for the rest of our stay.  I did have some work to do; I had to test out some soap formulas to see how they performed under the different weather conditions of the Caribbean.  My first batch was an unmitigated disaster — wet, sticky and beyond ugly in virtually every possible dimension.  I tossed it and reworked the formula from the ground up. With that in hand, I looked at what I had available for ingredients —  I’d scored some genuine St. Croix coconut oil from the Mango Melee festival, St. Croix honey from the tiny farmer’s stand down the hill, some unrefined Ghanaian shea butter from a local beauty store, and a slightly oddball silicone bread mold from Gallows Bay Hardware.  It came out beautifully and smells like heaven.

St. Croix Pure Honey.

“St. Croix Pure Honey.”

The second batch I made on island wasn’t quite so successful. I had added a touch of my handmade sea salt to make the soap a little harder, and apparently I added too much; the soap was crumbly and unappealing in texture when I cut it after we got back to Northern California.  Time for a rebatch.  And what better time than to commemorate that amazing swim at Buck Island?   A bit of coconut milk, a  bracing shot of lavender, a touch of jasmine and some ultramarine blue, and I had “Blue Tang Clan.”

"Blue Tang Clan."

“Blue Tang Clan.”

The soap wasn’t the only way I memorialized  the experience, though.  You see, I’d been thinking about getting a tattoo for some time . . . which I’ll talk about in Episode Three.

Oh come on, it’s practically required nowadays to save the Big Reveal until after the commercial.  Psycho wouldn’t have it any other way.

'Till the next lionfish.

‘Till the next lionfish.

Salt, Soap, Tattoos and Turtles: St. Croix, The Intermission

In our last St. Croix episode, I described making seawater salt. (A lot easier than you think). The next installment will be about making soap on the rock, which is a bit different in circumstances than in Northern California.

Soap -- Island Jasmine on the left, St. Croix Pure Honey on the right, and the sea salt

That’s Island Jasmine on the left and St. Croix Pure Honey on the right. Both batches were on-the-fly reworked versions of a go-to formula I have here in Northern California.  The Honey soap came out like a beaut.  The Island Jasmine wasn’t satisfactory in texture, so I rebatched it into two versions back here in Northern Cal — another pure Island Jasmine with a touch more color, and one jasmine and lavender, colored with ultramarine blue, to celebrate the Blue Tang Clan I swam with (and got my first tattoo for) at Buck Island.

Blue Tang fish

Both soaps are unmolded now and I hope to cut them tomorrow.  But in the meantime, a quiet and contemplative moment.  (Soapmaking can drive you crazy with impatience.)

Wilson's plover, on Sandy Point during our leatherback turtle hatchling adventure.

I hope for another post tomorrow — a barracuda named Psycho, the Blue Tang Clan at Buck Island, mangos and coconut oil and baby leatherback turtles and sharks all want to show off.


Hunter’s Dirt Soap

IMG_3887 Hunter’s Dirt Soap samples are now out and roaming!  They can be tracked down at Archery Only in Newark, CA and Kerley’s in Cupertino, CA.

Scent masking is important for all hunters, and Dirt Soap might be one way to start the process.  It seems to work best if you do a full body wash, including your hair, and let yourself drip dry.  You might get some funny looks if you do this right before standing in a Togo’s line for lunch.  Ask me how I know.

The soap contains pure olive, coconut, and castor oils, with green chrome oxide, activated charcoal, and walnut hull powder for the “camo” look, as well as a dirt fragrance. Like any other soap, don’t get it in your eyes, and stop using it if it causes irritation.  Finally:  WARNING:  like it says on the label, the walnut hull powder is a NUT PRODUCT.

For a little more backstory on the soap, check here:  Tough Guy Hunting, Fishing, Rock ‘n Roll and Soap Club.

We’re looking for feedback on the formulation.  You can leave a comment here, contact us with the “Contact” button above, or get us directly at the phone number/address on the sample tag.  We’d love to hear from you!

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Salt, Soap, Tangs, Tattoos and Turtles — St. Croix, A Multi-Episode Event

Episode One:  Birds, Butterflies, and Salt

The Accidental Alchemist found herself fetched ashore upon a certain island again, fortunately not by shipwreck but instead by a rather painless plane flight from Miami.  And while I failed to bend any local spirits to my will, I did bring some bananaquits around through the magic of Turbinado sugar.

I’m pretty sure that’s a new kid on the block — you can still see some  “baby fuzz” sticking out from his grownup duds.  Most of our BQ gang has moved down the hill from us, because the Ginger Thomas is not flowering very much at this point in the year and I think they’ve moved on to other nectar food sources.   The concentration of hummingbirds has decreased as well, though the kingbirds are more active and vocal than usual.  This is because it is snowing.

Well, that’s what some call it — “Crucian snow,” when a local species of small, white,  faster-than-a-Wall-Street-banker-after-your-IRA butterflies (probably these guys) decides it’s time to get it on.  There are masses of them and when they start dancing together in the air, it does look like a snow flurry.  The problem is, they’re so fast they are almost impossible to catch in a photograph when you’re as clumsy as I am.  This is as close as I got to capturing the blizzards that circled our house for days.

IMG_3404(He’s the tiny white dot in the middle of the picture.)

It’s not all unicorns and rainbows, though.  The kingbirds LOVE these guys for dinner and it’s a real airshow when things get serious.

Like most other birds right now, the kingbirds have kids to feed and probably mortgages to pay, so they’re pretty determined to make as much of the butterfly buffet as possible. Much Discovery Channel drama resulted.

My own goals were a little less strenuous, as supermarkets do not regularly attempt to escape.  It had occurred to me that we were surrounded by salt water, being on a Caribbean island and all, and that “local salt” seemed to be a gourmet item flogged to death in every cooking article I’d read in the last six years.  Most “everyday” salt is mined, but a great deal (and most of the fancy-dan stuff) is made from seawater.  Enter me, a gallon jug, and the Caribbean sea off Tamarind Reef. Twice, because I’d read of two methods to make seawater salt, and as a proper alchemist I had to try both. DIGITAL CAMERA

The first method is the classic one used even today in the San Francisco Bay.  Pool some water in a shallow area, let dry in sun and wind.

The second is a bit faster.  Pool water in pot and boil the living hell out of it until you get salt.

As I am a bit OCD about ingredients, I made sure to wallow out on the reef until I could capture as clean a wave as I could.  (The UUH bravely helped with one of these attempts).  There’s a bit of seagrass and other debris that bobs around closer to the shore, and I wanted to avoid as much of it as possible.

 Even so, the water has to be sieved several times to make sure you get as clean a source as possible. A regular sieve lined with a coffee filter works great for this. IMG_4119

 Eventually, you’ll get a beautiful sparkly pool of seawater ready for the pot. IMG_4121

With the first gallon, I boiled the water until there was about 1/2″-1/4″ of water left in the pot.  The salt was precipitating out and crystallizing on the bottom even then.  One glass baking pan and a towel later, out it went into the St. Croix sun.  You can see how wet it remains, even after a day and a half out there in the wild. IMG_4098 The other gallon was used in a “Boil That Dust Speck” approach (kudos to anyone who gets that reference, minus a half-point if you’re a parent).  As it was pretty muggy and there were Some Complaints about  Using The Stove In The House, out the stainless-steel pot went onto the Weber. IMG_4125 I was surprised at how fast the process was.  The salt was still a little damp when nearly all of the water had evaporated, so I spread it out on another platter and set it outside with its buddy. IMG_4126
When all was finally said and dried, I noticed a couple differences between the two techniques.  The “evaporator pool” salt seemed clumpier and definitely more brilliant white in color — I wonder if a bleaching effect from the sun had something to do with it.  The boiled-down and sun-finished salt was crumblier from the get-go.  Both were intensely salty and have a tang to them that my “regular” salt doesn’t have.  For both techniques, I estimate about a salt-shaker full from a gallon of seawater; I got a little more from the boil-down process. IMG_4137 I used some of the salt from this experiment in the soap I made later on in the trip.  But that adventure is part of Episode Two: Wrestling With Soap And The Shocking Discovery That My Spirit Animal Is A Fish.  “Soon come,” as they say in St. Croix.