Sunday, December 30, 2007

Wickersham Dome, -5F

After our Christmas gorge here in Fairbanks, we were quasi-inspired or at least not utterly uninspired by our semi-pro athlete friends H. and J. to drag ourselves into the out-of-doors. More than just a leisurely ski around campus, that is. Our friends A. and P. are game for almost anything, so all four of us had our first backcountry ski experience. I'm totally sold! Not only because it was a blast but because it gives us an excuse to gorge more! We headed out at day break to the White Mountains north of Fairbanks and skied the aptly named Ski Loop part of the Wickersham Dome trail. Bob votes for the summer hike here instead, but the lack of other people and mosquitoes lead me to prefer the winter trek.
We dragged Midge along with us (behind me) who was having a great time so long as we kept moving. Even sled dogs get cold. All five us hit the Hilltop Cafe truckstop on our way home for some burgers. Well, Midge stayed in the car, but she still got her fill. I think somehow the waitress figured it out. "One hamburger-to-go for table 6, Jeanie. I THINK IT'S FOR A DOG." If you don't mind your burger charred and elongated, I recommend you order from the Hilltop this way: I think there was twice as much meat as in our people burgers.

There's a new book available out from UAF press that has a ton of great info about adventures around the AK interior. I highly recommend it so far. We're putting together a check list of all the trips we want to do.

Le Flat Place

Before Christmas proper, I headed down to Nebraska to check in with friends and family. I took a Great Lakes flight from Denver to North Platte aboard a little Beechcraft 1900. This is an awesome little plane. Unlike AK, the sun still shines (occasionally) in Nebraska this time of year. Here are some sunflowers at A.'s place holding up the weight of the snow. But it's no Caribbean. Or is it?

These palm trees at the local hot tub shop suggest otherwise. Unfortunately there were no pina coladas growing on them.

North Platte is known for a few things. Trains being most of them. Some sources claim the local Baily Yard is the largest in the world. That's a little hard for me to imagine. The same sources claim that "North Platte is an extremely boring railroad town" so perhaps neither fact is entirely objective.

A. claims there is actually a huge market for railroad tourism on which North Platte is a "real whistle stop" if you know what I mean. Again, this is difficult for me to me to wrap my mind around. There is a Golden Spike visitor center despite the golden spike having been laid (driven?) in Utah. Check your commemorative quarters, people.

NP had some other things going for it, namely a couple of cozy restaurants, some good photo-taking opportunities, and of course the company of an old friend.

Arctic Bowl

Boy, you might wonder how we pass the time during these long winter nights. Us too. I have never been overly fascinated with bowling, but I have found myself at the Arctic Bowl twice already this winter. In a couple of years you'll probably see me getting lessons from this Ned Flanders look-alike as is this lady here. We went again Friday night with friends and it was hoppin'. There were several separate clans there which I might describe as "future enlistees and their future wives," hipsters sporting beards who look like the guys in Brooklyn who are trying to look like Alaskans, and a strange M/F couple I'll call the Graceful Bowlarina dancers (Pas de deux).

Amazingly, there are actually at least three bowling alleys in town: one on campus, one on the Army base, and Arctic Bowl. Other proposed indoor activities include curling and women's hockey. I'll let you know how those go. Arctic Bowl is the best because 1) they serve Fairbanks lager 2) they are adjacent to the best (& also the sleaziest) Korean restaurant in town, which is 3) also adjacent to an Asian grocery store. So really it's three exciting destinations in one. And if I wanted to learn Tai Kwon Do there would be four.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Worst is Over?

Well, we made it through the winter solstice, which is a big deal here. Shortest day of the year. Civil twilight began at 9:32 am. The sun crept above the horizon at 10:58 am. Sunset was at 2:40 pm and civil twilight ended at 4:06 pm. 3:38 of sun above the horizon is pretty rough. The moon was a waxing gibbous at 93% which made it almost tolerable. Right before the solstice we had a cold snap of -40s. Yish. I missed most of that while on travel. Climatology has us at +5 high and -9 low for December; not half bad. According to our friend at Swingley Development, the current running average is probably pretty close to climatology. The cold snap made up for warm anomalies early in the month. The sunlight minimum has passed but the average temperature minimum is typically in January, thanks to thermal inertia in the climate system. We here in the 'banks are all generally weather obsessed for obvious reasons.

What are some of the impacts of -40 on our way of life? Good and bad. Our tires are square in the morning. They tha-thunk down the road until they warm up. On the other hand, freezing food is free. We like to cook a lot and squirrel away the extra in the chest freezer. The cold helps us save on energy costs. With the cost of oil and the cold temperatures, we fuss a lot about energy consumption. Bob's good about installing timers and unplugging stuff when we don't need it...I don't know if it's the engineer training or just common sense.

We recently purchased an "energy efficient" counter top dishwasher from Edgestar. It's slightly bigger than a microwave and supposedly holds 4 place settings worth of dishes, silverware, and glasses. Uses only 3 gallons of water and has an internal heater, so the input is cold water. Perhaps the verdict is still out, but after one load all signs point to "piece of crap". Like all other consumer products these days. And because Compact Appliances wouldn't ship to AK, I shipped it from Nebraska at great expense. Oh well. I don't think our expectations were too high, but like many Alaskans, custom made cabinetry meant no chance of a regular dishwasher. Bourgeois problems.

Well, we've been busy dirtying dishes as well, since our friends A. & P. gave us this incredible cookbook. We love Deborah Madison's Veg Cooking for Everyone, but a lot of these soup recipes are really new and interesting. I made the lentil walnut cream soup yesterday, which was delicious, even with my substitute of hazelnuts. Bob's been doing mad baking all month which is nearly killing me. I finally got out for a ski today and look forward to working off the latest chocolate cake. Yes, I think the worst is over.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Goose vs. Tofurkey

We had a great thanksgiving this year. Two of them, actually. Thursday night we cooked this 9 pound goose. Or rather is started at 9 pounds and cooked down to about 7 after I followed this recipe for Scandinavian-style roasted goose from 1964. It turned out dee-lish. We're planning to roast some potatoes with some of the goose fat next week. I think we should have enough to fulfill our goose fat needs for the next couple of years, in fact. We didn't have any apples or plums to stuff it, so I just used whatever I could find to plug it up: a lemon, an onion, and a potato finally filled the inside.

Bob made his usual crazy assortment of pies. This time it was pumpkin and eggnog cranberry. Wow. Where did I find this guy?

I also made a stuffing from scratch that was multigrain bread, sage pork sausage, sauteed leeks, fresh sage, and craisins. I promised Bob that I'd make it again for Christmas; it was that good!

We had our friends P., J., & M. over and they brought sweet potatoes and bean casserole. It was a sight to behold. As if that wasn't enough, Friday we had a second motherlode of good eats when more friends G., I., M., S., J., & P came over. This time the menu was vegan. I made cabbage roles filled with barley, veggies, and tempeh, which got covered in tomato sauce and baked. I also made a phyllo strudel with yukon gold potatoes, artichokes, onion, tofu, and lots of fresh tarragon. And that went with mushroom gravy, if you can believe it. Bob made a plum chocolate cake which was pretty good, especially after I rescued it from the oven and put in all of the ingredients he forgot including the leavening. G. & I. brought a tofurkey, which was pretty darn good, as well as pie, salad, and half a dozen other things. It's hard to even feel guilty after you eat this stuff.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Sour Cream Cranberry Rye Bread

This turned out pretty yum! We put some of R.'s pluot jam on the bread and ate it with the last of the king crab Bob brought back from Nome in July. The rye-cranberry combo is very similar to a lingonberry bread we found at Ikea this summer. The ground cranberries are subtle and only add a perfumey taste to the rye. The recipe says make two loaves. I made three and let it rise on our soapstone wood stove while we were out skiing.

1 c. warm water
2 pkgs. (2 scant tbsp.) dry yeast
1 c. sour cream
1 tbsp. salt (!!! I used 1 teaspoon)
1/2 c. molasses
1/4 c. sugar
1/4 tsp. allspice
1/4 tsp. cloves
2 c. fresh cranberries, ground
3 c. rye flour
4 1/2 to 5 c. unbleached flour

In a large mixer bowl dissolve yeast in warm water. Add sour cream, salt, molasses, sugar, allspice, cloves, cranberries and rye flour. Blend together on low speed, then beat at medium speed for 5 minutes. Add enough bread flour to make a soft dough.

Knead for 5 minutes. Place in greased bowl; cover; let rise until double in bulk. Punch down. Divide into 2 equal parts and let rest, covered, for 10 minutes. Grease 2 (9 x 5 inch) loaf pans. Shape each piece of dough into a loaf and place in pan; cover and let rise until double in size.

Bake at 375 degrees for 35 to 40 minutes until deep golden brown. If loaves become too brown, cover loosely with foil during last 10 minutes of baking. Remove from pans immediately and cool on wire racks. Brush with butter while still warm, if desired. Makes 2 loaves.


Well this Bonasa umbellus of the Galliformes order came traipsing across our yard today. Bob's first impulse was to shoot her, as he went hunting unsuccessfully for these little birds earlier this fall. I did a split second calculation about not wanting to figure out how to clean it and decided to shoot it with my Nikon instead. These grouse are related to ptarmigan and prairie chickens. Big, low flying, and slow.

For future reference I found (of course) an Alaskan website on grouse cleaning. This is NFV (not for vegans) but shows some good AK color.

Lady Chainsaws

Me and some girls from work had a ladies' night out a couple of weeks ago. This was pretty fun. The cast of characters included A. from Mexico via Chicago and California notable for her *licensed* Noguchi lamp collection, O. from Hawaii/Nebraska who spent her teen years living in her parents RV and now rides a badass motorcycle, M. who is also a former Nebraskan and the alternate state climatologist (there is a longtime debate about the official one living in Anchorage and some kind of illegitimate usurpation of that crown), and O. who is a German linguist who studies dying Athabaskan languages on the upper Tanana River. Great bunch of gals.

You really know you are in Alaska when the topic turns to chopping fallen trees for firewood and your lady friends offer you their lady chainsaws. Uhhh, I had no idea there was such a thing as a lady chainsaw. When one searches the internet for "women's chainsaw" one finds the following convo:

From: Brushcuttingirl

"Hi all. Does anyone have any suggestions for a good chainsaw for a woman to use? We have several different makes and models and I can run the smaller to medium ones but my biggest problem is getting them started! I just can't seem to yank hard enough. I've been thinking about buying an electric but have heard that they don't have that much power. I read the discussion on electrics on board and it only reinforced my decision to go electric. Mostly what I'll be using it for would be to clean up the woods around the house. Not the back 40 mind you, just around the yard!

Thanks in advance for any advice (appreciated) and comments."

Response from: Phorester

"Sounds like you will be using the saw well away from an electrical outlet, and don't want to drag around a couple hundred feet of extension cord?

On the high end gas saws you can get one with a decompression switch. This reduces the amount of strength needed to pull the starter cord by quite a lot. Your local dealer will know about this.

Also, how are you attempting to start the saw? Setting it on the ground and putting your foot through the back handle while holding down on the front handle with your other hand should anchor it pretty well to pull the cord.

But my wife had the same problem. We could only solve it by letting me use the saw, she used the splitting maul."

Uhhh. Yeah.

P.S. Here's Jill's solution to the problem.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Anchorage Underworld

Well, this post is coming to you from Alaska's seedy center, Anchorage USA. Since I seem to only have time for reading on airplanes, let me tell you about this gem I found at the airport. Kim Rich wrote this memoir about her rearing by a gangster and a stripper in high-flying 1960s Anchorage. Pretty sordid stories, but it's a really captivating book that breaks out of the Alaska literary mold. That's Jello not fungi.

These days the underworld pretty much mingles with the overworld. One need only to stand at the central bus station for a few minutes to witness this. Last year Bob and I watched a station attendant roll a sleeping man over long enough to wipe up the small pool of blood under him, then he just rolled the guy back. Downtown is a regular lineup of cheap ivory shops, drunks, and hookers. And a stolid 6-foot tall blond woman selling reindeer sausage out of her minivan.

I had breakfast at the adorable Snow City Cafe. A real bright spot on the downtown landscape. As some of you know, most of downtown Anchorage was destroyed in the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, the largest recorded in North American History at 9.2 on the Moment scale. My impression from Rich's book of Anchorage before the earthquake is a mix of northern slum and glitzy nightlife. Well it was rebuilt so that every building looks like the Mutual of Omaha headquarters, which is to say not pretty. Tragic considering the gorgeous ocean inlet and neighboring snow-covered mountains. Now a canyon of brown tinted glass and stained stucco.

Of course, Anchorage people don't see it that way and they have plenty of criticism for Fairbanks. Though I'm spending most of the week with oil barons, I did get to meet up with R., with whom I went to college. She hosts one of my favorite Alaska-based radio shows. And she lived in Iowa City and is hitched to a Nebraskan. So we've lived in many of the same places, just in a different order. R. brought along a friend, H. who is a pilot for a well-known aerial photography company and has seen many corners of the state. We all had a fun time comparing our AK experiences. After a beer under a deafening broadcast of Law and Order, we paused in the hotel lobby to soak up an 50 person strong ukulele jam-and-sing. There is a convention for Hawaiian diaspora here this week and the consensus is that folks in the 49th state could learn a lot from those in the 50th. These people were having a blast.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Enjoying the Last Gasp of Sunshine

Our tomatoes are really turning out scrumptious. Considering we started them in March, that's 7 months in the making for these little babies. Think cherry- and strawberry-sized. But they taste pretty darn good. Certainly better than what rolls off the truck at the grocery store this time of year.

The carrots were unbelievably sweet. Also, only about two inches long, but these we planted directly in the garden, so they only represent 5 months of work.

Bob and I have also been experimenting with Greek cuisine. The Greek restaurant in Fairbanks burned down a couple of years ago, but recently we noticed a replacement has risen like a Phoenix in the ashes downtown. It's just not open yet. So for the time being, here's a giant spanikopita I made from the last of the garden's kale and collards. I boiled the winter greens for a couple of minutes, then mixed them with diced zucchini, feta, dill, olives, and onion. Mmm. Then put everything into this filo duvet. Deeee-lish.

Winter is here

Well, it seemed to happen pretty fast. Despite what the normal climatology says--snow is likely as early as mid-September--I wasn't mentally prepared. One day it got chilly. Then, there was a clear night and heat simply radiated away. The next day it was cooler. It snowed. It was clear again that night. More heat radiated away. And now the white surface reflects the incoming sun rays. That's it. Autumn is toast. Here Bob is busy putting on our snow tires and breaking the jack.

I realize that some of you still have your AC cranked high...strange weather all over the lower 48 this fall. Meanwhile the snow may be covering our canoe, but we have plans for a little tropical paradise come January. I'm not sure we'll survive otherwise. Here are the climate normals from Weather Underground.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Top of the World

Bob and I both headed north to Barrow last week for separate fieldwork projects. Barrow is the northern-most point in Alaska and serves as a hub for several of the North Slope coastal villages, as well as a whole host of science research.

We've just passed the equinox, so there are still almost 12 hours of light, even up in Barrow. However, the angle of the light is low and the amount of incoming solar radiation is dropping fast.

What used to be the Navy Arctic Research Lab, established in 1947, is now the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium. The naval architecture remains in the quonset huts and other utilitarian buildings.

I'm not sure what these giant radio dishes are for...they litter the coastal skyline. Bowhead whale skulls are also prominent fixtures; these juvenile skulls are mounted next to the community college.

Bob and his Swedish colleague Anna were installing soil moisture and temperature probes in a permafrost polygon. It was great to see some familiar faces up there. Even if those faces were burned by the steady 40 mph wind. It snowed the last couple of days I was there, but little accumulation.

Other nature highlights included seabirds, snowy owls, and this feisty fox.

A few days after we left, the autumn whaling season was set to begin. I don't know if this little boat is used for whaling, but it seemed as ready as any of the others I saw lying around. Which is to say rotten and hardly seaworthy. But that is in the spirit of these arctic towns.

The biggest story around town these days is the new football field for the Barrow Whalers. This is a bright blue and yellow astroturf field on a little sand spit on the north side of town. If you want a real field good story, check out the ESPN coverage. I'm guessing there will be a PG film in the near future. It's easy to see how it captured the imagination of the media: pretty positive story in a town where there aren't many.

Fall Sets In

Well, it's the time in Fairbanks when the sun starts to drop a little lower in the sky, shadows get long and the aspen and birch leaves turn yellow. It's started freezing at night and puddles form little ice caps. Almost time to fire up our soapstone fireplace here. Matilda and the other pups have taken on a bit of melancholy, as our days of camping and canoeing draw to a close.

Still, there's plenty to celebrate. Bob had his 31st birthday and I baked him our traditional family "toothpaste" cake. This is a peppermint chiffon cake from the 1950s that my grandmother used to bake for my mother when she was a kid and I consequently learned to appreciate at a young age.

This recipe looks pretty close, though our family uses an egg-white/sugar/peppermint/cream of tartar frosting, made in a double-broiler. Bob suggests doubling the frosting load.

While our tomatoes never ripened outdoors, we pulled them out of the soil and Bob hung them in the house, upside down. We were skeptical, but about three weeks later, the toms have started to turn red. They are incomparable to the Nebraska tomatoes I grew up with, but they are homegrown and taste pretty good. A heck-of-a lot of work for these little red nuggets, though.

Despite the onset of fall, the mushrooms seem to be going strong. In addition to the beauts growing all over the yard, we recently noticed some very large dried mushrooms that the squirrels have been stashing in the space where the walls meet the roof of the house. According to a researcher at UAF, these are likely to be hallucinogenic mushrooms which Alaska squirrels reportedly cache for the long winter. Hmmmm. Makes a lot of sense. Hunker down for winter in a nest of our roof insulation with a good stash of Shrooms.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

September on the Seward Peninsula

In mid-September, Bob and I headed out to the Seward Peninsula in northwestern Alaska. The SP makes up the US side of the Bering Strait and you can see a map here. It's totally out there. There are not a lot of photos of us doing field work because we were too exhausted. Our four-wheeler broke down and we ended up walking to all of our sites...over 25 miles on tussock tundra! It sure was beautiful, though. The photos can't adequately capture the colors.

In addition to working on the sites in the Kougarok area, we headed out the Council road, along the beach, past the fishing huts of Soloman, and finally inland to the community of Council. Just as we pulled up, the last handful of folks had pulled their boats out of the river there; a big Bering Sea storm was on its way. These storm surges can and do completely eliminate the road, situated delicately on a sand bar. If someone gets stuck on the other side they can be there for a long long time...until it snows (creating skidoo access) or the road gets rebuilt. It's a tough life out here. We weren't able to hitch a ride across the river, unfortunately, so we didn't get to one of our sites.

The arctic light was beautiful as we came back to Nome from Council. Lots of twisted driftwood from the Yukon River ends up in this lagoon area. Huge old trees from the boreal forests.

Some old railroad junk from the gold rush days rots away on the sand. In the background an old gold dredge stands waiting in the marsh. These things are the size of buildings.

Finally, this old collapsed water tank reminded me of Serra's Torqued Ellipses.