Sunday, January 21, 2007

Battling with Blogger to Post Pictures

Will it work this time.....It did!

This is the start line, about an hour before the start of the first race - the Bogus Creek 150:

A closer look at the Start/Finish line:

A closer look as the mushers get their teams ready - can you see the dogs poking their heads up from the handmade wood sled?

This is a close-up of the Klejka family getting a team of puppies ready for Jeremiah's first long distance race - a 60 mile "dash":

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Race Day

I was wrong in my last post. Perhaps not wrong, because so many treasures do emerge from surprises. But it's not an exclusive coincidence. Traditions bring about some fine treasures too.

Yesterday I did my daily [symbolic] cartwheel over the start of the 28th Annual Kuskokwim-300 Race.

The K-300 is an Iditarod-qualifiying dogsled race, as well as our winter carnival, our community potluck, and one of the best reasons to make a home in Bethel, Alaska. For a few days every year, a small remote region of Alaska (approximately the size of the State of Oregon) opens up homes, schools, yards, kitchens, cultural centers and hearts to the arrival of dog-mushers and their teams. Mushers and their teams stay with "host families." Kids bake cookies for the mushers, which they pack into little brown lunch bags with endearing notes of encouragement meticulously written onto those sheets of paper with three lines and space for a drawing. The musicians in town, and there are many, kick-off events with a "Benefit Concert," the proceeds of which go to buying fireworks. Kitchens all across town kick into high-gear, producing communal pots of chilis and soups, breads, biscuits, cookies, brownies, lasagne, cheesecake. The radio announces when a musher is coming in for a finish - and the whole town seems to put down whatever task it was in the middle of and make the way down to the river to give a welcoming applause.

There are actually three dogsledding races - the K-300, the Bogus Creek-150 and the Aniak Dash. The Bogus Creek - 150 started yesterday at 5 p.m., the K-300 yesterday at 6 and today will be the start of the Aniak Dash. Three races, two days. All requiring several veterinarians (please keep in mind that this region - the size of the State of Oregon - has only one vet, here in Bethel, that lives in Eagle River and comes out for one week every month), crowds of checkers, checkpoints, trails, trail markers, persons to wait for mushers at certain hard-to-mark corners of the trail, cooks, coffee-makers, volunteers, hay deliverers, truck support, reporters, and more to be dispersed - with gear appropriate for weather conditions that range from last years 60 below to the sweaty balminess of the 30's - throughout a region that has no roads.

It's a miracle of sorts. Except not really. It's all the celebration of a miracle, but all the production, hard-work, selflessness, know-how and social joy of the volunteers.

It all merits so much description. For the moment, however, I must run to finish baking my loaves of bread for the volunteers who have been posted at race headquarters all night long, a batch of banana oatmeal chocolate chip cookies to greet my boyfriend who should shortly be returning from his overnight task of checking at the Bogus Creek checkpoint, and a quiche to refresh him after his 75 mile trek home on a snowmachine.

p.s. So many pictures. Usually Blogger frustrates me by limiting me to just one picture per post. Today, Blogger won't let me post any at all. This is a shame. I wanted to post a picture of the mushers who arrived early for the Bogus-150 Race. My guess is that they hoped to set up before the crowds arrived. If you had looked closely, you would have seen all the different ways in which the dogs arrive. Some make grand entraces in pick-ups the size of tanks, geared-up with every gadget that Black Hawk engineers would have recommended to Detroit had Detroit ever pondered specializing in mushing transportation. Others make more humble entraces, in the homemade wood sleds being towed behind the mushers' snowmachines which they rode in from the village that morning. And you would have seen all the trucks and bulldozers and snowmachines and sleds and four-wheelers and kids being pulled around by mothers in plastic sleds (which I like to call the 'Bethel Strollers'), all - so astonishingly - congregating in the middle of, and on the top of, one of America's strongest, un-dam'ed rivers.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Special of the Day

Treasure, my friends, is almost always in the surprises. Isn't it?

Imagine my joy - my glee! - my aura of giddiness, when (whilst trying to find a loaf of sandwich bread that had more than 3 days until its expiration) I glanced over my shoulder and discovered 3 little round boxes of real brie shoved into a corner of a refrigerator case. If my giddiness had not already exceeded the Bush Alaska tolerance for dramatics, I might have made a point of pinching myself. It simply felt too amazing to be true. Did I really just find real brie in Bethel?

Now I know that "Ile de France, America's Favorite [Brie] Since 1936" would not qualify as "real" in most places. But here, where desperation has almost brought me more than once to the low point of buying nuclear-proof "brie spread", it is treasure. Truly treasure. Rare treasure.

I snapped one up, elated to forget the bread, and practically skipped through the snow straight home.

Do I eat it with crackers? Could I restrain myself long enough to let it "ripen" to room temperature? Was I fool to think that Ile de France brie needed ripening? To what gods does one pray to find the willpower to hold back long enough to bake a hot, crusty loaf of fresh bread? I poured myself a jam jar of the last of my precious wine (boxed), and contemplated how best to make savour this treat.

In the end, I treated myself to the luxury of a simple dinner of brie (no crackers to distract from my grocery discovery; no bread to delay its gratification) and boxed wine (two precious refills of that jam jar). (I feel the need to explain that I live 500 airmiles from the nearest package store, that there are no roads - except a frozen river - out of my town to that liquor store, that town law prevents the sale of alcohol within the town, and that therefore when one runs out - one is out. Wine is therefore precious. And boxed wine, which stores well and ships easier, starts to taste just fine. Especially when one, like I was, is tipping into one's last box of it.)

Only when I had finished that entire round of cheese, did I lthink to turn over the little round box to look at the price. My 8oz round of Ile de France cost $18.99. There was a big sticker advertising that it was the "Special of the Day." It was a special something alright.

So what does one do when they discover that the brie they just inhaled (despite all attempts to be haute with such rare cuisine) costs approximately $60 a pound?

They chuckle, my friends, whilst they re-layer themselves into the long-johns, sweaters, Carharrt work bibs, fur-ruffed and down-stuffed coat, two layers of gloves & mittens, REI face mask, beaver hat and hand-knit wool scarf that are necessary for the treck back to the store in the 42 below to see if there's any brie left.

There wasn't. Secrets travel fast in the Bush.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Walking the Dogs

It is 45 below this morning. Admittedly, that is with the wind chill factored in. Without windchill, it is merely 30 below.

The dogs don't care. They want their walk.

Here's my usual dogwalking outfit:

When it gets to 45 below, however, I add a facemask and double the gloves on my hands.

Sometimes I try to be tougher than I really am, and opt not for the attention-grabbing frostbite-saving cover of a facemask. Instead, I wrap around my face (leaving a slant gap beneath my hat for my eyes) the orange and yellow scarf I knitted as last winter's hobby. It is bright. And big. I could see how it could be attention-grabbing, especially when wrapped around my face. For whatever mysterious reasons, however, I am convinced that it is less conspicuous than the simple black facemask that I bought from REI.

As for doubling my gloves, I cover my wind-proof gloves with the double-layered woolen mittens that I nabbed from my little brother (6'4) when he was visiting last year. Because his hands are double the size of mine, they allow ample room for the insertion of activated hand-warmers.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


It's funny. I've pondered rather thoroughly how I want to describe myself, but now that I'm sitting down to it, the most important thing to type seems to be an explanation that it is too cold outside to start my boyfriend's truck. It simply won't start. I tried on my own. That didn't work. My boyfriend is travelling in the Outside and was, at that moment, on an airplane. So I couldn't call him. I ended up calling around town until someone gave me the number for Kenny's Towing. Then Skendar, from Kenny's Towing, came over. He is from Albania. He couldn't get it started either. He did the jumper cable thing. We let it charge up for awhile, while we stood around in the 30 below wearing what an Outsider might assume were matching Carharrts and hats. We talked for awhile - nonchalantly about the cold, and how he had once changed the tire on this truck. We tried to start it every now and then. But no luck. It never "turned" (that's how Skendar described the sputtering noise that I was wishing so earnestly not to hear).

It is, quite simply, too cold outside to start-up my boyfriend's pick-up.

So, instead, I've come inside and started a blog.

But that's not really an "introduction". It's more of a "snapshot." Let me try this:

Me. I'm sitting at my kitchen table, still warming up from the outside and wearing my professional attire of jeans and a cardigan beneath the Carharrt work bibs I have not yet taken off. My white coat, freshly dry-cleaned during my own recent trip to the Outside, is propped up on a chair next to the heater, absorbing extra heat for the upcoming dogwalk I could confess to dreading. I just activated two packages of handwarmers, which are perched to the left of my laptop and are kicking up extra heat for the same purpose.

I'm thirty-two. Three years in Alaska, the last one in Bethel. I came on my own gumption to Alaska, and followed a boyfriend to Bethel. Two leaps of faith that ended well. If there is one thing to know about me - I love Bethel, Alaska. If you already know a lot about me, and are just checking-in to see what I'm up to - yes, I still love Bethel, Alaska.

I cook. Prodigously. I intend to write a lot about that.

I wax. Poetic, nostalgic and sometimes rebelliously. Often Quixotically.

I have a dog. Puck. I'll probably write about him a lot too. I'll probably post lots of pictures of him too. For example, I just did. He's quite photogenic, isn't he? Oh, I do adore that little bundle of mischief. I also adore my boyfriend's dog. But I suspect I should get permission before I go posting pictures of him. So - for the moment, I advertise only copious pictures of the Puck'ster.

I don't think I love bacon. But I do tend to eat much of it during the nine months of winter. Fortunately, bacon is not my only winter hobby. I've also taken up knitting, kind of. I bought a banjo and a Pete Seeger guide to teaching one's self to play the banjo, but I haven't been too good with that new hobby. I do practice, every now and then, on my Irish tin whistle. But only because I'm hopelessly pathetic on it, and I find that entertaining. I'm on art and dog mushing committees, and have the luxury of being able to say "Yes" to almost every volunteer opportunity. Dog mushing is my latest. I'm sure I'll be posting a lot about dog mushing. I was in one race last Spring, and got hooked. Not that I've been in any more races, but that I am fully aware of how that one experience has forever transformed my perception of the ingredients for my Good Life.

There is a group of four or five of us, around the same general age and arrival dates in Bethel, that plan on raising a pig in the Spring. My goal...well, it's more of a dream, is to really work on my cheesemaking over the winter, so that I can be prolific enough in that art by Spring as to have lots of whey to feed the pig. I've read that it is the whey leftover from making Parmigiano-Reggiano, that makes the hams of Emilia-Romana so remarkable. I want to call him Churchhill. I also want to try making my own prosciutto. I do suspect that naming the pig makes me less likely to achieve that goal.

All in all, I work less than I hobby. This is a new development. A Bethel one, in fact. I've been dreaming of such a balance, however, for a long time. There was a time in my life when I thought it couldn't exist. I think of how nearly I gave up hope that life could be more than billable hours, and I consider myself lucky. It is that luck that I try to daily celebrate with at least one (symbolic) cartwheel of glee.

And, to wrap it up - at least for the now, I sometimes dream of opening my own little hole in the wall, with brick walls (a rare luxury out here in Bush Alaska), lots of windows (again, rare) and a long row of counter and stools. It will be called, as you might guess, Quixote's Tart. And from its open kitchen and witty clientele, I hope to serve up a cuisine of humble magnitude.

In the meantime, I practice. Often. The cuisine, the humility, and the recognition of true magnitude. I'm getting more adept at creativity and make-do, have managed to learn one or two arctic tundra survival tricks, and am becoming ever more familiar with the potential of pantry items.