Sunday, December 14, 2014

Walking on the river


We don't have much snow in Eagle River, but at least we have enough to make things white and pretty and brighter at night. There is also lots of frost in the bottom of the valley keeping it looking nice and wintery. 

Eagle River is frozen pretty well and we've take a couple of walks on it. It's fun to easily walk to places we've never been to in the summer. It's colder down in the bottom of the valley than the rest of Eagle River, but it hasn't been all that cold this year anyway. Yesterday it was about 14F at our house and today it was in the 20s. 






Monday, December 8, 2014

New Wildberry Jellies

We had a great berry harvest in Eagle River and Kotzebue this year. I tried to focus on a few new berries and flowers that I had never used for jelly before. This is what I tried that was new to me and how it turned out:

Fireweed Blossom Jelly


I found that picking fireweed blossoms was really easy - you just strip them off the stalk. You boil the blossoms in water (or champagne or whatever other liquid your heart desires), strain, boil again, add sugar and pectin. Mine set up a little too well though. It's still edible, but not very spreadable. Both the champagne jelly and the regular jelly, even though I used about half the amount of pectin the second time. Maybe fireweed blossoms just have a lot of natural pectin? Next year I'll try making a batch with no pectin. It turns out a beautiful deep pink color, much brighter than I had imagined and has a soft floral flavor.

Crowberry Jelly


Crowberries grow on the tundra of much of Alaska and in the alpine. They are tiny little berries but they grow thicker than any other berry I've ever seen. I was first introduced to them working at a fish camp in Bristol Bay and we ate a lot of them because there weren't many other berries around. I don't know many non-Alaska Natives who pick these and I do not know why. They are so abundant and easy to pick and they're juicy and flavorful. The skin can be a little bitter, especially early in the season, but the juiciness makes them perfect for jelly. Ryan and I picked gallons of these this fall. They make a rich flavorful and deep black-purplish jelly (that stains everything).

I've found the best recipe is to add about 1 cup apple juice to ~6 cups crowberry juice to take away the bitter flavor. These do need a lot of sugar as well. Unlike a lot of other fruit, they are bitter without enough sugar rather than tart (I love tart, but not so much bitter). Every batch I've made has set up fine with 1 box of ball low sugar pectin to ~4-5 cups juice.

Watermelonberry Jelly


Watermelon berries are one of my favorites and they grow all over Kodiak; however, I've never seen them in enough abundance to bother collecting them. I've always just consumed as I picked. It's sometimes hard to imagine that anything that likes a cool wet environment grows somewhere better than it does in Kodiak, but watermelon berries appear to love east-facing slopes in Eagle River. Ryan and I stumbled upon some while on a hiking trip looking for blueberries and couldn't give up the watermelon berry patches for hours.

I strained these to make jelly and added some sugar (don't remember how much), but it was too much. The jelly turned out very sweet and set up fairly well with the Ball low sugar pectin. Now I can see that watermelon berries are very naturally sweet - they are neither tart nor bitter - and need very little sugar to make tasty jelly. I'm not complaining about this batch though, it basically tastes like candy.

Red Currant Jelly


I had no idea that wild red currants grew in any abundance in Alaska. They don't grow on Kodiak at all. I had seen a few in the interior, but also never in any abundance worth taking home. On a hunt for high bush cranberries down by the river near our condo, I came upon a couple of very short bushes with a handful of tiny berries on each. Knowing I love red currants, I decided it might be worthwhile to root around for more bushes to at least get a cup or two for one small batch of jelly. It only took a few minutes before we were in the thick of dead fall in the woods finding bushes so loaded with currants they were laying on the ground. We picked almost a gallon in an hour and a half.

I had heard that red currants have a lot of natural pectin so I didn't use much and the jelly set up great. I also tried to use some of the juice to make syrup, but it set up as jelly anyway, even without pectin. Red currants are also very tart, even for me, and they require a lot of sugar.

I attempted to pick cloudberries in Kotzebue this year, but they have a very short season and I missed them. They are high on my list for next year although I'm not sure if there are good places to pick them near Anchorage - someone please share their secrets! There is a great patch of trailing raspberries on the South Fork trail of Eagle River and next year I think I will dedicate some time to picking enough for a small batch of jelly. Maybe I'll even be able to get a few nagoonberries down by the river as well.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Fat Tire Bike to Serenity Falls Hut

I was invited by friends to join them for a weekend at the Serenity Falls Hut at the back of Eklutna Lake.  The invitation for this early december trip came months in advance when there was no snow on the ground.  In fact, there was so little snow in November that it wasn't until a day before the trip that I decide the best mode of travel would be on a fat tire bike.  It is about twelve miles to the hut so riding bikes saves a lot of time compared to walking or skiing.  I don't own one of these fat bikes so I rented from a local bike shop in Palmer.  I took friday off from work and we hit the trail at about noon.  The temperatures were in the upper 20s and I had no trouble staying warm.  After mile 6 or so we had to break through a few inches of snow so it took about three and a half hours to reach the hut.

This hut is amazing and much different than other mountaineering huts I like to visit in the spring.  For one thing it is huge, with bunks to sleep 13.  There is a wood stove and wall made mostly of windows we grand views toward the Eklutna Glacier.  All this comes at a price though.  This hut is notoriously difficult to heat.  Luckily, someone had left a good supply of dry spruce and with the mild temperatures were were able to get the hut warmed up to the upper 50s in just a few hours.
More friends joined the group on Saturday and I headed out by myself to join Molly at party in Anchorage.  With a little lighter load and better packed trail I was able to make it back to the parking lot in 2 hours and 20 minutes.

This is nice hut and I would like to visit it again in the fall when there are nice colors on the trees.

Inside the hut

View of the hut from the river

My rented fat bike equipped with panniers.

Taking a break on the trail

No ice on Eklutna Lake yet

Monday, December 1, 2014

Cabin Trip


We went out to the Cross Family cabin north of Talkeetna on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. There still wasn't much snow up there (just a dusting), so we took four-wheelers instead of snow machines.  It snowed a couple of inches while we were there, but it was still fine for getting out. It was 12F when we left on Sunday - strange weather for four-wheeling! When we arrived home on Sunday it had finally snowed in Eagle River. The snow just squeaked in before December.


The trail was in much better condition that it was last time we went. It was very rutted out and muddy in October, but now it's frozen solid (even though the ruts are still there).


We got some chores done, rolled some logs, and played a few games. I had the longest streak of Monopoly luck of my life. I'm pretty sure neither Ryan nor my brother will play with me again anytime soon.



And we had this amazing view of Foraker and Denali on our way back.




Saturday, November 22, 2014

Ice skating at Nancy Lake State Park

Its almost the end of November and we still don't have snow.  While many are complaining about the lack of snow for skiing there is an upside...the ice skating is great right now.  Today I joined a group of friends and new acquaintances for ice skating at Nancy Lake State Park.  Despite driving past this park many time I have never visited.  I knew the park was good for canoeing with short portages between many lakes.  It turns out the park is great to touring on ice skates as well.  The sun was low on the horizon all day but we were all just happy to be out enjoying the blue skies.  We skated for about 4 hours making a loop that took us to about a dozen lakes.  It was probably the most time I have ever spent on ice skates.  We also saw a handful of people touring on fat tire bikes.  Regardless of the mode of transportation everyone was having a great day.




Monday, October 20, 2014

World Class Mountains

The view south from Mount Baldy
Earlier this fall I heard a radio show here in Anchorage about Chugach State Park. They described the peaks around Eagle River as "world class." First I thought "Really, these peaks?" But as I listened to more of the discussion, I realized that the extraordinary natural beauty and rugged mountains of the Chugach were ordinary to me. They were so close to home and so accessible that I had not really thought about how rare it is to live near such high peaks. Sure, these are only 5000-7000 foot mountains, but they rise from near sea level - they don't sit on a high-altitude plateau like most of the tall mountain ranges of the world. And unlike the towering peaks of the Alaska Range, they are right here on the road system.

The mountains have been particularly spectacular the last couple of days with fresh snow, strange cloud formations, and deep blue skies. I haven't taken any photos because [insert lame excuse] so you'll have to enjoy these photos from earlier in the month.

Looking into Eagle River Valley from Mike High Pass

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Cross Family Cabin in October

October is a transitional season in Talkeetna.  Winter felt like it was looming and a thin sheet of ice covered half of the lake yet squirrels chattered noisily in the trees and ducks were feeding in the shallow water on the lake.  We were lucky to ride the four wheeler in Friday evening without getting rained on but heavy rain fell Friday night and most of Saturday.  With temperatures just a few degrees above freezing we kept the wood stove going strong and enjoyed the cozy atmosphere.  I'm looking forward to returning in November on snow machines.

Whipping up some halibut stir fry and dessert too!
I spent some time learning the basics of the Dulcimer.
A thin sheet of ice covers half of the lake
Fresh bear tracks on the trail!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Last hike of fall





I know fall technically just started, but it could be over at any moment in Anchorage. There's only a little termination dust right now, but it won't be long before the snow is on the mountains to stay. We took perhaps our last chance to hike up high on snow-free terrain today after work. It was a little muddy but the late evening light was beautiful. We've had a streak of spectacular weather so I won't complain too much when it does finally snow.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Bears in Denali

 We were more than lucky with bear viewing when we drove the Denali Park Road last weekend. When we started heading into the park, we first saw a sow and two cubs way up on a hill which was cool enough. Then we saw this very dark grizzly close to the road and thought we were pretty special. Once it started to realize how many cars had stopped to watch it eat blueberries, it decided to head the other direction.


A few miles later we passed some people stopped at a pull-out with tables and a big picnic lunch set up. A few minutes later we stopped to see this nice round medium brown grizzly. It only lingered on the tundra for a few minutes and then lumbered down onto the road right in front of our car and walked by us.





The bear continued walking down the road like nobody was watching (or like it enjoyed performing) toward the people having a picnic. Once we drove away we could see that they had packed up and were pulling away, I'm sure in a hurry.

After a few more distant bear sightings, just as it was getting dark we saw this bear at the same place we had seen the dark grizzly earlier in the day (this is definitely a different bear). It foraged around near the road for quite some time, then crossed the road and continued foraging along the other side. A great end to our day!




Sunday, September 14, 2014

Denali Road Lottery Round Two

Denali from just before the Eielson Visitor Center
Ryan won a road lottery ticket for Denali National Park this weekend (usually the road is only open to buses but for four days in September they open it up to private vehicles via a lottery system). This is the second year in a row I've gotten to go (my cousin had a ticket last year). We rented a minivan and headed up there with my cousin and two friends from Anchorage. We got pretty lucky with the weather. Even though the fall colors were a little past their prime (unlike last year) it was warm - in the high 50's and it didn't rain on us. It was very windy in places, especially the second night at our campground, but our tents withheld the wind fine.

We saw bits of the mountain which is pretty lucky because one only has a 30% chance of seeing it on any given day in the park. We were also very lucky with wildlife viewing but I will save that for the next post. For now, here are some scenery shots.

Polychrome area

Late evening sun

Denali from the Eielson Visitor Center

A peek at Denali entering the park

That's Denali in the background, I swear