Saturday, December 28, 2013

Morrisville and Maple Syrup

Christmas day we left Anchorage at 5:30am for a series of long flights to New York.  Despite the wintery weather here in upstate New York it feels warm and bright compared to home.  As usual we have been busy catching up with family and friends.  Molly brought some canned goods to give away which has made room in our bags for maple syrup.  My grandma's neighbor operates a sugar shack with over 1000 taps.  Yesterday he gave us a tour of the sugar shack showing us how the sap is converted to syrup through reverse osmosis and evaporation.  The process is far more precise that I would have guessed.  Now we are stocked up on maple syrup.
Morrisville State College, where my grandfather taught 
The evaporator in the sugar shack
Maple Syrup and Maple Sugar

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

More Jelly Photos and Cold Temps

The photo above was taken with my iPhone after about 45 minutes of trying to mess with the settings on my DSLR. I know I have fooled some of you into thinking I actually know something about photography. Thanks to my mom and my one semester of high school photography I do know a few things about composing a decent photo. However, I have managed to forget every single thing I ever learned about manual settings (except how to focus but that's pretty hard to screw up unless you have bad vision). For the last, oh about six years, I've been telling myself I need to read the manual for my DSLR to remedy the fact that I cannot take a photo in less-than-broad daylight lighting conditions to save my life (it doesn't help that the flash is broken on our camera).

Last week I finally decided it was the time to break it out (I swear I'm working on my dissertation). After some frantic flipping, I found the section on ISO (okay, so I remembered enough to know ISO is important for lighting conditions). I changed it the way it said to for bright light conditions (now I don't remember which way that was. clearly I was paying a lot of attention). Anyway, it totally didn't change anything. All my photos were over exposed. After taking exactly one million photos, I gave up and snapped one with my iPhone. I have no idea what I should have done to let less light in. Suggestions welcome.

Maybe I'll open the manual again. In six years.

This was the best of the DSLR bunch
In weather news it is cold here again (I know, I know, newsflash, this is Alaska). But, it's not Fairbanks so I've decided that if it is below -17 degrees F, it is too cold for me to leave the house for non-necessary things (I'm working on my dissertation from home these days). When I went to leave for the gym tonight it was -18. Darn. (I know all the Fairbanks people are guffawing at this, but I put in my time walking around campus at 40 below and I'll be a soft Seattle-pansy if I want to).

We did get fresh snow recently and it is bright outside, even if we won't be getting direct sunlight for 5 1/2 more weeks. This my view at high noon (or should we call it low noon?).

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Exploring Eagle River

Winter is often the easiest time of year to travel, especially over rivers.  Today Adam and I explored a bit of Eagle River by heading out directly from my front door.  If fact we put our skis on in the driveway.   Skiing on the river was peaceful.  We saw no snowmachines in fact there were no other people at all.  Eagle River if buffered by Chugach State Park and you can't see any houses from the River upriver of our Condo.  There was a bit of overflow on the river and not much open water. The traveling seemed quite safe but we used caution and carried ice picks and a little bit of rescue gear.

It has been snowing steadily all day with very light fluffy snow.  What a beautiful place to live!

Adam ready to get started

Touring along the river

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

New Tablet

I used black Friday as an excuse to buy myself an early Christmas present - a Microsoft Surface. I've been eyeing tablets ever since they became the biggest new thing, but could never bring myself to pay too much for something in between a smartphone and a laptop that isn't a phone or capable of running the Microsoft programs I use on a regular basis.

The main reason I wanted a tablet is for travel. Because I can surf the web just fine on my iPhone while on the go, that wasn't one of my main concerns. What I did want is a device that I could download and edit photos on while traveling. Having Windows is a bonus as I can continue the same organizational system I use on my laptop. And I wanted to be able to post blog posts from the tablet while traveling (that is possible on the iPhone, but the photos end up very small) . Having a tablet with a USB port was important (for downloading photos). I also wanted to be able to run Microsoft programs so I could work on documents while traveling or at conferences.

I did a bit of research recently and decided a Microsoft Surface would work for me. They just came out with the Surface 2 but those are a little spendy for my taste. I figured they would be getting rid of the old ones pretty cheap so I checked Black Friday deals and there they were for less than half the price of the newer ones. I also bought the hard keyboard so I can use it as a laptop (unfortunately almost as expensive as the tablet itself).

So far I'm still getting comfortable with it since its so different from the iPhone operating system that I'm used to but I think its exactly what I need. It doesn't have all the apps that apple does, but you can pin web sites to the homepage which is handy. The keyboard hasn't come in the mail yet so I can't say anything about that (only that typing on the screen is really annoying).

I will warn anyone who is thinking about getting this tablet that it does not have the fastest processor out there, but for the price I paid (and knowing it's the old model) it's about what I expected. And it will do the job I need it to.

 Look for more blog posts while we're traveling from now on!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Cold Temps and More Jelly

We're in another cold snap and I finally broke down and decided to get a gym membership. Yesterday morning it was -18F at our house and today it never got above -8. I did get outside for a little walk on the Lower Eagle River Trail with a friend today. Even though there is no direct sunlight in the bottom of the valley, it's still nice to be out during the day. I think soon I may also have to break down and learn how to cross country ski.

I also made more high bush cranberry jelly this weekend and actually used my store-bought strainer stand thingy. It worked fine but it makes me a little nervous because the slightest bump could tip it over (remember, this is the product that claims to be both adjustable and sturdy - ha!). It is definitely not adjustable - it fits on one size bowl and that's all. Anyway, it's alright, but I'll probably stick with tying the bag around a cabinet knob next time.

I also actually measured the ingredients on my jelly this time. I don't often measure ingredients when I'm making jam or jelly, which normally goes just fine...until I want to replicate the product. Then I realize I have no idea how much of what I put in the last time. So, this time I ended up with about 1 1/2 cups of high bush cranberry juice (which came from about 2/3 gallon of frozen cranberries), and I added 4 cups apple juice, and 2 1/2 cups sugar. That made about 2 1/2 pints. After I put it in jars, boiled them in a hot water bath, and let them cool and seal, I put them in the fridge to help them set. That was a few hours ago and they look like they've now set!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

First Time Making Jelly

Despite all the jams and other fruity things I put in jars, I've never made jelly. It's the extra step of having to strain the fruit that has deterred me. In general, I avoid canning recipes that involve too many steps or points in the process where you have to wait on something, since I'm not very good at planning ahead. I did try to make jelly once last year, or should we say started to make jelly. Once I strained the fruit, I lost interest in turning it into jelly and just drank the juice. Oops.

This year I ended up with several bags of fruit that need to be turned into jelly - high bush cranberries, salmonberries (thanks, Mom!), and rose hips. We don't have a chest freezer so it has been a priority of mine to get some of these things into jars so I can put other things in our tiny freezer. Last weekend I finally tackled it.

I made both salmonberry jelly and high bush cranberry jelly over the course of the weekend. On Saturday I cooked the fruit down and put it in strainers. As simple as it sounds, that caused me a lot of anguish and turned my kitchen into a pink fruit juice spattered mess (I'm still finding splatters in odd places). The main problem was that I wasn't sure what the best straining set up was nor how to get the hot fruity stuff into the straining bags (somehow I always manage to make things harder than they should be). I bought a neat little jelly strainer stand and bag, but it was neither sturdy nor adjustable (as the package indicated). I can't remember what the brand was, but it looked like this. I didn't end up using it. The string on the bag is pretty handy though and I was able to hang that around the knob on our of our cabinet doors (the idea came courtesy of Patrick). I had some other strainer bags I'd picked up somewhere else and found they fit perfectly over my Vitamix. Another I put over a tall Mason jar. I let them all strain over night. I'm still not sure what the best way to get the fruit into the bags is, especially the one that got hung on the cabinet, but I managed to get it done and only burned myself a little. I suppose I could wait for it to cool, but that would just add one more step and more planning...

The next day I mixed the salmonberry juice with about an equal amount of cranberry pomegranate juice to make it go farther and give it a little extra flavor. The cranberry juice was mixed with about an equal amount of apple juice. High bush cranberries have a very strong, tart taste (and a very distinct smell), so I wanted to tone that down but just enough that the cranberry flavor was still there. I added the usual sugar and pectin to both, put in jars, and hoped for the best!

I don't think high bush cranberries have very much natural pectin, so I put those jars in the fridge overnight hoping it would help the jelly set. It did!

The salmonberry jelly turned out delicious (as I would expect since I followed my mom's recipe) and the cranberry set just enough to be called jelly. It's pretty tart, but I love tart fruit and I love the high bush cranberry flavor (some people, I won't name names, think I'm crazy).

salmonberry on the left and high bush cranberry on the right
p.s. If you are wondering if Ryan is still on St. George, the answer is yes. There is a flight tonight, so fingers crossed he makes it home! If not, he'll be eating fresh reindeer and getting paid so it's hard to complain.

More from St. George

While I wait for my flight home I have taken up working remotely.  Its not that different than working from home except that my phone doesn't work, the internet connection is a little slow, and I don't have a second monitor.  Honestly is that last feature that bothers me the most.  It quiet here and the view from my room is quite nice when I can see through the salt encrusted window panes.

I have been continuing to take midday breaks for exercise and fresh air.  Yesterday Jason and I walked to the east end of the Island (the only end we had not yet visited). We saw a few fur seals, stragglers really, as its about time they all depart for the winter.  A little further down the beach we were pleasantly surprised to find the sea lion haulout.  The cliffs above their haulout offered a close-up view of these huge sea mammals.

Today the Alaska Air National Guard arrived as part of Operation Santa Claus.  Honestly there are not very many little kids in St. George, but it seemed good for the community to come together and have something to celebrate.  As a spectator it truly felt bizarre, all of sudden here were all these sharply dressed, fit individuals from Anchorage walking all over town with cameras and large video cameras.  It was like they has just stepped off a bus, like it was no big deal to stop into St. George for a few hours.  They brought a band, lunch, and ice cream and the community gathered in the school gym.  The blue fire truck that recently arrived from Sitka rolled through town with light and sirens carrying Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus.  I thought to myself where am I?  If I had known Santa Claus was coming to town I probably wouldn't have eaten that reindeer... oops.

Anyways, some of the folks asked about seeing the church so I got a chance to see the inside of the Russian Orthodox Church and listen to our friend Rodney play the church bells.

Another interesting day in St. George.

East end of St. George

Sea Lion hauled out on the beach

Community gathering at the gym for Operation Santa Claus

The Russian Orthodox Church of St. George

Saturday, November 23, 2013

More Hiking and Exploring on St. George

The Friday flight was canceled, meaning we had at least another two days on St. George.  Despite the 20 mile per hour winds and temperatures below freezing we needed to get out of the hotel and exercise.  A beach on the other side of the island named Garden Cove sounded enticing.  We bundled up and headed over the windblown ridge that divides the east end of the island.  With the wind at our back we make good time and covered the 2 or 3 miles to Garden Cove in just an hours time.  The traveling was over a mix of rocky ground and snow drifted tussocks.  We tried to avoid the tussocks as the snow filled the interstitial spaces making the walking even more difficult than is to be expected. As usual, the hike was well worth the effort.

Garden Cove was in the lee and felt much warmer.  The beach reminded me of Kodiak with back sand, washed up buoys, and curious seals.  For a change these were not fur seals, these were harbor seals and at least one spotted seal.  Even in November, Garden Cove seemed more alive than other parts of the island.  There were many birds, much of which I could not identify.  Two fox, one in a white winter coat and another still in black fur trotted down the beach ahead of us and then turned to bark with disapproval of our presence.

On the hike back we came across a large stone structure that I assume was a corral for the reindeer.  The corral is perhaps 60 feet in diameter walls 5 feet tall and 2 feet thick.  It is clear that a significant amount of time went into constructing it.  This structure might be quite old as a little bit of internet research has revealed that 15 siberian reindeer were introduced to St. George in 1911 and that there population quickly grew.

All of the following photos were taken by Jason.  Thanks Jason for carrying your nice camera.

Spotted Seal at Garden Cove

Spotted Seal and Harbor Seals?

Small bird in a creek at Garden Cove

Fox with a white winter coat

Stone reindeer corral

Stone reindeer corral

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hiking St. George

There was no chance of a flight today, so we took the opportunity to explore the island by foot.  I had wanted to hike to the high bluffs so we started out with that in mind.  By the time we returned to the car we had walk to the far western end of the island and covered fifteen miles, not bad for a day with only 8.5 hours of daylight.  The temperatures stayed below freezing all day and the winds probably averaged 20 miles per hour placing the wind chill in the single digits.  The weather changed fast throughout the day and we experienced everything from sunshine and blue skies to snowing sideways whiteout.  Of course the views were very rewarding and we were excited to have found part of the reindeer herd.
When we returned to the hotel, Fred the only other hotel guest who had shot a reindeer two days earlier had prepared a big pot of reindeer stew.  What a great way to end the day.
Panorama photo from the high buffs looking east.  Most of St. George can be seen in this photo including the village on the far left side and the harbor on the far right.

Panorama photo from the high bluffs showing the western end of the island

A group of 11 male reindeer near the west end of St. George (photo courtesy of Jason) 

Standing at the far western point of St. George (photo courtesy of Jason)
Jason enjoying the view.

Jason carrying home a beautiful reindeer antler we found near the west end.

Return to St. George

When I left St. George two months ago I knew I would be coming back.  We had placed three acoustic doppler current profilers (ADCPs) on the seafloor to measure currents and wave heights.  But recovering the ADCPs in mid-November in the Bering Sea would be difficult; we might have to wait weeks for a good weather window.  So when we retrieved all three ADCPs in one afternoon the day after landing in St. George I felt like we had pulled off some sort of miracle, and in a way we did.  I downloaded the data from the ADCPs and can see that this was the first extended period of calm weather in St. George since they equipment was deployed.  

Weather in the Bering Sea in November can be downright frightful.  You probably have seen an episode of the show Deadliest Catch and know that this is not a place for casual boating, in fact the seas are so violent that the fisherman in St. George cannot leave their boats in the water as they would be destroyed by the surge that can exceed 5 feet IN THE HARBOR.

This year was no exception, and during the first week of November a huge storm rolled through as if right of cue.  This was NOAA's weather synopsis on November 5th:

Winds gusts were forecasted to reach as high as 75mph and seas could build to as big at 25ft.  That sounds scary, but what is really scary is this.  Our ADCP located approximately one mile off the coast from St. George recorded a significant wave height of 32 feet and a maximum wave height on November 7th of 48 feet!  I can't even image what a 48 foot wave looks like, nor do I have any desire to see a 48 foot wave.

Now with our equipment packed it’s just a matter of getting off the island.  Our flight yesterday was canceled due to strong crosswinds at the airport so we are booked to depart on Friday.  I guess it’s time to get caught up with things like organizing photos on my computer and writing on the blog.

This is the flight that brought us to the Island.  Check out the very appropriate painting on the fuselage

Jason and I exploring the island

Our equipment is packed and ready for shipment.  We don't travel light, those big totes weigh about 200Lbs each.

One of the ADCPs after retrieving it from the seafloor.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Loosing the Sun

View from our house at 11:30am on November 16
We knew when we bought this condo that the sun probably wouldn't rise above the mountain to the south of it during the darkest part of the winter. This weekend confirmed that. It's hard to say when the sun stopped rising above this mountain since we're not usually home during daylight hours, but I think it was within the last few days. At least now we have an idea of when the sun will be back - since we're about five weeks away from the winter solstice now, the sun should make back up above the mountain about five weeks after, around the end of January.

After a warm, record-breaking fall, we have finally descended into winter - snow and all. Today it never got above -5 degrees at our house. But it's clear, the moon is full, and there are no street lights on our drive so we have a pretty fantastic view, even when it's dark.

And now that I have a garage for the first time in my life (well, we had one in Seattle but we never once parked our car in it), bring on winter.

Monday, November 11, 2013

New Cabinet for Jars

Jars full of salsa, jam, pickles, and sauces have been taking over our pantry ever since we moved into our condo in July. The kitchen, while plenty big, isn't as over-sized as the one in the last house we lived in. I've been fitting all my jars in the pantry, but the canning pot has been living on the floor between the kitchen and living room.

Now, thanks to my father-in-law and his furniture-building talents, I have another place to store all these jars (until the holiday season anyway). He made this cute little cabinet with a tile top and installed shelves in it this week so pint-size jars would fit perfectly in it. Now the canning pot gets to move from the living room floor to the pantry, right next to the recycling, and I can stop tripping over it.

The canning pot, or at least the lid, can also stop getting pushed around by our robotic vacuum. One night after I finished canning I put the pot back on the floor and set the lid on the floor next to it, upside down so it would dry. The next night the lid was gone. I desperately spent 15 minutes searching the kitchen and nearby closets for someplace I might have absent-mindedly stashed the lid. All the while I was SURE I'd left it on the floor. Early on in the lid search Ryan had suggested that the vacuum had pushed it somewhere, but after a cursory glance underneath the living room furniture, I didn't see it and went back to searching cabinets (since our kitchen is not very big, I had time to search every cabinet three times).

And then, just as I was about to conclude that our little street with picturesque views and a private drive sign had a home-thief that stole nothing but canning pot lids, I got down on my belly in looked under the chair in our living room (like I should have done in the first place).

I was so frantic I didn't see it during my first cursory glance under all the living room furniture. And I'll happily blame it on the under part of the chair being the same color as the lid. Now my canning pot can hide in the pantry, safe from the robot!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Teddy Bear Baby Shower Cake

Today was a baby shower for my friend Kristin and her friend Amy (a joint baby shower thrown by Ann Marie - who asked me to make the cake). Today was also, coincidentally, the first day we had real snow sticking to the ground in Eagle River. And it's the 10th of November!

For this cake I wanted to make something simple and gender neutral since Kristin is expecting a boy and Amy is expecting a girl. After lots of googling I decided on teddy bears and rocking horses and found a great example to follow. I won't show you what the example cake looked like because mine turned out nothing like it. I'm not complaining though, this cake did turn out quite cute.

The cake itself is a buttermilk cake out of Joy of Cooking with chocolate buttercream frosting. I love frosting cakes that are going to be covered in fondant - no pressure to make it perfect!

I do love the way fondant looks, but it is a lot of work. Almost as soon as I started rolling it out I enlisted Ryan's help. He is an expert fondant roller. It's the only part of cake decorating I've ever roped him into helping with (besides the clean up).

Fondant is supposed to be rolled out into a big circle, draped over the cake, smoothed to fit the shape of the cake, and trimmed on the bottom. This has NEVER worked for me. I've watched YouTube video after YouTube video on how to do it. It looks REALLY simple, but I assure you it's not. Maybe if I ever actually took a cake decorating class I'd learn the secret that I'm convinced they're editing out of all the videos. In the meantime, my fondant cakes always have seams.

Ryan had a brilliant idea this time though to cut a circle of fondant for the top of the cake and then a strip to put around the walls of the cake. It worked like a charm and then all I had to do was put some frosting dots along the seam to cover it up. I should rope him into cake decorating more often!