Thursday, February 19, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey on Ice

   Bear Lake is covered in ice again after a week of weather changes and dramatic wind.
  Monday we had heavy rain and winds at 30 gusting to as high as 60 mph.   That's enough wind to wake me in the night and send porch furniture sailing around the yard.  That's enough wind to make waves on the two inches of water laying atop the lake's icecap.  That's enough wind to bow windows and make one thankful for every hurricane clip and extra strap build into this house.  That's enough wind to drive the rain under eight feet of porch roof to strike my the windows on the north wall.  But that was then and this is now.  Such is the weather of Bear Lake.

      The last two nights have been clear and cold so that the ice is rebuilding and we are feeling a bit more like late February even without the snow.  We have basically given up significant snow fall this year.  The ice though has been reworked we were back on our Nordic skates (wrote about nordic skates last winter and the blog is still available)  today scooting tentatively about on slabs of ice that now has the look of a shattered windshield.  Cracks run in every directions and spiderweb the surface.  We don't often get to watch the ice on the lake change and age as we have this year.  The layers of snow hide the crack and breaking ice and muffle the sounds.  This year without snow, the visuals and audio are dramatic.  The lake was all asparkle  today in the morning sun like some one spilled their cache of rhinestones.  When we glided out on the ice surface we found ourselves skating across textured marble then crystal glass then pale, fine-textured granite all in the shades between black, white, and silver.  Some places the ice appeared shattered and refrozen into kaleidoscopes in fifty shades of grey.  
Out toward center of the lake, we crossed ice that was countertop smooth but textured into a fine sandy look -- excellent skating.  This expanse stretched probably half a mile across the lake and down the center of this overflow was a major crack that gapped as much as two inches and in one part was lifted the same distance.  I have to think the ice ruptured here and water came up from below to flow and freeze into this beautiful rink.
     Of course, with all this cracking and shattered ice the lake has not been silent.  Last night entertainment was sitting in the hot tub counting the stars and listening to the rumble and crunch of the lake tectonics.  The ice has been moving and moaning for days which is fun to listen to unless it is right under your feet when you skating then, no matter how thick the ice, one can get pretty nervous.  I think the ice is thick enough over most of the lake to support us skaters but every time things warm up I get nervous.  The ice is thin or non existent along the shore especially where little springs bubble up through the lake bottom along the shallow south shore.  Most of those places are shallow and a skater would only get wet and scared.  So we skate on, cautious and jumpy, but helplessly seduced by the  shattered glass lines and infinite shades of grey on the ice of Bear Lake.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Feeding the Musher, meals for the Iditarod

Travis Beals of Turning Heads Kennels is getting ready for the Iditarod and for most of our small minds, "getting ready" means training hard with the dogs, covering miles and miles of trails, followed by campouts under the stars for practice.  In reality, there is lot more to it than that.   Sarah Stokey's great blog on the Turning Heads website can give a good look at what's involved in gearing up for a thousand miles and two race starts for sixteen dogs and musher.  Madelyn and I are all excited about our friend Travis' third go at the trail, and we put our kitchen where our mouth is and took over feeding the musher during the race.
     We have noticed over the years that although the mushers plan every detail of their dogs' diet, the musher's food is often a last minute thrown together collection of whatever is handy.  Not good.  Madelyn decided that this year we needed to help out with feeding Travis on the trail and then few weeks ago, she decided that we needed to take over the musher food altogether.  So, the Walker kitchen has been rockin' rollin' this week.  
      First we met with Sarah and Travis to talk about menus and packing and the eating routine on the trail.  It turns out that the mushers usually pack sealed meals that they can drop in the heating dog water and then open and eat after their dogs are fed and resting.  This meant cooking, freezing then vacuum sealing high calorie, appetizing food this is easy for a tired, dehydrated, trail-worn musher to consume and digest.  
       If you haven't watched mushers work or driven a dog team yourself, you might not know what a physically demanding activity it is to be a dog driver on the the Iditarod.  These athlete have to be tough as their dogs, operate on less sleep, and perform with no one to feed them massage their aching joints, pull of their boots and tuck them in like the dogs do.  When they reach the checkpoint, the dogs lie down and wait for food while the musher without so much as a drink of water or a trip to the head spend the next hour more tending their dogs like a personal butler.  I think many a musher has fallen back or had to drop out because he/she was the weak link on the team.   Anyway, Madelyn wanted to make sure that Travis have plenty of high powered tasty food waiting in each of his drop bags that was easy to get to eat and with some snack to stick in his pockets for later.
       We made a plan to produce or collect 35-40 meals which we would freeze and vacuum seal then pack in gallon plastic bags with additional snacks so that each time Travis pick up dog food he also had food for him,  some of which could be eaten immediately like a Madelyn's cookie bar or Christan McLain's peanut butter fudge.  Others, like Trio bars or Snickers, (courtesy of Major Marine Tours) could be stuffed in a pocket for trail snacks.  Mushers all pack drop bags that are delivered to the checkpoints along the trail.  These bags have things like dog food, extra booties,  headlamp batteries, and clean socks.   They will also have packages of food Travis can prepare when he feeds his dogs or keep in the sled bag to use later.   When the dogs are chowing down on kibble and salmon stew, Travis can dine on Chinooks smoked scallop mac and cheese, Moose Muse seven layer bars, homemade lasagna, or his favorite, a couple slices of pepperoni pizza.  

        The pizza was a challenge because all the food has to be frozen, and the only dependable way to reheat food on the trail is in the dog food cooker.  This means the pizza has to live through freezing and rewarming in a vacuum sealed retort.  I was sure there was a way to make this work, and I opened my own personal test kitchen.  With a fresh baked pizza to experiment with, I cut and froze the pizza then wrapped pieces in foil or cellophane and vacuum sealed them and stored them in the freezer.  Reheated in boiling water for a few minutes the foil wrapped slice came out quite nicely.  The dough was firm and tasty and the sauce intact and not messy.  The cellophane pieces tasted fine but the cellophane formed a skin that had to be cut into with a knife making that a messy hassle.  The foil method is a success, and I am confident now that somewhere down the trail, Travis is going to enjoy a tasty treat of hot pepperoni pizza and be envy of the dog lot.  
      But, as they say on TV, Wait, there's More!  Beside pepperoni pizza, Seward's Eureka Pizza donated wonderful chicken and spinach stromboli, and meaty pasta salad; Peking Restaurant gave fried rice and their famous Mongolian beef.   Travis will feast on  breakfast sandwiches and energy bars, meatballs with pasta or sausage and potatoes, he'll snack on smoked salmon and seven layer bars, and, of course, the old dependable peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.  
       At this point, we have to admit that this is a big experiment and Travis is our Guinea pig.  Only after the race will we know if we picked food that would entice him to eat, if we packed in a way that may it easy to stoke his furnace,  and if we really can serve pizza on the Iditarod trail.    More on all of this later when we debrief the Iditarod food fest.  

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

My Firewood Compulsion -- Conclusion


My tree fell to the north as planned without hanging against the neighboring tree and slid smoothly through the branches of other trees that reached out to catch it. I immediately shed my jacket and hat then started cutting limbs away with the steam rising from my shoulders as the work heated up.  Next, I notched the log with a handax every fourteen inches, using marks on the handle to measure off rounds.  Following the curve of the log with its tip pointing toward the lake, I pushed back the fallen limbs to clear a work area before starting to the trunk into rounds.  
       It’s commonly said that firewood heats twice, but in my experience it’s more like three or four times.  I heat up first while bucking up a tree until I’m working in shirt sleeves on a cold winter day, and then sweat up good getting it hauled in to the wood yard, sometimes twice if we are toting it out of the woods to a truck or a sled then unloading it again back home. After that it’s back to shirt sleeves again splitting and stacking. That’s a lot heat from a stick of wood that’s never had a match put to it.  
       The lake was only a few yards from the trail and through the woods I could see a pair of goldeneye ducks on last open water.  My back told me a break was in order, so I paused before starting the chainsaw again, bathing for a time in the cool dampness of the woods before hard winter.  The tree gave off the aroma of forest and life and earth.  The golden-eyes called as they flew.  Somewhere nearby, a squirrel chattered.  The air is damp and has been for several days, so the trees and brush glisten with moisture.  I am glad there will no need for this wood until next year when it’s dry.  
        Most years, I stay ahead of my firewood, so that I am only burning dry, aged wood.  There have been years though when that wasn’t true, and I remember a load of green spruce and hemlock delivered to my driveway in a snowstorm, so when I came home that evening, I faced a messy mound of snow soaked leaden wood that was not only green and wet, but also too long for my stove.   That was a tough lesson I learned well.  I now have a nice woodshed with four separate stalls. I sort my wood by age and dryness and even have a place to split kindling out of weather. I like to mix in birch with my spruce so we can bank a warm fire on cold nights.  
       Firewood burns best when well aged, and this is best accomplished by splitting then stacking it bark down under cover with plentiful ventilation.  To accomplish this, I built the shed with doors and a tight roof to keep out the snow and rain, but the eaves are open and the siding gapped to let air move through.  
Most of the wood in this climate comes in wet and takes quit a time to dry. Right now, I have one cord of green wood split and stacked that came from trees blown down in last fall’s storms.  That should be ready to use in the spring.  Another compartment is a mix of hemlock and birch that we will use during the cold windy months of December and January.  One bin held a cord left over from last year.  We used it first.  
      My most recent wood came from a tree in a friend’s yard that has been dead for at least a couple of years but it has been in the weather and needs to dry.  Piled on top of that is the wood from the last tree I took down along highway, a dead spruce that needed a few extra months to age, and be ready in late winter or early spring. By the end of April I will generally be looking at three empty wood bins unless I have gathered some standing dead trees from along the lake shore during the winter and spring. 
        I have learned to appreciate the nasty winds that lash the lake in the stormy fall months because they often topple trees not far from my woodshed. The spruce trees have a frail root system that spreads out in a shallow ring around trunk without pushing down very far into the ground.  When the ground is wet and the wind blows a gale some are apt to topple with the root wad sticking up like a rough table turned on edge.  Many times if one cuts through the base of the trunk so it separates from the roots, the roots will fall back near to their original position with the stump pointed at the sky.  Another scary and dangerous event that can take a wood cutter by surprise.  
      When wind storms topple trees, or break off their tops, they are handy to collect with the ATV or snow machine and get stacked under tarps for the winter. Come spring they’re split and lie out in the air during the dryer weeks of May and early June when they loose a lot of moisture and the fair white wood turns brown like the skin of a sunbather. I try to get the wood under cover by the end of June, which usually has more wet days than dry, and wood left out will collect moisture instead of loosing it. 
      The drying cordwood will get hauled to the woodshed and stacked bark-side-down in neat ricks to continue drying under a roof.  Sometimes I’ll have help from Madelyn or one the kids, but if not I don’t mind.  I’d rather spend an hour hauling and stacking firewood than working out at the gym. 
       My brother Tom always said I didn’t get to haul enough wood as a kid to be sick of it. He did.  Those first Alaska winters, Tom was the oldest all that work cured him of ever wanting a crackling wood fire in his house. He swore off wood heat for life, and so did all my other siblings. I’m the oddball with my woodstove and penchant for wood cutting.
      I know I have it pretty good for wood gathering, what the the Chugach National Forest at my back door and state forest all around the lake. I can even collect firewood along the highway, a sort of firewood roadkill.  I like to go look for a nice tree the way other people are spotting for bears or goats. On my regular trips to Anchorage, I usually have my saw in the truck and I road hunt for down or dead trees to take, if not this trip then the next.  It not uncommon after a meeting in in Anchorage to stop and change clothes find a tree and load up with rounds to bring home. 
       There are a lot of places in the state where wood getting is a lot different.  At my cabin near Trapper Creek, I burn birch with a blase' recklessness since it's more available than spruce and wish I could tote it home. In western Alaska, the Kuskokwin and the Yukon Rivers empty into the Bering Sea through a flat delta empty of trees, so wood cutters there work off the beach collecting driftwood.  Logs that wash up are stacked to dry above the hight tide line until freeze-up then snow machines and sled are used to haul the trove to the house, unless a storm surge drives the sea up the beach and scatters the logs with the indifference sweep of chance.  
       Upriver, forests line the rivers but wood getters still have to travel miles from the village for a wood.  This is a winter chore because the frozen ground and packed snow make a highway for the big plastic toboggans that will haul eight to ten eight birch logs behind a snow machine. A fellow told me that birch logs felled in the cold of winter will burn well that same month because they hold so little moisture. No matter where they gather fuel, wood cutters never seem to talk about it like it’s work. Like me, they seem to be mining those same brain chemicals that work on runners and gym rats. The difference is we come home with fuel as well as a feeling of well-being.  
       Even endorphins can’t overcome age though , and I have made concessions these last few years. After my shoulder surgery, the doctor made me give up the splitting maul and buy a hydraulic log splitter.  And when I have a big or troublesome tree to drop, I call my son-in-law who is still spry enough to wrestle a hundred pound spruce round into the back of a truck. 
       This tree I have just cut and hauled to the house is dry enough for using this year, and it’s not a big tree. The straight-grained rounds without big knots, I will stack beside the woodshed.  Each morning for a week, I’ll ignore the log splitter and stand dry rounds one at time on the chopping block.  A sharp ax with a fiberglass handle, moves comfortably in my hand as I begin the rhythm of the rising and falling blade.  When the ax hits the wood, I can tell by by feel if the wood has begun to split. Straight dry grain splits eagerly as the ax cleaves and snaps a slice off from the round or the round falls open in its halves.  Rise and fall, split and toss, shed the hat and jacket, until I am surrounded by wedges of clean spruce.  
       I work the wood in spurts these days, stopping to look over the lake off and on and even leaving a stack of rounds under a tarp for a couple of days rather than working myself stiff to split them all in one day.  Too much of that sort of work makes my back ache and my hands will be numb when I wake in the morning, but I have to take all of these as signs of life, not age.  I suppose the day will come when I’ll be like my brother and say I’ve had enough of burning wood, but I hope that day is a long way off.  Someday, I probably will have to buy firewood, but that will take some of the sugar off the cookie.  Just because it makes me hurt it doesn’t mean I have to quit. 
  When snow finally comes, I will hook a sled to the snow machine and ride along the lake edge scouting for trees.  Along with the spruce, I often find hemlock, a dense wood that makes good fuel.  I look for a standing, dead tree that's close to the lake and not on a steep bluff that I can’t get to.  
In the flat light of winter, I can sped a while staring up a tree-top trying figure out if I'm seeing green needles or not.  
       A good tree is one that falls to frozen lake without hanging in the limbs of another and proves to be mostly solid, not punky with rot.  Once the tree is down, I strip down to shirt sleeves and buck the trunk into rounds, haul the limbs to the shore and make several trips with the snow machine and sled to the house.  I tell Madelyn I've brought her “fresh” wood, just picked.  
       On a fine cold day with no wind, I’ll end my work on the porch, my gloves laid in by the fire to dry and steam rising off my shoulders as I sip coffee and wait for the early darkness of late winter.