"How'd You Get Involved in That?"

I’m back in Alaska after heading up from Virginia yesterday. I came here to volunteer at the Yukon Quest dogsled race, which is an unusual hobby for a Virginia kid, I know.

To answer a question that I hear a lot when I tell folks that I’m heading north, I got involved with mushing through a trip that I took for fun back in 2011 with Bush Alaska Expeditions. That was the start of a friendship with Wayne and Scarlett Hall, and their son Matt, and we’ve been in touch ever since. I’ve been back to mush, but also to volunteer and to learn more about the unique culture up here.

It’s fair to say that mushing is not super popular in Virginia. I may be the only person in the state that owns a mushing parka–although two friends from the Quest trail are from rural Virginia, so maybe there are three of us?

I hadn’t heard of the Yukon Quest 1000 mile race before my 2011 trip. Since then, I’ve worked at the checkpoint in the community of Eagle a handful of times and helped out Matt (a Quest competitor) along the trail a few times. It’s very rewarding work, and I always come away inspired by the dogs, the mushers, the people around the race, and the communities.

It’s not glamorous work, but it’s work that has to happen for the race to go.

Another thing that people probably think (but usually don’t ask) is “so why would you want to do that?” It’s an understandable question, as there is a lot of cold weather, catching sleep whenever (and wherever) you can, and working mostly in the dark (there’s only about five or six hours of sun this time of year). But there’s an authenticity to this experience that’s hard to explain. Choices matter, feedback on those choices is immediate, and teamwork jumps a lot of traditional boundaries.

Mushing is the way the world used to be up here (and still is, at least for some), and coming up to the Yukon is a fantastic opportunity to get a glimpse into that. If I missed getting up here, I’d really miss it.

All of that said, it’ll be 21 below at the race start on Saturday, so I’m kind of glad I own that parka.

Fish Sticks

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We are just back from a week-long float on the Jennings River and Teslin Lake in far northern British Columbia. Since weight wasn’t a huge factor on the trip, this was a good time to push the limits on some backcountry cooking. Over the course of the week, we had steaks, enchiladas, quesadillas, antipasto, baked brie, eggs/bacon, pancakes, frittatas, hash browns, cinnamon rolls, etc. By the time the plane came to pick us up, our river clothes fit like sausage casings. That’s normal, right?

Day three’s enchiladas won the coveted golden spoon award, cementing its hold as our most consistent crowd pleaser. We used Frontera sauce enchilada sauce(comes in green and red), Zatarain’s beans and rice, chicken in abeans and rice foil bag, no-refrigerate flour tortillas, and shredded Monterey jack. After 45 minutes in the frybake (eight coals on the bottom and ten on top), we had ourselves a bubbling hot restaurant-quality meal (assuming that the restaurant has a lot of mosquitoes and an occasional light drizzle).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe also experimented with a new thing (for us)—cooking a big fish over a fire on a green stick–which worked great, until it didn’t work at all. Eventually, the fish cooked enough for the meat to become flakey (desirable) and then nearly dropped off the stick and into the fire (not desirable). We hooked it a second time, though, and a few minutes later we were all enjoying fresh grayling. Next time we’ll forget about the Survivorman-style theatrics and just cut it in half and fry it.

As for the river, the Jennings is a beautiful romp through an untouched canyon (it only gets run about once every two or three years, according to our pilot). We ran some big rapids, saw a ton of wildlife (moose, bears, wolves, and caribou), found enough camping to get by, and tried to imagine what it must have been like to travel in this amazing region during the Klondike era.

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Lastly, from the desk of Captain Obvious: a big lesson from the trip was that measuring cups are pretty handy (I claimed that I left them behind because Canada is on the metric system). I’m not sure what I was thinking when I ruined the instant hummus, the pancake mix, and the dried mashed potatoes, but what I should have been thinking was “where are those damned measuring cups?”

I bet you’re thinking that measuring cups aren’t what you’d expect to be reading about on a cleverly written foodie blog–which illustrates yet another point.