“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 and former champion) 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 intensely cold weather, catching sleep whenever (and wherever) you can, and working mostly in the dark (there are 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.

Time Travel

My buddy Rick and I just got back to Virginia after spending a week touring the Yukon by dog team. Friends of ours, Wayne and Scarlett Hall, run a dogsledding business out of Eagle, Alaska, called Bush Alaska Expeditions, and they hooked us up with a great tour. Even getting to Eagle is a bit of an adventure, requiring a ride on the mail plane out of Fairbanks. Once in Eagle, we met up with another friend and guide, expert musher Nate Becker, before heading for the hills.

The country around Eagle has a long and interesting history, including a number of different Athabaskan tribes, fur trading dating back to the 1700s, and the 1896 Klondike Gold Rush that started near Dawson City (150 miles upriver). During the gold rush, people came north with big dreams, and some made (and lost) fortunes. Place names like Last Chance Creek, Bonanza Creek, and Hard Luck Creek tell a part of the story.

Our trip felt like a moving tribute to the hardy souls that lived and thrived up there a hundred or more years ago, almost like time travel. Back in the day, the frozen Yukon River was traveled by legends like Percy DeWolfe, who carried the mail back and forth between Dawson and Eagle from 1910 to 1949….when it costs 3 cents to send a first class letter. Another notable resident was Harry Karstens, nicknamed the Seventymile Kid, who came from Chicago to prospect for gold before becoming a “packer” hauling mining supplies for other prospectors. Karstens went on to lead the first ascent of Mount McKinley (now Denali) in 1912 and later became the superintendent of Mount McKinley National Park.

During the course of our week, the rich history of the Yukon revealed some of itself to us through the cabins along the river. A few of the cabins were historic, a few were relatively new, and a few were somewhere in between–but all were remarkable in their own way. The one constant is that they were generally spaced about a day’s mushing apart–which was good forethought by the folks that built these places.  Cabins along the Tatonduk River, the Nation River, and the Seventymile River were a welcome sight after a long day on the trail, just as they would have been in the early 1900s.

I’m sometimes asked why I am so captivated by Alaska, and I answer that it’s because it’s the way the world used to be. During the course of the week, it was easy to wonder what it must have been like back in the day–and each time that I stopped to warm my fingers, I was reminded that I probably wouldn’t have had what it took. I have no idea how people thrived in this land before fancy down jackets, goretex gloves, and bunny boots. That said, it was also inspiring to spend time with some of the people that are thriving there now, like Wayne, Scarlett, Nate, and Nate’s wife Ruby.

Our wonderful hosts obviously made this trip possible–but it’s also important to call out the true stars of the the week: those incredible canine athletes. One thing that I’m pretty sure hasn’t changed in the last 100 years is that Alaskan huskies are phenomenally fit, loyal, and eager to run. They are also incredibly reliable, as a dog team never breaks down on the trail (unlike a snowmachine…or snowmobile, in case you don’t speak Alaskan). Each morning, those huskies were ready to take us anywhere that we had the skills to go, and they also seemed completely impervious to the cold. As I adjusted layers a thousand times on the back of the sled, I remembered that my dog team was wearing exactly the same thing that it had on last summer.

After an amazing week, Rick and I came back from the Yukon with a new appreciation for the way the world used to be, and the way that it still is…at least up there.

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.