Mushing School: A Dog Sledding Adventure

I’m not even sure where to start today. I feel like spouting adjectives…awesome, amazing, crazy cool. Dog sledding has left me a little tongue tied. Even after we got home Lucas and I were still beaming, something like runner’s high. We would be talking about something else and then suddenly look at one another and say, “That was SO cool,” already knowing what the other person was talking about. Our conversations included Oak and Dudley and Mia and Mayhem, some of the dogs we mushed with. We talked about them like old friends. But let me back up and do my best to explain.

On Sunday, we attended Mushing School with Paws for Adventure. This was a three plus hour “course” on dog sledding. Arriving at Paws was enough to get me excited. The kennel is positioned on the side of a hill looking out over a valley and the mountains. The yard is filled with dogs, around 50. Each dog has a little wooden house and a chain that lets them run in wild circle within their designated space on the property. These dogs were happy and excited. At the top of the lot sits a heated yurt where we met our guides/instructors and got a brief outline of what to expect. They also had winter gear. Lucas changed into bunny boots right away. Halfway through the day, I changed into them too.

Let me side step a minute and explain bunny boots. Bunny boots are military grade arctic boots. They are made of thick plastic with wool insulation and are rated to -60 degrees. People here swear by them and after wearing them I can see why. They are warm, and I am told will keep your feet from freezing even if water comes in over the top. For winter conditions in Alaska, this is an important feature. Being wet here could mean lose of limbs or death. These boots are also hilarious looking. Picture people walking around in shoes like the Mario brothers from Nintendo. But I was glad we had them.

Okay, back to school. After introductions, we went outside to learn about the sled and the gear used to hook up the dogs. The gang line is the main rope that the dogs are hooked to. She also showed us the break, snow hook (used to anchor the sled before you leave), and the rubber tire tread at the base that you can use to slow down or straighten out the sled. Interestingly, each sled and kennel will do things a little differently so there are variations to everything we learned.

After our brief equipment orientation, we learned how to put the harnesses on the dogs. At Paws, they use two kinds of harnesses depending on the dog’s size. After seeing the guides harness a dog, it was our turn. To harness the dogs we stood over the top of them with our legs holding them in place as we slipped the collar over their heads and down under their chests where each front paw is fitted through. Most of the dogs were good about this but some of them were a little rambunctious.

After they were outfitted, we walked them back down to the sled and hooked them into position. Wheel dogs are in the back, then team dogs, then swing dogs, then leaders up front. This will all change depending on how many dogs you are using. Our first sleds had seven dogs.

I love that our experience included all the step up. It gave us a much better understanding of what running dogs really means. It also made us feel more apart of things, like I could put a stamp on it that said, prepared with love by Krista. I must admit, I was also really happy to get so many doggy kisses 🙂

For our first run, we had two sleds. Lucas and I both started out riding in the basket with the guides driving. This was a great introduction. We got to see a little bit of the trail and how the dogs worked as a team with the driver. A few miles in we switched, and I got to drive. This is when I started to fall in love with mushing. Standing up at the back of the sled you feel so connected to the dog team, and you have this amazing view of the land around you. It was also nice to start out with a guide in the basket to offer tips and suggestions as you figured out how to maneuver the sled behind the dogs. We finished the loop and went back to the yurt to warm up.

For our second run, Lucas and I each got to drive smaller teams by ourselves. The whole process was ours. We hooked up each of the four dogs on our team. And then followed our guide out onto the trail. She went first, then my team, then Lucas and his team. I was now officially smitten with dog sledding. I loved the cool silence of the trail, the rhythm of the dogs in front of me, the snow covered spruce trees that lined the sides of the trail, the pale yellow and gold light of the sun as it flickered through the trees and across the snow in open fields. Every now and then the dogs would turn back to look at me, pink tongues hanging out, snow frozen to their whiskers and the hair around their face. I would call, “Good dogs,” and they would pick up the pace just a little. On the turns, I would lean in, kicking out my heels on the runners, and the sled would snap back into place behind the dogs. It was like we were gliding through air.

There were funny things too. The dogs eat snow as they run, leaving long streaks at the sides of the trail. They poop on the move. They fight like brothers and sisters. On my team Mia would snap at Oak until I called her name. Other dogs bumped and pushed. Little personalities coming to life.

At the end of the run, we pulled into the lot, greeted by all the other dogs barking. We feed our teams huge, frozen, chunks of salmon as a snack. Petted them. Took pictures.

It was an Alaskan kind of day, and I was all smiles.


Snowshoeing, Hot Cocoa, and a Fox

On Saturday, we went snowshoeing. Finally back outside!

A few days before friends had generously loaned us a trunk load of winter gear so we were better prepared to take on the weather. It also warmed up a little, only -20, heat wave :). Our loaned gear included: snowshoes, parkas, and gloves. The parkas were a little like being wrapped up in a fluffy, down comforter. They were huge and warm. We looked like red and green marshmallows. But hey, warmth trumps fashion. The best part of the parka was the hood. Pulled up over your hat it covered almost your whole face. It gave you a horse-with-blinders-on feeling, but again, so warm! The gloves were designed for skiing but I am pretty sure they looked more like lobster claws. We doubled up our gloves with liners underneath. Toasty fingers. Add additional layers underneath everything and guess what, I actually got hot while we were snowshoeing. Crazy.

We decided to stick close to home for our first day out so we went to Chena Lakes Recreation Area. We took our snowshoes down on the floodplain. This is a popular winter spot for cross country skiing as well as dog mushing. No motorized vehicles allowed, which is nice, but the snow was still pretty rutted up from the dog sleds. It was around noon when we started, but the sun was already (read always) low on the horizon. It was pretty to see it peaking up over the trees and cresting across the snow. Really, it was just great to see the sun.

We were out for about an hour. Right before we turned around to head back to the car, we saw an animal. At first we thought it was a dog, then a wolf, then finally, we realized it was a huge red fox. It was trotting along the top of the wall that surrounds the floodplain, watching us while we watched it. In the end, it turned around. I guess it decided we were not something it wanted to deal with. For me, there is still (always) something magical about seeing wild animals. It makes you realize you have entered their world for a moment. We were just visitors.

We ended our outing with a cup of hot cocoa from our new thermos, looking out at the sun, and the snow, and the woods. Winter in Alaska continues to grow on me.

Brrr, it’s cold outside.

We are setting records in North Pole, AK! For six days, it has been -35 or colder, with lows dipping to -44. It is cold. Cold. Cold. Cold.

When I talk with my friends on the phone they say things like, “I’d be on a plane getting out of there.” Or “I can’t even imagine what that feels like.” Or “That’s insane!” Secretly, I am proud of us. We currently live in a place that is crazy cold, and we are making it. It means lots of movies and reading and hot chocolate, and it certainly isn’t something I would want to do every winter, but overall, we can handle it. We are adapting. I am ready for it to warm up so we can get outside again, but I like that we have lived it. First hand knowledge of cold. Real cold.

I also continue to learn things. For example, did you know that when it gets really cold like this your tires freeze in a square? The bottom part stays flat from sitting on the ground, so when you start to drive you bump along for 10-15 minutes until they warm up. It is a little like driving Fred Flintstone’s car. It is a good thing someone warned me, or I would have thought that I had four flat tires.

More lessons: On Monday, after our car wouldn’t start (it was plugged-in for almost two hours but apparently it needs longer than that after this many days of cold), we decided to walk to Blockbuster to get a movie. Blockbuster is about a 5-8 minute walk from our apartment. The walk would be our winter/cold adventure for the day. We layered up: Two pairs of pants, long sleeve shirts, fleece, vest, and coat. Hats and gloves. Boots. Less than 2 minutes into our walk the hair around my face started to freeze and by the time we arrived my husband’s beard was frozen stiff as well as his eyelashes. (see pictures!) We looked like we had been out hiking for hours, not 5 minutes.

I have to say, I have an ever growing respect for the cold.

Homemade Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups

It is no secret that Lucas and I love desserts that feature peanut butter and chocolate, so when I saw a recipe for homemade peanut butter cups I was already drooling. And wow, the finished product did not disappoint.

I get my sweet tooth from both my grandmas and my mom, okay maybe all the women in my family love a good dessert. But the truth is, who doesn’t? Something sweet at the end of a meal puts a smile on your face and these peanut butter cups left Lucas and I chocolate-fingered and happy. After the first bite, Lucas turned to me and said, “These are good” with little bits of chocolate smudge across his lips. And for the next fifteen minutes or so our eating was only interrupted by sideways glances at each other and little words like “wow,” “amazing,” “SO good.” These are a five star treat.

I must warn you that they are rich, and coming from me, a girl who loves rich things, that is saying something. You can only eat one, maybe two, and you are knocked out in a haze of sweet. But what a wonderful haze it is 🙂

The worst (best) part about this recipe is that it is so easy. I could make these everyday, which of course is a terrible idea, but it is simple. The ingredient list is short and the longest part of the process is waiting for the finished product to set in the refrigerator. These could be a dangerous treat in our house. Rules and limits will have to be created and enforced so that we aren’t “treating” ourselves every week.

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Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups

yields 12 cups

What You Need:

3 cups chocolate*

1 cup peanut butter

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1/4 cup graham crackers, crushed

1 teaspoon sea salt

*I used dark chocolate chips, but you could use whatever type of chocolate you like — semi-sweet, milk chocolate or bittersweet.

To Make:

Place 12 paper liners in a muffin pan. Set aside.

Melt 1 1/2 cups of the chocolate in a double boiler or the microwave. Then use the back of a spoon to smooth a layer of melted chocolate onto the bottoms and sides of the paper liners. Be generous. Set the chocolate bowl aside, you will use it again later. Refrigerate the muffin pan for 20 minutes while you make the peanut butter filling.

Meanwhile in a mixing bowl, combine the peanut butter, crushed graham crackers, powdered sugar, and salt. Stir until well combined. The peanut butter mixture should be smooth.

Remove the muffin pan from the refrigerator. Place one to two spoonfuls of the peanut butter mixture in each liner. Distribute equally among the 12 cups. Tap the peanut butter mixture down in each cup so it is smooth on top and fills the bottom of the liner completely.

Now melt the remaining 1 1/2 cups of chocolate either in your double boiler or the microwave.  Cover the peanut butter mixture with the warm chocolate. Be generous. The peanut butter should not longer be visible. Smooth the tops of each cup or swirl as desired for aesthetics.

Place the muffin pan back in the refrigerator. In approximately one hour your cups should be set and ready to eat. Enjoy!

I found the recipe on the blog, Design Sponge.

Chilly, Frosty, Frigid…

The temperature in North Pole, AK is -40 degrees today…-40!

How do you wrap your head around that? It isn’t even December yet. When I opened the blinds in our living room this morning, the corners of the windows were frosted on the inside, not condensation, frozen. Cold little crystals nestled in the corners like spider webs. Yesterday, the inside of the car was frozen. The inside! Frost across the dash board and raised lines of ice around the steering wheel. I am wholly unprepared for this kind of cold.

Looking out the window is misleading. It looks beautiful. Soft-white and peaceful. No wind. Like the inside of a snow globe. And when you walk out the door, it feels cold but not bad at first. And then you take a few more steps, you feel it on your face, and then you breath in through your nose and it crackles. In five minutes your face tingles. You cough. You start to wonder when frostbite sets in. You rush for any place with bright lights and an open door that will let you in. This was me walking to the grocery store yesterday afternoon, and it was only, ha, -20.

In the grocery store, I listened. I expected people to be complaining. I expected people to be talking about packing up there things and moving. But they weren’t. No one said a word about the cold. Instead, they made off-hand comments about Thanksgiving, and the cashier asked me if I found everything okay. I wanted to say, do you know it is freezing out there?

I love winter. The snow makes me feel like putting on my boots and going for a walk. But the cold here is something else. It holds me captive. Cabin fever. Winters in the upper peninsula of Michigan are nothing to scoff at, but the interior of Alaska has redefined my idea of cold. My new winter motto: Give me snow, not cold.

It does make me admire all those people who don’t complain, the ones who choose this permanently. Alaska is the kind of place that makes you accept nature as the superior force. I love that about it. The wild is wild here. But for me, if I can’t get outdoors, I start getting a little crazy, and temperatures like this every winter would definitely lead to crazy.

But I’m happy we are here this winter. Part of the reason we decided to travel for the first year of our marriage was to experience new things. To see how other people lived and to explore new corners of the country. Alaska has offered all of this and more. Now I can officially say I know what real cold feels like. This experience will also someday lead to stories that start with, it was so cold…just like the stories my dad tells about walking up hill both ways to school, barefoot, in three feet of snow, but mine will be true.

Alaskan King Crab

This Saturday we had a little party, just the two of us. We drank pink champagne out of mugs and whacked enormous king crab legs with a rolling pin. It was pretty amazing.

Our mild obsession with king crab dates back several years when we started watching the Discovery TV show, Deadliest Catch. I was amazed both by the size of the crab they were pulling out of the Bering Sea, and the storms that rocked the fleet. So when we decided to move to Alaska last spring, king crab immediately made our to-do list.

I’m a bit of a latecomer to liking crab, and most seafood, but I have to say in the last five years I have really discovered how much I like just about all of it. Living on Lake Superior gave us access to inexpensive, fresh fish that became part of our weekly menus. Moving to Alaska has only expanded our access to yummy seafood. Saturday was our first dance with king crab, and we already have plans to get it back on the menu.

We had been asking around trying to figure out where to buy king crab, since we don’t actually live near the Bering Sea. It turns out, one of the grocery stores in Fairbanks is the best place to get local seafood. But when we got up to the counter there wasn’t any king crab in the case. We were puzzled. Fortunately, Lucas asked the man behind the counter. Ta da! They keep it in the freezer. Our education on king crab was about to begin. Apparently, you can’t buy fresh king crab. Because of bacteria and other not-so-good microorganisms, king crab must be immediately boiled and then flash frozen when it comes off the boat. So the store always has king crab on hand, they just keep it in the freezer.

Next step, how much to buy. We weren’t really sure what we were doing, so we decided to error on the side of caution and just get a pound, but if we wanted two legs this wasn’t even possible. The two smallest legs the counter worker could find weighted a little over a pound and a half. We decided to go for it, and when he handed me the bag the legs stretched as long as my forearm. This is not your average Maryland crab.

Thank goodness, we also asked this very helpful counter man how to prepare the king crab legs, because despite what we figured, you do not boil them. Since they have already been cooked, you bake them at 400 degrees for 10 minutes.  If you boil them, they will loose flavor.

So for our little king crab party we did just that, bake. After they came out of the oven, and didn’t even fit on our plates, it was a little difficult trying to figure out how to get started, but we did our best. Breaking the crab legs at the joints, we pulled out long sections of meat. Wow. The small pieces were still the size of a hot dog. For the bigger sections of the leg, we laid newspaper on the counter and pulled out the rolling pin. We do not have any of the real tools so we made do. A few whacks with the rolling pin, and I pulled out a piece of meat the size of a huge brat! The meat was so tender and flavorful we didn’t need any sauce. It was one of my favorite Alaskan meals so far.

As a funny side note, the spikes on the legs were so hard they left little dents in our rolling pin. And our apartment smelled like crab for two days. Coming in from the snow, the savory smell made me smile every time.

Alaskan Sunset

Yesterday it warmed up, 9 degrees! So I decided to drive to Chena Lakes Recreation Area and go for a walk. The flood plain at Chena is circled by a tall, mounded wall. It is where we go to watch the northern lights. It was also the perfect place to walk and watch the sunset. The sun is setting early here, so I started my walk around 3PM, and the colors were already pretty.

It has been snowing off and on for the last three days (it is snowing right now!) so it was cloudy. The sun was breaking through just on the horizon making the warm orange and red colors even more vivid. On this low line of the horizon, it was clear enough to see the Alaskan Mountain Range in the distance. I think the mountains are my favorite park of Alaska. I’m not sure I can even explain why I love them so much, but they make me want to hold my breath and make a wish.

Not only was the view pretty, I also got to see a dog team getting ready to go out for a run. They were on the flood plain below me. I watched the dogs running around while their owner worked to get them all hooked to the sled and ready to go. It was a little like watching someone trying to get kindergartners to line up for recess. I don’t know many other places were I could go on a walk and just happen to run into a musher getting ready to hit the trail. Oh, Alaska. And when I was leaving, I saw a man riding a horse through the snow. I did a double take from my car. It looked like a commercial with the horse kicking up white clouds of snow as they rode along the edge of the woods.

I came home pink-faced with wisps of frozen hair sticking out from under my hat. Happy.