Our hike this weekend was an exercise in persistence and a lesson in the pitfalls of “break up.” Spring in Alaska means water and snow and icy and everything in between. We had an idea what this would mean, but not really a sense of how this changes hiking.
We set out for Granite Tors in the morning armed with snowshoes and layers of clothes and dry shoes that would be waiting for us back in the car. Prepared. This hike is a loop that runs along the North Fork of the Chena River and then ascends into the mountains where it passes by and around large rock outcroppings know as tors. It offers mountain views all around. My kind of hike.
The first section of the hike was sloppy. Melt water flooded the trail in many sections and thick, wet mud blanketed the rest. But we had expected this. What we hadn’t expect was what came next. As the trail steadily climbed out of the flood water and mud, we thought we would come to snow. Strap-on-your-snowshoes-and-go-kinda-snow. Instead, we encountered a hopscotch of deep snow and bare ground. It was a pain in the butt. For over an hour we continuously put on snowshoes only to take them off again. The sections of snow were too deep to walk, up over our knees, but walking on bare ground in snowshoes isn’t a great idea either. Fortunately, we at least had good views. Mountains, mountains, and mountains.
We did finally get to a spot with more continuous snow, but it wasn’t very stable. In some places you could easily walk on the top of the hard-crusted, wind-blown snow, but then a few steps later, you would sink, even in snowshoes, up to your knees, hitting what we started calling “bomb holes.” The hardest part was getting back out of them. Your snowshoes would catch in the thick, icy snow, and you had to work to get them moving again. It was like trying to walk up stairs with glue on your feet.
At the crest of a hill about four miles in we realized we were never going to be able to finish the loop. It was just too slow between the bomb holes and the on/off processes with snowshoes, so we stopped for a break to enjoy our distant view of the tors. I never get tired of looking out at the mountains, especially when you have the view all to yourselves.
There was also weather rolling in. Out over the mountains in front of us, huge dust-gray clouds clumped and hung around the peaks. In contrast, behind us the sky was crayon blue and clear. I loved the feeling of the sun warming my back as I watched the dark clouds roll and bubble like a caldron moving towards us. It was time to head back.
The walk down turned out to be the more comical version of our hike up. After three hours of sun, the snow was mushy, and we found ourselves sinking and flopping and falling through the snow all the way back down. When you hit a bomb hole the motion of your body, coupled with the downhill grade, sent you forward at a pace that face planted me into the snow, twice. I wish we had a video of us laughing and falling and laughing our way down the mountain like the two stooges. It would have made a great black-and-white movie with a pie in someones face at the end.
Hiking in Alaska is always an adventure!
This week I was in the mood to bake. I also wanted to try something new. I have stacks of recipes waiting to be made in Pinterest, and as I was scrolling, I found a recipe from the blog, The Kitchn, I had pined a few months before for ciabatta bread or rolls. Perfect.
I shied away from this recipe in the past because it requires a biga, or pre-ferment, which I had never used before, but this week I was ready to tackle a new technique. The biga adds to the breads flavor, texture, and crust. Basically, it gives the bread an extra bunch of all the good stuff. There is actually nothing complicated about creating it. You mix basic ingredients, water, flour, yeast, and let it sit overnight before you want to create the actual dough. It wasn’t nearly as scary as I imagined it would be. And it helped create a pretty spectacular result.
I decided to make rolls with my dough, as we had left over lentil “meatballs” (no actual meat) that we wanted to turn into sandwiches (see picture below).
Lucas and I have been munching on the rolls all week, and I can say they are a hit. Because we are in Alaska, and my kitchen equipment is in Pennsylvania, I had to do without my scale and stand mixer, which would have made things a lot easier. But I didn’t mind the adventure of kneading this super wet dough. If you are making the bread by hand, it can not be kneaded in the traditional fashion. Instead, you alternate between “slapping” the dough on a well floured counter and folding it in half. The key is generous amounts of flour for you hands, the dough, and the counter. And a little bit of patience so that the dough fully develops. Needless to say, a stand mixer takes out all the guess work for kneading.
I highly recommend rolling up your sleeves and giving this bread a tried. So tasty!
Ciabatta Bread or Rolls
What You Need:
For best results weigh ingredients.
4 ounce (1/2 cup) water
1/2 teaspoon active-dry yeast
5 ounce (1 cup) all-purpose flour
Pour water into a medium size bowl and dissolve the yeast. Add the flour and stir to form a thick paste. Continue to stir several more times to build up the gluten. Cover with plastic and let sit at room temperature eight hours or overnight.
The next day, the biga will look soupy with bubbles dotting the surface.
17 ounces (2 cups + 2 tablespoons) water
1 teaspoon active-dry yeast
20 ounces (4 cups) all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons kosher salt
In the bowl of a standing mixer, again add water and allow yeast to dissolve. Scrape the biga into the water using your hands or a spatula. Once in the bowl, break up the biga with your spatula or squeeze with your hands. The biga will not dissolve completely, rather it should be broken up into stringy blobs.
Add flour and salt. Using your spatula, stir to form a thick, wet dough. Then let the dough rest for 10-20 minutes.
Now attach the bowl to your standing mixer that has been fitted with the dough hook. Knead at medium speed for 15-18 minutes (Level 5 or 6 on a KitchnAid). Keep an eye on your mixer as it may move on the counter top at this speed.
At first, the dough will start stick to the bottom and sides of the bowl. Around the 7-minute mark, it will start to pull away from the sides of the bowl, collect around the dough hook, and slap the sides of the bowl. If it doesn’t, nudge your mixer speed up a notch. Also, if the dough starts climbing the dough hook, stop the mixer and scrape it down again. By the end of kneading, the dough will look smooth and creamy with a glossy shine. It will puddle back into the bowl once you turn off the mixer, and this is fine.
Cover the bowl and let the dough rise for 2-3 hours, until tripled in bulk.
Heavily flour your work surface. Line baking sheet(s) with parchment paper or if you have a pizza stone, lay the parchment paper on the counter. Now carefully scrape the dough out of the bowl onto the floured surface. Dust the top of the dough with more flour. Using a pizza wheel, cut the dough in two pieces for loaves or 8 pieces for rolls.
Cover your hands with flour. Gently scoop the loaves (or the rolls) one at a time from the work surface to the parchment. Press your fingertips about halfway into the dough to dimple the surface and slightly flatten. Let the dough rise, uncovered, for 30-40 minutes. When ready to bake, they should look pillowy with bubbles just beneath the surface.
Preheat the oven to 475°F. If you have a baking stone, put it in the oven now.
Bake for 20-30 minutes, until puffed and golden brown. Slip the parchment out from under the loaves and cool completely before eating.
Today my first blog post for Women’s Adventure Magazine came out. I will now be posting monthly for them! To see the post about my last week mushing click here.
Lucas and I have been vigilantly monitoring the snow plowing progress at Denali National Park for the last few weeks, and this weekend, we got our break. On Saturday, the park road was opened to the public up to mile 29 for the first time since the fall. Saying we were excited is perhaps an understatement.
Denali has quickly become one of my favorite places in Alaska. I could happily explore this massive park every weekend and never get tired of it. There is just so much to see.
For this excursion, we decided to drive the road out to mile 29, Teklanika, and then continue to hike deeper into the park via the road. Less than five minutes into our drive, we were chatting, and looking out at the snow covered peaks wishing to see a moose. And bam. A moose, snacking a few yards off the road in the woods. It was a good sign for the day ahead.
The drive itself is always beautiful. Denali is one of those places you can never quite capture in a picture because it surrounds you. Full mountain immersion. It is like being lifted into another world, quiet, still snowy-white at this time of year. The peaks look like they have been draped in yards and yards of white silk. And these kind of views stretch in every direction.
We also got super lucky on Saturday. The clear-sky day revealed the mountain. Denali (McKinley). It peaked out early, within ten miles of the winter visitor center, and we craned our necks to watch it as it appeared and disappeared behind corners all the way out to Teklanika. I am always amazed at how huge it is. It stands in the sky like a giant, even when it is hundreds of miles away.
After a leisurely drive, taking pictures, getting out to walk a little on the hard-packed, wind-swept snow, we made it to the “road closed” sign and continued on foot. The next section of the road, out to Igloo Mountain, is sandwiched by mountains and crosses a few rivers, little and big. The first river, the biggest we crossed, had several open patches of water. The deep blue water appeared from under the snow and ice, swept across the riverbed rocks, and disappeared just as quickly under more ice. Signs of spring.
At Igloo Mountain we decided to hike, off the road, into the snow a little bit. A side trip. At first the snow was hard-packed and wind-swept like what we had walked on earlier. But at the top of the first rise we found ourselves on the tundra, covered in thick patches of icy, wet snow, and we started to sink. First to our ankles, then knees, and then up to our thighs. We struggled to move forward. It was like walking in silly putty. I even spent some time crawling across the snow to help distribute my weight. I wish we had a video. It was comically ridiculous. We gave up less than a half mile from the road. We were missing the snow shoes we left in our car. But we both like a little adventure, and it was one of my favorite parts of the day.
On the way back, the light was beautiful. Soft against the blue sky, and the Denali, the mountain, continued to dance along the horizon. And the icing on the cake, we saw another moose, laying down in the snow, on our way out. Back to back moose sightings. Oh, Denali. I am already dreaming about our trip back this summer.
As you might have guessed from my blog posts this winter, I have a soft spot for dogs and dog sledding and winter Alaskan activities. So when a friend offered to take me skijoring, I was more than excited.
Skijoring is a winter sport where a person on cross-country skis is pulled by one or more dogs. The word skijoring is derived from a Norwegian word that means ski driving. It is a popular sport here in Alaska, and after a morning on the trails, I can see why.
I met my friend and her two dogs, Sierra and Walker, at Creamer’s Field, a wildlife reserve in Fairbanks, AK with over 40 miles of trails that stretch out into the valley. Breakup (spring in Alaska) is well underway here, so we started early to take advantage of cooler morning temperatures. The trails looked fast with hard-packed, icy snow, which made me a little nervous. I am not a particularly experienced cross-country skier, but I certainly didn’t want to miss the chance to try skijoring.
I would be skijoring with Walker, a large, white Alaskan husky, who I already knew and loved. But, before we hit the trail, we all had to get harnessed up. My harness fit around the waist and then between my legs, much like a climbing harness. In front, it connected to a main line that would link me to Walker. Walker wore his dog sledding harness. We clipped into our skis, and the dogs where ready to run.
Walker loves to chase so we started out fast. For the first fifteen minutes I pretty much snow plowed and said, “easy Walker, easy” so that we didn’t run straight into my friend and Sierra who were out in front of us. It was awesome.
Skijoring is a little like sledding. Even on flat ground you get that wind-in-your-face-feeling as you glide over the snow. It made me feel like a giddy little kid again. I am not sure how I will ever go back to regular cross-country skiing.
But the best part was about a half hour in when Walker and I got into a rhythm. We were moving down the trail like one unit, my sliding steps in time with the padding of his feet, the hiss of the ice-snow underneath us like the sound of waves on a beach. The rhythm of movement is soothing.
We stayed out on the trails a little over two hours, and I felt pretty good that I only fell twice. And Walker was great. He listened to commands so well, waited when I did fall, and pulled hard the whole time. It almost, but not quite, makes me wish the snow wasn’t melting so fast.
What a great way to say goodbye to winter.