Gaining Light

I grew up in northern Wisconsin, so I’m at home in wintery climates. Anchorage hasn’t been overly trying in that respect this year. It’s 10:30 pm on January 13th and it’s 35 degrees outside. That’s above my friends, not below. Feels strange to not plug in the car at night.

It’s easy to feel winter’s charms when temperatures hang in the 20s and push into the 30s. There’s no sub zero pinch when you go out in the morning. We haven’t felt that for quite a stretch here in south-central Alaska. 2014 went by without a single day below zero for Anchorage. 2015 is holding steady to the same el Nino sentiment.

The light is returning to us. We’re gaining more than three minutes each day. Here’s what 9:00am looks like facing east toward the Chugach Mountains.

The January eastern sky shows the promise of returning light.

The January eastern sky shows the promise of returning light.

I love the daily game of gauging the difference each morning. Below is the southern sky after I’d taken the left hand turn that you can see in the above picture. Still sort of dark to the north, which, by the way, is my favorite direction.

I live in the largest city in Alaska but the driveway in to the station is a secluded haven.

I live in the largest city in Alaska but the driveway in to the station where I work, is a secluded haven.

The clouds were beautiful today. I was fortunate in that I had a meeting at 10:30, away from the station. Below is the cloudy, southern sky behind the Loussac Library that greeted me as I walked to Natural Pantry to get some coffee.

In January, the drama of returning light.

January clouds.

The Chugach peaks have sparse snow right now. Precipitation in the last week has been fitful bursts of sleet and rain, not flakes. More reminescent of spring than weather from the heart of winter. This can of course change, and likely will before this month and the next are gone. Let’s keep track and see.

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The Magic of Fresh Starts and Blueberries!

Despite my good intentions…what’s that expression about the road to hell being paved with those? Far too many days have slipped by since my last post. Being a gal who grew up in Wisconsin, I have an unending capacity for Midwestern guilt and starting a blog that you do not tend properly is a cause for guilt. What to do, I kept asking myself, as I rushed from one chore to the next, not making time to write. Part of my struggle is because of my day job. As News Director for the largest news organization in the state of Alaska, I have to be careful about the things I write. Opinions on certain topics can get me in hot water fast, so, how to be consistent with my posts, be, hopefully interesting, rid myself of at least the part of my guilt related to neglecting the one or two readers I may have, and not get in trouble?

I decided I would try a simple method. A picture is worth a thousand words, or at least ten, so I’ll keep it simple. I’ll post a picture, write about it and when it makes sense, like today, I’ll add a recipe or a story about my memories of family, work and the food of love that my mom and grand mom, Nana, made for us through the years. I have no doubt about the enormous benefits of cooking good food for the people you care about. It impacts more than their bellies. I know there are tons of blogs about food so this won’t become a food blog, but it will be a mix of photos, memories, ideas and short stories on occasion.

So appealing in every sense.

So appealing in every sense.

This modest shot reminds me of the simplicity of good, fresh food and the memories it can evoke. When I was a kid, I picked a lot of wild blueberries in the piney woods of northern Wisconsin. My mom, sister, aunties and Nana and I  would often venture out into the scrubby pines and sandy soils of those forests. We would pick, talk, laugh and have a wonderful time. When I moved to Alaska, I found friends who loved that same tradition and picking berries, of any kind is still one of my favorite things. You benefit in so many ways. Camaraderie with friends, the satisfaction of shared effort, fresh air, exercise, sunshine and being in nature are all good for you. Really! And then you have the lovely fruits of your labor to take home and enjoy as you wish. My mom made a dessert that is still a favorite for me. I’m happy to share it with you. Enjoy!

Blueberry Delight

22 graham crackers-crushed with a rolling pin, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup softened butter. I also add some cinnamon and nutmeg.  Mix and press into a 9X13 pan. Save a bit of the crumb mixture to sprinkle on top.

Filling- 2 eggs, 1/2 cup sugar, 1- 8 ounce cream cheese softened, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla. Mix and pour over crust. Bake at 350 for 15 to 20 minutes. Allow to cool.

Topping- 4 cups blueberries, 3/4 cup sugar, 3 tablespoons minute tapioca, dash of lemon juice or a splash of orange juice is good also. Let the mixture sit for about 10 minutes, then heat to a simmer over medium to low heat, cook till thickened. Cool for a bit but spread on the crust and filling mixture while still warm. sprinkle remaining crumbs on top, chill and enjoy.

 

Plugging In

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On this last day of August, I am plugging back in to the online world of email, Facebook and blogging. My apologies to the few folks who may have read previous posts on Urban Tide and wondered about my long silence.

My youngest son Jeramiah married his best friend Beth, who is a truly wonderful young woman, just last weekend. Their lovely ceremony took place on Saturday, the 23rd of August in La Jolla, California. It was a really sweet time of family and friends and a week of fun on California beaches.

JP and Beth 2

 

Beth and JP 1

In the lead up to the wedding, there was a lot of extra work to get done before the trip. Something had to give and sadly, it was the Urban Tide blog. I’m back in Alaska and as we head into fall, I’m looking forward to posting a lot more often.

Yesterday I scoured the local urban wild patches in search of possible fall harvest possibilities and found these great berries and apples.

Berries and apples

I’m cooking them today and will run them through a sieve to remove pits, seeds and skins. The juice will make jam to share with family and friends. I love this time of year. Even though it’s a bit sad to see summer leave us, the fall harvest time is lively and fun and I find myself eager to put things in jars for the coming winter. My rule has always been that you have to wait till the snow flies before you can start opening those jars of jams, pickles and other goodies, but it’s worth it!

Harvesting wild fruit and berries is fun more than once. You have the enjoyment of tramping around the woods, discovering hidden patches of wild goodness like little presents left just for you to carefully put in a pail and tote home for transforming in the kitchen.

red currants crab apples chokecherries

Beautiful red currants, deep black chokecherries and cheery red crabapples were all available and ready to be harvested. I made sure to leave some for other urban scavengers of both the human and animal kind.

I always feel close to my grandmother when I’m out harvesting. Whether it’s from a garden or the local forest and meadows, I like to think about similar trips with my Nana. She was a genius at harvesting what the earth offered, using it in her kitchen and turning it into food of love for her family. She was a constant inspiration and when I’m carefully wiping jelly jar lids later this afternoon, I’ll be thinking of her beautiful smile as she cheerfully worked at putting food up for winter. It’s comforting and rewarding to continue that tradition in my family. Besides, it’s fun to give jars of homemade treats for Christmas presents. Be good and you might get one too….:)

Alaska Berry Reconnaissance

Solo blue

Solo blue

Summer is steaming along and it’s nearly time to engage in a favorite foraging tradition. Last night a friend and I drove into the Chugach mountains, hiked up a rocky path and checked on this year’s berry crop.

Blue Beauties

Blue Beauties

We laughed, told stories and picked the few both blue and black berries that were ripe. It was a beautiful, sunny evening, a light breeze kept mosquitoes mostly away and birds provided music to pick by. Clearly, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Black berries in Alaska are much different than the Wisconsin variety that I picked there. Here they are low growing and clustered along a small branch that looks like a tiny evergreen bough. In the midwest, blackberries grow on three and four foot prickly stalks and look quite similar to raspberries. Only, of course, they’re black like their low bush distance cousins in Alaska.

Low growing blackberry. Sometimes called Crow berry.

Low growing blackberry. Sometimes called Crow berry.

I love all types of berries and the peaceful, contemplative work of picking them. Throughout my life I’ve taken part in this cheerful and satisfying annual ritual. As a child with my mom and Nana, my sister, my sons, my friends and now my grandchildren. Harvesting wild food is so much fun and it’s free! I love bringing home the day’s harvest, storing them in a freezer container until there’s enough for a batch of jam. Hearing the metallic clink of a just sealed jar of homemade jam is a reward as sweet as the jam is. I get to enjoy it again when I give most of it away at Christmas.

It’s still a bit early, as you can see below, but wow, the berries are big this year. Hurray!

Green still, but big!

Green still, but big!

Even though we had decided we were just going to drive and check the status, you really can’t just look. You have to hike up in, check the percentage of ripe to unripe berries, discuss the likely date you better be back before others get there first.  All the while we were casually picking. Here and there, a few in the basket, a few popped in our mouths. Even when they’re still mostly green, patience and an attentive eye will help yield success. And fresh berries for cereal or pancakes is my idea of success.

Happy bowl

Happy bowl

It was hard to leave and head back into the city, but it’s reassuring to know that incredible wilderness is 15 minutes from my urban home.

Sleeping Lady

Sleeping Lady

Finding Wild

7-11-14

“Going to the woods is going home.”

John Muir- (or at least attributed to Muir on the card my sister just sent me).

I could try to confirm, but I don’t care so much about who said it, as I do about what the words mean and the interesting timing by which they showed up in front of me.

fireweed

I went for a long walk yesterday afternoon when the rain finally let up and was no longer pouring down. I put rubber boats on, my mom’s old rain coat and with my exuberant pal Sam, headed across the road and into a bit of wild land. It was as always, a satisfying experience and I wanted to write about the importance of connecting with nature and wild places. After I struggled to put down in this blog, what I was feeling while walking through rain drenched long grasses, finding a couple of ripe raspberries and picking a great bouquet of wild flowers, I opened a card that showed up in the afternoon from Linda, my big sister who lives in the state where we were born, Wisconsin. It was incredible to see a peaceful shot of canoes on still water with Muir’s spot-on quote along the shoreline. Seven words that perfectly described what I noodled around with for more than 1500. Below is an edited version of what I first put down as I tried to rely what Muir said in under 10.

 

One of the beautiful things about Anchorage, and believe me there are plenty of un-beautiful things about Anchorage, especially for women, but I’ll save that discussion for a day in early December when the light is at it’s stingiest and my thoughts are also a bit dark.

Not today.

It’s July, which is a glorious thing in Alaska, even in the city. Everything is lush and growing, fish are being caught and berries are starting to ripen. What’s not to like? So, I’m not here to foul up the summer groove.

Fireweed and raindrops

Fireweed and raindrops

Quite the opposite. I’m thinking about wild places right now and how important I believe they are for everyone. And that’s one of the beautiful things about Anchorage. You can drive to complete wilderness within 20 minutes, but even if you don’t have a car or gas money, you can walk to little patches of it from nearly anywhere in the city.

Living in the middle of the urban tidal wash for 15 years now, has not diminished my love of roaming through areas that never see a mower or winding through mossy trees, listening to the melody in a stream bed or the feeling that comes with the clear, beautiful composition of a bird’s song. Those notes, like turning a key in your solar plexus, opening a lock that releases you on some primal level. I suppose that’s what ‘opening a chakra’ means. I have experienced that gentle and stress relieving feeling many times and I know those of you who also have, know exactly what I’m talking about. Those of you, who have not, need to.

We’re not that far removed from our relatives who made their living completely from the land, and many people in Alaska still do. But in the city, it’s easy to get disconnected from that which I would argue, we really need. We need wilderness, even in small bits and so do our kids. I used to run around the woods with my boys a lot when they were little. We’d camp, fish, pick berries, hunt and just spend time hiking around, musing over cool looking bugs or rocks. Anyone who knows me very well, knows I’m a rock fanatic.

There is something that is fed within us when we spend time plugged in to that, which really matters and unplugged from that which does not. Even with the backdrop of the near constant swoosh of traffic in Anchorage, (I tell myself it’s just the surf, not streaming traffic, just ocean waves); there are places you can dip into for a quick recharge of your chakra batteries. My mom used to say it was good to stretch out on the ground, because your own electrical current connects with the magnetic force of the earth and that she said, is really good for us.

raspberry

I was a know-it-all punk when I was younger, but the older I’ve gotten, the more I understand how smart my mom was. If she said it, you can believe it. She wasn’t selling anything, just extolling the virtue that as creatures of the planet we sprang from, we need to connect back to it whenever we can.

Many years before I moved to Anchorage, when I was still a very rural person, I visited a friend who lived in the East Village of New York city. What struck me was the constant noise; it would never be quiet there, even at 4 am. You would never hear a cricket at night or a bumblebee’s drone in the afternoon. At night there was a reddish glow, you could never see the stars. The corker was the day I walked around the neighborhood alone and passed a school. The outside area where those schoolyard instruments of mayhem and many a bonked head; the swing sets and monkey bars were situated, was an asphalt horror. There was not a single inch of this so-called playground where a child could feel grass or even the ground. It struck me that entire generations could grow up here and never feel the actual soil with their toes or hear a songbird. It was a shocking and sad thought for me. How can a kid know the importance of taking care of where we live, if he or she can’t really ever connect with it? I thought about taking my boys to the local swimming hole back home or the fun I’d had as a kid running around at night with a flashlight and a bunch of other kids, snatching up slippery, fat night crawlers so we could ride our bikes to the Willow river the next day and catch a mess of fish.

Central Park is a beautiful place and I’m really glad that people realized in the early days of the city, how important a wild place would be to future generations, but I didn’t see any kids with fishing poles balanced across their bike handle bars and I know a lot of children growing up there, likely never get to spend time squishing mud between their toes in that highly regulated space.

Anchorage offers these opportunities even in the heart of the city. I live in Airport Heights, what I call the western edge of east Anchorage and I can easily walk to creeks, streams and trees. There are wild berries to discover, I found tundra tea the other day and wild rose hips, fireweed and currents for jelly are in these places. I can take one of my numerous medicine plant books out and find a lot of good things growing in these wonderful spots.

 

Try taking a little kid (your own please or with the permission of a parent, don’t think I’m advocating that you should just grab a random kid and head off into the trees. No, I’m not!), so they can roam and get tangled in long grass after a rain, let them fall and roll around, pick some weedy wild blooms to put in a jar at home, pick a handful of sweet and sour berries to delight in. Here is a free and valuable lesson about the wonders and bounty of the earth we live on.

wild grass

As Sam and I hiked around, I met a young girl and her little brother. They were riding their bikes on the muddy trails after an afternoon of heavy rain. They both liked Sam and said he sure looked big compared to their little dog at home. A Chihuahua. We laughed about the difference. Big sister said her mom grew up in Barrow and her family had dogs for mushing so she grew up with big dogs, but now they live in the city, so they have a little one. Not an unwise decision since having a 100-pound lab is kind of a challenge at times. The little brother said he got lots of exercise riding his bike and his legs were a little tired. I told him bike riding was a good thing to do, out here in this spot where there are winding trails through trees and up and down small hills. A great place to play for a kid, especially I told them, since they were together so they could watch out for each other out here away from their back yard. They both nodded quietly, as if maybe they’d been preached to about that very thing, staying together. A smart mom knows it’s good for a kid to play, explore and use their imagination, but in the city, you have to be careful. In the country, you look out for bears, in the city, you look out for other predators. I still think kids should play in these wild spots, but they just shouldn’t do it alone.

As I walked toward home with a muddy, happy dog, I saw an old lady, stooped shouldered and walking carefully through the long grass. She had a small grocery bag and was slowly moving through the same little wild place I’d just emerged from. She was scanning the ground, looking for treasures, maybe she knew which wild mushrooms could be taken home and eaten, maybe she was after some of the Labrador tea, whatever she was hunting, it struck me as fitting, that she was carrying a grocery sack. Her confidence told me that she would not go home empty handed.

mushrooms

Get out there and find a bit of wild if you’re an urban dweller like I am. Otherwise the city wears you down. When my internal batteries get so low that even the little woods across the highway from me doesn’t do it, then I need to get out of the city and into the real wilderness, where the quiet is so intense after the weary, constant barrage of traffic, sirens and construction noise, that your ears ring in the silence.

I need it. You do too.

wild path

Take a little kid with you; let them wander on a path made by a moose instead of a bulldozer and paver, show them spider webs with dew clinging to the delicate strands. Pick a bouquet of wild grass and flowers.

wildflowers in vase

Take a bag and pick up a little trash, without dwelling on the insensitivity of those who dropped it. Just do it because it’s the right thing to do. The little kid will learn that we all have to help out, even beyond our own impact, because we always hope that those who carelessly toss, will someday come to understand why you don’t want to pollute the place where your food and your spiritual sustenance comes from. We have to believe others will come to see the wisdom in that and decide to do better themselves. Maybe when they’re out walking, feeling that gentle stirring in their chest at the beauty of a bird’s song. Maybe when they see you and the kid picking up someone else’s sad signs of connection lost.

The Many Distractions of July

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There’s so many things to distract me from writing this time of year. Gardening, fishing, hiking and just enjoying the glorious time that is summer in Alaska. If you haven’t been to the 49th state in June or July, it’s hard to describe how strange it is to look out your window at midnight and see everything in your yard as if it were four in the afternoon. Strange, but wonderful!

I must commit to more consistent posting if I expect you, dear readers, to come back and visit frequently. I’d like to blame my recalcitrance on the drowsy song of bumblebees as they float from blossom to blossom or the hypnotic perfume of Valarian flowers or the near constant but pleasurable work of weeding, deadheading and watering my numerous planters and beds, but that’s silly. Even with the many tasks, joyful as they are, of summer chores, there is still time and it’s up to me to make it happen. Here’s a great shot from a recent drive out to the Mat Su valley to visit a friend. I’m hoping this will help you understand why I find it hard to come in from the glory of summer in Alaska to write about it.

photo-4

 

Big Shakes and Summer Visitors

June 23, 2014

There’s been quite a bit of curious earthquake activity over the last few months. Being located within the ‘Ring of Fire’, Alaska is a consistently shaky place. Earthquakes, hundreds of them, occur across the state every day and week. Many are unnoticed, some times they surprise or scare us, but since April, there’s been a strange earthquake ‘swarm’ in northwest Alaska in the Brooks Range near Noatak. It’s been an odd enough occurrence that seismologists installed some new seismic monitors in Kotzebue and the Noatak area to try to determine why after a 30 year quiet period, there is now this uptick of activity. Much of it at the 5.0 or higher level, which is nothing to sneeze at.

Today there was an initial 8.0, later downgraded to 7.9 quake near Amchitka toward the end of the long curving string of Aleutian islands. 7.9. Wow. We can’t help but wonder, here in the geologically lively 49th state, just what the hell is going on and what does or will it mean.

A precursor to the next big catastrophic event? This spring we marked the 50th anniversary of the Good Friday earthquake of 1964. It devastated the coastal area of Anchorage and the resulting tsunami destroyed parts of Seward, Cordova and wiped out the village of Chenega, killing 23 people. It was the largest earthquake every recorded in North America and the second largest in the world.

We could be due for another.

It makes me wonder how different it might be now as opposed to 50 years ago. If a similar event happened in Anchorage today, would people be better or worse off? Are we well equipped to respond now or are we much softer urbanites that the residents who survived the quake of 64? How many residents expect that if and when a large earthquake strikes, we’ll somehow be taken care of by local government rather than expecting to take care of ourselves and help our neighbors?

I’ve talked to lots of older residents who remember that time well and how people pulled together to survive. I’d like to think we’d do the same for each other today, but it’s hard to know. Let’s hope so. No, better yet. Let’s plan for it. Have supplies ready. I lived off the grid for a time and learned to appreciate how to survive and then thrive, with no running water or electricity. There’s a certain comfort in knowing these things that I suspect more citified folks worry about. It doesn’t have to be scary to do without cable and the microwave. You just have to be ready.

Last night I was fortunate to have friends over for a first of the summer get together. Six little girls ran through my back yard, delighting my goofy lab and enjoying their little kid games of hide and seek and poking sticks in the small pond. It was great to listen to their laughter and see them enjoying the summer evening in among my flower beds. Like little spring flowers themselves, they brought joy to us all.

62314 clouds

Ok, so it’s not a bird or a plane, but it sort of looked like a flying horse for a while. It’s nice to indulge in a few summer evening moments to simply watch a cloud change from one imaginary beast to another.