Saturday, November 22, 2008

The B&G: Adding to the Quality of Life

This unassuming building holds a quality of life issue for us: the Boys & Girls Club of Homer provides after-school care for kids every school day plus summers for only $20 per child per year. It is the old middle school, and has an art/music room, computer lab, homework corner, gym and kitchen. Staff plan activities in each of the areas daily. And each day they serve a substantial snack to the 30-50 (a very rough guess!) kids that visit.

Quality after school care is an important consideration for people who work, and we feel very blessed to have a "B&G" in Homer. Our kids ride the bus 14 miles from their elementary school in Fritz Creek into town (free--it's part of the route), and can have fun running around the gym, doing homework, chatting with friends or whatever suits their fancy till 6 p.m. It is a relief for us to have someplace our kids can go when we're working or in meetings. Plus, having them get a ride into town from school is an added benefit.

The Borough owns this building and wants to sell it to Kachemak Bay Campus for $1 (the college holds classes upstairs). However, the problem is that it is an old building with asbestos, and some major repairs are needed. No one wants to take over a potential money drain like this. Burning the place down for fire crew practice has even been considered (after the abestos has been removed, of course). It is a dilemma, and it sure makes me wonder what's going to happen to all the kids who come here. Many parents cannot (or would not care to) afford child care, daycare providers are scarce, there are not many alternate buildings for the B&G to occupy, and budget cuts have already cut the hours provided.

Despite these woes, the B&G's doors stay open, and we fully appreciate each time our kids have a safe, fun, comfortable place to go after school. Having a Boys & Girls Club in Homer has definitely added to the quality of our lives here, and we certainly hope it will continue to be able to provide this valuable service.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Glory of Sunsets!

I have always kind of pooh-poohed those who go ga-ga over sunsets (boy, that sounds really juvenile. I can't believe I wrote that, but I'm going to let it stand.), but the past few weeks have offered sunset after sunset that I have just sighed and gone "Woooooooow." Santa came early to our home last week when Douglas returned from Anchorage, and the new camera (to replace the one we lost while hiking in Kenai in August) is quite portable, so I took it out with me as I skiied, sledded and drove around this week. Enjoy a couple of shots.

Gas Price Woes

We're all relieved that gas prices are going down (besides the oil moguls), but now the injustice of it all seems to hit. Gas prices were 35 cents per gallon lower in Anchorage than Homer last week, and from what I hear prices are at least a dollar per gallon lower in the Lower 48. Considering we get our fuel from an oil refinery just up Cook Inlet (Nikiski), it seems like our fuel prices ought to be lower than elsewhere. It's a quick boat ride from Nikiski to Homer, while most states in the U.S. don't even have a refinery in state.

Rumblings are that Tesoro is recouping losses elsewhere by keeping Alaska gas prices abnormally high. In most places in the state (Anchorage excluded), Tesoro is the only gas station available. That monopoly allows them to charge what they like for gas, and we have to take it since we have no choice. Obviously, the competition in Anchorage has driven prices down to a somewhat less inflated cost.

So while I am delighted gas is no longer $5.00 gallon (it was pretty darn close, but I stopped looking after it hit $4.50/gallon), of course $2/gallon would be much easier on my wallet! To all those down yonder: count your blessings!

Friday, November 14, 2008

On Becoming a Good Alaska

If anyone had told me I would be writing about becoming a good cook 25 years ago when I chose woodworking class instead of home economics in middle school, I would have thought them completely crazy. I was the person who ate ramen noodles raw (uncooked!) because I was too lazy to cook them. I now live in rural Alaska where one needs to cook if one is to be healthy and not spend a fortune on processed food from the store. Here is my journey to this point where I now consider cooking one of my hobbies, and what role living in Alaska has played in that transformation.

"You're a good cook!" is a phrase I now hear regularly when people come to visit and I get to feed them, but it is a title that I am uncomfortable with. It doesn't quite fit how I see myself, though it is definitely something I want to be. I guess if enough people tell me that, I might start believing them. However, it comes down to one's taste, and that is one of the first things I have learned.

When I look through recipe books now, I no longer assume that just because someone else says something is divine that our family will find it so. In fact, I find some cookbooks next to useless because they are filled with things that we would not like, or even if we would like, I do not care to prepare. I always thought the problem was me, but my growing awareness of and experiments with food have taught me that there are just some foods that do not appeal to our taste buds. Rather than being upset with my family for not liking a food, I make note in the cookbook and do not make it again, moving on to another recipe that we might like.

A few things set me on the trajectory of cooking more. The first was a well-supplied kitchen. I will admit it, I am cheap. The pots and pans in our kitchen are all wedding presents from 15 years ago or hand-me-downs from someone else's kitchen. We invest in a cheap teflon frypan every year or two, and that has been the extent of acquiring anything in the kitchen. When we moved to Alaska we lived with the people we were renting from for 2 1/2 months. Along with seeing someone else cook, I inherited their kitchen supplies. It was an eye-opener for me to realize how useful some things could be. For example, a wire rack is called for in cooling baked goods. I doubt I ever would have bought a wire rack for myself, but now I find myself pulling it out several days a week! Or how about the joy of drinking from glass glasses instead of plastic cups covered with scratches and cracks? Juice tastes clearer and colder when drunk from glass, and is worth it for the pleasure it brings. Serving dishes and serving spoons always seemed excessive wastes to me: "Plop the pot down on the table and eat up" was my attitude. But again, I feel better about eating and enjoy the experience when it is nicely arranged, so I began to use the serving dishes our landlord had in their cupboards.

Filling our freezer with meat--moose, beef, salmon, halibut & clams--was the next impulsion to learn to cook better. I doubt I'd cooked more than one steak in my whole life before coming to Alaska. Ground beef and boneless, skinless chicken breasts were my forte. Being given all this meat meant I had to cook it! Google saved me! Every time I pulled a package of meat out of the freezer I would run to my computer and figure out what to do with it! Brisket, t-bone, top sirloin, roasts were all strange words to me. Marinade?? Rub?? Huh? It has been a learning curve trying out different recipes to find what we like--and what cooks the way the recipes says it should! I have always been the type who wanted my meat charred or I wouldn't touch it. I have discovered that meat is better with a little pink inside, and I've coached my hubby in grilling it right so that it is more edible--actually, a delight--to eat. I regularly use my herbs and spices now...and use them up! Just a year ago I didn't even use them, much less how to!

The desire to be healthy was the next impetus to learning to cook. My aunt and cousins are health food fanatics, as are a number of other people I have met up here, so it has provided a community of sorts to learn about how to eat good food. I have a hard time picturing eating in Michigan the way we eat here. It just doesn't fit somehow. Up here, it is not unusual to eat the product of a hunt, dig clams, fish, pick berries and all the other subsistence living activities that make for healthy eating. It is much more deliberate and conscious here: the more we put away, the healthier we will be. We barely touch the surface of subsistence living (it takes time, skill and special tools), yet we are part of the history of this place--the roots of life in Alaska--when we put things away for the winter. And we are all so conscious of the food we put into our bodies now. My husband, a lifetime McDonald's and soda addict, has given up both of those--a miracle I never thought I would live to see. We belong to an organic food co-op to take advantage of organic food at lower-than-local prices. Living in Alaska has changed the way we see and experience food.

The sometimes outrageous prices for food has led us to seek more economical means of feeding our family. Anchorage food prices are comparable to the Lower 48, but as you head south on the Kenai Peninsula, prices get more expensive. The same item in Homer could cost $1-$6 more than in Soldotna to the north. Buying in bulk has become a way of life to make up for the long periods between trips to Anchorage, so we learn to cook and eat what we have, becoming creative as we run out of things and anticipate the next trip to Costco. A week ago, all our meat was nearly gone (2 steaks and some ground moose left in the freezer!). We kept holding off getting groceries, knowing my husband was going to be in Anchorage this week to re-supply. It will be such a relief when he returns with the Durango loaded with food to last us till the next trip to Anchorage.

The long distance from restaurants has definitely made a difference in my motivation to cook. In Michigan if I didn't feel like cooking, we would just run to town and get some fast food. No sweat! With a 30 minute drive to Homer (more in the winter) and few restaurants that are open evenings, it is simpler and less time consuming to pull a steak out of the freezer and pop it on the grill. Actually, I have learned to think at least a day or two ahead, keeping a running menu in my head so I can thaw the appropriate vegetable or meat. I have thaw times down to a science, so I know exactly when to take something out of the freezer to have it thawed by time I'm ready to cook it. Meals are planned around my schedule, so if I'm not going to be home till late, dinner may be brisket, stroganoff, a roast, or stew in the crockpot. Days that I am home I can cook something that requires more prep time. Leftovers are coveted as we all negotiate who gets what for their lunches the next day.

Two attitudes had to change in order to overcome my dislike of cooking. The first attitude was my abhorrence for dirty dishes. I joke about when my husband and I were first out of college and we would go for 2 weeks without washing dishes (just wash enough to eat). We finally hired someone for $5/hour to come in and wash, dry and put away our dishes once a week, because by golly, I wasn't going to be one of those wimpy women who does all the cleaning and cooking. I no longer hoard my dishes, not wanting to dirty them. It makes cooking so much easier if I actually use what's there! Now we've got kids old enough to load and unload the dishwasher, and we've come to a fairly comfortable medium of who washes/cleans up.

The other attitude that had to change was this: I have always seen cooking as a subservient thing--a lower status--in the home. I've gotten over my control issues, image issues and low value issues, so cooking is now something I can truly enjoy--without the negative connotations. Now I can say, "I like to cook," and be proud of it rather than embarrassed at what someone might think. Of course, all the other factors above led to this. We're forced, in a way, to cook, so it was either change my attitude or be unhappy. Changing my attitude was easier than being unhappy in this case.

As I often say, not everyone in Alaska has the same experience I have had. Not everyone that moves up here becomes a good cook--or even cooks that much. But the special chemistry that has worked between me and Alaska has given me a new hobby that fills me with pleasure as I cook, eat, and feed my family well. It has become a labor of love. And my greatest joy of all is seeing my kids interested in cooking: trying experiments with food, making up recipes, tasting different spices, and sharing time in the kitchen as a family. What an awesome gift to give them: the love of preparing food.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

40 Year Ice Skating Party Tradition

When my aunt and uncle moved to Alaska 40 years ago they started a tradition of having an ice skating party every year that the ice froze smoothly enough to skate. This year conditions were perfect when the ice froze, creating deep, smooth ice, and today was the day of the skating party.

It was snowing heavily when we left home, and the wind was blowing the snow horizontally. I was sure skating would be canceled in such weather, but to my surprise Delores said the weather was fine in Ninilchik--no rain, no snow--so we decided to make the 1 1/2 hour drive to join the skating party tradition. We went from snow at home to rain in Homer and back to snow as we headed up the hill out of Homer, then back to rain again until we hit Anchor Point when all precipitation stopped and the roads were dry (whew!).

The lake is 6 miles out of Ninilchik down Oil Well Road and then some bumpy dirt roads (unmaintained, so luckily not too much snow yet!). Delores & John used a piece of plywood held in front of the 4-wheeler and made 8 swipes around the lake on Wednesday to clear the track you see in the picture. It is a .4 mile loop around the lake, and the kids and I skated for 3 hours today, so I wonder how many miles we went!! Actually we could (and did!) skate anywhere on the lake because the snow wasn't very deep, and it was fun to "make tracks" in the fresh snow.

We had a fire going and a spread of food, including the Alaska standbys of moose dogs (as in "hot dogs") and salmon dips and salads. It was a breezy day, but not so cold that we were uncomfortable. I wasn't sure how we'd hold up being on an exposed lake all day, but what with the exercise of skating and occasional hot drinks, we were toasty all afternoon.

The kids were in skating heaven for 3 hours, playing tag, shoveling paths in the snow, eating desserts and basically hanging out on skates. I've skated ponds before, but never a whole lake, so this was a real treat. I will admit, I am sore, though I'm just itching to get back on skates and go some more!

As a side note, my kids were out with friends on Beluga Lake in Homer this past week and they tried an experiment (the dad--not the kids!). There were large air bubbles near the surface in the ice and Don poked a hole in the ice to the air bubble and quickly put a lighter to the hole. Each time a flame shot up, sometimes as high as 3 feet! Apparently the rotting vegetation in Beluga Lake gives off methane, which gets trapped in air bubbles when the water freezes. Thus the spectacular side-show! I want to get down there and try it one of these days. If I do I will treat you to a picture of this on my blog!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Hauling Supplies to Razdolna

Well, it's a beautiful Saturday in November, and we're spending half a day hauling supplies out to Razdolna.

Since our little Russian school is down 5 1/2 miles of gravel roads, the Kenai Peninsula School District which it is part of will not send it's delivery truck to school. All water, paper, shelves and other supplies are dropped off in the shed at McNeil Canyon School every Tuesday and Douglas (as well as the principal's of the other 2 Russian Schools at the Head of the Bay) has to pick up the supplies there and drive them to school themselves.

Normally it just means a quick stop at the shed to load up our Durango, but sometimes when there are big items like the whiteboard, soccer goals and filing cabinet that needed hauling this weekend, we hook up our trailer and do the hauling ourselves. From where we live we drive 7 miles to McNeil, load up, tie down, cover the stuff with tarps if the weather's wet, and then head 12 miles back up the road to Raz. At times we have to slow to a crawl because Basargin Road is still a bumpy mess from frost heaves last spring.

As I write this, Douglas is drilling holes in the walls, hanging whiteboards that were ordered in August and have finally come in. After years of trying to figure out a way to get high speed internet access out here, as well as Douglas' annoying persistence, the district tech folks finally made it happen. The school got high speed internet access in May a few days before school got out so I can actually blog from school.

As you can see, the school is in need of a paint job. It is owned by members of the community of Razdolna and the school district leases it from them. An outside paint job was in the plans, but the inside of the school was completely rearranged and painted (by staff and student volunteers), and then new playground took priority.
Over the summer a new playground was installed, almost completely at the expense of the villagers (the borough donated the play structure itself). It has become a new hub of the community as kids flock to the schoolyard to play.

The great challenge now is that the village needs a new school. The building you see above has a capacity of 50 people, and with 48 students enrolled this year, they are pushing the ticket. The village is growing and enrollment is expected to hit 76 in 3 years as families with young children begin to send them to school. However, the district will not build a new school; the villagers have to come up with the money themselves. A modest 3000 sq. ft. building would cost $600,000. With 26 families in the village who have to foot the bill, that seems like an insurmountable task (can you imagine someone asking you to foot the bill to build a new school building--on top of your own mortgage??!!). The villagers have been running fundraisers, selling Russian food and bake sales, but that is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed. The architect fees alone to come up with a plan for the school (which is needed before they can get a loan) were $42,000!

Perspective. So while it is annoying to have to haul our own supplies to school and install them, it is such a small challenge compared to what the Russian's face in building a new school. It gives us a good feeling to know that these students are getting a good education, learning to read and write and do the things they will need to in order to make a good living for themselves.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Got Studs?

We had a couple of weeks of snowy and icy roads at the beginning of October, leading to a flurry of activity as people got their studs put on. "Got your studs on?" was a common question as I ran into people I knew. And as I drive around town I see tires in backseats of cars and in the back of pickup trucks.

Studs? I thought that was a bit much before I lived in Alaska, but as you can see from the picture, they're just small metal nibs that stick out from the tires to give a little bit better grip on the road. I can see why they wouldn't want studs on roads in, say, the Midwest. With millions of cars traveling the roads, highways would be ripped up that much more quickly. But up here, with only 675,000 people in the whole state, and far fewer cars on any particular road, studs help keep people on the road, especially when a tow truck could take a long, long time to get there in rural areas.

Many people just purchase an entire extra set of tires for their vehicle with the studs already on them. They come either with the rims or without rims. With the rims means that anyone can quickly switch over to the new set of tires--pop off the tires like you're changing a tire and put the new one on. Without rims means you end up taking your car into a tire shop and they charge $15/tire to switch them over which is what we do. Some people may actually screw in the studs themselves and take them off again, using the same tire year round, but I don't know anyone who does this. So when we ask, "Got your studs on?" it doesn't mean we actually put the studs on, it just refers to whether the tires have been switched over.

The car is just a tad bit noiser driving with studs....kind of a clickety-clack sound. But it is well worth the security of better purchase on the roads--especially our very curvy, hilly East End Road out of Homer!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Bear Alert!

Early this week we got a call from a neighbor across the canyon. "A grizzly bear is hanging around our house. Make sure you kids get a ride up to the bus." Douglas always drives them up, so that was no problem, but it shook us out of our complacency.

We've known there have been bear hanging out all summer, as some of our neighbors have prowled about with their guns looking for it. However, we'd assumed it was a black bear since we ran into one nearby in early summer. Black bears don't bother us as much as "brownies" or "grizzlies". Just the afternoon before this call our kids were picking crowberries in the canyon. We know canyons are favorite places for bears--both to hang out and to hibernate. But we hadn't heard about one in the area for a few months, so I gave the kids the ok to go exploring. They'd come dashing back into the house for bags to pick crowberries in a big patch they found on the canyon wall, and headed right back out. Luckily Denver has a loud voice, so we all feel somewhat safer when he is with us warning the wildlife of our presence.

But the bear alert in the morning, along with some of our trash scattered about put us on high alert. We purchased a bear-proof trash can, we've taken to carrying our .44 when we go for walks and the kids haven't had the desire to go exploring lately despite beautiful sunshiny weather. We're counting down till the bears go into hibernation, which is any time now. Since the snow we had earlier in Octber is gone, it has just been cold. When bears go into hibernation varies depending on a number of factors, including food supply, elevation, temperature, whether it has cubs, and amount of snow covering their food supply.

We'd gotten complacent about wildlife alertness, so this has raised it in our consciousness. It doesn't feel that "wild" up here in Alaska now that we're used to it. This is a good reminder to stay alert and aware.