Posted by: Elena | March 5, 2014

Another Life…Another Blog!

Hello friends and family who followed my Alaskan adventures 6 years ago!  I have created another blog site for an upcoming, extended road trip here, and figured since you seemed to enjoy following me last time I left town, you might want to sign up for these updates too!  I leave March 22nd and return to San Diego about the same time in June…or will I…?!?  You never know!

More info is on that blog already and as soon as I kick off the trip, I hope to post somewhat regularly from various points along the way!  Hope you are all doing well and I look forward to reading your comments again like I did last time- that was half the fun for me!  🙂

Posted by: Elena | May 6, 2008

My Farmer’s Market Dilemma

Today was Sunday.  I had a trip planned to the Hillcrest/Normal Heights Farmer’s Market, to pick up some ingredients for a test recipe.  Dennis and I have been going almost every week for the last month or two, in order to make contact with farmers from whom we might be able to buy our produce.  It has worked well for that purpose, but I have noticed since returning from Alaska that it gets awfully crowded!  Of course this is a great thing as far as meaning that more people are buying locally grown food, as well as cooking their meals from scratch.  But Hillcrest has always had parking issues, and with the popularity of this market- probably the largest and better attended of the urban markets- it has become virtually impossible to find a spot within a half mile of the location, the Normal Heights DMV.  And that is not a minor point, considering that last time we went, we left with a heavy load of oranges to juice for a homemade soda recipe.  Sometimes it is so packed that you can’t get a good view of what various vendors have to offer, or you have to wait quite a while to be helped in order to purchase things or ask questions about them.

I tried to maintain a positive attitude, but today I hit a wall of frustration, brought on ultimately by a woman who passed me in the parking lot as I sat waiting my turn for someone to leave, and “stole” a place right in front of me!  I was infuriated.  So close, and yet totally unproductive.  I burned gas for half an hour getting there, driving up and down the streets in the area looking for parking, and driving back home empty-handed.  I only live a few miles away.  This is MY farmer’s market.  When I arrived home again, I sat in my car for a minute trying to figure out what to do, then strapped on the canvas bags that I keep in the trunk and walked the 4 blocks to my local, yes, VONS store.  It was a beautiful day and I had been looking forward to wandering the stalls, browsing for the best-looking leeks and tomatoes, hoping to find some rhubarb and other seasonal fruits.  But I am more than happy to NOT have to drive to get my groceries, and consider myself very lucky to live so close to a supermarket, even a large chain one.  I have actually been shopping at this particular location for almost the full 6 years that I’ve lived in San Diego.  The cashiers (in my opinion and given my experiences at this location) are extremely friendly and competent, always somehow correctly pronouncing my last name as they bid me good day, which is no small feat given the multi-syllabic Italian concoction!

I walked into the building somewhat heated from my swift gait and smiled when the air conditioned coolness hit me.  The other thing that hit me was how quiet it was.  There were very few people shopping at the time- I had the place all to myself, which I love!  So far, so good.  I grabbed a basket and headed towards the produce.  Having become very conscious lately about where food comes from, in order to source only local ingredients for the restaurant, I cringed slightly at the thought of picking through fruits flown in from Chili and New Zealand, but was pleasantly surprised to find that the items I wanted were mainly California grown, or from nearby in Mexico.  And even if I picked something up that was from further away, I only chose it if I knew it could also be grown here in San Diego county, so as to make the test recipes as authentic and realistic as possible.  I will admit that by the end of my visit to VONS, I was a bit stiff from the air conditioning, but the several employees who offered to help me find things far outweighed the chill, and I had absolutely no wait in line to check out with my things.  Everything fit into my two canvas bags, and I was able to pay with my credit card, another downside to shopping at the farmer’s markets- you must have a wad of cash with you to get any substantial amount of produce there.

Don’t get me wrong.  I fully support the concept of farmer’s markets, fish markets, and whatever other markets you can think of- they can be a great place to run into your neighbors and socialize, listen to local music, support the local economy, and find the freshest ingredients available around.  And, I’ve always intended to get there earlier in order to avoid the crowds and get the best pick of the goods represented, but let’s be realistic- I am opening a restaurant and have never been a morning person anyways.  The chances of me getting out of bed at 7am to beat the rush is less than slim already and getting slimmer the closer we get to opening!  So, for today, I shopped at an industrial chain, and to come completely clean, I enjoyed it!  Considering that I didn’t waste any gas getting there, didn’t take any plastic home with me, got some exercise along the way, and purchased mostly locally grown products anyways, I think I came out ahead of the game.  And who knows- it just might be that one day soon, with the US industrial food system going the way that it is, grocery stores could simply become the clearing houses for all local products.  Well, one can dream.

Posted by: Elena | March 20, 2008

Sea Rocket, Salt & Sardines

Oh my goodness, has another two weeks gone by already?? There is probably more like two MONTHS worth of information to share! Every day Dennis and I have had new adventures to process and document, and every day I seem to run out of time to actually write up our experiences. But we’ve captured lots of great video footage, photos and notes at every stop along the way. I’m starting to recap everything in chronological order, but will post it in separate batches so as not to scare away my reading audience.

Wednesday, March 5th

What an incredibly fun and fulfilling day this was! We finally saw sea rocket in the flesh (well, sand actually), found sardines (a mere 50 feet away from shore), and dropped in on a local salt company. It was like a scavenger hunt, which is how a lot of our days have felt, wandering around parts of San Diego county where we’ve never ventured before and being pointed in different directions by each person we try to get information from… We started this day off with a visit to what’s called the Tuna Docks, since I guess most of the fishermen there catch tuna. It’s right on the water in downtown San Diego, next door to The Fish Market restaurant to whom a lot of the fishermen directly sell their catch, and just north of the Chesapeake Fish Co. which is a wholesale distributor that most of them also sell to.

We wandered uninvited onto one of the commercial piers looking for anyone who might be willing to sell fish to us directly, or connect us to people who might, as well as tell us who catches what kind of local fish. A couple of guys working on their boat chatted with us for a bit, pointing to the other boats around us and naming the owners and types of boats they were. A bunch of fish was out of season and other seasons had not started up yet, so it was pretty quiet. He said that another pier further out were where the fishermen who catch sardines docked, so we next went there and found a good number of people at work mending nets and fixing up their boats. We talked to a couple of fishermen who said they’d be happy to sell fish directly to us, but weren’t in the sardine business. We took some names and numbers and a lead to the sardine source which is a bait fish company in town. They have a few locations including on Point Loma and at Mission Bay, where a lot of the sport fishing charters go out of, so we planned to head there later in the day.

In the meantime, we’d been wanting to find sea rocket growing in the wild so that we could photograph our namesake and see what it looks like in comparison to the photos we found on-line. The scientist we talked to in the botany department at the Natural History Museum told us that we might find it on the dunes in Imperial Beach, where she had grown up, and to ask about it at the Tijuana Estuary which is located nearby. We paid a visit to the visitor’s center, where some very helpful and knowledgeable rangers knew exactly what we were looking for and told us where to find it. (Mainly we have found that even those people with horticultural bents have never heard of sea rocket, so this was a good sign.) However, when we asked “have you seen any sea rocket around here?” the ranger answered candidly “unfortunately, yes!” I had read that it was a bit of a weed, a slightly invasive plant that proliferates easily, but I still took offense at this comment, since he had no idea why we were asking. I was loathe to tell him that we intended to name our baby restaurant after this unfortunately occurring species! But we had a good chat, and a good laugh about it after he coerced the reason for our interest in it out of us.

He pointed us towards the Coronado Strand, the south part of it where there is a state beach and directly across from that, a sandy area on the bay side. We pulled into the deserted parking lot and ran through the tunnel eagerly (after Dennis stopped to take photographs of a guy racing around on a wind sail-driven recumbent bicycle.) I spotted a tiny little plant with pale purple 4-petal flowers as I’d seen on-line, but wondered if that could be it, as diminutive as it was. As it turns out, the plant is so delicately small that any photo you might find of it has obviously zoomed way in on it in order to show the human eye it’s shape and color. There were tons of tiny little specimens, scattered along the sandy shore as though the wind had come along, picked up the reproductive pods and redeposited them ad hoc along its route. We did find one or two larger bushes of it, where time had allowed the sea rocket to grow wider and spread like an ice plant, creating lovely and full but low to the ground patches. Dennis promptly laid down on top of one, crushing it viciously.

Sea Rocket and other photos on Tabblo here.

Since we were in south county, and Dennis had researched a salt works company located in Chula Vista, we stopped there next, parking in a dusty dirt lot next to a VERY old, kind of western looking building with a long track leading up to what looked like a granary at one end. We found a small office tucked in the back, and interrupted a couple of gentlemen to ask the usual questions- How long has South Bay Salt Works been in business? What is the process by which you collect and manufacture the salt? How is it cleaned and ground and distributed? Who do you sell to (or through) and what are the uses of the salt? Dennis and I have become quite good impromptu investigational interviewers, rolling with the punches, the attitudes, the personalities and the situations in which have found ourselves recently. This salt, to our surprise, while “harvested” locally in the salt flats in San Diego bay, is sold nationally (and possibly internationally) mainly for industrial uses rather than for direct human consumption, is not thoroughly cleaned and processed like the table salt (or even sea salt) we have come to know, and is sold in three different granule sizes- fine, which is not that fine, medium coarse, and very coarse (chunky). It can be used for cooking, curing or preserving, etc. but only a handful of restaurants in the area seem to know or care about it and make the trip to this odd old building occasionally to pick up a 50 pound bag! We were told that some individuals buy it for its healing properties- for taking salt baths. Of course, you can get that for free (but cold) by simply swimming in it’s original source, the ocean…but I digress. It is light grey in color and would need to be ground finer for use on salads and general salting of finished foods, but it’s local, inexpensive, and makes a great story! So of course we picked up a 50 pound bag on our way out, as starter stock, and to use to test recipes with. Let me rephrase. I picked up the 50 pound bag and carried it back to the car myself, after one of the warehouse guys realized how far away we’d parked and bailed out of his duties at the bottom of the ramp. Please, Dennis, ladies first!

Our final task for the day was to hunt down one of the bait barges we’d heard were the only source for sardines around. I felt a little uneasy looking for bait to serve to our future guests, but we’d been told by several fishermen types that they were perfectly good and always kept fresh for the sport fishing boats so in reality were fresher than a lot of other fish you will find around here. We inquired at a fishing shop first with no luck, then were pointed to the part of the bay from which the larger charter companies leave. There we found a trailer where you can buy tickets and fake bait, but still no live fish. The guy behind the counter said, “You can get some sardines 50 feet that way,” but before it dawned on us that he was pointing out over the water, we started walking in that direction as he added “if you want to swim.” We had come so close, but were still boat ride away, since as it turns out, the sardines are kept in cages under the water at these bait docks floating out in the marina. The sport fishing boats simply pull up to them on their way out, buy a few “scoops” (about 30 pounds each) and keep them fresh on their boats the entire day at sea, recirculating water into the hold. We thought that getting someone to bring back some bait fish for us at the end of their trip might be the only way to acquire them, but about a week later we found out that you can indeed get sardines from one or two distributors- it’s just not a very common thing to find at restaurants, so most fisheries don’t bother with them.

Posted by: Elena | March 5, 2008

Back in SD & Restaurant Stuff

Wow, I’ve been back for two weeks already! I didn’t know that the Ft. Lauderdale-Phoenix portion of my trip home included a stop in New Orleans (they do NOT tell you this stuff on the southwest website!!) So three flights later, I arrived back in San Diego and was whisked from there straight to a Roots of Change meeting, where I listened to local food-related issues in a slightly dazed, travel-weary state. Like I said, jumping right into it!! The presentation itself was a bit dry and general about what the organization was trying to accomplish (a sustainable food system in California by 2030) but the networking time afterwards proved quite useful and I met some interesting people, some of whom Dennis had already made contact with in his preliminary source research, and some of whom recognized him from his ongoing food blog which they had come across independently- people kept stopping him and introducing themselves and mentioning a specific blog entry that they had particularly enjoyed…I was amazed! Krista put me up for the night and then kindly got me to my condo the next morning, where I picked up my car, rollerblades, mail, and other less-important sundries, and then visited with my Turkish tenants who kindly offered me breakfast (yes, very strange to be a guest in my own home!) I checked into my temporary rental place, which is in a beautiful Mission Hills home with views overlooking Mission Valley and USD, very conveniently located and owned by a Sierra Club friend.

I then began a new “homeless” routine consisting of camping out at various coffee shops each day to work on restaurant research, brainstorming and documenting things to discuss with Dennis. We then met for two days straight to review business plans and create a detailed list of things we’d need to tackle in order for it to come together in just two and a half months. We reviewed website content and design, made lists of all of our known or recommended resources for food and drink, and discussed how to go about hiring a consulting chef and/or lead cook. We started visiting potential produce and fish suppliers, toured their facilities, and asked tons of questions about the seasonal availability of ingredients, the sustainability and healthfulness of the farming or fishing methods used, and the logistics of the ordering and delivery process. We attended a benefit for a north county farm (that’s where they all are) which was held at a popular and quickly growing brewery, where we first scheduled a tour of their warehouse and saw first hand what it takes to create, process, bottle, store, and sell their product. We met the owner and talked about everything from how he has expanded his company to the details of the design of the facility, many of which include reclaimed materials and apparently won a “green” architectural award.

img_1137.jpg img_1138.jpg img_1158.jpg

Writing our first business check, touring the Moceri produce warehouse, and scouting out sources at the local farmer’s market.

We’ve spoken to local wineries and coffee brewers, contacted culinary schools about placing job ads with them, discussed the remodeling we’d like to do to the space after The Linkery moves out, and met with a web content developer to help us create our website. The head chef/director at one of the schools spoke with us at length about our concept and gave us a number of leads, offered to let us peruse the school’s culinary library, and offered to consult with us about both our menu and the kitchen layout. We contacted the botany department of the Museum of Natural History to learn more about the plant called sea rocket, which is becoming our namesake and logo, since we’d like to see the plant in person to take photos and understand it’s characteristics better. We’ve tested several seafood recipes at home as well as eaten out at recommended seafood places with the goal of trying things similar to what we think we might serve in order to critique the flavors and generate creative menu ideas, as well as learn what the different local fish taste like. And have just generally gotten everyone’s opinions, feedback, criticism, advice, and support about the project. People seem very enthusiastic and excited for us and eager to try us out when we’re open. A lot of people have said that seafood restaurants are lacking in San Diego, and especially in the neighborhood where we’ll be taking root.

img_1147.jpg img_1150.jpg img_1160.jpg

Testing recipe ideas- scallops on top of an onion puree with blood orange garnish, grilled peppers, carrots and quinoa, and a white fish dish (dad, dandelion greens are WAY too bitter- ugh!!)

But even though I’ve been pretty productive these first couple of weeks back in town, I’ve also taken the time to do some of my favorite San Diego things, such as rollerblading around Mission Bay and up the beach, having grilled mahi fish tacos in OB, hiking Cowles Mountain, and of course starting to catch up with friends again. Luckily the work and play have gone hand-in-hand, since it is really interesting and motivating to be out and about talking to restaurant owners, meeting the people who grow and make the things that we’ll be selling, and thinking about all of the decisions we’ll need to make to make this happen- how exciting! Dennis threw a wonderful welcome home party for me last Thursday, throughout which I played my Alaska slideshow, but mainly enjoyed the homemade soup, salad, drinks and conversation. Dennis accompanied me to a Smith Club event where US-Mexican border issues and economic globalization were the topics at hand but where I also fielded many a question from my Smith compadres specifically about the restaurant, who can’t wait for us to host a special event at the Sea Rocket Bistro for them!

img_1161.jpg s5003312.jpg
The bar at The Linkery and a fish market restaurant that we checked out.

So, things are well underway, but there’s still a lot more work to do just to determine the exact menu which depends on the coordination of a million other things. For example, I observed the kitchen in a restaurant in Mission Hills for an hour last week, and the chef stressed the division of tasks between the various cooks so that no meal required attention from just one of them so as to spread the work around evenly and not create potential delays of a certain dish. It was interesting to see what had been pre-cooked or prepared ahead of time, how much time each meal took to put together, and how it was coordinated between the 3-5 different people working. It’s pretty amazing how fast it can be to assemble a gourmet meal, which of course is the key to efficiency and profitability. So the kitchen layout and flow of cooking will depend on our recipes, which will depend on the skills of the cooks, and in turn which will affect the food presentation and level of service we will be able to provide. I of course have enjoyed fantasizing about the changes that could be made to the physical space to make it look like a completely different place, checking catalogs for new furniture, lighting fixtures, and all of the small, essential furnishings we’ll need such as plates, glassware, silverware, and linens for the front of the house, plus pots, pans, cutlery, and small appliances for the back, all of which we will need to purchase. That’s what I’ve been up to since returning home.

Here is a video of one of our cooking experiments. We might just go with a grilled whole fish after all…more Mediterranean style. If anyone out there knows were we can find fresh sardines around here, please let me know! We hear it’s a tasty little fish with a bad reputation, that unfortunately has become more of a bait fish for the larger catches in recent years.

Posted by: Elena | February 20, 2008

Beantown, NH & Family time

I flew into Boston Wednesday night, got a shuttle to the T station, jumped on the blue line and after two familiar transfers and a short cab ride, arrived at the Arlington home of my friend Manish, with whom I had worked at Frictionless Commerce. He and his wife have a great apartment just one block off of Mass. Ave. so in the morning, I just walked down the street and within minutes caught a bus straight into Harvard Square. Long live public transportation!

Day 1: Thursday I met a friend who works at Harvard for lunch, then wandered around the area, window-shopping and noticing which stores and restaurants where still around and which had changed hands. I was particularly surprised that the House of Blues was gone, as well as a cute cafe called The Greenhouse which had offered giant black-bottom cupcakes and equally impressive 5-layer cakes in a diner-like setting with paintings of flowers on mirrored walls. I sat at The Coop for a while (the Harvard bookstore oddly pronounced like chicken coop rather than co-op) reading a book almost cover to cover about all of the different cooking cutlery and other kitchen devices, learning the names for some tools I had never heard of before as well as the styles of chopping, slicing, mincing, grinding, grating, etc. I then met up with some other friends for dinner at The Border Cafe- a Cajun/Mexican place with the tenderest little cornmeal crusted catfish bites.

s5003245.jpg s5003249.jpg

Hua and his girlfriend Kristine, and Nick

Day 2: On Friday, I woke up to a massage appointment with my good friend Amy, who used to work with me at a law firm that no longer exists (my first job out of college), before redirecting her career to massage therapy. We grabbed lunch together afterwards, and then I headed downtown, where I walked from the end of Newbury Street through the Back Bay, Chinatown and “downtown crossing” areas. I warmed up at a Borders book store with Manish’s copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and had to tear myself away from the fascinating eccentricities of the over-industrialization and politically driven over-production of corn. While waiting to meet up with my friend Jason (also from the company formerly known as Testa, Hurwitz & Thibeault), I ducked into a vintage-inspired basement bar for a glass of wine and to observe the hopping happy hour Friday crowd. I had a seafood-filled dinner of fried calamari, raw oysters, raw clams, and seared scallops with Jason and his girlfriend Michele, and then made a brief stop in Davis Square (my old stomping grounds) for a drink at The Burren, an Irish pub that was featured in the very cute independent film “Next Stop Wonderland.”

s5003250.jpg

Boston Common in the winter

Day 3: Saturday morning I took Manish and his wife Christina out to brunch at Sound Bites, what used to be a somewhat cramped little cafe with a line out the door, popular with the Tufts University crowd due to its proximity and pricing. Since I was last in Boston, it acquired the space next door and merged with what had been a Mexican restaurant, taking on many of the attributes of that restaurant’s design, and in my opinion losing much of it’s former “intimate” appeal. One small benefit was that the soup Nazi-like owner seemed to have warmed up to his guests a bit, and no longer made you feel uncomfortable if you weren’t ready to order when he came by the first time. But the mugs at the self-service coffee station were all uniform with the cafe’s logo on them, instead of the random one-of-a-kind assortment of Christmas, cartoon, and floral designs that were a quirky part of its former incarnation. Still, the whole grain crunchy waffles with a heaping serving of fruit on top would be sure to draw me back again and again if I still lived in that city.

s5003252.jpg s5003251.jpg

Manish, Kristina, and the amazing fruit-topped multi-grain waffle!

Another former THT friend picked me up after brunch and drove us up the north shore to Gloucester, Mass. where she has a weekend gettaway condo used mainly as a base for scuba diving during the warmer half of the year. We stayed overnight there after she gave me a very comprehensive tour around the entire peninsula of Cape Ann, a peaceful place full of historic towns, lobster fishing, and lighthouses. She pointed out all the best dive spots, as well as the local scenes made famous by painter Edward Hopper, and we had a lovely dinner at an Italian restaurant before settling in for the night with the movie “American Graffiti” which she insisted we watch after I admitted to never having seen it.

s5003253.jpg s5003255.jpg s5003257.jpg

Day 4: Sunday I felt like one of those batons that are passed by runners in relay races. Jacki drove me north towards the intersection of two freeways and Amy drove down from Portsmouth to collect me there- the quick hello, goodbye, and shuffling of suitcases from one trunk to the other must have resembled a quick drug deal going down on the side of the road. I spent the rest of the day and overnight with Amy in low-key girl-time mode. We walked around Portsmouth for a while, looking mainly for a birthday gift for her nephew, and after finally deciding which of the many fun games to try, we ripped open a cool puzzle that required the player to line up translucent pieces of fish in water areas and polar bears on land as per the layouts on about 25 different cards which had 5 different rating levels. They were actually very challenging just for us (and kind of addictive) although meant for 8-year-olds! We went for Indian food with her roommate in Dover and then sat around at home drinking wine and watching her make banana bread- boy the kitchen smelled good, even though we were stuffed to the gills at that point!

Day 5: This was the day I had been waiting for! The day I had flown to Boston for in the first place! The day I would get to meet MY new nephew Luca. I could hardly contain myself waiting for my sister to pick me up, pacing back and forth in Amy’s apartment, eager for that first view of the long-awaited 4-month-old ball of love! Boy was I glad I’d made the trip when I laid eyes on him!! Dark blue eyes, the chubbiest cheeks, and just the perfect big round head- I started calling him Buddha baby right away. We clicked immediately, and it’s a good thing, because I basically took care of him for the next 24 hours at St. Paul’s School, where my sister had a full day of interviewing scheduled down to the 5 minute increment. Strolling him around the snow-covered and cobble stone-pathed campus did not work out so well, but we had fun just hanging out at the guest house where we were all put up, and making short forays into town, testing out the car seat to stroller transitions, and one nice tour through campus with Luca hanging cozily in what seemed to me like a very primitive chest sling but worked excellently. He was happy all day except for one very brief episode of tears (both of us) due to what I’m still not sure.

photo-14.jpg

Day 6: Day 6 simply consisted of more babysitting, then later in the day the logistics of getting back to Newburyport, where we rendezvoused with Thomas (almost 5) at Julia’s in-laws and spent the night before our flight to Ft. Lauderdale. My parents are spending a month at a friend’s condo in Pompano Beach, so after my own relay race from Anchorage to Seattle to Boston, we next headed south for the impromptu family reunion. We were picked up from the stressfully hectic airport in a big grey minivan, pappa Rivellino at the wheel (what a funny sight!) and the six of us were together for the first time ever! The five of us were together last for Christmas in Germany over two years ago, so this sort of gathering is very unusual! Next year my sister and her family hope to be living in the U.S. again, and with my parents retired, they also spend more time stateside, so hopefully we’ll be able to do this more often from now on. At any rate, we spent the week playing at the pool, playing at various nearby beaches, having 3 leisurely meals (plus at least a few more snacks) each day out on Nicki’s porch overlooking the Palm Aire golf course, and taking just a couple of longer field trips to the Everglades and a nearby nature center.

Video of Thomas running circles at the Charlotte airport on our layover.

Dancing with Luca.

Pillow fight with Opa!

Highlights? Chicken fighting in the pool with Thomas on my shoulders (and winning!); making Luca produce his adorable baby giggle and big gummy smile by singing and dancing around the room with him in my arms; sitting around the dinner table in perfectly comfortable nighttime temps drinking wine and chatting with the adult members of the family; Thomas getting stung multiple times by the dismembered blue tentacles of a Portuguese Man O’War jellyfish-like creature (not that part) and getting to brag about it later (that part)- plus the incident spurring the lifeguard to put up the purple flag, which signifies that there is potentially dangerous sea life in the water- now there’s some exciting action for his pain! Seeing my sister with her TWO SONS was totally amazing, though she is totally gender outnumbered! And seeing my parents, just back from a two week trip to Egypt and off to Vietnam as soon as the Florida vacation is over, retired yet seemingly more active than ever, was inspiring. Hopefully I’ll be able to hold up my end of the nucleus by creating a restaurant that they all can be very proud of! Even if they’re not proud of my dangling preposition. Ha ha.

Tabblo of family time in Florida here.

rivellinos-all-bocaraton-fl2.jpg

Posted by: Elena | February 7, 2008

Out of Alaska…to the far-flung Four Corners

 

Hello lower 48!  My last few weeks up in the AK were somewhat trying.  Trying to stay motivated at work, trying to work out the logistics of dismantling the life I had just finished creating, and trying to be patient about getting home again.  I had an old car to sell, boxes to send back to San Diego, services to cancel- the usual moving issues.  I refused to make my air reservations until I had at least a verbal sale of the Audi, so I ended up buying my ticket just 3 days before departing.  On top of that uncertainty, I was being encouraged to make detours to spend time with family.  My sister was coming (with kids) to the US to interview, and my parents were planning to spend a month in Pompano Beach at the home of a family friend who invited us both to join them there.  Since Florida was a bit out of the way (between Seattle and San Diego, which was the route I was planning to take), I hemmed and hawed and tried to think of a reason not to go.  After all, I have a restaurant to open!

But ultimately, the beckoning of family was too strong for me to resist, and I do have a new 4-month-old nephew to meet!  I told my sister that if she were going, then I would go too, in order to make the Rivellino reunion complete.  Oh, and then she convinced me to fly to Boston first, in order to babysit for her while she interviews and then help her get to Florida with the two little ones.  How did that happen!?  So, I spent a wonderful and relaxing week in Seattle visiting with old friends and I am now enroute to my second corner of the country, where I will spend just a couple of days in Boston proper, a day in Gloucester, a day in Portsmouth NH, a day in Concord NH and a couple of days in Newburyport MA before heading south.  You didn’

t think my travels were over already did you?

So Seattle.  Cool, damp, grey and fairly depressing weather-wise, but not much in the way of precipitation and definitely warmer than Anchorage!  I was told there would be snow on the ground but there wasn’t.  I guess the mountains got several feet, but there was no trickle down effect on the city.  I arrived late last Tuesday and was scooped up by my good friend Shanon and delivered to my good friend Steve’s house in First Hill, just up the hill from downtown Seattle.  They’d both moved there from Boston, where I met them originally, not quite two years ago, so it was my first time seeing them in their new lives.  Steve moved to Seattle to take a job at Microsoft and seems to like it and Shanon is working at a small environmental/urban planning firm downtown and also seems happy there.  Steve has a beautiful young boxer named Ashley who quickly became the center of attention, and also became my companion during the day for walking (and running) around the city.  We were out for 6 hours on Wednesday, wandering through various neighborhoods and the entirety of downtown, Pike Place Market, Belltown, etc.  I stopped counting the number of times that Ashley was commented on or engaged in conversation by passing strangers, not to mention given free pieces of smoked salmon, which I wasn’t even sure she was allowed to have!  I enjoyed the views of Puget Sound and found a fabulous spiced chai at a cute little tea shop.  Shanon joined us on her lunch break and showed me where the dog park was.  I was sore from that outing for the next 5 days, and yet Ashley didn’

t seem phased in the least.  In fact, the next day, when I left to visit a childhood friend in Everett, she first followed me around the house as I got ready, then blocked the door when I tried to leave, and then slipped out of the door under my legs when I finally got it open!  I felt like a schmuck the rest of the day for not taking her with me…but then again, I did set the bar pretty high the day before!

I had an amazing time with Jennifer Cipriano though, seeing her for the first time in 20 years, meeting her husband Ben and their kids Viola and Vincent, and the added bonus of getting a chance to visit with her sister Jeanette and their mother Jackie, all of whom my sister and I were very close to back in the 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades (for me).  I’

d seen her once or twice briefly since their family left Germany in 1986 but not since visiting them in Livermore, CA a couple of years later.  After realizing how much more traffic there is down here compared to Alaska, and losing my way several times on the way to their place, we chatted nonstop for the next 24 hours.  She cooked spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, which we used to eat a lot of as kids, and made crepes for brunch the next morning- a recipe that she claimed to have learned from us.  Jeanette brought over some old photos of us all (including their brother Tony who I had been in class with) and we reminisced about The Busy Bees Club, birthday parties at the Hohenecken Castle (reached via The Witches Path of course- a steep hill of dirt and roots creating a slippery scramble to the top), and how my sister had been the ringleader/director of the group.  I remembered playing Atari as much as possible whenever I was over at their place, since we had no such electronics at our house, and they remembered our dwarf rabbit Snowy.

Viola was a riot!  A first-born personality for sure, a gorgeous girl dressing herself in a fluffy pink fairy dress every day, yet roughhousing with her brother and performing all kinds of acrobatics and antics constantly.  Endless energy.  I couldn’t get a picture of her without a goofy face being made.  Her brother was like Curious George, getting into minor trouble but so quietly that you didn’t notice until he seemed to fly from the ceiling, land on something hard, and burst into tears.  They both were incredibly resilient.  I shared a room with Viola that night, and just after sneaking in to my trundle bed, I heard her roll out of bed in her sleep and crash onto the wood floor.  She immediately stood back up and absentmindedly rubbed her head, but when I asked if she was OK, she didn’t answer (or even appear to wake up!) and instead laid right down again…on top of MY bed!  I had to extract myself from the covers beneath her and crawl into her bed, where we stayed swapped until morning.  (Note that I had to avoid hard-back books, stuffed animals and other sundries hiding under her covers.)  When I had first arrived, she wanted to show me the bed- she had made it up for me all alone, with her father watching but not allowed to help in any way.  Later that afternoon, when she was showing me her pet rat (which looked a spitting image like Ratatouille- those Pixar guys are GOOD) I noticed a nasty pile of poop sitting on my pillow, of all places!  When I asked her who had pooped on my pillow, she could barely contain her laughter before telling me that it wasn’t real, and went over to pick up the plastified poop prop.  She tried to give it to me to prove that it wasn’

t real, but I ran from her (like a little girl), acting disgusted, and refused to even touch it, which made her laugh even more hysterically  🙂

 

s5003220.jpg    s5003223.jpg   s5003225.jpg 

Back in Seattle, I had a great weekend hanging out with Shanon and Steve.  Friday night I joined Shanon and a group of friends for happy hour, then we did some additional bar-hopping on our own, mostly to very polished, trendy spots until we hit the Rondezvous, where I was immediately much more comfortable.  And I thought Seattle was grungy!  The crowd was more casual and we ended up crashing not just one private party but two!  The intimate upstairs room was more happening than the lower floor, so we squeezed ourselves in to the last available table before realizing that everyone was together.  But they were friendly so we socialized with them for a while until Shanon ran into someone she knew in the restroom and we migrated down to a great basement area where they were celebrating a friend’s 40th birthday, complete with snacks and a DJ playing mainly 80s tunes.  We danced, met a few new people, and then called it a night.  We stayed at Shanon’

s studio condo so that I could see it, and she pointed out what is to be the new Light Rail station just one block away.  They were digging tunnels nearby where it will go underground, and then other parts of it are elevated, which makes perfect sense in a city of so many hills!  I always forget how hilly Seattle is- it reminds me of driving around San Francisco.  And then it also reminds me of Boston due to the many crazy, twisting, narrow streets and brownstone buildings.

On Saturday, we took Ashley for a walk along Lake Washington, which has a fair number of small parks and beaches along with views to Bellevue and Mercer Island.  We picked up a movie and cooked dinner in Steve’s lovely home, which is all brand new- a 2-story, 3-bedroom house with garage and small yard.  I was cozy downstairs in my own feather bed, tucked away from the morning activities above.  Sunday (I’m sorry, Super Bowl Sunday), we were invited to a house party in West Seattle, where the NY Giants fans were even more shocked than we three Pats fans at the outcome of the last few minutes of play.  Ah well, someone else should get a turn to win sometimes anyways, Tom.  Monday I dragged S&S to The Noodle Ranch for dinner, where I remembered having some tasty food on a previous trip to the area, and Tuesday we cooked bacon burgers (that’s with ground up bacon already in the beef patty from a local butcher), and wait, I’m talking about food again- what is wrong with me?!  The visit was really all about reconnecting with friends, and it was extremely successful.  I was lucky that S&S were able to spend so much time with me, even if Steve was writing code on his laptop some of the time.  And I’

m that much closer to being a dog person.  Thanks so much for hosting me, guys!

 

s5003241.jpg   s5003242.jpg 

Posted by: Elena | January 15, 2008

Homer in the Winter- WOW!

This is a blog about my brief weekend trip away from Anchorage…  As you already know from reading all of my previous blogs (right?!) Homer, Alaska, located at the southern tip of the Kenai Peninsula, has become one of my favorite places.  My first trip in late summer marked the realization that it is one of the most amazingly located places, surrounded by an unforgettably long combined backdrop of beaches, ocean, bay, mountains, glaciers, and volcanoes.  My second trip there was a simple pass-through enroute to my adventure rafting weekend and the third was to show Dennis the area in mid-fall.  So I had it in mind to make one last trip to the “end of the road” as they call it in this final season before I leave Alaska.  I recently had the opportunity, given a weekend off from work and a new friend who was making the drive down, to revisit the town and experience it in all of it’s winter glory.  Ian, a Homer native now living in Anchorage, was going down to visit his parents before they move to New Zealand for a few years, to help them pack out of his childhood home, and kindly invited me to tag along.  I sat in the passenger seat the entire way, as Ian navigated through the pouring snow, which alternatively seemed nonexistent against the dark backdrop of night and then made wildly visible in his high beams.  I gasped as each snow cloud kicked up by oncoming vehicles made our visibility totally nil for about 5 seconds.  It didn’t seem to faze Ian, but I was never sure which way the road was turning or how fast we were approaching the muted red lights ahead of us.  Not there was a lot of traffic, but it was enough to make the already hazardous conditions seem that much more dangerous! 

Turnagain Arm at the low point was frozen over, with large chunks of ice sunken into the mud flats looking in the fading light like dried volcanic debris that had been blown in all directions.  It was pretty much dark the entire way down, seeing as we left just around 5pm, but I recognized certain landmarks like the Alyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood all lit up for night skiing, the on-site winter manager at Summit Lake Lodge burning the 7pm oil, the fluorescent strip-shop mall lighting announcing our arrival in Soldatna, and a clear night’s sky of stars revealing itself to us around Anchor Point.  It was actively snowing again as we arrived about 4.5 hours later in Homer, where I was invited to stay with Ian at his friend’s self-built cabin which was tucked high into the hills above town and overlooked the entire panorama of the bay, the Spit and town itself.  He had a few other friends over as well, so we spent a few hours just chatting with them before bed.  Since the house had just one huge loft space upstairs for sleeping, there were four or five large mattresses spread around for everyone to use so it was like an adult slumber party!

Saturday morning Ian and I headed over to his parent’s home near the end of East End Road which dead ends into several small Russian villages where the bay also comes to a head.  The property overlooks a surreal expanse of trees and bay water with mountain views on the other side, a good 15 miles from town.  They were in the midst of arranging for a house sitter until the place sells, emptying all of their cupboards and closets and organizing their 25-year collection of belongings into things to store, things to give away and things to send to New Zealand, and hosting visits from friends who came by to help pack and say goodbye.  After a tour of the place, Ian outfitted me with some boots and cross-country skis and sent me off to some trails behind the elementary school he had attended.  Seeing as I’d only cross-country skied a couple of times before, I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I couldn’t find a trail map of the area to know how long the loop would be, so I shuffled aimlessly along the groomed routes enjoying the snow-blanketed trees, and trying to get the feel of the parallel forward motion.  After a short time, my toes were about frozen, and I couldn’t figure out why the warmer packets I had so cleverly inserted into the boots weren’t working.  I took them out and shook them up some more, thinking maybe the iron powder hadn’t gotten enough exposure to the air, but they never warmed up!  I ended up heading down into a valley and back up the other side, figuring I was turning back to the parking lot, but ran into a couple of women who told me that it would be several miles if I continued that way, so I turned around and retraced my tracks, almost crying for my frozen toes by the time I made it back to the car.  Check out the incredibly long shadows cast onto the snow in addition to the other general winter scenes I captured, including snow and ice on the beach- what a concept!

http://www.tabblo.com/studio/stories/view/1046800/

Speaking of snow and ice on the beach, Sunday I walked up and down Bishops’ Beach for two hours, where I had first learned that there was sandy coastline in Alaska.  You couldn’t tell the sand was frozen until you stepped on some of the textured areas and noticed the crackly white stuff spreading out from that point.  There was another neat feature where a hard slush layer floated on top of a water layer above the sand, so that when you stepped on it, the water squished out from underneath your boot, although you didn’t break through the surface of the frozen slush, very cool!  Rocks crunched distinctly when I stepped on them, jarred lose from their icy holds, and I was able to cross small runoffs of ocean water by walking on the ice forming around them.  I stayed toasty warm that day in my 3-5 layers of clothing from head to tow.  Hey, whatever it takes!  When I returned to Anchorage, it was negative 7 degrees, and it then dropped to negative 11 overnight.  It’s supposed to get colder before it warms up again, which means there’s not much hope of my car starting this week…gotta figure that out!

At any rate, I stopped at the Two Sisters Bakery (you’ll see my favorite T-shirt eventually) for some chili and a yummy mango-ginger-lemon Danish that I took with a coffee to go, which was luke warm halfway back up the hill to Ben’s place and entirely cold by the time I reached the bottom of his driveway.  The driveway was like a winter rollercoaster- a long, winding, uphill dirt road that you had to gun your car all the way up so as not to get stuck in the high patches, trying to navigate the turns while staying in the tire grooves and not sliding into the tall banks of snow to each side.  The snow in the middle was over a foot high, so if your wheels came off the existing grooves, there wasn’t much chance of continuing.  Both days someone had to get shoveled out of the driveway and/or pushed out of a deep snow pit.  It was fun slipping around on the path though, knowing that if you did “crash” it wouldn’t do the car any damage, being a light and fluffy impact!  The drive back was uneventful and somewhat clearer weather wise, and passed surprisingly quickly seeing as I had good company to pass the time with.  Ian works for the State of Alaska Commissioner’s office, which is working on getting a natural gas pipeline built parallel to the oil pipeline, which is an enormous project getting resistance from the company that currently leases the land involved.  Tres interessant even to an a-political mind!  We discussed that project along with issues such as the state’s permanent fund and dividend that is paid out to every resident every year, which had fascinated me when I first arrived here and became aware of it, so I am now much better “read” on some of these local issues thanks to his patient explanations.

Just two more weeks at Orso now, and I’m counting down the days.  The restaurant has been pretty quiet recently- case in point, I was phased out of my section at 7pm tonight, which would be just getting to the height of our dinner rush on a busy night.  Looking forward to sun and a renewed appreciation for all that San Diego has to offer.

HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYONE!!  Well it has been a couple of months of a work, sleep, work routine for me.  I unfortunately have no crazy stories to share, no new Alaskan adventures, although I do have some very exciting news in general about my near future plans!  First, let me tell you a little bit about my experiences these last couple of months working at Orso and living the night shift life.  Well, the night shift part is pretty similar to my schedule while at Summit Lake, working 5pm or so to 11pm or midnight, staying up extremely late in order to have some down time before bed, and sleeping into the afternoon most days.  After my month of travel, a few weeks of illness, and getting settled in Anchorage, I fell right back into that late-night routine, which left me with very short days and in the winter that means I was only awake during a few hours of the daylight that we have had, which is more dusk-like and dawn-like in nature here, the sun so incredibly low on the southern horizon that sunsets literally last for hours. 

Sunset1

I have not been so impressed by the cold and darkness this winter because in all honestly it has not been as severe as I was anticipating- in fact, all of the locals have been complaining what a dry winter it has been, with not much snowfall during November and December and therefore not much opportunity for all of the winter sports that people are so crazy about here- snowboarding, cross country skiing, snow machining, snowshoeing, ice climbing, etc.  I think the darkness has not bothered me because I have never had to get up before it was somewhat light out!  If I had taken an office job that required me to get up at 7am I’m sure I would feel differently, but from 10am onward, you can see by the light of the day even if it is dim and/or dimmed even further by cloud cover, which is about 50% of the time.  It is pretty much just grey outside most of the time, with snow now on the ground again since Christmas.  At any rate, it gets dark around 4pm, which is not too far off from most places in wintertime, so I have concluded that all of the talk about how difficult the winters are in Alaska is just the locals’ way of keeping more people from moving here!  Scare tactics work wonders for population control.  I will say that it was in the single digit degrees and negative degrees for a few weeks earlier in December, and my car didn’t want to start a couple of times in such severe temperatures, but so long as it’s been at least 10 degrees or higher, I haven’t had any problems getting it going.  Some belt-like thing under the hood has also been squealing like a pig for weeks but otherwise hasn’t affected the car’s performance…

Photos of snow around the neighborhood and downtown.

 s5003049.jpg   s5003053.jpg   s5003120.jpg

OK, enough boring weather stuff.

I did spend quite a bit of my “down time” at home in the kitchen obsessed with making this year’s homemade soaps, which many of you have seen for yourself by now!  I found a great on-line supplier for the sodium hydroxide which many soap shops won’t sell since it’s a toxic chemical, and as it happens they are located a mere 15 miles away from my place in San Diego…ah the irony!

 s5003065.jpg   s5003063.jpg   s5003092.jpg

My other favorite pastime has been to go out after work until the wee hours, sitting at my favorite bars in downtown Anchorage chatting with the locals and getting to the point where the bartenders actually know my name!  What a great feeling!

Some of my favorite hangouts and why:

F Street Station- only 2 blocks away from work, it’s the cutest, quaintest, nicest place I’ve seen, with decorative metal ceiling tiles and low cabinets hanging down around the U-shaped bars creating an intimate atmosphere- one offering drinks served up by flirty female bartenders in tight jeans and (tasteful but) heavy eye makeup, and the other surrounding a small kitchen that puts out THE BEST steamed clams- you get a huge pile (maybe 30 count) of clams in a delicious broth made spicy by some kind of a hot green pepper just cut in half that sits in the soup, YUM!

Moose’s Tooth- Known for it’s original local brews selection, pizza, and “First Tap” event which happens the first Thursday of each month to introduce the newest beer via live music held at the original sister restaurant Bear Tooth Theater, I go there because for some reason I love the bar, a deep, golden colored, highly-lacquered wood bar that can seat maybe 10 people at most, but where every time I’ve been, I end up having great conversations either with some of the staff that work there or other regulars frequenting the place.  Actually, the reason I go there is because they have a nice selection of yummy salads too, which for about $5 will totally fill me up- I always get the buffalo chicken salad, which consists of a pile of greens way too big for the small plate it’s served on with cold chopped chicken in a great spicy buffalo sauce accompanied by a thick and creamy homemade ranch dressing.  They also have an incredibly tasty mixed berry cobbler which I more often than not get for dessert after my salad, and all of that fun for not much over $10 total.  A very popular place for many reasons.

Working at Orso has been quite an eye-opener.  To seeing how things are done in large, well-oiled operations, to the potential problems in the running and management of a restaurant of any size.  I have done lots of comparing to Summit Lake Lodge and other places I have worked in the past, analyzing what seems to work and what could use improvement, how people handle various guest and employee issues, and contemplating how amazing it is that such a complex business can be successful on a regular basis, with so much room for error, confusion and mismanagement.  It has been a huge challenge to just keep up with tables on busy nights, to learn a very specific protocol for what to do on every visit to a table and within a certain amount of time, and to learn something about our extensive wine list as well as a lot of basics about alcohol and cocktails that I had never learned before.  Such as that Manhattans are always served with cherries, while Martinis are served with olives unless otherwise noted, that “neat” and “up” mean the same thing, and that a coke “back” or coffee “back” accompanying a shot of liquor is just a separate drink on the side, kind of like a chaser.  That many of our drinks are poured as doubles (as well as espresso) so that when a guest specifies “double” that is actually our standard pour and doesn’t need to be noted as such in the computer when ordering it from the bar.  Whether certain drinks get garnished with twists of lemon or orange or lime wedges or wheels, and that all drinks except for wines get cocktail napkins placed underneath like coasters, because you want a guest to be able to swirl their wineglass around on the table smoothly in order to mix the oxygen in and see it’s legs.

The dynamic of a night of work can vary greatly based on how busy it gets, whether you are working in the main dining area, side room (which gets lots of private parties), the bar, or upstairs in the mezzanine.  In the dining area you usually get guests who are having full meals- drinks, appetizers, salads or soups, entrees and often a shared dessert with coffee, taking upwards of 2.5 hours to complete from start to finish…pretty leisurely but keeping you on your toes since clearing the table is necessary between each course, filling waters and getting drink refills, checking to see how things are, delivering checks, processing payments and resetting for the next guests (usually done by the busser).  In the bar, things can happen much faster, as often people are just having drinks and appetizers, or meals without all of the courses, or are simply in more of a hurry to eat and move on.  Tables in the bar are not set, so there is the added task of bringing a napkin/silverware roll to them along with appetizer plates and waters, which are usually filled to start by the hostess when the guests are sat in the dining room.  The bar is self-serve, open seating, so it’s impossible to control when and where people are seated, meaning that if 30 people pour in at the same time (which is typical after a show at the Performing Arts Center across the street), your section may all of a sudden fill up and it will be impossible to greet them all in the time outlined by restaurant guidelines, which makes for a very hectic night of running around trying to keep everyone serviced and happy in a reasonable timeframe.

In the mezzanine, which is separated from the rest of the restaurant by a long flight of stairs, there is a small service station stocked with bread and hummus (gratis for each table), coffee and iced tea, a POS computer for entering orders, and other things that servers need to do their jobs.  Otherwise, you have to run downstairs to collect drinks from the bar and food from the kitchen, but it’s hard to know when exactly items will be ready for your table, and it’s a waste of time and energy to run downstairs just to check on your order if you have other things you could be doing.  In one way, this is an advantage, because often times the servers working downstairs end up running your food upstairs for you, saving you the trip altogether, and you can almost operate independently of the rest of the dining area, which has many more people running around, so it can feel more relaxed to be upstairs.  It’s also a much smaller space giving it a cozy, intimate feel as compared to the rest of the place, since it is located in an old warehouse with high ceilings except where the second story occurs.  The mezzanine usually only has 2-3 servers and 1 busser working on any given night while there could be 5-6 servers downstairs plus another 2-3 in the bar and another 2-3 bussers, 1 expediter on busy nights (who tray up and garnish all of the orders to get them ready for the servers to deliver), and then 1-2 bartenders and a couple of managers milling about.  Like I said, a large operation!  And that doesn’t mention the 1-2 people working in the pantry who assemble the salads and desserts, or the 3-4 cooks crammed into a tiny aisle between the grills and stoves and the server window, or the 2-3 guys in the dish pit washing and restocking plates all night…  As you can imagine, it is a whirlwind of activity and noise, including the requisite “IN!” and “OUT!” you need to yell out before proceeding through the swinging doors going into or coming out of the prep kitchen/dish pit area.

Here is the very dark and as he puts it “crotch level” video that Dennis took at Orso when we ran into the restaurant briefly one night when he was in town recently.  There’s a pretty visible shot of the activity in the kitchen actually, which is kind of fun.

In any case, working there has pretty much consumed me recently, and on top of working 5 dinner shifts a week, I also picked up a couple of lunch shifts each week during the holidays, which are pretty different by way of a more casual menu, much faster service, and nowhere near as good of tips.  But that did get me out of bed earlier some days and the lunch crew is actually extremely nice so it’s a shorter, more relaxing shift to work, and did give me a few extra bucks each week.  Since I won’t be staying much longer, I might continue doing that just to save as much money as I can before returning to San Diego…which brings me to my future plans!

Some of you may know that I have been considering going into business with my good friend Dennis, a businessman with several UPS stores under his belt who has gotten very interested in cooking and discovering where food comes from.  He developed a new business dream to open a restaurant someday and since I’ve actually had some restaurant experience and he wanted a business partner, we have been discussing the possibility for a while.  I had originally planned to stay the year in Alaska, possibly going elsewhere next summer to work and travel more in a different part of the state, and head back to San Diego in the fall of 2008, at which point we would start on a business plan for a restaurant.  Recently, however, we were presented with an opportunity to buy an existing restaurant, which would be much more affordable than starting one up from scratch, at the size of space we were targeting, with an existing clientele in a great neighborhood, a developed space, and several years left on the lease, not to mention the promised support of the very successful current owner who is just moving further down the street so will be around to help us through the transition.

So the plan is to move back to San Diego in February, work on some restaurant logistics, train at the existing restaurant in March to become familiar with the space, the equipment, and the systems that are already in place, and then do whatever remodeling and refurnishing is necessary after they move out, with the potential of opening the doors again as early as May with our own menu, staff and concept in place.  Sound crazy?!  OK, well maybe I had ONE good story for you!!  After some difficulty wrapping my mind around going back so much earlier than planned, I am extremely excited about my next adventure, back home in sunny San Diego where I can put all of my refound restaurant knowledge to the test and have my sunny days available to get back to my favorite sport of rollerblading around the bay and beach!  I will be the General Restaurant Manager/Front of House Manager/Owner/Bartender/Special Events Coordinator as needed, and I can’t wait!

Speaking of which, Dennis came to visit me late on Christmas Eve, and having a friend in town on Christmas made my holiday so much more meaningful, especially since I haven’t managed to make any friends of my coworkers.  It also gave me an excuse to request a few days off so that I could spend time with him, and it was a much-needed break from my work/sleep/work routine to have several days and nights off in a row!  We did some fun things like taking walks in the snow, going to see a movie, borrowing someone’s sled for a few runs down a hill in the neighborhood, and eating out as much as our stomachs could handle in order to discuss food, flavors, ingredients, menus, décor and such in regards to our business plan.  Both of us had done so much thinking about it on our own already that it was a great help to brainstorm together and feel like our concept, which is based on local and sustainable food sources, was coming together nicely and that the project in general actually has a chance!

Video compilation of his Christmas visit here!

OK, that’s all from the Arctic for now, where the women drive tow-trucks, the men drink Prickly Passions, the children play in sub-zero temperatures as if it’s summertime, the bears catch fish in the air, and the dogs bark the bears up into trees…

Posted by: Elena | November 2, 2007

Minor Details

Over the last full month, I have been trying to work out the logistics of relocating to Anchorage- finding a job, a place to live, and some wheels of my own so I could finally turn in the rental- and it has finally all come together. Getting the job at Orso required a little bit of hoop-jumping in meeting with different managers four different times before getting the specific offer to work the dinner shift. Then there were two sessions of paperwork and five full shifts of training consisting of a progression of following other servers around observing technique and learning the order entry system until the last day the server followed me around just to make sure I was getting it right. I have to say I have been very impressed with the restaurant’s commitment to the strict organization of things, mainly having to do with knowing exactly which guest at any given stage of the meal has ordered which drink, appetizer, salad, entrée or desert, so that anyone working can deliver any portion of the meal without ever having approached the table before. The other servers are incredibly helpful and team-oriented, and with as many new people as were hired recently it’s a good thing! So I’m working nights again, from anywhere between 4-6pm until 10, 11, or 12 depending on the night of the week and whether you open or close that shift.

The menu is Mediterranean-inspired using local seafood and whatever fresh produce can be had seasonally. The osso bucco (lamb shank slow roasted with wine) is to die for tender and they also make excellent pork, duck, venison and steak, in addition to various fish and seafood dishes, pastas such as homemade mushroom ravioli in a lemon caper sauce with smoked salmon sprinkled on top, and several delicious appetizers, desserts, and unique cocktails using fruit-infused vodkas and house made sweet and sour mix. So it is truly easy to recommend the food (although sometimes hard to decide!), and I’m learning more about wine and mixed drinks which should be useful for the future… Every evening there is a meeting before the rush during which the chef and/or sommelier reviews any new or featured items, describing it in detail and offering a taste to all of the servers for our edification. During my first week of work, I sampled at least 80% of the food and a number of wine and cocktail selections. One of the new skills I had to learn was how to walk to a table with a large oval tray full of heavy dishes balanced with one hand on my shoulder while carrying a tray jack with the other, opening it one-handed and lowering the tray onto it without things spilling or shifting. It’s especially challenging when working upstairs on the mezzanine! There’s a dumbwaiter that takes empty dishes down to the kitchen, but all of the food and drinks get carried up from the kitchen or bar downstairs. At any rate, I’ve been scheduled to work 4-5 shifts per week, which are usually 5-6 hours each, and until I start doing some part-time design work as well, that’s really all that I’m up to!

So my new apartment…so many coincidences! A couple of weeks ago, I answered a random craigslist ad and as it turns out my future roommate used to work at Orso himself, so he (Brian) knows most of the people I’m working with. His roommate Mark has a good friend who bartends at Orso, which is how they originally got connected to live together a couple of years ago. But since Brian’s been waiting tables for a long time and getting burnt out on it, he’s back in school full-time now for construction management/GIS and taking various drafting classes. Mark, the outgoing roommate who’s leaving the state to head back to law school in Montana, was selling his old Audi, so I ended up not only taking over his bedroom but also buying his car! Within a few days, I was driving around in my new 1990 Audi 100 quattro, which has a lot of nice features, absolutely no rust, and runs really smoothly for its age, knock on wood! They were also kind enough to let me crash on their sofa until Mark moved out, which got me out of the youth hostel I had been staying at on and off, and I officially took over on Tuesday, when I finally got to unpack my bags after 3.5 months!! What a great feeling. My bedroom is pretty empty since I have so few belongings with me, but seeing as I wear the same attire to work every night, and until I have to acquire any winter-specific gear, I’m living a very simple existence and enjoying my new home.

Our apartment is on the top floor of a blue tone-on-tone duplex in a quite residential area of very South Anchorage, close to the coast and the Kenai peninsula and just 1 block from a strip mall they call a “business park,” so that groceries, restaurants, a gym, a dental office, my bank and a plethora of other conveniences are practically across the street but not full view of the house. We are situated between the Old and New Seward highways and although you can both see and hear one of them out the backside of the place (off of the bedrooms), the benefit is a nice panorama of the mountains to the east, which lie just beyond the road (as well as super quick highway access both north and south). And the living/dining/kitchen area is entirely peaceful and spacious, with lots of windows to the west and south, vaulted ceilings, long sightlines over nearby homes, through trees and even stretching to the water, and a gas fireplace in one corner that can be started with the flick of a switch (and can be made to blow hot air into the room for supplemental heat). To top that, there is a garage that I can keep the Audi in so that I can avoid the daily brushing and scraping off of snow and ice-yippee! I had to do that a few times already when I was staying with my cousin in Wasilla, where they get snow earlier than they do here in Anchorage. It was beautiful though, to see 4 fresh inches of white fluff on the ground! For the most part, it’s been consistently in the 30s and 40s the last few weeks but dry, and people have been saying that the snow starts falling later and later each year. I might have one more week to put my studded winter tires on…

s5003041.jpg    s5003020.jpg   s5003025.jpg

What I never got around to blogging before was the long period of time between traveling around and getting situated in Anchorage. It was a pretty painful month and more of dealing with various illnesses, mysterious symptoms, prescription side effects and doctors visits which put a huge kink in both my psyche and my ability to make any progress on the aforementioned logistics of life. The weekend of the remote rafting trip, I had come down with a sore throat. Two weeks later when Krista was here, my throat was so sore and swollen that I was sure I was coming down with the flue and that it was just taking forever to develop. When I noticed yucky white stuff growing on my right tonsil, I decided it was something else and went to an urgent care clinic thinking I might need antibiotics. Although I didn’t test positive for Strep A, the doctor assumed I had strep of some sort and prescribed me Amoxicillan. I’d had mono 17 years ago and since it was so rare for someone my age to have it much less twice in my life, that possibility was ruled out. Two days later my throat felt all better, but after a full week of the antibiotic course, I noticed spots on my tummy and wondered if I could be having a delayed allergic reaction to the drug. The next morning, I was covered with hives from my neck to my legs, and drove from Wasilla into Anchorage to see the same doctor again. He took one look at me and also assumed that I was reacting to the Amoxicillan, so prescribed me some steroids and antihistamines to keep the rash in check and prevent ichiness. I was horrified at how I looked and at the sudden overnight outbreak, and realized that that day might not be the worst of it, my body only starting to react to the build-up of antibiotics.

The next morning, my fears were realized and then some. When Connie and her roommate Jan came to check on me at 2’oclock in the afternoon, I sat up in bed groggily and by the looks on their faces I knew I was in bad shape. The red bumps were all over my face, hands and feet as well as the rest of my body, and there were so many spots that they had just merged into huge blotchy patches, turning the color of my skin to a purplish-red. When I stood up I was lightheaded and dizzy, and by the time I had made it out to the kitchen, I felt like I was going to pass out. I apparently not only fainted, but also went into a rigid seizure for a few seconds, my eyes rolling up into my head, and my blood pressure all but disappeared. Luckily Connie and Jan are medically very knowledgeable and recognized what was happening. When I came to, Jan was holding a cool cloth to my forehead, Connie was on the phone with 911, and I was dripping profusely with sweat for reasons I did not understand. I regained a semi-lucid consciousness by the time the paramedics arrived, and was taken in the ambulance to the emergency room in Palmer- they had a hell of a time getting the IV in me since my veins were so drained by the swelling in my skin!

s5003010.jpg    s5002984.jpg

At the hospital, the doctor ordered a blood test and don’t you know I tested positive for mono! Apparently it is common knowledge that systemic allergic reactions happen more often than not when Amoxicillan is given to a patient with mono, and this is where the mystery started as to what illness I really had, when and how I contracted it, what was the true cause of my reaction and why I would exhibit mono again when I’d had it before. That day, however, I believed that I had been misdiagnosed with strep throat when I really had mono, and therefore incorrectly prescribed the antibiotic when not only wouldn’t you treat mono that way in the first place, but that it would knowingly make someone break out in this way. I was given 3 times the dose of steroids prescribed the day before and told to not only continue taking antihistamines twice a day but also Pepcid AC, and was given a prescription topical cream to apply to the rash. Talk about being drugged up! I spend the next week mostly sleeping and watching TV, and tracking the progress of my rash, which thankfully moved quickly off of my face and neck, migrating down my body until only my legs were still affected. It took several more weeks for it to totally clear- in fact just today I had a hard time finding any spots on my thighs where it had been lingering all this time. Every time I took a hot shower, my legs and feet would turn red again, but otherwise the rash seemed to be fading, just taking a long time to entirely disappear. I saw one other doctor as a follow-up to the status of my mono and he admitted it was difficult to say whether I had had mono with tonsil growth or mono with accompanying strep, an allergic reaction to Amoxicillan or the expected breakout due to being misprescribed antibiotics, and wasn’t even sure if a positive mono test indicated an activated virus or simply confirmed that it was present in my body which it will always be, whether I caught a new strain of it or my body became prone to the symptoms again due to an environmental change and/or a compromised immune system. So I have had a really hard time figuring out what to blame for all of my recent misery, and have just tried to rest as much as possible until I feel fully functional again. Starting work a few weeks ago definitely put a strain on my recovery, and I had a sore throat recur a couple of times and felt exhausted after my shifts at the start. I even popped a Bonine one night at work because I was so woozy that it was hard to walk straight and a pharmacist had told me that meclezine which was in seasickness medicines would help the dizziness. I am happy to report that I feel almost as good as new by now, and have even managed a short jog around my new neighborhood a couple of times in the last week. So I’m looking forward to a snowy white winter, working hard to save up some money, and making new friends in my new experiences here. Wish me luck, cuz as my cousin Connie keeps saying, “Alaska is very unforgiving” and I’ve already found that to be true!

On a side note, I’ve been keeping track of humorous sayings about Alaska, of which there seem to be many, one of which regarding the male-to-female ratio being so askew, “Well, you know what they say- the odds are good but the goods are odd!” I have heard that one many times since arriving here. A similar one, but from the male perspective, is “You can’t lose your girlfriend, you can only lose your turn,” which cracked me up recently. “A beater with a heater is worth a million dollars in Anchorage” is another I just heard from an auto mechanic. There are others I’ll have to remember to write down when I hear them again. Some people call Anchorage Skanchorage because it’s really not a pretty city and has some pretty sleazy elements and areas. Mostly those are people who lived here for a time and then escaped to more pleasant, less-populated towns, because let’s face it, why would you come to Alaska, “The last frontier” and then live in the only real city in the entire state?! If it’s peace and wilderness you want, you’re not going to find it in this 50-mile radius! My rationale, as a first-time winterer here, is that it has the highest concentration of both people and activities, which are the two things that might actually get me through the depressing 4-hours of daylight per day at the end of the year!

To backtrack just a little bit more, here is a link to the photos (and an awesome photo/video collage) that Dennis took during his visit here in October. We hit Girdwood, Homer, and Anchorage in a 5-day span and had a fantastic time just bumming around from one place to another, discussing in depth the food we found, meeting interesting characters, and having those unique Alaskan experiences that I’ve been describing for months. The little stuffed animal souvenir featured in his video was a gift he bought for me that we took with us everywhere we went and used as a theme to the trip and as an excuse for him to take random photos in random places. I finally made it to the Salty Dawg on the Spit in Homer with him, where we hung out all afternoon drinking and playing pool and talking to the locals along with a guy Nick whom we had befriended at the hostel the night before. One of my favorite moments (of many!) was there at the very scrungy Seaside Farms hostel, where there was no host to be found and Nick was the only other guest around. He was thrilled that we came in late at night since the place would have been pretty creepy to stay at all alone, and we discovered on our way to bed that all of the rickety bunks squeaked like crazy. As a joke, we pretended that we were performers in a mattress orchestra, my bed posts making a low creaky noise, Dennis’ mattress springs a high-pitched bouncy squeal, and Nick’s bed squeaking at the slightest move. When we turned out the lights, we counted to three and then all moved and bounced around in our beds to make the mattresses “sing,” laughing hysterically at how ridiculously loud the noises were. Dennis made an audio recording of our performance in the dark, and when we put our dollar bill up on the wall at the Salty Dawg the next day as is the custom, he wrote on it “The Seaside Farms Squeaky Springs Mattress Choir – Tour of the Spit 2007” and we each signed our names. Oh the fun we had.  Don’t forget to check out his photos!

Posted by: Elena | October 17, 2007

Road Trip with Krista

I had about two days between getting back from the rafting trip and Krista’s arrival in Alaska, so I came back to Wasilla to do laundry, rest up, and repack for our week on the road. I also had seen an ad for a server position at Orso, an elegant restaurant owned by the same company as my favorite Glacier Brewhouse next door. I set up my first interview for the day that Krista arrived and was called in for a second the following week. Krista and I had pretty tight plans to get to Valdez in time to catch the ferry to Cordova, which required us to hit the road immediately after she arrived in Anchorage. We headed out the Glenn Highway in early evening, with rain throughout the valley followed by a clear dark night by a few hours out. We stopped at the Worthington Glacier, which had a nice viewing platform and easy direct access. I stretched my legs by running up the moraine and poking around the vertical ice formations. We also drove down to check out the Matanuska Glacier, and found a prohibitive $15 per person fee to be let through some privately-owned property to the base of the glacier…I don’t think so! We stopped for dinner and to stay the night at the cozy Eureka Lodge which I had found an on-line special for. They had a huge bar in the back whose walls were covered with nicely displayed animal pelts of all kinds- Krista was in heaven!

The next morning, after indulging in some 25-cent coffee, we continued on through Glennallen, Thompson Pass, and Keystone Canyon, getting into Valdez about an hour before our ferry was to leave. Driving down the main drag towards the harbor, we weren’t impressed with the scant, industrial buildings, but had to wait a couple of days to really get a feel for the “city.” We were blessed with a gorgeous day for our 3-hour ferry ride to Cordova, which is only accessible by sea or air. I was impressed by the ferry boat which appeared to be brand new, sparkling clean and beautifully designed with various areas to sit and work, eat, or take in the stunning views of Prince William Sound. It was practically empty too! We mostly looked out the windows and stood on deck taking photos and gawking at the coastline, icebergs, oil tankers, and sea life including jellyfish, Orca whales, and dozens of sea otters floating in the harbor upon arrival. Main Street Cordova is a pretty weathered couple of blocks, the old wooden buildings having been beaten upon mercilessly by rainstorms and wind and general wetness from the sea. It looked like a sad place, and it felt pretty deserted as well. But as with most places, it grew on us by the time we left, after our explorations revealed some of the character lurking in the shadows of this empty, off-season fishing village.

s5002764.JPG s5002897.JPG s5002808.jpg

As we scoured town to find a place to stay the night, we kept running into a woman we had first seen on the ferry. She had reserved Skater’s Cabin, located right on Eyak Lake, which I had read about and wanted to consider. We found out that there were no bunks and no bedding, and we weren’t prepared to “camp out” on the wood floor, even though there was a wood-burning stove for warmth. So even though she kindly invited us to stay there with her, we headed back to town and checked into the very historic (meaning old and possibly haunted with crooked floorboards and creaky plumbing) Hotel Alaska, which had unheated rooms located above a bar. To be fair, The Lonely Planet did warn of the “tattered” condition and “reverberating” bar noise, but we simply bundled up and stuck in some earplugs on our way to bed. Before bed, we took a walk around the boat harbor, ran into Zse-Kim again, and got some food at the Reluctant Fisherman, which had excellent views out over the water and a nice atmosphere but disappointingly generic food and not many people to give it much life.

s5002826.jpg

Zse-Kim had just finished med school and was taking a week-long vacation in Alaska in part to research remote hospitals and clinics where she might want to work after completing her residency, having specialized in bush medicine. We ended up spending the next day together, from our Crater Lake hike to our drive up the Copper River Delta to dinner at the Powder House Bar. Crater Lake is a small lake at the top of a hill above Lake Eyak from which you can also see down into the Copper River Delta from the opposite side. The three of us completed the 5-mile moderately strenuous round trip hike without seeing anyone else on the trail, but we did hear some suspicious noises on the way back down while traipsing through thick tree growth. We had made a reasonable amount of noise between the three of us the entire way, as you’re supposed to do to warn bears of your approach, and we had discussed sticking together and not running if any were to appear. I was a bit ahead of the other two on the way down, singing and whistling along, when I heard a distinct guttural sound resembling a soft roar or growl. Not being able to see what had made it, and hoping it was simply a tree groaning in the wind, I stopped in my tracks and listened carefully, hoping it wouldn’t repeat itself. In the meantime Krista caught up to me, and just as she was about to ask why I’d stopped, we both heard it again! She exclaimed “oh my, what was that?!” as I started gathering whatever anti-bear forces I could muster to command our group into the defensive position- making ourselves appear larger and making lots of noise. Krista suggested that we continue moving calmly along, so I scurried on while making a nervous racket of shouting and singing, urging the other two to hurry up behind me.

Krista had had a bit of bad luck earlier when the sole of one of her hiking boots had delaminated and started flapping around, making walking difficult. We had stopped and tied the heel back on with duct tape, but shortly after that the front part also fell off and rendered the makeshift fix unusable. She had been walking along the path very gingerly to avoid sharp rocks and prevent her compromised foot from getting too wet, but about ten paces after our “bear hearing” the sole of her other boot gave way too! So we had one woman down trying to keep up with a very rattled Elena, which made the situation that much funnier- I mean terrifying! I could not wait to get back to the road and out of the woods, which were pretty much thick the whole way. When we got to the Baja Taco café for lunch and ran into some bear hunting guides who told us that grizzlies roamed those woods and black bears hang out above the tree line where the lake was located, we all shivered a bit in our coats but at the same time felt validated that we hadn’t just jumped to irrational conclusions about what we’d heard. Later when I told the story to my friend Paul who fishes out of Cordova, he asked if we’d been “packing heat” and said that he never went into the woods without such protection!! He was especially impressed (or shocked, not sure which) when he heard it was three women who had gone together, which he apparently though was particularly dangerous. Krista, who had assumed that it was only black bears roaming the area, was surprised to hear that brown bears were prolific there, since she is afraid of one but not the other. Zse-Kim, after talking about the subject with her for a while, was scared in retrospect, not knowing that bears can break into cars, and having slept in her car with all of her food for several nights in another part of the state! But luckily a scare was all we had, because even that added to my increasing feeling of vulnerability.

s5002828.jpg

After lunch we drove up the 50-mile dirt road that cuts through the Copper River Delta until reaching Child’s Glacier, an incredible tidewater glacier terminating along the banks of the Copper River. You can sit on the opposite side of the river and watch the ice calve off into the water and be swept downstream. There were signs warning of tidal waves resulting from large chunks of glacial calving, but the river level was very low so we didn’t have that to worry about. Along the 35 miles of slow-going gravel road, there were swampy areas with birch trees rising up out of the water in a surreal way, in front of a snowy mountain backdrop. Loved it! For dinner, we went to the Powder House Bar, a place right on the lake which had true local flavor and the mostly amazing slice of strawberry-rhubarb-blackberry pie with homemade crust- gorgeous! Krista and I checked in to the Prince William Sound Motel which was much warmer, more quiet and more spacious, plus had a bathroom (Hotel Alaska had shared bath but no shared shower room) so we had a much more comfortable second night of sleep, ahhh.

 

 

s5002852.JPG s5002845.jpg s5002870.JPG s5002837.JPG

The next morning we took off early to catch the ferry back to Valdez and had another absolutely gorgeous day to gaze at the coastline again. Back in Valdez, Krista and I ate at the popular Totem Inn diner, another place just plastered with life-sized stuffed animals, mounted head and pelts. Krista was in awe. Then we went to the museum which had a great collection of Gold Rush-era letters, photos and stories, models of camps, a Victorian-era sitting room, and a fully reconstructed saloon that was salvaged from Old Town Valdez which was located a few miles up the road from the current town before the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, which you hear about everywhere you go. It offered some information on the pipeline, but we got a far better explanation of that phenomenon at the much larger museum in Anchorage. Old Town Valdez is so overgrown now that the only real remnant is a concrete slab that used to hold the post office. We weren’t too impressed with Valdez overall, although the boat harbor was quaint and I could imagine it bustling with fishermen and tourists in the summertime. All of the cafes and businesses along that strip were closed for the season and there weren’t many people out in general. We drove through a residential area just to see how people lived, and noticed that many of the homes were sunken into the ground half a story, which put windows at ground level, looking pretty strange. After some asking around, we were told that it helps insulate the bottom level to have dirt surrounding the walls as much as possible, even if the ground freezes which it definitely does in winter.

Before leaving Valdez, Krista wanted to partake in a slice of history. She read that the Pipeline Inn was the bar where the captain of the Exxon Valdez tanker that crashed and spilled oil in ‘89 had ordered a Scotch on the rocks before getting on board. We had to kill some time before it opened at 5pm, but Krista got to sit at the bar and place an identical order. I tried to joke with the bartender by saying “I’ll have whatever the 2nd mate drank” but she didn’t get the reference…oh well! We did get an authentic bit of Alaskana from an old man who walked in with a tall willow walking stick, big white beard, and a huge bear claw hanging around his neck. Krista happily questioned him about the local history and got an earful of personal stories in return about the area, about homesteading in Alaska, and about the multi-millionaire developer who lives there year round and has invested a lot in the town. We left before the Pipeline Inn Fish & Tackle Choir arrived (bummer!) and headed back to Anchorage, making it all the way to Palmer that night. In Anchorage the next day, we scouted out several hostels and hotels before deciding on the very nice Qupqugiak Inn, which had antique beds, religious art of all sorts on the walls, and curved hallways and casework created by the very spiritual owner. We visited the Anchorage Museum of Art, which is undergoing a significant expansion project, and learned all about how the pipeline was built, how it works, how it’s maintained, and the kinds of people it employs. There was also a long photographic display outlining the journeys of native whale hunters and their culture. Afterwards, I took Krista to Peggy’s airport café, the old-school diner I had visited several times before that makes 20 different flavors of pies every day. The rhubarb is to die for! We had a unique experience there too, as every day in the late afternoon the counter fills with men who have lived in Alaska for many decades and basically built the state infrastructure. There was a documentary on the TV when we got there narrating the harrowing tales of building the pipeline road that was used to transport construction materials, and how truck drivers took their lives in their hands to drive that treacherous road all winter long, delivering long sections of pipe and other supplies through white-out conditions. The men at the counter started talking about the roles they had played in building the pipeline and the road that made it possible, and since Krista and I had just been driving on part of that route, we felt particularly transported back in time listening to their first-hand accounts while watching the images play out on screen. Some of the guys recognized me from my previous visits (I won serious points with Krista for that!) and the next time I went in, one of them commented that I was almost a regular there myself and invited me to join them any day around 5pm- what a compliment!! We went back to our hotel to rest for a while, and then I took Krista to the Moose’s Tooth for a light dinner, one of my favorite restaurants/breweries.

The next leg of our trip was to drive down the Kenai to Seward, a route we took very leisurely by stopping in numerous places. Our first detour off the highway was to Hope, where we discovered the original part of town that I had not seen before. Everything was closed and boarded up (you don’t say!) but the cabins were refreshingly gray with age instead of freshly polished in brown lacquer the way that most tourist destinations are. We got some more local flavor at a small café, the only eatery open in the area, when we were joined by some of the townspeople and overheard their conversations that went something like this: “Hey Joe, thanks for tuning up my chainsaw the other day.” “Oh, no problem- is it still running?” “Yeah, it runs great!” “Well does it work as hard as you do?” This went on until someone mentioned that they’d seen a black bear just out back in the yard on their way in. Krista and I immediately turned and asked if it might still be there. What ensued can only be described as a fieldtrip of everyone in the café to see if they could show the out-of-towners the bear, which had been barked up a tree by some of the local dogs! A huge black bear was sitting 50 feet up in a tree, clinging to a branch and looking down to scan for danger below. Every so often, he’d move a bit to get comfortable or look like he was about to come down and the dogs would run back over to the tree and bark again, holding him hostage up high. I was amazed that he was even wary of the dogs seeing as he was so much larger than all of them put together, but apparently this is not a totally uncommon behavior. After snapping a few shots, we went back inside and continued eating our lunch and chatting with the locals and then went to take a drive through the rest of the area. We drove through the forest, climbing up a long hill and enjoyed the fall colors and the peacefulness of being the only ones on the road. When we went back through town on our way out, we stopped at the café again to see if the bear was still there. It was, but a couple of women were holding off the dogs so that it could finally come down and go home, and I captured an amazing video of the bear climbing down the tree and then sneaking away! (See below.) We were both thrilled to have witnessed that in such close proximity, but from the safety of our vehicle.

s5002904.JPG s5002913.JPG

Our second stop was Summit Lake Lodge, which now sits empty with For Sale signs in the windows. I had never heard any mention of the property being for sale while I was working there, but apparently the owners, who have run the business for 25 years, are getting ready to retire. Mark, one of the managers who is living on-site as the caretaker for the winter, was outside chopping wood and let us in to give Krista a tour of where I had worked. He had found an old photo album that chronicled the building of the log cabin gift shop, so we looked through the images as he explained how they’re put together. I think he said that the builders, a husband and wife team, built the entire structure in just 12 days! All of the saddle joints connecting the logs in the corners were sawn by hand, as were the custom door ornaments. Krista enjoyed seeing where I had lived for a couple of months, and I marveled at how different the area looked with snow on the hilltops!

s5002927.JPG

We continued on to Seward, checked into the hostel, and headed out to search for dinner, ending up at Ray’s on the waterfront, where we were surprised to find that all entrees were half price! It was their last night of business for the season and apparently every October 1st they run this end of season special. So we each had a fantastic salmon dish after sharing a large pile of delicious steamed clams- now there was an excellent Alaskan seafood dinner finally! We had been bemoaning the fact that most places only offered fried fish and hamburgers (at least at lunch), and the fish entrees usually offered lacked originality- grilled halibut or salmon with no particular preparation. Ray’s was definitely a finer culinary establishment than most. Yum!

s5002932.JPG s5002933.JPG s5002934.JPG

Silly photos taken along the small boat harbor area, a result of what I call “finding ways to amuse yourself during the off-season.”

In the morning, we walked up the waterfront path, grabbed breakfast at the only place that was open, and then headed to Caines Head State Recreation Area a few miles south of town for a hike. The Swiss guy running the hostel had told us that he’d seen a bear “feeding” down at the river the day before, and a couple we passed on our way out to Tonsina Point said that they’d just seen one from the bridge 15 minutes earlier. Needless to say I was nervous about seeing another bear up close, and when we came upon the bridge I scanned the area intently to make sure neither of us would be surprised by the other’s presence. Krista guessed that he’d probably moved on from the area since the sightings, but within a few minutes of standing there, I saw something rustle in the brush and a large black bear emerged into view and walked along the bank peering into the water for fish. There were tons of dead fish floating in the river, but apparently a few were still alive as well, because as the bear waded across to the other side, Krista noticed that it caught something, and we watched it eat and then lay down to rest on a sandy patch. Krista must be a bear magnet, cuz that made 3 good hearings/sightings in just one week while I’d had only one sighting (although it was 6 bears at the same time) in my first 3 months in Alaska!! Thanks Krista!

s5002945.jpg s5002951.jpg s5002949.jpg

On our way out of Seward, we stopped to check out Exit Glacier, and I was blown away at how much it had changed since I had first visited- the path to the viewpoint was totally washed out so that we had to find our way across the wide riverbed up to the face of the ice, and it had melted and receded so much that it looked completely different. The Ranger’s Station was closed, and the information markers had been moved, so I assumed that after a certain date, the area was no longer monitored and maintained and the trails were left to the whims of nature. We arrived in Girdwood later that night, and stopped for dinner at Chair 5 (since Maxine’s was still closed for vacation), where we got chatted up by a friendly middle-aged native fisherman who was playing pool and ended up joining us at our table. We crashed at my favorite, homey hostel, and then headed back to Anchorage, where we had a date with a floatplane! John was kind enough to give us another aerial tour, and it was a brilliantly clear day, but it was also very bumpy, so I was a bit unnerved and made him detour away from the snowy mountains, yelling “Stop the chop! Stop the chop!” to his confusion and amusement (getting my boating and flying terminology mixed up). We landed a couple of times on small lakes on the other side of Turnagain Arm, one of which had a public use cabin on it complete with bunk beds, a wood stove, canned food, a canoe, and an outhouse. Anyone who could fly in there could stay the night on this totally secluded, relaxing lake! What a nice weekend that would make, without turbulence of course. Before Krista’s flight took off that night, we had a farewell dinner at the Glacier Brewhouse where we sat on a raised bench underneath some TVs, what Krista called “stadium seating” in an atmosphere “like dinner theater” where we got to watch everything going on in the restaurant. A lovely end to a fun-filled travel marathon!

s5002969.jpg s5002971.jpg s5002978.jpg

All of my photos here.

Older Posts »

Categories