Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Kayaking Happy Hour

(I welcome your comments and questions through the "comments" option below any entry. --Laura)

I love to hear the rhythmic slap of lake water pushed by the breezes toward our little dock.  Floating around the lake in one of our kayaks, sometimes with a book, sometimes with my husband, is a frequent, leisurely pleasure. 
During the summer months, even if it was foggy in the morning and raining during the day, it invariably clears up around Happy Hour.  Often, but particularly if we have felt cooped up earlier in the day, we will grab  glasses of home made beer and wine and some peanuts, turn the tandem kayak over and have happy hour on the water.  Usually, we will paddle upwind to the far "corner" of the lake and then drift back toward home, betting on how close we'll get to our dock with no adjustment whatsoever.  From that far corner, if it is particularly clear, looking past our cabin, we can see Denali and Denali's Wife, otherwise known as Mt. McKinley and Mt. Foraker.  These are the brightest white of any natural effect I have ever seen, other than expansive cotton fields in the South.  Since the peaks often rise above a lower layer of clouds, they appear to float, like giant wedding cakes.  Really breathtaking. 

Seagulls always nest in the stunted black spruce trees that grow in one particular location where the bog meets the lake.  When the eggs are in the nest or the chicks are just learning to swim, the parents will dive bomb us like something in a Tippi Hedren movie, in which case, we maneuver out of their defended range.  They aren't afraid of anything!  I have even seen them work in formation to successfully push predatory eagles away from "their" lake. 

I am far fonder of loons, and always delighted when, in most years, a pair returns to the lake to breed and raise their babies.  I love everything about those birds, their elegant black and white coloration, their haunting cry, and the way they dive and fly.  They seem to play "Marco Polo" with us.  They always win, since they tease us to follow them in our kayak and then dive with their strong feet, appearing a surprising distance away.   I understand that their feet are so far back on their bodies that what they gain in diving propulsion they lose in flight take off.  They are extremely noisy as their wings flap and flap against the water in a long, shallow departure.  Watching the parents teach their chicks how to fly before the end of summer is nature's version of a Keystone Cops comedy.
For Happy Hour, we started making beer and wine for the same reason we started making other food and home products.  Since we are far off the road system, we wanted to avoid the expense of transporting by snow machine in winter or float plane in summer food supplies heavy with water weight.  This extends to all purchases, so, for example, I buy tomato paste rather than tomato sauce, and fresh fruit or fruit juice concentrates rather than boxes of juice, and of course we buy dry milk and even dry eggs (which are fine in baking).  Because of this remoteness, we have become much more intentional in our shopping and food preparation.

For beer, Bryan always buys a keg of seasonal brew from the local microbrewery he favors, Midnight Sun. As you can imagine, this is a favorite stop in Anchorage before we load up a float plane (summer) or ski plane (winter) to take us to our remote cabin for several weeks (winter) or months (summer).  As a last city pleasure, he tastes first this and then that seasonal concoction and chooses the one he'll enjoy five gallons later.  For the summer, he then buys dry ingredients from Arctic Brewing Supply to make several batches of beer, especially with/for guests.  At the lake, the fermentation is much more robust than when we make the same recipe in the city.  We actually wrap the bucket in a garbage bag and have to wipe off the walls when the air lock spits foam. (Is this becaues the filtered lake water lacks city additives like chlorine and fluoride?) This year, he plans to make a Belgian Trippel to start off the summer, but in prior years he has made beers as light as a raspberry wheat and as heavy as a chocolate stout, (for $30- 75 for 5 gallons, once the initial equipment is purchased).  In honor of his hobby, I have planted hops to climb the posts on the front of the cabin.  They won't fruit in our climate, but I like the leathery, ivy-like leaves that grow really fast (supposedly 18 feet in 6 weeks), which is what we want in our quick change climate.  According to friends and himself, Bryan has been consistently successful as a beermeister, in contrast to my feeble wine efforts.

We buy the wine kits from Arctic Brewing Supply, too.  These are heavy boxes (30 lbs?) with enough grape juice concentrate to make 5 or 6 gallons.  Apparently these kits are sold in vast quantities to home wine makers in Canada.  You can choose generics and varietals (Italian pinot grigio, generic sauvignon blanc).  The boxes vary in price from state to state, but I think I've paid as little as $40 for a generic in Texas and as much as $130 for a varietal in Alaska.  The wine process is simpler than making beer. You don't have to cook anything or monitor temperatures at particular steps, as you do with beer.  It would seem to be idiot proof but apparently not for me.  Using the same carboys and other containers and gizmos as for beer, you just pour the grape juice in, top it off with fresh water, and add yeast.  After a week or so, you add clarifiers and then let it sit for a month or more.

After two failures in Texas, I was absolutely thrilled by the first batch of pinot grigio I made in Alaska.  It was clear and had good color (well, to tell the truthy it looked like five gallons of a healthy urine specimen).  To my delight, it offered a flowery aroma that I usually associate with a New Zealand sauvignon blanc, another wine I like.  Was it the pure water?  I don't know.  But, the taste was crisp and green apple-y. However, over time, the scent evaporated and the flavor degraded.  I think this is because we don't want to deal with bottles.  We don't want to deal with glass in general (Alaska doesn't recycle it) and I don't feel I can adequately clean and sanitize the "shoulders" of bottles at the cabin, so, while we transfer Bryan's beer to a closed keg, in order to add CO2,  we just kept my wine in a carboy, which necessitated frequent openings and aeration as I poured a carafe at a time.   

The second batch I made that summer was some sort of disaster.  I think I contracted alcohol poisoning from poor sanitation or something.  To try out various vendors, we used a different kit of a different pinot grigio.  It cleared as well as the other but lacked the aromatic elements.  The taste was appropriate to the grape.  However, within ten days, joints in my hands, feet, and the back of one knee swelled up!  The only new foods I had consumed in quantity at that time were this wine and freshly caught salmon (and no Alaskan is going to blame salmon for anything)!  Very sad.  For the future, my intention is to transfer the wine into large jalapeno jars I am saving as storage containers to limit air contamination. 

Had we not moved to Alaska, I doubt we would have embarked on these hobbies, but now it is a favored one of my husband's and a somewhat anxious one for me, but another step as I become more self-sufficient like the loons and seagulls I watch on the lake.


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