Sunday, October 15, 2017

Autumn is for Comfort Food

Autumn in Valdez
Autumn is a tumultuous and unpredictable season on Alaska’s coast.  October started out inauspiciously this year with drenching rain that brought down most of our fall leaves.  I wore a trench coat, umbrella, and rain boots every day that week.  When the rain let up during the second week of the month, cottonwoods across town and willow thickets covering the mountain slopes were bare.  But, the dissolving clouds revealed a blue sky and shimmery white rim of snow on the ridges.  In the mornings, I ran under a bright moon with planets and stars hanging over the mountains as the eastern horizon glowed yellow-orange.  It was dark enough to need a headlamp and cold enough to need a headband and gloves, but warm enough to get by with summer weight tights and a light jacket.  I was like a steam engine, puffing along down the street.  The scent of jelly donuts baking at Safeway filled the chill air.  Cottonwood leaves rasped when stirred.

The turn of seasons makes me hungry for comfort food – creamy, chewy, warm – and during the first half of October I put together this list to share.  All of these are easy to prepare, healthful, colorful, and delicious.  I hope you find comfort in them.

Hearty Red Cabbage Salad (with farro, feta, and pumpkin seeds)
This salad packs well for lunch, even when made the night before, and is suitable for a light dinner.  The following quantities are intended for a single serving.

Dressing (store in a separate container is packing for lunch):
1 T capers
1 T balsamic vinegar
2 T jarred roasted red bell pepper - chopped
French tarragon (dried leaves)
Salt

Salad:
3-4 fresh basil leaves - torn
Fresh fennel sprigs - chopped
½ cup cooked and chilled farro
2 cups red cabbage - chopped
½ zucchini – chopped
¼ c crumbled feta
¼ cup toasted pumpkin seeds

Light Red Cabbage Salad (with fried tofu and sesame-orange dressing)
Toss this salad together for a light standalone lunch or serve with broiled salmon.  This is intended to be a single serving.

2 slices extra firm non-silken tofu
1 T cornstarch
2 t sesame oil
1 cup butter lettuce, torn
1 cup red cabbage - chopped
1 T Sunflower seeds

Dressing:  Shake together 1 t sesame oil, 1 t orange juice and 1 t soy sauce

Prepare the tofu by draining, slicing, then pressing between paper towels until quite dry.  Heat the oil in a very hot skillet.  Meanwhile, gently toss the tofu in cornstarch.  When the oil is sizzling, lay tofu in single layer in the oil and fry until brown and crispy.  Remove and drain.
Prepare the salad by tossing together lettuce, cabbage, sunflower seeds and dressing.  Top with tofu.

Braised Fennel & Potatoes
This recipe is from Huffington Post and is a delicious, creamy healthful lunch or dinner.  Serve with sweet juicy slices of navel orange. I substituted 2% milk for the half and half and reduced the quantities to 1/3 of ingredients shown to make one serving.


Pear-Apple Cranberry Compote with Polenta
The combination of warm creamy polenta and sweet tart fruit compote is quintessential fall comfort food.  Serve for breakfast or brunch.  This makes one serving.

1 ripe pear – peeled, cored, and cubed
1 apple – peeled, cored, and cubed
2 T raisins
1/3 cup dry polenta (such as Bob’s Red Mill)
1 cup liquid (remaining liquid from cooking compote + enough water to equal 1 cup)
Maple or brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg to taste

First, prepare the compote.  In a small pan combine the pear, apple, raisins, sugar and spices with a small amount of water – start with 1 T and add more if the fruit begins to stick to the bottom.  Cook over medium heat until very soft and saucy.  Pour compote into your serving bowl, reserving liquid in the pan.  Let cool while you prepare the polenta.
Add enough water to the reserved cooking liquid to make 1 cup.  Add polenta and cook over medium low heat until creamy.  Add more water if needed to achieve your desired consistency.  Scoop into the serving bowl and enjoy alongside the compote.

Spaghetti Squash with Gorgonzola and Date
Spaghetti squash forms a wonderful soft yet substantial base for many toppings.  This combination is a delightful sweet-savory meal that packs a mild bite from the Gorgonzola.  Pre-cook the squash to make preparation very fast.  This is a single serving.  Try enjoying with a cup of hot natural apple cider!

1 t olive oil
½ large shallot – thinly sliced
2 cups pre-cooked spaghetti squash
¼ cup crumbled gorgonzola
1 date – chopped finely
Sea salt & pepper

Heat the olive oil in a small cast iron skillet over medium heat.  When hot, toss in shallot slices and saute until translucent and brown.  In the meantime, toss together squash threads, Gorgonzola and chopped date.  Heat squash mixture in microwave oven until warm and cheese is melted.  Add shallots.  Mix gently but well with sea salt and pepper.

Warm Mushroom & Egg Bowl
Start the morning with a tangy and satisfying bowl of healthy ingredients.

1 large egg – boiled and peeled
3.5 oz portabella mushroom slices (approximately 1 cap)
1 – 2 T cooking wine
¼ - ½ cup sliced onion (to taste)
Medium avocado – chopped
1 T stone ground mustard
1 T Greek yogurt
Sea salt & pepper

Heat a dry cast iron skillet until very hot.  Lay mushrooms in a single layer on the hot surface and cook until browned – about 4 minutes.  Turn once to brown the reverse side.  Add cooking wine – it will evaporate and absorb into the mushrooms immediately.  Chop and set aside.  Add a smidge of oil, turn down the heat, and sauté onions until brown and sweet.
Chop egg and avocado and toss with mushrooms.  Combine yogurt, mustard, salt and pepper into a dressing and then toss the entire bowl to mix well.

Lentil Soup
The quantities of ingredients shown below make plenty of soup to store and freeze for future meals. Serve with vegan gluten free Banana Almond-Flour Muffins at Recipe.

4 T olive oil
20 oz pre-cut butternut squash
4 cups chopped carrots
1 large onion
1 ½ cup dry red lentils, rinsed
8 c water
1 t veggie bullion
2 T chili powder
1 T spanish paprika
1 t cumin
½ t mace
Salt
Chard - optional

Heat oil in a large soup pot.  Add onions and cook until soft.  Add spices and bullion.  Mix and cook for about 1 minute.  Add remaining vegetables and cook for another minute or two.  Add water and lentils.  Bring to boil and then reduce heat and cook for 25 – 30 minutes until all ingredients are soft.  Cool and then process in a blender until smooth.  Add chard when reheating is you wish!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Power Couple: MyFitnessPal and Samsung Health

Fitness and diet management are perfect fits for technological tools.  Both are based on counting and tracking numerical data and retrieving information from well-established and universally available databases.  Therefore, it is no surprise that a wide range of devices, web programs, and smartphone apps designed to help us attain our health goals are now available.

A few months ago, a technician at my company put together an excellent program about fitness gadgets such as Apple Watch, Samsung Gear Fit, and Fitbit.  She tested and evaluated the pros and cons of each and presented this information at a community forum.  It was an extremely popular presentation, attended by twenty community members trying to improve their fitness levels.  It seems like everywhere I go, I encounter people wearing these devices.

I am a devoted subscriber to a different family of technological solutions – web programs.  The specific duo that I use is MyFitnessPal plus Samsung Health.  Both offer web accounts, powerful apps, and work in synch with one another.  

I attribute much of my success losing fifteen pounds last year and my ability to maintain my weight afterward to MyFitnessPal (MFP).  I use it so frequently and have gained such value from it that I now pay the $50 annual fee to the developer instead of just taking advantage of the free version. 

MFP is a web-based service with an associated Android/iPhone app.  Once the user sets up an account, they may immediately begin using the robust features via laptop, tablet, or smartphone.  The app is my primary interface for MFP and I expect most subscribers will interact with the information through their smartphones as well.

Several features make the app especially powerful for healthy weight loss and diet management.  The first is that it calculates the subscriber’s daily calorie allowance by using readily available and accepted averages for gender, weight goal, height and current weight.  I double-checked my calorie allotment against other resources on line and, after evaluating my own results, determined that the calorie budget is on target. 
Menus from restaurants are available through
MyFitnessPal's robust food database.

MyFitnessPal is tied to a robust database which contains a phenomenal range of food products.  Thus, the user may easily access nutritional information for generic raw ingredients along with niche brands and restaurant meals.  I recently searched for a snack I purchased in a hotel lobby called a “BudiBar” (I’d never heard of it before) and it popped up instantaneously displaying nutritional contents that matched the product’s label.  The database contains entire menus from restaurant chains – even regional chains.  Last week I ordered dinner at Chipotle and was able to select each of the components for the bowl – down to the specific type of salsa, beans, and rice.  The database allows users to select the specific quantity consumed for each item in units including grams, ounces, cups, and tablespoons. 

The daily food diary is intuitive and easy to use.  The user may scroll back and forth between days, copy meals from one day to the next, set up frequently eaten foods, create recipes, and more.  If desired, the premium on-line version allows the user to download and print their history for tracking or analysis.  This could be especially useful if working with a dietitian, physician, or coach.

Lastly, MFP provides a field into which the user enters their exercise for the day.  The calories burned are then recorded as a net add in the daily calorie journal.

Programs like MyFitnessPal can help users
make informed decisions when selecting food.
The magic of MFP is that the features and methodology built into the program reinforce the concept of a calorie “budget”.  The user starts each day with a set number of calories.  Then, the user “spends” those calories over the course of the day to power (or “fund”) their body’s functions and activities.  The food diary is like a “check register”, into which the user enters each meal and the calories are deducted.  The user watches the calorie balance decrease over the course of the day.  If the user exercises, calories are “deposited” back into the account and the balance increases.  Voila – instant gratification in the form of more calories to eat! 

MFP’s real potential for helping users improve their health is when one starts to play around with the allocation of calories between “buckets”.  In financial management, this is like putting more money in the rent budget by taking money out of the entertainment budget.  With MFP, the user moves calories among protein, carbohydrate and fat buckets to hit optimal targets for each.  Therefore, MFP allows the user to micromanage their own diet to the degree desired:  One may monitor calories only, macro nutrients, or manage nutrient intake down to milligrams of calcium, iron, types of fat, sugars, and vitamins.
MyFitnessPal allows users to learn about the nutritional value of a
wide range of foods.

I recently began using the Samsung Health app that came on my new Galaxy 7 phone.  The app is synced with MyFitnessPal and I set it up to track running and walking – my two most common forms of exercise.  Now, when I walk or run (as long as I am carrying my phone), my steps automatically populate MyFitnessPal diary and then MFP calculates the calories burned and adds those back into that day’s calorie budget.  So far, the app accurately and automatically detects when I start and end a walking or running session and appears to successfully differentiate between walking and running - I don’t have to activate or deactivate the app for each session nor do I have to tell it which activity I am engaged in.

Samsung Health app displays all kinds of useful and fun
information about workouts.
As with most software, there are many other features that an individual might choose to utilize.  MFP, for example, has an excellent blog with short articles, practical and creative recipes, and quick guidance on workouts.  Samsung Health accesses a wider range of articles from news sources about health topics and offers a heart rate monitor.

These two programs work together seamlessly and provide the user with powerful capabilities to achieve and maintain individual wellness goals.
The excellent MyFitnessPal blog offers creative, scalable, fast recipes.

I highly recommend digging into these next generation diet and fitness tools because they provide much needed accuracy and ease for those of us wanting to improve our health.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

City Welcome Sign Gets Thumbs Up - From Me, at Least


I like it.  Sorry, but I do.  It’s big, lit up in blue and you can't miss it.

The new City of Valdez Welcome Arch at the intersection of Egan and Chitina.  Photo by Matt Kinney.

As with nearly every public project, the new City of Valdez welcome sign was controversial and generated much discussion at City Council meetings and over coffee pots and water coolers across town this summer.  Angst over the sign especially heated up after it was announced that the sign would cost much more than anticipated.  I get it.  We spent a lot of money to buy a sign.  Yet, now that the bill has been paid and it’s done (Mayor Ruth E. Knight flipped the switch in October), it’s time to enjoy it.

The sign is more than a stand-alone project.  It's really just one component in a large scale, multi-year redecorating plan.  Much like an individual who undertakes a project to redecorate their house, the City of Valdez Beautification Task Force has been working for a number of years to spruce up the town.  I’m not on the Task Force and have kept up on its activities only peripherally, but let me take a stab at why they're doing this.  I think it’s because people live here (unlike Deadhorse where folks fly in, work, then fly out again).  And, people generally like to live in places that are homey, welcoming, clean, comfortable, well lit, and have some elements of beauty, art, or visual interest.  Judging by the appearance of most homes, we Valdezans fit into this generality.  Nearly every home in our community – be it a mobile home or a custom built home —is well kept.  Lawns are mowed, houses painted to the best ability of the resident, flowers abound in the summer.  For the most part, residents appear to place value on aesthetics, not just function. 


The projects that have emerged from the City’s beautification initiative help make town look and feel like a place we might want to stay a while.  We can, and do, make other arguments to support beautification so that the funding and time spent on it can be better justified – it’s good for tourism, for example—but in the end these projects are for us. 


One of the first notable beautification projects was to improve the small boat harbor:  board walks, fish cutouts mounted on posts, sidewalks sporting fish imprints, and restructured parking.  Next came the creation of pocket plazas with benches, garbage cans, and historical interpretive signs.  Then the improvements to the city dock – including the “Pringle” (some call it a potato chip) which is used regularly to shelter community music and sports events.  Along with these projects, the City upgraded several parks, including extending the civic center hill trail, adding the adorable and well-used pirate themed playground on the park strip, and improving Ruth Pond. 


The Egan Street project is the latest and includes, but is not limited to, the welcome sign.  Along with the sign, the City improved sidewalks, expanded pocket plazas at intersections, constructed large built-in planters, and installed decorative street lights.  All summer, I heard complaints about the project (granted, many of us had construction fatigue in general from all the work being done around Valdez):  how would snow plows possibly get around these new design features without damaging them or the equipment?  How expensive and time consuming will it be to maintain these things?  Won’t the sign blow down and/or will snow build up on it and damage it?  Do we really need so many lights – isn’t it overkill?  It’s so expensive –shouldn’t we spend the money on other things? 


I used to work at the museum where, because of my position and the role of the museum as an important cultural institution, residents would frequently complain to me about our town’s lack of character.  People would admonish me and the board to do something, suggesting things like promoting facades on all the businesses along main street to hearken back to the gold rush days or require business owners to paint or display flowers.  Anything, residents seemed to say, that would elevate the look and feel of our town above utility. 


The improvements on Egan are nice, but in actuality, they are minimal and low impact as municipal beautification goes.  The City Council didn’t pass an ordinance requiring business owners to put gold rush facades on their buildings.  They didn’t ban the shipping containers that so many businesses use for storage.  They didn’t increase taxes to pay for maintenance.  Maybe there will be problems with some of the new features:  maybe the light bulbs will burn out and have to be replaced, maybe a plow will put a ding in a planter, maybe the welcome sign will need shoring up.  I think we can figure out how to deal with these things.

 
New decorative street lights along Egan Drive dramatically brighten up the street -
a welcome improvement for walkers and runners now that it's winter.  Photo by Matt Kinney.

I like to run and often do so in the mornings before heading to work.  The week after the welcome sign was unveiled and the new street lights were electrified, I took a circuitous run through town.  I ran along the bike trail behind the Senior Center where alders were fading and grass was golden.  I continued on down the bike trail along the Duck Flats, then turned and ran along the boat harbor where seagulls watched over the vessels resting in their slips.  I jogged on toward the John Kelsey Dock, past peaceful Ruth Park and looped under the Pringle.  Then I headed up toward Egan Drive.  I turned onto Egan and was delighted by the cleanly defined corridor created by the neat rows of blue-green light posts.  The decorative hooded fixtures created an attractive border for our main street.  I trotted along, checking out the nice designs on the new walls of the planters, imagining the greenery that will appear in them next spring.  Then, finally, I ran alongside the welcome sign.  It’s contemporary, made of steel, and stylized mountains stretch across the arch.  In bold font, it reads “Valdez Alaska”.  Taken with all of the other pleasant design elements that are now pieced together throughout our community, I turned and gave it a thumbs up.


Sunday, August 28, 2016

Backpacking Power Meals

Two days into a backpacking trip that would take Matt, Bonnie, and I over three mountain passes, across 43 miles of Sierra Nevada wilderness, and to a high point of 11,400’ I reached a physical and psychological equilibrium.  Daily climbs up long series of switchbacks taxed my heart, lungs, quads, and calves and the subsequent descents into valleys strained my core and punished my feet.  Yet, overall, my energy level was high.  My meal planning was paying off.
Bonnie climbs a set of calorie-zapping switchbacks
to reach our campsite at Columbine Lake
in Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park.

Over the past several weeks, I had planned out meals and snacks for this trip and, more than for any previous backpacking adventure, I had tried to take a strategic approach, thinking primarily in terms of packing in enough calories to power six days of high level hiking.  The trip we were on started at 7,500’ at the end of the Mineral King Road in California’s Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park.  Although the trails were well maintained, therefore not as taxing as backpacking in the untrodden backcountry where we often find ourselves, the hiking did require non-stop calorie-zapping exertion from the moment we jostled our packs on and took the morning’s first step to when we’d set up camp.  I estimated that I burned between 4,000 and 5,500 calories per day, hiking between 5 and 8 ½ hours.  I planned to consume 2,500 to 3,000 calories each day to try to keep up with the energy demand.  This number of daily calories was far in excess of what Matt and I normally consume on shorter trips (typically we eat 1500 calories daily, less than I take in on a day of computer work).

Calorie count was my priority, but I also considered several other factors.  I tried to include food that would stimulate my appetite, since a high level of exertion combined with hot weather tends to suppress my appetite.  For example, I tried to incorporate a variety of tastes and textures – difficult to do with foods that will pack well and last for six days.  Additionally, I paid attention to weight and volume.  We wanted to get by with carrying one large bear canister for three people and that would be a stretch, even though we took advantage of on-trail food lockers at our first two campsites.  Finally, I looked for creative twists to enliven our menu – Matt and I have backpacked together since 1996 and have rarely changed up our backcountry menu.  I wanted to try something new on this outing.

Following is the menu I followed.  At the end, I’ve included reviews and notes.  Please keep in mind the calorie counts and expenditures in this article are based on package information, commonly available on-line tools, and My Fitness Pal app.

Day 1
5.25 hours backpacking
Breakfast (at trailhead): 635 Calories
2 mini bagels, Tom’s 100% whole wheat
2 Tbls Adam’s crunchy peanut butter
½ banana
20 Blue Diamond Smokehouse almonds

Lunch:  710 Calories
Triple decker peanut butter & jelly
(3 slices Dave’s Killer Bread thin sliced whole wheat, 4 Tbls Adam’s crunchy peanut butter, 2 Tbls strawberry preserves)

Trail Snacks: 536 Calories
1 Clif Bar
1 packet of GU energy gel
2Tbls homemade trail mix (nuts and dried fruit)
16 oz. of prepared Gatorade

Dinner: 773 Calories
Backpacker’s Pantry Charros Bean & Rice (two 8.3 oz. packages split 3 ways)
1 oz. white cheddar cheese
1 100% whole wheat tortilla

Dessert: 381 Calories
Snickers candy bar (small)
½ apple
Maxwell House instant coffee, French vanilla flavor
Matt brews custom combinations of French vanilla instant
 coffee, hot chocolate, and Starbucks Italian Roast
instant coffee (individual packets) for after dinner treat.

Day 2
7.75 hours backpacking
Breakfast:  500 Calories
1 cup granola, Firehouse Bakery (Anchorage, AK)
¼ cup powdered milk

Lunch:  710 Calories
Triple decker PBJ (same composition as Day 1)

Trail Snacks:  573 Calories
1 Clif Bar
1 packet GU energy gel
32 oz. prepared Gatorade

Dinner:  551 Calories
Backpacker’s Pantry Lasagna (2 packages split 3 ways)
½ apple

Dessert:  420 Calories
Snickers candy bar (large)
Maxwell House instant coffee, French vanilla flavor


Day 3
8.25 hours backpacking

Breakfast:  500 Calories
1 cup granola, Firehouse Bakery (Anchorage, AK)
¼ cup powdered milk

Lunch:  566 Calories
1.75 oz. smoked salmon
Orchard Bar, cherry almond crunch flavor

Trail Snacks:  605 Calories
1 Clif Bar
1 packet GU energy gel
¼ cup homemade trail mix (nuts and dried fruit)
16 oz. prepared Gatorade

Dinner:  471 Calories
Mountain House Pasta Primavera (2 packages split 3 ways)
15 Blue Diamond Smokehouse almonds

Dessert:  420 Calories
Snickers candy bar (large)
Maxwell House instant coffee, French vanilla flavor

Day 4
8.25 hours backpacking
 
Here, we climb up to Sawtooth Pass on the last day
hiking, powered on by the previous night's
 Indian Vegetable Korma dinner with croutons.
Breakfast:  500 Calories
1 cup Kind Healthy Grains Cinnamon Oat Clusters
¼ cup powdered milk

Lunch:  470 Calories
1/4 cup whole roasted almonds
½ cup dried cranberries, sweetened with apple juice
2 Baby Bell cheese rounds

Trail Snacks:  605 Calories
1 Clif Bar
¼ cup trail mix, homemade (nuts and dried fruit)
1 packet GU energy gel
16 oz. prepared Gatorade

Dinner:  480 Calories
Alpine Aire Mountain Chili (2 packages split 3 ways)
1 100% whole wheat tortilla

Dessert:  350 Calories
Snickers candy bar (large)

Day 5
5 hours backpacking

Breakfast:  280 Calories
2 packets instant oatmeal, prepared, maple flavor

Lunch:  570 Calories
½ cup Granola (Firehouse Bakery)
1 packet (1.15 oz) Justin’s classic almond butter
2 Tbls Nestle’s butterscotch chips

Clean up was quick and easy when we incorporated
dehydrated dinners and cold granola into the menu.
Trail Snacks:  713 Calories
1 Clif Bar
¼ cup trail mix, homemade (nuts and dried fruit)
1 packet GU energy gel
32 oz. prepared Gatorade

Dinner:  580 Calories
Good to Go Indian Vegetable Korma (2 packages split 3 ways)
½ cup store bought croutons

Dessert:  350 Calories
Snickers candy bar (large)

Day 6
5 hours backpacking
Breakfast – No appetite, sick of Clif Bars!

Lunch/Trail Snacks:  603 Calories
1 Probar Base, Cookie Dough (20 grams of protein)
1 packet GU energy gel
32 oz. water bottle Gatorade

Dinner:  Celebratory Dinner in Visalia! 

Comments and Notes

Apples:  Apples are bulky, but it’s worth giving up some of your pack space in order to have something fresh on the trail.  Apples also produce less waste than, say, an orange.  Of all the fruit we’ve tried carrying, apples are the most resilient and long lasting.  Our hiking partner, Bonnie, had an apple in her pack on the fifth day of this trip – it was a little worn, but still tasted fine.

Cheese:  Be careful of taking cheese on the trail – particularly in warm weather.  We had good luck with a chunk of white cheddar that we packed in for dinner on our first night, but don’t expect most cheese to last longer than that.  That said, I took several rounds of Baby Bell white cheese packaged in wax.  These lasted very well for four days, and I’d guess they’d last longer than that.

Clif Bar:  Though I eventually get tired of eating Clif Bars, they are high calorie, come in a wide range of flavors and contain organic ingredients.  I especially like Blueberry Crisp, Banana Nut Bread, Chocolate Brownie, Crunchy Peanut Butter, and Oatmeal Raisin Walnut.

Croutons:  The store bought croutons packed surprisingly well and added welcome crunch to a dehydrated dinner.  They did not get crushed in the bear canister.

Gatorade:  I alternated between preparing Gatorade in my Camelback bladder at night and drinking it on the trail during the first few hours of the morning hike and preparing and consuming it later in the day.  I found it gave me a needed power boost in the afternoon and especially noticed it kicking in if I drank a substantial amount (such as 8 to 16 prepared ounces) along with a GU energy gel before starting up a session of switchbacks.  We used powdered Gatorade.  Although the Sierra Nevada water is lovely and pure, in other parts of the country Gatorade helps mask off-tasting water.

Granola:  A cold granola breakfast is a great alternative to hot oatmeal.  It’s sweet, contains substantial fat and is quick to prepare if you are trying to get an early start on the trail.  I pre-mixed 1 cup of granola with ¼ cup of powdered milk in individual plastic baggies.  In the morning, I placed the baggie in my mug, added water to the baggie, and ate out of the baggie.  This meant no clean up.

GU:  Gu has been my go-to energy gel for years.  The packets are small and I believe they give me a power boost.  They are sticky-messy if you’re not careful!  The flavor and texture reminds me of a cross between pudding and cake frosting.  Although Gu comes in a wide range of odd flavors, I typically stick with vanilla and chocolate.
 
Gu, Gatorade, ProBar, Orchard Bars and other dense,
 high calorie trail food powered me on this
43 mile backpacking trip.
Orchard Bars:  Our traditional backpacking power bar has long been the Clif Bar.  However, on long trips I lose my appetite for them eventually and get to the point where I can’t stomach the idea of another one.  On this trip, I tried the Orchard Bar, which contains fewer calories, but offers a very different (welcome) flavor and texture.  Orchard Bars are gooey, super sweet, and fruity-tart.  I find them in the produce section of Safeway.

ProBar:  I ate one of Matt’s ProBars on the last day of the trip and enjoyed it.  It’s high calorie compared to other power bars and was sweet and crunchy (I had the Cookie Dough flavor) – similar to a rice crispy treat.  It also has a high protein content compared to other bars.

Smoked Salmon: The SeaBear smoked salmon I took turned out to be messy (oily).  I’d highly recommend the flavor of smoked salmon for the trail (salty, delicious), but I’d go with a jerky instead.  Perhaps try Trader Joe’s wild salmon jerky.

Tortillas:  100% whole wheat tortillas were a great addition to our menu.  Tortillas are relatively high calorie for the amount of space and weight they take up.  They form beautifully to the outer wall of the bear canisters and last surprisingly well in warm conditions.  They are a nice fresh addition to a dehydrated chili or curry dinner.  They’d be great for breakfast as well with nut butter.
 
We enjoyed chatting, reading, and planning our
next day's route around a campfire while waiting up to
 40 minutes for our dinners to reconstitute at
 high elevations.
Dehydrated Dinners:  I decided on this trip to go all-in and rely on dehydrated dinners.  The last time Matt and I tried dehydrated food was ten years ago and the taste and consistency was so horrible we swore we’d never eat them again.  However, when I started shopping for this trip, I discovered a new range of vendors had popped up selling gourmet, vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, and otherwise fancy-schmancy dehydrated backpacker food.  Among them are Alpine Aire, Outdoor Herbivore, Backcountry Pantry, and Good to Go.  The old standard, Mountain House, is also still around.  The flavor and variety has vastly improved and I’d recommend these.  The benefit of the dehydrated food is primarily that it’s pre-made, so it’s easy to prepare, and doesn’t require as much fuel as other options.  You just bring water to boil, pour it into the bag, seal it, wait, and eat.  The down side to these meals is that they are bulky to carry and the used empty package is also bulky.  Note that at high elevations (such as the elevations at which we hiked this entire trip) requires doubling the soak time of all the meals.  We waited between 20 and 40 minutes for the dinners to reconstitute – that’s long enough to cool off.  We emptied the reconstituted dinners into our cook pot and reheated for just a few minutes before serving.

I’d highly recommend bringing along ingredients to supplement the dinners.  For example, try cheese, tortillas and croutons.

One last note, make sure to stir up and crunch up (with your fingers if necessary) the dry food before adding water.  Then, make sure to mix well with the water or you’ll end up with pockets of dry unhydrated foods in the corners and on the bottom.  Take a long handled spoon to mix – the packages are deeper than the typical camp spoon.

Backpacker’s Pantry:  The food was very good and we liked the flavors and consistency of both the Charros Beans & Rice and the Vegetable Lasagna.  However, the company needs to work on the package seals – they were hard to get closed.

Good to Go:  The Indian Korma we tried was my favorite meal of the trip.  The seasonings were fantastic and strong and the beans tasted and looked almost “real”.

Mountain House:  The dinner we tried was fine, but was the least favorite of the dinners for all of us.  The flavor was adequate, but the dinner was less filling and the quantities didn’t seem as substantial as the others.

Alpine Aire:  We liked the Mountain Chili, but it took a long time to reconstitute (40 minutes at high elevation).  Nonetheless, I’d recommend this dinner.


Outdoor Herbivore:  While the Waldorf Salad wasn’t my favorite of the dehydrated foods we sampled, I’d definitely eat it again.  It was a nice treat to have something to mix and eat for lunch on the trail.  Depending on the source of your water, the salad comes out almost cold.  It would also be good for breakfast or as a side dish for dinner.  Outdoor Herbivore makes a couple of other salads that I’ll eventually try.  Follow the instructions carefully and measure the amount of water.  I guessed at the amount and the sauce came out a little watery.  As a side note, we tried a couple of other dinners (Lickety-Split Lentils) for car camping later on the same vacation and they were also good.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Root Glacier, Alaska


I have lived near Alaska's glaciers for twenty years.  My living room windows look east and south and when I am sitting in my chair, like I am now, I count ten glaciers that inhabit the hanging valleys above town.  When I was younger, I worked at a visitor center dedicated to educating people about glaciers.  Every afternoon I led hikes to the face of the glacier, explaining their history, their movements, and the associated geological features – u-shaped valleys, moraines. 

But, glaciers scared me.  They were foreboding and cold.  Slick and dangerous.  Unstable.  Stories circulate around Alaska about tourists who got too close to a glacier only to be crushed when a huge piece of ice fell on top of them.  And of inexperienced people who slid into a bottomless crevasse, with a caveat that the next time they will be seen will be in two hundred years when their body is expelled by the glacier.

I was happy to view glaciers from a distance.

Matt, my husband, guide, and traveling companion, sees them differently.  All winter, he skis up and down and across glaciers.  He has done expeditions that take in multiple glaciers in a single trip.  To him, they are pathways to the high country.  At times, as we’ve trekked through Alaska’s backcountry he will say to me, “If we just had a piece of rope and crampons, we could cross this [glacier filled] valley and get to that beautiful ridge [or bowl]”.  In your dreams, I would think. 

But then, last spring, we started talking about glaciers as we planned a trip to Iceland.  Ice Land.  Land of Ice.  Matt had the idea that we should hike on glaciers there, and when he showed me pictures of the glaciers, they were like contact lenses covering an eyeball.  No crevasses.  No looming, leaning, craggy ice wall to navigate.  It began to look like something I might be willing to try.

He bought us matching crampons with tidy orange stash bags from Black Diamond and we took them with us to Iceland.  Where we did not use them.

 Back at home, as we unpacked the crampons, Matt suggested we try them out on a day trip here in Alaska.  The sun was shining.  I was in a good mood.  I said ok.  We settled on the Root Glacier, a body of ice that sweeps out of the Wrangell mountains and includes an intimidating section about eight miles up the valley called the Stairway Icefall.  The approach, he told me, was not rugged.  The glacier, he said, was flat.

Thus, it came to be that, on a gorgeous June Saturday during what turned out to be the sunniest summer in Alaska’s recent history, I sat on a mushy gravel moraine at the foot of the Root, fitting my crampons onto my hiking boots.  The crampons are one-size-fits-all and require the user to fit them to the boot – similar to old fashioned roller skates.  Then, you criss-cross the straps and hook them into place around your ankle.  They are somewhat rigid, but allow the foot to move relatively naturally. 

We headed up the glacier carrying day packs and wearing hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, and standard hiking clothes.  I used ski poles for stability.

My cleats sunk reassuringly into the ice as I took my first step onto the glacier.  I tested my traction.  My foot held.  I took another step – both feet on the ice now – I wasn’t slipping at all.  I took another two steps, then four, then we were off, heading up the smooth pebble strewn apron of the Root.  The sun was bright and the sky brilliant blue.  Shallow rivulets of melt-water ran downhill, trickling peaceably.The glacier climbed gently up the eroded face and then leveled off as we reached the main body.  Here, the glacier spread out ahead and to both sides, undulating, blinding, magnificent.

 

We wondered across the Root in a northeasterly direction, heading generally toward Mount Blackburn and the Stairway Icefall.  The Root, like all glaciers, is like a river.  It has a point of origination, like a river’s headwaters.  The Root’s source is the great ice fields of the Wrangell peaks.  The ice pours out of the fields and then, like a waterfall, cascades over the steep mother rock under the Stairway.  We wanted a closer look.



I kept getting distracted from the grand views of mountain peaks and rock walls around us by the micro features.  I was enchanted by dime-sized holes where a tiny black rock that once lay on the surface had heated up enough to melt its way a foot down – a tubular hole that I could have slid a pencil into up to its eraser.  Frisbee-shaped indentations held ponds of blue water.  The ice sported stretch marks.  Angled pockets appeared in the ice and I knelt to peer inside.

 


As we walked further up-glacier, the terrain became more varied.  I thought that glacier travel was really just like all our backcountry treks – we follow the land’s contours, up and down, avoiding obstacles. 


On the Root, a rushing creek formed a braided channel that blocked our way.  We made our way down into the creek’s bed at an oxbow, jumped across – barely making the other bank without getting our feet wet, then climbed back out of the drainage to a bench.  We circumnavigated a deep funnel-shaped hole filled with sapphire water.  I stood at the edge of a columnar pit with water gushing into it from the surface, gravel plinking against the icy walls.  I could not see the bottom.



Several miles into our hike, we encountered the medial moraine.  To me, it looked like a paved walkway.  The rocks that made up the moraine were mostly flat shards that ran uniformly and conveniently another mile up valley.  We took off our crampons and continued our walk. 



The day was giving way to evening.  The moraine had petered out and the Stairway Icefall lay ahead, an imposing tongue of jumbled ice.  We turned around and headed back to the foot of the Root. 



Under my feet, the glacier was solid like the earth.  It did not give or quake or crumble as I walked.  It was like the mountainous terrain all around -- changing, but ever so slowly.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mayor's Midnight Sun Half Marathon, Anchorage, AK

On what turned out to be one of the rainiest days in Anchorage this year, my sister, Saree, and I braved rain, mud, and wind to finish the 2014 Mayor’s Half Marathon.  Fun it was not, but lucrative it was--together we racked up plenty of unbudgeted misery points in a fitness contest with our relatives.

Last fall as our motivation to exercise waned, several of my family members, including me, two of my sisters, our cousin, and my sister’s daughter-in-law hatched a plan to create a game in which, based on an elaborate matrix of achievements, we would earn points toward a reward vacation.  Each of us determined our own goals at the beginning and then dug in as the months ticked by.

When Saree and I struck out on the Mayor’s Half, she’d already earned points by competing in the Tour of Anchorage ski race, Gold Nugget and Eagle River Triathlons, Alaska Run for Women, Ski for Women, and the Bike for Women.  I’d netted points for the Tour of Anchorage, two 5K runs in Valdez, and the Gold Nugget.  Paige had brought home points for the Campus 5K in Pullman and a sprint tri in Lewiston, Idaho.  Our cousin Gay and my niece-in-law, Emi, who both live in Texas, socked away points for running the Armadillo 5K and then Emi powered on to run several more 5Ks including the Blue Bonnet, Color Run, and Run for Zero in which she took a 3rd place finish.  Along with all those points we were scoring, we all nabbed what we termed “misery points”.  This term was coined by several of us a few years ago when we were training as a team to ride the 200-mile Fireweed bike race – the hours of riding in wind and rain and pedaling up long hills to build our leg muscles led to the concept of misery and discomfort being something worth acknowledging like badges of honor.  For our 2014 fitness challenge, we assigned actual points to pain and agony and to date all of us had earned our share.  Weather, hills, participating in events for the first time, competing in events alongside men (sorry guys, but you can be intimidating) all helped us ratchet up our points.

Early on, I knew that we had a good chance of bringing home some misery points from the Mayor’s Half Marathon.  Not only was it the first time either Saree or I had done this event (cause for stress-related agony), but seven days before the event, rain was being forecasted for the solstice weekend.  One evening after I had finished a training run, my husband, Matt brought his Mac over to show me the satellite image.  “It’s going to be drenching rain,” he said almost gleefully.  He is the original weather geek, so for him this was exciting news – for me, not so much. 

As I flew over to Anchorage on Friday afternoon, the sun was shining.  I looked out over Cook Inlet from my seat on the plane and could clearly see the Alaska Peninsula’s volcanic summits white against the horizon.  It was a beautiful day across Southcentral Alaska.  Yet, the forecast was still predicting bad weather for Saturday’s run.  And, indeed, while Saree and I were enjoying dinner with our parents in Eagle River Friday night, the storm came in with alarming power lead by thunder, lightning, and pounding rain. 

By Saturday morning, the thunder and lightning had dissipated, but the wind had increased and the skies poured rain—drenching rain.  We headed to the start line after having waited in the car until the last possible moment and found a small crowd of runners huddled under an office building awning.  We waited a few more minutes with this group, watching the cottonwood tree limbs billowing in the gale and listening to the Star Spangled Banner sung by a trio of men.  When the mass of runners started to move, we eased away from our shelter and merged into the street.

There were 1800 runners in the Half Marathon, despite the weather conditions.  We bobbed and jogged toward Turnagain Arm and the Coastal Trail, forming a rainbow-colored undulating ribbon.  My fellow runners were dressed in typical running gear – jackets, headbands, t-shirts, some in shorts—and a surprising number wore Hefty garbage bags with cut-outs for their arms and neck.  Saree and I, having grown up in Ketchikan, thus being experienced in the art of staying dry, were perplexed by this strategy.  Wearing a garbage bag is like creating your own personal sauna – what moisture the bag keeps off you, it makes up for in the sweat it produces.  Bizarrely, some runners wore their bags the entire 13.1 miles.

The streets were packed with runners for the entire first mile and it was several hundred yards down the Coastal Trail before we started to spread out and everyone settled into their pace for the long haul.   I had run the half-marathon distance on a couple of occasions in the distant past, but in recent years mixed it up with swimming, cycling, and short-distance running.  When I started planning my 2014 events, I penciled in the Mayor’s Marathon.  I had looked at my calendar and the sixteen weeks prior to June 21st looked clear enough to give me time to train.  I started out strong, but when I hit long-runs of 10 and 11 miles, my will to run 26.2 took a nose dive – way too much time pounding along on pavement to count as fun.  I quickly adjusted my plan to the Half Marathon, which was fine except that it meant I’d have to make up for the point differential somehow.  I needed misery points.

The rain pelted the herd of runners for three miles along the Coastal Trail, but the lining of shrubs and trees offered some protection from the wind.  I warmed up nicely and was running along at my race pace comfortably on the mostly level path.  My mind wandered:  I pondered the garbage bags a bit more, enjoyed the misty view of the tidelands, became familiar with the men and women who were going to be in my pack – I identified them by their hair, their clothes, their strides.  Then, we turned onto a long open road behind the Ted Stevens International Airport and left all form of protection behind.  We now ran straight into a howling headwind and driving rain.  I could barely hear the sound of the jets taking off to our left over the accursed storm.  At mile 6, my forearms were numb even though I had pulled my hands into my sleeves and was shaking my arms out every few strides.  I tucked my head down and kept running thinking the faster I ran the faster I’d get back to the Coastal Trail.  About a mile later, I gratefully reached the water-station at the turning point.  Volunteers dressed in full water-proofed-regalia stalwartly distributed plastic cups of water and Gatorade.  There was no question that those volunteers were the heroes of the day – they had the absolute worst possible location and were as cheerful and helpful as anyone we passed.  I thanked them adamantly as I turned into the forest – thrilled to be out of that wind.  Misery points, I chanted, lots of misery points.

Yet, I wasn’t quite finished earning points.  We were now on a cut-off trail that connected the paved road behind the airport to the Point Woronzof section of the Coast Trail.  While it was protected from wind, it had received its fair share of rain and overnight had turned from what was presumably a pleasant dirt path into a mile-long mud chute.   There was an immediate and nearly impenetrable bottleneck of runners slipping and sliding down the steep single track.  Some people simply stood stunned at the top of the chute trying to calculate their first steps.  Others tried to tiptoe down, arms circling like propellers to stay upright.  Still others catapulted down the center, mud-be-damned.  I took a deep breath and ran through a clump of people who were hesitating at the top, stayed to the margin where there was a modicum of grass for traction, slid like a snow-boarder down some of the steepest mud, and somehow stayed standing the entire way.  At the bottom, I stamped my shoes to rid the the soles of clotted mud.  Well, more misery points for me, I smiled.

The last half of the race was almost pleasant – save the fatigue that settled into my legs somewhere around mile 11.  The rain let up, I dried out, and the wind relented.  The clouds lifted and I saw fresh snow accumulated on the Chugach mountains.  Runners were cheery.  A woman with a beautifully consistent stride passed me and I kept pace with her for a mile.  My mind wandered again, aimlessly.

Soon we rounded the corner at Westchester Lagoon and there was one more obstacle to reach the finish line – a solid uphill leading all the way into the corral.  I was ready for one more challenge, so took the hill as strongly as I could muster, passed under the arch, and claimed my finisher’s medal.

I cooled down, stretched out, and then headed back to the car where I knew a fuzzy blanket, PBJ, hat, fleece pants, and dry socks waited.  There, I could tally up my misery points.