Sunday, December 30, 2012

A Merryish Christmas

Well, another Christmas has come and gone. I guess it's still the "holiday season" since we haven't reached New Years yet, but I'm glad the flurry is winding down.

Last week on Wednesday and Thursday, I helped set up for the Fremont Art Council's "Feast of the Winter Solstice." The feast is a huge community potluck featuring local art, live music, dance performances, and a solstice ritual. It was quite an undertaking to transform an empty warehouse into a beautiful, festive celebration space. Volunteers decorated like crazy, hanging chandeliers, banners, and lanterns, making a tea-room/chill area, painting a Mayan mandala on the floor, setting up a stage and altar, and hanging cedar boughs EVERYWHERE.

When I got there Friday after work, I couldn't believe how lovely and ambient the completed space was. There was a massive amount of food- even taking tiny spoonfuls, I couldn't try everything. (Photos by Matt Freedman)

But while all this was happening, my mind was on my brother and his family over in Spokane. His girlfriend was less than 7 months pregnant, but we had just found out that day that they needed to deliver the baby early due to preeclampsia. It was shocking, to think they were expecting two more months to get ready for their first child, but instead would be parents to a preemie at 7:30 that night. I kept checking for updates, and was so relieved to learn that both the baby and her mom were doing well. (Photo by Keshia Yvette Clements)
Both my brother and his girlfriend seemed so brazenly positive, and sometimes maybe that's all you can do. You love what you love, even when it's not perfect or what you originally envisioned. I found it very comforting that she was born on the Winter Solstice, as if the universe was saying, "It doesn't get any darker than today! There are SIX months of coming light, and you're going to be fine little lady!"

At this time of year there is a lot of hope, optimism, and sense of abundance. We make so much food! We give to local charities! Presents sit piled under the tree! We will make awesome changes in the New Year! Maybe that's why, when things aren't looking so grand, they feel especially painful. Scarcity and inequalities stand out in harsh, harsh contrast. I almost started crying seeing the homeless man asking for spare change on the corner.

That weekend, a lot of old high school friends were back in town for Christmas. I met up for beers with one who recently moved to the east coast. We were reminiscing about high school, and she said how hard it was for her. "I didn't really have any friends coming from a different school... but I guess I hid it well." She talked about eating lunch alone in the library, at the end of a row of stacks. And how being seen by other students was like a mutual confession- they had "caught" you, but they were there too in their loneliness.

After that I headed to a bar in Greenwood to meet a big clan of old friends and acquaintances. I didn't feel like drinking- maybe the trippiness of the reunion was enough mental altering. I wanted to catch up, and was curious how people were doing, but really didn't want to make small talk. I wanted to joke and dance and sing along to the karaoke. It was like being back in the mid-to-late nineties, with people singing Weezer and the Offspring and Alanis Morissette. There were so many memories wrapped up in those melodies. Then a group sang "What's Up?" by 4 Non Blondes, and the whole bar was belting out the chorus.

And so I cry sometimes when I'm lying in bed
Just to get it all out what's in my head
And I, I am feeling, a little peculiar
So I wake in the morning and I step outside
I take a deep breathe and I get real high
And I scream at the top of my lungs
"What's going on?"

Even though that song was a favorite way back in middle school, you're never too old to sing your heart out. I had already had a sore throat and now it was worse. But something had been released. On Monday I worked early, barely able to talk, then went running, then had to run errands. I really didn't want to drive around in the Christmas Eve madness, but I had forgotten to get strawberries and I REALLY wanted to make these little santas. (Photo by Cheyenne Vollrath)
By the time I got home and showered and made a big salad, I was exhausted. But I drove out to Lynnwood and tried the best I could to be festive. My family has a tradition of singing in a circle around the Christmas tree, and the force of tradition is strong. So strong that I couldn't allow myself to NOT sing, despite my seriously pained throat.

On Christmas morning, I had a nice time at my mom's house with my step-dad and brother. It was the smallest Christmas morning I've ever had though. I have 5 siblings, and am used to most of them being there, along with their partners/spouses and kids. This year, by comparison, it felt empty and disjointed. All of us kids are getting older, having more kids, and wanting time with that new nuclear family. So I guess it is just the natural progression of things, but it means traditions are changing. And that's hard, especially at Christmas. I read a great NY Times article called Our Family Christmas, Rescinded about that, though more about the mom changing tradition than the kids. It had some lines that were spot-on:

We want our comforting traditions to stay suspended in sap while our families constantly revise their understanding of us like software that updates automatically. Instead, traditions crumble and nostalgia yields to melancholy, but our identities, to our families, are as fixed and stagnant as fossils behind glass.
Anxious to demonstrate how mature and flexible we’ve become, we return to our birthplaces and we’re cut down to size, encountered as predictable once again. Disappointment and longing well up on a last-minute trip to the shopping mall...

And so I tried my hardest to be flexible and accept change. I sorely missed my sisters but also remembered that it was a blessing to have sisters I loved so much. And I remembered my friend Lindsey's advice from years ago: "Seriously Amber, you don't have to make everything so goddamn symbolic!" On one hand, Christmas is just one lavish day of the year, and any complaints about it sound like First-World problems. On the other hand, it holds place as some sort of family litmus test or functionality microcosm, so anything going wrong feels cataclysmic on a bigger life scale. But I'm taking this Merryish Christmas for just what it is, feasts and tiny beautiful babies and scream-singing and not talking at all and crying and laughing and figuring out how to go up from here next year.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

This Little Light of Mine

Hanukkah just ended. It's almost Winter Solstice. Then right after that it's Christmas. This all means shopping and trees on top of cars and references to religions and slews of holiday parties and too many cookies and more stamp designs than usual at the post office. 

But what strikes me the most, and what these three holidays share, is the power of light. Remembering lights that miraculously burned longer than there was fuel for. Remembering that short, dark days will soon get longer. Remembering that a bright star led the way to a divine being in the most mundane setting. No matter what you believe, these holidays remind us of hope and light in the face of struggle and darkness. 

And let's face it, this is the time of year we need to be reassured. Between the cold, the dark, the holiday pressures, and the excessive sugar consumption, I've been feeling a bit out of balance. I'm trying to enjoy the moment and get in the holiday spirit, so I've finally been doing a little more cooking. I had never made challah, but got inspired to make my first loaf when I went to a friend's Hanukkah dinner. I saw their cute baby, and we lit the menorah and they sang songs and we had a delicious meal in good company.
A couple days later, my roommates and I hosted a holiday potluck, the theme: booze-infused food. That's right folks, only foods containing some amount of alcohol. Best potluck idea ever, right? There was pasta with a vodka-spiked veggie tomato sauce; porter-boiled hand-made family-farm sausages; chips with tequila salsa; steak, onion, and brussel sprouts in a red-wine reduction; and lots of desserts. I made these Coconut Ganache Bourbon Balls, and some one else made an incredible Whiskey Chocolate Mousse.

It was actually the first time we've had a joint gathering with friends of all 4 of us roommates. People mixed and mingled, drank and ate, and we all had a great time. But other nights, things don't always go so well. I've wanted to go to Santarchy (organized pub crawl of people in Santa costumes) ever since I first heard about it last year. The day came, and I had no one to go with. Every one was busy or not interested or out of town, so being the independent and willful lady that I am, I decided to go alone. I went to a family dinner, and by the time I got downtown in costume it was toward the end of the event. But Santas were still around, so I went into the designated Pike Brewing Company sure that I would meet people to talk to. 

I stood at the bar waiting to get a beer. And waited. And waited. It would have been fine if I were with friends, but being by yourself when every one else has been drinking since noon, and it's too crowded to get a drink after 15 minutes, just isn't a rockin' good time. Just then, one of my best friends who lives in Austin called. We've been playing phone tag and trying to talk for awhile, so of course I had to answer. I walked over to a stairwell away from the bar where it was a little quieter, and got engrossed in conversation. Life paths. Changing friendships. Love. Money. Passion and purpose and careers. We talked about everything as I sat there alone in that stairwell, dressed as Ms. Claus while groups of drunk Santas stumbled past. Yep, I drove all the way downtown, in costume, to talk on the phone.

At that point I wasn't interested in going back to the bar, so I headed to a friend's Holiday Party. It was a wonderful party as usual, but my heart wasn't really in it. I was tired of trying to do everything alone. I got disparaged for bringing my own beer ("Uh, you really brought store-bought beer to a party with homebrew?" *rolls eyes at me*). There was a solstice ritual by the fire, and I didn't even have it in me to sing along to the song. Not because it wasn't a great song, or great people coming together in a great way in community. But because it just wasn't MY community. The words from a David Whyte poem popped in my head, the last few lines from Sweet Darkness

You must learn one thing:
The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
Except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
Confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or any one
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

So I went home. I reflected on the good phone conversation and watched a movie and drank tea and that was just the Saturday night I wanted. I'm accepting the darkness, the introspection, the uncertainties. I'm also looking for my beacons. I'm being as honest as I can. I'm smiling at Christmas lights, the unspoken, collective lifting. I'm trying to shine whatever light of my own that I can manage.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Thankful for Orcas Island

On Friday after Thanksgiving, Matt and I headed out of town. I lived on Orcas Island in the San Juans for a year and a half, but hadn't been there since last year when I did a triathlon. It seemed like the perfect place to go for a mellow, rainy fall weekend. As we drove into the main city of Eastsound, I had to stop to check out Island Hoppin' Brewery. It just recently opened, and is the first and only brewery on the island. We got a sampler of each beer, ranging from Pilsner to Stout. My favorites were the American Wit and Blackcurrant Cider, and apparently sometimes they have a barley wine which I wish I could have tried.
Then we drove to the east side of the island to check in to our cabin at Doe Bay Resort and Retreat. If you've never been to Doe Bay, it's a great spot. Accommodations range from camping to yurts to cabins to a big retreat house. They have outdoor soaking tubs and a sauna in a beautiful wooded setting. The cafe serves original, delicious food with an emphasis on local and organic ingredients. In fact, they have a large garden on-site and grow a lot of their own produce. We enjoyed an amazing dinner of local greens salad, bay scallops in a cider reduction, and barely-crisped oysters in Parmesan broth, all while listening to live music from Bradford Loomis.

On Saturday morning we drove to Moran State park, and Matt dropped me off at Mountain Lake. I ran the 4.5 miles around the lake while he took photos up at Mount Constitution. That is one of my favorite places ever to run- good distance, gentle hills, gorgeous view, and in the off-season there is virtually no one there. I ran passed just one woman. Back at Doe Bay, we had another fabulous meal- brunch of a local oil-poached duck egg with spicy greens over grits, and killer biscuits and gravy.

Then we headed to Eastsound to say hi to a couple old friends, drink coffee, and pick up a few groceries. Even though I've seen this view a million times, I will never stop enjoying the view from the beach downtown.
In late afternoon we hiked up Turtleback to catch the sunset.
That night we cooked dinner with a friend in his cabin in the woods. After wine and great conversation, we returned to Doe Bay for one more evening soak before bed. I wish we could have stayed later on Sunday, but we left early so I could get back to Seattle for some family functions. I was so thankful to be able to get out of the city and onto a beautiful island for a few days, but also thankful to return to home and family.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Channeling My Inner Katniss

Four years ago when I asked my stepdad if I could go along on his annual October hunting trip, he thought I was joking and started laughing. "Amber the vegetarian, hunting! Haha, good one!" he said. I had only recently starting eating red meat after 14 years of partial vegetarianism. I hadn't fired a gun in about 15 years. I don't even kill spiders (I put really big ones outside).

But I was serious. If I was going to eat meat, I wanted it to be local, healthily and happily raised (not the horrible conditions of conventional factory farming or CAFOs) and sustainably harvested. I also wanted to feel connected to the source and the process- not having meat be something only bought in a tidy, butchered package at the grocery store.

Turns out, other young people in America have had the same thoughts. Just a few weeks ago there was a NY Times article called "A New Breed of Hunter Eats, Shoots and Tells" by Dwight Garner about young urbanites hunting and writing about it.

"What feels counterintuitive and new here though is this: These writers have largely taken to hunting, they say, for ethical reasons. They’ve read their Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, their Peter Singer and Jonathan Safran Foer,and are intimate with the horrors of industrial meat production.
They no longer wish to have an anonymous hit man between themselves and supper. They want to thoughtfully stare their protein in the face, to take locavorism to blood-flecked new heights."
And so my step-dad and step-brother graciously had me along on my first hunt. Back in 2008 I just watched them- learned about tracking, stalking, and how to take a safe shot. Then how to field dress, skin, and butcher. The next year I took my first shot, getting a female mouflon (wild sheep). The next year I missed out while in Korea, then last year I went again. Fortunately I got another mouflon. Unfortunately, I was leaning in too close to the scope, and when I pulled the trigger, the kickback got me in the face. So my main goal this year was to NOT scope myself again.
I headed out to the Stuart Island in the northwest corner of the San Juan Islands with my step-dad and a couple of his friends. On Friday we tromped around in the woods, looking for the mouflon. (There is no season for mouflon, so they can be hunted any time of year.) We found a herd quickly, but they saw us too and didn't stay still long enough for us to take a shot. I also came across these jawbones in the forest.
Saturday was the opening day for deer hunting as well as winter crabbing. We put six pots out in the bay in the morning, then got ready to go back into the woods. Remember how we had an amazingly warm and dry early fall? Well, that second weekend of October, the switch flipped. It was pouring down rain. One problem with rain is that the animals are foraging less, and more likely to be bedded down and hard to see. Luckily we were still able to find one of the herds, though they were moving quickly and I never took a shot. Our friend, hunting separately from my step-dad and I, was able to get two mouflon. After we heard the shots we went to find him and help him field dress the animals. This is the male mouflon that he got.
They guys took the animals back to the cabin to hang and skin them, and I continued to hunt for a bit, but found nothing. I went back, wet and tired. We ate lunch, drank hot coffee, and warmed up by the wood-stove. Then we went out to check the crab pots.

It was the most surprising and interesting crabbing session I've ever had. The males that were keepers had a purple sheen to their shell, more than they do in the summer. There were several crabs missing legs or a claw which was really weird. One crab was missing all its limbs on one side! One female crab was giving birth, with thousands of little orange eggs coming out of her at that moment. "Sorry mama!" I said as I gently threw her back. One crab was growing back his claw so they were different sizes.
But the real shocker was pulling up a pot and finding that a shark had wedged his way in. I knew there were Sixgill sharks in our area, but had never seen one! We kept him just long enough to snap a picture before throwing him back.

By the time we got back to shore it was nearly 3pm. The guys were winding down for the day, but I still wanted to try to get a mouflon. I knew I didn't have much daylight left. One hard thing about hunting is that there is such time pressure- you travel a long way, buy hunting tags and bullets and game bags, take time off work... and then have a small window of time to find the wild creature. So if you don't get an animal, it's a lot of effort for nothing.

I decided to head out again on my own. My step-dad suggested going back to where we had started in the morning. I went into a bowl valley, then hiked out the steep wall of the hillside to one of the highest points where you can look down into the next valley over. I found a small herd of ewes, but they were on the run. I could see their general direction down the hill, but after I lost sight I had no way to know if they went left or right.

This is one of the most interesting parts to me about hunting- the combination of the guesswork, the tracking, the previous experience, and the gut instinct. I kept walking, trying to stay focused. Hunting can be incredibly mentally demanding, as you have to think about your every move. You have to stay aware and quiet and trust that you could find the animals at any second, even if it's been hours without seeing them. If you let your guard down and tromp thoughtlessly around a bend, that's invariably the moment when you will find the herd and scare them off. My boyfriend once asked me what was so appealing to me about hunting, and I tried to explain this all to him. "So... walking around in the woods in the rain for an indefinite amount of time, carrying a heavy gun, when you may or may not find anything?" he paraphrased. "No thank you!"

But I like the challenge along with the simplicity. I kept thinking of Katniss from The Hunger Games as I walked along. The small herd reappeared suddenly, running down the hillside, but then were gone again. I sat on a log wondering which way to go. My back hurt. The grey light would be usable for maybe another half hour. I decided to walk on the road back toward the cabin, where I would have a view into the woods on either side. I kept reminding myself to stay quiet and think about each step... then there they were, the small herd I had seen twice joined with another herd. They saw me but seemed less skittish as they tentatively continued grazing. It felt weird to fire a gun alone, but I couldn't miss this chance to take a shot. I steadied myself against a tree, telling myself to breathe and stay well away from the scope!

I shot a female mouflon who walked a short ways before dying. I hope it was as short and painless as possible for her. I said a prayer of thanks as I stood over her, full of gratitude. Then I jogged back to the cabin to get my step-dad. I have helped field dress, but have never done a whole animal by myself. He and his friend verbally walked me through it, and I did everything myself, getting out all the organs and blood as the body steamed its pungent smell into the cold dusk air. Then back in the shed at the cabin I skinned her so she could hang for several days.
Back at home I butchered the mouflon, for the first time not really needing any help. I cut some steaks, some thin slices for jerky, some chunks for stew, and a bit for grind. It was all nicely separated, but then in a labeling mishap did not get labeled properly. So now the meat is in the freezer, and I will gladly have you over for dinner to try it, though we may not know what cut of meat it is until it's defrosted.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Master Composter, Part 1: What is this Program? Plus, Zoo Doo!

In April I did the Master Composter/Soil Builder program through Seattle Tilth. So... what exactly does that mean?!

Once a year in the spring, Seattle Tilth partners with the City of Seattle to provide a 4-week, 28-hour compost training to 30 city residents. Here's a description on Seattle Tilth's website:

"The Master Composter/Soil Builder volunteer program is a key partner in Seattle's waste reduction and recycling efforts. We help city residents to recycle food and yard waste at their homes, build healthy urban soils, and support thriving landscapes throughout the city."

Over those four weeks, we received training on topics such as food scrap composting, hot and cold yard waste composting, basic soil science, compost biology, urban stormwater management, and proper sorting of compostables/recyclables/garbage. We met twice a week: weeknight evening classroom sessions, and then hands-on Saturday classes at the Rainier Beach Urban Farm and Wetlands.

It was an enjoyable and incredibly educational month of training. On the first day of class, we introduced ourselves and had a chance to hear why other volunteers were doing the program. There was a woman who was concerned that faith organizations weren't encouraged enough to compost, and wanted to help start a compost system at her church. There were several people who described themselves as in "IT recovery", recently quitting tech jobs and feeling drawn to get outside and get their hands in the dirt. There were landscape architects and Master Gardeners who wanted to broaden their knowledge. There was one man who admitted to having "really stinky compost and just wanting to know what to do." We ranged in age from our 20's to 60's, with a wonderfully diverse set of backgrounds and life experiences.

(Turing our compost pile on a drizzly Saturday)
So after all that training, then what? We have one year to do any kind of public outreach or education related to compost inside the city limits. It could be helping apartments get compost bins, setting up compost at a local P-Patch, teaching elementary school students how to separate their lunchroom compostables, writing articles for a newsletter, or teaching a community class. For me, I enjoy talking with the public at info booths, so I've volunteered at the Fremont Fair and Seattle Tilth's Edible Plant Sales and Harvest Fair. I also helped at one of the summer's Zoo Tunes concerts at the Woodland Park Zoo, which is a great way to see big-name acts (Los Lobos, Ziggy Marley, Melissa Ethridge, Rosanne Cash) while doing community service.

Most recently I volunteered on a pick-up day for Zoo Doo. Zoo Doo is the composted waste from herbivore animals at the Woodland Park Zoo. The nitrogen-rich doo is mixed with the carbonous bedding (woodchips or straw) already in the animals' cages, and voila! After six months you have a safe and nutritious locally-made compost. The WPZ has been making Zoo Doo for over 25 years. TWENTY FIVE YEARS! I think they were way ahead of their time in thinking about minimizing their waste, and the bonus is that it saves them tens of thousands of dollars annually in disposal costs. Win-win!

So now twice a year, in March and September, Seattleites can enter a drawing to win the chance to buy this compost. You have your choice of a compost which is good for veggies and annual flower beds, or a more wood-chip heavy mulch for perennials, shrubs, and fruit trees. Currently, if you enter the drawing for Zoo Doo, you have about a 50% chance of getting it. Then you come to zoo at your assigned time slot, and load up whatever amount you signed up for, either into a pickup truck, buckets, or bags.

There were landscapers, casual gardeners, and elementary groups starting school gardens. It was a fun event to help with, and I really enjoyed seeing Seattle residents so enthusiastic about using this great and unusual compost.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Day of the Dead

Happy Day of the Dead! Well, it was yesterday. It is one of my favorite holidays, though this year I was a bit tired and not up to my normal Day of the Dead preparations. Usually I make my own pan de muerto (dead bread), tissue paper flowers, and set up a little altar to honor family and friends who have passed on.

Luckily there was a community event hosted by the Phinney Neighborhood Association. It started with a procession around the neighborhood- Aztec dancers, a drummer, and families with little kids all tromping down the sidewalk in the pouring rain. I walked along, holding my electric candle, thinking a lot about my grandparents and my dear friend Eric, who died way, way too young a few years back and I still miss all the time. Back at the community center, there were more performances, dead bread, Mexican hot chocolate, and a community altar that people could add photos or remembrances of loved ones.

Did any one else out there celebrate Day of the Dead?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Honey Harvest

I started keeping bees for my first time in April. I know just enough to know what amazing little creatures they are and that there is still so much to learn. I did everything I knew of this year to keep them happy- good hive placement, feeding them sugar water, keeping a water dish filled, checking the hive regularly but not too often, adding new frames/boxes at the proper time, and planting flowers that they love in my yard. But even for super experienced and knowledgeable beekeepers, there is a good chance that your colony will die or swarm. I had a few moments of fear over the past few months, wondering if the hive was okay...

I haven't seen the queen in months! I saw the queen easily in the spring, when the hive was at about 10,000 bees. But later in the summer, the populations gets up to about 50,000, so she's harder to spot during a hive inspection. I saw signs that she was alive and well, such as larvae and young bees, so I had to just trust that.

There is comb being built below the frames! And when I removed the frame it ripped open the larval cells! Turns out that just happens sometimes.

The comb in the brood chamber (bottom box) used to be white, but now it's dark brown! Weird right? Nah, that's fine too. That comb is the oldest, so the bees have used it more and been walking on it. It just gets stained from wear and tear.

I saw my first swarm this summer while driving down Phinney Avenue. There was a dark cloud over the road about 20 feet in the air and I was like, "What IS that?" It wasn't until I was right underneath that I realized it was bees. "Oh my gosh, what if they are MY bees?!" I knew it was unlikely, but that didn't stop me from running into the backyard as soon as I got home just to make sure I saw activity at the entrance of the hive.

Thankfully, my bees never swarmed, and they are still alive and well in the hive. They made a solid amount of honey, though nothing in the fourth (top) box. The top box is traditionally the "super", or excess, or what you could safely harvest. Even in my novice calculations, I didn't think there was enough for me to safely harvest much honey this year. It is more important to err on the side of caution and leave plenty for the little ladies to get through the winter. Yes, we are already thinking about winterizing in bee world, as the nectar flow has vitually stopped with no flowers blooming, and bees don't leave the hive when it's below 55 degrees F. So as soon as our cold, wet fall weather hit, the bees started hunkering down and focusing on keeping the queen warm.

I did a hive inspection before this happened, to removed the top box and add a heavy sugar water to the inside of the hive. I also wanted to at least sample the honey, so I removed one frame that was only partially capped. (Bees build the comb, then make the honey in it, then when it's the perfect moisture content at 18%, they cap the comb cell so you know it's finished honey). Here you can clearly see the difference between the capped and open cells.

(Photos by Matt Freedman)

I also wanted to practice processing the honey since I've never done it before. I used a tool conveniently called a "capping scratcher" to scrape the caps off the comb. Then I let the honey drain out into a glass pan for a couple days. That left me with pure, raw honey with bits of wax in it, so I let that run through cheesecloth for another couple days. Now I have my first tiny jar of my own backyard honey!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Mount Saint Helens

Mount Saint Helens was the fifth highest peak in Washington state before it erupted in May of 1980. An earthquake triggered the eruption, which shot ash over 14 miles into the sky, collapsed the northern flank of the mountain, and created a debris avalanche that is said to the be the largest in recorded history. The Wikipedia article calls the eruption the "deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States." (Photo from Wikipedia, by Austin Post from USGS)
The massiveness of the eruption, combined with the fact that it happened two years before I was born, has always made the event somewhat mystical in my mind. I wish that I had been alive to see it. My dad tells me that he was working with my grandpa that day (my mom's dad), following his white carpenter van. They were driving down Wallingford Avenue in Seattle, around 40th, going downhill where you have a direct view toward Lake Union and Mount Rainier (on a clear day). My grandpa pulled over to the side of the road so my dad did the same. "What is it, Ed?" my dad asked, who hadn't yet seen the column of ash and smoke to the south.

I think part of what makes this natural disaster so striking is that it is still so visible today. When there are earthquakes or floods or hurricanes, they do damage, but then we clean it up and rebuild. But at Mount Saint Helens, the whole north side is still gone, it is still 1,300 feet lower, the mountain is still covered with ashy rubble scree, lahars flank both sides, forests are gone, and pumice is scattered throughout the area. 

I've always wanted to see these remnants, and peer into the smoking crater. From May through October, the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument limits climbers to 100 per day. Back in June, all the permits were already gone for every weekend until mid-September. Weekdays were full a few weeks ahead of time. The summer flew by and it made more sense to try to go after Burning Man, on a weekday in early October. Matt and I didn't want to get permits too far in advance because we didn't want to climb in the rain or if there wouldn't be a view. Luckily, the clear, dry weather was holding and we were able to get permits a couple days ahead of time. 

We had a pretty good idea what to expect from the trail description, the only advice different from other hikes being to bring gloves to protect your hands from the sharp rocks you have to climb over. We got a fairly early start, driving to the trailhead just after sunrise.
The climbing route is from the south side of the mountain, bringing you to the rim of the crater in five miles and 4,500 feet of elevation gain. The first two miles of the trail are on an easy, forested hiking trail. Then once you get above the tree line, the trail becomes wooden markers in the rubble. Sometimes it's a path, but mostly it's picking your own best route over rocks.
Other parts of the trail were gigantic boulders that you had to climb over. It was a constant puzzle figuring out the best route, and not climbing up a boulder that was going to be too steep to get down on the other side. Once that portion ended, it was an open ash-sand, which presented its own difficulties. Think about walking in sand, but on a steep slope. It was slow-going. Also, it was incredibly windy, possibly the windiest weather I've ever been out in. There were gusts at times of probably 40-50 mph. It made walking very hard, plus was painful to have the sandy particles pelted on your face. I had a face gaiter and Matt used a bandana. Luckily I had wrap sunglasses, but Matt had his prescription sunglasses so dust kept getting in his eyes. We both wished we had desert goggles, it was seriously that bad. We passed quite a few climbers who weren't prepared for such extreme weather and had turned around before the summit. Mostly they were too cold. Even those of us making it to the top would look at each other and say, "This is crazy!"

I've done longer and steeper hikes, but this was one of the hardest I've ever done. Partly due to the wind, and partly the fact that walking on volcanic scree is slow and mentally challenging. This hike would have been 10 times easier in the snow, and I would highly recommend doing it in the spring or summer before the snow has melted out. Not only is it less to navigate as you go up, but would obviously be a lot faster coming down to glissade, ski, or snowboard. Also, it turns out that hiking on ash is, well, ashy. Our clothes and backpacks were covered in the dust, and it makes you feel parched and dirty.

But all that aside, it was an incredibly beautiful early fall day to be out. There was a haze from the forest fires, but we could see Mount Hood on the way up, with Mount Jefferson just visible beyond it.
We finally made it to the top, and here you can see Mount Adams to the east poking out above the thick layer of smoke.
Here is the inside of the crater, looking directly north to Spirit Lake and Mount Rainier. In the picture you can't really see the smoke coming out of the crater or the glacier inside, but there was quite a bit going on in there. 
You could also see straight over to the Johnston Ridge Observatory which is the main interpretive center for the mountain. Since it is way on the north side we didn't have time to go there, but I definitely plan on going back to experience Mount Saint Helens from the other side.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Feasts of Fall

I was so busy this summer between working, going hiking on weekends, and getting ready for Burning Man, that I didn't get to do as much cooking and preserving as I would have liked. But now that fall is officially here, and harvests can't be put off any longer, I'm making up for lost time.

For example, I went from "Boy it would be nice to get my hands on some plums" to "OH MY GOSH I can't handle any more plums!" thanks to generous friends and parents sharing the bounty of their trees. Turns out a few grocery bags of plums go a long way. I pitted and froze a bunch, and did a couple rounds of canning plum chutney and sauce. I also made some plum desserts, mostly a tart recipe from my friend Maria which includes dried cherries and Grand Marnier.

I pulled out all the potatoes from the garden, and those will mostly just hang out in the basement until they get roasted, sauteed, or mashed. I did however grate a couple bags to freeze for quick hashbrowns, which I've never done before but seems like a good idea.
Hey, pop quiz! When is Mexican Independence Day? You might want to say Cinco de Mayo (May 5th) but think it can't be that obvious. If you've traveled much in Mexico, you probably noticed at some point that every city has a street named El Dieciseis de Septiembre (September 16th). That's because September 16th is Independence Day! Any idea what the traditional Independence Day food is? It's Chiles en Nogada, which is a dish of poblano chiles filled with shredded meat and spices and topped with a creamy walnut sauce and then pomegranates. I ate it years ago in Mexico and really liked it, and since then have always wanted to try to make it myself.

Unfortunately, in the years since I ate that dish, I've developed an allergy to tree nuts.

The second most common dish associated with Independence Day is mole, which I also love. Saying "mole" is sort of like saying "curry"- it's a sauce of many different ingredients, with a million different recipes and regional variations. During the multiple times I traveled in Mexico in 2005-2009, I ate as much mole as I reasonably could, from the dark brown Mole Poblano of Puebla, to the yellow and green Oaxacan moles. 

When I was studying abroad in college in Morelia, Michoacan, my friend Catherine's host mom asked me what my favorite Mexican food was. When I told her it was mole, she offered to make it for me and have me over for comida, the large afternoon meal of the day. I remember sitting around their table eating the delicious mole, thanking the host mom for making it. She repeatedly told me how much work it was: "He estado cocinando todo el dia! Mas que cuatro horas en la cocina!" (I've been cooking all day! More than four hours in the kitchen!) She wasn't put out or trying to make me feel guilty- just simply being matter-of-fact.

This year for Mexican Independence Day, I decided to finally try my hand at a version of mole. I found this recipe which I thought fit the bill, as it was 1) for Mole Poblano which is my favorite, 2) in Saveur which is reputable, and 3) by Rick Bayless, whose take on Mexican cooking for Americans I have long admired as authentic while still accessible. I hit up a local Mexican grocery store for the chiles, pepitas, tomatillo, tortillas, and chocolate. Then I began the long process of stemming and seeding the chiles, flash frying them in oil, soaking them in water, and toasting and grinding the spices by hand. Then I blended the chiles, soaking water, and chicken stock and strained it... and that was just the first day. 

On day two you fry a bunch of ingredients in the chile-infused oil: tortillas, peanuts (I left out the almonds), pumpkin seeds, and raisins. Then there is the whole process of sautéing the onions and garlic, adding spices, cooking the tomatillo and tomatoes, blending this batch, straining...
There was even more work after that, including an hour and a half of reducing and stirring, pan frying the turkey, AND THEN baking it all for another hour. I hadn't known exactly what I was in for when I started cooking, but the whole time I just kept remembering Catherine's host mom with new waves of appreciation.

Luckily, I was really happy with how the mole turned out. It tasted legit! I subbed chicken for turkey and it came out perfectly moist and so flavorful. Other Spanish-speaking friends came over for Independence Day dinner, which was really just an excuse to eat Latin-inspired food. Not only were they appreciative of the mole, but they brought delicious dishes of their own- fried plantains, beans with fresh queso blanco cheese, Spanish tortilla, goat cheese-stuffed dates, and hand-made tortillas. There is much more cooking to come this fall, though I think I'll wait awhile before taking on a recipe that involved.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Last weekend I was supposed to hike the Enchantments in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness of the Cascades. But there are huge forest fires burning right now in eastern Washington, and there are fires close to Leavenworth that have closed the trail. Even if the trail had been open, we would have postponed the trip, not wanting to do a huge hike in awful air quality and poor visibility. We rescheduled for two weeks from now, hoping the fires and air clear up by then. If not, we may have to put off the hike until next year.

Left with the weekend unexpectedly free, my honey and I decided to go to Whistler, BC. I had never been there! I don't ski or snowboard so I never had a reason to go in the winter. I thought about going to the Olympics in 2010, but I was getting ready to move to Korea and a bit deterred by the cost and the crowds.

There was plenty of lodging available with a few days' notice, and the weather was forecasted to be clear and warm. We left early Friday morning and had almost no wait at the border. Our condo was right in the heart of town, complete with a balcony and well-equipped kitchen. We had burgers and salads for lunch, then went to check out the ziplining tours. Neither Matt or I had ever been ziplining but were both curious to try, so we signed up for a trip that afternoon.
We had a lot of fun. The guides were very experienced and efficient, fitting us into harnesses while chatting away. They were also naturalists and explained a bit about the coastal temperate rain forest that we were in, and unique features of the flora and fauna. Some of the area was in was old growth forest, and at one point we were walking across a tree platform around a 700 year-old Douglas Fir, about 100 feet off the ground.

They started us on a short line, with each zipline getting progressively longer until the 5th one. It was a beautiful crisp evening as we zigzagged back and forth across the Fitzsimmons Creek, which separates Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. The last line literally takes you right back into the village.
Once the sun went down it got a bit chilly so we ducked in to the Longhorn for a hot plate of poutine (french fries, gravy and cheese curds) along with a local beer.

On Saturday morning I made us breakfast and coffee. There was a low cloud cover and we couldn't see the mountains at all. But we were determined to get decent views and a good hike in, so we hopped on the gondola up to Roundhouse.
It's quite a long way up, nearly a 25 minute ride. We went through the clouds and voilĂ ! came out on top of the world with the peaks sticking up through the white. It was quite a lovely sight.

From there there is a short walk and then the Peak Express chairlift to get to the very top of Whistler. Peak Express was closing the next day until ski season, making us realized just how well we timed this visit- it was the off season enough that prices were lower and places weren't as crowded, but still close enough to summer that it was warm and things were still happening.
From the top there are amazing views of the surrounding mountains. It sort of blew my mind that we were able to just ride to the top. But we smelled forest fire and couldn't help but notice a haze in the air. Were there forest fires in BC? We hadn't even thought to check. It wasn't until the next day that we found out the smoke we were seeing was from the eastern Washington fires! Here is a MODIS satellite image from the Cliff Man Weather Blog. You can see the big cloud of smoke, the the long arm going northwestward into Canada.
We set off on the High Note trail, a 6-mile hike around the back of Whistler, with views of unique peaks like this Black Tusk on the right. It could have been clearer, but otherwise the weather was amazing, warm but not hot, breaks of sun here and there.

I even went swimming in one of these little lakes, not bad for the first day of autumn! The trail took us back down to Roundhouse, where we caught the Peak to Peak gondola over to Blackcomb. We walked around more before taking the very last gondolas back down. We were a little tired and ready for a snack before dinner- yep, poutine and beer again.
On Sunday morning we rented full-suspension mountain bikes. We originally thought about doing downhill in the bike park, but it looked a little too intense and we didn't really want to take a lesson. Plus, as fun as it is to put your bike on a lift and just ride down, we were looking for more exercise than that. So we did a huge loop on some of the easy and intermediate cross-country bike trails, making our way up to Lost Lake on the Zappa trails (all trails named after Frank Zappa songs). We also heeded the very useful signage on the trails.
I wish I had been able to spend more time at the lake. Sunday it was clear and in the mid-70's, and I really would have liked to hang out longer and go swimming. But we had to get back on the road by a reasonable time. All in all, a really great weekend and a good intro to summer activities at the resort. It's not the type of trip I usually take, usually opting for wilder and less-developed places, but I'm glad I finally got to experience one of our area's gems.