We don’t even know where to start with this one. We have just returned from a two-week vacation in Alaska, and the prospect of adequately capturing the magic of the experience seems about as overwhelming as the state itself. You know that feeling you get when you’re on vacation, the one where you just keep looking around and thinking “How can I get more of this into my life at home?” Well multiply that by a thousand and you’ll get a taste of what we’re dealing with. Even though Alaska is now 4500 miles away and almost a full week behind us, we are still living on (and, in the case of our gravlax and halibut) dining on the memories.
We were lucky enough to be staying with our friends Jenny and Dan in and around Homer, a five-hour drive from Anchorage. (Dan is the man behind The Talent Code blog and book empire, and a big DALS favorite, as longtime readers know.) They have four kids and roughly seventeen thousand friends, so visiting them was like being folded into a giant family reunion, complete with glacier hikes, midnight beach picnics (it never gets dark in a Homer summer), and a weekend at the family camp, which was a long boat ride away, and the scene of, among other things, an epic Fourth of July party worthy of an entire post — no, an entire blog — in its own right. Actually, it would be easy to devote every DALS post for the rest of 2014 to this trip — that’s how much fun we had — but we have somehow managed to whittle it down to 21 rules, recipes, and stories from the Last Frontier. And because we don’t see our post-vacation high waning any time soon, you can be sure there will be some Alaska-inspired recipes coming down the pike later on this week as well. Trust me, you’re all in for a treat. — Jenny & Andy
21 Things We Loved and Learned in Alaska:
1. We don’t know how to do anything. People in Alaska, on the other hand, know how to do everything. And by everything, we don’t mean, like, caulk their bathtubs and install new wiper blades. We mean, like, build their houses and find water sources and install sewage systems and mill their own lumber and navigate stuff without getting lost or dead and clean fish and roast whole pigs and read tidal charts and tell edible plants from ones that will kill you and drive boats and not just fly planes but BUILD planes. (Yes, we met a guy who builds his own freakin’ planes, and he was awesome.)
2. Frosted Cherry Pop-Tarts are the perfect snack for a hike, particularly when eaten on the deserted shore of a glacial lake with bald eagles and sea planes flying overhead, and SUV-sized chunks of blue ice out there, melting slowly in the sun.
3. “There is always a lucky spot on the boat.” This is what Capt. Dan told us as we headed out to spend the afternoon fishing in the cold blue waters of Kachemak Bay. Capt. Dan is as trustworthy as they come, but we had our doubts: When you’ve got five lines in the water, how could one really be any better than the others? But sure enough, Phoebe and her new pal and fellow 12 year-old, Zoe, proceeded to spend the next two hours hauling in fish after fish — three halibut, between 15 and 20 pounds each (shown above) along with a few black cod — as the rest of us looked on. Later on this week, we’ll show you what everyone made with the day’s catch.
4. We’ve celebrated the Fourth of July in New York City, Cape Cod, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, DC, Long Island, and we are here to tell you: Alaska puts them all to shame. Head-to-toe red-white-and-blue ensembles, pig roasts, pillaged keg-er-ators, patriotic temporary tattoos, flag cake, and lots and lots of singing, including the state song, “Alaska’s Flag.” (You know your state song, right? Right?)
5. All in. There must have been sixty people at that Fourth of July party, but as far as I could tell, no one was nervous or fussy about the food or the prep or the clean-up. The reason for this is pretty simple: Everyone was expected to bring something to the party, literally. Whether that something is your signature quiona dish, your pig-carving expertise, your mad dishwashing skills, your violin, your bottle of Irish whiskey, or, in our case, your best barbecue sauce and slaw. The result? Think potluck on steroids.
6. Foolproof Alaskan conversation starter: “So, how’d you end up living in Alaska?”
7. Foolproof Alaskan conversation ender: “I don’t really like salmon.”
8. It’s Impossible to Get Sick of Salmon in Alaska. On our second day at camp, we received a special delivery down at the dock: A cooler of six beautiful 10-pound-ish sockeyes, dropped off by boat, and dropped off by the man who caught them himself. (This is taking “Know Your Fisherman” to a whole ‘nother level of the game.) Over the weekend — and into the following week — we ate: smoked salmon, pickled salmon, cured salmon, broiled salmon, salmon roe (on crackers, with sour cream and sriracha), grilled salmon, salmon spreads and salads of all shapes and sizes. And it was not nearly enough! This is salmon the way salmon is supposed to be — sweet, meaty, and deep, almost glow-y pink. We’ll be sharing some of our newly discovered salmon recipes in the very near future.
9. But We Will Start With this One. What do you do with your gravlax, besides putting it on a bagel slathered with cream cheese? Apparently, you put it on a a pizza or flatbread crust, slathered with sour cream, and you add some capers, fresh lemon juice, and dill and serve it as an appetizer, AND THE CROWD GOES WILD.
10. Here’s a 1200 page coffee table book we’re waiting for: The Trucks of Alaska (Abridged).
11. Sourdough is My Kind of DIY. I have never been a huge sourdough fan — even in San Francisco, I tried and failed to embrace it. I’m now thinking that maybe it’s because I never tried sourdough pancakes with homemade lingonberry jam and sour cream. Dan’s mother, Agnes, cranked out about 400 of these on the morning after the Fourth of July party, and Oh. my. God. you’ve never seen a happier kitchen. Alaska is as famous for its sourdough as San Francisco — Klondike Gold Rushers carried starter with them back in the 1800s — and because of this, you can always find an Alaskan talking about the 100-year-old heirloom starter sitting in their fridge at home. You know how much I love this kind of thing, so I decided to pick up a packet at a touristy gift shop, and, as of this post, my starter is officially two days old. (Only about 36,000 more days to go!) Here’s a link that gives a quick tutorial if you are making your starter from scratch. Give it a try, and check in later this week for the pancakes. For me to go to the trouble of making my own starter, you know they have to be killer. – JR
12. On the Other Hand, Not Everything Has to be DIY. On morning number two, breakfast was a platter of hot doughnuts, pressed into sugar or drizzled with maple cream. How does one do this for sixty people without having a nervous breakdown? One starts with store-bought bread dough, preferably Rhodes — which we had never heard of, but which is apparently available nationwide? How do you people not let us in on these things? (This recipe for Maple Cream looks legit, but I haven’t tried it yet.)
13. Don’t Live in Alaska? There is a very easy way to get good salmon (sockeye and king), shrimp, and halibut, delivered right to your door — for about as much as it costs you to buy the wild-caught stuff at the supermarket. Coal Point Seafoods is now on our speed-dial. Twenty pounds of the stuff just landed on our doorstep today.
14. Shooting at road signs is apparently a fun thing to do when out driving.
15. There is good jerky, and there is bad jerky.
16. If the only way to get to a restaurant is by boat, there’s a good chance that restaurant is going to a) be in Alaska and b) be worth the trip.
17. Sea Salt Makes an Excellent Souvenir. At all times during our stay in Homer, you could find a giant pot of seawater boiling down to sea salt on the stovetop. Jenny says she started making her own because she liked the idea of reuniting her freshly caught salmon with the essence of the sea where it had just been swimming. She was experimenting with lemon- and garlic-infused salts when we showed up, but the jar she sent us home with was simple and sentimental, boiled down from the waters of the Kachemak Bay. The best kind of going-away present.
18. The egg toss is an underrated party activity. And not just for the kids.
19. A shocking number of things taste better on Ritz crackers. Exhibit A: Halibut salad with a drop of Sriracha.
20. This is what a bathing suit in Alaska looks like.
You guys are so lucky to have friends in Alaska. I have always wanted to go and now I am more inspired than ever. Looks like such a wonderful trip for a family. Thank you for sharing.
We seem to be on the same vacation schedule as your family, only (lucky for us) we go a year after you! So after enjoying all your Paris ideas last year, now we can bookmark your fantastic Alaska tips for the trip we have planned for 2015. I can’t wait to see where you (and then we) go next!!!
This just makes me jealous. I want some of that salmon! Please tell us if the flash frozen stuff measures up, because I just might have to order some. Also, Those 4th of July outfits are real? So great.
My husband (who is dying to visit Alaska again) has been telling me #15 for years and my father #19.
Alaska is amazing! Looks like such an awesome trip. Also.. Rhodes dough! My family lives on the stuff. Cinnamon rolls, pizza dough, sandwich roles: all Rhodes. For donuts, however, my mom always semi-homemade them using canned biscuit dough!
How beautiful your trip looks! I love the pacific northwest so much, especially Alaska. The fish is heavenly.
Rhodes dough is amazing! I use it for “homemade” bread and pecan rolls. Your trip looks incredible!
I love this! And I have to comment on Rhodes frozen dough. It is the best. It’s readily available in the western states and we used to thaw it and then fry it in vegetable oil and call them scones. They are better than donuts, but you can treat them the same way: drizzle with sugar, jam, or honey. So delicious.
wow super scenery and great foood
Rhodes is available nationwide…technically. There are areas where you can only get it on the second Saturday after every other blue moon (or at Christmas). I found out when I got married that my in-laws were slightly odd partially because of Rhodes dough. If any family member finds it, particularly the sweet dough, there is a mad texting and haggling because the discoverer usually buys the store out. This happens over state lines and people have been known to take an extra coolers on family visits.
I’m so, SO happy your family had a wonderful time in Alaska. Sounds like you had the very best guides. Fun to think that you were our “neighbors” (we live near Palmer, a bit north of Anchorage) for a couple weeks. Homer is a treasure, and the surrounding area is amazing. Did you get to Two Sisters Bakery in Homer, or sample some of Homer Brewing Co.’s beer? I can’t wait to hear more of your adventures!
It is overwhelming to try and recap a trip like the one you took — I just got back from England & Italy and ended up just posting my most favorite pictures with hardly any descriptions. Too hard! I love your lessons learned in Alaska — especially the Rhodes dough. Already on my shopping this list this week, so fingers crossed that it’s in stock!
Beautiful photos. My husband did work in Anchorage. He has been trying to go back with me ever since. I cannot wait.
This looks like an absolutely amazing trip that your family will not soon forget. Thank you so much for sharing. I look forward to the Sourdough Pancakes recipe.
Think potluck on steroids. <Sounds like so much fun! I'd love to visit Alaska, it looks so beautiful and it seems that people who live there are generally easygoing and value living life at a different pace.
You visit my sister’s town, stay with her friends, and go to the same July 4th party, and I find out from you, not her! What a small world. Homer is the best summer vacation spot ever.
Um – can you introduce us to your friends??
I loved reading your 21 things – you covered the spectrum! I’m a MN girl, now living in CA for the past 15 years. My husband and I did an AIDS bike ride from Fairbanks to Anchorage (talk about a marriage tester) and were privileged to camp one night at the AK State Fairgrounds! EVERYTHING is big there – and coming from MN where veggies grow big, near-24-hr daylight sure takes “big” to a new level! Hope you continue to enjoy big adventures!
Alaska is amazing! My brother lived in Seward and is now in Sitka. If you are in Alaska again near the Fourth of July, you should check out Seward. Every year they hold the Mt Marathon race where people run from downtown Seward, up a mountain and back down. The attempt is to do it in under an hour.
Hey …wait a minute!!!! I’m not allowed to say I don’t like salmon (I don’t…blech) but you can say you don’t like sourdough???!!!??? The stuff of heavenly toast, grilled cheese, bruschetta etc. etc. etc. I guess we can’t be friends after all.
We just got back from Alaska as well and it was wonderful to be reminded of the many great things we experienced through your blog post. Had salmon last night — it just wasn’t the same. At. All.
i am swooning over your post…swooning! i loved every single part of it..thank you for sharing.
This may be your best post ever
The flag outfit behind the cake – I laughed out loud
You can’t make it up.
Oh, I love this! I don’t know much about Alaska, but this makes me want to go. It looks stunning.
What an incredible list! Trip of a lifetime. Can’t wait to hear more!
So glad you guys had such a wonderful time! It looks amazing!
I was hoping you tried sourdough pancakes! That starter looks about like mine, which I got from my grandmother. It’s useful for lots of things, but I mostly use it for pancakes. They’re hearty enough to freeze in a big ziplock and pop in the toaster for breakfast during the week. Looking forward to your post on them!
Isn’t Alaska great? I feel like I get sensory overload when I go there, my brain can’t process all of that amazingness. The glaciers, waterfalls, mountains, people, food….so good! Glad you had a chance to visit 🙂
I love this!! I live in Alaska (near Anchorage) and was just in Homer with my family a few weeks ago. Your observations are spot-on! We’re a quirky bunch, for sure 🙂 I can’t wait to see what your recipes are that come from this trip. We have about 70 lbs of Copper River salmon in the freezer and I’m always looking for new ways to prepare it.
What an incredible trip! I loved reading this post, so inspiring. I’m in awe of the gorgeous surroundings, and I can just feel the blissful vacation vibe from your photos! Thanks for sharing!!
Spooky! I was born and raised in Alaska, and the Coyles were good friends of my older sisters growing up. I often find it hard to describe the magic of Alaska, and although I don’t live there anymore I know how special a place it is. BUT, I don’t like salmon. [Ducks.]
I like to have gravlax as simple as possible, but gravlaxsås/hovmästarsås really makes it sing.
Here’s a recipe in english.
Sourdough is the bomb. Looking forward to the pancake recipe. Sourdough waffles are also wonderful – crispy and just slightly tangy under the maple syrup. And they freeze well for breakfasts on the fly. I can give you a great recipe if you’re interested. Loved this post.
Loved reading about Alaska – how lucky to have close friend to go visit like that. Thanks for sharing. Loved the 21 things- great way to share. Especially loved hearing about the 4th of July.
I’d say you did a fantastic job of sharing the Alaskan majesty with us, I can’t wait to go there for a visit with my family one day. I especially love all the pics on and around the water.
We just got back from a month in Alaska. There is nothing like a 4th in Alaska it is just one big party across the state. The other thing I love that everyone shares there bounty every time we turned around someone would be offering us fresh king crab or we would be offering them shimp. Did you do any berry picking?
Oh, this brings back so many sweet memories from a similar trip our family did 15 years ago. We cruised to Alaska on our own boat from Australia, and it was sooooo worth the long passages: can’t recall how much salmon and dungeoness crabs we ate, the generosity and resourcefulness of the Alaskan people was (still is) phenomenal… and the scenery!!! Would love to go back. Thanks for sharing!
Okay, that’s it, next vacation must be to Alaska, sounds incredible!
Homer is my home town and I know I am lucky for that but it’s always fun to hear other people’s perspective on this very wild and beautiful place. So happy that you found it so enjoyable!
When I was 18 my family took a 2 week vacation in Alaska with backpacks and tents, taking the ferry from city to city throughout the Alaskan inside passage. I love camping; but I am not particularly fond of the cold or wet, so I was not very excited about the trip. It was one of the best vacations we’ve ever taken. Maybe when I have accumulated a fortune I could build a summer home in Alaska and enjoy the mountains and eagles anytime I want.
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