Tag Archives: alaska

Termination Dust

Termination dust on the Chugach mountains

Happy Fall Equinox! During our five-mile run this morning we marveled at the gorgeous termination dust on the Chugach mountains that arrived overnight. For those of you who are not up on Alaskan lingo, “termination dust” refers to the first dusting of snow on mountain tops, signaling the termination of summer. This means something to the beer drinking crowd of Anchorage.  When we see that first snow, we know that Midnight Sun Brewing is about to release Termination Dust Belgian Style Barley Wine.  It is only released when Lee Ellis, President of the brewery, sees snow on Flattop mountain.  Well, I looked up at Flattop today, and the snow stopped right above Flattop mountain.  So, I assumed the brewery would hold out, but to my surprise, I saw on social media that the release is happening today!  I have a bottle of this beer in my beer fridge from two years ago, so maybe it is time to drink that one as well, since it is Equinox, and I feel celebration in the air.

When Alaskans see termination dust, some take a big sigh of relief, and others start feeling depressed, depending on how one feels about the impending winter. I personally like winter more than summer, so I get very excited about longer nights, cozy evenings around a fire, movie nights without FOMO, football season, fat-biking, and most importantly, alpine ski season.  I love skiing, and I especially love skiing at Arctic Valley Ski Area!  I am a lifetime member of the Anchorage Ski club. Maria and I already bought our season passes, so seeing termination dust on the front range on Equinox makes me feel hopeful for a great upcoming ski season! I am certainly glad to live in Alaska! Now, I’m off to Midnight Sun Brewing to sample this year’s Termination Dust. Cheers!

Prints of this beer portrait are available at my Etsy shop
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Lazy Morning at the Cabin

Maria and I are at the cabin in McCarthy today.  It has been ten years since we started building this little log house.  We woke up to rain and a bit of wind.  I started a fire in the wood stove, since rain promises a colder day. It is 45F outside, but a nice toasty 67F inside the cabin.  Should I put another log on the fire? I think not. 67F, is great but 75F is too warm.  I’m supposed to be outside harvesting dry spruce branches to fuel the Burning Dude, which will burn tomorrow at 9pm on the bank of the mighty Kennicott River. I made a lazy breakfast burrito with all the fixings and then volunteered to do the dishes.  The dishes are done, and it is still raining. I think I’ll have a pot of hot herbal tea, since the coffee is all gone and I don’t want anything with more caffeine at this point. I already did my yoga and there are no good reasons left not to go outside and get to work, but I am enjoying taking it slow today. I will go outside and harvest that brush when I am done writing this blog.  Until then, I’m going to enjoy watching the birds splash in the puddles outside, and the trees wiggle in the wind. The hot tea is great, and I can see fall happening all around me with yellow leaves falling from Aspen tops, and fireweed going to seed.  Yesterday we woke up to frost on the ground, then it started raining in the afternoon. I love how fall is a slower time of year — getting us all ready for the stillness of winter. I’m excited about tomorrow’s Burning Dude event, and I’ll talk about that in my next blog post. I wonder if anyone will come if it’s raining hard and windy.  At least fire danger will be low, since it has rained a bunch in the last 24 hours. Okay I’m ready to go out now. I better put on my waterproof gear, since I can hear the rain humming on the metal roof.

Burning Dude in McCarthy, Alaska
We built Burning Dude yesterday. The Dude is getting very wet in this rain storm. He will burn on 9.09 at 9:09pm on the bank of the Kennicott River.

Our Trip to Sitka

~ by Maria Benner

I decided to do a guest blog post today, to tell you all about our recent trip to Sitka. I have a tradition to visit places on, or around my birthday, where I’ve never been in Alaska. Since Alaska is such a big place, and some towns are only accessible by plane, or boat, my list is long. I’ve lived in Alaska for 30 years, and had never been to Sitka, the former capital of Alaska when it “belonged” to Russia. I used quotation marks, because Alaska Natives were here first.

The news has been making a big deal about how difficult it is to travel this summer, with flight cancellations being the norm, hotels and restaurants understaffed, and a high demand for all these services from travelers who have been cooped up too long during the pandemic. Well, the news was kind of right, but we didn’t really experience inconveniences to the extent that travel experts have been warning us about. Our Alaska Airlines flights were full, and on the way back, one passenger was asked to leave the plane, because he was non-revenue, so he lost his seat to a revenue passenger. He had already flown on our flight from Sitka to Juneau, but got kicked off in Juneau, and didn’t get to fly to Anchorage as he had planned. However, all our flights were on time! I was surprised at how few passengers wore masks, considering the transmission rate is high right now. All Alaska Airlines and airport employees wore masks, and so did we. I plan to always wear a mask on an airplane.

Sitka is a cruiseship port, so for most of the day the town was busy with cruiseship passengers. Lincoln Street is the main shopping district, and also where the famous St. Michael’s Orthodox Cathedral is. All the ships leave at 5pm, so after that, the town was ours! Getting lunch was our biggest challenge. All the restaurants were full, and understaffed. We had to show up to dinner at 5:30 to get a table, and had lunch at the Asian Palace both days, because it had tables available, probably since it was off the main street. I will never forget the silky, perfectly-cooked King salmon at Beak Restaurant.

Lincoln Street busy with cruiseship passengers
Deserted after the cruiseships left

We got super lucky on the weather. Last year my birthday trip was to Cordova, and it was raining sideways from every single side. This year karma really rewarded us with beautiful blue skies. I really wanted to see the famous Mt. Edgecumbe volcano, and got to see it! On our last day the cloud ceiling appeared, and blocked the tops of the mountains and the volcano.

Mt. Edgecumbe Volcano

The trip was a dream. I definitely recommend doing research about all the must-see places in Sitka, before you go there. I ended up being the guide for our little group of three: me, my mom, and Scott. They didn’t bother learning anything ahead of time, so I was in charge of our itinerary. You don’t need a car in Sitka. There are nice public buses that will take you everywhere, but you can walk to almost every attraction. My only regret was not having time to go on a hike. Two days is plenty of time to explore the most interesting places.

Next year I plan to visit Lake Clark National Park.

Summer Plans

Is it just us, or is summer crazy for everyone? I feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants, and running around with my head cut off. Most of the time crunch has to do with going out to our cabin in McCarthy, which is very time consuming, but so worth the 300-mile trip one-way! Because the drive takes so long, we try to make it worth our time by spending at least a week out there. When we’re back in Anchorage, we’re catching up on painting commissions, mailing orders, doing art shows, and managing to do some house chores and hang out with our friends in between. The unrelenting summer heatwave with endless sunlight also contributes to the hyper-activity. I guess we have all winter to rest.

So, what are our summer plans? Well, Maria’s mom really loves visiting us in McCarthy, but she’s fed up with staying in our small cabin with us, so she commissioned us to build her a log cabin on our property. I’m really excited about building another log cabin, but Maria says she already built one, and is not that stoked about doing it again, because she forgot how hard it is! This project will take up most of our time, and we hope to have it completed this summer.

The foundation for the mother-in-law cabin, and some of the D logs that we have to peel for it

Other than that, we will spend most of our time working on the art business. I have two art shows happening this summer that are kicking off tomorrow on First Friday, June 3. One is my regular show at Midnight Sun Brewing that I have every year, and the second one is at a new-to-me venue, Dos Manos Gallery. I have been selling my art there for several years, but this is my first time being the featured artist in the gallery room! We hung the art there today, and I’m really happy with how it looks! I hope you check out both of my art shows, and bring your friends!

My art show at Dos Manos Gallery

We will also be vendors at two events. The first one is the Eagle River Beer & Music Festival on Saturday, June 4th. I love having a booth at beer festivals, because that’s where I find fans of my beer art! We will also be participating in the Beer, Beards and Art Market at Anchorage Brewing Co. on June 18th, 4-9pm.

Besides work, and building a cabin, we’re flying to Sitka to celebrate Maria’s birthday. She likes going to places in Alaska for her birthday that she’s never been to. Of course, Salmonfest is not-to-be-missed, and then Maria’s cousin from Germany is coming to visit with her two sons, so we’ll get to do some Alaska tourist activities with them, which are always amazing!

I hope to see you at some of these events this summer, and if I don’t, I wish you a safe and fun summer! What are your plans this summer?

Tok Thai Food

Tok Thai Food by Scott Clendaniel, 20″x16″, oil on canvas

My Aunt Barbara took a photo of a raven sitting on top of the Tok Thai Food establishment on her drive back from a visit to McCarthy, and I got her permission to make a painting based on her photo. According to a review on Yelp, Tok Thai Food has the best Panang Curry in Alaska.  I’m going to get some on my way back from McCarthy next time.  This roadside restaurant is an enigma, and I don’t know much about it. All I could find online were the menu and a bunch of positive reviews. The official website’s title page calls it Tok Tdai Food.  I have always had a good meal there, but is it really “t’die” for?  So, why is Tok Thai Food in Glennallen, and not in Tok?  The questions keep on rolling. Why is the best food in Glennallen, Thai food? Why is the best Thai food in Alaska located in Glennallen? Who owns this place? Who is making this delicious food?

What I do know is that I love stopping at this crossroad on my way back from McCarthy, and taking a minute, or 20 to get out of the truck, get some gas, and have fresh food. Making a stir fry from old cabbage, a spotty squash, and some canned chicken at the cabin in McCarthy may fill my belly, but it is far from what you get at Tok Thai Food. I think it’s the location that makes it so special. Strategically located at the T, where the Glenn Highway meets the Richardson.  If you are going to Chitina to dipnet, or want to go to Valdez, you drive right past it.  If you want to go to Tok, Whitehorse, Haines or Seattle, you will also drive right past it.  It is four hours from Anchorage, and four hours from the Canadian border, perfectly located for lunch.  

I painted this iconic sign because it represents returning to civilization. After a month in the Wrangell Mountains, a hot meal is welcome.  The Radio Shack sign in Glennallen advertising hot pizza is alluring, but they don’t actually have hot pizza, or at least not when I have been there.  The Freeze has long since closed its doors. The IGA may have some sandwiches and deli snacks, but it is far from excellent.  The raven in this painting symbolizes wilderness to me, and the bright yellow manufactured plastic sign, humanity.  After washing hands in the gas station, and getting a crispy fried egg-roll, it feels good to know, that yes, they do sell auto parts within the Glennallen city limits. This painting is about the balance of going to the wilderness to reduce stress by leaving the trappings of the city behind, while in the wilderness there is a different kind of stress of knowing you only have what you brought with you. It is good to change it up, find the ataraxia (Greek for balance), remind yourself what is important in your life, and you will find your inner peace.        

The original oil painting on canvas will be on display, and available for sale at my art show at Dos Manos Gallery in June and July. The art opening reception will take place on First Friday, June 3, 5-8pm. I will also have some prints available.

Trying out My New “Alaska” Skis in a Santa Suit

Every year Arctic Valley Ski Area has a fundraiser auction, and this year I bid on a pair of custom skis from Go Custom Skis in Seattle, Washington. I couldn’t believe I was the winner at $75 below retail value!  Tristan runs GC Skis, and we started communicating about my new set of boards right away!  I wanted a pair of skis that looked like the ones I painted in an image called Ski AK that I have been selling since 2013.  The graphic is a nod to the Alaskan flag and says “Alaska”. When I was designing my new skis I put the same graphics on the front, and created a new one for the back of the skis, which was not visible in the painting. I put my Arctic Valley trail map painting inside the text spelling out “Alaska”.  The skis got made and hand-delivered by Tristan, who is also a jet pilot for Costco.  He happened to fly a group of execs to Alaska and brought the skis, which saved me having to pay for shipping.  I bought some nice Marker bindings, and had them mounted at SkiAK.

Yesterday was Santa Skis Free day at Alyeska Resort, and my first chance to try out my new “Alaska” skis.  Santa Skis Free day is a blast!  Nothing is funnier than seeing 750 Santas riding the lifts, rocking some turns, crashing, drinking beers, and occasionally gathering up scattered gear from an all-out Santa yard-sale.  Everyone who dressed up like Santa head-to-toe, or Ms. Claus, an elf, or a reindeer got a free lift ticket!

My skis had just been hot-waxed, and were way more slippery than my old skis. It was also a classic Alyeska ski day with overcast skies, some flurries of snow, fog, and overall terrible visibility. Since I broke my hand up there last year, I hadn’t been back to ski at Alyeska.  The new skis were handling way differently than I expected, and I nearly wiped out on Silvertip just after I got off the lift.  This happened mostly because I couldn’t see anything.  There is a significant drop-off where speed is needed to get up the other side. I didn’t biff it, but I didn’t look very smooth either. I pretty much splayed my legs out and avoided going down from the sheer strength of my groin (imagine me doing this in a Santa costume).  Snow sprayed up all over me and I looked like an abominable snowman for the rest of the day.  After the fifth run I was getting more comfortable with the short turn radius, and I could sit back and ride them a lot more proficiently.  Maria and I made it to the Santa group photo, and skied a few more laps, stopping in the woods for a quick sandwich.  We then made it down the mountain with no repercussions. I got many compliments in the lift line, and on the chairlift on my “Alaska” skis, and gave Tristan props each time.

After we took off our Santa suits we went over to Girdwood Brewing to nab a tasty brew!  I got the GBC 500: a Brewing Odyssey, and Maria had the IP-AK.  Last time I had a beer at GBC after a ski day at Alyeska I was icing a broken hand.  Much better to be sitting there without a broken bone.  We drove home with enough time to catch the end of my Russian lesson on Zoom, and then we helped a friend assemble a brand new dining room table he had built from a large slab of Elm and solid Walnut.  It turned out to be a great day!  Cheers to new skis, an amazing new table, and the genius who came up with Santa Skis Free Day at Alyeska Resort!      

Here’s my design that I sent to GC Skis
Here’s how they turned out
I painted this in 2013, and I’ve wanted a pair of skis like that ever since!
Lovin’ my “Alaska” skis on Santa Skis Free Day!

First Snow Day of the Year!

The first real snowfall of the year covers the grass and leaves, and provides winter light during the long, dark nights. Last night I was excited to see the tips of the stalks of grass obscured from view. The entire city illuminates from the reflective properties of the falling snow. This morning I was surprised to see eleven inches on our back porch. We went for a lovely 3-mile walk to the Helen L. McDowell Sanctuary, breaking trail the whole way! Upon our return, Maria and I spent a little over half an hour shoveling our driveway and walkways. There was about a foot of light and fluffy snow, so it wasn’t that hard. It’s still snowing as I write this, and all the clearing we did is now under another two inches.

I get really excited about the first day of snow, because I love winter! Skiing, fat-biking, ice skating and winter walks are all things I enjoy in winter.  Don’t get me wrong, I also love summer.  The hectic pace that ensues with all the daylight, the out-of-state visitors, and the insidious mosquitos that come along with the warmer weather make it a second best to me.  Third, comes late fall when it is cold, dark, and there is usually freezing rain.  Last, is early spring, when the meltdown makes everything ugly, and going outside is difficult due to half-frozen swampiness. 

Winter is my favorite.  There is a special quality to winter, especially in Alaska.  I mentioned the light from the snow. I can easily navigate at night without a headlamp, if a blanket of snow is reflecting any bit of moon or starlight.  My favorite thing about winter though, is semi-hibernating.  Nobody expects you to answer your phone after 9pm, and if you say you can’t make it because the roads seem too dangerous, people completely understand. In the summer people want you to go to work for 10 hours, then expect you to climb a mountain.  In the winter, if you spend 4 hours riding a chairlift, people might expect you to fall asleep while watching a movie afterwards. 

Snow is great! It makes winter real! Let it snow! I will shovel the driveway again this evening, right before I climb into bed at 9:15pm.

Burning Dude, McCarthy, AK, September 11, 2021, 9:11pm

Burning Dude 2021

I know that Burning Man is an established event that has been happening for decades,  but I have never been.  I basically don’t know anything about the event, except that it is a wickedly insane art festival where they burn a temple at the end, sometimes with a man at the top.  A week-long avant-garde art event with 70,000 people all showing up to party and experience being human together in the middle of a hot, dusty desert.  

Dave Hollis, my friend in McCarthy, is a retired computer programmer who I would consider to be the social guru for the Kennicott River Valley.  This guy knows what is happening, where it is happening, and also plans some amazing events of his own.  In McCarthy, around 2009 Dani Evans and B-Mac built a Burning Woman, and she asked Hollis to be a fire tender.  Four years ago in 2018, Hollis and Brady, and some other McCarthy locals, decided to make a small version of Burning Man, which they called Burning Dude.  It is a fragment of the Nevada festival, and can’t even be compared, but it is still a hoot, and a lot of fun.  I missed the Burning Woman, and I also missed the first Dude, who was 12 feet tall, and I heard was awesome.  In 2019 fire danger was high, so there was no Dude.  The second Burning Dude in 2020 was designed by Seth, a local fire dancer, and I helped erect the dude with 10 other people, while Brady quickly nailed supports to keep it upright.  It burned, but never fully caught on fire.  The sculpture was 34 feet tall.  The oversized head was dropped and ignited later, providing plenty of entertainment.  I told the team that I have sculpture training and would like to help build next year’s Dude.

Burning Dude 2020

This fall, both Seth and Brady were not available to build the Dude.  Hollis was bummed, but he asked me if I thought it could still happen without them.  I gathered a small team: my wife Maria, my cousin Cameron, and of course Hollis.  I designed the Dude on a sheet of paper, to be built from log mill slabs, which are fairly irregular, and have a lot of bark on them.  I took an afternoon the day before to gather twigs from the bottom of spruce trees from my ten-acre lot, and loaded them onto my trailer.  The next day, Maria and I drove down to McCarthy, picked up Cameron and we unloaded the brush on the bank of the Kennicott River.  Then we drove over to Hollis’ house where we picked up about 200 spruce slabs.  We chucked them down to the Kennicott river, and we started to build.  I had packed a ton of tools, including my cordless drill, driver, chainsaw, a million screws and nails, as well as wire.  First, I built a sturdy box, and then we built the feet and legs.  We attached the torso, and put on the arms.  Finally we built the head, and put a crown of sparklers on top of it.  Hollis and Maria juggled the head up to Cameron, who was standing on the box.  Cameron hoisted the head up to me, as I crouched inside the torso.  I quick-like attached the head and then had to remove my chainsaw helmet to extract myself from the torso.  Next, we stuffed the spruce branches all over the dude and filled the box, torso and head.  I bought a gallon of vegetable oil and we stapled oily paper towels all over the Dude.  We were building the Dude in a prominent location, right next to the foot bridge, where everyone saw us.  Hollis did a great job telling people to show up at 9pm for Burning Dude.

We had three hours to spare before the scheduled ignition, so we went to Mark and Livvi’s new house for ice cream and hot dogs.  At 9pm, a fairly large crowd had gathered around the Dude.  All four of us ignited him at 9:11pm on 9/11!  I knew the spruce boughs would work, and vegetable oil is essentially as combustable as diesel fuel.  It ignited in three stages: first the box platform, then the torso, and finally the head.  The head had this amazing glowing crown above it from the sparklers, and then it kept burning even after the branches all burned up.  The paper towels were amazing.  The head fell in after 11 minutes, but the Dude lasted about 44 more before Malcolm decided to kick the box over.  I was so pleased with how well everything worked.  I thank Maria, Cameron and especially Hollis for making this possible!  Not as spectacular as Burning Man festival in Nevada, but Burn Dude was a success in 2021!   

We Bought a House and Moved out of the 4th Avenue Market Place Studio!

Moving everything from the studio to the new house, including large paintings. Good thing it wasn’t raining!

When we moved into my studio space at the 4th Avenue Marketplace, we were ecstatic to be downtown, and to have extra work space!  I loved the view, and I loved working there.  Having people come by for open studio events during First Fridays, Fur Rondy, and the Iditarod was always a great experience, and we usually made enough money during those events to cover our lease payments. Making the move to 4th Ave really cemented that I am a professional artist.  However, I missed working at home. Packing a lunch was a drag, the bicycle commute across downtown was annoying (especially in winter), and the local street people seemed to always be present to greet me at the door to the building (when they were awake).  I always seemed to have left this tool here, or that tool there, right when I needed it, and I was making another traffic-heavy bike trip back to one of the two locations.    

I am happy to say that last weekend we moved out of the studio, and I am setting up my new studio on the first floor of our new house! It is a huge mess right now! I need permanent storage for tools, supplies, and paintings. I hope to be back to work by Monday, taking a week to move the condo and studio to our new house, and to get the condo ready for sale!  The house is “not perfect,” as my father told me, but to us it is so amazing!  It is quiet at night, there is more space for living and for the studio, and best of all, it has an oversized two car garage!  No more carrying the table saw down stairs to work in blizzards for me!  I can park my truck inside when it is cold out! Not to mention, the obvious home-brewing improvement!  I brought my big smoker grill home from my parents’ house, and I’m going to smoke a brisket when I have everything set up. When brew day rolls around in the new garage, I’ll brew a big batch for a big housewarming celebration.  

Until then there is a lot of work… Anybody want a cute little apartment-style condo in West Fairview? It would make a great Airbnb rental!

Cheers to making life better!  May your day be brighter today than yesterday, and tomorrow be even better than that!    

Sad the downtown studio is closed?  You can still meet me for a beer at Midnight Sun Brewing. My art is there until the end of June!  I will be having more out-of-the studio shows, so keep following Real Art Is Better on this blog, or on social media and we will keep you informed where and when we will be having in-person events!

Pandemic Art Show #2

I’m currently having my second art show during a pandemic! The first one was in June at Midnight Sun Brewing Co., right after the brewery was allowed to open for on-site, indoor dining/drinking following the first shutdown. Right after that show ended, the Mayor limited restaurants and breweries to outdoor on-site consumption only. So I got pretty lucky on my timing. The show was surprisingly successful given the circumstances!

Fast forward six months, and I’m doing another art show during this pandemic, this time at Turnagain Brewing Co. I didn’t get as lucky on my timing for this one, because during December, we’re only allowed to drink beer outside per the latest hunker down order. Despite this obstacle, we decided to go ahead with the art show, but scaled it down just to the downstairs wall of the taproom, because people can still see the art while they go inside to order their beers. I hung original, one-of-a-kind oil paintings on the wall, and brought limited-edition prints and Beer Art Coloring Books to sell at the brewery. So far, I’ve actually sold some books, and prints, which is more than I was expecting.

I could have used this new hunker down order as an excuse to cancel the show, but I decided to push through this thing, and keep doing what I do, because I still can. Drinking beer outside by a fire pit is nothing new for Alaskans. Most of the breweries adapted quickly to the new restrictions, and put several fire pits outside, in festive beer gardens. I’m about to have my third pandemic art show, back at Midnight Sun Brewing Co., but in January I expect everything to open back up at reduced capacity, so maybe everyone can admire my art while eating and drinking inside.

My pandemic art show at Turnagain Brewing Co.
Oh look! You can see my paintings from the outdoor beer garden!