Spring break in Alaska means skiing, building snowmen, and spending time inside, because up here winter lasts well into April. Most stores are on a national merchandising schedule, so while Costco is selling snorkel masks and swimsuits in March, we’re still looking for hand and toe warmers, and new ski jackets. Ever since we finished building our log cabin in McCarthy, we’ve been going there for Spring break whenever we can, because McCarthy in March is super beautiful and fun! So here are some photos from our rowdy spring break shenanigans, Alaska style. At the time we still didn’t know that spring break would be endless this year due to COVID-19.
We spent the weekend in Talkeetna for the 7th annual Trio Fatbike World Championships. I’m not sure why it’s called the Trio, but I’m going to say it refers to fast, friendly, and fun! Unlike during the Susitna 100 race, this time I wasn’t concerned about getting a fast time — I was more interested in having a good time in the backwoods of Talkeetna. I got to hang out on the 21-mile trail, and enjoy the spirit of trail camaraderie! I swore off racing after the Susitna 100, but I had already paid and registered for the short version of the Trio. So I raced without trying to go too fast. This was not a problem, as the first 12 miles were a mix of biking and walking. I think I was on my bike 50% of the time due to soft, squishy snow from higher than normal temps. It sure was nice not to carry that emergency gear the Susitna 100 requires. I arrived to the trail party nicknamed “Shangri-La” about 3 hours into the event. I spent about an hour enjoying the sweet bonfire, and the company of beer-loving cyclists. I avoided the whisky and drank an Anchorage Brewing Rondy Brew, and then refilled my 16 oz water bottle from the keg of Denali Brewing’s pilsner, which was very refreshing during the last 9 miles. The second half of the trail was a dream! I felt like I was riding on clouds all the way back to Talkeetna on a hard-packed trail. Hard to imagine, but the temps hovered around the high 30s all day! I love that ridge-line trail, and if I lived in Talkeetna I would make it my regular ride.
The afterparty was a blast as usual. This year Denali Brewing brewed a Brut IPA for the official Trio race beer. After the awards ceremony the Last Train (featuring Ted Rosenzweig of Turnagain Brewing on base) rocked the party and I danced until my rubbery legs had to stroll on home! Overall this is a quality event and I would encourage anybody who likes group riding, with a bit of a racing edge, to sign up next year. Good job everybody who went and participated! A huge thanks to Greg Matyas, from Speedway Cycles (home of the Fatback), Shawn Thelan from North Shore Cyclery in Talkeetna, and Sassan from Denali Brewing for the immaculate trail grooming and great hosting of this super fun event!!!
We’ve been taking a week-long break at our cabin in McCarthy, and this morning I rose before daylight at 7:30 AM here in the Wrangell Mountains. We have been doing some fat biking around the roads and trails that connect key places in the Kennicott Valley. On our ride from our cabin south of McCarthy to the town of Kennicott, the glaciers and mountains were spectacular, Mt. Blackburn looming in the evaporating clouds, and the Root and Gates glaciers glistening in the distance like diamond encrusted jewels. Our route took us past the new and ever popular The Potato Restaurant in McCarthy. It is slumbering like all the bears out here with a “Closed for the Season” sign and all the picnic tables put away for the winter. Meanwhile in the big city of (Los) Anchorage, a new hipster hangout has popped up like a mushroom in the sun after a fall rain shower. La Bodega teamed up with McCarthy’s Potato crew to make a pop-up restaurant called La Potato, located in Mr. Whitekey’s old haunt, the Fly By Night Club. If you are newer to town you might know this place as the Taproot, or the most recent, and briefest occupant, Route 33.
Pamela Hatzis, the proprietor of La Bodega, the cool liquor store where you can get boutique wines and by-the-bottle beers, wanted to have a place of her own where she could host tasting events. She has been doing a righteous job running the ever popular liquor store with two new locations springing up in the last four years, one in Girdwood and a second Anchorage location at the Northern Lights Center Mall. Rebecca Bard, one of the owners of the McCarthy and Valdez Potato restaurants has been wintering in Anchorage and working for Pamela at La Bodega for a while. She has endeavored to school the Bodega team on how to run a successful restaurant. The end result is a spectacular success with the pop up restaurant everyone is raging about, La Potato. Raging is the word. Maria and I attempted to go there on Saturday late afternoon, on the second day in business, and the parking lot was overflowing like Moose’s Tooth during a First Tap event. We came back when we thought it would be less busy Thursday last week. We easily found parking and came in to find a lovely draft menu, as well as great canned and bottled beer offerings. I am sure there was some good wine and saké offerings as well, I just neglected to search them out. I ordered some rosemary garlic fries and the duck egg kimchi plate, and I recommend both. Watch out though, the garlic fries are a litmus test for how much your date really likes you… Better if you both consume that much garlic in one sitting. I ordered My 85th Rodeo IPA from Woodland Empire Ale Craft in Idaho (pictured in this painting in front of the iconic Spenard sign that hangs next to the stage) and a Solid Gold from Founder’s Brewing Co. I exited right before a secret show began featuring The Lucky Chops, because I didn’t bring hearing protection, and I’m just too old to handle loud music at this point. The place went from being modestly busy to teeming with people for the music. It’s like Anchorage has been starved for a hangout that isn’t a bar and people are finally finding their fix. We have Koot’s and Van’s Dive Bar, and even the newly revamped Carousel Lounge, but La Potato is different because it is a restaurant first.
As I pack up my bags tonight and make the grueling drive back to the big city tomorrow, I am not sorry to leave, because the fun is in Spenard where the spirit of McCarthy is alive and well. I will pass the slumbering Roadside Potato as I drive out and will look forward to its glory in the summer months, but this winter is all about Ancho“RAGE,”!
Cheers to Pamela and Rebecca’s brainchild that is rocking the socks off the block in Spenard!
Only one original oil painting, and limited-edition prints are available at our Etsy shop RealArtIsBetter.
We spent two weeks in McCarthy earlier this month, and while at a great BBQ on the West side, I invited myself over to my neighbor Jason Lobo’s place to paint one of his many interesting vehicles. Although we live in the same subdivision, his lot is about a mile away. I walked, as I felt it would be easier to pack the painting home walking than biking. Also, the road is a mud swamp due to spring meltdown, so driving was less than desirable. I arrived to find Jason working in his yard. After a few minutes he gave me a tour of his new water truck, which is a F-750 Ford. Parked right next to it was this beauty, a vintage Dodge Power Wagon. A great truck, and it still runs! I love how it has not been restored, but has all the scars and patina of a working machine. I guess the fuel pump is out, because Jason has connected a gravity fed fuel tank. I had a great time painting this cool old McCarthy truck, stopping every hour, or so, to chat with Lobo. He was working in the garden planting onions, garlic, and potatoes. I walked home in the afternoon to have a late lunch, and then got some of my own yard work done. Overall, a pretty productive day. By the way, this isn’t the first time I’ve painted one of Jason’s trucks. Check out the painting of his red Ford.
This original oil painting, and limited-edition prints are for sale at my Etsy shop RealArtIsBetter.
People always ask how I like living in McCarthy. They must see my Facebook posts and just assume since I spend a lot of time there that it’s my primary residence. As of now, I live in an efficient downtown condo in Anchorage. As much as I love going to McCarthy, and the Wrangell – St. Elias National Park that surrounds this cool mountain town, I will probably never spend more than five months of the year there. It’s really remote without a real gas station and only a small seasonal grocery store. Maria and I have been building a cabin on our lot two miles south of the town of McCarthy for about four years now. We bought the lot in 2005, and I convinced Maria that we should start to build a cabin there in 2010. In 2012 we broke ground on the foundation and started the log work. Three summers later we were putting the roof on. This year we installed the wood stove and moved in!
We have lived in a small apartment style condo in Anchorage since 2006. It has been really efficient, and at 730+ square feet, two bedrooms with a small bathroom, it is not luxurious, but cozy and comfortable city living. I just cleaned the entire pad in about an hour this morning. However, it feels cramped after a long winter and I was just dying to go to McCarthy in the winter now that the wood stove is in. Hanging out on our ten acres in the woods after living near the heart of Anchorage without an outlet to private outdoor space left us feeling hankering for some wilderness solitude. I convinced Maria it would be cool to head out for a week in March, ski in with sleds of supplies and just hang at out mountain home. I did some painting and Maria did some business work in the mornings and we would adventure in the afternoons. Later in the day, which are getting longer and longer as spring rapidly approaches, we would burn large fires of forest brush in the outdoor fire ring. On a couple of noteworthy outings we skied around the sleepy town of Kennicott, explored on skis the icebergs on the West side of the glacier, skied up McCarthy Creek, and in and around our neighborhood. Overall, it really gave me a great feeling of mountains wilderness beauty that satisfied our itch to leave the hubbub of the city behind.
The trip was great, but a week was long enough during March. First off, water is a problem in our subdivision. We are up on a bluff, so you have to spend some serious cash to put in deep wells, so most of the time we collect rain water from our roof. This works really well during the summer months, and in winter there is snow, but it takes a lot of energy and time to melt snow. We can’t drive to our lot during the winter as the bridge is covered in three feet of snow and so is the road up to our place. It is a snowmobile haven, and a good place to ski as well. I ski, since I don’t have an Arctic Cat or a Ski-Doo. Water is heavy, so we had to ration it to avoid too many heavy loads. Another problem with wilderness living in the winter is using the outhouse, which is really far away from the warm house, and is frozen. Lastly, the wood stove is an archaic technology that is a lot of work to keep a log cabin warm. It’s hard to find wood that isn’t too wet from snow. It seems that it rained and froze right before it snowed, and even though I stored the wood under a tarp, there was a lot of it full of moisture. Yes, we are in the process of building a necessary woodshed, but as I said, we aren’t even fully done building the place yet. The house has a bunch of drafts and we need to finish chinking, as well as installing a bunch of important trim pieces. It seemed I was constantly loading the stove, until the creosote clogged the pipe. This turned out to be a major cluster, but fortunately it happened at the end of the week so we just went home. Next time I head out, I have to bring a chimney brush, climb on the roof and maintain the stovepipe before we have heat. Then we will have to hope we don’t burn the place down. It seems silly to have a house that is made of the same combustible stuff we heat it with, but it’s working for now.
After a week in the woods, I’m glad to be back in Anchorage. Working at the comfortable studio with running water, and hanging out in my small cozy condo at the corner of downtown and Fairview. I can buy groceries and gas, drive on plowed roads, have indoor plumbing, and a thermostat. The wilderness is very inspirational, and I loved my trip, but I also know that the people who live out there are some tough hombres. It isn’t easy living off grid especially as you are building systems. One thing goes wrong and you could be living in a cold cabin… or worse.
~ by Maria Benner
Well, Scott is on the opposite end of the continent right now, but started the long drive today from Philly to Monterey, CA with two buddies. They are carrying precious cargo in a rented mini-van for one of the friend’s son’s wedding — six cases of beer from his cellar, and are planning to stop along the way to buy more beer. One bottle has unfortunately already exploded mere hours after the journey began. Evidently, the Brett in the bottle of Galaxy IPA by Anchorage Brewing Co. created too much gas over the years in the cellar, and finally popped in the rental van. Luckily, the spill was quickly contained, and no other bottles were damaged from this incident. Take heed, bottles conditioned with any yeast are likely to pop eventually, so don’t cellar them too long.
Anyway, while Scott is traveling, I’m batching it here in Anchorage. I realized that the two weeks that Scott is gone will be the longest time I’ve ever lived alone. Shocking. So I’m learning a bit about my self, and so far I can conclude that I’m not an introvert, and not a hermit. Yesterday is a perfect example. I signed up to volunteer at the Talkeetna Brew Fest, which is a fundraiser for the Northern Susitna Institute, and one beer festival that I have never been to. Who doesn’t love the quaint town of Talkeetna, especially when it hosts nearly every Alaskan brewery for one day? Even the new cidery was there, Double Shovel Cider Co. If you’re into cider, check out their tasting room in Anchorage.
What can I say about the beer at this event that you don’t already know? We can all agree that Alaska has an impressive selection of excellent brews to offer, considering our small population, and lack of local hops and grains. There were a number of beers that did have local Alaskan ingredients like spruce tips, and berries. My favorite brews were Sitka Spruce Tip Ale by Baranof Island Brewing, Statny Statny Stout by Kassik’s Kenai Brew Stop, and of course Berserker by Midnight Sun Brewing. Drinking two pours of that to cap off the event was not my smartest move last night. Whenever my glass was empty, I would ask whoever I was talking to at the time what was the best beer they had tasted so far, and was steered in the right direction most of the time. I really enjoyed the low-key atmosphere at this event. It was not too crowded like most beer fests, and there was an outdoor area with fire pits and picnic tables. The organizers didn’t skimp on the food, which is an important, and responsible thing to have at such an event. There was plenty of fresh-baked bread by Mountain High Pizza Pie, and a generous spread of cured meats, and artisan cheeses.
After the four-hour fest, some of us headed to the bank of the beautiful, and currently over-flowing, Susitna River to watch the sunset. Then somehow there was always a beer in my hand for the rest of the night as we danced to a righteous band at the Fairview Inn. I have vague memories of a friend buying me a reindeer hot dog, which was a life-saver, around 10 PM. Good thing I had that for a late dinner, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have had the mental capacity to find my bed.
I’m back in Anchorage now, and Scott already made it to Ohio. Eight more days of batching it, and I’m planning on attending one more beer festival before Scott gets back. Bodega Fest is next weekend, and tickets are still available for this party, celebrating La Bodega’s 10th Anniversary!
Scott and I just got back from a two-week trip to Washington and Oregon where we visited many of our wonderful friends and family. We had an amazing trip, but are glad to be back in Anchorage, where the pace of life is slower, and life seems easier in general. We don’t have to structure our daily schedule around peak traffic times, there are fewer people competing for the same things, and the scenery is breathtaking.
On the first day back in Anchorage we drove around to replenish our supplies, and almost everywhere we went, we knew someone. The best part is that several people told us they needed to meet about a painting, or a stickers order, or help with graphics. That’s when we realized that our local community is the reason that we are able to survive on the income from our little art business. Without long-standing relationships in our home town where we have lived for over 20 years, our business wouldn’t be possible. So, thank you to all of you who choose to buy locally!!! That really does make a difference! We feel the love, Anchorage, and we can’t think of a better place to live and work!
~ Scott and Maria