With just a little more than a week until Christmas, it's easy to get overwhelmed by the pressure to buy, buy, buy. A good way to score cool stuff, and get gift-giving back to its fun and friendly roots, is to seek out Alaska products and services. It supports the local economy and often feels more like a neighborly swap than a grubby commercial purchase.
There are a lot of art shops and galleries around town where you can find high-quality, locally-made art, ceramics and jewelry. Sevigny Studio and Blue Hollomon Gallery are good places to start. For Alaska Native arts and crafts, we suggest checking out Alaska Native Arts Gallery, Two Spirits Gallery and the gift shop at the Alaska Native Medical Center.
There are many Alaskan-run small businesses that would appreciate your commerce this season, and could have that perfect gift you've been looking for.
Tilgner's Ruby Red Cold Smoked Salmon
This translucent fish prepared in Ninilchik has just become available at Anchorage farmers markets, but it's already earned a national reputation. "I've got a big, fancy sushi restaurant in Hollywood that's ordering from me," said Art Tilgner. Elite fish-mongers in the south and southwest are also ordering it.
Tilgner is a medical doctor who worked for many years in Cordova and now has a practice in Anchorage. "The first is Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound sockeyes," he said by phone from his home and plant in the old Russian village on the Kenai. "It's smoked with alder right off my property." Sold as both filets and thin slices that let the light through, the preparation is similar to lox. But Tilgner doesn't like that term. "It's not what I do," he said.
Whatever you call it, Tilgner's low-fat, low-sodium meat is a magic marriage of salmon and smoke that's attracting a rapidly growing following. "I bought 3,000 reds this summer and I plan to double my capacity next summer," he said. "If things keep going, I have three and a half acres here to expand." Four-ounce packages are $12.50 plus shipping. (tilgnerssmokedfish.com)
Modern Dwellers Chocolate has a truffle that combines smoked salmon with their potent dark chocolate, available in solid squares. The Salmon Surprise Truffle includes not only wild Alaska salmon, but Alaska honey as well. Another truffle, My Currant Honey, uses local honey and bee pollen as well as mead from Celestial Meads in Anchorage and, yes, black currants. They also have a beer truffle made with a reduction of beer from Midnight Sun Brewery.
Getting local material for a product with avowedly tropical roots "is a challenge in Alaska," said owner Zoe Oakley. The higher costs of such material are justified by better quality and karma. But the recently relocated store's main claim to fame is the chocolate itself, which is anywhere from 65 to 72 percent cacao. Cacao is the bitter stuff said to impart the health benefits of chocolate, especially when combined -- Mayan-style -- with chilies.
"We're a little neurotic about dark chocolates," she admitted, "but for the holidays, we get on the sweeter side." Seasonal offerings include treats with marzipan, peppermint dust, a "Holiday Rum" concoction with eggnog and rum garnished with a fig and, still around from last month, pumpkin spice. A gift box of six truffles is $18. You can order online, but with no preservatives, Modern Dwellers products may be best for local consumption and short storage time. Eating them in the car on the way home comes to mind. The store is located in the Metro Mall, 530 E. Benson Blvd. (moderndwellers.com)
The Alaska Wild Berry Products shop at 5225 Juneau St. is another chocolate emporium, particularly noted for having a whole fountain of the stuff flowing in the middle of the store. But their claim to fame is that, as the name suggests, they put hand-picked wild berries into various jellies and candies -- the centers are made of salmonberries from Kodiak, mossberries from Nome, blueberries from Fairbanks, high bush cranberries from the Kenai, etc. A nine-ounce box is $15. Among Wild Berry's locally made sweets are an assortment of sugar-free candies. (alaskawildberryproducts.com)
Vodka and spirits
Alaska Distillery in Wasilla makes a one-of-a-kind hootch called Purgatory from distilled hemp seeds. "It took us three years of paperwork to get it approved," said CEO and founder Toby Foster. "It's the first in the country. It just came out last year and is one of our better-sellers."
The seeds are from Canada, he said, since there's no legal domestic source. Samples are sent to federal inspectors in Maryland to make sure they contain no THC, the "dopey" ingredient in marijuana. "Technically it's a vodka," Foster said, "but we have to call it 'spirits' because it's made from something they consider an exotic material."
Foster uses all kinds of Alaska ingredients in his products. There's Delta barley and Alaska potatoes in Alaska Distillery's premium Permafrost vodka, and Alaska fireweed and salmon among specialty varieties. All are made with 100 percent Alaska water, a blend of local wells, a natural limestone aquifer in Houston and icebergs harvested from Prince William Sound glaciers.
If you're not ready for hemp- or salmon-flavored spirits, consider Truuli Vodka, made by the Bare Distillery in Anchorage. The top-shelf product is advertised as containing nothing but Alaska products, including barley, honey and glacier water.
That water comes from Eklutna Lake, as does most tap water in Anchorage. But company founder Kyle Ryan said their blending/finishing water, which is more than half of what's in the bottle, comes "straight off of the glacier water source, by using a special water use permit which allows it to bypass all city chlorination, filtration and flouride addition." It's "uncut, unfiltered, directly sourced Eklutna Glacier water with no additives and all of its natural minerals and richness."
A new outfit, High Mark Distillery, has opened in Soldotna. In addition to vodka and apple jack, they make a corn liquor, Blind Cat Moonshine, said to have roots in the hills of Kentucky, Tennessee and Washington. (Moonshiners in Washington?)
In-store prices tend to fluctuate, but a call to Gold Rush Liquor in Anchorage this week brought the following price quotes: Purgatory, $47.99; Permafrost, $36.99; Smoked Salmon Vodka, 34.99; Truuli, $31.99; Blind Cat, $43.99.
Got a beer lover on your list? Chances are they've got a few growlers clanking around the back of the car, waiting for a refill. Allyson Youngblood was just such a craft brewery fan when she starting painting her growlers "as a joke." That joke became a bustling side business, and now she and her business partner sell customized growlers for $35-$50, depending on how elaborate the design is. Youngblood said the 64-ounce bottles are accepted at La Bodega, the Brown Jug Growler Bar, or any other Alaska brewery or shop that normally refills growlers.
Youngblood imports and sandblasts the clear glass bottles, then primes and paints them in her Anchorage garage. The growlers generally feature a few colors and an image decal. Youngblood said she does a lot of sports team colors and growlers for pilots who want them painted with the livery and tail number of their airplane. She was recently commissioned to create a Tyrannosaurus Rex growler as an engagement gift.
The bottles can't go in the dishwasher, she said, and the paint is not healthy to ingest "so we suggest people don't lick the outside of the bottle." To clean, just rinse with water and dry upside down. When you're gifting it, be sure to fill the growler with the local microbrew of your choice.
A small selection of AK Growlers is at Sevigny Studio at 608 W. Fourth Ave. #101. For customized growlers, Youngblood suggests ordering at least four days in advance at akgrowlers.com.
Want to take your state-pride attire beyond Alaska Grown? Octopus Ink and AK Starfish Co. have a variety of on-trend sweatshirts, T-shirts, skirts and other attire designed by local artists and printed in town, featuring salmon, sea life, ravens, the Anchorage skyline, and other things residents of the 49th state may hold dear.
Both shops house other items from Alaska artists -- from jewelry to bags -- so you might knock a few items off your list in one stop. AK Starfish has stores at 1005 E. Dimond Blvd. and 2601 Spenard Road, and they're online at akstarfish.com. Octopus Ink is downtown at 410 G Street and online at octopusinkclothing.bigcartel.com.
Looking for something a little more business appropriate? Claimjumper, created by Anchorage designer Joel Loosli, has a line of silk ties and scarves in of-the-moment color schemes. The design features the state of Alaska in a pattern that looks similar to houndstooth. Scarves and ties are all about $45. You can see the current lineup and order online at claimjumperak.com.
Musk ox smoke rings
When it comes to ultra-lux, Alaskans know cashmere is for novices. Qiviut, the soft under-fur of musk oxen, is perhaps the warmest, most luxurious thing you can wear. And it's spendy. Anchorage's Oomingmak shop sells fashionable hats, scarves, and other accessories made from the oh-so Alaska wool by some of the 250 Alaska Native women who own the co-op. Smoke rings, basically circles of weaving that can go around the neck or be pulled up to cover the head -- "nachaq" in Yup'ik -- range from $185 to $265 depending on the pattern and weight. The store is at 604 H St. in Anchorage. (qiviut.com)
SOFT AND CLEAN
Glacial silt soap
The recently re-branded Alaska Soap and Candle Company uses glacial silt collected from a private property in Juneau for what owner Jeanne Mungle calls "old-fashioned lye-based soap."
The extremely fine silt has the same effect as a mineral bath, Mungle said. "It draws toxins from the skin while the micro-fine particles go into the pores and lightly exfoliate," she said.
Many commercial soaps are really detergents, Munger said, which strip natural oils from the skin. Oil-based products include glycerin soaps, which are good for oilier skin, she said. Glycerin is a natural byproduct of making lye-soaps, like hers, which are better for normal or dry skin. In the manufacturing process, the lye dissipates but glycerin remains.
Munger's soap produces "a real bubbly, creamy lather," she said. "When you get out of the shower, you don't feel dry, like you need to put on lotion."
Anchorage residents can order the soaps for $7.95 a bar online at alaskasoapcompany.net.
Goat milk skin cream
Jennifer Ansley, who lives near Ester, has a dozen goats earning their keep by providing her family with milk, yogurt and cheese. Unfortunately, she can't sell any of that stuff.
The Alaska dairy industry that once supported hundreds of families and supplied products to thousands of locals has dwindled to a drip due to lower transportation costs and increased regulations. Ansley said it doesn't make sense. "Goats are a lot easier and more economical in Alaska than cows, but who's got the money to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for grade A dairy production?"
Instead she, like other goat-raisers in Alaska, uses the goat milk in soaps and lotions. The skin cream, $9 for four ounces, is advertised as "wonderful for extra dry skin or for dry, cracked feet," among other things. It's available in several varieties, including unscented.
Ansley feeds her goats hay and grain. In the summer, she roams with them through fireweed fields. "They love fireweed," she said.
Far Above Rubies, her company, sells its soaps, lotions and creams at locations around Fairbanks. Anchorage folks need to order online. (alaskagoatmilk.com).
In the realm of high-end skin care is Arxotica, a line created by Michelle Sparck, Cika Sparck and Amy Sparck Dobmeier, three sisters (they're triplets, in fact) from Bethel. The sisters use plants and berries hand-picked from the tundra of Western Alaska to produce an antioxidant-rich skin serum ($150 for a 1.7-ounce bottle) and skin serum soap bar ($15). Their Tundra Bar ($8) and Tundra Scent Sachets ($3.50) are a little more in the stocking-stuffer price range, and both are made with post-extract crowberries, fireweed blossoms and Arctic sage. http://www.arxotica.com/
When it comes to children's gifts, may we suggest something old-fashioned? There are a lot of great children's books written or illustrated by Alaskans. "Mama, Do You Love Me?" by Barbara Lavellee and Barbara Joosse, is a classic for young children. "Berry Magic," by Betty Huffmon and Teri Sloat, is also a good pick for children. Debbie Dahl Edwardson's book "Whale Snow" has dreamy illustrations and a story about Arctic life and whaling.
Edwardson also wrote a book for young adults, "My Name is Not Easy," about a young man taken to boarding school, where he is prevented from speaking Inupiaq. The book was a 2011 National Book Award finalist. Older youth who like watching disaster flicks may enjoy "Raven's Gift," by Don Rearden, a survival tale set in post-apocalyptic Western Alaska. "The Snow Child" by Eowyn Ivey is written for adults, but arts writer Mike Dunham suggests older teens may also enjoy the Pulitzer Prize finalist. And of course, Tundra Comics, by Alaska's own Chad Carpenter, are giftable for any age group.
You can find these titles in many bookstores, but Title Wave in particular has a big selection of children's books and Alaskan books and a generally knowledgeable staff.
Wildcatch pet treats
There's no shortage of companies that will send out gift packs of Alaska crab and salmon. One of the most successful is Copper River Seafoods, founded by Cordova-born and raised Scott Black. It has expanded to a number of plants around the state with a campus at its headquarters and main factory in Anchorage. What we like about the product is that Blake and his associates (which include a lot of other Cordova fishermen -- coincidence?) have taken pains to keep their management and employment local even as the company has grown. Also, their holiday packs make great gifts.
But there are those who will pay more attention to what you give their dog than what you send them. For them, we recommend Copper River Seafoods' several lines of pet treats. The Wildcatch pet treats, aimed at gourmet and high-end retail outlets, have very few ingredients and are human-grade, which means they might double as emergency supplies. Five four-ounce packs are $37.40. Of course, it won't hurt the spirit of giving if you include one of the company's many gift packs for people. They also make a separate line, Wildsky, sold in pet stores -- a little less expensive, but still human-grade. (copperriverseafoods.com)
Dog paw salve
Denali Dreams also has goat milk soap in its product list. Theirs is made from the milk of Mat-Su goats. They also make a dog wash soap, $6.50, said to provide great relief to your itchy best friend and a salve for dry, rough paws. Made with natural beeswax, the salve, $4.50, contains olive oil, avocado oil, aloe vera oil and vitamin E. Paw problems are familiar to owners of large dogs who have to trudge through Alaska ice and snow, but Lower 48 canines who burn their feet on hot asphalt may also enjoy the relief. Denali Dreams products are sold at several area tourist shops and Alaska Mill and Feed as well as at their shop, 2227 Spenard Rd. (denalidreams.com)
The gift of experience
Modern life is often inundated with stuff, and sometimes that stuff gets overwhelming. Some of the best gifts are experiences. Here are some ideas:
Cleaning: Consider hiring a day of house cleaning for a busy parent, or a certificate for your favorite commuter to get their car detailed.
Tunes: Got a friend who wishes they could play an instrument, but never got around to learning? Or maybe they did years in the high school orchestra, but their real passion was bluegrass? A private lesson or two can be a great jump-start. To find teachers, call the The Music Man for referrals, 561-7001 and musicmanstore.com. Instrument rentals are available at Music Man and at The Violin Shoppe, 277-9115 and violinsguitars.com.
For accomplished musicians, consider renting studio time so they can make a high-quality recording of their work. Rates in Anchorage range from $85-$175. Surreal Studios, at 562-3754, and Buzzbizz Studios, at 575-6572, are good places to start checking things out.
Class: Check out local studios for dance, yoga and art class packages.
Memberships: Buy a family or individual membership to a local nonprofit like the Alaska Zoo or Anchorage Museum. Or, for the outdoorsy, an annual parking pass for state parks ($40 at dnr.alaska.gov/parks).
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332. Reach Victoria Barber at email@example.com or 257-4556.