Gift giving isn't as easy as it used to be. So what does the discerning gifter give to separate her present (or his) from a multitude of others? Alaska Dispatch staff offer a few ideas -- either homemade or carefully crafted by locals -- that are sure to be distinguished this holiday season.
'Micro-nutrient superstars of the tundra'
From the exotic Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta of Western Alaska comes ArXotica, the skin care product that could almost be an ancient potion. The triplet sisters Michelle, Amy and Cika Sparck have blended fireweed, Arctic sage and crowberry -- what they call the "micro-nutrient superstars of the tundra" -- with extra virgin salmon oil and Alaska glacier water to create what they call Quyung-lii. Kai-oong-lee, as it is pronounced in the local Eskimo dialect, means "the potent one."
But the Sparks sisters probably won't mind if you just refer to it as tundra potion.
Their concoction does promise almost magical powers. "Inspired by an Ancient Diet, enhanced with technology and validated through science, ArXotica has harnessed the unparalleled properties of extreme environment botanicals to create a luxury skin care line with our Anti-Aging Skin Serum debut -- a veritable superfood diet for your skin," the ArXotica website says.
That is, of course, marketing hype.
Here is what we know: The product smells and feels good on the skin, and it is more than a little unique. There aren't many skin care products originating from the tundra of the Arctic. If you've got someone on your Christmas list for whom you want the truly special and original, this is it. A 50-milliliter bottle of Quyung-lii costs $300, but ArXotica is at the moment offering a 1.8-milliliter sample with 10 servings for a mere $20.
"This five-day supply is perfect for you to appraise the quality of our product, and to try on your skin," the company says. "Free of artificial fragrance and color, we feel you'll be satisfied with the integrity and texture of our formula. We figure it's the perfect stocking stuffer if you can't afford to go all the way and wrap "the potent one" up to put under the tree.
-- Craig Medred
DIY lights for dark Alaska winter nights
Ice lanterns are an inexpensive gift that makes use of Alaska's abundant chilly weather. Low-cost and low-skill, the cold-climate adornments are a perfect family gift-giving project that rates high on the charm factor.
They quickly perk up hot tubs, porches, driveways and walkways. Recipients will sweetly remember the family or friends who made them every time they fire up a candle and enjoy the lanterns' glint and glow.
We're particularly fond of ice lanterns made from balloons, but any container -- from milk cartons to soup cans to five-gallon buckets -- will do. The process is simple: fill balloon, partially freeze, drain. The goal is to end up with a hollow sphere. Place a candle inside, drill a chimney on top and you're set!
Add homemade cookies or some other delightful nibble to complement the lantern and you'll have assembled an enchanting holiday treat that will lift spirits and warm hearts. Should Mother Nature throw a wrench in your plans with unseasonably warm weather, preventing you from "curing" your lanterns in the cold outside, just clear space in your freezer and have a go at it. Experiment, and enjoy!
-- Jill Burke
A scarf or nachaq fashioned from the luxurious under-fur of the musk ox may be the lightest, warmest and softest winter wear you’ll ever give to someone in the Far North. The fibers are exceptionally clean and fine when compared to goat cashmere, only about 18 millionths of a meter in diameter, according to this scientific analysis. When spun into thread, the dense strands become stronger and eight times warmer by weight than sheep's wool.
The raw quviut -- an adult animal can produce up to seven pounds a year -- gets combed each spring from the thick-coated musk ox living at the non-profit farm near Palmer. The yarn is then distributed across the state to the 250 members of the Oomingmak "musk ox producers" cooperative. Using their own needles, and working at their own pace at home, the artisans hand-knit these unique products embedded with traditional Native patterns.
While the items can be pricey (a lightweight scarf runs $245), the knitters all inhabit remote Alaskan villages and depend on their share of the proceeds to live, according to the co-op website. "The income received by knitting helps the members and her family with the costs of such things as electricity and heat and other modern expenses. Most of our members live a subsistence lifestyle, hunting, fishing and gathering berries and other plants for their food. Even this lifestyle requires the extra money for fuel for boats or 4-wheelers and the cost of the equipment to get the necessary food."
-- Doug O'Harra
Salmon vodka for the saucy
A shot of the Alaska Distillery's Smoked Salmon Vodka under the tree will get Santa's attention this holiday season. This spirit has a faint, well, salmon tint to it -- like a coho just coming in to its freshwater blush. The nose suggests a hint of lox.
Taste? Yup. Salmon. It's certainly a love-it-or-hate-it offering. When we brought the bottle out for Thanksgiving there was no middle ground -- fans sipped it slowly and went back for more. Detractors made ugly faces and couldn't give their glasses away fast enough.
But whatever side of the fence you're on, it's a conversation piece. And if it comes on too strong straight, try mixing up a Bloody Mary. Perhaps that's the highest use: savor it in small doses through the winter, reminding yourself of salmon to come. When summer hits its stride in 2012, break out the local celery and mix up an Alaska-grown cocktail.
-- Stephen Nowers
Wear your dog
Some people really love dogs. Many Alaskans really, really, really love their dogs. Really. We love them so much that we'll allow our dogs to pull us 1,000 miles through some hellish conditions along the Iditarod Trail. We love them so much that after Fido, Finnegan or Fiona has gone to fetch sticks from the River Styx, we want to wear a part of him or her.
We love them so much that some of us can't even wait until death has taken our dogs. After all, man's best friend is a warm friend.
So why wait until you crawl into bed next to your furry four-legged companion to share that creature comfort? All you have to do is contact Lead Dog Graphics, and Miriam and James Cooper will take care of you. Send in your dog's fur, and the Coopers will transform it into a scarf, hat, wrist band -- or however you want to wear your dog.
Or cat. Miriam says she can do those, too.
And if you don’t have an animal to draw fur from, Miriam will gladly provide. Lead Dog Graphic Arts has about 30 canines. Twenty are the company’s own animals, and they also have 10 to 12 sled dogs in foster care. Those dogs, many of which are malamutes, have an undercoat like down. Miriam Cooper likened it to Alpaca.
"It’s like a pelt," she said. Specifically for mushers, she’s also making Malamute fur hats with a beaver lining and ear flaps. "It’s so warm that I can’t wear it unless it’s like 40-below," she said.
Now that's a real Alaska winter day.
-- Amanda Coyne
Warm hands for Fatbikers or Sledheads
Bar mitts, handlebar pogies, snowmobile guantlets or moose mitts? Call these attachments to a snowmachine, ATV or bicycle handlebar anything you want, but recognize the mothers of them are Alaska born. From the frozen heart of the state -- Fairbanks -- come two choices: The $84 per pair "Bike Toasties" from Apocalypse Design, and the $100-to-$145 per pair "Pogies" from Dogwood Designs.
Apocalypse has been sewing Alaska gear since 1983, and pioneered its toasties back in the days of the Iditasport human-powered winter race, when cyclists still rode the Iditarod Trail on skinny tires. The Iditasport eventually died. The better-managed Iditarod Trail Invitational arose to takes its place, and fat-tired bikes exploded onto the scene. There now seem to be more fat bikes on the winter trails of Alaska's largest city than Nordic skiers.
Fat bikes are truly the new winter craze. If one of those fat bikers (or should that be riders of fat bikes?) is on your Christmas list, a set of toasties or pogies are the ticket. But these mitts aren't just for the muscle-powered gang. If you know someone who suffers from cold fingers on their ATV or snowgo, these are the cure. Slip a pair of "toasties" onto the snowmobile handlebars, flip on the grip heaters, and the mitts will get warm enough inside to reheat leftover food for lunch. Honestly. Even at 40- or 50-degrees below zero, the coldest fingered of Alaskans will still likely have to turn the grip heaters to low to avoid cooking a digit.
The "pogies plus," which appear to have even more insulation than the "toasties," might actually be too warm for most riders of gasoline-powered machines that feature heated grips. To the aforementioned riders of fat-tired bikes, which lack grip heaters, "toasties" or "pogies" are a godsend. No matter how numbingly cold it is, most Alaskans pedalling around the frozen North will find their fingers comfortably warm inside while wearing only a thin, polypropylene liner glove. Folks with warmer hands might even be able to ride gloveless at these temperatures, although some sort of liner glove is always a good idea. You never know when you might need to pull a hand out to wipe a nose or readjust gear.
-- Craig Medred
The traditional mukluk boots often worn by Alaska Natives are less likely to be made of seal these days, but they’re still attractive, still look traditional and still are in high demand.
That's the word from Gus Gillespie, owner of Alaska Fur Exchange in Midtown Anchorage.
He sells the boots starting at about $450 a pair. The fur body often comes from a small animal, such as a beaver or otter. Some people use black bear fur now, too, after the state Board of Game loosened rules that were once, well, more hidebound.
Trim is often made of wolf, fox or coyote, Gillespie said.
But the soles are more likely to be rubber sewn into cow skin. Those materials keep moisture out better and are easier to work with than traditional seal-skin soles. Seal-skin soles are still worn but are harder to find: Alaska Natives with the know-how and patience to make them are dying, Gillespie said.
"The people who do this are basically going away," he said.
Nowadays, customers still demand mukluks, but they’re interested in beauty more than function. "They want something that looks pretty on their feet," for special events like Fur Rondy.
-- Alex DeMarban