Life is always an adventure living along the Iditarod Trail, but early March is an especially active time for those of us who live at Mile 198, the Finger Lake checkpoint. In our airplane-dependent world, weather is a constant topic of discussion and speculation around the kitchen table. Sometimes visitors might not be able to fly into the lake when expected. This past week we were wondering if the team of Iditarod checkpoint volunteers would be able to fly in. With giant snowflakes falling, we were relieved when the team of 17 checkers arrived at the last minute before the weather worsened.
Each year when the checkers do arrive, they swing into action and set up a little village on our frozen lake. They sift through boxes of supplies that were already sent out weeks earlier by Iditarod Air Force pilot volunteers. They set up cozy tents for sleeping and for cooking, and for a makeshift vet clinic. One tent will house sophisticated communications equipment to relay race details.
Even before the Iditarod week started at the lodge, we were busy. Not everyone flies to get here. Forty-seven racers from around the world biked or skied their way across the lake, each stopping to take a meal with us, sleep a little, go through and organize their gear, and then quietly and gracefully move along down the trail on their way to Nome.
The checkers and lodge team blocked off some of the trails around our house that lead to our dog lot with bales of straw and crossed trail markers so racing teams won't be tempted to divert from the trail. We cut holes through our now 4-foot-thick ice on the lake with an ice auger to gather water for the dogs, and set down long "runways" of straw for arriving dog teams. The kitchen crew made rice, beans and fresh salsa for 100 people. The night before dogs and drivers made it to the Finger Lake checkpoint, all was ready.
Every year before the Iditarod starts, we have a little party of sorts for the checkers, the trailbreakers that might be passing through, for our guests and our staff. We all gather together after dinner and have an "ice-cream social" as it has come to be known. The kitchen crew makes an elaborate collection of desserts to inspire a little sweetness before the adrenaline-fueled day that will follow. This year, one dessert that has made the collection is a variety of flavored granita.
Our little ice cream social celebrates what in my mind is best about the Iditarod Sled Dog Race -- a gathering of both newcomers to Alaska and old-timers on the trail all coming together to share in the history, excitement and adventure of the Last Great Race.
Granita is a popular crushed ice dessert found all over Italy -- and now it is a favorite along the Iditarod Trail. Just take a nature-inspired flavor (we are using blueberry, apple, orange, and lemon juice), add in enough sugar to preferred sweetness, and place the liquid into a container. We use a 13-inch by 9-inch shallow pan so there is plenty of surface area to freeze quickly. The pan goes into the freezer. Every 20 minutes or so, stir the mixture with a whisk at first and switch to a fork as the mixture becomes thicker and more frozen. How granular should the mixture be? It should match the snow outside your door.
It's a good recipe for backcountry living -- a little elegance obtained without an ice cream machine or any expensive equipment. You could tear up a paper cup and roll it into a cone and call your dessert a snow cone.
Now our lake is silent and heavy snow is covering up the tracks left from all the action and visitors of the past week. Ravens have arrived in force to pick through bits of remaining straw to find nuggets of abandoned dog food. In another day or so, there will be no evidence that more than 800 dogs and their drivers passed by my front window.
Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil and stir to dissolve the sugar. Cool the sugar water to room temperature. This mixture makes a simple syrup.
Add the puree into the simple syrup, stirring the mixture well.
Put the mixture into the chilled shallow pan and place into the freezer. Every 20 minutes, stir the mixture with a whisk. As the mixture begins to freeze, switch to a fork to stir. It will take about 3 hours to freeze completely. If the mixture freezes too hard, just leave it at room temperature until thawed slightly and stir through again with a fork.
Makes 4 cups
Kirsten Dixon is an award-winning chef who has cooked and lived the past 30 years in the backcountry of Alaska. To learn more about her, visit www.kirstendixon.com.