The lake here at the Finger Lake Checkpoint along the Iditarod has come alive. Chatter between the lodge and volunteer Iditarod pilots on the VHF radio is fast and furious as the ten or so race checkers who will inhabit our lake for the next few days fly in with supplies and gear.
The checkers set up tents along the frozen lake near the shore to protect themselves from any wind or weather that might occur. A miniature village will spring up in the matter of hours, with straw bales for seats, a watering hole, a cook tent, and sleeping quarters. This year there is a small communications satellite positioned on the lake and the communications people now have a telephone. There seems to be advances every year.
This is the fifteenth year our lodge has served as support for the race at Finger Lake. I, along with my hardworking kitchen team including Mandy, Elizabeth and Carlyle, will cook meals for all the mushers who pass through and request one. Our kitchen becomes a hub of activity as mushers talk, socialize, and warm up a bit.
Most of the checkers here are veterinarians, from all over the world, it seems. They examine the race dogs, care for any dropped dogs, and they all frequently stop to pet my elderly black Labrador, Willow, who is always a little flummoxed by the hubbub on her lake.
Tonight the trailbreakers -- eight men on snow machines who ensure the trail is in good enough condition for the sled dogs -- will come through and stay with us. Big Roger, as he is known, and his crew will repair damage to the trail from their last visit created by wayward snowmachiners who have inadvertently created alternate routes, ruts or other hazards. The trailbreakers will eat with our staff in the kitchen and fill us in on any gossip along the trail.
The checkers will go through their boxes of food and discover what might be available to cook for dinner. Usually there is someone in the group that has an affinity for cooking over a small camp stove and will take the lead on meal preparations. The food is mostly donated and some is purchased. It's fare such as boxed noodle mix and crackers, ground beef and canned vegetables. Some checkers will pride themselves in how creative they might get with a one-skillet meal.
In the boxes of supplies for checkers, there is always that famous orange powdered drink, an essential ingredient in Russian tea. I can't figure out why or when the tradition of blending hot orange drink with hot tea started but I've been hearing about it ever since I first came to Alaska. And, every Iditarod, there seems to be plenty of orange drink going around. Joe Redington swore by hot orange drink, saying the intense orange flavor offered a jolt to otherwise dulled taste buds on the trail.
I think tonight, after the staff meal is underway, I might slip down to the tent village on my lake, sit on a bale of straw and sip some hot Russian tea with a few of the checkers. Perhaps we'll see the northern lights and be glad we are here together along the Iditarod Trail.
You can make Russian Tea in the traditional style or a more modern version using orange juice, lemon tea or lemon juice and other non-processed ingredients.
Traditional Russian tea
(makes four servings)
2 tablespoons powdered orange drink, like Tang
2 tablespoons powdered lemon drink
Pinch of ground cinnamon
Pinch of ground cloves
1 large lemon peel
1-2 tea bags (your choice of variety -- we used black tea)
Method: Combine the powders and spices into a heatproof container. Hang the tea bag (or bags) over the container and pour in 4 cups of boiling water. Stir the mixture and serve hot.