Nature center goes back in time
Wood smoke and bacon grease wafted through the air outside the cozy log cabin, its sturdy wooden frame holding strong against the falling snow. Nestled in the smoldering embers of a warm fire, Dutch ovens and cast iron skillets full of cornbread and fritters and sausages sizzled and popped and steamed.
You could almost hear a dog team a-coming.
The Eagle River Nature Center transformed itself into a 19th century roadhouse on Saturday, complete with period costumes, Sourdough flapjacks and enough history to fill a freight sled. The “Iditarod Roadhouse” event was designed to give visitors a taste of what the area would have been like when the Eagle River Valley served as a vital link on the historic Iditarod Trail.
“The only transportation in wintertime was along the trail,” explained Ute Olsson, the center’s resident naturalist.
During the last great North American gold rush, she said the valley the center calls home was a wintertime highway used by miners, mailmen and mushers to access Alaska’s vast Interior. The trail began at the port of Seward on Resurrection Bay and continued north to Girdwood. From there, travellers – most of them on dogsled – had to cut through the Front Range of the Chugach Mountains, climbing up to Raven Glacier and over Crow Pass, then down into what used to be called Yukla Valley.
Today, travelers heading between Girdwood and Eagle River would use the Seward and Glenn Highways to make the trip, but at the dawn of the 20th century that wasn’t the case. Dangerous cliffs and tidal mudflats along Turnagain Arm made that option impossible.
“They had to go through the mountains,” Olsson told a group of about 20 people who gathered to hear a talk about the trail’s history during Saturday’s event.
From Eagle River, the Iditarod Trail headed north toward the town of Iditarod, the epicenter of the great “Inland Empire,” an area of bustling mining towns and gold fields that brought thousands to Alaska in search of fortune in the late 1800s. The trail connected all the way to Nome, which saw its own boom begin in 1898 when “The Three Lucky Swedes” (actually two Swedes and a Norwegian) discovered gold there.
For weary mushers, the cabins built near the trail were vital outposts.
“Along the way they had roadhouses,” Olsson said. “And that’s what we’re celebrating today.”
Saturday was the third annual celebration of the valley’s Iditarod Trail past, and it’s an event volunteers take seriously. About a dozen of them dressed in period costumes for the day, with long, handmade dresses and flannel shirts the preferred attire. Near a handwritten “Menue” board, soups, baked goods, hot chocolate and pancakes beckoned the hearty souls who braved a real-life snowstorm Saturday to reach the center. The log cabin, located 12 miles up Eagle River Road, was covered in 14 inches of powder the night before the event.
The snow was so deep, several people got stuck driving out and had to be dug or pushed out by Good Samaritans. Volunteer Gail Somerville joked that olden-day transportation might have been more appropriate for the afternoon.
“A good dog team and a dogsled,” she said. “And a tow truck.”
The warm goodies were provided by volunteers and members of the “Taste Buds,” a crew of self-described “foodies” who are part of the Anchorage Meetup group. Group member Aurora Kassube spent most of the day tending to a hot bed of coals, where she used Dutch ovens and skillets to cook a number of dishes. Kassube also gave a presentation on using the ancient cooking methods.
Cast iron is great for cooking in high heat, fires and ovens, she said. But there are a couple tricks to using the metal. The skillets must be “seasoned,” a process that covers the skillet with a layer of oils and fats. To season a new skillet, she said wash it in soapy water, then dry it in an oven on low heat. Next, she recommended filling the skillet or cast iron pot with black tea and water and placing it in a 400-degree oven until the water has boiled off.
“The tannins in the tea will actually seal it off and they’ll stop rust from re-forming,” she said.
After that, grease up the pan with bacon grease or coconut oil and that’s about it. Cast iron shouldn’t be washed with soap after that, but simply scrubbed with a wire brush.
Kassube said cast iron is an ideal way to cook meats like steak or to cook over an open flame. And the older they are, the better they get.
“The older the pan, the more delicate cooking you can do,” she said.
Kassube said cast iron cooking is something that would have been done all the time on the old trail.
“Cast iron is historically what people used over the ages,” she said.
The center’s director, Asta Spurgis, said the annual turn-back-the-clock event is part of the center’s mission to educate people about the area’s unique past. That means teaching about the plants and animals and geology of the area, but also its more recent history.
“The function of most nature centers is not only natural history but also cultural history,” Spurgis explained.
And what better way to illustrate the valley’s gold rush past than to turn the whole place into a roadhouse?
“This was a great opportunity to take our log cabin and make it circa 1900 and to talk about the history of the Iditarod Trail and the history of things like mushing, roadhouses, how they used to cook – that’s the whole idea why we get dressed up,” she said. “It’s to resurrect that cultural legacy.”
Although the portion of the trail between Seward and Eagle River fell out of use when the railroad to Anchorage was built in 1915, many recreational users still hike and ski in the valley. Crow Pass is now a popular summertime trek and even home to a 23-mile wilderness race that draws some of the top mountain runners in Alaska.
During her talk about the trail, Olsson said extensive upgrades were made to the Crow Pass route in 1975, when the Girl Scouts of America put in new bridges across a gorge and several streams. She said the scouts also named several geographic waypoints along the popular hiking trail, including Heritage Falls and Yaketyyak Creek.
“It was quite a project,” she said.
The center operates numerous educational programs throughout the year, maintains trails in the area and rents three yurts and one cabin to visitors. But the nonprofit’s main mission, Spurgis said, is to teach.
“The reason behind everything else we do is education,” she said.
Although attendance at this year’s event was a bit lower than the past two years due to the snow, there were still plenty of people willing to make the haul out to the center. That group included Elijah Baldwin, who drove his family out from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson for the festivities.
“This was just a nice way to get out of the house,” Baldwin said.
He said he plans to bring his family to the center more often. With its extensive trails and educational programs, he said the log cabin is a welcome retreat from the nearby metro area.
“We’re going to come out here more often,” he said.
Baldwin’s mother-in-law, Jacqueline Toombes, got a real Alaska experience out of the day. The family got briefly stuck on the drive out, and between the old-timey costumes and heavy snow, she said she’ll have a couple good stories to tell her friends back home in Los Angeles.
“I definitely have a lot to talk about when I get home,” she said.
Having grown up in England, Toombes said she’s familiar with snow. But having such a remote outpost of wilderness so close to the city is something she’s unfamiliar with.
“In L.A. we have to go all the way to the mountains to do something like this,” she said.
For more information on the Eagle River Nature Center, visit them online at www.ernc.org.