Wild turkey day, Juneau-style

Forest cabins offer outdoorsy Thanksgiving alternative for those who pack foil-wrapped food into the woods

Posted: Sunday, November 27, 2005

Relaxing on Thanksgiving Day takes extra planning and execution when you're going over the muskeg and through the woods to a U.S. Forest Service cabin.

For our group of five adults and two big Alaska dogs, a new tradition is in the making. Thursday marked our second year spending the special holiday in a Juneau-area cabin. Last year's hike to Windfall Lake Cabin in the dark and snow with a 16-pound turkey and all the fixings gave us an advantage as we had greater insight and better ideas for this year's trip.

A scouting mission came first as we put our plan to action. Two weeks ago on a Sunday, a few of us, including dogs, hiked the partially planked 3 1/2-mile Auke Nu Trail leading to John Muir cabin. The trail began easily and proved a popular walk for many dogs and their owners. We approached a fork in the trail and took the left, away from Spaulding Meadows. The easy rock pathway turned into planks with occasional breaks for tree roots. It's November in Southeast Alaska, so the planks were wet and slippery. The trail ascended 1,500 feet, and thick sheets of ice covered the planks and made our time slow and our feet unsteady. We arrived at the cabin and checked the watch. The hike took a little more than two hours. Calculations began, and we decided that with packs on our backs and the icy planks under foot our Thanksgiving hike would be closer to a three-hour tour.

Last Sunday, a meeting was called to order. It was the "who is cooking and bringing what" kind of meeting. We assigned our favorite dishes to each other based on last year's preferences and the individual's signature recipes. One friend, for instance, makes such tasty sweet potatoes with candied pecans that last year she turned another friend - a sweet-potato hater - into a believer, and a reprise was demanded. After all was accounted for, I was assigned stuffing, cranberry sauce and a dessert of choice: brownies. The meeting ended with assignments, anticipation and our salivary glands in overdrive.

Our reasons for spending the holiday beyond the reach of electricity and plumbing are varied and largely unspoken. For some, it's a way to get "out of town" for a few days and not have to worry about daily stresses. Others of us want to travel to a place that has none of the usual comforts of home, and we are reminded to give thanks for the courses our lives have taken. For all of us, a hike is good exercise, especially before and after gorging ourselves.

We watched the weather all week, or rather, we felt the weather as the skies dumped record inches of rain and the wind nearly knocked us over. The plus side to the rain was that the planks previously covered in ice would just be wet. The rain didn't let up as we cooked and packed on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, Thanksgiving Eve.

Going with last year's tradition, my friends hiked the trail on Wednesday night. Carrying an average pack of 50 pounds (and 10-pound packs for each dog), they stepped into sinking mud between the slippery planks where the ice had melted, but arrived safely at the cabin. Wood was gathered and brought inside to dry in preparation for the next day's meal.

Equipped with my assignments (and finally free from work), I started my hike at noon on Thanksgiving. The fresh air and the time alone was needed after a hurried week. My pack was lighter than the others' were, and I moved lightly and quickly over the muskeg. The trail alternated between dense forest and open meadow. In two hours I saw my friends as they came to meet me when I approached the cabin. Although we spend lots of time together, I was especially excited to see them this day. Maybe it was the planning, the preparation and the anticipation of knowing a good day was in store.

The fun started right away. Various piles of scat on the walk toward the cabin brought on a lengthy debate on the finer points of identifying which animal belongs to which poop. At this point, I heard the story about the black wolf with which they had a stare-down that morning in the meadow near the cabin.

As we continued toward the cabin, my friend pointed to two containers in the nearby bog pond. "The margaritas just aren't staying cold." I didn't remember us planning on bringing margaritas, but I was happy they made the trip. We left the margaritas to chill and went inside the cabin.

The cabin was warm and inviting. Large streamers of orange survey tape were hanging above the table for a festive, Thanksgivingy feel. We decided to relax a while before beginning to cook our feast. I unpacked and joined a game of Rummy 500 with my cohorts. As it got darker, our eyelids grew heavier, and we took a pre-dinner power nap.

When I awoke dinner was well on its way. Because of the heavy rainfall, we couldn't have a fire outside, so the cabin's wood stove did the trick. The key to cabin or camp cooking is foil. As my friend so profoundly said, "Tin foil is multipurpose, and it's got a lot of uses." We had precooked and foil-wrapped almost everything (brining and partly cooking the turkey) before we arrived so it could be thrown on the fire to heat. Foil-covered dish after foil-covered dish was pulled from the stove. Each was placed on top of the heater to keep warm while other dishes cooked.

Last year the turkey roasted outside in a pit dug in the earth. Rain again changed our methods this year. We brought only half a turkey. Excellent planning on my friend's part: cutting the turkey in half. She hacked it right down the middle with a hatchet because a full turkey does not fit in a wood stove. Another friend hand-roasted an enormous leg of deer, holding it in the stove over the fire and rotating it as needed.

Steam came off the foil packets that were placed on the table, filling the room with a delicious aroma. The feast was on. Our group of friends is a group of toasters. We believe in acknowledging our loved ones, the goodness in others and a job well done. Eight toasts for friends and family around the world, for each other and for food brought smiles to our faces before we dived into dinner.

The food was delectable. We ate mashed potatoes and parsnips while the dogs chowed on giblets and turkey necks. For every dish, a libation accompanied. We talked and ate, rested, talked and ate some more.

Everything tasted better because we had carried it on our backs; we worked for it. As our stomachs reached capacity, we slowed down and talked about why we are thankful. After all, that is the reason for the holiday. It's never too cheesy or cliché to be thankful on Thanksgiving.

We finished the evening off with speed Scrabble and heart-wrenching renditions of "California Dreamin'" and "Time of the Season" before climbing into sleeping bags on the cabin bunks.

Overnight, the sky dumped snow, and a fresh layer of powder greeted us in the morning. We sipped coffee made with stream water. The black wolf made another appearance. My friend who hoped to spend the day deer hunting fired his gun to scare the wolf away.

Needing to get to work that day, I packed leftovers and trash and headed back out, thankful for another wild turkey day.



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