Food in the Backcountry
Every trip into the mountains is different, but they all have one thing in common. At some point, the principal topic of conversation turns to food. Food we are tired of, food we crave, food we are looking forward to at the end of the trip.
The problems is that we carry 2 pounds of food per day, without much variety: ramen for breakfast, Mountain House for dinner, nuts, meat, cheese, chocolate throughout the day. This was not a sustainable amount of food on my longest trip, 30 days, where we all lost 10 pounds and shivered whenever a cloud blocked the sun. Once we arrived in McCarthy, we ate until our stomaches hurt. Burgers, fries, fresh bread, fruit. At the grocery store, Graham Kraft bought KitKats and string cheese, snacks that John Sykes and I, respectively, had carried. Graham had been coveting our snacks for several weeks and hundreds of miles.
In 2014 I flew to the flank of Iliamna volcano, 130 miles from Anchorage, with the intention of skiing home to Anchorage. We started as a group of nine; folks peeled off as required by other obligations. Our route consisted of ~265 miles through the Chigmit, Neacola, and Tordrillo mountains, which took three weeks. It was an incredible trip with ideal group dynamics, rewarding summits, and excellent skiing.
We exited the mountains by floating the Beluga River in packrafts, then walked the Susitna Flats back to Anchorage. “Flats” is short for mudflats, travel so bad that we couldn’t help but laugh. The flats consisted of a slick mud, between inches and feet deep, cleaved by frequent streams and gullies carrying waist deep water the same color as the mud. Our shoe laces were so clogged that they couldn’t easily be tied. Crossing the Susitna River involved bushwhacking through knee-deep water, a new experience for me.
From the mudflats we could see Anchorage’s skyline. Despite the poor travel, we were elated to be nearing the finish of an amazing trip. Our pace was governed by wanting to arrive before the restaurants closed. Burgers or pizza? Who makes the best burgers in town? When does Moose’s Tooth close?
After a failed attempt to rinse free of the mud in a (muddy) stream, Eben Sargent pointed to a peculiar log in the distance. “Hey guys! Look at that log… it looks like a hot dog!” Our stomachs rumbled and we had a good laugh. As we approached, we were stunned to discover that the log was, in fact, a hot dog.
The 9-foot hot dog was made of foam and incorporated a cement platform. High on life and heavy on extra fuel, it went without saying that the dog should be lit on fire.
The plume of smoke was so toxic, and voluminous, that I was nervous airplanes would think we were signaling for help (the Susitna Flats are in the flight path to Anchorage). We extinguished the flames, leaving a charred hot dog for the next discovery party.
From our perspective, the hot dog was in the middle of nowhere, 250 miles from the start of our trip. The distance to Anchorage was only about 12 miles, but proximity to town still didn’t explain how the hot dog got there.
Origin of a Nine Foot Hot Dog
My photo of the burning hot dog gathered local and national attention.
“I’m writing from GoodMorningAmerica.com — we saw the super fun Alaska Dispatch News article about the 9-foot hot dog you found, and we’re hoping to write a story about it.”-Stefanie Tuder
Stefanie was the “Associate Food & Lifestyle Producer” for ABC News. Seemed like a good fit. I was on another trip and missed the opportunity to tell her about the hot dog, my near brush with fame. But I didn’t have much of a story to tell; it took several months for the hot dog’s story to come to light.
“I can’t help but wonder where that thing started its journey off in the first place.“
A few weeks after sharing the hot dog photo, I received an email from Ryan Skorecki, a wildfire pilot that I’d never met.
“I’ve flown for AK state forestry for the past 4 summers, and either 2 or 3 years ago we were flying around doing practice water drops in the braided sections of the Mat [Matanuska River], just downstream from the Palmer airport. On one of my passes, I too saw an object that looked like a hot dog…and when I got closer I found (same as you) that it was indeed a large hot dog. I tried to find the thing again last year but couldn’t…and it appears that it must have continued its trip out the Knik inlet and on to the Susitna flats. Comedy. It will be interesting to see where it ends up next! And I can’t help but wonder where that thing started its journey off in the first place.”-Ryan Skorecki
Ryan checked with his crew and concluded that they had seen the hot dog in the summer of 2012. After emailing me, Ryan checked Google Earth and found the hot dog in imagery from 2010, 2011, and 2012. The next oldest capture date is 2004, and doesn’t show the hot dog.
Like Ryan, I couldn’t help but wonder where the hot dog started its journey.
In August I volunteered for a Healthy Futures event in Anchorage. Healthy Futures is a program to get kids playing outside. One of the other athlete volunteers (“role model”) coyly introduced himself and told me he had seen the photo of the hot dog and knew a little bit about it. Apparently, in 2004, as a Junior on the Colony High Cross Country team, Allan and his friends stole the hot dog from the (seasonally?) out-of-business Miller’s Market in Houston, Alaska, and hung it under a bridge in Palmer. Allan was embarrassed about the prank, and especially regretful when Miller’s Market re-opened for business.
“… arrived just in time to watch it float downriver.”
The hot dog was stolen from Miller’s Market in 2004, and had washed 8 miles down the Matanuska River by 2010. From there, break up or high water must have dislodged the hot dog in 2013, allowing it to float 8 miles into Knik Arm, and another ~40 miles to where we found it on the Susitna mudflats.
Journalist Craig Medred discovered how the hot dog got from the bridge and into the river. Craig wrote two articles (1, 2) about the dog for Alaska Dispatch News, and interviewed Keith Miller, son of the Miller’s Market owners.
“We tried to recover the hot dog as it swung from the bridge over the river’s current. A tow truck was responding to retrieve it when a separate group of kids cut it loose and the recovery crew arrived just in time to watch it float downriver.”-Keith Miller
In the interview, Keith mentions that the family did not think the prank was funny, even though he and his siblings were embarrassed by their dad’s obsession with foam food art. The props continue to bring in business– the hot dog has been replaced by an 8 foot soft serve cone.
“Damn that dog has had a good life”
For me, the story ended in September 2014 when I received an email from Alison Ford, who was dating one of my adventure buddies (watch Todd Tumolo in action during the Wilderness Classic).
After seeing the Medred article a few weeks ago my friend Saraj sent me the awkward attached photo of us on it from the late 90s. Thought I’d share. Damn that dog has had a good life.-Alison Ford
Wishes really do come true. Next time you wish for hamburgers and pizza while traveling through remote Alaska, remember to specify that you are hoping for real food, not foam food art.