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Summer wanderings in Alaska don’t get any better than this

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Posted: Tuesday, July 31, 2012 5:50 pm

FAIRBANKS — The most perfect week in Alaska has just happened. I think. Let me tell you about it.

First, if you have never been to The Lodge at Black Rapids at 227 Mile on the Richardson Highway, you’ve got to check it out. The immense timber-framed lodge is impressive, but add in the hospitality of owners Mike and Annie Hopper, mix in good food and live music, and you’ve got yourself a date night to remember.

I “discovered” this gem last winter, and find myself making excuses to go there as much as I can. Last Friday night I showed up to listen to singer-songwriter Beth Woods from Oregon perform at the lodge to a packed house of dinner and lodge guests. The music was great and, of course, Alaska being Alaska, I got to chat with friends from Delta who happened to be there. The lodge serves dinner at large rectangular tables in the main room with everyone seated together. This arrangement allows you to converse with whomever is within earshot, and you’re bound to meet interesting characters as well as old friends. I’ve yet to go there and see someone I don’t know. Check out the website at www.lodgeatblackrapids.com.

On the way home that night I pulled over and watched an angry gray sky roil over the contrasting green landscape near a tundra pond. There was a cow moose in it submerging her head for goodies underneath. Her sloshing and chewing echoed through the silence and if I didn’t know it was July would swear those clouds meant snow. It was a beautiful scene.

Sunday found me at another beautiful scene of sorts — The Red Green River Regatta. For all the years I’ve lived in Alaska, that’s one of the things I hadn’t got around to participating in. With Red Green himself (Steve Smith) in town, I thought this year would be the one to do. My vision of sorts was to build a giant duct tape rubber ducky and ride it down the river, towing my children behind me in their old kiddie pool. When I floated this idea, nobody protested, so on Friday we constructed our vessel using everything we could find to make the shape of a rubber ducky. We tested out our idea on Lost Lake that evening. Nobody sank, so we figured we were OK. I was overwhelmed when I got to Graehl Landing on Sunday, the start of the “race.” There were masses of misfit boats and duct-taped crafts everywhere. The most impressive was a guy on a vessel called “Strider.” The guy was essentially skiing on water, like cross-country skiing. The poles had little floats on them even and he actually made of go of it. He also had a kilt on. That alone took guts, according to my husband.

Everything was going fine for us until a giant floating raft of rugby players doused me in the face with massive squirt guns. The cold water from the Chena took my breath away and with that, I shifted weight to the tail feathers. Then the butt went under. Then I went under. I pulled myself on the rugby raft and tried to get back on my duck. Promptly fell into the river again, wheezing to catch my breath and determined as ever to exit that water. It was frigid by any standard. The third time was a charm and off I floated on my duck once again, towing my brood in their kiddie pool.

Red Green was cruising the water and when he drifted by my daughter pointed her squirt gun at him. He said to her with a grin on his face “You wouldn’t dare.” I sincerely hoped she wouldn’t squirt him, but wouldn’t have been mad if she had. It’s not often you get the chance to squirt a celebrity. When it was all said and done my kids had acquired two water cannon squirt guns and numerous water balloons along the way. They squirted everyone within shooting distance and even if I hadn’t capsized, I would have been soaked by the end. Don’t think you’ll stay dry if you ever float the Regatta. And don’t believe anyone who tells you the Chena River is warm.

We played tourists the rest of the day at Pioneer Park and melted in the day’s unexpected heat, waiting to attend Red Green’s one-man show later that evening. He didn’t disappoint. That guy is absolutely hilarious. We got a family picture with him after the show. It’s a day we’ll all remember.

Speaking of heat, this past week has ended up being a spectacular example of perfect Alaska weather. Thursday I went berry picking all by myself in my favorite secret spot. I was in shorts and sandals, enjoying the heat and the sweet smell of warm blueberries cooking in the sun. It’s not often you can eat warm blueberries off the bush in Alaska. I didn’t have much time, so I only took a one-cup container with me. My aim was to fill it with the biggest berries I could find, which meant I had to pass up most of the bushes that were loaded with purple goodness — a challenge for any dedicated berry picker. It was just the monsters I was after. I tooled around, judging each berry on size and ripeness alone. Only the giants got picked. It was quite fun and was satisfying in its own way. For the first time I wasn’t after quantity.

Also plentiful this year are the wild strawberries. Harder to pick because they get mushy so fast, I picked the stems this year and put them in water in a pint Mason jar and just sat them on my counter like a bouquet. They stay fresher that way and anytime you want one, you can just pull it off the stem right from the jar.

This morning I gathered wildflowers for the table in the warm sun, with my dog following lazily behind, often stopping to roll in the long, lush grass in the hay field. Between the fresh flowers and the strawberries and blueberries on my kitchen counter, I’m in heaven with the sweet smell of summer. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Brookelyn Bellinger is an independent filmmaker and author of the book “The Frozen Toe Guide to Real Alaskan Livin’.” Send your questions to brookelynbellinger@hotmail.com.

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