“Yum, is that sourdough I smell cooking?” asks a guest as he comes into my kitchen (At Anchorage Walkabout Town B&B, Alaska).
“Yes it is and you’re having it in waffles with rhubarb sauce this morning”, I reply. And with that, the guest begins a story about the wonderful sourdough and rhubarb he remembers from his childhood. I tell him that sourdough in Alaska is a status symbol. Alaskans have bragging rights about where they got their starter and how old the starter is. I too have bragging rights on both fronts, so I begin my story.
About 15 years ago, my husband and I floated the Johns River in rafts, along with some friends. This river is above the Arctic Circle and runs south out of the Brooks Mountain Range. Like most places in Alaska, we had to fly in using a floatplane. Ours landed on a little lake, more like a pond, so we could disembark with a week’s supply of food, two rafts and a blow up canoe. We hired a guide from Go North Travel Center to guide us. We wanted someone to make all of the arrangements, feed us, and keep us safe. Our guide, Laurent Dick, was the perfect choice for that job.
We took five days to float a very short distance but we weren’t in a hurry. Many animals appeared as we floated along. A Grizzly swam across the river in front of us one afternoon and a Lynx was spotted that evening looking at us from shore as we floated by. I’m sure I saw that lynx licking its lips as it looked at dinner possibilities. One evening, a herd of caribou ran right by our campsite. What a thrill; most of us had never experienced such an event. The trip was full of wild animal viewing, relaxation, fresh air and a little exercise.
When the Johns River leaves the mountains is goes into swampland on its way to Bettles, the normal take out area. None of us wanted to float over that swampland, too full of bugs for us. So we took out at Crevice Creek where Lill and Bill Fickus owned a homestead. They maintained a grass airstrip close to their home for the mail plane. That day they were expecting our plane. The weather was almost stormy so the plane from Bettles was unable to retrieve us for several hours. Lill did her best to keep us entertained. She generously feed us sourdough items that she had baked that morning and filled us stories about her family.
Lill was Athabascan; her people followed the caribou and trap animals when she was a girl. She explained that about 125 years ago trappers gave her family the sourdough starter. Her family would carry the starter with them as they ran their trap lines and moved from camp to camp following the caribou. They kept it in a pouch next to their skin under their furs to keep it warm. That starter was handed down through the family. Lill fed us wonderful things she baked and filled us with stories about her people. When the plane finally landed we each had small a jar of Lill’s sourdough to bring home.
I have managed to keep my starter going. It is 140 years old now. I use it several days a week at my bed and breakfast. Each time I use it I think about that wonderful float trip and the lovely people who helped to make it so.
Lill and Bill have passed away but their sourdough goes on through the many people Lill has given small jars of starter to. Our guide, Laurent Dick, lives in Juneau now. He is an excellent photographer and has spent years capturing the sights of Alaska. If you would like to see his work, go to his website.
If you would like to taste something from Lill’s sourdough starter, you will need to stay with us at Walkabout Town B&B.
Sandy Stimson, owner of Anchorage Walkabout Town B&B, is a member of Anchorage Alaska Bed & Breakfast Association
Watch for another sourdough story - replete with failure, success, the passage of time, and a recipe!