Saturday, December 29, 2007

12-29-07

Merry Christmas (belated) and Happy New Year (early).

Things have definitely been festive around here; well, sorta festive. There is, of course, the death that occurred late 25th/early 26th. More about that in a few.

The wedding was yesterday; the bachelor/bachelorette/whatever party was Wednesday nite. What a doozy! Lots of stories, blood on the floor, kids under the influence, broken tables, at least one folding chair was used pro wrestling style on a guy's head, and plenty of shiners and hangovers the next day. Is it just me or does all that sound like not much "fun". I thank Him often for changing my life and making stuff like that things of the past.

So now there's lots of people in town. They'll be sticking around too, with the funeral coming on Monday, which makes this the popular place on the river. Many people will spend time with the family in grief. Others will come to gamble, hang out and party. Some will behave themselves. Some won't. The Troopers have been here daily; so much work and so little time.

(I've got to put you on hold for a while)

I'm back. One guy wanted to watch a college b-ball game here and another guy needed help with his snow machine. Plus there were about a dozen phone calls, one regarding search and rescue (SAR) for an overdue trapper. (So much work and so little time; oh, I used that line already. Sorry; the loss of memory seems to accompany the loss of hair). Nothing's working out. The first guy's college team is getting abused and the other guy can't get the broken bolt out of his sno-go. At least the phone has let up for a while.


The deceased/body was brought in today, so that starts the hall activities (see July 26, 2007 post), which will run through tomorrow and likely conclude on Monday. After the funeral comes New Year's Day, with all the related cultural activities. More on that later.

Adios!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

12-26-07

It was a chilly one this morning; in the neighborhood of a frosty minus thirty something. My house is up on a hill and the inversion layer makes it warmer "up here" than it is down by the river. The difference in cold weather can be 10, 15 or even 20 degrees, when it's really cold (minus 60 down there will be about minus 40 up here).

We just got past the winter solstice (the shortest day of the year) so the days are getting longer. Today we gained an extra minute of daylight from yesterday. Well, actually it was less than a minute, probably about twenty seconds, but we'll take it. We're able to see the glowing orb in the sky for less than 4 hours a day (when it's a clear one) so we'll take whatever increase we can get. Like Momma used to say, "beggars can't be choosy" and right about now we're beggin' for more light.

This afternoon I "broke trail" to the woodyard (see vocabulary 101 "Woodyard"). It was a little scary crossing the river. Since the ice stopped moving, there have been open holes in the ice right in that vicinity, with the last one freezing only last night. I did some preliminary checking, some preliminary praying, and then I crossed at a high rate of speed. Obviously it went well, since I'm here telling you about it. Tommorrow I'll cut a trail into the woods so I can start hauling wood. December has been pretty cold and the woodpile is going fast.

On a depressing note, a woman from here died in Fairbanks last night. At this point it's not clear if there was foul play or if she just froze to death, but her body will be brought back in a few days for burial (check out one of the first posts for info on burial customs and procedures). A funeral in the mix with Christmas, New Years and a wedding on friday should cover about all of the possibilities, activity-wise.

Gotta go. There's a couple dozen teens that will come looking for me if I'm late to the rec. center.

'til next time.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

...excuses...excuses...

So there I was walking down the road...at night...all alone. Suddenly I saw a bright light coming out of the darkness, headed my way. As the light grew bigger and brighter, the ground started to vibrate under my feet. The vibes got so strong my toes started to tingle. The light was blinding and centered directly overhead. Now my knees were shaking. My hair, if I had any, would have stood straight up, as I began to feel a strange yet powerful upward pull. My hands, then my arms became weightless and floated eerily over my head. I noticed the weight of my body upon my feet was decreasing. I couldn't look up into the glaring white brilliance, so I looked down. To my utter amazement, I saw my shoes were several inches off the ground. The upward pull increased intensity and lifted me higher...higher...even higher off the ground. I was rising up like a balloon, slowly but directly into the light. That's the last thing I remember when I got abducted by aliens a few weeks ago, which is why I haven't been able to post anything since the first week in December.

Actually I was going to make up something in the northern variety; like my snow machine fell into a glacial crevasse and it was a few weeks before rescuers found me in a semi-frozen suspended animation state, but I figured my son-in-law would prefer the alien version.

Really, I've been busy; under attack from visitors of another kind (which I'll write about soon, I hope), dealing with weather extremes ranging between minus 50 temps and shovelling out from heavy snowfalls, and, most recently, sick with a nasty cold.

There. How do you like those excuses? (Most of them are true.)

Monday, December 3, 2007

Life on the edge



It was a nice morning; cold, about twenty below. Just a short ride, maybe a mile up from town, on snowmachines. We were there, my friend and I, to check out the ice, looking to put in a fishnet. Everything seemed OK; the ice was good in the right spot. After a brief discussion we decided to go back to town, pick up our gear, then get to work.

We're standing on top of the freshly frozen river and I'm enjoying the moment. It's always a pleasure for me to be outdoors. I often take time to appreciate it, since I grew up in the LA area, about as different from rural Alaska as you can find. So there we are, our feet standing on several inches of clear, new ice; formed in the previous week. Below is about twenty feet of cold water. The air is crisp, the sun is low on the horizon, but bright. The hillside; rocks, trees and brush, all covered with snow, looking like a Christmas Card. We walk toward the shore; I'm in front and he's on my left, a couple steps behind. I hear a strange crunching sound behind me. Curious to see what my friend is up to, I turn. Nothing. He's gone! Just like that, he fell through the ice.

Fall (or early winter) is the time to put in a fishnet. The river must be frozen and the ice must be thick enough to support your weight, but here's the catch. You don't want it any thicker than absolutely necessary. Putting the net in means cutting ice, lots of ice. It follows, then, that thin ice means less work than thick ice.

First you make one hole where the near end of the net will be, determined by water depth under the ice and distance from the shore. Then you measure the length of the net and place another corresponding hole. The second hole falls along an imaginary line with the first, at a right angle to the shoreline. Into each of these you place a pole (a small tree actually) with the large end embedded into the river bottom and the top extending up above the ice. Now all you need is a rope strung between them so you can tie it to the net and pull it under the ice.

Getting that rope under the ice is the essence of the work involved in the entire project. Now you must cut a series of holes along the imaginary line, make a "needle" from a thin pole about 8-10 feet in length, tie the rope to one end of the needle, and thread it along the line of holes. Did I mention that you do this in winter, UNDER the ice, in very cold water, with the river current working against you? Oh yeah, remember the air temp is a brisk twenty below. Your poor little hands will be sending your brain lots of complaints about now. You probably know how much it hurts to keep your hands in ice water for any amount of time. Well, right now that ice water is about fifty degrees warmer than the air. Think on that for a while and you'll get an idea why your brain's complaint department is backlogged.

So you get the rope in ("in" means under the ice, between the poles). Now you tie it to one end of the net and pull it through. Once fastened to the poles the net is "set" and ready to catch fish. You come back tomorrow or the next day to "look" at it and, hopefully, get your fish. It's not too complicated. Just chip out the ice (a foot or two), pull up one end, tie on the rope, then pull the net out from the other side while feeding the rope through. It will be used to pull it back under again. It's a good system and often supplies fresh fish during the long winter months. But not without risk, though.

Winter travel always carries the potential for a mishap. There are general rules and guidelines to follow, but you never really know. The ice is nearly always covered with snow; you can't see it to inspect it all the time. If you want to get around, most of the time you just have to go on faith and assume the ice is safe. If that sounds irresponsible, just think of how many bridges you drive over in your car. Do you get out and inspect every one before crossing? Of course not. If you did you'd never get to where you're going (and none of your friends would ever ride with you). It's a similar approach up here. Once things are froze up pretty good, you just go.

Late fall/early winter is different. The day we were going to put in the net was not a day one should make assumptions about the ice; it was very early in the season and the river still had many "open holes". Simply assuming the ice was adequate could get someone killed, which is why I "checked it" before walking out on it. I had my "ice spear" (aka "ice pick" or "ice chisel") and I struck the ice with it repeatedly, working my way step by step out on the ice. There were patches of "rough ice" mixed in with the smooth ice, but these I avoided as I established a sepentine trail from the shore out onto the river.

It was at one of the rough ice patches that my friend fell through. As I walked back following my footprints (already determined to be safe via the ice spear), my friend took a mini short cut, walking on some rough ice. He apparently stepped on a place covered only with frozen foam and crusted snow; a deadly deception not apparent to the naked eye.

When I heard the crunching and turned around, he was gone. In the place where, just a moment ago stood a man, now there was only...a head. That's it, just a head there on the ice, and that head appeared to be struggling. Quickly he got his arms out and spread them over the ice to support his weight, keeping his head above water. I'll never, ever forget his cries for help. Ever! It was the most feeble, heart wrenching sound I've ever heard.

"Get me out. Please, please, get me out"

His voice was so weak; so...vulnerable; so pathetic. It was one of those moments when the normal speed at which life happens is altered. One person may say, "It all happened so fast"; another says, "Time seemed to stand still". For me it was the latter, or nearly so. Everything slowed way down. My adrenaline was really going but my thinking was clear; under control. Not because of any heroic action on my part, that's just how it was.

I know people who have died in this river. So does he; he's known a lot more. Some were his friends. Some were relatives. Atleast one was his brother. Right now, at this moment, we're both very aware how fragile is the thread from which his life is hanging.

I walk over to him making sure to step in my footprints. As his cries for help continue to pierce my ears and heart, I bend over, grab his parka and lift him out. Atleast that's what I tried to do. The zipper on his parka has been broken for some time; he keeps it fastened with only a few snaps. When I heave upward, the snaps pop and I nearly pull his coat off. (Poor guy; as if things aren't bad enough in the freezing water, now I'm taking away his clothing.) As his head is disappearing down under his collar I let go of the parka and regroup. He sinks down very low, then bobs up again, prompting a new wave of cries that now assault my mind and emotions. There is current in that water threatening to pull him under and away from the small hole in the ice. Another mistake and I will likely kill him. "Help me Lord; help me save my friend. Don't let him die here. Don't let him die".

OK...time to think. No more mistakes. Under the parka he is wearing a pair of coveralls. If I get a good grip on the lapels, I've got him. Carefully, deliberately, I grab them. And I've got him. He's out and laying on the ice; safe. Well, he's sorta safe. It is twenty below. His clothes are quickly freezing. His snowmachine won't start. And, oh yeah, I forgot to tell you he's in his seventies.

We double on my machine and get back to his house, where I help him undress and warm up in front of the woodstove. Later, many, many times later, I thank God for saving him (I'm thanking Him now). His life was really on the edge that day.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Man in a Bottle



I was taught in science class (a few years ago) that "nature hates a vacuum". I believe this is the driving force behind the changing weather; high and low pressures attempting to equalize. I'm not a meteorologist and don't profess to be one, but I know this principle is seen in every aspect of science and nature, and a lot of other stuff too.

A car engine draws in fuel and expels exhaust, a household vacuum cleans a carpet, a boat stays afloat, and a plane flies, all based upon pressure and vacuum ("negative pressure").

Human lives are similarly impacted. Excessive pressures must find release; vacuums must be filled. People run, workout and engage in other activities to relieve stress, "let off steam" and release pressure. Vacuums are filled when relationships end or previous habits change. Something must fill the void created when the sweetheart walked out; new activities take the place of old ones.

Alcohol abuse illustrates this principle quite well, I think. Where I live, most drinking is what I consider to be "hard-core". Our community is small and isolated. There are no bars or restaurants. There literally is no drinking establishment where alcohol is served. Locals just get a bottle and drink, right from the bottle. In fact, around here the word "bottle" means alcohol. A "bottle" contains whiskey (or vodka, rum, etc.), not ketchup. If someone says "I gave him a bottle", they're not referring to feeding an infant; they're talking about an adult (although I must admit it seems pretty infantile to me).

This bottle-booze association is elemental. When someone is "drinking" they will have a bottle; in their pocket, in the sleeve of their jacket, on the table if they are indoors. Where ever "drinking" is, the bottle is there too. You don't drink without a bottle. "Drinking" and "bottle" are inseparable.

And this is where the principle "nature hates a vacuum" comes into play. A bottle, when purchased, is full. It is soon opened and a "shot" is taken. The "shot" is a mouthful of whiskey. Soon another shot, then another. With each shot the amount of whiskey remaining in the bottle is reduced. Since we know the whiskey must be replaced with something, many people assume it is air which fills the void. But they are wrong!

Air is not part of the equation at all. I suppose it would be if the whiskey was poured out into the air, but its not. The whiskey is poured into the man (we'll assume its a man who's doing the drinking) so the man must fill the vacuum created in the bottle. As a portion from the bottle enters the man, so a portion from the man must enter the bottle, maintaining equilibrium. Another shot, another exchange. This process continues until the bottle is empty. The man, being much larger and infinitely more complex, does not appear to be empty like the bottle. Ironically, we often say "He's pretty full", but the effects of the exchange are obvious (it's obvious to me atleast, I see these exchanges happening everyday).

A man has the ability to hold the contents of one entire bottle and much more; he has that capacity. Yet one bottle can not contain an entire man. It will take many bottles. One is simply the beginning; as one brick is to a wall or one link in a chain. A man who drinks one bottle per year may show no obvious effects. A man who drinks one per week will show more. A man drinking one per day will be unmistakeable.

Each time a bottle is poured into a man, a part of the man is poured back into the bottle. As the bottle contained whiskey before the exchange, now it contains the man. Sure, you won't see fingers or toes, teeth or blood in the bottle; it will appear empty (though you frequently see teeth, blood and other human components in the area where the drinking has been taking place), but be assurred, the bottle is not empty. Equilibrium must be maintained.

A bottle is also a very efficient container. It seldom leaks, is resistant to impacts (especially plastic bottles like we have here) and can be kept tightly sealed. I've never seen whiskey that could open the bottle and remove itself; it takes a force from outside to open it. Like I said, a bottle is a very efficient container; it's made to hold the contents and it usually holds it well.

Now I realize many people may think I'm getting a bit carried away here...a man strangely being transported bit by bit into a bottle. "What is this, a story about genies or some fairy tale?" No, it's not. Am I merely speaking metaphorically? Not really!

Everyday I see people, in varying degrees, imprisoned in the bottle. I see young people making the exchanges as quickly as possible, apparently eager to follow their parents example. I see the girl a day after she had part of her life sucked into the bottle; a part she can never have back. I see the man who has spent his entire life pouring the bottle into his mouth, and himself back in; a tragic shell of a man, empty and pitiful. I see wrecked vehicles; the smashed snow machine, the flipped truck, the ruined 4-wheeler; evidence of critical human abilities contained in the bottle when they were needed to operate the vehicle. I see people trade the confinement of the bottle for that of a jail cell, then, months or years later, come back and pick up where they left off...back in the bottle. And I see the graves of those who won't be back.

The Proverb "Wine is a mocker and beer is a brawler" is both true and interesting. It's true because...well, it just true. To me it's interesting because of the interpretation. Many students of the Bible seem to think it means if you drink (intoxication) you will become a "mocker" and a "brawler"; that your behavior will be insulting and rowdy. That may be the correct interpretation (I'm not a scholar, as I've pointed out before), but I like to think of it another way. Wine IS a mocker and it will make a fool of you. Beer IS a brawler and it will beat you up!

So what is the answer? Well obviously, it's better not to start down a path that can lead to trouble. I know everyone who drinks doesn't have a "drinking problem", but how can we tell in advance who will and who won't? Are you able to determine by looking at some one if they will become the fool? If they will get beaten up? If they will be sucked into the bottle? Not likely.

Some like to say of others, "They just can't handle their liquor", but who can, really? It is destructive to developing human life, and it doesn't do existing human life much good either. It's addicting and in high enough doses it's just plain poison. So who is truly able to "handle it?" Who can safely walk that path which leads so close to destruction? Alcohol is a road many travel, pretending to enjoy the ride while ignoring the millions of casualties littering the landscape. Better to avoid that road entirely.

For those already going down the road into the bottle, there's really only one hope. The Lord Jesus has the power to break the bottle and set us free! That's His specialty. He loves to free the captive, comfort the hurting and give hope to the hopeless. When He breaks the bottles in our lives, the deaf hear, the blind see, the lame walk, the weak are strong and the dead receive new life. This is what He does, and He will do it for all who ask.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tools of the Trade; "The Honey-bucket"


Yeah, sure. A misnomer if there ever was one. I'll agree with the "bucket" part, but forget the "honey". This is honey you'll never spread on your toast or drizzle in your tea. Ol' Pooh Bear will keep his distance from this stuff 'cause it has no place in the "Hundred Acre Wood". Bees aren't interested, but their cousins are. They're sure to swarm a bucket of this northern delicacy.

The honey bucket is indoor plumbing for those who lack indoor plumbing. It's a convenience that's very inconvenient; an uncomfortable comfort. Okay, I'll explain.

Many people already know the naked truth about the honey bucket, but if you don't, here it comes. Brace yourself! If you're about to eat dinner you may want to postpone reading this until later. In fact, if you just ate, you might want to skip it altogether.

Few things are as characteristic of remote northern living as the honey bucket. In a land where roads are few, indoor plumbing can also be lacking. Rural locations, arctic conditions and limited financial resources (see preceeding post) make infrastructure development an ongoing challenge for many communities. Add to that the common northern archetypes ("Sourdough", "Trapper", "Native", etc.) and you have a good recipe (sorry) for the honey bucket.

We all know about outhouses. The privy was an essential part of life years ago, well, how about generations ago. When greatgrampa had to go, he just ran outside to the one-holer. Standing or sitting, that was the place to do business. Gramps often had the Sears catalog handy; for reading material while waiting on the process and (here I beg your pardon) for clean up after. Basically it was a good system, which is why it's still in use today in many parts of the world.

Gramps had one luxury we don't share up here; a hospitable climate. Imagine the ol' boy going out at 50 below! The seating arrangement in the outdoor facility will be the very same minus 50, and that's gonna hurt when you make contact. It can still be done (I've done it) as long as everything is on schedule, but if gramps is going to need time for things to happen, you're gonna be looking at some frostbite (I didn't mean that in the literal sense).

Here's another consideration. If you've never lived in extreme cold you probably don't know how much work it is to get adequately dressed to go outdoors, especially when you just want to go to the "bathroom". I have a picture of my oldest daughter doing just that, which I'm very tempted to post here. The rest of my family (and you too) would find it quite humorous, but alas, she would most certainly kill me. So you must use your imagination.

Starting at the bottom, you see heavy, black rubber boots, bulbous and reminiscent of mickey mouse. Then a long red terrycloth bathrobe, what lies under it we just don't know. The face of a young teen girl, eager with the excitement of braving the cold, dark Alaskan night. On her head a dark winter hat, topped off with a headlamp. All this just to make a trip to the potty.

Now you begin to understand why the bucket was invented. Without the bucket there could be no "honey bucket". Before you scoff at this suggestion, try to picture the alternatives: the "honey bag" or the "honey basket" just wouldn't cut it. Even the "honey box" would pose problems, especially for large families. So there it is my friend, I give you...the honey bucket (and please take it with you).

I imagine some will find the idea of "going to the bathroom" in a bucket disgusting. I'm reminded of a story I heard once about a similar collision of paradigms. An American went to Papua New Guinea and traveled to a remote, primitive tribal village (not uncommon in PNG). As he met some locals he started up a conversation. They talked about various things (the primitive huts in the village, what they eat, etc.) When the American felt the need to answer nature's call, he asked the locals where he should go to the bathroom. "We just go anywhere" he was told (In case you're wondering how they communicate, I don't know. Don't interrupt the story!) "You mean all of you just go anywhere outside?" he asked, shocked that there was no privy. By now the locals sense something amiss. "Where you live, where do you go?" one of them asked. "Well, I go inside my house" the American proudly declared. "YOU GO IN YOUR OWN HOUSE???" the locals responded, appalled that he would actually urinate and defecate in his own home. (I suppose the honey bucket can be viewed as a good compromise between the two technologies.)

Now each household has its own code of honey bucket etiquette, based upon color. Yep, that's exactly what I mean. Our family was the most conservative and yellow was the only one allowed. There were occasional infractions when a second color was introduced (never by me I would like to add), but this was usually caused by the flu. Other excuses, such as "It was too cold out", or "It was late, and dark, and I was scared" were deemed unacceptable and the violator would be the one to...how shall I say it...empty the bucket. I'll let you figure out the possible color combinations, but yellow was our limit.

Procrastination is a bad habit. This can easily be proven with the honey bucket. As I alluded to earlier, honey buckets must be emptied. A half-full bucket is much easier to carry outside than a full one. Attempting to carry a very full bucket will increase your laundry and mopping chores, and will significantly raise your bloodpressure as well. I always prefer the stress-free lifestyle of the half bucket.

Logistically, honey buckets are a nuisance and a health hazard. In rural communities things are often NOT done the way they should be. This translates into buckets being dumped on the ground (surface) as opposed to below ground (in an outhouse). Frequently they are justed dumped at...the dump. I know of one large family that is currently dumping their bucket on the surface behind their house. I know this because the person who happens to live behind their house is not happy about it.

I remember the first winter I spent here, my initial experience with outhouses and honey buckets. Ignorant in the freezing dynamics of human waste products, I had much to learn. I knew nothing about "the pyramid" effect. I didn't know that paper products were not to be included. And I had no way of estimating the vital "available holding capacity vs remaining weeks of winter" ratio. But I learned.

When we ran out of "holding capacity" in our outhouse mid-winter, I was forced to improvise. My plan was simply to dig another hole and move the privy. Imagine the bitter dissappointment when I found the ground to be frozen. Like concrete frozen!!! Bummer! And chopping frozen earth with an axe is, well, its no fun at all. What to do now?

Remembering something I know I saw in a movie somewhere, I used what I like to call "the miner method". Build a fire; let it burn out; when the ashes are cool, shovel them out along with the 4"-6" of thawed ground. Another fire, another few inches. It took days to get below the frost line, but I got it done. I never did hear what my neighbor thought about the whole thing. I often picture that elderly native man looking out his window and wondering what the crazy white man was up to.

So the very next time you feel the need to visit your bathroom, flip the lights on, make yourself comfortable, and enjoy it.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Tools of the Trade (grants)

Life in remote northern communities is...different. Well it's different in a lot of ways, but one aspect is money.

Money is usually hard to come by anywhere, but in this setting it can be really hard to come by. Employment in villages is slim; the majority is seasonal. That means most people don't work all the time. In fact, they are unemployed more than working. Imagine what life in your town would be like if the majority were NOT working most of the time. That's village life. By the way, if you come up here, when you meet a guy, don't ask the standard male introductory question. You know, "So what do you do for a living?". That question doesn't work where unemployment is a big factor, and it really puts the spotlight on what you don't know about life here.

The money crunch applies to local municipal governments too. There is no tax base for most local governments to rely upon for income. That means the governmental entity providing services for local residents is...well... what I'm trying to say in plain english is they may be broke or close to it. Larger communities sometimes enjoy a more promising outlook, but not always. Many city governments (which are the usual source for gasoline, heating oil, electricity, water and sewer, etc.) are facing bankruptcy; some there already.

Here's a homework assignment for you. Transport where you live into a roadless wilderness, reduce it to one gas station teetering on the brink of closing, along with your water, electricity, etc. Try that on for a minute or two and see how it feels. If it's not a comfortable fit, you're not alone.

Into this dismal economic picture shines a glimmer of hope, and hope is spelled "G-R-A-N-T-S" Grants bring in $$$ desperately needed by local city and tribal governments; money to buy new equipment, fix what's broke; basically, to improve local infrastructure. It comes in real handy for addressing social needs too. The money comes from State and Federal governmental agencies, private foundations and anywhere else you can dig it up, which explains the shovel in my hand.

One thing I can do to help improve the depressed economic situation here is to seek and obtain funding. I'm still kind of new to the process, but I'm learning. In fact right now I'm in a hotel room in Fairbanks fresh out of a three day grantwriting workshop. After I return home I'll start working on a "Christmas list" of goodies our community needs. Near the top will be things like a new road grader, a new road to grade, and money to fund youth activities to help prevent drug and alcohol abuse.

The Lord said we don't have because we don't ask. This vital spiritual principle is applicable in many areas of life, so I'll ask and see what happens.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A Tale of Two Worlds





It was the best of times...it was the worst of times; it was a place of quiet...it is a place in chaos; the snow was falling...the ash is falling; it was cold...it is hot; rural Alaska...Southern California.

What a contrast. The difference between where I was and where I am is so extreme its amazing, incredible, even ridiculous. Consider.

I left a community of a few hundred; I'm in a metropolitan area exceeding 10 million. More people have been evacuated from their homes here in the last week than live in our state.

There, it was cold, snow was falling and ice was running in the river. Here, it is hot, ash is falling and automobiles are running in rivers of concrete.

Here, I can see more people, more homes and more cars than I'll see in a year at home, and here I can see it all in an instant; just one second!

The wilderness is replaced by urban sprawl. Remote has become congested. Forced isolation is now chosen insulation.

Its weird and I'm struggling to put into words what I'm feeling. The plane I flew in on had about as many people as my entire village. Busy streets, car tires squealing and horns honking. A warm evening in a t-shirt. Man-made structures everywhere I look. Nothing is natural. Not a dirt road to be found. And lots of people; tanned, trimmed, slim, dyed and surgically altered. No expense is spared to glorify the human body.

People are like cars. Up north they are 90% utilitarian, 10% aesthetics. Most show the signs of hard use, and often neglect. Not so here. They look shiny and new. Even the minor dents and dings you'd see in Anchorage are gone. Everything is freshly washed and waxed, touched up, modified, deodorized and improved. The cars are that way too.

You see a lot more skin down here. I know its hot (the temp, I mean) and people enjoy the sunny weather, but clothes seem a better alternative to sun block and skin cancer.

It is, without question, a different world. There's more money on one street here than in our entire village, but its more about the philosophy/world view behind it. Here, people are highly motivated; they're all about making, having and spending money. They go full bore finding ways to earn it, and maintain the same speed burning it up as a consumer. That seems to be the mindset.

Up north its way different. There's more of a feast or famine attitude. This probably is an effect of the seasonal approach to life there. When you can work, you make money. When you can't, you don't; you do something else. Another member of the family will probably have money if you need it anyway. Its an approach thats obviously a lot more laid back.

Both views/systems have their drawbacks. I'm not going to try to correct them here. I'm just sharing my observations. I'm a bit of a double agent anyway. I grew up in one, have lived 13 years in the other, and continue to go back and forth. And its not easy keeping one foot in each world when they are so far apart.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Everything is long distance

Living in an isolated northern community means everything is long distance. EVERYTHING!

As relating to phone service, any number/location outside of the village is "long distance". That means virtually anywhere on the planet excluding ONE community. So that means any phone number except, maybe, 100 +/-. And that also means any person you ever want to talk to in the world, with the exception of a few hundred. I guess its a variant of the "fave-five" plan, but wouldn't it be great if these were all "faves". If I were home-grown here it would be different, but I'm an import and most of my "faves" are elsewhere on the globe. Telecommunications are about the least of my worries, though. Family is top of the list.

Isolated northern living means isolation from family too. They tend to live in far-away places such as California, Louisiana or Tibet (thankfully none of mine live in Tibet, but some do live near Cucamonga). Even my own children, now grown and living independantly, are "long distance"; the closest residing about 2,000 miles away. Translated into real terms long distance living looks like this...

-In the event of an emergency, you are likely a couple of days away, weather permitting, so any crisis will probably be resolved, one way or another, before you get there.

-You may not be around when grandchildren are born.

-Visits are few and far between. Yesterday I just met my 9 month old granddaughter. I don't remember the last time I saw my Dad, brothers and sister, but its been years.

-Travel expenses are considerable. It costs as much to fly from home to Anchorage as it does from Anchorage to the lower 48.

-Even if you dislike the phone, internet, etc., you're very thankful they exist.

-Friendships are difficult to maintain; how many friends only get together every 5 years or so.

-Emergency medical care is a long way off. One year my wife was ill. After staying up all night in pain, she boarded a plane and flew to Fairbanks while I stayed home with our children. About the same time she checked into the emergency room our village phone system went down, and there were no email/internet then. Two days later I was relieved to learn she'd had her gallbladder removed and was doing fine, but for two very long days I literally didn't know if she was alive or...?

Even when you are with family you still can't escape the "long distance" bills. I've been away from home 4 days and have made/received 6 phone calls, dealing with a variety of subjects; did someone steal my truck?...are my dogs getting fed?...was anyone hurt in a vehicle roll-over?...how did a court hearing go?...etc. Even time away is never really time away.

The every day stuff is all long distance too. I remember building my house with a bunch of Calif. friends. They came up to help build the log walls. Every time a tool broke or they thought of something they wanted, it became my job to get it...quickly. They struggled to grasp the concept that virtually everything had to be mail ordered and wouldn't arrive until after they had returned home. Air freight reduced the time delay, at considerable cost, but was still not guaranteed.

A couple of the more memorable long distance experiences have been my daughter and family dealing with the Harris fire (see previous post) and my brothers, who both reside in the New Orleans area, surviving Hurricane Katrina. Living "long distance" is frequently a pain, but its seldom boring.

Monday, October 22, 2007

And I thought I had a bad day!

If you read the previous post you know I was whining a bit. Next time that happens, slap me!

By now you probably have heard/seen the news about So. Cal fires. One in particular (the "Harris Fire") is of interest to me. My daughter, son-in-law and their two small children have been affected.

Early Sunday morning they left their home in Tecate, CA to attend church in Tecate, Mexico (obviously, that means they crossed the border into Mexico) as they do every week. Around 9:30am a fire broke out near Potrero, CA. Very high winds and dry conditions caused the fire to quickly spread and get seriously out of control. When they atempted to cross back into CA after church, smoke was a problem and the the US port of entry was closed to vehicles. They were allowed to walk across, which they did, and were immediately told by fire crews to get what they needed, get in the other car and evacuate.

Evacuate where? There is only one road out of town; north, going toward San Diego, which was already closed, and south, into Mexico, the only other option. They were told to evacuate back into Mexico. This they tried to do, but there was one problem, the Mexican border guards had closed the border, leaving them stranded...for hours...with an inferno advancing within sight behind them and a closed international border in front, leaving nowhere to go.

A few hours later the Mexican border guards apparently left, as did the U.S. guards, because a mob of Mexicans took control of the border. It was chaos. People crossing at will into the U.S., no law enforcement, 50mph winds pushing the blaze, fire crews fiercely defending structures, darkness coming on. Not really the best place for my 10 month old grand daughter. Finally someone opened the gate and they got safely into Mexico. Safely into Mexico??? Now there's a twist! Most Americans would think of U.S. soil as the safe place to be. Whatever!

So now it's Monday. They can't return to the U.S. yet, so they don't know if they have anything left. One report was positive; my son-in-law said he thought he could see the buildings standing as he looked across from the Mexican side. Time will tell.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

When things are less than perfect

I had hoped today would be an improvement over yesterday, but things aren’t looking up.

Yesterday’s problems:

We were planning to leave the village (which means…I hesitate to say the “f-word”…it means flying). Before we can ever leave our home to travel anywhere, we must make arrangements; arrangements for some one to feed my dogs (I have 12 and they get cranky if they don’t eat. Thinking of a scene from the movie, “Iron Will”, it’s my hope to avoid becoming “Borg” [the mean, bald guy], so I make sure the dozen sets of teeth are always smiling when they see me), arrangements for some one to keep an eye on our house (leaving a home unoccupied in sub-freezing weather can be tricky, and “tricky” often means you come home to find the temp inside is the same as outside, and your once plumbing system has now become ruptured copper pipes, a cracked toilet and lots of water / ice where you expect the floor to be. Skating is OK for those who enjoy it, but not indoors, thank you).

After taking care of “arrangements”, I get the word of a med-evac during the night. Med-evacs are not uncommon, especially on the weekends, buy you always want to know the “who” and “why” stuff. “Who” was a nice highschool boy; “why” was a stabbing, which then leads one to the inevitable question, “who stabbed him?”

A couple hours later that question was answered. A buddy came by to talk. After the requisite small-talk which dances around the real reason for his coming, he finally gets to the point. My query “Who shanked A-----?” is met with “My cousin M-----", and I’m floored!!! Never in a hundred guesses would I have come up with those two involved in a deadly assault. A by-product of last night’s stabbing is the one I now get this morning, right through my own heart. It hurts. I’ve lived here long enough to expect the unexpected and not be surprised when people surprise you, but this one comes out of left field and catches me totally unprepared. His cousin is a high school girl I know and like a lot; she’s not your typical “stabber”.

Soon we board the plane and the fun begins. Flying to me is a lot like going to the doctor; you get a painful shot or an uncomfortable prostate exam, then you have to pay them. That’s just not right!

My flying went something like this: up, bump, bump, bump, down…wait…up, bump, bump, bump, down…get off…get back on…up, bump, bump, bump, down…wait…up, bump, bump, bump, down…get off…get back on…up, bump, bump, bump, down, get off, stay off. That’s 5 separate flights if I did the math correctly.

At the first “get off” I see the “stabber”, now in the custody of the State Troopers. I sit next to her. She looks up at me, obviously upset. She looks about the same as you would if you woke up one morning, were told “you stabbed your neighbor last night” and now you’re in custody and on your way to jail. “Not exactly your best day, huh?” to which I get only a shake of the head and tears; lots of tears. We hug, cry, pray and speak only a little. It’s a very painful time. It’s still painful now, a day later as I write it. She’ll likely be gone a long time. Such is the life in many rural villages.

So today is another day. I’m staying in a “guest house” in Anchorage. It reminds me more of the old “Winchester Mystery House” in N. Calif. A very steep stairway designed to hurt people, several low doorways less than the height of my head (and I’m not an NBA basketball player), a heater that only my wife can operate, a TV and internet system that even she cannot crack, lights that won’t turn on, a kitchen devoid of table and chairs, well, I think you get the idea. It’s a place where even Tom Bodette wouldn’t “leave the light on for ya”.

My wife somehow is able to sleep. Not surprisingly, I can’t. My attempts to find and make coffee yield only a filthy brew of some dark swill. I sit in the only usable chair in the house with the “coffee” by my side, undrunk and cold. I write this in frustration because I’ll have to write it all over again to transfer it to the blog.

And its days like these that help keep me focused. This life, with all its pain and hardship (and even the little inconveniences) will soon pass away. As a wiser, better missionary once told me, while I was “belly aching” about one thing or another, “If things here were perfect, we wouldn’t need heaven”. So true!


p.s. She cracked the internet; what a woman!

Friday, October 19, 2007

An Extra Season is "Normal"



Life in the remote north is frequently thought of in terms of what is lacking, or what you must do without. Doubtless this stems from comparisons to life in Fairbanks (a bit more "civilized"), Anchorage (a LOT more civilized) and the "lower 48" (where life, atleast for the moment, may be considered normal). In places "normal", day-to-day life is complex, often to the point of confusion, varied and boasts a plurality of choices seldom found throughout the rest of the world. A bit of time spent in Normal, USA, invariably causes the resident to expect all the benefits of the American way of life. We take it for granted. We naturally assume certain things; things like...hmmm, how about some examples of life in "Normal".

When you flip a light switch you probably expect the light to come on, every time. If it doesn't, and the power is out, it will likely make the evening news. If it's out more than a few hours, life in "Normal" goes to red-alert, life and death emergency status.

When you pick up the phone (for those few who still use land line phones; "normal" for most now includes cell phones) you undoubtably expect it to work. The same goes for internet access, TV, etc.

When you go to a store, you probably expect to buy what you want. Even this is based upon a whole bunch of "normal" assumptions. We're assuming "normal" for you means you live in a place where there actually is a store, that the store(s) is open when you expect it to be, and that the store will have exactly what you need. You probably expect it to have a lot more than only what you need; you likely expect a selection from which to choose, and we're also assuming you have roads which are passable, a working vehicle to take you there and the weather is permitting. By the way, did you happen to notice all the expectations and assumptions in this paragraph?

"Normal" is a precarious house of cards built on a shakey foundation of assumptions and expectations. During the hurricane Katrina disaster, I was absolutely shocked to see how unprepared and helpless many of the people appeared. This is the result of "Normal" living with its co-joined siblings "Assumptions" and "Expectations".

When a "normal" person relocates to Abnormal, Northofsixty, an adjustment is required. Gas at $5 per gallon and fresh milk never available are just two of the many bolts that need turning to make the adjustment. Perhaps you begin to see why life here is often defined more by what you don't have than what you do.

On to the good stuff!

One thing we do get is an EXTRA SEASON! (well, actually there are two but today we look at one of them). Yep, an extra season. So what is that worth? Today's gas is tomorrow's exhaust. Today's milk is tomorrow's...cheese? But a season, wow! Seasons may come and go, but when they're here, they're free! No amount of $$$ can buy one. Bill Gates can't get any special seasons; rich and poor alike have equal access. And they come from God; a gift from the Creator who provides one for everything (check out Ecclesiates)

Life is lived in seasons. Babies are born, children grow up, people fall in love, couples are married, new life is conceived and the cycle continues, each in a season. Every good thing you've experienced in life happened in a season. Seasons are intangible (at least I think they are; I'm not a philosopher) but they are like the steppingstones of life. They signal the passing of time; life being lived, moment by moment, a season at a time.

And the extra season we get up here is known as..."Freeze-up". I know, I know! You may be thinking "Who cares?" or "You can have it; who wants freeze-up?". Well, up here everybody wants freeze-up.

Freeze-up means the river is filling with ice, transforming into a winter highway. Freeze-up means all exposed water (and believe me, we have a lot of it) will soon be suitable for travel. The Bible tells us of our Lord walking on water. Apart from Him I know of only one other person who ever pulled that off, and the other guy didn't do so well. Freeze-up means it will soon be open to everyone, and not only for walking but driving snow machines, dog teams, you name it (a couple of times since I've lived here a few intrepid souls have even driven trucks to neighboring villages. I'm not talking about roads now; they drove down the river on the ice, which reminds me of when I got my 4-wheeler (ATV) in another village and drove it 50 miles on the river to get it home; that was a cold ride!)

Life here is truly lived by the season, as opposed to life in "Normal", where it is lived by the day, even by the hour. Freeze-up is the season of transition. If fall up here is late summer, then freeze-up is early winter. The determining factor would be mode of transportation. Summer/fall is boat season; freeze-up/winter is sno-go season. The end of sno-go season coincides with the coming of another extra season, but that will have to wait.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

"Go to the Ant! " Chickadees & the trouble with kids these days


So what is it with kids these days? Things have really changed since I was their age.

Back in the day, when I was younger, things were different. Sure, we started off as all kids do; immature and irresponsible, and occasionally making a wrong choice, but not like today. We listened to our parents, learned to be respectful and to work hard. We were patient. We could wait. We planned ahead, looked way down the road and took the longer view of things. I guess that's why we were such good kids and caused our parents so few headaches.

I suppose once in a while we didn't do exactly what our parents told us, but you have to remember, back then parents didn't know everything like we do now. We have internet, cell phones, all the high tech stuff. Our parents were basically in the dark ages, but we're on top of it all today. Which makes it even harder to understand what these kids are thinking.

They think they know more than us even though they've only been around a little while. You can't tell 'em anything, as if being fifteen or twenty years old qualifies them for...what?

Why are you kids so impatient? Everything's got to be right now!!! Instant service, immediate response, no waiting. Why can't you just slow it down a little? Wait for what you want; it'll come. That's what our parents taught us and we didn't have any trouble with it.

And learn to work hard. You know, the value of a dollar and all that stuff. Don't be afraid of a little hard work; it won't kill you. You can't expect to have it easy all the time.

You can see the "younger generation" problem everywhere; it's not limited to just your own family, neighborhood or town. It has permeated human society and is even spilling over into the natural world. I can see the effects when I look out my kitchen window.

It's been about ten years now since I first hung up the bird feeder. Initially I would stock it with "wild bird seed", a concoction of mostly worthless grains intended solely for the purpose of ripping off the American consumer (perhaps I worded that a little too strong). With experience and observation I soon realized our local avian population was interested only in the black sunflower seeds. I began to find the other 90% of the seeds on the ground, and noticed the chickadees, juncos and grosbeaks weren't eating everything they were getting out of the feeder. Moving in for a closer look, I was aghast to find they were simply digging through the mix and discarding all but the black ones (this should have been my first clue to the impending generational dysfunction coming to the bird world).

Once I recovered from the shock and hurt feelings their callousness had caused, I began to supply 100% sunflower seeds to my little feathered friends. And all was well...for a few generations. Recently I have had a second revelation into the corrupt nature of birds; specifically, the moral decay and loss of traditional values among chickadees.

For years, the hardworking chickadees would take a sunflower seed out of the feeder, hold it with their tiny feet and peck away at the shell to get at the kernel inside. Once in a while they might get lucky and find one with the kernel partially exposed, or an occasional seed requiring no effort at all, but this was rare. Nine times out of ten they would grab the first available seed and work for the prize inside. When the feeder ran low, I'd refill it. This was our arrangement; I was happy, they were happy.

Next year, another generation of chickadees was raised up to learn the way of the bird feeder. The older chickadees taught them the value of the seed, how to work for what you want and wait patiently until the goal is achieved. So it went, year after year; one generation of chickadees successfully passing the torch to the next.

Until the year two thousand and seven. Enter a new generation completely devoid of any moral fiber. I don't know where their parents dropped the ball, but these guys are trouble. A lazier bunch of birds you'll never find. Do you think they know how to crack a shell? Not these bums! They just dig through the feeder looking for a shell that's already cracked. The rest go on the ground.

As if that's not bad enough, these little slackers will actually fight with each other over a cracked shell. Can you believe it? Why not spend your time doing it right, rather than fighting over the lazy bird's meal? It's shameful! But I witness this every day; feathered frenzy has replaced a once tranquil scene. Occassionally, in the midst of all this chaos, an older chickadee will come in, take a shell and fly off to a tree to work it open. You can almost see him shake his head in disgust, and you can imagine the words he utters in Chickadeese, "Kids these days; what can you do with 'em?"

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

"I know a guy" (but is he a dog or a wolf?)


What frustrates you? Think of something that can just drive you crazy; I mean really crazy. Slow drivers in the fast lane? no, that's to easy. Dogs that won't come when called, the lack of speed in the USPS, getting left on hold forever. These are too shallow. Think of a better one. How about high tech stuff when it doesn't work? O.K. that's better, but keep trying. Think of something that can really make your hair stand up.

For me it's people. It often seems like people are the greatest thing God created AND His biggest mistake. I suppose I have even felt both of those about the same person.

The human being is the most amazing creature: created in the image of God, possessing a soul that will last eternally and a spirit that can endure. We are able to create, invent, serve, entertain, heal, teach, build and reason. We can love, have children, solve problems (sometimes) and make the world a better place. The human body is a miracle in itself, but the human being is entirely amazing. What an awesome work from the hand of God. But none of this frustrates me.

It's all the other stuff I have trouble with. People can be, well, human, and what can be worse? We steal, lie and kill. We can be lazy, selfish and proud. When some of us are at our worst, the rest of us will say, "They act just like animals", but really, that's a bum rap for the animals. Animals do basically what they're supposed to and never act anything like wicked humans. Nothing of this world has the capacity to do harm, inflict pain and destroy like humans.

So there I find myself, in this dilemma of loving and (I probably shouldn't use the "H" word here) not loving people. I'm like the meat in a human sandwich, caught between slices of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I've devoted my life to working with people and nothing could be better, though at times I feel nothing could be a bigger waste of time.

And "I know a guy". He's a young man in his late teens. He's a great kid; cool personality with lots of potential. I'm just not sure if he's a dog or a wolf.

Native oral tradition regarding dogs and wolves: Long ago dogs and wolves were the same; there was no difference between them. One day they got together and had a talk. One group decided they would work for Man so he could feed and care for them. The other group refused, choosing to live free and rely only upon themselves. The first group became dogs and the second, wolves.

The dogs gave up their independence in order to become team players. Submission was the path to productivity and survival. The wolves maintained their independence, determined to go their own way even when it meant hardship and suffering.

And this brings us to my young friend. At times he wants to do right and live a productive life. At other times he's determined to do it his way regardless of the consequences (which is why he is currently in jail). He's been to Bible camp numerous times, he's spent a lot of time with me and he has a good idea what it means to become a Christian. He wants to avoid drugs and the many other traps waiting for him. Usually. This is where Dr. Jekyll leaves off.

Enter the wolfish Mr. Hyde. My friend also wants to be accepted by his peers. He wants to be cool. He likes to think of himself as a "bad boy" who can do what he wants; no one's gonna tell him what to do. It's all about respect and he's gonna get it. If he grew up in LA he surely would have been in a gang, which means by now he'd likely be dead or in prison.

So what do you do? You love this guy and you h--- uh...well, let's just say you love him and you get really frustrated. You do what you can. You hope he'll make the right choices. You know what awaits him otherwise. You've seen too many go to jail or the graveyard. You'll be there for him either way, but you pray he'll become a dog and survive.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Whitefish ("Needs salt")




Whitefish are, well, obviously they are fish. They are a northern specie found in cold waters; lakes, sloughs and rivers. Some are resident in the location all year; some migrate. Now is the time they migrate.

Late fall, before freeze-up is the time local people like to catch and eat whitefish. This is when they are plentiful, fat (did you know fish can be "fat"?) and females are loaded with eggs. The whitefish run is the last of the open water fishing to be had on the river. In a couple of weeks ice will be running and boats will come out (some are out already). There will be some grayling fishing through next month in our local tributary to the main river, but basically fishing with nets will end with the ice/whitefish.

Northern people crave fat. I believe this is due to the harsh climate in which you burn calories aplenty and the lean condition of most local sources of protein. Moose is a very lean animal, so is caribou. Migratory waterfowl by necessity are typically lean (imagine your Thanksgiving turkey trying to fly from Alabama to Alaska and back). Bears are known to be fat, especially at certain times of the year, and that is the favored time to get them; late fall and early winter (locals like to take them out of the den right after they've gone to bed for the winter.) Beaver is a "fat" animal and a delicacy.

Sheefish are "fat" in the spring, so when do you think people want them??? In the spring of course. Same holds true for pike.

Now is the time for whitefish. People will save the guts, which is where most of the fat is stored (you can see the fat when you cut them open). After cleaning, the guts are fried in their own fat and eaten. Sounds really weird to me but local people are crazy for whitefish guts. The eggs too are a delicacy. They can be fried, cooked with the fish, or eaten raw.

I remember years ago giving some whitefish to an old woman. She would cut them open and take the eggs, leaving me the fish to use as dog food. One of them had orange eggs rather than the usual white. "Ummm, these are the best" she said, and popped the eggs right into her mouth. I tried (in vain I'm sure) not to look too surprised, as if I was accustomed to people cutting open freshly caught fish (some were still kicking) and eating the eggs on the spot, raw...just like that! Who cares about the slime and the blood?

The next day I was out checking the net again and I brought along an older man. As we picked the fish out of the net I told him the story. I played it cool but told him I'd never seen that before. "Uh huh", he said as he eyed a particular fish, visually sizing it up. He pulled out his pocket knife and cut it open. Removing the skein of eggs, he tilted back his head and dropped 'em in, slurping a bit for effect. Then, while throwing me a sideways look, he chewed briefly, swished 'em around, then swallowed. "Needs salt" he said with a grin.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Vocabulary 102; "Open House"


In days gone by, a majority of community members participated in house building. It was something akin to "barn raising" for the pioneers in the 1800's. But up here building a house meant a group of men would go out in the spring and "get house logs"; meaning they would select a good location near the water with plenty of spruce trees, from which they would cut suitable logs for building. This would include felling the trees, cutting to length, removing limbs and bark, physically moving the logs into the water, floating/rafting them downstream to the village, then hauling them up on the bank to dry.

A month or two later the logs would be moved to the building site and construction would begin. Each log would be fit into place by hand; in fact everything was done by hand in those days. You can imagine why a lot of people were involved. I have built a house with logs and can testify to the copious amounts of sweat (and blood) that must be invested into the project. It's a hard thing to transform a forest into a house using only an axe and chainsaw, and the old guys didn't even have the chainsaw.

So picture a dozen human beavers working away at a pile of logs; chopping, carrying, sawing, lifting, pulling, pounding and sweating. Over the course of a summer the pile shrinks and a house takes shape...from apparent chaos comes order. Finally, in the fall, the house is done and ready to be occupied. All the men who worked so hard (and the women who cooked and cared for them) are happy and relieved; the job is done. Now is the time to celebrate. Now is the time for the "open house"; a community-wide celebration.

In today's world it's much the same. Most houses are built by the Tribe for tribal members. Most are built using conventional materials such as plywood and lumber. And the project is not on as large a scale as before; only a small crew of 4-6 is needed. But the "open house" is still for everyone.

There was an open house yesterday. Just about the whole village showed up. There were even visitors from neighboring villages who traveled by boat to get here. So many in fact, that we had to move outside; the house couldn't hold every one.

At an open house everybody brings food to share; a common practice in native culture (and many other cultures too). We had lots of fish, some moose dishes (but not that many since it was a difficult hunting season and many people didn't "get their moose"), some "chickens", spaghetti, home made bread, pie, cake, etc.

Later in the evening there was a dance down at the hall. Any dance in a village is a wild affair; a "good time" as it is called. This one included a "punch party" which is little more than a trash can full of fruit juice and rum, and a lot of very intoxicated people (in case you're wondering, I never go to the dances). For the die-hards, the party goes on through the night and continues into the next day. The owner of the new house wanted the party/dance at the hall rather than in her new house because she was afraid the drunks would bust the place up (a safe assumption I think).

The so-called celebration will continue today and tonight and will taper off tomorrow. I included the photo of the truck in the ditch because, to me, it seemed to appropriately sum up the experience, and effects, of an open house.

Monday, September 24, 2007

What a difference a day makes


I'm laying on the ground, under a tarp, trying to sleep. It's dark, the campfire is stoked up for the night. My sleeping bag is toasty warm. My therma-rest pad is...well, o.k. I guess. Dinner was terrible (how people can survive on MRE's I'll never know).

It's the proper end for this day. It was pretty hectic. After rushing around getting everything ready, loading the boat, driving...I don't know, probably about 60 miles down the river then up the slough to this spot, hurrying to get set-up before it gets dark, now it's time to relax and think about hunting tomorrow. And the symphony is playing in the next lake.

Ahhh...the beauty! Listen to 'em go. They're all there and each has a part. Not a note is left out in this waterfowl concerto. The cranes with their "kdddroos", the loons bringing "whooloolooloo", the geese contributing "aaronk...aaaaronk", the entire duck section is too complex to list here, and my favorites, the swans playing bass.

I'm really thankful to be here, alone this night; laying on the ground in the darkness. It's just me, the Lord and the symphony. I wonder how they will be able to fly all day tomorrow if they stay up all night singing. After a while it starts to die down; the cranes are the hold outs but even they seem to be running out of steam. What sounded like hundreds has dwindled to dozens, then a few, then just one.

But one is enough. That solitary crane keeps the momentum going and soon more join in. Within a minute they're all going again. Then here come the ducks, then the geese and all the rest. I didn't know that was the crane solo part in this performance. I was thinking that was the finale. Silly me. It goes on like this until after I fall asleep.

The next day is beautiful; sunny, cool like fall up here should be. After a hard day outdoors it's time for dinner, the campfire, then sleep. What's different? Hey, tonight it's quiet. Another dark moonless night like before but no symphony. It's kinda weird after last night's raucous perfermance; almost...depressing. Nothing but a far off owl and one lonely duck over in the lake. Poor guy; he sounds so forlorn calling out in the darkness. I imagine him wondering where everybody is; thinking something like "I checked my calendar and I know this is the night for the concert" or "I should have listened to my wife. She told me it was scheduled for yesterday".

Thursday, September 13, 2007

boys, Men & MOOSE


Somewhere between a boy and a man there stands a moose. He's a big, wild animal; more than half-a-ton of bone and muscle, most of it muscle. He's lived in the wild for years, avoiding hungry bears as an infant and wolves every day of his life. He's alive today only because he survived yesterday, the day before, and a thousand days before that.

Strangely, his best weapons aren't on his head; the big horns (antlers) are seldom used for defense. They are mostly for show during the breeding season and for sparring with rivals. His one true love, the cow moose, has no horns and survives just as well as the bull.

His hooves are deadly; driven by the same brute strength that powers his bulk through deep winter snow and muddy summer swamps. More than one hungry, determined wolf has met its end with those hooves, but they aren't his best weapons either.

So what is it that keeps him alive? It's his ability to be invisible. Amazing, but true. This big beast; the largest animal in the woods, keeps his skin by hiding, by remaining unseen, unheard, undetected. He's a master of stealth, slipping quietly through the trees like a phantom, usually emerging late or after dark to feed. He's always on the alert for possible danger. When he senses something amiss he can silently dissappear back into the shadows from whence he came. A thousand pound animal moving with the discipline of tai chi. He's a chameleon, a mime and a behemoth all in one.

And then, suddenly, everything changes. Fall is in the air and care goes out the window. Our burly ballerina has become...well...a bull! Now he's on the move, searching; looking for a girl to impress and a guy to beat up. He's thrashing brush with his horns and grunting to call attention to himself. As the rut approaches he can even become deadly. Heaven help the wolves who find him now. A big enough pack may bring him down but there will be many casualties; some that won't get up. A grizzly would do well to avoid him now. He's even been known to chase many an armed hunter up a tree, which is where we come in.

In most of the north country fall means moose hunting. For locals it's not about "sport"; it's about food, tradition and a way of life. You won't find any blackpowder, archery or handgun hunting here. What you will find are rifles and men interested in bringing home meat. Moose hunting is what men do. Even some men who've spent the rest of the year inactive, unemployed and unmotivated will suddenly get on the ball. Boys will stay home and play but men will go out and hunt. And the moose stands between the two.

I'm not sure if the first moose is a line crossed or a milestone passed. Maybe it's more of a doorway that a boy steps through. Whatever it is, it's significant. I've seen it happen many times because I take boys hunting every year; boys who want to camp out, shoot guns and play. They fiddle with the camp fire and stay up late talking in the tent. It's every boy's dream; no school, get dirty, eat what you want (one kid threw up from eating too much candy). And they're lousy hunters; noisy, impatient, always munching on snacks, can't seem to get focused on why we're here.

Then they kill their first moose. Suddenly they're proud, jubilant, even giddy. They can't wait to get back to the village because they're bringing home meat...their meat! For many of them it will be the only meat their family will get, so this is important stuff. In camp I see them looking at the meat pole with a pleased look on their face, and when we get home they're hoping lots of people are there to see us unload the meat. They know some one will ask the greatest of all questions, "who shot the moose?" and they'll get to answer "I did".

Everybody will hear the stories and every one will know they killed a moose. All the kids at school will talk about it. Teachers too! Their grandma may even have a special dinner for them; a kind of potlatch to celebrate the first moose. All the relatives will come and old people will say nice things about the boy (it often reminds me of Old Testament blessings).

What I really enjoy is taking them again the next year to see the change. Next year they'll be serious, focused, intent on getting a moose. Next year they'll be hunters. Next year they'll be men!

Friday, September 7, 2007

trash



Imagine your neighbor burning household garbage in your front yard. Not paper; I'm talking the good stuff...plastics, foam, toss in a few batteries, maybe a couple of closed glass jars or aerosol cans. These are great; they make every day seem like the fourth of July, and believe me, this happens nearly every day.

In rural northern villages it's common for people to have a burn barrel in which they (not surprisingly) burn trash. It's interesting to note that most homeowners locate these barrels as far from their own house as possible. A brief moment of thought here will bring you to a couple of conclusions. First, they obviously don't want their trash burning near their house. I mean, who would? We're talking very toxic smoke. What's in that stuff??? Dioxin, and I probably don't want to know what else (if you know post it under "comments"). And this stuff is waaayyyyy smelly.

O.K. second conclusion. If it's not by their house it must be...where? You guessed it; it's by some one else's house. A common tactic is to put it "across the road" and since some one frequently is living "across the road", that puts it (technically) in their yard. What a concept.

These burn barrels are seldom taken to the dump and emptied; they must be full...no over-full...no way past full before they are hauled away to be dumped. Only after every conceivable attempt to stack more trash on top has failed, and even then they don't give up. I've seen "people" (my neighbors shall remain unnamed) gingerly place a bag of trash on the pinnacle of Mt. Burnbarrel (after previous attempts failed with the bag repeatedly rolling off) leaving it balanced precariously. Then it is lit ("Houston, we have ignition").

OK, a plastic bag perched atop a burn barrel that resembles a triple-scoop ice cream cone and put to the match. Next question...what happens when the the plastic bag starts to burn? You got it! All the now burning trash begins spilling out and rolling off onto the ground. Now picture my neighbor (a devout burner) carefully picking up pieces of trash flambe and quickly tossing them back on the pile while trying not to get scorched. It was actually kind of funny to watch.

Really, the whole trash burning thing here defies all logic. It's like there's something in the smoke that adversely affects people, impairing their ability to reason. Perhaps it's yet another "syndrome". I've seen burners attempting to inflame trash when their barrel is covered with 6" of snow. I've seen them attempting to light wet trash in the pouring rain. Not to be dissuaded, the devout burner frequently uses a propane torch for ignition (You probably can't appreciate the devotion this portrays; propane canisters are hazardous and can only be shipped to our village as such, making them quite costly). I've even seen one of my favorite burners start a roaring blaze in his barrel (which happens to be placed "across the road" among some trees) during the big forest fire I referred to in "The hills are burning". It wasn't enough that our community was facing evacuation and possible incineration from natural causes; when Mr. Burner lit up his barrel the flames were soaring and literally scorching the adjoining trees. No joke!

Once I saw a dead dog sticking out of a barrel! It was there for days, at the side of the road in front of a guy's house. Who does that? And who then would burn their trash on top of the dead dog sticking out of a barrel? What must that smell like? Three day old dog roasting a la garbage. Certainly that defies logic; further evidence of a smoke induced syndrome.

This Burn Barrel Syndrome, which is caused by the smoke, affects even otherwise sane and rational individuals, such as my wife (who will probably kill me when she reads this). Earlier, when I looked out my window and saw clouds of smoke billowing from a neighbor's roadside incinerator, I said I was going to take a picture of it (there was so much smoke I was making jokes about a plane crash, terrorist dirty bomb, etc.). "A picture would be good for the blog", I said. My wife's reply, "she (the neighbor) might think that's kind of weird". Kind of weird? Me?? For taking a picture of Armageddon??? I once saw a similar picture on the cover of Time magazine during the Gulf War. I bet no one thought that guy was weird; he probably got a Pulitzer prize or something for that pic, but I might be considered weird. Me, weird? Yeah, right.

It's likely something in the smoke that makes people lose the ability to reason. (Oh yeah, I already said that). Well....something's going on. I'm absolutely convinced this stuff is toxic...no, it's carcinogenic...no, that;s too weak...it's...it's DEADLY!!! There is something in the smoke! This stuff is killing people and they don't even know it!. It's taking over their minds!!Why am I the only one talking about it? Why isn't every one freaked out over it like I am??? It's got to be something in the smoke! I feel like I'm living the invasion of the body snatchers...and I'm the only one left who knows what's really happening here...I've got to do something...I've got to tell others...QUICKLY!...THERE'S SOMETHING IN THE SMOKE!!!

@#-0-":#!`~/:@%]^;[$?[\/?,!!%#+//~;......................................

I'm sorry my husband wasn't able to finish this post. He wasn't feeling too well so I've put him to bed. He should be fine in the morning.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Labor Day




Today is an unusual day...even for around here. Labor Day is one of the "three big days"; big as far as potlatches are concerned. (uh oh, maybe I just opened a can of worms with the word "potlatch". I didn't plan on this being another "vocabulary #101" post)

Potlatches are community meetings/dinners at the hall. They are usually tied to deaths/funerals; the "big three" definitely are. Perhaps I should try a different approach here and just tell you what I've done and will do.

1pm +/-; The phone rings, "Flo" asks for a ride up to the graveyard, wants me to haul up a fence (see photo, "Not just another day...part 2"/july 26).

1:10pm; I pick up "Herman" (Flo's adult son), load up a white picket fence, wheelbarrow and assorted tools, and then Flo. We go to the graveyard.

1:20pm; I unload passengers, fence and stuff. Lots of people and vehicles, everybody raking leaves, cutting weeds, painting fences, etc. Some are really sad, some not; some are drinking, some not; some are working on old graves, some on the most recent...and we have a lot of recent graves (see "Not just another day"/august 16). I talk with a few different people about a variety of topics.

1:45pm; I return home.

2:10pm; I get a call from an elder with plumbing problems. I go to his house and try to help (water heater needs replacement), but he needs the local "plumber" who is currently up at the graveyard (and likely intoxicated). It will have to wait 'til tomorrow, so no hot water 'til then, which is a bummer because his wife is cooking for potlatch (imagine cooking thanksgiving dinner without hot water).

3pm; I return home, select food to prepare for potlatch, begin preparation.

(now I'll jump to the future and predict how the rest of the day will go)

5:40pm; I get a phone call from ??? wanting me to give them a ride to the hall and help "bring their food down".

5:50pm; I drive ??? to the hall. The parking lot is beginning to fill up. Lots of people inside sitting around the perimiter; elders at tables, the rest on benches, leaving the floor open. Three long strips of brown paper line the floor with some dishes and pots of food on them.

6pm; I return home, pick up my food and return to the hall, probably giving more people a ride and bringing more food too. The lot is full, there's a fire going by the back door where people are burning food for the deceased, the hall is full and noisy, few seats available, quite a number of people from out of town, the strips of paper are full of pots, large bowls, etc, there are a lot of "dishes"(large bowls filled with a variety of food, covered with a dishtowel, to be given to those who are "receiving a dish" for a deceased person). I drop my food off at one of the tables laden with maindishes, deserts, etc., and find a seat.

6:10pm; The chief makes the opening speech, welcoming visitors, introducing the new schoolteachers, etc.

6:12; Some one else gets up to make a speech...

6:18; Another speaker, another speech...

6:30; The speeches continue...

7pm; (hopefully) The speeches are concluded and the food is uncovered, those receiving a dish line up in the middle of the hall, seated on the floor, the local Catholic Brother "says grace". Now the elders seated at tables are served and the rest of us move out to the strips of paper covered with a variety of food (lots of moosehead soup, roasted moose meat, fish, waterfowl, spaghetti, pilot crackers, home made bread, dried fish, etc., etc., perhaps there is something "exotic" such as beaver meat or muktuk, [all the food is now cold]) and we serve ourselves, sit on the floor and eat, or take food back to our seat.

7:15; Servers distribute cups of berries, "fish ice cream", cake, pie, etc. and any left over food.

7:30; Potlatch is over, several people ask for a ride "back town", others ask me to come back for them because I don't have enough room, the back of the truck is full of passengers, food and dirty dishes. I bring them home and return.

8pm; I'm back home and still a little hungry (some food at potlatch is very good...some is just alright...some is really scary).

Sunday, September 2, 2007

September...things change



September...month of change. Now begins the time of transition; shifting from one world to another. It's a shift in temperature, color and condition. The old world was warm; the coming world is cold. The old world was green; the coming world is white. The old world literally flowed with life; the coming world will slow...thicken...and solidify into an apparent suspended animation.

You see the signs of transformation every where. The days are shorter and cooler. The nights are actually dark. Many of the birds are going or gone. Even the trees raise their flags of surrender; yielding to the inexorable advance of winter by changing color and dropping their leaves.

All life in the north must cross this line from warm to cold. Some will adapt and survive, more will die, a few (perhaps the lucky ones) will sleep through the season of trial and awaken when conditions are once again favorable.

The sleepers? Bears are the obvious ones, hastily adding fat before turning in for the night. September is the month of the late night snack. If I were a bear I'd be eating Cheez-its or chocolate chip cookies; they seem to prefer berries and "gut-piles" left by moose hunters.

Insects, including the nefarious northern mosquito, also slumber. While many of them perish a few will find snug winter quarters. One favored place is tucked away in the cracks of standing dry spruce trees. I know this because I find them while cutting these same trees for firewood.

Other snow-time snoozers include frogs (we have few but they are here), the blackfish (who can spend the winter frozen in the mud) and I don't know what else.

The winter casualties are many: most of the insects, anadramous fish (such as salmon), many mammals (most of the young won't survive and the sick, injured and old frequently are converted into carrion), migratory birds that missed the last bus, etc.

That leaves the third category; those who must adapt to survive. Some grow heavy winter coats and rely on added summer fat to help see them through (moose, caribou). Some anticipate the coming winter death-toll and live on the corpses (ravens, foxes). Some have stored away provisions (beaver, voles). And some just keep on keepin' on (lynx, chickadees).

In which category would you expect to find humans? You may assume all would adapt, but I'm not sure if this is the case. Certainly many do (I include myself in this group); stockpiling firewood, filling the freezer with moose meat, etc. We work hard preparing for the coming winter and trust our efforts will be adequate (though I personally trust in the Lord and His provision; Luke 12:16-21). But some northern residents do not adapt.

The "snow bird" who flies south to escape the winter seems, to me at least, a cold weather casualty, unable to survive (apparently). These include seasonal workers, summer residents and retirees taking flight with our migratory birds or following the autumnal migration of RVs down the Alcan. They spend the rest of the year in places like California, Arizona or Florida

There are also those who seem to "sleep" through the winter. In this category I would place all who avoid the outdoors during the northern winter months. Granted, life in the Alaskan deep freeze is not every one's cup of tea, but if you live here you should get out and try to enjoy it. It's useful in staving off "cabin fever" and seasonal affective disorder(SAD), and it helps pass the time for those who don't like winter. But sadly, they just live an indoor life and view winter through a glass window like watching television.

Speaking for myself...WINTER ROCKS!!! Snow machines, dog sledding, freedom to travel into the remote. What's not to like? (see "Miami eat your heart out") So what if it hits minus fifty; it will warm up again. And zero is perfect! Not too warm, not too cold. But there I go, jumping ahead a couple months. I'm like the over-eager sled dog; just can't wait for winter.

In rural Alaska we seem to live by the season more than the day or hour. We have a season for fishing, another for hunting, etc. Its a seasonal approach to life. If that be the case, I love September because it's the "Friday" of months; the weekend of winter is just around the bend.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Tools of the Trade (guns)


OK...just for starters let's remind ourselves; this blog is about northern life. It's not about urban living; it's about rural living; bush living. Some of the stuff that would be totally inappropriate in...well...LA, Denver or even Anchorage might be alright here...might even be the best way to do it. You might even be really dumb if you didn't. Today's topic; the gun.

A gun is a tool. It's a little different from a screwdriver in that a gun is also a weapon (I suppose a screwdriver could be a weapon at times too but you'll never see a few thousand soldiers outfitted with shiny new screwdrivers and sent off to face the enemy).

In many remote areas of the free world a gun is useful and necessary. While it may be used against other two legged creatures, it is primarily used for #1; protection from four legged creatures, some of which have large and indiscriminate appetites, and #2; obtaining food. Food in this case may even be the very same four legged creatures with the large and indiscriminate appetites. Not to digress here too much, but it can be a case of "him or me", kill or be killed, eat or be eaten. In the northern forests there are large furry animals that happen to be quite tasty, and they may feel the same way about you. A gun will enable you to sit in front of the dinner plate rather than on top of it.

Think of it this way, a gun is like a credit card for the wilderness. Now I know there are a lot of wilderness purists who would just freak out over that statement, but...what can I say? Some of them get eaten. Campers, hikers and wildlife photographers have all ended up as the main course. Even the occasional park ranger gets nibbled on now and then.

Urban dwellers use credit cards to obtain the things they need, and more importantly, a card in the pocket is security; it's there so you are prepared for the unexpected. In places like LA, Denver or Anchorage you may confidently face uncertainty by purchasing gas if you run out, or paying for a tow truck if you break down. But more likely it will be something along the lines of capitalizing on a great sale price. You know the feeling; boldly marching into Best Buy unafraid because you are powerfully armed with that piece of plastic, prepared for whatever unexpected bargains you may be faced with. And Heaven forbid you should ever wander into Wal Mart unarmed; it simply isn't done.

Well it's the same with a gun (just don't take the gun into Best Buy or Wal Mart). When you wander into the northern woods, which northern people do all the time, since the woods are about...hmmm, 100 feet away, it's quite the fashion to take along a gun. You never know what unexpected opportunity may present itself.

Today I saw three people on their way to pick berries. How did I know this? Because the two women were each carrying a pail and the man had a gun. It's a mathematical formula; women + pails x man + gun = berry picking. (although this formula only works in summer; if I saw this in winter...I wouldn't be able to make any useful calculations). The gun was the credit card that allowed them to confidently "shop for" and "purchase" the berries. Had they ventured into the woods sans gun, they still may have got the berries, but it would be more like shoplifting; you know, lots of excitement, wondering if you're going to get caught, and if you are, how bad will it be?

This principle applies to many northern activities. If you go out in the boat to get firewood, the gun allows you to do it without feeling like you're stealing. If you go fishing, a gun lets you fish with confidence. Without it, you're always looking nervously over your shoulder, feeling like "Piglet" on Winnie the Pooh ("Oh...oh dear!"), and this is not good for fishing.

Picture, if you will; the unarmed fisherman (fisherwoman...fisherperson...fisher...whatever) standing on the bank of a pristine river. No roads, no boats, no people. Nothing. Just the man and the river...and a few other things too, of course; the things that happen to live there. This is THEIR home; the man is just a visitor...no...he's a trespasser! And he happens to be fishing right where these "other things" also like to fish.

If you've ever gone fishing and found someone else "in your spot" when you got there, you have an idea how this feels. Except it's more like getting up in the middle of the night and finding someone in your house, in your kitchen, in your fridge!!! Now you've got the picture.

So the unarmed fisherman must keep looking over his shoulder because the owner of the house may show up at any moment. And it never fails; right when he's making his cast he hears the snap of a stick breaking close behind him. He spins his head around...there's nothing there...but he just threw his lure into the trees and it will take ten minutes to retrieve it. Like I said, not good for fishing.

With a gun our fisherman would hear the snap, yet remain focused on completing his cast. Then in his best Clint Eastwood voice he'd calmly utter the words "Do you feel lucky punk? Well go ahead...make my day". He's confident, self assurred, even cocky. He may not care to look behind him because he knows his "MasterCard" is right by his side (unless he was foolish enough to leave it back there leaning against the tree, in which case he instantly becomes the shoplifter again and expects to feel the heavy hand of the law upon his shoulder.)

The gun is also useful for making grocery "purchases". Most northern residents view the big outdoors as something of a giant Safeway. We all know the real Safeway is out there, somewhere, but like grandmother's house, it's over the river and through the woods, making it a long way off. So we "shop" right here at the neighborhood market and we spend most of our time at the meat counter.

A gun lets you "buy" hamburger, steaks, ribs, whatever you feel like cooking. The only catch is you'll be cooking it for a long time. This is Costco shopping taken to the next level. When you "purchase" three pounds of moose ribs, you get the rest of the moose with it, so you'll spend several days getting it home from the "store" and into your freezer. Moose will be on the menu tomorrow, next month, maybe even next year. Innumerable haircuts will come and go, fashions will change, gas prices will continue to go up, and the White House may have a new occupant, but moose on the menu will remain the one constant in this ever changing world. Look at the bright side, it beats going hungry, and after a couple thousand pounds, moose meat starts to taste pretty good.

The gun is used to "purchase" a variety of menu items; moose, bear (it comes in a choice of colors), caribou, ducks, geese, ptarmigan and "chicken" (which is grouse, I'm sorry to say). Those with a taste for the exotic may select swan, crane, snipe, porcupine and muskrat (the spring shot beaver is particularly good). Other areas have a different variety available in their markets, and all this is seasonal, of course.

So the next time you turn on the news and hear about two legged animals hunting each other, take heart; somewhere far away in a wilderness there are civilized people who use guns instead of credit cards.