Saturday, December 29, 2007


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.


Wednesday, December 26, 2007


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


So there I was walking down the 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.