Monday, December 29, 2008

"The dump tourist" vs "the dump shopper"

The wind has been brutal. With the air temp in the minus 20-30 range, any wind results in a significant wind chill. We've been facing a wind out of the north that slices exposed flesh like a razor, prompting one to cover up as much as possible.

Today, when I went out to feed my dogs, I was adequately protected from the arctic blast, except for that little place between my eyes. As you may imagine, that unnamed place was cold. This weather will likely continue for a few days.

In our village, as in many others, there is no trash pick-up service. Residents either burn their garbage in a barrel (a filthy habit which pollutes the neighborhood and stinks up the town; see older post about this heinous crime against humanity), or, like myself, they take their garbage to the dump.

A village dump can be an "interesting" place; you never know what you'll find. Dump scenery may include a few dozen ravens, smoldering heaps of trash, dead dogs in various states of decay/consumption, seasonal items such as fish heads in summer, moose hide in the fall, etc. (this is trapping season so you'll often see marten carcasses; they look a lot nicer with their clothes on), and human waste; the previous contents of the infamous "honeybucket".

Today, when I went, I saw the ravens, the remains of my old sled, partially burned, lots of charred cans, and one "tourist". A tourist is not to be confused with a "shopper". This tourist visits the dump numerous times per day. He's a loney old man who's favorite pastime is riding around the village and checking out what every one has been up to. So naturally he makes semi-hourly dump visits.

He saw me driving in to drop off my garbage, so he waited out on the road. As I unloaded and set fire to my refuse (this is the approved procedure as it discourages foraging by stray dogs and ravens) the tourist attempted to appear disinterested, pretending to focus his attention on something else. But I know better; I'm familiar with his intelligence gathering techniques, as I have been for years.

When I finished and drove out from the dump, he drove his snowmachine in. He clearly did not have any trash with him, so he was not here on official business. This was a recon mission. I smiled as I watched him in the rearview mirror and drove away. The rapidly spreading flames were thwarting his investigative efforts.

If you find it...amazing, or dumb, or completely trivial, that a guy would actually drive by the dump simply to see what every one is throwing away, and that he would do this numerous times per day, I completely agree on all counts. What can I say; that's village life.

Now, as I said earlier, a dump tourist is not the same as a dump "shopper". As the name implies, a shopper visits the dump hoping to find a "bargain". Since we are a long way from Home Depot, recycling can be a good way to go. For example, in the next week I will be making a hitch/tow bar for a new sled. The materials will be reclaimed steel, originally part of the "bleachers" in the school gym. I got these "supplies" when I was at the dump a couple of years ago, so you could say I was a "shopper" on that day.

One woman here has a collection of "stuff" she has salvaged. Many people get snow machine and four wheeler parts there. In the past I have reclaimed everything from used lumber to old moose heads (used for trapping bait; one was the key to obtaining a very nice black wolf pelt).

There is an art to dump shopping. You can't just go barging in like you would at a Wal-Mart. You've got to watch where you step (remember the honey buckets) and you must possess visual appraisal skills. That is, you must have a discerning eye to tell you what trash is "treasure" and what trash is truly trash. Without the visual appraisal skills a dump shopper is forced to rummage around in the dump like a stray dog or lazy bear; a somewhat hazardous activity that can also give you a bad reputation.

I'm reminded of my early days as a shopper when I was ignorant and unskilled. I needed some pipe (two inches in diameter) to fix my trailer. A visit to our local hardware store (that's the dump, in case you haven't figured it out yet) was in order. And I quickly found what I needed. There was a large plumbing apparatus that had been dicarded when they updated our water plant. Jutting out from the top was a length of pipe which would suit my needs. I returned with a hacksaw and got to work.

I found something to stand on so I could reach the pipe (it was 7-8 feet off the "ground", not really ground because we are talking about the dump here). I climbed up and started sawing. A few people passed by and gave me some quizzical looks, but no matter; I knew why I was precariously perched on rubbish with both arms over my head sawing away on the pipe. Eventually I was sucessful and returned home.

In hind sight I would definitely say that was not the work of a skilled dump shopper. Here's why:
-#1; Discretion, or in this case, the lack of. A veteran shopper operates with the skill of a Navy Seal, seeking to perform the required operation in secret. Balancing on a pile of garbage while sawing overhead is anything but discreet. Like I said earlier, bad for the reputation.
-#2; Poor location. The needed pipe was very hard to reach. A basic rule of dump shopping is watching where you step; climbing up on a garbage pile is out of the question for veteran shoppers.
-#3; Visual appraisal. This is where I really blew it. A savvy shopper would have accurrately assessed the situation and deemed this pipe unacceptable. As a rookie, I plunged right in, to my subsequent shame. The discarded plumbing apparatus of which my selected pipe was a part, had not been previously used for water supply. No...I can only wish it were so. The truth is, (and here I cringe just thinking about it) the pipe I salvaged was part of the sewage system. (And I thought the color was from rust; so gross!)

Monday, December 22, 2008

Things are looking up

Unless I'm mistaken, we had a wee bit more sunlight today. The Solstice is behind us so the days are now getting longer; probably only a few seconds, but we'll take what we can get. I didn't really notice much improvement; it was snowing pretty hard all day. I'm sure the sun was out there, somewhere, but I didn't see it.

Today I headed off across the river to get wood (firewood). With my fully functioning snow machine (one, at least) and a new chain on my saw, I drove off feeling like a kid on the way to my first day of school...but the vision was quickly shattered.

While driving "down the bank" (which means I was going down onto the frozen river) I met a guy who was also getting wood. His appearance was enough to strike fear into the heart of any "kid" on their way to their first day of school. Good thing I'm a grownup. My wave brought a smile; well, a partial smile. He has lived a rough life and some of his teeth have not survived the journey. His face told the tale of a scuffle, probably about 3-4 days ago. There were old abrasions and a so-called "black eye" which was anything but black. Red, purple, orange and a bit of green and yellow. All the colors you would find in a good Italian produce market. And those colors would look a lot more attractive there than around his eye. Alcohol doesn't wear well.

He was scrounging around for anything remotely resembling wood. On his make-shift sled rode some tree roots and pieces of a stump. He was pulling it himself; his life does not accomodate a snow machine for any length of time.

As I approached the island I came upon an oddity; a man walking. Odd for a guy to be walking a half-mile from town on a soft snow machine "trail". Suspecting a mechanical problem I stopped to inquire.

"What's goin' on Mo?"

"I'm stuck on the other side, in water."

"Where at?"

"Right where you go up the bank on the middle trail."

"How deep is it?"

"Not too bad (he illustrates with his hands) but I couldn't handle it myself."

"You want a ride back to your house, or do you want a hand getting it out?"

"I hate for you to get wet."

"It's not like I've never been wet before." (he smiles) "And I'll probably be getting wet again before too long." (he chuckles)

A mile ride and we're there. After 15-20 minutes of pushing, pulling, lifting, digging, shoving and sweating he's free. He waves as he goes on to check his traps and I drive off to the north.

A few miles later I come upon a BULL MOOSE; capitalized because he was BIG. I watched him chug his way up the lake through the snow, swiveling his head from side to side as he kept an eye on me. WOW! After all these years I still marvel at the size of those guys. A massive body of muscle, sinew, blood and bone, hide and horns. There's a lot of power jogging up that lake; his dewlap swinging pendulously as he goes.

A few hours later and my work is done. Two loads of drywood have been delivered; payment for the rough-sawn birch she gave me last month. She'll have heat for many nights and I have a new table. We're both happy. I threw in a fresh beaver carcass just to be nice.

(The photo was taken a few days ago with the sun at max height. It gives you and idea how low it is at this time of year. You can probably imagine why clouds are no fun right now.)

Saturday, December 13, 2008


Not really sure where this post will go. Usually I "feel" some kind of inpiration about a subject or a current event. Today I just signed on...hoping it will come to me.

Maybe I'll just tell you what I did today.

The day starts off a little weird. My wife hurt her shoulder at work yesterday and the pain kept her from sleeping very much. Most of her night was spent sitting up in a La-z-boy. She's tired, hurting and frustrated, so I pamper her a bit with a nice breakfast. Then, once I know she will be ok, I move on to other things.

One of my snow machines is now fixed...Ohhhhh-yeah! I got it running last night so today it's ready to roll. And roll it does!

I go for a ride (after stopping by the dogyard to prepare soup du jour for my dogs; Brazil and the others really appreciate it if I fill the empty spot once a day). I check out the trail in hopes of running the team tomorrow. Out of the dog yard, through the woods, across the little lake, more woods, more lakes, etc., etc. Not too cold (10 above) which makes it comfortable. Sun would be nice, but we're fogged in.

I follow some one's old trail* (*a "trail" is often nothing more than the track left by a previous machine. In a remote location such as this, most of the snow is undisturbed, which can make travel difficult; especially when the snow gets 2, 3 or 4 feet deep. Driving through untouched snow is locally referred to as "breaking trail"). So I follow the old trail up the local river to a logjam where the driftwood has been cut for firewood. This massive tangle of once-trees, now-fuel doesn't look too good to me; there's a lot of mud and sand on the logs which dulls the chainsaw. I continue on, in search of...nothing really, just cruising.

I enjoy the meandering ride upriver, the hoarfrost coating everything in sight, and the animal tracks. That's the great thing about snow; it tells the tale of all the recents happenings.

I see where the wolves came out of the woods to travel on the trail (animals have trouble breaking trail too, so like the rest of us, they take advantage of another's hard work and follow old trails). I can't make out how many there are; 2-3 is my guess. They go in and out of the woods a few times; one spot might be a good place for a snare (sorry, I don't mean to be a jerk, but trapping is a way of life up here. Wolf fur is used for parka ruffs and for memorial potlaches).

I also see innumerable fox tracks, some mink tracks and one that looks like wolverine, but it's unlikely considering I'm only a mile or two from the village. If snow conditions were different and the tracks fresher, I would be able to tell for sure. There is even an otter track (beautiful, amazing animals, but they can be a REAL PEST when they start raiding the fishnet).

Now I drive down to "Two-mile"; a likely place for me to turn the team around if we run tomorrow. At Two-mile there's a trail going over to "Two-mile Island".

"Hmmm...where does that go?" I wonder to myself. My woodyard is in that very direction, and not many people go down that way, so I'm curious. Raiding woodyards is for locals what raiding fishnets is for otters. I better check it out.

The trail crosses part of the river, then climbs up the sandbar to the island, but not much further. Some one has been getting driftwood on the island. No trail continuing on across the river, so my woodyard is safe.

I head for home, taking the trail back to the dog yard. After feeding them I go back to the house. Man, that was a nice ride; my first of the winter.

More pampering for the injured sweetie. I act like it's an inconvenience, but she knows I'm happy to do it. Laundry, a dinner of frijoles and fajitas (pretty good too, just sayin') and a quiet evening at home. These don't happen much on weekends, so I'm soaking it up.

'Till next time.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


I'm having a breakdown! I guess you could say it was bound to happen, considering all the stress and rigors of living here. If you know me and my situation you may have seen it coming. Perhaps you knew it had already started. Where were you when the first domino fell? You saw this coming and you said nothing?? Why didn't you tell me?

Oh boy; this is serious; it's a "major breakdown", leaving me immobile and seriously incapacitated. Not surprisingly, it affects my wife too. Actually, I guess you'd have to say it's a "total breakdown" because I'm left with no options, no alternatives. I have no way of getting back to life as I've known it until I deal with this situation...and it won't be easy. I hate mechanic work!

For the past couple of weeks the truck has been dead. I'm sure it's probably nothing more serious than the battery, but getting a new battery is complicated. It must be purchased over the phone from an auto parts store in Fairbanks, delivered to an air freight company who will handle "hazardous" stuff, and then, eventually, I'll get it here. That will likely be sometime between Christmas and New Years. (Sniffle-sniffle)

As I mentioned previously, I just got the four-wheeler repaired and back in service. Yesterday, while plowing snow, the rocker-switch burned up. The switch operates the winch, which raises and lowers the plow. Not only that; I can't even turn the engine on until I take everything apart or the switch starts smoking. That will be my first chore today, after it gets light outside. (Sob...sob...more sobbing)

My wide-track snow machine, which I depend upon; much like Zorro and his sword, Robin Hood with his bow, Tarzan and his...I don't know...his monkey? Or his knife, that's it. Well it's the same with me, winter and the wide-track. Well, it's down with a tranny problem. I took it apart a few days ago, and...uh...well, that's where we're at. Get the picture? (Boo-hoo)

Which brings us to today. Well, yesterday, actually. My relatively new "Tundra" (which is my other snow machine; it's basically a "Toyota" whereas the wide-track is a "Hummer") quit working. I'm not sure if it's serious (please Lord, no) or just a simple inconvenience (like the carb icing up). That will be my next chore (WAAAAAA-WAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!) .

So there you are; my complete and total breakdown. The only thing I have that works is my boat, which is covered with a foot of snow. I suppose my best option may be to combine all these broken vehicles into one hybrid that works!

Thursday, December 4, 2008


It's REALLY coming down! Snowing buckets out there; has been for about 24hrs. The weather wizards say it will keep up for another couple of days.

That's good news as far as snow machine travel is concerned. Bit of a bummer as far a shoveling is concerned, but I'll take it. Now we have enough to smooth out the trails and rough ice on the river. Enough for running dog teams ("Caveman"'s been doing it for a while, but what can I say; he's a caveman). Anyway, I'm REAL HAPPY I got the fourwheeler fixed and I'm able to operate the snow plow. Woo-hoo!

Tomorrow it looks like I'll be helping set-up trail markers. It's the way we identify the "trail" on the river, going up or down to "neighboring" villages. Tomorrow night a lot of our residents will take off to play basketball in the next gym down river, which is nearly 40 miles away. Driving a snowmachine on a river, in a heavy snow storm, in the dark...hmmm; I think trail markers are a good idea.

Well...time for me to turn in. Looks like a busy day tommorrow.

Monday, December 1, 2008

An even 100!

Whoa! Unless I'm mistaken, this makes the 100th post for northern eye. Wowzer, that's a lot of gibberish for an old guy who can't even type (ok, maybe I'm not so old, but it sure feels like it some times; like today).

I was thinking about "the glass half-full, half-empty" thing. If you know me you're well aware I lean ever-so-slightly toward the glass being on the empty side (quit laughing; you mean you think I understated that a bit. To that I reply "Pessimists are actually Realists and Optimists are delusional"). But in the interest of fairness, I will strive for objectivity in the following post.

Life in a remote northern village; the limitations are obvious (at least they should be obvious if you've been paying attention), but with everything considered, is village life a glass half-full, or half-empty?

First off, it's REMOTE. That is a plus or a minus depending upon your preferences. Perhaps you like the idea of unspoiled wilderness right outside your door. Moose, bears, eagles, wolves; would you like them for neighbors? Solitude just around the bend. Unlimited country to explore. Sound good? How's that glass lookin' now; filling up?

Or would you miss your Starbucks, restaurants and stores (ok, we have a "store", but get real; village stores are a joke). How do you feel about cutting your own hair, cause it's a long way to a Supercuts. You can't pick up dinner on the way home from work, so forget about KFC and Domino's. Ever try buying clothes and shoes through the mail? Odds are, most of the time it won't fit (Case in point: I just got three birthday presents; one fit, one doesn't, the third I have yet to try on...I let you know in a while). So, does remote = bummer? Is the glass running low?

How Do you like the idea of healthy, wild meat and fish? It's all available right here. You just have to step out the door and get it (limits and licenses where applicable). No preservatives, no hormones, low in fat, plenty of those Omega fours, fives and sixes (or whatever they are). Fish as fresh as it comes; right out of the water. Ahhh yes, the beauty of a nearly full glass.

Oh, what? Did you want something else? You're not a wolf you say. A salad??? Sorry, that's not in season. You can get your salad in July...if you planted it in June. problem. Here's the can opener. Fresh veggies? Sure, right out of a freshly opened can. Ben and Jerry's? Hmmm...I don't think they live here. A guy named "Jerry" comes every summer, but now that I think of it, he may spell his name with a "G". Oh, you wanted ice cream! No problem, we make it ourself. Crisco, Wesson oil, sugar and some boiled fish. You can add some frozen blueberries, if you picked them last summer. Yeah, that glass can get pretty leaky when food is the topic of discussion.

Let's try...transportation. You're gonna like traffic...EVER! No jam-ups. No rubber-necking causing a 45 minute delay to your commute. In fact, no commute, so you can stop feeling guilty for not carpooling. And no need for spendy insurance or registration. (oooo-baby; look at that glass filling up) No worries about washing the car. Maintenance is less because you drive so few miles*. This whole transportation thing is a win-win. Hey, what was that Asterisk for?

Glad you asked. Miles driven are less, but around here we get a lot more "bang for the buck" (well, for the mile, I guess). Did I mention we don't have paved roads? I'm talking about zero asphalt; it's all gravel, so when I say "bang" I'm talking about "BANG!"; one for every pothole. In a village, maintenance is a loss. Ball joints wear out, shocks break, tires suffer a high mortality rate, etc. Another thing you'll want to know; YOU are the mechanic. It's hard to find a Midas or Mr. Goodwrench along the river.

Sorry to drain your glass here, but it can't be helped. If you don't like cars, don't buy one. But you will need a snow machine, a boat and probably a 4-wheeler. Add that up and it will cost considerably more than the car. You won't burn a lot of gas commuting to work, which is nice, because gas costs $5-$10 per gallon, depending on where you live. If you like the idea of saving gas/money by just staying home in the village, I'll admit, that has it's benefits. You will save. One small problem though; that's kind of like saying you'll save gas/money by spending time in jail, because never getting out of the village starts to feel like being in jail. Hmmm, transportation is a bit of a trade-off, like everything else.

One more. How about...people. Do you think village life would be great because every one knows every one. The people are all friendly and live together in a close-knit community where every one helps their neighbor. No gangs, no crime. It's just like one big family. Just look at that lovely glass; it's nearly full.

Not for long! Actually, a village is one big family, since every one is related (except me) and families don't always get along; perhaps you've discovered that. A "close-knit community"? Yep. So close it's impenetrable. Just ask the State Troopers, which brings us to the "no crime"...yeah, like I just said, ask the Troopers. "The people are all friendly"? Village people are basically the same as every one else; some are nice, some are not-so-nice. And some are a major pain!

So there you are. You decide if the glass is half-full or half-empty. As for me, my perspective remains the same, and what troubles me is the glass looks like it wasn't very clean to begin with.

p.s. The third one didn't fit. One out of three is about the average.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

loose ends; 11-25-08

OK, time to take care of some old business.

First off, Brazil Lives! If you were wondering about the end of the "dog tale" (who spends time thinking about dog tails?), I apologize for leaving you out there in the cold, dark land of uncertainty (is that a word?). I suppose my utter embarrasment at having failed to draw any useable conclusions, combined with the shame of my...uh...what's the word? Hmmm, it was right there on the tip of my...well, not really on my tongue, 'cause I'm writing, but anyway....uh...what was I saying again? Oh yeah! my forgetfulness. See, there is hope for me!

So I forgot the whole point of the post, which is why I've been hiding in shame. But now I will face the music. Brazil eventually swallowed the meat, after a few token gestures that faintly resembled chewing, and he only did that because he HAD to, but he swallowed and survived. Thanks to you who made comments. I probably should thank those of you who didn't; comments like "Good one!", or "Way to waste my time with a meaningless story" are better left unsaid.

OK, so #1 is done, Brazil lives!

#2. The Caveman has NOT returned. Well, like his brother said...he's a caveman! He's been out there for what, a couple of months now? And he's lovin' it. Rumor is he's been enjoying some good marten trapping, probably spending a lot of time training his dog team (yea! another team in our village) and whatever else he's doing. A couple of months without real laundry facilities or a shower???? Hmmm, maybe he's been rolling in the snow like a husky. Good thing he's camping solo.

Alright, #3...coming up as soon as I remember what it was going to be. Hold on while I check some older posts for clues...

Ahhh yes; I got it. The Postmaster.

Keep our setting in mind; isolated, no roads, only one so-called "store", about the same size as a very small house or a large living room, so everything depends heavily on the U.S. it?

Thanksgiving week arrives. It's Monday morning. There's a lot going on in Fairbanks (basketball tournaments, etc) so local people are wanting to cash checks (or get their checks in the mail) so they can travel. Others are expecting groceries to arrive so they can cook their holiday meal, etc., etc. The Postmaster is a thousand miles away visiting her sister, but, not to worry, she has an alternate who will be here to keep the village ball rolling smoothly.

At least that was the plan. "Alternate" has a baby, who gets sick, so she hops the first plane out of town. Not Good! We are now faced with an entire week of NO MAIL!!!

If you want to get only a partial idea of the magnitude of the problem, imagine you woke up on Monday, walked out your front door and saw a fifty foot high wall down the street, confining you to your neighborhood; nothing comes in, nothing goes out. If you hadn't got your turkey, or your sweet potatoes (who cares?), or those french fried onion rings to put on that dumb green bean casserole (so what?) or the ice cream to go with the Tollhouse chocolate chip pie (Ouch!, that one hurts), well now it's too late; the wall is up and commerce has screeched to an abrupt halt! That's kinda what NO MAIL feels like. Except NO MAIL is worse.

Village solution? Have some one else open the post office. And that is what happens. You can't pick up COD's but you can get letters and some parcels. You can't cash your check, but you can take it to Fairbanks. Woo hoo! Where else can a federal building be opened for business by a totally unauthorized person? Gotta love village life.

OK, that's it. Hope you enjoyed your turkey, and that dumb green bean thing, and some delicious pie. If you can learn to be thankful in all things, in every circumstance, you'll be way ahead in this life!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

All quiet on the northern front

This morning (well, it's 10:15, still twilight; sun won't be up for about an hour, but it's "morning")...where was I?...This morning all is quiet, peaceful, even "tranquil", you might say. Outside is a brisk minus 28, but inside there's a nice cup of coffee (Cafe Del Mundo / Papua New Guinea), a fire crackling in the woodstove, and a tired wife still snoozing (shhh, don't wake her. She works hard and can use this rest)

Last night was similar. After the Teen Rec Center shut down and the kids made their way home (or wherever else they went) the town got quiet. No snowmachines racing around; just quiet. Unusual for a Saturday night. We went to bed around 1am.

Right about the time I was entering "the zone"; you know, when you're just drifting off into a perfectly relaxed sleep...BOOM!


"What was that?" (I think I was a bit further into the zone, since I wasn't sure what the noise was)

"That was a gunshot!" (never a good thing late at night; during the day it could be some one shooting a stray dog, or perhaps even a grouse, but not now. I'm reminded of a time when a guy across the road was under his house [houses here are elevated, so being "under" one isn't an activity exclusive to small rodents and feral cats] late one night and attempted to shoot himself. Thankfully he was not successful. I'm also reminded of the time the guy next door attempted to shoot his brother, late one night. Unfortunately he was successful; he's now doing time for murder)

A little detective work (i.e. open a window and listen) revealed more clues; a couple of male voices in the area shouting/argueing, but it's unclear what is happening. No screaming; so that's a good sign.

"What should we do?"

"We'll go back to bed. If they need us, they'll call."

I don't want to seem too callous (cold hearted, unfeeling, etc.) but that's really how it me, I know. If I got out of bed and ran outside every time I thought something serious might have happened, I'd get even less sleep than I do now.

And, like I said, it's now morning and all is quiet. Probably nothing more serious than an alcohol induced argument spiced up with a gunshot to emphasize some point or other (think western movie, a couple of drunk cowboys hollering at each other with an occasional "BANG!" here and there; you'd probably be pretty close.

Friday, November 21, 2008

11-21-08; the end of the tale

OK, time for me to 'fess up. Well, first of all, this blog is legit. If I cut off a post before I get to an acceptable conclusion (like the previous one), I'm not making it up. I really did have to stop. As I said, I needed to go feed the dogs (I often cook their food, as mentioned, and if left too long it will freeze; last night was around minus twenty). So, when I say I've got to go, I gotta go!

Now for the true confession...(gulp!) The reason I left this "dog tale" post hanging without finishing it up right're not going to believe this...Well, I totally lost my train of thought. I honestly can't remember where I was going with that one (how lame is that?)

I mean I could come up with some lessons we can learn from Brazil / "Knucklehead", and hopefully it would be something a little more helpful than "Chew your food" or "Mind your manners", but I lost the whole idea. I'm sure it's rattling around back there in my 50 year old cranium, but I can't seem to shake it out.

How about we make a deal? If YOU can think of something appropriate, post it in the comments (please remember to keep it anonymous, about "semi-anonymous".). If it works I'll post it. And if I can remember the point to the whole Brazil-eating-like-a-crocodile story, rest assured; I'll post that one too. Deal?

(Hmmm, I wonder if Thanksgiving had any relevance?)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Dog Tales" 11-18-08

I am of the opinion the we humans have much to learn. My father once said, "The more we know, the more we realize how much we don't know." He was speaking in terms of scientific knowledge, but I think the maxim applies universally.

Potential instructors are everywhere...if (and that is a big "IF"), we are willing to humble ourselves and take on the attitude of a learner; not an easy thing for Americans, we usually think we already know everything and are "on a mission" to enlighten every one in our path. If you feel I'm being unjustly harsh, I encourage you to seek out the opinion of the first non-American you meet; see what they say.

Regardless, I propose we apply ourselves to learning. If you are with me, humbly bow down and acknowledge today's instructor. (you're going to have to bow down because the teacher is a lot closer to the ground than you are). "Ladies and Gentlemen, It's my pleasure to introduce to you...Professor Pooch!".

OK, now, don't freak-out. If King Solomon, in all his God-given wisdom can suggest bugs as our teachers (Pr.6:6), I should be able to recommend "Man's Best Friend". And that is my intent with "Dog Tales". If you think it's too corny, be glad I didn't go with "Lassie's Lessons", "Canine Conundrums", or "Piddles Riddles", or how about "Sessions with the Salivating Sage" (Ooooo, I kinda like that one).

Consider if you will, Brazil; the largest country in South America, home to the vast Amazon River basin, tropical jungles abounding with wildlife....Whoa! Wrong Brazil.

"Brazil" is a dog. He was born during the last World Cup (as in football,; you know, "the beautiful game"...??? Never mind.). That makes him...a few years old. His littermates have similar names like "Argentina", "Mexico", "Ukraine" and "Sam" (go figure). Now, I must say, Brazil is a complete knucklehead. Definitely not my favorite dog, which is why he is today's teacher.

Among his many annoying traits; even heading the list, are his "table manners". If you happen to be around him at supper time, you'll be hard pressed to find them. That's because he has none...even for a dog.

Brazil is a complete and utterly disgusting PIG! I have been around a lot of dogs in my time, and I have never been so appalled. He's totally gross. When I feed him I serve it up and clear out, because he will dive into his food with such reckless abandon it will fly. I'm not overly squeamish around dogs, but he is gross. One example was the time I fed him a large chunk of moose meat.

"Moosehunting" basically requires that the hunter shoot the moose. This in turn often produces what hunters refer to as "blood-shot" meat; meat that contains excess blood, resulting from the wound(s). Blood-shot meat is not edible for humans, but dogs have no complaints, so I save this meat and cook it for my dogs.

One time when I cooked up a pot for my dogteam, some of the meat was in large chunks. Brazil just happened to get the largest. I spooned it into his dish and watched, already aware of his "eating habits". Brazil basically doesn't like to chew his food, or maybe it's more accurrate to say "he doesn't like to take the time to chew it". He just wolfs it down, literally (actually I don't know if that's literal; I suspect even wolves chew their food to some degree. Brazil is in his own category here).

So anyway, he gets a big hunk of meat in his dish and he's on it, instantly. Like an African crocodile with a small antelope, he throws his head back and attempts to swallow it...whole. Now, this hunk of meat is so big he can barely get it in his mouth, let alone down his throat, but that doesn't stop this dainty little prince.

The meat lodges about half way down. Brazil starts stretching out his neck, rhythmically, like a snake trying to swallow a rodent. So there he is, head back, neck outstretched, throat obstructed, unable to breathe but unwilling to give up. A "Mexican Stand-off", Brazilian style. His eyes are starting to look a little bulgey and I'm starting to worry. If he were a human in a restaurant, some one would be doing the Heimlich on him by now. At last, his pea-sized intellect overcomes his pumpkin-sized greed and he relents, coughing it up and spitting out his treasure.

For about three seconds.

Replay the tape 'cause here we go again. Saaaaame thing. Snap it up, head back, start the neck/snake thing, and...nothing. Plugged up again. Only this time he takes a few steps while he's working his neck, as if he's trying to walk it off or something. Same result; bulgey eyes, an over-all look of distress, wait about twenty seconds, then...PLOP! Back out on the ground.

Another three seconds, another go-round. Add in a few more steps but the rest is identical...

It's kind of ironic, but I have to stop right now to go feed "Mr. Manners" and the rest of the dogs. I'll finish this in a while...

Monday, November 10, 2008

11-10-08; the Postmaster

I've been scolded for not updating northerneye more often, and I've been admonished to update my profile to reflect the current number of grandchildren. Any guesses on who may have given me this recent "encouragement"? If you guessed the mother of the new addition, you'd be right.

Time is like...Nutella; you can only spread it around so far before you run out. And my jar of time has been scraped pretty clean of late (my jar of Nutella is non-existent; such a pity). But right now it's time to check the post office.

The Post Office in a northern village is the equivalent of the country store in old movies. You know, the place where people meet and share news and gossip. You won't find a couple of ol' boys playing checkers on a cracker barrel, but you will find them chatting with the postmaster (the Hollywood storekeeper's counterpart; think Mr.Olson...Little House) discussing current events; such as the weather, the latest hunting/fishing/trapping reports, who got med-evacced, who got a new snow machine, who has been hauling wood, from where, whether it's drywood or birch, etc. It goes on and on.

The postmaster is usually the authority on most subjects. She (or he) is "in the know", keeping current on the local happenings and usually dispensing the news faster than the mail. Letters must be sorted and placed in the appropriate box (we don't have home delivery, in case you were wondering; pardon me for laughing at the thought), whereas "news" can be passed freely over the counter to anyone. Well, almost anyone.

If you are not on friendly terms with this local gossip guru, you may find yourself out of the loop. And this could have ramifications far beyond the scope of information. The local postmaster is a should I put it?...a very "influential" person. She not only knows all, but she touches all as well.

In a remote community where nearly everything of importance comes via the U.S. mail, the postmaster is in a very strategic position. The adage about the two people you don't want mad at you applies; the "two" being the person who delivers your mail and the person who prepares your food. An angry postmaster probably won't spit in your soup, but your mail could be mysteriously misplaced.

Postmaster "knowledge" is pervasive; not limited to local gossip. By handling virtually every piece of mail and reading the addresses, she knows everything about everybody, and what she doesn't know she can deduce. Think of her as a human hybrid; part Wizard of Oz and part Sherlock Holmes.

The postmaster knows your finances. She knows who gets checks in the mail (social security, unemployment, retirement, AFDC, payroll, Alaska PFD and public assistance, to name only a few) and when these checks come. She knows how many different checks you get, and the amount, because you probably cash them at the post office. (The only "bank" around here is the river bank, and "Teller" is the name of a village off to the northwest.)

Since many people use postal money orders to pay their bills, she knows what you spend your money on. If you buy a lot from Cabela's, Amazon, Eastbay, or whatever, she'll know. If you love to buy stuff from all those dumb home shopping channels, she'll know. And if you purchase "male enhancement" or "adult entertainment" products, she'll know that too. No secret is safe from her. If something crosses her threshold which her scanners don't recognize, she'll casually ask you what it is; this information is then filed in her mental database.

She'll know if your car, boat, four-wheeler or snow machine breaks down, because you'll be waiting for the parts to arrive at the post office. She'll probably know how extensive the repairs are, since most people have things shipped C.O.D. and the amount is right there on the box; plus, you have to pay her the C.O.D. amount. It's probable that she already knows if those vehicles are financed or paid for too.

She knows if you are in debt (she sorts the credit card bills), she knows if you have been turned over to a collection company (certified mail), she knows if you have investments (statements), who your investments are with, and how many. I suppose if she were interested, she could even check the financial pages to see how your investments were doing, but right now everyone knows that.

She knows who must appear in court, how often, and with the local gossip she already knows why. She knows if attorneys are involved. She probably knows if you will be going to jail and for how long, since you will have to tell her what to do with your mail while you're away. She knows!

And she's not ONLY a postmaster. She's a counselor, a social worker, a financial advisor, a surrogate parent, and would probably make a pretty good poker player. Let me explain.

Let say "Wife" is away while "Husband" remains here in the village. Wife knows "the check" (could be any check) is due to come in the mail any day now. Wife calls the postmaster to tell her NOT to put the check in the box, because Husband will cash it and spend it at the liquor store. (The postmaster already knows all this anyway, but you can't be too careful) So the postmaster "holds" the check until Wife returns, ensuring the money will be spent in a more sensible manner (like gambling, perhaps, or maybe for food or fuel). When Husband asks if the check has come, the postmaster must answer accordingly, which is why I think she'd be good at bluffing in a card game).

She helps people pay their bills. She discourages unwise purchases by those who can't afford them. And she won't cash your check if you are intoxicated; especially when you are accompanied by a group of unsavory characters who are known to separate the vulnerable from their pocketful of cash. She knows!

This encyclopedic database possessed by the postmaster obviously benefits the entire community. Naturally it follows that her replacement can't measure up when she is away. The sub postal worker is truly "sub-postal", lacking the village omniscience of the real deal.

My wife spent several years working as our postmaster's replacement. On numerous occasions she was bawled out by customers. The reason? Simply sorting the mail. Who knew you could get in so much trouble for reading an address and putting an envelope in the appropriate box?

To keep things running smoothly, every community needs a postmaster who has this "higher knowledge"; one who knows all and, quite often, tells all. It's a lot of service for the price of a stamp.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


The river froze up two nights ago. Keeping in mind that the river is the primary highway in these remote parts, try to imagine what freeze up means.

During the summer and fall transportation needs are met either by aircraft or boats, as I've pointed out. But that is weird. You use a BOAT as your primary vehicle (since air travel is limited and very costly). We're not talking about going fishin' on the weekend with the boys or spending a day at the lake skiing. This is basic stuff; obtaining food, heating your home, etc.

When winter rolls around and the temps drop to something below, we simply exchange "snow machine" for "boat" and it's more of the same. (Actually, there are some differences, but I think you get the idea) So winter or summer, the river is the highway. Whether it's boats or snow machines, warm or cold, green or white, it's all about the river. If access to your neighborhood was provided by a river instead of a paved thoroughfare, you'd get it.

River...river...RIVER. To live here is to be completely dependant upon the river. Now it may come into focus. It follows, then, that when the river is in transition, morphing from a liquid into a solid, you have problems. And "problems" translates into "you are stuck". Using your neighborhood again for comparison, imagine you have only one road that connects it to the "outside world". What would it be like if the pavement turned into jelly for a few weeks every spring and fall?

It can be very hazardous to your health if you attempt to rush things while waiting for the river to freeze. People can die that way, so you must be patient. And that reminds me of a story one of my "lush fishing friends" (see earlier post) told me. He's an old guy (the oldest in town as a matter of fact) and he's a walking achive of stories about village life and culture.

As we were checking his lush hooks, standing there near the edge, watching the ice go by, he told me about a guy who needed to travel hundreds miles down river. It was many years ago, but at this same time of year; late fall ("late fall" to us is winter and a half to most people). He made it this far by boat and stopped here to visit with friends; something people along the river do all the time. (Friends would likely be offended if they knew you passed by without stopping.)

As he liesurely enjoyed his respite here, the ice started running, which, to my way of thinking, is a real problem, but not for this intrepid (insert "insane" here) adventurer. He wasn't ready to leave and didn't want to be zig-zagging around ice with his boat, so he stayed a while.

As the temperatures continued to drop and the passing sheets of ice grew larger, people just assumed he would be spending the winter here. He was still a hundred miles short of his destination, and his boat, like the rest, was pulled up out of the water, safe from the tons of ice rumbling by. But he had made no such plans. He was merely waiting...until conditions were right.

When the moving ice was deemed acceptable, our some-what loco traveller assembled his friends down at the river bank, telling them he was going to continue his journey. They thought he was joking, but he appeared in earnest. Then they thought he was crazy.

At his request, they helped him slide his boat out onto the shore ice, right up to the edge, then loaded it with all his gear. It was about then that one of them said what they all had been thinking; the moving sheets of ice would certainly crush his boat shortly after they pushed into the water.

He laughed and said, "Of course it would, which is why I'm not putting my boat in the water". And he waited, watching the floes grind against each other, like gigantic northern lily pads, drifting by.

"Alright; get ready" he told the group, as a large sheet came crunching along, pinwheeling in slow motion along the shore. When the floe was directly in front of his boat, inches away, he yelled "Now, PUSH!", and they shoved his boat forward, easily sliding it onto the passing floe.

The southbound traveler then stepped across to the moving ice (in the same way you would step onto an escalator), turned and waved good bye. "See you in the spring" said the grinning man to the dumbfounded crowd, who limply returned his wave with their mouths hanging open. And they stood, frozen with that expression, as he drifted away, not really sure they had seen what they thought they saw.

I just shook my head and muttered "Crazy". My elder lush-fishing friend nodded in agreement.

"Did he make it?" I asked.

"Yep. When he got down to his camp, he just pushed the boat off into the water and drove to the bank. He was true to his word and came back the next spring."

But the rest of us mortals must wait for the river to freeze adequately. Now that the ice has stopped it should go quickly, as long as the weather stays cold. Then, in a couple of weeks perhaps, we can try to cross the river. The "Caveman" will be returning then too. So that's what we need; some more cold weather, then add about a foot of snow to smooth things out, and it's all green lights for travelling.

p.s. today sunrise was at 10:07 and sunset at 6:15; we are losing more than six minutes every day.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


"Lush" is not a label for some one who drinks too much; at least not around here. A "Lush" is a fish; one which the Department of Fish and Game refers to as "Burbot" (aka "fresh water ling cod").

A lush is a strange looking creature. Largest at the head and tapering down to the tail, it looks a bit like a catfish and a bit like something you'd see on an old Star Trek episode; trying to swallow up the starship "Enterprise". It is greenish-olive in color with a white underbelly. Lush are favored eating around these parts, but not so much for their flesh; people like them for their livers, which are very large.

Now, if the idea of eating fish liver doesn't sit well with you, you're not alone. I don't care for beef liver, I don't eat moose liver and I've never been interested in chicken livers, so I'm sure not tempted by fish liver, lush or otherwise.

Perhaps my "liver aversion" stems from the fact that a liver is a filter. Filters, when they do their job, filter out bad stuff, so who wants to eat that? (If you ate car parts, would a used oil filter be first on your menu?)

Or maybe it's because of a story a co-worker told me years ago. He was Viet Namese and had fought during the latter part of the war. Among the many acts committed during that war and later regretted was cannibalism. There were reports of soldiers eating the livers of the enemy; after a battle. As he told it, a meal of human liver would make you a fearless warrior. (Yeah, I'll go with that. If you're not afraid to eat another human being, what is left to fear; in this world atleast).

OK, my digression was not intended to be some kind of Halloween thing; I just don't like liver.

But people here do, especially from a lush, and a good time to catch lush is now, before the ice gets thick. You can make holes in the ice and drop in weighted hooks, one at a time, or you can run a line under the ice with a series of hooks on it. Either way, the technique is to use baited hooks, sitting on the bottom. If you selected a good spot (and that, as in all fishing, is the critical factor) a lush will find the bait, swallow up your free meal, and get caught. When you come by the next time, he should be there, patiently waiting for you to haul him out and dine upon his liver (if you are so inclined).

When I have caught lush in the past, I always give them to an elder who appreciates them much more than I do. But they're fun to catch, even if they are kind of creepy looking.

The photos were taken a few days ago when I stopped by to help a couple of guys check their hooks. No lush that day.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


This is the time of confinement. Once the ice starts running on the river, boat travel is impossible. In a village like this one, with no roads linking our community to any others, we are dependant upon air travel. Planes are the means of getting in and out. And planes are very expensive.

Aside from air travel, we use boats in the summer and snow machines in the winter. These are actually used much more than planes, since they afford the freedom to go where you want; the local "airlines" can only take you to the next village, Fairbanks, etc. With a boat you can stop where ever you want along the river. Snowmachines afford even greater freedom. The whole country is open and available by sno-go.

Imagine for a moment living in a remote community, in a wilderness area with no roads. You are on a waterway which serves as both a means of transportation AND a source of food (it's now pretty obvious why you need a boat and how important one is). To you, the water is part asphalt and part grocery store. You can even add in some recreation and a source of energy, as the river is the means of getting out of town for a break and provides driftwood to fuel the woodstove, heating your home. So that makes it part campground, park, B&B, etc. (whatever fits here for you), part utility company, and actually, it is a whole lot more. It's hard to understand the importance of the river until you live here. It's enough that you just imagine the river as an ESSENTIAL element of life here. The river is why this village is located here.

With the coming of winter (and this far north, winter comes early and stays a long time) the essential waterway begins to freeze. Your boat, faithful friend and helper these past 4-5 months, is now put away. As you watch the ice drifting by, you can only wait patiently for the river to freeze up. You know the time will come when the ice stops and enough snowfall will allow the use of your snowmachine, but that time is not now.

For now you wait. You are basically trapped in the village; "landlocked", as it were. If you need firewood, it will be very hard to get, so you better have enough. If you want to visit another village, you will have to fly, which is very expensive (over $100), so you better wait. If you feel like you need a break...too bad; you can't get one. So, for now, you wait.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The "Caveman"

He's out there, lying alone in the dark. The cold air pressing in around him is held at bay by a thin layer of canvas; a wall tent, the staple of Alaskan camp life. A fire is crackling in the small wood stove, throwing a flickering orange glow that escapes the confines of the stove through cracks around the leaky door, vent and stovepipe, giving only the hint of illumination.

Outside, in the cold, the moonlight reflects off the new snow. It is actually quite bright. The woods remain in shadow but the river is lit up. Earlier, when he went outside to look around, he was surprised and pleased with the view.

The ice started running today on the river. The passing sheets grind against each other and along the shore, hissing as they go. He will hear this sound for days, continually, until the ice stops and the river surface freezes. After a couple of weeks of constant friction, all will go strangely quiet when the ice stops. But that is yet to come. Tonight he lays in the tent, zipped in his bag, listening to the passing ice.

It is the sound of a great battle; the force of a mighty river resisting the onset of the northern winter. As the arctic cold attempts to halt the flow, the water struggles to keep its freedom. Lakes and sloughs yielded quickly and are now covered in ice, but the moving water fights on. It will take days, even weeks, before the river submits. But submit it must, eventually, and he will stay in his camp until it does.

The frozen waterway will be his road back to the village. He left that home a couple weeks ago to "fall out" here at Nine-mile. He came down by boat, set up camp, laid in a supply of firewood and made himself comfortable in the wilderness. Sufficient groceries have been stored and more food is nearby. He can hunt spruce-chickens, cook the now frozen whitefish he caught in the net, even go after a moose if one comes near his camp. And water is just down the bank; an entire river at his disposal.

He brought his sled dogs with him, now chained to trees nearby. They will provide him some company and alert him if a grizzly stalks the camp. He knows quite well, he's in bear country. The blacks may have entered their dens for the winter but the grizzlies are still in search of a late meal before turning in. That's why he keeps the 30-06 loaded.

Tommorrow he'll put in some more work on the trapline. Marten fur will be improving with the snow on the ground so he'll try a few sets in another week or so. He'll need to cut some more wood too; the woodpile is getting low. It's amazing how much work there is to do in camp. But all that can wait. For now he'll just lay in bed and listen to the passing ice, to the owl calling over on the island, and the crackling in the woodstove. His brother calls him a "caveman" because he enjoys the simple life in camp, but he wouldn't have it any other way.

Friday, October 10, 2008


All is dark outside. It's early morning; no hint of sunrise; no moon. I raised the blinds while making a cup of coffee, to look out. If there were any one else in the room they would have laughed and asked "What is it you thought you'd see out there; in all that darkness?"

But I see what I was looking for. The window may be a black rectangle, devoid of color, an apparent portal to nowhere, but I can see it. It's there! And there! And there is another!

I look into the black and can tell things are not as they appear. It may look black, but really, all is white. The forecasted snow has indeed come during the night. A snowflake blows into the window pane, then falls away into the darkness. Then another. Look closely and you'll see them; tiny specs that appear, like children, pressing their faces briefly against the glass, then vanishing, back into the void. But they are there.

Winter has now officially arrived. The temps are low twenties, so this snow's not going anywhere; it's here for the duration. Like a detatchment of Marines, it has come first; laying the foundation for all that will follow. And it will be here 'till the last; remaining until next spring, after all the other snow has vanished. First in, last out.

This snow will be covered soon enough, but I'll see it again. Makes me think of my friend and mentor who recently went to be with the Lord. I was saddened when I heard he was gone. Even now my heart feels heavy knowing I will never see him again. He was such an encouragement to me. His passing leaves a hole in this world. But I will see him again. Soon, whether it be days or decades, we will meet again, in a far better place. We will embrace and talk (perhaps we'll even share a meal; better than IHOP were we used to meet). Oh yes, we will meet again!

It's funny how this snowfall made me think of that. Now it's getting light outside (I write slow) and the little flakes at the window didn't lie. All is white, and winter is here.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Fall harvest, arctic style

Fall is an interesting time in the far north. I've already written about moose hunting; the annual harvest of meat. Moose is far and away the largest source of protein. "Getting" a moose is very important, especially considering the lack of alternatives and limited financial resources. A Moose is BIG, in more ways than one.

But fall is harvest time in other ways. Fall is when people here hunt "chickens", which are not really chickens at all. They are spruce grouse (no, they don't "taste like chicken"). In the fall, spruce grouse (aka "spruce hens") move out of the forest to the roads, river banks and other open areas to search for small pebbles. These pebbles are ingested; bound for the gizzard and used to grind up the berries, spruce needles and other foods the grouse live on. At least that's how I think it all works; what I do know is fall is when the birds are found along the roads, and that's when people hunt them. Fall and chicken hunting go together.

Fall is also when people "go fishing". Now I know I've talked about fishing in the summer; King salmon, "Dog" salmon and Silvers. And fall is the time for Whitefish too. But that's different; that is fishing with nets. What I'm talking about now is real fishing (or "reel" fishing); using a rod and reel, line and lures. You know, the kind of fishing you're familiar with.

Fall, from now through freeze-up, is when locals grab their poles and head for our local river. The Grayling and "Trout", which technically are Dolly Varden/char, are moving down from the headwaters to the Yukon River, where they will spend the winter under the ice. The Yukon water is clear in winter, since the silt producing glaciers which feed the river stop melting during the cold season. This makes it suitable for the grayling and trout. As the fish make the journey, locals turn out in numbers to catch them. So fall means grayling fishing too.

But wait; there's more (sounds like a cheesy TV commercial, doesn't it). Fall also means cutting grass. "Say what?!" I said cutting grass. The tall sedges growing in local marsh areas die and dry out, leaving the straw-like stems, which we call "grass". This grass is cut and put away every fall before the snows come. It is then used, as it has been for decades, as bedding for dogs. Winters are known to be cold up here and dogs need some form of insulating bedding in order to survive. It takes a very, very hardy dog to survive out in the open at fifty below. Local pets and modern sled dogs require a dog house with bedding to make it through the six months of cold. And grass is the bedding. So fall means cutting grass.

So that's our fall harvest. Get a moose, shoot some chickens, catch some grayling and cut some grass. It's now or never, 'cause in a few weeks the snow will come. Then the chickens will return to the forest. The grass will collapse under the weight of winter's white blanket. The grayling will disperse under the Yukon River ice. And moose season will be a distant memory.

And that will make it officially winter. Snow machines will be the vehicle of choice. Fur hats and parkas will be in style. And white will be the dominant color, for about six months. But right's harvest time!

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Moose Hunt

Fall, moose hunting and living in the north. It seems those three always go together. Well...maybe not always. There are some northern communities where moose are not present, but you could probably just sub in the word "caribou" for "moose" and that would cover it. A few other communities in mountainous areas may look forward to sheep hunting, or perhaps deer or elk, but moose is still the predominant meat animal up here.

Moose hunting is really a lot of things. It is a way to survive; though today "survival" is usually more economic than literal. An animal weighing in excess of half a ton represents a lot of protein. In remote communities "store food" is very expensive and what little meat they do have is just too costly to eat on a regular basis. "Getting your moose" really does fill your freezer and get you through the winter.

But there are other aspects to moose hunting. There is the "male bonding" part, since most hunting is done by men (most, not all). There is the sense of "manly pride" that a moose hunter feels when he returns home with his catch, especially if it happens to be a large bull. There is the "rite of passage" idea that applies when a younger hunter gets his first moose. I personnally have taken part in this one many times, as I have taken boys out hunting for years. I can't count the number of guys who got their first moose on these trips (two more this season) but every time it's a lot of fun. I get into this part of moose hunting so much I can go years without shooting one myself. It's totally a blast (corny joke intended)

But my favorite part of moose hunting is just getting out there. The fall colors. The cool nights and cold mornings around a campfire drinking hot coffee. Just the sounds alone are worth the trip. Beavers working or slapping their tails in alarm, ducks paddling and chattering, swans honking as they wing their way overhead. There may be squirrels churring, water trickling, rain on the tarp at night when you're snug in your sleeping bag, or a mouse rustling around the camp in the dark.

The real memories are made if you hear a far-off loon wailing it's eery call, wolves howling or the star of the show, a moose calling. For an outdoor sound afficianado it's paradise. And if it turns out you don't hear anything too exciting, that's great too. Where else can you experience such peace and quiet?

The northern moose hunt; I love it (even though it can be physically exhausting, the weather can be hideous and you can "get skunked"). The highlight from this year was the canoe trip I made with my son-in-law. We paddled a local river and were able to get a nice bull. The hunt was great; we heard a bull and a cow calling, we then called them to us and were able to get the bull (Ms. Cow was last seen heading for home, no doubt to log on to e-harmony and check her matches).

I will use half the meat and shared the rest with another family who weren't able to get any. That's another great part of moose hunting; when you are successful you have enough meat to share. They got the head (the local favorite for making soup), a front and back leg (roasts, grind, "dry meat"), the neck (grind, soup and stew) and some ribs and brisket (favored for soup or just plain eating). I kept the other legs, the rest of the ribs and the tailbone.

I better finish this post; there's half a moose waiting for me hanging up in the shop. "Getting the moose" is only part of the job. Now its time to clean, cut and wrap, and it's a lot of work. Kinda makes me glad moose hunting only comes once a year.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

5 minute escape

Life got you down? Are you worn out from all the frantic troubles that modern American life throws your way? Do you need a diversion? Tired of hurricanes, scandals, campaigns and economic woe?

Then come with me on an imaginary journey to my world (imaginary for you; real for me).

Bet you can't guess what I did yesterday. Go ahead, take a shot. Nope. Hmm-mmm. No, try again. You're not even close. Cold. Colder. COLDER! Oh forget it.

Yesterday I dug a new hole and moved my outhouse. Eeewww! Yucky! So gross!

Actually it was no big deal. The poles holding it up were rotten and the last time I used it I had a bit more excitement than I was counting on. Yeah, things broke and the whole privy rocked way back like a recliner. Reclining is cool if you're in a La-z-boy watching TV, but a reclining outhouse makes for a real interesting experience. Needless to say I didn't waste any time reading the paper.

But today it's all good; ready to go for another ten years or so.

Why do I even need a "one-holer"? I do have indoor plumbing, right? Yeah, I do, but our water is off quite frequently. There's also the benefit of having an "external facility" when nature calls and I'm working outdoors. This way I don't have to remove all my apparel; such as boots, winter clothing, etc. But the greatest benefit is at times like now, when we have guests staying with us. Our home is basically an "improved" one room cabin, so you can imagine the lack of privacy, not to mention the competition I face for "toilet time". A recently re-done outhouse is great.

May I suggest you put one in your own backyard.

OK, time for a change of subject. I'm still in the hunt for a moose. I sure could use some meat and I'd love to give half of it to another family in need.

The cranes started flying by yesterday. Thousands of cranes spent their summer out on the Seward Peninsula. Mid to late September is usually when they pack their bags and head south. The odd thing is they have to fly east across Alaska in order to go south to the lower 48 and Mexico, which is their destination. The cranes leaving is just one more sign of severe weather ahead. Of course another sign is the snow that fell in a neighboring village yesterday.

OK, your 5 minutes are now up (and so are my grandkids). Next time I'll try to focus on a subject a bit more respectable than reclining outhouses.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


Wow; this is a busy time.

I wish I could write all about the importance of moose hunting to village life and culture; the financial savings a moose means in terms of food and the key part of native culture moose hunting represents. I would like to talk about hunting, camping, the local geography and weather, how important boats are, and more.

I'd also like to talk about fall in Alaska. The feeling of "impending doom" that fall brings to the far north (well, maybe "impending doom" is too severe, but there is a real sense of change, of transition, from the easy days of summer to the very real struggle for survival entailed in winter. You can feel it in the air, you see it in the environment around you as leaves fall, annual plants die, water freezes, the last barge of the season comes and goes.

When I was out at the camp the other day, packing up and bringing all the gear back to the village, I could feel it; it was palpable. The beavers are working hard to store enough food to get them through winter. The waterfowl are moving out and heading south. I was the last one to visit that hunting area, due to the dropping water level, making it impossible to get there (or, more importantly, making it impossible to get back). We were the only humans around; the closest were about 50 miles away. If our boat broke down we might not have been able to get help; the boat may have been left there for the winter.

But I don't have time to get into all that. I still need to get our moose. I still need to take more guys out to help them get meat. I still need to take advantage of the last of the fishing; the whitefish (hold on; my grandaughter is crying...) What a cutie! OK...the whitefish...?...hmmm...what was I saying?

Oh well, the point is I'm pretty busy right now and I don't have much time for this. The seasons are in transition; worlds are changing. The time of plenty is morphing into the time of trial. It's like Joseph in Egypt interpreting Pharoah's dream. The difference is we go through this every year.

There is much more to say, but there is no time!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The "hunting hangover"

We came back from a moose hunting trip the day before yesterday. "We" translates as two 14 year old boys, a twenty-something man and what's left of myself.

Every year I set up a fall camp; the base for moose hunting and related activities. Well, every year when the weather, water level and other contributing factors cooperate. Since "all systems were go" this year, the camp is now set up, in one of the most beautiful, awesome places in the north.

I won't tell you where, lest you and a few thousand of your friends show up there next year, spoiling it for myself and the other local residents who savor the unique flavor of this wild, beautiful paradise. Little wonder this wetland wilderness is the ancestral homeland of these indigenous people.

After the two hour boat ride, we arrived at the campsite and set up the wall tent, put up the tarps (it usually rains in Alaska in the fall), and got everything in order to make a reasonably accommodating home in the wild. Camp chairs, propane cook stove, fire grill, cots and other "neccessities" are all part of the deal. Then we went out in the boat to hunt before it got dark. And we didn't see a thing.

A late dinner of burgers and fried potatoes (I grew up eating fried potatoes, and I must say, my Mom made the best fried potatoes in the world), some time around the fire, and we turned in.

Next morning: a fast, cold breakfast, a couple hours of hunting, then return to camp. A meal of sausage, fried eggs, pancakes, coffee and juice kept the boys happy. Afternoon was spent hangin' around camp; the boys spent time climbing trees, shooting the .22 pistol (with supervision) gathering firewood and eating (it's amazing how much these guys can eat!).

Time for the evening hunt. We went in a different direction (near "duck lake"), saw one bull (which quickly got away), then saw another; a young bull in a place we could get to. Our hunting area is more water than land, consisting of lakes, marshes, swamps, islands and sloughs, and you don't have access to all of it. It's not uncommon to see moose in places where you can't go, or in water where you don't want to shoot them. But this guy was in a good spot.

My twenty-something hunting partner instantly dispatched the bull with one, expertly placed shot. It was impressive, so imagine my surprise when he later told me this was his first moose; he had hunted many times but never shot one before.

Now the real work began. The boys were basically helpless, but one was an eager learner (he'll make a fine hunter in another 2-3 years) and "20-something" was a hard worker but unskilled in the art of moose butchering. That left you-know-who to do the bulk of the work. But that's ok, I expect it, since I take young and inexperienced hunters out every year (I just wish my "50-something" body would quit complaining so much). We got the moose butchered and loaded the meat in the boat; before dark, which is nice alternative.

Back at camp we hung the meat, changed clothes and enjoyed a dinner of chili dogs. Then some much-needed sleep.

Next day, after coffee, pancakes, bacon and eggs, we packed up our personal gear and the meat, leaving the camp intact for the next trip. Then we headed for home. It's always a good feeling coming home with meat, especially when one of the crew just got his first moose. It's a blessing to share this experience with "20-something"; who, apart from the few days we just spent together, lives a life without purpose.

My hope and prayer is that he, and the younger boys, will learn from this experience; learn to hunt moose, learn to camp safely in a wilderness, learn to make wise choices in life, and learn to follow Christ on the path of life.

For now, I must deal with the " hunting hangover"; that tired, worn-out feeling as my body recuperates and I clean gear, put stuff away and get ready for the next trip. (I wish Alka-Seltzer made a product to help cure this condition)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

"In your face and up your nose!"

They are out there, somewhere, plaguing man and beast. They torment, torture, punish and persecute. They are tireless, unmerciful and totally devoid of feeling. And they are relentless. They never stop, not until they get your blood.

If you've never met them, get down on your knees and thank God, because He used them to break a nation. They humbled the world's greatest power, yet are tiny themselves. They are....GNATS!

In Exodus, the plague of gnats was the third in the series. If I had been Pharoah, I think it would have been "three strikes and you're out!"; gnats would have been enough. It's interesting that gnats were the first plague the Egyptian magicians could not duplicate, causing them to humbly proclaim "This is the finger of God". Yeah, gnats can do that.

You already know they are small and you may know they bite, but did you know their bite is much worse than that of the notorious Alaskan mosquito? They don't exploit a pore (like the mosquito); no, they chew a fresh hole through your skin. The resulting wound gets inflamed and swollen, hurts and itches, and can take weeks to heal. These are definitely the bad boys of the north.

Standard insect repellent doesn't work; since they prefer to work in secret they often bypass exposed skin. They land on your clothing, then begin their search for an opening. And they often find one. Typical wound sites are under your socks, around your waistband, in your hair, etc. They'll get under your watchband, around the collar, in your shoes. Many of the places you would think sacred and safe from mosquitoes are fair game for gnats. A gnat bite in the earcanal is a real bummer.

Yet the greater torment comes from the places where they don't bite. Two of them come to mind; in your eyes (during gnat season you have them swimming in your eyes all the time) and my personal favorite...up your nose! Seriously! Happens every day. If you spend much time outdoors in gnat season you get 'em there on a regular basis. I know, I know; "why don't you wear a headnet?" Sometimes I do, but rarely. Headnets are a real pain if you're trying to get some work done.

So you just live with them, and wait until the onset of cold weather. That's when they'll get what's coming. 'Till then, they must be endured, with great patience.

(I would have posted a picture, but as you know, they are tiny)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

unwilling moose hunter

The old man was pretty grumpy the other day. Not really sure why; but does an eighty-something-year-old man really need a reason? I'm fifty and some of my parts aren't working all that great; by the time I'm his age I expect a lot of stuff will be rusty, worn down or just plain broke. I might be even grumpier. Anyway, he was not happy.

He was standing beside his nephew's boat, obviously loaded up to go hunting, so I started the conversation.

"Where you off to 'S---'?" I asked, and boy did I get an ear full.

For the next fifteen minutes I heard all about how his nephew was taking him out moose hunting, how he is "too old" to be going, how tired he gets, how he can't help butcher the moose, or help pack meat, how he even gets tired just riding in the boat, and more...much more.

At one point when he was coming up for air, I quickly shot in the obvious question.

"Why don't you just tell him you don't want to go?"

"He don't listen! Says he wants me to go; I don't know why! I can't do nuttin'. I'm too "bleeeeep"-n old......................" and he was off and running again. Whew! Was I ever in the wrong place at the wrong time. It sure seemed to me he could just stay home, but no; that's too simple.

I saw him again today. He was back from hunting so I thought I'd ask him how it went. I was a little gun-shy after the auditory abuse I got two days before, but why not jump right back in there?

"How was your trip?"

"We din't see nuttin'. Don't know why he went out there. Too early. Moose are all layin' down. Burnin' up gas for nuttin'..........(etc. etc)"

So I think to myself ("Yeah, well, I could have told you that. Everybody knows it's too early and the moose will be hard to find. That's why I wait until September") But I don't say anything; it wouldn't be appropriate for a younger man to speak that way to an elder. Even if the "younger man" is fifty and has lost that new-car smell.

Monday, August 18, 2008

recycle firewood?

My friend?, boss?, role model?...whatever he is, would be proud of me. While reading the post about "Blondie" the bear, he was...well, how should I put it?... shocked! Not shocked that the bear might be killed (I don't know how it fares with Blondie, in case you're interested); he was shocked to read I was planning to "ring" some trees. The thought of intentionally killing trees for firewood, while understandable to him personally, was a bit much. What can I say, he lives in Oregon, where people would string you up for such a heinous crime.

So I wrote him an email...

(Sorry, I just got a call to help with a med-evac. I was gone for a while)

...I wrote him an email expounding the virtues of wood heat; no nukes, no oil spills, much more compatible locally than solar (short winter days) and geothermal (permafrost), etc., etc.. The point was, wood heat is relatively affordable and environmentally friendly here, in this context.

But he got me to thinking, which most of us (myself included) don't do enough. Living where I do, and living the lifestyle that comes with the territory, I kill a lot of stuff. Sorry, that sounds kinda rough, but it's true.

Here you need affordable food, so you shoot a moose, or you catch fish. You need affordable energy so you get firewood. It would be nice if all the wood you needed was right next door...but it's not, sorry. So you can either drive around on your snow machine looking for "dry wood", burning up gas ($$$), or you can figure out another way (i.e. the "woodyard"). And that's where ringing trees comes in, creating a ready supply of drywood in a convenient location. But you have to kill living trees. There's the dilemma.

The recent flooding hundreds of miles upriver offerred something of an alternative. High water always flushes out the drainage, sending debris downriver, which we call "drift". Drift would be sticks, an occasional barrel (the 55 gallon drum is part of the rural Alaskan scene) and logs. The drift logs can be cottonwood (never good for firewood), birch (rarely usable as drift; birch is good firewood when you get it "standing") or spruce. Spruce is the preferred firewood, as long as it's dry. A dry spruce drift log makes very good firewood.

I usually get my driftwood in the spring, after break-up; when the high water brings down lots of drift after the ice, as do many other locals, and after a few weeks all the good wood is usually gone. But this summer we had flooding way upriver, sending down a second "pulse" of drift. Seeing the usable wood floating by, thinking of killing trees in the woodyard, and ignoring the fact that lots of villages out on the coast depend upon driftwood, as they have no useable timber nearby, I decided to go out and get more wood. Others here were doing that as well.

The more wood I get, the less oil I'll have to buy (heating oil is $6.75 per gallon), and the more driftwood I get, the less trees I'll have to kill. It's not really "recycling" firewood, but it is using an available resource that has minimal environmental impact (the trees are already dead), and it beats cutting live trees. Too bad for the coastal villages though; I guess everything is a trade-off.

Today I even picked up a barrel that was laying along the bank across the river. It was about half full, of what I don't know yet, probably gas or oil. My "greenie" daughter would be proud of me...well, proud of that atleast. She's not too thrilled about all the killing I do here, but, like I said, it comes with the territory.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Sitting in my old, lumpy, very familiar easy chair, watching the Olympics. The current menu consists of a steady diet of swimming and diving events. An interesting thought comes to mind.

How very different must be the lives of these young, vibrant athletes from that of kids around here. (Phelps is getting ready to go for another one). No doubt nearly all of the athletes have come from reasonably wealthy backgrounds. I suppose some, like the Chinese, have come up through a state sponsored program (Phelps just won again; more golds than anyone now), but it must be a certainty the U.S. and Europeans grew up in affluence. Kids from early childhood growing up in a swimming or gymnastic culture. Many/most/all? have well educated parents.

They've spent their childhood focused; working unbelievably hard, year after year, moving ahead to this moment. They are likely the product of uncommon opportunity combined with committed (obsessed?) parenting.

Now it all comes together; years of lessons, thousands of dollars (euros), gallons of sweat. For some of them, this is the payday for a childhood filled with work and dedication; lacking play. For others...disappointment. A very big page in their lives must now be turned; time to move on. It is really, really amazing to me how focused these young athletes are; how disciplined.

(women's gymnastics now)

But not in my village.

Here most kids grow up should I say it? In poverty. Many don't live with their parents. A college education is a rare thing in rural communities. Swimming pools and gymnastic centers are as plentiful as unicorns.

(that girl just did about a zillion flips while flying through the air)

Many kids here are lacking positive parental input. They usually fail to learn the connection between hard work and payoff. Most have no focus of any kind. Some entered the world already behind; missing the developmental ability needed to succeed in the educational system. Other just never have it developed.

I wonder how much potential resides here that will never be realized. I see everyday the way things are; I often wonder about the way things could be??? Guess that's why I'm here. Not that we'll see any Olympians come from our village, but it's nice to know you have the chance to make a difference.

(p.s. the announcer just said the Chinese girls start at three years of age. Wow!)

(p.s.s. Phelps just got another; he's not even human)

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Back in town

I'm back in the village after a week absence, attending a conference in mountains out of Anchorage. The photos were taken there. (What an awesome place!)

We came back on Friday, welcomed home by the wild and woolly combination of both a wedding and a baseball tournament. People from all the "neighboring" villages, as well as from Fairbanks and elsewhere, have come to celebrate. The general lack of law enforcement (we have no resident peace officer) makes our village a favored place to "celebrate", and therefore, a favored wedding destination. Behaviors which are commonplace here (such as DUI, fighting, etc.) will usually get you into trouble (and jail) in more civilized places where the law resides.

No doubt there is much "celebrating" that is relatively harmless, but it's the alcohol and drug related "celebrating" that gets my attention. That would include two kegs of beer for the bachelor party, four more for the reception, and an untold quantity of other intoxicants ingested in one way or another over the course of 3-4 days (and nights; let's not forget the nights).

This day started early with a couple of phone calls; wrong numbers, the result of celebrants "dialing under the influence". Hours later, a drive "downtown" revealed the presence of two Troopers (always a welcome sight at times like these) giving a field sobriety test to a local woman (who is well known to drive under the influence, especially on the weekends). There were people enjoying the games, people walking around, people partying in boats tied up along the bank (the boats were tied up, not the people), and people enjoying the unusually fine August weather (complete with an unusually fine number of gnats pestering the people).

Tonight will be interesting. Hope all goes well, but with this many people celebrating, you never know.

Wild weekend aside, it's good to be back. There is driftwood to be gotten (the flooding upriver is sending a lot of potential firewood our way), subsistence fishing to be done, a fourwheeler that patiently awaits my attention, and lots of other late summer/early fall work to be done. Time to get to it. As a good friend often said..."we've got the talkin' part done".

Sunday, July 27, 2008


We just came back from a false alarm. The mayor called, wanting me to rush down to the dump. In her words, "some one has torched the dump and it jumped the berm", meaning the woods below town are on fire.

Now for the real story, which is no story at all, beyond me putting on boots, grabbing an axe and driving down to, not a blazing inferno threatening all life as we know it; more like...nothing. One small, inconsequential bag of rubbish, smoldering quietly, right where it belonged. Boring; but a nice boring.

Then there was the case of "The Drifter".

He came from...who knows where? Upriver some place. No wait; he did tell me he put in on the river at Whitehorse. He is kayaking down the river, planning to go all the way to the mouth. I guess he's, maybe, 2/3 of the way done.

He seemed like a nice guy; fairly talkative. His kayak had several cracks and is leaking (sitting in an inch or two of cold river water for hours while paddling may tend to "dampen" the enthusiam needed to complete a journey such as this). I offered him some tape as a means of sealing the cracks.

A trip back to the house provided the tape. By now his ship should be watertight and he's probably back on the water. Or maybe he's down at the bank snoozing; don't really know.

Every year we get "drifters" passing through. They're not as suspicious as the cowpokes in western movies (though often as scruffy) and their "trusty steed" can be a canoe, a kayak, an inflatable, or a rowboat. I've even seen them go by on rafts made of logs or empty barrels. One had a wall tent on it. They come alone, in pairs or in larger groups.

It's not uncommon for them to give up the adventure here and jump on a plane, heading back home. Today's drifter seemed committed to finish, but the leaks, the rainy weather and the floating driftwood (caused by the rising water level) were taking a toll. He may give up tomorrow, or he may go all the way to the Bering Sea. Either way, it seems like an incredibly boring trip to me (but what do I know?)

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

7-23-08; sun-dry fish and the Trooper

Well that was exciting!

Yesterday an older woman asked me to catch her some fish. She wanted some dog salmon, which people typically don't use for human consumption around here, but she wanted to make "sun-dry fish". The recipe is as follows:

Required ingredients; summer chum salmon, fresh males in excellent condition; a sharp ulu-style knife (the local athabaskan name is different, sounds kinda like "meh-han-duh-nee"); and years of experience.

Preparation: take cleaned, washed salmon, after removing viscera and head, and peel off fillet, from top of fish to bottom, keeping sides joined at the tail. As fish is filleted, leave a thin layer of flesh on the skin; spine/bones remain intact with unwanted center of carcass. Spead fish open, pierce with thin sticks to keep flat. Dip in brine if desired, and hang to dry over a pole. Keep a light smoke (dry cottonwood is preferable) under the fish while curing. Be sure to hang outdoors in a sunny, breezy place, free of insects, birds and bears. (yeah, right; where is that in Alaska?)

Serving suggestion; soak overnight and serve for breakfast with pancakes, or dip in seal-oil and eat anytime.

OK, on with the story. So I put in the net yesterday at lunch and returned just before 6 to take it out. The 48 hour opening (which allowed gill-net fishing) was closing at 6pm, so the net needed to be out of the water by then. I had with me two college-age girls, here to put on a vbs. The girls insisted on doing all the work taking the fish out of the net, and they were doing a good job. The only problem was their inexperience, which considerably delayed getting the net out of the water (the fish must be removed from the net before taking the net out).

So, at about 6:45, I hear a plane. I look up to see the Alaska State Trooper, who patrols our region, looking down at me.

"Uh-oh. Not good. Maybe he'll just keep on going?" I say aloud

"What's wrong?", the girls ask.

"That's the Trooper, and the net was supposed to be out at six".

"He probably won't care", one of them says, as the float plane banks to the left, turning back around.

"I think he cares" mumbles the missionary, who will have to pay the fine.

The plane lands on the river, taxis to the bank and eventually the officer walks up to speak to us (by now I've pushed the girls aside and I'm hurriedly pulling the tangled fish out of the net.

"Do you want me to finish this first?" I ask.

"Go ahead. I can wait" replies the man in blue. I notice he's flipping through a notebook that looks a lot like the ones you see when a cop pulls you over and writes you a ticket (for those of you who've had such an experience).

"Is your name written on the bouy?"

(Ouch, there's another one; Now I'm looking at two fines. I think the writing has faded over the years) "It's supposed to be" I say weakly.

"Well I know it's supposed to be" returns the guy with the gun.

(Oh boy; how bad will this get? I know I have the right number of life jackets...a throwable cushion...what else is needed? What's in my boat bag? I'm sure a signaling device is required. That whistle better be in there!)

We finish our work. The net is in the boat, the fish stowed in tubs, and we paddle to the beach, where THE LAW is waiting. (Was it my imagination or was he just tapping his fingers on his holster?)

We have some polite conversation. He's satisfied with my current boat registration and number of life jackets, asks the girls where they're from, and probably wonders why I'm digging around in my boat bag mumbling something about whistles.

"Well, you folks have a nice day...and be careful on the water."

While driving the boat back to the village I mop the remaining sweat off my brow and listen to two scatterbrained women chatter about how cute the Trooper was.