Monday, January 28, 2008

"I am.....Don Quixote!"


No, I don't battle windmills on horseback, I don't have a side-kick named "Sancho Panza", and I certainly hope I'm not delusional. But I have much in common with the man from La Mancha. Many years ago I left the so-called "comforts of home" to venture out into the unknown. I did not turn my back on an estate, like Quixote, but rather, on a world view.

As an American (even more so, a Californian) I grew up steeped in our culture and value system. As with any culture, there are both good and bad elements. Two of the prominent "bad" elements of that value system are materialism and an unhealthy pre-occupation with SELF. Strangely, it seems we rarely recognize them for what they are. Even as Christians we often miss it. The relentless pursuit of wealth, and the discontent that accompanies it, is thought of as "trying to get ahead", "wanting to be successful", or "doing well".

The worship of self wears similar disguises. "I have to take care of myself", "I need to be happy", and "I have to do what's right for me" are some of the masks you'll see out there...if you look for them.

So when I left "the good life" to sojourn out as a "knight-errant" in Quixote-like fashion, many thought I had lost my mind. Many still do. (Sometimes I think they may be right). Am I "wasting my life in a God-forsaken wilderness" when I could be living comfortably, preparing to enjoy my "golden years"? Is it insanity to turn one's back on things like prosperity, investments, health insurance, nice cars and vacations? (Well, honestly, I haven't totally turned my back on them; I spend a little time looking over my shoulder, but these are not the primary pursuits)

The people I meet on this journey must also think I'm crazy. Many have never understood exacly why a "white man" would move to this remote native village, if he's not a school teacher. Why would I choose to live so far from family? And WHY would I leave the "paradise" of California to live in a place with high rates of crime, unemployment and substance abuse? (Yesterday my axe was stolen, probably by some one who was unemployed, possibly under the influence). Surely this man must be crazy.

I guess, like Don Quixote, I see things that others do not. Oh, I don't see giants where there are windmills or princesses instead of peasants. What I see is...Life; life is fleeting; we only get one shot to invest our lives in the things that really matter. I see...Myself; I'm not really all that important; just one out of billions. I see...God; He is important; He's the one and only. And, I see...Time; the things of this world are temporary; quickly passing away.

Am I insane? Delusional? That remains to be seen.

"Now, where did I leave my horse?"

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Visitors

OK, remember this blog is about life in a remote northern community; REMOTE!!!

We have no paved roads (and only about 12 miles of dirt ones). To get here you must fly in a small plane or drive a snow machine or boat (according to the season). If you tried to get here by car you would come to an abrupt halt, about 300 miles away, when you drove off the highway into the Yukon river.

The only banks here are the ones along that river. We have no restaurants, a couple of stores that would resemble your living room if you filled it with canned food, bags of chips and pop ("pop" aka soft drinks, soda, etc.). There are no gas stations, no Starbucks, and definitely no hotels, motels or B & B's.

Now, into that setting, a "visitor" arrives. Visitors = any one, from anywhere else, who is here. That about covers it. A visitor can be the Mother-in-Law from California, come to stay for a month (uh-oh) or it can be a guy passing by on a snowmachine, on his way to the next village; if he stops by your house for a cup of tea, he's a "visitor".

The kind of visitors we're interested in here are the over-nite variety. Since we have no public accommadations (motels, etc.), visitors stay in homes. Usually they stay with the person they are here to visit; simple enough, right?

It gets a little tricky sometimes, though. For example, my house is small; basically it's what I call a "glorified one room log cabin". It's 20'x24' with a loft upstairs and a bedroom added on the back. We have a real bathroom, with indoor plumbing and a door you can close when you need to. Don't laugh...many rural homes don't. They use a honey-bucket (check out the honey-bucket post) and often it's just sitting there in the corner. For "privacy" there may be a curtain, but there may not. Imagine staying in that home and you get an idea of how intimate and personal the host-visitor relationship gets. In my house you can close the door, but every one in the building is still painfully aware of all that goes on behind the door. Trust me! The majority of the five senses will be picking up signals from the attempted covert activity behind the door.

The same goes for sleeping arrangements. Our bedroom is separated from the rest of the house only by a curtain. Visitors stay in the loft, or sometimes downstairs in the main room. Either way, I know if a visitor snores, if they got up to use the bathroom during the night, if they slept well or not, etc. And vice-versa. I know when they turn their light off in the evening and when they turn it on in the morning. And in the morning, when one gets up, we all get up. It's almost like camping in the same tent. This level of intimacy and shared space makes menu planning critical; certain food items, chili for example, are not a good idea.

Some visitors, before they come, will let you know they're coming (which I always think is a good idea, since they're going to invade my domain). Some don't; they just show up. I have one friend in particular who always seemed to enjoy the surprise visit (imagine some one showing up on your doorstep and announcing their plan to stay overnight with you; so nice!)

Usually visitors are much more thoughtful. Often they will call a couple of hours in advance. The really "considerate" ones call one, two, or even several days ahead. Here's the part I find curious; they never ask if they can come, or even if I want them to come, they just come. It kind of reminds me of American foreign policy, which also reminds me of playing hide-and-seek as a child. I'd cover my eyes, count to twenty, then yell out, "here I come, ready or not!" Visitors are much the same; here they come, ready or not!

Now don't get me wrong, occasionally I actually enjoy having visitors. Sometimes it really is a pleasant experience. But obviously, sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's like taking medicine and the visitors in question can be a bitter pill to swallow. There's a whole range of experience that come with visitors. On the positive side, I've enjoyed good times with friends or family; precious time I treasure. Toward the other end of my imaginary "visitor experience scale" are the negatives. Memories of my kitchen table getting defiled by nail clippings and socks, a generations old cooking utensil thoughtlessly detroyed and nearly having my house burned down are wounds that time may heal...maybe...hopefully...eventually...I think.

I remember a time, shortly after I moved here, when three visitors came; the Director of our mission, his wife and their pilot. At the time my three daughters were still at home, so that made 8 people staying in a cabin even smaller than the one I live in now. It was about 360 square feet. Hmm, let me see, 360 divided by 8 = 45 square feet per person; add in the furnishings...well, you get the idea, it was pretty crowded.

When we all turned in for the night. The couple was in our bed. I was on the floor by the wood stove with the pilot. My wife was in the bottom of the triple bunk bed with our youngest, and our two other girls above them. Very cozy.

The lights were off and conversation was winding down. I was "quietly" talking to the pilot when I heard the director whisper to his wife, "can you pass me my earplugs, please." I told the pilot "We better knock it off; we're keeping the boss awake". He (the "boss") was shocked that we heard him. He then told us he had put his lips to his wife's ear and whispered those words as quietly as possible. I just chuckled.

Makes you wonder what else is being heard when visitors are in the house.

1-24-08

Clear and cold this morning. Twenty-something below zero. Big moon out there lighting it up (a full moon can really illuminate the darkness when everything is snow covered and white; sometimes it's so bright you could read a book).

This is a nice improvement in the weather. Two days ago we had a real blizzard. It wasn't cold (in the twenties I think) but it was gusting to 60mph and snowing hard. That makes for a horizontal snowfall. It also picks up snow off the ground to add to the mix; terrible visibilty, like the kind of blizzard you see on tv. School bus cancelled, cars going off the road, trees falling on power lines, that kind of fun.

A few days before that it was warm (raining) and before that it was really cold (minus fifties). I don't know whats goin' on but the weather's kind of wacky lately. Hope it can find some balance between these extremes.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Wolves


An amazing animal, the largest wild canid in N. America (atleast I think that's what they are called). A powerful predator; able to bring down the largest game animals. Secretive; moving quietly, sometimes very close by, undetected. A creature that seems to convey wild just by being there.

Wolves have the ability to polarize people, especially here in the north. People who don't live near wolves (in places like, say...Connecticut) have opinions too, but theirs are not as relevant, not to us anyway. We share our environment with them, in close proximity. We see their tracks. Occasionally we hear their calls, and occasionally they eat our dogs. Sometimes we see them. Sometimes (probably more often) they see us. And where I live, we compete for food. Wolves and humans both need moose meat; it's the main course in a lot of meals, consumed on the table or on the ground.

A friend called me yesterday morning. "How would you like to help me do some tracking?"

"Hmmm...tracking what?" I asked.

For weeks the wolves had been coming into the dump at night, scavenging what they could and moving on. Lately they were coming more often. I had seen their signs (feces, tracks, etc) on the trail we share going out of town.

The night before my friend called, they were seen in the lakes by the dump. My friend heard about it, grabbed his rifle, jumped on his snowmachine and went to look. A few shots, and about ten hours later, we were tracking a wounded wolf.

Deep snow, thick woods, thicker brush, hours of hard, strenuous work. It was rough. The wolf kept moving and eluding us. Men wading through deep snow, men on snowshoes, men on snowmachines, men silently waiting. Finally, right when I had had enough and was ready to give up, the wolf was seen, and the hunt was over.

Wolves are part of native culture. Indigenous northern people appreciate, respect, sometimes revere wolves. They also enjoy hunting and trapping them. Wolves aren't viewed as "good" or "bad"; they're just wolves. They're fun to hunt. Their fur makes great parka ruffs. They kill moose, and don't always eat what they kill. People here don't want to "preserve" wolves, and they don't want to "exterminate" them either. They are just part of life in the remote north. Sometimes they can be a problem; entering communities and killing entire dog teams. Mostly they're just around, somewhere, unseen and unheard, but you see their tracks and you know they're out there.

I was really happy for my friend. This was his first wolf, so I helped him skin it. Took lots of photos for him too. He said he'll tan the hide and hang it up in his house. I imagine for many years to come, he'll look at the fur, smile, and remember that day, the day he got his first wolf.

Friday, January 18, 2008

1-18-08

What a goofy way to start a day. The power went out last night after I got in bed. Nearly every hour I would check to see if it was back on, but no. That didn’t help my sleep much (which is usually skimpy at best).

Now it’s morning. At least I think its morning. My battery powered clock on the wall says it is. Northern winters make for long nights and it won’t get light out for a few more hours. I’m typing this on the laptop, so I better not take too long; I’m not sure how long it will go on battery.

The woodstove is going so there is heat. A candle is burning on the table to set the mood. And I have a headlamp strapped to my noggin, which cancels out the mood but illuminates the keyboard. Hopefully the power comes back on before the water and phone go out, which is the typical pattern.

My wife’s alarm just went off. (Don’t see much point in getting up.)

Our weather continues to be a strange saga; swinging wildly between warm (relatively) and snowing to bitter cold (minus fifties a few days ago). This is why I tell people “zero is just perfect”.

Well I better cut it short. I still need to talk about “visitors”, but that will wait. The strap on this headlamp is giving me a headache.

‘till next time…

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Setting it straight

Ok, time to 'fess up. "I was wrong!".

In my post, 10-21-07; "When things are less than perfect" I said some pretty harsh things...things about the so-called "Winchester Mystery House" (so-called by me, anyway). I write this from the house of humor/house of horror and, amazingly enough, I'm still alive. I haven't banged my head on the low beam (thank you Lord). I haven't fallen down the steep, treacherous stairs (thanks again, Lord). The hostess is here, so there are few, if any, problems with the heat, lights, etc. And, best of all, my wife just got the wireless internet working (you know I always thank you for her, Lord). She's the greatest!

So I'm "in town" (Anchorage) for a conference. It's a little less interesting than, say...skydiving (I assume), but I'll make the best of it. Attendance is a required condition in the grant, which provides funding for good stuff in our village, so I'll hang in there.

Weather is wicked; barely got back here tonight. Snowing heavy and cars are sliding around. It's not a good feeling to come to a red light, apply the brakes and keep right on going toward the cars ahead. I've hit a couple of snow-banks already so I'll quit for the night. Hope conditions are better in the morning.

Buenos Noches!

p.s. If I don't get the Spanish right, what can I say? Sorry.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Pass the coffee...please

"Aye-yi-yi"! Or is it "Eye-yeye-yeye"? No, that can't be right. "Aye-yaye-yaye"? Hmm; I know how to say it, but how to put it in writing? The first part is is the long vowel sound for the letter "i", like the word "eye". The other two are the same sound, but with the "y" sound at the begining (which is how I came up with "yeye") Whatever; wasting a lot of time here on this presumably hispanic originated expression, appropriately used at times like this when things are overwhelming or just a bit too much to handle, which is my situation this morning.

(oh goody; the coffee's ready. mmm! freshly ground Silverhook Kodiak, press brewed in pure northern water. that should help)

I've got a lot to do and it just got worse. But first I'll back up.

The funeral was yesterday (see preceeding posts) and today is "mildhee-oh-koho" (OK, if I can't spell "aye-yi-yi", how do you expect me to figure out this Athabaskan phrase? It's not like I can look it up in Webster's)

(...ooo, it's still too hot, but man, does that smell good!)

"Mildee-oh-koho" is a New Year's tradition. People (usually some elders, younger men and kids) walk around the village going house-to-house with a canvas/tarp stretched out between them. When they come to your house, they usually pound on the door and sing a little Native tune (which I'm not even considering to attempt to write here; remember, I couldn't handle "aye-yi-yi"). As they sing the song...

(...oh yeah, that's perfect! nothin' like a really good cup of joe!)

As they sing the song, you open the door and throw food out onto the canvas. No! I'm not talking about a plate full of pancakes or a bowl of soup! Usually it's candy, cookies, a whole frozen salmon, an entire beaver carcass would not be inappropriate, canned fruit, etc.

(this coffee is just what the Dr. ordered. who drinks Folgers anyway? and why???)

After visiting every house, they take all the food to the hall to be distributed later in the evening, among all who come. It's a cool tradition, going back generations, which started (I'm told) as a way of sharing resources with others who may have less. In a remote village in mid-winter, sharing is not a bad idea. I think it works like this: I have extra fish but no sweets; my neighbor has lots of beaver meat but no canned fruit; the guy across the street (we don't have real "streets", but you get the idea) has canned apricots and hard candy, but no protein (meat & fish); so we all get together and every body is happy.

And that, my friend, is how the canvas works.

(hmm, the cup's getting low and one is my limit on caffeine, and I still haven't even got around to the "FRP". Time to wrap this up)

Well, Happy New Year! I've got a lot to do. Until next time.



p.s. (7 hours later) They just came by with the canvas. I had returned home after spending the day getting wood, at twenty below, and I was in the middle of changing clothes. There I was, standing in my long underwear, when I hear singing. I look out the window to see a friend looking back at me, obviously enjoying the moment more than I am. Better close the blinds next time.