Monday, February 25, 2008

Floating on the river

Sometimes you just can't get over how awesome it is living here. Today was one of those times.

Here's the deal: A remote village of a few hundred inhabitants; maybe 300 miles away from the nearest asphalt (well, that's not true; there's a paved runway in a larger "hub" village about 50 miles away; it's about 300 to the nearest paved road). Communities are connected by a river rather than highways, and boats and snowmachines are the seasonal "cars" we use to travel.

Today I was driving on the river to my woodyard. As it is winter, the river lies quietly beneath a two foot layer of ice. Atop the ice is another 2-3 feet of snow. This constitutes our "highway"; a layered salad (from bottom to top) of very cold water, ice and snow. Interesting how this "highway" is made entirely of water, in different states, but all three are essential, especially in that order.

Zipping over the highway is a man. Instead of cruising down to the local market, I'm cruising down river to pick up a load of firewood. And the wind is blowing...hard...down river. I'm going down river; the wind is going down river. We're traveling together.

This wind carries with it a load of drifting snow. I'm going about 25mph, the wind is going about 25mph, so the drifting snow is also speeding along at 25. We're all going exactly the same direction at the same speed.

The river is 1-2 miles wide and all of it covered with drifting snow. Not piling up into drifts; it's a thin, semi-transparent veil, flowing right along with me. And it's weird!

I feel as though I'm Aladdin floating along on a magic carpet. The snow weaves and braids like thousands of tiny rivers; in some places joining together and in others, separating and thinning out, but everywhere moving, flowing, going with me. I bet in a radius of 100 yards around me there must be a ton or more of snow rushing along down the river. You wonder where it all goes. It must be piling up somewhere.

I feel as though I'm being swept along in the current, as if carried along atop a rushing, liquid flow. It's a strange sensation. I don't seem to be driving a machine; more like sailing, drifting, floating. The snowmachine, the rider, the snow and the wind. All traveling along in perfect unison and harmony.

I reach my destination and I'm swept right up the bank and into the woods, on the trail to the woodyard. Once in the trees, the wind and drifting snow are gone. I turn off the machine. All is calm and peaceful; only the soft sound of wind in the tree tops. I load the sled with firewood logs, start up the snowmachine and head back out to the river. At the edge of the timber I drive down the bank and out onto the ice...into the wind and snow...

...and WHAM!!!...the honeymoon is over. Right smack dab into the fury of the wind, head-on! The machine labors with the load, fighting the onslaught of air and ice. I don't remember the engine making so much noise. In fact, I realize I never even heard it coming down, but now it's screaming at me.

What was floating has now become a major struggle; a fight, bucking the system, clawing my way back upstream. Funny how it's only air and yet I feel as if I'm trying to swim against the current in a fast flowing river.

The snow is swirling around my windshield in front of my face. I have to push the throttle hard, wondering how much more gas I'm using going in this direction. I hope the machine doesn't quit on me. A breakdown here would not be good; possibly even life threatening. Amazing, the difference. A pleasant, serene experience has become harsh, laborious, frightening.

A few miles later and it's over. I'm off the river and back out of the wind. Two experiences so completely different, at the same time, in the same place. But then, that's Alaska for you.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

"One...Two...Three. You're outta there!"

Yesterday I was to fly to Anchorage to attend our mission's winter retreat. A time of refreshing and encouragement, it was to be; but it was not to be.

I boarded the plane. We took off and headed to the next village (it works kind of like public transportation, riding the bus; numerous stops before you get where you want to go). The next village is only 37 miles away, on the river, so probably 25-30 by air. A mere 25-30 miles by plane, but it was too much.

By the time we land I'm somewhere beyond what I call "Phase-1" on my personal airsickness scale, which is profuse sweating. "Phase-2" is a churning stomach, burping and my head starting to swim. "Phase-3" usually follows close on the heels of 2, if the plane has not landed, and 3 is just plain ugly (or "plane-ugly"). Three is when the all-important plastic bag comes into play. Three is...three. It all comes out. My brain feels like it's clamped into a shaker at the paint store. Three is when I simultaneously wish for death AND rejoice that all suffering is temporary (for me anyway). Three is why I hate to fly. Three is when I vow NEVER to fly again...EVER!!! (Check out "If I only had wings"; 8-14-07. That, by the way, was a phase-2 flight)

We take off, heading for the next stop. I transition into phase-3 and it's clear there will be no trip to Anchorage; some things just can not be done. I spend several hours trying to recover while I wait for the afternoon plane, which I'll take back home. I won't fully recover today; once I get airsick I'm done for the day, but I'm hoping to get back into some kind of shape so I can get on a plane, which I do.

This one is bigger, faster and going directly to my village. It's only a twelve minute flight, so I go, but reluctantly, because I've flown 12 minutes before that stretched impossibly into weeks, even years before we landed. Amazing how time is altered by suffering.

I get home and spent the evening on the couch. Bummer! This was my wife's birthday. We had planned to celebrate after I joined her in Anchorage. Oh well; thank God I'm on the ground.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Nursing, infants and other stuff

Picture the nursing mother; tenderly holding her infant. The beautiful young baby, utterly dependant upon Mom; receiving warmth, comfort, protection, affection and most of all, nourishment.

It's an amazing thing, the connection between the baby and the nursing mother. Mom provides everything baby needs. Mom's own body initially provided everything required to bring the baby into the world (well, everything except one thing, but we'll skip that) and now, after birth, mom's body provides all sustenance for the growing child. It's truly incredible.

A mother nursing her child seems to portray all that is right in the world; peaceful and serene. The beauty of that moment has few rivals in the crazy, hectic, fragmented existence we call modern life. It's a system God designed and it has worked well for millennia. But sometimes it gets weird.

Not everyone agrees on how long a mother should nurse and when it's time to wean. That's OK. Since when do we all agree on anything? Six months, a year, two big deal; let mom figure it out. But I think we'd all agree twenty is a little too old to be nursing. And we'd probably all feel it's weird for grandma to step in and pick up where mom left off, if the "child" was twenty or twenty five...wouldn't we?

But that's what I see sometimes. I see grown children (18, 20, 25 and older) who are still just as helpless as that new born babe. They usually seem to be male, and are as dependant upon their mothers as when they were 3 months old. They don't go to school/college. They don't work. They don't help out around the house. They're not in any transition between stages in life. They are exactly the same as they were five, ten or twenty years before; they're just older.

They need mom to cook for them, clean up, do laundry, provide housing, buy groceries, pay for snowmachines, buy the gas, pay for the repairs, give them spending money, pay their way to town to buy clothes...and on and on it goes. If mom wants them to work, she has to talk them into it and make all the arrangements (not surprisingly, it never works out). If they need to see the doctor or dentist, who do you think calls to make the appointment? Who makes air travel reservations when they go to Fairbanks? Who wants to talk to the State Troopers when they get in trouble? Always Mom. Does she not realize "Baby" is an adult who can vote, fight a war and purchase alcohol? (legally).

To me it appears they are still nursing and have never been weaned. And it seems strange. A mother dog will eventually stop nursing her pups and force them to move toward independance. So will a mother moose. So will a mother everything, except humans, apparently. How is it that animals can be smarter than people?

Recently one mother left our village, leaving her children behind. The younger ones went to live with relatives, mostly in other villages. The oldest (in his twenties) stayed behind, living in the house his mom was to have vacated. He would never consider getting a job or taking on any kind of responsibility; he simply exists at a low level. The strange twist in this sad tale is how his grandmother is now the surrogate mother. She pays for his basic needs (like heat for the house), makes phone calls for him and serves as his advocate. Now she has begun to "nurse" him after his mother left. Why doesn't anybody realize he needs to be weaned? He's certainly old enough. This is a strange parenting style that obviously doesn't work. Atleast it's obvious to me.

There is a time for the nipple and a time to take it away. Milk first, then solid food. Few babies want to be weaned, but it's a necessary step toward maturity. The animals get it; why isn't it obvious to people?

Thursday, February 14, 2008


First off, happy Valentine's Day to all you lovers out there. (I gave my sweetie a big smooch; roses would be a nice touch, but where would I get them?).

It's good the internet is working now. It wasn't for a while, which can be frustrating. Just think, this post could have been ready a half hour sooner.

The weather continues to be fun. Six inches of new snow this morning. Up here, six inches of new snow just goes on top of the pile, and our pile is gettin' pretty high this year. It all stays until "break-up" comes in late April / May. Tomorrow's weather...who knows? More snow, or perhaps back to the forty below we've enjoyed so often.

Spent most of the day plowing, shovelling and playing with it in one way or another. Borrowed a friends 4-wheeler to plow his yard (he's elderly), plowed another, then mine. Then more, and more, and more. I'm tired and my back is toast.

Some guys were working in the shop today (as usual). One guy has been having lots of trouble with his new snowmachine. Nearly everyone in this town buys the same brand, and that particular brand seems to have a lot of problems. I'm not going to start a "Ford vs. Chevy" debate here, but it's ironic how many problems the "Chevys" are having. Probably why this brand is having trouble competing in the market. By now you've guessed which brand I drive; definitely not the "Chevy".

What's interesting is how much pressure there is to conform in a rural village. Whether it's snowmachines, parenting, drug use, spiritual beliefs, or whatever. In a small, traditional, native village like this, it's very, VERY hard to swim upstream. Peer pressure is everywhere, but in this context it's unbelievable.

One time my wife was giving parenting advice to a friend here. The woman was frustrated and totally at a loss for what to do. My valentine gave her some very sound advice. The woman's response was "Well, I could never do that, that's just not our way". So she made no changes and kept on doing, well nothing, actually, and today (a few years later) nothing's changed. I think I'll write the next one about it...stay tuned.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

2-06-08; "It goes on, Judah. It goes on""

I love old, classic movies. Color is nice but black and white is just fine too. "Casablanca" (well...most Bogart movies in fact) ranks way up there. So are some of the old Bible epochs like "The Ten Commandments" and "Ben-Hur" (an excellent book to read also).

I have a weird tendency to quote lines from these old movies, at random times with strange applications that even my daughters and wife often miss. What can I say? It always makes sense to me.

With yet another day in the minus forty range, I thought a line from Ben-Hur was appropriate. Following the end of the famous chariot race, Judah Ben-Hur pays a visit to his once friend, now arch enemy Messala; dying of wounds suffered during the race. Messala uses his final moments in this world to inflict additional pain upon Judah, displaying his evil nature. He wants Judah to know that even in losing the race and dying, his hatred for Judah continues, as does the struggle between them. Hence the words, "It goes on, Judah. It goes on".

Every day I get up and look at the thermometer, hoping this struggle with frigid weather has subsided, only to see a mere remnant of mercury at the very bottom of the glass. Another day of forty below.

"It goes on. It goes on".