A pretty picture greeted my sleepy eyes this morning. Stumbling through the groggy motions of grinding coffee beans and putting the kettle on, I raised the blinds, squinted my eyes in response to the glare invading my kitchen, and peeked out into a brilliant world.
Ahhhhh...now that's what I'm talkin' about! Things are looking up. The sunshine on the far hills offer the promise of better days ahead.Winter is now slipping through the tight-fisted grip of day-to-day existence. Spring is coming; nope, spring is HERE!
Never mind that it was a few degrees below zero this morning. Never mind that we have several feet of snow on the ground and not one flake has begun to melt. Never mind that the river ice won't break-up for another six weeks. Don't bother me with the mundane details of life.
Today is a new day!
Those hills, capped with snow covered tundra, their flanks draped with timber protruding up through the blanket of white; those hills...there's just something about them that inspire me today.
Are the caribou making their way through them on their northerly journey? Is there a wolverine rambling around over the crusted snow in search of a mate? Are the big grizzlies poking their heads out of their dens, blinking in the brilliance as I did out my kitchen window, wondering "What's for breakfast?"
Now I'm thinking about a trip to visit family, with the abundance of slobbery kisses on fat little cheeks. Tiny clothes, little shoes, toys on the floor that I'll trip over and the arrival of a new life. Ahhhh yes, things are looking up!
Light snow drifting lazily down to earth. Low clouds. Temps in single digits; likely to raise into upper teens or twenties as the day wears on. The typical spring winds are wonderfully absent.
This afternoon I hope to make what will probably be the final trip of the season out on the trap line. One or two high school boys may go with. Last night both of them expressed the desire to join me, but getting out of bed and actually going is the tricky part (as my old friend would say, "We got the talkin' part done").
I'll make the 15 mile trip standing up on my snow machine. A recent axe wound to the knee cap, along with the requisite stitches and swelling, prevent me from bending my knee enough to sit down. I suppose I look like some kind of arctic surfer, cruising along on my Ski-Doo surfboard, but since I really can't see what I look like, who cares? I just need to be sure I can dodge all the tree branches and other hazards as I negotiate the many portages through the woods. Getting whipped across the face by willows at 25mph is no fun.
Our town is relatively quiet this weekend. Lots of people headed upriver. One neighboring village will have a funeral today for an elderly woman who passed away a few days ago. Another is in the midst of their spring carnival (dog sled races and lots of other festivities attract spectators and participants from around the region).
I enjoy these quiet times. Loud snowmachines roaring all night and crowds of "out-of-towners" are not my idea of a good time, so the other villages can have it. I'll savor the sweetness of a peaceful day outdoors, mentoring a couple of young men while harvesting the winter bounty of this northern land. And I'll appreciate it just a bit more than usual, as this will be the last time.
While digging around in my large freezer the other day I found something of interest.
Last fall, when we got our moose, I processed it as usual, cutting and wrapping the meat for frozen storage. Part of the usual process includes preparing some of it for "dry-meat".
A northern moose, coming as a surprise to no one, is a large animal. Large animals make for lots of meat, so local people have come up with a variety of ways to use it ("Soup" is by far the most common menu item, but a little variety is nice). Dry-meat is one such way.
As I put away our meat in the fall I anticipate making dry-meat and cut a generous supply accordingly. I then bag it up and freeze it, for two reasons. This will allow me to make it at my leisure, especially during colder weather when the wood stove is in constant use (more on that shortly) and a period of freezing eliminates the concern about...I shudder to think...PARASITES. (As with most wild game, parasites can be an issue; freezing takes care of that concern so I can sleep soundly and not worry about becoming a modern day Agrippa*).
Where was I? Oh yeah, the woodstove. The actual drying process is to simply hang the meat up in the house and let it dry. A woodstove gives a nice dry heat in does the job beautifully. O.K.? On to the recipe.
Dry-meat is just as the name implies; it is meat that has been dried. Now, a lot of people make it following that simple two word recipe (dry...meat), but I'm of the opinion that recipe makes the finished product just as delectable and exciting as the name ("Hmmm, this stuff tastes a lot like dry meat") Who's gonna' get worked up over that?
So I came up with my own version. I call it "dry-meat ala Yoshida's" (If your life has crossed paths with a bottle of Yoshida's marinade like mine has, you're probably equally thankful, and you will never be the same). I thaw the frozen stips of meat, then marinade them for a day in Yoshida's. Then I tie a string to the ends, joining two strips, and hang them to dry. Newspaper on the floor catches the drips and my Pomeranian maintains a constant vigil, keeping the drips under control and racing me for any meat that falls down.
One time he was apprehended gulping down a strip of meat. The meat was forcibly removed from his greedy little throat. "Shocked!" is the word to describe the reaction as the meat returned to daylight; he had eight inches of a foot-long strip already down the hatch when he was busted. Disgusting, but then Poms are known to be greedy little monsters. Bad breath too...but now I'm way off the subject.
A few days hangin' around and the meat is done. I then cut it up, put it zip-lock bags and put it back in the freezer. That way, whenever I get the notion, I can take out a bag and enjoy. It's pretty good stuff, if I do say so myself.
Next time you come by, feel free to ask if I have any on hand. If I do, I'll be happy to let you try it. If I don't, I might just give you some muktuk or something else. You never know.
Winter up here is long, dark and cold; not exactly "news" to any one. Who doesn't know about those three elements of the northern winter? Yet it bears repeating; winter is L-O-N-G, it's DARK and it's COLD.
By the time the March page of the calendar is showing, we're ready for something different. Any change in those three elements is welcome, and a change comes; it's inevitable.
The L-O-N-G part of winter may hang on for another 4-6 weeks, the COLD part may show similar stubbornness to relent, but the DARK must yield. As Momma used to say "The world keeps on turning" and that turning (along with its orbit around the sun) make for longer days...and longer days are good!
By now we get a "normal" measure of sunlight each day; equi-distant between the long dark of the winter solstice and the "midnight sun" of summer. The days are not only longer, they are brighter too, as the sun climbs higher into the sky.
This increase in solar radiation causes people to do weird things; like yesterday, for example. Three of us went out to the trapline to check our "beaver sets" (snares and bait set under the ice near beaver houses; the dome-shaped "lodge" where they live). Now this, in itself, is not weird; in fact it's a very common activity in rural areas in March.
What made for the weirdness was the combination of the weather and our attitude. Yesterday we were under yet another weather alert/advisory/warning; this one due to the wind. High and low pressure areas often have trouble working out their differences, especially over interior Alaska in March. Yesterday was no exception.
So the three of us were out in the Arctic hurricane, getting sandblasted by the ice crystals riding the 20-30 mph winds, and playing a cat-and-mouse game with the elements. The game goes something like this.
The wind says "I'm going to freeze the tip of your nose" and you say "No you won't" while you make the necessary wardrobe adjustments. Then the wind says "OK, I'll freeze your wrist"; you say "Huh-uh" and close the gap between your mitten and sleeve. "How about above your eyebrow?". "Nothing doing". "Your left cheek, right below your eye". "Not a chance". And on it goes. 99% of the time you win, but you lose once or twice during the day. I lost on the left cheek; my buddies had trouble with the back of a hand and above the eyebrows. It's all part of the game.
The "weird" part came during the middle of the day. We had just driven our snow machines to the next set and shut the engines off. The fierce wind was at our backs and the driven snow was roaring by at about 30mph. One of my buddies, parked right next to me, looked over, smiled, and said "It sure is a nice day to be out". I chuckled because I knew he meant it. I kind of enjoyed the challenge too, and replied "Yep, it is".
The Iditarod started today. Well, actually, it started yesterday, but that was the "Ceremonial start", which is a parade, a tourist attraction and a bunch of fluff all rolled into one. The fluff happens in Anchorage; the real action begins in Willow, on the first Sunday in March.
So the race is officially on. Let 'er rip, boys (and girls, they win it too, sometimes).
A while back I was asked to write something about the Iditarod and how God has used it to work in my life. That's what comes next, in a slightly altered version to work here at NorthernEye. Hope you like it.
The relationship between man and dog is well known. In the north, it has been mutually beneficial for generations; even millennia. Indigenous northern peoples have relied upon their canine companions primarily to assist with transportation needs in an environment legendary for its challenging, even life-threatening conditions. Deep snow, bitter cold, gale-force winds, trails that are primitive at best and often non-existent; these have always been the daily challenges facing the northern wilderness traveler.
The Iditarod Sled Dog Race, as many know, sprang from this history. The diphtheria epidemic in Nome, the rush to deliver the serum, inclement weather and lack of viable alternatives all set the stage for the dog musher to step into the spotlight. The wilderness was crossed, the weather overcome, the epidemic halted and the children saved. Risking their lives and surpassing all obstacles, the mushers who carried the serum were heralded as heroes.
The modern race continues in that tradition; pitting today’s musher against the hazardous wilderness and following much of the historic route. They compete against the other mushers, they struggle with weather and trail conditions, they fight off exhaustion and sleep deprivation. And they race. Only one will arrive in Nome ahead of the others. Only one will be the winner. But all are recognized for their accomplishment; all are applauded for their heroic efforts.
Well…no; actually, not all. There is a group of contestants largely overlooked. They are the forgotten ones.
I thought about this when the race came by our village this past March. My personal involvement is on the level of what you would call “grunt-work”, and I must confess, that’s how I like it. I work behind the scenes hauling water, keeping the fire going, making sure the mushers have their supplies, and my favorite…scooping poop. With nearly a hundred mushers in the race (and each starts the race with 16 dogs) our checkpoint gets littered with an ample supply of doggy-doo, so scooping is a big job, and that job "falls" to me. As a recreational musher myself, I spend ample time around the back end of a dog team, so I guess that makes me adequately qualified to deal with “dog exhaust”.
This year, as in previous race years, the checker, myself and other local volunteers worked for days to make sure all was ready. We handled thousands of pounds of dog food, straw and other supplies. We met planes, picked up vets, the race judge and other race personnel, and consulted with media crews who were following the race. We set up the checkpoint and the “dog yard” where the teams would bed down to rest. And we anticipated the arrival of the first musher.
That is always the big deal as far as every one is concerned. “Who is in the lead?” is the question on every one’s lips. We check the race updates for the latest info. “Is Lance Mackey still in front?” “Has Jeff passed him?” “Where is Martin Buser?” “What happened to DeeDee?” And on it goes. “The frontrunners are on the way”. “They should be here any time.”
As anticipation builds, rumors and misinformation gain momentum. “Lance is only three miles out.” “No, he’s camped upriver.” “I heard his dogs quit on him.” “He turned back.” And my personal favorite (I hear this one every time) “He passed by and is on the way to the next checkpoint”. Any follower of the race knows, as do Lance and the other mushers, passing a checkpoint means disqualification. Whatever else is going on, one thing is certain; he did not pass on by.
Eventually the much anticipated moment arrives. Film crews rush into place to record the event. Vehicles and spectators threaten to block the way and must be pushed back. Then, with all the excitement of a bride entering a church, the first musher rounds the bend and approaches the checkpoint. Cameras are rolling. Spotlights glare. Throngs of fans press in. And his name is proclaimed by all. “It’s Lance!” “Lance Mackey just came in.” “The first musher in is Lance Mackey”
After signing in with the checker, the musher parks his team and gets to work feeding, removing booties from 50 or so feet, laying out straw bedding, responding to media questions and trying to keep spectators out of his way. Like summer mosquitoes they swarm around him, but he is entirely focused on caring for his team. He knows who the real heroes in this race are.
The course is more than a thousand miles long. If they are to finish, each team must cross mountain ranges, deal with water and overflow on the trail, avoid tangling with moose, find the trail when it is obscured by snowdrifts, and march headlong into howling winds. Oh yeah, one more thing; they will do most of this in darkness.
They must travel with minimal rest, consume huge numbers of calories to ward off weight loss and drink more than they want to avoid dehydration. Every time they sleep it will be in a strange place. At every checkpoint they will be groped, poked and prodded by vets. Their feet will be sore, their muscles will ache, and their joints will stiffen. But they wouldn’t have it any other way. THIS…is what they live for.
They are sled dogs, descended from sled dogs. The blood of a thousand ancestors flows through their veins, and, like them, they live to pull; it’s why they exist. No amount of coaxing can get these dogs to do what they do. There are no whips in the musher’s hands. Bribery, intimidation and promises; all are without effect. Sled dogs pull because it is in their nature to pull. It is the result of who they are. And they certainly don’t do it for recognition.
When the first musher reaches Nome, he/she will be heralded as the champion. History will record names such as Lance Mackey, Susan Butcher or Rick Swenson, and rightly so…but who were their dogs? No one will proclaim the names of the four-legged heroes that pulled these mushers to Nome. The athletes who actually ran the race will remain anonymous. As with all heroes who carry on in obscurity, they are unnoticed and unknown.
I’ve thought on this a lot since the last race. And I often find myself wondering, “Who are the “unheralded heroes” in our two-legged world?” A little reflection and they begin to come into focus, but you must look for them. They do not command the spotlight; by their very nature, they go unnoticed. Even so, the sled dogs will give clues in discovering their human counterparts.
The dogs pull because it is their nature, not for reward or recognition. So what is the human equivalent? Some one who works faithfully at the task God has placed before them. They understand who they are and what God wants to do through them. They have a sense of calling; a conviction about what they do and why they do it. They have a “mission”; whether that mission is raising their children, leading a small group, volunteering their time cleaning the church, or serving on a foreign field, the key is having a sense of purpose and deep conviction. They probably understand Ephesians 2:10 and similar verses. If you find some one laboring faithfully without the enticements of wealth and recognition, you may have found a hero.
Sled dogs endure hardship. These are not pampered pets, so Poodles and Pomeranians need not apply. They are focused on the goal, even to their own detriment, which is why dogs are dropped at every checkpoint. Their human counterparts? They won’t be characterized by self-indulgence. Their appearance may resemble a working husky more than a Yorkshire terrier because their commitment to task takes priority over trips to the groomer. A sled dog’s bed is straw scattered on the snow, not a fluffy pillow next to the fireplace. And working dogs often carry with them the scars and injuries resulting from a lifetime of labor. If you know some one has endured hardship, they likely have physical or psychological scars that bear testimony. Heroes give of themselves for others, and this giving is costly.
Sled dogs have incredible perseverance. They rarely ever give up. Dogs will be dropped that are weak, malnourished or dehydrated, and they simply can’t keep up. Even then, many of them utter a forlorn howl of dismay when the rest of their team leaves the checkpoint without them. They want to continue the race; to be a sled dog is to persevere, mile after mile. Human heroes carry on in obscurity; day after day, year after year. Long after the initial excitement has faded, long after the crowd has lost interest and dispersed, the hero perseveres. They carry on, even when hope seems lost and the odds are stacked against them. They continue. When others tell them to give up and do something “more productive”, or that they are “wasting their life”, they carry on. They know they run this race to win; giving up is not an option.
This is what the Iditarod has taught me about the unheralded heroes in life; #1. They have a sense of calling in what they do, #2. They endure hardship, #3. They persevere.
A time will come when their approach will be heralded and their names will be proclaimed, when hardship is no more, when they have attained the goal. But for now, they carry on, step after step, faithfully moving ahead, in spite of all difficulty, pressing forward, focused on the goal.
It makes me chuckle to think I had to learn this lesson from a bunch of dogs.
Well, that's it. The test results are in. We now know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, it is NOT possible to flush beer cans down the toilet.
Try as he might, a local guy (or perhaps one of his buddies) has proved it. What goes up will not necessarily go down.
I know, you're thinking that should be a no-brainer. Yeah, me too. But then I suppose Benjamin Franklin flying a kite in a rainstorm seemed a bit strange too, and look where it got him. Maybe this guy might be on the verge of some great discovery.
The good news is now the spurious inventor will stop dumping his honey-bucket on the ground in the the vicinity of his house. Too bad the local "plumber" (wishful thinking, here) had to be called in before the cause of the non-draining drain could be determined. But now it's all good...at least until he tries to flush a soup can, pizza box or maybe even a passed on pet (well, a small fish should be OK)
Take a look at the new photo on the title page and you can see why I've been whining about all the snow. The view out the window is just what you would expect; a wall of white.
I'm hoping March will bring clear weather with the increasing daylight. (Yesterday I was able to successfully break trail to the wood yard and it was a beautiful ride; manageable powder, another fresh wolverine tack, lots of moose sneaking around in the willows along the trail; it was cool)
Yesterday I measured the ice thickness on the river; a task I perform monthly for the National Weather Service. The ice was very thin (relatively), measuring 23". That is the thinnest it's been in the 10+ years I've been doing it. There were 27" of snow on the ice, which explains it. Snow acts as a blanket, so a thicker blanket insulates more than a thin one. 27" of snow is the deepest it's been on the ice in the same 10+ year span.
Don't get the wrong idea, now. We have MUCH more than 27" of snow on the ground, but on the river it is wind swept and either packs down or blows away, or settles down into the overflow (water) frequently found on top of the ice (yesterday there were 3" of water).
So the question now is...(drumroll, please)...will the deep snowpack cause flooding when it melts this spring, or will the thin ice make for an easy break up? Tune in around the middle of May to find out.
Today I need to haul a couple loads of wood, find out why the truck won't start, then assemble a team of guys to help break trail into the beaver trapping country. Lots to do.