Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"The Wind Blows..."; 3-24-10

Spring in Alaska; a seasonal label liberally applied, more in reference to the page(s) of the calendar than to the weather itself. March, especially the second half, is the beginning of "Spring". Longer days, increasing intensity of sunlight, and, usually, warmer temperatures.

"Spring" will last through April into May. The end of Spring is always "Break-up"; that uniquely northern season wedged between "Spring" and "Summer". When the snow is melted, the ground thawed and muddy, waterways swollen and river ice on the move, summer is just around the bend. But I'm getting ahead of myself; two seasons ahead.

Now is Spring. Temps are usually above zero (though a return to minus twenty is possible) with few clouds (if any) and lots of wind.

Today I was thinking about Jesus' words to Nicodemas regarding wind; specifically the part about hearing its sound without knowing from where it comes or goes; an illustration He used to explain spiritual birth to the confused religious leader.

March wind around here can surely be heard, gusting with force. And it can be felt. And I think I know where it comes from...out of the north. Spring wind always blows down river, and it feels like it comes directly from the North Pole, 'cause it's a bitter, frigid gale. The local dialect has a phrase for this season; roughly translated it means "...when our feet are always cold". Very appropriate, especially thinking back a couple of generations when people spent so much time outdoors.

Yesterday I was hauling firewood (yes, more firewood; this IS Alaska, remember) with my snow machine. Traveling through the woods wasn't too bad because the trees block the wind, but crossing the river was like running a gauntlet. The wind attacked without mercy, probing for the slightest opening through the many insulating layers of clothing. And it will find any gap, no matter how slight. When it does, you must immediately make a wardrobe adjustment or frostbite will result. Face and wrists seem to be the most vulnerable.

As I endured the crossing, the river appeared to be blanketed by twenty feet of fog. Wind driven snow was creating a slight "ground blizzard" under a perfectly clear sky. If there had been more loose snow to be carried on the wind, visibility would have dropped way down. The video (from last year) doesn't accurately portray the full effect, but you get the idea.

Actually, the video doesn't portray anything, since I can't get it posted. Bummer! Well, you'll just have to imagine. Good luck with that.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Amazing dogs; March 17, 2010

The Iditarod Sled Dog Race came through our town. And now it has gone, moving on down the trail like the teams that make this race possible.

For several days the checkpoint was a very busy place. Sixty or more mushers, with teams averaging ten to twelve dogs; some as few as eight, some as many as fourteen, one even with all sixteen that he started the race with eight days earlier. That makes for a total of about 750 dogs.

Add to that: checkpoint staff, volunteers, vets, media, spectators, a race judge, trail breakers, trail sweeps, looky-loos milling around in the way, kids playing, drunks intoxicated people being obnoxious, planes buzzing overhead and stray dogs looking for goodies like Templeton at the fair.

It can be several days of chaos.

My job is to help bring order into this chaos. The list of responsibilities I must assume include: finding a parking space for each team, getting them their food, supplies and straw (for bedding), answering questions, raking up and hauling away used straw, hauling water, keeping the fire going (to heat the water), maintaining a ready supply of firewood (to keep the fire going, to heat the water), scooping up a thousand piles of dog poop (diarrhea is NOT appreciated), ferrying people, equipment and dropped dogs up to the airstrip and loading them on planes, hauling trash to the dump, keeping kids out of trouble, keeping drunks intoxicated people from making trouble, keeping the looky-loos and their vehicles out of the way, fixing things that break, replacing things that disappear...

I guess, basically, I spend a fair amount of time thinking for people who don't seem to think very well on their own and doing things for others.

Right now I'm pretty tired, so pardon me if I seem a bit grumpy. You may have noticed some things absent from the list of things I've been doing lately;
-Sleep; I did not get much of it.
-Eating; Like sleep, regular meals are rare during the race.
-Rest; Same as above.

But today all that is in the past; a not-so-distant memory.

The highlight of the race for me? After a couple days of an increasingly cramped up back, I was shuffling around like an eighty year old Quasimodo, half expecting to hear some one shout "Old dude, where is your bell?" So I finally went home, took a hot shower, ate a decent meal, dropped an out-of-date pain killer and slept for nearly eight hours, which totaled more than the previous two nights combined. I awoke feeling more refreshed than I have in years, literally!

But this race is not about mushers or exhausted checkpoint help; it's about the dogs. And the dogs ROCK!

They haul their load for a thousand, miles across the wildest country in North America, through extreme conditions. This year they were confronted with minus thirties and forties, gale force winds, drifting snow in some places and not enough in others, three  mountain ranges, and other challenges. They dealt with exhaustion, dehydration, sickness, stress, and around the checkpoints they faced another hazard...people.

Intoxicated and inept drivers make villages a dangerous place. Snow machiners can (and have) run into teams, injuring or even killing dogs. Village cars and trucks are equally dangerous on local icy roads, especially after dark, when most teams are traveling.

But by now the race has been won (Lance Mackey, again) and more teams continue to cross the finish line in Nome. Really, an amazing feat of strength, endurance and perseverance. Regardless of who the official winner is, all are victorious. Even teams that were forced to scratch should be commended for their effort.

So, sled dogs, I salute you! Wether you completed the race and made it to Nome, or dropped out along the way, you are a courageous breed. Your musher may get all the attention, but you and I know who the real heroes are. As you nibble on your piece of frozen fish and regain your strength, bask in the glow of a job well done!

Monday, March 8, 2010

March 8, 2010

Spring.

Wow! What a busy time.

A lot going on right now. People in our region of rural Alaska are:
-hauling firewood with snow machines (while you still can)
-trapping beaver
-hunting wolves and wolverines
-ice fishing for pike
-finishing up basketball season
-getting ready for spring carnivals
-enjoying the "nice weather" (10-15 below this AM; sunny)
-other stuff, and lots of it

Spring (which is March, April, even early May; until break-up) is a transition; here, like elsewhere. The winter season is drawing to a close. As it does, winter activities and modes of travel go with it. Snow machine season is entering its final stage. When the "sno-go" is put away, access into the wild country made possible only by snow machine will go with it. That's why firewood hauling, trapping, furbearer hunting, ice fishing and a lot of other subsistence activities are top priority right now. In a few weeks the window of opportunity closes.

But the bright, sunny, windy days of spring bring some special times too. "Spring Carnivals", having nothing to with elephants, clowns or cotton candy, happen in spring. Carnivals usually feature an assortment of village relevant events; such as snow shoe races, snow machine races, and my personal favorite...dog races.

The Grandaddy of all dog races also take place in March. In fact, it started yesterday. The Iditarod Sled Dog Race is now underway! This race is generally considered the "Super Bowl" of dog races, attracting contestants and spectators from around the world. I suggest you check it out. Regular updates and more info may be found at their site. It's good stuff.

More on Iditarod later.