Thursday, October 4, 2012

River Eyes

Dear family and friends,

It's been a while since I sent one of these out.  In my second year I haven’t been writing as much because, well, this is my life and I’ve moved from “study abroad mode” where everything is spectacle to “settle in” mode. 

Don’t read “settling” as “normal”.  I still don’t have a car, electricity, or running water and have to drive 7 hours to purchase underwear from a mall.  This week I am wrapping things up at my non-profit job in Fairbanks (leaving non-profits is like a pop music break-up), helping my Crocodile Dundee-esque boyfriend transport hundreds of salmon, wood, and gear by boat and truck (which just broke), identifying and moving anything in my cabin that will not enjoy 40 below zero (see liquids in glass), and otherwise outright scrambling madly to get on a plane on Tuesday and head to the lower 48 to visit many of YOU.

If you’re not going to be around here’s some life updates:
Pictures should be credited to Glenn Helkenn.  Sorry for stealing, Glenn.

Summer Split
I have split my summer between working in Fairbanks and visiting my boyfriend, friends Jeff, Glenn, Thomas and a stream of visitors at our summer camp on the Tanana River.  The camp is located about 40 miles downriver of Fairbanks and jokingly called “the camp on the river that flows from the land of many women.”  Camp consists of an open-fire hearth communal cooking area, usually covered in spruce bows, two Saami-style Lavvu tents (think tipi), two wall tents, Jeff’s newly built earth lodge, a fish-fertilized garden, very beautiful fish rack, and many squares of logs that may one day grow into cabins—or planters.  At camp we basically do what we want.  Most activities are associated around subsistence (aka: getting food, clothes, shelter, and sustenance directly from the land).  My friend Laura explains it as “summer camp for adults with no rules.”  Enough of that, here’s what its like:

River Eyes
The Tanana is a squinting river.  The water is big. The sky is big.  The sun converges the two so that even a slow-moving canoeist has to squint to make out the rolling topography.   On a clear day, Denali sometimes emerges like a distant ghost.

David is a practiced squinter.  His crinkle-cornered eyes have read the script of many seasons.  The hieroglyphics of bent twigs and shaved tufts of hair.  The onomatopoeia of bird calls.  He constantly scans both banks for the unusual- and sees things that are gone by the time he points.  He makes a good boat captain.

Though David’s way is admirable, its actually the dogs that taught me how to see from the boat.  The dogs love boat rides.  To them, the boat means a break from the stagnant circles of their dog yard.  They perch as high as they can, front paws up on the bench seats and push their faces into the wind like teenage beauty queens receiving an airborne love potion.  Their soft noses twitch subtly as they drink in the details of untold stories. 
Since my eyes fail me, I practice sitting in the boat like the dogs, nose up.  Scents and stories jam into my nose and though I cannot discern their details, I know the regal feeling of bathing in this connecting wind. 

Fish Phobia
Some people fear rational things like heights, sharks, or broccoli.  I fear fish.  Always have.  This is not something a good Alaskan would EVER admit.  Not even on their deathbed. On a trip on the Colville River last summer, I responded to my canoe partner catching an absolutely GIANT northern pike and trying to place its still-beating heart in my bare palm by backing into a cliff, nearly puking, and screaming “It’s like a horror movie!”  Aside from that episode, I kept it secret, fearing that fish-pobia would be probable cause for the state to deny my residency, take back my PFD (oil money), and kick me over to Russia. 

Luckily, I make up for my phobia by my true blue love for eating fish.  But alas, my desire to practice the fish love I preach has got me in a slow “treatment program” administered by my fish-phallic friends.  I started with the dead ones.  Not so bad to pick a net of dead fish.  I just really don’t like how they move.  Slimey.  Squirmy.  It makes my skin crawl.  Since dog food costs $50/bag and we have 5 dogs, we need to catch about 600 fish to get the dogs through winter.  I carried LOTS of fish up the bank and cut even more.  Cutting and carrying dead fish, check.

Then for the live ones, I tried some anti-stress breathing.   The climax occurred one day in August when I sat on the front of the boat, gloves on, heartbeat steadied, and boyfriend just inches from impressed….and the very first fish in the net was another GIANT NORTHERN PIKE, head up, alive.  I ran to the back of the boat and weighed the pros of and cons of jumping off.  Still working on that one.

Becoming a Witch Doctor
In my kitchen there is no more room for cups.  This is the result of an herb-sprawl that came from my realization that lots of fantastic herbs grow right outside my door and that drying them is easy.  Add a bunch of good friends and bible-like book called the Boreal Herbal and I’ve become a very amateur herbalist.  I made tinctures, salves, and lots of teas.  I also dragged all the cool women I know in Fairbanks into the process by forming a group called the “Local Harvest Ladies Night” in town.  We meet once a weekish at varying locations to partake in whatever is fun and local food-wise that week.  We’ve even got a website with recipes:

Added to the Estrogen Levels of my Household

That’s right, I got a female dog.  Her name is Ursa (as in bear, not the Little Mermaid villan, Ursula), she is 3.  She is adorable.  And she’s a badass, she pulled me up Pinnell Mountain on my birthday backpacking trip.  That makes the count 2:5, Jenna and Ursa versus David, Skookum, Polar, Minto, and Tanana.  We still have a long ways to go, but at least I have a female ally who thinks she is a lap dog.

Tanana Silt
The river has had a lasting impression on me this summer.  Literally.  Everything is covered in silt.  Here’s a more poetic version….The first time I met this river, I was immediately entranced by its silt.  Swirling like the oil in perfume, popping and fizzing like rolling rocks on the river bed, this river is a river of glaciers.  When I first paddled the Tanana it was a sticky-hot day.  Like a good Midwestern child, I jumped in at our first break.  My body warmed to the silt, soaking it into my pores like shimmery lotion.  The river bottom oozed away like a gentle beach and I emerged bare-face smooth. 

These days I can smell the silt—iron and porous and temporary.  I can taste it in my teeth.  It sticks to my hair, giving the curls a brittle consistency that I savor upon my return to town.  I often forego a shower for just one more day of that metal earth smell.  The silt makes me feel like everything is slowly becoming a statue—reverently posed to watch the river flow.

I hope that this silly update finds you healthy, happy, and facing down your own fears and loves.



Thursday, August 30, 2012

First Impressions of the Arctic

What are your first impressions of the Arctic?

My vocabulary drains.  It’s like looking at a book cover with only pictures. It’s like trying to learn a new language on top of a half-learned one.  My words are rendered to useless, pattered clich├ęs. 
Frost over the ice on the Hula Hula

When I close my eyes, I hear the soothing scraping of plastic runners on a wooden sled moving steadily over hard pack snow.  I smell the worn coyote ruff on David’s gear-swap-parka that encircles my face like the entrance tunnel to an igloo.  A garment that inspires the guys to tell me I look like Kenny from South Park.  I feel a dull sting where my feet should be, swaddled inside military surplus bunny boots.  My nerves wave at me with vibrating little hands: a new awareness of the vital patters of blood flow.
A shot from the sled (we're in back and Robert is pulling)
When I open my eyes, I see an ocean of silver snow and steel-blue ice.  I never knew the sun could paint so many colors onto white, the absence of all colors.  As I strain to make out our direction,  I look for clues as to what is beneath us on the Arctic Refuge Coastal Plain.  Where does Barter Island end and the ocean begin?  Are we traveling on ice? Sand? Tundra? Oil? Graves?  Is that black spot a rock? Polar bear? Trash? An ancient sled?  As I strain to orient myself, I am struck by footprints---a fox—and I remember that it is not my words or definition that make this place important.  For millions of migratory birds, polar bears, foxes, voles, and my guide, who is strangely comfortable driving the snow machine without a face mask—the Coastal Plain is home.
Wolverine Tracks that constantly encircled  and eluded us

** this is a piece I just found in my journal from a trip David and I took to Kaktovik and the Arctic Refuge (Hula Hula River) this April with Robert Thompson.  Robert asked me the question on the first day when I was still sun-blinded.  I doodled the response over the next week in the Refuge.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Brushing my teeth with birch sap

Brushing my Teeth with Birch Sap

Where do you get your drinking water from?

As a child of the water-rich Great Lakes State, this wasn’t something I was forced to ponder very often.  Water simply appeared.  At restaurants, it was placed along with silverware. In my kitchen, I turned a silver knob like a princess and out it cascaded into my glass.

Michigan: We've got water.
In college, I fell into a righteous enragement over the issue of bottled water.  Something was fishy about a system where a multi-national corporation (cough cough, Nestle, world’s 53rd largest corporation) was allowed to drain the aquifers of Mecosta and Osceola County Michigan, take the captured water across state lines (to bypass drinking water standards), bottle in it petroleum product (17 million barrels of oil are used in the production of water bottles each year), use more energy to transport and distribute the water (it takes 3 times the amount of water to produce a bottle as it does to fill it) and sell it for 1,000 times the cost of tap water (aka, the way it was) to the profit of large, foreign companies. 

Studying water in Thailand

Spending my junior year in Thailand I got an actual taste of what happens when public resources are privatized.  When companies take over the market, the incentive for maintaining safe drinking water as a public resource evaporates.

Something to be grateful for

After all this confusion, living in a dry cabin in Alaska finally set me straight.  In summer I haul water in buckets in a wheelbarrow and catch it from the rain.  In winter I chop clear cuts of ice and melt buckets of snow.  Clean water is the reward for keeping an ecosystem in balance.  Clean water is something to be grateful for.   

Birch sap season
Goldstream creek in the spring: you don't want to drink that :)
All of this set me up perfectly to deeply appreciate birch sap season in Alaska.  During breakup the creek water is especially unpalatable and the swamped trails are especially unfriendly to hauling heavy containers.  Luckily, this is the time of year when water flows from trees!  Birch trees that is.  This year David showed me how to hollow out a small branch and make a tap to share in the tree’s harvest of sap. 

We drilled small holes and tapped in our flute-like tubes gently with a hammer and soon there were fountains of sap dripping steadily into tied-on buckets.  Putting in the taps was a delightful experience.  I tried to catch the first few drops with my tongue like a child catching snowflakes.  Birch sap contains only 1 percent sugar, and tastes like a more natural form of Gatorade.  It is famous for its vitamin C content, minerals, and detoxification qualities.  I also like it to counter-act seasonal allergies associated with birch pollen.  Straight from the tree, it is what my mom calls “perfectly cool,” like a martini.  Early in the morning, the buckets are topped with flakey shave-ice.  We fed it to friends as dessert with a splash of cranberry juice.

Savoring the Sweet

this is more or less what our trees look like, with less green around birch season
We set up five taps around our yard and with sunny days, each tree was soon producing up to 4 gallons a day.  We had more sap than we could handle!  While David was off hunting beaver, I tried my best to start boiling it down.  I filled the biggest pot I could find and stayed up all night feeding a fire that barely affected the sap but turned the cabin into a sauna.  Luckily, the front yard is covered with wood scraps from w winter of heating with wood, so picking up pieces for my fire was like spring cleaning.  Nonetheless, boiling down sap is a big job.  For just one gallon of syrup, you need 100 gallons of sap.  I came home from work the next day to discover that David had unwittingly bathed in my “syrup!”  The results were more soft than sticky. 

Without a freezer, distillery, or ample time to tend fires all day, I decided to delight in birch sap in its season and leave it at that.    It would have to be a limited edition commodity this year, and we enjoyed it all the more.  We cooked beaver meat in sap, we washed dishes in sap, we brushed our teeth with sap (counterintuitive, but delightful) we even gave the dogs their own birch sap cocktails.   Of all the ways I get water, there is nothing better than drinking it straight from a tree.

PS- my enjoyment of birch season was so "in the moment" that I forgot to take pictures!  Thanks to the internet for these ones I borrowed.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Nigu-Nuiqsut Trip Tales

Nigu-Nuiqsut Trip Tales
An overtly whimsical account of a month spent in a place that can only be processed as poetry. 

“There is much to set the imagination working when men feel their own littleness.”- Helge Ingstad

The Western Arctic is a place full of magic.  It is a land where the summer sun shines at midnight, compass hands grind on their axis, and caribou trails rake across the landscape like ancient veins.  It is one of the few places left on this earth where you can drift for weeks along wild rivers without seeing another human footprint. 
In late June of 2011, the Nuniamut month Erniwik, meaning “young are born,” I set off to do just that: to drift.  When people asked me why I was going on this trip I replied simply “to see what is there.”  Part of it was for work- the Western Arctic is an area that I work to protect from a triage of threats from increased access (roads), large industry (oil, gas, mining), and climate change.  I wanted to gain the stiff knees of one who had experienced a place and ground-truthed it for themselves.  Part of it was for play—the chance to hike, explore, and live outside for a month.
I expected the bugs, the bears, the wind, the flowers.  What I didn’t expect was the profoundly interactional nature of my experience of all of these things.  The more I adjusted to the place, the more absurd and anthropocentric the idea of “seeing a place” became.  As my body adjusted to life on the river, my senses blurred and became inseparable. I tasted wind, saw scents, and felt rough-legged hawk calls in my shoulders. 
I was not observing, but participating.  I went on a walk late at night and the next morning wolf prints accompanied my boot prints on the sand.  The other animals were watching us just as we were watching them.  I came to believe that the real root of that which we call “magic” is the spine-tingling experience of living in a world made up of multiple intelligences.
This is the story of my first real arctic trip.  It is told through short paragraphs and poems.  It is about being a fledgling.  In the arctic, fledgling birds often crawl, hop, and slither before they fly--

Things we carried:
Two pots and one pan
Layers for rain, wind, bugs, and sun
Ziploc baggies of dehydrated mandarins
Rolled red tents
Books full of birds
Bug dope, varying percentages of poison
Wet hiking boots
Thumb-callus lighters
Fog-filled binoculars
Back-up dessert
Enough collected rocks to sink our boats
A GPS with a habit of reporting that we were floating on land

All folded,
Into colorful sacks
And tied into green canvas
Folding canoes
But most important of all,
A deep and grateful sense of wonder
For the rivers that carried it all.

Life like a River
Our journey was above all a river trip.  The rivers gave us transport, nourishment, metaphors, and delight.  Rivers are the coursing veins of the arctic tundra. It is indescribably pleasurable to travel the age-old path of nutrients.  In two pack canoes, our party of four traveled 360 miles on a path worn by glaciers, rivers, and caribou.  Our path began at the headwaters of the Nigu River, tucked inside the Gates of the Arctic National Park. The Nigu flowed through the Brooks Range Mountains and joined the Etiviluk.  The Etiviluk took us through the foothills and united with the Colville, the great west-east holding river that drains the Western Arctic and has been the traffic route of people, plants, and animals for millennia.  The Colville took us to the Coastal Plain, to the top of the world.  It was adventure on a horizon-hopping scale.

We are shimmying down the river
Slowing down,
Adjusting out angle
Choosing lines
Twisting hips

Our crescent vessel slides
Down shoots of water and rock
Chasing v’s of perpetual motion
Catching small waves

Lean away from the water
Lean into the rocks
Our logic protests
But the river prevails

The water is endless motion
Surface ripples swirl around patches of drowned tundra
Small brilliant-colored arctic grayling breach the surface
Their sail-like fins mirror wings
Of the birds that swoop above.

Mixing Metaphors
The trip was a break from many of the constructs that I accept in my daily life.  The theory of linguistic relativity states that we see, hear, and experience as we do because the language habits of our community predispose us to certain interpretations.  In the arctic, many of these habits were broken.  The constant pursuit of a faster, more efficient way of working was replaced by the pace of the river.  The constant drumming of beeps, thumps, and electronically reproduced jingles was replaced by bird songs and river rapids.   My metaphors became mixed.  Cars become streams, planes became bumblebees, and the songs stuck in my head belonged to the tree sparrow.
 Far from the bustling traffic, gleaming mirrors, and buzzing communication devices that frame our modern lives, in the Western Arctic, I had the increasingly rare pleasure of getting to know a piece of earth as it was made.  

You Know You’ve Arrived When…
Your metaphors shift from artificial
to natural
cars become streams
               the song stuck in your head belongs
to the tree sparrow.
               Luxury becomes stuff sacks properly arranged
into a pillow.
               Planes become bumblebees
You stop picking up caribou antlers.

Ways of Being- Feathers in my hair
One day I picked up a feather.  Resting on a spongy moss throne, it called to me.  As after my fingers lingered over the tundra balancing the treasure in my grasp, my gaze was called upward, by a Rough-Legged Hawk.  The bird circled above me and issued a piercing call, its beak forming a perfect “o”.   It felt like a nod.  I tucked the airy striped feather under my bandana, so it hung in my peripheral vision, to the right of my eyes, like a strand of my own hair.  As I paddled that day, I reveled in the tickling sensation of the feather’s strands playing across my cheek.  I felt the perfect way it cut through the wind.  A feat of evolutionary engineering attributable only to that which is divine. 
The more I wore the feather, the more a part of me it became. When the sun circled endlessly, glaring down on my pale skin, the feather shaded my like an extended eyelash.  When the headwinds slowed our progress and made our shoulders ache, I listened to the song of the wind through the feather, and felt soothed rather than obstructed.  When I became bored, its presence reminded me of the constant spectacle of soaring life that was occurring all around me.  It was a gentle teacher, calling my attention to the fine-tuned receptive fields of my own senses.  It reminded me of how badly we need what David Abraham describes as “renewed attentiveness to this perceptual dimension that underlies all our logics, through a rejuvenation of our carnal, sensual empathy with the living land that sustains us.”  During my time in the arctic, feathers in my hair became a daily ritual. 

To Paddle the Colville
If you paddle quietly down the Colville
Your dripping paddles awaken ripples
And a sensory buffet.

Melting banks smell of rich humus.
Solid and fertile
With a hit of mammoth poop

Lupine drapes like grapes of the North
Expelling its fragrance over the mossy bank
Like a trapeze dancer arching its back to the world

Arctic poppies bob on gravel bars
Bouncing lightly to the tune of the wind
Like an old-fashioned film reel, they watch

The drifting fog carries hints of its origin, the sea
And rain brings out the scent of Alder
Yellow-billed loons dance and dive
Punctuating the moist atmosphere with their haunting song

Once you catch a fish
You smell them everywhere
On the rocks

Fossils retain the chalky zing of moments,
Not unlike this one,
Suspended in time.


The only constant in the Arctic is change.  Some of the conditions may seem less than ideal, but by realizing that all is change, I was able to shiver, swat and otherwise float through these challenges in good spirits.  I reveled in a sense of excitement each night as I turned my thoughts to sleep, wondering what kind of world I would wake up to the next morning.  In this way, the land teaches us to trust in new days, in small miracles.  Our prayers become simple: “please make more.”

Mountains, foothills, bluffs, coastal plain.  Landscapes, skyscapes.
No animals, more animals than you can point your binoes at.
Wear all of your clothes and shiver, take them all off and swim.
Sun, rain, hail, wind, snow, sun.
1,000 bugs, no bugs.
Low water, high water, slow water, swift water, clear water, silty water.
One fish, two fish, red fish, giant pike fish.

Tundra must be at least 30% caribou- their hair, excrement, and bones fortify the soil.  Their shed antlers add a touch of majesty as they slowly intertwine with the mosses and lichen that made them grow.  Caribou are endlessly giving vessels in the tundra cycle of life.  Their hoof prints aerate the soil giving breath to new life.  Their paths blaze routes used by many.  From the air they look like the marks of a giant rake.  They evoke the sensation of running one’s fingers through dark brown humus.   
Seeing these keystone animals alive and roaming is an exhilarating experience.  “Caribou!” one of us will shout and all tasks are dropped, all binoculars raised. In playful moods, we raise our arms above like antlers, hoping to lure the curious herd-driven animals closer. 
My first brush with a caribou came as a surprise.  I was on my first hunting trip in the arctic, and absorbed completely by early-September blueberries that appear like deep blue apparitions, dripping seductively from orange-leafed plants.  I felt an odd quiver in my upper spine.  I looked up and my eyes met a cow, standing carelessly fifteen feet in front of me.  She glowed silver, as if from another world.  Though I knew in my bones, I was the foreign one here.
The last caribou we saw in the Western arctic was running along the shore about twenty miles from Nuiqsut.  Its dark profile galloped along the river like a stallion.  He ran as if he was being chased, but our human eyes could find nothing pursuing him. 

What did you see?
Our common greeting when returning from lone wanderings.  The protocol response was a formula:
“Number, species, behavior, notes.”
For example: “Two semi-palmated plovers, broken leg act, probably with fledglings nearby.
We knew better than to brag, so we indicated the extraordinary—that is to say everything—with our eyes.  I often spent the final leg of my adventures preparing my response to this inevitable greeting.  “twelve mastodon, tusks still attached, doing ballet.” A smile.  “Made use of my bear spray.” A wink.  On my final saunter through the wetlands, my response came from the lupine: “two, the last lines from that Joy Harjo Poem.” 
“Do it in beauty
Do it in beauty.”
On that day, no one asked.

As time passed, we began to see signs of our species.  Cans of beer and Coca-Cola, piles of ashes, flames long since extinguished, large pieces of metal, oil barrels.  The flares of the Alpine oil field, and finally a four-wheeler marking the village of Nuiqsut.  From there we were an airplane hop to Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay), a skip to our car, and a jump back to Fairbanks.  Where my metaphors again entered a gauntlet, and I searched for a way to reconcile how my way of being in the world had changed.

My metaphors are all mixed up.
Birch leaves shimmying in the morning breeze appear
Like black squins on a flapper’s dress.
Are those paters in the sand from wind, stone, or tire>
Is that a bird or a bag?
Turbulent water or passing traffic?
What exactly is the center
Of the world—
True north or magnetic north?
My internal compass grinds
Along its bearings.
But my hope beats with the promise
of a new day.
Lessons learned await

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Spring Breaking

Spring Breaking
Ice on the Tanana just after break up

Spring is something Alaskans bet on.  Literally.  Each spring, thousands of itchy Alaskans pay $2.50/ticket to guess the precise second that the ice on the Tanana river will break. The Nenana Ice Classic (  is the state’s longest-running and most profitable (last year’s jackpot was $279,030) game.  It is so popular that this year the Ice Classic’s manager is lobbying the Alaska state legislature to change the statute governing charitable gaming so that they can sell tickets using broadcasting (aka: on the internet!) instead of in little red and white striped jars at local retailers.

After seven months of solid snow, it is hard to avoid the fanfare associated with seeing dirt again.  At first the idea of bare ground felt like an affront to my winter wonderland.  I had come to covet my well-worn trails, their simple pathways to my vital places.  I had just mastered my wardrobe, just put on my studded bike tires.  All of this warming temperatures and increasing sun was literally causing rain to fall on my parade.

the UAF Polar Bear (students get pics riding it in bathing suits in -40)

In protest, Sara and I tried to get the most out of the last bits of our winter.  We played a frisbee tournament called "No sand on the Chena"  (the Chena is a river)

We competed in a race called the Infamous Ivory quest.  Since we were dog-less, we human jor'd it.  

And we did a nice last minute ski-to-cabin trip in the white mountains.... soak it all in.  Nothing like spring skiing with a pack!

Protest * Cramp * Flex * Submit
I remember the first time my feet touched the actual dirt.  It felt disorienting, like when you first set foot on a skating rink.  My arches protested, flexed, cramped, and finally submitted.  This is how spring came to me.

But there is no fighting it.  It happens in an instant.  The combined inertia of a winter’s weight of snow. Seeping overflow, building tension.  Until something cracks, slowly unearthing a chain reaction.  Blue butterflies signal, reindeer are born, the sun graces midnight, miniature violets follow Lapland rosebay follows anemone follows birch buds, follows green-bean bluebells, all following the lead of pussywillows, greeting the world, fuzzy side out.

Alaskan spring has captured the creative powers of writers much more articulate than I, so in stead of waxing poetic about the return of smells (like the outhouse and compost) and the necessity of Fairbanks’s full-on clean-up day for all the litter we find as the snow melts, I will share some reflections from the writers that have served as my guides to seasonal change:

A path goes to the outhouse over the wooden bridge,
and one to where the slop bucket's dumped. 
Down to the truck, behind the cabin for firewood. 
In winter they pack hard as if they'd Last forever
any good map would show them. 

There's history under the bird feeder,
fallen seed pressed between snows,
a geology voles tunnel through.

My boots mutter along the trail as I listen in. 
Thoughts come and go,
though I've forgotten now,
worries punctuated by clouds of breath. 
Two thousand pounds of wood cut I winter's narrow light,
there's my conclusion.

Then history softens in the sun. 
Where I walked is runoff now and cold black earth. 
Here's a photograph of those paths,
only a month ago,
That's what the world was like,
a few ways of going. 
They're only where a man once walked,
what he needed for a little while.

April is amnesia,
a green Assumption. 
There's a soft hiss off new leaves,
unlike autumn's sound of tin. 
The forest returns as it has always been,
washed of the steps of man.”
- Joe Enzweiler, A Winter on Earth

“Spring was my favorite time of year, and it took extra energy to stay in a bad mood.  The sun came home to the Arctic and shone tirelessly on the shimmering world of snow.  Midwinter diminished into memory and the darkness of next winter seemed inconceivable.  Warm smells rose form the black soil of exposed cutbanks, birds shrieked and carelessly tossed leftover seedsdown out of the birches.  It was a season of adventure calling from melting out mountains, of geese honking after a continent-crossing journey, of caribou herds parading thousands long on their way north to the calving grounds, sap running and every arctic plant set to burst into frenzied procreation.  Spring was the land smiling, and I couldn’t imagine my life without that smile.” –Seth Kanter, Ordinary Wolves (70).

“One afternoon, silently at first, the whole river began moving.  Inside we felt something in the air, maybe a dog pacing around his chain, maybe geese honking and lifting off as ice pressed in, or that other sense we have never learned enough to name.” –Seth Kanter, Ordinary Wolves, 92.

“We can’t all live that pitch.  But every so often, something shatters like ice, and we are in the river of our existence.  We are aware.” –Louise Erdrich

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Winter Wonders

  The Northern Lights
The Northern lights are the pinnacle privilege of an Alaskan winter.  They evoke gasps from even the most wrinkle-eyed old-timers.  Seeing them is a prize that outhouse-goers laud over those with running water (the outhouse is one of the only reasons you might wander outside at three in the morning in negative thirty) and a serious point to consider when deciding where to live.  Their activity is tracked in the Daily News Miner, and occasionally they make it on the front page.  
The Northern Lights from the front page of the DNM

The northern lights make you think of others.  A good show is a widely accepted excuse to call friends at two in the morning. They are a temporary cure to cold fingers and noses.  They are something that you want to capture and share.  But camera phones can’t cut it.  To get an impression of the Northern lights, you have to set up a long exposure on a steady platform.  I will try for you.
When I first heard of them, I imagined that the northern lights would be a theatrical performance, like an Imax movie preview shown at the planetarium.  It would be awesome with a capital “A.”  The colors would dash, the tempo of the music would pick up, soaring panoramic shots would swoop you straight to the edge of a cliff. In that first moment of silence that marks any good fall, you discover that you have wings.  And those wings are the fluttering lights.  Well it’s not really like that.

I first saw the lights from Pat Stanley’s yard along the Yukon River in the summer of 2009.  At first I mistook them for movie premiere skylights, but quickly dismissed this given that my feet were planted in Fort Yukon, an Athabascan village located above the Arctic Circle and 150 miles from any sort of town with big lights.  As comprehension dawned, I was surprised at how quiet and normal it seemed.  Instead of a star wars soundtrack, I heard the gush of the Yukon.  Instead of flying, my urge was to plant my feet and sway.  Instead of a laser light disco, the lights looked like big, silk curtains, rippling in the chilly September sky.  They looked more natural than I had expected- like a cave drapery in the Carlsbad Caverns.  As Pat and I stood on her porch and watched, I was reminded how unnecessary our human need to embellish, decorate and complicate that which is already whole, natural and beautiful

I see the aurora as a show opener, a teaser, a path to a way of living that is conscious of all of the miracles around us.  It is a suspension of belief that we explain through science.  I am told that the aurora occurs when supercharged electron particles from the solar wind interact with elements in the earth’s atmosphere.  Solar winds take 40 hours to travel from the sun to the earth, at a speed of 1 million miles per hour, and they follow the magnetic pull of the earth’s core, straight to the north (aurora borealis) and south (aurora australis).   The green lights that I see in Fairbanks are oxygen and the pinks and purple are nitrogen.

I prefer more poetic versions.  Stacey told me that the Saami people of Finland believe that the lights came to be when the fox ran across the night sky, sweeping the heavens with its tail, and leaving behind a spectacular glow for the people of the north to see.  In the case of the northern lights, seeing is believing.

Sounds of a cabin

The gentle ticking of the battery-powered rooster alarm clock that my mother sent to me this summer when I had no electricity.  Back to the old days, I smiled.  Now I leave the batteries in, a wasteful act justified by my love for the simple, soothing sound.  Knowing its there, keeping the beat.

The hiss of water spilling out of the cracks of our old, white tea pot.  The one that we got from Jen as she left for the Amazon and that we later saw its sibling occupying space in Barb Miller’s garden.  It is old and rusty and when you remove the cap you can see that water only boils in patches.  But we fill it each morning, warming water for tea, oatmeal, and the wooden bowl that is our face wash.  Probably contracting cancer, but addicted to the simple oldness of it.

The whir of the Toyotomi stove sitting at the couch’s shoulder.  Its fluctuations have come to mean warmth, and safety.  The old stove is the best seat in the house.  I spend a lot of time sitting on the floor atop a half-finished rug that Sara is weaving out of old sheets. 

The gentle melody of Bon Iver, Amos Lee, or Daisy May that wraps around the small glowing room in the evening.  The “talk of the nation” that seeps into our 7:32 dreams and pulls us into a new day. 

The whimpering of Chandalar dreaming, his legs spinning and his ivory fur glowing by the light of an omnipresent candle, like a Caravaggio painting.  

The late night kerr-unch of a moose on our porch, sampling our ancient frozen jack-o-lantern bate.  The sound drifts into my dream as a parrotfish munching on coral, stripping Velcro.  Speaking our excitement through shining eyes, Sara and I tiptoe lightlessly to the kitchen window, where we watch the impossibly long legs and triangular sloped back of a moose calf through our very own fishbowl.

Night Skiing

I think that skiing is making me a better dancer.  It is one of those rare and perfect forms of balance.  Not the self-assuring mind balance I wrote of this summer with the log bridge, or the flat-footed balance of my morning yoga pose when I stand on one leg and arch the other in the air behind me, like a judo ballerina, reaching forward to the day.  It’s a feeling of controlled oscillation.  A slow adjustment of your body played out on your feet: the rolling pressure: arch to ball to heel to side.
Skijoring is balance in that you feel that you are a glorious utilitarian: maximizing the circumstances of slippery snow.  Instead of the fighting, sinking of your studded running shoes, with skis you peacefully embrace the ground.  Unlike mechanical machines, the dog in front of you needs only food and a warm place to sleep.  He can turn around at any point and senses far more than your eyes.  Sometimes, in particularly dense woods, I look more at Chandalar’s ears than the nooks around me to detect moose.  You can feel the dog’s steps glide your hips and together you are invincible.  You feel as if you are gliding through an endless portrait, witness to the evolving colors that the sun paints the sky.  The gliding comes our like singing.
Night skiing is a matter of rhythm.  Terry Tempest Williams wrote: “peace is the perspective found in patterns,” I would add “skiing is the key to the patterns that produce peace.”  Any movement over the snow creates a squeak, and it is impossible to ignore the scratchy melody you create.  On one hand it is the sound of productivity, and I feel the warm blood flowing through attentive, engaged limbs.
On a warm night, the clouds cover the sky like a down comforter, and in their mist the light pollution from the city creates an odd sheen, it is as if the world is dangling in a perpetual dawn.  A component of my brain resents this light for its false nature, but another honors its beauty, and urges me to embrace the urban beauty, the complexity of change in my stark clean world.  This light sweeps into the cracks and prints of the trails, momentarily suspending their imperfections and my usual caution.  I can focus on the soothing rhythm of my skis.  Liberated from the duality of day and night, I breathe in a feeling of endless possibility. 
On a lucky night, the cloud blanket sheds snow.  I glide slowly, my gaze fixed upwards as the droplets of ice descend and fill the porous land with their subtle light.  In boggy areas, miniature spruce pose stoically from under hoods of snow, like a giant game of chess, waiting for spring.  On a clear night, the air is crisp and the moon shines strong.  As we traverse a thin spruce-lined trail, I ask my friend Brad what he would do if the world ends next year.  He sighs and I imagine his smile behind me, “honey, I’m already doing it.  This world is heaven, people just refuse to see it.” Embarking into the cold night, I question my sanity, but returning I never feel quite ready to go back inside.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Winter Mirages

Why the Rose-colored glasses?

Reading over my letters, I realize that I paint an impossibly sunny picture of my life up here.  Sure, there are lots of double rainbows here, but the exceptional natural beauty that surrounds our little valley does not dissolve all ills.  I do not wish to portray that Alaska is a magical pocket of the world unaffected by economic depression, corruption, homelessness, climate change (which is actually happening 4 times faster in the arctic then elsewhere) racism, sexism, and boy trouble.  All of these things are real here.  Nor is it the case that my personal orbit is utterly free of obstacles, self-doubt, and fear.  In the last twenty four hours, for example, I  shattered a ski binding, our dog was hit and killed by a car, and our cabin nearly caught fire.  How tenuous is the pivot that changes life as we know it.  So why, when I sit down to capture my experiences of this place does everything come out like cotton candy?

Reason 1: Be practical: when you are 22 years old and live thousands of miles from home in a cabin without a lock, its best to not freak out your audience.  Especially if this audience includes your grandmother and a host of family and friends that you are subtly pressuring to drop $1,000 on a visit.  For example, when I called my mother (the only cell phone number I have committed to memory) from the inside of a car repair shop after getting lost on skijor trails and locked out of work for four hours without my phone, wallet, or a worthwhile pair of pants in negative twenty I explained it in terms of a “slight miscalculation.”

Reason 2: I am generally determined to use humor to make the best of whatever comes my way and learn from challenges.  These letters are about sharing the good that comes out of my experiences, even if they aren’t all ephemeral when actualized.

Reason 3: Fairbanks is technically a desert.  I often see things through the sheen of my bright red hair.  The result of this combination is that lately I’ve been seeing mirages.  Mirages are created when the air next to the earth becomes warmer than the air immediately above it.  I think they must also happen when fresh dry snow performs synchronized swirling, skating before the car in sheets, disguising and bedazzling the road below.  And when I light a candle to watch the light dance.  The world that each us sees is the creation of our minds.  The world that I’ve always seen has been nothing short of magical. 

In order to illustrate this, I offer a literal picture:

This is a shot that Kyle took of the stars and moon over a river in Denali.  I was present for the inception, and I remember it well.  The smell was windswept and lonesome.  The sound was humming liquid tranquility. The feeling was that of being pulled forward by your clavicle by some universal beckoning of the starry night.  If you were to look behind the camera lens, you would find me, wrapped in a scarf, eyes half closed, absorbing these details.  Back home on a computer screen, the picture looked comparatively bleak.  The river was flowing glass, but the starts lacked their twinkle, the feeling was lost.  On Photoshop, he adjusted levels of tone, light, coloration and to my amazement, the picture came alive.  “There!” I exclaimed, “that is how I see the world.”  This is what I try to capture for you.

Lately my mirages have been focused on the rotation of seasons.  The sun has returned in earnest, in nine-hour shifts, to banish the frigid chalky tone from the sky.  March is a sweet reprieve from the harsh temperatures of February and the darkness of December.  We can feel the sun again.

Skiing along the valley trails
The summer flashes arise
The sweet snow lanes before me
Transform to dew drops
In a murky marsh
Full of bugs and sun

The world bumps and bustles
With light and lithe
We lighten ourselves
Narrow down our loads
And begin to twirl

So in this letter I have attempted to address some of the challenges and how I convert them to joys.  In case I was getting too poetic and mushy…we do have a real problem on hand.  This section is about the latest developments of our outhouse, read on at your own discretion. 

Battle of the Poopsicle:

I first became aware of the danger looming behind our cabin when I came home from my lower forty eight trip in January.  I was excitedly slipping on boots to head to the outhouse when Sara’s face stopped me in my tracks. 
“Erm-be careful…” her expression threatened to implode to laughter or crying.
“There’s quite the-er- look in the hole.”
I did so.  And to my surprise I encountered a veritable stalagmite of frozen excretion, decorated like a Christmas tree with whisps of toilet paper.  The popsicle was menacingly close to the foam seat.  Impalement was a clear danger.
“Aaaah!” I ran back to the cabin laughing explosively.
What to do?  Naturally, I sought advice of locals at work, social events, and the supermarket.  Lori suggested that we melt it out with hot water.  Sara wanted to with a shovel.  We don’t have a shovel so I suggested a ski pole.  Marla advised us to hold our attack until it was cold and brittle, as in –40.  Liz suggested we invite a polar bear over for tea.  Our ever-practical executive director suggested adjusting our angle when using the facility.  An unmentioned comrade told us to move our outhouse, set up a shrine, and have people throw pennies at it and make wishes.  Thus far the only action taken has been to laugh a lot.  I tried to knock it down using an old board, but to little avail.  We are still collecting suggestions if you’re feeling particularly clever.
This is from the world ice carving championships.  Put here to illustrate how tough the ice is!

Dancing off Burnout

In the non-profit line of work, we have to remain ever vigilant of the looming possibility of burnout.  In a brainstorming session for our 40th anniversary, we decided that the Northern Center is the smallest group of people (8 staff, 13 board) working to defend the largest territory (arctic and subarctic Alaska) with the smallest budget.  I have driven by the Northern center on more than one Friday night and seen the telltale lights of overtime.  There are days when the problems, corporations, and risks seem incomprehensively huge and I feel acutely inexperienced and underprepared.  At times like this, I turn to the advice of the fantastic generation before me. 

“That’s what I would say to you, in the midst of these difficult times.  If you are going into that place of intent to preserve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the wildlands in Utah, you have to know how to dance.”- Mardy Murie

This is a different kind of dancing.  It is the kind that you do when its negative thirty outside and you’re antsy.  The kind where you walk straight from the door of the bar to the dance floor.  And spend your week’s grocery funds on a Rusted Root concert (very worth eating oatmeal for lunch).  It’s the kind of movement that is born from moments of exasperation where you realize that your options are to laugh, cry, or dance and you choose all three. 

Dancing in Snowshoes is Not Advisable

            A similar thing happened with the snow.  Even the worst of Michigan snow days could not prepare me for the effects of our latest snowstorm.  The trails vanished.  Cars vanished.  Mailboxes were nowhere to be seen.  The lake that I generally run across became a depository for extra snow, and I sunk in over my waist and had to break the trail for Chandalar by crawling on my elbows.  Baby steps.  Having no shovel, I snowshoed, then skied, then walked my trails clear.  Sara crawled on top of her car and log-rolled it clear with her body. 
The only real course of action is to laugh in exasperation and make snow angels.  They are my version of graffiti, and I have been marking the trials with them.  Each day on my romps, I make a point to fall straight back into the snow and swish my arms and legs like windshield wipers.  I love the feeling of the snow molding around and supporting the curve of my back like tempur-pedic foam.  Relish the chance to listen to my heart beat and feel the blood circulate through my limbs.  Lying in my little dip of snow, I can meld in with the world and take a moment to get the snow’s view of the birds.