Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Coming Home

Most people leave a sedentary life behind to go on an active vacation - camping, fishing, hiking, sightseeing, walking the beach, maybe even renting an ATV for a day of backcountry fun. I leave my active life behind to go on a sedentary vacation. Don’t get me wrong. I love to visit family and friends, but time away from my life is difficult for me. It’s easy to get fat and lazy in the Lower 48. After a month there, I’m convinced that I would weigh 300 pounds if I lived in a suburban neighborhood again. There, I don’t burn any calories walking down the hall to the bathroom, turning on a faucet for water, washing clothes, walking to and from the car, sitting out in the sun, pulling a few weeds in the garden right outside the front door, going out to eat (no prep or cleanup), and on and on.
I actually missed my daily hikes up and down the hill to the outhouse, usually several times a day. It gives me a chance to chatter back at the squirrels, look for new buds on the spring flowers, work my upper body pulling myself up the hill with the rope, work my legs and glutes climbing from root to root, and practice quick steps and balance coming down on wet leaves. Yes, a flush toilet is nice, but totally unnecessary.

Hands down, the one thing that I enjoyed most on our trip was warm, running water. Several years ago, when I was living in Kwethluk, Alaska, in southwestern Alaska, on the banks of the Lower Kuskokwim River, about 10 miles east of Bethel, as the crow flies, we were told, as new teachers in an introductory inservice, to be aware that village kids will want to use the bathroom all of the time, mainly to wash themselves in the sink. Then, when I first moved to the village, before I learned to say, “No,” a half dozen local, elementary age boys would knock on the door, asking, “Can we visit?” Shortly after opening the door, they beelined for the bathroom, where I had liquid soap in a pump container on the sink. They rolled up their sleeves, soaped and washed and scrubbed up to their elbows, laughing and pushing and splashing like nothing I’d ever seen. After several minutes, I had to tell them that that was enough and shoo them out of the bathroom. I never understood… until now. You see, no homes in the village, other than teacher housing, had running water. I now have complete understanding of what those children were experiencing in my bathroom all those years ago. On vacation, I washed my hands every chance I got. I also never let any dishes sit in a sink anywhere, regardless of whether there was a dishwasher or not. The sheer joy of warm, running water and the ease of keeping the kitchen counters cleared and cleaned was enough to keep me smiling as I washed, constantly. However, the ease of having warm water with just the mere twist of a nob certainly does not burn the calories of hauling it up from the river, and warming it on the stove. That lack of calorie usage combined with the accessibility to Culver’s frozen custard was not a good thing for my waistline!

I packed light for the trip, just a carry on, knowing that I would have access to a clothes washer and dryer. Changing into clean clothes every day and washing everything every few days was a real splurge for me - and the washing machines now are completely automated! They sense the load size and adjust the water level! At my daughter’s house, all I had to do was push two buttons to wash a load and two more buttons to dry them. The dryer even played a little tune when the clothes were finished, not the annoying buzzer sound of my youth! As pampering as that all felt to me, it also felt overly indulgent, and I get a lot of satisfaction from washing clothes in a hand-cranked tub with water warmed on the stove. After ringing those clothes and hanging them on the line to dry, I can stand back and look at everything I accomplished. You just don’t get that same feeling with an automated cleaning system.

As much fun as visiting the new Aldi’s grocery store in Wausau, Wisconsin, was, I would buy (and eat) way too much food if I lived there! My daughter and I just hopped into the car, which was in the attached garage, and zipped over to the store in no time at all. At home, if we run out of butter, we’re just out of butter. That’s it, until the next time I go to town, which may be tomorrow or may be next week. For me, going to the store in the summer involves gathering an empty tote from downstairs (to transport the goods back to the cabin), any trash that needs to go to town, and empty gas cans, hauling it all down the 40 steps to the boat, usually over the course of several trips, climbing down the bank (because there is no dock) and loading it in the boat, getting back out to gather the anchor, push off, and drive the 20 minutes into town, quite possibly through the rain, or bugs if it’s dry. I like the rain better. Once in town, the boat needs to be pulled out with the trailer behind the 4-wheeler (again, no dock), and driven the hundred yards to Gregg’s workshop where the boat is then unloaded. I can walk across the street to the grocery store to pick up whatever we need - don’t forget the reusable bags because they no longer use plastic. I usually grab a few things from our freezer, too - caribou meat and cheese. While I’m in town, I’ll load the empty gas cans and trash on the 4-wheeler and drive to the dumpster area to get rid of the trash and then on to the single gas pump in the village to fill the cans, stopping at the post office on my way back to the shop to pick up any boxes I might have in from Target or Amazon, where I do most of my grocery shopping. Then, all of the goods acquired have to be packed into the empty tote and loaded back into the boat along with the full gas cans. Then, the boat is returned to the water via the 4-wheeler and trailer duo and anchored while I park the duo and walk back to the boat. Time to head back upriver, goods protected from the weather by the plastic tote. Once home and the boat is anchored, everything has to be unloaded and hauled up the 40 steps to the cabin. Only then, can the groceries be unpacked and put away, storing the tote back downstairs until the next trip. Whew! All for a stick of butter!

Sitting outside on the porch at my sister’s house in Gig Harbor, Washington, it occured to me that there were no bugs. The obvious lack of mosquitoes in a rainforest climate made me uneasy, while affording me the luxury to relax and read, being serenaded by the sounds of construction vehicles coming through the woods just beyond my line of sight. I’m not sure if the city sprays pesticide or if it’s just because of the individual houses and the chemicals used to control pests and weeds, but it actually worried me. Of course, this morning, as I have already killed at least a dozen mosquitoes while writing, I question my pesticide concerns. Mosquitoes are so thick outside right now, that I wear a mosquito head net to do most anything - wash windows, weed the garden, walk the trail. I also shake like I’m doing the hokey pokey (you know the part where “you turn yourself around”) before going into the cabin to make sure I don’t have any freeloaders riding my back inside. Still, those little buggers are everywhere! That brings me to the idea of sitting out in the sun. It’s just not going to happen here! Although, I have noticed a conspicuous lack of those varmints in the village, because there’s usually a strong breeze and I imagine they don’t breed in the saltwater of the Bering Sea like they do in our river water upstream. Perhaps, I’m due for an afternoon in the sun on the beach. I’ll be sure to keep my eyes peeled for bears.

I was blessed to spend over two weeks with my daughter, her husband, and their new baby. Jack was less than three weeks old when I arrived and April was still recovering from a difficult C-section. Therefore, I was delighted to pick up the slack and even did some planting and weeding for her in the garden out in front of their house. It was literally two steps out their front door. At home, I have to go down a dozen steps, a few tricky steps down a steep slope, and then another two tall steps into the garden to weed (we live on the side of a mountain). In addition, I have some planters down below the greenhouse, which involves taking the 40 steps down to the riverside. Again, I’m counting calories burned here and as pretty as April’s garden is, it’s not going to get me where I need to be in order to have another one of those frozen custards!

Vacations always involve lots of eating out. This one was no different. Thankfully, my husband and I are of the same conviction to avoid fast food chains at all cost. Therefore, we usually seek out the locally run, mom and pop cafes that serve large portions of hearty food. I really wish they’d let me help cook and clean up, because just sitting in the booth while someone serves me is only adding insult to injury where the caloric burn, or lack thereof, is concerned. We were waiting for our one and only steak dinner of the trip at the Y Steak House in Park Rapids, Minnesota, to be delivered to our table while indulging in homemade rolls with soft butter, only to discover that the first bite of the perfectly cooked, medium rare steak made us look up at each other at the same time and longingly say, “This sure ain’t caribou!” Eating only caribou and moose has spoiled us both so badly that we don’t even care for beef anymore! We both had a serious case of withdrawal from our native foods by the time we got home. There’s also a great sense of satisfaction in eating meat that you chased down, shot, cleaned, and packaged yourself. It’s just one more byproduct of an active lifestyle.

I’m just one of those people who gets more done when they are busy. For example, when I was a high-school-teacher-single-mom, I was also on any number of committees, coaching any number of activities, and running two girls everywhere they needed to go all while keeping the house clean, cooking homemade meals, mowing the lawn, and growing flower gardens that were worthy of being featured in the local newspaper. However, when summer came, after I finished teaching summer school and the kids were visiting their father for a couple of weeks, I became a slug. Dishes piled up, laundry didn’t get done, I went to the drive-thru for dinner, and didn’t even take a shower most days. I’m surprised the cats got fed. I had nothing pressing to do, no deadlines, no meetings, no time schedules, nothing. Without that, I couldn’t even make myself do the most mundane tasks of keeping house. I work better under pressure, juggling too many commitments, and looming deadlines.

You may be wondering what kind of deadlines I could possibly have in my offgrid life. Well, right now, we just got back from a month in the Lower 48. The river ice only went out two days before we left. Before that, we were stuck at the cabin for almost three weeks, no way in or out. When we came back in mid-June, it was summer. I’d already missed fiddlehead season, so I was pretty bummed about that. Meanwhile, my garden had been planted the day before we left and that and the seedlings in the greenhouse had been left to their own devices for a month. If I want any harvest at all this year, I’d best get after the weeds and transplanting seedlings. Oh, but wait, the cabin is a dirty wreck from a long winter. My first priority was to get it cleaned top to bottom - windows, floors, everything. I just finished that today and the dandelions are starting to go to seed. I sure don’t want to miss that deadline, so today I’ll be picking dandelion flowers to make jelly and a healing, topical oil, and leaves for canning. Oh, and I had let my online grocery shopping slack while on vacation, so we don’t have any vegetables in the house! I just finished those orders last night.

Meanwhile, I’m keeping an eye on the berry blooms and need to get up on the tundra and pick wild rhubarb while it’s in season. I should have done that yesterday! I’m going to be working at the Unalakleet River Lodge starting mid-July and that will be a 7-day/week job until September, so I need to get my fishing and smoking and canning done in the next month. I also have magazine articles that need to be completed and turned in for looming deadlines, syllabi to write for online writing courses that I’ll be teaching this fall for the University of Alaska - Fairbanks (those are due immediately), and Saturday Market projects to finish before the next market in less than two weeks. Did I mention that I’m writing a book?

So, yeah, I have deadlines, commitments, and pressures, even if they are selfmade. I’m smiling to myself as I write that. Selfmade. I definitely live an active life. I choose every day to live this life. It’s an easy choice for me. I may not have modern conveniences common to most, but I do exactly what I want all day, every day. No ornery boss. No corporate ladder. No common core. No bullshit. That reminds me… I need to go clean up the dogshit down by the boat landing. I’ll add that to my list.

Friday, April 27, 2018

It's a New Season

Tuesday was my last day to travel by snowmachine to the village for the winter. Is this the only place where April 24 can still be considered winter? Regardless, I am now settled in at the cabin until the river ice breaks up and floats the eight miles out to the Bering Sea, carving the riverbank along the way to possibly reveal a hidden Mammoth tusk or tooth and making new channels and sandbars for us to learn to navigate this summer. I parked my machine at Gregg’s shop, between the buildings, a cover pulled over to protect it from the elements until next fall. My 4-wheeler sits parked beside it, covered since last fall, waiting for my return from the Lower 48 in June to be uncovered and revved up for summer, when I’ll drive it the 12 miles out the dirt road and across the tundra to park at the cabin for berrypicking and summer exploration trips in the vast expanse that has become my backyard. Meanwhile, we wait and pray for the river to open before our flight leaves on May 13 to carry us to the arms of family spread from Washington to Michigan.
Tires ready for planting.

I rode home on the back of Gregg’s machine, pulling a sled filled with provisions including a case of whiskey and a rubber tub filled with caribou, milk, eggs, and other essentials. We also loaded up several, old 4-wheeler tires that Gregg has stacked outside his shop, having been thrown aside when folks had him install new tires for them.  After cutting the inner rims out of the top and bottom of the tires, they will serve as vegetable and flower planters both in and out of our garden space. I’ve been doing some reading about soil-warming techniques, and, living where we do, permafrost isn’t very far down and our soil stays pretty cold all summer, even with the long days of sunshine. Cold soil makes it nearly impossible to grow most vegetables – my radishes, cabbage, and beans in the garden last year just laughed at me. This year, I’ll be planting those in raised beds courtesy of those old tires!
Iron Dog & Iditarod Trail Markers

Gregg also made several trellises out of Iron Dog and Iditarod trail marker stakes that he gathered along the river and cross country trail between here and the village. The trails get marked with stakes every 100 yards or so in March. When the river breaks up, the stakes end up in the bottom of the river or out in the Bering Sea, so I feel like we do our part to keep the environment clean by gathering them and reusing them. It’s also free wood that can be used in a variety of ways around our homestead! They make perfect trellises for climbing vegies like cucumbers, beans, peas, and zucchini.

Wednesday, Gregg headed back to town, intending to continue making the trip until the river became unsafe, which was probably only a few days away. However, the river ice had changed so much overnight that he left town earlier than anticipated, and drove home on our oldest, smallest snowmachine, 2005 Skidoo Tundra – one that can be loaded
Ole' Trusty
onto a boat and taken back to town after the river opens. The cracks in the river are now 5-8 inches wide and the open holes are growing larger and meeting up, creating places where one has to water-skip the snowmachine from one patch of ice to the next. It’s no longer safe to drive on.

Fresh Jelly
Meanwhile, I stayed home and made jelly from blueberry juice that I had strained off of frozen berries I used in dessert bars. I hate to throw anything away, so I had saved the juice, instead of straining it down the sink. I also had some dried Lavender that a retiring teacher had given to me last week, after clearing out her kitchen pantry. After making Lavender tea (steeping the lavender in water and straining it through a cheese cloth), I mixed it with the blueberry juice and created an absolutely delightful jelly! I then made a batch of straight Lavender jelly that tastes similar to Fireweed jelly, quite a treat!

Thursday was the first day since October that not one person drove past our cabin on the river. We are settled in now for a couple of weeks of peace and quiet. It’s starting to sink in as to how truly self-sufficient Gregg and I could be if we had to. However, I sent him out to fish for dinner yesterday and the river was so muddy from the ice melting that he didn’t even get a bite. Thankfully, we have a week’s worth of semi-frozen caribou in the cooler, in addition to canned tuna, chicken, and Spam in the pantry (don’t knock it – browned Chorizo Spam is pretty darn good for breakfast!).  We certainly won’t starve.

If there was an emergency, we could probably ride out, cross country, on the little Tundra, although it would be quite a task to get it up to the top of the half-snowdrifted/half-mud hill. Once at the top, we could nurse it across the tundra to the road, drifted 10-feet high with snow the last time I saw it. In any case, I suppose it’s an option. We’ll just work smart and hope for the best.

New Clothesline
Today is Friday, and Gregg is currently building a sturdy clothesline across the deck so that I can make use of my first anniversary gift, a shiny, new wash tub and clothes wringer! We currently have a couple of bungee cords strung between posts on our porch that are barely enough to dry out wet towels and hand-washed underwear. We’ll need something more significant for workpants and shirts. Last summer, I took the heavy items like that and washed them at the Unalakleet River Lodge, where Gregg works in the summer. It was little more than a quarter-mile hike through the woods, carrying the clothes in a duffle bag on my back. However, I don’t like relying on others and wanted to be more self-sufficient… thus, my new wash tub.

Getting the Greenhouse ready.
My next project for today is to head down to the greenhouse to heavily soak all of the soil in my pots down there. The dirt is extremely dry from sitting out all winter and needs a couple of days of loving care before my little seedlings are transplanted into them. My tomato seedlings are six-inches high, so it’s time to send them to the greenhouse. We’re past hard freezes, now, and the days are amazingly long, at least 16 hours of daylight. I believe we gain an hour of sunlight every week right now. I’m counting on these vegies and herbs to not only provide us with a year’s worth of food, but also to give me a little extra to sell at Saturday Markets – I already have people asking about it. Perhaps I’ll just hang a sign out down by the river and have folks stop by here to get the produce fresh out of the greenhouse to take with them to their fish camps! That’ll be a first out here, for sure!


Friday, March 23, 2018

On The Air

We actually have a radio station right here in Unalakleet, Alaska! The KNSA studio sits on the edge of the Bering Sea and broadcasts in a way that most folks outside of the village might think is quite unique. Having very limited hours of local programming, the station simulcasts KDLG out of Dillingham, 350 miles away. Hearing want-ads and advertisements for a place that is a world away (16 hours by plane, because you have to go through Anchorage to get there) may seem a bit odd. 

However, the real fun starts when Open Line airs at 11am on weekdays. Open Line is a program where listeners from anywhere in the world can call an 800-number to leave a live message for someone in the KDLG/KNSA listening area. Usually, it’s locals wishing happy birthday to one another or summertime shout-outs to fisherman out on boats in the Bering Sea and Bristol Bay areas. You can listen to recorded shows at http://kdlg.org/programs/open-line-1-800-478-5354#stream/0. You have to hear it to believe it! I mean, where else can you hear “Happy Birthday” sung in Yupik by an elder, live. It’ll make you smile.

Also, radio stations out here in the bush have no specific demographic that they are targeting, no consistent genre for their music. However, they do occasionally have Oldies or Country as their theme for the morning, but when I hear rap songs interspersed with country music, it does make me cock my head in wonder. I suppose there is kind of a theme in not having a theme, right? It reminds me of every restaurant I ever ate in in Bethel (between Unalakleet and Dillingham). I kid you not, every single restaurant in Bethel serves burritos, sushi, chow mein, spaghetti, pizza, and hamburgers – no exception. You can get anything anywhere – no focus, no specialty, everything. Just like bush radio stations – it’s really sort of comical.

The 9:15am weather forecast as given by Sam “Wolfman” Towarak right here in Unalakleet, though, has to be my favorite part, just because Gregg and I make fun of him the whole time. Sam is a good guy, but just can’t seem to say anything without saying everything, if you know what I mean. It’s not enough that he plays the station identification jingle between every song, sometimes several different versions back to back – I counted 14 station I.D.’s during an hour one time, and plays Biance’, AC/DC, and Johnny Cash one right after the other, but when he gives the weather report, it’s the bomb. If you can keep up and actually tell me what the weather report is after he’s finished, you’re a better listener than me! [I’m giggling as I write this.] Just for kicks, I recorded the eight minute report yesterday and transcribed it here, just for you!

Anyway – uh – the forecast for today is. You know to, we were sss-, we had forecast this ‘un here to be a real nice day and everything, that it was going to be a time to go work on your allopin(?). There won’t be no ice on it, but there will be ice because of the blowin’ snow. It’ll form on top and, uh, so maybe you can’t go. (laughing to himself) Ca-Cause I’m, I’m sitting at home dissowing, you know?

Areas of blowing snow here today after one o’clock. It’s gonna be miserable. It’s gonna be sunny with a high near, near 29. I think it was forecast for 28 yesterday. Anyway, east winds 15 to 25 miles an hour. They increased the winds on us. No wonder. It’s blowing like east at 29, now. Ain’t gonna make it out, ain’t gonna make it out ‘ere in the country. I was supposed to blow from the south, huh? Southwest or southeast or somethin’ like that. They change it on us. Anyway, tonight, snow likely, mainly between one in the morning and four in the morning. Areas of blowing snow before one in the morning. Areas of freezing fog after one in the morning. Increasing clouds with a low around 17. Let’s see here. East winds decreasing to 5 to 15 miles an hour after midnight, but it’ll blow 15 to 25 all night. The chance of precipitation for tonight is 60% new snow. Accumulations of one inch is possible. I gotta look at the map and see what it’s, where in the world it’s come from.

Friday, uh, 50 percent chance of snow mainly before 10 in the morning. Mostly cloudy with a high near 28. South winds around 5. We don’t want it to warm up. No, no, no. We want it to stay like this. Uh. We gotta. We gotta take advantage of all that snow out there. Otherwise, uh, people are gonna be goin’ up a, ya know, uh - it’s gonna melt and stuff. Everybody wants to go cruising on the flats where there’s no – they can go anywhere with. Man, ya. When it’s like that, the little crust up on top – Man! (sigh) You. When I was fishing, we’d just leave the trail. We’d leave the trail and go up on the hillside, just goof around while we’re goin’ home. Now, me and my wife, we can’t do that (fake crying sounds). Bad back.

All right. Friday night. Scattered snow showers, mainly after 4AM. Mostly cloudy with a low around 16. So, it’s, uh, 28 and 16 on Friday. Let’s see if Saturday’s any better.

Scattered showers before, uh, snow showers before 7AM, then slight chance of snow between 7 and 10. Then, it’s mostly cloudy for the rest of the day. High near 28. So, 28’s gonna bet the mantra for the rest of the weekend. East winds around 5. Hey, there’s no wind on Saturday. That might be the day. Mostly cloudy with a low around 12 on Saturday night.

Sunday’s partly sunny with a high near 26 and a low of 12 and then Monday’s mostly cloudy with a high near 22, uh, low around 15. Tuesday’s chance of snow, mostly cloudy with high near 23, low ‘round 15 and Wednesday, uh, high near 21. So, yes. We have what we want. We wanna - we – we wanna have – we don’t want that melting weather. Uh, that, I know, people want spring but you gotta think, yeah, think ahead.

Oh, let’s look at nine o’clock conditions [it’s now 9:20] before I, uh, think ahead. Uh, Gambell, cloudy, 32 degrees. Wind direction is missing. And the winds, uh. Kotzebue. Blowing snow and fog. 20 degrees. Winds out of the east at 26 with 3 miles visibility. Nome’s mostly cloudy. 25 degrees. Winds out of the east at 17 with 8 miles visibility. Savoonga. Unknown precipitation. 31 de – whoa, there’s the 31 degrees. Southeast at – oh boy, it’s blowin’ though. Southeast. That’s the wind that we’re supposed to get. Southeast at 44, gusting to 49 with 3 miles visibility. And, Umonuckuk(?). Clear. 19 degrees. It don’t blow around here. East at 25, gust to 29. 9 miles viz. And Golovin is clear. 22 degrees. Winds out of the southeast at 17. Elim. People always say, uh, “You don’t say Elim right.” Elim. E-lim. El-im. Fair skies in Elim. 22 degrees. I’m probly the only one reads Elim weather. I don’t know. Fair skies. 22 degrees and calm and 10 miles viz over there. Koyuk. I said it right. Mostly cloudy. 24 degrees and calm. Buckland cloudy. 24 degrees. Winds out of the east at 20, gusting to 25. Boy, the wind picked up today. Noatak, snow and fog. 21 degrees. Winds out of the southeast at 15, gusting to 22 with 5 miles viz over in Napaktuk. Napaktuk. And, uh, St. Michael is clear. 24 degrees with – Hey (mumble). Blue skies over there that listen. They listen over there on Kobuk Lake, and they always wanna know the weather. “This is not Kotzebue! We’re not in Kotz!” They’re closer to Noatak than they are to Kotzebue. So, that, uh, it’s for them, those guys on Kobuk Lake. Louie Senior. I wonder he in the dog race? I don’t. Sprint race. I wonder he has sprint dogs? He has to. At his age, he’s gotta have a team. And then, Buddua, ‘course. Buddua. One of these days you’ll wanna – Hey Chuck, Chuck Shafer’s up there – Buddy’s buddy. (laughing at himself). I wonder he’s still over at, if it, over at training, uh. I don’t think I. I’m wondering if he gets it. Buddua. I wonder if you could, uh, give him a call on the, uh, VHF is it. “Do you. Do you listen to Sam? He talkin’ ‘bout you now.” And, uh, I don’t know. Those guys call every once in a while. Good morning, anyway.

St. Michael is clear. 24 degrees. Winds out of the northeast at 6. And Stebbins is sunny. 26 degrees. Winds out of the northeast at 5, gusting to 8. 10 miles and clear of there in beautiful, downtown Stebbins. Good morning, Champs. Yeah, I played that song for you guys, too. And, Shaktoolik – NO. White Mountain is mostly clear. 22 degrees. Winds outta southeast at 12, gusting to 18. Shaktoolik is clear. 22 degrees. Winds outta southeast at 16. Kaltag is clear. Zero degrees and calm. Anvik is not available. I’m too lazy to go look. I’m too la- l-. Oh, that’s right, we gotta look at the, we gotta look at the, um, where the storm is coming from. I’ma put it on so we can, so we can see (pause). See, oh, there’s a little bit in between Nome and, um, Savoonga that’s that snow. There’s fog around Nome again. Ahhhhh, let’s see here, Shageluk. (pause) Doesn’t look like Anvik’s reporting. They’re correct. Sorry, I can’t give Anvik weather. Let me check, make sure. Yep, Marshall. All right, uh, St. Mary’s. S’cuse me. Clear. 21 degrees. Winds outta the east at 20. Mountain Village. It says, “Not available,” too. Ah, let’s see here. Mountain Village is 21 degrees. Winds outta east at 20. 10 miles and clear. That was at nine-ten AM. And, uhhhhummmm, (humming). Emmonak! Mostly cloudy. 25 degrees. Winds outta the southeast at 19, gusting to 26. And, uh, those guys over there? They listen. Hey, good morning! Yeah, I’m glad you tuned in, uh, a few of ‘em. Not as many as, uh, Kotlik. Kotlik there’s four people. In, um, Emmonak, there’s two. (phone rings in background) There it goes. We listen. (he speeds up) Anchorage is clear. 20 degrees. Winds outta the north at 20, gusting (phone rings again) to 28. (he begins speed-talking) Backtomoremusichere onKNSA---- (queue “Hard Day’s Night” by the Beatles)

Thanks for making me laugh, Sam, even if I don’t have a clue what the forecast is!

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Oil Tank Refill Adventure

That's the oil tank up there behind the trees.
Hey, that tank is waaaayyy up there!
So, Gregg left early to go Caribou hunting this morning and I went back to bed after he left. When I got up later, the cabin was cold. I checked and the heating oil was out! We knew it was getting low so we had a 5 gallon can of it to pour into the reserve tank, but Gregg didn't want to do that until the big tank was completely out, so that he would know exactly how much oil we still had. So, of course, the tank runs dry this morning and I had to refill it with the 40 pound, 5 gallon can. First, I had to break trail through two feet of snow uphill to the tank, and brush the snow off of the top to find the entry point.

Then, I had to slide back down the snowy hill, get tools from his shop – a wrench, hammer, and chisel, go back up the hill with these tucked in my pockets, because I needed my hands to climb up the snowy slope. I finally got the cap off of the tank and then trudged/slid back down the hill to get the oil can. In order to get it up the hill, I had to swing it a couple of feet up in front of me, take two steps, swing the can up again, take two more steps, and on and on. By the time, I got to the tank, I was out of breath for sure!

That slope is much steeper and
more treacherous than it looks!
It was 10 degrees outside and I had on snow boots, leggings, fleece jacket, and gloves. As I leaned against the metal tank to pour the oil in the top, my leggings froze to the side of the tank. Thankfully, they didn’t rip when I pulled away! That’s cold, folks!

After the 5-gallon can was empty, I screwed the tank cap back on, and slid/trudged back down the hill, can in hand, put the tools and can away, and could hardly believe that I’d actually just accomplished that all by myself.


I went inside to start the oil stove (cabin was now 54 degrees) and thought to myself that I bet Gregg does these things to me on purpose, because he knows I can take care of things, but I doubt myself. He wants me to be confident that I can do what needs to be done around here when he’s not around. I did it!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Getting Ready

It’s been two years since Gregg’s been on a caribou hunt. They’ve been too far north to make the trip feasible. I squirt a nickel-size puddle of cocoa butter oil into my palm to rub on my hands before slipping on the yellow rubber gloves I use to wash dishes. The oil absorbs into my hands as I submerse the gloves into the wash water; it’s like having a spa treatment for my hands while I wash dishes.) The water has been heating on the oil stove for an hour and is almost boiling, perfect temp for washing dishes that practically dry themselves, but impossible for my bare hands to withstand.

This year, the caribou are closer. Word from a local pilot has it that there is one large herd of a hundred and several smaller groups just 50 miles north, near Shaktoolik. I always start with the silverware, letting it soak for a few minutes in the steaming tub of soapy water. The plastic is blistered around the inside of the yellowed tub a couple of inches from the top from the scalding dish water that’s been poured into it over the past 20 years or so. Each fork, spoon, knife, and serving utensil gets a thorough scrub before being dropped into a twin tub in the next sink hole, steam raising the humidity in the small cabin to mold level. That reminds me; I need to check the floorboard behind the trash can again to see if it needs a bleach wipe down.

“What are your plans for next week?” Gregg asked as he walked in the door last night, smiling broadly. Since his small engine repair shop in town is open Tuesday through Saturday, Saturday is his Friday, which meant he had two days of trapping in front of him and he was in an exceptional mood, despite having hurt his back a few days ago lifting a snowmachine into the shop by himself. At 62, you would think he would know better and call for help, but he’s pretty damned independent, which happens after spending 30 years in bush Alaska.

“Caribou hunting!”

We had been discussing the prospect for the past several weeks, hoping for a bit more snow and word of exactly where and how many caribou were up north. The plans were now firmed up. 

We would pack up and head out Tuesday morning, intent on camping at least one night on the winter tundra, maybe two. There is a lot to do over the next two days to prepare, so while Gregg went out to check the trapline this morning, I decided to start by cleaning up the kitchen. I always hate to come home, after being away, to a pile of dirty dishes. We only wash once a week; sometimes I can eek out a day or two more, if we use soup bowls instead of plates for a meal or two. Because we have to haul our water and heat it up on the stove rather than just turn on a tap, we are mindful of dirtying dishes. Fourteen mismatched plates are stacked in the cabinet amid an assortment of bowls and glasses. In the silverware drawer sit 26 forks (yes, I counted them), and a few less spoons and knives. Since we use mostly cast iron that can be wiped clean with a paper towel or heated on the stove with less than a cup of water for tougher mess clean-up, there really isn’t a need to do dishes more than once a week for two people. Gregg uses the same coffee cup for a week. However, I change out about every third day. The dogs provide a useful plate-cleaning service after every meal so there is never dried food stuck to the dishes when wash day rolls around. We live in a very symbiotic environment.

Since Gregg came back with a fox from the trapline, he went into town to take it to the shop to thaw so that he can skin it tomorrow. He said the fox was caught in the snare with a marten that was only a skeleton. Apparently the fox had caught the marten and was carrying it in his mouth when he walked into the snare. You just never know what you’re going to find out there.

I’m beyond excited to go Caribou hunting for my first time, even though I’ve been wearing a brace on my right arm, just below the elbow to help with pain from “tennis elbow,” basically a strained muscle that the doc doesn’t know what else to call it. Try resting your right arm, not moving it or using it, while living my life. Pretty impossible, but last week, I did wear a sling for a few days and talked Gregg into doing the dishes and some other extra chores that I usually handle. I think it did hurt less, but as soon as I started using it again, it flared back up. A couple of days ago, when Gregg mentioned that I might not be able to go on the hunt because of my arm, I smiled, sat up comically straight, and declared that I had had a miracle healing! No way was I going to miss this Caribou hunt! I can heal later! (My sister will not be so happy when she reads this. I love you, Holly!)



I was thinking that I might be able to do laundry this week at a friend's house in town. They generously let us use their washer and dryer during the winter, which usually amounts to two or three loads one day during the first week of the month, more when I wash linens every couple of months. During the summer, July-August, I use the fishing guides’ laundry space at the Unalakleet River Lodge, toting the laundry in a canvas duffle bag on my back across the quarter-mile footpath. In the shoulder seasons of spring and fall, I make use of our own small washtub, which holds five pounds of clothing at a time, and clotheslines on the porch. Since I won’t be doing laundry this week, I’ll go ahead and wash underwear and socks on the washboard in the kitchen sink tub after I dump the dirty dishwater and warm up some fresh wash water. It’s really not a big deal, just another chance for a hand spa treatment. Then, I’ll hang them on a bungee cord stretched between the kitchen cabinets and the pantry, over the oil stove, to dry since it’s not cold enough outside to freeze dry them.


Tomorrow will call for a trip to town to go through all of the camping gear stored at Gregg’s shop, and pack the sled.

Coming Home

Most people leave a sedentary life behind to go on an active vacation - camping, fishing, hiking, sightseeing, walking the beach, maybe eve...