Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Place for Everything

Preparing for a kayak trip, for me, involves a loosely assembled list of various items that would be anything from "handy" to "essential" to "superfluous", depending on ones perspective. The good thing about kayaks is that they really do only carry a finite payload and exceeding it is just not a good idea. As it stands now, this day before departure, our kayaks are all packed with what we intend to bring, stowed in dry bags and fitted together in geometrically compatible fashion, not unlike the old video game, TETRIS.There are a few more things that will not exactly fit in a preordained place and so, of course, a bit of refinement will be required, and hopefully still, we'll be able toget everything "essential" loaded, and still have enough room for the "handy" and "superfluous". For some reason, if there is a space to fill, I manage to fill it.

Luckily, I have Brian to help me focus my energies away from the most superfluous expenditures of energy, so this harebrained adventure may be somewhat less harebrained than usual. Where's the fun in that? We are bringing our share toys and gadgets; I've got my camera, of course. This time I will be getting pictures! Last time we did this trip, two summers ago with Dave and Sally, I took about 500 pictures over three days, saved safely on ONE of my compact flash media cards... which, after being swapped out full ON THE LAST DAY, never made the trip back to Whittier and subsequently home safely, to be uploaded on my computer and disseminated across the internet. I will admit here that indeed, that is part of the reason I'm doing this trip again. the pictures I got were truly amazing with calving glaciers, families of seals hauled out on floating ice blocks, bold little otters swimming up close and personal, and with the zoom I had, I was able to bring them even closer. Alas, there is only one day's worth of photo documentation of that trip, consisting of a bunch of close-up shots of honey dews we found at our last rest stop, an eagle in a tree, and a bored otter. No Ice, seals, or even our camp site. Luckily, Sally had her camera, but no zoom and so she provided me with her wonderfully composed and exposed shots of things taken with normal or macro lenses. I'm also bringing a small video camera as well, since calving ice is a bit to kinetic to sufficiently document in still format. kicking and screaming, I'm being dragged into the 20th century.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Shopping Lists

Planning is important. It never means that is what I'm actually going to do, but a plan is a starting point, from which I will invariably deviate as actual conditions require. I have lots of examples. It is the way I've always approached situations. Sometimes the planning is a bit sketchy, in fact, frequently, but there's usually a plan somewhere. Every May, we've closed up our house in the village as we are head out to summer. There is summer here, and everyone looks forward to it, with its long days, fish in the river, chances to see new places, and old friends, under the open sky, unobscured by the requisite layers and coverings of the winter season. Our summer migration has become quite predictable; Bethel, to Anchorage, Down to Kenai, then off to Austin for a couple weeks soaking up the last tolerable days of central Texas spring before the bake-your-brain heat of summer settles in for the next three or four months. We then retreat back to our brief and beautiful summer in Kenai, to unwind, and then rewind in preparation for the following school year in the village.

 Projects take over my mind and visions of them completed dominate my enthusiasm in April and May. I dive headlong into them by early June, making lists of parts and tracking down their sources. By July, they might sit or lay stalled at some juncture requiring some alternative to my original plan. Unfortunately, they will frequently stay this way till it's time to put them away for the season and again change focus toward the long winter season looming, even while the brilliant greens, pinks, blues and purples of late summer's riot of life in its seasonal climax. I don't get things done any more efficiently than I did in the days of year-round habitation, but I'm at least thinking them through more thoroughly, which returns me to the that old theme of deliberateness... or is it deliberation?

By the end of summer, it is time, in earnest, to finish what I can finish, and prepare for the winter. My one modest subsistence activity usually involves catching salmon at the mouth of the Kenai river, in a net the size of a garage door (no, not at all sporting), then smoking them, and bagging them up so that we can take them back out to the village for the winter. We do the same with our spoils from the grocery store too; bagging up portions of chicken beef, and dry supplies we'll need for that long stretch between August and Christmas. We do punctuate it with a short trip to Kenai in October to celebrate our anniversary, and that is also a shopping trip to stock up on items already depleted and nice to have, between Halloween and Christmas. My luggage leaving the village, consists of my suit case, and four or five empty RubberMaid totes that we will fill up with between 60 and 70 pounds of food, cat litter, laundry soap, and whatever else we will consume.

Shopping in the village is an option, a pretty bleak one though, with choices mostly limited to bleached flour and processed items in cans with too much salt, too much sugar, and preservatives. I limit my purchases at the "Corp Store" to eggs, shelf-stable milk, Gatorade powder, and the occasional junk food item. I think if I tried living on the fare at the village store, my insides would have been pickled a long time ago.  As it is, when we get our biweekly delivery of fresh produce, I start planning what I'll do with it, before carrots start wilting, apples get mealy, and mushrooms dry up to tight little knots. Sometimes I beat the elements (of the refrigerator), and sometimes I don't.

Spending $400-500 at a pop on groceries, without blinking has come to me slowly and really only since moving to Alaska, but now I can get pretty philosophical. The problem now is that I'm not very good at shopping for say, a weekend or a week. When we take her shopping, on our visits, Senna has been bestowed with supplies of items she may use sometime before she finishes grad school, but not likely.

Everything here comes by plane. Because of that, we are at the mercy of the weather, the airlines, and even the FAA, as was the case on September 11, 200. Those days actually came and went with a relatively insulated reaction from the folks in our village. Even though no planes flew for almost a week and though the shelves at the store were pretty picked over, most of the locals all had a freezer full of fish and game, or dried fish freshly collected from drying racks. Fortunately for us,  we had just come in for the school year after a successful hunt at Costco, with our lifetime's supplies of everything from pasta to gummy bears so we were fine too. It pays to plan ahead, but there is still much to be said for hare-brained adventures too.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

March Is Still Winter

The days get longer but the weather turns harsh. Most of our snow seems to fall in March and an April-Fools blizzard seen to be the norm, in the years we've been here. This is not all bad. We've gotten some good skiing in and there's more time to enjoy other winter activities such as jigging for lush fish or tom cods depending on where you are. There is however, likely to brief thaw that will teasingly remind us that no, winter is not over, and that we probably have another month before things really start melting. If you feel lucky there are opportunities to test yours skills, or optimism predicting the exact day and time that the river will break up. There a couple of these in Alaska, the most popular and lucrative being the Nenana Ice Classic, which has been going since about 1917 when a bunch of bored railroad workers set up a tripod on the frozen river, fastened a cable to the bridge under construction (which is why they were there in the middle of winter), and waited for the ice to move and tip over the tripod. In Bethel the same opportunity is available on the Kuskokwim river. It's a fund raiser and goes to a good cause so wasting money gambling on seasonal phenomena is philanthropic and can give you a warm fuzzy feeling too.

Watching the snow melt, from the comfort of ones own kitchen or even porch is satisfying. Once the thawing process begins in earnest, I put up my skis for the season and start rooting for open water and green grass. This is a slow process at its start but then accelerates to a pace that permits brown tufts and bare branches to become lush grasses and flowers that race to complete their intricate life cycles in the niggling time frame that Alaska's brief but spectacular summer allows. By mid may the sounds of waterfowl, returned from distant migrations, wintering in warmer climes, fill the the morning air with a cacophony hearkening to the tropics more than subarctic realms. These sounds echo in contrast to the silence of a late winter night on the tundra with no wind blowing. It is only there that I can truly say I have heard the sound of nearly nothing.

Dressing for the weather is essential in order to enjoy this environment. Overdressing is seldom an issue in the dead of winter. long johns, polypropylene, silk, GoreTex, fleece, down, and yes, otter fur are my intimate friends. In fact, I allow no one closer to my body than I do these materials. It is the ordeal of dressing that often deters me from getting out into the environment. Living in a place where the environment CAN be deadly is a bit intimidating, even to the prepared adult inhabitants. Not so much with children; some of the kids here spend every free waking hour "playing out", sliding down the "hill" (really just a moderately steep embankment) that leads down to the frozen lake across the boardwalk from my house. Foster, who is a sheepdog to the core, revels in opportunities to "herd" these, his substitutes for sheep at every opportunity. They enjoy him and he really loves them, but he wants them to do something. He really isn't sure what and neither do they.

Now, with days growing longer and daylight-savings time starting, here on Alaska's western edge, even before the equinox, sunset will come after 9 pm and these small revelers will feel even less inclined to go in when the siren goes off  to signal curfew. By mid April, as daylight gains five-and-a-half minutes each day, they will still be celebrating the progression of of the Equinox and bathing in the light of day at 11pm, oblivious to the urgings of a mere siren. Under the warm natural light of a spring sun, time and clocks lose a lot of their significance as summer approaches. But for now, we're just  waiting for the spring of the calendar to start acting more like spring in our minds.

Sunday, February 27, 2011


This is not about being “here”, it about being anywhere and why. It’s also about “home” and what that means. Home, for me, has always been where I am at a given time, provided I indeed have a place to get out of the rain, cold, heat, hustle, bustle, etc.. I have even been “home” in a tent during an extended period of transition (almost 3 months) when I first moved to Austin, ostensibly to attend UT, but really just to be in Austin, where I felt an affinity the moment I arrived for the first time. If I am homesick, that is where I am homesick for.

We spent twenty years in Austin in various rent houses, and though we did leave for two years while we tried to live in other parts of Texas (unsuccessfully, I might add), I do not consider that more than an extended business trip out of town, since we moved back as soon as we could. Eventually, we did buy a house as finally our credit was not so in-the-toilet, after putting us both through college, and all that that ordeal potended. We lived in that house for a little less than a year and a half, before we made the move to rural Alaska. Lots of other people lived there longer than we did. We kept it rented for most of those years and even had Senna, our daughter living in it when she moved back to Austin for school in San Marcos. It felt like someone’s home when we visited, but not ours. Now it sits lonely and empty, except for some random furniture the realtor recommended we leave so that it might show better than an empty house. The hope is that someone else can picture it as ‘home” and take it off our hands.

Having never lived in any one place for very long, except my childhood home of twelve years, where no one and nothing remains that made it “home”, I don’t have the roots that many people get all gushy and reminiscent about. I like to say that the Hudson River valley was a good place to be…FROM. I have no great desire to return and there’s a raft of reasons for that.

house, dog, winter...nuff said.

Other than the house on Cobey Terrace, in Poughkeepsie, where I spent most of my formative years, the longest I ever called one house “home” was eight years in Toksook Bay, Alaska, school-district housing. A house does not a home make, but we did make friends we cherish and we had a steady stream of visitors, mostly kids, who just wanted to see how we lived and maybe make popcorn with us. For eight years we lived in a fish bowl and small children knocked on our door with the vague hope that we would let them visit. Since that time, we have been in two other villages where we have elected not to invite students in, though still, some DO ask. Intermittent reinforcement is the strongest kind. While privacy has improved, it does not feel as much like home; more like a place to keep our stuff while we’re here.

small but warm

An attraction that drew many fans: popcorn with
butter, nutritional yeast, and Cajun seasoning

In Kenai, we are trying to call that place “home” though we only spend a few months there in the summer and a few days or weeks during our winter break. I love the place, it’s comfortable and convenient to places we want to be, but it still seems more like a vacation destination than “home”. Other people stay there while we’re gone so even though we leave our stuff out in plain sight, it may not be “theirs” but it doesn’t exactly feel like “ours” either.

Kenai lawn ornament

At the end of each school year, we sort out our travel plans. We always have travel plans because summer means travel. People here travel to their fish camps, other villages, and all the places that summer demands they be. Our own summer has become a long undefined punctuation mark that allows us to do something different, and to prepare for another year doing what we do, in another place that we casually call “home” for much of the school year, though upon reflection, it doesn’t really fit the bill.

everyone had a long day, even the cat.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Getting From Here to There... and Back Again

Go Blue Jays

It was a busy weekend here in Tunt and the school was full of visitors from 4 other villages. Basketball rules and we hosted the midcoast league tournament (which our boys won and our girls came in second). The effort involved in hosting a sports tournament or any gathering is an intricate dance among discordant elements including students with inconsistent academic habits, the weather, coaches with limited travel resources, administrators with budgets to balance, airlines with scheduling priorities, and many more. Even still, sometimes we manage to pull it off or at least to participate in someone else's successful...or mostly successful choreography.

Home Game

My role in this tournament was minimal. I don't love basketball, but I do what I can to support the kids in the things they want to do. Raising money is important since there just doesn't seem to be much of it for student activities so I helped out in the student store today during the game, selling concessions. We also made cakes and did cakewalks, which, given how lucrative it turned out to be, really WAS a "cakewalk."


An Icebreaker...with Lifesavers and Toothpicks

Travel for sports and other activities is a way to experience other places, not far away, and not very different from where you're coming but just different enough. A small plane or two, a group of student athletes, a good sleeping bag, air bed, and snacks from home will ensure a successful travel experience. I've been coaching volleyball for two years now. The first year, I had a roster of players who really coached themselves and  I had inherited a well-practiced team of mostly natural athletes. This was good and bad. I, who knew next to nothing about coaching any sports, nor really much about participating in team sports, since I lack the athletic prowess to do more than walk and chew gum without tripping, had very little teaching to do. I did learn a lot about group dynamics that first season. We didn't win the regional championship, alas. That's another story that I might not tell here.

The "Bus"

See ya at home!

As a teacher, being cooped up between ones classroom and house in the same village, punctuated by occasional trips to the local store can wear on one after a while. As a coach or...if they need you...a chaperone, you can enjoy the intervillage travel experience.  I get to see colleagues and friends in different schools, some I haven't seen in years or only briefly, during the district-wide inservice every August, or over the video conferencing system the district uses to deliver "highly qualified" instruction to schools that may not (probably don't) have teachers certified in various disciplines that students must master, but that is another story.

Accommodations consist of an empty classroom, with all the desks moved into one corner. We spread out our stuff and take our respective corners of the room. Hopefully, snoring or gas are not a problem, given the the close quarters and the diet irregularities typical of the  student travel experience. A Thermarest with a slow leak worked for a few years, but I've graduated to an air bed that lets me wake up without the my back and shoulders feeling like a pretzel.

And we played games too.

For the students, a trip to another village provides the opportunity to see somewhere else and especially the chance to go to another store, almost exactly like the one in your own village!

What to do in a new hallway: See how high you can jump
Oddly enough, this is the first thing everyone wants to do after arriving at the host school, usually before putting our things away and finding out when we're playing our games. A pile of overpriced junk food is what gets them through much of the tournament.

Waiting at the airport...for the boat.

Usually the host school has invited a couple of teams and they play a round-robin tournament. Yes, winning is important, but the travel experience is much more so. They play hard and enjoy meeting friends and often family from other villages.
Go Bluejays!

We all eat cafeteria food, hang out, perhaps watch a video someone brought, surf the internet, watch other games, stay up as long as possible, usually playing a continuous pickup game before the lights in the gym go out and they are dragged kicking and screaming to the room to sleep.  I might chat with other coaches, for advice or insight and do the things that will  hopefully make us a better team. We'll be better next year.

Pick-up at the airport.

At the end of the trip, everyone wants to go home on the "second plane". Anything to postpone return to the routine. The word "boring" slips off their tongues easily, even when they probably mean something else.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Getting Home

We went into Anchorage for NEA-AK Delegate Assembly this past weekend( end of January, I'm a little slow finishing up these drafts). The "show" started on Thursday evening but we wanted to take advantage of Costco, so we flew in to Bethel on Wednesday evening. We stayed with our friends, Greg and Kelly, which meant we also made dinner. Actually, when we got there, They were out so we walked over to the house of another friend from Toksook who now live in the Neighborhood. They were home but he was just about to leave to help a friend move, whose apartment had been damaged by smoke in the adjacent unit. I offered my services so for a couple hours that evening I filled boxes and schlepped boxes out of the house of someone I had never met before but needed help. Yes, it felt very good to be able to do such a good deed and I went to bed very sore and very satisfied with myself.  The trip is one I've taken for several years now and it feels more and more like I'm a regular. Alaska is a big small town and we see old friends or connect with total strangers who know someone who knows someone...

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Eleven Years Now

Late summer sunset from the porch in Tunt.

We've landed, and settled into this village on small river about a mile and a half from its confluence with the "mighty Kuskokwim". Our house is on lake-front property. People in other places far away from here pay a lot for a view like this. Here, everyone has it. Many take it for granted and just want to go see something different. But often, when they do leave, they're drawn back for lot of reasons but mostly because it's home. For now, it's home for us too. This is our fourth "home" in Alaska, fifth if we count the bio-hazard site we were living in last school year.

Coming home after Volleyball regionals in December
Only one, the house in Kenai is really "ours", or at last ours and the bank's, but we only get to spend a few months there in the summer and a few days here and there during the school year. It is a beautiful place, comfortable to just c"chill"  and a comfortable distance from some of my favorite places in Alaska: Homer, Seward, and Whittier, or at least Prince William Sound, since Whittier is pretty much a dump, with an incredible view. I can fish and dig for clams and do the things that make me feel like I could take care of myself if I had to. This is an absolute illusion, of course, because we rely pretty heavily still on COSTCO and its ilk.
My yard?! No! Their yard! For about two hours, actually.

Even still, it is a place I'm never bored, either by the adventures I have had, or the potential for them, even if I haven't lifted a finger toward those endeavors...yet. One reason I'm writing this blog is to publicly proclaim my intentions. I'm actually trying to shame myself into doing what I say I'll be doing. This strategy, of course, is reliant on the presumption that anyone actually reads this thing. Let me know if there's anyone out there besides crickets.

Here in the village, the potential for adventure is more problematic. During the spring, summer, and fall, after break-up and before freeze-up, if one steps off the boardwalks around here, count on wet feet...or knees...or hips. The substrate upon which the village was built  is shifting silt so we're sitting on land that is pretty tentative in its resolve to remain land and would just as soon become river bed or even suspended particulate in the ocean.
Morning fog in Tunt
The Tuntutuliak Fun Run, as school year winds down.
This means getting anywhere requires at least waders and more likely a boat to go anywhere that's not so much like here. There's virtually no relief, as in geographic, and I feel the need to climb a tree to look around and see what's up the river, down the river, or across the tundra. The problem is there are no trees that would support my weight, or even that of our well-fed Siamese, who refuses to go outside anyway. The folding kayak plan, if it ever launches, may provide me some relief...from lack of relief.

Winter travel would call for a snow machine, which I'm thinking about, but my upbringing has conditioned me to put the words: "God damn" in front of the word "snowmobile". I do have cross-country skis, which, when the snow is deep and powdery, is fun to get out on, but still, I'm not up to a winter journey of any length greater than around the village or an hour or so up or down the river. Foster, the Australian Shepherd, is NOT a sled dog. He knows his "GEE" from his "HAW" but "ON-BY" is really hard for him. He's pretty easily distracted by his environment, be it another dog or an interesting smell. He's very strong and can pull me hard and fast, but he also is a herd dog so he finds the need to check on my progress and wants me to have the opportunity to "help" us in our progress, so the line tends to be a bit slack for much of our excursion. When we were in Toksook, on Nelson Island, this was not as much of an issue since we usually had lots of snow, when it wasn't being redistributed by 40 knot winds that were, though not constant, certainly frequent. We also had "The Hill" which allowed us the pay-off of a fast down-hill run after puffing and panting our way up the hill. Mekoryuk on Nunivak had potential, but we were only there a year.
Jeordyn on the roof of the Kenai Peninsula, Harding Ice Field 

Skiing on the flats requires a different mindset and feels more running on a treadmill; we see where we're going and it's pretty much just like where we are, and where we came from... keep going.  The tundra and the delta from the air is a unique sight. I know when I first came out, landed in Bethel then on to Toksook, back in August of 2000, I shot about 2 rolls (remember rolls?) during the hour-and-a-half-long flight over to Nelson Island, by way of Nunivak. The color of the tundra was almost emerald green, with all those lakes and tributaries scattered and meandering across this strange landscape. The flight to Toksook involved stops in at least two other villages, depending on the routing. Our runway was short and very close to town. It, however, did not have runway lights (due to the youthful indiscretions of one who will remain anonymous on these pages) so any flights that came in had to happen after sunrise, as late as 11 am, or before sunset, as early as 4:30 pm. This  meant, if we left in the afternoon, we'd have stops in Tununak and then Mekoryuk, since they had to pick us up before dark. In the morning, flying out from Bethel, We landed in Toksook last, in order to give the sun a chance to rise. It's was a milk run and if you had to pee before you got on the plane, you REALLY had to by the time you got to Toksook. If the plane turned around due to weather or runway conditions, you'd have a VERY uncomfortable ride back to Bethel.
They came to visit in Toksook, right before the Airport was built

We got our new airport in 2002, less convenient, now a mile out of town, instead of 100 yards from our door, longer, safer, with runway lights this time, and better for the community of course.

Snow in Toksook. Just pretend we don't have steps for now.
After eight years in Toksook, We decided to relocate. We looked around and decided that Mekoryuk, even FURTHER from Walmart, might be a place to see and be. We'd been there before for when the ball teams needed chaperones, and we liked it. When we got there, we found a village in decline. It is a beautiful place. Miles of volcanic sand beaches circle the island. The muskox herd gave us something to look for as we flew in or out, reindeer grazed near the village at times, there were mountains in the distance that gave me something to think about that would satisfy my "hunter" tendencies. We were only there for a year. The school had about 38 kids when we got there. There were only 29 by the end of the year. Numbers are everything in the education game, so we were offered our choice of positions in a village that needed teachers more than Mekoryuk did. The kids were great, the staff was wonderful. We still miss them. Administration was another thing, about which I will decline comment at this time.

"Road trip" with the volleyball team...in a place where there are no roads
Me and you-know-who. She was very... nice.
We have had a few visitors. When we first came, we pictured our friends coming and going with ease and enthusiasm. My mom came for Senna's Graduation as did Ann and her sister, Lynn. I'm sure it was a memorable trip for them, but one that does take an effort that most casual travelers will likely forgo, given the opportunity. This is not that jaw-droppingly gorgeous part of Alaska that the airline magazine and the cruiseline brochures show. Coming here was the most deliberate thing I have ever done in my life. We uprooted our life in Austin after twenty years, had the mother of all garage sales, and figured out ways to mothball the things we left behind. To say I have no regrets is just silly. After eleven years, I still think about Austin as "home", and one that I will always miss. Connections here are still strong there, so we still make our annual sojourns and probably will for the foreseeable future.Hopefully, our friends haven't given up on us. I CAN retire in 6 years, but when I wrote in "2017" that still seems like a long time.

These pictures I included with this entry have no real order or significance. They are just images of some of our experiences that we never could have  imagined unless we'd made the decisions we made back in July of 2000.

Senna and Me at Exit Glacier.

Foster by the Kenai River.

Early in the Morning on the AK Highway

"Got anything to eat in that backpack?"

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Return for the Winter

We're back in Alaska, getting our feet...cold again in Kenai, checking on the house, and its occupants. Foster stayed with them while we spent a couple weeks down in Austin, soaking up warmth, light, and good food with friends and family. Of course, there wasn't enough time to do what we said we wanted to do, and days spent making cars work again took time away from time we wanted to spend visiting and even being productive, getting our house ready to sell.

Our flight back from Austin was long and drawn out, about as much as was possible. Austin-San Jose-portland (two-hour layover) then on to Seattle (three-hour layover) then finally on to Anchorage. There we got a rental car and drove through some really nasty wet snow over the pass to get to Kenai. Always exciting but this time nothing out of the ordinary and we got home without incident. The house is fine. It would be really nice if we could spend more than a couple months in the summer here. I'm still working on that. The ne Hare-Brained Adventure Tours Teeshirt design is almost finished. watch this space for future progress.

The spring semester starts when the kids come back on Thursday. It should be better than the fall, at least for a few weeks, I'll be optimistic for now. We'll see what Basketball Season does for them.
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