Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas from Alaska!

This is the time of year when we try to stop and think about peace and good will towards the entire world. So this message is not just about Christmas, or Alaska. It just so happens that we live in a part of the world that celebrates the year's end by reflecting upon these larger concerns in the context of the Christmas season.

Joe and I had a nice day shoveling snow, ice skating, visiting Gareth's solar-powered retreat, and talking to our families on the phone. We miss our folks and send them our wishes for a happy celebration of the season. But I want to add that I wish everyone, no matter who you are, whatever you may be doing, whether you are reading this or not, the possibility of peace and happiness for yourself and your life, right now, at this moment.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Happy Birthday Gareth!

Yesterday was Gareth's 15th birthday. Joe and I went over to Simon's place for the celebration. There was lots of good food and wine and cake. Gareth got cards and a CD and other stuff, but what he wanted most was what his dad got him--a car battery. Not for a future car, Gareth plans to use the battery to rig up some solar panels so he can run a TV on solar power. He explained how the panels hook up to the battery to another gizmo before the electrons get fed into the TV. Smart kid.

Simon has a sign above his computer: "Remember Who You Wanted to Be"

Such a remembrance can cause a near heart attack of shock/shame for someone my age. But it should never leave our immediate regard, to think about who we still want to be when we see someone just on the threshold of adulthood, figuring out what he wants to be. If every kid was like Gareth I think the world would be in good hands.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Giving Thanks

Here's the deal: You have traveled thousands of miles to a strange new land, not entirely sure you have made the right choice. The new country is very different than what you're accustomed to--vast and isolated, only magnifying your homesickness. You find yourself taking wrong turns and getting lost each time you venture out. Then one day you bump into some kind strangers, who help you find your way around. They dispel your fears by letting you know there are no bears and wolves lurking in the forest, and they show you the best places to find food, and where to cut firewood. They loan you their tools and their expertise. At the end of the autumn you find yourself celebrating the harvest by sharing a feast with these kind people. As you tuck into a nice roast turkey leg you wonder whether you would have been able to get through the winter in one piece without their help.

Sound familiar?

We thought about what the Pilgrims must have gone through as we shared Thanksgiving dinner with Simon and Gareth and Christine, and Simon's next door neighbors Glen and Joanne. Everyone brought food, there was way too much, but it was such fun. After the turkey, Joe and I went ice skating in the moonlight with Gareth and Christine while Simon took a much needed cat nap. We came back for pumpkin pie and a movie, squeezing together on the couch with one of the puppies.

It would have been a lonely Thanksgiving for Joe and I in Fairbanks without our families. Thankfully, Simon and his family and friends have become a surrogate family to us. We thought about the Pilgrims relying on the kindness of strangers to help them get through their first winter in a strange new land. The rest is history, so we know we will do fine in Alaska.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Our Excellent Adventure!

[Editor's Note]: Like a broken record I got tired of hearing my own voice and decided to ask my fellow adventurers for their thoughts, impressions, etc of our 3 day weekend in the White Mountains (1 night at Lee's Cabin, 2 nights at Crowberry Cabin, a total of 54 miles roundtrip).

Simon (Expedition Leader):
great weekend thanks for being part of it. We will venture further into the white mtns with you and Joe willing sometime during this long exciting winter.
There exists over a hundred miles of terrain to explore in the white mtns. Need to beef up boots and mitts then we will be ready for whatever winter throws at us. Will also plan for a winter trip into tolavana hot springs. Great social weekend with warm friends,cosy cabin and constant good energy and entertainment from the mischievous 9 pups and two adult growlers snapping at persistent puppies.

Gareth (Second in Command): it was real fun going up to Crowberry cabin on the snowmachines with the five of us and 11 dogs. This time the puppies were a little better at peeing and poohing outside. We had pretty good weather, around -10f to 20f (last time me and Simon went there it got down to -50 and -62f in town) cant wait to do it again and hopefully go further on to the next cabin, Windy Gap.

Joe (Tail-gunner): Low-angled sunlit snow crystals green and blue, silhouetted burnt spruce against a descending sun at 3:30, my solo walks on the trail helped me to reconnect with the air and realize that the quiet and stillness are part of my life right now. I’m inspired to do some drawings now based on this weekend. Seeing Simon come down the last few miles of darkening trail with sparks flying off the edges of his skis behind the sled hauling nine puppies hunkered down in the sub-zero temperatures was pure Alaska to me.

Christine (The Snow Machine Queen, photographer extraordinaire, and kind provider of the images you see here): What a Trip! With nary an experience of snowmachining, other than the 2 minute tutorial during which Gareth had me snowmachine down his home road, at which I managed a decent 2 mph, I had to ask which was the accelerator, and where the heck was the break before we took off in the dark. That’s what you do though, when you’re surrounded by a bunch of hardcore Alaskiwis with a ‘can-do’ attitude. Was great fun having Diane as a passenger, and made me a whole lot braver – heck, if I was going to tip the snowmachine, there was going to be good company right by my side --- Got to learn all the 9 puppy personalities real well. Even know which puppies I could be caught trying to sneak home with :-)) And I know which two Chicagoans to be caught in a White-out with, cuz they have a strong relationship to FOOD. Which they cooked up into delicious meals, one that awaited us after a particularly long haul from Lee’s Cabin to Crowberry cabin (all day). The meal Joe had waiting, along with the dip and chips and tasty wine – heavenly. Even got a good insight on how to play Mahjong from Joe. I look forward to playing it with you guys soon. That Joe is someone to be cautious of though – I still can’t believe the snowmachine trails he convinced me that I could undertake!!! (But then you Diane, were behind me doing the same ‘you can do it Christine!’ - alas what choice did I have..). Soooo, the next trip we’ll have more than a couple of inches of snow: What a hoot that will be eh?! Looking forward to seeing your eyes open to the Alaskan wilderness, which is new to me, though I’ve lived here more than 30 years....

[Editor's Note]: She didn't tip the snowmachine over once, although with Joe it was a different story....Stay tuned for more updates, and hopefully more adventures!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Happy Halloween!

Trick r treat!

Halloween: It's No Joke

For nearly 50 years I have associated Halloween with spooky decorations on lawns that are still green, stately elms and oaks showering golden leaves onto the sidewalks where costumed children wander door to door just after sunset with little plastic pails shaped like pumpkins. Just a few short weeks ago riding home on the bike trails from work I smelled the dried leaves crunching under my tires and immediately thought of Snickers bars.

Yesterday it was fifteen degrees and sunny. If there were any Halloween decorations we wouldn't have seen them under the snow that fell a few days ago. We went shopping in town--along with the rest of Fairbanks--and found ourselves jockeying for parking spaces whose lane markers are mostly hidden under packed snow. Everyone here has been saying the snow normally comes in early October, so I suppose I shouldn't complain.

At sunset a beautiful moon rose and threw long black shadows onto the snow. Joe and I walked over to our neighborhood pub, Ivory Jacks, to watch Game 3 of the World Series. We didn't see any trick or treaters, except for the children of parents who came in for a bite before taking their kids to a nearby Halloween party at our local park district. Apparently it's easier for kids to get together at these events rather than brave the elements door to door (imagine Spiderman wearing snow shoes--that's just wrong!) Some of the bar staff were dressed up as the undead, but the elderly gentleman I sat next to at the bar seemed to be more interested in the undressed living: he was telling me about a local strip club that he was on his way to. Walking home we were passed by someone dressed in a snow suit pulled by nine huskies. Now that was a GREAT costume!

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Lee's Cabin Stew

Gearing up

Porky and Smokey are ready to go!

on the darkening trail

Ah, a Boy and His Dogs!

Simon and his charges

Christine and Buddha sing the blues. Travis pretends not to listen

The McLoughlin Group

Lee's Cabin

Hittin the trail

Smokey and Joe at the finish line!

Take two large Kiwis. Add one petite Alaskan, throw in two Cheechakos fresh from Chicago. Sprinkle in two grown huskies, nine puppies, and one good-natured black lab. Divide into two vehicles, mix well for 45 minutes, or till you get to the parking lot at Wickersham Dome by sunset. Spread over seven miles of trail, keeping in mind that after dark mixture may get a bit separated. When you get to your destination, add all ingredients to small one-room cabin until well blended. Puppies and dogs may whine, but this can be fixed by feeding, although this may take several batches depending on how many bowls you packed. Serve up hot stew to hungry humans, along with home made sourdough bread, hot sauce, cheese and sausage, fresh avocados, and a nice Cabernet. Serve brownies and Cointreau for dessert. Add a lively game of Shabazz (a dice game invented by one of the Chicagoans, named after Malcolm X's wife). Continue until sleepy, or someone wins four dollars.

Divide mixture among several sleeping bags. Dogs go on the floor. Except for Travis the black lab, who thinks your sleeping bag is his and spreads out over it when you get up to check out the Northern Lights, which by the way are really beautiful and mysterious, like slow-motion lightning. After several hours strange sounds may occur: creakings, thumpings, snorts, whines, an occasional growl, and trickling sounds, followed by strange odors. This may cause one of the Kiwis to get up in the middle of the night in his underwear, because he now has to put down layers of newspapers to absorb all of the puddles of puppy piddle. He may let out groans, and say something like: "Oh, somebody laid an egg right by the door!" and then let out the puppies to complete what they started under our very noses.

After two hours, repeat.

At first light, exhausted cabin contents will slowly begin to rise. The second, slightly smaller Kiwi may rise first and find a patch of wild blueberries, which can then be picked, still frozen on the bush, for a sublime sweet yet tart and still slightly frozen breakfast topping over porridge, bacon and eggs, and tea. Or, you can just take a spoon and dig into them straight. Delicious! After an hour the contents of cabin may expand, after which it is considered prudent to take the bikes for a quick spin up the trail with the puppies who by now have been fed and are vigorously stirred.

After a couple hours, slowly spread contents over return trail to parking lot. At trailhead, again divide into two vehicles and mix well. Puppies may spread over seats and laps a bit after so much exertion, and adult dogs may want to join them rather than be tethered in the pickup bed with the bikes and gear for the ride back to the Hilltop Cafe. After a late lunch/early dinner at the Hilltop, carefully cover leftovers and wrap in several layers of someone's nylon parka so that delicious odors of french fries and meatloaf don't rouse the exhausted dogs. Layer leftovers, Cheechakos, Kiwis, and puppies into pickup truck, drive for 45 minutes or until everyone is home. Remove contents carefully, making sure to put puppies safely into kennel. Everyone will be completely exhausted by then. Feed dogs, and collapse into your own fluffy, soft, and non dog-smelling bed. Sleep for 13 hours straight, or until sun hits you in the face.

Serves good friends and their canine companions generously. Cook this up as often as you wish!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Sunday, October 18, 2009


We have a mouse in our house.

Well, Joe says it's a vole. Vole, schmole, it's a rodent, and I made its acquaintance today completely by accident. It scurried right past me in the shower room and vanished under the sink.


Yes it's true, a woman will say that when a mouse scurries under her feet. I didn't know that either, but, trust me, it happened.

Joe heard my ear-splitting reaction and said, "Oh, that's Gerald."

He has apparently seen this bit of vermin before, and has given it a name, based on a Pink Floyd song.

Whatever, we have to set up a trap or something. Which I hate to do. Because if Gerald is really a wild Alaskan vole and not a house mouse, he qualifies as wildlife and not a varmint and I guess deserves to be captured and released as opposed to bashed or poisoned or suffocated.

But he's way too urban for my taste. I want him OUT, vole or mouse or rare Siberian Skrat, get the hell out of my house you creepy little crumb-and-poop-scattering RODENT!!

He should strive to emulate the ways and manners of Pipsqueak, our little tree squirrel. I watched Pipsqueak energetically run back and forth across our yard, his little cheeks puffy with seeds. Pipsqueak appears to be setting up a cache of food for the winter, and as I encountered him today for the first time, he paused in the midst of his work, as if utterly flabbergasted at the sight of me. He looked up, his little cheeks distended, then bent down quickly, as if to resume his business. But, clearly, he was peturbed, so he did what I think is the squirrel version of the double-take, as in: WHAT THE @%&$??!!!

Pipsqueak is about half the size of your typical Midwestern gray tree squirrel, is cinnamon colored, and has a decidedly Ewok-ish face. If you don't know what an Ewok is, time to cuddle up to the Star Wars trilogy again. In other words, his face bore a look of rodent-like gravitas, as if he could fly a spaceship if he really wanted to. Instead he let out a sound like a rubber squeaky toy, and fled up the side of a nearby spruce.

You will note there are no pictures accompanying this post. Rodents move at the speed of light. Perhaps Pipsqueak and Gerald will get into their tiny space ship hidden somewhere in our yard and fly back to their forest moon, Endor.

Gerald, are you listening?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Northern Alaska--it's sooooo metal

For whatever reason, people who work in bike shops, especially in the service department (mechanics and their minions), like the genre of music known as metal. For those of you who don't follow/care, it originated from heavy metal music of the 80's and 90's. From there, darker schools of the genre developed in Norway and other parts of Scandinavia, and are known by fans as Black Metal and Death Metal.

Joe's pals at the bike shop gave him a going away present of a DVD of an animated cable TV show "Metalocalypse." It centers around the lives of five members of a metal band known as Deathklok.

The boys in Deathklok get into all kinds of funny, scary, and I have to say, disgustingly gross situations. Almost every episode we've seen involved some kind of death by dismemberment of a character, or a putrefying corpse. This show is not for kids, but the point is that metal culture is all about the harsh, the scary, the gross and the gory. If you want to be a practitioner of metal, it seems you have to live in a place that has lots of dark, scary forests containing cold winds, howling wolves, bears and other assorted large and fierce carnivores whose handiwork you may come upon in the form of a dismembered half-eaten skeleton, and you have to dress in furs and skins, and carry heavy knives and other weaponry and tools as you eke your living on the barren and frozen wasteland that you call your home.

In other words, Alaska.

As we spent our fourth or fifth weekend in Alaska, I couldn't help think about the Deathklok aesthetic as we went about our weekend business of cutting brush for kindling, taking walks, stumbling upon half eaten animal parts, and just generally doing what a lot of people up here do as a very normal, sane and safe mode of existence. Take a look at the pictures from this week and see if you agree. Northern Alaska is to us at least, really metal.

If you don't believe me, consider that the sunlight shot was taken at high noon.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Got Wood?

Everyone in our neck of the woods seems to be preoccupied with wood. Specifically, the cutting, stacking, sorting, and most importantly (to humans at least) the burning of wood, for fuel.

The sounds of chainsaws and axes fill the air, and Joe has described his week or so of hauling wood in our Jeep as "one of the most dangerous and exhilarating things I've done."

Some notable exceptions would be the five or so beavers who inhabit the large dammed pond not far from our cabin. Their largest infrastructure is about a storey high, and is made of earth and, yes, wood. Mainly birch wood and poplar from the looks of it, and not mere sticks either. So, to be clear, they don't burn the wood, they just chop it down with their amazingly adapted chisel-like teeth and arrange it in such a way that it holds lots of water and allows them to build a house in the middle of the pond, accessible only by diving underwater to the entryway located somewhere in the middle of the structure.

Periodically the beavers would warn us with a big wet loud SLAP! of their tails. These animals are pretty large, and reminded me of the beavers in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Except they didn't invite us in for tea.