Monday, March 30, 2015

A Foxy Spring?

“In like a lion and out like a lamb” is how March is described. This year was no exception; two weeks ago it was bottoming out at -35 F every morning, and now at the tail end of the month temperatures are in the low 50’s. That’s an 85° difference. Which is completely insane.

Here in Fairbanks the snow has been melting in record time. Local roads are turning muddy, while the main roads are as dry as the Indiana Speedway in July; snow is avalanching from roofs onto the ground and winter trails are deteriorating, making it hard to mush and snowmachine anymore. Most people have put away their skis for the year, and I have never seen so many folks running around in tee shirts this early.

Two years ago it snowed all through April, and break-up didn’t happen until the middle of May. Are we really done with the white season this year?

Well, today I heard a fly.

I sat in shirtsleeves on my nice sunny porch enjoying a cup of afternoon tea when I saw something moving low and slow among the trees. Too slow to be a squirrel or a chickadee, I realized it was a grouse, as big as a chicken and trying hard to be stealthy. That was almost impossible; not only was she very large, she was almost black. This surprised me, because just a month ago our sportsman neighbor showed us a photo of some grouse that were as white as the snow he lined their plump little dead bodies upon. A month later, it’s still pretty white around here, and that’s normal.  But I wondered: what causes birds like grouse to change color?

Most research suggests the hormonal changes causing the shift from white to black coats (and vice-versa) is driven by day length. Other studies have shown a strong air temperature cue that causes coat-color change in some animals. The first theory could be a problem if snowmelt happens before the birds darken: then you’d have white birds running around on black ground (pursued by slobbering foxes) waiting for the days to get longer. The second theory could cause the opposite problem: warm enough to change the birds but not melt the snow, which is what I saw today.  Either way, bad for the birds and great for my neighbor (and the foxes).

As for this particular grouse, not only did she stick out like a sore thumb, I saw her break through the fragile snow crust in a clearing and slip and fall right on her tailfeathers. My heart went out to her then: first she was this wild creature moving with the noiseless fluidity born of utter caution that tasty animals must have to survive, and now she was no different from a little kid on her first skis.  I hoped a safe shelter awaited her nearby from all the nosy dogs, foxes, and gun-toting sportsman that like to prowl the neighborhood.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Nous sommes Alaskiwi!

Simon and Chris and the whole Alaskiwi Team are back! 

They returned very early yesterday morning after a flight out of Unalakleet to Anchorage, where Joanne and Dale left the dog truck for them. Not only did they have to pack up and fly, dogs and all, they had to drive hundreds of miles to get home. 

Although Nome was the original goal, a time crunch forced them to call it quits at Unalakleet: clients from the lower 48 are expected soon for a trip to Tolovana Hot Springs beginning Sunday, and the Alaskiwis knew they needed a few days rest before this next adventure. The Iditarod racers finally caught them on the trail around Old Woman Mountain, but they actually landed in Unalakleet ahead of this year’s winner (Dallas Seavey).

Besides having to deal with the race, they had other problems:  it had warmed up before they started, so the trail was soft and deep most of the way. On their second day, they ran into a blizzard at Minto:  Chris said it was like “nails driving into your face.” There was unrelenting windchill most of the way on the Yukon, and a gale off the Bering Sea greeted them at Unalakleet. They had thought about turning around a few times, but they pushed on in spite of their difficulties. Along the way they met some kind folks who offered shelter and campfire wood, and made instant friends of children in villages who apparently had never tasted a Gummy Bear.

Like the mushers of old, they ran small teams of big-boned, thick-furred dogs, and had no pit stops with hot meals and hot water for the dogs’ food ready for them, but had to brew it the old fashioned way, on the trail. This of course took time, and as the racers got closer, spectators sometimes confused them with Iditarod mushers, and sometimes people scorned them when it was discovered they were not in the race but were simply exploring the trail at their own pace purely for the adventure. 

Last night the two boys looked tired but were otherwise their usual cheerful selves. Chris had a bit of windburn on his face, but he said it was nice to be able to feel sensation in his toes again. Smokey and Porky were pretty low-key, dozing by the fire and gassing up a storm in the living room; only Lassie seemed to have her usual bouncy joie de vivre.  But they are all heroes in my book, and I think I can speak for everyone when I say: Je suis Alaskiwi!

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Dreams at the edge of a long winter

On Thursday I finally passed my comps exams and advanced to candidacy. It was the single scariest moment of my life as a student. But it is behind me now, and I can continue forward.  I had never really thought about what else I should do if I didn't pass, because I put all my eggs into this PhD basket, and there was no Plan B. Grad school is a huge investment in time and effort, and the pressure to succeed is enormously stressful.  I had invested six months of preparation, including three months of rewrites, and it was beginning to erode my heath and self-esteem to the point where I felt it would make or break me physically and mentally for the rest of my life.

To try to ground myself the night before and calm my fears, I prayed. I'm not religious, but it's funny how people turn to the idea of higher powers when we're most afraid. I recited a prayer that I heard in the 1970 movie: "Little Big Man." If you're not familiar with the movie, I suggest you see it. Soon.

It's a story about a white boy raised by the Cheyenne in the frontier days. His adoptive father, the chief of their village, prepares to face death by reciting a prayer, the first part of which inspired me to recite it at sunset, and again at dawn:

Thank you for making me a human being! Thank you for helping me to become a warrior! Thank you for all my victories and all my defeats! Thank you for my vision and for the blindness in which I saw further!

With increasing dread, I had only just started to think about Plan B. What if I don't pass my comps? How will I ever have the energy and will to face it again? If I can't hack it, where do I go, what do I do?

The warrior's prayer made me see that defeat is honorable.  And, when defeat is allowed to be an honorable part of life, suddenly all choices in life become valid, all are equal. All are good.

I began to see real options: One, just stay put and keep on working. Two, take a semester off and then resume afresh. Three, quit grad school and go do something else. I had many reasons not to pick Number Three. But it became a good, valid choice once I allowed myself to realize that nothing--nothing!---is worth sacrificing your health for.

By putting my own heath at the top of the list, it gave me the freedom to choose to opt out. On the morning of my comps I was prepared to face the day and accept whatever outcome lay hidden before me.  I know that I stumbled a few times during the exam. But I also know that I answered other questions well.  I may not be the most brilliant grad student that ever faced a dissertation committee, but I love my project and I work very hard.

I had to go out in the hall for the committee's deliberation. While trying to eat a bagel that I couldn't taste, I looked out the window at the snow and the trees and told the Universe that I accepted whatever happened from that moment forward, and I would still do my best to be happy.

And then Donie came out and gave me the thumbs up. I almost couldn't believe it. It was like I suddenly lost a thousand pounds.

And then twice in the same day I had champagne. Really nice champagne. Donie and her husband threw a little party for me in their office that evening. And later that night I shared another fancy bottle with my neighbors, who brought food--and jello shots. I'm not from the jello shots generation, but I'm beginning to realize jello shots are just as important as a good bottle of bubbles.

And finally, at the end of the long week, while splitting wood in the yard it struck me that man, I have it made in the shade. I have a great project where I get to study the Arctic and live in a beautiful little house in the woods where I can see moose and the aurora from my couch, I have good friends and neighbors, a great graduate advisor and committee, and a nice big pile of firewood.  It may not be somebody else's dream, but it's really what I want right now. Where it will all lead is not yet known to me, but I am thankful for the uncertainty.

Saturday, March 7, 2015



Looks like Toby decided to pull over and say Hi to Jojo and her camera (and hopefully some Yummy Chummies)


Iditarod starts Monday, right here in Fairbanks!!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Home to Nome

Simon and Chris, kinda like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, are on the road (actually mushing trail) to Nome. They left Saturday morning, and in a few hours they hit a blizzard.

But they're Kiwis, which means they probably have some funny-sounding word for blizzard, they face it, they laugh at it, they dig out of the snow and they get up and do it all over again.

They hope to make it in a couple of weeks, well ahead of the Iditarod teams. Joanne and Dale are flying out to meet them, and then the whole show, dogs and all, fly back to Fairbanks.

You can follow their progress here


we had a friendly game of cards and some nice roast buffalo for their big sendoff