Cheechako No More?

On August 15th I celebrated the anniversary of my arrival here. If the definition of Cheechako is someone who has not yet spent a year in Alaska (most versions don’t make it that easy), then that marked the end of my days as a Cheechako.

The cool, rainy summer teases us about once a week with bright, autumn-brisk days. We’ve had our first aurora and our first hard freeze: it got down to 20 degrees earlier this week. Blueberry season is urgent: I’ve canned just five quarts. The berries are growing soft on bushes now brittle with sunset-hued leaves. Night has come to mean darkness; the moon made its first appearance in months amidst clouds in the early days of August.

“Look, there’s a weird light coming from the East!” I shouted excitedly.

“It’s the moon,” Gary replied, sighing.

“Oh.” What a Cheechako.

I felt like a Cheechako still when on August 16th we visited what had been Gary’s main home for over 20 years. It’s reachable only by train and a mile-and-a- half hike.

Gary climbs back aboard after helping neighbors unload their provisions.

Boarding the local, we hefted our backpacks onto the baggage car; Gary jumped in behind them. Ella and I entered by the passenger door, making ourselves comfortable on the plush seats while Gary chatted with the trainmen and former neighbors, helping pull baggage of friends and strangers alike up into the car. At an hour and a half it was long for a twenty-five mile ride, stopping as it did to give me and the handful of tourists time for scenic views and photos of beaver dams, rivers and pools filled with red salmon, flowers and fields and gaping Hurricane Gulch. The train also stopped for passengers flagging it down from the side of the tracks, as we would do on our return.

The views from the train were spectacular.

When we reached our stop, the trainman opened the door and settled a yellow metal stool on the gravel, offering a hand. Ella and I debarked in style; Gary pulled our backpacks from the rail car and jumped down. From trackside we stepped into an arctic jungle: ferns, fireweed, raspberry, high-bush blueberry, thorny devil’s club six feet high, dewberry, watermelon berry, birch and elegant-looking shelf mushrooms growing on downed trees and stumps.

Gary and Ella disappear into the arctic jungle.

A short hike brought us to a series of ropes tied to birch trees, leading almost straight up a few hundred feet. Gloves on, we hauled ourselves up the rope while Ella bounded to the top easily, carrying her own pack. On flatter terrain we followed a nearly indiscernible path. It was all I could do to keep sight of Gary and Ella; even 20 feet ahead of me they could disappear in a flash. Before long (though it seemed long that first time) I spied a building.

One large step for Gary; one giant leap for Barbara. Ella went around.

“It’s not ours,” Gary said of the cabin, anticipating me.

“Oh.”

We were nearly an hour from our destination still. At one point Gary warned me and Ella away from his path: bees! It took a week to get the stingers out of his hand. Finally, a cache about three stories high heralded our arrival at Gary’s cabin. Six rotting wooden ladder-like steps led to the porch.

The cache was used for keeping meat and food safe from bears, voles and other uninvited diners.

“Always keep the door shut, even if you’re right there,” Gary told me as he unlocked the heavy front door. “A bear can get to the porch faster than you can imagine.”

As an afterthought: “And it’s best to pee from the porch. Just hang your butt over that edge there,” he said, pointing to the side that had an eight-foot drop.

The alternative was to go down the rickety steps into high brush in bear country, so when the time came I found the handhold at the porch’s edge and hung on.

Entering the cabin.

We stepped into the arctic entry—a sturdy, insulating mudroom—and opened another huge door into a second shallow room, with workshelves and windows to the right, and a small work room tucked away to the left. A box of pink zinfandel, mostly full, hung from the ceiling. Closer inspection revealed it was best before November 1995, four or five years before Gary moved. Best must have been pretty awful but it was perhaps too dear to waste, as most things are when provisions are so hard to come by. Everything in this house and the materials to build it were hauled on the train and up the hill by snowmachine and sled or backpack.

Loft ladder and rope.

The third room, with its bedroom half-loft, was at one time the entire cabin. Oversized windows face hilltops frequented by caribou. Wide wooden counters with shallow shelves below, like those we have at home, lined the greater part of three sides of the room, creating space and views perfect for artists at work. The kitchen was comprised of a tiny sink – smaller than our little sink at home – surrounded by a countertop not much bigger than a cutting board. Pans hung on the walls, a roll of paper towels hung from the ceiling, and a bowl of utensils tipped intermittently from the counter into the sink. Kitchen sponges hung over the small wood stove, together with random mittens and dog booties long since dried and abandoned. The loft above is accessed by a ladder steep enough to require the steadying support of the rope hanging beside it.

This cabin by the creek is spacious and beautifully detailed, though it was little used. Its large kitchen, wide open spaces and huge loft bedroom with views from every window were nearly as wonderful as its proximity to the water supply.

With dusk coming on, we needed to get water. The creek is down, way down. I put on a rough wooden backpack with a shelf just right for the large rectangular water jug. Gary packed another jug so we’d have water enough for a couple of days.  Grabbing a rope, we lowered ourselves down the hill. We passed a few outbuildings, an old shed-like cabin, a broken-down greenhouse, a garden plot overgrown with fireweed, the remains of an outhouse, and a lovely full-sized cabin. After filling our jugs in the stream, we hauled ourselves and our water back up.

Ella and the rope: she’s looking back to see if we’re ready to make the climb with our water.

Nothing came easy; clearly, nothing ever came easy in this place. But this was an October-to-May home; I can see how a snowmachine and sled—and the absence of the high brush—would have been a great help.

“The floor is rotting in the outhouse, so just be careful. And there’s no seat, you know.”

“OK,” I replied, unsure just how to be careful; I really wanted to avoid an unexpected tour of the outhouse basement.

The train runs Thursday through Sunday; we arrived on Thursday and had to be trackside to flag down the train early Sunday afternoon. Meanwhile, we needed to decide which of Gary’s belongings to take, which to abandon. A 60-pound cast-iron grain mill made the cut, as did a pressure canner and pressure cooker, two pairs of long snowshoes, a scythe over five feet long, a number of books, some artwork, a few out-of-print books, a handful of beautiful rocks and fossils, the curly-horned skull of a Dall sheep. We made a trip down each day, storing things in a shed by the tracks. Finally, that rainy Sunday morning as we finished packing, I started to cry. I couldn’t explain it to Gary.

Door to lower cabin at Sherman

Goodbye to all that: Detail on door of the cabin by the creek.

“You must be picking up on what I’m feeling,” he said, holding me.

We headed out with our final load in time to catch the train. Ella’s pack had grown heavier each day; even so, after a few clumsy moments she could easily keep up with Gary, but stayed back to make sure I was following. I often lagged behind, which didn’t make Gary too happy given the enormous loads he carried; it was all he could do to get down the hill himself, much less wait for me. But he did.

As we started our final descent on the rope, he patiently showed me how to lean back with my weight on the rope and slide, walking backwards and pausing just long enough to make sure my footing was sound. I couldn’t do that and hang onto my walking stick, so I threw it down the steep slope. It made good progress, javelin-like, before heading off course. Ella wanted to retrieve it, but Gary was closer. Just as he regained the rope, the knot that tied it to my section of rope broke.

Dall Sheep skull made it home

The Dall sheep skull is now resting on our porch chair.

I turned to see him fall back, wide-eyed. Then I saw the Dall sheep’s skull, tied to the back of his pack. Again I saw Gary, again the skull, and then nothing but motionless ferns and berry bushes.

“Garrrrrrrryyyyyy!!” I cried. “Jesus! Are you ok?”

Ella looked at me uncertainly.

“Go get ‘im, Ella! Go get Gary!”

She ran down to administer tongue to face resuscitation. I followed as fast as I could, but was at the end of my rope (sorry) long before the slope began to level out. By that time Gary had pulled himself up, pack and all, and brushed himself off.

“Did the rope break or did the knot break?” he asked.

“Huh? Rope, knot, wha? I don’t care. Are you ok?”

He was fine. Gary has long experience in this sort of thing and seems to have developed a healthy flexibility for falling. After a brief discussion of whether I should or shouldn’t care about the root cause of the accident, we made our way down and set our packs by the rails while we retrieved the contents of the shed.

Gary flagged the approaching train with a wave of his hat. Friends and strangers helped pull our things aboard. The dry warmth of the train eased into me as I relaxed and enjoyed the view. My camera stayed packed away and I answered tourists’ questions like a local.

I may have looked the part, but deep down I know I’ll always be a Cheechako.

Sunrise:  6:38 a.m.
Sunset:   9:14 p.m. We’ve lost over three hours of daylight since the first of August.
Weather: High, 45°; Low, 37°, overcast with occasional rain.

In other news:  Gary’s three-month scans came out clean, to our massive relief. Two more months of freedom before the next ones.  I’ve sold my beautiful yellow snowmachine; we are packing to move, and plan to leave before the end of September.

Lost in the Wild

Ella leads the way

I was drenched. The rain wasn’t heavy, or even steady, but we’d been out for hours. I’d pulled the drawstrings tight; my hood bore down on the visor of my hat, pushing my glasses hard against the bridge of my nose. Mosquitoes swarmed my face, and I buried my chin deep into the high-zipped neck of the rain jacket. I managed to protect my nose and its immediate surroundings, but was otherwise unable to sustain a defense. The mosquitoes hadn’t been so bad when I first realized my headnet was missing.  But as we mucked through the wet, dense willow riverbank, they were out in force. Ella, tormented too, urged me to higher — drier — ground, but I resisted. I’d lost the river for the last time.

Wild roses along the animal trail.

A couple of weeks ago I started letting Ella take me on walks. She starts along her favorite downstream trail and I follow. No two walks are alike; she may follow the river or head away from it. She loves chasing birds, finding swimming holes, and running circles around me (literally). We can do this only because Ella is so well-trained: she chases birds on the wing, not on the ground, to play, not to catch. She won’t chase game (grouse and ptarmigan, caribou, moose, or even the snowshoe hare), and she can’t catch squirrels. Ella knows to stay within range. When I can’t see where she’s gone, I stop to look at the wildflowers, mushrooms, and nascent berries at my feet. She always comes racing back.

The Bohemian Waxwing is one of our resident birds.

As we started out into the drizzle, I threw on a wool overshirt, hat, rain pants and rain jacket, and stuffed a headnet into my pocket. Mosquitoes aren’t dissuaded by a little rain.

“Where’re we going?” I asked.

Ella ran well ahead and then back, tail wagging, full body smile.

The first time she urged me down this path was a few days after I arrived here last August. I had my fishing rod in hand, and she seemed to know exactly where to go. I stopped when she did, dropped my line, and a couple of casts later caught a nice grayling.  Good girl!

This time we walked past the fishing hole, fording a small creek. Ella ran ahead and back, leaping over dwarf birch brush after sparrows, robins and swallows, lost in the joy of the chase. I studied the lichen, scouted for mushrooms, admired the flowers – wild roses, native peas, fireweed, purple monkshead, yellow potentilla, blue bells, pink plumes, alpine-white dogwood, lavender asters – in the brief season of their glory.

Puffballs are a common sight. They’re edible, but a bit too earthy for my taste.

The rainy week had given rise to mushrooms, patches of common “deceivers” (yes, that’s what they’re called) and similarly ordinary-looking brown-capped gilled species, and clumps of white puffballs, like bunches of miniature low-flying balloons. The stranger mushrooms generally kept to themselves: a round stemless mushroom here, a large slimy orange one there, a shelf mushroom on deadwood, a mushroom with a black-scaled stem. I took samples for awhile, dropping them one by one in the zippered pocket of my jacket, avoiding the largest and slimiest; once or twice I picked a suspicious-looking fungus only to drop it out of some innate fear.

The bleeding tooth fungus is one of the stranger ones around.

Dampness had started to seep in past my rain gear; it was time to turn back.  I waited for Ella’s inevitable return, and soon she came running.

“Let’s go home. Find the trail!” I commanded.

Ella turned and continued north, by my reckoning, the way we’d been heading all along. The mountains were obscured by clouds, but I was sure she was headed north.

Native peas and dogwood

“No, Ella.  Go home! Find the trail!”

Ella pursued the northern path again.

I led for a bit, turning home as best I could without doubling back; Ella and I prefer to hike a loop rather than out-and-back. Ella redirected me at every opportunity.

“Go home. Find Gary. Find the trail!” I ordered again.

Blue bells

She tried, but when I fought her again, she walked behind me and sat. Her message was clear: lead or follow; don’t try to do both.

We wandered — how long I’m not sure — until I realized I could no longer hear the river. I was lost. The river was my guide; home was upstream. Clouds continued to mask the landmark mountains, but eventually I saw enough to know which way to head to reach the water.

Potentilla are abundant here.

We crossed a small drainage and headed upward until we found ourselves on a high bench, well above the river, then dropped down to its edge. Ella wanted to cross the river, but it was wide and fast; she might make it, but I wouldn’t. And there seemed to be no need: home was on our side of the river. When the willows and mosquitoes got too dense, we headed back to higher ground. Ella found the animal trails, scouting ahead, circling back. We were wet, but I felt safe, knowing I only had to continue our upstream course, the water to our right.

The pink plumes were cheerful, anyway…

Suddenly the bench narrowed, and I blanched: two creeks appeared to our left. As they flowed to the river they turned; to continue upstream meant crossing them. This made no sense. We had forded nothing but a tiny stream near home, and a shallow drainage as we climbed the bench. Logic told me I shouldn’t be crossing streams, but I also knew I had to continue upstream. We started across, and I felt my boots fill with water. So I headed downstream. Maybe by doubling back I could find a spot where the creeks were narrow and more easily crossed. Maybe I could find a river crossing.

Field of monkshead

It was getting late. I hoped Gary wouldn’t notice the time; there was little he could do to find us, and I didn’t want to stress him. Besides, how embarrassing to be lost! I was wet, but not really cold or tired. I was losing a lot of blood to the mosquitoes, but otherwise felt fine. It would not get dark, not really. Ella had to be reminded that the time for chasing birds was over, so I knew she still had plenty of energy.

We wandered. Defeated, we headed back upstream, where we looked for the best path across. I picked up a walking stick to steady me on the slippery rock riverbed. We stopped at the small mid-stream island, looking for the easiest crossing, then waded in again. Water leaked in at the elastic cuffs of my rain pants, soaking my jeans. The tail of my wool shirt, hanging just below my rain jacket, was soaked. As I trudged along in my water-filled neoprene-lined boots, the water warmed until I barely noticed it.

But we were on the right track. My relief in knowing this was only slightly marred by the sight of bear scat on the path, the first I’ve seen here. It didn’t look fresh, or at least that’s what I told myself. Before long we came to the timber remains of an old bridge, placing us only a couple of miles from home. The cabin we’d hiked to on a sunny day the weekend before stood across the river. I let Ella lead me to an easier path up the bench, knowing now exactly where we were.

This is what 11:45 looked like the night before my adventure. Though it gets dark in the house around 11 now, it is never dark enough outside to see the stars.

When I got home, it was 7:30; we’d been gone almost four hours.

“Were you lost?” Gary asked.

“Yes.”

“Were you scared?” he wanted to know.

“Only a little.” It was the truth. I think.

Gary hadn’t worried much, knowing he couldn’t do much, and knowing that Ella would do her best to keep me safe and get me home. As I took off all the wet layers of clothes and hung them over the cold wood stove, I knew I owed her an apology. She had tried to lead me home. She knew where she was, and she knew where I wanted to go. I knew she knew. I just didn’t trust her enough. Or maybe I just didn’t trust myself.

Sunrise: 4:47 a.m.
Sunset: 11:18 p.m.  We’re losing six minutes of daylight every day now.
Weather:High, 64; low, 39, cloudy.

I haven’t been able to identify this big mushroom; it has spines instead of gills or pores on the underside.

Back to the Garden

Gary had to stake the growing sugar snap peas when we got home.

We’re back! After two weeks of traveling and hanging around Anchorage waiting to travel, we got back a week ago Thursday. Salad greens sprouted nicely in our absence, thanks to the long days, plastic vole-proof barrier, and good soil preparation. By throwing our coffee grounds onto the raised bed daily through the winter, we kept the snow down. Once the sun came, the dark grounds soaked up heat, making for a quick thaw and warm(ish) soil.

Cranberries in bloom

The tundra is flowering with berry blossoms and wildflowers, but is not yet providing much food for the birds, who have for the most part finished their musical nesting phase and moved on. We have seen trumpeter swans and geese flying by, a bald eagle coming in for a landing off the dirt highway, and a small flock of ptarmigan, no longer wearing winter white. Some believe Alaska’s state bird to be the mosquito, and if size, song and swarm count for anything, it could be.

Gary made the table, chairs, trellises and arbor for his booth at the Alaska Botanical Garden Fair in mid-June.

Most mornings start with a run, hike or bike, where we try to keep moving fast enough to avoid getting bitten. By the time we get back our porridge (oatmeal mixed with most every whole grain known to mankind) is ready to eat before we start our day. Gary has been designing trellises to fulfill some custom orders he got at the Alaska Botanical Garden fair, where he nearly sold out of those he brought. He spends some of each day gathering wood and building them, and splitting wood to make bundles of firewood to sell at the campground. He sometimes lights a damp, smoky fire to keep bugs at bay, and almost always works with a head net on.

Fishing gear for mosquito bait — the net pants didn’t wear too well in the dense willows.

I’m a mess of welts, the mosquitoes having traced both the Big Dipper and the Belt of Orion on my right calf alone. Still, I go out to get water at the campground well every day or two, and to fish and tend to the garden. When I look up, I see Ella tormented too, pawing at her face, rolling or scooting in self-defense. Ella and I have spent more time indoors due to mosquitoes than we ever did due to the cold.

Moving On

After traveling to the Block Medical Center outside Chicago and University of Washington’s Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, we don’t have much to report. Unless a review of the slides of Gary’s tumor shows a different diagnosis, it’s not clear that there is anything to do other than get routine scans and continue on with his diet and program of supplements. The folks in Seattle were somewhat more patient-centered and articulate, but their advice did not differ greatly from what we heard in Portland.

Kayaking on beautiful Eklutna Lake on a free day while staying with Gary’s sister Karen and her family.

Gary’s diet is heavy on whole grains, fresh organic fruits and vegetables (mainly vegetables),  with fish a few days a week, no dairy, no sugar, no refined grains, and no alcohol. I’m finishing off the last of the wine and sweets. When we’re with wine-drinking steak- and dessert-eaters, I switch teams, but in general I’m eating the same foods Gary is eating. It takes work to plan meals, but what we do eat is very good.

This diet is only possible because it’s summer here. To maintain it, and to facilitate the inevitable travel to Seattle or wherever Gary gets his medical care, we plan to leave this idyllic spot before the snows fall in September.  Aunt Vee and my cousins Joan and Glenn have been wonderful to offer to let us stay at Vee’s place near Ashland, Oregon. It’s beautiful, too, 160 acres of oak savannah and gushing springs far from the city lights, a place where we can grow and buy fresh organic produce year-round.

It will be a beautiful place to get our footing for whatever comes next, and we’re so fortunate and grateful to be able to land there. We are grateful for so much. Gary’s sister Karen and her husband Scott have made us at home at their place longer and more often than is entirely reasonable, and we have been well fed and entertained and cared for (Ella too) by friends and family here. We’re grateful to each of you, too, who though distant has kept us in thought and prayer, given us encouragement, recommended some reading, or just made us feel less alone by sending us a photo or note about your goings on.

Even strangers have helped us: while in Anchorage we met with a sarcoma survivor. Warren was diagnosed some 14 years ago, had a hard fight of it for over five years, but at 65 (two years ago) ranked as the top racquetball player of all ages in Alaska and is top-ranked today in his age group nationally. He had some great insight and encouragement for us.

My San Francisco home is on the market now, with its first open house today. It was a lovely city home, quiet, in a great spot with great neighbors. (http://www.610duncanstreet.com)  I bought it in 1991; I could never afford it now, but luckily I’m not looking to live in San Francisco. I’m also putting my snowmachine and sled on craigslist and alaskaslist, and starting to get organized for the move.

On a hike in 75-degree weather with cousin Glenn and his wife Terri.

I’ve loved every minute here, except maybe one or two moments when I was under siege by mosquitoes. We still have time enough to enjoy: we’ve been hiking with Glenn and Terri, savoring fresh halibut from Ed, chatting with campground hosts Jim and Bona, catching grayling for dinner, watching Ella swim, running a little farther each time we go, seeing a new wildflower almost every day. It’s hard to imagine leaving. But wherever we go, we’ll make it home.

Sunrise: 4:04 a.m. (as compared to 3:41 a.m. on June 20th – 23rd)
Sunset: 11:58 p.m. (as compared to 12:14 a.m. on June 20th – 23rd)
Weather:  High 54°, low 36°, rainy.

What we’re reading: Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Design and Practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture (two volumes), by Dave Jacke.

A New World

When I complained to my dear friend Jackie that I was going to have to take a shower in the golden-brown water I’d been pulling from the rushing river, she reminded me that people pay good money to bathe in mud and minerals. Our crystal waters vanished with the ice crystals, so when we returned last on the 20th of May, a week after break-up, we had to accept a certain liquid earthiness. We filter our drinking water, but it still looked like I’d pulled it from a ditch, so I was sticking primarily with coffee, ovaltine and wine until the well at the campground opened just before the Memorial Day campers arrived. I was reluctant to shower when to all appearances I was cleaner than the water, so Gary helped me filter it through a pillowcase. The pillowcase stayed white and the water stayed brown, but Jackie was right – I had a wonderful shower.

The river free of snow, 9:00 p.m. last night.

I had hoped to see a chaotic break-up of the river, but when we returned from our travels, banks of ice and the occasional ice sculpture atop a boulder mid-stream were all that remained of winter. Fissures would appear parallel to shore, then vanish along with few feet of ice riverside to the fissure; a new fissure then materialized closer to shore. Visions of huge blocks of ice struggling downstream are gone; as ice tipped in toward the water it simply melted in the rising current. Free of ice now, the river is high; her voice grows louder as the day progresses. When Gary lived with me in San Francisco, our apartment stood right behind Hwy. 101 North at Vermont Street. We pretended then that the freeway noise was just a river; now, the river sounds to me more like the flow of traffic than a roar. It crescendos with the melt of day and into the sunny night.

This is what 10:00 p.m. looks like.

The joy of long days is that you can goof off for a good while and still get a fair amount done. We’ve been riding bikes, flying my kite atop our breezy hill, and untangling kite string. I’ve been gathering moose poop for my paper-making project; with the campers arriving for the Memorial Day weekend, I hurried to get what I could before they made a mess of it. Meanwhile Gary has affixed the exterior paneling to the shower room addition to the cabin, made a flowerbox for my sweet peas (in less time than it took me to make dinner), worked on more trellises, tied bundles of firewood to sell to the campers and taught me how to tie them too. I’ve been thinning our nascent vegetable garden—the peas are over an inch high—moving lumber around, hauling firewood bundles to the campground, getting sand from the sand dunes down the road for the garden—in short, doing a lot of not too much. We’ve both been sorting through our belongings, moving our winter things into storage and bringing out our summer clothes. Last night we were reading without a light until after 1:00 a.m. About an hour later, I heard a bird start his song, one I didn’t recognize. Plants, too, love the long days; new growth explodes each day as though a week had passed.

A few mosquitoes arrived just ahead of the campers – breeding stock no doubt. The rain waited until the campers were on the road heading out for their holiday. It’s a shock to hear voices, vehicles and dogs day into night. It’s just one more seasonal change that takes getting used to, like not having a steady supply of hot water; now that we don’t need to use the wood stove to heat the cabin we have to heat water and cook on the propane stove, which is too small to easily hold the huge stock pots we usually keep our washing water in. The cabin is often over 70° when we get up in the morning, giving us no excuse for a fire.

This cow moose had a newborn, but we had to wait until I’d left my camera at home to see the little one.

We spent last week in Portland, Oregon to learn more about Gary’s sarcoma and treatment options. In just a week, nearly all the remaining snow vanished, except in spots of deep drift and on the mountains. Moose cows are out with their newborns, whose ears barely reach their mama’s belly. Porcupines abound; Gary was chasing one away from the cabins when a giant RV pulled up on the road. The driver rolled down his window.

“Is that a bear?” he asked.

This is not as stupid a question as it seems; the amble and color of the porcupine hit the consciousness before one’s sense of proportion kicks in. We did see three bears in our travels, black bears along the highway; one seemed to be on the verge of surprising a hitchhiker not 100 feet away.

I’m wondering why summer is tourist season here. It’s cloudy, rainy, buggy and beary; there are no berries and no auroras. But still, as a summer tourist, I went home never imagining it could have been more beautiful. It is still breathtakingly beautiful, and we relish it all the more, not knowing what the future holds. We never did know, of course, but we held the sweet, foolish notion that we could continue on here until we found something we’d rather do and someplace we’d rather do it.

Gary’s oncologist at OHSU didn’t give us much to go on. Gary’s spindle-cell sarcoma has gone from a low-grade to high-grade, more aggressive cancer. While both the surgeon and the oncologist seem convinced the surgeon got all of both tumors, the pathology report showed a positive margin, not a good thing. Because of this, Gary was ineligible for a vaccine trial; the doctor has offered nothing else, except “watch and worry,” advising us that this can be expected to ultimately be fatal. We understand chemo for this type of thing is more toxic than it is effective, so this is perhaps the best course, but since the tumor on the pancreas was found inadvertently in a chest CT scan, we had wanted Gary to be fully scanned for any other tumors.

Gary has taken on a near-vegetarian diet (limited fish and egg whites allowed), no dairy, refined grains, sugar, alcohol, little coffee; sitting back and waiting is just not in him. We will go for second and probably third opinions, exploring alternative and complementary approaches that might be helpful alongside conventional treatment, if there is treatment. Even if there is nothing more to be done at this point, we need to know we have left no stone unturned.

I know that some of you are physicians or other medical professionals, or have family members who are, and some of you are survivors of cancer and other life-threatening diseases, or have dealt with cancer of those close to you. Should you have any thoughts for us, reading you recommend, an oncologist or cancer center or other source of expertise we might want to consider  consulting, or alternative, complementary, mind-body or other ways of healing (if not curing) that have been helpful to you, your experiences of hope and healing (Karl shared an extraordinary story of his family’s experience with us), or the name of a cookbook or a good recipe, I hope you will share them. We are currently planning for Gary to get a second opinion at Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care in the Chicago area later this month, and will probably seek a third opinion as well at a specialized sarcoma center. I have found the online sarcoma communities to be very helpful, and know this little indeepalaska community will help us too as we navigate this new world.

Sunrise: 3:53 a.m.
Sunset:
11:55 p.m.
Weather:
Mostly cloudy, random attempts at rain and clearing, breezy. High 65°, low 38°

Gary is reading: Life Over Cancer, Keith Block, M.D.; Help (which I read a few weeks ago).
I am reading:
Choices in Healing, Michael Lerner.

The Light of Night

We caught this view of Denali in Spring on Thursday, on our drive home.

We had a brief window of darkness from about midnight to 4 a.m. where were staying with Gary’s sister Karen and her family just north of Anchorage. Here the nights are forty minutes shorter, or so my online calendar tells me. In truth, night here no longer has any real night-like quality.  Midnight is, if not broad daylight, very close. I woke at 2:30 in Anchorage to darkness, but here 2:30 is just a shade darker than dusk. Shortly before 4:00 sunrise is showing its pink lights, and an hour later it is in full bloom, a rose backdrop to the snow-covered Alaska Range. We’re home.

View of the Chugach Range from Karen’s house. These trees hadn’t even budded when we arrived nine days earlier.

Life makes good use of the long days. Seagulls, mallards, swallows and robins abound in Anchorage now, finding food and refuge in grass and bugs and snowmelt as well as in the birch and aspen that spun a chartreuse array from nothing in the nine days we spent there. The snow was already gone when we arrived, save for a few dirty piles here and there. School is over, and the whole population must have been out last weekend to pick up the trash that surfaced from under snow’s cover. It’s a bright new season, sunny and warm, there at the foot of the dramatic Chugach mountains.

A couple of hours out of Anchorage, driving home, we began to see snow in the woods again. Our season is well behind theirs, with not quite half of the landscape here still covered in snow. Our nights are frosty but the days are toasty, into the fifties and sixties. Yet aspen and birch, to the extent we see them at all, are still stark as winter. We saw trumpeter swans on lakes as we drove home, and the robins are back. New birdsong tells me I have much to learn about life here in spring. Our pure-white snowshoe hare had brownish highlights when we last saw him less than two weeks ago; will he be completely brown when I see him again?

My ice cave is gone and our river is running muddy and high.

The icy river’s surface was sinking in places when we left. I stopped the car on the bridge as we arrived. Frozen no more, the river’s waters are muddy and high, racing loudly between banks of dying ice. I didn’t have the nerve to drive through the muck and flowing snowmelt that greeted us at the gate, so Gary managed it, getting us perhaps a quarter of the way — maybe a hundred yards — closer to our door. On foot the rest of the way, we had a choice of slopping through mud or trying the rotted snow still on the drive.

In mid-April this red fox at black sunflower seeds spilled from the bird feeder and played “chase” with Ella. The feeder platform was broken off in our recent absence.

The seeds we planted are starting to sprout despite the frost, safe under a plastic sheet. Something (a bear?) has come along and forcibly torn down the platform of the bird feeder. The detritus of winter shows here, too, where we missed in picking up after ourselves and Ella before and through the long season. Yesterday, when I wasn’t napping or fixing meals, I was picking up. First I collected a five-gallon bucket of post-consumer recycled willow, otherwise known as moose poop, from the campground across the river. I want to learn to make paper, and Gary came up with the idea that the pulp might require less cooking and beating if it had been previously processed. If it works, I’ll need a lot; the moose have provided. Next I picked up after Ella, and today I went after bits of insulation and debris that escaped us earlier. I’d reach for some foam insulation and come up with a dessicated mushroom; a piece of aged newspaper was just birch bark. I reached for a piece of white plastic and found a bone; I also found a small skull and a partial jaw, probably porcupine, according to Gary. Meanwhile, Gary is working on trellises for the Alaska Botanical Garden’s mid-June Garden Fair, and Ella is running crazy in circles, chasing birds, or sitting in the sun with her ball waiting for one of us to give it a good kick.

Gary is healing remarkably, now ten days out of surgery. His excellent surgeon removed the tumor on his pancreas, together with a small one he found on Gary’s liver during surgery and a healthy spleen that happened to be in the right place at the wrong time. We were told the tumor was not likely to be a return of Gary’s sarcoma, which would have metastasized to his lungs if at all, but indeed that’s what it turned out to be. We don’t know what that means, or what the treatment might be, or where Gary will be treated. We’re scheduled to go to OHSU in Portland before long to see the oncologist, one of three experts we found nationwide when Gary was first fighting this strange spindle-cell sarcoma of unknown origin.

We’re in a season of transition. What seemed so clear a month ago is, like our river, opaque, muddy. We don’t know what is coming or where it will take us. The love and care, thoughts and prayers of our friends and family, even friends of friends and readers of this blog, stands in high relief and brings us comfort. Still it is a time of great discomfort, physical and emotional, and there are moments when nothing would suit me better than a good cry. Our current state of uncertainty cushions us for now, though, so we laugh and play with Miss Ella, do our chores and enjoy the weather, scenery and new life around us. It’s Saturday night, so for now I’ll just worry about what movie to watch and whether we’ll have to close the shutters against the brightness of the setting sun.

Sunrise: 4:37 a.m.
Sunset: 11:08 p.m.
Weather: Mixed sun and clouds, breezy; high 52°, low °30.

What we’re reading: 
Gary: Gary read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski, in the hospital; good book, especially for dog lovers, but not such a good ending, he tells me. A few minutes ago he finished Hank Vaughan (1849-1893): A Hell-Raising Horse Trader from the Bunchgrass Territory, by Jon M. and Donna McDaniel Skovlin. Not particularly well-written, and my Aunt Vee calls its accuracy into question, but still Gary seems to be taking great pleasure in reading about my notorious ancestor. Also reading Teaming with Microbes, by Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis, a book on soil for gardeners.
Barbara: The Sun magazine, mostly. Just finished Help, by Kathryn Stockett (thanks, Joan!) and just starting So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger, author of a book I loved, Peace Like a River, which was his first novel.

Note: Today’s title comes from a poem of Gary’s.

In Deep Spring

View of caribou off the Denali Highway on our way home.

Yesterday, our first day back after some travel, we weeded the garden of a surprising amount of green grass, and protected our little 4′ x 8′ raised bed with vole-defying plastic sheeting. We planted just a few of our vegetable seeds, in the hope that our mild weather will continue and allow the germinating seeds to take advantage of the long hours of sunshine we now enjoy. The night darkens not long before midnight now, and when I roused in morning’s light today, the clock read 4:28. When we finally got up it was snowing.

We had just one full day at home, but managed to fix up and plant our little vegetable garden.

I left for a visit to San Francisco and Helena in mid-April, a final ride on the snow machine to my car. Returning, I found a new world emerging from under the snow. The new sounds are as striking as the sights: birdsong and mating calls from all sorts of birds I don’t recognize; even the ravens have a new call that sounds like a drop hitting a water-filled bucket. Muck slurps from my boots, buzzing flies swarm, and the outhouse sounds more, well, liquid. I was relieved to see the river still has its sheath of ice, so I haven’t missed the drama of break-up that I’ve heard so much about.

I’d like to stay and watch each day’s evolution, but we are headed to Anchorage soon on a journey we hadn’t planned. Gary’s recent CT scan, routine follow-up from the sarcoma he had a couple of years ago, showed a spot on his pancreas, a tumor. The tumor will be removed, together with his spleen, and only then will we learn whether it is cancerous.

Gary, as we neared home after skiing down the river this spring.

Cocooning with Gary through the winter here, I have felt protected, safe, untouchable. But life is inherently dangerous; it must be so. What lies outside the cocoon is not yet clear. But as we emerge we will endeavor to face it with strength nourished by the love and beauty we have found together, and by your good thoughts and prayers.

I will keep you posted.

Get Out!

Icicles akimbo off the east side of the cabin.

A constant drip from the roof, the occasional “thwump!” as a section of snow slides off, chickadee-dee-dee, these are the sounds of spring.  Snow disappeared from the porch, then melted away from the grate in front of the door; once again we can stomp snow from boots on our way in. Yesterday a porch step re-emerged, a now-unexpected drop-off. Our well-insulated, formerly icicle-free cabin is dripping icicles as sun melts the still-thick snow from the east-facing roof. The steeper west-facing roof is blue again; I watched the last section of snow crash to the ground a week ago. Gary leads an expedition to cut firewood, logs and poles or break and reinforce ski trails most days with a new sense of urgency, while we can still run the snowmachine and its sleds on the river and through the woods.

Gary reinforcing a new ski trail with a wooden "drag" behind the snowmachine

Canadian jays overwintered here, but gave off begging for food suddenly in the last days of March. Chickadees, with us again since late January, were joined first by one grosbeak, then others, in early March. Week before last I heard a woodpecker in our yard; and while we were out in the woods a few days ago, we saw the first bald eagle of the season high overhead. The snowshoe hare or hares are in frequent evidence, and Ella has chased her first squirrels of the season. She will soon be providing copious amounts of nesting materials for the local feathered population: she started shedding a few days ago.

Our resident snowshoe hare.

Sunglasses are a permanent fixture around my neck or on my head – I didn’t need them this much in California! I’m more likely to forget my hat, gloves and even my jacket, cheechako that I am, than my sunglasses; the brightness is astounding, even on a cloudy day. The ice around my water hole has become mostly transparent and even less stable; on warmer days I think about going to the river in nothing but my boots, to avoid drenching my clothes when the inevitable happens. (See http://www.indeep-alaska.com/2012/03/07/taking-a-leap.)

Ella gets a ride on the snowmachine.

For months I drafted these blog posts in a notebook to conserve energy, but now I can type away knowing we’ll have plenty of solar even on a cloudy day. Days are balmy, up to 42°, a temperature that seemed far colder last fall than it does now. I had started sitting on the porch to work at the computer, but moved back indoors after Ella hurt her two right paws in short succession, as no amount of pain seems to keep her from jumping and playing when she has the chance. Her injuries put a crimp in our plans to go camping, but Gary assures me we’ll have enough snow to carry our gear in sleds for weeks to come.

After the snow-camping season ends, a pack animal may stand in for the sled. We’re thinking of getting a goat. I used to drink copious amounts of milk, and miss it terribly. Goats are social animals, so if we get a milker she will need a companion. We saw an experienced pack-goat on craigslist the other day; though we couldn’t call about it, not having a phone, when we go out next we’ll see if a milking doe and a pack goat can’t be squeezed into my SUV.  Yaks might be even better for milk and packing, but I don’t think I can get even one yak into my car.

Gary is working on this peeled spruce trellis he calls "Rising Sun."

Spring has given us other ideas, too. With the season for garden sales coming up, Gary had a thought to design and build bentwood trellises as he thins young spruce from his land. As for me, when we went to Fairbanks I bought supplies to make a mould and deckle for papermaking, something I’ve never even thought about trying before.

It’s too warm to keep the fire hot all day, and that’s started us thinking about cooking outdoors. I miss baking (and all three of us miss my bread), so we’re going to set up to bake over an outdoor fire. And since I dragged a solar cooker all the way from San Francisco, where I never had enough sun to use it, Gary pulled it out of the shed today, and I’ll start learning to cook in it on the next sunny day.

Springtime in San Francisco meant flowering trees and greening hills. Here we have sunshine and snow. Everywhere it’s time for the new, time for renewal. Get out and enjoy.

Spring is a lovely time for after-dinner walks. This is what 9:00 p.m. looks like.

Sunrise:  7:01 a.m.
Sunset:   8:56 p.m.
Weather: High 42°, low -8°, mostly cloudy.

Spring Break

Spring solstice, looking north to the Alaska Range

Sunny days, sunglasses and sunscreen: it must be spring break! Snow and sun combine to make the world bright white and blue; even the green of the trees fades into the background. Days stretch to evening, long as mid-summer days in San Francisco. I never need a flashlight when the snows are lit with the reflection of the moon and stars; if I did, it would blind me to the green glow of auroras that followed the recent spate of solar flares. No wonder Alaskans find this the perfect place for spring break.  Just as a torrent of snowmachiners rushed down our highway, over our river and through our woods, we took our own spring break and headed north to Fairbanks.

The impetus for our trip was a three-day conference on sustainable agriculture in Alaska. But it was also a chance to buy groceries and do laundry after nearly three months in the backwoods. We stayed with Gary’s sister Tina and her family in North Pole; I even got my first haircut in eight months, thanks to Gary’s niece Selena!

See how the dogs jump with excitement as they wait to start the race!

North Pole is the town that gets and answers all the letters sent to “Santa Claus, North Pole.” It’s a place where keeping Christmas decorations up year-round is encouraged, especially around Santa Claus Lane (which intersects with St. Nicolas Drive). It earns its name in part by having weather that is easily 15 degrees colder than nearby Fairbanks, which is itself as cold as or colder than we are in winter. But we got lucky—it never got below -30° when we were there.

The Fairbanks ice sculpture contest brings in artists from around the world.

A flashy fur parka in the Fairbanks Parka Parade.

And there’s lots going on in Fairbanks this time of year: we saw the third and final day of the Open North American Championship sled dog race, noisy dogs bouncing with excitement, a parka parade showing off traditional parkas (and, with nine entrants, reminding us that Fairbanks is still a small town), an ice sculpture park, and the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska.

It’s always hard to leave home, in part because it robs us of so many good days here. It takes the better part of two days to get ready for the trip, two days of travel round trip, and a day to unpack and resettle. Getting ready includes gathering laundry, packing and cleaning, but we also have to prepare for the cabin to freeze. Gary makes large batches of kindling, enough to start and keep a quick, hot fire burning for the several hours it takes to warm the cabin and everything in it when we return. I take charge of dealing with food and water. It’s getting easier: this time we didn’t have any fresh food left, eliminating the chore of blanching it or otherwise preparing it so it would survive freezing. Last time we went away I made ice in small batches in pans to thaw quickly when we returned, so we wouldn’t have to get water from the river after a long day’s travel. It was tedious, since only a tiny bit of water could be left in each pan or bucket; allowing water to freeze in any volume will cause the containers to bulge and buckle. This time I harvested ice and icicles from my water hole and stored them in buckets. At first I chiseled ice, which I needed to do anyway to re-open the iced-over water hole. When most of the ice dropped into the current as it broke free, I hit on the idea of filling my buckets with icicles. I hated to do it—I love seeing the icicles in my beautiful ice room—but by taking them from the least visible spots I was able to keep the beauty of the place intact. (See http://www.indeep-alaska.com/2011/12/03/Riverdance/)

We went to the conference to hear what’s going on in agriculture in Alaska, which ships in 95% of its food supply. We learned about mushroom cultivation; flour milling; cold-hardy hogs that eat grass and don’t root; beekeeping in top-bar hives; geothermal farming done near hot springs; why peony farming is such a specialty here; how to get the government to pay for your greenhouse; biochar, an environmentally constructive charred-wood product used for long-term soil improvement; and how to sell at farmers markets and to restaurants and buyers for Princess, the big hotel and cruise line.

Living here is amazing, but it’s hard to generate much income. We’d like to have land where we can grow our own food and keep horses and livestock for work, play, meat, and maybe dairy. Our growing season is short here and the land won’t support much more than one or two goats or sheep (or reindeer or yaks) and six weeks of garden vegetables. We’ll need more land in a less remote, more temperate place. That doesn’t rule out Alaska, but it almost certainly rules out our home here, which sees snow early and late, and is likely to have a freeze every month of the year.

Gary has some experience working with cattle and sheep. I am bereft of experience even vaguely relevant to ranching. Some days I think about finding some docile, high-butterfat sort of animal for a varietal butter or artisanal ice cream endeavor. Having just left the regulation-intensive industry of money management, I question the wisdom of getting into anything as highly regulated as dairy. When I think about the ice cream itself, the regulations don’t loom so large. Then I remember I know nothing about milking animals, except that it must be done every day twice a day, except in winter when I could let the poor gals dry up. So my thoughts turn to sheep or mushrooms or biochar or ecotourism. But eventually I return to dreams of butter, cheese and ice cream: if I can’t sell it, at least I can eat it!

Pooling our resources, Gary and I hope to find land—land in need of improvement, perhaps, but enough for a few grazing animals—land enough to embark on our experiment without taking on debt or spending all our savings. We want natural beauty, live water, room to roam. If the land is fenced for cattle, with a house and maybe a barn, that would save precious time, but we could live in a tent or a yurt at first if we had to. We love a sense of seclusion, but community is important too, and not just to have a market for our products. Where we might do this—in Alaska or in the lower 48—is, like everything else about our plan, very much unsettled.

I’m in no rush. I should be, I suppose, as we are rather well above a prudent age for embarking on such a different and demanding venture. I’m just not ready to leave. I don’t want to think I’ll never have another winter and spring here. April, Gary tells me, is perhaps the most beautiful month of all. I suppose everything will come together in its own time. We’ll find land that seems right, and it may tell us what to do. Then we’ll start our new adventure. Meanwhile I’ll revel in this one, knowing it won’t last forever.

Sunrise: 7:36 a.m.
Sunset:  8:27 p.m.
Weather: High 17°, low -23°, calm, mixed sun and clouds.

Having fun at the Fairbanks Ice Park!

Yes, We Have No Bananas

We have no bananas today. No apples either, though we do have blueberries and cranberries we canned last summer and some canned pineapple. We still have frozen mixed vegetables and spinach, as well as canned tomatoes, beets and olives, dried onions and potatoes. For some reason we have lots of corn, frozen, canned and dried. We were sad to see the last of the peanut butter go; we try to make enough buckwheat pancakes on Sundays to have leftovers for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I had a large can of peanuts, but just as I was getting good at making peanut brittle I opened it to find only one solitary goober, sitting forlornly in a bed of salt.

We’re still enjoying blueberries harvested last summer.

Canned cream: not for the weak of heart.

I haven’t had a glass of wine for weeks. I would miss it more except that we’re limited to boxed wines; they freeze without breaking and we can burn most of the packaging. Some boxed wine is OK; some tastes so bad it has to be really cold to be drinkable. Fortunately, that’s not a problem here.

Last week we ran out of butter, so I’ve been using rendered goose fat, kept frozen in a pint jar on the porch since Christmas. The other night I made licorice chews with goose fat and canned cream. (They tasted better than they sound.) Am I the only one who never heard of canned cream before?  It’s caramel colored — I’m being polite here — with the texture of watery yogurt, and comes in 7.4-ounce cans. If I need cream so badly that I’m buying it in a can, don’t you think they could give me a full cup so I don’t have to adjust every recipe? I’m guessing canned cream is only sold in places where even ultra-pasteurized cream won’t last between trips to the grocery store. We haven’t been shopping since December 23rd, so that would be us. I’ve tried freezing cream, but it never does return to its liquid state.

The bananas lasted five weeks, so we’ve been without since the end of January. When we first brought the bananas home, Gary cut off the tops and we stored them in a cool, dark place. After a few weeks the skin was a disgusting mix of brown, black and yellow, but the fruit was not at all overripe. We ate half a banana each on our daily oatmeal, together with half an apple, raisins and walnuts. After the bananas ran out we used banana chips while they lasted.  I did find some dried apples to simmer with our morning oatmeal and the last of the raisins, and had the presence of mind to order some walnuts from amazon.com, which we picked up when we went to the Post Office in mid-February.

Our last two bananas at the end of January. They are five weeks old and look it, but the fruit is fine.

Thanks to some friends, we also picked up eggs, yogurt and apples at the Post Office. If Brenda and Harold happen to be going to Anchorage and there’s a chance we might be coming to town, they offer to get us anything we need by way of food, hardware or other supplies. It wouldn’t be decent to give them my entire list, so I ask only for the most dearly missed items, and eggs if Brenda has some to spare from her chickens. But since Brenda and Harold weren’t around the morning we came in, they dropped the groceries off with the Postmaster. Jed handed them over with a smile as he piled the counter high with nearly two months of mail and packages. The apples brightened our breakfast for a couple of weeks, and we used the yogurt as a starter to make more yogurt. I was particularly thrilled to get eggs, since I was down to my last one, frozen in its shell. I’ve been cooking with previously-frozen eggs, but the yolk remains oddly firm even at room temperature.

I’ve stopped baking bread on the wood stove now that temperatures are higher. It requires such a hot stove, it turns the cabin into a sauna!

Despite all this, we eat well. Blueberries more than make up for whatever else is missing from our oatmeal. Canned pineapple is ambrosia to us, and it takes all our best instincts not to fight over the juice. I’ve learned to like canned beets, well enough anyway. I made quite a decent minestrone with a caribou neck bone, canned tomatoes, the last of the frozen green beans, macaroni, millet, kidney beans, frozen corn, garlic paste, dried onions and chunks of Parmesan rind. I’ve frozen lasagna made with Italian sausage, frozen spinach and reconstituted mushrooms; I don’t know how it would stand up in San Francisco, but it’s delicious here when we come home tired from logging or skiing and find it warming on the wood stove. With Brenda’s eggs I make a wonderful milk eggnog with snow; it’s like liquid ice cream. And I’ve already bragged about my newly acquired woodstove bread-baking skills. I’m using grains I never cooked with at home: dried corn in the caribou chili, barley risotto, millet, and amaranth in soups and stews. Oats, groats, kamut, and kasha sit in glass canisters on the countertop, in full view so I’ll remember to try them when I’m in an experimental mood. Cornbread baked atop the wood stove with goose fat and frozen corn is as good as it gets; if we top it with honey we hardly miss the butter. A Cornish game hen is perfect for two, with a curried stir-fry of rice and frozen mixed vegetables. And I’ve saved one lonely can of Alaskan salmon to go with my last bag of frozen spinach for a favorite pasta dish. Now, if only I had a really good wine to go with that…

Recent under-river view at my water hole.

Sunrise:  8:21 a.m.
Sunset:  7:50 p.m.
Weather: Mostly sunny and calm, high 10°, low -15°.

Taking a Leap

February 29th was as good a day as any; I was bound to fall into the river sometime. I was getting water at my usual spot, about five feet down from river’s uppermost surface of snow-covered ice, a space formed months ago when the ice collapsed down to the water’s low winter level. (See www.indeep-alaska.com/2011/12/03/riverdance/.) Only the location of my water hole remains static; I never know what I’ll find when I get there. The flux of water and weather constantly reconfigures and redecorates what I’ve come to think of as my ice room.

Gary chiseled through thick ice in early December to create our water hole, after the first one froze over.

Not long after Thanksgiving, Gary had chiseled through two feet of ice at no small effort to create a hole large enough to dip a bucket, and up until mid-January I was still using it. The ice grew until it was several inches thicker than my buckets are tall. I had to kneel and lean in deeply to force the bucket’s lip under the surface of the rushing water. A five-gallon bucket of water weighs over forty pounds, and a bucket open to a fast current seems to weigh a good deal more. Either way, bringing a full bucket up from that awkward position is almost more than I can manage.

The ice bridge, reinforced by sticks and snow.

In recent weeks, profound cold has become a rarity, with daytime highs reaching the twenties and testing the thirties. The ice surrounding my water hole thinned, subtly at first, then enough to make my job noticeably easier. One day in early February as we arrived with my bucket-filled sled, Ella and I peered down to find nothing more than a bridge of ice across open water running between narrow shores of ice on each side of the rushing water. Too cautious to make my way down to test the bridge, I left my sled and fetched Gary, who packed snow to make steps down to the lower surface. He filled my buckets, handed them up to me, and recommended I insulate and reinforce the ice bridge with more snow, together with sticks and branches. Ella thought I was collecting sticks for her; packing them in snow seemed a fine game, and she tried to pull the best ones out. But I prevailed and built up the bridge, hoping it would last awhile.

Gary has cleared an ice shelf and is building steps and a snow-and-ice platform for getting water.

Temperatures stayed high, and the warming friction of the flowing water eroded the ice bridge. In mid-February it disappeared entirely. I looked down from the upper surface, wondering whether to test the narrow ledge of ice built up at the water’s surface. Ella peered down as well. As I squatted to ponder the situation, she kissed me earnestly; she does this when she’s worried — or, as Gary tells me, when she senses that I’m worried. I decided to consult Gary again. To give me a wider surface of ice within reach of the water, he broke off a few feet of the uppermost surface with the ice chisel and let it drop, making a wider shoreline of ice accessible at water level. Up top, Gary shoveled a foot or two of snow down onto the broken ice. Now clear of snow, a patch of surface ice became a sturdy flat shelf, the perfect place to set buckets waiting to be filled. With the jumble of broken ice and snow below, Gary created rough steps down toward the water.

This ice "lily pad" with frost blossoms was destroyed when I fell in the river.

The same flowing water that eroded the ice bridge constantly creates new ice along the edges of existing ice. The young ice is beautiful, but more delicate. The day I fell in, I noticed a lily pad of ice covered with frost blossoms, and paused to take a picture before setting to work collecting water.

I aligned my buckets on the upper shelf, set each lid within reach, and accepted some nervous kisses from Ella before stepping down onto the snow and ice. The new ice had grown to over a foot in width, an awkward reach if I had to lean over it with my bucket. But it was also thicker, so I stepped on it with one foot, then with both. The ice held. I kneeled, pushing my bucket down into the flow. It filled quickly, and as I struggled to free it from the current’s pull, the ice supporting me broke free. The water isn’t deep — anywhere from two inches to two feet — but I had been kneeling and was soaked well above my waist, bucket still in hand.

I emptied the bucket and found a place for it on the ice where it wasn’t likely to topple into the current, then grabbed onto some solid ice to pull myself out. It took a moment for the water to soak through my clothes; by the time I stood up I was covered with ice. The air temperature was around zero. All I could think of was to get home and out of the clothes before I, too, turned to ice, and to see if the camera around my neck had survived. Ella had been sitting on the river at some distance and was happy enough to abandon the sled and turn homeward. If she noticed me turning into an icicle, she didn’t think it sufficient reason to fail to invite me to play ball before we reached the door.  I dried off and warmed up in front of the fire soon enough. Although the camera had barely gotten wet, it took until morning for my synthetic down coat to dry.

I dressed and went back; we still needed water. Gary was filling the buckets.

“I fell in,” I said.

“I figured,” Gary replied, handing me a full bucket to put in the sled.

I've started using the longer sled so I can bring home more water; now I only go to get water every other day.

“Didn’t you go looking for me downstream?” I wanted to know.

“No, I saw your footprints headed home. Anyway, Ella would have been running back and forth like crazy.”

Gary plays it cool, but I know he worries. Ever since, as I head out to get water, he voices his concern:

“Don’t forget to take some soap!”

Sunrise:   7:41 a.m.
Sunset:    6:32 p.m.

Gary's been putting black sunflower seeds on the feeder. The first grosbeak of the season arrived yesterday and stayed to eat his fill, despite the chickadees' best efforts to get rid of him.

Weather: High 17°, low -8°, cloudy, light snow overnight. We hit -30° the night of March 4th, the lowest it’s been for awhile, and woke up to -25° on the 5th. We’ve had some beautiful auroras and we’re expecting one tonight if it clears, but it seems to me they always come when it’s too cold to stay outside to enjoy them!