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!

Rub-a-dub-dub, No Need for a Tub

For as long as I can remember, I’ve showered to wake up, warm up and wind down as well as wash up; a hot shower is refuge and reward. Gary knew this, and perhaps he couldn’t be sure I’d ever feel at home without a shower. He fretted about making what had been more summer camp than cabin into a home in when he arrived here in June, just two-and-a-half months before I did; soon he wrote me he was building an addition to the cabin to house a shower and closet. I was pleased, of course, but felt a twinge; I’d never asked for a shower, but I knew the price, particularly in time, was dear.

Gary’s letters took me through his struggle to make a home for us from the day he returned to the cabin after two years’ absence, overwhelmed by decades of stuff and the memories it contained. Beyond the truckload of belongings he’d brought from San Francisco, Gary had enough in storage to fill a boxcar, and he actually did. The Alaska Railroad unhooked the boxcar from the train, he spent three days loading it, and when it arrived he spent another three days unloading it, filling his truck and horse trailer each time, making the thirty-mile drive down the gravel road to the cabin, unloading, and going back the next day. There was more to it than that, including a broken nose, but it was still only a small part of Gary’s challenge: to clean out the place and make a comfortable space for the two of us.

Gary got the place looking great by the time I arrived. This is the cabin's main room.

Summer days are long here, but summer itself is short. Gary had to prioritize work requiring unfrozen ground, temperate weather, abundant daylight, or any combination of these. Planting a vegetable garden, digging the foundation for the addition and for the shower’s underground drainage tank, building a small woodshed for firewood that otherwise sat on the porch, these things Gary had to do early. Making an outhouse seat – it was a simple squatter before – was a small job, but one he thought best to complete before I arrived. Building drawers, shelves and a cabinet in the kitchen gave him something to do on the frequent rainy days.

Gary had to bring in the shower stall and attach the drain before putting up exterior walls, but once that was done the shower room project gave way to more urgent matters. By then I’d arrived, and we had several multi-day trips to winterize my car, find warm clothes and skis for me, and buy a snowmachine and sled, solar panels, generators, wind turbines and provisions for winter. The cabin had never been used in winter, so Gary removed the blue metal roof, panel by panel, along with a number of squirrels’ nests, positioned new insulating foam board, and then reinstated the roof. He built yet another woodshed to accommodate the load of green birch we’d bought, and began splitting wood so I could stack it there to dry. We set up the wind tower; Gary installed the turbine and together we dug four-foot post holes for the platform we needed for the additional solar panels and managed to fix the heavy sixteen-foot six-by-six timbers in the holes with no major injuries. By this time in the season the sun was too low in the sky to reach the platform, so Gary finished building it but set aside the task of installing the panels.

The large woodshed going up.

Separated as it is from the main room with its hot wood-burning stove, the new addition is cold in winter. We close it off in extreme weather to retain heat where we need it most, but when temperatures dip much below zero we can’t imagine showering there. So priorities shifted to logging deadwood to refill firewood stores, installing the solar panels, keeping trails open and packed with the snowmachine, skiing and generally getting out to enjoy the season. With the upturn in temperatures recently Gary refocused on the new addition; he installed insulation, paneled the interior walls, built the closet and shelves, configured a workspace just big enough for his carving bench, and put finishing touches on the shower stall. He was going to paint the shower area, but previously-frozen latex paint never returns to its liquid state, come to find out. Last fall we bought a pesticide sprayer that holds three gallons, and after a certain amount of futzing it was ready to function as the shower’s mechanism.

This is the pesticide sprayer that serves as the mechanism for our new shower.

Meanwhile, we’d been making do with nightly sponge baths and the old-fashioned Saturday night bath in the galvanized steel tub. (See www.indeep-alaska.com/2011/09/27/complex-solutions-for-a-simple-world-part-ii.) Well, Saturday night for me, right before our Saturday night movie; Sunday for Gary. Gary loves his bath, reading or working Sudoku while he soaks.

I love how I feel after my bath; the experience itself is hardly relaxing. First I mix the water from one of the large stock pots on the stove with cold water or hotter water until I’ve got it just right. I kneel on a towel next to the tub and stick my head over it while Gary ladles the water onto my hair. (This sounds easy enough, but involves some rarely-used muscles to hold the position.) Once my hair is wet, Gary pauses while I lather up, then gives me a rinse. The once-weekly schedule means my hair is really dirty, so it’s rinse-lather-repeat. When we’ve decided my hair is clean and shampoo-free, I climb into the sudsy water and bathe. The process is much like any bath, except there’s no room to maneuver in the cramped space; how to get the soap to the harder-to-reach body parts is a puzzlement. When I’m done I really should rinse off the soapy water, but it’s not worth the trouble; I feel clean, and that’s enough. Of course there’s still the matter of the tubful of dirty water; we can empty it right away or trip over it until we do.

Shower, sweet shower. The room is small, so I couldn't get any farther back to take the photo!

But now we have a shower! We just fill the pesticide sprayer’s reservoir with water, pressurize it by pumping the handle maybe 150 times, carry the sprayer into the shower and, voila!  The hose is long enough to hook the nozzle up so it sprays down like a standard shower head, or it can be used like a flexible European shower handle. The nozzle works much like a miniature gas pump; it can be set for continual spraying or not.

I can shower as long as I want with about two gallons, and there’s always at least that much water warming on the stove. The water drains to the underground tank, so I can just relax when I’m done. It’s not the same as the kind of showers I’ve known and loved before — nothing’s the same here. But I guess that’s the point.

Happy Leap Year! Ella spotted the elusive snowshoe hare for me. The hare's not posing; he thinks I can't see him!

Sunrise: 8:11 a.m.
Sunset:  6:06 p.m.
Weather:  High 30°, low 16° and snowing. We’ve gotten about six inches of snow since Saturday night.

Ten Things I’ll Miss About Winter and Seven Things I Won’t

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“Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes” aren’t nearly as lovely as the ones that hide yellow snow. And you won’t find me singing about warm woolen mittens, which are just straitjackets for hands; if they didn’t rhyme with “kittens,” I truly doubt Julie Andrews would have sung about them either.

“Winter solstice marks the death of winter,” Gary wrote me years ago.

Early evening colors

I feel the truth of it. Daily life now reflects the tone and tempo of longer, warmer days. We don’t rise early, but we do rise earlier, usually before 8:30; we still fix dinner shortly after dark. A surprising number of hours intervene, temperate and bright, perfect for wood gathering, skiing, snowshoeing, all sorts of outdoor work and play. We’ve rediscovered lunch, irrelevant since sometime in November. When I moved here, I had no idea there would be so much to love about winter, or that I would actually worry about its passing. Here’s what I’ll miss most:

Our resident moose calf is about eight months old and has lost his (or her) mama.

1)      A constant fire in the wood stove, which can be a great slow cooker or hot fire for baking, as well as a hot water heater; it keeps us warm and its dancing flames are a joy to behold.

2)      Long underwear. It may not be a joy to behold, but it’s no worse than sweats or yoga pants when company comes unexpectedly, and it’s incredibly comfortable.

3)      Slow mornings and long evenings spent in front of the fire in our long underwear.

Sundog at sunset

4)  Sunrise and sunset extending through most of the short day, with occasional sundogs in between.

5)      Animal tracks in the snow. We follow the comings and goings of caribou, fox, wolverine, martens, voles and mice, and the snowshoe hare whose presence has brought a lynx to the neighborhood. We have a resident moose calf whose mom disappeared a week or so ago, and see him (or her) most days, but still count on tracks in the snow to see where he’s been and where he’s made his bed.

View under river's surface at my water hole

6)      The changing beauty of ice and snow.

7)      Snow travel: skis, snowshoes and sleds for hauling, sleds for riding, and mushers on sleds.

8)      Northern Lights. A Valentine’s Day aurora started around 9:00 at night and was still going strong when we gave up and went to bed at 5:30.

Valentine's Day aurora

9)      The frozen river, an ever-changing highway through a landscape shared only by the animals.

10)   Room in the refrigerator (which we turn off in winter) to store empty pots and pans.

I could only come up with seven things I won’t miss about winter:

I dropped this glove on my daily walk and found it the next day. A raven or fox or something thought it might be tasty!

1)  Without opposable thumbs, what am I? That’s how I feel bundled up in gloves and mittens, which fail to protect me anyway because I have to take them off to do anything requiring fine motor skills (like putting on skis or snowshoes); once I do, they disappear or fall in the snow and turn icy and cold.

2)      Yellow snow. Also, snow and ice on the outhouse seat in a layer so thin as to be indiscernible until it’s too late.

3)      Traveling to town and beyond: it makes going to the airport the day before Thanksgiving look pleasant. www.indeep-alaska.com/2011/12/16/three-days-to-thanksgiving/

4)      Congealed shampoo and cooking oil. Peanut oil stays liquid at lower temperatures than olive oil, but there are times when even it won’t pour out of the bottle.

5)      The way the icy door refuses to latch shut, blowing open when we least expect it.

They look awful, but if you trim the tops off the green bananas and store them in a cool dark place, the fruit will not get overripe for several weeks. These bananas were six weeks old.

6)      Trying to keep produce useable for months on end. Only carrots, onions, apples and bananas last more than a few weeks, but now — after nearly two months since we resupplied in Anchorage — the carrots don’t look great, I wash mold off the apples each morning before slicing them onto our oatmeal, and we’ve run out of onions and bananas.

7)      Stepping in my stocking feet on snow tracked into the house.

We could still have a cold snap, but change is in the air. The chickadees returned three weeks ago; temperatures have been hovering in the twenties and low thirties for two weeks now, with only quick dips below zero. Spring here is a season of snow and sun, and I’m sure it will be lovely. I’m just not quite ready to give up my winter pleasures.

Valentine's Day aurora view past the wind tower

Sunrise:  8:47 a.m.
Sunset:   5:32 p.m.
Weather:  High 26°, low 18°, mostly cloudy and calm.

Small Victories

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I once read that happiness in life is most often found among those who continually take on challenges, challenges small enough to make success achievable but not so small as to ensure it. Researchers found that happy people stretch themselves, maybe just a little, but often. Meeting the tests successfully more often than not, their sense of achievement, self-determination and self-assurance grows, and this seems to lead to happiness.

Work of any definition can be fertile ground for pursuing happiness through challenge. I was lucky to have mentors in my career who fed me a steady diet of challenges I could (with their support) manage successfully often enough to get beyond my failings and not infrequent failures. My challenges now are, arguably, much smaller; they are surer of success, and in success or failure negligible in their impact on others. In a recent post (www.indeep-alaska.com/2012/01/30/division-of-labor-2) I mentioned a few: learning to build a fire, drive a snowmachine, stack wood, and can berries.

My second attempt at woodstove yeast bread, a little oddly shaped as I had to flip it over to brown the top.

I’ve been learning to bake atop our wood stove. With varying degrees of success I’ve made pumpkin and cranberry-orange quickbreads, chocolate chip cookies, brownies, sweet potato biscuits and lasagna. I finally conquered my long-standing fear of baking with yeast by attempting French bread. The first loaf was heavy and dense, successful mainly as a butter-delivery system and because it had been ever so long since we’d had bread. But the second loaf and all that followed were really good, excellent even. The big surprise was how easy it is, yet it took so long for me to try. (It’s so easy, in fact, I was making a loaf a day in hopes of freezing a supply, but had to stop. We were eating most of it hot off the stove, a daily feast of refined grain slathered in butter.)

Homeward bound, looking upriver as we return from logging

This week I’ve been learning to tie knots, and was pleased with myself all out of proportion when I used a bowline knot to secure my snowshoes (I wasn’t wearing them!) to the sled I was hauling behind the snowmachine. That was another first: as Gary led the way downriver to the woods to do some logging, I followed in his old snowmachine, smaller and less stable than our new one. I’d never driven it before — never driven on river ice either, for that matter — and Gary had warned me the machine tips easily. So I declined to try when he suggested it last week. When he mentioned it again yesterday, I felt ready. Snowmachines have seats; at least they look like seats and feel like seats, but God forbid you actually sit down. I had to stand or put one knee on the seat in order to shift my weight quickly enough to stay upright through uneven snowdrifts and curves. On the return trip I carried a sled full of skinny logs we’ll use as poles, which Gary had carefully tied down. Good thing he did: I was so focused on the path ahead, the whole load could have slipped off and I wouldn’t have noticed. It didn’t, of course, and we all got home without incident. It’s a victory of modest measure, but satisfying still.

Home from logging with both snowmachines

In my past life, when free time was in short supply and home life unhappy, I found it difficult to extend myself. Baking a loaf of bread seemed too much to attempt. I did take up running, a fair challenge. But that was nearly twenty years ago, and it’s no coincidence I wasn’t working at the time.

I’m proud of friends and family whose work touches lives, directly or indirectly, and in so doing contributes importantly to the larger world. It isn’t only by comparison that my victories here are small, their impact isolated. But these little victories change me. One at a time they broaden my understanding of the possible, bring me joy and renewal, and ready me for challenges — great and small — that lie ahead.

Spruce grouse in a spruce tree in our yard

Sunrise:  9:06 a.m.
Sunset:  5:14 p.m.
Weather: High 32°, low 24°, breezy with occasional snow.

NOTE: I’ve added a glossary of Alaskan terms to the website as a separate page at www.indeep-alaska.com/glossary-of-alaskan-terms/. Enjoy!

Return of the Sun and Making the Grade

Return of the Sun

On Tuesday, January 24th, I used my red pen to record one of the year’s highlights: for the first time in months, sunlight streamed through the kitchen window.

Winter solstice is a tease. It took four days after the solstice to gain one minute of daylight. But now, more than a month later, each day is about six minutes longer than its predecessor. That may not seem like much but it adds up quickly, and the shifting rhythm of the day keeps me off balance. I find myself ready to settle in for the evening with an hour of daylight to spare, or I forget to start dinner until dark, not soon enough when the freezer’s operating at thirty below. Our shortest days were four hours and thirty-two minutes long, and today we have seven hours and eighteen minutes of daylight.

Sun on the riverbed at 3:37 p.m. on January 23rd, the day before it finally streamed through our window

We’d been watching, wondering when the sun’s arc would rise over our hill high enough to hit the window. We’d seen sun hit the trees and riverbed, but we’d had no direct sun since November and no wind for weeks.  That left us dependent on our gas generator to charge the large (128-lb.) batteries we draw from when we use electricity. But when the batteries wouldn’t hold a charge, Gary discovered one was dead. The end result — which is all I fully understand — is that we can use as much electricity as we want for the six hours it takes the generator to run out of gas (it holds a gallon and a half), but without the generator we’re limited to the radio and maybe a quick check of email or brief use of an electric light. That is, unless we get sun on the solar panels or a good sustained wind. We’re comfortable working in the dimmer light of our propane lamps and staying offline for a couple of days at a time, but eventually our tools, computers and cameras need charging. The generator is noisy and keeps us glued to our computers as we work to take full advantage of it, so we’d rather not use it. With the return of the sun, Gary focused on putting up the additional solar panels he’d bought last fall. On the 24th we began work in earnest.

“Do you want to stay on the ground or work up on the platform?” Gary asked as we prepared to hoist the set of eight panels onto the twelve-foot high platform.

We got the panels up! Gary is fixing them to the platform before connecting them.

“I can guide them, but I can’t lift them,” I answered, assuming that would mean staying on the ground.

“OK, climb up then,” Gary replied.

Oh, well. He pushed as he climbed, I guided and supported the panels with a rope, and Ella looked on, emitting worried whimpers.

Tools freeze to the platform, hands stiffen in the extreme cold. It was about 38 below here.

Gary’s work was slowed by the weather, which stayed between twenty below and forty-five below the days he was outside. When I went up the ladder to help him mark a metal brace for cutting, the felt pen tip iced up. Wire becomes inflexible and brittle, tools freeze to the platform, and metal is so cold to the touch that it burns. Gary was in and out of the cabin every few minutes to warm up or cut a piece of metal or wiring, or to do small tasks that in any other weather he would have done on the platform as he worked, like finding the right bolt from his bucket of nuts, bolts and screws. We didn’t know we’d see temperatures rise nearly eighty degrees this week, so he pressed on. He finished the wiring around midnight a week ago Friday, and the next day we woke to clear skies and eight new (used) solar panels feeding the batteries.

Making the Grade

Heavy equipment crosses the bridge

Months ago we heard a rumor in town that the military, or possibly a mining company, was planning to have our road plowed this winter. We weren’t sure what this would mean to us. If it were actually plowed, we might have trouble getting to town by snowmachine, riding on the less stable shoulder. We have Gary’s diesel truck here, but it doesn’t like the cold.

Gary took Ella up the road Tuesday morning last week, and when he returned he simply said “Go check out the road.”

The grader followed the heavy equipment out, leaving the road smooth again.

The machine had come and gone, leaving a hard-packed surface so smooth I could almost skate on it in my mukluks. A grader normally pushes, whereas this machine was like a Sno-Cat dragging behind, but for lack of a better term, I’ll call it a grader. It was preparing the road for the military or mining equipment.

A few days later, once the smooth road had set up, we saw the grader heading east, followed by huge semis with tracks replacing the tires, which made a mess of the grader’s work. The crew has been back and forth a few times since then, even carving a graded path to our snow shelter outside the campground as it made a U-turn. The other day the equipment haulers carried a load west, toward town, with the grader (mercifully) following. Today they headed east, apparently headed back for another load.

Sunrise:  9:30 a.m.
Sunset:   4:38 p.m.
Weather: High 28°, low 26°, high winds, light and blowing snow. This is 76 degrees higher than it was at -48°, where we stood most of the day Sunday.

Ella checks out the smooth road.

Division of Labor

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When I arrived here last August I watched Gary, guest-like, for a few days and then took on the simplest, most familiar tasks. I could do dishes, get water, and sweep with minimal instruction, but that was about it. While I can build and stoke the fire now, it took some practice.  Gary taught me how to clean and can the berries we picked, dig post holes and provide a second set of hands for raising the wind tower and solar platform. I gather brush and use it to build small bonfires for burning garbage. I learned to stack wood the hard way. I tried splitting wood, but had trouble controlling the heavy axe and abandoned the effort while I still had all my toes. Everyone I’ve met here can split wood — unless they’re at least forty-five years older or younger than I am — so I know I’ll have to master it eventually.

I learned how to stack wood the hard way! (see http://www.indeep-alaska.com/2011/09/ Sights and Surprises)

As things have settled out this winter I usually make coffee and breakfast.  Dinnertime comes too early to make lunch worthwhile, but as days grow longer that will change. Either one of us might make dinner, with a goal of having leftovers to reheat for a future meal or two. Gary sharpens the knives and I keep the kitchen supplies filled from the upstairs pantry (bedroom) where our fifty-pound sack of oatmeal and ten- and twenty-five pound sacks of various types of flour, lentils, pasta and grains reside.

I never learned the skilled trades that make up much of Gary’s work — logging, milling, construction and setting up alternative energy systems — so I’ve gratefully retained many of the minimum-wage jobs. I missed having a dishwasher when I first arrived, but a month or two later found myself telling Aunt Vee I was surprised to find I actually didn’t mind doing dishes.

“Warm water,” she replied knowingly.

Yes, that might explain it.

Fire in the hole!

I do miss having a sink that drains properly; we’re not sure whether the underground tank is full, clogged or frozen, but the sink now drains into a bucket. As often as not, Gary carries the bucket out to the compost pile. This saves me some laundry, as I frequently manage to slop the contents on my pants leg. Since we do laundry by hand between trips to town, we each do our own; as you might imagine, nothing gets washed before its time.  We don’t have a bathroom to clean, but the outhouse isn’t entirely maintenance-free. We have a problem common to outhouses in the frozen north, a stalagmite of sorts, so Gary gamely doused it with diesel fuel and lit a match. I hope that will be the end of that.

At least the ice chisel wasn't buried! The shovel is just to the left -- see it? Me neither. For more on the water hole, see http://www.indeep-alaska.com/2011/12/03/Riverdance/

One of my favorite jobs has been getting water. In this weather, though, it’s a much harder task, so I try to get enough for two days when I go. A couple of weeks ago I found snowdrifts encroaching on my view of the icescape under the river’s surface. Snow is stealing my room; as I shovel a space for myself around the water, I’m at a loss to know where to put it all. Shoveling it up to the surface is tiring. I did push some into the hole, but the ice on the river bottom is thickening, and I worry that dumping large quantities might hasten the day when the hole is too shallow.

It was thirty-eight below when I went to get water the other day. My gloves iced up, so I switched them out for the mittens in my pocket. The plastic dipping bucket grew impossibly heavy with ice; I removed the worst of the buildup with the ice chisel, careful not to break the plastic, brittle in the cold. Ice on the buckets’ rims and lids frustrated my efforts to seal them. As my water spilled, new ice formed an imperfect seal, so I tried to coax the buckets into staying upright as I pulled the sled home. One refused, so I knocked ice from the buckets and sled and made a second trip.

Gary reopening the water hole in -48 degree weather

I looked downriver to the sunset-pink Alaska Range; in the bitter cold I could see ice fog steaming from an open lead of water a hundred yards away. I’ll have to check it out; it might just be my next watering hole. Yesterday Gary and I went together to get water; it was forty-eight below. The hole, vigilantly protected with spruce boughs and snow, had nevertheless frozen over, and Gary had to reopen it with the ice chisel.

I want to be learning and doing more, particularly outdoors. Gary usually maintains the paths around our little campus, packing them every few days with the snowmachine. Recently he suggested I take over occasionally as a way of getting more comfortable with driving the thing. It may not have been wise to take him up on it on Friday the thirteenth, the day after our biggest snowfall and windstorm.

I started down the main drive toward the gate, circled past Gary’s truck and the logs we’d had delivered last summer — well, past the truck, certainly, but quite possibly over the logs. Gary breaks trail around the nearby campground so mushers and others can access the outhouses there. I was feeling confident, so rode out the gate to the campground. The snow was deep, his path completely obliterated, but how hard could it be?

Instead of a picture of another tipped snowmachine, I'll show you the view from the solar platform as we were working to set up the new panels.

I tipped over just past the first picnic table. I walked home for the shovel, but after shoveling long and hard the snowmachine still wouldn’t budge. I looked up when Ella whimpered to see Gary skiing toward us. Once we had the snow shoveled out of the way, he grabbed a handlebar and put all his weight on the skyward-facing running board of the machine to right it.

“Will you be able to finish the loop?” he asked.

The only thing I was confident of now was that I would not be able to steer through the turn, so Gary rode the full loop. He explained that I should never sit down while breaking trail and gave me other tips on how to avoid tipping, then left it to me to reinforce the path and continue my work. I made it back home and began reinforcing paths around the cabin and outbuildings. You could say I got stuck once again, or many more times, depending on how you count; I tipped, shoveled, inched forward and back, got stuck, shoveled, inched forward and back…you get the idea. At one point I got going and had to floor it to keep moving. I was heading directly, and rapidly, for the tool shed. A vole heard me coming and got out of there in a big hurry.

I missed the shed but thoroughly demolished what had once been a path; Gary shoveled for quite awhile to level things out.

“Can you drive the path now?” he asked when he’d finished.

No.

“I’m not sure I can either,” he sighed, but mercifully took over to repair the damage.

Gary rode over the scarred path, and then I rode it myself as reinforcement, for the path and for myself. I learned some good lessons that day: be prepared; don’t sit on your butt; use your weight judiciously; if you feel yourself losing balance, stop and take stock; if you can’t move forward, go back and try again; and don’t be chicken.

We have more hungry moose browsing in the extreme cold. This moose on our drive surprised me as much as I surprised her!

Sunrise:  9:39 a.m.
Sunset:   4:39 p.m.
Weather:
High, -8°; low, -21°, calm and partly cloudy. Yesterday it was -48°. Go figure!

Easily Amused

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We spend our free time much as you might: we read, cook, work puzzles, enjoy a movie and popcorn most Saturday nights, walk, hike and ski. We have plenty of free time now, particularly when it gets too cold to stay outside long, and are always looking for new ways to amuse ourselves. Here’s what we’ve been up to lately:

Gimme Shelter

Ella's making a U-turn, heading back to me full speed in a game of Chicken

One of our favorite pastimes is to walk down the road, checking for signs of wildlife, snowmachine traffic or dog teams. Ella bounces ahead, turning to take a bite of snow before racing back to us in a game of chicken, then falls behind as she finds something good to sniff, taste or roll in. As Ella and I neared the end of our walk the other day, we found Gary in front of the campground entrance, shoveling snow into a pile. He couldn’t have been at it long, but already it was as tall as he is. I knew what it was — he’d been talking of building a snow shelter there. Just for fun, mainly, but it could serve a traveler stranded by weather, or by recalcitrant machines or dogs.

By the time we got back from our walk, Gary had piled most of the snow for the shelter

We let it set up for a couple of days. After Gary shoveled out the arched entrance, we took turns: one of us would get on our belly or back, carving snow from the interior while the other scraped and shoveled the resulting snow-debris out. It didn’t take long before we could kneel inside, making the work quicker and a lot more fun. Within an hour or two, the shelter was in move-in condition. Now as we walk by, we check to see if we’ve had any visitors.

It's plenty roomy in there!

A long tunnel entrance, like those in igloo cartoons, would make the shelter warmer, but getting the snow out through the narrow opening would not have been fun. It’s not too late; enough snow is piled up to the side of the entrance, we could add the tunnel and close off the existing entrance. The urge to remodel — it must be universal.

Secret Lives of Dogs

Like any family member, Ella has certain responsibilities. She’s a shepherd, so she keeps her flock of two together if she can and, failing that, keeps a protective eye on the one she’s with. She cleans the floor of crumbs and spills, and tells us when it’s time for dinner. Her ears are on constant alert, and she’ll give a little “woof” for something just interesting enough to comment on, a sharp bark if it’s noteworthy, and a growl if she perceives a threat.

Ella gets a biscuit for accompanying us to the outhouse. When she hears the words “who wants to go poop?” she’s at the ready. We feed her the biscuit slowly, in pieces, and then she wanders out of sight. Gary told me early on if Ella growls it’s wise to get up, ready or not, to check out the threat. Not long ago I rushed out to see a moose disappearing toward the creek. But usually she waits silently, and when I emerge she is consistently sitting just a few feet away on the drive, positioned with a good view of the area.

Ella alerts us to moose; these took one look at us and crossed the river

I was in the cabin the other day when Ella went with Gary to the outhouse. She devoured her biscuit and went to sit at her post. I stopped to watch from the window. After a moment she stretched, as she so often does, the “downward dog” followed by a “salute to the sun.” Then, without warning or apparent provocation she raced to the cabin and back. As though conjuring an imaginary playmate she bowed in invitation to play, bounced in a 180-degree turn and bowed again. After a half-dozen repetitions, she raced to the cabin again, on the way performing a single lutz – a mid-air 360-degree turn – without breaking stride. She ran back to her spot, then toward the creek. She tore back past the outhouse and circled the cabin at full speed before returning to her post.

There she sat, sedately, when Gary emerged.

Birdbrain

Once the snows settled in for good, we began feeding the birds. Canadian Jays are not shy – hence their other name, Camp Robbers. I noticed one flitting and flirting about the front of the cabin as I went in and out with morning chores.

“You could put a few pieces of Ella’s food on the windowsill,” Gary suggested.

Canadian Jay begging at the kitchen window

The next morning when the Jay saw me and started his song, I stepped back inside to grab a handful of dog food. I placed it on the kitchen’s outer sills. I was barely inside when the Jay landed, picking up at least three pieces before flying off. His friends have joined in, and I wait for them to make themselves known each morning before I put food out.

As I was carrying a bucket of dirty dishwater to the compost pile recently, I saw a piece of dog food in the snow. Some greedy bird must have dropped it on the way to his cache. Ella was uncharacteristically slow to notice.

“Ella!” I called and pointed. “Git it!”

Ella looked twice as if unsure of my meaning, but she ate it, and then a second piece I found nearby. The next day I found more pieces near the outhouse.

“Git it!” I pointed, and this time she didn’t hesitate.

“I’m thinking of cutting back on the Jays’ food,” I told Gary as we walked toward the river. “They’re dropping pieces and not coming back for them,” I said, pointing to a spot where several pieces lay.

Gary laughed. And laughed. He almost fell over laughing, but finessed it so I was the one who landed in the snow.

“That’s rabbit poop!” he gasped, pointing to the “dog food.”

Ella looked, too. Without waiting to be told, she gobbled it up.

Sunrise: 10:00 a.m.
Sunset:  4:14 p.m.

Another beautiful sunset

Weather:  High 0°, Low -6°, much warmer than the -30’s we’ve been seeing (down to -42° Friday). Light, steady snow.

Breaking the Ice

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Trailblazing. The word speaks of adventure, even danger. Here it’s part housekeeping, too: something that, once done, refuses to stay done.

Home from harvesting firewood along the river

Our snowmachine is a workhorse. We ride it to town and back, attach a sled to haul luggage, logs, lumber — anything that needs hauling — and we pack trails. Every few days Gary rides out to pack the paths we want to travel, creating a solid base and literally smoothing our way, building a network of trails on the river and on nearby ATV roads. Walking, skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmachining is more difficult on soft snow. Our large, stable snowmachine has a wide track allowing it to float where others might founder. Still, it can get pulled in toward deep, soft drifts, and at 650 pounds it’s a heavy machine.

As many afternoons as time and weather permit, Gary and I ski the river. More private and scenic than the road, it’s a veritable highway compared to the hummocky, spruce-covered tundra. More than two feet of snow covers the ice in most places now; our skis sink and we trudge more than glide without a groomed trail. We also need a path into the woods to harvest dead trees for firewood. So Gary uses the snowmachine to break new trail and reinforce existing trail weakened by snow or wind-drifts.

Ella and I stand by as Gary breaks trail on the river, avoiding fissures

Obstacles and fissures in the river’s icy shell hide under snow, so breaking trail can be tricky. That’s why Ella and I generally stay home when Gary is trailblazing. He goes prepared, knowing he could crash through the ice or get stuck. Two weeks ago he headed out to extend the downstream trail.

“When should I start worrying?” I asked.

“I should be back in a couple of hours, but don’t worry if I don’t make it home tonight. If I run into trouble and feel I have to get back here, that’s where the real danger lies. I might try to come home when instead I should stop and start a fire to dry myself,” he explained.

“When should we start looking for you?”

“Five days,” he replied. A kiss and he was gone.

A couple of hours later Ella and I heard the hum of the snowmachine. The trip was a success, and since then we have been enjoying new scenery on the longer trail. Skiing along, we circumvent a snowmachine-sized section of ice that has collapsed three feet onto a lower layer.

Gary and Ella circumvent the site of the snowmachine water landing

“The tail of the machine had just passed over when the ice fell in,” Gary explained.

A few days later he decided to break trail upstream. I was looking forward to skiing upriver, both for a different view and because the gentle downstream slope is a big help when I turn home tired. Gary came back before I even thought about worrying. But I should have worried.

He had only gone a half mile upstream when he crashed through the ice. Our shiny new snowmachine stood on its tail in the deep water, fast-flowing about three feet under the surface ice.

“I’m glad I wasn’t there to see it,” I said.

“If you’d been with me, you’d have gone in,” he replied, laughing but serious.

Gary rescued the snowmachine with a come-along – a hand-held winch. With no trees near, he tied it to a dwarf birch, a leafless bush about the size of a large bouquet. The surface ice held as the winch shortened the cable, notch by notch, pulling the machine up and out, no worse for the wear.

I would have called it a day, but Gary finished breaking the trail as planned. The next day we skied past the site of the accident and even saw snow-white ptarmigan take flight just where he’d seen them the day before.

A week ago Friday Gary invited me to join him re-packing the downstream river trail. He had just run it the day before, but after the night’s snowfall wanted to extend it into the woods where he’d seen a stand of dead spruce. We’d harvested some a few weeks ago, but as Gary says, firewood is like money in the bank. We have three woodsheds partially filled with spruce and birch, but much of it is green. If we hit a long cold snap we’ll burn wood quickly with no way to replenish — the chain saw works haltingly if at all once it gets much below zero.

Gary uses the come-along to pull the snowmachine into an upright position

We rode together on the river, Ella running behind, but I got off just before Gary started up the steep riverbank into the woods. I was going to follow in my snowshoes, a gift from my former colleagues. The snowshoes are fantastic – once on, they stay on, but getting them on and off isn’t easy. I struggled with the clasps as he drove off. I was putting on the second snowshoe when Ella began to whimper. I looked up to see the snowmachine tipped on its side about thirty feet away. Gary pushed and I pulled, but in the end he used the come-along to right the machine. That done, he rode into the woods while I shoveled snow in the hole where the machine had rested, to prevent another mishap.

We followed the beautiful lights at sunset

We rode home toward a prism of color, blowing snow caught by the setting sun. We took a detour down the road, with the nearly-full January moon floating over the Alaska range in a pink sky to the north, and a setting sun with sundogs left and right to the south.

The moon over the Alaska Range, taken at the same time as the sunset picture above

When we got up Saturday it was just below zero, a bit cold for the chain saw but worth a try. I set out first on my “bushwhackers,” short, fat skis for rough terrain. Gary soon passed me, and more than once I found myself detouring around breaks in the ice caused by the snowmachine. I arrived as Gary was cutting the first tree, and was just out of my skis when another snowmachine arrived. We hadn’t seen another soul since Christmas Eve. It was Jim, the local state trooper (see “Snowed In?,” October, 2011). He had promised to check on us this winter, but we were always away from the cabin when he stopped by.

“It looks like the ice broke under you in a few places,” Jim observed.

Gary told Jim how he’d fallen through the ice upstream; Jim’s story was more dramatic. We’d already heard about a solo hiker gone missing in a cold snap, and Jim was one of the two troopers who had made the rescue.

“My machine went through the ice, and I was wet up to my waist. It was thirty-five below. But we got the guy out alive,” Jim said, “and I got a new snowmachine.”

Jim left and Gary began cutting the downed trees into eighteen-inch segments to fit our stove. I stacked them in the sled and dragged branches to a small bonfire. Dusk was falling when Gary set down his chainsaw and finished securing the wood with ropes. I put away my skis and rode home. Our headlight broke the darkness as we returned on the river, Ella running behind the sled. I held my breath, but the ride was uneventful. Before setting out from home I’d pulled a pot of turkey noodle soup from the porch; cold and hungry, we were happy to find it hot atop our wood stove.

Sunrise: 10:10 a.m.
Sunset: 
4:02 p.m.
Weather:
High -28°, low -42°, calm, sunny day, starry night. We did get four to six inches of snow on January 12th, but nothing like they’re seeing closer to the coast!

Tonight Will Be a Stormy Night

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To-night will be a stormy night
You to the Town must go,
And take a lantern with you, dear,
To light you through the snow
Adapted from “Lucy Gray” by William Wordsworth

These words come to me as I step outdoors. My mother had memorized “Lucy Gray” as a schoolgirl and my siblings will remember how she used these lines — just a bit changed from the original — to tell us to take care as we headed out in bad weather. We were in Southern California; bad weather meant rain.

It’s snowing. The wind has been howling for the last twenty-four hours. We had thirty-degree weather last night; the mercury is plummeting and we expect to wake up to thirty below tomorrow. The bang of shutters against the wall unnerves Ella when she’s alone at night, and she tries to climb the loft stairs to join us.

Red sky at morning, mushers take warning

Cordova, on the coast, has fifteen feet of snow with no sign of relief. Once they dig out the town they’ll start digging out the ski lifts. We hear coastal forecasts calling for “frozen spray,” so bad this year that eagles with ice-laden wings have been seen, unable to fly. Our local NPR station is based at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks; weather reports include a listing of which campus parking lots have lost power to the headbolts, outlets to plug in the essential engine blankets.

We’ve been lucky so far. The snow has come in polite little batches, an inch or two at a time just when it was wanted for skiing or to provide a fresh slate for viewing animal tracks or, well, to cover up the yellow snow. But we’ve had several inches of snow today, and it’s still going strong.

The river is changing as the ice buckles and the snow drifts

So far it hasn’t caused us any real inconvenience. I did have to dig about four feet of it off my watering hole, which was so filled with drifted snow that I had to be careful not to step anywhere near the hole itself as I shoveled out, in case I guessed wrong about its exact placement. As it turns out, I wouldn’t have gone far: ice on the river bottom is so thick that the water is barely deep enough to accommodate my bucket.

But even without huge amounts of snow, drifts can become dangerous. Sunday was windy, too, so we stayed indoors and took the opportunity to go online while our wind turbine hummed busily. An email from our friend Jayne put us on alert — friends of hers were stranded on the road twenty miles from us. The couple was traveling by dog team and snowmachine when the snowmachine got stuck in drifting snow. Late in the day a second email arrived, letting us know they were safely settled for the night under a tarp. By then the wind had died down and the sky was clear. The temperature fell steadily as Gary split wood late that afternoon.

We checked email Monday morning, getting word that some folks from town were heading out. By then it was thirty-two below, and we were thirty miles closer to the stranded travelers. I hurried breakfast and filled a thermos with coffee for Gary to take, along with some food and a week’s supply of Ella’s dog food, a mere snack for a team of fourteen dogs. Gary packed snowshoes, a shovel and axe, the come-along, a sleeping bag, fire starter, extra warm clothes, and packages of handwarmers.

He was gone two or three hours before Ella heard our snowmachine and trotted out to meet him and Mark, who followed right behind. Mark was exhausted, his cheeks red and his hands cold and cramped. I quickly made coffee. While we sat around the fire, Gary told how he had gotten stuck twice on the way, once within 100 yards of reaching Mark.

“I got stuck because I slowed down when I saw him,” Gary said.
—It’s easy to get stuck

“I was so happy to see someone else get stuck too,” Mark laughed. “It wasn’t just me! I am so tired of shoveling.”

Lawrence and Will, the folks who’d come in from town, soon joined us; they had reached Mark and Gary just as they had finished shoveling out. I made more coffee.

Gary had come upon Debbie, Mark’s wife, before he reached Mark. Her dog team was in a tangle, so Gary helped sort them out. Drifts can leave dogs — not to mention people — up to their eyeballs, or worse. Without a trail packed by snowmachine, mushers sometimes resort to snowshoeing in front of their dogs. As we talked, we heard Debbie’s dogs; she wouldn’t stop in but did take a break to feed the dogs nearby, comforted perhaps to be near people. Her day would be a long one, so Mark stayed on awhile, knowing he would pass her on the way to town.

Jayne looks on as Anitra gets ready to go.

Mark and Debbie got home safely Monday. By Tuesday the weather had warmed above zero, and Jayne came up by snowmachine. Her dog team followed shortly, run by her young friend Anitra, who was enjoying the last day of her winter break from college. Wednesday, yesterday, was lovely, with dramatic skies and temperatures heading up toward freezing. After a sunrise walk down the river with the dogs, they wisely hurried home. The storm blew in only after the day was done.

Ella entertains her friends

Usually Ella and I take a detour on our way to get water, walking or trotting up the road a piece to see (and, in Ella’s case, smell) who’s been out there. We look for tracks of snowmachines, sled dogs, and wildlife. We didn’t go today; tracks don’t last in this weather. But the snow will stop, and in the next day or two we will be walking in the winter sun, bundled up not against wind and snow, but against cold and clear.

Sunrise: 10:24 a.m.
Sunset:  3:43 p.m.
Weather: High, 10°, Low -4°, howling wind. Snow decreasing; had a few inches of accumulation today.

Mush! The team heads home in a window of good weather.

A Time for Everything

Gary working on the spring moon panel in his new workspace

We were happy the day we loaded Gary’s workbench—a table, really—onto the sled and brought it out from storage to the cabin. The addition is largely complete: the new closet and shelving have been in use for weeks, and the shower stands in its corner awaiting plumbing. That leaves just enough room for the workbench under the larger of two windows. It pleases me to see Gary reunited with his carving tools, coaxing a playful spring moon from a plank of Alaskan yellow cedar. Sometimes I stand quietly at his elbow as he redefines a shape or a shadow, his focus unwavering. When he comes away from his work I smell the wood’s sweet must clinging to his beard.

Gary at Art Explosion during Open Studios 2010. One of his earlier moon panels is hanging behind him. Credit: David Gartner Photography, http://www.versusgoliath.com

This is by no means the best workspace he’s had, but it’s not the worst. Gary started the spring moon panel—the fourth in a series—in San Francisco, where he carved full-time. When he first moved to the City he did his carving in a bland space at Art Explosion, a studio rental business on the outskirts of the Mission District. The place was as quiet as a library but, in general, not as friendly. Another artist working in wood tipped Gary off to better, cheaper space by Highway 101 at Cesar Chavez. It was one of a number of Connex units, a tin can quick to overheat in the sun and offering no relief from the din of the freeway, but more functional for practitioners of the noisier, dustier arts, inventors and artists working in wood and metal.

Box in Alaskan Yellow Cedar

Gary is a carver, not a craftsman or furniture maker. He can make lovely furniture, more rustic than refined, as well as other functional pieces, but when he does it’s often a platform for his love of carving. Gary’s first gift to me from his own hand was a large box, whose lid of Alaskan yellow cedar depicts a horse running free under the moon.

Gary and his ponies heading to grazing ground

He’d known from my first summer visit to Alaska that I loved horses. Gary had Swiss Haflingers then, beautiful palomino ponies, and we took them to graze at a pastoral swath of tundra. It wasn’t too far to walk, but we had horses! So we rode. I couldn’t mount even a pony bareback, though, so first Gary leaned low and offered his back as a footstool. We’d just met, really—this was in 2004—and I was horrified, self-conscious, and sure I would hurt him. He was sure I wouldn’t. I gingerly put my foot on my human step stool and settled myself as lightly as possible. I remember when we got to the pasture we staked only one of the four ponies; Gary explained that the small herd would stay together, safer with three unfettered horses free to respond to any threat by predators.

So Gary knew I loved horses, but he didn’t know I’m also drawn to beautiful boxes. He made the cedar box for me when he got back to Alaska after his cancer surgery in Portland.

One of Gary's Merangels

When I brought the box from San Francisco, inside I placed two “merangels” Gary had made, mermaid angels I bought from Gary a few years ago. They fly as gracefully over our table here as they did over our dining table in the City. When he was living in San Francisco, Gary was making a similar pair on commission. I came across a note he had written as a reminder to order “ruby nipples.” I was relieved to find out they were intended for the merangels.

Nesting ptarmigan bowl in birch burl

The winged mermaids came to Gary in a dream. Other ideas come from nature, such as an oblong “marriage bowl” with the head of a raven on one side and the head of a wolf on the other. Out here, we see from the presence of ravens where there might be a kill; ravens once led me to the backbone of a caribou, which we hung as a bird feeder in our yard. Wolves watch the ravens, too, and provide meat for the birds that help them hunt. A bowl Gary made from birch burl, a nesting ptarmigan, went to my cousin Glenn and his bride, Terri, who got married last month. Glenn’s sister, Joan, asked Gary to make her a remembrance using part of the mane of her beloved horse, Kenai, and he made a dance stick. The dance stick, masks, and moon series illustrate how much of Gary’s work is influenced by the art of aboriginal peoples along the Pacific “rim of fire.”

Masks and decorative lintel at Open Studios 2010

Though his workspace is less than ideal, cramped as it is between the closet and the shelving with only a smallish window, Gary once again has a workspace. I can’t wait to see what inspires him next and watch it emerge.

Note: More of Gary’s work can be seen at his Etsy shop at http://www.etsy.com/shop/GaryPinard

Sunrise: 10:26 a.m.
Sunset: 
3:40 p.m.
Weather:
Snow and wind, low 5°, high 20°, snow and wind. A big change from -33° yesterday!