Monday, March 28, 2011

Fear and other Sundries

Did you know Annie Oakley could cut a playing card in two at thirty paces?  In fact, she made special bullets by packing the pellets with sand and beeswax so they'd spread further in the air; better to hit flying targets! I am going to talk about guns, but, please, this is NOT a political thread. In our country, we enjoy a right that many other countries around the world do not, and that is to own a firearm. I grew up without guns in the home, and lived my adolescent years in a community north of Detroit, Michigan, where there was a fair amount of inner city crime. Due to this background, guns have always terrified me. They are used to kill people and have always been associated with crime in my neighboring cities. In fact, just to see one used to send fear through my bones. Uh oh...trouble...someone's going to get hurt, or worse, killed.

The next time I was around guns was in Rawlins, Wyoming working as a ranch hand during "round up" where I had the pleasure of working alongside ten young cowboys (whoo hoo!) and two other women roping and branding calves all day in the hot dusty sun. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life (next to childbirth and bicycling over Alaska's Thompson Pass). Physically demanding stuff. After work, to relax a little, we'd ride out to the middle of nowhere and practice target shooting. Though welcome to join in, I always stood back and watched, afraid to even hold a gun in my hands. It is more than I can handle, it is so powerful, it can kill, how do I know how many bullets are left in the chamber, what if I make a mistake, what if it misfires and explodes in my face? People are always having accidents with guns, killing people without intention. Fear, big time.

Then I got married. To a hunter. There have been guns in our home for over 25 years, locked in a safe. My husband showed me a few things over the years, but I never felt completely comfortable until I took an intense 11 hour course with the National Rifle Association. And let me just say that I have more respect and admiration for this group of volunteers who loved more than anything to dispel fear (I'm always in favor of that) through meticulous, safety oriented instruction in handling and shooting single action, double action and semi-automatic pistols. Lots of book work, handling, cleaning and shooting, followed by a written exam. It was a rigorous course, but also quite enjoyable.

So now I'm a new pistol shooter, and shooting is fun, challenging and takes mental concentration. I like that. But the real reason I signed up for this class after all these years is number one, to obliterate the fear associated with learning how to use this TOOL, and number two, to be able to protect myself in the backcountry where bears pose a real threat. Last fall, my husband and I went on a photo safari in the Brooks Range photographing caribou and musk ox, and it dawned on me, like it has numerous times before that it's just us two, miles away from other people and towns, and should something happen to him, what skills do I have to get us out of danger? I can't tell you how liberating it feels NOT TO BE AFRAID of a firearm anymore. And how confident I feel with new knowledge and skills that I intend to keep in practice.

I'm taking the Bear Class next, challenging another one of my fears. Though I've crossed miles of country on foot and by boat without a gun, with only one bluff charge to date, I don't intend on being chased out of the backcountry because of a little old thing called fear. My medicine is education and that's the least and the best I can do.

I'm looking forward to getting back in the saddle and riding again this spring as well (Bandit, have you missed me?), and thought, hmmmm....I'm going to keep practicing with my new pistol coz Cowgirl Mounted Shooting looks pretty darn entertaining, don't you think?  Click to see the link:



Sunday, March 27, 2011

Romancing the Ski Train

 When I was a kid growing up in a small Michigan farming community, I used to love the sound of the train running through town. You could hear the whistle far off in the distance, and we'd run downtown just in time to put a penny on the track, standing motionless as the swaying beast rumbled by, sounding its powerful clacking on the rails with enormous noise and excitement. We'd marvel at the shiny flattened pennies created by the force of it all.

Trains can go where cars cannot, and this is especially true throughout the miles of remote outposts in Alaska. You can ride the rails from town to town, or depart from Talkeetna and jump on and off at various unmarked destinations where locals who live in the bush use the train as a vital link to goods and services. Locals have been known to flag down the train and hand the engineer homemade cookies to share with the passengers!  I love the Alaska railroad, it's rich history and folksy appeal. With so many scenic areas only accessible by train, you ride in comfort through canyons, over mountains, and along riverbeds, where not much separates you from the view but glass. Check out more about the Alaska railroad by clicking here:

We hopped the Ski Train to the Curry Ski Hill, about 22 miles north of Talkeetna. Back in the day, circa 1947, there was a small hotel there that accommodated skiers. The hotel burned down in 1957, and today there are no services or buildings standing except for an old small log ski hut.  The skiing is great with a 200' vertical drop from the top, just perfect for cross country skiers to catch a small thrill. Or you can ski the flats, meandering through timber and along a creekbed. We had 4 hours to explore when the train arrived in Curry under sunny blue skies.

The Ski Train is not just any locomotive, and here's where things get crazy. On the trip back to Anchorage, wine and kegs of homebrew are staged, along with a rowdy dancing car and polka band.

As you pass from car to car, sashaying over the inter-car metal plates where you can see the ground rushing by below your feet, the real party begins. Eat, dance, drink, mingle, eat, dance, drink...oh, and hey look, Denali's (Mt. McKinley) out...grab your camera quick and hang your head out a window and SNAP.

And you're not the least bit surprised to see Big Bird himself, on the infamous Ski Train!

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Love Letter to Rivers Everywhere

The image of the river has assumed a sacred and spiritual effect to many cultures throughout time, from the Euphrates in the story of Adam and Eve, to the Ganges, a river sacred to the Hindu in India. Today I am reflecting on home, and how rivers have been intertwined with my life for over thirty years. The Eagle River (also the name of our town) begins its birth deep in the mountains a dozen or so miles upriver, flowing from a melting glacier, tumbling over bedrock and dividing into small sloughs. Tributaries from mountain melt-off contribute to the flow that is both constant and changing over time. The river metaphor is an obvious one whereas we are drifting through life as if flowing downriver, sometimes bruised by rocks and rapids, bending into eddies to catch our breath, and struggling to stay afloat until being carried off into calm waters. It is a place of safety and refuge (the one place where Huckleberry Finn could be himself), a place of soothing comfort as we listen to its flow while relaxing on its banks, and if we heed the collective wisdom of all those connective tributaries, we can learn to ride the river of life with care.

The first and last thing I see each morning and evening are mountains with a meandering river running through and these are the things that steady me. My love for the river doesn't wane in winter, when the water is frozen solid and the rush of water over rocks has vanished. The river then becomes a winding highway, still and serene in its beauty. We pack in the noise by taking our block party out to the river one sunny Sunday and engage in all kinds of sport: dog mushing, skiing, snowball fighting, hot dog roasting, and general yakking over a few good beers. Then when the sun disappears over the mountain, we pack up the kids and dogs and gear and ski out drenched to the bone with fatigue and vow to make a tradition of a spring party on our beloved river next year.

So this is my love letter to rivers. May they always feed and heal and teach us how to live. May they meander, and straighten and rush and become still.  And may they enable us to enjoy our friends and neighbors....even on a cold winter's day.

"Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it." (Norman Maclean)

Monday, March 7, 2011

Skijoring Joy and the Iditarod Sled Dog Race

I felt compelled today to share a piece of past writing about skijoring on the river with my old sled dog, Nellie. Old in that she has since passed, but I've been thinking about her as I work with our male, Quinn, who enjoys nothing more than running hard and fast, with a woman and/or sled in tow...
          The sky was deep purple.  Alpenglow skitted the mountain tops in pink splendor.  Hurriedly, I fixed Nellie’s harness about her chest as she snapped at the skijor line.  She didn’t want to be hooked up, that is, until she actually hit the trail and was running at break speed.  Then she forgot about the woman behind her on those funny sticks of fiberglass.  She was in blissful running dog heaven.
I had fallen in love with her two years prior at a sled dog kennel in Knik. With jet black hair and cold blue eyes, she nipped at my fingers and practically jumped into my lap.  Take me home, I’m yours, she seemed to say.  We named her Nellie, after Port Nellie Juan in Prince William Sound, a favorite kayaking destination.
            Like a true Siberian husky, she is as stubborn and willful as a child of two.  And like a toddler, she has her own agenda.  Sometimes she deliberately chooses non-compliance.  When given the direction, “Come, Nellie, come,” she often she sits there and stares straight ahead, avoiding eye contact.  This is her selective attention, I’m going-to-ignore-you tactic.  Her other favorite is to grant you a gratuitous glance, then bolt.  Either way, she insists on her own terms, and usually loses, but she never gives up trying.  I like her spirit.
            On her first winter out, we skijored on trails along the river.  The first excursion turned into a nightmare.  In the parking lot, she was so distracted by people and cars that she ran circles around me, wrapping me in a mummy of lines.  I fell flat on my face, with my skis in a tangled mess of lines at my feet.  Brushing off embarrassment, I calmly straightened the lines and stood up.  No sooner had I brushed the snow off my face when BAM!, I fell again.  She sat there innocently panting with her tongue hanging out, and I swear, a smile on her snout.
            Another time, she made chase after a squirrel that crossed the road in front of us. I hadn’t been paying close enough attention when, suddenly, she turned into a speeding blur of fur.  Until that day, I didn’t know I had such a hot racing dog on my hands.  Remember, we practiced this at home.  Whoa, Nellie, whoa!  That means STOP you crazy dog!  And we finally did, through the power of a few birch trees that sort of got in the way of our little woman-dog freight train. 
             I’ve learned not to be daunted by setbacks.  After all, when things are good, they’re nothing short of exquisite.  We slice along a trail in the woods, the cold air nipping my cheeks, her paws padding lightly on the snow.  Spruce stands whiz by, and we are both focused, yet relaxed.  At the end of the trail, the river fans out into an expanse of white.  We cross and follow other trails of dogs and skis, but see no one.  We stop for a rest, and I break open a cold fresh orange. The hair on Nellie’s back glistens red in the sun.  I take a deep breath and think...”yep, you’re right, Nellie.  This is a slice of heaven.  Blissful running dog heaven.”    
            Today, I am busy pulling out harnesses and doglines for another go of it.  Nellie recognizes the action and is yelping dramatically on the end of her lead.  And Tanner, our new addition of husky-malamute mix lies languid in the sun, wondering what all the excitement’s about.  He has yet to learn about the mystery of the lines and the power of dogs and skis, but I'm sure he won’t be disappointed.
            I eagerly embrace the coming of many new snows, where spruce trees covered with confection fill the quiet softness of a wintry day.  But most of all, I look forward to zesty romps through the forest with not one, but two volatile dogs in tow.  Whoa, Nellie, Tanner...whoa!

And now a few words about the "last great race on earth." The Iditarod Sled Dog Race started this weekend in Alaska. The mushers and their dog teams travel over 1150 miles, crossing riverbeds and zigzagging through forests, racing through two mountain passes and over barren tundra, and mushing 50 miles across frozen sea ice before reaching Nome on the Bering Sea coast. It is a grueling race staged by hundreds of volunteers, villagers, veterinarians (who examine dog teams at each checkpoint), and a small air force of bush pilots. To learn more about the great race, click here:
 To purchase my book, The Iditarod: The Greatest Win Ever, about a young girl who runs the race click here:
Your kids will enjoy following Kara on her mushing journey while learning facts about the race along the way.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Wild Cat

Staying true to my commitment to memorize a poem every month, I have chosen this one from my collection of Cabin Poems 2011.

Blue Lynx at Caribou Creek

It was stupid of me to leave on impulse
knowing the light would soon fade
I know this stretch
no guard rails, a long steep slope
Behind a curtain of blowing snow.

Alone in the darkness on this narrow mountain road
its lines buried in drifts
I chant to calm myself, stiffly
gripping the wheel

Then on the bridge crossing the creek
your muscular softness,
silver hair shining blue in the headlights,
those staring yellow eyes
Startle me.

Do you know how strange it is seeing a cat in the snow?

You turn,
the silent padding of snowshoe-like paws
Moving fast, faster than I
in this white-out and I think

Had I waited until daylight,
you in a hollow tree or under a rocky crevice
Would have remained, invisible.

The surprising encounter in this poem happened to me a couple of weeks ago when I headed out to our cabin, 150 miles east through a spectacular mountain range that I've traveled countless times. It got me thinking about the mythology of this beautiful animal in many cultures around the world and how those leanings might apply to my own life. Ted Andrews, the author of Animal Speak, writes about how animals, by their appearance, behaviors and characteristic patterns speak to us everyday, if we know what to look for. I found many parallels.

The lynx is often called the wild cat, a very solitary animal. Lynx totem people generally choose to be solitary and must constantly balance their desire to be alone with their desire to be social. Learning to be alone without being lonely has always been relatively easy for me, and it is over long periods of aloneness that I find higher states of perception and joy. It's like a dormant fire being stoked, when creativity and concentration are heightened.

It is also noted that if a lynx has shown up in your life, it is wise to look for that which is hidden for it has been associated with the ability to see error and falsehoods. Most importantly, it is advised not to confuse these errors with an individual's true inner state of clarity and original goodness that is often hidden behind the "clouds", or ignorances and mistakes we make in life. The lynx is gray, like the clouds, but hidden behind the clouds is blue sky. This coincides with the eastern yogic philosophy of the "ground of being" where the sky is likened to the all-pervading light of Consciousness often obscured by clouds. But rain does not wet the sky, and lightening does not burn the sky; the spark of Divinity is always present and waiting for our unfolding.

The lynx's tail in eastern mythology is likened to the kundalini energy that is thought to originate at the level of the tailbone in humans. Prana, or the "life force" is manifested through breathing and yogic exercises to bring love and compassion into one's awareness in everyday life. In Chinese philosophy, this vital life force is referred to as "chi" and is thought to originate in the same general anatomical area...two inches below the navel. The practice of Tai Chi and Qigong share a focus on this area of the body, teaching the practitioner how to attain a state of relaxed attention through calming the nervous system and bringing vitality to the mind and body.

A lynx has shown up in my life, and the parallels are clear as I question my desire to be solitary, while at the same time looking for new opportunities to learn collectively through the practice of eastern arts. The observance of aging helps bump this process along (it is rarely a smooth ride) and continues to inform me to trust my inner sensing and be aware of what the world has to teach if I simply remain open to it.