Monday, June 24, 2013


the river doesn't follow a straight line
pulled by the moon, but roams
like a coyote following root
skin and scent.

ice jams push sludge-brown waters
(on a screaming path), uprooting
one-hundred-year-old spruce trees and
cutting the silt bank to its knees.

we count our blessings. shore up with big rocks
muscle against the inevitable, learn
to soften. adapt.

and this summer, you turned eight.
smarter. taller. faster. still freckled.
learning to skate and paint.

are you who you once were?

a fish pulled from the net slides
through my slippery hands, gulls wheel
the sky goes rust and
everything, it seems is

carved in sand.

everything is carved in sand (Barbara Rodgers)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Long Day Done

The first call came from friends, standing at the murky water’s edge. Our cabin-house on the Copper was about to fall into the river. First: “the cabin is 20’ from the river”; next, 5 hours later and with a bit more excitement, “10 more feet of bank has sloughed off”, and the next day with alarming urgency, “it’s a goner if you don’t act fast.” .

The Copper house is prone to be whisked off its foundation and catapulted into sludge brown waters, heaving itself into the delta that merges with other streams and rivers, and finally, bouncing off into the sunset, riding the ocean current with all our cherished memories and labors etched deep inside its walls. Luckily we found a mover nearby who was happy to take our business. Friends salvaged the metal fish table, wood benches that ringed the fire pit, and a giant birdhouse I gave to my husband the first Christmas we spent in the house after completion.

The Copper is ferocious, with a silt load second only to the Yukon and rising velocity from glacier run-off. This year, frozen ground, a late spring snowfall and a piercing sun that melted the ground much faster than usual, caused ice jams upriver and severe flooding; the most extensive flooding in the local elder’s memory.

We found a mover, got to work, and are now heading into our second week of building forms, pouring concrete, and erecting foundation walls. Saved by the skin of our pants and non-stop laboring.

We built this house out-of-pocket and board-by-board over a five-year period. During those times when you’re 20 feet up on a ladder nailing tongue and groove on the ceiling, or negotiating icy scaffolding during an early winter, you wonder.

You wonder, why at this age (in our sixties), are we doing this?

You wonder, how many more years before we shouldn’t be climbing ladders, hauling bags of concrete, and nail-gunning 12’ boards into place?

Though I didn’t make my occupation by way of physical labor, I always liked working outdoors, sweating while getting a job done, and feeling sore muscles the next morning, proof of a good day’s work. I’d done Forest Service work in the Dakotas, hiking through ponderosa pine forests and marking trees to be cut; and experienced invigorating round-up work in sunny Wyoming, roping cattle in preparation for branding and castration.

Dust devils. The smell of horses. A never-ending vista of cloudless blue sky.
And the camraderie with real cowboys. 

Retired now, my occupation as a speech therapist trumped that of an imagined rancher’s wife, because admittedly, my idea of physical labor is a highly romanticized version

I’ll work outdoors though, until I’m no longer able. And the answers to all my why questions are simple:

Catching red salmon in a fish wheel on the Copper, filling the freezer to last all winter long, and gifting food to friends is a yearly ritual that has engraved a current, deep as the river, in my bones. A connection to the land is honored and appreciated, like a gardener’s immersion in cultivating her home-grown food and flora.

When the work is done, we’ll again sit for hours, sipping a beer and doing nothing but watching the river roll by, but in the meantime, a lot of work can be done in the 19 hours and 46 minutes of daylight we are blessed with today.

This is the year of records. The flood of 2013…the most extensive in the local’s living memory.

And another long day, done.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Over 200 Grandchildren? Elder Katie John's Legend

If you were a person, both young and middle-aged, wearing a white scarf, a white ribbon, or a white bandana at Katie John’s celebration of life, you were one of  her grandchildren, great grandchildren, or great-great grandchildren. 

Born in Slana, Alaska in 1915 (died 5/31/13) Katie had 14 natural children, and adopted six more throughout her lifetime; a life described by teaching her children the traditional ways of living off the land, respecting elders, and knowing and honoring the ways of your ancestors. Remarkably, Katie and her husband John, never accepted welfare for the care of their family.

I drove from our cabin in Tazlina to the village of Mentasta to take part in the festivities with the Ahtna people from neighboring villages, as well as people from around the world who respected and loved this aspiring woman. There was still some ice on the lakes in early June. And many more travelers than usual on the Tok Cutoff Rd.; I knew many were headed to the tiny Athabascan village. 

Katie John was a living legend in her time.

A beloved leader, Katie’s legend is tied to her decades long struggle in challenging the United States government in the fight for the subsistence hunting and fishing rights for all Alaska Natives. 

Finally in 2001, the Ninth District Court of Appeals ruled in favor of protectiing these rights. Her legal battle was a long, drawn-out fight inspiring indigenous native peoples from all over the world.

In 2001, Katie was awarded an honorary doctorate of law degree from the University of Alaska for her spirit and determination in challenging the government and state of Alaska in ways they had never been tested before. She believed in the right to feed her people.

Demonstrators in Anchorage proudly marched with signs saying “Don’t mess with Katie,” during those heated times. I’m heartened she was able to witness a positive conclusion in her people’s favor, a decade before she passed away.

A proud woman of the Athabascan tribe Katie saw many “firsts” during her time on earth. She grew up in a time when people used dog teams to pack their supplies, walked to where they wanted to go, and harvested game for food. Katie witnessed the future: the progression of dog sleds to planes and cars. The introduction of electric power in the villages, satellite TV into people's homes and, of course, the Internet.  Imagine all the changes that have occurred over nearly 100 short years.

At 97 years of age, she had seen the speed of drastic change, but still held on to the battle for the right to derive her family's sustenance from the land. One cannot stay tied to their traditional culture consuming junk foods found in the small village stores. 

Today there are still indigenous people across the globe who practice lasting ties to the land, and their traditional ways deserve our respect.

Katie's children said this about her: she taught a strong work ethic; she was honest, trusting, forgiving, and showed great love for everyone she met.

A life well-lived from a long-ago era; may you rest in peace, Katie John.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Quiet Solitude or Lonely Isolation?

I took this photo of books on a shelf in an old remote cabin we explored on Iliamna Bay. The cabin was filled with junk; an old stove turned on its side, clothing remnants, tools, a sleeping bag, cans of food. It was obvious someone had tried to live in this place a long, long time ago.

The row of books looked strange and creepy, like a body in various stages of decomposition; the pages deteriorating and oozing into each other, worn out and exhausted by time and weather.

Immediately Chris McCandless came to mind. Chris was a spiritual seeker who came to Alaska to excavate his heart, like so many others who take to the woods on a vision quest of sorts, testing their ability to survive, asking themselves the big questions and hoping to find answers in the wilderness.

He burns his trust fund money, travels the country, and finally makes his way to the far north, seeking   solitude, self-sufficiency and what he called the "ultimate freedom." After isolating himself (settling into an abandoned school bus), he shoots game, able to sustain himself for a while, but eventually the harsh realities of wilderness-living set in. Unfortunately, he never made it out alive, having starved to death (after eating a poisonous wild plant).

In the end, McCandless realizes the importance of the very thing he was trying to escape, that of sustaining and nurturing human relationships. Society may have "tied him down" but isolation from others is what ultimately killed him. I highly recommend the movie, Into The Wild (Netflix), about his daring adventures and final demise.

I took a magnifying glass to the photograph of books, trying to decipher what the seeker was reading. You can tell a lot about a person by perusing his/her bookshelf. Or maybe not (perusing my own, there is everything from Reverence to the Anarchist's Cookbook), but still I wondered.

Who was he? Why did he come to this old, run-down cabin? What was he searching for, living in such a remote place?

Only two of the books revealed their identification. Youth is Wasted on the Young is a collection of quotations and extracts examining the wisdom of aging. Wry comments taken from life and literature capture the wisdom of growing older, and the adventurous spirit of youth we all experience.

"In youth we run into difficulties; in old age difficulties run into us." (Josh Billings noted about Youth). Maybe the seeker was contemplating the rigors of aging; was he middle-aged, or already an old man who chose to live in peace far away from civilized society? Surely it's not uncommon for people to feel alone and isolated as they age (especially after losing a partner, experiencing an illness, or not maintaining close family ties).  Whoever tried to eek out a life in this cabin was doing so by choice, escaping the perceived confines of their own town and community.

Testing his limits and abilities, living life fully on a razor's edge, becoming one with nature, or trying to escape a tortured past?  Who knows?

The other book, A Place for Noah, is a story about the challenges the writer, Josh Greenfield, experienced raising a child with multiple handicaps. Noah was born with developmental delays; he did not speak intelligibly, and was dependent on his family for all his physical needs. Noah's brother, Karl, vacillates between his anger at Noah for the sacrifices his family must make in their day-to-day caregiving role, and a deep love and sorrow for his brother's circumstance. Karl does not want his brother to be institutionalized (though he is for a short period of time), yet finds it difficult to fold Noah into the normal activities he enjoys with his family and friends. Noah is an outcast with serious, lifelong challenges.

Both pieces of work reveal this: the experience of  not quite fitting in with society at large; a feeling-sense of not belonging to the normal, youth-worshipping culture. By choice or by chance, many of us may at times feel we don't belong, or we are outside the group, looking in.

Ever feel that way? Maybe it is because we are always changing and evolving in the life cycle, growing into the person we want to be, and at the same time, letting go of old habits and ways of being. So at times ones feels off-kilter, in limbo or in a suspended animation.

Taking drastic measures to isolate oneself in the wilderness may be a soulful, life-enhancing venture.

But sooner or later, you have to walk out of the woods and hold hands with your fellow man.