Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mendeltna Music Fest

I was just driving by, on my way to our cabin on the Copper River, and saw a modest sign propped up in front of the lodge:  Mendeltna Lodge Music Festival

Just before the Tazlina Trading Post, the road pushes through to the Copper River where our cabin sits. I was on my way there to spend a week clearing trees, hooking up an outdoor shower, and helping Husband build a fishwheel (since last year's wheel catapulted downriver in the big flood). By way of the "lazy man's" way of fishing, we watch red salmon swim into the revolving baskets and slide into a box, waiting to be filleted, vacuum packed and smoked. A yearly ritual carried out to fill our freezer, and the neighbor's freezer, and the friend's of friend's freezers...with fresh caught reds. That was Plan A.

Switch to Plan B: It doesn't take much for me to swing in and sleep in my car for the night if the main bait is music.

I love how the names of small villages in this area of Alaska roll off your tongue: Nelchina, Tazlina, Chistochina, Gulkana, Nenana, Mentasta. The Copper River Basin is home of the Ahtna tribe of Athabascan Indians, "Aht" meaning people, and "na" meaning river. Many of these villages only have a hundred or two full-time residents, but what they don't scrimp on is music.

                               Roy Corral of Whiskey Jacks

                               The incomparable Lulu Small...she does impressions too. 
                                It was Lulu's birthday; "I am 6, 10-year olds today," she said

You could spend the whole summer zipping around the state to music festivals held in very small venues. Most attract people who bring their instruments and jam around campfires. This is where you learn to strum and pick and sing, because it's not about showmanship, it's about community. You don't ask to join; you just pull up a chair or a stump and jump in on folk, bluegrass and gospel tunes where people play nonstop...for HOURS on end. 

                                Oudean family

The sun tried to burn a hole through the orangey haze blowing hundreds of miles from the Kenai fires blazing on the peninsula.

But that didn't stop the music makers. 

Consider the Ugly Bass guy. I met him at a campsite, where he was playing a bass he made from found objects. Said he once built a cabin called the Pallet Palace, made from discarded wood pallets.

His upright bass was made of recycled wood. He is a doctor, mind you, and as a joke, one of his buddies put a bag of bones in his mailbox (just deer bones, no worries), and he used those for the bridge on his bass. How resourceful.

Doctor Dave tunes his bass with a 7/16" box end wrench. Really, it didn't sound that bad!

    Always some booty to be had

Back to the music. The Rock Bottom Stompers, Hog Heaven String Band and Kentucky Tundra rounded out the day.

The next morning, my neck was a little kinky from sleeping in the car, but after a cup of Joe, I was ready to imbibe on more music. Let me introduce you to another Alaskan wonder, Anna Lynch. Her voice is resonant and rich as a glass of good wine.

Next up was Betty Hartford, wife of the late, great John Hartford, who sang songs of long ago, songs I haven't heard for decades. Listen all the way through to Orange Blossom Special (1978 Austin City Limits with John Hartford and the Dillards). Now that's how it's done right.

                               Betty Hartford

Looking ahead to the rest of the summer: there's the Fiddlehead Folk Festival, the Girdwood Forest Fair, Granite Creek Music Fest, the Chicken Fest (yes, that's the name of a town close to the Canadian border, 2010 census: 17), the Cantwell Music Fest and for three days of fish, fun and music, head on over to Salmon Stock 2014, featuring Lucinda Williams.

                     What a summer line-up.

Oh wait. One more thought. You gotta love the sing-along gospel numbers, like: I'll Fly Away, and How Great Thou Art. 

And so I leave you with this: Carrie Underwood bringing her fellow country music stars to tears with her rendition of How Great Thou Art.  Exquisite, spirited, heart-wrenching stuff...which is how music is meant to be.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Women Taking Steam

                            Teaching of the Sweat Lodge, A. Paquette

NoteI am participating in Diane DeBella’s #iamsubject project 
Here is my #iamsubject story.

                                               WOMEN TAKING STEAM

      A dog team yelps briefly in the starry night. Our boots squeak in the snow, the temperature hovering at 20 below. The hairs in my nostrils freeze, my lungs breathe in dry air. Clothes, frozen on a line, hang out to dry; stiff white sheets silent against a violet-black sky. We walk on a narrow path beaten down by pack boots and animal tracks; a path of least resistance through knee-deep snow.

    The steam house stands in a small clearing surrounded by birch forest, interrupted by the light of a half moon. It is almost like a dream to me now. I can’t place the village, though the experience is frozen in my mind. It was fourteen, maybe fifteen years past. I am traveling in Western Alaska, and visit many villages in the course of five days as an itinerant therapist. I remember a row of spruce-log cabins facing the airstrip; a modern schoolhouse perched atop a small rise, and oil drums emerging from mounds of deep snow. Perhaps the village is New Stuyhawk, or as far north as Koliganek. The exact location puzzles, but a haunting memory lingers. I am taking a steam with two Eskimo women who are strangers to me. What is remembered most clearly is a felt-sense of care and belonging imparted by the women who never even asked my name.

      It wasn’t so long ago that schoolchildren in the villages were shy and spoke very little, relying more on facial expressions to meet and greet newcomers. The raising of eyebrows meant “yes” in response to a question. Pause patterns between sentences were comparatively longer than non-native people. It took me several years to fully understand these differences in our conversations. Future tense was not expressed (there was no need when one lives day by day, following the rhythms of weather and seasons). Value was not placed on being highly verbal as in the Anglo worldview, and people were not accustomed to being barraged with a flurry of questions. Children learned by watching and imitating members of their tribe. The women of the village, too, had a quiet ambiance about them that exuded confidence and a sure-footedness in their daily activity. I am quite sure they never compared themselves to others, or complained about their lot in life. The older the woman, the wiser she was regarded, gaining great respect from all members of her community.

        The heavy wooden door scrapes the icy ground when opened, and a warm rush of air billows out. I pull the door tight behind me.  In the small entryway, we remove boots and socks, and hang up our clothing on horn hooks. There is no light inside but the kerosene lantern one woman carries to lead our way.

         Naked, we step into the heat room. At the far end of the enclosure is a 55-gallon fuel drum serving as a wood stove that hovers above a wide bed of river rocks.  
      One woman nods for me to follow. She is small in stature, with a soft round belly, sturdy, muscled legs and a long black braid falling to the curve in her back. We sit on a long wooden bench against the wall. The woman dips a wooden scoop into a bucket of water and ladles it carefully over the rocks. Hissing steam pours forth and I breathe in deeply the welcomed moisture. The women speak a few words, laugh a little, then quiet. I close my eyes and feel my skin tingling. The heat deepens. Moisture collects along my hairline, in the creases behind my knees, between my breasts.  Feels good, yes, she says, chuckling. The woman continues dipping and pouring until the room is filled with relaxing warmth. 

      In my culture, being chatty is highly valued. We talk about everything: work, family, love, sex, weight gain, weight loss, celebrities, money…and we do so intensely, even with strangers. There are experts on every block. Chat rooms on the Internet. Coffee chats. Over-the-fence neighborly chats. That’s how we solve problems, request advice, or just air what ails us. We become close through reciprocating in conversation and in sharing our stories of triumph and heartache. Or sometimes we talk just to talk. Sometimes we talk to avoid the silence.

      Another nod. A smile. I follow as we ease ourselves down to the slatted wood floor and sit cross-legged. One of the women scoops water into the wide metal bowls at our feet. Her face holds no particular expression, just serenity. She breathes deeply. Raises her eyebrows, hands me a bottle of shampoo. Hunched over, the women flip their long black hair into the bowls and begin washing. A deep sigh follows; a letting go. I feel the warmth of the room, the sweat, the deepened glow of the wood stove.

      I am entranced by this rich moment, a simple elemental cleansing shared with two strangers. Names, titles, and accomplishments, unimportant. Making money, who’s divorcing who, the plethora of advice, complaints and criticisms…gone.   There was a sense of relief in this heavily schooled, career loaded body; a dispelling of everything worrisome, gossipy, and even intellectual from this content-laden mind; and in its place, a simple gesture of an age-old, bare handed experience. 

     I have remembered these women for a long time, and our shared, quiet intimacy; a cleansing that surpassed the need to use words from my overwrought verbal repertoire. 

      Someone once said do not speak unless you can improve on the silence. It felt good to share a tender moment with two women who had no need or desire to bare their souls by throwing their minds around. 

      It felt good to simply be...quiet.

Monday, May 12, 2014

To "Summer" in the Sound

What was I doing while Husband plied the waters of Prince William Sound in his buddy's boat for 4 days? It was a trip to make repairs on the first operation of the season. You see, it's necessary to do a lot of hidden maintenance and removal of bugs on that first shakedown cruise, and the only way to discover hidden issues is to take her out for a multi-day spin around the block...

and of course, on the way, you view sea lions lounging on rocks, stunning mountain views, Dall porpoise crisscrossing the bow, and lots of whales...whales "summering" in the Sound, sort of like how New Yorkers "summer" in the Hamptons.

Humpback whales journey to the islands of Hawaii in the winter, and have their offspring there in the spring. Sometimes we too, vacate there, not to have babies, but for relief from Alaska's dark and cold winter months. Last year Husband and I paddled inflatable kayaks into Maaelaea Bay on the island of Maui and witnessed a humpback whale breeching way, way, way too close to our boats BACK-PADDLE, B-B-BACK-P-P-PADDLE!


So it was interesting for him to view the whales that have returned to Alaska for the summer, returning to breech and twist and roll and spout and splash down with the greatest aplomb. Fact: Humbacks are baleen whales, which means they filter their food through baleen plates. They eat krill, anchovies, cod, sardines, and mackerel...all the stuff you like to have on your pizza.

While he and his buddy were out "fixing" things on the boat (uh huh), he took lots of photos. Today is a Share Some of His Photos Day, and a few facts about these magnificent creatures. 

The humpback is one of the most easily recognized whale species, weighing in at up to 48 tons, and measuring 40-50 feet in length. That's about a ton a foot...a helluva lot of blubber. They are differentiated from other whales by their large fins, almost a third of their body size, and the hump on their backs. The white markings on the underside of their fins are like fingerprints, allowing researchers to identify specific individuals who return to the Sound for the summer.

I wonder if the one that breeched in front of us in Maui is the same gal or fella photographed here? Could be. They're relatively small in numbers, the summering population less than a couple hundred.

So what if it takes 4 days of halibut fishing, shrimping and whale watching to figure out all the boat's bugs? Seriously, they got a lot of work done too. They replaced a stove and oven unit that was inoperable, put in a new water pump, did a thorough house, er, boat cleaning, replaced a propane shut-off valve, discovered a bad battery bank, changed out defective mooring lines, and while doing all this work, simultaneously test-ran the shrimp pots and fishing reels (just to make sure they worked OK...hehe). 

                                a trio of spouts

I stayed at home and power-washed the front of the house, sanded the deck in prep for painting, and constructed planter boxes out of old 2 x 6's. Maintenance and gardening operations, you might say. 

On Mother's Day, I sat on the newly sanded deck in the sunshine, and ate ice cream with son #2. And it will be skewered spot shrimp on the barbie tonight, fresh from the sparkling waters of Prince William Sound.

*All photos by Kent Devine

Monday, May 5, 2014

riding the circumference of Lake Superior

riding the circumference of Lake Superior

around the lake that breathes like an ocean
a curve of sun tracks our faces:

we plow into winds, watch
a cloudburst bloom and
in the tent, later that night
under a storm-fest of lightening and rain we

feel the weight of a fleshy love
damp, ever-true, ever-lasting

I never guessed we’d make it back in time
for my fitting of the dress with blue flowers I
wore at your sister’s wedding when
you squeezed my hand at I do

I never guessed it’d be the last time I’d
ride the white line, with you