Friday, August 31, 2012

Reunited: Hitchhiker Part 2

“Once you have been given and you have gifted another with trust such as the three of us did, there is a part of you that forever travels with each other” we wrote in our blog entry about Tamar, our hitchhiker.  We have thought about Tamar often through the past couple of months as we traveled through Alaska, the Yukon and the Northwest Territories.  We thought about her so much, we decided to make a 1,000 mile detour to visit her once more before we headed back south.

Tamar lives in Delta Junction, a town of around 900 hearty souls of deep faith and fortitude.  Her family of three (Mitch, Nora and Sibby), came from Oregon about 4 years ago to carve a home and life out of the challenging back country of Alaska.  The work that they have done on their 900 acre property is impressive.  They live in a comfortable log cabin made from poplar logs, cut and peeled by their own hands.  The caribou roast, salad, potatoes, and pesto bread they fed us all came from food they had harvested and it was special as was the fellowship at their table.

We were curious to see if Tamar would welcome us as we had been part of what was undoubtedly one of the hardest weeks of her life.  We were happy when she came to us with friendship and enthusiasm and showed us around the wonderful yard and world she was seeking on the day we met her. 

One of the hotly debated issues in animal behavior is whether animals have emotions.  Neither of us has ever felt any debate as we know that animal emotions are powerful, real, and one of the most enriching parts of our relationship with the natural world.  In the final two photos below, look carefully into Tamar’s eyes in the photo in our van just hours before she was to be reunited with her family and look at her eyes in the photos from our visit.  She is, now, a happy dog as she found the people she loved and the place she calls home.

As we hugged our new friends and hosts goodbye, Tamar barked happily and the sound she made was not remotely related to that lonely howl in the Visitor Center that had drawn us back to her side in July.  As we got ready to drive away, Nora asked if we might want one of Tamar’s puppies in the future.  We laughed and said to call us if we were back on the continent as we know that this Husky’s lineage is special.  In fact, there is a part of her that will always travel with us and a part of us that belongs to her.

Posted in the town of North Pole, Alaska

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Road

During its short few days of “fall”, the Dempster Highway is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world.  Rather than seek our own words, we are turning to Robert Frost for our narrative and posting a few extra pictures this week.  After all, a picture can be worth a 1,000 words!

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

 Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,   
And sorry I could not travel both              
And be one traveler, long I stood             
And looked down one as far as I could  
To where it bent in the undergrowth;          
Then took the other, as just as fair,    


And having perhaps the better claim,    
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there     
Had worn them really about the same, 

And both that morning equally lay         
In leaves no step had trodden black.      
Oh, I kept the first for another day!        
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh 
Somewhere ages and ages hence:          
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— 
I took the one less traveled by,  
And that has made all the difference.  

Posted from Dawson City, Yukon

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty is found within luminescent ribbons splitting the few moments of darkness into the mysterious Northern Lights.  It is the rich, organic, sweet smell of the tundra permeating the air from the labyrinth of plant, fungi and bacteria as the weight of our feet plunges toward the permafrost a few inches below.  It is in the tart taste of lowbush cranberries and the sweetness of blueberries as their sun-warmed richness slides down our waiting throats.  It is in the change of fall as green grass in a single night erupts the next morning into a symphony of gold, oranges, and reds painting rainbows down the hills of shale coated peaks.  It is the deafening sound of perfect silence.  It is a sunset that fades into sunrise in a land that night has fled.

 Some might see the beast in the grizzly tearing at a bloody caribou leg as the first dust settles along  the early morning Dempster Road or in the Arctic Ground Squirrel feasting on its brother’s road kill remains as it prepares for the deep sleep of winter.  For us, the beast is not those natural and necessary events; rather, it is the dust and the drugs that seep into the fabric of life on and near the Dempster.  It is rancid, yellow water from a tap where a gallon of store bought pure spring water costs $5 dollars now and will double and triple in cost during the transitional months of freeze and breakup before ice roads can be built.  It is the pain of paying $35 for a 12” pizza of canned vegetables on edible crust.  Of all of the beasts, it is the drugs that prey like a dark animal on young kids buying from men in dank campgrounds or in the vacant eyes of a mind and soul lost to family and friends as their owner stumbles through the streets of Inuvik.

The small towns surrounding Inuvik have formed almost vigilante like efforts to eradicate drugs and alcohol from their communities as seen by the signs warning those who would deal.  For us, Inuvik is a place at the end of a 760 km road to finally turn back toward family and friends, but for others, it is clearly the end of the road when there is nowhere else to go.  The town has beauty in people like the young man who took us on a boat tour.  He had much to teach us about the effects of global climate change from the observations of his elders and his family’s almost 50-year relationship with a scientist who has measured the destructive effects of climate change on permafrost.  But much of the town feels like the brightly painted colors covering dilapidated metal and deteriorating wood buildings.  There is beauty, but it covers a beast. 

 Perhaps the most significant beast is not one inherent within individuals from the north, but from the global connections playing out in places like our hometown of Gunnison.  As John Muir wrote, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”  Each day we made decisions about our use of energy and resources as we accumulated more than we needed.  Our carbon footprint continues to affect the globe as it marches toward a warmer future.  That future is not theoretical at the poles. Many still debate the reality of climate change while the people in the extreme north watch its actions as land thaws beneath their feet. The permafrost is melting at an unprecedented rate and soil is sliding into the rivers as the land becomes a quagmire and life strangles in the waters.

The Dempster Highway is a 760 km gravel road that travels north across the Arctic Circle and through a Canadian province, a Canadian territory, and two time zones.  The land, and the road, are contrasts, harboring both beauty and the beast.  We have been changed by our visit as our souls strain to understand the meaning of the words from the soft crooning of the elder Neil tapping his beaded, moose-hide moccasins in a rhythm ingrained into a mind softened with age but rich with understanding.

Posted on the Dempster Highway in Eagle Plains, Yukon.

Monday, August 13, 2012


One of the important themes of Alaska life is warmth.  It can come in the simple satisfaction of turning on the heater in our conversion van to ward off the early morning Alaskan chill.   For Dennis, who retired from the Healy local coal mine and therefore receives free coal for the rest of his life, it comes in the pleasure of rebuilding and modifying an old boiler to burn his “annuity” in an almost maintenance-free manner.  It can be as costly as it is to the twin sisters Miki and Julie Collins who live north of Denali deep in Alaska’s roadless interior.  After dog food for their mushing huskies, it is the most significant expense in their solitary and adventurous lives. 

It can be a critical part of survival as Christopher McCandless, whose life was prematurely ended due to starvation and exposure, found out after he went “into the wild” and spent his last moments in a cheap sleeping bag feeding wood into a stove in an abandoned school bus just within the borders of Denali National Park.  Summer warmth to the Caribou, Dall Sheep, Arctic Squirrels and Grizzlies of the Park comes with the opportunity for raising a new generation and feeding 20 hours a day to prepare for deep sleep,  hibernation, or living off of lichen and grass in the long  and frigid winter nights.

Warmth can mean many things, but the most significant for the two of us is not as a necessity of life in the far north, but the most common characteristic exhibited by many that we have met along our way.  It can be the thoughtful act of turning on the electric mattress cover for two “new friends” invited for a delicious salmon Alfredo dinner and a much needed shower and warm bed.  Another example of Alaskan hospitality came with  an invitation for midafternoon “seafood snacks” resulting in a three hour, 6 course meal, including smoked Kenai salmon, Prince  William sweet shrimp, local moose, fresh fruit, homemade cranberry liquor, and warm lingonberry muffins dripping in sweet  butter.  The meal was followed by wonderful conversation, a guided tour of the Healy backcountry, and a  ride in the “DeLorean” (actually, the hydraulic lift traded for the DeLorean) revealing the majestic Alaskan mountain range visible from Cheryl and Dennis’s home.

The manner in which  Alaskans welcome us has been a “warming” and rewarding experience.  We better understand what “warmth” really means in this remote and spectacular state.

Posted in Delta Junction, home of Tamar!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What’s in a name?

Our friends who are anthropologists and sociologists tell us that language and what people call things are important clues to their culture and lives.  For example, an incredible amount of the vocabulary of native Alaskans is related to salmon which demonstrates the importance of the fish to the different tribes' existences.

We have been laughing for weeks thinking about this as we pass street signs and other landmark signs around Alaska as more recent settlers during the past century had other things on their minds.  A few examples follow. 

As we approached the dip-netting capital of the Alaska world, Chintina, we passed One Mile, Two Mile and Three Mile lakes.  Can you guess how far each lake was from Chintina?  Searching for the swimming pool near Nikiski we encountered the street sign, Poolside  Ave.  Looking for camping in Homer, we found the sign on the left.  While on the phone to her brother in AZ, Jess mentioned we were by 20 mile lake and he correctly guessed we were 20 miles from Anchorage.  Finally, Sally’s favorite is the last sign below that probably gives some insight into Friday night activities in Wasilla, Alaska, for high school students.

Clearly, long before the publication of the Milepost came about, Alaskans were preoccupied with distances and with practical names that told people where things could be found.  As we read narratives and biographies of the first settlers, one can imagine in this challenging landscape that knowing how close you were to civilization might be the most important fact of the day.  Traveling by dog sled, river, or on foot was rough in a place that temperatures are often below -50 F. 

The other funny thing we have noticed is that whenever we are in a city, everyone gives directions by associating all turns with the local gas station as the starting point.  In Virginia, it was always the distance from the Baptist church.  However, that is a whole different story about local culture in the south!

Posted in Seward, Alaska