Category Archives: alaska

Live storytelling in Chicago

Somewhere between my pre-school preacher years and high school, I came down with a bad case of stage fright.

I remember taking my first speech classes in college and being simply terrified of the crowd. I tried every trick in the book, and I even took an acting class to try to learn to be more comfortable with it.

My father is a preacher.

I am most certainly not.

So when CHIRP’s Julie Mueller approached me about doing the CHIRP’s live storytelling and music series called The First Time, I tried to think of every excuse why I shouldn’t do it.

Chicago is, perhaps, the world center for live storytelling right now. There is not a night of the week where you can’t find a themed storytelling event in any part of this city.

Continue reading Live storytelling in Chicago

The surreal life and the lunar eclipse

Just as the last sliver of what we call moonlight and what is actually reflected sunlight flashed silver in the deep black background of space, Carson asked me a philosophical question.

I told him that moon watching makes me philosophical too.

Carson is a scientist in a 9-year-old’s body. And as a journalist, I have a curiosity streak like nothing else. Whenever you find an odd or rare occurrence in the cosmos, it’s likely the little man and I are outside with our eyes gazing up at the heavens.

When the moon was in a full eclipse, we danced a little pagan dance, whatever that is, and we reveled in the shadowy darkness completely enthralled by this element of space and time.

“Dad, it must be really difficult being God.” he said.

“Really, why do you think that?”

“Because He has to answer all these prayers and help people and take care of things like this,” he said, pointing to the orangy moon hiding in earth’s shadow.

We talked a little about how people perceive God as a person with the same limitations that we understand and the possibility that God doesn’t exist in the same time and space that we occupy.

Carson is a big idea kid, and when he hits on something that brings understanding, he is quick to move beyond whatever was hanging him up.

We stared at the moon for another 10 minutes and called it a night.

And then it hit me again as it has several times over the last few weeks, this surreal life.

I’m watching a lunar eclipse in the backyard of my home in Anchorage, Alaska.

What about this makes sense?

What if we hit the rewind button?

Four hours earlier, my wife pulled into our driveway where a rather large moose was eating God-knows-what off the trees in our front yard.

Three-days ago I was dancing salsa at a company Christmas party.

One-and-half-months-ago I took a job as digital director at a broadcast station in Anchorage, Alaska.

Two-months-ago we moved out of the first home we purchased in Missoula, Montana.

Three-months-ago I got laid off from my job at a small newspaper in Missoula, Montana.

This has been a surreal year.

There are these moments in your life where you try to pull it all together to create a framework for your life. But the corners don’t come together neatly.

There are times when you look out on some astrological entity like a lunar eclipse and think, where am I?

It’s the philosophical question, but in my case, it has physical implications. Where am I standing?

In ankle-deep crystalline snow in the backyard of a house I just moved into with a chunk of fence missing where a big, bull moose jumped over and broke a couple boards with his massive belly last week.

Where am I standing now?

In the backyard of our house in ankle-deep crystalline snow on a crisp December night in Anchorage, Alaska.

It doesn’t make sense, no matter how many times I say it out loud to myself.

But it’s real. As real as the cold air that chokes me up like the first puff of a cigarette when you don’t smoke. As real as the way your breath curls up into the still, frozen air like smoke with no wind.

And I think to myself, “It must be really difficult being God…”

The art of mushing

I think a lot about Hemingway’s passion for bull fighting. He was an aficionado in an era when that meant something.

Sometimes I wonder what led him to his passion for the fights. Was it the Spanish countryside, the pace of life and the affinity that the people shared for what was then the national sport of Spain?

I’ve read and reread Hem’s bull fighting material many times, but I don’t live near enough to a bull ring to relate to the sport.

Recently I experienced, if it can be called that, a sport that I could very much find myself becoming an aficionado of. To Alaskans, it is the national sport. At times, it seems it’s the only sport.

It has almost nothing in connection with bull fighting, but had Hemingway made it to Alaska, he might have found similarities.

Papa wrote a lot about the kind of man it took to fight the bulls. About the mental tenacity required to bring down such a large beast so delicately. But he also wrote about the beauty of the beasts and the role they played in what is essentially a death ballet.

Dog sled racing traces its roots to necessity, to survival. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that bull fighting can trace its roots back to something similar, to man’s great dance with nature.

I have never been dog sledding before. My only exposure to the sport came from covering the start or end of the Race to the Sky, Montana’s premier mushing event.

So on an extraordinarily cold December morning, I traveled to the home of Dallas Seavey to try my hand at a sport that is so much more than just endurance. A sport that just might be the most beautiful embodiment of man’s great dance with nature.

There are no beautiful accouterments in dog racing. Survival clothing is very grounded in practicality and its most basic function.

The first thing you must know about racing dogs is that they bear very little resemblance to those massive huskies, samoyeds or malamutes you might think of when you imagine sled dogs.

Great sled dogs are not generally a single breed from what I can tell. The Alaskan Husky is not in fact a breed, but a category of dog.

And to look out on Seavey’s racing dogs is to see what look like smallish, husky-esque muts.

The dogs spend their non-running hours in a pseudo pack chained nearby to one another on a large, flat pad. The snow is meticulously cleared of their poop, while the chilled air smells distinctly of their urine.

Their excitement reaches a sharp crescendo as they realize it’s time for a run. Below the shadowed kennels is a large snow-covered marsh lit up like a concert stadium by a bright northern sun. When the teams are hitched to the sleds, they are run down a large shoot out into the open track.

I rode a trailer sled the first time around the loop. It’s a way to let people experience the feeling of driving the sled, while an experienced musher guides the well-trained dogs. Sort of like parachuting for the first time tandem with an experienced jumper.

The low sun is extremely bright shortly after rising to its zenith in the northern sky, just a little over the tree tops. It will set by 3:05 p.m.

“Hike!”

Contrary to popular beliefe, mushers do not usually say mush. It’s too soft a word to be an effective command word for these dogs.

We set off directly into the light with the dogs tugging and then smoothly pulling us out onto the track. I grab on to the sled hard and attempt to find something akin to sea legs as the sled shifts across the uneven snow.

Soon the sled starts to circle the wide marsh, and we turn our backs on the sun and gaze at its blinding reflection. I can sense the dogs’ anticipation of a good, hard run as they surge forward. A fork appears in the snow, demarcated by a slight shadow.

“Gee!” the driver shouts and the dogs veer right. I attempt to shift my weight to the left runner as the driver does. Because of the full circle of the track we were running, we don’t here the command for left, Haw!

The driver asked if we thought we could handle a thousand miles of this. I gazed out across the sun drenched snow-palace marsh and briefly thought, “yes.” But the penetrating cold physically hurt my toes, which were encased in boots advertised to be comfortable to 40 below. The sting of cold on my face numbed me to the point where it was difficult to sound coherent.

The driver explained that he frost-bit his toes a week ago after taking the dogs on a run in something other than his normal boots.

Shortly after this, I fell through the ice into a small creek. I soaked one leg good, and I was at least a quarter mile from the house. I took off running, the slosh turning to slush in the -7 degree air.

Dallas Seavey, the youngest person to ever run the Iditarod, and whose dogs pulled me around this marsh, looks young. To know that he’s finished one of the most grueling races in the world is enough to respect him. To know he finished in 6th place in 2009 is astounding.

After running the dogs, we sat inside his yurt, which is outfitted like an Ikea catalogue. Three Alaska husky pups are receiving a king’s pampering in the arms of visitors. But they’re soon put back out into the cold they are bred for.

Seavey talked about his grandfather, who raced in the first ever Iditarod

His wife, Jen, sits on the floor and cradles their young daughter. Jen ran the Iditarod too. It’s what they talk about in the summer when they’re not racing. And in winter they’re living it every minute of every day.

Mushers don’t live on a schedule like normal people. They work always and always in increments. Six hours of running, four hours of feeding and resting the dogs and then another six-hour run.

Even when they train, they keep to no schedule but the pull of the dogs on their harness.

“Hike!”

Riding the last great whistle stop train

The pleasure in riding trains is derived purely from the physical experience of riding on trains. I can only imagine how good it must have been when the herky, jerky steam engines ruled the planet. But even the smooth-running diesel engines of today with the beshocked cars still give pleasure in the way they yaw and chuck along their way.

On Saturday I rode the Alaskan Railroad 100 miles north to the town of Talkeetna. The journey, while short, is a phenomenal experience in an increasingly rare form of travel.

The conductor pops his head into the station and yells, “Goooooooooood, mooooooooorning,” to a sleepy group of passengers. He barks out a series of instructions, and like good farm animals, we corral ourselves through the doors toward assured shelter.

He’s done this, this railroad, for 40 years. It’s his life. He checks his gold pocket watch regularly to make sure the train is slightly behind schedule. For people who rely on the train as a way of life, it wouldn’t be a good idea to be right on time or, God forbid, early.

This is the last whistle stop train in North America.

A whistle stop train is a very particular form of transportation for a very particular person. The kind of person who wants to live out in the wild. A wild so wild that only a railroad passes nearby. These people ride many miles on snow machines to catch the train into town or down the tracks to a neighbor’s house to fix a problem.

Along the way, the conductor tosses a newspaper out every once in a awhile when he knows someone will find the orange bag containing this week’s news updates along side the tracks.

Along the way he welcomes passengers for whom the train is no novelty. Their belongings are not tourist bags or traveler’s packs.

As we disembark the train in Talkeetna, he wishes us a fond farewell, by name, each of us, with a smile.  As we walk away from the train into the quaint little valley town, he checks his pocket watch and hops aboard the train for the nine-hour journey to Fairbanks. Into the cold, cold north. Chugging along and telling stories and hearkening back to a better time when travel was as simple as the monstrous engines that carried us here and there.

One Month in Anch!

Who moves to Alaska in the winter? November isn’t exactly the heart of winter, but it’s close enough. The lack of a sunrise before 9:30 a.m., the strange, heavy snow followed by a fast melt, the way the air takes your breath away when you first step out a door, this far north is exactly what you’d expect it to be this time of year. 

In the month since we ran to catch our plane at PDX, we’ve done a lot and a lot of nothing. Downtime after a huge move is good, and we’ve taken the cold snowy nights to watch movies, eat around the coffee table, learn how to tiptoe around the apartment, enjoy chilly walks down the Park Blocks after dinner and walk downtown to have coffee or watch the lighting of the Christmas Tree.
Call us cautious, we’ve made new friends, but good relationships often grow slowly, developing deep roots, so we’re not in a hurry. We’ve learned to like each other in cramped quarters. We eat dinner in shifts, because our dining room table is a green fold up for two. 
We share a bathroom, which is decidedly tough with a nearly teenage boy who likes to shower every day, a younger brother who’d rather not shower at all, and a little sister who seems to have to go pee every 10 minutes or at least every time I am in the bathroom. 
Because many people rent these fully furnished apartments by the week, we’ve had a lot of neighbors we never get to know. The good news is that after a month, Cheryl finally found out that there is a laundry room in the building, and she got the lock code. No more long nights hanging out in the green fluorescent light of the laundromat up on Fireweed. 
We’ve seen many moose since we saw the big mama moose eating leftover pumpkins on our first weekend in town. Cheryl saw a huge bull moose in front of the library in midtown last week, and we saw another big cow and her baby on the way to visit Portage Glacier with a visitor. 
We’ve been ice skating with the kids on the oval at Cuddy Park as the sunset just after 4 p.m., casting an orange-creamsicle light over the midtown oil buildings. And we’ve spent an afternoon sledding and cross-country skiing at Kincaid Park, with a stop for hot chocolate on our way home. 
Saw the Nutcracker ballet and enjoyed evenings out and about at clubs and pubs.
Life is not perfect, but it is good. The adventure of Alaska is in the daily experience of living here. You don’t have to launch an expedition to go and find it. In a place so beautiful, danger is an overabundant commodity in Alaska.
On a long-enough timeline, Alaska will kill you. I can attest to this just in the news reported every day on our station and in the local newspaper. Living here is surviving here. Even in the crowded metropolis of Anchorage, death isn’t very far away, be it bullet, cold, car or plane crash. 
The dark won’t kill you, but I can see why so many give up and go back south where the dark hours play more fairly with the light. There is a certain anxiety until the solstice comes around and the simple knowledge that the days are growing longer brings those first hopeful thoughts of spring around again. 
My claustrophobia gets the best of me occasionally. I wake up feeling a bit stifled, but I know that is a product of the fact I haven’t driven much farther than the 45 miles it takes to get to Girdwood. I haven’t been to the valley yet. I haven’t been to Homer. Until I get a sense for the bigness of the place and the few roads that take you anywhere in this state, I’ll wake up feeling a bit stifled, or I’ll look out my window at work at the Chugach Mountains and wonder what is behind them and behind that. 
One month and so much to look back on already. The adventure has good start. 

Things you do for love

It used to be that I considered ice skating the romantic equivalent or substitution of buying a dozen roses. Such is my wife’s love of the fairy tale sport.

For my wife, the Winter Olympics are nothing until the pretty girls and boys take the ice. There is no substitute for the thrill of watching the skaters strive for a clean program. No feeling more crushing than watching a hard fall on a quad attempt.

Anniversaries past were spent driving to Portland for an evening dining out and then a skate in new sweaters under the lights at whatever mall then held an ice rink.

In my mind, I had scored the ultimate romantic points. In reality I stumbled clumsily on the ice along the walls of the rink as figure skaters practiced salchows in the middle.

Had I been able to skate around the rink hand in hand with my wife, the false wind blowing through our hair, the classical music settling over the ice chill like lace, I might have achieved my goal.

I hate ice skating. I, being built not as a pear or even an apple but more like some unnameable fruit that is round in the middle and slender at the bottom and top, have not the ankles to support myself on skates.

Standing there laced midway up the calf in figure-skating boots, I wobble, unable to find balance on the thin blades beneath me. The ankle cracking that ensues is enough to cause people to wonder if I’m not slowly crumbling, bones crushed to dust as I teeter and totter.

But I grab the wall and ease along, one foot in front of the other attempting to slide. Soon it gets a little easier, and I step away for a moment. The next I’m turning circles on the ice flat on my back. The toe pick having done its job of instantly stalling my forward progress and dropping me to the hard ice below.

This is the same the nearly half-dozen times I’ve attempted to ice skate.

Somewhere in those years, my wife gave up on me. I would/will never be the strong partner for lifts or catches. Nor will I likely be sailing smoothly, romantically around the rink hand in hand.

On Sunday, we attempted to ice skate with our youngest kids. Carson would like to play hockey, and I told him he at least needs to learn how to skate before he tries hockey. Seems logical to me though not to him as he picks out sticks and pucks and padding.

I thought maybe Gabrielle could vicariously fulfill that long-ago wish that my wife had to sail through the air over smooth ice and land delicately on a knife’s edge before gliding away, arms outstretched.

So in the twilight of an early winter Alaska afternoon, we made our way to the oval at Cuddy Park. We laced up our battered used newly purchased hockey skates and gingerly stepped onto the snow-dusted ice.

I walked Gabrielle around the rink hand in hand while Carson flopped around on the ice in a hybrid of skating and ice running. As the sun sank west of the city and outlined the midtown towers, we increased our confidence away from the mall eyes at the formal rink.

Hobbling at first, I stayed near the edge where the invitingly soft snow piled up like safety bales. Then moving out onto the smooth ice, I stretched my legs and put my weight into the blades to glide. Two quick steps and glide, a step and glide. Arms like airplane wings or stabilizers, hips burning from new motions, I made a lap around in what constitutes record time for me.

It wasn’t like I ever pictured it, but we made a long, slow lap around the oval hand in little hand in big hand. Gabrielle in between Cheryl and I stepping and skating together, the real wind in our hair and smiles on our faces. Rediscovery and late-attempts at dreams are like the surprise blossoms in early February. They keep you going forward.

Something to be thankful for

I peeked out through the shades in the living room to see giant snow flakes falling softly in the early morning light. It felt like a holiday, but I missed the smell of food cooking so familiar at my parents’ house.

I decided to remedy that. Perhaps it would wake up the sleeping beauties in the darkened apartment.
We haven’t been home for Thanksgiving in three years. That’s partly because it’s a tough holiday to split up between our two sets of in-laws who live just a few miles apart from each other. 

It still never fails that I miss spending these special days with my family. The food, the conversation, the hours and hours of catching up around the table.
Try as I might, I cannot recreate the experience, the warmth, the feeling of the larger family group gathering on these days.
We have little traditions that we hold on to. Mostly food related. On Wednesday, Cheryl picked up some  aged cheeses and a bottle of wine. Around 10 a.m. on Thursday, we Skyped my sister Aimee, who was holding the annual Akimoff Cheese Competition at her house this year. 
It was nice to see everyones’ face and enjoy a glass of wine together through the digital avenue of our computer and an Internet connection. But it wasn’t the same as being there.
My brother Mark won this year with an aged Brindisi from Willamette Valley Cheese Co., and I could only imagine how good it tasted. 
I spent a good portion of the morning cutting up root veggies for my roasted root veggie medley that has become our own little Thanksgiving tradition, and once it started to roast, the smells of caramelizing rutabagas, beets, parsnips, carrots, garlic and other goodies right out of God’s green earth made the house smell like heaven.
The snow piled up high by midday, and it made for the best driving in nearly two weeks. Intersections were far more navigable, and traffic seemed to flow without the nerves of the ice driving we’ve been doing. 
We made our way through the quite, billowy winter wonderland to the home of the Boots family, where we were invited to spend Thanksgiving dinner. I found it absolutely brimming with the smells I usually associate with home and mom.
It’s not always easy to fit into a new place, especially on the holidays when you’re far from home. And yet every family has traditions that you can see and share. I found myself focusing on the similar traditions that my family holds and the similarities at another house a million miles away.

We had  beautiful day with new friends. I spent an hour watching their old home movies just to get a sense of who they were in this place. We ate and ate and drank good wine and beer and talked all afternoon.

It wasn’t a whole lot different from what I love about hanging out with my family. It was just a different cast of characters.

I wondered how difficult it would be to get through the holidays in this new place, new job, new faces, new streets, new sky, new life. Thanksgiving was the litmus test, and from what I can tell, everything turned out well, which means the rest of our holidays may turn out. And that bodes well for life in general, does it not?

Icepocalypse 2010 – Our weather curse continues

I know I don’t have any direct effect on the weather. But you know how people often say, “Did you bring that rain (or snow or sun) with you?”

I will say that the last few moves we’ve made happened to coincide with very strange weather patterns, and I’ll give my conservative friends a break and not mention that-which-must-not-be-mentioned, but I’ll give you a hint, it starts with a global and ends with warming.

For the sake of peace and harmony and glorious ignorance, let’s just say that weather and rare-occurring phenomena seem to follow us from place to place.

I can’t really explain it other than to say we’re blessed?

We moved to Missoula in the summer of 2007. I moved over a few weeks before Cheryl and the kids joined me. All was fairly normal, or so it seemed. I ran into typical Montana summer weather in some big thunder boomers crossing over McDonald Pass to Helena. And back in Missoula I found the late-afternoon rain showers refreshing.

But then the mercury began to rise. By the time Cheryl and the kids showed up on the scene, the temperature hit 105, and it didn’t back down for 10 days. It was, in fact, the longest stretch of hot weather to hit the western part of the state in recorded history. If I’m not mistaken, I believe Montana reached its all-time high temperature that summer.

Needless to say, we sweltered in our welcome week in Montana.

There were other strange things before that. I once flew into Nadi Airport in Fiji a day before a powerful Typhoon brushed the northern part of the islands and devastated a few villages that we helped clean up after.

We ran into record-breaking rainfall in a move to Hawaii many years ago and watched streams rise over their banks and flood parts of town at the same time that the Pacific Northwest was inundated by what meteorologists started to call the Pineapple Express at the time.

Of course moving to Anchorage I assumed we might see some sort of blizzard for the ages, but no, our weather streak continues as the state is gripped in what people on Twitter are calling the icepocalypse, what in some places has been called an unprecedented weather event.

We’ve been here a little under a month now, and it snowed once in any concentration. I think it was about 7 inches, about half of which remains dank and dirty encased in layers of frozen rain.

I believe there is a collective cry for snow reverberating around the state, as outdoor enthusiasts and commuters alike, dislike the current state of the weather in the state.

I know it’s not us, it’s the unpredictable nature of weather and the effects of the thing-which-must-not-be-mentioned, but which clearly has an impact on our weather, whether or not we (humans) contribute to it or not.

Weather, like sports and Sarah Palin, gives us something to talk about around the Thanksgiving table. And on a day like today, with the sky dripping down over Anchorage, freezing in spots or splashing into slushy puddles, I’m grateful for neighbors who keep their apartments so hot that I don’t have to and hooded parkas and working indoors. And for probably the first time in my life, I’m actually praying for snow.

The truth about light

Sometimes you don’t notice the qualities of light until you don’t have it any more. The way it bends things in the late afternoon or freezes life like colored-stone sculptures in the early morning.

I remember growing up in the Willamette Valley with that miniature Mt. Fuji called Hood towering over the Cascade foothills and making me dream of walking up its whipped-cream slopes.

Some days it seemed like it was in my backyard, as if I could spit and reach its summertime Appaloosa appearance. And other days it receded into the haze or fog or clouds as if in a fit or mood or tantrum.

A trick of the light brought the mountain to my doorstep and pushed it away into the far distance.

The night light is a beast of a different dimension altogether. It makes you work harder, and like all hard-gained rewards, it is sweeter.

I once saw stars of various colors at the top of a very tall mountain in Hawaii, in a place where there were no lights and where you felt like you could step off into outer space. Blue giants, red dwarfs, the heavens looked like a celestial pinball game.

Man-made light will never surpass the intensity and life-giving aspects of natural light, but there is something intensely beautiful about the way we try. Our tower-of-Babel attempts to mimic the creative force of the Big Bang light show hurtling us through the universe.

A few blocks east of where we live, there is a building with a staircase in the middle that zig zags like a lightening bolt. Each floor is lighted a pastel hue that colors the building like a bright marker stroke on a white sheet of paper or a rainbow sand stick.

In the darkness of morning, a time when all light seems to have disappeared completely, this building makes me stop and pause. In the hours of early afternoon, when the winter sun is at its most intense, I notice the Chugach Mountains draped in billowy folds of creamy snow reflecting the sun like a jagged-edged mirror. But driving through town, I notice the oil buildings shining in sun-beat copper-tinted blasts of four-sided prismatic decadence. You can’t help but notice.

At this time of year, when the sun begins to settle low on its already low northerly arc, the soft, warm rays color snow like through rose-tinged water and wash dirty snow streets with an East L.A. hazy look of late August and smog you can just see through to the brown-washed San Gabriel Mountains.

Then it’s gone again, the light. It fades quickly to salmon-pink streaks in a slate-blue sky I’ve never seen before in the Lower-48.

Murky light moving in twin beams of headlights zooming through town and red lights like all the bad connotation of the districts they’ve come to represent make the computer-weary eyes wearier still.

I’ve never thought about light as much as I’ve thought about it here in Alaska. I’m conscious of when the sun rises and the games light plays on morning windshields and distant mountains, making Sleeping Lady look like a white-robed starlet stretched out on a white animal skin.

I’m aware of the loss of light in the late afternoons. Watching through floor-to-ceiling windows in my office as the light fades fast like before a movie starts.

Light is an individual experience. There are those who live without it in the heart of the cold, cold winter. There are those who may never notice it in the overwhelming warmth of the tropics. Some are sad as soon as the sun sets and others are restless in the midnight sun, unable to feel the natural rhythms in the blinding 20-hour daylight and four-hour twilight of July.

Light is always. Even in the dark, our eyes adjust to soak light out of nothingness.

And I’m comforted by the light on snow in the darkest dark and in between the sunsets and sunrises. I’m grateful to be aware of the light as I’ve never been aware of it before.

Even the Big Dipper and the North Star on the deep blue backdrop of the Alaskan flag speak of light.

It’s not the dark that gets you in Alaska, it’s the light.