On the Wings of Spring

northern exposures

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Interior Alaska is a land of Serious White for much of the year. November. December. January, February and March. But here comes April and winter’s coat is looking a little tattered. It’s a good thing that next week is Spring Carnival, otherwise the river ice would be two fragile for the games.

I walked to town today under one of those brilliant skies that leave you blind when you go indoors. It was a balmy, 40 degree afternoon. Windbreaker weather – no gloves, no hood required. Delicious!

On the way home I watched the birds flitting through the trees and captured this one feeding on a black spruce. I first thought it might be a juvenile gray jay but the coloration doesn’t appear right. If you know what it is, please leave me a note.

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Yes, Your Feet’s Too Big

poetry, Reflections

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Aren’t snowshoes wonderful inventions? – mathematical wonders, the trapper’s friend, even life savers.

And, of course, they are a wonderful source of fun! Here, some of our younger students race about on snowshoes. Each year we have a cultural week at school. Usually, an elder will be there to teach the youngsters how to make snowshoes of birch and hide, although the ones these students are wearing are store-bought.

I grew up in Texas. My only knowledge of snowshoes came from stories like White Fang, by Jack London:

In advance of the dogs, on wide snowshoes, toiled a man. At the rear of the sled toiled a second man. On the sled, in the box, lay a third man whose toil was over, – a man whom the Wild had conquered and beaten down until he would never move nor struggle again.

…and from poems like The Call Of the Wild, by Robert William Service:

Have you known the Great White Silence, not a snow-gemmed twig aquiver?
(Eternal truths that shame our soothing lies.)
Have you broken trail on snowshoes? mushed your huskies up the river,
Dared the unknown, led the way, and clutched the prize?
Have you marked the map’s void spaces, mingled with the mongrel races,
Felt the savage strength of brute in every thew?
And though grim as hell the worst is, can you round it off with curses?
Then hearken to the Wild — it’s wanting you.

But (and I’m not embarrassed to admit it) the memory that first comes to my mind when I see snowshoes is that of a song made popular by Fats Waller back in 1939 – the laughter rousing Your Feet’t Too Big, by Fred Fisher and Ada Benson:

Who’s that walkin’ round here? Mercy
Sounds like baby patter
Baby elephant patter that’s what I calls it

Say up in Harlem at a table for two
There were four of us, me, your big feet and you
From your ankles up, I’d say you sure are sweet
From there down there’s just too much feet

Yes, your feet’s too big
Don’t want you, ’cause you feet’s too big
Can’t use you, ’cause you feet’s too big
I really hate you, ’cause you feet’s too big

Where did you get them?
Your girl she likes you, she thinks you’re nice
Got what it takes to be in paradise
She said likes your face, she likes your ray
Man oh man them things are too big

Oh, your feet’s too big
Don’t want you, ’cause you feet’s too big
Mad at you, ’cause your feet’s too big
I hate you, ’cause your feet’s too big

My Goodness! Gun the gunboats!
Ship, ship, ship

Oh your pedal extremities are colossal
To me you look just like a fossil
You got me walkin’, talkin’ and squawkin’
‘Cause your feet’s too big, yeah

Come on and walk that thing
Oh, I’ve never heard of such walkin’, mercy
Your, your pedal extremities really are obnoxious
One never knows, do one?

Please do yourself a favor, go watch and listen to Fats Waller sing Your Feet’s Too Big, then tell me if you don’t walk a little lighter on your feet the rest of the day!

He Wasn’t Drunk

life in a village

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This is Birch Creek. I’ve long wanted to get some good pictures of it, and I’m happy with these. Birch Creek is home to about 30 people, or maybe 20. Nobody moves here looking for work. In fact, nobody really moves here at all.

Well, that isn’t totally accurate – living in the interior of Alaska has a semi-nomadic quality to it and people, usually family relatives, do come and go.

Gwich’in Athabascans have long dwelt in Birch Creek, fishing and hunting the abundant wildlife. Lawrence does, and one cold, February day earlier this year he was having a drink or two, which may or may not have had something to do with the sudden urge that overcame him to go for a walk. Hum, Fort Yukon’s not too far away.

It’s worth noting that a February stroll across the Yukon Flats probably isn’t anything like a stroll down your neighborhood street. If you are a crow, then Fort Yukon is about 30 miles from Birch Creek, but if you are bipedal like Lawrence and me, then you are looking at a 50 mile hike.

It also bears mentioning to those who may not have followed this blog for long that there are no roads across the Yukon Flats; it is true wilderness. There are no mile markers, no signs that you would recognize. There may be snow-go tracks, if they haven’t been obscured by fresh snow. Sometimes there are stars visible. That’s about it. Except for wolves and the like.

Fortunately for Lawrence, he had plenty of time on his hands. He walked for 15 hours and almost made it. A search team found him 4 miles outside the Fort and brought him in. He felt great, except his legs were a little sore.

Lawrence, by the way, is 52 years old. It was -35˚F when he strolled out the door, and there were less than 6 hours of winter light per day.

His family said he wasn’t really drunk, but they also conceded that he may not have been completely sober. Either way, my hat’s off to Lawrence for accomplishing something I would never try.

inspired by Dorothy Chomicz’s story on Newsminer.com

Come Quickly, May!

life in a village

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January – February – March – April – May

This time of year speeds by so quickly that it blurs my vision. In-service in Fairbanks for a week…then a week of school…now March Madness and another week away from school as chaperone to our team…another week of school…a week of those infallible standardized tests overlapping the week of our carnival…a second week of carnival in Venetie…a third week of carnival in Arctic Village…geese arrive…ducks arrive…school’s out.

Of course, the architects of our marvelous one-size-fits-all system of education think they know better than we, so they have mandated that we give their remarkable test during our week of carnival. Okay, here is a mathematical problem for you:

standardized tests > a week of fun and games

True or False?

The village isn’t about to change the carnival date because that is a traditional thing, and besides, carnival can’t be delayed because the river will become unsafe for the spring games. The kids aren’t about to go to bed early because the nights must be fiddled and danced into the wee hours of the morning. Oh, and the kids won’t be taking their time on the tests because carnival begins at 2 pm everyday. Put down those pencils and get down to the river!

Life is very different here. Arctic Village, Venetie and Fort Yukon families are interconnected, so many of my students will disappear for two weeks after our carnival to spend time with their relations. And hunting is essential to the subsistence way of life, so when the geese come the kids will leave again.

Oh, did I mention that my students must study simple machines, electricity, magnetism and other forms of energy? And complete the yearbook? and create science fair projects? all before school is over?

The baby spruce are pushing their way through the snow now. They know winter’s end is near. We do, too.

Come quickly, May, come quickly!

The Wright Choice

northern exposures

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We departed Fort Yukon on Saturday at 3:30 pm on Wright Air, headed for Fairbanks. There are 3 carriers out of the Fort and Wright’s is the only one we will fly. Their Grand Caravans are reliable even in extreme cold and so are their pilots.

Saturday’s pilot warned us that by the time we passed Birch Creek, about 30 miles south, we wouldn’t be seeing much. That was an understatement! Thirty seconds beyond the Yukon it was a white out, so I leaned against the window and fell asleep. At some point I awoke and saw this unknown creek cutting across the landscape below me, so I snapped a quick picture of it just as the snow clouds closed in again.

That was the last thing we saw until the runway lights guided us onto the East Ramp in Fairbanks. The flight normally takes 55 minutes; strong headwinds and zero visibility added another 25 to ours and you should have heard the moaning about that!

Our flight may have been slow, but one of the other planes carrying teachers to Fairbanks lost engine power briefly and began descending over the mountains. I heard there were some screams on that one! The problem apparently had to do with a vapor lock or something as the pilot switched fuel tanks. They landed okay. By the way, that wasn’t one of Wright Air’s planes.

And now you know which airline is the Wright Choice!

It’s An Ephemeral Thing

northern exposures

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Frost. It’s quite beautiful, and that’s too bad.

Maybe if it wasn’t so beautiful it would last longer, but you know the old saying, “beauty is fleeting.”

The high school students are skiing for PE. I can see them set off outside my window and I get a big kick out of watching them. I’ve done this in flat country before, so I know they are learning something very valuable – exactly where each of their 640 muscles are located. I’m so glad I am not in PE!

Because youth, like beauty, is fleeting, and mine has certainly fled! 🙂

Adams Leaning Wheel Grader #3, Redux

northern exposures

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I photographed this old Adams Leaning Wheel Grader #3 back in 2012 and decided to photograph it again for all the Adams’ fans who have visited that post. I would never have guessed there are so many of you out there!

Many thanks to the 300 grader aficionados who have stopped by over the past 3 years. Have another on me!

Warm Skies & Spring Fever!

northern exposures

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Warm skies and Spring Fever are trending! It’s 12˚F outside and climbing to 18˚ today according to our reprieved forecaster. In fact, he says it is supposed to be warm all week long.

Twelve degrees isn’t going to make a Texan think of Spring, but it sure is stirring blood up here. Snow-gos are whizzing down the streets, people are strolling about and a major epidemic of Spring Fever has struck the village.

Kids have it. Teachers have it. I’m afraid the prognosis is poor – high fevers for the final twelve weeks of school resulting in severe learning impairment.

Let’s see, twelve weeks. That’s a week of in-service in Fairbanks and another for high school championship basketball in Anchorage – a hopeless time for learning.

A week preparing for the omniscient, infallible standardized test and another to take it.

There will be the traditional week of Carnival in Fort Yukon followed by an exodus of our students to Arctic Village for theirs.

Uh, so let me do the math here: 12 weeks less 2, less 2 more, and less 2 more equals…6 weeks!

By then, geese and ducks will be winging across the Flats and many of my kids will be seriously hunting. A successful spring hunt will put food on the table for much of the coming summer, fall and winter. Hunting is an excused activity and for good reason.

I love the last quarter of school!