Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Cold Enough

There comes a point towards the end of winter when it simply feels like we’ve had enough. The point when it happens may vary, depending on how much serious cold February and March have brought us, and it often occurs sometime after the spring equinox when the rapidly lengthening days are a regular reminder that most of the northern hemisphere is warming toward summer. Today is the day that I reached that point.

Southwest Alaska has had a pretty cold time of it for the first three months of 2007. Not killer cold, not 40 below for weeks on end. But consistently below zero most of the time. The entire month of March has had a daily dawn baseline of 10 below or colder, sometimes warming up during the day to zero or 10 above—reflecting the increasing strength of the sun—but plummeting right back down each night. It begins to wear a person out. Even my Yupik friends are saying “I could stand it to warm up a little.” Most of us are ready for a twenty degree bump in the baseline: 10 above, instead of 10 below. After all, isn't it spring now?

The brief exception to the March cold occurred this past weekend, which may have contributed to my tipping point. After weeks of clear skies and hard ice everywhere with no snow to speak of, on Saturday the clouds rolled in and winds blew from the south. We warmed up to +15F and it began to snow like we haven’t seen in many weeks. By Monday there were huge drifts of fresh snow everywhere; schools had to close for the day, as the school busses were not able to drive their routes. For two glorious days we were practically in T-shirts, it was so warm. And once the roads were cleared of drifts, life was easy again; it really felt like spring was more than a distant teasing promise.

But as often happens in late March, Old Man Winter wants one more bite out of us before his last wobbly tooth falls out. Yesterday morning the thermometer was back to 16 below just before sunrise. Plug in the truck again before trying to crank it. Thaw out the bathtub drain with a heat gun before taking a shower. Layer up with multiple fleece under the Jeff King suit (AND beaver hat AND neck gaiter AND bunny boots) before going out with the dogs (and God forbid you should forget to pee before putting all that on).

At least by this point in the year’s cycle, it WILL warm up during the day. In January and February, the temperature often does not vary more than a degree or two for days on end, as the sun gives us brief light but no warmth. By late March there is substantial strength in the sun’s rays, and afternoons may be 20 degrees warmer than early mornings. This variation gives us some amazing icicles on the south sides of buildings.

Temperatures well below freezing are likely to continue into April, and possibly even into May. But the sun is growing ever stronger, and our daylight increases by about five minutes each day. Old Man Winter’s grip is weakening, despite the pinch he is still able to give us in the early mornings. Spring will come. You can already feel it.


Saturday, March 24, 2007

Ice Fishing

The spring equinox occurred this week, but southwest Alaska is only partly feeling spring-like. The lengthening daylight is readily apparent; we now have over 12 hours of light, with long and lingering evenings which don’t get completely dark until after 10 pm. And the afternoon sun has a strength to it which holds promise of the summer days to come. But so far, it is still really cold. The entire month of March has been mostly below zero—often far below. This morning it was -16F just before sunrise. For the last week, we’ve had afternoons as warm as +10F, which feels so soft and warm, but the overnight lows continue to dip pretty deeply.

On Wednesday I had the opportunity for a new experience: I went manaqing with two of my favorite patients. Manaqing (maa-NUK-ing) is the Yupik term for ice fishing through a small hole with a short stick, and it is a favorite pastime for little old ladies. They often make a day of it.

The Johnson River, a tributary of the Kuskokwim, is universally considered the best spot for pike fishing around here. The mouth of the Johnson is about 20 miles downriver from Bethel. The Ice Road is in excellent condition, and is marked with saplings all the way to the Johnson.

On Tuesday I saw one of my favorite patients, Hannah. She was the teller of my Halloween post, which included her photo, but I never mentioned her name. She comes to see me monthly and we always have a nice chat. She was telling me about her recent manaqing adventures with Ida, another Yupik elder I know, and I mentioned that I’d love to go with them sometime.

“Well, how about tomorrow?” she responded.

It being my day off, tomorrow was perfect. “Let’s go!” I said.

We left Bethel about 10:30 am for the drive down. It was about 10 below, but the wind was fairly quiet, so not too cold. It was a gorgeous day. They went in Ida’s truck and I followed in mine; they intended to stay until around 6 pm and I wanted to get back earlier.

The Ice Road is well frozen, but has lots of drifts. The road is well marked with saplings frozen into the ice, but you can drive pretty much anywhere. It’s almost like being in a boat. At one point I was about 50 yards behind them and veered a little to avoid a large drift. Suddenly the truck was spinning and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I did a complete 360 plus another 180 and came to rest facing back toward Bethel. It was like a slow-motion carnival ride. Since there was no open water and no solid object anywhere, it was really fun.

When we arrived at our destination, the only other vehicle was a lone Suburban. Two guys had a large gas-powered auger and were just finishing their first hole. An auger is the Cadillac way to go when it comes to putting a hole in the ice, but they are notoriously unreliable. Hannah has one, but she says dismissively, “It never works!” She and Ida both had long red ice picks, a long-handled tool with a 2-inch wide sharp chisel on the end.

It is an arm burning experience to chip a hole in four-foot-thick ice with a hand tool. The best trick is to find a deep crack in the ice; then Mother Nature does half the work for you. We followed a crack at the edge of the river until we found a few spots where people had recently been fishing. Old holes don’t have nearly as much ice in them. Hannah chipped her way through to water in about five minutes. She had me start fishing that hole while she chipped another near by.

Ida was set on re-opening a hole that was not in a crack. She had fished it several days prior, and had pulled out fish as fast as she could put her line in the water. She caught more than forty fish that day, from that one hole. The hole had not been used for several days, and the ice at the bottom was thick. She wasn’t able to get it open with her ice pick, it needed an auger. The bottom of the hole was deeper than the reach of her arm when lying face down on the ice next to it; she couldn’t scoop the ice chippings out. She gave up on it and made two holes in the same crack that Hannah and I were fishing from.

Once the hole is open, you drop your baited hook in and jig-jig-jig until something bites. We were using fresh black fish for bait. Hannah had a small container of cut up black fish for us to use; she kept them in an inside pocket so they wouldn’t freeze. The hook is large and heavy, so it will sink to the bottom. We were in about 15 feet of water. It is attached to a line the size of kite string which is wound around a short stick, perhaps 18” long. You sit at the edge of the hole and bounce the baited hook along the river bottom until you feel a heaviness on the line. There is no hard pull, no running out of the line. When it feels heavy, you grab the line with both hands and start pulling it out. The pike on the hook will be one to two feet long, narrow-bodied, with a huge mouth and sharp teeth. They come off the hook easily, and often you don’t even lose your bait.
Since I started fishing first, it was no surprise that I caught the first fish. Hannah's eyes lit up, and as soon as it was off my hook, she grabbed it and popped out the eyes. She threaded one eye onto her hook and started fishing. "They make the best bait," she said. She quickly caught a fish, proving her point.

We fished for a couple of hours. Hannah and I had holes side-by-side, and between us we pulled in a dozen pike. Ida, the master fisherwoman, had two holes and a pole in each hand as she fished them both. When we stopped for a lunch break, she had 16 fish to our 12.

By the time my teachers were ready for a break I was glad to stop. It was a lovely, clear, blue-sky day, but the wind was pretty brisk, and it was ten below, which means the wind chill factor was about -25F. With my Jeff King suit on I was reasonably warm, but my cheeks and toes were numb. We climbed into Ida’s truck for a half hour of warmth.

Hannah had made sandwiches of salmon spread ("jarred" king salmon she canned last summer mixed with mayonnaise) on white bread. Ida brought dried and smoked king salmon from last summer, sort of a fish jerky. Hers was wonderful. Hannah had some fresh agutuk she had made—a concoction of berries, sugar, boiled white fish, and Crisco. It sounds atrocious, but it is actually quite tasty. And it really helps to keep you warm in the severe cold. I brought a thermos of coffee, some beef jerky, and a bag of good chocolate. We had an excellent lunch.

Another hour of fishing after lunch and I was about ready to head back to Bethel. My fishing partners were not nearly ready to leave, so I gave them a hug and headed upriver alone.

The road was pretty easy to follow. When I got to the village of Napakiak (which is on the opposite side of the river from my village, Napaskiak), I really needed to pee (all that coffee). I decided to stop in at the village clinic and say hi to the health aides there. They recognized me immediately, and were glad to see me. It was after 3 pm, and they were basically done for the day, just finishing up paperwork; the clinic closes at 4 pm. I regaled them with fish tales, used their facilities, and then headed back out to the river. I was home by 4:30.

Hannah called me about 6:30 to make sure I had made it home safely. She and Ida had just gotten in. They caught somewhere between 50 and 60 pike, she said. Of those, I caught four. I have a lot to learn.


Saturday, March 17, 2007

A Lovely Visit, Part 3

In the Yupik Eskimo tradition, a potlatch is an informal way of distributing wealth among villages. The host village invites one or more nearby villages to come to visit, usually for two or three days. The visitors are fed well, they are given basketsful of gifts, and there is dancing and general celebration. Everyone loves a potlatch; there is high excitement for both givers and receivers.

While Susan and I were in Pilot Station there was a palpable buzz of anticipation about the potlatch in Marshall. Quite a few people I knew were planning to go. The Marshall health aide said that we could stay at the clinic, which is across the road from the school gym where festivities would be held; so when the charter flight had two seats for us, it seemed meant to be. And the perfect way to attend my first potlatch.

Marshall is only a few bends in the river upstream from Pilot Station. The snowmachine trail takes a more direct route, cutting through portages to straighten and shorten the trail. Most people say it takes about 90 minutes on a good snowmachine. The flight only takes 15 minutes, and at -20F, I was very glad not to be screaming along on a snowmachine at 50 MPH.

The village sits at the base of a bald mountain, which is often snow capped and highly visible from long distances. A measure of clear weather in Pilot Station is whether you can see Marshall Mountain from there. The trip over was a low-flying hop. The woman sitting behind Susan spied two moose browsing the willows at the edge of a pond and pointed them out to her; I was looking elsewhere and missed them. Drat!

The brother of the woman who had chartered the plane met us at the airstrip with a small pick-up truck, and once more we piled into the open back with our luggage and several other people. We discovered with teeth-chattering chagrin that Marshall’s airstrip is MUCH further from the village than Pilot’s airstrip. It was brutally cold for the ten minutes it took to drive to the village.

Marshall is a Yupik village of about the same size as Pilot Station. The two are strongly inter-related through marriage, due to their close proximity. Most people in either village have relatives in the other, and visiting back and forth is common. It seems odd that air service between the two villages is not convenient.

The village lies on the north bank of the Yukon River, oriented longways to maximize riverfront property. In the aerial photo, most of the village is seen at the lower left. Many of the homes are older, though in good repair, and there is much less fascination with brightly colored paint than in Pilot Station. But there were just as many yards with moose and caribou antlers scattered casually about or stacked on roofs, and Susan was lusting after horn at every turn. She loves to collect antler-shed in the spring in Montana, and came up with the hope of finding some caribou antler. She had to settle for photos this time.

Marshall’s clinic is still housed in an old building; a new clinic has been built, but they have not moved in yet. Josephine, the lead health aide, had waited for our arrival and showed us around the clinic before she left us with a key. She and her family were dancing that night, and she had many details to attend to before the festivities started.

The agenda, she explained, would start with a welcome and blessing by a male elder. Then the families who were presenting a young person for their First Dance would come forward. This is a big honor, and a rite of passage, for the young person, who is usually 10 to 13 years old. They are dressed in their finest fancy clothes and will have center stage when they dance. Before the dance, the family presents gifts to the people who have been most significant in the young person’s life. Several families, including Josephine’s, were presenting First Dancers at this potlatch.

Next would be the Give-away. The people of Marshall have been stockpiling goods for several weeks to distribute to their guests. A large pile of gifts honors the people giving and delights the people receiving. The rest of the evening would be dancing and drumming by Marshall’s dance group. Exhibition dances for the First Dancers would be held Saturday afternoon, though they would participate with the large group Friday evening. And Saturday night would have dance performances by the dance groups from the visiting villages.

Eskimo dancing is a group activity and originated as a form of prayer. It is all done above the knees. Dancers form a semi-circle in two rows, with men on their knees in front, and women standing behind them. There may or may not be a dance leader out in front for everyone to cue off of; and that leader may face the dancers like a conductor, or may face the audience as the dancers do.

Each dance tells a story, and all dancers make the same movements and gestures in unison. Each dancer holds a dance fan in each hand; it is considered akin to sacrilege to dance bare-handed. If one wishes to dance and has no fans, then putting on gloves will do.

Men’s fans are open circles with five feathers sticking out like fingers; men’s gestures with the fans tend to be somewhat sharp and jabbing. Women’s fans are solid circles of leather or woven grass with finger loops and with long, soft fur from the caribou’s chest attached. Women’s gestures with the fans are soft and flowing. Though the gestures themselves are the same, the effect is quite different. The dancer’s upper body may sway and bend like a willow in a windstorm, but the feet never move.

Behind the two rows of dancers sit the drummers. Traditionally, only men are drummers, though that is no long rigidly observed. One or more of the drummers also sing with the drums, a wordless aii-yii-yii kind of song that goes up and down the vocal scale. Many of the songs sound very much the same to me, and I marvel that the dancers know exactly which dance goes with which song.

The drums are large, thin, and high-voiced. They consist of a two- to three-foot diameter hoop attached to a holding stick and covered on one side with a thin skin—these days, synthetic material, though originally rawhide. The drum is played by snapping a thin, limber drumstick against the drumhead or the rim, to produce a sharp monotone voice.

The school gym is fairly small, so it was a good thing that Susan and I showed up early to get good seats. The bleachers were already half full. The energy level was on high spin, as everyone anticipated the fun to come. Our host villagers were decked out in their finest kuspuks and mukluks, complete with beaded jewelry and ceremonial fur headpieces. Children were running around everywhere, old friends were hugging and chatting, and a controlled level of chaos reigned. The gym floor at the edge of the stage area (defined by blue tarps hung from the basketball goals) was quickly filling up with box after box of goods for the Give-away.

It was such a ripe opportunity for photographing the beauty and joy in the Yupik Eskimo people and their culture. Fortunately, the Yupik enjoy having their pictures taken. Susan was hesitant to ask at first, having experienced other aboriginal cultures who are either frightened of, or offended by being photographed. I told her that that had not been my experience here, and encouraged her simply to ask them first. She did, and they invariably smiled willingly in response. As you can see here, she took some amazing photographs. I took a few shots as well, but was for the most part quite happy to let her do the shutter-work.

The bleachers were full when an elder stepped to the center of the stage and addressed the crowd in English. He welcomed the visitors from Pilot Station, St. Mary’s, and Russian Mission, and introduced the four families who were presenting First Dancers. That was the end of the English. Everything after that was in Yupik, and I had no idea what was being said.

Each family presenting a First Dancer took turns coming forward. First someone spread a blue tarp on the floor and then placed a tanned beaver hide on the tarp, fur side down. The First Dancer stood on the beaver hide holding both arms full of gifts, some in buckets with names on them. Each family laid down its own blue tarp and beaver hide. The family stood around the young person and many words were said. I thought they were praying, but the woman behind me said they were talking about the person for whom the First Dancer was named. The young person then distributed the gifts he or she was holding to specific people in the audience who had been influential in their lives. More hugging, even tears.

When the four families had each had their turns, the elder came forward again and asked the audience to move and re-seat themselves, with all visitors on the left and all Marshall residents on the right. Everyone except Susan and me seemed to know what that meant: time for the Give-away.

The audience re-sorted quickly to visitor and resident locations and I noticed for the first time that quite a few people had brought large plastic tubs with lids along with them. And then it began. Marshall residents started opening the boxes on the gym floor and handing or throwing goods to the audience. Socks, gloves, dishtowels, wash cloths, bars of soap, candles, bags of dried fish, cups of agutak (Eskimo ice cream), packages of batteries, handsful of hard candies and bubble gum, cans of pop, manaq’ing sticks (short poles used for ice fishing), long-handled dippers for the steam bath, refrigerator magnets, key rings with a tiny handmade fur mukluk or a ptarmigan (bird) foot, plastic combs, coat hangers, hot pads, small bottles of shampoo. It was truly amazing.

I soon understood the big plastic tubs, and to wish I had one. Our laps were overflowing with gifts quickly and we were handed more and more stuff. Finally someone gave us an empty plastic garbage bag to load our gifts into; we’d have never been able to carry it all otherwise.

It took nearly an hour to pass out all the gifts. The audience ooohed and aaaahed appropriately, but what was the most fun was watching how happy the act of giving made the givers. From small children to elders, the people of Marshall were beaming with joy as they gifted their friends and relatives from the three near-by villages.

Finally, all the boxes were empty, trash was cleared away, and the drummers and dancers took the stage. The main dance group from Marshall, perhaps a dozen dancers, all had matching kuspuks on. The dance leader was a young man in a white kuspuk who was in front, sometimes facing the dancers and sometimes facing the audience.

A word here on kuspuks: there is gender differentiation here too. Women’s kuspuks are made from patterned fabric, often with small flowers, and may be any color. They may be short, like an overshirt, or long, like a knee-length dress. They may have a gathered ruffle as the lower portion, or not. Men’s kuspuks are made of a solid color fabric, either blue, green, black, or occasionally, white. They are overshirt length, and no ruffles! Common to all kuspuks is that they are hooded and have a large front pocket like the one on a hooded sweatshirt. Also common to most kuspuks is rick-rack. Who knows how this western sewing accessory gained prominence in Yupik garment making, but it has. I have never seen a kuspuk that did not have rick-rack decorating the sleeves, the bottom hem, and the pocket.

The Marshall dancers performed several different dances, each one lasting for some time. A single Eskimo dance consists of the gestures that tell a brief story; the story may be repeated any number of times, and whether gone through two times or twelve, it is all one dance. By the third or fourth time through, it is fairly easy to see what constitutes the basic set of gestures for that dance. At that point, others who are not part of the dance group may feel moved to join in, and are welcome to do so. Eskimo dancing is an all-inclusive activity, even in a performance. If the spirit moves you, you are encouraged to dance.

The evening was winding down as Susan and I ducked out a side door with our bag of loot. My ears were ringing from the drums, and my posterior was decidedly numb from sitting on bleachers. Back at the clinic, we sorted through all the goodies and wondered how we’d get it back to Bethel. Fortunately we found a sturdy cardboard box in the storeroom that would hold it all. I planned to pass most of the gifts on to patients at the hospital when we returned.

The next morning, Susan made coffee while I talked with the air service about how we were getting back to Bethel. We had a charter reserved for Sunday morning, but that would be more than double the cost of taking the scheduled flight back on Saturday. And Susan’s flight back to Montana left at 3 pm Sunday; any weather delay in getting out of Marshall could risk missing her flight. My back was complaining bitterly about the prospect of another night on the cots in the clinic; and though I wanted to see more dancing, I felt Susan had had a very good introduction to it. We talked it over and decided to take the scheduled flight later that morning.

With a few phone calls I got everything arranged while Susan did a whirlwind job of packing up our stuff and making more coffee. The agent agreed to pick us up and drive us back to the airstrip. When he showed up an hour or so later, the village was still sleeping, and so we left without saying goodbye. I wrote Josephine a note and left it with the key, next to the computer.

The trip home was brief, as we had a good tailwind, and we were the only passengers. Walking into the terminal, Susan paid more attention to the mural on the wall; she had seen it on our way out, but it hadn’t meant much then. It is a painting of Eskimo dancers, done by one of my patients in Pilot Station who is a locally well-known artist, Pat Minock. I’ve always wondered why Pat portrayed the dancers not holding fans, but I’ve never thought of it when I had the opportunity to ask him.

Once home, we discussed whether to squeeze in one more dog mushing run, or one more snow machine ride, but in the end opted to stay inside where it was warm and toasty, and enjoy our last hours together talking. We had done lots of it over the week, with many late-night conversations that went on until 2 or 3 am. And yet there was always more to say.

I drove her to the airport the next day extremely glad that time and circumstance had brought us back together. We had a wonderful adventure together, and I am so thankful that she is back in my life. She is a forever kind of friend.
Photos by Susan Rangitsch and The Tundra PA


Friday, March 16, 2007

A Lovely Visit, Part 2

Note: I have written extensively about Pilot Station, Alaska, in several previous posts; see here and here for photos and descriptions of a summer visit.

In order to give my friend Susan the broadest experience possible of Yupik culture, I wanted to take her to Pilot Station for a few days. I knew she would love seeing how different the land is up there on the Yukon River, with its big trees and rolling hills. Pilot Station sits on a beautiful spot on the north side of the river. And she would love meeting the people there that I have come to know and love.

The week before Susan’s arrival, I spoke with the health aides and confirmed that we could stay in the clinic’s itinerant sleeping room. The plan was to fly up Thursday morning and return on Saturday morning. That would give us time to take steambaths with two groups of women in the village, and I hoped that the village’s Eskimo dance group would be practicing. Other than that, I had no plans for our time there, except to go around the village and visit with people.

The rule for winter bush travel in small airplanes is to dress like you’re going to crash—“dress to survive, not to arrive”. Susan and I took off for Pilot Station on Thursday morning looking like we were ready for the arctic. We both had Jeff King suits (Dutch and I have green ones), beaver hats, fleece gaiters, beaver mitts, and extreme footgear. We had packets of chemical hand warmers in our pockets and extra fleece in our bags. The health aides had warned us that it was twenty below there. And windy. Really cold.

The flight to Pilot takes thirty to forty minutes in a Cessna 206, depending on headwinds. It is not necessary to fly at much elevation—perhaps 2,000 feet—as the terrain is so very flat. The only mark of human habitation to be seen in the hundred or so miles between Bethel and Pilot is a few snowmachine trails. A million tiny lakes and ponds cover the land, which stretches flat and endless from horizon to horizon. Not far south of the Yukon River, fir trees begin to edge the lakes, becoming thick forests by river’s edge. Hills begin rolling, and the river cuts through them creating high bluffs which are visible from a long distance.

The village of Pilot Station sits between two of these bluffs, protected by the shoulders of the land. With its southern exposure, the afternoon and evening light is warm and beautiful. The gravel airstrip perches atop the downriver bluff, situated perpendicular to the river—which makes taking off something akin to racing off a cliff. Landing can be a bit dicey if the crosswinds are stiff, but we made it down with only a few bumps and thrills.

The air service’s agent met us at the airstrip in his old pick-up truck and gave us a ride down the hill in the back with our gear. From the top we could see the colorful houses of Pilot Station dotting the hillside, but at that point we were too cold to appreciate the individuality expressed in paint. It was twenty below zero. Fortunately, it is a short ride. He dropped us at the clinic and we were really glad to get inside and get warmed up.

When I travel to the village I take gifts to the people there. Susan and I had shopped the day before and had two cases of fresh California oranges, a large jar of salted nuts and some baked goods. The oranges were placed in the waiting room with a sign that said “Help Yourself” and people quickly did so. Any fresh produce is greatly appreciated in the village where very little is available. It was a delight to watch the kids’ eyes light up at the sight of the oranges. Many went out with pockets bulging to share with their friends.

One thing I need to arrange when I go to Pilot Station is the use of a vehicle. The clinic has a four-wheeler, but on my last four trips there, it has not been working. This trip was no different. I rented the clinic janitor’s Honda (generic village term for all four-wheelers) on my last trip, but it was also not working.

“OK,” said one of the health aides, “we’ll just put it out on the radio and somebody will show up.”

She picked up the VHF’s hand-held microphone and said “Public announcement to the village of Pilot Station! The village provider is here for a few days and she needs a vehicle. If you have a snowmachine or Honda she could use, call the clinic. She’ll pay you!” In less than a minute the phone started ringing. Five minutes later a teenager showed up with his new snowmachine, happy to let us use it, and happy to have some money. I was equally delighted; the village is quite spread out and very hilly.

Susan and I stashed our gear in the sleeping room and took off to explore. The first stop was the village store, as the snowmachine was sitting on Empty. Gas was $5.65/gallon and it took over $50 to fill it up; I knew the owner wouldn’t mind getting it back nearly full. Susan explored the store and walked up the hill to the Russian Orthodox cemetery for some photos while I waited for the attendant to take the snowmachine down to the fuel farm, fill it, and bring it back. I knew several people who happened to be in the store and we chatted about how they were doing while I waited.

With a full tank of gas, we drove up and down the narrow roads of the village, waving to people and stopping to talk. In our red and green Jeff King suits, we stood out, just as we had in Napaskiak. But most of the people here know me by sight, and recognition brought big smiles to their faces. With a quick stop at Agnes’s house, we confirmed that we were on for a steambath that night.

Back at the clinic, the work day was finished. The health aides were closing up and gave us the key to front door before they left. We had a quick supper from the cooler we brought with us; no commercial options—like a café—are available in the village. It is best to eat lightly before taking a steam, and to drink plenty of water. I have occasionally had post-steambath headaches from not hydrating adequately beforehand.

It was 10 pm before the bath was ready and Agnes called us. With a backpack full of towels and a small gift for Agnes, we fired up the pull-start snowmachine and cruised over. Smoke and sparks were pouring from the smokestack of the steambath’s woodstove. As cold as it was, that sight brought joy to my heart. I couldn’t wait to get inside and sweat.

Agnes’s steambath is luxuriously roomy; it easily holds six people, and she had invited three other women to join us. They might have been watching out their windows, they showed up so quickly after we went in. All were interested to meet Susan and happy to see me again. We quickly hung our clothes on nails in the dressing area and crawled naked through the short half-door into the smaller room where the wood stove was crackling.

The floor in the bath section was still cold, but the air was nice and warm, and getting hotter quickly. As soon as we were all settled on our towels, Agnes picked up the dipper, a soup can nailed to a three-foot-long stick, and began pouring hot water from the reservoir in front of the stove onto the rocks on top. Loud pops and hissing preceded waves of steam that almost instantly raised the temperature to a skin-sizzling level. I was quickly on my stomach with my lips close to the floor where the air was coolest. Susan was stretched out on her back, smiling with her eyes closed. Whether steambath or sweatlodge, she loves the heat.

The Yupik steambath is a social event, and between peaks of heat there was lots of talking, teasing, and storytelling. A number of small comments the women made here and there were windows into Yupik culture, and I made mental notes of them to discuss with Susan later. She listens attentively and misses very little detail; I knew she would want to know more about the importance of seemingly idle remarks.

It is difficult to crank a steambath up to really hot when the weather outside is twenty below, especially when the wind is blowing. Agnes is known for taking very hot steams, and she was somewhat apologetic about this one not being up to her standard. It was nicely hot, but not enough to push us out the door. For only a few brief moments was it too hot to talk, which is my favorite level of heat.

As the stove was cooling down, the ladies brought in their basins, shampoo, and washrags and proceeded to bathe and wash their hair. The beauty of this method of bathing is in how little water it takes to bathe after one is completely wet from sweating. In the frozen sub-arctic, water is a precious commodity.

By the time the bath was finished it was quite late. The village was sleeping as the snowmachine roared to life and loudly carried us back to our quarters; I hated the intrusion of noise and wished we had a good dog team instead.

After our late night, the following morning came too quickly as the health aides showed up at 9 am to open the clinic. I was thankful there had not been an emergency the night before to interrupt our slumber. We made coffee and took stock of the day. Agnes had mentioned that there would be a potlatch over the weekend in the next upriver village, Marshall. Pilot Station had been invited, along with the villages of St. Mary’s and Russian Mission. She said quite a few people were planning to attend. I had never been to a potlatch and asked what it would be like.

“Eskimo dancing and give-away. Maybe some feasting,” she said. My eyes lit up. I wanted Susan to see some Eskimo dancing, and the local group had not scheduled any practice sessions during our visit.

We discussed the possibility of going to Marshall over coffee. Most people were going by snowmachine, which we would not be able to do with all of our luggage. Scheduled air service does not go from Pilot to Marshall without going back to Bethel first. Once again, the health aide came to our rescue.

“Put it on the VHF. Maybe somebody has chartered a plane and has two extra seats.” Once again, it worked. Within a few minutes, one of the villagers called and said their charter was leaving at 3:30 and had two seats available. It would only cost us $58 each to fly over with them. We looked at each other and grinned. We were going to potlatch.

There were several hours left before we needed to be up at the airstrip, and we wanted to make the most of them. Susan wanted to climb up some of the steeper trails at the edge of the village where the snowmachine could not go, and she set off with camera ready. The health aides had asked me to see a patient who needed a steroid injection for her badly arthritic knees; anticipating this, I had brought supplies with me and was happy to save her a trip to Bethel.

I also wanted to stop in briefly to visit with Agnes’s mother, Maggie. She is a tiny and delightful octogenarian whose wrinkled face appears stern when she is not laughing, which is often. I wanted Susan to meet her.

In the end, we only had time for a short visit. We brought her the last three oranges, which she placed carefully on the table in the kitchen. No one was home with her at that moment, which was a significant disadvantage as she speaks almost no English. She called Agnes’s husband Andrew on the phone and told him in voluble Yupik to “come right now!”

They only live two houses down and were there in just a moment. Agnes and her sister had mentioned in the steambath that Maggie seems to be getting more crotchety and demanding in her old age, and the phone call was another example of it. She just smiled and shrugged a shoulder. That’s an elder’s privilege.

Our time was quickly up and we raced back to the clinic to get our luggage (sleeping bags, grub box, cooler, extra clothes, a dozen towels) moved out to the road where someone would pick us up and drive us to the airstrip. Hugs and good-byes all around for the health aides, and we were off. Next stop: Marshall.
All photos by Susan Rangitsch.
1. Approaching the Yukon River
2. The frozen Yukon
3. Sign at the airstrip
4. Colorful houses on the hillside
5. Steep roads, more houses
6. Russian Orthodox cemetary
7. Individual grave with lantern
8. Pilot Station beach with boats frozen in
9. Dressed up elder with beaded gloves
10. Elder leaving clinic
11. Maggie
12. Agnes and Andrew


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Lovely Visit, Part 1

Life has been a whirlwind of adventure, excitement and fun for the last week and a half, and there has been no time for writing. A full description could be quite lengthy, so this may become several posts. I hope you enjoy the telling as much as I enjoyed the doing.

A very dear friend made her first trip to Alaska to visit me this past week, and we had a time together full of reconnection and deep sharing that was warm, delightful, exciting, challenging and memorable. It had been eight years since I last saw her, years of huge change for both of us, and there was much catching up to do.

Her name is Susan Rangitsch. She is a psychologist with a doctorate in counseling who has a private therapy practice in Missoula, Montana. She does individual counseling, but her work is much broader than that. The website for her non-profit organization, Integritas, explains the work more fully (click here).

I first met Susan in 1992 at the Women’s Harvest Festival, an annual program that she coordinates and directs each September in a remote location in Montana. It is a four-day gathering of some 40 to 60 women who come from all over the country to experience community, nurturing and mutual support. In a beautiful and rustic setting in the Montana mountains, Susan facilitates group and individual therapy that is deeply healing and sometimes life-changing. These intensely personal experiences are interwoven with group activities—drumming, dancing, sweat lodge, hiking, meditation, beading—that combine to form a unique and creative experience that most women never forget. At the center of that experience is Susan’s incredible energy, charisma, and attention. Many of the attendees come back year after year. This year marks the 18th annual celebration of the Women’s Harvest.

In 1992 I had just finished the physician assistant training program at the University of Washington in Seattle when several friends invited me to go to the Harvest Festival with them. I was starting my first job as a PA in a rural and somewhat isolated location where I had no friends, and was deeply feeling the need for community. The timing was perfect.

Four of us made the drive to Montana together, and I heard many stories about Susan on the way.
By the time we arrived, I was greatly anticipating meeting her, but somewhat apprehensive about it, too.

“She’s amazingly intuitive,” they said. “She is able to see right inside you.”

Our arrival was a flurry of activity with numerous others, and Susan was not around at that moment. I got myself settled in the cabin I was assigned to, and went out to walk around the small lake not far away. When I reached the far side of the lake, I came upon Susan sitting in the tall grass, watching the hive of activity going on at the main lodge. She rose gracefully and stood in front of me, taking both of my hands in both of hers.

“Welcome,” she said. “I’m Susan.” Continuing to hold my hands, she looked deeply into my eyes for the longest moment, and then said quietly, “I know you. We have sat at many council fires together.” And thus began one of the most amazing friendships I have ever had.

The last time I saw Susan was in the spring of 1999, just before I moved to Alaska. She was going through an extremely difficult time at that point, a time of darkness and depression about which she speaks openly and candidly now. It was a period which lasted for several years, during which our lives grew completely apart. But our friendship has an eternal quality that overarches distance and time. She was not gone from my life, simply elsewhere for a while.

Last fall, for no reason that I knew, she was suddenly in my thoughts recurrently. I needed to reconnect, to know how she was. There was an immediacy to the feeling that surprised me. I wrote her a long email, telling her of my life here, and about my writing, about Tundra Medicine Dreams. She wrote back quickly, saying “I must see you. I must see this place. I’m coming.” And she did.

She arrived on Sunday, the day Iditarod started for real. As she walked through the door of the Alaska Airlines terminal from the tarmac, I let go a breath I hadn’t known I was holding. It was so good to see her; she was tanned, fit, energetic, completely present, and glad to be exactly here and nowhere else. I was filled with an awareness of how much I had missed her.

My biggest concern about her coming was keeping her warm. It was ten to twenty below zero for the week she was here. Montana is no stranger to cold weather, but most people don’t spend hours outdoors when it is ten below. Dutch and I have quite an assortment of cold-weather gear, but she is much smaller than either of us. I arranged to borrow a small red “Jeff King” suit from one of the physicians I work with who was away visiting warmer climes that week. It was the perfect solution. We were out for hours all week long, mushing, snowmachineing, walking on the tundra, and she was never too cold.

On Monday and Tuesday we went mushing with Henry. He drove a team of eight dogs with Susan in the sled, and I rode snowmachine following them. She quickly got the gist of sledcraft and wanted to try it, so he switched positions and let her drive while he rode in the sled. As someone who has trained and ridden horses all her life, her biggest surprise was that there is no mushing equivalent of the reins, no way to control the team except by voice command or standing on the sled’s brake to bring them to a halt. She quickly got the hang of it, and thoroughly enjoyed driving the team.

The first day we took a short run out to Steamboat Slough and back, with about an hour’s break while we inspected the new trail that bypasses a close encounter with the big barges that are frozen in there. We were gone about three hours. It was a sunny day with bright blue skies and fitful winds that put the chill factor about twenty-five below zero. We came back with red cheeks, cold fingers, and hearts full of laughter from the stories Henry told of his thirty years of life here. It was a great introduction.

On Tuesday we took a good bit longer run over more challenging terrain. We went to a spot where the Kuskokwim River meets one of its tributaries, a place where Henry has kept an ice fishing net in the past. He has been thinking of putting a net back in and wanted to check out the quality and thickness of the river ice. The dogs performed well and behaved beautifully during the breaks. No whining, barking, or tugging to go. We walked away from the team, anchored only by the snow hook, to inspect the river.

Susan was enchanted with the spot. The wide-open, wind-swept beauty of the frozen river under an achingly infinite sky in a thousand shades of blue spoke to her in whispers that brought tears to her eyes. Her camera was rarely out of her hand, and she took some gorgeous photographs. I so much enjoyed her enjoyment; it reminded me all over again how much I love it here, and why.

We decided on Wednesday to take my truck and go for a drive on the Ice Road. I had described some of the nearby villages, and she wanted to visit one. We headed upriver initially, thinking to go to Kwethluk. I know the trail to get there reasonably well, though I don’t know the villagers or the health aides well at all. As it turned out, a minor ground blizzard stirred up just as we left Bethel, and we could not see the surface of the river in front of us, much less where the road went. I was very uncomfortable with the conditions; within a mile or so, we turned around and headed back to town.

As we approached Bethel facing downriver, the weather was clear and beautiful. The road on the surface of the ice was easy to see, and was marked by a line of saplings with reflective tape someone had carefully erected along the way by chopping holes in the ice and freezing them in.

“Well,” I said, “looks like we’re supposed to go to Napaskiak instead!” And off we went.

Napaskiak is a Yupik Eskimo village of about 350 people, located 14 miles downriver from Bethel. I have been their assigned primary care provider for several years, though I have never been sent down by the hospital for a village visit. Most of the residents of Napaskiak are able to travel to Bethel for their health care when needed. They have a beautiful new clinic and three very competent and experienced health aides, who I speak with by phone almost daily doing Radio Medical Traffic, but have rarely seen.

The drive down held plenty of edge-of-your-seat uncertainty. Though the road is marked, it is not plowed and drifts are everywhere, of varying depths and hardness. It is really easy to get stuck in or on a drift and require help getting out. Before we left, I threw in a long-handled shovel and the 50-foot snatch strap, just in case we needed them.

We were able to follow the road without getting stuck and got to Napaskiak in about a half hour. The village has very few paths big enough for a full-size pick-up truck, so we parked at the edge, just off the river in front of the post office. The village is connected by a series of wooden boardwalks which are kept in good repair and reasonably snow-free. A young girl walking by told us how to get to the clinic.

The boardwalks are lined by small houses, some painted, some not. Yards are not neat and tidy, there is a profusion of junk around, probably being saved for spare parts. The Yupik are known for creative problem-solving when it comes to motors and other things. Many homes have strings of dried pike (fish) hanging outside the doors and windows. Everyone we pass looks at us; we are clearly strangers and our presence is being marked.

We had no trouble finding the clinic. All three health aides and the clinic secretary were there, and delighted to see us.

I had never seen their new clinic, and they proudly showed me around to admire the shiny freshness of it. They have been moved in for less than a year. They were waiting for someone from the hospital to call to do their RMT; I was happy to be able to help them and the hospital provider by doing it there with them on the spot. They told some funny stories of things that had happened since the new clinic opened. Susan watched all of this with great interest, enjoying listening to their speech, their cadence in telling a story, their facial expressions and gestures. It was an experience very…Yupik. And she got that completely.

We didn’t stay long. I was just a little anxious about the road back; if that upriver ground blizzard turned around we could be in trouble. In following the trail back out to the main river, I missed the short-cut turnoff we came in on, and we emerged on the Kuskokwim in a completely different place.

For one blank moment, I was totally disoriented. Where were we? It didn’t look at all familiar. Stop. Think of the area on a map, where the main river is, the village, the island in front of it…

OK. I knew where we had to go to pick up the line of saplings that would lead us back to Bethel, but getting there was something else. In the lee of the island where we were, the snow was quite drifted. Which was why the short-cut had been created in the first place. It looked like the craters of the moon between us and where the end of the saplings should be.

There was no turning around where we were, so we ploughed ahead and managed to get ourselves back on the road with great relief. The trip home was made even easier by two trucks that whizzed past us on their way to Bethel, on what obviously was for them a well-traveled route. We jumped on their tracks and made it back in no time.

Next: three days on the Yukon…
Photos of Susan Rangitsch, and photo #5, Dogs at Rest, by The Tundra PA. All other photos by Susan Rangitsch.


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Race Is On

Well, you probably know that already. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race had its ceremonial start on Saturday, March 3rd, in downtown Anchorage. This portion of the whole event is little more than a media circus photo op. Mushers are required to participate, but have little love for the contrived first day of the race.

In the early days of the Iditarod, in the late seventies and early eighties, the race actually started in Anchorage. With the city’s growth and the development of freeways, driving a dog team into the Alaskan wilderness from downtown became untenable. So the ceremonial start was developed. With TV cameras rolling and crowds cheering, mushers leave the start line on 4th Avenue in Anchorage with only twelve dogs on the team and an “Iditarider” in the sled. The Iditarider is an individual who has paid big bucks for the chance to ride eleven miles to Eagle River in the sled of his or her favorite musher. Riders in the sleds of top mushers pay several thousand dollars for that one-hour ride; the money goes to the Iditarod Trail Committee, not to the musher.

The real race starts on Sunday. Mushers must transport their teams by truck from Eagle River to the restart in either Wasilla or Willow. Timekeeping begins on Sunday, and mushers go out in the same order, wearing their number bibs, with all sixteen dogs in harness. Sunday is actually Day One of Iditarod. This year, 82 teams left the start line.

As of today, Day Three, ten teams have scratched, including two very experienced mushers, Doug Swingley from Montana and Dee Dee Jonrowe from Willow, Alaska. Both sustained injuries from sled crashes in the Alaska Range and were unable to continue. Swingley, who has won four previous Iditarods, was hoping this would be the year he would join Rick Swenson as the only five-time champions of The Last Great Race.

Our friend Aliy Zirkle is doing well so far. Currently she is in eighth place with fourteen dogs on the gangline. Mike Williams is in 43rd place, and Aliy’s husband Allen Moore is in 47th place. Positions will change a lot for the next few hundred miles, as mushers follow their pre-arranged schedules for runs and rests. After all mushers have taken their mandatory 24-hour rest, usually somewhere between McGrath and Shageluk, it will be a bit more clear who the leaders are. As always, Jeff King and Martin Buser are looking strong.

Bethel is keeping a close eye on its own Iditarod rookie this year. Andrew Angstman is a 25 year old man who was born and raised in Bethel. He grew up mushing sled dogs and learning dog lore from his dad, Myron, who ran the Iditarod in the late seventies, and who has won the K300 several times. Andy has run the Kuskokwim 300 and the Kobuck 440, and is a previous winner of the Bogus Creek 150. Bethel is pulling hard for its native son; everyone hopes he will be Rookie of the Year (i.e., the first rookie to finish).

For some interesting “insider” views, check out the SP Kennels blog written by Aliy’s sister Kaz. You can find it at:

Photos of 2007 Iditarod start by Peter G. Ashman, friend of The Tundra PA.