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.



Blogger Maggie said...

Lovely post, fantastic photos - I just love the red and blue painted Post Office. Thank you so much for taking me away from the dull grey skies we have here in Liverpool (UK) at the moment. It sounds like your friend had a wonderful time. :-) Will she be putting the photos she took online? Would love to see them. Best wishes from Liverpool

Thursday, March 15, 2007 4:47:00 AM  
Blogger #1 Dinosaur said...

Commenting just to comment, letting you know I am here, reading and appreciating.

Your friend Susan sounds like such an old soul. You're very lucky to have her in your life.

Thursday, March 15, 2007 1:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love your writing. Thank you for taking the time.

Thursday, March 15, 2007 4:42:00 PM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

maggie--isn't that post office great? I love the bright colors. Many villages have houses painted in every color of the rainbow. I'm glad the photos add some brightness to your cloudy day. More of Susan's photos will be in the next post; I'm not sure if she plans to put them online. Thanks for reading, and for commenting.

#1 Dino--{smile} I love knowing you are there. Thanks. And you're right, Susan is a very old soul, and a wise one.

anon--welcome, and thank you for your kind words. I appreciate the comments.

Thursday, March 15, 2007 7:41:00 PM  

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