Friday, April 27, 2007


Recently someone in Anchorage, Alaska, visited this blog as a result of a Google search on “big pike caught near Pilot Station, Alaska.” It just happens that my friend Peter Ashman, the photographer, recently sent a photo of a giant pike caught a few miles above Pilot Station on the Yukon River. He did not take the photo, but thought I would be interested since Pilot Station is “my” village. It got me to thinking about bigness in general, and how it is so much a part of things Alaskan.

To start with, Alaska is big. I mean really, really big. Almost incomprehensibly so. For most Americans, the measure of bigness when it comes to states is how long it takes to drive across it. On that score, Texas just takes the cake. When I was a kid, our family took a driving vacation from the Deep South to California; the main memory I have of the trip out was that it took days and days of driving to get across Texas. I asked my dad repeatedly, “is it STILL Texas?” And he answered patiently, “yes, dear, it is still Texas.” As I was carefully mapping and checking off states visited on this trip, it was making me nuts how long it took to get across Texas. It was just so BIG.

Alaska is more than twice as big as Texas. If you cut Alaska in half, each half would be larger than Texas. Alaska has over 600 thousand square miles; Texas has less than 300 thousand—which is way more than the third largest state, California, with 156 thousand. The problem, in terms of grasping its size, is that you can’t drive across Alaska. It is so big, and so wild, that most of it does not have roads. Flying across it just does not give you the same gut-level grasp of its hugeness.

Neither does looking at maps in an atlas, as Alaska is never shown on the same scale as the rest of the US. This map, which superimposes the state of Alaska on the lower 48, is one I particularly like; it puts Alaska’s size in perspective.

From north to south, Alaska is 1,400 miles long; from east to west, it is 2,700 miles wide. Alaska has over 6,000 miles of coastline—more than the entire continental US. The farthest you can drive in one direction within the state is between Homer and Prudhoe Bay on the North Slope, a distance of about 1,200 miles; over half of it is gravel road. Think of driving through Texas twice.

Every school child past third grade knows that Alaska is the largest state in the country; but it is also larger than many countries. Of the hundreds of countries on the face of the earth, only 18 are larger than Alaska.

Many things within this big state are also big. Of the twenty tallest mountains in North America, seventeen are in Alaska. Including the tallest, Mt. McKinley (photo above), which is known to most Alaskans by its Native name, Denali.

Mountain bigness is measured simply by elevation. River bigness is a little more complicated. Rivers are generally sized by three elements: length in miles, drainage area in square miles, and volume of water discharged at the mouth in cubic feet per second. A list from the US Geological Survey of the twenty largest US rivers in each category includes 32 rivers. Alaska’s largest river, the Yukon, is not number one in any of the three categories; it is third in length (after the Mississippi and the Missouri) and fifth in both drainage area and volume. But the rivers that are larger pass through many states; the Yukon is almost wholly contained within Alaska, except for the headwaters and the first few hundred miles, which are in Canada. It’s entire 2,000 mile length is bridged only four times, all in the far upriver area.

What was interesting to me to note was that eight of those 32 biggest rivers are in Alaska, way more than any other state. Our own Kuskokwim River, which is 9th in water discharged at the mouth, 17th in drainage area, and 22nd in length, is the only major river in the US which is not dammed, bridged, or altered in any way for its entire length. It is truly wild and free.

When it comes to growing things like trees, Alaska’s cold climate is an inhibiting factor. The Interior part of the state has plenty of big spruce and fir trees, but we can’t hold a candle to California’s giant redwoods. When it comes to seasonal growth of things like vegetables, however, Alaska’s 20+ hours of sunlight each day has a phenomenal effect. Vegetables grow to huge sizes during our brief growing season. Alaskans hold world records for many of the largest vegetables ever recorded: carrot, 19 pounds; rutabaga 76 pounds; cabbage 106 pounds; turnip 39 pounds; celery 63 pounds; cantaloupe 65 pounds. The Alaska State Fair, held each August in Palmer, is an eye-popping experience for those who love gardening.

Animals get fairly large here, too. Alaska is the only state which is a natural home (not counting captivity) to the two largest members of the bear family, the Kodiak and the polar bear. Both are among the largest land-based carnivores in the world. A male polar bear weighs up to 1,200 pounds. A male Kodiak can weigh over 1,500 pounds.

Moose, the largest member of the deer family, also grow bigger in Alaska than in the lower 48. The largest moose on record was an Alaskan weighing 1,815 pounds; he stood 7.7 feet tall at the shoulder and had an antler spread of 79”.

Of course there is the great Alaskan mosquito, which has brought us fame for both its large size and huge numbers. They can be at least as big as a thumbnail, and when they boil up out of the long grasses near the rivers, you have to be careful not to breathe them in.

And then there are the fish, which brings me back to my starting point. Both the largest king salmon (126 pounds) and the largest halibut (459 pounds) on record came from Alaskan waters. And that pike caught near Pilot Station on the Yukon River? Here’s the photo. I don’t know how much it weighed, but for comparison, here is also the photo of the pike I caught on the Kuskokwim River, which was considered reasonably good sized by my Yupik teachers. In the ages-old rivalry between Yukon River people and Kuskokwim River people, the Yukoners love to taunt, “we have bigger fish and faster dogs!” The Kuskokwimers reply with a smile, “yeah, but we have prettier women!” The Yukoners shake their heads, but don’t argue. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Bigness is a relative concept. To truly grasp how big Alaska is, you must come here to visit—and stay awhile. It is not only big, it is a truly friendly place and well deserving of its nickname: The Great Land.

Photographers unknown except final photo by The Tundra PA.


Monday, April 23, 2007

Grand Rounds 3.31 Is Up

A cosmic Grand Rounds is up over at Med Valley High blog. Liana has done a nice job presenting a hefty number of submissions. And she generously included mine, though I was late in submitting. Thanks Liana. Strong work!

Ground Rounds is a weekly carnival of the best blog posts submitted by medical bloggers across the spectrum of health care. Check out this week's edition for some good reading.


When the Provider Becomes the Patient--Part 2

The orthopedist called my family practice doc, Dr. H, this afternoon. He said that the MRI revealed a labral tear of my left hip. It is analygous to torn cartilege in the knee. Apparently these are fairly common, and sometimes they are not at all painful (I wish!). Treatment for them is symptom driven. The next step, if it doesn't get better spontaneously with rest and pain control, is an x-ray or ultrasound guided steroid injection into the hip. If that fails, then arthroscopy of the hip to remove torn labrum. Both of these would mean travel to Anchorage.

But first, rest and healing. If it is not better in two weeks, then I will consider the next step. Dr. H and I discussed a treatment plan, which will include regular visits from my wonderful body worker Anna, who is a physical therapist as well as a myofascial release worker and masseuse. I'll do everything I can to help this injury heal as quickly as possible.
Photo of Bethel sunset, 9:04 pm mid-April, by The Tundra PA.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

When the Provider Becomes the Patient

It has been quiet on the blog for the last week because I have been in too much pain to work, to play, or to write. It finally reached the point where the provider had to become the patient, negotiating the health care system as it exists in western Alaska.

It all started a few weeks ago, when I had a bizarre mushing accident on my last dog run with Henry. It was on my birthday, actually. (Yes, that makes me an Aries, and a pretty typical one, from what I know about it.)

At the very end of our good snow, Henry and I went out with seven dogs on what we figured would be the last good run of the season. The weather was fairly warm, about 20 above, and we’d had a good six inch snowfall a few days earlier, probably the last we would get.

We were having a great run. The young dogs were performing well and all were lively and energetic. I was riding in the sled and we came around a sharp bend in the trail. A large birch tree with perhaps a three inch diameter trunk was leaning across the trail, right in our path. The dogs went under it easily, but it clearly was going to hit the sled, and maybe bust the driving bow—and possibly Henry’s hand.

I stuck my right foot up to deflect it as we went by, as most of our birch trees are pretty flexible. This one was not. It was solid as a rock, and like hitting a wall, it stopped us hard. The tree rammed my foot back so that I was hyperflexed at the knee and hip, and wedged firmly between the tree and the sled. I couldn’t move, and my knee was next to my ear (a place it hasn’t been in years, I can assure you). When we hit, I screamed. Then I yelled “Back up! Back up!”

Henry was able to yank the sled back a few inches, and I got my leg down. I waited for pain to appear, but there was none. I had felt nothing snap or pop. Gingerly, I stood up and walked around a little, and there was still no pain. Henry was nearly freaked. He thought I must have dislocated my right hip. Apparently not. We made it back to the dog yard without any further problem. I told him that I thought we had dodged a bullet that time.

About three days later, my left hip began to hurt. It bothered me off and on for about two weeks, and then suddenly began to get really painful. After about five days of escalating pain, it became excruciating. I had x-rays done; no fracture.

I was off work and on hydrocodone four times a day for pain control. As soon as it wore off, the pain was right there. I was limping heavily on a cane and not sleeping well at all. Pain was exacerbated by hip extension and medial rotation, and relieved somewhat by partial hip flexion.

My FP, Dr. H, looked at the films and discussed them with the radiologist. They both felt that I should have an MRI of my hip to look for soft tissue damage, and see an orthopedist for further evaluation. That meant flying to Anchorage, as we have no MRI or CT available in Bethel.

On Friday, Dutch and I flew over. I saw Dr. L, the orthopedist, in the afternoon, and focused plain films again showed no fracture, though he felt that the physical exam was consistent with one. The MRI was scheduled for Saturday morning, after which we could return to Bethel. He will see the films and discuss them with the radiologist on Monday, and call Dr. H with the results.

The MRI was the most painful experience I can remember. The test itself is painless. It was the position I had to maintain for about twenty minutes that was the problem: fully supine, legs straight with toes taped together and heels about a foot apart. I could not achieve the position without pain, and within moments I was in agony. By the end of the test I was sobbing and begging the technician to turn the equipment off and let me flex my hip and knee. The pain was so intense that I was hyperventilating, and a mild tetney response set in. Breathing shallow and fast blows off too much carbon dioxide, leading to hypocapnia which causes muscle contractions of the face, drawing the mouth into an “o” and which can cause temporary flexion contractures of the wrists and hands. The lips and fingertips tingle, and getting one’s breathing under control (deep and slow, deep and slow) can be difficult.

I was wheeled back out to the waiting room looking quite the mess—red, swollen eyes and pale, sweaty complexion. Dutch said I probably scared the other people waiting there.

After a bit of rest I felt much better, and Dutch and I went to our favorite coffee shop for a light lunch. We even managed to do a little shopping in the afternoon before catching the evening flight back to Bethel. We both arrived home exhausted.

So I am still limping, not sleeping well, and taking opioid medication for pain control. And I still don’t know what’s causing the pain. I hope the MRI revealed some indication for it. At least then I’ll know how long this may last.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

Kuskokwim Ice Classic

As spring advances slowly, the southwest Alaskan tundra begins to soften on the surface. The ice on the Kuskokwim River, which has served as a highway to trucks, cars, snowmachines and dog teams for the last five months, begins to rot. The ice is four feet thick, and the river is 800 miles long. Simply melting would take too long. The transition from frozen ice highway to flowing river happens in a few days. We call it “Break Up.” (see here and here for my posts about it last year)

Break up is a violent event. Spring rains and snow melt in the mountains raise water levels in the rivers as warming temperatures soften the ice covering them. Edges break loose from the bank and water washes over them. Large leads open in the middle and the surface becomes pocked with narrow ribbons of open water. As current picks up the plates of ice crack, begin moving and jumble up against each other. It starts way upriver and the whole mass of ice begins to move down toward the sea.

One of Bethel’s fun annual events is the Kuskokwim Ice Classic. In early April, a “quad-pod” is built of 2x4s and erected on the frozen river about fifty feet out from shore. A cable connects the top of the structure to a small building onshore which contains a clock. When the ice breaks up and the quad-pod falls in and washes a hundred feet downriver, the cable is pulled from the clock. The clock stops and that moment is declared Bethel’s moment of break up.

The Ice Classic begins when the pod is erected. Tickets to guess the exact day, hour and minute of break up are sold for $5 each, or a book of five for $20. Half the money goes to the winner’s pot and the other half goes to Bethel Regional High School. The students are in charge of ticket sales around town and collection of the deposit boxes where people place their guesses. For the last two years, the winner of the Ice Classic has received over $5,000.

Predicting break up is an item of general discussion around town for most of April. It can occur at 4 in the morning or at 4 in the afternoon. It can come as early as late April or as late as early June. The most frequently occurring date since records have been kept is May 18th.

Most people seem to be expecting an early break up this year. The ice-saavy Natives I know are saying it is at least two weeks away, so not in April. I’m guessing the first week in May. Tickets must be turned in by tomorrow, April 16th; as far as I know, they are not available for purchase on the internet, which is too bad. Some of you might want to enter! I’ll let you know if I win the $5 K.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Old Iron

A few days after this photo was taken (two weeks ago), the weather warmed up rapidly and has remained in a range that actually feels like spring—high forties during the day, low thirties at night. The snow disappeared quickly, except for the dirty piles in the corners of parking lots. Small tundra ponds around town have little or no ice left. The willow trees in the yard have fuzzy green buds on them. Winter really is over.

Last weekend Dutch got our three snowmachines ready to be put to bed for summer. They are now parked on pallets out of the mud, wiped down and snugly covered. The tails are raised so the track can turn freely for periodic crank-ups over the summer.

This morning we awoke to snow falling and nearly an inch of accumulation overnight. The temperature was just below freezing, and it won’t last, but Dutch said “maybe we should get the snowmachines back out!”

Meltdown conditions are actually approaching treacherous for travel, and he was just kidding about the snowmachines. But after ten days of spring weather, it was interesting to note how it felt to see snow falling again. I actually was delighted. If this were the leading edge of a little cold front, we might get one last shot at winter dog mushing (as opposed to spring-summer-fall bare-ground dog mushing).

Alas, apparently not. Though the tundra whitened up from the snow, the thermometer is approaching +40F, so it won’t last.

And what’s with the photo? Well, I think it is the oldest snowmachine I’ve ever seen. It has been running around town all winter, so is clearly in operating condition. When I saw it parked across the street from our house, I just had to take a picture of it.

My guess is that it is early 1970s vintage Polaris. I had thought that the late 1960s were the dawn of snowmachines (click here for an interesting link that corrected my misimpression), but Dutch’s new Polaris has a seal on the dash commemorating their 50th anniversary, 1956-2006. This machine represented a decade of evolution from where they started. I should not be surprised that it still runs; if anyone can tinker an old snowmachine into life, it is a Yupik man.
Photo by the Tundra PA. Snowmachines are sometimes referred to as "iron dogs", hence the post title.


Saturday, April 07, 2007

Cama-i Dance Festival

In the language of the Yupik Eskimo people, the word “cama-i” (pronounced chew-MY) means “Welcome!”. And that is exactly what people are when they come to Bethel for the annual Cama-i Dance Festival held in early spring. The festival began in the early 1990s, and is a celebration of Eskimo dancing.

The 2007 festival was held this past weekend, and was particularly anticipated this year, as it had to be cancelled all together last year. The festival is held at Bethel Regional High School, which was under repair last year; there is no alternate facility large enough to house it. Bethel does not have a civic center or auditorium.

Note: I have written in a previous post about the basics of Eskimo dancing and how it is performed. Click here for that description and more photos.

Dance groups from a dozen or so villages participate by invitation; with 58 villages in our region, every village can’t send a dance group every year. The invitations rotate such that any one village is invited to participate every three to four years. In addition to the traditional Eskimo dancing common to this area, a few groups from other parts of Alaska and other parts of the world are also invited.

This year’s performers included a Tlingit group from southeast Alaska, a Hawaiian group, and a contemporary dance company from Phoenix, Arizona. The festival runs for three days and each dance group gives two or three performances, each thirty minutes long.

The festival is about more than dancing; it is a celebration of Yupik culture. Each year two individuals are chosen to be honored as Living Legends. These are usually elders who have made a significant contribution to the preservation of the culture. Often they are people who have been involved in bringing the tradition of Eskimo dancing back from its near-extinction.

When the Catholic and Protestant missionaries came to Alaska to convert the Native people to Christianity in the mid to late 19th century, they tried to destroy Eskimo dancing. They preached that it was worshipping the devil, that it was evil, and that people must not do it. In the hundred years from the 1860s to the 1960s, knowledge of the tradition was nearly extinguished; the small practice that continued was kept secret, and people felt guilty about doing it.

The 1970s brought a resurgence of pride in traditional Yupik culture and a return to some of the practices of the old ways. The few elders who still held the knowledge of Eskimo dancing worked successfully to reestablish it as a vibrant part of the culture. Today, nearly every village in southwest Alaska has an Eskimo dance group that practices together regularly, and hopes each year to be invited to Cama-i.

Despite the success of bringing back this great tradition, the effects of the teachings of the early missionaries still lingers. Once I asked an elder in Pilot Station if she liked to go Eskimo dancing, and she said, “No. I’m Catholic. I grew up being taught by the priests that it was evil and wrong. Since then the church has apologized for teaching us that, and said it is ok, but I still can’t do it.” Early teachings make deep impressions.

Concurrent with the dance performances occurring in the high school gymnasium is a huge craft fair held in the school lobby. Artists and craftspeople from all over the Delta come to Bethel for Cama-i with a winter’s worth of beautiful creations to sell. There is table after table laden with beadwork, carved ivory (walrus tusk), baskets of all shapes and sizes, fur hats and boots and mittens, handmade Eskimo dolls, masks, quilts, knitted socks, and trinkets of all sorts. It is by far the biggest craft fair of the year, and a great time to shop.

Also concurrent with the afternoon dance performances, there are “up close and personal” workshops held in nearby classrooms. A few of the more popular and/or exotic of the visiting dance groups hold one-hour workshops in which they talk about their particular dance tradition and get the workshop attendees on their feet and moving to participate. The workshops are a chance to meet some of the dancers individually and learn more about their culture and how dance is a part of it.

On Saturday evening of the weekend-long festival there is a Fur Fashion Show onstage to start the evening festivities. Anyone can sign up for it; you simply bring your finest fur garments and parade across the stage in them. The master or mistress of ceremonies asks each model their name, where they are from, and the history of the garment they are wearing—who made it, when, and for whom. There are incredibly beautiful parkas, mukluks, hats, even sealskin pants displayed at the fashion show.

Also on Saturday evening there is a Traditional Feast. This is a potluck effort by the people of Bethel to serve our visitors as many foods as possible from the traditional Native diet. There will be dishes made with moose, caribou, beaver, muskrat, porcupine, goose, swan, tundra vegetables and berries. And there will be many kinds of agutak (Eskimo ice cream, a concoction made of Crisco, sugar, berries and boiled whitefish) for dessert.

The Cama-i Dance Festival is an exciting three days for the many people who come to Bethel to dance and to watch. It is a celebration of Yupik culture that leaves everyone feeling energized and happy. It is a great way to celebrate the end of winter.

For more photos and video clips of this year’s festival, visit the Bethel Arts website at

All photos by Peter G. Ashman, with great thanks from The Tundra PA.


Sunday, April 01, 2007

Feeling Like Spring

On Wednesday afternoon, spring arrived with a flourish. My post that morning (which bordered on whining, I admit) notwithstanding, by 2:00 pm we had a seasonal shift. No primavera in a green dress; in southwest Alaska, “spring” means that the snow and ice get softer and start to melt, the air doesn’t burn your lungs when you take a deep breath, and an afternoon outside can result in an “Eskimo suntan”—from the neck up and the wrists down.

From the -16F we woke up to on Wednesday, by afternoon the thermometer read +20F, the sun shone quite warmly and the breeze felt soft. Henry was anxious to get out with the dogs; he had just returned from a two-week visit with his family in the Midwest and we both missed our mushing adventures in his absence. Last weekend’s big snowfall meant that the trail conditions were just about perfect.

We took seven dogs and spent the afternoon driving around to some of our favorite spots. We took frequent short breaks, had coffee and cookies, gave frozen fish snacks to the dogs, and collected the herb used to make tundra tea (artemesia) where it was breaking through the snow pack. It was so nice to be lightly dressed and warm enough. Spring mushing is just the best—more daylight hours to do it, all the fun of winter mushing and not nearly as much work to stay warm.

Over the next few days, the temperature continued to climb slowly, and we are now staying right around freezing. The icicles have crashed to ground and the snow is melting everywhere. The river is still solidly frozen; it will take more than a few days at +35F to melt a four-foot-thick ice sheet.

One of the last local mushing events in the spring is the Campout Race. It is held the last weekend in March, and is a family/community event. Mushers and their eight-dog teams leave Bethel on Saturday morning at a leisurely pace, followed by friends and family on snowmachines or driving trucks. The destination is a designated spot about fifty miles from Bethel. People pitch tents, build a big community bonfire and generally have a party on Saturday night. On Sunday morning the mushers hook up their teams and race back to Bethel. The winner takes a purse of $1,000.

The destination for this year’s Campout was a spot far up the Gweek River, near its headwaters. The Gweek is a tributary of the Kuskokwim, about ten miles upriver from Bethel. At its mouth, the Gweek is a fairly broad river, perhaps a half mile across; after 35 miles of a meandering course with bend after bend after bend, the river becomes much narrower—a hundred feet across, or so.

Henry’s niece Angela decided at the last minute that she would run the Campout last weekend, so Dutch and I showed up on Saturday morning to load her dogs and sled in my truck and drive them to the start line. Which was upriver at the mouth of the Gweek, not in Bethel. But no problem, my truck is always ready for a river adventure. Since the Saturday portion is not a race, the atmosphere is very relaxed and everyone is just having fun with their dogs. Angela waited until last to leave, so she could have a peaceful run with her team.

The finish of the race was in the same place, at the mouth of the Gweek, so on Sunday at noon, Dutch and I joined Angela’s husband and another friend and we headed back up river. The three of them were on snowmachines and I drove the truck. We only had a very general idea of when the race would be finishing, as no one knew how far up the Gweek they were able to go before camping.

By the time the race leaders were getting close, there was quite a little crowd at the finish area. A dozen trucks or so clustered together. Word from the race chasers was that Mike Williams, Jr. had a substantial lead, followed a few minutes later by a small pack of three mushers that included Angela. There were a total of seven teams in the race.

As predicted, Junior won the race with a ten-minute lead over 2nd place Jessica Klejka. The pack finishing 2nd, 3rd and 4th were separated by only a minute. Angela came in 4th, earning a check for $650 for the effort. She and the dogs all had fun, and she said that the area upriver was just beautiful. Angela was so impressed with the upper reaches of the Gweek that she decided to go back this weekend to camp out and do some more dog training.

Henry’s long-time friend and mushing buddy Tom is training his dogs for the same race next weekend that Angela plans to run, and wanted to do a training run of four hours out, four hours rest, and four hours back. A visit to Angela’s campsite would be just about perfect. He talked Henry into going along on snowmachine for support.

Dutch and I had not planned any outings for the weekend, but as we looked out from the breakfast table on Saturday morning and saw how quickly the snow was melting, Dutch said,” it’s going to go quickly now. If we want to get the snowmachines out one more time, we’d better do it today.” He was right.

Without much planning or packing, we fired up the machines and took off about 1:15 pm, thinking we would just go some distance up the Gweek. I had no idea whether we would catch Tom and Henry, or whether we would make it up to the dog training camp.

The Ice Road on the Kuskokwim was in excellent shape and we had no overflow problems (i.e., water at the river’s edge) getting on or off the river. There was a reassuring amount of traffic, both trucks and snowmachines, on the main river, and we made it up to the Gweek in good time.

Overflow was much more in evidence here, with standing water at the sides of the smaller river, and patches of shiny brown ice that indicate recent refreezing. It is important to pay attention and be careful; even on a day as warm as this one, getting wet means getting cold.

Once we got above the mouth of the Gweek, the overflow disappeared and the trail was excellent. We traveled mile after mile, following the loops and bends of this moderate-sized tundra river, and saw no more traffic. Except for the tracks we were following in the snow, the land was empty of people.

About two hours up the Gweek, we finally caught up with Henry and Tom. Henry was driving snowmachine and Tom was driving 14 dogs. Henry was surprised and delighted that we had made it all that way on our own. We continued on with them, and in another hour we came to Angela's camp.

The area was truly beautiful. I had never been so far up the Gweek before, and had no idea how lovely it is.

Once we arrived, the clock was ticking for Tom. He would give his dogs a four-hour rest, a hot meal, and then hook up for the return trip. Dutch, Henry and I helped him remove booties and harnesses and settle the dogs on a drop chain at the edge of the river with some nice fresh straw under them.

Next we needed a bonfire to melt snow and cook both dog and people food. There was adequate dead wood around, and with a little gasoline from the jerry can on one of the snowmachines, we had a good blaze going in no time. Henry collected spruce boughs and arranged them at the base of two trees near the fire, covered them with a tarp, and presto! Instant sofa.
While the snow melted for a meat soup for the dogs, Henry found a long sturdy branch and trimmed a fork at one end to two sharp pointy prongs. He jammed some beef on the prongs and positioned it over the fire. It was sizzling in no time. “Dinner is meat-on-a-stick. Find your own stick,” he said. He also had a large, long-handled fry pan, which he filled with boiled red potatoes. The smoke from the fire made everything taste delicious.

Our four-hour rest drew quickly to its end, so we threw stuff together and made ready to leave. Dogs bootied, harnessed, and hooked up; drop chain collected, gear stowed. At 9:30 pm Tom pulled the hook in the last of the fast-fading light.

It took us four hours to get back to the mouth of the Gweek, where Tom’s truck was parked. Henry was afraid we would pass it in the dark, and we almost did. Tom and the dogs were ahead of us, and they went right by the spot (the truck was quite a way off the trail). The dogs instinctively left the trail and headed for it, but Tom’s headlight wasn’t strong enough to pick out the truck and he corrected them back to the trail.

Our snowmachines were about fifty yards behind. Henry was in front, saw the truck and headed for it to show us, then took off after Tom and the dogs. With our machines off, we watched in the darkness as Henry caught up with Tom, then made a big circle back to the truck. The dogs pulled in right after.

Once more we went through the drill of getting 14 dogs unbootied, unharnessed, and attached to the drop chain in the truck. It was around 1:30 am when we cranked the snowmachines and followed the truck down six more miles of the Gweek, around overflow spots at the mouth, and then down ten miles of Kuskokwim back to Bethel. Dutch and I finally got home about 2:30 am, thoroughly exhausted and happy. What a great spring day!