Friday, June 29, 2007

Almost Summer Fishing

Heavy cloud cover with rainy, windy weather and the thermometer stuck at 50 degrees makes for a damp and chilly late spring. It is hard to believe that the summer solstice has passed, and we are already in the waning daylight half of the year. Everywhere else in the northern hemisphere it is summer, but in southwest Alaska it doesn’t feel like summer has even come close yet. June is often like that.

The salmon are running strong in the river, and people are catching lots, which makes everyone happy. Many people have moved their families to fish camp, where they spend several weeks cutting, drying, and smoking the salmon they will eat all year long.

On Wednesday Henry decided it was time to go fishing, and I was happy to go along. Joan’s boys, Michael and Luke, came with us. It was a damp and blustery day, but rainy conditions often make for better fishing. Something about the net being more invisible in the water when it is raining.

The water level in the Kuskokwim River is quite low this summer—the lowest I’ve seen in the ten summers I’ve been here. Many fishermen are complaining about snagging their nets on river bottom debris. Snags can be anything from a minor nuisance to a life-threatening emergency, depending on the conditions. A snagged net is capable of sinking a boat if the operator is not both knowledgeable and skillful in handling the situation. Even when not serious, a snag can rip big holes in the net, which must be repaired. All in all, avoiding them is by far the best strategy.

Henry’s favorite fishing spot is generally free of snags, even at low water, so that is where we headed. We went out on a strong incoming tide, with a south storm blowing in, so the water was really being pushed upriver. The migrating salmon love those conditions, as swimming upstream requires much less effort for them.

When we reached our spot, Michael and I fed the net (300 feet long, 20 feet deep) out into the river while Henry kept the boat positioned. With a good breeze blowing, that requires some skill. Once the net is in the water, it is time to drink coffee, eat sandwiches, and watch the fish hit. The net begins bobbing as the fish get caught in it; depending on how much they fight, there can be quite a bit of thrashing about. Whole sections of floats are pulled under when the big ones hit.

The boat and the net drift downriver as a unit, catching fish as they go. When the tide is ebbing, they drift pretty quickly; but when the tide is coming in, and the wind is blowing from the south, the two forces together are often enough to overcome the river’s flow. On our first drift, we were barely moving downriver. When we came to the “sweet spot”, a place where the fish like to congregate, we simply stopped drifting altogether; the river’s flow and the incoming tide reached a stalemate. And the net was jumping. Floats were bobbing like crazed piano keys. The skipper is able to tell how full the net is getting by the feel of the boat and how much effort it takes for the boat to move the net. Henry grinned at me and said “I’ll bet you’re as glad as I am that we have these boys here to pull the net in for us!” We both remember last summer when the two of us pulled in a net very full of fish—nearly four hundred—with no help. My arms were sore for days.

After about thirty minutes (a short drift) we decided we’d better start pulling. Too many fish in the net is all work and no fun. We all four pulled and picked the fish out as we went. There were some impressive net tangles where the more vigorous fish thrashed and spun in their efforts to get free.

Over 90% of the catch was chum, or dog salmon. We were hoping for more reds and kings (sockeye and Chinook) for the table. The chum will be frozen whole in Henry’s big walk-in freezer and boiled up for sled dog food over the next year. There were a dozen or so nice reds, and two good-sized small kings, about thirty pounds each. A few of the reds will be eaten fresh, and the rest will be cut into strips, dried and smoked. Truly yummy, high-protein power food.

The second drift was about the same. By the time we finished picking the net all three large totes were full of fish, and all four of us were ready to call it quits. It was a good thing we were coming back in at high tide, or we might never have gotten the boat back on the trailer.

The last phase of any fishing trip is hanging fish. Henry backs the boat up next to the walk-in freezer and places a 4x12 plank from the boat gunnel to the freezer door. We load about 25 fish at a time into a big galvanized tub and slide it down the plank to the freezer. Three people form a “fish brigade” and hand the fish one by one to the person at the back of the freezer who slams each one on to a big nail. About a hundred fish can hang at a time; they freeze in 48 hours, then are taken down and stacked like cord wood in a bin on the floor. The next hundred, which have been waiting on ice, are hung in their place.

Over the course of the summer, Henry hopes to catch and freeze about a thousand fish. The sled dogs’ diet consists of roughly a third fish, a third meat, and a third kibble. The ability to fish for them plays an important role in maintaining a dog yard. Putting fresh salmon on our dinner table every few days is one of the joys of living here.

To my great dismay, I left my camera home on this trip. I'd love to show you one of those beautiful big kings.


Monday, June 25, 2007

Princess Retires

Princess’s puppies are now seven weeks old, and it is time for them to separate from Mom. Henry put them all in the heat pen a few days ago. They are not quite sure they like being contained, and the more enterprising of the youngsters is trying to find a way to squeeze out to freedom. Every time the gate is opened, they come running to try to jump out. The leaping, yapping storm of puppies makes it hard to step into the pen without squashing little paws.

The first night without Mom was pretty tough. Henry said they cried and whined all night long. Princess was at her house just outside the pen, and spent much of the night running in circles at the end of her chain, distressed by her puppies’ cries. Henry said if she was out of the yard, they would all settle down to their new life more quickly. And he has decided not to use her on the team this coming season.

I always said that when it was time for her to retire, Princess would have a warm sleeping spot near the stove for the rest of her days. I was thinking that would be a few years away just yet, but no matter. Henry wanted me to take her now.

Princess is eight years old, and has lived her entire life as a working sled dog in a large dog yard. She is not a pet. She is not housebroken; in fact, she has only been inside the house a few times in her life. She comes from many generations of top sled dogs, and that is the life she knows. Making the transition to a house dog is not necessarily an easy one.

Dutch and I moved a dog house and chain for her, right next to Bear’s outside spot. Bear and Pepper have both known Princess forever, and there was no raising of hackles or growling when she arrived. She likes her new dog house and perched on top quietly while Dutch and I did yard chores yesterday.

The big test was bringing her into the house for the night. The new environment had her on edge, and she paced constantly for several hours. Upstairs and down, in and out of every room, panting nervously, she made continuous loops of the house. After each loop she came and put her head in my lap for reassuring strokes. Eventually she calmed down, and by bedtime she was physically quiet and not panting. All three dogs slept on the bedroom floor without incident.

And no messes! Quite amazingly, she has yet to piddle or poop in the house. She watches Bear and Pepper, and is quickly learning the dog routines. And she stays right at my feet much of the time--when she is not pacing, which she still does when she comes in from outside.

There is a wildness in her that is very different from pet dogs. She moves with a springing, wolf-like gait that can cover miles of terrain effortlessly. She looks very much like a small gray wolf, and has a restless, wolfish energy. She is tightly muscled, and has a slightly rounded rib cage that allows for large lung capacity.

And always she watches. The four of us are her new pack, and she is seeking her place within it. It is a joy to have her with us.

Photos by Dutch and The Tundra PA.



Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Grand Rounds Vol. 3 No. 39

The latest edition of Grand Rounds is posted at Code Blog, Tales of a Nurse. This week's host is Geena, one of the few bloggers to take on this monumental task for the fourth time. For this edition, Geena relies on her inner advice columnist, "Dear Henrietta" who allows medbloggers to answer her readers' questions. It's an amusing format, chock-full of good posts from the medical blogosphere. Grab your coffee and settle in for a good read.


Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Triumvirate

I am beginning to think of this as the summer of travel. Last month’s two-week trip to Pennsylvania and Washington State was the first of three such trips planned between now and October. For someone who can happily go for years without leaving the state of Alaska, that is a lot of travel.

Next up is a trip to the Deep South. In July, Dutch and I plan to spend two weeks visiting relatives from both sides of my family in Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky. My grandmother will celebrate her 94th birthday on July 7th, and we plan to be there for it. Despite the fact that I have known Dutch for almost my entire life (since age three, at any rate), she has never met him. I know she will adore him, as much as he will adore her.

Grandmother is about as fit and spry as any 94-year-old could be. She lives alone and drives her new Cadillac anywhere she wants to go. Last year my Auntie stopped by to visit unexpectedly and found her standing on the dining room table, changing the light bulbs in the chandelier that hangs over it. She had climbed up with a stool and a chair, and couldn’t understand why Auntie was so upset to see her up there.

“I don’t need coddling, I can take care of myself,” was what she said about it.

Seven years ago, in her late eighties, she was a regular volunteer at the old folks’ home in the small town where she lives. She went out every week to visit the oldsters, read to them, wheel them around in the sunshine, etc. The patients were mostly in their seventies. When the management learned she was at least ten years older than the patients, they asked her to stop coming, because they said it was embarrassing to the patients to be helped by someone older than they were. I would think she would inspire more than embarrass them.

Grandmother is definitely the matriarch of the family. I think of her and her two daughters, Mother and Auntie, as “The Triumvirate.” They are definitely a powerful trio of women.

Grandmother married Granddaddy back in the mid-1920s, when she was fourteen years old and he was sixteen. They both came from tough hillbilly stock of the remote Appalachian section of eastern Tennessee, and survived the Great Depression of the 1930s as hard-working, dirt-poor farmers, raising their three children on what little bounty they could scratch from the land.

Then, in the 1940s, oil was discovered on Granddaddy’s land, and the family’s fortunes changed considerably. It was almost a Beverly Hillbillies scenario, though they never moved to California. They did leave the remote and mountainous section of Appalachia where their families had lived for generations, and bought a house and a hardware/furniture store in a small town in south central Kentucky. Granddaddy went from being a farmer to being a merchant, and Grandmother had indoor plumbing for the first time in her life.

Their three children grew up and produced seven grandchildren, of which I was the first. Those grandchildren have produced seven great-grandchildren, of which my niece was the first. She is now 22; the rest of the “greats” are still small children. As she is not married or planning to have children any time soon, there are no “double-greats” in the immediate future.

Granddaddy passed away twenty-five years ago, from the chronic lung disease brought on by his life-long habit of smoking 2 packs per day of unfiltered Pall Malls. Their only son, my Uncle Dan, died about ten years ago, of leukemia. That left The Triumvirate in charge of the family.

There is usually some type of family gathering for Grandmother’s birthday each year, but I am too far away to attend regularly. The last time I was able to make it was for her 90th. Common sense tells me that despite her current good health, she can’t have that many more birthdays left; maybe a dozen if we are really lucky. I will work hard to be there for as many of them as I can.

While Dutch and I are down there, we plan to visit some of Dad’s family also. He was born, and grew up, in Birmingham, and most of his family has remained in the vicinity. Both of my paternal grandparents died many years ago, but Dad’s sister and brother (Uncle Bob of last summer’s Fishing the Kisaralik posts) are still in Alabama, along with their five children and six grandchildren. There was a rift in the family some years back, and I have not seen most of these cousins for over thirty years. I decided it was time to change that, and am working toward a big 4th of July celebration that includes a family healing and reunion. Wish me luck at pulling it off, OK?

The final bit of travel this summer will be a two-week trip to Montana in September. I plan to visit my friend Susan (who spent a week with me here in Alaska last March, and about whom I blogged here, here, and here). That trip feels like a long way off just yet, and plans are still forming.

In the meantime, I have three weeks sandwiched between the first two trips, and a lot to get done in that time. I am back to work on my regular schedule, and my hip is mostly doing OK. I had forgotten how much I enjoy seeing patients while I was on medical leave. It is good to be back in clinic.

With nearly 20 hours a day of sunlight now, all things green are growing like mad. The grass seems to gain two or three inches per day, and needs weed-whacking at least weekly (we don’t own a lawn mower; you can’t mow the tundra). And we have yet to get our boat in the river. The trailer it is sitting on has a flat tire (brand new last summer…grrrrrrr) and if we can’t get it to hold air long enough to launch the boat, we’ll have to hire a fork-loader to set the whole boat/trailer unit on a flatbed and haul it to the river. Once launched, the boat will remain in the water for the summer, and we’ll dock it at the city’s floating piers in the small boat harbor.

Meanwhile, the salmon are arriving in ever-increasing numbers. We were gifted a beautiful red (sockeye) salmon by one of Dutch’s work crew this past week—our first fresh salmon! It was absolutely yummy, grilled over charcoal and served with fresh corn on the cob, salad and bread. This morning one of Dutch’s foremen stopped by with a small king (Chinook) salmon he had just pulled from the river, so more salmon-y goodness is in the immediate future. It makes my palms itch to get out there and start fishing. Ah, June… I love summer.

Photo by Uncle Al of The Triumvirate: Auntie, Grandmother, Mother on the beach in Florida about ten years ago.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Boat Mushing

Summer is the bane of a sled dog’s existence. It is hot, mosquito-ridden, and boring. They lay around waiting for the next meal, which is about the only thing they have to look forward to. Some are diggers or chewers; when it is hot they will start digging holes to get some cool dirt to lie in, sometimes excavating under their houses to achieve a little shade as well. The chewers start working on the corners of their houses and the edges of the doorways; a hardworking chewer can eat half his house in the course of a summer.

Training dogs through the summer is always a goal, but one that is difficult to achieve in this area. In the lower 48, and in the Interior of Alaska, there are lots of abandoned logging roads and double-track dirt trails that can be used to run a dog team pulling a wheeled cart or 4-wheel ATV. Runs must be kept short so that the dogs do not overheat, but regular exercise is possible to maintain strength and endurance.

Around here the problem is that we have no old abandoned dirt roads or trails. We do have plenty of low-lying, marshy tundra that stays ankle-deep in water for most of the summer, and in the past Henry has used these areas for summer training. We call it "swamp mushing". He hooks the team up to an old beater sled and lets them drag it through the marsh. He wears hip waders for these outings, and still comes home wet and muddy from head to toe. And usually exhausted. As you might imagine, it is not a smooth and easy ride on such terrain. The sled gets caught on tundra tufts and shrubs, requiring the musher to do lots of pulling, pushing, and lifting to keep the sled moving.

As long as I have known Henry—almost nine years—he has been talking about loading sled dogs in the boat and taking them upriver to a large island which has a good beach, hooking them up at the water’s edge, and letting them pull the boat. It always sounded like fun, but somehow we never got around to it. Yesterday we did, and it was a blast.

When Henry’s boat is loaded on the trailer, the gunnels are about five feet off the ground. We used two 20’ long 4x12 planks to make a ramp and walked the dogs up it. For dogs with agility training, like Pepper the Little Dog, this is no big deal. For sled dogs whose feet never willingly leave the ground, this was a challenge. But they made it fine and were hooked to drop chains that Henry had attached to the grab rail. We drove to the small boat harbor and launched without difficulty, despite the very low water level which is being a particular challenge this summer.

Once the boat was floating, the dogs were a bit nervous, but they got over it quickly. By the time we were up on step out on the river, they had heads in the wind with ears flapping and tails wagging.

The skies were looking like a south front was about to move in on us, which always brings rain, and sometimes lots of it. So we decided to do our trial run on a shorter beach a little closer to home. We were on the right bank, so attached the gangline to the right grab rail on the boat about a quarter of the way back. Hopefully, this would make it easier to prevent the team from pulling the boat up on shore. The dogs were quickly harnessed and hooked up.

There were two of us in the boat, myself and Peter, a young Scandanavian man who has been helping Henry with training for the last few months. We had poles to push the boat out from shore. Henry was in the water in his chest waders to help control the boat from there.

He said “Let’s go, dogs” and holy cow! They took off like a rocket. It is amazing we didn’t all three fall over backwards. Eight dogs were pulling that 26 foot boat so fast it created a wake. Controlling the boat was difficult at that speed; we needed a brake. And then, for some reason, the less experienced leader decided to go left and took the team straight into the river. No command to “gee” (go right) would get through to them once they were swimming, and we just watched while they swam all the way around and started climbing in the back of the boat! It was chaos.

We got them sorted out and decided we had too much power. Who’d’ve thought? For the second try we only put five dogs on the line, and that turned out to be just the right amount of power. The second trial went great; they towed the boat smoothly up the beach until we ran out of sand.

It was starting to rain, so we decided that was enough for one day. We loaded dogs back in the boat and took them home. They had a great time, and so did we. It was way more fun than getting dragged through the swamp. This promises to be a very fun summer for sled dogs.


Wednesday, June 06, 2007

No Place Like Home

Be it ever so humble, there is really no place like it. I love coming home no matter where I’ve been, but I especially like it when the travel has taken me Outside (of Alaska). Life seems crowded and frantic everywhere else when compared to here. The noise and smells of traffic; the disconnectedness of people on the street who won’t even make eye contact, much less smile or nod; the sense that everyone is in such a hurry to get to the next minute that there is no time to enjoy the one they are in; it all makes me really happy to get back to my little corner of the world where the Metronome of Life is clicking along at about 30 instead of 120.

Spring arrived in full while I was gone. The tundra is now covered in cotton grass, creating a dusting of white amongst the green foliage. Swallows are everywhere, whirling and diving through the air sending iridescent flashes of blue as the sun strikes their glossy feathers. The wind no longer has teeth that bite. And there is not much darkness left in the nighttime.

Of course the puppies grew like crazy. They are now almost five weeks old and just beginning to show some personality differentiation. They toddle about the area around their house without going far, and are able to get in and out the door with the help of a step. Princess has a tendency to want to wean her litters early, and she is showing signs of it already. Though she is very engorged, she doesn’t let them nurse at will any more. The only place she can get away from them is on top of their house, so that is where she lies when she needs a break. They are already eating meat soup from the dish, as well as nursing.

In a few weeks they will be exploring more widely and will need to be contained; at that point they will be moved to the big heat pen (10’ x 20’) for the next few months of their lives. The heat pen will be their home as long as they are all friendly with each other; eventually there will be bickering and sibling rivalry, sometimes with one pup being ganged up on by the rest. It usually happens around three or four months of age. That marks the time for separation, and each pup will be moved to its own circle and house. The first few nights of that stage are filled with puppy whines and whimpers as they learn to sleep alone for the first time. Their introduction to the harness and their job for life will come soon after, about five months of age.

Henry returned from his logging trip while I was gone. They went almost two hundred miles upriver, and were able to retrieve a nice pile of dead standing trees and drifting logs. They rafted them up and towed them home; after a week of drying out, they are ready to be bucked, split, and stacked in the woodshed.

While the wood has been drying, the focus has turned to fishing. The boat is cleaned up from the logging trip and is ready to go, and Henry has been working on the fishing net. It is 300 feet long and 20 feet deep. It must be stretched over a drying rack (which looks like a set of parallel bars for a short-legged gorilla) and cleaned and inspected. Holes are mended, floats are replaced when needed. Every aspect of life here has a get-ready phase.

The king salmon run is just getting started in the Kuskokwim River. A few people with set nets have caught some kings, but not many are being caught in drift nets just yet. By late June the king run will be well upon us, and we’ll be feasting on the finest salmon there is.

It is really good to be home.