Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Most Alaskan Christmas Gift Ever

Alaskans are, on the whole, a most inventive bunch of folks. Using materials at hand, they can quite often fix what needs fixing, or create something completely new. And in so doing, function tops form every time. It does not matter what something looks like as long as it does what it needs to do.

For years there was a house in Bethel that was apparently too drafty; the T-111 siding was cracked. Rather than replace it, remodel, or rebuild, the owner took spray-on foam insulation and covered the outside of the house with a six-inch layer of it. The house looked like it had been coated with orange icing. It wasn’t pretty, but apparently it worked fine; a family lived there for years.

Gift giving at Christmas often inspires people to come up with strange and unusual ideas. This year one of Dutch’s acquaintances presented him with the unique item pictured above. He made it himself and was quite proud of it.

“Hope you like it,” he said as he put it in the back of Dutch’s truck. “It ought to last until April or May.”

Dutch brought it home and placed it next to the front door.

“What do you think?” he asked me.

“Well,” I said carefully, “I’ve certainly never seen anything quite like it.”

He just smiled.

“Does it do something?”

“It has a function,” he answered.

“Looks like a big ice cup to me. Do we pour it full of gin and call it a giant martini?”

Not even close. It is a candle holder. Made of ice.

So Alaska.


Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas!

The barely-waning moon watches from above as Christmas morning dawned cold and clear over Bethel. May each of you have a day full of peace, joy, love, and hope...and may the laughter of children gladden your heart.

Photo by The Tundra PA, taken at 11:30 AM; temp -12 degrees.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

OK. Winter.

After weeks—nay, months!—of being wishy-washy and non-committal about it, Jack Frost has finally decided not to pass us by this year after all. We didn’t so much slide into winter as jump off feet-first into full immersion. Last week we were glad just to get below freezing so the mud would stiffen up. Snow fell with some promise, but melted as it hit the ground. A few days ago that changed.

This morning when I checked outside well before sunrise, the thermometer was reading minus 25 degrees. Brrr. That will get your attention.

One of the nice things about this much cold is that the dogs don’t require leashes for their periodic pee breaks; they will rush out, pee quickly, and come right back. That means Dutch doesn’t have to dress up in full Polar Bear gear every morning and evening for a fifteen minute walk down the road. Bear and Princess do spend part of each day outside on a chain while I am at work, but they have thick fur and snug houses with lots of straw, which is all they need to stay warm enough. The old girl, Pepper, who turned 14 last month, has unlimited house privileges and spends her days snoozing on the sofa.

We are two days from the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year. I went to the river’s edge this morning and took photos of the rising sun. It edged over the southeastern horizon at almost exactly 11:00 AM. That won’t change much by Friday. The word “solstice” actually means “when the sun stands still,” which it does for about two weeks around the day designated as the solstice (both winter and summer). Here at latitude 61 degrees north, we have about five hours of daylight now; the sun will set sometime around 4:30 PM, and twilight will be brief.

It is hard to imagine being overdressed at this temperature, but this morning I definitely was. With enough fleece, down, and fur, anything is possible. After walking around down at the river to find the photo angle I wanted, I stopped at the caselot grocery for a load of heavy stuff; next I went to the post office where Dutch and I had six packages waiting, half of them over 25 pounds each. By the time I hauled it all home and carted it into the house (many trips from truck to house) I was sweating in my layers of gear. I sat outside coatless for a few minutes to cool off.

One of Dutch’s foremen who watches the weather patterns closely, and is a better predictor than the weather guys on TV, says we have a low pressure system headed our way which will probably raise our temperatures by about forty degrees by the weekend. As long as we stay ten degrees below freezing, I won’t mind. Maybe Dutch and I will be able to get our snowmachines out at last. It is hard to stay outside long at 20 below, and machines are cranky to get started. Life is a lot softer at 20 above.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Too Funny for Words

It was coffee spewing time this morning when I stopped in at Musings of a Dinosaur to see what Dr. Dino was up to. Dino and the Medblog Addict have an ongoing competition to see who can find the funniest You-Tube videos. Dino definitely won this round. If you want a big laugh, go check it out. I strongly encourage doing it beverage free. Don't say you weren't warned!

And FYI, the British generic name for Tylenol is paracetamol; the American generic name is acetaminophen.


Friday, December 14, 2007

Not a Doorknob

It was so dumb, really, and such a minor thing to have such a big result. I was shoveling snow off the deck. I leaned the shovel against the railing and bent down to pick up something in the way, and the shovel came down and bonked me--right on the bony edge of my right eye socket. It made my eyes water, but feeling around I could tell there was no blood, so I stayed on task. Two hours later I glanced in a mirror and whoa! There was a livid shade of purple starting to creep around my eye. By the next day I had a heck of a shiner.

The odd thing is that there is no swelling, so I can't see it; and it doesn't hurt, so I tend to forget it is there. Then I walk past a mirror and am shocked all over again.

Yesterday Dutch and I went to the weekly Chamber of Commerce luncheon at a local restaurant. My colleagues do not generally attend this gathering, but a number of his do. Several people made jokes about when the beatings were going to quit and whether they needed to call the Alaska State Trooper sitting in the next room for me. Not that domestic violence is a laughing matter AT ALL, but in this case, well known to be the farthest thing from the truth. I did point out that Dutch is not left handed.

I never had a shiner before, and this has certainly been a painless one. Good thing, too; at $13.79 per pound for steak, I would not have been cold packing with it.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Yupik Names

Yupik names have fascinated me since I first came to Bethel almost ten years ago. At first it was the village names, which I puzzled over in the airport while reading the flight information board. Mekoryuk, Kwigillingok, Kongiganak, Tuntutuliak, Nunapitchuk, Atmautluak, Kwethluk, Akiak, Chuathbaluk, and many more—such an odd, and yet musical jumble of syllables. I wondered if I would ever learn to pronounce them (much less spell them) correctly. But once I began seeing patients at the hospital, I learned that the village names are no more complicated than many of the family names.

In my mind, Yupik family names fall into several different categories. The first category is the one I call traditional. These are the surnames that sound like the Yupik language: Tunutmoak, Askoak, Pingayak, Ayuluk, Tatlelik, Tungwenuk, Kopanuk, Bayayok, Umugak, Nukusuk, Kaganuk, Tomaganuk, Kassaiuli, Egoak, Chiklak, Elachik, Kashatok, Ayunerak, Takumjenak and many more.

A guideline for pronouncing these names is that if they have only two syllables, like Chiklak, the accent will usually be on the first syllable: CHICK-lack. If the name has more than two syllables, the accent will usually be on the second syllable: ping-GUY-ak, buy-YAI-yuck, new-COO-suck, eee-LA-chick. Of course, just when you are getting the hang of it, there will be an exception like OS-ko-ak or CASH-a-tock. But you’ll be right more often than wrong if you stick to stressing the second syllable.

Yupik language, in general, is extremely difficult to speak. Most words have six or eight syllables, and some have many more than that. It is a very guttural language, with throat-clearing sounds that come from deep in the throat, and it incorporates “wetness” sounds that require what I think of as a juicy mouth. Teeth-sucking figures in there somewhere too. If Yupik is not your first language, you are unlikely ever to learn more than a few words of it, much less speak it fluently, no matter how linguistically gifted you are. It is a matter of some cultural pride that the language is so difficult to speak.

When it comes right down to pronunciation, a non-Yupik speaker is essentially never going to get it exactly right. No matter how much it may sound to me like I have repeated a word or a name precisely as a Yupik speaker said it to me, he or she will either correct me or just smile and say “close enough.”

The best example of this is a group of names that I think of as the al-RAY-as: Chimeralrea, Aloralrea, Aliralrea, Imgalrea, Ayagalrea, and Akerelrea. Our alphabet needs more than 26 letters to convey these sounds. No matter how much I practice, I have never found a member of these families who agrees that I said the name right.

A second category of family names is one that includes common English words as surnames: Landlord, Boyscout, Fancyboy, Coffee, Cook, Boots, Littlefish, Deacon, Crisco, Parent, Bell, Rose, Dock, King, Brink, Lake, to name a few. And then there is the animal subset: Beaver, Fox, Wolf; and the color subset: Black, Green, Brown, Gray, and White. I have always wondered how Yupik people came to have these names.

The only origin story I know of is for the name Fancyboy. It is a relatively new name. A few generations back, one of the Polty boys up on the Yukon River was very fond of wearing his dress-up regalia. He would often wear his fanciest clothes, even if there were no celebration. The missionaries at the school he attended began calling him Fancy Boy. The name stuck, and all his descendants are now named Fancyboy instead of Polty.

The third category of surnames is the one with a man’s first name as the family name. The list here is long: John, Peter, Pete, Thomas, Tom, Tommy, Carl, Nick, Paul, Oscar, Andrew, James, Jimmy, Ivan, Charles, Charley, Frederick, George, Moses, Noah, Phillip, Jasper, Owen, Joseph, Joe, David, Ned, Samuel, Sam, Simon, Herman, Henry, Frank, Gilbert, Ross…and the list goes on.

If you are a boy with one of these surnames, there will be someone somewhere in the Delta with your name flipped. There will be someone named Peter John and someone named John Peter—not necessarily in the same village, or knowing each other. Somewhere there is a Nick Andrew, and an Andrew Nick; a Pete Jimmy and a Jimmy Pete; a Sam Henry and a Henry Sam.

The convention that most amazes me, though, is that each of these families will have a child who is given the same first name as his last name. Somewhere out there in southwest Alaska there is a Joe Joe (and a Joseph Joe, and a Joe Joseph), a George George, a Carl Carl, a Sam Sam. Middle initials come prominently in to play on these, as there are often quite a few with the same name. I know of three guys named Nick Nick.

And if last names are interesting, first names are equally so. Many Yupik women have first names that most Americans think of as old; common in the previous centuries but not in vogue these days: Bertha, Agatha, Josephine, Gertrude, Helen, Fanny, Esmerelda, Cora, Agnes, Clotilda. In part, this is due to a naming convention long honored in Yupik culture. When an elder in a village dies, the next child born to that village is given the elder’s name. Thus, old names are perpetuated.

When the elder is male and the next child born is female, the elder’s name is often feminized: Wassilina for Wassilie, Vassalina for Vassal, Miltonia for Milton. One man who was named Fredrick has granddaughters named—of course—Fredricka, but also Fredella, Fredanna, and Fredtresia.

Some first names are ones that I’ve never heard of anywhere: Bolvania, Akeema, Bavilla (can be either male or female), Audrac, Unchallee, Novely, Xander, Akafia, Shontiana, Ayumin, Agrifina. More creative and “New Age” type names are creeping into the culture as well. There is a boy named Awesome and a girl named Heavenleah. And a family whose children’s names all start with J: Jaythan, Jadrea, Jaytlan, Jawna, Jayvin, Jadred, and Janaya. That mom has a tongue-twister of a list to run down when she is trying to nail the right kid with the right name!


Monday, December 10, 2007

The Price of Gas

This might have the flavor of a rant. Be warned.

This morning when I went to to check my email, I was interested to notice one of their front page feature articles: the top 10 most expensive places in the U.S. to buy gas. Feeling a bit curious, I clicked on it and read the article. Number one on the list was San Francisco at something like $3.54 per gallon for regular unleaded. The next five places were also in California. The article quoted Forbes magazine as the info source.

In Bethel we are paying nearly $5 per gallon for gas, and in the villages it is $7 per gallon. I suspect that Hawaii’s gas is a bit more than San Francisco’s also. Herein lies my beef: the article did not say “most expensive gas in the continental U.S.” (which, come to think of it, should still include Alaska, as we are on the same continent), it simply said “in the U.S. Well, hello Forbes and Yahoo!, Alaska and Hawaii ARE in the U.S., and have been for nearly 50 years. If you are going to exclude us, then say you are excluding us; don’t claim something for the entire country and then just leave us out. We are Americans too, and proud to be so.

Someone in the lower 48 actually asked me once what we use for money up here. I smiled and said, “polished walrus teeth, mostly, though bear claws and whale or walrus penis bones can be used in a pinch.”

The woman’s eyes opened wider and she said “oh!” Pause. “Whales have a bone in their penis?”

Yeah, they do. The Yupiks call it an oosik.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Bethel Fame

Every now and then, something about Bethel reaches the national media and our odd little town enjoys a momentary spotlight of attention. In July there was an article in the New York Times about Bethel’s dubious status as the taxi cab capital of the country. Last month, a staff writer from the Los Angeles Times showed up here in town and did a similar article. The NY Times article is here and the one in the LA Times can be read here.

Both articles quoted similar statistics about our ten miles of paved road and twenty miles of dirt road; and about the fact that we have nearly 100 licensed cab drivers in this town of under 6,000 people, which equals one cabbie for about every 60 residents. More than even New York City. Bethel has no public transit system; no city buses and certainly no trains. People without cars, which is a large segment of our population, either walk or take cabs wherever they go. In the intervening months between the two articles, Bethel’s cab drivers successfully lobbied the City Council to raise cab fares by one dollar; it now costs $5 to go most anywhere in town, and $7 to go to the airport—which is waaaaay out of town, nearly three miles. If you need to stop and run in somewhere on the way to your destination, that’s an extra buck.

Several months ago there was a riffle of excitement as the rumor spread around town that the television show Dirty Jobs was going to come here to film the sewer truck drivers who back their big trucks up to people’s homes and evacuate their sewer tanks. The show did come to Bethel, but they chose to go out with the Fish and Wildlife folks who were swabbing migratory birds to look for bird flu. I never heard whether that show aired or not.

Today, Dutch and I spent part of the day with a film crew from The History Channel. They are producing a new series called Tougher In Alaska, which is slated for broadcast sometime in April. One of the segments will be focused on waste disposal. The crew has been in the area all week, traveling to villages to capture footage of life with honey buckets. They were in Bethel today to film the water and sewer truck drivers making their rounds. We took them out to the sewer lagoon (second largest in North America!) and they filmed the driver off-loading his truck’s tank. This particular driver brings his dog along on the route with him to keep him company in the truck (photo above). One of the two cameramen jumped in the truck with him and drove part of his route, filming while the driver stopped at a few houses. The other cameraman went with a water truck driver.

They also wanted some footage and explanation of Bethel’s piped water system, and who better to do that than Dutch? As the Public Works Director, both the piped and hauled systems are under his management. And he is such a tall and handsome guy, he makes a good subject. I can’t wait to see him on TV.

They won’t know the exact date that this segment will air for several months, but the producer promised to let us know well ahead of time. I will post the info as soon as I have it.


Saturday, December 01, 2007

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Last Saturday was one of those incredibly beautiful winter days that we may only get a handful of in any one winter. The temperature was in the high 20s, the sky was piercingly blue and there was lots of snow to play in. The drifts were waist high. The sun is making a low, flat arc across the sky for the six or so hours of daylight that we have now, and the long noon-time shadows create dramatic lighting.






Snowmachines were everywhere, as kids were out having fun. People were cross-country skiing, building snowmen, mushing dogs and generally enjoying the beautiful day. Dutch and I decided to try miniature mushing: i.e., my new kick sled with one dog.






The snow in our front yard was so deep that to get to the tundra I had to strap on the snowshoes and tramp a path out and over the water/sewer pipes that encircle our subdivision. The drift was about four feet deep, but the snowshoes made it easy to stamp down. The well-used snowmachine path that runs in front of our house is about 50 yards away. It was pretty well packed, but the snow next to it was soft and loose.





I had high hopes for Princess. She is a well-trained sled dog who ran the Kuskokwim 300 last January. She is 8 years old, and has worked every season since her first year. She is small and light, about 35 pounds, and always pulls hard. But with the soft snow, she was not able to pull me up a small incline by herself. We did well going downhill or if I was running beside the sled or kicking.

Next was Bear’s turn. He is an Alaskan Husky, the son of a very good sled dog from my team several years ago. Bear is 6 years old and has never worked a day in his life. He is quite a bit bigger than most sled dogs these days, but he has never pulled. When I tried him on the team as a young dog, he just lay down and refused to pull. He let the rest of the team drag him in harness. That was the end of his career as a sled dog; he moved into the house and has had a warm bed by the fire ever since, loved by one and all for his good humor and good looks. I thought if he were the only dog and Dutch (whom he worships) were there to encourage him, he might pull.

You guessed it. No. He was NOT pulling. He continues to insist that his career in life is as a Pretty Boy. He was not meant to work.

After such a gorgeous day, the weather had to change, and change it did. The thermometer began rising, heavy clouds moved in and it started to rain. We spent several days at 45 degrees and watched the snow melt like it was a time-lapse movie.

Today is December 1st, and it seems as if the year’s monthly dial has clicked back two notches. It feels like October 1st. The thermometer is above 40, the roads are deep in mud, and last Saturday seems like a dream. What happened to winter? We are back in early autumn.

As much as we all loved having the deep snow, the ground was not nearly frozen enough to hold it. I remember thinking last week that what we really needed was two days of rain to melt the snow, followed by two days of high winds to dry out the land, and then two weeks of hard, deep cold (zero or colder) with no precipitation to harden everything appropriately. And then a good blizzard with a couple of feet of fresh snow. Then we’d be set for a good winter.

To my amazement, that seems to be what is happening. The warm rains followed our perfect winter day, and then the winds started two days ago. Almost all the snow is gone and the landscape is brown everywhere. Dutch and I spent the afternoon working outside in sweatshirts, gloveless and hatless. The wind last night was fierce; the house shook occasionally. The roads have lots of frost to give up, so they are still very muddy, but Dutch’s crews were out grading roads today. The river still has a skin of ice, but no one is traveling on it.

We are poised for our second attempt at starting winter. I predict a sudden drop to zero and two weeks of hard dry cold. And then a big blizzard for an all-white Winter Solstice. My fingers are crossed.

All photos by Dutch and The Tundra PA