Friday, March 12, 2010

Farewell to Princess

It is so hard to lose a beloved dog. Two days ago I had to say good bye to Princess, the last remnant of my sled dog team. I have written about her many times in previous posts, here and here and here among others. She went quickly; it was only five weeks from the moment I knew anything was wrong until she slipped away from the lethal injection.

On the morning before her death, I wrote her this letter...

March 10, 2010

Dear Princess,

What a good, good dog you have been! We have had exactly ten years together, ten really good dog years. And now you are sick, deeply sick, and I can't fix it. Inflammatory breast carcinoma, “an aggressively malignant strain” the vet said after removing the affected breast. That was two weeks ago, and already the tumor is back, filling your pelvis, putting you in pain. I will not keep you here any longer. It is time for you to cross over; the vet and his needle are waiting.

I hold you and rub your beautiful fur coat, so like a small gray wolf, stroke your head, feel your breathing, and remember all our good times together. I tell you over and over what a good dog you are.

The day you arrived on the plane in Bethel, early February of 2000, from Susan Butcher's dog yard in Fairbanks you were nine months old, shy and scared and confused. From a huge dog yard run like a professional operation with over 150 dogs, you came to my six-dog yard which consisted of chains to the trees spaced out around my house. I put you in the dog house and circle closest to the front door. Henry saw you that first day, and his words engendered your name: “you've brought royalty to the yard.” And so you became Princess (somehow “Flower” never worked for me, and I couldn't imagine why Susan had named you that).

The six village sled dogs you were joining—and would eventually be leader of—were some pretty tough five-year-olds who were all litter-mates. You were an interesting new addition to them—especially the four boys.

Your first night in the yard it was about ten degrees below zero. Blessedly, there was no wind and it was very still and quiet. You whined and howled incessantly, stopping only for a few minutes when I went out to pet and talk to you. Finally I gave up, put on my Jeff King suit and slept curled up on top of your house with my hand in the doorway to touch your head. You were quiet the rest of the night.

I put you on the sled team right away, and you always pulled hard. You were a tireless worker. When I put you in double with my main leader Lucky, he liked and accepted you. Together in lead, with Flash and Woody in swing, you made a powerful front end.

When you came in heat I sent you back to Susan Butcher for breeding to her favorite male leader, Riker. You had seven beautiful pups, most of which looked like him, black-brown-gray; but one was white with a black spot in the middle of his back and brown eyes. I named him Bingo. That was the fall of 2001 and you were two years old. You were a great mom, and the puppies all thrived. The dog yard doubled overnight.

The following year I sent you to Susan again for breeding with Riker and you had a second beautiful litter of six pups. Again, most looked like their dad, but one was white with a black spot on her head. I named her Salty. Again you took excellent care of them, and they all grew into strong sled dogs. By the end of 2002, the dog yard numbered 26.

When you were five, my own health required me to give up mushing. You and your pups went to a young musher in Bethel who ran you in the K-300, and you did well. I was at the finish line for that race in 2006 and was happy to see you looking strong at the end of it, but so very skinny! He just wasn't feeding you enough. But he ended up leaving town and you went to Henry's yard. Henry ran you in double lead for two seasons and was very pleased with your performance.

In 2007, when you were eight, Henry and I bred you one last time and you had a third litter of seven pups with one white one. This litter was the first to have one pup that looked just like you, and he turned out to be the pick of the litter as a sled dog. Henry named him Silver.

Henry wanted to focus on training young dogs, and you didn't make the age cut. So you went into sled dog retirement and came to live with Dutch and me as a beloved house dog. You made the transition well, though that first year was a little rocky as you were coming to the don't-pee-in-the-house rule a little late in life. But you got it, and when we left Bethel we replaced the carpet in the room of your indiscretions.

Your shy and gentle nature is your dominant personality trait, and is the reason you came to me in the first place. You weren't aggressive enough for Susan Butcher's professional dog team. You were exactly what I needed, the matriarch of a sled dog team who became a wonderful companion dog. You have been a sweet, loyal and loving presence in my life since the first day you came to me. You have done everything asked of you, from having puppies to running races, with enthusiasm, and done it well. I could not have asked for more from any dog.

I will let you go now, to cross over and be done with this diseased body which is holding you. I pray you will return to me in a future life and we'll have another good run together.

Farewell until we meet again, my sweet, sweet dog, and you fill the hole in my heart once more.


Thursday, March 05, 2009

Coming to an End

For several weeks now, a notion has been flitting around in my brain, one that made me a little sad and a little glad. This morning I awoke to find that the notion had become a solid conviction. After nearly three years of blogging, it is time for Tundra Medicine Dreams to end.

This blog has always been about life in Bethel, the Yupik Eskimo culture that enfolds it, and the practice of medicine in bush Alaska. It is not about Kenai and life on the road system, which is not so different from life in the rural Lower 48. Since I no longer live in Bethel, I find it difficult to continue writing blog posts in keeping with what Tundra Medicine Dreams has been about. And though Kenai is very much what people think of as classically beautiful Alaska, I am not inspired to write about it. Nor do I think that it is what TMD readers come here to read. Kenai is not the frontier of civilization that Bethel is.

I began writing this blog for two reasons: to create a portrait of a culture that is fascinating and very different from the one that most Americans and Western Europeans are familiar with; and to create within myself a discipline for writing. I believe that TMD has done that.

In three years I have written essays covering a wide range of topics on bush medicine and Yupik culture. These days, most visitors to the site arrive via searches on things I have written about: huffing, botulism, breast-feeding practices, Eskimo diet, dog mushing, kuspuks and many more. For that reason, the blog will remain open and available for people to learn what they can from it.

My occasional trips to Bethel and the villages may inspire a few more posts in the coming year; I certainly don’t rule it out. But my writing has taken a different direction, which is what I always ultimately intended. I am finally writing my novel.

For most of my life I have known that I had an ability to write in a way that people enjoyed reading; I simply never felt that I had a story to tell. Now I do. My life in Bethel has given me that story. It will be about a woman who is a physician assistant and a dog musher, who goes to live in a Yupik village to provide health care and to train an Iditarod-hopeful dog team. She will have many adventures, both medical and musherly, and she will learn much about the culture in which she lives and about herself. I am already many pages into it, and enjoying the process of creation thoroughly.

Perhaps when I think it is ready, I’ll post a preview here. I don’t have a literary agent, and don’t have a clue about how writers get one; I know publishers take a dim view of manuscripts sent to them without benefit of an agent. If Tundra Medicine Dreams can help me to open that door, it will have achieved far more than I ever dreamed.

To those few readers who have followed my progress here from early on, thank you. Your loyalty and support have meant the world to me as a fledgling writer. To those who took the time and care to comment, you have my deepest gratitude. As the author John D. MacDonald once wrote in a letter to my Dad, “writers drop feathers down wells and listen for an echo.” Comments on this blog have, for the most part, been positive and inspiring. And to those casual visitors who found this site through various search engines, welcome! I hope that the writing you find as a result of whatever search string you used peaks your interest to search through the archives and read more. A large volume of (I hope) interesting material awaits you there.

And so, for now, so long. May you each and every one go well.

Photos of Bethel by The Tundra PA:
1. My favorite trash dumpster
2. An old truck rusting into the earth in City Sub
3. Boats frozen into Brown Slough
4. Frozen Kuskokwim River just after sunrise in November
5. Sunset over tundra


Saturday, February 07, 2009

Back to Work

After four and a half months off work—the longest non-working period in my adult life—I was afraid I had forgotten all the medicine I ever knew. Fortunately, such was not the case. I started working again in mid January, and everything has gone smoothly, with the help of several dedicated people in Bethel.

My entire job now consists of doing Radio Medical Traffic (RMT), which I described in detail in the early days of this blog; see this post and this post. The best part is that I am doing it from my home in Kenai. That is a luxury I have never had before, and I absolutely love it. The hospital sent me an industrial-strength printer/fax machine capable of cranking out hundreds of faxes per day without breaking a sweat. And the technology department is working to set up a laptop computer for me that will have the database for all 20,000 patients in our region on it.

This is not an EMR (electronic medical record). Individual patient visits are not electronically recorded into the database, which is known as RPMS, and I have no idea what the letters stand for, something about Patient Management. We are still handwriting patient visits! What RPMS provides is a health summary for each patient, with demographic information, chronic diagnoses, prescriptions filled, lab results for the past two years, radiology results for the past five years, surgical histories, and more. It is a thorough thumbnail of the patient; about the only thing it lacks are the details of any specific patient visit in the hospital. To get those, the hard copy of the chart must be ordered, which is something I can’t do from Kenai.

But if I really need those details, I can contact the medical staff’s administrative assistant and have her request the chart and fax me a copy of the relevant visit. So far, I have only needed her to do that once in the last three weeks. The process of doing RMT without access to RPMS feels somewhat like flying blind, as health aides often have questions about such things as availability of medication refills, or recent lab results. But the process has gone reasonably well even without access to the database since I started back. I am excited about getting a new laptop with RPMS on it, however.

And—what feels like icing on the cake—is that I will also have access to the telemedicine program on the laptop. Telemedicine has been in the village clinics for years, but most of the time was not utilized due to health aide resistance to learning the technology. That is becoming a thing of the past as younger people are entering health aide training who are more comfortable with computers.

The telemedicine carts in each village contain a computer tower/monitor/keyboard, a digital camera which can take still photos or short video clips, a camera mounted into an otoscope for taking pictures or videos of ear drums and other things located at the bottom of dark holes, an EKG machine, and all the software needed to transmit this info confidentially to Bethel or to Anchorage. It is an invaluable tool for doing distance triage on patients with things like rashes, where a picture is worth a thousand words, or patients whose complaint is simply “heart feels funny.”

The telemedicine carts in each village clinic have been replaced this past month with the absolutely latest and best that technology has to offer. And the health aide training program has made it a high priority to get all health aides trained up and comfortable in using that technology. It will help to make assessment of distant patients so much easier and more accurate.

Talking to health aides about their patients has always been enjoyable to me; I really like doing RMT. I have the greatest respect and admiration for health aides. They do a very tough job, and generally do it well.

All the 160+ health aides in our region are Alaska Natives, and most were born and raised in the village where they work. Given that most villages have less than 500 people in them, they are generally related (“somehow” as they say) to everybody who lives there. That makes it even tougher when the job requires attending to serious trauma or illness, and the patient is a loved one.

Health aides are trained to use language that is descriptive without being diagnostic. Lung sounds may be “snoring” or “scraping” or “popping.” Patients are “sick-weak-and-tired” or they aren’t. Really sick babies have “heavy eyes.” Translating these descriptions into accurate assessments can be challenging at times.

One of the more interesting comments I’ve received recently from a health aide was that a patient’s urine looked “thick.” I had to wonder what thick urine looks like. Honey? On questioning, the health aide said the urine wasn’t “junky” or cloudy, and dipstick test revealed a normal specific gravity (less than 1.020, therefore not concentrated, indicating no dehydration) and negative for nitrites or blood, indicating a low likelihood of bladder infection in a non-pregnant patient.

I asked the health aide to send a clean catch sample of the urine in to the lab in Bethel for culture and sensitivity, and a dirty catch sample for gonorrhea and chlamydia testing. The health aide and I agreed that the patient could be encouraged to increase fluid intake and be observed for new or increasing symptoms and rechecked in a few days—sooner if worse, as always.

Chief complaints for which patients seek care in the village clinics can also be puzzling. Last week, an otherwise healthy, twenty-something male came to the health aides for a complaint of “can’t burp.” He looked fine, had no complaint of abdominal discomfort or cardiac symptoms, and attributed his complaint to being “aired up.” In the Yupik concept of physiology, being “aired up” can explain anything from chest pressure to flank pain. It may mean nothing serious or it may mean time to medevac the patient in to the hospital.

In this patient’s case, a man who was young, looked fine, had no complaint of pain and had normal vital signs, I was not overly worried. I suggested to the health aide that he try drinking carbonated beverages for a day or so and recheck if he developed new or worsening symptoms. Our patients are generally very reliable for rechecking with the health aides when they perceive anything to be wrong; he has not returned to the village clinic in the subsequent few days, so presumably he is feeling better and burping away.

And then there was the best chief complaint maybe ever. “I want a pregnancy test.” The patient was a seventy-five year old woman. She was many years post-menopausal (or “menopaused” as the health aides say), but because she had all the reproductive parts, she was sure she could be. The health aide and I laughed about it as he explained that she is recently remarried and she and her new husband are “very active.” Good for them! The pregnancy test was negative.

Being back in contact with the health aides has been wonderful for me. It keeps me in touch with what is going on health-wise in the villages, and provides an opportunity to catch up on how the health aides I’ve known for years are doing. It has also made me aware of how much I miss doing hands-on patient care.

And for that, there is the best news possible: tomorrow I fly out to Bethel for a week of seeing patients at the outpatient clinics in the hospital. I hope to be able to make such trips about every other month. After four months away, it feels a bit like going home, and I’m really looking forward to it. Surely, a few blog posts will result.


Sunday, February 01, 2009

Volcano Watching

Kenai awoke this morning to bright blue skies and temperature almost 20 degrees below zero. The entire range of mountains to the west, including Mt. Redoubt and Mt. Illiamna, were stunningly clear and looked amazingly close. To an untrained observer like myself, Redoubt looks just as it always has. But volcanologists are watching it closely, and continue to believe that an eruption is imminent. One of the glaciers on the north face shows signs of increased heat nearer the surface, with an expanding hole emitting steam and gases. So far, the expected increase in frequency and magnitude of earthquakes beneath the volcano has not happened, according to the experts.

Redoubt is about 50 miles west southwest of Kenai, so our view of it is of the east northeast face. In real life it seems much closer than this photo suggests. Even with binoculars, Dutch and I are not able to see any plumes of steam rising into the air. Kenai is the closest town of any size to the mountain, and experts are gathering here to watch the mountain. Last week, Dutch and other city officials were approached with the request to set up monitoring equipment at some of the city's buildings which are located on a high bluff at the edge of Cook Inlet, and have a gorgeous unobstructed view of the mountain. They were happy to comply with the request. The volcanologists are working to establish a ring of observation points around the mountain so that they can monitor its activity from all directions.

The air around town is one of watchful waiting for the shoe to drop. There is nothing to do about it except wait, and hope that, like a watched pot, if we watch hard enough it will never boil.

Photos by The Tundra PA


Friday, January 30, 2009

Redoubt Ready to Blow

Alaska is once again making the national news, and not, this time, because we are the "Coldest State with the Hottest Governor", as the bumper stickers say. This lovely mountain, which I am so fond of posting photos of, may be getting ready to explode. In the last week, Mt. Redoubt has moved from green to yellow to orange on the volcano alert scale; the only thing past orange is an actual eruption. That would be red, I guess.

The last time Redoubt erupted was almost twenty years ago. I was living in Seattle, working at Harborview Medical Center, and several of the physicians I worked with were avid mountain climbers. For several days there was little talk of anything else. That 1989 eruption was nowhere near as devastating as the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980, but it did blanket the town of Kenai in a thick layer of ash. Dutch's admin assistant, who has lived here all her life, remembers it well. She says it was like driving through a black cloud, the ash was so dense, and it lasted for days.

The volcano has been burping gases at an increased rate since sometime after Christmas, and there has been a lot of small earthquake activity around Cook Inlet in that time. Last Saturday we had a 6.1 magnitude quake, which is a lot stronger than the 1- and 2-magnitude shakers that have been occurring daily, but nothing like the famous Good Friday Earthquake of 1964, which was a 9.2.

If she blows, I'll do my best to get photos.


Saturday, January 17, 2009

Dog Mushing Season In Full Swing

Dog mushing is the official sport of the state of Alaska. Does any other state have an official sport? Surfing in California, snowshoeing in Maine? If so, I’ve never heard of it. Having a state sport seems to be another way that Alaska is unique.

I have written quite a bit about dog mushing over the years of this blog. You can see all previous posts on mushing by clicking the label at the bottom of this (or any other) post that says Dog Mushing.

Being January, the competitive dog mushing season is well under way and there are sled dog races happening all over the place, pretty much every weekend from New Year’s until March. Competitive mushing generally falls into one of three categories: long distance races of a thousand miles or more, such as the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest; mid-distance races of two hundred to five hundred miles; and sprint races of less than a hundred miles. There is a fourth category, stage racing, which is a variation of sprinting: teams compete in several consecutive days of sprinting with the winner determined by best overall time.

My favorite has always been the mid- and long distance races. They are as much about strategy, dogcraft, and the musher’s relationship with the team as they are about speed.

Any musher who wants to run the Quest or the Iditarod has to prove his or her ability to manage a dog team over many miles of trail. Both races require rookies to have completed two mid-distance races with an accumulated total of 500 miles; the Iditarod rules further stipulate that the musher must finish the qualifiers in the top 75% of the field or not more twice the elapsed time of the winner.

January abounds with mid-distance races that provide qualifying opportunities for rookies and excellent training opportunities for both rookies and veterans. The Knik 200 was the first weekend in January, won by Ken Anderson. Then came the Copper Basin 300 last weekend, won by the incredible Lance Mackey. This weekend there are the Klondike 300 in Wasilla and the Kuskokwim 300 and the Bogus Creek 150 in Bethel. Next weekend will be the Tustumena 200, not far from Kenai.

Following the sport of dog mushing can be a challenge. It isn’t as simple as turning the television on to Wide World of Sports and watching interviews with your favorite mushers interspersed with gorgeous shots of dog teams traveling through jaw-dropping scenery. The Iditarod has become well known enough to garner some television attention, but that’s about it. Otherwise you have to be present for the races or follow them on the internet; almost all have websites and post photos, video clips and commentary. This requires more knowledge of the sport, as there is no commentator explaining things.

The Alaskan dog racing season so far this year has been beset with incredible weather challenges. First we had a high pressure cell take up residence over most of the state, bringing record-setting low temperatures that stayed what seemed like forever. It was -56 degrees around Fairbanks for three weeks, -65 degrees about a hundred miles north of Fairbanks, and even southerly Kenai had -33 degrees. It is difficult—if not impossible—to do much dog training in that kind of cold.

Then, as so often happens in Alaska in the winter, our prayers to warm up (just a little!) were answered by a visitation from the Pineapple Express (known other places as a Chinook, a Santa Ana, a Fohn), the warm, dry wind which comes in and changes everything. Be careful what you ask for! Kenai is now at +38 degrees, with rain, slush, and melting everywhere. Fairbanks was +50—more than a hundred degree change in a few days.

You might think we’d be so happy for a break from that deep, deep cold that anything warmer would be better. Well, we are, and not to get too picky here, but staying ten degrees below freezing is far preferable. Rain in the winter sucks. The world turns into an ice rink and every step outdoors risks busting your ass.

And where before it was too cold to train dogs, now it is too warm. Sled dogs get overheated from working in these temperatures, so only short runs are possible.

Colder temperatures have been predicted for this weekend, so hopefully we’ll be back to our ideal winter range of single positive digits. Zero to ten above is just perfect.

The Kuskokwim 300 and Bogus Creek 150 were supposed to start Friday in Bethel, but have now been postponed until Sunday in the hope of dropping temperatures and improved trail. Forty degrees and raining earlier this week made a mess of everything. My weather genie tells me that today it is +10 and sunny in Bethel, so things hopefully will improve enough for tomorrow’s start.

As usual, many of the well-known professional mushers are in Bethel for K-300: Jeff King, Martin Buser, Dee Dee Jonrowe, Ed Iten, Mitch Seavey, Hugh Neff, Aaron Burmeister. The K-300 has one of the largest purses in mid-distance racing: a total of $100,000, with the winner taking $20,000. Finishing in the top 20 means being “in the money” and this year there are 16 teams registered. That means the Red Lantern (last place) will take $2,300 just for making it around the course. Worth the difficulties of getting a dog team to Bethel.

I will probably post updates and comments here as I am inspired to do so. If you want a broader and more reliable info-stream, go to Sled Dog Central. They keep up with everything involving dog-powered sports.

Photo of musher and dog team by The Tundra PA.


Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Snowy Moose

This morning I was out sweeping snow off the front porch when I noticed movement in the woods just across the small road in front of the house; a moose cow stepped slowly out of the trees and stood browsing the twigs and small branches at the edge of the road. I moved quietly to a bench near the door, sat down slowly and kept very quiet and still, hoping she wouldn’t notice me there. She was about fifty feet away. Moose don’t have great eyesight, but their hearing is quite acute. An old Native American saying is that if a leaf falls in the forest, Eagle sees it, Bear smells it, and Deer hears it. Moose is the largest member of the Deer family, and those big ears tell you that they don’t miss much, sound-wise.

When I sat down, she stared in my direction for a moment, munching and waiting. I barely breathed. Detecting no threat, she continued walking and stripping bark and twigs from the trees. I cursed the fact that my camera was inside the house.

She slowly crossed the road and walked directly towards me, peering in my direction frequently. She was now about thirty feet away. While her back was turned to me, I slipped in the house and grabbed the camera. The movement did not scare her and when I came back she had not moved far; I was able to shoot a few photos as she continued her peramble of the yard for several more minutes. Then she disappeared back into the trees.

The Alaskan moose is the largest of the species, and this one was a beautiful big animal. The bark she was stripping was about eight feet off the ground. There is something almost magical about being so close to such a large wild creature.


Monday, January 12, 2009

Warmer At Last!

This morning Dutch and I awoke to a welcome sight: the thermometer was reading a warm and toasty +18 degrees! And we got about an inch of fresh snow overnight--to frost the two feet that have been around for weeks--so everything looks clean and white, like a storybook winter. The air smells moister and it is great to be outside. The dogs feel it too; they want to romp and play instead of running back inside to the woodstove. After weeks of 20 to 30 below zero, this is divine!

While it was still Very Cold, I took this photo of the river with the fog moving down it just before sunset. It seemed worth sharing.


Friday, January 09, 2009

Getting Close

About noon yesterday the sky began to cloud up and the wind to blow. "Change is comin'!" I thought. Hooray! By mid-afternoon our thermometer almost said zero, and wow, was it feeling warm. I went out for armloads of wood to feed the woodstove without even wearing a jacket.

Yesterday Yahoo News had an article about this hard cold snap throughout Alaska since Christmas. They said it was the third most severe period of winter weather in the recorded weather history of Alaska. I wish they'd mentioned what took first and second place.

My last thermometer check at 10:30 last night still said almost zero, and I was hopeful that we were on the way back up to the +20s for a nice rest from this bitter intensity of cold. Alas and alack! This morning we are back down to 21 below zero. But hey, that's better than 31 below! Two steps forward, one step back.


Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Enough Already!

Cold. Damn cold. Freezin’ ass cold (or FAC as Dutch, the retired Coast Guard Captain calls it). It was minus thirty-three degrees again this morning, as it was yesterday and the day before, plus or minus a few. It is as cold here as Fairbanks, and colder than Bethel! Where’s my maritime influence, for Pete’s sake? I don’t mind a quick dip into Really Cold—a few days, maybe a week. It’s been about three weeks since we last saw zero, and life is taking a beating for it.

The water pipes to the kitchen sink (on an outside wall) have been frozen off and on for two weeks. With a space heater on high under the sink, the pipes would thaw every few days, for a few hours, and then refreeze. I was hauling a five gallon bucket of water from the garage for dipping next to the kitchen sink.

On Saturday, for no known reason, all the electrical outlets in the kitchen lost power. Including the refrigerator. OK, drag out the coolers, freezer stuff to the front porch (no lack of freezing capacity there), refrig stuff to the garage. Turn garage thermostat down to 48 from 58, pour 3” of water in second cooler, set outside to freeze (two hours), then pack refrig stuff in with a thermometer and keep next to the car. OK, this works for a hopefully very few days.

On Sunday water returned to the kitchen sink about 3 pm. I had the faucets on so I'd know if water started flowing, and promptly turned them off. About 5 pm I heard water flowing somewhere. All water points in the house were off and dry. Not good. I opened the back door to the loud sound of water, not running but gushing. A six foot strip of wall under the kitchen sink looked like Niagara Falls. OMGOMGOMG!

I ran back in and turned off the water valves under the kitchen sink, which was dry. Of course, no change. I could hear it outside, gushing away and freezing into a rapidly-growing ice fall. I had no idea where the main water valve to the house is. What to do, what to do? I didn’t know anyone to call, Dutch was in Texas. And then another dread thought. The water is not all going outside the house.

Eeeewwwwwww, the basement. I had never been down there. The landlady retained possession of it, to store incredible quantities of junk. And a few weeks ago, Bear, the mighty hunter, killed a mouse that got into the house as it was trying to escape under the door to the basement (since stuffed with a draft puppy). I had no idea what I would find down there, and did not want to look.

The rickety stairs had my attention more than the low beam over the steps and I cracked my head good on the way down, which did not help anything. Despite the stars, I got to the bottom of the steps; at least it was well lit. And yes, water was pouring down the inside of the concrete wall, spraying cardboard boxes of junk, and standing about an inch deep in a widening circle on the floor. Boxes were stacked against the wall three deep and six feet high with various camping gear thrown on top. I could just see a water valve at the ceiling level; there was no way to get to it until I moved all the gear and boxes.

It went faster than I thought; adrenalin is an amazing thing. Once the wall was clear, the valve was still about five feet above my head and there was no ladder or step stool around. I finally found a chair under some other stuff and, standing on it, was barely able to reach the valve. It worked. The flood stopped. And what a beautiful silence followed.

I spent Monday calling plumbers and electricians. The plumber came Tuesday and said the hot water pipe to the kitchen sink was not just cracked; a three foot section of it was shattered. He replaced hot and cold pipes both, moved them further away from the outside wall, and recommended not closing the cabinet doors to the space under the sink when it is this cold. So I have running water in the kitchen again, and at this temperature, consider it pretty much of a miracle.

The electrician was to have come today, but now it will be tomorrow. At $75/hr, I’d rather wait another day than pay overtime. I’m just glad they can come this week. The frozen food is NOT a problem. And now I have no excuse to put off scrubbing out the refrigerator.

Everyone I see has a look of dogged determination about getting through this cold snap. And nearly everyone has heard that “it’ll only be a few more days” until we get back to our more normal temperatures of +10 to +20F. They said it last week and the week before. It has to come true eventually. The crystal blue sky outside doesn’t give me hope that it will be tomorrow, but maybe by the weekend. I’m ever the optimist.

Photos by The Tundra PA: sunrise on Mt. Redoubt, 10:20 AM; and moose at sunset, 3:56 pm. Are you tired of moose pictures yet?


Saturday, January 03, 2009


When I awoke dark and early—well, dark anyway; it was nearly 8 AM—the deck thermometer cruelly told me that it was -30F outside. Yeah, minus thirty! That’s pretty darn cold. That’s when your nostrils slam shut and your hands go numb in about three minutes, despite gloves. I gave a silent thanks to the furnace gods for a warm house to wake up in.

No running water in the kitchen again (it came back yesterday for a few hours) and now the downstairs toilet’s water line is frozen. It will flush, it just won’t fill; so I have to do it manually with pitchers of water from the tub. Four pitchers per flush—I’m back to the Bethel maxim “when it’s yellow, it’s mellow”.

By mid afternoon we had warmed up to -12F, which actually felt quite noticeably softer and warmer. It is not painful to breathe once you get above minus twenty. Our perception of cold really is relative, and it doesn’t take long to reset your definition. Once we get back to zero it will feel balmy.

I was able to take some photos of the front yard where the moose have been visiting. The sign is cast iron, a Christmas gift from Dad and Stepmom. This yard is the perfect place for it. The moose have said so.


Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year!

When the alarm woke Dutch and me at 5 AM, the thermometer on our deck read minus 25 degrees F. The sky was crystal clear, inky black and full of stars. This cold snap has lasted for a week, holding the big dump of snow we received in last weekend’s blizzard, and also causing our pipes to freeze up. I’m getting used to the sound of a space heater running underneath the kitchen sink.

The reason for such an early rising on New Year’s Day was to get Dutch to the airport. His plane left at 6:30 for a twelve-hour trip to Texas to spend a long weekend visiting with his boys. He hasn’t seen them in two years, and is really looking forward to spending time with them.

Younger Son, now 27 years old and in Special Forces training in the Army, got married just before Christmas. Dutch had plane tickets to be there, but Mother Nature had other ideas. His flight out on winter solstice never even left Kenai (but not cancelled until after a two hour wait at the airport), and after we saw the news reports of hundreds of travelers stranded in Seattle, we were just glad he was not one of them.

He was disappointed to miss the wedding, but glad he was able to reschedule the trip before Younger Son returns to his Army base to resume training next week. Older Son is also around; he is in his last year of law school, and just finishing Christmas break as well. Older Son and his wife (who is also a PA!) are currently in training for a triathlon; Dutch just laughed when I asked if he would go run/bike/swim with them.

It will be a quick trip—he’ll be home early Tuesday. At least he was able to pack light. It’s seventy-something degrees there. Hope his blood doesn’t get thin. We might make it above zero by then. And maybe have running water in the kitchen.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas Eve Moose Visitation

Does anybody ever get used to this? If I live here for twenty years, I don't think I will. I know, I know, it is so common around here people just yawn and say, "Oh, yeah, another moose." It is a frequent occurrence for people who live in downtown Anchorage, for Pete's sake (and Anchorage isn't really IN Alaska, though, as they say, you can see Alaska from there).

This does NOT happen in Bethel. In my ten years of living there, I never once saw a moose within a hundred miles of Bethel. Occasionally one would wander into the area and you'd hear about it all over town for days, along with plenty of envy for the guy who saw it first and got it into his freezer to feed the family for the next several months.

With the five-year moratorium on moose hunting on the lower Kuskokwim River, now in its fourth year, the moose population in the area is coming back strongly. A few miles upriver from Bethel where there are stands of cottonwood and fir trees, signs of moose presence are everywhere: bark stripped from the trees at the six-foot level, snow churned up, big hoof prints, and lots of piles of moose turds. But they don't wander into town, and surely are not browsing the shrubberies around people's homes.

Yesterday this young moose cow and her calf were doing exactly that. Mother and I were inside doing something or other when Mother looked out the window and said "Oh, my goodness! There is a moose right next to the house!"

And she was, just about two feet from the back door. She turned and looked directly at me, and was completely unperturbed. I was snapping photos like mad through the window while she continued to munch down our bushes around the deck. She reminded me of the young moose on the opening sequence of the old TV show "Northern Exposure" (which, by the way, is available from Netflix if you are interested). Clearly, moose have not been hunted around here for a very long time. She had no fear, despite having a young calf.

We never got a good look at the calf. It was on the far side of a downed tree, eating the tips. As mom moved off slowly, the calf trailed her, and I could see that it was very young and small, probably only eight or nine months old.

What a Christmas Eve gift! Mother and I were both elated to have had such a close encounter, and one that lasted a good half hour or so. I do have to admit to having had a few thoughts about how tasty that moose would be, but I am just not a hunter. Short of my family's starvation, I would not look down the barrel and pull the trigger on Bullwinkle. But I'm happy to eat him when someone else does, and extremely good eating it is, too.

It is an incredible feeling to have wild animals in your immediate environment. We have black and brown bears around here too, though I am a little less excited to see them next to the back door. Gawd, I love Alaska!


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A Bit of Americana

When my grandmother died this past May, it was only a week before my scheduled trip to see her; I dropped everything and went immediately when I got the not-unexpected news, and was there with Mother and the rest of the family for two weeks. Mother and I were the only ones staying in her house, as everyone else lives in the area.

We spent quite a bit of time sorting through stuff, and what interested me the most was Grandmother’s huge collection of old photographs. She has images of long-dead relatives that go all the way back to the era of daguerreotypes. Fortunately, many have names and dates written on the back in pencil. It was the details in many of these images that fascinated me more than the subjects themselves.

The three photos I’ve posted here struck me as outstanding examples of quaint Americana. Mother could not remember having seen them before, and did not know why they were taken; they look like a photo shoot for a gas station ad. That’s my uncle, Mother’s older brother, second from the right in the first shot, which is why my grandmother had the photos at all. He looks about 18 or 19 years old, and Mother remembers him working at the gas station in town about then. It was 1947 or ’48.

I love the hats and bow ties. When was the last time someone even pumped your gas for you, much less wore a hat and bow tie to do it? And three guys—one to pump the gas, one to check the oil, and one to wash the windows! Mother says the window guy not only washed ALL the windows, and the mirrors, he also carefully wiped your headlights while he was at it.

Any old-car buffs out there know what make the cars are? The dark one on the right looks like a Plymouth to me, but I don’t have a clue about the lighter one on the left. There were no Rolls Royces in rural south central Kentucky in the late forties!

On the original full-pixel scans of the photos, I zoomed in on the gas tanks to try to read the price per gallon, but the detail was too blurred to make it out. The second tank from the left reads THIS SALE: $1.23, and GALLONS DELIVERED: 5 point something. That would put the price about 21 cents per gallon; Mother remembers it being less than that, more like 15 cents per gallon. The Gulf Valve Top Oil being seriously discussed with the driver of the dark car was 25 cents per quart.

These photos charm me in a way I can’t explain. My uncle looks so young and innocent. He’d have been 80 this year if he had survived the leukemia which took his life ten years ago. Perhaps it is just that the images speak to a simpler time when life was less hurried and complex. Especially this time of year, many people nostalgically think of that era as sweeter and more honest than now. It probably wasn’t; and I’d be hard-pressed to give up my laptop, my iPod, my microwave and my cell phone. But it still charms me.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I'm the Sixth Day of Christmas!

A blog I enjoy checking in with, Addicted to Medblogs, has been doing a series every so often called Calendar Docs. The Medblog Addict is an attorney who is fascinated by medical blogs and the portal into the world of health care that they provide. Last year she started interviewing different physician bloggers and posting the interviews along with sexy beefcake photos (most of the interviews were with male physicians).

This year for Christmas she decided to do one interview for each of the 12 days of Christmas. She chose 12 non-physician providers for this blogging bolus, and I am Day 6--the geese a-laying (is there significance to that?)!

She came up with some good questions, and I enjoyed writing answers. You can find my interview here. She has previous Calendar Doc interviews in a sidebar on the right. Enjoy!


Sunday, December 14, 2008

A Mother's Blessing

For my entire life, I have been blessed by the fact that my mother has always been one of my very best friends. Even during my adolescence, the classic era of mother-daughter wars, we were very close. Possibly because I was such a goody-two shoes, I never gave my parents any problems. By the time my rebellious phase hit (such as it was) I was in college and too far away for them to directly observe any objectionable behaviors. My younger sister, on the other hand, was a constant source of chaffing for them from the time she was 12—which, now that I think of it, was probably something of a distraction for which I should have thanked her.

In all the traipsing around I’ve done (California, Washington State, North Carolina, Montana, Alaska) Mother has come to visit me in almost every place I’ve lived. Some were pretty marginal, but she never complained about them; before I knew it she’d be making new curtains. My friends loved her visits; she would cook a good old Southern fried chicken dinner with mashed potatoes, turnip greens and black eyed peas and we’d have a dozen or so people in to enjoy it.

Our visits have been less frequent since I moved to Alaska. It takes 24 hours of travel each way to get from Bethel or Kenai to her home near Pensacola; I usually try to visit when I am already in the lower 48 attending the national PA conference each May. She has been to Alaska a handful of times, usually for a two- or three-week visit. Her last visit was two years ago.

Toward the end of summer I talked with her about coming up to see the new place in Kenai and her son-in-law, whom she absolutely adores (and it’s mutual), but she was still dealing with the details of my grandmother’s estate since her death in May. Mother didn’t think she could come before next spring. But when I called her in October with news of the hip replacement surgery, she put everything aside and said, “I’ll be there.” She came on the first of November and is staying until after Christmas—two entire months. I am delighted, and so is Dutch.

We have a great time hanging out together, all three of us or just Mother and me. We talk about everything in the world. And for someone edging towards 80, she has amazing energy. It is all I can do to keep up with her. She is constantly tidying, mending, cleaning—“jes’ piddlin’” as she says. And everything in her wake is nicer, cozier, more organized. I turn around twice and she’s not only done another load of laundry, she has ironed all of Dutch’s dress shirts. Perhaps you’d have to see his closet to appreciate that, but the man must have fifty dress shirts* in size extra large. I figure at four shirts a week (Fridays being jeans-and-sweatshirt day) he’s good until April. I hate ironing. *She counted them: 61.

When she is at home in Florida, Mother leads a morning meditation group that meets from 6 to 7 am five days a week at a local church, and a weekly metaphysical group that studies the works of Emmett Fox. And then there are a few bridge-playing groups that she drops in on regularly. She leads an energetic life, my mom.

Having her here for this extended period of time has been wonderful. We’ve had time to talk over lots of old family stuff, things I remember from childhood, her childhood memories growing up during the Depression in the hills of Tennessee.

She always referred to her half of my lineage as “the hillbilly side”. She was born “up the holler” in a tiny town that no longer exists. She walked a mile or so to the one-room schoolhouse carrying an actual pail with her lunch in it. There was no indoor plumbing anywhere, and her mother did all the cooking on a wood-fired stove. Mother learned to iron clothes using a five-pound flatiron that had to be heated up in the fireplace.

Her family had all been farmers for generations. But Grandaddy was an enterprising man with a mind for business; when oil was discovered on his farm—kind of like Jed Clampett—he sold it for lots of money and moved the family to town. He and Grandmother bought a hardware and furniture store right on the town square and became merchants. I still remember that store; it had wooden floors and kind of a musty smell. I learned to roller skate on those floors.

Mother graduated high school at the age of 16 and went to college at Western Kentucky State College (now Western Kentucky University) in Bowling Green. There she met my Dad, and they married when they finished college. He went to dental school and she entered the secretarial pool of the work force. Two years later, I came along; and she was overjoyed. I was her love child. We have shared a very special mother-daughter relationship that goes back to the very beginning of my existence in this lifetime. I am so blessed in that.

She is forever teaching me something new. Need to get rid of an anthill in your yard? Buy a box of instant grits and pour them (uncooked) in a thick circle around the anthill. The ants have to eat their way through the grits to get out. The grits absorb all the fluid in their stomachs, swell up and explode the insects. No poison needed.

Like your cornbread crispy? Bake it in a waffle iron.

No matter what we’re doing together, we end up laughing a lot. I love that about her, she has a great, and sometimes salty, sense of humor; and with her soft Southern accent, everything comes out charming.

If it is true that we become our mothers, then I have some truly fine multi-generation footsteps to follow, and I fully expect to do so for another twenty years or so. When Grandmother passed away this past summer she was 94, as was her mother before her. The hillbilly side has produced some delightful old women, and given me great role models.

Photo credits:
1. Mother and me as a newborn, still in the hospital, taken by Dad. In the early 1950s women stayed in the hospital for ten days when they gave birth; I was nine days old when we came home.
2. Mother and me at about one month old, also taken by Dad. I still have that quilt with the circles on it, though it is a bit more ragged now than it was then.
3. Mother and me at age two years. This was our passport photo when we moved to Germany. Dad was stationed there as an Army dentist.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Bethel Update

My dear friend Joan, who gets periodic mention here on the blog, spent Thanksgiving week in Anchorage seeing friends and was able to make a quick trip down to Kenai for an overnight to visit with Dutch and me. We were delighted that she was able to come; Dutch hasn’t seen her since August, and I haven’t seen her since I left Bethel at the end of September. The visit gave us time to catch up on Bethel news.

For much of November I was watching my two weather feeds on Bethel and Kenai; Bethel was in the zero to 25 below range (usually closer to the colder end) while Kenai stayed in the zero to 25 above range. For nearly two weeks, Bethel did not warm up to 10 below, which is pretty harsh cold for November. Joan said that quite a few people were having problems with their houses freezing up, even the experienced folks who know how to prevent it. Two weeks of cold that severe will challenge the best of technology.

She pointed out, though, that it was great for the river. An extended hard cold early in the season thickens the surface ice on the river quickly, which makes for much safer traveling. Especially if there has not been a heavy dump of snow just before the cold hits; snow insulates the ground so that freezing takes longer. The ideal is a hard cold snap before there is any snow; the ground and the river get a good head start on freezing solid. Snow after that makes everything nice.

Every year there are several (or more) deaths by drowning on the Kuskokwim River from people traveling on snowmachines that break through thin ice. These tragedies often occur early in the season, when people anxious to travel do so before the river ice is thick enough. This year’s early cold will help to prevent such accidents.

Most people in Bethel are just grousing about the harsh cold; two weeks of 25 below zero is really tough. Everything about living your life is just harder in that kind of cold. It is so like Joan to focus on the positive aspect of it.

She also told us that the outcome of the City Council election in October has had a hugely positive effect on the general feeling of the people of Bethel. (I wrote several posts this past year on the outrageous and despicable behavior of four of the seven City Council members; the last one has links to the previous ones.) The Block of Four (a.k.a. the Four Thugs, the Four Malicious Idiots) lost two of their members and, thereby, their dominance of the City Council. Tundy Rodgers (the Blustering Bloviator) and Willy Keppel (the Newly Appointed (last December) Council Member) both ran, but barely got a handful of votes each.

Tundy’s defeat is a huge statement from the people of Bethel. They are just tired of his pomposity. He sat on Council for something like eighteen years, and all he ever did was roar with negativity. I could not find a single person in Bethel who could name one thing Tundy did in those eighteen years that was positive for the Council or the town. And Willy? Jeez, what a loser. Dutch and I heard from numerous people about him showing up rip roarin’ drunk to a Council meeting; everyone knew he was drunk, but the Mayor (Eric Middlebrook) did not ask him to leave or indicate that there was any problem with Willy participating fully in Council business despite his inebriation. Yes, Eric, this was another example of your incompetence and spinelessness.

Another happy outcome of the October election was that Middlebrook was soundly routed in his bid for Mary Sattler Nelson’s seat in the state legislature. He would have been a disaster in Juneau; he has no political savvy at all. Mary threw her support to Bob Herron, who won handily.

And the really good thing that happened in this wake-up call to Bethel is that really good people stepped up and ran for Council. There are three new Council members, as two positions were up for re-election, and one seat had been recently vacated by Yolanda Jorgenson, the Jolly Restaurateur, who moved away. The new Council members are Beverly Hoffman (mentioned in my bird watching post), Joe Klejka (physician and father of Jessica, who won the Jr. Iditarod this year), and La Mont Albertson (director of the adult learning center, and a man Dutch likes and respects individually).

These three join the four remaining from the previous Council: two sad remnants of the Block of Four (now essentially castrated), Eric Middlebrook and Raymond Williams—for whom the nickname “Thor” is ironic, since he has at times been compared to a box of hammers; and two of the three “white hats” who tried to stand for honesty and decency against the Block of Four, Dan Leinberger, who I never gave a handle to, and Tiffany Zulkowski, the Voice of Youth. And to top the good stuff off, the new Council elected Tiffany as Mayor at their very first meeting! Dutch and I did a spirited little happy dance when we heard that news! And sent her a card of congratulations on her victory. Good has triumphed over evil in this case.

The issue of the recall petitions on Middlebrook and Williams died without ever coming to the people, despite plenty of signatures, due to what I believe was the completely unethical behavior of the City Clerk, Lori Strickler. She gave out wrong instructions on how the petitions should be turned in, and then declared them all invalid because they were turned in according to her instructions. We called in the ACLU, who told her to give them back and allow the signature collectors to turn them in correctly (i.e., all at once), but she refused and then lied and said she never gave us wrong instructions. I fully believe Middlebrook "encouraged" her to find a way to make the petitions go away, and fearing for her job, she did.

The other loose end to this ragged story concerns the former City Attorney, Sharon Sigmon, whose wrongful termination by the Council last January marked the beginning of this year-long debacle of corruption. She quickly obtained another job, but there has been no news of her lawsuit against the City Council and the individual members (Williams and Middlebrook) who treated her so despicably after the meeting at which she was terminated. Separate from the Council’s action, those two should be sued for defamation of character by action for the way they called in a uniformed police officer and hustled her out of the building like she might steal the pencil erasers. She wasn’t even allowed to retrieve personal items from her office. I’m still hoping she’ll sue the britches off ‘em, and win big time.

Joan says that overall, it is like a cleansing wind has swept through Bethel. People are no longer ashamed of their elected representatives, and are hopeful once again about moving forward. Middlebrook and Williams have one more year on Council before they must stand for re-election; without their corrupt cronies they can do far less damage, and my bet is that come October next, they will be left standing when the next Council is seated.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The View from my Deck

At the risk of boring you with tedious repetition, I just had to throw up this photo of the view from my deck yesterday afternoon. It is similar to the photo on Monday’s post, though that view was taken from the mouth of the river. This one does a bit more to convey the incredible vastness, though it still falls short of reality. The two volcanoes, Mt. Redoubt and Mt. Illiamna, seem much larger and closer in the actual view and dominate the scenery far more dramatically than these photos suggest. And that sense of wide-openness that falls away with the curve of the earth? Nothing captures that. The huge bald eagles soaring through it show up only as specks on the photos.

Lest anyone miss the obvious here, let me just say yes, I am totally enthralled with this view. It is mesmerizing. I can gaze at it for hours. Preferably without window glass between it and me, but at yesterday morning’s frosty five degrees below zero, I was glad to appreciate the view from inside. By afternoon the temperature had risen to twenty above, and with no wind blowing it was quite pleasant to sit in the sun on the south-facing side of the house and gaze into the endless distance.

I am now four weeks out from hip replacement surgery for idiopathic avascular necrosis. Overall, my recovery is proceeding quite well. I am off crutches and getting around much more easily, though always mindful of hip precautions: don’t flex the hip more than 90 degrees, don’t cross the body’s midline with that foot, don’t internally rotate that hip (point the toe in). I go to physical therapy twice a week and do exercises at home to regain strength in the leg and increase range of motion. It is slow going, but there is steady progress.

The pre-op I went through prior to the hip replacement included an MRI of the hip. Eighteen months ago I had plain x-rays of that hip which were normal; by this past July, x-rays showed essentially no joint left (which validated the excruciating pain I was in, but otherwise was not reassuring). My surgeon, Dr. L. (dubbed “the turtle” by Jody for his slow and measured approach), wanted the MRI to distinguish between incredibly rapid progression of arthritis and avascular necrosis. It indicated the latter.

It also revealed an incidental finding of an ill-defined mass in my abdomen. The MRI was followed by abdominal and pelvic CT scan, with and without contrast. The mass remained ill-defined, though appeared to be located in the retroperitoneal area (behind the abdominal cavity, not inside it) and appeared to be cystic (fluid-filled). Both are strongly encouraging that the mass is not malignant. But it does need to come out.

Dr. L called in a general surgeon he thinks highly of, Dr. M. Dr. M reviewed the studies and came and spoke with me while I was admitted for the hip. He said if he had any suspicion of malignancy, he would wait no more than two weeks from the hip surgery before taking me back to the OR. As it was, he was comfortable waiting six to eight weeks.

So as the hip heals, I’m preparing for the next hurdle. Tomorrow I drive up to Anchorage for ultrasound-guided needle biopsy of the mass. I’m not queasy, but I don’t look forward to that procedure. Hopefully the full surgical removal will follow shortly after that. Then another four weeks of recovery, and I hope to be back to work by early January.

And for those of you who are wondering in just what direction Tundra Medicine Dreams may be going now that I no longer live on the tundra, I have to tell you that I wonder the same thing. Today it sounds as though TMD is becoming a patient blog, though that is not my intention and I promise to keep this part short. I’ve become so erratic about posting that I felt some explanation was due.


Monday, November 17, 2008

A Beautiful Place

It really is beautiful here in Kenai, both the area in general and the spot where our house is located. I can’t imagine a more restful and healing view to gaze at while recovering from surgery than this lovely image of mountains and sky. Sometimes the clouds obscure all of it, but when they clear, Oh! They take your breath away. I can watch for hours as the light shifts on the face of the mountains while the sun moves in a low arc across the southern sky.

October and, so far, November, have proceeded as they were planned. Jody and I managed (thanks mostly to Jody) to finish up in Bethel on schedule. We even had time to squeeze in a steam bath at Henry’s on our last night there. The last bunch of packing and mailing happened, gifts were distributed to friends, utilities and services terminated, everything taken care of.

We showed up at Alaska Airlines for our one-way trip to Anchorage with a large and motley assortment of belongings which Jody had creatively packed in three 33-gallon Rubbermaid trashcans with the lids strapped and duck-taped on, and a burn barrel made from the tub of an old washing machine and packed with tools and stuff. We had regular suitcases too, but the trashcans and burn barrel were an outstanding element there in the Alaska terminal. We handed them up for weighing and checking in, and the gate agents never raised an eyebrow.

“What??” Jody said to them. “We don’t even get a smile for this? We’re packed in trashcans and a burn barrel, for goodness’ sake!”

The agent just shrugged and said “Hey, this is Bethel. We’ve pretty much seen it all around here.”

My friend Joan, who was there to see us off, took a photo to commemorate the trashcan departure.

Leaving Bethel for the last time was very bittersweet. I know I will be back, so it was not really the last time, but it was the last time I would leave as a Bethel resident. When Jody and I landed there the week before, it already felt different. For the first time ever, it did not feel like coming home. Watching the town grow small as the plane lifted off felt like a door closing, the end of an era.

Ten years. I grew and changed a lot in that time. I went from the emotional wasteland of an ill-fated, never-should-have-happened, emotionally abusive relationship to the lush garden of the soul-mated love that I share with Dutch. I was married for the first and only time in my life, right there in Bethel. I became a writer, something I’ve worked toward my whole life, but never managed to accomplish. I created this blog, which is something I am proud of. In the two-plus years of its existence, I have written essays on a wide variety of subjects concerning bush medicine and Yupik culture. Even in the last six weeks, when I have not written a single word, the blog continues to capture seven to eight hundred hits per week, just from people searching the internet for subjects related to things I’ve written about. That is truly satisfying to me.

I will go back to Bethel to work and to visit dear friends there, but it won’t be the same as living there. I won’t be a member of the club anymore. Bethelites have an esprit d’ corp that comes from surviving the isolating location and harsh winter weather. If you only come to visit, it doesn’t include you.

But I will look forward to those visits, because Bethel will always be special to me. In its own way, it is also a beautiful place. Bethel forever changed my life, in ways which were all good. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Photos by The Tundra PA.
1. The Alaska Range at sunset, from the mouth of the Kenai River
2. Mt. Redoubt, from my deck.
3. Mt. Illiamna, from my deck.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bethel Wrap Up

The whirlwind that I have lived in for the last month continues unabated, but I am not totally overwhelmed by it so far. For that I can thank the help and support of several dear friends. In the last month I have had moments of profound exhaustion as well as moments of exquisite joy. My life continues to amaze me.

The spirituality conference in California at the beginning of the month was remarkable in several ways, not the least of which was spending three days beneath the towering redwoods of the coastal mountains south of San Francisco. Those massive trees have such strength and antiquity that just leaning against the trunk of one leads me to a feeling of calm and peace.

I was reunited with old friends I haven’t seen since my post-college years of the 1970s, and that was wonderful. But the most remarkable and somewhat miraculous thing was being reunited with the twin girls I co-parented for five years, from the time they were four until they were nine years old, and whom I have not seen for nearly twenty years. They are now 36 years old, and they are beautiful, caring, considerate and passionate young women. They are truly the daughters of my heart, las hijas de mi corizon, and I am so incredibly proud of them.

For three days we laughed and cried together, and did all the catching up that such a long separation requires. I last saw them in 1991, when they were in their first year of college at the University of Washington, where I was also in my first year of PA training. Our paths diverged from there, and I was unable to locate them in all the years since. They found my name listed on the conference’s website as one of the presenters and showed up. I was blown away to see them again, and joyous beyond measure.

Immediately greedy to have more time with them, I told them about the Women’s Harvest Celebration in Montana, and invited them to attend. They read my post about last year’s Harvest and decided it sounded like just what they needed. A quick check with Susan Rangitsch, who leads the program, confirmed that there was—just barely—space for them to participate. I was delighted.

A quick trip back to Bethel to wash clothes and repack, in my nearly empty house, as the movers came on September 1st and removed about 96% of my belongings. A quick visit with Dad and Stepmom in Anacortes before picking up the twins in Seattle to drive to Montana with my dear and long-time friends the Drum Maker and the Stained Glass Artist. The old friends and the new-found daughters hit it off immediately and we had a great time trekking together across Washington and Idaho to Montana.

The five days of Harvest were, as always, exciting, challenging, healing, and renewing. There were 32 women attending, and the weather at Black Tail Ranch on the eastern front of the Rocky Mountains was perfect. The full moon shone at night from a clear and cloudless sky, the days were warm and sunny, the air was crisp and smelled of fall. We danced, we sang, we cried and laughed together, we opened our hearts to each other, we held each other gently and hummed the theme of our common strength and power.

I delighted in watching my beautiful daughters insert themselves into this close circle of flowing woman energy, make new friends, open and expand themselves like sunflowers greeting the sun. We had many moments of loving closeness and reconnection, and many of the women there remarked on the joy radiating from the three of us together. It was a profound experience for me.

After Harvest I had a few glorious days in Missoula with my dear friends Susan and Jody (both were part of the Arctic Expedition in April), and then Jody and I flew back to Bethel for the final packing and details of moving. Jody has been a diva of organization, sorting, list-making, and packing in this final push, and her help has been invaluable. We are so on schedule that we may even have time to take the boat out this afternoon for a spin on the river. How great is that? And we are having such beautiful weather for it. Hard frost in the mornings, about 26 degrees, and sunny clear afternoons. The fact that we can do it does mean, unfortunately, that the boat has not sold yet. I will leave it here in storage for the winter and hope to find the right person to buy it next summer.

The wrap up will be complete on Tuesday morning, when Jody and I hop aboard the morning jet to Anchorage. A bit of fun and business there, and then it is on to Kenai to rejoin Dutch and all three of the dogs, who are anxiously awaiting our arrival. On October 1st, the long Summer of Solitude will finally be over.

Photos: Redwood trees in California by The Tundra PA; portrait of Susan Rangitsch by Linda Tracy.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Moving. Ugh.

Packing. It consumes every waking non-hospital minute of my life. I’ve been in full-on combat mode for over two weeks. If I had to make a list of things I most detest in life, very near the top would be moving, or moving house, as the British say. It is just such a huge amount of work.

Dutch and I have lived in this house for four years—one of my longest stints, five years is my record for one house. I’ve moved a lot. We’ve had four great years here; it’s a wonderful house, with a beautiful west-facing view of the tundra and a large deck that catches the afternoon sun.

Over the last two weeks I’ve watched the house slowly come apart, as pictures came down off the walls, bookcases were emptied into boxes for shipping (my precious few) or for donation to the library, shelves were emptied of their Yupik artwork. I’m about down to bare furniture, and the house is feeling empty.

Despite a good amount of heartless tossing of old things, there are still stacks and stacks of boxes to be picked up by Bob the mover guy on Monday for delivery to the city dock and loading on a barge to Seward. Leaving Bethel is not as simple as renting a U-Haul.

When I’m not actually packing boxes, I’m thinking about what needs to be packed, and when, and how to organize the great help I’ve been receiving. Breezy and Summer have been lifesavers of infusing energy and get-er-done attitude. And they’ve moved lots of heavy stuff, too. They brought their friend Liza along, and she’s been a big help. Joan and the boys came over last night for pizza, and they made short work of some big boxes full of camping gear. One shed now completely empty {dusting her hands and feeling satisfied}. Second shed nearly so. Third shed holds all the boxes packed so far. By the end of Labor Day weekend, the house should be nearly empty.

Three days later I leave for a spirituality festival in California, at which I have been invited to speak. So along with all the packing, I’ve also been putting together slide shows, scanning lots of old photographs I have going back more than thirty years. I will see old friends there that I haven’t seen for a very long time, including two young women that I love dearly, and had a hand in raising for about five years when they were children. I think of them as my nieces, but I love them more as my daughters. I haven’t seen them since 1991.

On the way back from California I gave myself a short visit with Dutch in Kenai before flying to Bethel. Then it is a two-day turnaround (during which I have to go to the dentist and take both dogs to the vet for their health certificates) to fly out to Seattle to see Dad and Stepmom before driving with a friend to the Women’s Harvest Celebration in Montana. Whew. Then back to Bethel with my friend Jody (mentioned previously on the Arctic Adventure and the post Jody’s Trials) for five days to clean the house up completely, distribute the last of the wine collection to friends, and ship the dogs to Kenai. And have any more dental visits that are needed (there’s this one tooth…).

By October 1st Jody and I will be in Anchorage, hopefully picking up my new (to me) car, and then going to see the orthopedic surgeon about hopefully replacing my hip. Like the next day. The injury I wrote about in April of 2007 caused a rapid progression of arthritis, to the point that my hip is now bone-on-bone with no joint space left. For the last three months, it has been constantly painful, at times awful. So I’m thinking hot lights and cold steel. To cut is to cure. Everyone I’ve talked to who has had a hip replacement, and is more than a year out, says they are only sorry they waited so long to get it. Besides, I’m behind schedule. Both parents and my younger sister have had six hips replaced between them. It definitely runs in the family.

Stating the obvious here, but posts will be pretty sporadic for a while.