Monday, December 31, 2007

My New Year's Eve

If they only knew...

Apparently, my relationship with the telephone began rather early in life. But that may actually have been a good thing. A well-developed dialing finger comes in handy when you live this far above the Arctic Circle and a firm grip on the receiver is an absolute must! Okay, I'm kidding, but only a little.

It's been a quiet New Year's Eve interspersed with happy phone calls from thoughtful friends. While it takes a bush plane to conquer the geographical isolation of this village, bridging the expanse between hearts can be accomplished via satellite. And what a blessing that is!

I began this blog with a little fear and trepidation, but it's turned out to be something of a joy. Thank you to all who have supported my little adventure. May 2008 far exceed your hopes and expectations and even be a year of unleashing dreams!

And, as it unfolds, let's keep in touch and remember...friendship is just a satellite signal away!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

One More Candle

Birthday Past

My out-of-town company left on today’s morning flight. The house has been full all week…full of laughter and good conversation and the sweet aroma of lemon cake baking in the oven. My dogs were completely spoiled by the extra hands available for petting, throwing balls, and dispensing treats. It was a busy, slightly crazy, extremely entertaining holiday.

Now it’s quiet for the first time in days and, although I thoroughly enjoyed the visit, it feels good to settle and be still for a while. The TV and the stereo are off. The only sounds I hear are the hum of the refrigerator, an occasional swishing of hot glycol through the baseboard pipes, and the soft rhythmic breathing of two sleepy dogs stretched out at my feet. I like it like this.

As I sit here snuggled up on the couch, my mind keeps going back to yesterday. It was my birthday. Maybe I’m getting to the age that I should be trying to forget that I’m aging rather than drawing attention to it, but that just doesn’t seem to matter right now. In my mind, birthdays should be less about keeping track and more about celebrating what all those candles really represent—life!

I did some reading about the history of the birthday celebration and discovered that there is a lot of superstition behind many of the traditions that we hold dear today. For example, it was believed that the laughing and singing associated with a birthday party could ward off evil spirits. And even the flames and smoke of birthday candles were thought to have much the same effect.

Although I’m not superstitious, I do agree that being able to share the day with others is a powerful thing. My birthday was peppered with phone calls from family members and friends that I love. Better than little wax torches on a cake, those are the real candles of my life—the people who brighten my existence with their care and understanding. As I think back on the years that have passed and look forward to those ahead, I am extremely grateful for the individuals that have and will share the journey.

To each of the candles in my life…your light and warmth mean more than I can express. Thank you for being who you are and for sharing that gift with me.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Edge

Over-turned Fuel Truck
photo by Stephen Tagarook

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how tenuous arctic life can be. When everything is running smoothly and functioning as it should, a quiet casualness can seep in creating a placid pool of distracted nonchalance. I wouldn’t want to live in fear or worry all the time, but there are plenty of good reasons to be on guard. And yet it’s easy to slip into a false sense of security and underestimate the need for being prepared.

Last week my classroom was disrupted unexpectedly when one of the students noticed unusual flashing lights outside the window. It turned out that the fuel truck had run across some soft snow and overturned. My first thought (I’m embarrassed to admit) was not for the safety of the driver, but of the fuel that might be pouring out onto the tundra. A couple of summers ago there was a substantial fuel spill that took literally months to clean up. I cringed thinking that it might have happened again. Thankfully, this time, the damage was minimal. Only a few drops of fuel actually made it to the ground and that was captured in the thick layer of snow…easy clean-up. Oh...and the driver was alright too.

But, with the fuel truck out of commission and temperatures plummeting into the negative forties, the next obvious concern was how fuel would be delivered across the village. Like a line of dominoes standing on end, everything here depends on something else. A downed domino in any direction spells trouble for the entire line. Our electricity is generated by burning fuel and most buildings in the village are heated by furnaces that require some electricity. Airstrip runway lights (our lifeline in many ways) are totally electric. Water and sewer pipes are only functional because of an electrical heat trace that is wrapped around every inch of the system. Without a maintained source of heat, a house can freeze up in a matter of hours and everything in it that has to do with plumbing (including the toilet) will crack as the water expands.

We were told that a portable emergency fuel pump was being flown in from Barrow. Each house would be allowed to order one drum (55 gallons) of fuel to keep furnaces going until the fuel truck was repaired and tanks could be filled properly. After all was said and done, the truck was up and running within a few days. You might say we dodged a bullet. I certainly would. Thoughts and images of the North Slope village of Kaktovik loom large in my mind during moments like these. That village wasn’t so fortunate and that’s something that we would do well to remember.

So my interest in purchasing a small generator has definitely been renewed. I’ve already ordered two kerosene heaters and may even order a couple more. If disaster never strikes, all this preparation might seem like overkill and even a little silly. But I’d rather seem silly than be sorry if/when the time comes.

Circumstances shift in a hurry on this northwestern edge of the continent. And I’m thankful that, for the moment, the most serious issues I have to deal with are picking up groceries at the airport, digging out the doghouse every few days, and avoiding frostbite. Well, okay, I am also dealing with a small leak in my water system that doused my bathroom floor with an inch of water….but that’s definitely a story for another day.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


The light we have now...

This air is cold and words are thin, but something alive
stirs within a silent heart which knows the night as tender
spouse of ancient light.

by Steve Patterson--author of Balance


Light is an easy thing to take for granted. That is, until it’s in short supply! During the summer months, sunlight is simply a given, a fact of arctic life, an overabundant commodity. Anyone who actually wants to sleep in the summertime will have to put forth a good bit of effort to block out the incessant light. But in the winter it’s a whole different ballgame.

December is our darkest month. In fact, we’re only a few days away from the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year. While it’s true that the lack of sunlight can be a difficult thing to endure, I have been amazed by all there is to see…even in the dark!

Under the cover of night, an ordinary streetlight can transform snowflakes into diamonds. Miles away, against an ebony winter sky, a pair of frolicking snow machines resemble Castor and Pollux playing a game of tag. It really doesn't take a lot of illumination to create an impressive display. Even the faintest stream of light can be interesting or encouraging or both.

I’ve heard it said that, even if you don’t have all the light you want, you must walk in the light that you have. I'm not sure where I heard that…or who said it…or when. But it's good advice for navigating down uneven paths or through unfamiliar territory. It's something I need to remember (better) when I'm in between streetlights or have ventured farther than usual from the porch. No matter how dark things seem to be, it is my hope to walk in the light that I have.


The photo above was taken around 11:15 a.m. on a sleepy Saturday morning, exactly one week ago. I was standing in front of my house, facing south, getting ready to walk to school. This is the light that we have right now…for about three hours a day…if it isn’t cloudy...but only in the southern sky.

The photo below was taken two or three minutes later, 1/4 of a mile up the road, facing north. Yes, the sky is dark, but Christmas lights, for me, are always something of an unexpected delight. And streetlights can be friendly walking partners too.

Santa would be pleased

Of course, the aurora borealis, commonly known as the northern lights, is an unexpected delight of a completely different kind. This photo was taken by Brad...a friend and the first principal that I worked with here on the North Slope. He captured this image while chaperoning a student basketball tournament in another North Slope village, Anaktuvuk Pass. Those peaks you see in the background are part of the Brooks Range. When I talked to Brad about using his photo, he asked if I wanted him to relate the “full” story. You know, how they had to trudge up the hill through snow that was 50 inches deep while the temperature plummeted down to -900 F! The kids managed to survive by huddling together for warmth until just before he snapped the photo, but alas, twelve people died in the capturing of this image. Well, that’s the uncensored, unverified, undoubtedly enhanced version of the story. And I love it! Ha! Thanks, Brad.

Northern Lights

Maybe the simplest, yet sweetest, light I see is the one that welcomes me home each evening. I know the snow looks cold, but doesn’t the light look warm? I love coming home to this soft, saffron glow.


I shot a few seconds of video on my walk to school the other day. What you see are the lights of the village. What you can’t see is the sideways snow that is blowing past me at about thirty miles per hour. These aren’t blizzard conditions…just a little wind and blowing snow. I have walked to school on days when all I could see was the next streetlight up the road! On days when I can’t even see the streetlights…well...I'm still here, anyway.

Thanks to Steve Patterson for allowing me to borrow from his blog, Balance, for this posting. His poem so exquisitely illumines the delicate dance between darkness and light...and the promise of things unseen...I was really glad to be able to include it.