Saturday, May 31, 2008

Some Spring in My Step

step into spring

I had to share a photo of my new rubber boots. They're Bogs and I really like 'em. They're warm and comfortable and, while the crazy design has drawn more than a few stares, I think the spring-like colors are fun.

At this point, the only colors around here are white and brown...

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...and brown and white...and various shades in-between.


Things are changing so quickly that I'm having a hard time keeping up with the new developments in my postings. Beyond the parka squirrels, you can see that the river is beginning to break up. That's a big deal around here. I'll be sharing more about that soon.

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As the snow on higher ground (around snow fences, drifts, and man-made piles) begins to melt, small streams emerge and converge twisting and turning their way down to the river.

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The running water erodes the beach a little as it goes.

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Ever been between a rock and a hard place?

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Maybe it's not always such a bad place to be.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Every Duck Has His Day

Remember No Spring Chicken? Back in March, I expressed some concern that the playground duck (alias Duck-o-Meter) might meet with a gruesome end come snow removal time. Not only was the duck buried up to its bill in snow, but a fairly large drift had built up around it making it difficult, if not downright impossible, to see.

A few afternoons ago, I was escorting some students out of the school when one of those enormous snow-wrangling loaders rolled onto the playground gathering up bucket after bucket of the slushy white stuff. I realized that this was going to be the moment of truth, so I rushed inside to get the camera.

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I have to say, I was impressed with the operator's skill. By the time I returned with the camera, he had already made short work of the drift that had once stretched across most of the playground. It was surprising to see such an enormous machine move so fluidly, almost gracefully, in and around the play equipment without disturbing anything.

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As you may have guessed, I have good news. At the end of the day, the duck was still standing...or sitting...or whatever it is that one might do when one's mid-section is attached to a stumpy metal pole.

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The lone sentinel has survived to face yet another season of sunlight...

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...another season of fearlessly keeping watch without rest or complaint.

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And the went into storage, of course.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Spring Cleaning: Method & Madness

Over the course of the year, things can pile up. The process begins gradually and harmlessly enough, but the influx of even small things can be relentless!

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At first, you just feel silly for getting a little behind.


Then, before you know it, you're in over your head!


So you start gathering everything together in neater, more organized, piles.




And that helps for a while.
In fact, some people don't even seem to mind the clutter!




But, eventually, life turns up the heat and the pile system...

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...just doesn't cut it.

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You're left feeling really swamped.

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That's when it's time to do some spring cleaning!
So you go through the piles a little at a time...

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...gather up any additional accumulation...

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...make a clean sweep...

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...and dump it all in storage!

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And that's spring cleaning in Atqasuk.
All photos were taken during the months of April and May, except for photos #2 and #3. Those were taken earlier in the year. Click on any photo for a larger image or to see more.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


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It's goose hunting time in Atqasuk. For the last couple of weeks, snow machines have been buzzing past my house, rifles secured to the front or strapped onto the drivers' backs. This is a much anticipated time of year. After a long winter of confined inactivity, spring subsistence hunting is an opportunity to get out and reconnect with culture and kin. Children in Atqasuk look forward to goose hunting with their parents the way that those in the Lower 48 might anticipate going to a fair or on vacation with their family.

A few days ago, one of my summer school students excitedly related the experience of hunting with his dad. His newly tanned face was absolutely brimming with pride. After trading information and plenty of opinions with classmates about the best rifle and amunition for hunting geese, the ten-year-old went on to describe an accident that they'd had on the snow machine. He had been riding on the back of the snow machine while his father drove. At some point, they hit a drift at the wrong angle and the machine flipped over sideways.

I instinctively began scanning the boy for cuts or bruises. He had only one cut where his rifle had hit his head in the fall. Nothing serious. I asked him why he thought they had turned over. He considered the question, shrugged his shoulders and said, "Snow blind, I guess." I knew what he meant. We'd just received a fresh covering of snow a day or two earlier. All traces of exposed earth were hidden again. But, more importantly, the cloud cover this time of year often diffuses sunlight in such a way that the sky seems to meld with the ground. There are no shadows, no edges. All of the contours that define the terrain have been softened by snow or blurred by uniformly distributed light, making depth perception a real challenge.

When I took this photo of my little neighbor (above), I was having a hard time seeing the snow pile behind my house with that backdrop of gray-white sky. At first, I thought the mountain of snow had actually been removed (they do that this time of year). But, as I walked closer, my eyes adjusted and I was able to make out the faint ridge line along the top of the pile. I've noticed, on days like these, that I walk more slowly, head down, trying to bring the ground directly ahead of me into focus before I step.

It seems a bit ironic that, after months of darkness, an increase in sunlight would actually make it more difficult to see. Webster's defines snow blindness as..."inflammation and photophobia caused by exposure of the eyes to ultraviolet rays reflected from snow or ice." So I'm not sure that snow blindness is exactly what is being experienced in this case, but regardless of the label (or lack of one) this phenomenon definitely presents a challenge for those who attempt to travel across the tundra, even at moderate speeds.

The next two photos further illustrate the effect I've described. My neighbor is sitting on the snow pile with the sky and the tundra in the background. It's very difficult to see the horizon or judge distances.

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When I zoom out a little, the science station (about a quarter of a mile away) provides a point of reference making the ground much easier to discern. But it's still tricky.

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When the sun does break through, that's when real snow blindness may come into play. This photo has lots of shadow, so it doesn't fully depict the overwhelming brightness of sunlight splashing off snow...


...but this little guy knows what it feels like and he goes out prepared.

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Of course, if he stays out too long, he'll soon be sporting a sunglasses tan like most of the goose hunters around the village.

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It doesn't take many walks on days like these to understand the significance of contrast. An environment that is pristine and blemish-free may be pleasant, even beautiful. But the reality is that, without some exposed earth or looming obstacle on the horizon, the perfect sameness can be rather blinding. It is amazingly easy to lose perspective, lose balance, even lose the way. Bare spots and shadows are like markers that inform our journey. They help us focus in the right direction, make adjustments, make our way home.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Here We Go...


About a month ago, a package of warning signs was delivered to the maintenance office at school...just in time for break-up. Break-up is that nebulous segment of spring that defies hard and fast description. Things begin to melt. But then they freeze again. Sometimes things actually seem to re-freeze while they're still melting. Factor in a little wind and a dusting of fresh snow every couple of days and you get a time of year that could be characterized as consistently...inconsistent.

But the result can be glorious...

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Or a little frightening...

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Sometimes it's more like a blanket edging its way off the bed...

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...or simply a delicate whisper of things to come.

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Break-up reminds me of a baby bird, chipping its way out of its egg. Progress is slow because the shell is strong. But the strength of the shell is no match for the life that is determined to burst forth. It will burst forth.

But things are going to get really messy in the process.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

That's the Way the Cookies Crumble

For literally months now, my internet connection has ranged from sketchy to non-existent and, at times, the frustration has worn my patience uncomfortably thin. I've spent quite a bit of time on the phone with my internet service provider. In the process, I have become intimately acquainted with the hierarchy of personnel dedicated to "handling" customers in need of technical support.

The first tier consists of individuals armed with a scripted manual from which they are forbidden to stray. The manual tells them exactly what to say and exactly how many technical hoops the customer must jump through before they may be passed along to a tier-two guy.

Tier-two guys are the real techno-wizards. Seriously, they are. Through a series of "ping tests" (think, The Hunt for Red October, but digital) they can determine whether the problem being experienced is the fault of your computer or their equipment. These guys know things that tier-one guys have only seen in movies. They know exactly how many "packets" of information are being lost between your computer, their satellite dish, and the actual satellite orbiting the planet. They even know when and from what location that satellite was launched and about how long it will accommodate the customer load that is increasingly being oversold. Yes, I said oversold. Anyway, these are smart guys and I'm thankful they're on my side.

The only problem with the tier-two guys is that they are usually parked in an office about 800 miles away and are not really able to do very much about the problems they diagnose, but they can talk about it and sympathize with your plight. While that may not sound like much, sometimes it's just comforting enough to keep you from disconnecting your service altogether. Hmm.

Then there are the tier-three guys (see photo). Tier-three guys know everything that the tier-two guys know, but they actually have guns, will travel. Well, not guns, but techno-wizardry stuff. And, as you see in the photo, they do it all under rather challenging circumstances. These guys travel from village to village, sleeping bags in tow, not knowing when or where they will lay their heads for weeks at a time. I appreciate that. Really...I do.

All those boxes in the photo look impressive, don't they? I was certainly impressed. In fact, I was thrilled! I thought surely my internet woes were coming to an end. Surely, with of all those boxes, a techno-wizard would be able to work some digital magic and...POOF! connection would be decent again. Visions of checking email without hitting "refresh" six or seven times swirled through my mind. I was practically giddy with anticipation.

What wasn't initially apparent was that those boxes had nothing to do with residential internet connections. And, although the tier-three guys were aware of the problems occurring with residential service throughout the village, they didn't have a work order to address those problems at this time. No work order, no work. No exceptions.

So it turns out the problem with tier-three guys is that they have to have permission to do stuff. Just knowing what needs to be done and how to do it and being in the actual location where it should be done isn't enough. Someone has to say, "Do it" like a director on a movie set. The props are all in place. The actors all know their lines and cues, but no one makes a move until the director says, "action." I guess that would take a tier-four guy. I haven't had the pleasure of speaking with one of those and it's not very likely that I ever will.

I have no doubt that the tier-four guy stays very busy...busy not writing work orders...maybe even busy enjoying a reliable internet the one his customers pay for every month, but still don't have.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

More About...The Ride to Santa's House

Well, the little video that I posted a few days ago was supposed to highlight all the photos that I took on my bike ride with my niece outside of Fairbanks, but the program I used dropped quite a few of the images. Animoto is a really cool service that allows visitors to create a video without actually having video! Neat, huh?

You begin by uploading up to fifteen photos. Then you make a music choice. The rest is up to Animoto. The program analyzes the composition of your photos as well as the tempo and style of your musical choice. Then it combines those features into one, distinctive, thirty-second presentation. Once your video is created, you have the option of remixing the elements for a completely different finished product using the same photos and music. The motto at Animoto is "never the same video twice."

Unfortunately, my musical selection and photos appear not to have been overly compatible because Animoto used only ten of the fifteen photos that I uploaded. Hmm. The final product was cute, but not very informative. So I thought I'd share some images the old-fashioned way...if you can call digital photos, uploaded to a blog, hosted on an internet site, transmitted by a satellite which is orbiting the Earth...old-fashioned.


Taking a bike ride was originally my nephew's idea. Without even being asked, he very responsibly checked all the bike tires for sufficient air pressure and raised his sister's bicycle seat, giving her a little more leg extension on the bike she appears to be outgrowing. Unfortunately, some people didn't get to come along...

In the window

Unlike the North Slope with its knee-high, earth-colored vegetation, the Fairbanks area is well below the tree line and very green at many levels. My sister's house sits at the end of a driveway lined with Spruce...very rustic and cozy.

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Temperatures were in the 50's that day, perfect for being outside, while remnants of break-up still lingered here and there.

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By the time we reached the bike path that runs along the highway, my nephew realized that one of his tires was leaking. He returned home to change the tire and agreed to meet us at a nearby convenience store. He arrived a while later minus the bike. The tire couldn't be replaced or repaired, so my niece and I continued on without him. He didn't wasn't overly disappointed. An afternoon on the four-wheeler seemed to be a fair exchange.

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We passed hoards of people fishing, further testiment to the wonderful weather that day. This waterway (my niece called it a slough) is probably a tributary of the Chena River.

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Okay, why would I include a photo of an old bus? Actually, it represents a great Alaskan truth...almost anything can be reused...and reused...and reused! All across the state, you will see buildings, equipment, and vehicles that are being used, or reused, in ways that may not have been originally imagined by the manufacturers. This old bus is serving its second (or third or fourth) purpose as a storage space. It might just as easily have been converted into a camper or even a house! It's difficult to find anything odd in Alaska, because oddities are practically the norm.

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With a name like North Pole, there are certain expectations to live up to and a local fast-food restaurant appears have wholeheartedly embraced that image.

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Hey! Is that Santa's bright, shiny, red sleigh parked outside the Santa Claus House?

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No, that's probably Santa's sleigh parked closer to the door. I guess the other one belongs to someone who was very good last year.

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The Santa Claus House is, quite appropriately, a gift Alaskan-sized gift shop. Inside, some of the walls are lined with a very special wallpaper. Keeping up with the mail ensures that Santa's helpers are extremely busy, year-round.

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From beginning to end, we rode about twenty-five miles, a reasonable practice run for the bike trip that I'll be taking this summer. It was a very relaxing day, although (after riding an ill-fitting bike for several hours) my niece may not entirely agree.

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