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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas Jam

True confession: I love other people's homemade jam (OPJ). Mine is good, but there is a little extra something that comes with other people's. So, last week when Christmas was approaching, the Wild Blueberry Jam from Christmas 2009 was almost gone. The few last berries were clinging to the bottom of the jar. Sadly, there was just enough left for one last piece of buttered toast. And after that? We have frozen berries from last summer, but hadn't made them into jam yet. The alternative was store bought jam made with high fructose corn syrup. Christmas Eve couldn't come soon enough.

I don't know why OPJ is so much better. Although I bought Rosehip Rhubarb Jam from the Montessori students and Salmonberry Jam from the Audubon Society, what I was really craving was the jam that my longtime neighbors make. Not only are all of their preserves heavenly, but they are generous with the fruits of their labor too. Every Christmas I look forward to my Christmas jam.

And when Christmas Eve finally arrived and I held the precious jar in my hands, I was happy. This year, it's a luscious mixture of healthy blueberry, hard-to-pick nagoonberry, and delicate thimbleberry. I won't open it right away. There's a lot of love in each jar: hours of picking, sorting, cleaning, cooking, and canning. That must be the little extra "something." Thank you, dear neighbors!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sea Ice in Kotzebue

Kotzebue in October: The Chukchi Sea is on the left

Ice defines Alaska. It is white and sometimes blue and sometimes black. It is always cold and hard and, to my mind, unforgiving. In this picture below, the ice meets the sky and it all seems to be one. Soon people will be traveling on it. Where do you get your bearings when there is so much of it?
Chukchi Sea Ice


Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I Voted Today!

I felt good when I voted early this morning before going to work. It was still dark before 8am and big drops of rain pelted the street. The church where my polling place is was lit and inside, the familiar red and white striped curtains were hanging to give every voter the privacy to vote for candidates and propositions and judges. What a system we have! I knew almost all of the election workers, and when I signed in, I recognized about half of the names on the page. I was PK - that means "Personally Known." That is one of the virtues of living in a small town. I took my paper ballot and pulled back the stiff curtain and there, on the metal stand, was a pen to fill in the ovals. Once I had finished voting, I put my precious ballot in the cardstock cover that again guarantees my privacy. I brought it to the machine that sucks ballots into its locked box. One of the election workers handed me an “I Voted Today!” sticker and I could go back into the rain, quietly satisfied that I was doing the same thing as millions of other Americans,  protected from those who might force or bribe me to vote a certain way. I don't take it for granted, knowing that women had to fight for the right to vote. I treasure every bit of it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Do Alaskans Have Less Hubris When It Comes to Nature?

This afternoon, the rain let up for a little while, long enough to take a walk on the Flume Trail near my house. It has been raining hard for several days, and the water in Gold Creek that runs next to the trail was so loud that I seriously thought a jet was flying overheard. Waterfalls had appeared where none had been before and those that always flowed had swollen considerably. And a couple of those waterfalls brought debris and water down off the mountain across the trail. The water, instead of flowing under the flume, now was flowing over the flume, flooding the trail. All of this change had happened quickly - in a few days - as it often does in Alaska. The power of nature is constant here: torrential rain, high winds, snowstorms, ice, earthquakes, and now the effects of global warming. 

Almost everyone has at least one story of a hike or fishing expedition or camping trip that, due to lack of preparedness, almost ends in disaster. I think it does make us more respectful of the elements. Hubris leads to risk taking, and in a place where the weather can change in an instant, risk taking can have tragic consequences.  I have a hard time leaving the house without a jacket even when it is sunny. I wear ice grippers in the winter. I listen to the flight attendant describe emergency exits as if I have never heard it before. I don't take much for granted. Does it mean Alaskans don't make stupid mistakes? No. What it does mean is that we pause long enough to remember the time we came to grief because of not being prepared - and then we take precautions. Today, I paused, remembered, and still didn't wear my rubber boots. Should have, I guess...

Friday, October 1, 2010

Juneau Weather Pathology

The Octopus, Paul Allen's yacht, in downtown Juneau recently.
The other day it was raining sideways, typical fall weather. We have been waiting for this to happen after an eerie stretch of warm sunny days. It feels right to be wet and cold again. When it is sunny for too long, I hear people say to one another that "we are going to pay for this." Somehow, the pleasure from good weather is not for the likes of us, at least not for long. Where else in the world do people have such a personal relationship with weather that we think that we don't deserve good weather? A friend of mine said that "we all feel guilty" when the weather is good and when the rain comes (punishment), we think we deserve it. But here is the truth about rain: it falls on us all, whether we deserve it or not. I rarely refer to the Bible, but here is part of an apt quotation: "for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Berry Picking: Is It Really an Addiction?

Point Bridget Trail: Photo by Matt Klostermann

Although I wouldn't put berry picking into the DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV), there is an addictive quality about it. Last weekend, I went hiking with a friend on the Point Bridget Trail, one that is stunningly beautiful most times of the year.

I had stuffed a small Ziplock in my backpack just in case there were a few late blueberries still on the trail. That's like a gambler bringing 10 bucks to the casino just in case there is a blackjack table going. At first we strolled along, oblivious to berry possibilities, warming our faces in the sun, until we saw a woman with a gallon sized Ziplock, slipping from bush to bush like a wraith. Her bag was chock full of high bush cranberries. Once she identified them for us, we saw them everywhere. 
High Bush Cranberries on Point Bridget Trail

It was harmless at first: a few berries here, another few there. They were so seductive. Each patch yielded more than we expected at first. It was like hitting the jackpot. The more we picked, the more we saw. Soon we were plunging into the thickets of cranberries and the Devil's Club with their prickly stalks that seemed to grow near them. My arms got scratched up, but I hardly felt it. The little Ziplock was filling up... and still there were more berries. Time slipped by as we stopped again and again on our way to the beach at the end of the trail. We felt a little desperate. There were so many berries and around each corner, another luscious patch, smelling so spicy and earthy.

Point Bridget Trail
We finally said "OK, one more bush, and then no more." (We had to say this more than once.) Our bag could hardly hold any more berries and I was considering emptying out my water bottle to fill it up with berries. But instead, we walked to the beach, and then sedately returned along the same trail, stopping only once to cram in "just a few more" to the bag, now bursting and weighing several pounds. It took a supreme effort of will to stop, but we did. We quit cold turkey.

At home, when we poured them out to clean, we couldn't believe how many we actually had. Now those berries are in the freezer. We are considering what to make with them: Cranberry Catsup, Cranberry Jelly, or Cranberry Chutney. We don't have enough to make all three. I know another place that is pretty close by that has high bush cranberries. I find that my thoughts keep turning to that place. I'll bet there are plenty there. It wouldn't take long to pick them...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Texas in Alaska: The Lone Star and The North Star

If Alaska were the United States, the Kenai Peninsula would be Texas. I should say that it would be a Texas with lots of water. Like Texas, there are pickups everywhere and glory be, there are roads, very good roads. (That is quite a treat for a Southeast Alaskan used to fewer than 100 miles of road.) Here's another similarity: it takes a long time on the Kenai Peninsula to drive from one end of it to the other. If you have ever driven across Texas, you know exactly what I mean. There are other reminders of Texas on the Kenai. I passed roads named Chevron and Tesoro and Halliburton.  That says something right there. During the pipeline years, when crowds of Texans worked in the oil industry in Alaska and many Alaskans even started wearing cowboy boots, one of the jokes told was that if you divided Alaska in half, Texas would then be the THIRD largest state. Bet you can tell who told that joke.

However, there are differences. I doubt that Texans are exhorted by road signs to brake for moose. With the number that are killed on the roads, it's a mystery as to how there are any left for hunters.

Another difference: I doubt that Texans are as crazy about fishing as Alaskans on the Kenai are. The Kenai is all about fish and fishing. Everywhere at this time of year, people are enthusiastically catching them, freezing them, smoking them, and canning them.  They operate charter boat operations, fishing lodges and cabins, stores selling gear, smoking facilities, and even real estate agencies touting "sportsman properties."

Although there is some Texas there, the Kenai is its own place, another kind of Alaska where enough people need the kind of service that this sign advertises. I'll bet you wouldn't see this in Texas.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Politicians Flying Coach

Scott McAdams
This week, I flew to Anchorage for a meeting. Unlike other places, in Juneau there is no choice when it comes to airlines. We fly Alaska Airlines. It reminds me of British novels, particularly mysteries, in which traveling up to London always takes place on a train. And there is only the one.

Governor Parnell
On my way up to Anchorage, Scott McAdams, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senator was on the plane.  On my return to Juneau, Governor Parnell and his family were on the plane. In both instances, they rode in Coach. Fact: I have never seen an Alaska governor ride in First Class. I never saw Governor Murkowski on a plane that I was on because he purchased a plane with State funds and used it for his own transportation. In this egalitarian state, it proved to be one of the reasons he was soundly defeated. I remember once seeing Governor Knowles in a middle seat, thinking at the time that it could have been a campaign poster. "I have to endure middle seats sometimes, just like you. I feel your pain." Even Governor Palin used to fly Coach. She certainly doesn't now.

In Alaska, at least, First Class for a governor looks too hoity toity. Political winds depend on symbols. And First Class is a powerful symbol. As is Coach. Maybe it has something to do with "so the last will be first, and the first last."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bear Scat - A Warning


Nature has its own early warning systems. One of the best ones in Southeast Alaska (as well as other parts of Alaska) is bear scat. It warns you when bears are in the area and when it would be a good idea not to take the trail you had been planning to take. I have no idea why it is called scat. At this time of year, late summer, it is certainly scattered all over. But I doubt that that is why it is called bear scat.

Some people can "read" scat: how old it is, how large the animal is, and what the bear has been eating. The last part is easy. As you can see from this photo, taken a few days ago near Haines, this bear had been eating seeds and weeds. How do enormous brown bears weighing more, sometimes much more, than 400 lbs. survive on plants? Although the salmon have started to spawn, this bear hasn't gotten lucky yet. I usually feel sorry for them when I see that they aren't eating salmon. That also serves as a warning. A bear who isn't eating salmon is probably hungry and then they resort to unconventional food. This sometimes happens toward the end of the season when they are heading into hibernation. One summer, a bear ate my foam bicycle seat, and I couldn't ride it anymore. That same bear got into a neighbor's car and ate a huge amount of foam from the back cushion of the backseat. That kind of hunger left people feeling a little nervous and more cautious than usual.

So when I see bear scat on a trail I want to take, it gives me information and serves as a warning. Sometimes you just take the road less traveled by bears.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

It Wouldn't Have Happened on Alaska Airlines

It didn't really surprise me that the JetBlue flight attendant finally cracked after an altercation with a female passenger who cursed him, leading to his deplaning by the emergency exit slide. I think flight attendants are the canaries in the coal mine of air travel. Standing alone at the front of the airplane, they are perfect targets for the anger and fear of their passengers and have to bear the brunt of it since no one can get at the pilot and copilot who are locked in the cockpit. Since 9-11, so many things have made travel uncomfortable and, in some cases, so unpleasant that it is a wonder that no one has cracked before now. Add to that the general decline in civility and respect for other people and you have a pretty nasty brew of fear, anger, and incivility in an enclosed space with draconian rules on movement in the cabin. (I remember when it was not mandatory to wear seat belts on air planes.)
In Alaska, people can be rude, but I suspect there is far more respect for air travel professionals since so much of our travel is by air. We depend on jet pilots and bush pilots and flight attendants and baggage crews and mechanics to get us to where we want to go because we can't get to most places in Alaska by ourselves, i.e. by car. All of us have endured terrifying flights that have ended on the runway with the passengers wildly applauding. Most of us also know people who have perished in air planes and we realize that those who keep us flying are doing so at some risk to themselves. Sacrifice engenders respect. If the Jet Blue flight attendant had been treated respectfully, none of this would have happened.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Salmon of Wisdom Are Spawning

The salmon are spawning now. You may not be able to see them in the photograph above, taken at Sheep Creek, but the water is alive with the fins of many salmon who have swum in from the sea into all of the creeks around Juneau, into the waters where they were born, in order to spawn. And once they have spawned, they will die. I know it is anthropomorphizing them, but it seems like such a tragic heroic quest. They travel so far, and at the end of their journey, after leaving their eggs and milt in the gravel beds of streams, they die, sacrificing themselves, never seeing their progeny, who hatch later. They have done this for thousands of years. And these valiant fish (OK, I cannot stop with the human characteristics) feed us all. And by all, I mean eagles, bears, gulls, seals, sea lions, wolves and of course, people. The actual list of creatures nourished is much longer. The salmon are the pinnacle of an upside down pyramid with all of the rest of us who eat them spread at the top. A fabulous new book about salmon and the ecosystem of Alaska is Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska's Tongass Rain Forest by Amy Gulick. Even the trees "eat" the salmon when the nutrients from their bodies become part of the soil.

I don't think the salmon in the photograph below made it on their quest. They died trying. This too is sad. The gulls have eaten their eyes and left the rest for others. But, like everything else in the universe, nothing from their bodies will be wasted.

Every year at this time, the salmon return to us from the sea to feed us, all of us. In Irish mythology, they are called the Salmon of Wisdom, and to eat of the salmon is to gain knowledge. I think the knowledge we gain when we eat salmon is that we are part of a wondrous cycle of life that gives to each what is needed at the right time and that our role is to give to others when our time comes.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Water Water Everywhere

I once met a poet from Hokkaido who marveled at the water in Juneau. "You have so many forms of water here," he told me. "Mist, fog, rain, dew, snow, ice..." He made it sound magical. I had not quite seen it that way until he said that. We also have lake water and stream water and sea water. We have water coming out of the sky and running down the mountains and bubbling up when we step onto the wetlands. This perfect little stream crosses a trail a few miles from my house. I don't think there is anything more abundant in Southeast Alaska than water. Sometimes when it seems that the most common form of water here is rain, and I am complaining mightily about it, I will remember that poet from Hokkaido who found it entrancing.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A bear visits us...again

Very early this morning, a bear visited us. I should say that she visited the kitchen. She pushed open the front door and went into the kitchen where she opened the one drawer with baking supplies, and dragged out the Toll House chocolate chips and this time, the white chocolate chips. I say this time because I think this bear visited us several years ago and was just as tidy and neat as this one, leaving only packaging. The butter dish was licked clean, a bag of rice crackers finished off, and the brown sugar sucked out of the bag. She bit into the green tea box, but found it disappointing, and so left it. I can understand this. She did not try the refrigerator. She would have hit the jackpot there with the chocolate ice cream. Given her choices from the cupboard, chocolate is a favorite. How could I not feel a kinship with the creature? She made the same choices I would have made, she was very quiet and so did not wake us up, and the only mess she made was the packaging on the floor. However, two visits are more than enough. The next time she pushes on the front door, it will be secure. And so will the chocolate chips.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Miracle of Blueberries

I picked blueberries this weekend in the woods behind a friend's house. Instead of wearing a yogurt carton tied with string around my neck, I wore this berry "bucket" around my waist like a fanny pack. It is so well designed: made of canvas with a lip in front in case I bend over too far and berries try to spill out on the ground. (a lot of berry pickers have spent time picking berries out of the ground after accidentally dumping them.) Like my handmade berry bucket, this one also leaves both hands free for faster picking. It is made in Kake, Alaska and it makes me feel like a professional berry picker. I swear I get more berries with it. And speaking of more berries, the blueberries and huckleberries are thick, millions and millions of them dotting the bushes in the woods and meadows. Luscious organic (how can they be otherwise?) fruit reliably show up for us (and the bears): not only blueberries and huckleberries, but salmonberries, nagoon berries, thimbleberries, crowberries, high bush cranberries and MORE. Their annual appearance reminds us that abundance is the natural order of the universe. And I am grateful for it.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Do the Canadians Respect the Arts More Than We Do in the US?

"The measure of a culture is its integration of the arts into everyday life." Anonymous

When I first read this on the wall of the Victoria International Airport in British Columbia, I thought it was spot on. But, on reflection, it's only one measure. There are so many others: how well the very young and the very old are treated, whether there is access to health care and education, and whether human rights are respected. However, I personally like this way to judge a society because life would be dreary and insupportable without the arts.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Skagway and the Days of '98

I think of Skagway as Alaska's Disneyland because of its carefully designed turn-of-the-century look and feel. However, unlike Disneyland, there is a real history there that can be accessed just by noticing the old buildings like this one that belonged to "Soapy" Smith, the main villain of Skagway. The history that is preserved there by the residents and the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park Service is the story of the few short years when Skagway was the gateway to the Klondike Gold Rush in Canada. Then, greed and lust and violence were the norm for thousands as they landed in Skagway. Dance hall girls, confidence men, gamblers, and criminals of all kinds competed to separate the would be miners from their money before they headed for the gold fields on narrow trails carrying a ton of supplies. But not long after that short burst of what can happen when people are blinded, Skagway became a town of gardens and schools and churches and snug houses. And it still is. The light overcame the darkness in a few years. And that really gives me hope for the world.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Hummingbird Greed

When I was in Haines recently (a small town north of Juneau), I watched hummingbirds swarm around a feeder for a long time. At first I sat inside the cabin and every time I raised my camera, they would notice the movement and fly away. A friend took this picture by standing still ready to shoot until they all flew back. Eventually I sat outside on the deck watching them and it was the first time I had ever heard the sound of their speech. I was familiar with the whirring sound their little wings make, but not with the angry chirps they use with each other when fighting over the nectar. One hummingbird kept others away by flying at them when they came near and making sharp sounds. At first, as you can see in the picture, they fed together. And then, one of them began guarding the red globe zealously, expending precious energy in fighting off the other birds. It would dip its beak into the tiny hole and sip, and as soon as another showed up, would charge it, and then go back to the feeder and drink again before another bird came to feed. It seemed like such senseless behavior. The feeder was an abundant public resource, filled up every morning, always more than enough for all of the birds. Yet this one bird began treating the feeder as a private resource, allowing only a few to drink from it. I felt uncomfortable watching it as the behavior was so very familiar. History tells us this story over and over. Which part of our brains tells us that there won't be enough for everyone?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Visit from a Bear

A visit from a bear is both wondrous and annoying. One came by early this morning and got into our "bear-proof" garbage shed, pulled out two containers full of garbage in white kitchen bags, picked one out and dragged it away. Bears like to eat in what they consider a quiet little bistro, a place with lots of brush and shrubs where they can't be seen. Today is the day that garbage is picked up and the bears know it.

We live in black bear habitat in downtown Juneau on the lower slope of Mt. Roberts and this is the first bear sign I have seen this summer. Bears are quiet creatures and pad silently through the streets looking for food. We have city ordinances about garbage (hence the "bear-proof" shed) and public trash receptacles that are pretty tough to get into. However, bears are very strong, and if hungry, very determined. It is early yet and they probably aren't desperately hungry.

Despite the annoyance, I like to live near bears and see them (from a distance) because it reminds me that there is a wildness in me too.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Fourth of July in Juneau

These are fireworks that we did NOT see this year in Juneau. It is rainy and cloudy here. Last night on July 3rd, we had such a low ceiling that our usual fireworks had to be postponed until midnight tonight on the Fourth. And the ceiling is so low now on the Fourth that we may not even have fireworks tonight. Generally we have fireworks at midnight on July 3rd. We like to usher in the holiday with a big bang.

Despite the fact that it was raining and in the low 50s, many people still lined the downtown streets to watch the parade. A friend from out of town wondered if half the town was in the parade while the other half watched. Our parades do last for a few hours. We have fire engines making wonderful loud noises while firefighters throw candy and politicians march with their supporters, and kids ride their decorated bicycles, while the community band plays stirring music, and veterans from many wars march. There is more, much more. We usually clap for everyone who goes by, even if we aren't in the same political party, don't agree on environmental issues, or don't have the same religion. I think we clap because people care enough to be in the parade, to decorate a float, to march a few miles in the rain or in the sun, and to make it fun for the rest of the community. That is what the Fourth is all about: celebrating a common heritage with people who want to make their community a better place. And we don't need fireworks for that.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Light is a Trickster

The light fools everybody in the summer. At 10:30 last night, I could have read a book by the window. In places south of Alaska, light and darkness are more predictable, and don’t change as much and in summer, light has to be artificially adjusted with Daylight Savings Time. Not here. The speed of light increasing (and then decreasing) is breathtaking. I think it also messes with our heads and our bodies in all kinds of ways. Even people who have lived in Alaska for a long time have trouble sleeping when the light seeps in at 3 or 4 in the morning. That is usually when I put on my eye mask even though we have good shades AND a dark curtain around our bed alcove. Amazingly, the light in the very early morning doesn’t bother some people, but for most of us, it definitely has a wakey wakey affect.

We have no idea how these rapid shifts in light really affect us. Our bodies have to make adjustments every day as the light decreases or increases. It is NEVER THE SAME. I met somebody today who said he was pissed off all of the time as it got lighter and lighter and then had one of those forehead slapping moments – that what he was experiencing was sleep deprivation – because when you don’t get enough sleep, you do get pissed off. And if you don’t shield yourself from light, you won’t get enough sleep in the summer in Alaska. It doesn’t help that the light gives you energy and you think you don’t need as much sleep as usual. You do. You just think you don’t. And you think you don’t because your judgment is compromised by the, dare I say it, overabundance of light.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Shoes Off Inside the House

Whenever I walk into my house or anyone else's, I kick off my shoes. It's a habit, a conditioned response. It happens in many parts of Alaska. No one wants to track in mud or snow or sand. Some people keep extra slippers for their guests and some, like me, bring their own slippers to wear. We are all so accustomed to taking off our shoes that it just doesn't seem right to wear shoes in anyone's home. This is what it looks like when we have a party.

I wonder if some unexpected things come from taking our shoes off. Certainly there is a moment of consideration about the cleanliness of other people's homes, a moment of respect when leaving shoes at the door. There is also a moment when your host might give you permission to wear shoes inside. Shoes are a little bit of armor, after all. The shoeless foot is vulnerable, unprotected. Does it soften us?

In the simple yet highly symbolic act of removing our shoes, we are demonstrating consideration, respect, and a willingness to be vulnerable. It is a nice habit, isn't it?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Summer Solstice and Plant Sex

Today is Monday, June 21, the summer solstice and a very good time to start a blog. In Juneau, we will get about 18 hours and 18 minutes of light today. We will all feel tremendously alive because, really, that is what light does to us and all living things. In fact, we have been feeling pretty vital for a least a month and maybe even since March 21, the day of the equinox, when light began to overcome the dark. In terms of time, that is.

The life force surges in Alaska in late spring. Plants shoot out of the ground and flowers suddenly open and perfume the air. Abundance is manifested wherever you look. One of the most abundant plants in my neighborhood is Sweet Rocket, an English cottage garden plant that reseeds itself so successfully that it seems to be everywhere, inside gardens and outside them, on rock ledges and on top of walls, pushing through fences, crowding the steep staircases that are public thoroughfares.

These plants and so many others crowd the trails and sidewalks and each other in their frenzy to reproduce. I was surprised to find out that flowers are simply the reproductive part of the plant that produces seeds. So I guess you could say that plant sex surrounds us at the the zenith of summer. But plant sex is only a part of the life force. When we are bathed in light for so much of the day, I can feel the life force humming through me, I can hear it in bird song, and I can see it in the pollen and the seeds that fly through the air. It is a force so big and so strong that it makes me want to live a bigger and stronger life. Maybe that's why I know so many people in Alaska who are living such interesting lives. It explains a lot.