Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Fabulous Fireweed and Fiddleheads

The Alaskan summer has arrived in all its glory! There’s nothing quite like watching the grass go from brown to green almost overnight, the buds appear on the trees in what seems like the blink of an eye, and daffodils and tulips pop up in my friends' yards who, unlike me, had the forethought to plant them last fall.
This is truly my favorite time of the summer. My Steamdot view still includes snow on the mountains in the distance, but now also has hints of green close up. School is nearly out – next week, in fact – so the kids are going crazy, staying up late and, in Grant’s case, running around naked in the front yard!
Now that summer is here, the urge to harvest is creeping in. The buds are coming on the trees and the grass is green. Birch sap has been collected – although not by me this year – and pretty soon the fireweed will turn red and the fiddleheads will show up! By the end of the summer the berries will come on and we’ll be heading for the fall. Yes, yes, I know there are fish that come around during the summer too. That’s Gary’s department.
So today I’m planning my summer harvest. This year it’s all about fireweed jelly and pickled fiddlehead ferns. I thought I'd share my plans in an attempt to ensure I actually follow through with them!

Fireweed Jelly
8 cups fireweed blossoms (no stems!)
¼ cup lemon juice
4 ½ cups water
2 pkgs Sure Gel (or other powdered pectin)
5 cups sugar
·         Pick, wash, and measure 8 cups of fireweed blossoms (flower part only!)
·         Add 1/4 cup lemon juice and 4-1/2 cups water.
·         Boil 10 minutes and strain.
·         Take the strained juice and heat to lukewarm. Add 2 pkgs Sure Jell (or other powdered pectin) and bring to boil.
·         Add 5 cups sugar and bring to full boil.
·         Boil hard for 1 minute. Pour into hot clean jars and seal.
·         Process in boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Now for the fiddleheads! These ferns are quite reminiscent of asparagus when pickled. Fiddleheads are also known as trailing wood fern. Pick them when they are still coiled together. Covered with brown coating that is removed before eating. They should always be cooked before eating.

Pickled Fiddlehead Ferns
Fiddlehead Fern, Raw 1 Gallon
Garlic, Raw 8 Cloves
Dill Weed, Dried 1 Cup
Red Pepper 1 Cup
Water 2 Quarts
Apple Cider Vinegar 6 Cups
Pickling Salt 1/2 Cup
·         Pick and clean about one gallon fiddleheads (best with about 3 inches stem and before they curl out).
·         Leave soaking in water until just before using them. Place in a colander to drain.
·         Sterilize jars and lids
·         In large pan, pour 8 cups water, 6 cups apple cider vinegar and 1/2 cup pickling salt. This mixture has to be boiling when poured over fiddleheads.
·         Take sterile jars out of water and sit on thick towel. Place equal amounts of garlic in each jar. Place approximately 3 stems of dill weed or about 3/4 tablespoon of store bought dill weed and 1/2 teaspoon of crushed red pepper in each jar with garlic.
·         Stuff drained fiddlestick on top of garlic, dill and peppers. I try to pack mine tight by pushing the fiddleheads down into the jars, otherwise they tend to be bulky and take up a lot of space.
·         Pour boiling vinegar mixture over fiddleheads leaving a small space at top of jar. Quickly cover with sterile lid and ring and tighten immediately. I do this one jar at a time to prevent cooling prior to a good seal.
·         Place all sealed hot jars aside on thick dry dishtowel and cover with potholders and dishtowels to prevent rapid cooling. After jars cool, check that they have sealed properly. Label and let sit in pantry for a month or two.
·         They are best if served chilled.

Another way to prepare fiddleheads is to marinate them. For short term use give this recipe a try!
Marinated Fiddlehead Ferns
4 cups cleaned fiddleheads
12 oz. wine vinegar
5 Tbls Pickling spice
1 cup molasses
2 tsp white pepper
1 cup oil
1 clove garlic
1 tsp onion powder
·         Steam fiddleheads 3-5 minutes. Drain and set aside in gallon glass jar or ceramic crock.
·         Place vinegar, pickling spice, molasses, white pepper, oil, garlic and onion powder in a stainless steel pan and bring to boil
·         Pour mixture over fiddleheads and let stand 2-3 days.
·         Strain and serve.
Happy harvesting!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Some Things Just Aren't Funny

I can't be funny today. There is simply no humor in my topic. I began the morning thinking I'd write something amusing about one idiosyncrasy or another. But then I took a few minutes to check Facebook before I began.

Admittedly I was looking for inspiration so I shouldn't be upset with what I found. Still, I am upset - sad, is really a more appropriate a description. I saw this link, courtesy of my friend Terzah, which I've included here to a Globe and Mail story.  Realizing I hadn't exercised my Canadian in awhile, I clicked it.

Upon beginning the article I nearly abandoned it. My eyes were brimming by the end of page one. But, rather than giving into the temptation of avoidance, I pushed on. After all, I'd gone to Facebook for inspiration.

I sat in my Steamdot corner reading and crying, crying and reading. Be advised it is not for the faint of heart. There is death, violence, abuse, hopelessness and much more; but there is also LIFE. Not just life, but hope as well. Granted, it is only a glimmer of hope, but it is there because where there is life (altogether now) THERE IS HOPE.

The story is a cross section of life in Nunavut, Canada. While Alaska is in no way Canada, and native people groups are not "all the same" - quite to the contrary - still the similarities are unavoidable. I see Dillingham, I see Kotzebue, I see many of Alaska's rural communities that are suffering a similar situation.

Like all overwhelming problems, there is no easy solution.  The government can't fix it, the church can't fix it, the community can't fix it, the family can't even fix it. These are personal/spiritual issues. The community, as a whole, can only create an environment in which people can heal and thereby the issues will be fixed.

Don't misunderstand, I'm not here to preach. This is not my mission. This is my life.

I am, by proxy of my husband and my children, Alaska Native. You can argue with me. You can say I'm white, I'm a vegetarian, I'm urbanized; the list can go on forever. But if you say those things then I say; you don't know me, you don't know my marriage, you don't know my home.

I am not the only person out there who doesn't look the part but feels this connection deeply. We're everywhere and some of us didn't even marry into it.

So today this is what I have to offer. I promise, next week, to focus once again on smiles.

The trials of Nunavut: Lament for an Arctic nation

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Yupik Telephone Wars

Mid-day, mid-summer 1996, Dillingham, I’m alone at my in-laws house. I’m spending the summer “taking care of things at the house” – code for not fishing – the phone rings and I decide to take a stand.
“Hello,” I say.
Long pause.
“Who’s this?” the gruff response.
“Who’s this,” I’m standing firm.
Long pause.
“Is this Joe and Molly’s house?”
“Yes,” I reply.
Long pause. They persist.
“Who’s this?”
“OK look,” I muster all the patience and grace I can find, “you called me so I think you should tell me who you are first.”
That wasn’t so bad. I was firm but polite. My internal dialogue affirmed me.
They hung up! They hung up because I was asking for the common courtesy of knowing who I was talking to? I can’t believe they just hung up!
A moment later – ring, ring, ring.
“Hello,” I answer with trepidation.
Long pause.
“Who’s this?” says the same voice.
Well, now I’ve had it! I try to remain calm but am determined that this is where it ends.
“OK, this is Denise, but you’ve called me so I’d really like to know who I’m speaking to. Who is this?”
Long pause.
“Is Joe or Molly there?”
“No, who is –“
I spend the remainder of the day angry at whoever it was. You see this was the umpteenth in a long line of many, many phone calls during which the first portion of that conversation happened – and it was not all the same person. The phone would ring, I would answer – politely, if I do say so myself – and immediately would hear “who’s this?” I would tell the caller, “this is Denise, Joe and Molly’s daughter-in-law,” give them whatever information they were requesting regarding the whereabouts of my in-laws and then, without even saying good bye, much less telling me who they were, they would just hang up!
So, as the determined young woman that I was – the proud owner of a college degree in communications I might add – I had to draw a line! Romantic missionary novels about brave young women enduring the hardships of the cold North spurred me on. Perhaps this was my mission, I thought. I was sent here to elevate the Yupik population by helping them better their communication skills!
Yes. I really was that ridiculous. Commence feeling sorry for Gary – I sure do, looking back!
I am more than a bit embarrassed to say I continued my God-given quest towards the betterment of Yupik telephone communication skills throughout the entire summer of 1996. Upon seeing the end of my summer mission approaching whilst – I got the “whilst” in! –having no measureable success toward my goal, I decided it was time to change my method. I would simply speak to the person on the opposite end of the line as if I did know who they were.
I would say, “Hello,” and “how are you this lovely afternoon?” and I when I sensed the hang up coming, I would rush in a “goodbye.” I maintained this approach throughout the remainder of my summer.
Still I observed no measureable results. Well, that’s not entirely true. Actually there was a steady decrease in the number of phone calls I received. In fact, by the end of the summer, I don’t recall having to answer the phone much, if any. But I’m sure that was as a result of unrelated factors. People had fish to process, moose hunting to plan, midnight sun to enjoy; make no mistake, those Dillinghamites are much too busy to have time to be making phone calls!
Yes. I really was that deluded too!
Fifteen years later, in my favorite spot in Steamdot, I must report the telephone skills of the Yupik people saw no improvement as a result of my summer mission. I, on the other hand, have seen a great deal of growth – THANK GOD! Now, upon receiving a Dillingham phone call things go much differently.
Ring, ring, ring, caller ID shows me this is a Dillingham number, I pick up.
I insert a long pause for good measure.
“Who’s this?” I say, not gruffly but admittedly with a bit of force.
They tell me and proceed.
“Yeah, is Gary there?”
Another long pause is due here and so I wait then say, “No.”
Click. I hang up.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011


I’ve never been a fan of the road trip. I remember four-hour drives to Grandma’s house as sheer torture. Even as an adult it’s a rare day that I enjoy a long drive. Unfortunately, I married into a family that feels exactly the opposite.
While Gary and I lived outside of Portland, my in laws visited several times a year. Inevitably, shortly after arrival, the question would come.
“Hey, how about we drive to the Grand Canyon over the weekend?”
What? No! Is that even a question? Who drives from Portland to the Grand Canyon for the weekend? They do, a couple times as I recall, among many other far-away places they drove to.  
When Gary proposed the idea of moving to Anchorage, I have to admit that the lack of roads – and hence the potential for fewer road trips - landed on my list of pros. It fell right below the absence of snakes. I hate snakes.
Imagine my excitement when in-laws showed up a couple weeks after we moved into our new home and announced a road trip to Fairbanks! It was on that trip that I discovered Alaska has its own set of driving issues I’d have to learn to live with.  
For nine hours we bumped our way to Fairbanks. Frost heaves as large as speed bumps seemed as though they were spaced evenly along the road. Fast forward to the present, I’m sitting at my favorite table in Steamdot (the one next to electrical outlet!) having just survived a proper jostling while driving here. Not from frost heaves this time but from spring break up. This yearly thrill can last anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months and always makes driving interesting. The main roads are clear, but many of the side roads are covered in humps and bumps of melting ice. My poor minivan feels like it might fall apart while traversing such terrain.
But bumps are just one of several driving hazards you’ll find in Anchorage. Another is road ruts; the main roads become rutted due to studded tires and the freeze and thaw. Then everyone is likely to drive in the same ruts so they get deeper and deeper. Since most people here drive larger vehicles, smaller cars have to pick just one rut to drive lopsidedly in!
 “Won’t it be nice when you can afford to buy a car that can drive in both ruts,” I once heard someone say.  
Yes, it is nice to have a car that fits in both ruts, and slightly less scary too. There’s nothing quite like driving down the road at a 10 degree angle. It’s even worse if the ruts are icy. I remember the city had to close a short stretch of road because multiple cars had flipped within a couple hours due the icy ruts in the road!
The ice and snow are obvious hazards that stay with us about six months out of the year. In fact, we get so used to ice and snow that locals are a little too comfortable driving on it.
My mark of being a local came a few weeks ago. Not bad after eight years! We’d just gotten several inches of dry, grainy snow. I was driving our little four-wheel drive into town while chatting on the phone with my sister-in-law. Whilst deep in discussion about our children, I surfed around a right-hand turn, downshifting mid way with my one free hand, and fish tailing into my new direction without becoming the slightest bit nervous.
Comfort is not always a good thing.
Moose are a particularly interesting road hazard.  I don’t know if they lack intelligence or simply don’t care, but they regularly cross busy roadways at snail’s pace. You’d think they’d tell each other that if one of those fast, shiny things hits you – well let’s just say it’s not good! Dozens of moose and, sadly, several motorists die as a result of these collisions every year. So many moose die, in fact, that the department of transportation has a call list for moose kills. Whenever one is killed, the next person on the list gets a call to come out and harvest the meat. Yum! Moose road-kill!
Of all the challenges involved in driving in Alaska though, I believe the greatest is other drivers – just like the in rest of the country!  We may, however, have the monopoly on lesser-trained drivers. Most of our rural areas don’t have many roads, if any. Yet these same villages issue driver’s licenses which their residents bring to Anchorage and use to rent cars. Needless to say, many a traffic law is broken.
One day, while driving through Anchorage with my mother-in-law, I became so exasperated by bad drivers that I lost it. I should’ve known by this point that nothing good happens when I start to rant! But I was just so frustrated I couldn’t hold it in!
“Oh my word! Can you believe these people! I feel like I narrowly escape death whenever I drive around town! The other day I actually saw someone drive down the sidewalk, just so they could turn right without waiting!”
 Expecting affirmation, or at least the sound of silent understanding, I was shocked by the response I received.
“I’ve done that,” my mother-in-law said matter-of-factly.
I was mortified. After evaluating my situation though I determined I was past the point of no return so I jumped straight into the fray.
“Well that was stupid!”
The remainder of our drive went by in silence. I wonder if this has anything to do with why she always asks me to drive when we’re going somewhere together. Oh well.
The funny thing is that after living here for eight years, largely free of road trips because there really are very few places to drive, I’ve started to have bizarre and inexplicable ideas. For example, I found myself seriously considering driving to see my brother’s family in Southern California while visiting my parents in Portland last summer. Just for a couple days. It might be kind of nice to drive and see the country. This glimpse of insanity bothered me but I consoled myself with the thought that it was only because I so desperately wanted to visit them.
It wasn’t until today that I realized I have contracted the disease that I once deplored; road-trip fever. Over lunch, my mother-in-law said she and my father-in-law were headed to South Dakota for meetings. She explained that they’d had plane tickets all the way through, but then she’d looked at a map and decided to cancel the plane for the last leg of the trip. They would fly to Seattle, rent a car and drive to South Dakota and back. So serious is my illness now that it sounded like a great idea. In fact, I found myself thinking how nice it would be to tag along! Perhaps our next trip to Portland we’ll take a weekend road trip to the Grand Canyon! What do you say, would you like to come along!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Culture Talk

The Disney Channel marked St. Patrick’s Day 2011 with an afterschool movie about a boy who was searching for his culture. He soon discovered his dad was from Cleveland and his mother was a Leprechaun. Our three children immediately noted the similarities between his family and ours.  Obviously.  Just for the record that makes their father the Leprechaun. On the other hand, Leprechauns are tiny and magical - perhaps I wouldn’t mind!
In his search for “culture” our young protagonist encounters all sorts of meaningful quandaries about what is important and what isn’t. Then he falls down a chute in a potato chip factory and ends up in a mystical battle for his freedom! What did you expect? I told you it was a Disney movie!
In spite of the ridiculous storyline, powerful questions were asked. Does where you come from even matter? If it does matter, what matters about it? When you decide it does or does not matter what do you do with it?
I’ll let you know up front that I’ve found no one who can answer these questions. I wrestle with them nearly every day. I’ve even considered giving up the struggle and declaring none of it matters! But that, my friends, is a slippery slope not worth going down, trust me.
Let me express how inadequate I feel in this debate. I have a degree in psychology and communications. I excelled in my argumentation classes. Then I go and marry an Eskimo and none of it helps! Imagine my frustration.
Fifteen years of marriage has taught me what smarter people learn a lot quicker – I know very little ABOUT ANYTHING. For example, let’s take conflict as a topic. I thought I was well-versed but then discovered I was lacking half the playbook. Here’s a quick tutorial to catch you up on the very little bit I’ve figured out about conflict in the Yupik culture. It won’t take long.
First, avoid conflict whenever possible. I love a good fight as much as the next gal so this one has been tough. In all my recent self-exploration I’ve discovered I actually pick fights when I’m lonely. That’s just great!
Commence feeling sorry for Gary here.
In perspective, avoiding conflict makes sense when you think about it. If you live in a small village in rural Alaska, it’s not a good idea to make enemies. Not only do you have to live around them but you also might find your life is in their hands in the near future.  There’s a lesson there. I’ll let you know when I figure it out.
The second thing I’ve learned is that if conflict cannot be avoided, do it quickly and assume it will change the relationship. If it’s not worth that risk, continue avoiding conflict.
Hmm…this is where I draw the line. Can we talk here? I mean, literally, can we just talk about this? I remember a family issue with one of Gary’s relatives that affected Colton. I went to my mother in law and asked how to address it so as to not to offend. Her answer was simple.
“You can’t,” she said. “Anything you say will damage the relationship.”
I was stunned. I should have listened. She was right. End of story.
This is an aspect of culture I don’t accept. Granted, conflict avoidance is appropriate and healthy in many cases, but there have to be ways to engage in conflict and walk thru to the other side with a stronger relationship. So we work to find a balance; a new interpretation for our family that makes sense.
That’s not so different than everyone else, is it?
Now let’s talk about talking. I’m a talker. There, I’ve said it. As if you hadn’t figured that out on your own! I’m a talker who married into a culture that still understands the slight raise of the eyebrows in combination with a lift of the chin means “yes.” Needless to say, I have too many words.
I remember sitting in the family room with my future father in law. I have no idea what I was talking about, but I know I was talking – a lot apparently. He turned to me with a smile and said the only words he spoke that entire evening.
“You talk a lot.”
Yes. Yes I do. I talk a lot! That’s who I am, I thought. I’m a talker! What’s wrong with that? I was lonely so I wanted to pick a fight.  
Thankfully I didn’t and instead learned to relax and be a bit quieter. Let’s face it, he was right. I spent so much time talking that I couldn’t be bothered to listen. I’ve since learned that silence serves me well, when I remember to employ it.
What do I teach our children about all this? I can readily admit that I have no idea.
The hardest thing about combining two cultures, I’ve discovered, is that it requires both parties to grow and change. Which leads me back to my earlier question, is that really any different than any other marriage? So is culture really important at all?
You tell me. Is it important how you celebrate holidays? My side of the family sings Happy Birthday over the phone to each other. I make my children do it! It would just feel wrong not to. Why do we bother to keep family traditions alive? What do you just let go away?
Would your opinion change if you knew the very tradition you were letting go, was in risk of dying forever? And so we try to teach our children the Yupik language, we take them berry picking and fishing; we eat foods from the land –even when they’re not vegetarian! We tell the stories, we enjoy the art, and we sing Happy Birthday over the phone!
We do that and much more, just like you do with your children and your culture. We do that so they will know who they are.
We all want to be known, truly known, for who we are. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or what food you eat, you have an innate, God-given need to be known and to be loved. That’s the unifying factor.  It doesn’t mean we don’t change – in fact, we must. It simply means that we are all created as unique and wonderful beings that have immeasurable intrinsic value.
That, my friends, is why I started blogging. What better way to talk all I want, even pick a fight from time to time, without pushing my husband over the proverbial edge?
  …have I mentioned there is amazing folklore about little people who live underground in Southwest Alaska? I can’t wait to tell you all about it! Oh! And I have to tell you about the lake monster!  And about the Chythlook plant that looks like marijuana! Don’t let me forget to tell you about the first time I met Gary’s aunt Helen! And I must tell you about the time…

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ahhh Spring!

Spring has arrived in Alaska! I know, I know, it’s not technically spring. But spring here is different and I’m telling you it has arrived.
So if not by the calendar, how do we know its spring in Anchorage? First off, spring break is over. We’re in the final stretch of the school year since our kids get out mid-May. Second, the Iditarod winner has crossed under the burled arch in Nome. This means in a couple days my outdoor Christmas lights will be turned off because that happens when the last musher finishes the Iditarod. And finally the snow is beginning to melt revealing all kinds of dirt and nastiness which we will have to endure until it can be washed, swept and scooped up!
Historically – by which I mean the 8 years I’ve lived here – spring has been the hardest time for me. Growing up in the Northwest I was a lover of spring! I love tulips and daffodils, spring showers, the smell of new grass…I could go on forever.
In fact, I love spring so much that I was determined to get married in the spring. So I did. Today, Gary and I are celebrating our 15-year wedding anniversary. Happy anniversary to us!
Considering my love for spring, Alaskans will understand my consternation with what I found the season to be when I moved to Anchorage. Frankly, it’s dirty, smelly, slushy and just plain ugly. If you’re planning to visit, don’t visit in the spring. We don’t even like to be here in the spring! Anchorage goes on vacation in the spring and is replaced by its ugly cousin for about two months. So much for my Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau sponsorship – oh well, I speak the truth.
I feel, considering my strong opinion about spring in Anchorage that it’s appropriate to explain some rules that we live by in order to survive it. That way if you find yourself here in the spring, you’ll understand what’s going on. It should give you hope.
First, car washing in the spring can be observed under two methods. Either wash your car every day or don’t wash it at all until the mud on the windows is a safety hazard. I have come to believe that most Anchoragites choose the latter and apply it wholeheartedly.
Secondly, for crying out loud, leave the moose alone! There are more in town than at any other time of year so you’ll have many opportunities to apply this rule. They’re hungry, angry and many are pregnant! This, my friends, is a bad combination in any mammal. Do not, under any circumstances, think that because they aren’t scared of you and they look all soft and fluffy, you should go up and pet them. This is a very bad idea – and yet it seems to happen every year.
Third, invest in light-blocking window coverings. We have reached the time of year that it stays light past your kids’ bedtimes. Don’t give in to the temptation to let them stay up. They have plenty of time to enjoy the midnight sun in the summer. If they refuse, I advocate lying to them, that is if you can figure out a story they’ll buy.
“But it’s still light outside, mom! I don’t want to go to bed!”
“No sweetie, it’s not really light outside. That’s just an optical illusion from the melting snow and the angle of the moon…JUST GO TO BED!”
Finally, keep repeating to yourself - summer is coming, summer is coming! This is the one that keeps me going. The first spring was really hard on me but then summer came and I realized something very important.
There is no summer in Anchorage – only spring!
All summer long, the tulips and daffodils bloom, the smell of fresh grass fills the air – its spring all summer long! Sadly this means that if you like summer you are out of luck. In that case, I suggest you go to Fairbanks where it gets to 90 degrees and the smell of forest fire fills the air. If, however, you’re a lover of spring, stick with Anchorage. Survive March and April and I promise you’ll love May, June, July and even a little bit of August and September on a good year!
Happy spring!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Of Moose and Horses

Moose are plentiful in Anchorage. Some estimate around 250 in the city throughout the summer and as many as 1000 during the winter months. We see them nearly every day. They are part of our Alaskana.
This morning there was a young cow moose eating trees at the school. Yesterday Gary watched one eat a tree at our friend’s house while she tried – unsuccessfully I might add - to shoo it off by throwing boots at it. Three days ago I saw one eating brush alongside the freeway. And a couple weeks before that I willed my car from 60 to 0 in the span of a couple hundred feet so I wouldn’t have a moose for a hood ornament. They are a constant here.
My first close encounter with moose-kind was horse-back. A friend and I were riding on the trails of our horse park here in town. Upon rounding a corner we saw four or five moose grazing about 100 feet off the trail in front of us. Naturally, I was alarmed and inquired as to what we should do; should we run for it?
“No,” my friend, Bernie, said, “There’s no point. We couldn’t outrun them if we tried. Let’s just keep on walking and see if they’ll notice us.”
Once we were sure imminent attack as averted I asked how fast, exactly, a moose can run. Bernie told me once he’d followed a moose on his snow machine down a groomed trailed at around 40 mph for some distance before it jumped off the trail!
 Not only are they fast, moose are huge! Since we’re talking horses, I’ll keep it relative. Standing next to a moose – which I don’t recommend, by the way – is like standing next to a good-sized draft horse. I’d estimate most full-grown cows and bulls exceed 18 hands high. Bulls of this size usually sport a rack of antlers with a span of anywhere from three to five feet.
In addition to all this size, moose can be highly aggressive. The spring and fall are when moose are the most dangerous. Springtime means new babies with aggressive mamas, while fall brings rut and aggressive bulls.
The kids, our dog and I experience “moosely aggression” firsthand while on a spring-time walk. About a block from our house we happened upon a not-so-congenial mama. We dove for the bushes where she kept us pinned for 10-15 minutes whilst (yes, I just used that word in a sentence!) she repeatedly huffed and charged, stopping just five feet from us. The kids were crying, the dog was hiding and I was praying. We were stuck until she decided to simply walk away, leaving us to continue on our way.
This level of aggression was part of the reason we decided to put up a perimeter fence around our Anchorage property. Our expansive 1.3 acre horse property sports a five-foot field fence to aid in the defense of our compound. I say to “aid in” because five feet truly doesn’t stop any moose! It does, however; make other paths slightly more inviting.
For the most part our fence has done its job. This fall, however, I began to notice there were a few moose coming around who must have missed the memo about not bothering the Chythlook property. It began with an adolescent female – stay with me horse people, this makes her about the size of a thoroughbred – who entered through the driveway gate. She arrived one warm, 40-degree fall afternoon (pause for a moment of perspective). She took her time wandering around eating whatever she pleased and thankfully missed the open shed where I keep my hay. She then proceeded, casually, to our fence and STEPPED over it!
I believe she must have talked to her moosey friends, because not more than a week later I looked out my front window to see a massive bull in my front yard. I grabbed the phone to call my neighbor who I knew had just missed out on such a moose the last day of hunting season. I figured it might be fun to watch him drool. By the time he’d run across the street, Mr. Moose had made his way around to the back yard.
I was relieved when he turned and headed back toward the driveway. My neighbor and I watched him from the front step. What a majestic creature! He was, in fact, drool-worthy.
Suddenly, the giant creature stopped and turned toward my horses. He broke into a fast, high-stepping trot, covering the 100 feet of yard in just five or six strides.
I began screaming at my neighbor, “Jerry, do something! Stop him!”
Jerry did something, he took a picture.
Mr. Moose covered the last few feet between him and the fence in an instant. I had visions of my sweet horses being gored with those giant antlers and stomped with his huge hooves. But what could I do? Maybe the fence would stop him, I thought.
It didn’t! He leapt from at least six feet away, clearing the fence and the water trough.
Have you ever had one of those moments when everything happened in slow motion? I was as helpless as I had been with my kids in the bush last spring. There was nothing I could do!
Then, from under her big tree, Brenna came at a dead run, ears pinned back, straight for that moose! His front feet hadn’t hit the ground before Brenna was halfway to him. I knew that moose could take her apart with his antlers, yet here she came - no fear.
He lifted his head toward her as his back feet hit the ground. In that instant, my little Icelandic mare seemed three times her size, with all her courage. I guess she must have looked that big to him too because he took one look at her and turned tail! Jerry and I watched dumbfounded as Brenna ran that huge bull around until he finally stepped over my five-foot fence and ran away.
Now, some have questioned the “horse-ness” of my 13.3-hand Icelandic mare in the past. I believe we’ve put those questions to rest. That, my friends, is a horse!
I’ve seen a lot of moose come around since that day; several other adolescents, a good-sized cow or two, even a big bull – bigger than Mr. Moose, but not one has come onto our property since. I guess the word got out, don’t mess with the Chythlook place! They may have a little fence but they’ve got a big horse in there and she’ll get you!
 Mr. Moose with Brenna in the background planning her attack.
Courtesy: Jerry, the neighbor

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Yupik Word of the Week

Hello happy Yupik learners!
Today’s word is one of my favorite. The translation is actually a whole phrase in English.
Naamikika (pronounced Nom-ee-tgee-ka) - I don’t know. It’s easy to pronounce and applicable in many situations. I get a lot of use out of this one!  Have fun confusing friends and family this week by using it as a response!
Word list:
ii-i (pronounced eee) – yes
quyana (pronounced Goo-yah-nah) – thank you
tua-i (pronounced tdoy) – enough or that’s it
tai-tai (pronounced tdi-tdi -with a long i sound) – come, come here, come on
Naamikika (pronounced Nom-ee-tgee-ka) - I don’t know

Chythlook Teeth

Chythlook Teeth

For the second time in three months I find myself waiting for one of my children to come out of oral surgery.  I must admit if feels slightly less stressful this time but I still obsessively look at the status board every two minutes to see if it’s over. It’s not – again.
Hence, I have time to ponder my children and their teeth and their care. Apparently they have been bestowed with “Chythlook teeth.” Makes sense, they are Chythlooks after all. It makes me think that the term was coined especially for our family. Hmm…
So what are Chythlook teeth? I really don’t know, but they keep me going back and forth to the dentist, the orthodontist and the oral surgeon regularly. It seems this will be my plight for some time to come. I keep hoping one of the kids will have my teeth! Maybe Grant, maybe not. Chythlook teeth seem to be a dominant trait.
I wonder how many Chythlooks have had Chythlook teeth throughout the years. My mother-in-law has often told me of how she took Gary to the hospital when he was little only to find afterward that they’d pulled one of his permanent eye teeth without her knowledge – their treatment of his Chythlook teeth. This event, among others, has been the source of mistrust of dental and medical community for her. Things are not quickly forgotten here and sadly that mistrust began generations before my husband lost his tooth.
I’ve been told that many, many years ago, Southwest Alaska boasted a population of around 100,000 people compared to its current approximately 10 percent of that. Traders and missionaries brought more than just new culture, goods and services. They also brought new viruses and diseases. Apparently a massive outbreak of the flu, among other things, effectively wiped out the vast majority of the population of the time. This is a story repeated throughout different parts of Alaska with varying numbers. Well meaning, but sometimes less experienced, doctors came north to help. Sadly, the help did not always go as planned.
However, alongside the sad stories of poor care there are the stories of profound heroism. The soon-approaching Iditarod Sled Dog Race commemorates one such heroic moment when diphtheria swept through Nome and the local doctor called for help. Help came via the courageous and tireless mushers and sled dogs through some 1100 miles of treacherous terrain.
The famous stories share a special place in Alaskan hearts along with the everyday medical heroes who touch our lives. For my in-laws one of those heroes was Dr. Libby who safely brought my husband and his two brothers into the world in his Dillingham home clinic – my personal favorite of his contributions!   He can also probably claim much of the credit for inspiring one of those babies to become a doctor himself. That’s a pretty good mark on the world I’d say.
Now I sit in Anchorage’s Alaska Native Medical Center, a beautiful, state-of-the-art facility that is a standard bearer around the world for healthcare among indigenous people groups. Employed here are doctors and nurses who have been recognized nationally and who serve in programs that are second to none.
I’ve given birth to two of our three children in this hospital. All three have seen the most amazing pediatricians at this hospital. One was Dr. Roger Gollub, a true hero of pediatric care in Alaska. In spite of his huge patient load he made sure I had his home phone number and always took time to truly care for my children. He was a gift to our family and so many others, but he has not been the only exceptional caregiver here. Our current pediatrician, Dr. Michelle Myers, is equally as amazing, going the extra mile in every situation. The dental side of this facility is no less impressive. In spite of the dozens of patients they see every day, they take time to care for each one.
Today I feel especially grateful for each one of them. Every one of the heroes I listed could have been, and could be paid, much more to practice medicine elsewhere. Instead they chose Alaska, where unique medical dental challenges abound. Case in point: Chythlook teeth.
The status board continues to scroll…still not done.
The next day…
I am happy to report that Colton survived surgery just fine and is doing well! It was a delicate procedure which will have a delicate recovery. This word “delicate” stresses me out. Enough so that after a few unexpected changes I called the surgeon which resulted in a quick follow-up visit to ensure everything was ok.
Enter the hero of the hour – Dr. Sarah Satow – who, upon seeing my son, immediately lifted his spirits by regaling him with stories of his pre-op antics. After ensuring that all her work was holding together she proceeded to give me her cell phone number! She asked me to call if I had any concerns and to please text her pictures of any changes. That, my friends, is a good doctor!
Don’t misunderstand, people – not saints – are employed at ANMC. I found a person-type the day Ella was born, November 27, 2003. A nurse came in to check on us and to see what we would like for breakfast. I requested a vegetarian meal. She returned with a dietician and a lecture on the importance of meat eating. If only I’d had my blog to refer her to for an explanation!
And with that, my ramblings about medical and dental care are over. I am enticed back to my amusing reality. A man just walked into my coffee shop with a giant fur coat. The owner has stopped what he was doing and is trying it on! I love Alaska!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Yupik Word of the Week

It’s time to add something to your Yupik vocabulary again!
We’re sticking with the easy ones. Today’s word is:
Tai-tai (pronounced tdi-tdi - with a long i sound) meaning come on, come here.
This is another one that I hear regularly said to my children.  Now you can say it to yours! Just watch, they’ll know exactly what you mean. When you’re waiting for them to get ready to go, just stand by the door and yell tai-tai! They’ll come running – if only to find out what’s wrong with you!

Word list:
ii-i (pronounced eee) – yes
quyana (pronounced Goo-yah-nah) – thank you
tua-i (pronounced tdoy) – enough or that’s it
tai-tai (pronounced tdi-tdi -with a long i sound) – come, come here, come on


I’m a horse girl.

I was raised with horses. Some families had dirt bikes, some hiked, others had a cabin by some lovely lake, but we Browns have always had horses. Our vacations were spent horseback in the high country riding the trails of the Northwest’s great wilderness areas. In all the moves of a pastor’s family, we never moved someplace we couldn’t have horses.
So when we moved to Anchorage it was on the condition that some time, some way, we’d figure out how to have horses. I just couldn’t imagine my kids not growing up with horses. Gary graciously agreed, my in-laws laughed.  He promised me we could have the horses just as soon as we could find a place for them. How hard could it be? It took four years and a few more sacrifices than I anticipated but I got my wish.
I’ve had a lot of folks ask what it’s like to own horses in Alaska so I decided it was time to document the highs and lows or Alaskan horse husbandry.
First I let me say I am not the only person who owns horses in Alaska, not by a long shot. But there aren’t a lot of them around. Ironically owning horses here is not unlike my brother and sister-in-law having horses in Riverside, CA.

For one thing property is scarce – never would’ve thought my 1.3 acres was “horse property” but it is in Anchorage. I find it completely bizarre that I live in the largest state in the country – sorry Texas, see attached graphic – and there would be a shortage of land.  And yet, it’s true. Finding enough space with proper zoning is no small feat in this city.
Feed is obviously another issue. Hay is not as readily available as it is in the Northwest. We do have our hay farmers in the Mat-Su Valley and around Fairbanks. Even so, the cost of feed is about double in the best of scenarios and clearly we don’t have the pasture on our 1.3 acres to offset that. Truthfully even if we did, it would be covered in snow about 9 months of the year so it wouldn’t help much. This is one reason I traded in my large model Tennessee Walkers for more compact, arctic friendly Icelandic models. They eat about half as much! While I don’t have pasture, I do have a large yard with a perimeter fence. I am now the crazy lady who turns her horses out on the lawn whenever possible.
This brings me to another challenge of horse ownership in Alaska. There is a marked lack of practical horse education around here. I became aware of this just after my horses arrived at our home. A friend of ours came running to the front door yelling for me!
“Denise, Denise! Come quick! There’s something wrong with the horses!”
I went, quickly.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“You have to stop them!” she pleaded frantically. “They’re eating grass! You have to stop them before they get sick!”
After assuring her the horses would be just fine. I asked what she thought horses were supposed to eat.
I explained to her the connection of hay and grass. She accepted my explanation with skepticism.
Another challenge with owning horses here is other horse owners. Because there are so few around, there is a disproportionate amount of elitism attached to it. This, in turn, gives horse owners undue authority. It can be frustrating to have someone explain to you – in very simple language – aspects of horsemanship you’ve had a handle on since you were a small child, just because you’re a new face in the one tack shop in town.
However, I do have more patience for it after a few years watching what goes on around here! The best example I can think of was the day I found myself in the same one and only tack shop of Anchorage when an obviously angry middle-aged woman burst through the door. She rushed to the counter and slammed down a nylon headstall with a curb bit and reins.
“This doesn’t work!” She yelled at the poor lady behind the counter.
Clearly counter lady was used to this – or perhaps she is just confrontational, we may never know – because she responded in kind.
“What the hell do you mean it doesn’t work?” she yelled back.
“I put it on my daughter’s horse just like you told me and it still wouldn’t do what she told it too!”
“Well did the horse do anything she told it too before she put the bridle on?” tack shop lady yelled back.
“NO! Why the *&#@ do you think I bought this thing?”
Tack shop lady smiled, paused, and then decided on another line of questioning. I listened in, of course. She asked how old the horse was – 12. Had it been trained?
“No, I don’t think so,” said angry mom.  “You mean like to stay and stuff?”
Oh my.
After a few minutes of Q&A, their voices began decreasing in volume. Tack shop lady was able to calmly explain to angry mom that 12-year-old untrained horses, when bridled the first time will not simply begin responding as a trained horse would. She then suggested some people around town who offered lessons and trained horses. Angry mom left with a thank you – and the bridle.
Due to said lack of horse exposure we have found ourselves quite the curiosity. Truth be told, it’s rather fun to have folks stop by asking to see the horses. It gives me a great excuse to enjoy them a little extra time.
Being the center of curiosity is not always the best thing though. When we first moved to our home, the horses were not exactly welcomed with opened arms by all the surrounding neighbors. It was a trying process, but after about a year their cuteness won over the neighbors who had been not so keen on them. This may have had something to do with the fact that I was able to clear up one neighbor’s misconception about my horses being trained “guard horses.” We’ll never really know.
Hmm…I wonder how that might have started? I don’t think it had anything to do with my comments in response to said neighbor’s question about whether or not they bite. I simply said they were not trained yet. Which was true!
I can’t take all the blame anyway because it seems fear is a fairly common response. One day my mother-in-law and a long-time family friend came to the house to take a steam. I went out to the driveway to greet them and found them staring at the horses – about 30 feet from the fence.
“Alice, would you like to go meet the horses?” I asked.
“Why not,” I asked. “They’re friendly and there’s a huge fence between you and them.”
Alice left my reassurance hanging for several seconds in keeping with what I call the “Yupik pause before rebuke.”
She began.
“Those things look like little moose,” she informed me. “I’ve seen plenty of moose jump things higher than that fence. There is no way I’m getting close to them.”
And with that she went to the steam.
Excellent point.
So now, nearly 3 years later, Brenna and Flikka may not be favorites of the Yupik side of the family but still they’ve found their place in the community. They get regular visitors and even people who just stop while driving by. They’ve grown accustomed the joyful sounds of squealing little boys and girls on their backs and they relish the many dandelion salads prepared for them.
Throughout my entire life of horse ownership, I don’t know that I’ve had more fun. Seeing the love for them through children’s eyes – my own and other people’s - is even better than I dreamed it would be. So stop by and say hello. Bring some carrots even, but please no candy, no hair bows, not even lip gloss. And, sadly, no, we cannot have sleep over with them.