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.



Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Yupik Word of the Week

It’s that time of the week again, folks - time to stretch your verbal skills with a new Yupik word.
So far we’ve learned to say Ii-i (yes) and quyana (thank you). I trust you’ve been practicing throughout this past week and are ready for some more!
Our word today is “tua-i” (pronounced “tdoy”) and meaning “enough” or “that’s it.” This is a word I hear my in-laws use commonly with our children!
Like “ii-i,” it’s easy to communicate the meaning because of the context in which it’s used. You can even use it in combination with another word you’ve already learned. Tua-i quyana or quyana tua-i are both proper ways to communicate the thought.
Quyana tua-i!

Word list:
ii-i (pronounced eee) – yes
quyana (pronounced Goo-yah-nah) – thank you
tua-i (pronounced tdoy) – enough or that’s it

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

We Fish Therefore We Are

There’s creature in the Alaskan waters. Its song is heard only by those listening for it, but to them it’s loud and clear. It creates longing in the winter, planning in the spring, mania in the summer and revelry in the fall. It brings torment and joy in equal measure and swims through the veins of many Alaskans as if it were their own life’s blood. It is fish – and by “fish” I mean salmon!
Such a simple word – fish – most would say it’s a noun. But I live in a unique place where it is also a verb, an adjective and yes, even an adverb! Fish is, are, was and will forever be life.
By the time the last Christmas gift is opened, Chythlook minds have turned to fishing. Who, what, when, where – are all questions pondered as the fishing season approaches. We fish for food, we fish for money, and we fish for fun. We fish.
I thought I knew about fishing when I met Gary. My grandpa loved to fish. We’d spend long afternoons in a rowboat or along a mountain stream waiting to feel that tug on the line. How different could it be?
Well let me tell you…
Fishing in Alaska, like everything else, is extreme. When we fish for food, it’s not for a lovely campfire dinner, it’s for all year. We have subsistence nets, dip nets, and nets by the fathom for our boats. We catch fish to split, dry, season, can, vacuum pack, freeze, and sell to canneries by the thousands. We endure combat fishing in the rivers and streams where people are stacked one on top of the other, long hours with challenging and dangerous conditions on commercial fishing boats, deadly mud that could suck you in and feed you to the tide, even bears that lurk by the water, sometimes taking a fish right off the line.
All this fish has taken me some time to get used to being around. My first – and only – summer on the boat I appeased my vegetarian guilt by pushing a few survivors out the scuppers (those are the drain holes on the deck, and yes, I had to ask my husband what they were called). In my defense, those rescued fish were so pretty and unharmed! I was preserving the salmon by letting them go to the spawning grounds. Besides they could fit through the little holes – I mean scuppers! Now that I think about it, this may be why I haven’t been back on the boat.
Since then, I’ve grown to appreciate fish. They feed my family and friends physically, emotionally, even spiritually. They truly are the nourishment that flows through the veins of this great state. The value of fish is nearly immeasurable in Alaska. Fish aren’t just a dollar figure, they are sustenance, cultural identity – for some – they are life.
For thousands of years the Yupik Eskimos have fished the waters of Bristol Bay to feed their families. When commercial fishing arrived, it provided substantial income to those willing to work. It continues to be a driving portion of Alaska’s economy.
Subsistence fishing throughout Alaska not only still feeds families, but it also keeps a connection to culture. What does that mean? Well…it’s like music to me. I’m a musician, always have been, always will be. I teach music, I collaborate on music, I sing music, I even dream with music. My worst nightmare is losing my hearing. Could I live without music? Yes, but not well. That’s how fishing is to my husband, our family and many others. It just is.
Fair warning, I’m about to venture into a very sensitive resource and environmental issue about which I am not any kind of expert. However I am an expert on being a wife, a mom, and a member of this fishing family.
Considering the role of fish and fishing in Alaska, is it any wonder why anything - no matter how much financial promise it holds - that threatens this way of life would invoke vehement opposition. I cannot comprehend my family without fishing. We would not be who we are, and I’m pretty fond of who we are. I expect my children to be able to fish and their children and so on. Risking that is a bit like letting them play in the street. There’s a chance they wouldn’t get hit but I still won’t let them do it!
So here we are on February 1 and the fish talk is on in full force. This year we’re all headed to Dillingham to help. Ella will start to learn how to split fish with her very own ulu and Colton will spend another season on the boat with Gary and his Uppa; watching, learning, working. It’s life, it’s fishing and, after 15 years, I am finally beginning to understand what it’s all about.