Larger than Life Health Plan

September 14th, 2009

In January of 2007, after nearly thirty years of working with the Science Museum of Minnesota, I not only walked away from a memorable job, but I was cutting our household lifeline to health benefits. No more easy six month dental check ups, no more running to the clinic when a persistent cough urged me to make an appointment. Consequently for over two years, Nancy and I have chosen to gamble and participate in the Larger than Life Health Plan.

Formally, we are covered under a catastrophic health insurance plan—more formally known as a High Deductible Health Plan. This plan lowers overall medical costs by providing a lower monthly premium in exchange for a higher annual health insurance deductible. We pay out-of-pocket for most medical bills until the total of payments reaches the amount of our annual deductible of approximately $11,000.

The high deductible insurance we purchased is intended to protect us in the event of costly and catastrophic health services. You know like stitches or an ankle wrap.

Though we are sitting North of 60°, in the evil den of socialist Canada, more than 2000 miles north of our home in Minnesota, we are not closed off from the loud southerly ruckus debating health care in the USA. The discussion mostly frustrates and infuriates me, as the debate seems to fall in line with the usual bipartisanship whining. And through all the discussion of “becoming Europeanized or socialized” we, the supposedly greatest nation in the world, continue our unhealthy ranking of #37 in health care among all the countries in the world.

I wondered if the problem lies in the fact that our North American culture has become beset with insecurity. Or at least the machine of consumption would like you to believe that you are a pathetic and insecure mass of protoplasm and could break out of that dismal form if you only used their products. So in our depression and eternal chase for ‘beauty and success’ we keep eating and buying stuff.

Could it be that our unhealthy ranking is largely due to unhealthy practices? In a recent Op-Ed piece published in the New York Times, author Michael Pollan reported, “according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three-quarters of health care spending now goes to treat “preventable chronic diseases.” Not all of these diseases are linked to diet — there’s smoking, for instance — but many, if not most, of them are.

We’re spending $147 billion to treat obesity, $116 billion to treat diabetes, and hundreds of billions more to treat cardiovascular disease and the many types of cancer that have been linked to the so-called Western diet. One recent study estimated that 30 percent of the increase in health care spending over the past 20 years could be attributed to the soaring rate of obesity, a condition that now accounts for nearly a tenth of all spending on health care.” For the full editorial go to:

    So in search for my own answers on this national dilemma, I took off for a mountain bike ride and a hike up through the gilded slope into the reddening alpine. Scrambling up the steep slope, I had to jettison a layer of clothes, stow them in my pack, wipe my brow and occasionally pause to drink from my water bottle that I had filled with the chilled, clear water from the Watson River and to munch on fresh berries and moose jerky that we dried last winter.

    It was during one of those pauses that it suddenly occurred to me that the best health plan is one I call the Larger than Life Health Plan.

    Let me explain. As you enter the Yukon from one of three highways, you encounter colorful large, handsomely designed sign, with a sun rising behind a range of mountains. The sign welcomes you to the ‘YUKON’ and then has a beckoning brief message that is hard to forget. ‘Larger than Life.’ Obviously Yukon tourism lavishly uses that compelling phrase.

    The Larger than Life (LTL) Health Plan is really simple, costs only a few hours of your time and is more of an investment than a cost. I can summarize the policy provisions them with four words: “Get Off Your Ass”

    Subsets to the summary include:

    1) Get outside and move your body often and vigorously

    2) Eat good healthy food, particularly food that is raised organically and close to your home

    3) Laugh abundantly, particularly with others.

    4) Partake in music festivals that have room to dance in a lively manner.

    5) Enthusiastically love someone or something alive and furry.

    6) Make music even if you can’t.

    7) Help someone or volunteer for a good cause that benefits someone less fortunate than you.

    8) Fear can make a good dance partner at times. Don’t run from it.

    9) Pause often, focus on the big breath and give thanks.

Building Roofs and Social Capital

September 10th, 2009

It has been far too long since I have put words on paper. Okay so it’s not paper. I confess I am a flaming romantic and I prefer the idea of “putting the pen to the paper” rather than typing at a computer keyboard. I am only writing now because the dark morning clouds overhead seem far too heavy with rain for me to work outside.

For three weeks I have been working on the roof of the Outpost. It has literally become my ‘other room.’ The original project was to have been much simpler than it has become. The original goal was to tear off 30-year old shingles, remove the thin plywood roof decking, reinsulate the roof with a low density foam and blown in cellulose, sheath it with new sheets of OSB, and reshingle with Aged Redwood asphalt shingles. Simple. . . well kind of . . . at least straightforward.

However the last three weeks have often been punctuated with rain and overcast skies. These are not good conditions when you have already torn off shingles and now have a mosaic roof covered in a patchwork quilt of various colored tarps. But the big surprise came when I tore off the ridge vent and exposed the rafter tips. It was as if two continental plates had met here. The peaks of the rafters rose up and some dipped down, others were left and the remaining were right. Sighting down the range of rafters betrayed an undisciplined row of peaks. No straight line here. They were off by 4-5 inches!!

Suddenly the project has become a Project. I learned that the builder of the Outpost had set these rafters in late November thirty years ago when the temperatures hovered around -25° C. Consequently, a job that demands focus and precision was compromised and hurried by the bitter cold.

When I made the horrific discovery, I was torn as to whether I should throw myself into the river or sit down and cry. Clearly, I was in over my head and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t sleep well that night and the next morning I called two dear Yukon friends, Mike and Dave who happen to be excellent builders who are truly both craftsmen. They are likely the top timber frame builders in the territory.

Together they came to the rescue. Dave, who lives only five miles away, came first to assess things. He sighted down the rafters and uttered a low rumbling that sounded to me like “Holy F..k!” Then he began to laugh and quickly apologized for laughing. “Sorry Tom but I’ve never seen anything like this. I really should get a picture of this.” His words were not comforting.

After a half hour of looking things over, mumbling and head shaking, we climbed down, each cracked a Lead Dog Ale and sat at the kitchen table discussing options. He called his partner Mike. “Hey Mike, we have to help our good friend Tom here.” In the next five minutes a plan of action was formulated.

In order to accommodate the skewed rafters, it was decided that we would strap the rooftop with 2x4s fastened two foot on center and perpendicular to the rafters. These would be shimmed with what turned out to be ridiculous sandwiches of lumber pieces, plywood and even shingle fragments in order to create a level nailing surface to lay down the new roof deck. The new plan is to complete a portion of the roof and then in the spring finish the job on the four small steep pitches.

Oh and did I mention that we are heading back to Minnesota on Sept. 24th, the day that our new renters move in? With all the rain and the immensity of the impending Project, I felt the anvil of pressure growing on my shoulders.

While the passage of seasons is often described in such terms as miracles. It is nothing compared to the miracle of community in action.What has happened in the past week has been remarkable. Dear friends, Mike, Andrew, Claire, Al, Clare, Neighbor Mike and Gerry have shown up with tools and tool belts, ladders, pots of hot homemade soup, cookies, bars, curried lentils and rice and a willingness, in fact, a dose of cheerfulness and sharing has been rampant.

Nancy is quick to tell me that she is not surprised as I have invested great amounts of “social capital” during out Yukon experience. I enjoy getting to know people and I have a reputation as a talkaholic. True, I have helped some of these friends out with various tasks of their own. Clearly this is a classic example of “what goes around, comes around.”

So even though I haven’t been able to hike the yellowing mountains or push a canoe onto Bennett to try for a lake trout, I have been getting a workout. Repeatedly I have been climbing up and down the ladder with heavy bundles of shingles, lumber, tools and tarps. I have new aches, no hint of a roll around this belly and my finger tips are sore. But every once in a while I remember to pause while high on the top of my house and look upriver. The river is never tired and it inspires me. The view is great from atop the Outpost. And the gathering of friends is balm for any frustration and ache.

Skies are lightening. It’s time to get to work.

Finding Religion

August 15th, 2009

Yukon places are still in the realm of newness as I have lived here for only fifteen months. In that time I have had the opportunity to follow each of the cardinal directions, north, south, east and west. In each region I have found new favorites. The excitement of a Christmas morning happens on a regular basis rather than once a year.

My criteria to qualify as a “favorite” are really quite simple. The site must evoke either a hearty or hushed “Wow!” Or if not a note of admiration, it must result in a humble bow and an inner stirring of my heart. And if you experience both you have experienced a genuine place of magic. I tend to have those experiences in remote areas where bumping into the trappings of human civilization are unlikely.

I strive to find newness and beauty on each of my outings on the land. To do so forces me to look through
Cheechako (rookie) eyes. . . as if seeing it for the first time. The challenge is not to take any hike or paddle for granted. It is my job to be observant, to see what others have missed.

The other night, a glance out the window from the Outpost on the Watson River, provided a blushing sky with the sun was flirting with bedding behind distant Goat Mountain. I pushed my chair away from the task of sorting through digital photographs and hurried outdoors for evening vespers. Racing the very orbit of the earth as it tucked the sun in for the night, I scrambled up a steep knob of land directly behind the Outpost. I have come to call this small,grass-topped bump, Pulpit Hill. While I don’t consider myself a particularly religious sort, I have my best conversations with any listening gods and goddesses from the summit of Pulpit. Here, I become the congregation rather than the orator of fire and brimstone.

It is here, at this ‘near wilderness’ that I am most often humbled. Here I am reminded that ultimately my very survival depends on the integrity and health of natural systems. Here I can breathe big and whisper “thanks” for the gifts of stunning views and sweet gulps of air made possible by plant chemistry. Each time I come up here is like a first visit. The big sky is never the same. Even a canvas of unclouded blue sky is made different by the tumbling of a pair of ravens. And the briskly moving, sinuous river below Pulpit Hill delivers new, tireless hymns. And if I study, really study the river surface I can always find a new ripple or eddy for me to wonder about. Here I can imagine new adventures when I gaze up the watery aisle towards a river bend that beckons exploration. It is here that I am reminded how very small I am. And it is here that I want to bring others seeking insight into what is truly important.

The 98

August 10th, 2009

An empty bar is a sad place.
-Nancy Conger, July, 2009

And that is what the newly renovated Capital Bar in downtown Whitehorse is, a sad place. Once a favorite watering hole for Yukon government workers, politicians, miners, trappers, guides, and most other Yukoners, the Capital recently reopened after a long closure and a major renovation. Beers on tap include locally brewed favorites but a mug will cost you more than most bars and the place was entirely too hygienic and sterile with newly painted sheetrock. Without years of stories, laughs, stale cigarette smoke and spilled beer, I would expect only hollow echoes.

Other enshrined bars that have a colorful Whitehorse and Yukon history include the Kopper King. Once much larger, it hosted live bands and bouncers. Now most of the action is playing on the giant television screens.

For nearly a year, I have been joining newfound men friends at the Kopper King late every Thursday afternoon to revel in brotherhood and take advantage of $2.50 pints of beer on “Thirsty Thursday”. We enjoy a beer or two, polish off a platter of honey garlic chicken wings, talk green building practices, politics, exchange jokes (they are particularly fond of Sven and Ole jokes) or discuss waxing strategies and combinations of waxes for cross country skiing.

Until last week I had never been to the third historical bar, Hotel 98. Indeed this is the most historical of the three. It is also a common destination for the Whitehorse paramedics and ambulance. A close Yukon friend, who until recently worked as an Emergency Medical Technician, claimed that every weekend and many a weeknight they make an ambulance run to pick up a very pickled human being.

So on a day where the mercury climbed above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, I boldly entered the bar with my wife Nancy, her visiting brother Bill and his wife Cindy.

The bar, once a popular dance hall, claims to have pulled the second liquor license in ALL of Canada well over a century ago. And if you don’t believe it, look on the wall just to the right as you enter the sanctum, and you will see the bar’s framed Yukon Liquor Cocktail License. Right next to it, also trimmed in a nice 8×10 wood frame is the following declaration, “If it has tits, wheels or a propeller, it will give you problems.”

In fact as you enter the darkened and happily smoke-free setting, one is greeted by an oily wave diversity and salt-of-the-earth Yukoners. Against the wall on the left is a row of slightly elevated tables offering the best view of bar doings. Nearly all the tables were taken, by First Nation clientele.

Directly above the wall tables, pegged on the wall, are stretched pelts of wolverine, wolf, and lynx. There are also a pair or two of old native made snowshoes. My eyes paused at a poster looking like an ad printed right out of the 1950s. The caption read “Girls in the Arctic.” At the opposite end of the wall, near the ATM cash machine are framed photos of what I surmised to be hall of famers to the ‘98. One of them in particular caused me to stare. I don’t know if it was the two cigarettes in his mouth, or the ones in his nostril or ears that caught my attention or if it was because I recently saw a documentary on the guy at a Yukon Film Society fest.

Between the bar and the elevated seats are scattered tables and chairs. The bar stools were mostly taken by a blend of laughing and chattering First Nation folk and whites. Most of the whites had goodly amounts of facial hair. A sign hanging at the end of the bar read, “Perverts Row”. Opposite the entry, at the far end is an old fireplace and a couple more tables. The gaunt guy sitting there, watching the bar proceedings was sharing his space with a white Cockatoo that was sitting on the railing. He was disgusted because the bird would not eat its treats, only wanted to steal his beer and was shitting on the floor, missing the pieces of paper hand towels that had been placed in line of the parrot’s release-aperture.

My lovely wife Nancy, always the engaging one, got up and walked over to the grizzled, man and bird and asked questions about his feathered companion. While his eyes appeared like a summer Yukon sky, hazy with wildfire smoke, he had an amicable manner.

In the far right corner are the two restrooms labeled “Pointers” and “Setters”. Seems pretty casual here as I watched two men come out of the washroom minutes apart and each was still zipping up his pants.

At a table next to us, a very thin, well-tanned man, in camouflaged pants leaned towards us and asked in his distinct French accent, “Where are you from?” His eyebrows rose dramatically when we told him Minnesota. Soon we were all chatting. We discovered that the 62-year-old man was one of 24 children, yes, that’s an even two dozen, and that he was originally from Montreal. Somehow the discussion slurred all over and soon we learned that by not eating meat we could prevent the cobbling of one’s face with wrinkles. “Moose meat is not so bad. . .no chemicals in the meat.”

There was background music playing and I knew we were someplace special when I heard a sudden loud outburst, “Hey I wrote this song!” I didn’t recognize the guy but he had a happy smile and a raven-haired lady draped to his waist.

Another boisterous bellow behind us, begged for us to turn as he yelled across the room to the bartender, “Hey Mary! How’s your love life?”

She glanced up at him as she simultaneously poured two bottles, one in each hand, impishly smiled and called back, “Much better since you left!”
The mustached inquirer waved her away with his hand and countered, “Yeah, well I’ve had lots of sex lately.” A second or two passed and then he added more quietly, “By myself.”

Bill looked at his watch and realized we had to leave in ten minutes for supper. We had reservations at the Cantina. Supposedly the best Mexican food in town and voted to have the best patio dining in all of Whitehorse. At that moment the waitress showed up at our table and with a toss of her head towards the Cockatoo, said that the guy with the bird wanted to buy the four of us a round.

With the lure of Mexico pulling us from the roots of Canadian history and another cold beer, we expressed our gratitude and thanks but had to decline. With a wave of his fingers and an unlit cigarette, he smiled and said, “Maybe another time.”

The odds are good there will be another time. Besides I want to come back and hear more on the discussion the neighboring table. They were boldly stating that was having about next winter will be the worst in 100 years and that according to the Bible or Koran no one can live past 127 years.

We did not have forty years in the wilderness but we did have forty minutes of wildness.

Wicked Bluff Trail Mountain Bike Race

August 4th, 2009

In the absence of real darkness, the long summer days continually beckon us and pacing is critical. Having had weeks on the treadmill of fun, I feel a need for a refresher course in keyboard skills.

We have been busy. Way too busy. . .but in a good way. We have managed to summit the mountains titled: Caribou, Tally Ho, Anderson, Mount Lorne, and Perkins. We aborted an attempt on Red Ridge when we were driven back by legions of mosquitoes.

Then there were the two three-day music festivals and accompanying dancing. At the Atlin Music Festival a new energy source was revealed in the music of Vancouver-based band Delhi 2 Dublin <>. Don’t even try to resist your body’s urge to move and dance.

Canoeing excursions have resulted in battling headwinds on the Yukon River, discovering a lovely skinny dipping point on Annie Lake and successfully navigating the Takhini River rapids called “ The Jaws of Death.” And we managed to concentrate on the path of continual whitewater for over two hours while descending a section of the Wheaton River.

Cycling has been minimal but we did get out on our road bikes and have explored more trails on our mountain bikes.

Yesterday I came in second in the first ever, Wicked Bluff Trail Mountain Bike Race. Really.

I loaded up a midsize backpack with a folding saw, a long handled lopping shears, a can of bear spray and a bottle of water and waved goodbye to Nancy as I pedaled my old black and mostly muddy, bike away from the Outpost. Unable to participate, Nancy is wearing a neoprene knee brace. Nearly a week ago she had twisted her knee after stepping on a loose boulder and falling during a hike last week in the high country near Fraser Lake in British Columbia. She is patiently playing patient at home dining on occasional Ibuprofen while her propped leg balances an ice pack.

My intent was to warm up by pedaling the race course in reverse to check out the dips, drops, edges, tree roots and tight turns. I stopped periodically to saw, dead lodgepole pines that fallen across the race trail during the past couple months. Using the lopping shears, I removed eye-and-head-threatening. On parts of the trail I wished I had a stowed a shovel to fill in the multitude of holes. My bike is of a vintage that predates newer models that come equipped with disc brakes and shock absorbing front forks or seat posts.

By the time I got to the race start, I had cut and cleared eight trees out of the way. I never did see the other contestants as we started in staggered starts.

I carefully packed the trail clearing tools, tightened the backpack waist belt and snugged up the chinstrap on my helmet. Taking a big swallow of water, I mentally pedaled the racecourse, remembering various obstacles and tricky sections. Drawing in a deep breath, I took off down the trail.

I swear the wind blowing through the tops of the pines sounded like ecstatic spectators.

With the bear spray buried deep in the bowels of my pack, I chose to provide a fairly loud commentary of my race progress. I figured that my loquacious nature might make any bears aware of my racing down the trail.

A friend had a close encounter with a large grizzly bear on this very trail system. She simply stopped her bike, twenty feet from the bear, had a few quiet words with it and it walked away.

Like the thirty-seven-year-old road cycing legend, Lance Armstrong, I wanted to show the world that a fifty-eight-year-old boy still has the legs and the drive. In going for a chance to step up on the podium, I did not want to stop for anything so I managed to find loud superlatives in my race strategy and bike handling.

“Look at the line Anderson has chosen on this tricky descent! He seems totally oblivious to the drop off on his right and the raking shrubs on his left!”

All was going well and I knew I was ahead of the pace of the racer who was holding the lead position. I knew he would be very tough to beat, as the twenty-two-year-old thick-thighed stud had not lost a race all spring and summer.

A second before I crashed I knew I was going to crash. I was weaving through a section of young lodgepole pine, no thicker than my slender arms. The trail slalomed in tight turns and it was the top of the lopping shears, projecting out of the top of my pack that hooked one of the pine trunks. It was as if the rooted tree simply grabbed the back of my collar and said, “That’s far enough Champ!” The momentum of the bike sprang forward and I was spun to the ground. My commentary was cut. The unseen crowd of horrified spectators watched in silence.

Believe it or not I managed a silly smile as I sat in the thankfully soft pine needle duff. I got to my feet, made a slight adjustment to the skewed pack and swung back into my seat. The crowd cheered with the same intensity as they did when Lance got up and went on to win a memorable Pyrenees Mountain stage of the 2003 Tour de France after he crashed. Like Armstrong, I was back in the race.

I had lost some valuable time and found myself taking some very tight corners, turning my shoulders to twist by trees, not unlike a skier negotiating each gate on a giant slalom course.

With the most treacherous part of the course behind me, I sped up my pedaling revolutions. My thighs burned and the commentary was absent as I had to efficiently use the fuel of oxygen reaching my lungs. Leaning downward into the finish I knew I had not won the race. Six seconds separated me from the guy with oaken thighs.

Catching my breath, I pedaled more slowly home. “There will be another day young man.”

With a squiggle of blood tapering down my leg, I put the bike in the shed and made my way to the awards podium. Today the podium was in a small pool behind a large boulder in the rapids of the Watson River. I shed my sweaty clothes and slipped into the caressing stream. The brisk water was pure bliss and the shot of Yukon Jack and lime juice over ice helped etch my smile to a greater span.

And the crowd went wild. Another task turned into play.

A Civil Bear

June 16th, 2009

The fifty-ish, male mountain biker came careening down the hill at us. An Alaskan friend, Elaine, her dog, Charlie-Four-Legs and I were hiking on the wide, snow-free, cross country ski trails in Far North Bicentennial Park, a large three mile by three mile green space on the edge of Anchorage city limits. To add to the level of biking difficulty, the wide-eyed cyclist was managing his running leashed dog. And it was suddenly ears-and-tail-up and when it spotted Charlie-Four-Legs.

Snap decisions were made. Flirting on the very edge of pandemonium, we scurried to the edge of the trail and the cyclist skidded to a stop while trying to maintain control of his strong dog. An abrupt introduction soon melded into the joint actions of friendly conversation and energetic dog tail-wagging. Almost as an afterthought the man thought we should know about a bear that he had just spotted over the hill behind him.

“I wouldn’t walk that way,” he said as he tossed his glance back uphill. “I’ve just confronted a bear with my dog and it might feel a bit retaliatory.” He paused and calmly added, “But all in all it seemed a “civil bear.”

Years ago, when I was writing a book on black bears, I had the opportunity to speak with a number of highly regarded North American bear biologists. From them I heard plenty about “dominant bears, submissive bears, and nuisance bears,” but I never had heard of a “civil bear.” Was using the word “civil” dispelling any liability? Should he have used the word “courteous”? I rather liked the title ‘Civil’ and somehow did not feel so vulnerable for leaving the bear pepper spray back at Elaine’s house, a half mile away.

The cyclist went on to share that a bear had mauled a friend of his, a few years back, while out on a trail and that you can’t be too careful. With that he pedaled away talking about a .500 Smith and Wesson Magnum handgun that he owned.

My god, I own a few hunting rifles and shotguns and I didn’t even know there was a handgun that powerful!

As the human-bear-alarm pedaled out of sight, my hand burrowed into my pocket seeking the feeble comfort in the familiar heft of my thin, bent-tipped Boy Scout pocketknife. We had no pepper spray. Armed with only a duet of two excited voices, we moved slightly faster in the direction we had come. I was imagining the next day’s Anchorage newspaper headlines: “Two Hikers Attacked by Civil Bear.”

Talking while moving through thick underbrush in bear country always lets a bear know that you are there. Whistling is not always a good idea, especially if you are hiking in areas where there are arctic ground squirrels and marmots (over much of the Yukon and Alaska). Both of these members of the squirrel family whistle in communicating and both are considered delicious to bears. Speaking loudly, even in incomplete sentences, is usually enough to let them move quietly out of the way. You NEVER want to surprise a bear, because suddenly you are in their personal space.

The personal space MIGHT be as much as 200 yards if the bear is napping next to a cached dead moose or other food. A solo ambling bear might only require 60 yards while the same bear with cubs might need double that. While the distance can vary from bear to bear, the bottom line is to have a lively conversation with a fellow hiker or yourself.

The green space we hiked is bisected by the Campbell Creek watershed and abuts the half-million acre Chugach State Park. Consequently, the wilderness pours into the city and is therefore an excellent wildlife corridor. Occasionally there are sometimes-uneasy alliances between outdoor human enthusiasts, moose, wolves and particularly bears.

Every summer Campbell Creek beckons runs of silver and king salmon. Both are favorite bear foods. We had chosen this particular trail to hike as it was not near the creek and would reduce possible bear confrontations. Obviously the bear that the biker had just spotted was not unlike us and was simply out for a stroll.

Up here, the seasons spring, summer and fall can all be rolled into one mega-season called “The Un-Winter.” And this is the fair season that bears gambol about. Hmmmm. . .ever notice that bear attack statistics are non-existent when winter holds us firmly in its grip locking us into a supreme stillness? I find that there is a wonderful relief or freedom during those darker days in knowing that I did not have to go on strolls into the bush without carrying pepper spray or even having that sixth sense of bear alertness.

Fifteen minutes after waving goodbye to the cyclist and talking rapid-fire, like two auctioneers simultaneously working a sale, we waited at the busy street while the rush of afternoon Anchorage commuters hurried home. Seeing a break, we scurried across the highway.

I was reminded of the irony that I was in far greater danger dashing across Abbott Street, between homebound traffic, than being attacked by a bear. Here we had to be really alert. There is nothing worse than a tired driver at the end of a long workday trying to get home. No sirree, there is nothing “civil” about them.

Migration Run

May 27th, 2009

There is a northerly race underway. Flocks and flocks of shorebirds are impressively winging their way to sub-arctic and arctic nesting grounds on the soft tundra. The race is among tens of thousands of shorebirds. For many, the prize is to simply survive the migration, set up a territory, breed, lay a clutch of eggs, raise the young and then hurry back to the southern hemisphere for another winter.

Over the second weekend of May, I was attending the Annual Kachemak Bay Shorebird Festival in Homer Alaska. Hundreds of us two-leggeds gathered there to honor the Olympian efforts of thousands of shorebirds that migrate through this bay every year. The mud flats behind the famed three- mile Homer Spit are rich in invertebrates and that means valuable fuel for staging shorebirds that rest here for the final dash.

I was with two dear Alaskan friends on my first-ever visit to Homer. As we registered for the three-day event, complete with presentations, storytelling, optional field trips and shorebird identification sessions, I found myself agreeing to run in the Annual Migration Run. I figured if these birds could cover thousands of miles to get here, I could certainly shuffle the three-mile run along the Homer Spit. Besides it would be fun to humor the avian athletes as these not-so-efficient two-leggeds huffed by them.

Through the weekend, binoculars and spotting scopes were trained on the mud flats. We marveled at the synchronicity of the tight formations of the wheeling, rising and settling of hundreds and hundreds of tightly bunched western sandpipers and dunlins. And we couldn’t take our eyes off the natty attire of the male Pacific Golden Plover. His jet-black front seems incongruous with spring. And the glacial blaze of white that extends from his head, down his neck and spills out on his flanks couldn’t be more contrasting. If you are lucky he will turn to show that he is not so very monochromatic with his cryptic back sprinkled with golden specks that would excite any Klondike sourdough prospector.

The three plovers we watched hardly looked like they were on the last leg of the most impressive of all shorebird migrations. These birds are second only to the arctic tern in long distance migration. Each spring they cover thousands of miles in non-stop flight over the Pacific Ocean. That means no eating or sleeping for over two days of continuous flight. Prior to their flight they spent a full month eating and putting on fat reserves derived from rich supplies of invertebrates. Literally one third of their body weight is fat before they lift off.

According to a local biologist the plovers we watched had likely wintered in Malay, Polynesia or even Australia. Some think that these plovers helped ancient Polynesians discover the Hawaiian Islands. Suddenly my 700-mile drive from the Yukon to Anchorage seemed puny. These birds are the epitome of efficiency.

In order to complete the feeble migration run, I would need to acquire a spring plumage of sorts on my feet. As I had no running shoes with me, I needed to find something to wear on my feet for the race. The thought of running in sandals or hiking boots seemed ludicrous and painful.

I asked the nice folks at the registration headquarters if there was a thrift store in Homer and we were directed to the local Salvation Army Thrift Store, down the highway a half-mile or so.

Hurrying into the store, I bypassed the temptation of stopping by a rack of fleece clothing and went directly to the shoe corner. Scanning the assemblage of shoes, looking for anything that looked like running shoes, my eyes landed on a navy blue pair of shoes that resembled a hybrid of tennis shoes and clown shoes. Upon further inspection I found that they had flip down roller skates inset into the soles of the shoes. For a whole nanosecond I considered the fun of such shoes, but then I wondered about the course. Would we be running on a hard surface or perhaps, like running sanderlings, we would move up and down the Homer spit.

I finally found a pair of slightly faded, but wholly intact running shoes that were a size 9. I would prefer a size 91/2 but these would do. On the way to the cash register, I couldn’t resist an impressive black cowboy hat for $5.50.
The cowboy hat would not make the run. I’ve never had a real cowboy hat and somehow the time seems right.

Two days later and it was race day. There had been no training in my new shoes. The sun broke behind the ridge that overlooks the bay. There was no wind and the temperature was 40°F. If this were to be a true migratory effort, we would have staged along the shoreline and hoped for a good brisk south wind to push us north in our spring migration. The shorebirds can cover hundreds and hundreds of miles non-stop. And they oftentimes migrate at heights nearly 20,000 feet.

On this perfect flight morning, my 15,040-foot (three mile) migration run required only a single banana before lift off. No sirreee, no fueling on invertebrates or fat reserves for this old bird.

Even though I had not gone for a run of three miles in over five years, the morning was perfect for such an outing. Come to think of it, since I have come to prefer moving my body on a bicycle or cross country skiing rather than running, I haven’t run a continuous nonstop mile in years.

We parked the car near the race start and put on our shoes. It was then that I discovered that my newly acquired running shoes were not a men’s size nine but a women’s size nine. We had twenty minutes before the start. I jammed and crammed my feet into the shoes. Wincing, I wished that I had bound my feet tightly in duct tape the evening before to shrink them up. I tied the shoes loosely and gamely trotted in my reduced feet to the registration area.

There were several cleverly adorned racers wearing shorebird costumes. Two young, svelte women wore tufted puffin masks. The eventual winner of the costume contest wore a large origami swan around her middle with each wing reaching out nearly two feet from her hips. For obvious reasons no one crowded her position as we shuffled to the starting line.

Suddenly we were off. As usual all the young hot shots lifted off very quickly. With my toes curled under the balls of my feet, I tried not to think of my feet and I concentrated on folks ahead of me and slowly made my way forward. As we passed the area where we had watched the plovers the day before, I glanced over the mudflats. The wheeling and leap frogging feeding flocks were nowhere to be seen.

While running I developed my strategy. My toes were curled like a May fiddlehead fern and the bliss of sucking in morning oxygen was offset by pain in the toes. So I simply picked up my pace so that I might finish the race faster and free my ten bent hostages as quickly as possible. Surprisingly, I finished better than I thought I would. I finished 21st out of 137 participants. I was almost exactly five minutes behind the twenty year old who flew the fastest. The two puffin masked young women finished three minutes ahead of me.
But I did beat the origami swan.

After the race, I gave the shoes to one of my Alaskan friends, who informed me that the shoes were a little tight for her. Two days later I noticed three toenails taking on the midnight color of the plover’s breast. Watching a migration is far more memorable and painless.

Winter’s Fart

April 24th, 2009

The morning before Earth Day, Nancy and I lay in bed under our mound of comforters, slowly letting our circadian rhythm kick into gear. Those first mumbles of the day tend to be a series of yawns, grunts and moans. Suddenly our eyes became more than awakening slits and we scowled at each in a most accusing manner. “Eeewwww, did you fart?!” we queried in unison.

After sputtering denials from both parties, and retreating beneath the filter of covers, we realized that the smell was from coming from outside. Actually we had detected the smell outdoors the day before but now a trace of the insipid aroma had seeped through the thick log walls of the Outpost.

After getting dressed and stepping outside to check things out, it didn’t take much sleuth work to locate the mystery orifice of winter’s release. Behind the Outpost, over the top of Pulpit Hill is a relic of a former river path. It is a curving oxbow pond now and it is the smelly grail of this seasonal miasmic release.

In the past few days as we have got in some wonderful early spring ski outings in the area, we have detected the smell of sulfur every time we are near a lake or wetland’s edge. The breezes this morning carried the wake up call directly towards the Outpost.

Just as our bodies cannot process our food without creating noxious gas fumes, the waterlogged soils around wetlands become gas-producing environments. Over the course of a long winter, any oxygen that had been in the muck has been long consumed. All aerobic (oxygen loving) microorganisms have died off leaving only those anaerobic wee organisms in good shape. The metabolisms of these microorganisms that don’t require oxygen are the reason for the increase of compounds such as the odorless gas methane and the highly odoriferous gas, hydrogen sulfide. The hydrogen sulfide is the nose-wrinkling, rotten egg smell that nearly caused a rift in our morning bed.

As this is our first experience with the demise of a northern winter and the advent of a Yukon spring, we have been curious as to how spring would announce itself. I have to smile knowing now that the fair maiden called ‘Spring’ is called forth by a stale, sulfurous and bad tempered fart of Old Man Winter.

Clearly a lesson was learned here. This was simply another case of where we can find beauty, a sign of spring, in something that is typically a bit revolting. I have always found a certain joy in smelling the first skunk of March or April, but since they are not found in the Yukon, I must be rejoice in spring’s appearance as declared in a similar discharge.

And once again I have been battered with the adage that there is always something good in the bad.

Ahhhh, smell that wonderful winter fart!! How lovely.

Good Friday Gone Bad

April 11th, 2009

Okay I will confess that most of my Yukon updates and blog entries give the impression that we reside in the house of heaven. Oh sure there have been a few bumps like charging dead truck batteries and lots of snow shoveling, but I really do like winter and there is a wee bit of me that hates to see the treadmill of fun shift.

Well I’m coming clean. No embellishments here this is the straight poop. Yesterday was Good Friday and I was feeling a bit of a resurrection in that for three days prior, I had been smitten with a skookum cold. (A little review on your Yukon jargon. skookum=good.) So when we discovered that our septic line was frozen on top of having pump troubles, I had a difficult time fending stress away from my healing ways.

Some would call it the perfect storm. Water and waste supplies on strike at the same time.
While it is frustrating, it’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. After all, I can go down to the frozen river, less than 30 steps from the house, and tote up five gallon containers of wonderfully pure water running out of the mountains. Hot water is secured by heating it on the wood stove, which we still are using early in the morning and again in the evening. Or we simply heat water on the kitchen stove.

So what do we do with the water, well we throw out over the railing of the deck that is off the kitchen. . . just like we have been doing all winter. During the cold of winter, this was a hurried affair and all too often I heard the scuttle of forgotten silverware in the dishpan as I heaved everything into the night air.

No water for the toilet is not a big deal since we used the outhouse all winter. As mentioned in an earlier blog entry, The Long Drop, I have come to enjoy quiet moments of the outhouse. Though after a long winter, I can tell you we will be digging a new outhose basement and prying the biffy up onto some pine logs and roll it to a new position. Over the cold winter I have had to reach down into the bowels of the one-holer with a two inch thick section of aspen and knock down the “stalagshits’ or “pinnacles of poop.” Makes you wonder what I think about out there.

I spent some time on our Apple “Google Machine” and found out that our winter practice of reducing water draining into our septic system was likely the wrong thing to do. We should have been running some water down the line on a regular basis. If you want to live like we have, then it would be best to live in a tent or a remote log cabin where fetching water and using outhouses are the norm.

I spent part of Good Friday in our crawl space, writhing like a snake under the floor following and inspecting the water and waste lines. Only once did I think of Charles Bronson having a panic attack as dealt with his claustrophobia while digging on the escape tunnel in the film, The Great Escape. At least there were zero spider webs to wipe away. There is no way they would survive a Yukon winter there. Besides no spiders, there were no answers.

I tried priming the pump three times. . . no luck. I feel so inept as a handyman sometimes. But on occasion I will surprise myself. No surprises today, only disappointments.

So when I am frustrated what do I do? I do something physical, get outside and move the body. So why not do something constructive, rather than relaxing and fun? I am pleased that a pair of interchanging shovels did the work. My arms and back survived but only because I made myself stop and take two long breaks.

But I shoveled a whole lot of snow and have managed to get down to bare ground. Behold another “first” on my life list! I have shoveled away two feet of snow from a good portion of my lawn. With the days stretching and the promise of clear skies, I am hoping to partner with the sun in accelerating the thawing of the buried septic tank and line.

Feeling at least a modicum of satisfaction at something going right, I grabbed a late afternoon cup of coffee, a brownie and a fine book and settled into a chair up on the deck where the sunshine was warm. Basking felt good and all is really quite well. Though the land wears the stole of winter, the air and south wind are nudging a new story into place.

Fifteen minutes and a chapter later, I stood up, tossed the coffee grounds out of my cup out over our dishwater middens. A flash caught my eye. There sticking up out of the crusty snow, like the first bold daffodils, was a setting of silverware.

Got to love spring discoveries.

Making Do

April 1st, 2009

While the media pounds us with global economic woes, the news of the largest recession in seventy years, I prefer to think of it as an overdue “social correction.” Clearly with human population continually rising and our worship of growth at all costs, there was bound to be some constraint emerging. In following the common credo of limitlessness we continue to spiral into short-term thinking that compromises future generations. I believe it is time to consider the wisdom of past generations

My Great Gramma Schmidt lived to be 104 years old. Up until her last days, she was sharp and her wisdom and shared experiences were gifts I will always treasure. I have kept track of some of her sayings and pieces of advice. Such common sense is rarely heard anymore.

One phrase, a favorite of mine, is especially appropriate these days when jobs seem insecure and household budgets are tightened. Gramma often repeated, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” I would like to see someone take that slogan, and others of similar ilk, and create bold, colorful posters similar to the large war bonds posters that graced our nation during WW II. The posters could be hung in schools, libraries, post offices and other public locations. Perhaps the sales of such posters could be used to fight the increase in poverty.

The other night was the observation of Earth Hour 2009. Around the world, people shut off lights for one hour in an attempt to bring awareness to the need to reduce energy use and conserve resources to counter high carbon emissions. Organizers had hoped to sign up 1,000 cities. The week before the event, almost 2,400 cities, towns and municipalities in 83 countries had agreed to take part in the event. Nearly19,000 businesses and 5,500 organizations also signed on. The goal was to cut energy consumption by5% an hour. However, if we as inhabitants of earth hope to substantially reduce carbon emissions we will have to far better than a 5% savings.

I don’t know how participants in the Yukon fared, but just south of us, in British Columbia, and far more people, the province experienced a 1.1 % power drop. It was reported that if British Columbians implemented the same conservation measures that they did during Earth Hour for one hour every evening, enough power would be saved to power 2,400 homes for an entire year.

I managed to make it through the hour without a single light. But it did help in that this northerly latitude is experiencing leaps in lengthening days.

Last month our electric bill, all generated by carbon free hydropower, generated by a dam on the Yukon River in Whitehorse, was approximately $30. Last fall it was about $38 per month. So Nancy and I have saved approximately 20% on our household electric bill and we could do better.

Since just prior to Christmas of 2008, we have been experimenting with more intentional means to lessen our energy use. We try to limit our trips to Whitehorse, 25 miles away, to one trip per week. We buy groceries, go to the library, and maybe get in a cross-country ski workout at Mt. Mac, followed by a sauna and shower at the Nordic/curling center and often an evening arts event.

It has been over three months since I turned off our electric hot water heater. We could think of no reason to have a 40-gallon tank of hot water sitting there when we draw upon it only minimally, so we turned it off. Instead, we heat two large pots or a teakettle over the wood stove. We wash dishes once a day, wash up and even imbibe in wonderful sponge baths while standing in small plastic tubs placed next to the warmth of the wood stove.

Or I take hot water from the teakettle and pour it into our solar shower bag that we take camping or use here in the summer. Then I hang the shower bag over the showerhead in our bathroom and stand in the tub for a quiet shower. And I find that I can use my hot grey water for washing a small load of laundry that I squish with my feet as I shower. The final rinsing of the clothes is done in boiling water from the woodstove. The wooden drying rack for mitts, gloves, boot liners and outdoor gear is directly behind the wood stove and it makes a wonderful laundry dryer as well.

Larger loads of laundry make the trip to Whitehorse with us each week or two for a trip to the Laundromat. Nothing puzzles me more than when I hear of folks who feel a need to wash a load of clothing every day or two. Granted babies, young children and some jobs require more washing, but most folks are simply wearing out their expensive designer jeans much faster by subjecting them to the rigors of frequent washings. Wash clothes less often and you will benefit from cost savings from an energy standpoint as well as your clothing budget.

Every week or so we treat ourselves to the blissful pressure of a hot water shower and turn on the electric hot water heater for one hour. Consequently, a simple shower has become a more wondrous and amazing event. I find it incongruous when folks wrinkle up their noses at the thought of not having a daily shower or washing a load of laundry multiple times each week.

The other plus side is that since early last November, we have used less than 1500 gallons of water in our house. That amounts to about 12.5 gallons per day for the two of us.

The recent thirty-dollar electric bill was not bad considering we must have lights on much of the time during the long, dark winter nights. We also have the computer on for at least eight hours a day. The computer is a major energy user. We have the computer, printer and modem plugged into a power strip and that is switched off every night or when we know when we will be gone from the Outpost all day. We have developed a habit of unplugging the microwave after each use. It is estimated that 5 per cent of all household energy used in typical homes powers vampire electronics. These appliances include any device that has a digital readout, such as a clock. TVs, microwaves, cell phone chargers, DVD players and other electronics use the power for instant-on features.

Recently the Globe Mail newspaper out of Toronto published an alarming point regarding the electricity used by a single plasma TV over a year for the instant on feature is huge. The energy required is enough to illuminate up to 14,500 one hundred watt light bulbs for an hour!

Since we have no television, we save both on the electric bill and on mindless staring. We do enjoy watching an occasional DVD movie and use the computer for our indoor theater. A computer is a major energy user. Ours is on for up to ten hours each day since both Nancy and I use it for our work.

Funny, how choosing to do with less, in terms of television, washing clothes or even shaving frequently give Nancy and I more time to share time exploring another snowshoe hike to check out the local herd of caribou or to sit down with a cup of tea around the wood burning stove and read aloud. Perhaps the greatest reward has been that we have enjoyed more quality time together and have a far greater appreciation for simple pleasures.

So how will I do without the woodstove providing my hot water in a month or two? As I write this, I am researching and sketching a design for a simple, inexpensive solar hot water batch heater. The challenge is on