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Dogsled racing in Alaska

On a crisp, sunny Saturday the Summit Quest 300 race started in Pleasant Valley. February typically marks the start of the dog mushing races in Alaska. Temperatures hovered well below zero, but the chill did not stop the dogs. Eager to be on their way, they jumped and janked at their harnesses. Dog handlers restrained them with effort, preventing them from bounding down the trail prematurely. The dogs’ barking and breath clouded the frigid air. They were surprisingly small in stature yet unsurpassed in stamina and knew neither trepidation nor doubt. The broad, untamed winter wilderness beckoned. The challenge was on.           

Their energy was magnetic. I felt my own breathlessness, a fast pulse in my throat as I watched them run through the start chute. The gathered spectators cheered them on. They left at regular intervals, in teams of eight or ten or twelve. Their musher, standing behind them on the sled as they hissed by, raised a parting hand in greeting and in pride. Beyond us, they were on their own in the wilderness, left to their own devices and skill. 

The race was adapted due to the pandemic that has reached even the hinterlands of Alaska. Typically, the Yukon Quest traces a route from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, a distance of a thousand miles, following the historical trail of the Goldrush route. This year, with Canada’s border closed due to the pandemic, efforts were made to skirt and safeguard northern villages. While somewhat shorter in distance and contained within Alaska, the Summit Quest 300 proved to be no less impressive.

Mushers and dogs were tested to the extreme. The ascent was in front of them. For some veteran mushers, after a lifetime of successful runs and stories from the trail, this season was to be their last. Would they look back wistfully after a final run? There were “rookies,” new to the race, ready to take on the inhospitable northern landscape and the blackness of subzero nights with a young dog team. Perhaps they wavered in their decision to take on challenge, as they prepared their sleds and dropped dog food at checkpoints, when they heard the weather report of temperatures that would plummet to 40 below in the night. Would they have conversed with the seasoned mushers before the race, absorbing suggestions and a thimble of encouragement? Watch for frozen tundra hillocks and the glare of river ice on Birch Creek. It can disorient the dogs. Be sure to give them the mandatory rest at mile 101. Try doing squats on the sled to keep warm. And don’t forget to look for the northern lights. They are awesome this time of year! The newcomers, shifting again, smiled in return. Mushers and dogs, old and new, were all in this race together.

For many miles they would run, challenged by jumbled ice on the creek and a windswept trail that could easily mislead in inclement weather. There were two summits to overcome. Rosebud was said to be long and steep. Eagle Summit was well known for its treacherous descent. They would run for hours, left to their own devices, before reaching a checkpoint at Two Rivers and Circle and Central. Stopping to rest, mushers would feed their dogs a mixture of beef or high protein kibble or salmon before bedding them down on straw. They would take off booties, apply ointment, run their hands over paws. They would check in with vets to assess heartrates and hydration. Only after the dogs were attended to would the musher eat his or her own food and try to take a quick nap.

Running again, at times it felt as though they were the only ones out there, miniscule in a huge, unrelenting landscape. They would think of the other dog teams on the trail, all on a similar quest, even as they ran their own race. And when they reached the finish line with an expanded feeling in their chest, they would know that even after many miles on their own, they were all connected in the great race of the north.

Winterscape Alaska

In the Far North, it is called “Termination Dust.” It comes early to Alaska and settles in the hills, a powdery shimmer of snow in late autumn that tells us the gentler seasons are over. Much sooner than in most places, there is a brittleness in the air. The light angles low and golden through the spruces. It won’t be long before the real snow arrives.

When it comes, it does so formidably. Overnight, the mercury plummets to 200 below. It snows and snows and snows. By morning, the landscape is transformed. A heavy blanket swells and obscures familiar shapes, hushing sounds, muffling intrusions. The light at midday is metallic. The sun follows a shallow arc above the Alaska Range before it quickly sets again. 

It is easy to be disenchanted when December brings barely three and a half hours of daylight. Nine months of winter stretch long. Particularly this year, when Covid has put our nerves on edge and separations have lasted too long, we forget the pleasures winter can bring. A birch forest lays still and crackling, punctuated only by the laughter of a couple of friends as we follow a snowy trail. Routines have been upended, work interrupted, colleges shut down. But we can still remember the contentment of a game of pond hockey. The brevity of the day has to be taken advantage of. That is the season’s only condition.

The winter solstice is upon us with the longest night of the year. Before long the seasons will trade places again. While the evenings still come early, we have time to read Jhumpa Lahiri’s new book by the fireplace. There is time yet to learn how to play a Bach sonata on the piano. Or to perfect the recipe for Hungarian mushroom soup from Bon Appetit. 

In winters to come, long after the world has shed their masks and Covid is a distant memory, we will continue to mask up in Alaska. It’s about practicalities up here. Without a mouth covering, the hairs in our nostrils tickle as they freeze. It makes us smile. Perhaps it is winter’s way of telling us to take it all in stride. 

Alaska’s “Piano Keys” Mountains

When my children were three and five, they stood with their friend Roan and gazed across the Tanana Valley towards the Alaska Range Mountains in the distance. It was a clear October day and the air was crisp. The tundra had turned shades of rust and ochre. Clearly visible, just below the serrated, snow-covered peaks of the mountains were the “piano keys.”

The alternating black and white streaks were left by the effects of geological striation. They looked like a perfect keyboard. “A giant plays the piano on them,” Roan explained earnestly. Yanni and Helen, unblinking, nodded solemnly. Her words carried weight. She was, after all, their senior by all of three months. 

In the blink of an eye all three grew up and traveled south beyond those mountains to the lower 48 States. They parted from their juvenile games and went in different directions to start college, kindled by what life could teach them. They could not have known what a strange and unfamiliar world they would encounter soon after. Just as they had settled themselves into an academic routine, made new friends and found a foothold in their life away from home, a pandemic swept through the world. It rapidly took over, infecting and sickening and killing. It swiftly replaced their bucolic college existence with a bizarre world of strict rules and regulations. 

At first, the measures sounded reasonable. By adhering to them, the pandemic could be suppressed more quickly. Thus, they abided by a “de-densified” campus, with a portion of the student population asked to remain away until Spring so that single rooms could be granted to those in residence. They would get used to campus pathways that were eerily still. They could grow accustomed to hybrid classes, which often consisted of solitary learning on a computer, interactions limited to a band of faces peering at them in zoom classes. They would familiarize themselves with libraries and lounges and gathering spots that were stripped of furniture to discourage mingling. One-way hallways and plexiglass partitions and virus testing stations could be accommodated. They would even sign “contracts” to minimize contact with others and promise not to gather secretively in their dorm rooms.

In time, it became clear that the situation remained upended. Infections were swelling. Deaths were escalating. Marches and riots were organized because of politics and police protests and pointed fingers. People were edgy and nerves high-strung. Even on campus, the “covid police” patrolled the crisscrossed paths, taking photos to report noncompliance and non-mask wearing students.

What was happening to the world?

It is the stuff that strange fairy tales are made of. The stories of our youth took place in distant, fantastic, make-believe lands. Only now we find ourselves in the midst of one. We used to listen, from a safe distance, to far-fetched tales that were tinged with danger and peril: stories about escaping witches in dark forests and harmful potions and fire-breathing dragons. Now we have become the protagonists of the tale.

Maybe it is time to use the fairy tales to our advantage. We can embrace again the appeal of those childhood stories. They always included a moral lesson. Obstacles were overcome by hard work. Generosity and kindness were rewarded. Good triumphed over evil. Like the heroes of our tales, we are capable of reflecting and adapting and being present for others. Together we can conquer our plight, steer towards a “happily ever after” and trust that the world will be well again.

Just like a trio of kids who, many years ago, believed in giants playing sonatas from the mountaintops in a great symphony for the world to hear.

Silver Salmon in Alaska

“The silvers are running,” Yanni announced.  “Let’s go fishing!”

It was not so much the prospect of yet another fishing excursion, this time for silver salmon, that lured me onto a family road trip to Valdez. We had already gone on several fishing trips this summer and I had more than once proven my poor fishing skills. Ice fishing for grayling and pike in the Chena Lakes. A halibut charter in Kachemak Bay. “Combat fishing” for red salmon in the Kenai River. I had managed to catch not a single fish while the rest of my family triumphantly caught their limit within an hour or two.

“My fish was so big I needed help hauling it into the boat!” Helen proudly related. Yanni was intent on filling our freezer with enough fish to last us all winter, a task he deftly accomplished. Even Nick, whose angling experience I had thought did not surpass mine by much, successfully reeled in our dinner that evening. I, on the other hand, stood watching them hopelessly, snagging my fishing line on rocks and driftwood and seaweed.

This time it was the landscape that drew me in. We had driven down to Valdez many years ago, when the children were still little, and I remembered the drive to be a beautiful one. Placing this firmly into my mind and trying not to think of rising at the crack of dawn to stand knee-deep in a cold Alaskan bay, I grudgingly helped load the camper with fishing rods, coolers, lures and waders.

Once again, Alaska did not go unpromised. On the half-mark of the drive, Rainbow Ridge rose in all shades – blue, violet and orange. We drove in high country, near Summit lake, in windy terrain, well above the tree line. In the surrounding mountains, watersheds sculpted the earth and ended in blue-green creeks. At Thompson Pass, a great river of glacial ice presented itself, hued in purple, making us feel humanly miniscule. Descending from the mountain pass, we saw waterfalls, one diaphanous, like the veil of a bride, another one braided, like a horsetail in the wind. Close to Valdez, we caught sight of Prince William Sound, far-reaching and blue.

Not quite 6 am and Yanni roused everyone in the camper, ready to fish. The tide was right. He had already given us a tutorial about the different types of salmon: chinook, sockeye, coho, humpback, chum. Was I learning a new language? We discussed the difference between pink and silver salmon, both presently “running.” Pink salmon had black lips, a white mouth and spots on their back. Silvers were much larger in size and had a distinct silver luster. We were fishing for the latter, Yanni emphasized.

“Try unlocking the reel before casting out, Mom,” Yanni patiently instructed, suppressing a smile. Some hours later, my toes had grown cold despite the Xtratuff boots I had borrowed from Helen. My bicep ached from fruitlessly flinging about. When Helen cackled at me while she scooped yet another fish into her net, I decided I had enough. 

I settled myself onto a rock and took in the scenery instead. The bay glistened. The sound of the seagulls filled my ears and the salty air settled on my skin. I listened to the gentle swoosh of the lapping waves at low tide and to the humble manner in which Yanni unhooked an unintended pink salmon, still flapping in his net, while he promised “Hold still, Buddy, I’m returning you to the sea.”  

In the end, it did not matter how many fish we hooked or let go again. It was more about a sunny weekend in a place where it typically rains, and learning about fish I will probably never catch, and about being with the people I call my own.

Blueberry Alaska

August in Alaska and the blueberries are fruiting, a sign that summer is drawing to an end faster than usual this year. It has been cooler, more rainy, and, because of the pandemic, a more withdrawn summer. The end of summer rituals, however, hold fast.

“Let’s go blueberry picking,” I suggested to Helen, my youngest child. “Before it’s too late.”

She sat at the kitchen counter, looking up, distracted, from her laptop. She had been contemplating the college course catalog, thinking about classes she might enroll in for the fall. In just a couple of weeks, she will depart, leave Alaska, the place she was born and raised in, the home that built her. She is eager to go to the lower 48 States, to embark on the adventure. Her excitement, however, is tinged with worry. “Will it even be a normal college experience?” she asked.

Amid the Covid pandemic, she signed a school contract, one in which she promised to social distance, to wear a mask, to abide by one-way hallways, plexiglass partitions, “grab and go” meals from the dining hall, to not gather with friends in her dorm room. Many lectures will be held online. Some hybrid courses might offer a face-to-face encounter with the professor. The planning is still tenuous.

“I’ll never make any friends.” She sighed, shutting her laptop, and went to bed early. She was not holding her breath.

My heart ached for her. She had hollered and whooped when she received her college acceptance letter, staring solemnly at a second letter describing a scholarship award. Her smile had lit up her face. All was well with the world then. It was a surge, after a high school senior year that ended abruptly, classes finishing online. She had to abide with a high school graduation that took the form of a car parade, with friends at a distance and a diploma sent in the mail. Contrary to her usual companionable nature, she could not even celebrate with her friends, hugging everyone in sight.

 

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In the morning, we drove to the heights of Murphy Dome, packing in dogs and water bottles and plastic containers. We picked up our friend Rebecca and her pup on the way out of town. Spirits lifted, the day promised sunshine and extended vistas from the slopes. Rebecca chatted with Helen in the car, about Oberlin College and the dorm room in Burton Hall that Helen had been assigned to, on the coveted fourth floor, with its dormer windows. Helen’s face brightened as she told Rebecca about wanting to take courses in biochemistry and philosophy, about playing soccer, about the bedsheets and desk lamp and posters she wanted to ship to college. I caught my friend’s gaze in the rearview mirror and smiled.

On the higher slopes of Murphy Dome we found wild, lowbush blueberries growing in abundance. We made our way along a trail, stooping down towards the carpeted blueberry patches near the woods, relishing their deep indigo color. The dogs, bounding ahead, returned to “help” by eating berries right off the twigs. When we reached a wide, alpine meadow we sat, reaching out for the berries that surrounded us, taking in the vista of the hills falling away below us. Our talking segued into companionable silence as we methodically picked, lost in our own thoughts. I didn’t think so much about picking the blueberries for their health benefits: lowered blood pressure or improved cognitive functions or essential nutrients. I gave little thought to the culinary pleasures of jam or pies or muffins they could result in. Instead, I celebrated the fruit and its harvest more for the sake of spending a closing afternoon with a daughter on the verge of leaving home and an old friend who has been as much of a mother to her as I have.

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Helen will shine at whatever she attempts to do once she leaves home, I told myself. She will flourish, regardless of obstacles, like the tart blueberries that grow, hardy and cold tolerant, on the Alaskan mountain.

She is ready to go, I realize, even if I’m not.