*Names and identifying details have been altered to protect the innocent people who could sue me.

March 30, 2011

Day 89

Dear all,

A few weekends ago I went fishing for the first time: I caught my first fish, reeled in my first fish, brought home my first fish, cleaned and gutted my first fish, chopped up and breaded my first fish, fried my first fish, and ate my first fish. (There's one crucial step missing here - did you spot it?) I have summarized the experience as ...

How to Catch a Fish: A Play in 3 Acts.

Act I
Scene 1:
Interior. Apartment. (Boy) and (Girl) putting on several layers of woolen clothes.
Girl: I’ve never been fishing before.
Boy: You’re going to like it.
Girl: You do remember my fear of dying on open water?
Boy: This water is frozen.
Girl: Even better. How many inches thick does it have to be so we don’t fall in again?

Scene 2:
Exterior. Side of Lake.
Girl: That sign says “Thin Ice.”
Boy: Did you notice it’s bolted down? That sign is always there. Right next to the “No Swimming” one.
Girl: So if we fall through, we could get arrested for swimming?
Boy: I’m walking out on the lake now. Join me when you’re ready.

Act II: Exterior. On the Lake.
Scene 1:
Girl: I’m mildly reassured by the tire tracks out here.
Boy: Those are airplane tracks.
Girl: Even better.

Scene 2:
Girl: Can I take a turn drilling?
Boy: Sure.
Girl: How many inches did it say we needed before it was safe to walk on?
Boy: Three.
Girl: How far down have you gone so far?
Boy: About eighteen.

Scene 3:
Boy: Hold the line steady and I’ll put the bait on.
Girl: What is the bait?
Boy: Salmon eggs. Painted in glitter.
Girl: If we wanted salmon, would we use trout eggs?
Boy: Lower the line down into the water.
Girl: Here, fishy fishy fishy …

Scene 4:
Girl: Now what?
Boy: You wait for a nibble.
Girl: What does that feel like?
Boy: Like something is pulling slightly at the line.
Girl: Oh. (pause) That’s already happened a few times.

Scene 5:
Boy: Ok, hold the line steady. I’m putting the bait on again.
Girl: Here, fishy fishy fishy.

Scene 6:
Girl: Ooh! A nibble!
Boy: Ok, set the line.
Girl: What’s that mean?
Boy: Jerk your arm upward slightly and quickly to set the hook in the fish’s mouth.
Girl: (throws arm over head) Like this?
Boy: I think that might have overdone it.

Scene 7:
Boy: Reel it in! Reel it in!
Girl: How? What? Where?
Boy: (grabs line at end of pole and pulls fish up hand over hand)
Girl: I think the line is frozen in the reel.

Scene 8:
Girl: It’s a fish! And it’s … flopping madly on the ice. Now what?
Boy: Now you bonk it.
Girl: Oh. With what?
Boy: With … oh, we forgot to bring a bonker.

Scene 9:
Boy: Wow … you really got this hook caught in his mouth.

Scene 10:
Girl: Now what?
Boy: Just lay the fish over there. No, lay it flat.
Girl: Ok. Now what?
Boy: Now we do it again.
Girl: I think it’s your turn. (pause) I'll do the singing part. Here, fishy fishy fishy …

Act III: Interior. Apartment.
Scene 1
Boy: Take one of the fish out of the sink.
Girl: They’re so slippery … and slimy … how are you supposed to hold them?
Boy: And insert the knife at the anus, and slit upwards.
Girl: Why does eating meat always require some kind of involvement with animal butts?

Scene 2:
Girl: Akh!
Boy: What?
Girl: It jumped when I started cutting it up.
Boy: It’s just spinal reflex. Cut off the head.
Girl: Akh! It jumped again.
Boy: Did you get the head off?
Girl: Now I have, yes. (keeps cutting) Akh! (pause) You can finish this one up.

Scene 3:
Boy: How does it taste?
Girl: Delicious. And a little fishy.

[first bite]

The end.

ps - The missing step? I was not the one who actually KILLED my first fish. Next time.

March 25, 2011

Day 84

Dear all,

March, it turns out, gets pretty boring after the Iditarod ends. It’s officially spring now (happy Spring!), a change which brought about 12.5 hours of daily sunlight (even more, if you count dawn to dusk), a full super moon (closest moon to the Earth for the past 20 or something years), and a clean shaven boyfriend (after he muttered something about “seasonal facial hair” and disappeared into the bathroom for thirty minutes).

[Hey! You with the two legs! Will you pet me?]

I’m sure you’ve all been eagerly awaiting my next Idita-gram. Or perhaps you took matters into your own hands and spent some quality time on the Iditarod site or the Alaska Daily News site. If so, you already know all about how this was a sensational Iditarod, with an unprecedented top lead pack of ten-fifteen mushers sticking close together well into the long second-half stretch up the Yukon River, ending in a last-day sprint between the two veteran but never-champions: John Baker, an Inupiaq Alaskan native from Kotzebue and Ramey Smyth, son of veterans Bud Symth and Lolly Medley and brother to Cim Smyth (who placed 21st this year). Baker won, followed one hour later by Smyth.

But you already knew that. (Or you do now, anyway.) I put more highlights as a postscript, just in case you’re already thinking, “Good Heavens, child, enough about the Iditarod already!”

[Ok, I know you meant to walk on by, but I am SO EXCITED THAT YOU MIGHT PET ME that I think I will try to jump through this fence.]

In the meantime, here’s a quick recap of other end-of-winter (ha) events that happened around here:

We attended the Miners’ and Trappers’ Ball as part of the closing events of the annual Fur Rondy week-long celebration. I’ve now seen the word a million times and it still drives me crazy that they abbreviated “Rendezvous” with a “y.” But other than that, the events of that closing weekend were pretty fun. (Well, ok, the “Running of the Reindeer” was pretty stupid – a bunch of very cold, costumed college-age kids running behind some very bored, very tame reindeer. And reindeer aren’t even native to Alaska – that would be caribou, folks.)

Chester did enter one of the beard and moustache competitions, but believe me when I tell you that he wasn’t even close in length or style to some of the other beards we saw there (and don’t even get me started on the moustaches). We did go in costume, him as a 1930s railroad man (hooray! A use for his Christmas-present sweater vest, and I didn’t even have to lengthen it!) and me as, I guess, a 1930s school teacher. Yes, I wore one of my regular dresses and just did my hair differently. Thanks for asking.

[You bipeds hold no further interest for me.]

We also bottled up our beer, which I’ll report more on once it’s not too green to try. (St. Patty’s day notwithstanding, I mean figuratively green, as in, “new.”) And we were lucky enough to stop by the Millennium Hotel in Anchorage just as a small bush plane arrived with a load of dropped dogs from the trail. We were allowed to pet them, which they (the dogs) loved – until someone came around with food. Then they weren’t interested in us anymore.

And … we went ice fishing! But more on that next time.

Much love.

PS: The Idita-gram addendum

Allen Moore earned this year’s Sportsmanship award for his life-saving halt to rescue another (hypothermic and semi-conscious) musher. He got her walking again, hitched her dogs to his sled, and took her in to the next checkpoint. And then he went on to finish the race, still in the top 30.

Rick Swenson won the Most Inspirational award (voted on by his fellow mushers) after he broke his collarbone during one of the first few legs of the trip but decided to carry on regardless. He’s 61.

Dee Dee Jonrowe (my favorite) finished in 12th place, even after first losing the trail and then later spending time with caught beneath the weight of her flipped sled. Her GPS also stopped working after she (and her sled) fell into some freezing-cold river overflow – it was hard to tell from the brief checkpoint updates whether this was also when she was trapped, or not.

(If you think these highlights from her run are abnormal, check out this somewhat-melodramaticly-soundtracked video from the official site.)

Six of the other top thirty finishers women as well, and if you look at this year’s Junior Iditarod mushers, more than half the finishers there were female. That's a lot of female mushers about to come up through the ranks. Perhaps it actually is as they say, “Alaska: where men are men and women win the Iditarod.”

Here’s one more thing else they say about the Iditarod:

In 1978 there was a similar, though much, much closer, sprint to the finish. Dick Mackey (father of current crowd-favorite Lance Mackey) and Rick Swenson (yes, he of this year’s broken collarbone) were within seconds of each other coming down the finish chute in Nome. Both men were exhausted, overheated, and running alongside their dogs (to lighten the weight of the sled). Mackey’s lead dog crossed the finish line first, and then Mackey collapsed. Swenson’s lead dog crossed just one second after Mackey’s, but his whole team made it across first. So, who won?

The race marshal in charge of making the decision hemmed, hawed, and finally came up with this official statement: “Well, they don’t take pictures of a horse’s ass.” And so the championship went to Dick Mackey.

And for those of you who were wondering why I didn’t drive to see the finish at Nome, it wasn’t because it would be a road of over 1,000 miles. It’s because there is no road to Nome. (Yet.)

March 11, 2011

Day 9

Of the Iditarod, of course ... should I be counting anything else?

Dear all,

Um, thank you all for the concern, but as far as tsunamis go, I’m doing just fine.

Mild-to-moderate obsession with a certain ongoing dog sled race, however, is becoming a slight problem. That said, I will try to keep my new-found passion in check, avoid boring you to death with a myriad of details about drop bags and checkpoints and booties (of the dog-paw kind, thank you very much).

You say “I,” I say “ditarod!” Ready? Ok. Here we go!

These pictures are from the ceremonial start last Saturday in Anchorage. In Anchorage, the mushers take riders -- ok, they're called "Iditariders" -- as a way of raising money for the race. And behind them, either directly on their sled or on a second sled, they have their handler ride along. Not entirely sure why, maybe just so this person gets some credit too. They go just outside of town, to the airstrip, and then the race restarts, with officiality and timing and all that fun, the next day in a town called Willow. Once the mushers leave Willow, it’s roughly 1100 miles to Nome – all dog sleds, all the way.

I starting taking photos up at the actual starting line: the photo above is before anything had started, when the mushers were lined up along the road waiting for their turn. This is Dee Dee Jonrowe's team, though you can't see her in the photo (the parked car was in the way). She's a crowd favorite: in her 50s, a breast cancer survivor, and a perenial top-twenty finisher since she started running the Iditarod in 1980. She's even placed second several times - but has yet to win outright. She wears a bright pink parka on the trail. I'm rooting for her to win ... and after getting lost on part of the trail early on, she's now recooped time and is back up in the top ten. As they like to say around here, GO DEE DEE!

You may have noticed that there is more than one handler assigned to her team. If you look closely, you can see why. No? How about in this photo ...

I believe this is Ray Redington, Jr's team, lined up just behind Dee Dee's. His dogs, like all the others, were just jumping at the chance to start running. Some of the teams had one handler per dog, just trying to hold them down until it was their turn to start. These dogs were ready to run ...

Ray Redington, Jr's grandfather (Ray Redington, Sr) is the "father of the Iditarod." Wait, you say, what about Balto? Yes, I know ... we've all heard the Balto story (um, especially those of us who have ever lived with my little brother), and that the Iditarod race was creating to honor that serum run to Nome in 1925. It's true that the 1925 serum run was an amazing feat, and that it took place on the Iditarod trail, which was used as by mail-and-freight mushers during the Gold Rush and ensuing heyday of sled dog travel, and which had been used for untold years earlier by Alaskan natives. Portions of the trail are still used today for snow mobile traffic between villages, but large parts of it are maintained only for the yearly race traffic.

[This year the Iditarod had upwards of 60 mushers, most from Alaska or Canada -- but there's always Newton Marshall, the musher from Jamaica!]

Dorothy G. Page was the "mother of the Iditarod" and it was her work in the 1960s, along with Redington, that led to the first full "Iditarod" race in 1973. Their intent was to honor and preserve the memory of the great Alaskan mushing tradition, of which the 1925 serum run was one of the last great feats. Balto (and his musher, Gunnar Kaasen) did lead the team that made the last leg of the journey to Nome, but around here it is Leonhard Seppala and his lead dog Togo who are considered the real heroes of that event. In fact, Seppala was the ceremonial starting musher at the first few Iditarod races, and Togo's body is now taxidermically displayed at the Iditarod museum in Wasilla (where the race used to restart, until it got moved to Willow). [Also an unsung hero of the "Great Mercy Race": Emily Morgan, the nurse who braved the same horrible conditions as the mushers to deliver the vaccination, on foot, to her patients.]

People line the streets (and parking garages) of Anchorage to watch the start - I saw roughly half of the mushers start at two minute intervals. I started walking away from the start line in order to get a better view, and ended up at the corner of 4th Ave and Cordova, where the group of professional photographers were staked out - if you saw shots in any of the major non-Alaskan newspapers, they probably came from this stretch. This was also the spot where at least one team took the corner too tightly and dumped the handler-rider into the snow. And here, the trail guard told us, a musher who had a camera man riding with him got distracted, forgot to tell his dogs to turn at this corner and ... they headed right over the berm (that's Alaskan for "large pile of snow pushed out of the way"). These dogs really will just run ... and run ...

The trail guard is there to make sure nothing gets in the way of the mushers -- people, rocks, photographers, dog booties, and so on. Our trail guard also had a listing of the mushers and would give us a heads up on who was coming through. The system worked as a kind of relay - she'd get the signal from around the corner, shout "dog team coming!" and wave her arms so the next trail guard down the line could relay the message. Then the people with rakes and shovels cleared out, the people on the side lines got excited ...

... and the dog team was come and gone in seconds. I'm not sure I can try to describe it - it was simply an incredible thing to watch. [There are some videos up on the official Iditarod site , complete with melodramatic soundtrack if you want to try and get a feel for it.] After the team passed through the guards were back on the trail, raking it clean for the next team. The most excited the crowd got was for #17, Lance Mackey, reigning champ and record-holder for four consecutive wins.

For some reason, his dogs lost a ton of booties on the corner, and it was a mad scramble from the crowd to get one -- anything Lance Mackey being somewhat sacred in these parts. He's kind of like Tom Brady - only without the money, and with a good deal more regular-guy-charm-and-humor .

So, the dogs are off and running, the mushers are on their way to Nome, and - after a somewhat unheard-of lead pack of about ten in the running all the way up the Yukon River - one of the two in the lead will pull into Nome sometime in the early afternoon tomorrow. And then, perhaps, finally, I will be able to get something productive done ...

Much love,

March 8, 2011

Day 67

Dear all,

Rewind. Backtrack. Undo. March has overnight, and to no one’s greater surprise than my own, become one of my favorite times of the year. Why, you might (rightly) ask? Two words: I. ditarod.

But before I get into that, I have to share just a few other things. First, to thank everyone who responded so kindly and supportively to what I did not realize was quite the downer email/blogpost last week. I had actually meant to end on something of a note of hope, but … perhaps I was too immersed in my own self-pity to achieve anything close to it.

If I had thought 25 to be a somewhat randomly-chosen number, now I offer you the different-but-probably-no-less-arbritrary age division of 40. From my under-forty friends I received more than a few notes of empathy – that they too feel unsatisfied at this stage in their life, or that they too wish for more concreteness in their transitory world, or that they too are inordinately jealous of people who receive seed catalogs in the mail. And from the over-forties, even more empathy: that they have been there and that, as we are often promised, this too shall pass.

Until it does, it is nice to know I’m in such good company. (And, though wary of both easy over-generalizing and guilt-induced-responding, I only heard back from the women for this missive. Men of both the below-forty or over-forty categories, do such quandaries and concerns not apply to you? Or was it the gardening metaphor that didn’t strike home?)

I have to play catch up now before I can immerse you all in the love of my new-found obsession, the “Last Great Race” that is the Iditarod. I had hoped to show you video of the next few events, but even in Anchorage the internet was not working fast enough. So here are some stills instead:

Here I am making my angry face, and I am aiming through the piece of wood to the chopping block beyond. And I am probably about to miss. Again.

Road stop on the way to Homer. I didn’t actually take any pictures of Homer, partially because “the spit” is a quick drive and all boarded up during the winter (think the charm of Provincetown combined with the width of the Atlantic City boardwalk during the abandonment of Woods Hole in the winter). Also because I was too busy staring at the waves on the ocean and thinking of home. Home, not Homer. Get it? Nevermind – moving on.

To … Xtreme Tubing!

It’s like skiing, only the hills are all bunny slopes, and there’s only four of them. And, you know, you get to sit down the whole time.

Even during the “tow rope” that takes you back up to the top.

That’s the catch-up … now here’s a preview for what’s coming next:

Much love,

March 1, 2011

Day 60

Dear all,

March is not exactly my favorite time of year. The weather is not great, for one thing; and when teaching, it is an interminably long month with no regular vacation and, in Massachusetts, the questionably welcome intrusion of MCAS week. Both Easter and Passover usually fall in April and so, with my only claim to Irish descent being via my step-mother, there’s not much for me to celebrate – though I do like the tradition of Pancake Tuesday that my friend K brought back from her year abroad in England.

[Come on, Alaska - really?]

But in all honesty, one real reason I try to avoid March is other people’s gardens. Now is the time when those lucky enough to call themselves gardeners, having spent all winter flipping through seed catalogs and plotting perfect layouts in their heads, actually sit down and order the packets of seeds they will begin to sow as the ground thaws. And I’m jealous. I simply have not had the energy – mental or physical – to plant myself a garden during the past three years of living in as many different houses. All I know for certain is that I’m good at killing houseplants.

[Well, I'm never eating out again.]

What seeds can I plant? As a kid I used to look ahead to the future of adulthood with eager anticipation for the freedom of stability – 25 being the number I haphazardly (and, in hindsight, regretfully) chose as the mark of true adulthood. By 25, I thought, I would have figured out enough in my life to be able to finally, and firmly, begin setting down roots.

[But it can be transmitted through your tears.]

The planting I’ve been doing these days doesn’t feel much like gardening. Much less digging rows and setting stakes, watering and weeding, tending and fertilizing. More throwing handfuls of seeds into the wind, hoping against hope that they’ll land on fertile soil instead of a rocky mountain or a cracked pavement sidewalk. The writing I had promised myself January to attend to doesn’t look, in the end, like it will come to much of anything. My ability to search for teaching jobs is at a standstill as I wait for paperwork to clear and Praxis test dates to approach. I’ve got my Alaska Food Workers Card (and I’ve shared some of the delightfully amusing online test questions with you here), but baking at minimum wage is not going to cut it for long. Even moving to Alaska hasn’t felt quite like the settling of a new life that I was hoping for. I’m eager for the chance to dig in the solidity of dirt, but these days I seem to be simply waiting for the wind to die down.

[Well, at least now you've put as much effort into the question as you're expecting me to supply for the response.]

This is the kind of planting one often does in the unfettered and unsettled youth of one’s twenties (ok, fine, late twenties). And as surely as March gives way to April, there’s always the promise of next season to keep me going. (Though around here, planting season doesn’t actually come until June.)

Much love,