Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Sled dogs

i've got a nephew that loves huskies. i'm not sure that he's ever spent much time around them, but that doesn't stop him. he also loves polar bears and i KNOW he doesn't see them much either. fortunately for Timmy, he's got an auntie who lives in Alaska. last week, i was in Tanana (where i used to live for those of you who remember) doing some research with a few folks and this is one of the folks i visited: Lester Erhart.

Lester's a cool guy. he breeds, raises, and races sled dogs. he's one of a handful of Alaska Native village residents maintaining an old tradition of keeping dogs. historically, dog traction was the primary means of transportation in bush Alaska. Trapping, hauling wood and water, and travel between the seasonal camps that were home to Athabascan people up through the 1950s were all made possible by dog teams. dogs were the original snow-mobile. and these dogs didn't just work in the winter when there was snow. many teams were harnessed to boats, lining canoes and boats up the Yukon River to summer fish camps.

many people in the villages still use dogs for work, but racing has also been added to their repertoire. as any dog musher knows, these guys are critical to any good working or racing team: the leaders. Dog mushers have endless stories about the amazing intelligence and experience of their leaders to get them out of all manner of fixes.

keeping dogs is a full-time job in itself. here a neighbor's house, also a musher, is storage for all the harnesses and gang lines, snow hooks, and other dog sled stuff. Lester keeps his in a separate shed by his dog yard.

all of these dogs have their own personalities and skills. Dog mushers spend a great deal of time with their dogs learning their possibilities and limitations and figuring out where to put them in a team.

how 'bout this guy?

and once they're all together, a dog team is an amazing thing to witness. in Fairbanks on the trail system and in the villages right on the roads through town, a dog team running at full speed can literally sneak up on you making no more sound than the wind, and gliding right past you with a low whoosh...

in the line-up, they bark and yip, jump and howl, but the moment the musher lifts the snow hook, it's all business with no time to talk. it's racing season in interior Alaska and these guys are off!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Dog booties

Here in Fairbanks, we pay attention to the temperature. when the temperature outside can go from -20F one day to +10F the next, it matters what the temperature is outside. it's not just whether or not woolies will be part of the ensemble on any given day, some days the temperature tells us what we'll likely be doing that day. we pay so much attention that it's not that unusual to check the temperature at the house, then log on to see what the temperature is downtown at the airport, up at Birch Hill (one of our two developed skiing venues), and then call around to our friends to see what it is at their house. all of these readings are part of the complicated calculus that tells us what to wear, if we can skate ski or classic ski, whether or not the dogs will be wearing booties outside. on Saturday, we woke to -24F at the house, -33F at the airport, and -22F at Birch Hill - no inversion. no skiing and the dogs were wearing booties.

Cob and i took Nuchie and his friend Molly ("Poops") on a walk, since -24F below is not much good for anything else. strangely, -24F didn't seem to bother the dogs much, or at least not as much as the booties did. both of them high-stepped around the house like Tennessee Walkers until they got used to their booties. or until they get outside and the mad glee of being out there overwhelms them!

things got a little frosty...

ok, things got a lot frosty...

makes our beaver hats look like bad '70s hair, eh?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

knitted leaves

yesterday i finished one of the more difficult things i've ever knitted. its difficulty for me came not from the skills it required but rather from the thoughts that are as much a part of the finished project as the yarn. you see, knitted things (or at least things i knit) always have a recipient before they come into being. whom they are knit for is as much a part of the process as selecting a pattern, choosing yarn, and sizing it. i need to know who the recipient is because each stitch is not just made up of yarn, but also of thoughts. in this way, my knitting is woven together (hopefully) by skillful stitches and a complicated tangle of memories, thoughts, well-wishes, and hopeful reflection. (this is not including the couple of times when i got engrossed in some Law & Order episode and briefly forgot what was going on with the yarn in my lap...)

what i just finished was a prayer shawl. a prayer shawl is an old craft, made completely by hand, for someone who is ill or grieving. it wraps its recipient up in all the warmth of beautiful yarn woven with the thoughts and prayers of its maker. it's a woolen hug.

the one i finished today is for a friend of Cob's who lost a child. losing a child is something i can't imagine beyond imagining that its terribleness exceeds words. and i know that learning to live through loss is a terrible and necessary journey. so, i trimmed this shawl in knitted leaves, which always remind me of life and its promises.

eight years ago when i suffered a loss that exceeded my power to describe it, my sister gave me a small plate made by a local artist from her area, decorated in the center by a tree whose sprawling branches unfurled out into curling leaves. the tree of life, she told me. since then, i take a certain comfort in the trees around me, and i pay attention when they leaf out in the spring. i inspect them closely, watch their progress, cheer them on, and silently thank them for coming back.

they are simple things, these leaves, but as part of venerable old trees or brand new saplings, they endure and reinvent themselves. in some very basic way, they are life itself.

in times of loss, there is precious little any of us can do. i did my best with my one good skill to make something warm and beautiful, and i lent it the power of leaves to help my husband's friend.