Monday, January 19, 2009

The days are growing longer in the far north

Its been just about a month since the Winter Solstice. The days have been growing longer, gaining some minutes every sunrise. The Earth is well underway tilting her poles back and we will regain those lost minutes of daylight in the mornings. The Sun will rise ever earlier each day.

I became hyper sensitive to the the Earth's shift and tilt during the years I spent in Anchorage. The effect is very pronounced there. The days shorten as the solstice approaches by losing nearly ten minutes every day. By December the sun breaks the horizon at about 11:30 AM and drops back by 1:00 PM. Near Fairbanks it does not rise at all. The world is twilight for just an hour, then dark again. Polaris remains directly over head at all times and is clearly visible in the twilight. Ursa Major swings in a tight circle around Polaris, the Great Northern Bear forever stalks the polar skies.

On this return trip I hope to see the aurora again. At times of solar activities we are treated to the spectacle of the Northern Lights. Charged particles pulled into the atmosphere by the magnetic poles of our planet, strike molecules in the upper levels and release visable light energies around the arctic circle. These banners of light wave in the solar winds, slowly fluttering on the magnetic breeze. On cold, clear and profoundly silent arctic nights, one can hear their faint static, crackling like a lost radio signal, tuning into Infinity.


Sunday, January 18, 2009

Old tunes, new lyrics

To the tune of that old Johnny Horton classic:

Way up north, (North To Alaska.)
Way up north, (North To Alaska.)
North to Alaska, They're goin' North, the race is on.
North to Alaska, They're goin' North, the race is on.

Old Joe dreamed of racing in the year of seventy two,
With Dorothy Page, his partner, and Susan Butcher, too.
They mushed the Yukon River and found the dog team homes.
Below that old white mountain just a little south-east of Nome.

Joe crossed the majestic mountains to the villages far below.
He talked to the native elders and their huskies on the snow.
With the northern lights a-running wild in the land of the midnight sun,
Yes, Joe Redington was a mighty man in the year of seventy-one.

Where the moose are shying,Great dog teams are flying.
North to Alaska,They're goin' North, the race is on.
Way up north, (North To Alaska.)
Way up north, (North To Alaska.)
North to Alaska,They're goin' North, the race is on.
North to Alaska,They're goin' North, the race is on.

Joe turned to Susan with his leaders in his hand,
Said: "Susan you're a-lookin' at a dreaming, crazy man.
"I'd trade all the gold the sourdoughs ever panned,
"For one small chance to race across this bold and frozen land."

'Cos a man needs a good team to take him down the trail.
"Remember, Susan, a true team will never let you fail.
"Build for your huskies a loving, sheltered home.
"Below the great white mountain, further south-east of Nome."

Where the moose are shying,Great dog teams are flying.
North to Alaska, They're goin' North, the race is on.
North to Alaska, They're goin' North, the race is on.
Way up north, (North To Alaska.)
Way up north, (North To Alaska.)
Way up north, (North To Alaska.)

More of this kind nonsense later.....

1972 Fur Rondy Mushers

This is the 1972 draw for the Fur Rendezvous published in the Anchorage Daily News 17 Feb 1972. The text maybe a bit too small for legebility, so the list is:

1. Isaac Douglas, Ambler
2. Charlie Fitka Jr., Marshall
3. George Hood, Anchorage
4. Jerry Riley, Nenana
5. Tim Boedigheimer, St. Paul, Minn.
6. Joe Redington Sr., Knik
7. John P. Norris, Willow
8. Lavon Barvey, Chugiak
9. Dr. Richard Hanks, Anchorage
10. Dr. Roland Lombard, Wayland, Mass.
11. Leo Kriska, Koyukuk
12. George Attla, Huslia
13. Nick Molofy, Edmonton, Alberta
14. Pete Shepherd, McGrath
15. Walt Palmer, Chugiak
16. Dick Mackey, Wasilla
17. Chester Topkok, Teller
18. Lolly Medley, Fairbanks
19. John Phillip, Akiak
20. Lefty Shallock, Fairbanks
21. Charlie Bolle, Eagle River
22. Gareth Wright, Fairbanks

I remember the great rivalry between George Attla and Dr. Lombard and watched Lombard win in 1969, 1970 and 1971. The 1972 race would belong to George Attla and give him his fourth Rondy win since first winning it in 1958.

If you remember any of these mushers or have a story to share, please post here or send directly to me at:

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Where the soul is most contented

In the late summer swelter of south Dallas, 1960, I sat in the lap of my uncle Phil and wondered about the color of his chest hairs. He was shirtless and that bright red hair was fascinating to his 6 year old niece. He was working at his "radio" bench and trying to explain to me how far away Alaska was. He indulged my demands for his attention because he knew he would not see me again for, perhaps several years. As he tested the knobs on his project the refrain of a rising hit song came through the speaker, "...North to Alaska, go north the rush is on...." Uncle Phil sang along with the chorus, he knew the whole song by heart.

From the kitchen in the rear of the duplex, we could here my grandmother slamming cook pots around the stove top. She was again expressing her disapproval of her oldest son's decision to move to Alaska. That damned song was just aggravating to her. Why did that have to be such a popular tune right now? She heard it everywhere and it was a constant, nagging reminder that she was loosing her son.

Phil had just recently been discharged from the Air Force. He was back at Gramma and Grandpaw's house for a few weeks to gather his hunting and fishing gear, visit family, see friends and prepare to move. His decision had not gone over well with the family and we had hastened up the road from Austin for a weekend visit before he left. Why Alaska, for crying out loud? Nothing anyone said could change his mind, because Alaska had claimed his heart. His last tour of duty was in 1959-1960 at Elmendorf AFB, where the wilderness pressed against the chain link perimeter. For this backwoods Arkansas boy, the seduction of this land was complete.

He could truly breath no where else. By the time Johnny Horton's anthem went to number one on the charts, Uncle Phil was back in Anchorage getting settled. He lived the next six years there, working, hunting, fishing, even experiencing the terror of the Good Friday earthquake, happier than he believed possible. Back in Texas we got letters, cards, and holiday packages from that remote, exotic land. One Christmas I got a little bracelet made of walrus ivory tiles. Three of the tiles had sketches of Eskimo children playing and I still have that cherished bracelet. Clearly, this was heaven on earth for Phil Manley from Nashville township, Ark.

In mid August of 1966 my family was stunned by his accidental drowning near Chickaloon. He and a buddy were deep in the bush hunting. They had packed in with a horse to help carry out their kill. While leading the horse across a swift running river he lost his footing and was swept away. The heavy pack he was carrying pulled him down, his friend couldn't see him or get to him in time. Many days later his body was found some miles down stream. My uncle Phil was 27.

His body is buried near his hometown in Arkansas, but his spirit resides in the wind from the Chugiak Range, in the tide rising up the Turnagin Arm and across the land still as wild as when God finished creating it, where he felt most alive. I had a dream about him last dog racing season. While watching video feeds from the Anchorage start you often see those old sourdough types, in wild furs from parka hood to mukluks. I spotted one inside the chute near the cameraman, he turned to the camera and to my astonishment it was my uncle. He was 69, hair and beard no longer red, but silver. His contentment was plain to see.

Among the souveniers I plan to pack from my trip in March is some Alaskan dirt, pebbles, mud or such. I can't bury him in Alaska, but next time I'm in Arkansas, I can bury some of Alaska with him.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Exactly Eight Weeks

In exactly eight weeks I leave San Antonio and return to Alaska after 37 years away.

I left the north a few weeks after I graduated from West Anchorage High School. In those years we had several native students from remote villages who were hosted by families in Anchorage. A kind of ironic foreign exchange program for Native Americans. One of the students was a boy in my art class that I became friendly with. As a lost Texan in those far norther climes I must have seem an exotic and strange creature to him.

At the end of the semester I was growing more excited about returning to Texas and happily anticipating the trip home. This young man, who's face I remember clearly but his name I've forgotten, listened in a quiet thoughtful way to my chattering about returning to Texas. He said to me, "Yes, you will go home but someday Alaska will call you back. You will hear her and you will return."

At the time I couldn't conceive of ever wanting to go back to Alaska, but Alaska has called me back. Over the past year and many months I've found my thoughts and dreams turning north as if magnetised like a compass needle. I'm almost ready to go.

Mush y'all