After a whirlwind weekend of building and hauling and spending much more money than we can currently afford, we are ready to plant. I've wanted to grow veggies for years, but we've spent most of our last few summers moving. This year I am determined.

We discovered permafrost about six inches below the tundra mat, making any kind of garden - even a raised bed - a little ambitious. Not to mention I don't really want to invest in a raised-bed garden in a place we don't own, although Peter is planning on putting some potatoes in the little tree-free patch behind the cabin where the permafrost is further down. Given the local moose population and the experimental nature of this, our first year attempting to grow things, I decided long boxes on our super-tall porch would do the trick.

We've made three trips to the hardware store and spend most of the weekend (and my convalescent week at home) creating what I hope will be a satisfactory vegetable home. I also made a last minute purchase of buckets and black-eyed-susans. Although it will be weeks before we see any green, the nice black topsoil edging our porch is making me just as happy for the moment.
I finally did get eucalyptus oil and started adding it to my steam-pot for a little DIY respiratory therapy. One day later, I'm feeling normal for the first time in over two weeks and only have some residual drainage to deal with. Which means back to the kennel tomorrow, and back up the haul road next week. Ah, mixed blessings. But given how much we shelled out for wood and nails and soil and seeds, it's about time.

And then, my little baby sister will be here for her first visit to the North Country. And have we got a wild ride planned for her ...



This morning, I went down to the Department of Natural Resources office to turn in my paperwork for the much anticipated Red Card. While I was waiting at the information desk to be directed through the cubicle labyrinth, I eavesdropped on the couple ahead of me in line. They were a down-to-earth looking pair that were probably in their early fifties. She had long gray hair pulled back simply and well worn tennis shoes. He was wearing busted Carharts and Xtra-Tuffs, the Alaska State Uniform. They looked like the kind of folk who grow their own tomatoes and have a couple of old dogs sleeping in the truck. They were putting in the final paperwork for their remote gold mining claim. I love this state.

After being assured that the Fire Medic program would have my card on file by the end of the day, making me officially eligible to be called up, I scooted over to the fire station. Hoodies and shirts were in, and sucker for good design that I am, I wanted to get my paws on the stash:

Although I don't get my patch until I've been on my first fire, I can tell you right now I will be wearing these two items out in the mean time.

On the personal medical front, I have not pulled a shift at the fire station since the first week of the month. After the LTC training trip, I came down with a minor cold that has turned into a nasty fifteen-day ordeal. I am absolutely to blame for not taking a little time to recover when I first got sick, but be that as it may the little bug is thoroughly entrenched now. I've done garlic-and-ginger tea, neti-pots, sudafed, nyquil, mucinex and theraflu. It won't go away, although a steaming pot of water under a towel has given me some relief tonight. (Can't find the eucalyptus, Nello ... health food store tomorrow.) I am nearly at the point of going to the doctor [state of American health care ... rant, rant ... insurance, copay, deductible ... blah, blah] but we'll see how I feel in the morning. In the mean time, I feel like the front of the medic shirt should be a broadcast warning whenever I leave the house with my tissues and lozenges and sniffles and walloping hacks:

Biohazard indeed.



We live in a little subdivision of cabins north of Fairbanks. We can see our nearest neighbor through the trees in the winter if we look really hard. We usually don't. In the summer, we can hear folks sitting out on decks talking or music drifting over the spruce trees from a party on the next street over. Now that we are getting to know more and more of them, it's nice having neighbors near but out of sight. Borrowing a cup of sugar can be a mile bike-ride to my Little Tour Company coworkers down one road or fellow EMT the other direction. This negates the calories the sugar will add to the cookies. It works out perfectly.

Last weekend, however, one of our neighbors began using the nice weather to do some home repairs. I woke up at six AM none too pleased to hear a cacophony of pneumatic drilling and hammering echoing through our cabin's open windows. Since I had to be somewhere, and because the days are long now and it was one of the first nice weekends, I shrugged it off and left for work at seven. Sunday was no different, and the early morning wake-up call did not make me happy. My patience was worn out on Monday when I woke to drilling and hour before I needed to be up to take a friend to the airport. I was determined to find out who was making all the too-early racket, and (uncharacteristically for me) give them a piece of my mind. A girl needs her sleep! And I wasn't getting much to begin with last week.

I walked outside and stood on the porch to locate the direction of the sound, and hopefully determine which offending cabin deserved my wrath. Hearing the drill again in the quiet morning air, I walked to the back of the cabin and peered into the trees It sounded like it was coming from our landlord's other two cabins on the next road back, a hundred or so yards through the woods. I stood still, waiting for the noise again to confirm my suspicion. But when the drill went off, it sounded like it was coming from the road on the other side of the cabin.

Confused, I walked out to the street. I stood still, watching one of the millions of snowshoe hares around this spring plop its way down the verge of the road. Up on our roof, I saw a mid-sized bird perched just on the crest looking around quietly. I waited. And waited.

Suddenly, the little bird arched his neck and began hammering away at our metal roof, producing the ear-shattering racket we had been living with every morning for three days. It was a misguided woodpecker, and I was - in my exhaustion - furious. I have never wished harm on an animal more than I wanted this little woodpecker to pay for domestic disturbance.

I stormed down the road in disbelief, heading for my friend's house to take her to the airport. When I returned an hour later, the little bird was still up there hammering away. I dragged Peter out to the driveway to have a look. He threw a rock at the roof and scared the beast away, laughing. He says he thought it sounded like a woodpecker all along.



This has been the year of the German Shepherd Puppy at the kennel. Although we do occasionally get young (less than 6 month old) pups for a few days, this year we have had five different purebred Shepherd puppies through, almost always for unusually long stays.

I have had increasing interest in German Shepherds as I have gotten more involved with wilderness medicine and EMS, especially in their role as Search & Rescue (SAR) dogs. Although I spent a few futile months teaching my laconic ridgeback to track, she doesn't have the drive to make a working dog. Because of this, I have paid more attention to the Shepherds we get through the kennel than many of the other breeds.

The first was a pup named Hank. Hank's person had gotten him just a month before getting a job offer to work on the north slope. North slope jobs are two-week-on, two-week-off deals. He was told that arrangements would be made for his dog to accompany him once he got through a training period. We got the four month old Hank, with the expectation that he would be joining his person permanently after a few two-week cycles with us. For two weeks, we worked with Hank on puppy skills and basic obedience. He was a great puppy. He had a super personality, learned fast and was eager to please.

A few days before Hank's scheduled pick-up, his person called. He would not be returning for Hank. Instead, a woman from a local rescue would be picking Hank up the next day. The company had gone back on their word, and Hank would need a new home. I fielded a few calls with the rescue coordinator, and when I came to work the next day the sweet puppy was gone.

This spring, a new Shepherd pup came through. She was a terrified little girl, cowering in the back of her run. She wouldn't let anyone touch her, trembling and trying to hide whenever we got near. After a few days, she warmed up a bit. She started following at my heels and laying under my chair whenever I sat down to do paperwork. I started working on 'off,' 'down' and 'sit' with her. Within five minutes, she would sit for attention instead of bowling me over. And she didn't forget. The kennel owner and I talked about how unfortunate it was that such a sweet, smart dog (who was going to be a big girl!) was not being socialized appropriately. Although she was great with other dogs, she fell to pieces when anyone new came in, or anything unexpected happened.

At the start of this month, I came to the kennel to find her back. For good. The owners, on finding they were expecting a baby, realized that this pup was more than they could handle. They asked the kennel owner, whom they trust, to find a new home for her. Knowing her issues, and being curious about Shepherds in general, I offered to take her home at night for a few days to see how she did and try to work on some of the obedience and socialization she would need to find a good home.

Things did not go well. When Peter came home just after we arrived, she scared us both by into a classic German Shepherd guard-dog bark-snarl routine, trying to keep him away from the house. Then she decided she was terrified of him and nearly tore our kitchen apart trying to get away from him, then from both of us. Later that evening, she managed to slip out the door and lead me on a merry chase around our neighborhood for an hour. When I took her for a run with a friend of mine the next morning, she scared us both with her inappropriate guard-greeting, then later by nearly taking my friend's hand off. Although she was still an angel when it was just the two of us, she became a terrified destroyer when anyone else entered the picture.

I have to admit that somewhere not too deep down and against all logic, I was hoping that this sweet little girl would turn a corner and be the Shepherd I am still hoping for; a great all-around dog with a SAR temperament, smarts and work drive. But the signs were none too obvious.

Since my hours were ramping up at the tour company, I knew I wouldn't have the time I needed even to foster her. We decided she would stay at the kennel until a home was found. I took off for the Little Tour Co. training trip, and the kennel owner started working with state-wide rescues to find her a home. She was shipped down to Anchorage this Friday, and we know there are at least four qualified families vying for her. I wish her new people well. She has the potential to be an incredible dog.

Nyssa has been a spectacular dog, and she is the perfect dog for us now (as much as she hates our current sub-arctic home.) I am so glad I got her when I did, and have learned to much from her about dogs, hounds and ridgebacks. I know we will have more dogs someday. But working at the kennel has made me hard-hearted. I can walk into the puppy room and the pound, glance at the sweet little beasts and walk out without harboring a single fantasy - something I was not previously capable of. I see lots of dogs every day with every possible temperament, and I see how much work goes into keeping different dogs engaged and content. I have a much better idea of what kind of dog I want, when we do take that big next step. I don't know if it will be a SAR Shepherd, sled dogs or a herding dog mix, but I do know that it is not a decision I will make with my head in the clouds. (Like the time Peter and I brought home a pitbull-airdale puppy - the first picture in this post - from the pound for a night. I am so thankful we were cold-hearted enough to take him back.)



This Monday, I drove a group of new and returning Little Tour Company guides north to Coldfoot for a three-day training seminar to kick off the season. The three hundred mile drive from Fairbanks to Coldfoot is mostly on the notorious Dalton Highway, or Haul Road, the four hundred twenty five mile industrial road - mostly dirt - built in the early seventies to service the north slope oil fields and the Alaska Pipeline. The Haul Road has a nasty reputation for chewing up private vehicles and spitting them out with blown transmissions, destroyed tires, lines, brakes and windshields. Although the road is much improved from its early one-lane-dirt iteration, it is still mostly gravel and mostly used by semi's carry supplies at top speed to the shores of the Arctic Ocean.

[haul road & pipeline, atigun valley]
The Haul Road passes through the Yukon-Tanana Uplands, over the Mighty Yukon herself, through the northern most Boreal Forest in the world, out onto beautiful Tundra at the headwaters of the Kanuti River, across the Arctic Circle, over the Brooks Range (Coldfoot and the village of Wiseman are nestled in the southern foothills, and are the only permanent settlements on the road) and out onto the Arctic Coastal Plain that Caribou, Muskoxen and Polarbears call home. It is a spectacular, wild wilderness road, with oil pipeline an ever-present reminder of what lies at the end, and why one is able to travel this land by vehicle at all.

[a young male caribou trotting the Haul Road]
It is an awesome trip, and that is why we bring a few brave guests (less than 1% of Alaska's one and a half million annual summer tourists make the trek) north to cross the Arctic Circle. Even fewer brave the three day trip to the Arctic Ocean to take a frigid dip.

Little Tour Co. exclusively hires Alaskan residents as guides, and most have lived the majority of their lives in the North. Even though we are guiding a road-based trip with LTC, we have all spent extensive time in the wilderness camping, hiking, floating or hunting, and have a great respect for the special dangers and challenges this environment presents. But sometimes we still do incredibly stupid things.

On the way south, after three days of trainings and not much sleep, we arrived back at the Yukon River bridge. I had watched the year's ice go out the Saturday before with my guests (who had no idea how excited I was to witness this spectacular event by chance on a tour!) and the river's shores were now covered in jumble ice, rafts of the five-to-eight foot thick river ice that jam against each other on shore in a chaos of angles that spread from thirty to fifty feet into the strong current. We got out to stretch our legs and stand by the river.
[jumble ice on the Yukon]
As we walked up to the chaos of ice, I thought 'Wow. That looks really dangerous. I bet these boys will walk right out on it.'

Sure enough, the youngest of the new male guides immediately began scrambling over the ice to the edge of the water. He is no stranger to Alaska, to her rivers or her ice. He was born here, and he has hunted Caribou in the wilderness of the north slope back country since he was old enough to carry a rifle.
[Daniel, making the first move]
Daniel got to the edge as we hung back, most of us standing on chunks of ice firmly sitting on the dirt of the boat ramp. "Hey! This is awesome! You can feel the whole thing bobbing in the current," he jumped up and down a few times. "Ice is the strongest material on earth!" He threw an exuberant whoop into the river wind.

Indeed, you can land a fully loaded cargo plane on just five feet of ice-thickness. They do it every day in Antarctica.

I scrambled onto the next raft of ice.

"Check this out! You can see chunks melting off the bottom and bobbing out from underneath."

He was on the edge now, peering over into the fast current. The Yukon is the fifth largest river-by-volume in the world, and the River Bridge is perched at one of its narrowest points just before entering Rampart Canyon.

I looked around me. Five other guides, with close to a combined half-century of experience in Alaska's wildlands, were inching their way towards him, intrigued. I jumped across to the next chunk of ice.
[groupthink in action]
My foot sank through a patch of rotten ice. I threw myself onto a larger sheet, and saw the little slivers disappear into the rushing current below. A small voice somewhere deep in my brain whispered, "Wow. This is a really, really bad idea." I stood up, tested my footing, and stepped around the gaping hole towards the river.

When I was about twenty feet from the edge, I turned to ask another Alaskan-born guide a question about ice. I said, "I know what overflow is, but up in the Brooks you were talking about ..."

"Hey! Check it out! It's starting to fall in!" I stopped mid-sentence and looked over my shoulder. Before my head made it around, Daniel continued, "Oh, shit!" as behind him the entire shelf he was standing on began collapsing into the river. I have never had adrenaline hit my system faster. I began scrambling towards shore, looking over my shoulder every few steps as the ice continued to cave into the current. Everyone sprinted, scrambled and fell towards solid ice. The shelf continued to collapse at our heels like a bridge in an Indiana Jones movie.

[in the second ice photograph, daniel is standing where the water starts in this image.]
I tripped and fell to my knees on a small block, nearly crushing my camera under me. Looking down, I saw dirt beneath the ice. I took a breath a looked around. Daniel had managed to pass all of us, and was standing on the boat ramp sucking in oxygen and staring at the river where we had all been standing less than a minute before.



The tundra swans have arrived in Goldstream. The snow is dwindling. The seasons have changed.

I was supposed to be shuttling someone up to Coldfoot this morning, so I was up early packing snacks and busting out the little used iron. Just as I was gathering things to walk out the door the office called to tell me that the shuttle had been canceled. I was and am still pretty bummed, as I've been looking forward to heading up to the Brooks range all week.

Later in the day, I got a call that the first official tour of the season has been booked for Saturday and would I be available to guide? It is our most popular tour, and the most lucrative for guides in terms of overtime and tips - a 400 mile out-and-back to the Arctic Circle. Of all the tours we offer, it is my least favorite, despite the money. It comprises eighteen hours of on-duty time, yet only gets you within sight of the mountains before you turn around and head back to town. Guests are tired and cranky by the end of the trip, no matter how well the day went. Long out-and-back road trips will wear on anyone's nerves. It also means that the summer season is starting in earnest (already!) and things are cranking up at Little Tour Co.

I am training three new guides for their Commercial Drivers Licenses this season and two are just now starting the behind the wheel portion with me. They have a minimum of thirty hours each to complete before 'sitting' for the driving exam at the DMV, plus the fifteen or so my third student has left. Between training them, summer tour schedules ramping up, trainings and shifts at the fire station and my Red Card class in two weeks, I am unsure of how I'll even find time to work my 'steady' job at the kennel. And then wildfire season will start, shelving everything else until fall.

But for all the busy that this change brings, I am mostly enjoying the return of green, of birds, of warm sunshine.

In the mean time, I have been sitting on pins-and-needles waiting to hear back from the university about my application to the Paramedic program that starts this fall. When I arrived home this evening, I had an e-mail from a friend who works at the University and had a meeting with the program director today. Since the decisions have been made and letters posted, I guess he felt fine letting her know about my status. And so I found out through a nearly after-thought line at the end of a longer missive:
"OHHHHHH - you got in - you're in the Paramedic Program - I totally forgot to let you know ... Celebrate!"
And I feel in a weird shock about it. At this point, that is all I really can muster to say. When I head to water rescue training tomorrow at the station, word will have spread and I'll get slaps on the back and congrats all around and maybe then it will sink in. At the moment, I am just bracing myself for Saturday's tour and can hardly process a sudden solidification of my usually-murky future.

(Speaking of Murky Futures ... plans continue to solidify that will have us paddling towards Tanana on the Yukon in June to deliver a canoe. Video from a tour this winter ... before I froze my video camera at the Quest start this year. Hopefully the ice will be gone by then.)