Tuesday, December 31, 2002

Memories

"Remember the moment someone special came into your life?"

--NBC Promotion

Yes, I do.

I remember standing at the briefing counter at the FSS in Barrow while an electronics technician told jokes and made me laugh. Quite a feat considering that my heart had broken about fifteen minutes before. I sensed that underneath the humor was a sad desperation that matched, or exceded, my own and I admired this man so much for maintaining his brave front in the face of his own unhappiness.

We went on to make each other happy--for two decades now. That first meeting was more than twenty years ago, but I remember it clearly, for it changed--and redeemed-- my life.

I remember hearing the loud cries of a very young kitten as I walked up from the parking lot at the Homer Animal Shelter. A handful of orange fluff, screaming in hunger, outraged at the unfairness of the world. Three weeks into her life in this world, she was already possessed of strong opinions and a force of will that I was helpless against. I took her home--just for a little while--and never took her back. I know now it had been meant to be. I may have saved her life--but I am the lucky one.

The phone rang and the voice on the other end was more familiar than my own. It's funny how life throws things at you--even impossible things--as if to see how fast on your feet you are. Does an arrow in flight know the course of its trajectory? I doubt it. Some forces we just must submit to and hope we land where we are intended to.


"We've gotta roll with the punches
Learn to play all of our hunches
Make the best of whatever comes your way
Forget that blind ambition
And learn to trust your intuition
Plowin' straight ahead come what may..."
--Jimmy Buffett

Monday, December 30, 2002

Birch

10 degrees
18 inches of snow on the ground

The dawn came up in the colors of a dove--slate-blues, pale grays and soft pinks.

In the lunar calendar, we are in Beth, the tree-month of the birch tree, the first of the sacred year. The birch is a symbol of inception, of beginnings. What I like about the old religion, about pagan spirituality is the way that the sacred is imbued into real life and every day objects. The sight of a birch tree, or a raven, accesses a whole web of complex concepts and interlinked correspondences.

Truth is too big to be contained in one set of precepts.

Sunday, December 29, 2002

Lightweight

20 degrees
16 inches of snow on the ground

I have managed to get through both Thanksgiving and Christmas without gaining any weight--so I am pretty pleased. I also ate what I wanted over the holidays--but except for candies, it was all stuff that is on the diet anyway.

I know this diet doesn't work for everyone but it has worked for me. My blood work came back very good to excellent, so I must be doing something right.

There is less of me to love these days....

Pumpkin Cheesecake
from The Harbor Girls' Cookbook

12 oz (1 1/2 pkg) cream cheese, at room temperaure
2 eggs
1/4 to 1/3 cup sugar or Splenda
1 can (or 1/2 large can) pumpkin
Your favorite pumpkin pie spices (cinnamon, cloves,nutmeg and ginger)
I like a spicy pie so use about 1 to 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp ginger and nutmeg, and 1/4 to 1/2 tsp ground cloves)

Mix in the order given, pour into a graham-cracker pie crust, and bake at 350 for about fifty minutes, until the center is set. Refrigerate at least an hour before serving.

I made this recipe up out of several different ones. I love pumpkin pie and cheesecake, so finding a way to combine the two was fun. I have made this recipe twice with excellent results. Aside from the graham-cracker crust, this is a solid Adkins-diet recipe, and I felt the crust adds enough to the ease of the recipe (rather than making a walnut or pecan crust) to justify the few extra carbs.

Saturday, December 28, 2002

Ice Planet

0 degrees
16 inches of snow on ground

"Your Tauntaun will freeze before you reach the first marker..."

Honey, I think my Tauntaun has already frozen.

Friday, December 27, 2002

Cold

5 degrees
16 inches of snow on the ground

This what happens when it clears off in the winter...

Was it just last week I was complaining about the warm temperatures and wishing it would cool off? This *is* more seasonable--and drier--but my heart goes out to the wild or abandoned creatures that have to cope with the cold. I checked the electric water dish by the back door to make sure it was working properly--I always have dry food out for the stray cats but I imagine finding unfrozen water is a challenge to them.

I heard birds up in the spruce trees while I was bringing in some wood for the stove, so I strew a generous portions of sunflower seeds out on the snow for them. I was hoping to see some pine grosbeaks--I thought I recognized their song--but I had to leave for work before any birds took up my offering of food.


"To live here, you have to like to suffer, or to watch others suffer, preferably both." --Pat Monaghan on the sadomasochistic theory of Alaskan life.

Thursday, December 26, 2002

Green Flash

25 degrees
16 inches of snow on the ground

Green Flash

Watch now for a green flash, for the last moment
When the sun plunges into the sea;
And breathe no wish (most wishes are of weakness)
When green, Love's own heraldic tinture,
Leads in the mystagogues of Mother Night:
Owls, planets, dark oracular dreams.
Nightfall is not mere failure of daylight.

--Robert Graves

Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Christmas

20 degrees
13 inches of snow on the ground

I woke up yesterday in the dark.

And silence.

The power was out.

I fumbled for the flashlight I keep on my side of the bed for just such occasions and squinted at my watch on the bedside table--seven-thirty. It was at least an hour and a half until daylight, so I snuggled back down into my quilts and cats and went back to sleep.

Sometimes you have to know what's important and what can wait to be dealt with.

About eight-thirty, I decided it was time to make coffee. I trudged downstairs and fired up the stove. The old-fashioned perculator was already filled with water--all I had to do was measure grounds and light the propane. While I waited for it to perk, I made sure the woodstove was loaded with wood, turned on the radio and lit a few candles.

By the time it was growing light, I was sitting at the kitchen table writing a last few Christmas cards, basking in the warmth of the wood stove and the glow of the candles and sipping my hazelnut coffee. The morning was as peaceful and lovely as if I had planned it.

It was briefly idyllic.

The power soon came back on, but all day long, the electricity cycled on and off at random intervals. I can't imagine the reason--there wasn't heavy snow falling or strong winds blowing. I did the best I could to clean house, wash dishes and get some baking done so it wouldn't look like I'd spent the last two weeks pathetically hanging out on the Internet.

I lost count after the thirteenth power outage.

I abandoned my attempts to re-do the House of Many Cats web page in a festive format. The power spikes and fade-outs had me scared enough to shut down the computers early in the afternoon.

I got the bedding changed and put on a new quilt I had bought about a year ago and never used--it is cream, dark green and burgundy--rather holiday-like in its colors. I got the downstairs vacuumed and dishes washed. While the pumpkin cheesecake and pumpkin pie baked, I fed the cats and made a salad.

Denny called from a pay phone in Girdwood--seeing the unfamiliar number on the calller-ID made my heart sink, thinking he was calling from Cold Bay to tell me the plane hadn't made it. No--he had forgotten his cell phone in Anchorage--that was the extent of the bad news. He told me to expect him in four hours (as usual, he made it in three and a half).

About ten pm, I made myself some eggnog, got the steaks ready to grill and sat back for a moment. The phone rang again.

This time it was Kathy, my favorite cousin, calling from Washington State in the final round of telephone tag that we'd been playing for a month. I grabbed my eggnog, turned on the broiler and sat back to talk. Damn, it was good to talk with her. It made me freshly aware of how I miss her.

As we talked, the power cycled off and on a few more times, finally dying with finality. I had known in my bones that the minute I started cooking dinner--the one thing I was counting on electricity for--the power would go down for good. Oh well--this is Alaska--it's always something.

I talked and laughed with my cousin in the soft glow of candles when the sweep of headlights hit the window over the sink. "If you want to talk with Denny, hold on," I told Kathy, and grabbed a flashlight and went to meet him.

"The power is out? I thought it looked a little dark along the road."

"Come talk to my cousin," I told him, and went in search of another phone.

All the lines upstairs weren't working, so I ended up in the shop, standing next to the cats' water fountain, still humming away thanks to the independent power supply I have it and one shop light connected to. Not because the fountain is so important, but because there was room to plug two things in, so what the hell... I keep a light on in the shop for the cats because--despite their press--they really can't see in total darkness and the shop has only one small window. I worried about them falling or hurting themselves when the power was off at night, so we hooked up one light for them out there.

Anyway, I stood there and petted Newt while Denny and I talked with Kathy, trying to talk her into coming up to visit us next summer. That would be nice.

After we got off the phone and Denny brought his bags inside, we put the steaks in a frying pan on the stove and visited while they cooked.

Candlelight Christmas Eve dinner--that wasn't so bad.

There wasn't much else to do after we ate, so we went to bed. It had been a busy day for both of us, and the simple happiness of having Denny home was all I wanted Santa to bring me.

The power came back on about two-thirty in the morning.

I woke up to the broadcast of the Pope's Midnight Mass on television. I went around the house blowing out the candles, turning off lights, checking the doors and the woodstove. I left the Christmas tree lights on to cast their glow downstairs. Across the yard, the lights of the outside trees--wrapped in soft snow--answered them.

Sunday, November 03, 2002

Quake

And the Earth trembles
Under the feet
Of the Cosmic Dancer...
--lmr

I was sitting in front of the computer monitor at work this afternoon when I started feeling dizzy, as if the building were swaying around me. I looked over at the windows and noticed the shade pulls swinging slightly. David and I exchanged glances.

"Earthquake..."

This was said in the calm but interested way that Alaskans have of reacting to earthquakes. I sat at the desk with an air of faint expectation--David never even took his feet down off the console. After what seemed like a minute, the building stopped moving, though the shade-pulls continued to sway gently for another minute.

Shortly thereafter, the usual bulletin from Palmer came across the computer, giving a preliminary magnitude of 7.5 and placing the quake under the Alaska Range southeast of Fairbanks.

Someone from Kenai AFSS called down to see if we had any damage.

"Well, I had to get up to answer the phone but aside from that..."

Friday, November 01, 2002

Lyric

sunrise: 8:23 am
sunset: 5:14 pm

The wild and windy night
That's the rain, washed away
Has left a pool of tears, crying for the day
Why leave me standing there
Let me know the way...

Friday, October 11, 2002

Life in Flight Service

Lookin' back at my background
Tryin' to figure out how I ever got here
Some things are still a mystery to me
While others are much too clear ..."

--Jimmy Buffett
Migration


Most people have no clue what I do for a living.

When asked in casual conversation, I invariably say, "I work at the airport." When pushed, I admit: "I work for the Federal Aviation Administration. I'm an air traffic control specialist at the Flight Service station."

The phrase "air traffic control" gets their attention and usually draws an awed response. I feel like telling them, "Don't be too impressed...you don't know the half of it."

They keep wanting to envision me in a tower, pushing tin. When I explain what it is I actually do for a living, most people are either confused or disappointed. We have often joked that Flight Service is the Cinderella of the air traffic branch--no glory, just the drudgery of behind-the-scenes work. So most of us who end up here aren't looking for glory. We just want to do a good job.

This is what we do:

We take the official weather observation for Homer. You ever wonder why the weather is always reported from the airport? That's because the weather observer system--a joint project between the National Weather Service and the F.A.A.--was initially set up to provide weather information for mail planes. Part of our training and certification is in how to evaluate weather data: figuring dew points, estimating cloud heights and visiibilities, etc. We compile this data and send it out at least once an hour--more often if conditions are rapidly changing--transmitting it around the world so anyone anywhere can look on their computer and see what's happening at the Homer airport.

In addition to this, we give pilots weather briefings. This is a separate area of expertise--requiring yet more training and certification. We learn how to interpret text forecasts, weather maps and satellite photos in order to give pilots a fair idea of what conditions they can expect to encounter during their flights. Additionally, we give information on outages of navigational aids that may affect their flight, what runway conditions are like at the airport they are going to ("three inches of wet snow on the runway"), areas of restricted airspace due to fire-fighting activities, military training or security reasons and any reports that other pilots have passed along about the weather they encountered.

We provide this service both in person and over the phone to pilots planning flights, or via radio to pilots already en route. Frequently, pilots and others will just come in and want to hang out--waiting for the weather to improve or the latest reports to come in--and we let them do that as well.

Aside from having to know more about weather and what causes it than any normal person would want, we have an air traffic hat we wear (speaking figuritively, of course) that comprises the larger part of our workload.

Pilots are urged to file flight plans, detailing where they plan to go and how long it will take them. We are the people who take that information from them and pass it along to other Flight Service Stations. If the flight is just in our local area, we hold his or her flight plan ourselves. If the plane does not arrive where they said they would when they said they would, we are the folks who initiate the search and rescue process. It's like being a mother hen--we are constantly worrying that all the chicks won't be home on time.

While I'm wearing the data-passing hat, I'll tell you some of the other information we pass along via our inter-government message system. (We used to do this via teletypes--yes, really!--but now it is done on computers.)

Not only do we pass flight plans--and the associated search-and-rescue information if needed--on our computer messaging system, but also the runway condition information we get from the people charged with keeping the runways in good shape. These fall under the heading of NOTAMs (NOtices To AirMen in our acronym-rich jargon.) During snow season, we can be kept pretty busying updating this information for Homer and our satellite airports. "Homer Runway 3-21 has three inches of loose snow over ice, plowed fifty feet wide with four-foot snowbanks..." Outages of the navigational aids also fall into this category. "Homer's Kachemak Nondirectional Radio Beacon will be out-of-service this afternoon from three until five pm..."

We get advisories on earthquakes and possible tsunami warnings over this system as well. We have a list of local agencies to advise (before we close the station and head up the hill...)

There are also administrative messages that are usually of interest to no one but ourselves. "The next time someone is coming to Homer, can you bring some more paper and flight plan forms?"

The radio work is the largest portion of our work load. Like all FAA air traffic facilities, we monitor the two international distress frequencies, though we rarely get actual calls on them. The Emergency Locator Transmitters--ELTs--that all aircraft carry also broadcast on these frequencies--a swooping alarm set of either by hand or by impact when a plane goes down. We really hate to hear those.

Homer FSS has two other radio frequencies we use. VHF 122.2 mhz has been the standard Flight Service frequency since Christ was a cadet. This is the radio frequency we use for routine air-to-ground contacts: flight plan filing, weather briefing, taking pilot reports of weather, and the basic passing of significant information.

But by far our busiest frequency is the one we use for local airport traffic information, 123.6 mhz. This is very similar to what is done in towers--with a twist. Homer is what is called an "uncontrolled airport". Pilots flying into and out of Homer are not required to talk to us--heck, they aren't even required to have a radio. But the FAA provides an advisory service. So the pilots operating in and out of Homer generally will call us and tell us their position and intentions. We respond with what is called an airport advisory, giving them the wind speed and direction, the runway that is in use, the current alitimeter setting, any aircraft traffic that might be a factor for them, and other information as it applies to them. It can sound like this:

N505SD: "Homer Radio, November-Five-Zero-Five-Sierra-Delta, six south for landing, planning Runway Three."

Me: "November-Five-Zero-Five-Sierra-Delta, Homer Radio. Homer Airport Advisory: winds two-five-zero at one-one, gusting one-eight--Runway Two-One is favored. Snow removal equipment is working on Taxiways Alpha and Bravo-South. Traffic is a DeHavilland Twin Otter, reported ten north three minutes ago, planning a straight-in to Runway Two-One, and a Cessna One-Fifty on the downwind for Runway Two-One at this time. Altimeter three-zero-zero-seven."

N505SD: "Homer Radio, roger. I"ll plan Runway Two-One, then. Five-Sierra-Delta"


Usually it is pretty routine--just helping the pilots sort themselves out into some kind of order, answering questions about where to park and where to get fuel, etc. The variety of the work keeps it interesting. And we never know if the next radio call is going to be some pilot asking us to call his wife to come and meet him, or someone thirty miles out over Cook Inlet with a rough-running engine.

I have been fortunate. The number of times that I have been the one to answer that call for help have been mercifully few. I was baptized by fire, however. I was still in training on the radio position at Fairbanks with a journeyman controller riding shotgun when I got a radio call from a floatplane that had just had a mid-air collision with another aircraft about twenty miles west of Fairbanks. That plane made it safely back to the field but unknown to me at the time, the plane he had hit--containing three friends of mine--spun into the marshy lakes, killing all on board.

Several year later, I had another call from a pilot who was encountering heavy icing flying toward Fairbanks from Fort Yukon. Other controllers got on the line to Center and we were able to find her an altitude with warmer temperatures. She wrote to thank me for my assistance.

All I could do in both circumstances are be an electronic hand-holder--someone who was listening, helping the pilot think through their situation. Someone for them to talk to and, I hope, a bit of comfort.

We are the calm voices in the ether that the pilots hang on to when the shit hits the fan. That's the only acting I can do--to sound calm over the radio. The FAA spends a lot of time and effort drilling that calmness into us. Before I got out of the FAA Academy, I was literally able to recite the script for a lost aircraft orientation in my sleep. That training is drilled deep into us and kicks in when we need it--so we can at least sound calm and composed even if our hearts are beating in our throats.

Friday, August 30, 2002

Wired & Tired

Denny left for Anchorage this afternoon in a Suburban loaded with people. The visitors will be boarding flights Outside tonight and tomorrow, and he will be heading back out to Cold Bay. It is nice for him to have some company on that long (five-hour) drive--he has made it so many times over the years alone.

I thought I would enjoy having the house back to myself but I am inexplicably lonely in what should be welcomed solitude.

I'm wandering around the the house at loose ends, aimless. Unable to concentrate. Unable to sit still. The pile of tapes on top of the VCR mock me. I don't know if I am ready to hear that voice again, to watch the play of expressions across his face. It is suddenly too real.

It's a bit like the day-after-Christmas feeling you have as a kid. A strange mixture of elation and depression.

But you have to take what life gives you and make the most of it.

If nothing else--the future has suddenly gotten a tad more interesting.

Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Vacation

Okay, so I have been chilling out since the 11th. Have you missed me?

In the meantime, the season has turned from summer to early fall. There is a chill in the morning air and the night is gradually encroaching into what were daylight hours.

Most damningly, the fireweed is starting to cotton out, the brilliant blooms just scattered clusters of florets on the very tops of random stalks. The lower temperature last night was in the upper thirties...

The tide turns twice, then turns again...

So, I spent my first week of vacation cleaning house. Houseguests. [shudder] I mucked out the "spare room" (we'll be looking for things for months...) and set up two makeshift beds. The actual hostessing duties have been light. Denny, ever mindful of my social ineptitude, squired our friends off to Valdez last week for salmon fishing. What can I say?--people give me hives. Mentally if not physically.

While the tourists visited with an old friend in McCarthy, Denny nipped home for a few days of mingling and some R&R of his own. Then, yesterday, we floated the Kenai River from Cooper Landing to Skilak Lake Road. [See entry for August 26th for details...]

Denny plans on heading over to the cabin on McDonald Spit with the visitors today. Cat-keeping duties will keep me at home, though I told him I would go over for the day on Thursday if he will come and get me.

Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Smoke

Cranes are flying overhead. A harbinger of fall.

The winds shifted again these past few days. The air is smoky from the wildfires in the Interior. Visibility has run four or five miles--not as bad as the last time--but this time is more persistent, and we can smell the smoke.

I've been wandering around in a daze, as well. I have seen a film that was so unexpected that it has left me simultaneously stunned and inarticulate. It can't be explained. I guess it needs to be experienced. But it is a most beguiling, seductive drug.

Monday, August 05, 2002

August

Sunday, and it's raining in Alaska.
Seven days, I haven't seen the sun...

--the Wrangel Mountain Song
John Denver

Summer is sliding away. August is already here, and the days are like a handful of pebbles, dropping one by one from my grasp.

An old tropical storm is spinning in the Aleutians--a wave of moisture came through early this morning, breaking the string of beautiful, hot days. I woke up in the darkness and listening to rain pouring down. Rain--a sound that years of Alaskan living has made synonymous with summer for me.

The heat has translated into humidity--a muggy morning with the temperature and dewpoint both at 54 degrees, tattered shreds of stratus lying along the bluff, fed by the drizzle.

The indirect light makes the fireweed glow with an unnaturally intense color. Slowly, the florets climb the tall spikes as each bud opens--folklore maintains that when they have bloomed to the top, first frost is only two weeks away. We are on the countdown now, with the floral fuses burning.

Sunday, August 04, 2002

Stars

I saw the stars this morning for the first time since May.

Of course, I had to get up at 2 am to see them. I was out in the yard, waving Denny off to Anchorage. The northern horizon glowed with pre-dawn light, but overhead were the Dipper and the Little Bear, doing their slow dance around the pole. A cresent of moon hung in the northeast sky.

One positive thing to be said for the cooler seasons--you don't have to get up so early to star-gaze.

Thursday, August 01, 2002

Baked Alaska

sunrise: 5:48 am
sunset: 10:34 pm

After the rain and cool temperatures of last week, this week has been a surprise as most of the state bakes under a dome of high pressure. High temperature records are being broken every day as highs reach the seventies and eighties.

When I came into work this afternoon, PD said there had been a fire yesterday up toward Bald Mountain--apparently sparked by lightening.

I had seen the cumulo-nimbus build-ups over the higher terrain to the west of us Wednesday afternoon. Larry had come by to talk with Denny about putting out some crab pots, so the guys were sitting on a tailgate in the shade, drinking beer. I went out to say hi and remarked on how dark the sky was in that direction. Later, Denny came in and said he had heard thunder. I guess that's what did it.

PD said the lightening hit in a bunch of beetle-killed spruce and the fire just took off. The response was immediate--helicopters, spotter planes and fire crews. They kept him pretty busy for a Wednesday evening, but they got the fire contained, then extinguished. A clean-up crew must have been left on the ground overnight, because this evening, a helicopter ferried some fire fighters out, unloading them on the ramp near Taxiway Charlie. After three trips, the helicopter took off to the north, and a Casa 212 came in and picked up the personnel.

The air was drier today, with just a few clouds building in the afternoon. A mixed blessing that as we get drier, the possibility of thunderstorms is decreasing.

Thursday, June 06, 2002

Ring of Fire

Every evening when I crest the ridge going home, I see the conical shape of Mt. Redoubt. From this angle it reminds me of Mt. Rainier, which loomed over the topography of my childhood in Puget Sound. I've spent my life on the Ring of Fire. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are a fact of life.

Shortly before we moved to Homer, the area was dusted with volcanic ash during an eruption of Mt. Augustine. Several years later, we awoke one morning to find a quarter-inch of gray ash covering the February snow, courtesy of Mt. Redoubt. The folks who lived on Diamond Ridge got a spectacular show.

Another couple of years passed, and in the mid-1990s I stepped outside one evening to listen to the sound of distant thunder. I scanned the horizon but the sky was clear of dark cumulus. I listened more closely to the muted roar, then went inside and called Kat and Larry.

“Hey, is Anchor Point under attack? I keep hearing these booming noises.”

“They said something on the radio about Mt. Spurr erupting....”

“Oh, wow...”

I drove over to their place, noticing along the way a long streamer cloud extending off to the northwest. Some type of particles were falling from it, back-lit by the sun. From Kat & Lar's roof, we watched the volcanic cloud move down the Inlet.

These eruptions impress the residents of our area, but I'm sure the folks out on the Aleutians would be nonplussed. They live in one of the most active volcanic zones in the world and we get frequent flight advisories for volcanic ash out that way.

The graceful conical shapes that dominate our landscape remind us that we live along the Ring of Fire. The earth is in motion and the tranquility of those snow-capped peaks is an illusion.

Monday, June 03, 2002

Roads


"When we come to the place where the road and the sky collide
Throw me over the edge and let my spirit glide…"

--The Road and the Sky
Jackson Browne

Living in Homer, we are fortunate by Alaskan standards. We have a road.

I can actually get in my little truck and go some place else.

Well, we could do that in Nome, too. Nome was a unique Bush community in that roads of substantial length trickled out from town in three different directions. But going on a road trip in Nome would leave you cast up in such exotic locales as Teller or Kougarok or Council. Those roads existed primarily so people in those settlements could get to Nome, not so the folks of Nome could get to out. We used to laugh about a road that looped across the north end of town, from west to east—the Nome By Pass. As if someone would drive the rough, difficult fifty miles of road from Teller to Nome and decide that they needed to go around Nome and continue on to, say, Safety or Council.

A major facet of Homer’s existence is due to the fact that the road ends here. I owe my job to that fact.

We are a minor transportation hub. Mail, groceries and people come to Homer from the world at large. Here they are put into airplanes or on boats and taken to their destinations. All day long, I sit at the airport and talk to the air taxi planes as they taxi out and depart for Seldovia, Port Graham, or English Bay in an unending cycle. The narrow gravel airstrips that serve those communities are their link to the outside world and all that keeps them in the 21st Century.

At Homer--we have a road.

The fancy struck me after I got off work this afternoon to drive to Soldotna--seventy miles up the highway toward Anchorage. I stopped by the house to check on the cats and picked up some tapes to listen to and a notebook to jot ideas down. Then I pulled out onto the two-lane Sterling Highway and headed north.

Some wag said we have two seasons in Alaska: Winter and Construction. Gravel trucks and logging trucks and recreational vehicles trickled past me heading south. The northbound traffic seemed to be mostly pick-up trucks. The road is in good condition after major resurfacing in the past decade. I made good time.

The route follows the coastline of the Kenai Peninsula past old homesteads and cabins sinking into the moist earth. The route was chosen by the pioneers for utility, not beauty, but there are occasional views out across the width of Cook Inlet to the west side, where the Alaska Range turns south and becomes the Aleutian Range.

These mountains are the northernmost extension of the coastal mountain ranges that run north and south up the west coast of North America--rugged mountains pushed upward by plate techtonics and dotted with active volcanoes. Looking west toward the Alaska Peninsula, I could see four volcanic peaks, deceptively serene under their snowcaps: Mt. Spurr, Mt. Redoubt, Mt. Iliamna, and far to the south, the volcanic island of Augustine.

Where the view to the west was obscured, the natural world shimmered with the energy of our condensed spring. Birch and aspen just putting out their first leaves, the wild rye along the road sending shoots skyward, and even the occasional early-blooming lupine. The energy of the emerging lifeforce was palpable, almost intoxicating.

Two hours after leaving work, I was standing in the Fred Meyer store in Soldotna, surrounded by an embarrassing abundance of American material wealth. Even in what most Americans would doubtless consider “the sticks”, I can buy the latest computer games or a DVD player, get produce from around the world or even pick up some fast food.

All because of that two-lane strip of pavement that snakes along the edge of Cook Inlet and connects my little town to the world.

Sunday, June 02, 2002

Punkin



God, I love this cat.

I suppose, like any love, it is hard to justify rationally. Most people see a fat orange cat of moderate feline beauty. But she is inhabited by such an active intelligence and out-going personality, she lights up my life.

There was a time, after Kisa died, that I thought no other cat could be such a close companion as she was. It is still hard for me to write about Kisa, even fourteen years after her death, because it reminds me of how much I miss her and how special our love was.

In the years following Kisa's death--beginning a scant week later--other cats trickled into my life as I sought solace from missing her. No living thing can take the place of another. All it can do is provide a distraction while it finds its own place in your heart. So Johnny and Newt and Toby and the others found their way to us. I loved them and cared for them but none shared the special closeness of spirit that I had with Kisa. Until that day in October 1994 when a orange scrap of a kitten ended up at the Animal Shelter.



Punkin could not be more different from Kisa. Where Kisa was shy and inobtrusive, Punkin craves to be the center of attention. She has never met a stranger. Kisa was quiet and subtle. Punkin is not. Yet she touches the part of me that had been barren and still after Kisa died. She has become another darling companion.

As I write this, she is in the cat tree a foot-and-a-half from my shoulder, watching me with her bright, leaf-green eyes. When I turn my head to look at her, she searches my face and then meows softly. Her face literally lights up when I call her name.

Consider this: humans consider themselves the pinnacle of evolution, forgetful that we share the earth with a startling variety of organisms who have been evolving every bit as long as we have. We spend billions searching the universe for life on other planets, yet often treat the life right here on earth with callous disregard. Scientists are quick to discount any claim for higher intelligence among our cousin-species, as if to acknowledge that we share this planet with other intelligences threatens us in some way.

I think all it threatens are our paradigms.

I suppose if we grant them intelligence, we must also acknowledge their emotions. Perhaps go so far as to invest them with souls. *That* would certain raise serious moral quandaries. Shit, we can't even *prove* that human beings have souls--it seems the most crass arrogance that we are so quick to deny them to other beings.

Seems to me anything capable of love must have a soul.

I know Punkin has a soul--we touch, soul-to-soul, across the gulf of language and intention, every time we make eye contact.

Saturday, June 01, 2002

Visibility

sunrise: 5:01 am
sunset: 11:04 pm

As I crested the top of the bluff driving home from work last night, the view across the Inlet and to the north was veiled by a faint haze of smoke. The sun, still an hour or two from sunset, had dropped behind a band of stratus clouds, lending the land and sky subtle hues. The normally sharp contours of Mt. Redoubt, always spectacular when I turn the final bend on the highway, were softened and indistinct. The mountain cast an azure silhouette against the pale peach sky sixty miles away.

In more civilized areas, unrestricted visibility is considered, for aviation purposes, ten miles. That figure is meaningless in the clear air of the north. My daily commute to work (all ten-to-fifteen minutes of it) takes me along the bluff that defines the southwestern edge of the Kenai Peninsula. I can look out across lower Cook Inlet to the perfect snow-capped cindercone of Augustine Volcano, sixty miles to the southwest, with the jagged peaks of Cape Douglas rising up eighty miles to the south.

Years ago, when I worked in Fairbanks, we got a telephone call one clear autumn day from a Flight Service Station in Virginia. The specialist on the other end of the line thought there had been a typo in the last weather report we had transmitted. "In the Fairbanks sequence--your visibility is twelve miles, right?"

"Uh--no, actually, it's one hundred-twenty miles."

"A hundred and twenty miles?"

"Yep."

"What can you see that's a hundred and twenty miles away?"

"Well, there's this great big mountain to the southwest of us--twenty-thousand feet tall. We call it Denali but you probably know it as Mt. McKinley..."

*~*~*~*

"It takes 43 muscles to frown and 17 to smile, but it doesn't take any to just sit there with a dumb look on your face." --June motto on Demotivators 2002 calendar by www.despair.com

Monday, May 20, 2002

Daily Life

"It's much more important to write than be written about."
--Gabriel Garcia Marquez

But what if you write about yourself?

Denny left this morning about two for the drive to Anchorage. At least he doesn't have to make the commute every week, like he used to do. On his present schedule, he makes the 480-mile round-trip just once a month.

I went outside yesterday afternoon to help him load the Dodge and pack for the week in Anchorage. It was hot and dusty, and we finally sat on the tailgate of his S10 where there was still a slice of shade from the building, drinking beer and trying to decide what to do about dinner. The choice finally came down to buying a pizza at Starvin' Marvin's or getting an uncooked one at Eagle (our Safeway outlet) and baking it at home.

While we were leisurely considering the options, I heard birdsong and looked up to see a swallow swooping around the front of the shop. We have had a pair nesting in the birdhouse on the front of the shop nearly every year since I put it up--and that has to be nearly ten years ago. I tell myself every fall that I am going to climb up and clean the nestbox out, but never have gotten around to it. Looks like I am too late this year.

Our swallows return each May about the 21st and stay until about July 20th. (I remember because my brother's birthday is the 21st and Denny's is July 20th.) So I guess they are a bit early. It's nice to have them back. The swallows are the last to return-the woods have been alive the last few weeks with birdsong. I lay awake yesterday morning listening to a veritable symphony outside the windows while waiting for the alarm to go off.

Didn't need the alarm this morning, as Denny called on his cell phone about four-thirty. I had been hoping to sleep until five, then jump out of bed and into my clothes in order to be at work about five-forty. But Denny wanted to check in--he was just getting back in cell-phone range after going through Turnagain Pass. He felt bad about leaving without kissing me good-bye. I had fallen back to sleep before he left and he didn't want to wake me. He is so sweet and thoughtful, I guess I shouldn't complain about being woke up by his phone call. Just wish he'd been here to wake me up in person.

I am glad it is my "Friday". Obviously, I am ready for a break. When I glanced at my watch on my way out of the door this morning, I was stunned to see it was twelve-o-clock. Then I realized I had my watch on upside down...

I stopped by The Wagon Wheel on my way home after work to see if they had any starter plants available yet. The greenhouses were open and some of the pansies and violas were already outside hardening off.

Restraint comes hard for me at the nurseries. After a long winter, I am so dazzled by the prospect of green and growing things that I tend to go a bit wild, but I limited myself to one flat of starters-mostly violas. I just love violas. They are so hardy in this climate-- blooming all summer and well into the fall. I will even have a few flowers in November, after several hard freezes. I chose six-packs in the purple and violet palette, though I did get one six-pack of yellow because they looked so cheery. Perhaps I'll pair those with marigolds in the hollow-log planters.

Let's see-also picked up a couple of lavender shrublets and some sweet peas. I have fond memories of sweet peas from the days of my youth in Washington, though they just don't do as well here. Maybe down in town and along the bench, but up here at the thousand-foot level, we get just enough more winter that it takes until August for them to bloom. But I will give them a shot any way. They have such a lovely fragrance.

Came home, settled the plants in the shade by the cat-run, came in and cleaned litter boxes, then crawled into bed for a nap. I find our long summer days are easier to keep up with if I lie down during the heat of the day for a snooze, especially after an early morning shift. The kitties are always game for a nap, so they find this custom charming, of course. I had gotten several VHS tapes in the past week or so to add to the D'Onofrio Collection, so I watched "The Winner" until I fell asleep, surrounded by cats.

This evening, I did my part to try to break the stretch of sunny days by washing my truck. We got a pressure washer last year and if I run the hose into the shop, I can hook up to the hot water faucet by the laundry room. This is the first time I have used the pressure washer to do a vehicle, and I was pretty please with how fast it went, especially with the chrome wheels, which are a pain to scrub and polish. I waited until about nine p.m. to go outside--waiting for the heat to lessen as I don't tolerate either sun or heat very well.

One minor set-back. My walkman slipped off the waistband of my sweats and landed right in the bucket of suds. The timing took me aback, as I was just walking past the bucket, not actually leaning over it at the time. What's a real pisser is that this is the second tape player I have dunked in the last two months--I had one slip off and fall in the wash water on one of my volunteer days at the Shelter.

So far, though, only the batteries have been a total loss. Once the tape player dries out, it seems to work fine. The challenge is diving in to rescue the cassette tape before it becomes a lost cause. This one looked like it had absorbed a bit of water, so I left it on the counter next to the tape player to dry out.

Sunday, May 19, 2002

Smoke

We managed to get through the night without the whole Peninsula going up in flames. There appeared to be a grassfire going out on East End Road when I closed the station last night but it looked as if it had been attacked pretty vigorously--the smoke was fading away even before I got out of town. Homer smelt faintly of wildfire smoke.

I didn't sleep easily.

This morning, the air is hazy--hard to see the mountains at the head of the bay. I haven't heard anything more about the Bear Cove fire. The news last night said that smokejumpers had responded, so it must have been threatening some of the cabins in that area. Can't see any smoke from here.

The TFR on the Anchor Point fire was cancelled about seven or eight last night, so that fire is under control. CC said that a fire official from Soldotna who was down for the emergency drill yesterday said it will be a miracle if the whole Peninsula doesn't go up in smoke this summer. All it would take are dry conditions and a good day-breeze. We sit amidst thousands of acres of beetle-killed spruce forest that have been drying out slowly in the sun for several years. One way or another, it will burn eventually.

Clear skies today without a sign of moisture. Temperature 60, dewpoint 36 at ten am. Yes, FSS Specialists are preoccupied with weather.

The hills around town are all gray and brown. The trees down at sea-level are showing the first leaves. Over the next week, we can watch the line of green sweep up the bluff to the thousand-foot level. I also saw a mosquito today--the first of the season for me, though Larry killed one last week--I guess that's the official mark for the year.

The scent of Cutter's Evergreen mosquito repellent smells like summer to me....

Saturday, May 18, 2002

Wildfire

Homer, Alaska
2:00 PM
67 degrees
37 per cent humidity

This is the weekend Alaska started to burn.

I had a premonition last night, watching the late news, when the five-day outlook showed clear, sunny skies with highs in the 60s-70s. As nice as the sunny weather is after our long winter, we could sure use some rain to speed green-up along.

This morning, when I stepped outside about nine, it was already sixty degrees under the overhang on the north side of the building and not a breath of air was moving. About ten or so, the Forestry department called to tell Denny there is a burn ban in effect (we have two burn permits) but we had already figured that today wasn't a good day for burning brush.

I had just started getting ready for work about twelve-thirty when I started hearing sirens. I went outside to see if I could tell what was going on. From the top of the hill behind the greenhouse, I could see a column of smoke directly east of us, and it looked pretty close. I jumped in my S10 and ran down to the highway, but before I got to the Sterling, I could see that the fire was in a grassy meadow on Thomas Road--the road that defines the back of our block. When I got back to the yard, I jumped out of the Chevy and told Denny that if I didn't have to go to work, I would grab a shovel and a chain saw and head over there. He said he'd go one better--he'd take the bulldozer.

It would have been difficult to go into work if Denny hadn't been home. All summer long I worry about wildfires, and to actually have one on our block and have to leave is hard.

Denny said the firefighters were at a loss as to what to do with him and the bulldozer at first, but once they got used to the idea, he was able to be helpful to them. He cut a perimeter down to bare earth around the burned area before the firefighters left and pointed out some smoke near the trees that the firefighters had missed. I am so glad they were able to stop the blaze before it got into the forest or the whole situation could have turned bad very fast.

When I got into work, PD said there were at least three fires going in our area--the one on Thomas Road (which was under control by the time I drove past again), one up the bay at Bear Cove, and a large one just north of Anchor Point--which is near where PD lives, so he was anxious to get home. To add a note of irony to the whole thing, today the State crew at the airport is holding a mock aircraft accident drill, complete with smoke bombs and fire engines. The local volunteer fire department, which was scheduled to participate in the drill, had to pull out due to actual fires.

They've put flight restrictions in effect around the Anchor Point fire and are bombing with retardant. The temperature jumped four degrees in the half-hour since I came into work. The only break we are getting from the weather is that the typical strong on-shore breeze that starts nearly every afternoon hasn't developed yet.

The mountains at the head of the bay are tinted orange from smoke... Since the whole State is under a high pressure dome, I can only imagine that fires will be starting up all over before the next weather system brings rain through.

Wednesday, May 15, 2002

Sea Breeze

sunrise: 5:33 am
sunset: 10:29 pm

One of the best smells of summer--the clean, cool scent of the deep sea brought in on the day breeze. So pure it makes your nose hurt. What a sensual treat to catch the whiff of open water as scent of it drifts in amongst the spruce trees.

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

Sweat

Another summer-like day. Denny worked in the back most of the day, cleaning up the trees that had fallen over the winter. The good weather makes the working conditions nice, but we know it is only a matter of time before a burning ban goes into effect for the Kenai Peninsula. Denny used the bulldozer to haul the fallen trees into the clearing, where he cut off the branches, cut the wood into stove-lengths and burnt the branches. Last week he used a nearby snowbank to extinguish his fire at the end of the day, but it has disappeared since then.

The weather was so nice, Denny built a small fire in the backyard near the porch and we sat out there drinking beer and cooking steaks for dinner. We normally cook out with the propane grill on the back deck, but we have run out of propane and with so much limb wood available, we haven’t been greatly motivated to haul the tanks into town for refill. Later, we put more of the glut of wood to use and took a sauna. It’s not as much fun when the weather is warm, but it was pleasantly debilitating. We enjoy sitting in the dimly-lit cabin and talking while the water heats. Cut off from outside interruptions or distractions, we usually have some pretty good discussions. Denny built the sauna our first year here and until we got the house fully plumbed, it was our major means of bathing. These days, it is more an indulgence than a necessity.

We tumbled into bed relaxed and clean.

"In Alaska.. otherwise ordinary young people own a ten-wheel flatbed truck. Or a crane. Or a wide-blade bulldozer. You never know when they may come in handy." --The Nine Nations of North America by Joel Garreau

Monday, May 13, 2002

Flight Service

"If you can hear me, traffic no longer a factor."
--Actual transmission from Chicago O'Hare TRACON


There was a thin layer of frost on the roof of the S-10 this morning when I trundled out to go to work at the ungodly hour of five-thirty. At least the early shift is easier to take this time of year, when it is daylight. Crawling out of bed in the small hours of the morning when it is cold and dark and going to stay that way for hours to come is a test of one's resolve.



Traffic at the airport was at summertime levels this weekend: lots of student pilots and weekend warriors shaking the dust off their Cessna 172s after the winter hiatus. We worked hard but laughed a lot at silly little air traffic jokes. The trainee (who shall remain nameless in this document out of respect for his privacy) is fitting in very well. He has an extensive Flight Service background and is coming back into the Agency after taking a "sanity break" of a couple years, so he knows the flick and has had his heart broken by the FAA enough so that he isn't entertaining any illusions. When things get bad, he quietly repeats his mantra: "I'm inside, I'm warm and I'm being paid ..." I guess we should all remember that. We are actually obscenely well paid for four people who essentially just stumbled into this job because we couldn't do anything else.

And unbelievably, we were the 1999 National Air Traffic Facility of the Year. All we could figure is that everyone else must have already had their turn.


"Listen up, gentlemen, or something's gonna happen that none of us wants to see."

--Actual transmission from Chicago O'Hare TRACON

Sunday, May 12, 2002

Sunlight

Friday night was the last sunset at Barrow until August 2.

Even at our more modest latitude, we have begun the dizzying arc of daylight that will cast us up on the far side of the summer spent and exhausted.

I planted wildflower seeds in the planters on the deck yesterday. I would like to encourage more wildflowers in the yard, but since Denny got the backhoe and bulldozer, there doesn't seem to be any safe place to put a perennial garden.

The pot of chives on the deck is showing signs of life--it is always the first of my plants to come back after the winter--and the first shoots of grass are beginning to stick up through the debris of last years' growth. There is already quite a bit of green down in town and the leaf buds are starting to swell on the trees.

It was a beautiful, still morning when I drove into work at 5:30. If the temperature had been twenty degrees warmer, it could have passed for a summer morning back in the States, but at thirty-three degrees, there were pockets of frost in town. The sun topped the mountains at the head of the bay at ten minutes before six.

Friday, May 03, 2002

Snow

One thing about Alaskan weather--it will keep you on your toes.

Yesterday started out clear. By the time I went in to work at 1:30 p.m., a high layer of overcast had moved over the area. Scattered snow showers began in the evening and by the time I got home from work last night, there was an inch of snow on the ground. No one takes this seriously, of course, and by this morning, it had all melted.

Just a reminder that seven weeks from the summer solstice, winter still is lurking on the next change of breeze.

"The only really predictable thing about Alaskans is that they will disagree about anything--politics, religion, economics, history, sex ...they can't even agree on what constitutes "good' weather." --The Nine Nations of North America by Joel Garreau

Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Bangs/Fringes

sunrise: 6:07 am
sunset: 9:56 pm

"Put the scissors down and back away from the mirror, Laura ..."

Bangs. I don't know why I keep feeling the need to do something about my hair when I haven't had an original idea about what to do with it since college.

Nothing I do seems to help. I decided to cut my bangs--or actually create bangs-- and fell into the old vicious circle of wanting to cut more and more to try to fix what I had just cut.

Fortunately, I have been through this cycle enough to realize fairly early on that I should quit while I'm ahead. So, for the next month or so I will have a permanent bad-hair day. Right at the peak of our summer traffic season. Lovely.

If I am going to indulge in self-destructive behavior, maybe I should just go back to drinking ...

Monday, April 29, 2002

Fire & Water

Another hot day. We turned on the air conditioning at work about 9 am just to keep it bearable. When we walked out of the building at 1:30 p.m., it was actually warmer outside than in--very much a novelty. It felt as if we had skipped directly from winter to summer.

As I backed out of my parking space, I caught sight of three yellow-shirted fire fighters walking from the ARFF station toward the Dept. of Forestry ramp. The fire season is starting so it's official--spring is here. For the past few years, the Dept. of Forestry has stationed a fire crew and aircraft at the Homer airport for quick response to wildfires. Later in the season they will follow the fire danger further north--up into the Interior--after things green up around here. In urban America this past year, citizens learned to appreciate the heroism of firefighters in a whole new light. In Alaska and far-flung spaces elsewhere in the West, smoke-jumpers and hot shots have always been our heroes.

I stopped by The Wagon Wheel on my way home to pick up some catnip seeds. I ended up buying several packets of wildflower seeds, poppies and cornflowers to scatter around the yard. Spring fever.

At the Post Office, I was surprised to have a package slip in the box--from Malaysia. Malaysia? Who do I know in Malaysia? Most likely, it was the VCD of "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3" that I had ordered a few weeks back. Even though I have no way of playing it. Another acquisition for my Vincent D'Onofrio Collection. I *do* have it bad.

And such it was. For now, I have to content myself with having it. Actually seeing the film will have to come later.

I went jogging when I got home. Nothing too ambitious--just around the block to our other piece of property and back. I dug out one of our old jogging tapes from Nome--a Dire Straits mix that had propelled us when we used to run down from FAA Housing to the dump and back up along the runway. That brought back memories.

I walked almost as much as I ran, but I worked up a sweat and got my heart pumping--that was the main idea.

While I was in the shop feeding the cats, I heard on the radio that the Sterling Highway was closed at Mile 161 due to flooding. We live off Mile 167. As warm as it has been for the past two days, I wasn't surprised. They said the Anchor River was over the road at Black Water Bend and traffic was being routed via the North Fork Road between Homer and Anchor Point. I guess it was good that the flooding happened at a location that had alternate routing.

Ah, springtime in Alaska ...

Sunday, April 28, 2002

Break-Up

The first hint of encroaching summer--I stumbled out into the pre-dawn twilight to go to work this morning and the ground was soft underfoot. It was warm--about 40 degrees--and the air was soft with moisture. A classic warm front, with still air and low clouds.

Quite a change from the past month of clear skies, cool days and cold nights. Break-up has been slow but steady and the snow line has retreated up the ridge to about the seven- or eight-hundred foot level.

We still have a foot or more of snow in the undisturbed portions of the yard--and four-to-five foot berms along side the house where the roof sheds its load. The cats are restless, wanting to get out to find new shoots of grass. We need to build them another enclosure--one with grass and trees inside it--so they can answer that feline call of the wild.

By the time I came home from work, mid-afternoon, the temperature was in the mid-50s. Almost too warm for this time of year. The ditches were full of torrents of muddy water and running water crossed Green Timbers Road in two places. I took the hoe and did some drainage management in the back yard--that sounds better than saying "played in the water" though that's essentially what I did.

It's almost May.

Double "Criminal Intent"s tonight. I am all tingly with anticipation. It's hard to over-dose on Detective Goren, but I'm willing to try.

"Homer, Alaska: A Quaint Drinking VillageWith A Fishing Problem."--Popular Local Bumpersticker

Tuesday, April 23, 2002

Tustumena

Oh, joy...

This morning, Denny and I took part in that rural Alaskan ritual--meeting the State ferry.

The MV Tustumena ("The Trusty Tusty") came in from her first trip of the season out to Cold Bay and the Aleutians. Typically, Denny had some items he shipped from Cold Bay to pick up, so we got up early and by six, we were heading into town. I could see the Tustumena out on the Inlet, at least forty-five minutes out of port, as I rounded the bluff. The sun rose from behind the mountains at the head of the bay as I was driving down the hill into town, and the pale peach sky against the azure and slate mountains almost made getting out of bed at such an early hour worthwhile. Almost.

It's the first time we've been out on the Spit this year. At that hour and this time of year, there were no tourists, just a motley cluster of Alaskans who had--for whatever reason--come out to meet the ferry. I must admit to being quite impressed with our state ferry system. At least from the point-of-view of a gawker on the dock, the ship seemed well-maintained and efficient.

And one of those slices-of-Alaskan-life that give me a warm feeling inside and make me glad to live here. Standing on the car deck, waiting for our turn on the elevator, we were surrounded by cars, trucks, heavy equipment, boats and trailers of various kinds--nearly all packed to the limit. I guess it says something about the informality of life in a small town that even though every driveable vehicle is left with keys, no one asked us for any kind of identification. We just went on board, found our payloads, then waited our turn to disembark.

The air was cold and the breeze off the water brisk. At first, only five or six eagles soared on the wave of air over the spit...by the time we left, there must have been forty or fifty, vying with gulls and ravens for airspace.

I sat in the Dodge while the guys attached the trailer and loaded the forklift--listening to Neil Young and trying to work out bits of my CI story in my head. It took the better part of six hours before we had our load back home and stowed away. Not the way I would chose to spend my day off, but an adventure anyway.

And no time spent hanging out with Denny could be called wasted.