Again to The Lake

It is good to be back. This was the view from our living room window this morning. If you look closely on the water, you can see the rings and dimples of salmon parr feeding on emerging midges.

May 22, Chignik Lake: After a day of glorious sunshine – which prompted us to go for a hike (a crane, two snipe, our first-of-the-year Savannah Sparrows, several other birds, wild violets) I woke this morning to drizzle with more in the forecast for the next few days. We’ll still get out. There’ll be sunbreaks, and we have rainwear. 

This rainbow arcing over the village featured in the view out our front door this morning. Our home is part of the school campus, to which these buildings also belong – additional housing (mostly vacant) to the right, the school itself to the left. Situated between the far house and the school is the diesel generator building, indicated by the two small smoke stacks. The mountains in the background received fresh snow just yesterday.

The department of Fish & Game will begin counting salmon on the first of June, just 10 days from this writing. A spate of small planes flying in personnel and supplies to the facility at the weir will occur any time now. Two friends set nets yesterday, but I haven’t yet had an opportunity to talk with them to see if they caught any early salmon. 

The landscape goes from brown to green with amazing rapidity this time of year. The lawn will be permitted to grow wild until after the dandelions have gone to down. Our finch population – Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls – feast on the seeds. (See “Finches of the Dandelion Jungle.”)

The landscape is beginning to really green up. At 56.25° north (about the same as Edinburgh, Scotland), the climate here is perennially cool. First light, announced daily by a Golden-crowned Sparrow singing in earnest from the alders outside our bedroom window, came at 5:09 this morning. Last light won’t depart till 11:51 PM, so we’re already getting more than 19½ hours of daylight. Sunrise and Sunset times occurred at 6:04 AM and 10:56 PM – nearly 17 hours. Even obscured by clouds, that’s a lot of solar energy for plants rooted in rich volcanic soil and receiving abundant rainfall. During summer, the peninsula coast is as stunningly verdant (and the seaside cliffs, waterfalls sheeting from the tops, nearly as spectacular) as any imagination you might have of the Hawaiian Islands. Inland at The Lake, the summer’s deep and varied hues of green rival that of any emerald land. Already, the beginnings of Chocolate Lilies, Lupine, Wild Geranium, Iris, Horsetail, Cow Parsnip, ferns and more are pushing up… willows decorated with soft, fuzzy catkins, leaf buds on alders and salmonberry bushes near bursting.

I keep meaning to test my guitar against the Golden-crowned’s song – three notes, four if he begins with a slide on the first note. Coltrane, Davis and Armstrong had greater range, but for sheer clarity of tone these birds are masters. Blow, little sparrow! Blow!

We’ve been working each day to bring our home into shape. Having gathered in a couple of new interior decorating ideas while putting our place in Newhalen together and having had a year away to reimagine a few things in this house, we’ve got it looking better than ever. Yesterday, with Barbra’s help I hung 10 acrylic photographs I took in far flung places from Hokkaido to Mongolia to Alaska’s Kenai Fjords to here in the Chigniks. There’s even a favorite shot from a trout lake in Oregon. 

“Barbra!” a small boy cried out upon seeing us from a Covid-safe distance the other day. “Where did you go? Your whole class missed you!” Both of us were, in the words of Bob Dylan, “born a long way from home.” Amidst a peripatetic life, we finally found that place here at The Lake. Leaving when the school closed last year was difficult. The return has been stirring… at times overwhelming. 

Although the school district provides these rentals as “fully furnished,” at the modest prices they charge one would be correct in assuming that overall the furniture is pretty so-so. The beds are the exception; the mattresses are terrific!

Thinking that we’d be in Newhalen for several years, we acquired a few items – decent bookshelves, coffee and end tables, a small but elegant writing station that adjusts for working while either standing or sitting… even details such as nice throw pillows for the sofa… all of which have added up to make an appreciably more congenial living space. Perhaps our favorite item is a pub-style dining table – a high table with tall chairs. ”Up high” is more comfortable than “down low,” especially for us longer-legged types, and the additional six inches in height is just enough to enhance the vantage and view out the windows. 

A group of Greater Scaup has been showing up to dive for aquatic vegetation in a cove visible from our dining window and it was from that window that this photograph was taken. Into the breeding season now, most ducks have paired up and dispersed, but along with the scaup, we regularly see both White-winged and Black Scoters on the lake.

Upon returning to The Lake, we were asked to agree to self-quarantine for a period of 14 days. Thus far there have been no cases of Coronavirus in The Chigniks and everyone wants to keep it that way. The Lake is a village of 50 people, many of them elders. Right now, we don’t have a permanent health aid, so our tiny clinic isn’t regularly open. There are two positions available… 

Even by Alaska standards, Chignik Lake is truly tiny and remote. No restaurants. One small store that would just about fit inside an average living room. A short, bumpy, dirt airstrip. A shed with a pair of diesel-fueled generators that supply the village’s electricity and that can pretty much be counted on to cut out or to be shut down for maintenance periodically – (you’re well advised to frequently save any work you’re doing on the computer).

A stunningly plumaged Male Tree Swallow stands watch near a nesting box occupied by his mate. Each time I think I’ve counted all the boxes put up for swallows in this village, I notice a couple more tucked away under the eaves of a house or mounted on a utility pole. Suffice it to say there are dozens. Native Americans’ happy association with these birds goes back beyond recorded history. Having lived in communities that don’t extend such welcoming to these insectivores, we can testify that their presence makes a huge difference in the number of flying bugs. 

Just about anything we need – screws, batteries, wood for birdhouses, baking powder, clothing… everything, really – has to be planned for ahead of time, shopped for online, ordered, and its arrival patiently awaited. Though it’s not common, there have been times when even groceries have taken weeks to make it out here. (The record has been three weeks.) One learns to think about it before ordering anything perishable, and it pays to advise people shipping goods out here to package them with special care to accommodate multiple plane changes and the bumpy landing. A dentist and an eye doctor fly out once a year to spend a day doing examinations. I suppose I’ll take student portraits for the school this year…

You simply can’t be of a frame of mind of “needing” anything “right now.” This is a wonderful place to hone the arts of planning ahead, a mindful approach to living, taking joy in the moment, and patience.

And here’s a male Violet-green Swallow. With midges hatching on the lake on and off throughout the day, the village is frequently filled with the chattering and aerial displays of these beautifully accomplished pilots that seem to redefine air.

There are, of course, difficulties associated with all this. While we do manage to usually have on hand fresh fruit and vegetables (potatoes, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, apples, avocados, grapefruit and Brussels sprouts ship well and can survive the typical two or three-day journey out; cauliflower, sweet corn, snap peas and pears are riskier. But forget about lettuce and most other fruits – those are city-visit foods unless a friend comes out and hand-carries them). Dried mushrooms take the place of fresh, and we go through canned diced tomatoes (and salsa!) like they’re goin’ out of style. 

Of course, we usually have some sort of wild berries on hand – fresh or fresh-frozen blueberries, lingonberries and salmonberries, and from time to time we make a salad of Fireweed shoots or Dandelion greens. We’re lucky in that we love salmon – which we take on flies we’ve tied – and are frequently gifted with moose meat, which we find superior to beef in most dishes. Every once in awhile we luck into some locally-gathered seafood: Tanner (Snow) Crab, clams, urchins, halibut, sea lettuce.

Getting other meat out here is expensive. If we go into town (into Anchorage), we bring back a tote filled with chicken, pork, beef and sometimes seafood such as scallops, shrimp and crab from Costco. Otherwise, we pay one of the bush airline employees to shop for us. She makes the purchases in the morning, gets our meat and and perhaps a few other delicate perishables on the plane that same day and with luck we have it by afternoon. We buy meat once or twice a year, repackage it into serving-sized portions, vacuum seal it and freeze it. 

We bake all our own bread – the best way of assuring fresh, quality loaves.

I took this photo, one of many tributaries in the Chignik drainage, as we flew into The Lake on May 12. One of these tributaries has a small run of Steelhead… and we finally figured out which one it is. So… If we can get up there…

There are other inconveniences. We’ve been waiting eagerly for our Hondas (ATV’s/quads) to ship out. Getting our boat out here is proving to be quite a logistical puzzle. Shopping online can be challenging. Often you’d just like to hold an item you’re thinking about purchasing in your hands – leaf through a few pages of a book, try on a pair of jeans, feel the grip of a kitchen utensil, evaluate fly-tying materials with your fingertips or see for yourself just how large or small a certain item is. But you can’t, so you make your best guess and hope whatever it is fits well enough or suits the purpose you have in mind.

You learn to look past some things. A shirt with slightly frayed cuffs still has “some good wear in it.” Something that could use a fresh coat of paint “can go awhile longer without one.” A window pane that has a bit of a problem is lived with, because getting the materials out here and figuring out how to make the repair… isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

There are benefits of making a mental contract to live with these inconveniences. (Many benefits, actually.) One of which is that none of the three Chignik villages have had cases of Coronavirus. A health team recently flew in and tested all three villages.

Of all the places I’ve lived, it is in this house that the rain falls on the roof like music and sometimes reminds me of similar music that lulled me to sleep in the Philippines and a small house where I lived in a quiet part of Japan. 

I’ve never lived any place where each morning begins with birdsong as it does here. In that regard, it’s like a permanent vacation on a favorite childhood lake – three far-too-short days in a tent or rented cabin supplanted by a life in a tidy, cozy lakeside home.

And there’s this… which only recently (upon moving back here) came to me. Imagine a sort of stock “beautiful view” from a window. An apartment high up in a skyscraper overlooking a city; a house commanding a view of a beach or a rocky coastline; or a window framing a vista of mountains – the Rockies, the Alps. 

All of these images are lovely.

Yet they are somewhat static. 

Except for the effect the relatively slow progression of seasonal change may bring to the view, or the changing light from day to day and hour to hour… to take in these views once is to take them in for the next several weeks or even months without much anticipation of change.

The view outside our windows is dynamic. The weather moving from sea to sea across this narrow peninsula is dramatic, the moods set by changing light sometimes stunning. There is wildlife – birds, bears, shoaling and leaping salmon, insect hatches, hungry seals, otters, foxes, an occasional wolf, eagles, owls… and there’s the comings and goings of friends (and everyone in this village is a friend) as they launch their boats or come in with the day’s catch, a freshly taken moose, or a shipment that was delivered to The Bay. 

Male Common Redpoll outside our kitchen window.

This morning, as I was proofreading this piece of writing, I saw the season’s very first school of salmon heading up the lake. Between now and October, hundreds of thousands more will follow, mostly Reds but also Pinks, Silvers, Kings, a very few Steelhead, lots of sea run char and close to the ocean, Chums.

Pine Siskins (above), redpolls, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Pine Grosbeaks and magpies have been daily visitors to our yard to take advantage of the seeds I put out for them. Watching them as we wash dishes makes the chore go faster.

Quiet. The entire time I have been writing this morning, (both yesterday and  today) the only sounds have been the off and on hum of the refrigerator (sometimes at night, I unplug it for awhile… real, blessed quiet), the gentle whistle of water coming to boil in our coffee kettle, the songs and cries of birds – thrushes, swallows, warblers, sparrows, redpolls, siskins, magpies, ravens, ducks, gulls -, and the steady music of rain on the roof. 

Today we will tackle the organization of the fishing & photography room.

I’ve been striving to practice three hours a day on the guitar. 

          O snail,
          Climb Mount Fuji
          But slowly, slowly!
                                   Issa

   

Portrait of a Sailor in Morning Light


Enjoying piping hot noodles and charcoal-broiled smelt with Cass on an iced-over lake near Mt. Fuji, c. 1983

Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.
                                               ― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

     —————————————————————————–

It is a condition of the human heart that we sometimes are given to invest deeply in friends and lovers who show potential for being who we want them to be, but who in reality aren’t there. And so we allow ourselves to imagine them as we wish them, teased along by hints and flashes of those things we desire. I think all of us who knew him thought of him this way. We each had an image of who we wanted him to be, and sometimes we allowed ourselves to believe that that is who he was. I wanted him to be an Edward Hopper diner on a quiet corner at 2:00 AM lit by a single streetlamp, fingertips stained with New York Times newsprint, a bowl of hot chili topped with pungent freshly diced onions, a cup of black coffee, a sailor’s dress whites, a table at some hole-in-the-wall in a Philippine barrio, early morning, a warm bottle of Coke, the sun already turning the day balmy and full of promise…

     —————————————————————————–

A Sailor’s Lullaby

As far as I could determine, Cass’s sole preparatory measure for shifting from life as a sailor stationed in Japan to becoming a private citizen living in country was to stock Aleck’s futon closet with hard liquor at U.S. Navy Exchange prices. But with Aleck’s help, he found a job teaching English to Japanese businessmen and housewives, a gig he met each day with a combination of indifference, resignation and disdain. The work was not difficult, it paid decently, and he ended up staying with the language school that first hired him for about five years. In that time, he mastered enough Japanese to call out “Excuse me!” and to order whiskey and water on ice. All other communication needs were addressed through a combination of speaking English slowly and loudly or through hand gestures. So, for example, he’d walk into a noodle shop, look around, and call out “Sumimasen!” Once he had the attention of a cook or waitress, he’d point at a bowl a customer was dining from and then to himself – to his own nose, specifically – and sit down. Witnessing him use hand gestures to ask for deodorant in a pharmacy was… memorable. His dread fear of having to deal with Japanese barbers became legendary.

Japanese society can be rather insular, and although the residents of that country are kind and polite, it generally takes a while to get comfortable living among them. Cass stayed with it though, and by the time he left he had worked his way down the coast from Yokohama to Tsu and modestly up his language company’s pay scale. He found a spacious older house on Mikawa Bay and was driving up to Nagoya to put in approximately 20 hours of teaching each week.

In addition to teaching English, he was doing a bit of grill cooking at a small restaurant run by an American, and he claims he was pulling down another 300,000 yen a month–a handsome chunk of money–as a carpenter’s helper installing aluminum siding on houses. His stories about the money he was making were undoubtedly embellished, but it is a fact that he was beginning to enjoy a comfortable life. He’d even allowed himself get serious about a woman. It surprised all of us when he abruptly left, though as it turned out a couple of years later, he was not yet done with Japan. Other stories for other times, perhaps.

For now, he went back to his hometown in upstate New York, confident he’d left a bridge or two unburned there and certain he could get a good job. The year was 1991, so Cass was about 38. Unfortunately it turned out that the most agreeable employment he could procure was as a temporary with Kelly Secretarial Services. Cass became a “Kelly Girl.” Through their agency, he landed a job in a Metro Life Insurance mailroom where he was tasked with heaving heavy bags of correspondence around between stints at a computer typing in clients’ addresses. For this, he earned the not-very-princely sum of five dollars an hour which, if you do the math, you’ll see works out to an annual salary of… next to nothing. To supplement his income, he signed up with the local navy reserve unit, and thus one weekend each month allowed himself to be subjected to whatever his commanding officer considered to be a worthwhile use of time.

He was building a frail house of cards and it came crashing down when, while on military maneuvers in the woods with his navy reserve unit (?!), he tore up his ankle. So much for his career throwing around mail bags. The navy paid for reconstructive surgery and gave him a few thousand dollars in compensation. After that, he returned to Japan, married the woman mentioned above, and used his navy settlement money to help her open a bar and grill.

None of it lasted…

…I had known Cass in better times. Jet black hair, broad shoulders, slightly raised cheekbones and strong, steady hands, he was older than me and always in control. He knew more than I did, important things about literature, about drinking, about life. The first time my wife Maki met him, which was long before I met her, he impressed her as being among that dying breed we used to call “a gentleman.”

I can’t remember which lake it was, but midwinter while we were serving aboard the USS Blue Ridge, Cass and I traveled to one of the five lakes that form a loose semi-circle around Mount Fuji. We didn’t do much. We just went up to be off the ship and to look around. It snowed almost the entire time we were there, big, feathery pieces of frozen down and the lake itself was locked beneath a solid white blanket. Fishermen were cutting holes in the ice and jigging for smelt. Lucky ones were occasionally pulling out a trout.

We stayed in a minshuku, a small, family-run inn Cass had booked. From the inn we walked the mile or two along a mountain road into the local village, the name of which, like the lake, I have long since forgotten. Along the way we slid open the wood and glass door of a tiny restaurant, ducked our heads and went inside for a bowl of hot noodles and a broiled fish. The proprietress seemed surprised at a couple of foreigners, but she smiled and with a kerosene heater stoking the room it was a good place to warm up. After the meal we settled the bill, went back out into the snow and the calm, and continued walking and talking, our misty breaths hanging in the winter air. Eventually we managed to find a bar.

It had been good, just to be out walking in the snow with more coming down, smoking cigarettes and talking about the navy, the future, writers we liked, and life in Japan.

Cass chose the bar.

I’m probably misremembering it, have probably made it more than it actually was. But I recall that it was up on the second floor of a building facing the village’s lightly traveled main street. We took seats at the end of the bar, and from a picture window spanning most of a wall to our right we could see the lights of the streets, other businesses and further out houses, the frozen lake illuminated in those lights. It was a good place to drink.

Two young women were working there. I didn’t know much Japanese, but it was clear that they were talking about Cass, and I didn’t need any language to know they were discussing what a sharp figure he cut. I was a little jealous. And I was proud of him. I was proud to be his friend and honored that we were up in that bar together, enjoying the Scotch and the cigarettes and the warmth and the good conversation while snow piled up outside.

I have been fortunate in my life to have had maybe a handful of thoroughly perfect days, and that was one of them. It was late by the time the bar closed. By now the snow had stopped and our heads cleared in the crisp winter air as we began walking up the street toward the inn.

Close to the village the lake was still lighted by street lamps. Ice skaters decked in colorful parkas, scarves and hats had shoveled the snow off of a cove, their soft voices, gentle laughter and the click and glide of their metal skates on ice clean and quiet against the night. A cab pulled up next to us, snow crunching under its tires. The rear door swung open and we decided to make it easy on ourselves. The driver turned toward us and spoke. Cass stated the name of the minshuku, the driver replied with a sharp hai, nodded and began driving.

Back in our room we had another drink and then crawled into our futons. For awhile we talked about the evening, the bar, the young women working there, the possibility of coming back in spring to fish the lake. Eventually the conversation drifted into musings about what our lives would look like when our enlistments were up, pleasant thoughts. Pleasant dreams.

* * * * * *

You know how it is. The scent of kerosene, the little song a tent zipper makes, even, perhaps, a specific slant of light… There is a certain music a frozen boardwalk makes as you walk along it that, I understand now, will always transport me back to Chignik Lake, and I cannot take in the aroma of a sweet potato baking without finding myself in the home where Maki grew up, an image of her mother bustling about in the kitchen. Our minds contain synapses wired to memories that the slightest touchstone can trigger…

And so it was yesterday as I was rereading the story above. Our iPod was plugged into a brick-sized Bose speaker next to my desk. I was mostly ignoring the music until a rendition of a well-known song in which the dulcet tones of Chris Botti’s trumpet accompanied Mark Knopfler’s vocals. I broke from my reading to listen, not sure why this particular song was holding me until Knopfler came to a gentle line that flooded over me and took me back to a place and a day and a small moment in that day…

…Maki was early in her pregnancy with Maia and the English language company I’d been gainfully employed with chose that juncture in my life to close its doors, dismiss all employed there, and leave me frustrated, angry and a bit desperate. It was August, hot as blazes by mid-morning and humid enough to make every stitch of clothing down to my socks uncomfortable… Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty as I pounded the streets of Tokyo in a damp t-shirt and cloying tie and jacket.

Doors close. Doors open. That’s the only way to look at such matters, so I had set my sights high, determined to turn my situation into an opportunity to make more money for less work with a better company.

Two interviews the previous day had gone only so-so. Maybe I’d get an offer in a day or two. Maybe I wouldn’t. But it was a new day and in the morning’s final hour I was walking out the door from an interview with the best of the three companies where I’d been offered a position on the spot. Half the hours, a shorter work year, more pay and they were even willing to spring for an apartment on the shores of one of Japan’s top bass-fishing venues.

In that instant, the interviews and outcomes from the previous day became irrelevant. I shook hands, first with the owner, then with the head teacher, then all around.

Head up. One foot in front of the other. Keep at it. Sometimes things work out.

It was broiling hot and I could imagine – and could imagine I could feel – the grime accumulating around the inside of the collar of my white cotton shirt as I followed the crowded sidewalk back to the subway station. But as the weight from the recent days lifted, I began feeling high. I needed a drink, just to get straight.

I ducked into a modestly sized establishment and stood for a moment in the air-conditioned comfort of the place while my eyes took in a clean room of unoccupied wooden chairs and tables. It was pleasant.

A woman appeared. My Japanese was barely sufficient to make out that she wouldn’t be serving food until later.

I fumbled around for the vocabulary to convey to her that it was OK, that I just wanted a beer.

She motioned with her hand that the seat was my choice.

Sometimes I think that I never loved Maki, but when I think of that day, I’m reminded that I did, very much, though not in the way I allowed myself to love Jane and, later, to love and be loved by Barbra.

I didn’t know very much about any of that back then. But I loved Maki and I was glad to have good news to bring to her. I knew she’d be proud of me, and relieved, and happy for me for the part about the fishing.

As the first beer began to even me out, I pulled a pen from my briefcase and began writing on a paper napkin. I don’t remember what I wrote… probably a few lines of poetry. When I finished the first beer, I motioned for another and in short order a second big, icy mug of Kirin lager was set before me. Those were the two best beers of my life.

It felt good to be drinking late in the morning, everyone else at work, dealing with the heat and schedules and people. Drinking like that is a kind of freedom I suspect few people are permitted – or permit themselves – to enjoy. I was lucky. I knew I was lucky.

Music began playing quietly through speakers situated around the restaurant. I put my pen down and let it wash over me – all of it, the pleasant alcohol buzz, the music, the coolness, the new job, marriage, a baby on the way. It might sound strange, but I barely knew Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. Suddenly I was aware of it playing in the background. When he sang the lines…

I see friends shaking hands, saying, How do you do?
They’re really saying, I love you.

…I thought of Cass. My father had told me about the importance of a good handshake. He had even shown me how to do it with a firm grip and solid eye contact in a formal manner.

But it was Cass who taught me how to shake hands in friendship. Same firm grip my father had instructed me in, same importance placed on eye contact. But all of it allowed to linger an immeasurable moment longer, and all the shoulders-held-high breath-sucked-in formality dispelled with.

In Cass’s teaching, you simply let go. You offered a hand, or took a hand offered, you shook, and you permitted yourself to express sentiments such as “Good to see you.” “Good to be talking with you.” Good to be drinking with you.” and “Friend.”

He had moved beyond the transactional formula men are taught as boys and replaced it with art… something to be experienced, felt, moved by. There were times when I thought of Cass as a genius, or at at the very least of possessing within him genius. I was not alone in this thinking. I doubt any friend of Cass’s experienced one of his handshakes and ever again thought of the thing as he had BC… Before Cass.

He taught me how to shake hands, and how to drink whiskey, and he had been the first person with whom it was satisfying to discuss literature, and dreams. I found myself thinking that among all the people I knew or had ever known, he would appreciate the moment I was in – drinking early in a cool bar on a beastly hot day, free, for a little while, alone… happily, gloriously alone, the future unknown, unknowable, promising, bright.

My friend… Cass.

What we need is not the ability to live longer. What we need is the ability to live multiple lives simultaneously.              – Cass C. Swider, c. 1953 – 2020

JD
Newhalen, Alaska

He Wasn’t Our Dog – a Tribute to Our Friend, Buster

If there was ever a more naturally contented being, we’ve not met. But there was often a lot going on inside that big, lovable head.

 He wasn’t our dog.

Shortly after we moved to The Lake, he began showing up, handsome with his barrel chest, slim hips and soft brown coat. Instantly lovable with those floppy, puppyish ears, sparkling brown eyes and that big head he liked to push into a hand to be petted. We didn’t know his name. So we called him Friendly. He seemed to always have a smile in his eyes, his bushy tail swishing back and forth hopefully whenever he saw us. We’d seen it before, a semi-feral village dog making the rounds, looking for a scrap of meat here, a bone there, maybe a dog biscuit or a bowl of last night’s leftovers.

But there was something different about this dog. In fact, there was a lot different about him. For starters, he traveled alone, doing his best to assume a live and let live attitude toward other dogs. He didn’t slink or skulk, bark or yip without good reason, beg or cower. He presented himself as a perfectly happy, intelligent, calm, confident being, and yet no one really seemed to own him. The backstory, we found out later, is that he had spent part of his early life as a truly feral “dump” dog, getting by on whatever he could scrounge. We were told that someone had eventually adopted him, but although he had places where he could often count on getting a meal, no one seemed to consistently take care of him.

It turned out that his name was Buster. When we began addressing him as such, it was apparent that he knew his name.

“We’re not going to start feeding him,” we reminded ourselves.

After all, he wasn’t our dog.

Hurts to look at. With the closest vet two bush flights and hundreds of miles away, removing these quills was difficult for the people involved and excruciatingly painful for Buster. This was his second such “lesson.” What is it with dogs and porcupines?

Even without the incentive of food, Buster began hanging out with us. On my daily birding walks, I could usually count on him to show up, seemingly out of nowhere, and falling into step. It seemed that he recognized the cadence of my stride and, as sometimes happens between two beings, that he’d taken a liking to me. When I arrived at wherever I was going to set up my tripod and camera for the morning – looking for ducks out on the river or lake, or songbirds at the White Spruce Grove – he’d position himself as closely to me as he reasonably could and then quietly, patiently and faithful watch alongside. Buster loved to be petted, and he had an endearing habit of pushing his head into my leg to remind me how much he loved being petted. For my part I couldn’t have asked for a better fellow birder. He had the capacity to remain still for a very long time and his alertness probably helped keep me more watchful. And so we spent mornings like that, enjoying sunshine, enduring rain and snow, staying low against the wind, documenting birds that in some instances had never before been recorded on this remote peninsula.

As I packed up and slung my tripod over my shoulder at the end of those birding sessions, Buster would spring to his feet, jog ahead of me a few paces, look back and give his head a little jerk in the direction we were heading, back to my house. It was as if he was saying, “C’mon, Jack! Let’s go get something to eat!”

There are bird dogs and there are bird dogs. Buster had the kind of toughness about him common to village dogs. Weather? What weather?

That’s how it started. A friend comes along and keeps you company for hours on end like that, both of us heading home hungry… You can’t not fix your buddy something to eat.

At first I’d dig around in the fridge for whatever leftovers might be on hand – a piece of salmon, gristly scraps of moose, or bones I’d left a little extra meat on for him. But before long dog biscuits and a quality dog food became part of our regular grocery orders. And of course a good friend like Buster needed a proper bowl. And a brush.

Between the good food and the regular brushings, which he loved, our already handsome friend was soon sporting a beautiful coat. His visits to our house became more regular and lasted longer until at some point we realized he was showing up almost without fail for breakfast each morning.  In fact, quite often he was spending the entire night sleeping below our bedroom window.

We, who had vowed “No dogs, no pets,” were being adopted.

Buster, the quintessential outdoors dog, never did get used to coming into our home. Although he was always welcome, he usually would only stay for awhile, and only as long as he could sit or lie next to one of us. Indoors seemed to be too warm for him. So he was content to lie outside our windows, all the better if his vantage point provided him with a view of one of us working at a desk or cooking in the kitchen. As far as I could tell, he’d never been trained, not even to sit. But he was one of the most well-mannered dogs we’ve ever known. Every so often he might give out a single, throaty bark – Buster’s way of mentioning that he might be ready for a snack.

And so it went for two years. The three of us hiked together up to Clarks River and along other trails for miles in all weather. He accompanied me out onto the ice that first year when the lake froze hard and ducks gathered in a small area of remaining open water. There were no trappers in the village that year, and so along with lots of birds, many of which were new to us, a number of foxes regularly showed up in the village and a family of river otters patrolled the lake and river. Every other dog in the village went dog-bonkers anytime one of these wild mammals was present.

That first winter when the lake froze, the wildlife viewing was enthralling. I spent hours on the frozen lake almost every day while it lasted. But on this morning out on the ice, I was collecting landscape pictures. Buster had his eye on a group of ducks milling around in open water.

Not Buster. In the spirit of full disclosure, the first time we encountered otters together, he did run off toward them… And promptly found himself sliding off a ledge of thick ice along the bone-chilling Chignik River, his eyes wide with panic as he looked to me for help and tried to scramble out. I guided him downriver to a break in the ice, asked him if he’d learned anything about ice while he shook himself off, and then we went home where I dried him with a warm towel and we both got something to eat. We saw otters after that, but he never again chased after them – at least not in my presence.

And the foxes? He was curled up in the snow outside our window one evening when a certain fox came by. Buster barely looked up. Instead, the fox started barking at him!

Bears and wolves were a different story though, and we came to appreciate Buster’s selective vigilance. When he let loose with his deep-throated bark, you could bet one of these two predators was around – and that Buster was doing his duty to keep them moving along.

Toward the end, when the mere act of standing was painful, a wolf – probably a pack scout – had been showing up in the village fairly regularly. An enduring memory is of Buster one evening pulling himself to his feet, propping himself against our house, and letting loose a barrage of fierce barking. The courageous old General, still on duty.

It was those slim hips that ultimately were his demise. When we returned to The Lake late this last summer, it was clear he was beginning to have mobility difficulties. He still had that optimistic smile in his eyes and an expression of sheer joy upon seeing us, and he was still getting around pretty well, but he was beginning to walk sideways. We knew our friend might not see another spring.

Through fall, Buster continued to be a constant companion. But as winter settled in, I had to begin discouraging him from trying to accompany me out into the field. It hurt us both, made worse by the fact that I’m sure Buster didn’t understand why his pal wouldn’t let him come along anymore.

He was losing control of his hind legs. He began falling down. Eventually he stopped trying to follow.

I am indebted to Barbra for taking pictures of me and my friend. A Tufted Duck – an uncommon to rare visitor from Asia to parts of Alaska – had mixed itself in with a few scaup, and I was spending a lot of time at The Bend on the Chignik River attempting to get photos. That’s where Barbra found us when she finished teaching on this snowy January day one year. 

But he still came by our house nearly every day. One especially nasty winter night Buster showed up at our front door quite ill. His nose was dry and hot to the touch, his eyes watery and listless. Fearing the worst, we had him come inside. I rolled out a sleeping bag on the kitchen floor so I could stay with him while he slept on the cool linoleum. The next morning he was greatly improved… for the time being.

Buster’s final days were difficult. In his last weeks, a small dog became his constant companion, watching over Buster as he hobbled around. Little Rex would chase magpies and other dogs away from Buster’s food dish, reach out with his paw to touch Buster and then curl up and sleep next to the old man. For Buster’s part, he showed enormous courage. He was in pain, and I have to imagine beyond frustration with his inability to get around as he once had. But there was still the brightness and optimism in his eyes that had drawn us to him the first time we met.

All the time we had known Buster, there was nothing he enjoyed more than a big bowl of food or a couple of biscuits. He was, after all, a dog, though perhaps much like many of us, food presented by a friend or loved one carries with it the additional pleasure of conveying a sense of being appreciated, loved and cared for. But toward the end, he wouldn’t begin eating until we petted him and talked to him for awhile.

He wasn’t our dog.

We had to keep reminding ourselves of that, and that decisions about how his last days should be handled had to be left to his owners. What we could do was help Buster be as comfortable and as loved as possible any time he came to our house, which he was still somehow managing to do almost every day.

What a wonderful friend. I don’t think we’ve ever known a being with a greater heart or a more optimistic outlook toward life.

He wasn’t our dog. He was our friend. And he is missed.

In Dandelion Sugar

More than halfway into my first 500 hours on the guitar. Irresistible to take it outside into the yard today, sunshine, swallows swooping, sparrows chirping and singing, warblers chattering from bare alders and newly leafed out willows. Working on my Travis picking patterns. Barbra took this photo for posterity.

After starting off the new year with three consecutive months of not looking at the news, I got sucked in again. A mistake. Monotonous. Depressing. It doesn’t matter which news source you look at, there’s nothing like it to simultaneously rile you up while making you feel powerless. There are better places to focus energy. In fact, we’ve decided to go back off TV altogether. Extra time on the guitar. Extra time to write. I think I’ll start reading Ted Leeson’s The Habit of Rivers this evening.

Still trying to get a decent photo of our Hermit Thrushes. Of course, if I could capture an image of their otherworldly song, that would be the real trick.

I imagine someone will let me know if we go to war.

These final days at The Lake, I want to savor it.

In dandelion sugar.

Black-Veined White Butterfly

Black-veined white (Aporia crataegi), Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

For a few days in late June, maybe a week, these black-veined whites (that’s their name) were everywhere. In the air, in the bills of birds, sipping on purple flowers. And then they were gone. In that one week, they were beautiful…

November Light: Old Tikigaq and Project Chariot – 160 Hiroshimas in the Arctic

umiak sunrise n

November 29, 12:46 p.m.: Framed below a seal skin umiak whaling boat, the sun edged itself above the southern horizon and lingered for just two hours and 24 minutes. On December 7, the sun will stay below the horizon and remain there for 28 days.

In 1958, under the direction of Edward Teller, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) devised a plan to detonate a series of nuclear devices 160 times the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. These bombs were to be exploded just 30 miles southwest of the Inupiat village of Point Hope, Alaska. Teller’s plan – if an action so dangerous and misguided can even be called such – was to blast out a harbor in this far north coastline. The United States government didn’t bother to tell the local residents of this scheme. Nor did they take into consideration that the land in question dId not belong to the United States government; it was and still is sovereign Inupiat territory.

old tikigaq bones nov light n

Whale bones mark a sod igloo buried in snow in the ghost town of Old Tikigaq, which was abandoned in the mid 1970’s. Although the sun is only in the sky briefly in November, it is a glorious time of year. This is the November light we have been waiting for.

A caribou hunting party stumbled across AEC engineers and para-military personnel encamped at the mouth of Ogoturuk Creek, near Cape Thompson. That’s when the questions and the lies began.

grass snow dawn n

Grass silhouetted against the southern sky just before dawn, the frozen sea stretching to the horizon near Point Hope, Alaska.

In the end, Teller’s heartless plan was stopped. The bombs were never detonated. The experiment to determine how much radiation local flora, fauna and humans could survive was never carried out.

This is a story of heroes. There was Howard Rock, the co-founder of the Tundra Times, a highly educated, literate Inupiat leader who wrote the first, insistent letters to the United States government demanding that this plan be immediately halted. There were the white scientists from the University of Fairbanks, Pruitt and Viereck, who raised their voices against the project, and in standing up for the Inupiat people and standing against the government were fired by University President, William Wood, who played a less noble role in this story. There were the millions of citizens in the United States and all over the world who were in the streets, protesting nuclear tests of this kind. And there are the people of Point Hope who stood up to the government then and who are still fighting to force the United States government to tell the whole story of Project Chariot.

Because this story is not over.

old tikigaq house winter n

Over time, as erosion steadily ate away the finger of land jutting into the Chukchi Sea, the old town had to be abandoned. This fall, the entire area was inundated with water when high winds and hurricane force gusts pushed sea water over the rock sea wall protecting the north side of the point.

Although Teller lost his bid to detonate the world’s most destructive arms, in what feels like a tit-for-tat payback, under his direction, in secret, another group of engineers and military personnel were dispatched to the Project Chariot site. This time, they spread radioactive waste on the ground and in the stream. And they buried something there. Something in large, sealed drums.

To this day, the United States government has refused to divulge what was buried.

Since that time, the incidence of cancer has been higher than the national norm among the people of Point Hope. Higher than it should be, even taking into consideration other factors. These are some of the best people we’ve ever had the honor to be associated with. Kind, generous, resourceful, resilient, tough. Their government owes them answers.

whale jaw arches dawn n

Tell-tale tracks leave evidence that an Arctic fox was patrolling Old Tikigaq just before we hiked out. These whale bone jaws located near the airstrip a mile and a half from town welcome visitors to Point Hope. The area around Point Hope is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the Americas – maybe the oldest. While many Inupiat (Eskimo) cultures were nomadic, here the animals came to the people. The point of Point Hope formerly extended far to the west out into the Chukchi sea, bringing the land in close proximity to migratory paths of seals, whales, walruses, char, salmon and other fish. Two impressive capes, Thompson to the south, Lisburne to the north, are home to tens of thousands of sea birds. To the east, Point Hope is situated near the migratory route of thousands of caribou. The sea and the land are the garden that has sustained people here for thousands of years.

For more about Project Chariot, see the book The Firecracker Boys by Dan O’Neill. And although it is difficult to obtain a copy, there is an excellent, 73-minute documentary film titled Project Chariot, copyrighted 2013 NSBSD & Naninaaq Productions: UNCIVILIZED FILMS.

First Sea Ice, Point Hope 2013

snow arc point hope beach n

Wind and cold sculpted this mixture of sea spray and snow into a delicate arch. The sea ice has been late in coming to the Chukchi Sea this year. This photo was taken at 3:00 p.m. with the winter sun already skimming low on the horizon. Our month of day-long darkness will begin December 6.

The thick, slushy sea ice hisses and softly moans as it moves with the current past ice already frozen fast to shore. The hissing is vaguely reminiscent of a soft autumn breeze filtering through the dry leaves of oaks and maples in my native Pennsylvania. The moans sound like the muted voices of whales deep below the sea. All else is still, the ice stretching out as far as one can see. There is no wind, and there is no other sound.

sea jelly caught in ice n

This sea jelly, entombed in shore ice, is about the size of a polar bear’s paw.

We searched for signs of life, perhaps a seal out on the ice or a snowy owl coursing the shoreline, or even the tracks of an Arctic fox. There is nothing, just the steady hiss of the ice as it flows before us. We walk along the pebbled beach for maybe a mile and finally spot a small group of ravens. Tough birds, making a living up here during the winter.

point hope frozen beach n

If you look closely among the rocks along the Point Hope Beach, it’s common to find jade. Less common are fragments of mastodon tusks.

first sea ice 2013 n

Thick ice prevents the shore from eroding during winter storms. Polar bears depend on the ice to hunt seals. Things are changing up here. The ice seems to be coming later, and there is less of it. Red foxes are becoming more common, pushing out their smaller Arctic cousins. Once winter truly locks up the sea and the sun sinks below the horizon, there is no place on earth that is quieter. It is cold and stark but beautiful. 

sea jelly caught in ice b n

We don’t always take our big cameras along on walks. Today we relied on “Little Blue,” our Cannon PowerShot D10, our trusty point and shoot.