Thursday, May 31, 2007

Thirteen Ways to Prepare for a Trip to Alaska

One thing all Alaskans know is with the arrival of summer comes the warmer weather, outdoor activities, and visitors. Rebecca and I are no exception. This summer we are looking forward to multiple groups of friends and relatives visiting. In honor of all the tourists and visitors coming this summer, Rebecca and I came up with this list of thirteen ways to prepare for a trip to Alaska.

1. Get a Sleeping Mask. Rebecca can attest that sleeping can be difficult during the summer without blackout curtains or sleeping masks. Or you can install a dimmer light switch in your bedroom at home and slowly turn it brighter each night to get yourself used to sleeping with the lights on.

2. Bring Bug Spray. I don’t care where you are from, or how bad the bugs are there, you will need bug spray. The mosquito isn’t the state bird for nothing. Bug head-nets may also be necessary if you will be traveling into the interior of Alaska.

3. Learn How to Layer Clothing. Alaskans have a saying, “If you don’t like the weather wait five minutes.” You are likely to see rain, sunshine, clouds, wind, hot and cold temperatures, and even snow during your trip, and often in the same day. So with such a variety of conditions carrying one big coat will not work. You have to be prepared put on or pull off a T-shirt, long sleeve shirt, fleece, sweater, rain coat, hat, etc. as the weather dictates.

4. Bring Sunglasses. This one surprises people who are not familiar with Alaska. You have to remember that it is the Land of the Midnight Sun. It is always fun when your visitors realize they are putting on their sunglasses at 10 PM.

5. Bring Sun Block Too. Sun block is also a must if you are planning to be on the water or snow. A combination sun block and mosquito repellant is also convenient.

6. Bring Good Rain Gear.
Not just a rain coat but rain pants are a must too. A lot of people, mainly East Coasters, think you can get by with an umbrella but they are wrong. Rain gear also comes in handy on windy days; make sure it is breathable (see #3).

7. Read a Good Book on Alaska. Whenever I travel I like to read up on the place before I go. I also like to have a travel book that matches the theme of my trip. For Alaska I recommend Velma Wallis’ Two Old Women which is a beautiful Athabaskan legend of survival and self worth. For the more adventurous try Larry Kanuit’s Alaskan Bear Tales which will give anyone a more than healthy respect for bears.

8. Get in Shape. Alaska is an outdoor place. If you can’t get outdoors to enjoy it then you will miss a big part of the experience.

9. Get Reservations in Advance. Alaska is a popular place so make sure you get all your reservations in writing months in advance. Last month I went to reserve a camping spot at Denali National Park for July and there were only four spots left.

10. Develop a Taste for Seafood and Wild Game. Alaskans love their crab, salmon, moose, caribou, and halibut. So everywhere serves fresh seafood and reindeer on the menu. You don’t want to miss out on a taste of Alaska or some of the freshest fish you can ever have.

11. Get American Money. There are people who still don’t know Alaska is part of the United States. So bring lots of those good old green backs and you can leave them here. We won’t even mind.

12. Learn to Dress Casual. In Alaska jeans and flannel are acceptable attire everywhere, ties and sport coats are not. There isn’t a restaurant in Alaska that requires a tie or sports coat. And thank goodness. Here North Face, Carharts, and Patagonia are the fancy name brands.

13. Get a Huge Memory Card for Your Camera. There is so much to see and so much beauty that you will want to photograph it all. I can easily take 200 pictures a day. So unless you bring a laptop spend the extra money and get the mega-gigabyte card for your camera.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Too Much Anime: Astro Boy and Stinkoman

You know your kids are watching too much Anime when they do this.

On Saturday morning Tim walks up to me and says, “I’m a robot.” He then proceeded to fly around the room with him new robotic arms. I was kind of curious how that worked. He does kind of look like Astro Boy wearing nothing but a diaper.

Of course, since we were laughing at his silliness the other kids wanted in on the action. Gwenna here is doing a great impression of Stinkoman’sAre you asking for a CHALLENGE!?!” for those of you who know Strong Bad.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Trail Review: Thunderbird Falls

Last Saturday we hiked Thunderbird Falls. Thunderbird Falls is located 25 miles north of Anchorage in the Chugach State Park. This is an easy hike with rolling terrain. The trail is packed gravel and 10-feet wide. You can easily push a stroller along the trail. The main trail ends at a boardwalk overlooking Thunderbird Fall which is 200-feet high. There is also a side trail near the end that goes along the river to the base of the falls, but the trail is not as well developed.
We love this hike and it is usually the first hike we do each year. We can easily do the whole hike, including the driving, in approximately two hours. It is also an easy hike to get the kids excited for the summer. Our two year old, Tim, didn’t have any problems on this trail.

It really is a beautiful trail. Most of the trail is high above Thunderbird Creek providing great vistas. Except at the beginning, where you can see the back of a few houses, the scenery feels more wilderness than suburban. The spring is the perfect time for this hike. It is still cool and there are no mosquitoes. If you do hike it in the summer than bring lots of bug repellant but that goes for most of Alaska.

One of our favorite things about this trail is the Pooh Bear Tree. The side trail down to the river goes right by an ancient cottonwood tree that is hollowed out. It makes for great pictures. The kids also love to throwing rocks in the creek and picking horsetails. In the fall there are lots of high bush cranberries and raspberries ripe for the picking. Thunderbird Falls gets our stamp of approval.

P.S. I added pictures to my Flickr site. (See stage right)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Thirteen Great Read-a-Loud Books

I love reading to my children. I read to the boys each night while Rebecca reads to the girls. My favorite books are the ones that are fun to read out loud. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. This was one of the first books I read with William. He picked it out and I thought it would be too difficult for him. I was wrong and I have learned that kids understand a lot more than most people give them credit. It is a beautifully written story.

2. The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis. I read these stories several years ago to my boys and they were riveted. There is nothing better than talking animals, magic, and children heroes. The relations between the children are also wonderfully done.

3. The Witches by Roald Dahl. Anything by Roald Dahl is great. I just listed The Witches because I do a great Grant High Witch voice. “Vitches of Inkland you good for nothing vorms.”

4. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. It is a great adventure book, which our whole family got into. We would go on drives just so we could all read it together. The dialog makes for great voices.

5. The Grimm Brothers. This isn’t the watered down Disney version but the real fairy tales. There are lots of difficult words and archaic language but the stories are so fascinating. The kids love them even if they can’t understand every word. Plus a lot of the stories have great lessons like don’t go walking off into the woods alone or obey your parents.

6. Journey to the West. This is one of the great four classic Chinese novels. It tells of a monk’s journey to fetch the Buddhist scriptures in India. The journey if fraught with danger and monsters, but the monk is protected by four magical servants. The greatest of which is the mischievous Monkey King. It is written like the old radio serials or something you might here from a street storyteller with each chapter ending with you wanting to tune in next week. I prefer the Anthony Yu translation over the Arthur Waley’s Monkey. It keeps the feeling of the original Chinese.

7. Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne. The stories are so fun and the narration read like a father telling a bedtime story. The narrator’s dialog is great, though it is probably the hardest book on this list to read smoothly out loud.

8. Dr. Seuss. All Dr. Seuss books are so fun I couldn’t chose one. He was a master at tongue twisters and lyrical rhymes. The Lorax and the Horton Hears a Who are some of our favorites.

9. Berenstain Bears. We like the early Berenstain Bear books, like Spooky Old Tree and Inside, Outside, Upside Down, which are just fun and simple. The later books are all about lessons like The Berenstain Bears Learn About Bike Safety, which just aren’t very fun.

10. The Trouble with Trolls by Jan Brett. Most of Jan Brett’s books are really amazing, but this one has fun trolls which keep shouting “Want Dog!” The kids love it.

11. The Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. Anyone with a name like Rudyard Kipling must have a way with words. The stories are short and imaginative. Most deal with origin myths like How the Camel Got Its Hump. Trust me “O Best Beloved” stories are made to be read out loud.

12. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett. It is a book about a town with weather problems. What that doesn’t sound interesting? Well is it when the weather is food. Haven’t you ever wished it would rain donuts? Mmm . . . donuts.

13. Charlotte's Web by E. B. White. I can’t stand the voices in the cartoon, except for Templeton, and didn’t think I would like the reading the book out loud. But that all changed once we found out that Wilber wasn’t such a whiner and was actually deserving of Charlotte’s friendship and sacrifice.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Hickel's Highway

I took this picture yesterday in Bettles, Alaska. In the summer, Bettles is only accessible by air. In the winter, it is accessible for a limited time (sometimes for only two weeks in March) by truck over an ice road. The ice road is part of the famous Hickel’s Highway. The Hickel’s Highway is one of those interesting tales of Alaskan independence from the state’s history. The story goes that when oil was discovered on the North Slope there was an argument between the federal government and Alaska about access to the fields. The only land route to the state-owned North Slope fields is through hundreds of miles of federal land. Alaska’s governor Wally Hickel got so frustrated with the federal government that he ordered a dozer train to bulldoze a road several hundred miles to the North Slope. Mind you, they didn’t survey or engineer anything, they simply cleared a trail three dozers wide all the way to the North Slope. The road was a complete engineering failure. Within one year, maybe a little longer, it turned into a mud bog and was impassible. But the road was a complete political success. It reasserted the right of states and individuals whose land is blocked or surrounded by federal land. There is little left of the original Hickel Highway with the exception of the ice trail into Bettles.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Hello From Bettles Alaska

I am currently typing away in the Aurora Lodge in Bettles, Alaska just above the Arctic Circle. The weather is beautiful and sunny even though it is almost 11 PM. But it finally has started to cool down a little. The only problem with that is it brought the mosquitoes out. The mosquitoes haven’t come out yet in Anchorage but here, in the evenings, they are out in force. They aren’t the little ones either; they are the really big ones that are the first to come out in spring. I have smashed several that were as large as my thumb.

I am behind in submitting posts because this trip to Bettles came up suddenly. I was too busy getting everything in order to make any posts. Then on Monday, I was flying off to Bettles and didn’t have any way to access the Internet until now. I have not even been able to call my wife yet because of a lack a phone service.

If you are wondering where Bettles is, it is approximately a one-hour flight north of Fairbanks. It is just south of the Gates of the Arctic National Park. It is a big stopping point for summer access into the Brooks Range, ANWR, and the surrounding park. In the winter is it a hot Japanese tourist spot for looking at the northern lights. It is a cool little town of 25 people with a really large runway.

Today I was busy all day with work. I think I put ten miles on my feet. That is pretty impressive when you consider that Bettles only has three miles of road. I have been up and down the length of it several times today. I have also toured almost every building in town and talked to every person. It is a friendly little place. Even though I was busy, I was able to take a few non-work related pictures. Here is a quick snapshot of some of the things I did or saw today.
Here is a fine example of Alaskan decorating. This was taken inside the National Park Service's visitor center. I don't think I have ever seen so many dead animals on one couch before.

The park rangers give everyone a lecture on safety in the park. Here is their visual display on what a bear can do to your steel fuel bottles. Those holes are puncture marks from a bear's teeth. They had lots of stories about animal encounters, such as the wolf who developed a shoe fetish and would sneak into hiker's camps and steel one hiking boot.

They say every inch of paw is a foot of bear. We saw this little guy down by the river.

It was a hot and sunny day. Near the end we had a big cloud burst above us. You can see the rain streaking down, but it near hit the ground. Since it has cooled off the sun as come out again.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Driving Conversations: Knock! Knock!

When I was a Cubmaster I was always collecting cheesy jokes, the kind boys like, such as knock-knock jokes and silly puns. Ever since our kids, especially William, have been making up their own jokes and trying them on us. The jokes are kind of hit or miss. Here are a couple ‘hits’ from a while back when I was driving William to school.

Joke 1
Will: What is a shark’s favorite dessert?

Me: I don’t know. What is a shark’s favorite dessert? By the way that is the only allowable response to any joke question.

Will: Octo-pie!

Joke 2
Will: What is a whale’s favorite lunch?

Me: I don’t know. What is a whale’s favorite lunch?

Will: Krill cheese sandwiches!

He really was in good form that day and had me cracking up. After that most of William’s jokes were sea/food oriented.

William has a really silly and dry sense of humor. He will say really ridiculous things so seriously that you think he is being serious. The twinkle in his eye or that goofy grin of his is what usually gives him away. He did again this morning over breakfast.

Will: I wish we were professional rhyme makers.

Me: What? Does he mean rappers and how would he know what rap is?

Will: I wish were were professional rhyme makers. Then we could go all over the world performing rhymes in circuses. We would be famous and would perform behind a curtain like this . . .

He then launches into a rendition of “rain rain go away” complete with some hand actions. He described how we would make it appear as if rain was falling from finger tips. I just stared at him. Then he gave one of his big smiles and we both started laughing. He is so weird and I love it. (The picture if from a year ago when Will was in a school play. He was a radish. We call this shot Radish N Da Hood. Maybe this is why he wants to be a professional rhyme maker.)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Thirteen Rules for Family Camping

I love to camp, hike, fish, and just spend time outdoors. When I got married I wanted my wife to enjoy those things too. So I introduced her to them during our summer break in Alaska. When we started having kids I wanted to do all those things with them too. In the beginning I had varying degrees of success in my attempts to introduce them to camping.

I quickly realized that I was going to have to approach camping differently if my kids and wife were going to enjoy them as much as I do. Since then we have had a lot of fun experiences camping and playing in the outdoors. Here are some of the things I have learned that help my family enjoy camping.

1. Plan, Plan, Plan. You can’t go off half cocked or on a moment’s notice like you did when you were single. You can’t just hope it will all work out . . somehow. If you forget something you don’t want to have to rough it with kids or someone new to camping.

2. Don’t worry if they don’t follow the plan. Don’t get angry if everyone wants to turn around early on the hike you planned. You have to roll with the punches. You have to do what works and is fun and not necessarily what is planned. The plan was just to help you get started and make sure you have at least some fun things to do.

3. Start simple. You shouldn’t take your wife on your dream 50-mile wilderness hike of Denali or two-week whitewater trip down the Yukon for her first camping trip. You have to remember you started out roasting marshmallows at a state campground and that is when you fell in love with camping.

4. Keep it close. Kids don’t do well on long drives. And if you get there and they are already grumpy you may have a difficult time convincing them camping is fun. Until your kids are old enough for longer rides just go to the nearest campgrounds.

5. Suspend the rules (within reason or close to it). Well most of the rules. Let the kids stay up late. Let them scream and shout their heads off. Throw table manners out the window for that one or two days.

6. Get dirty. This applies to the kids and you. Let them roll around in the mud and leaves and all those things kids love to do. Just remember you can hose them down in the front yard when you get home. You may also want to lay an old sheet over the seats in the car. It helps with the clean up.

7. Let them eat treats. For us this goes along with #5. Make lots of s'mores, trail mix, candy bars, banana boats, or whatever. Don’t worry about eating the vegetables or all the normal food rules. Just let them enjoy the gooey marshmallows. Remember no one ever gains weight camping.

8. Keep them dry and warm. I can have a good time even when I am wet and cold, but kids just can’t and a lot of first time campers can’t either. So pack extra socks, jackets, and sleeping bags. Assume the worst possible weather then pack more.

9. Keep them full. Kids need lots of food to fuel all the extra running around. What kid can’t be happy with a stomach full of pancakes, hotdogs, or s'mores? Hungry kids are whiny kids and no one has fun when there is whining.

10. Lower your expectations. Things don’t have to be perfect to enjoy yourselves. Kids can find fun in anything. You might be bored out of your mind throwing rocks in a lake or picking up pine cones, but the kids will love it.

11. Do all the work. Do all the cooking, cleaning of dishes, packing the car, setting up the tent, etc. If you want your wife to enjoy camping make it a day off for her. If you do, I guarantee your wife will want to go again. If your wife has to do all the work just to get the family out the door she will cringe every time you suggest a camping trip.

12. Pamper your wife. This follows the previous one. Make an effort to ensure she has fun and can relax. Get her a camp chair and set it up by the fire. Bring her a pillow and nice mattress even if that is not ‘real’ camping. She will only love the experience more.

13. Remember what it is all about. It’s not about completing the hike. It is not about anything, but having fun with your family in the outdoors. It’s about creating special memories that they will remember always. All the other rules are just a means to this end.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Gwenna and Goliath

I took this picture as Gwenna stood watching this sea lion swim around. She just stood there quietly for a while in awe of the giant. This is from a trip to Seward several years ago where we visited the Alaska SeaLife Center.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Write-Away Contest

When I saw that Michelle at Scribbit was doing a vacation themed writing contest, I thought about my trip out to Nikolski. So I dug out my journal and started to adapt it to the contest. I have learned that my journal was a lot rougher than I thought. I also learned I have about twenty pages of material that I had to cut down. But I did it and without further ado here it is.

The Unexpected Vacation

For most people, their vacations are exotic and their business travels are ordinary. For me, it is the opposite. Our vacations are for family visits or reunions. Don’t get me wrong, I love relaxing and visiting family, but for me to get to the exotic it has to be for work. I have crossed the Arctic Circle into the Land of the Midnight Sun. I have walked on the frozen Chukchi Sea and looked out towards Russia. I have been to the birth place of the winds straddling the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean. My work has taken me to places all throughout Alaska.

Traveling to the far reaches of Alaska comes with its challenges. One of which is weather delays. You always have to plan for weather delays because weather delays always happen. It is a rare trip when I leave and arrive by the emailed itinerary on my etickets. Many people are frustrated by travel in Alaska, but not me. I have learned to accept these delays as unexpected vacations, because this is when the ordinary business trip becomes the extraordinary.

The most extraordinary of these unexpected vacations happened on my first trip to the village of Nikolski along the Aleutian Chain. It was my last scheduled day after a week in Nikolski. So far everything had gone as scheduled getting out to Nikolski. I knew I had been lucky and as the weather began to deteriorate I wondered if my luck had run out. I was relieved when we received word from the satellite phone that the weekly plane had left on time from Dutch Harbor. In an hour the plane buzzed overhead and we walked out to the lake where it was landing. When we got there the pilot beached the amphibious plane and got out. We had our luggage ready to load. There were seven people flying out that day, a full flight. The pilot then stopped us and said he would not be taking any passengers. It took me a while to understand what was going on. The plane’s left engine was missing its cowling, or engine cover. It had blown off mid-flight. No one was sure what was going to happen next. Ernie, a native with the school district who was flying out with us, just laughed and said he had jinxed us. He had made a joke earlier about weather and having a safe flight. In the end we all left to wait for news.

Several hours later, the other amphibious plane in the Aleutians showed up and everyone went down again to the lake. I do mean everyone—almost the whole town showed up. Doug, my traveling companion, mentioned that this was the most excitement a lot of people had had in a while. It was pretty funny. There were three guys working on the plane and 20 people huddled around in the freezing wind talking about them. It took quite a while. I had expected the second plane to drop off the parts and fly us back immediately. I was wrong. I guess they wanted to fly the planes back together. Since it was taking so long I was a little nervous because we were using up daylight fast. It takes at least an hour to fly to Dutch Harbor and since we were an hour behind there was even less time than usual.

Finally the plane was fixed. Most of the luggage was packed on the first plane, while we crammed into the other. I wondered what they would have done if there had not been two planes. They could not have taken everyone and the luggage in one plane. With a roar of engines and water spraying over our head, we took off. Through the turbulence I finally relaxed and began to hope for spending the night in a real hotel.

We flew for quite a while but it was slow going because of the 40 knot headwinds. It was also a pretty bumpy ride. We had gotten about two thirds of the way when we started out over the last stretch of open ocean before we reached Dutch Harbor. Halfway across, right before the point of no turning back, a giant snow squall appeared. It stretched from the ocean to several thousand feet above us. Black storm clouds pushed by heavy winds churned towards us. The pilot turned around. I prayed we would not have to turn back to Nikolski. When we reached the middle of Umnak Island (Nikolski’s island), we met up with the other plane. It was a lot lower than us and going full boar forward. The pilot turned again and followed it. As passengers we had no idea what was going on. I assumed we had turned back to more closely follow the other plane. But when we reached Fort Glenn the pilot quickly landed.

After landing and taxiing back to the other end of an old dirt airstrip, the pilot shut down the plane. He finally explained that since it was rapidly getting dark he did not have time to fly around the storm or if it was even possible to. He did not want to risk a night landing at Dutch Harbor. It has a very bad runway. He had intended to fly back to Nikolski but was told by the other plane that there was a squall now over Nikolski. So our only option was to land at Fort Glenn and wait until we could get out.

Fort Glenn is located at the east end of Umnak Island, 60 miles east of Nikolski. It was a major Army base during World War II and played an important part in the Pacific Theater. At one time it had four runways and over 20,000 troops. It had been abandoned intact since the1950’s. Now it is an organic beef ranch. The ranch house is pieced together from salvaged base parts.

Before landing the pilot had radioed in to the ranch house and had been told they would be there to pick us up when we landed. No one was there. By the time the pilot turned off the engine it was pitch black. The ranch house was only a speck of light in the distance. We sat there huddled in our seats listening to the howling wind. Our pilot had jumped out the back door for a smoke. As we sat shivering in our seats, I couldn’t help but think we were in one of those stories where a group of lost travels stumbled upon a house in the middle of nowhere during a storm. We only had to wait before we started mysteriously disappearing one by one. Finally the pilot was able to get the ranch house on the radio and they sent someone out to pick us up.

At the ranch we got a welcome that only comes when someone hasn’t seen a new face in months. In the short time it had taken to pick us up they had stoked the big pot belly stove, made up extra beds, and readied eight more spots for dinner. After a quick thawing by the stove we were herded to the kitchen. Food was pushed on us as soon as we sat down at huge half-log tables. We were served fresh steak, potatoes, corn on the cob, salad, and fresh rolls. For desert it was homemade pies with ice cream. I hadn’t eaten that good or anywhere near it, since I left home.
I was in awe of my surroundings during dinner. I was just amazed at where I was and the impossibility of the situation. I was in a ranch (the largest ranch in Alaska producing more than half of all the cattle in the state), which I had never heard of before, having dinner in a very warm handmade ranch house.

There were only 35 people living at the ranch, but they were a very diverse group. To my left were four Mexicans straight from Mexico, eating their steak wrapped in corn tortillas. To my right were a New Zealand cowboy and a helicopter pilot. There was also a Canadian couple that ran the place with their Dutch engineer. In front of me were four Aleut Elders who had been on the plane with me. There were so many people, cultures, languages, accents, and wild experiences happening all at once that I was in complete surreal shock. I just quietly ate my meal just thoroughly happy to be soaking in my environment. I must have sat for a half an hour after I was finished eating before I moved.

After dinner, Pat the owner, took us on the tour of the slaughter house. He explained how there are 5,000 head of cattle on the island which they round up each year using helicopters. They slaughter about half the heard and package the meat. They then fly it out to Dutch Harbor where it gets shipped to high-end restaurants and grocers in Seattle.

The tour of the slaughter house was interesting; unfortunately they were already done cleaning up for the night. They showed us where the cattle where brought in and sprayed with ozonated air and then killed. They showed us where they hung them up and bled them. At this point, out of professional curiosity, I asked about their sewer system. Slaughterhouses have a real problem with disposal of the waste materials. Well I won’t go into detail, but the manager jumped right up and began to give me and Doug a detailed tour of the plant and how it worked. He was really proud of how sophisticated the plant was and he seemed really excited to have someone to talk to about it that understood how cool it was.

They have a state of the art facility, which they need, because all the meat is certified as USDA 100% organic (there actually is an inspector who lives there too). This is the top and hardest labeling to get. Meat can be graded as natural, organic, or 100% organic. 100% organic means that not only is the animal raised in a chemical free environment, it is slaughtered and process includes no chemicals or additives. They even have to wash all surfaces off with special soaps after they are cleaned with chlorine. To disinfect the meat, they soak it with mists of ozonated water. Soaking the meat with water actually makes the meat taste better. It was a fascinating tour.

After the tour, we all sat around the fox den or common room with its huge pot belly stove, the only heat in the house. Everyone talked and talked for hours. It was really entertaining. I heard cool stories about mad cows that attack helicopters and a lot about the history of the island. The shelves were covered with artifacts from the old base. They salvaged a mural painting from the officer’s mess hall, which, as luck has it is a picture of some cowboys . . . and a buxom blonde cowgirl. They had a stone seal oil lantern that had been found.

This started an amazing discussion with the Aleut Elders talking about the old ways and the Aleut people during the war. Patty, the oldest Elder, had lived in the Aleut intern camps and lived much of the history we were talking about. The first time she had seen anything taller than a man, was when their boat sailed into Ketchikan interment camp and she saw the towering trees. She lost much of her family during the interment. I cannot describe how much I learned that night and how much closer I came to understanding what it means to be a native.

It was late when everyone started to head off to bed. There wasn’t a real phone only an emergency satellite phone. I could not impose upon such gracious hosts in that way, so I emailed my wife instead. Oddly enough, they had email but not a phone. I was afraid that Rebecca would be worried about me. I didn’t want that to happen. I had not been in any danger and I was very well fed. The slaughterhouse tour was fascinating and worth the delay. The conversation was moving and enlightening and I would not have wanted to miss it.

I finally fell asleep on a couch next to the stove in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t help but think I was surrounded by the most interesting collection of people I will probably ever meet. What a bizarre set of circumstances that had placed me in this most wonderfully dream like place. The daylight of the next day only slightly lessened its aura. We did get to see the slaughterhouse in action. We helped out with chores. We waited as squall after squall swept over us. Finally there was an opening in the weather and we hurriedly piled into the plane. We were all anxious to get to our destinations, but couldn’t help feeling a little sadden at leaving. I now look back on my unexpected vacation to Fort Glenn as more than a weather delay. It was a journey in itself and one of my favorites.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Beats Saturday Morning Cartoons

Saturday, after breakfast I packed up the fishing gear and the kids and we headed to Kincaid Park. We stopped at one of our favorite in-town fishing spots, Little Campbell Lake. When we got out of the car several large fish jumped and made big splashes. That got the kids all excited. We went out on to the dock and fished for close to an hour. We saw several fish jump and even had a large one follow a lure, but we didn’t catch anything. It probably would have been better earlier in the morning.

A stiff wind was blowing across the lake. It was cold and we hadn’t brought warm enough jackets. So we packed up to head home. Just as we were about to climb in the car, Will suggested we go for a hike. So we headed out along one of the many trails that looped around the lake.

We had a wonderful hike. The kids, except for Tim, hiked the whole two miles by themselves. Each time the kids complained about being tired we stopped. Except instead of resting they ran around exploring. There were just too many spruce cones, stick swords, and cool stumps for them to sit around resting.

William correctly identified mother and baby moose tracks that ran along the trail. We followed them for a while until they headed off in the wrong direction. The kids also found a bunch of dried cow parsnip stocks. The hollow stocks stood taller then most of the kids. They made perfect walking sticks and later, as the kids found out, swords.

It didn’t take long for the kids to warm. There was no wind in the woods. So they quickly shed the extra layers they had put on while fishing. Guess who ended up carrying all the coats.

We had a lot of fun hiking. We even got back home before lunch. It was a good way to start a Saturday morning. This morning William said we have to go hiking next weekend.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Bears and Wolfs and Webelos OH MY!

For several years I volunteered as a Cubmaster for our local Cub Scout pack. One of the coolest things I learned about was ARLIS (Alaska Resource Library & Information Services). ARLIS is a library that specializes in Alaska climate, mineral rights, fish counts, or other natural information. This means most people stay clear of it, but the library also carries educational kits. It has a huge collection of animal skills, bones, and mounts. All of which can be checked out by anyone with a library card. The librarians at ARLIS are also the most helpful I’ve met, probably because they are happy someone uses their facilities. They often would help me carry items out to my car and give me free parking passes.

Why did I care as a Cubmaster? Well, in Cub Scouts ranks are based on animals; bobcat, wolf, bear, and webelo. Ok, the webelo rank isn’t an animal, but I will get to that later. So in our pack when boys advanced rank I would check out the appropriate animal fur for their rank. A bobcat pelt for the bobcat rank. A bear skin for the bear rank. For webelos we settled on a beaver skull and pelt. It would have been a muskox skull except it was checked out the first time. The boys looked forward to each pack meeting just so they could play with them.

Another time, we had a bird themed pack meeting. So I got four different full bird mounts; teal, snowy owl, merganser, and a ptarmigan. We had a game where the kids had to identify each bird. The snowy owl was the favorite thanks to Harry Potter.

My kids loved them too. Well, most of the time. The first time I went to ARLIS, I decided to surprise my kids. So when I got that home that night, I draped the wolf skin over me. It practically covered me. Then I snuck into the play room. The kids didn’t see me until I started growling. Surprisingly, two year old Ben saw right through it and laughed. It was our four year old Gwenna that started screaming. She was not happy with me after that.

My kids liked it when I went to ARLIS because we got to keep the skins or birds for several weeks at home. ARLIS makes it possible for anyone to bring home a museum.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Thirteen Reasons Mom is the Best Mom

In honor of Mother’s Day coming up I decided to interview the kids, asking them why they think their mommy is the best. They gave me lots of reasons and ideas for my list today. The trouble was trying to edit them all to match this comment. I listed them from least to most coherent.

1. She helps me brush my teeth and gives me kisses. (Tim) This was the most coherent response from Tim but it was very enthusiastic.

2. She plays race cars with me. (Ben) I saw Ben sitting on her lap the other day using her as a highway. Rebecca just laughed and made beeping sounds with him. I love how Rebecca is funny and knows how to be silly on their level.

3. She helps me ride my bike. (Gwenna) She went on to say it was mommy that taught and encouraged her to ride.

4. She does my hair. (Gwenna) Gwenna then reminded me that I don’t kinow how to do GIRL hair. She also reminded me that I always part Tim’s hair on the wrong side. Well, I do get it right 50% of the time.

5. She takes me out for Mommy/Daughter dates and ice cream. (Gwenna) Rebecca is always mindful that Gwenna (until Xianli was born) was surrounded by boys and made sure Gwenna has a chance to be a girl. Sometimes it is taking her shopping or painting her room pink. Gwenna just loves it. The opposite is true too. Rebecca loves go camping, wrestle, or play dinosaurs with the boys.

6. She is nice to us. (Gwenna and Will) I thought it was interesting that this was the first response both Gwenna and William gave when I asked them about mom. Ben also concurred with this response.

7. She makes the best pineapple upside down cake. (Will) This was quickly followed by muffins, cookies, lunches, etc. What can you say? She is a great cook.

8. She reads Tom Sawyer to us. (Will) Rebecca keeps the book in the car for all the down time while she does all the driving around with them. Every time I get in the car the kids start asking if we can read Tom Sawyer.

9. She takes us to Family Fun Night. (Will) Will was referring to the school fun and games night we recently attended. Rebecca is always willing to spend the night at a picnic, school night, etc with five kids. She is a remarkably brave woman.

10. She knows the answers to their questions. Rebecca got a degree in biology (with emphisis in zoology). She always able to answer the kids’ questions. I remember watching this last pregnancy as Rebecca opened up an anatomy textbook with Gwenna to explain the stages of fetus development. Gwenna thought mom was pretty cool.

11. She works her butt off for this family. Rebecca has made sacrifices to be a stay-at-home mom. It takes a lot of energy to take care of five children. There are some days when she is exhausted or frustrated, but she always works hard to take care of us. And we greatly appreciate her.

12. She is creative. Whether it is making birthday cakes, costumes, or finding ways to keep us in budget, Rebecca is creative. She always surprises me about what she can come up with. She is never afraid to take on a project.

13. She is loved by her kids. Even though the kids cycle through mommy/daddy phases, she is the one the most often wanted when the nightmare strikes or the knees are skinned. They always miss her when she is not around.

I also wanted to add “She is HAWT!” but the kids just said I was being silly. I guess that is the way it is supposed to be.

We love you Rebecca. Happy Mother’s Day.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Wordless Wednesday: 1950's 7UP Baby

Two weeks ago Sweet Junipers! posted a forward-thinking 1959 ad. When I saw it I knew I would have to post its exact opposite. This ad is so wrong on several levels, and yet it makes you want to laugh at its absurdity. Someone actually thought this ad would sell more 7UP and others bought 7UP because of this ad.

The credit for finding this 1950’s 7UP ad goes to David Kellett of the webcomic Sheldon. He was doing a little research on 1950’s advertisement for the cover of his next book.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Give the Monkeys a Hammer

About a month ago, we cleaned out the garage and shed. It was the first warm Saturday in a while and we decided to put away the winter gear and get out the summer stuff. The kids were not pleased with having to turn off the Saturday morning cartoons. I can understand that, those TMNT can be pretty addictive. As things were turning into a full scale revolt, I had a stroke of brilliance.

During fall and winter, several items had ended up in our backyard. Since I don’t have a truck to haul them away, they sat there until the snow covered them up. Once hidden from view they were forgotten, until now. That Saturday had been decreed as the day they would be hauled off to the dump in the afternoon when I could borrow a truck. So, I hauled them out to the front yawn. There was a lawn mower, old carpet, and a dishwasher. I then told the kids they could do whatever they wanted to them and handed over my tools. Will was bouncing with excitement. He had been watching PBS’s kid "Junkyard", where teams of kids compete by building cool things out of junk. In no time he had a thousand crazy ideas. I left them to it and went off to do my spring cleaning.

I would check up on them and help out every few minutes. They quickly realized that Bosch dishwashers are pretty tough. So they mainly alternated trying to unscrew the millions of screws and just pounding it with hammers. They later reminded me of the opening scene in 2001 Space Odyssey.

Around lunchtime Rebecca came out and was a little shocked at their progress. Though the garage was looking pretty clean the front yard looked like a junkyard. There were pieces and parts everywhere with tools mixed in for good measure. It looked pretty bad. Rebecca made us promise to pick everything up by the end of the day. So as soon as I got the truck, we backed it up and loaded everything on it. The kids were really good about hunting down all the tools. In the end, the garage and the yard were cleaned up. And the kids had not spent the whole day in front of the TV.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Fun Filled Saturday: Cleanup 2007, Bike Ride, & Barbeque

Many people complain that Alaska only has two seasons; winter and the other one. As for me I like to think there are five distinct seasons; summer, fall, winter, breakup, and spring. What’s ‘breakup,’ you ask? Well, breakup is the season when the snow is melting. It is a muddy, bleak time. It is a time that only locals can find beautiful, because they are just so glad the snow is disappearing and the sun is reappearing. Part of the problem is the six months of accumulated trash final is visible as the snow melts. So to combat it Anchorage gets mobilized and sponsors a citywide cleanup.

While growing up, the first weekend in May was cleanup day. Everyone would get out on Saturday with orange garbage bags and pickup their neighborhood, park, or trail. Then you just take the bags to the nearest schools and the city takes them away. To encourage people’s own spring cleaning there also is free dumping at the landfill. Add the first heavy shower and by mid-May everything is cleaned up and greener than ever.

When we moved back to Anchorage I was glad to see the city was still doing it. This year the kids’ school really promoted it. For each bag of trash they brought in they got a raffle ticket for a chance to win an ipod shuffle. It was a bike when I was a kid.

So Saturday morning we road over to a school by our house and picked up the orange bags. This year the city also provided t-shirts for the cleanup. The kids thought that was pretty cool. So wearing our new shirts we set about picking up trash. We started along a trail next to our house. I was glad we did because some of it looked like it could have come from us. Then we walked our neighborhood. The kids turned it in to a treasure hunt with the mom and dad bringing up the rear with the bags. Every bottle cap and old board was a find. At one point, Gwenna exclaiming, “Eew! an ear plug,” and then a few minutes later shouted proudly, “Oh! I’ve found the match.”

We had originally intended to ride bikes to a nearby park for cleanup, but with five kids you have to be flexible. So when Xian decided she needed to be fed, we stuck around the neighborhood. We even ate our picnic lunch on the front lawn. After lunch, we decided we still had time to ride to the park. So we packed up two bike trailers with kids and rode off. Gwen and Will raced the whole way. Once we got to the park we quickly realized that someone else had beaten us to the cleanup. So we ended up playing instead. It is a really cool that over looks the inlet. There is boat shaped jungle gym and a real climbing wall. The kids had a blast.

There park was crowded with thirty or so people having a barbeque. Even though we had just ate, the smell made us all hungry again. After an hour we decided to head back home. Once home we all hopped in the car and drove to the local school to drop off the filled bags. We also picked up the raffle tickets, but since the tickets have to be dropped off at the kid’s own school, we then drove across town to Northern Lights ABC. We got there right at 2 PM just before they closed. On Monday the kids will find out if they won the ipod or not. Of course, what is a five or seven year old going to do with an ipod? Maybe a Father’s Day gift?

On the way home, we decided that we needed to have a barbeque too. So we stopped off at Costco. After trying all the free samples, we left with the reindeer dogs, buns, chips, and other goodies necessary for a barbeque. Thanks to cell phones, we were also able to call my sister who is back from college to come over.

During our short bike ride we realized William’s bike was way too small for him. So I broke out the next sized bike and made some repairs. The bike was left in the house, with tons of other junk, when we moved in. I only need to repair the flat tires and add a missing petal to get it running again. I also installed training wheels on our smallest bike. In no time, we had just upgraded half the kids to ‘new’ bikes. I sat back and grilled hotdogs on the driveway as the kids tried out their new bikes. Will even hauled out some scrap wood to make a sweet jump.

Later that night after the kids were in bed, Rebecca and I sat around playing Scrabble with my sister. As we talked about the day we realized that a simple cleanup day had ballooned into a bike ride, park time, shopping trip, bike repair, and barbeque day. And we loved it. Saturday is always a packed and fun filled day.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Driving Conversations: Living In a Tae Kwon World

This conversation happened on Wednesday while I was dropping Will off at school on the way to work.

Will: That lady behind us in the white car looks like grandma.

Me: Really? I look and it does kind of look like my mom.

Me: Which grandma?

Will: The one that lives in a tae kwon do?

Me: What?

Will: The grandma that lives in a tae kwon do?

At this point my mind is racing around trying to find a connection. Tae kwon do = Rex’s Tae kwon do school = Napoleon Dynamite = Idaho = my grandmother who lives in Downey, Idaho.

Me: Do you mean Great Grandma who lives in Idaho?

Will: No, the one who lives in tae kwon do.

Me: Do you mean my parents who live in Anchorage or mom’s who live in Arizona?

Will: Neither, the ones who live in tae kwon do.

Me: Will, those are your only grandparents.

Will: No Dad, there are the ones that live in tae kwon do.

OK! I realize I am going at this the wrong way. Time to change directions.

Me: Will, I don’t understand tae kwon do. Tae kwon do is a martial art form . . . like
karate. Is that what you mean?

Will: NO! You know tae kwon do is a place that you live where it has a rope to pull if you need help.

What the crap?

Me: What did you say?

Will: The ones that live in a tae kwon do . . . pause . . . a tai con do . . . pause . . . a kwondo.

Me: CONDO! Do you mean a CONDO?

Will: Yes, that’s it a condo!

Me: Aaaah! You mean Great Grandpa and Grandma Ni?

My grandparents just moved out of their house where they have lived for fifty years into a retirement community. I still have not seen their new condo, but Will has.

Will: Yeah.

Me: Oh Yeah, I totally see it. She does look like Great Grandma Ni.

At this point, the lady in the white car passed us as we turned right to Will’s school.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Thirteen Weird Foods

I pride myself in having a flexible pallate and my iron stomach. I never turn down a chance to try something new. My philosophy is if someone is offering you something to eat, you try it. First, it’s polite. Second, if they are serving it someone has to think it tastes good. You never know, that person may be you. In general, I have had a lot of fun trying things and it has opened me up to whole new experiences and flavors. But it has also provided me with several interesting stories. Here are thirteen weird things I have eaten.

1. Fish Eyes. I hear it takes 14 tries before you start to like a new taste. Let’s just say I’ve been offered fish eyes enough to start to like them. As for the taste, think egg yolks.

2. Jelly Fish. Nature’s bubblegum. It was cooked in a very spicy Szechwan sauce, but it was so chewy I couldn’t swallow it. Burned my mouth with every chew.

3. Sea Cucumber. Nature’s jell-o. Clear, no flavor, and pointless.

4. Sow’s Ear. I hear you can make a purse out of these, which is got to be better than putting them into fried noodles.

5. Pigs Snout. Tastes just like you think it would.

6. Stinky Tofu. This is a favorite street food in Taiwan. It consists of fried rancid tofu. Even the locals will tell you it smells like death while cooking. That is why you never eat it right away.

7. Black Ants. I was at a friend’s house in Lotung, Taiwan. His mom served us a standard diakon soup. As I drained my bowl, I noticed that some of the pepper didn’t look right. Just as another friend was asking for seconds it dawns on me the pepper were black ants. Later I asked my friend if the soup was suppose to have ants in it. He said it wasn’t and they must have fallen in while his mom was cooking. I am not sure I was comforted by that statement.

8. Stinky Fruit (durian). This spiky Southeast Asian fruit looks more like a weapon than something to eat. Its tag line is “smells like hell, tastes like heaven.” I’ve got another six more tries before I will believe the second part.

9. Dragon Eyes (longyan). The Chinese call these dragon eyes because they have a large nut surrounded by juicy grape-like flesh. Consequently, that makes them feel like eyes when you are chewing on them. Very delicious though.

10. Dragon Fruit. This is a popular fruit in Asia. It is oval shaped and with varying shades of pink and green all over it. It also has these curvy little soft thorns. It looks like something from a B-grade sci-fi movie. The inside meat is white with tiny black seeds. It tastes like a sweet kiwi or sour strawberry. Very tasty in my book.

11. Chicken’s Feet. Not the legs, just the feet with claws incuded. They were fried in a hot sauce. The reminded me of the Colonel’s secret recipe. Only the fried skin has any flavor.

12. Bai Bai Food. Many people through China and Taiwan would have home shrines to ancestors and various gods (usually a combination of Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian figures). They often would offer food and incenses as sacrifices on the shrines. I had always been careful to be respectful about the shrines when I was in people’s homes. One day a lady I was visiting asked if I wanted something to eat. She then looked around the room. When she spied the shrine she grabbed an orange from her father’s picture and handed it to me. She thought my shock was pretty funny.

13. Whole Baby squid. I was at a cafeteria in Taipei when I saw these bite-sized babies. You had to be careful not to swallow the beaks and pen. One bonus is it turned your mouth black from the ink. Oddly enough that too tasted like egg yolk.

Bonus: I always wanted to try dog when I was in Taiwan, but never found any. The Chinese call it xiangrou which euphemistically translates to fragrant meat. Also I have always wanted to try Eskimo ice cream, which consists of caribou fat whipped with berries, sheefish, and sugar. Most people tell me it is to die for. Some day I can add these to the list.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Wordless Wednesday: New Meets Old

I took this picture in Nikolski, Alaska. Nikolski is the first Aleut village on the Aleutian Chain and is located on Umnak Island. Literally the village borders the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean. It is 900 miles west of Anchorage or about four hours flight time. There are 25-30 people living in Nikolski, almost all of them of Aleut descent.

Nikolski is considered to be the most archeologically important site in Alaska and is the oldest continually inhabited site in North America. There is evidence that Aleuts have been living in the exact village site for over 4,000 years and in the bay for 9,000 years. There are middens, graves mounds, bones, and artifacts everywhere. Most of the houses are built atop of older dwellings. As I walked around the village I would accidentally kick up old fish and seal bones.

The houses are mostly modern, but traditional Aleut sunken houses with sod and driftwood roofs are still standing. You can also see the traditional sweat houses. Everyone lives a subsistence life style which includes caribou, salmon, halibut, seals, sea otters, clams, and wild plants.

Yet with all this history and tradition the first day I walked into the tribal offices everyone was logged on and playing World of Warcraft. In one corner there was a Night Elf priestess. In the other a female dwarf warrior. While one person was trying to find out if her friend from South America was logged on yet. They had a pillaging appointment. It was surreal. Nikolski is truly a place where the new meets the old.

In the picture you can see where the wind had blown out sections of a derelict house, exposing the old spring bed and other house furnishings from the early 1900’s. You can also see the Chaluka Hotel in the background. It was the comfortable double wide where I have spent many a windy night.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Chinese and Charlie's Bakery

Ever since I lived in Taiwan I have loved Chinese food. This has been a blessing and a curse. It opened me up to all the wonderful foods, dishes, and tastes of China. Unfortunately, I am now tainted because I know what real, good Chinese food should taste like. I still enjoy the occasional Carrs/Safeway Chinese takeout, not as authentic Chinese food, but something completely different.

As odd as it sounds, Anchorage has a pretty good selection of Chinese restaurants. This probably has to do with the sizable Asian population and proximity to Asia. The best place I have found in town for authentic Chinese food is Charlie’s European Bakery. Yeah, you read that right European bakery. (Actually they have changed the name to just Charlie’s Bakery, but you can still see signs and stuff with the old name.) It is a little cafĂ© and bakery located on C Street and Northern Lights. They do sell some European breads, but their main staple is their Chinese food.

One of the reasons Charlie’s is so good is its authenticity. It is owned and operated by a Chinese Family from Taiwan. Their “niu ruo tang” (braised beef noodle soup) and the “hong dou bao” (red bean paste buns) are the best. The only difference between what I use to eat from noodle shops and street vendors is the size. The proportions are definably American.

The other thing I liked about Charlie’s is the atmosphere. It feels like the little bakeries and noodle shops of Taiwan. It has that relaxed, family run feel of all small Taiwanese shops.

Yesterday, I stopped by to surprise my wife with lunch. I got there right at 11 AM right as they opened. They were still just getting started and I had to wait as the hong dou bao came out of the oven. Now I have to confess. I am a horrible eavesdropper when it comes to Chinese. It was a habit I picked up living in Taiwan and trying to learn the language. While I waited, I listen to two ladies behind the counter talk back and forth about sales at Costco, whether or not the today’s portions were too small, or other such routine things. I just smiled as I listened to their wonderfully thick Taiwanese accents. The Taiwanese accent is the Chinese equivalent of a Southern American accent. They soften their vowels and slur syllabus together.

Every once in while they would call back to “mei mei” for an update on the day’s baking. Mei mei literally means little sister, but is also used as a familiar name for any younger female. In this case, mei mei was a lady roughly my age. Still a mei mei at thirty.

I left Charlie’s with four piping-hot fresh hong dou bao, lunch, and smile from ear to ear. Speaking or even passively listening to Chinese always puts me in a good mood.