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Saturday, June 24, 2017

Big Foot - Alaska

At times one felt very isolated living in Alaska.  Now and then however somebody would come through that one would not have had the opportunity to meet otherwise.  For instance when was it the last time you ever met anyone who had really seen Big Foot.

I really do not recall the exact circumstances surrounding the telling of this tale nor all the intricacies and facts related.  I do remember the guys name who described the events herein but I am inclined not to reveal his true identity due to the fact that he is still alive and well and a fairly well known author.  I do not want to embarrass him or subject myself to some sort of litigation.  But this is the story as I remember it.

During his lumberjack days in Oregon my acquaintance was instructed by his boss to go to such and such an area and cut a small road about six miles into a forested area that was scheduled for cutting.  Seventy years prior there had bee a large fire and no one had really been to that desolate area since and now the timber was ready for harvesting.  He loaded his equipment which consisted of lumberjack stuff and a couple of horses and traveled fifty miles to where the trail was to begin.

He fell the trees, trimmed them and used the horses to pull out the fallen trees to a clearing next to his base camp.  After several days of cutting, trimming, and hauling he had covered about a half mile.

That night the horses seemed restless and the next morning they were hard to control on his journey back up the road.  He had left most of his equipment where he had quit the day before to keep him from carrying them back and forth. When he got to the new starting point he found that all of his equipment had been broken and scattered.  He also found huge claw marks about twelve feet up the side of a few trees.  He became a little unnerved and decided he needed to tell someone about this.  

He returned to his base camp, loaded up his horses and drove the fifty miles back down the old logging trail.  He and his boss returned to the site the next day, walked up the path and surveyed the wreckage.  His boss seemed to be more interested in what had caused the carnage than my writer friend, but rank prevailed and they started trying to pick up tracks of some kind.  They found none in the immediate area because of all the trimmings on the ground but eventually snaked their way up the hill and further into the forest which was becoming increasingly dark due to the forest canopy.

They kept looking for tracks but none were visible.  Then as they were walking up a small rise they both looked up and saw three large figures looming ahead of them.  The figures they soon realized were some kind of animals  They were no more than fifty feet away.  He remembered one was crouching on all fours between two larger creatures.  One he later assumed was the mother, the crouching one a baby and the gigantic one, well over seven feet tall, the daddy.  A family he thought after is shock allowed him to think.  The male looked at them, straightened up to his full height that looked a lot more than it had just a few minutes previously and thrust out its chest.  His boss said not to make eye contact and they backed down the hill.  The road into the forest was never completed.

My pal tells the story much better than I of course and says he has never written about it nor does he tell the story much for fear of be tagged as crazy.

Going to Alaska widened my horizons about many things.  Now I believe in Big Foot and if I return someday I cannot wait to meet someone one who actually was abducted by aliens, knows who shot Jack Kennedy, and in which village Jimmy Hoof is hiding under the witness protection program. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Mouse Soup - Alaska

Because I have written many a muse, some might say diatribe, about my adventures in Alaska I am not sure if I have imparted the following on this blog site. However due to a recent posting by a friend of mine on Facebook I thought it worth repeating.

A lady friend of mine lives on a small farm in northern Illinois. When she got up one morning she checked her overly used mouse trap and found to her shock and dismay the head of a mouse. Not the body mind you, only the head. It sort of unnerved her wondering what had taken the body and left the head. She hoped whatever it was had left the house.

For those of you on Facebook you can imagine what happened next. The comment section under her post began to fill-up. There were a couple of "eeks," a few "Noooos," and one "I would move."

Trying to defuse the situation, less panic reign supreme in northern Illinois, I mentioned it reminded me of mouse soup, a dish I became familiar with while living in Alaska. Well this caused another round of comments the best being, "I hate mice, that is disgusting."

I tried to ease my Facebook friend's fear and disgust but realized an explanation about mouse soup was far to complicated and lengthy to serve up during the comment phase of the entry. Thus the reason for this particular blog.

Eskimos spend a lot of their leisure time hunting and gathering and the preparing of food for the winter months. They have become over the years very ingenious as to determining what is and is not editable and palatable.

Mice are ubiquitous to the Tundra. They swarm all over the place searching for their own eatables. They find nuts, berries, roots, and grasses and now and then discarded human food. They spend all summer scavenging around  and what they don't eat they pack back to their nests to store for the winter.

Eons ago Eskimos realized what the mouse was doing so they began to search out mice nests in the late summer and early fall to help themselves get through the Arctic winters.

To the trained Eskimo eye a mouse nest is easy to find. I never mastered the skill and could not pick out a nest over a clump of tundra grass.

After gathering, the ingredients are taken to the gatherer's home, put in a pot, boiled, and then strained several times to remove any non human digestible things. If the gatherer is lucky enough to have some vegetables around they too are thrown in the pot. The soup is seasoned to taste and served up boiling hot.

So my dear friends in northern Illinois and else where if you have ever wondered about mouse soup or how to make it now, if you so desire.  The mice are not eaten, or at least in the soup they are not eaten.

I have tasted mouse soup and it does not appeal to me. It is not the flavor that I dislike it is just that I cannot get past the fact that I am putting in my mouth what a rodent had not so long ago had put in theirs

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

First Kill - Alaska

The training to be a hunter starts early in Alaska. I was reminded of that one day in Hooper Bay while sitting at my computer and watching two kids out the window stalking around my courtyard.

A very small boy was throwing a stick at a bird with no other plan than to kill it, or so it seemed. Arctic birds must not be too smart because it never moved more than a few inches.

Eventually the young hunters out witted the bird and it fell dutifully to the ground. I expected the two boys would be on their way. However, they crouched over the bird and poked at it for awhile with their weapon. They then went about stripping the bird of its feathers, tearing it in two and scraping out the insides. Then they looked up and saw me, said something to one another, waved and proceeded to my door.

They asked if I wanted the bird. I usually don't eat anything I have seen alive or that resembles itself when it was alive, but having lived up here for over a year at that time I knew that to reject the bird would have been a grievous error. I would not have been the first Gussick to cause a cultural incident, but we teachers, for the most part, are sensitive to differences. Transgressions are strictly by accident.

Usually problems between Gussicks and Eskimos are initiated by the Gussicks, and then we fall all over ourselves trying to dig ourselves out. For instance, when you are correcting a child, he or she does not make eye contact. It is a sign of disrespect to look an elder in the eye while being corrected.

Many a teacher in the past has been heard to say "look at me while I am talking to you!" All that does up here is cause confusion.

Luckily, new teachers are told of such forms of communication, but sometimes we really step on it, with terrible results.

Refusing the bird could have been one of those times. Whenever a young boy or girl makes their first kill they are not to use it for themselves; they must give it away. Usually to an elder or worthy person. Seldom does an Eskimo blunder across the cultural line ... well usually.

A teacher friend, Dave, called one night and said Simon, one of our seniors at school, had sold him some moose very cheap. So cheap that Dave gave Simon more money than he asked for. He asked me if I wanted to buy any. "No," I replied. But I said I would not turn down a moose meal if I were invited over.

The next night I was treated to a delicious moose stew.

Dave showed me all the meat he had bought from Simon. My mind started calculating my savings if I bought my winter supply of meat from Simon but decided against it. My wife, with great insight and contemplation, said "No."

All she would have had to have done was to cut the hind quarter into chunks big enough to fit in a crock pot and then grind the rest into moose patties. But she seemed rather adamant.

Later that same week I stopped by another teacher's, house to check on some maintenance complaints.

Brian, the teacher, was cutting up a big chunk of moose on the kitchen table. He said he had purchased the meat from Simon.

While standing next to the copying machine the next morning I was talking about Dave and Brian's windfall to a third teacher and found that several teachers had bought from Simon.

Apparently the school secretary heard me. That evening several elders visited each teacher who had purchased moose from Simon. They brought with them the amount of moose each teacher had bought and gave their meat to the respective educator. They said, "Yup'iks do not sell meat, we give it away."

They seemed very embarrassed and apologized for Simon's behavior. Simon returned later that night and each teacher received their money back.

This brings me back to two boys and a small bird at my back door. I invited them in and gave each a soft drink and let them watch TV. They were starting to out-stay their welcome when one asked if I knew how to cook the bird.

I sighed and knew what was coming. We put the bird in the oven and 30 minutes later I served it up. The boys ate ravenously as I watched and they seemed in no hurry to leave. As they watched more TV, I took my normal Saturday afternoon position on the couch. I drifted off to sleep somewhere between Sponge Bob and The Big Blue Bear.

When I woke, Paula had returned from wherever women go on Saturday afternoons, even in Hooper Bay. The boys were sitting at the table consuming potato chips, pizza rolls and Pepsi. Paula, being the soft touch that she was, had invited the boys for dinner and was feeding them appetizers.

Looking back on the entire affair, I feel pleased that I was selected to receive their first kill. It probably didn't count. Perhaps they even figured it was a good ruse to get inside, watch TV and be fed. Or they could have just been proud and wanted to participate in the tradition as their older brothers and sisters had.

In a few years, long after I left, they will hunt for real and kill a moose, caribou, or maybe a duck or goose. They will give their first kill to some elder or worthy person without blinking an eye and the community will embrace the two new men as members of the tribe.

I hope they will remember the first time they gave a kill away and for a fleeting second wonder what ever happened to the old Gussick and his wife who fed them that afternoon.

But perhaps times will have changed by then and they will have gone to work for Simon. The elders, by then, will have left Hooper Bay and found happier hunting grounds where game is easily obtained, freely given, and never sold.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Tundra Walk - Alaska

One day in September near Hooper Bay I decided to go for a walk on the Tundra.  It had not yet snowed  and the temperature, while cold, was not bone freezing and there was still water in the ponds and finger like projections that connected some of them.

The Tundra seemed to me to be made up of grass with a marsh thrown in here and there.  Sometimes it was grass up to your knees and other times you walked on soft moss that reminded me of walking on a trampoline.

I saw a ridge in the distance and decided to head in that direction.  After about a half hour of trekking I realised that the distance to the ridge was deceiving so I altered my plan and veered left toward what I guessed was the direction of the Bering Sea. 

Because of ponds and connecting water ways I could not walk in a straight line and it seemed like for everyone 100 feet I went straight I went 200 feet sideways one way or another.  The going was slow.

After about an hour I decided that I was not that interested in seeing the Bering Sea again so decided to return to the village.  That was no problem because I never let it out of my sight.  I began my weaving between  the ponds and the muck and the streams and was making very little forward progress.  The streams were just wide enough that I could not jump but I did find one spot that looked shallow enough for me to wade.  My boots were good, having found them in the closet when I moved in, so I had no fear of them leaking.  I stepped into the little stream and immediately sunk to mid calf.  I put the other foot in and it did the same.  Water seeped down into my boots and it was cold.  I lunged forward trying to hit the opposite bank with my chest and crawled out.  Not being a fast learner I repeated the process one more time until I made it back to the edge of the village.

I thought to myself what would have happened to me if it had been 40 below or something. Well if it had of  been I realized I could have just walked in a straight line across the frozen Tundra and not have gotten wet.

Monday, June 12, 2017

It's cold, It's dark, It's Alaska

People ask now and then  how I put up with the darkness and cold during the winter while living in Alaska.

That is sort of a misconception held by many in the lower 48. It is not dark all the time, at least not in Hooper Bay, Pitka's Point, or Noatak. Yes, it does get cold, but it gets cold in Independence also, albeit not for as long or perhaps as cold.

The sun usually came up around 11:30 a.m., and sat around 4:30 p.m., until the last part of December and then started to gain a few minutes of daylight every day. The only strange thing to me about that was the way the sun traversed the sky.

The sun appeared on the southeast horizon and then scooted along the southern edge of the earth until it eventually sat in the southwest. Purists and those who have lived up there for a long time could give you better coordinates, but you get the picture.

Some of the teachers really did have a problem with the whole thing , however, and my best friend up there suffered tremendously. So much so that he planned on only staying one year. He went into a depression about November and did not come out of it until around March.

I kept telling him it was because he was from Wisconsin and he couldn't make it to a Packers game, and the cheese he got up there was not the same, and beer was nowhere to be found at a reasonable price.

His wife installed indoor lighting designed to fight off the depression but it not work very will

It really is a problem, and I was blessed by not having the malady. The villagers seemed to adjust well and you never heard about any of them suffering from the problem, but sometimes I wonder if the higher-than-normal suicide rate and alcoholism could have been attributed to latitude.

I had the reverse problem with the sun. When I was teaching summer school it did not get completely dark until 1 a.m., and then the sun seemed to be shining like noon at 4 a.m.. This played havoc on my sleep cycle.

It is a strange sensation to be sitting looking out the window at midnight and not having to turn on the lights to read a book. Give me the dark and just a few hours of daylight anytime.

I guess if any natural happening effected me at all it was the lack of seasons. I have a brother who lives in Columbus, Ohio, and one of the reasons he moved from Tucson was that he missed the change in seasons.

There did not seem to be seasons in the places I lived in Alaska. There was winter, then a little less winter, a mild winter, and then winter again. Now and then the temperature rose to near 70 in July or August, and people complained that it was too hot and many of the kids cast off their clothes and jumped into the Bering Sea, Yukon or Noatak Rivers.

The cold is something you needed to deal with and deal with seriously. The Alaskan winter can be unforgiving.  For instance if I wanted to go outside let's say for 15 minutes I would have to do the following. I slipped into a set of silk underwear and flannel pajamas I then put on a pair of insulated socks and carefully stuffed the tops up under my leggings. Over the flannel PJ's I put on a pair of jeans and a sweat shirt and top it off with a waterproof nylon set of bib overalls. I would bend down the best I could to put on insulated boots, tie them with bated breath, waddle to the closet and squeeze into my Colombian coat with hood, certified to 50 below. I'd don gloves, face mask, eye protectors, and skull cap. Putting on all that stuff did keep me warm and I hadn't been cold yet.

Some villagers now and then could be heard to say it was really cold out but did not complain. They were used to the cold and knew how to dress and survive in temperatures that fell well below the zero mark.

Besides if it gets really cold they told me they just stay inside. Very ingenious.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Ski Lesson, Alaska Style

Two of my so called friends when I was living in an Alaskan village decided I needed to learn how to ski. I suggested to them that there did not seem to be many hills on the tundra. They said cross-country skiing is what they meant.

I have always been a reluctant athlete. Neither my father nor grandfather ever did anything physical unless being in the Calvary for my grandfather or my dad participating in an extended camping trip they called Korea counts.

My athletic training was left to the 20 or so kids that lived on Lake Drive. I was usually the tackling dummy or the right fielder or the person on whom everyone else practiced their wrestling holds and throwing over their shoulders. I eventually did play football at Van Horn but the only real ability I had was that I did not mind getting knocked down.

Living as the youngest kid on the block gave me a lot of practice; I could always hit the ground without breaking anything and still can. When it comes to falling I am very coordinated and good at it. Getting up, however, at my age gets to be a struggle.

Things are usually scarce in bush Alaska, but let me just tell someone that I would love to learn how to cross-country ski but, alas, have no equipment, and sure enough skis, poles, and boots showed up out of nowhere.

Having exhausted any possible excuse, I met my "friends" behind the school one Saturday. They helped me put on the skis, showed me a few pointers, like how to move forward, gave me some encouragement as I began, then set off ahead of me and yelled over their shoulders that they would wait for me on the small rise just up ahead, which seemed sort of far to me. I did what they told me, putting my left arm forward opposite my right foot and vice-versa, crouching over the skis like a gorilla, and swaying like a fat lady from side to side. Those are terms they used and typical in cross-country ski jargon, I guess.

I found the rhythm and was doing very well, even if I did say so, which I did because I was all alone watching them on the rise waiting for me. It was very exhausting and lonely work. By the time I got to the rise I was huffing and puffing and looked for a soft blanket of snow to lie upon, feeling sort of smug that they would have to lug my body back to the village after my coronary.

They were amazed that I had not fallen and heaped much praise upon me. Good balance has always been a trademark of mine. We three were standing there, I savoring mastering yet another sport, when I fell over. Not from exhaustion or anything, I just fell over. Apparently when on skis on soft snow you must always concentrate on keeping your ankles, knees, and hips aligned and not shift your weight from foot to foot.

As I was lying there waiting for assistance from my "buddies" they said that happens now and then, and I needed to learn how to get up on my own. They were nice enough to offer me words of encouragement and instruction while I flopped around like a wounded walrus. Getting up on two skis is not an easy task. My feet would not turn the way I wanted, the ankles would not bend in the proper direction, my skis kept getting tangled and every time I put a pole into the tundra snow to brace myself it would hit a soft spot and down I would go again.

My two nemeses did try to stifle their laughter between instructions on how to regain an upright position but they failed miserably. Eventually my ski pole struck one of the four boulders on the tundra and I managed to get to one knee, then another, and finally to my feet again. No sooner had I assumed my position as a crouching gorilla when they said we needed to move on. I followed them around the dump, thorough the abandoned oil tanks, and into and through the grave yard. Nice touch, I thought, just in case.

We eventually made it back to the rear of my semi subterranean dwelling. They helped me stumble up the back steps. They pounded on the back door for me because I could not raise my arms that high nor had the strength to knock, plus they thought it unseemly to watch a grown man butt his head against the door to get his wife's attention. What are friends for. I was let inside by a bemused wife, and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening prone on the couch checking my vital signs.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Bear'ly friends

One day I was reading in the Anchorage Daily News about a man who was walking his dog near the military base that bumps up to the city limits of Anchorage. It was not the wilderness by any means.

All of a sudden a big Brown bear jumped out onto the wooded path.  He (the man walking the dog not the bear) immediately pulled out his .357 magnum and several shots later the bear lay dead.  Several things came to my mind after reading the article.  I had seen moose walk along the side of the road in Anchorage proper, a friend of mine said she could not keep a garden in the suburbs because moose would eat up her planting, and I could not remember the last time I walked a dog and carried a gun.(of course many do that today in Arizona and several other states all the time I hear.)

There were no bears in Hooper Bay.  There were bears in Pitka's Point and Noatak.  I use to ask the villagers how they protected themselves against the bears when they would go out berry picking.  They told me they didn't worry about it and if they did come across a bear they just left it alone.

Some of my students at Pitka's Point told me that one night a bear did come into the village and wondered around.  They had been outside playing and to keep out of the Bear's way they took refuge in an abandoned house and waited for the bear to go away.

I have a phobia about being eaten by a bear so that hindered my exploring the country side.  I am sure I missed out on a lot of things by not communing with nature but a bear is a bear and I know I could not out run one even if my legs became unfrozen after I stumbled onto one.

In Pitks's Point it was about 100 yards from my front door to the school's main entrance.  I seldom ventured out after the sun went down and when I did I was cautious.  Call me silly and you can tell me about the probability of not being eaten by a bear all you want, but it is like people who buy lottery tickets weekly.  The odds of winning are stacked against  them but try telling that to the guy who won last week.  It is the same as the chances of being eaten by a bear or a shark for that matter (I never swim in anything I cannot see the bottom of ), someone always wins and I would just as soon it not be the bear.

So how do the villagers manage their fear?  Do they fear an attack at all?  It does happen you know, at least enough to make the paper or Internet.

I decided to ask one of the elders if he was afraid or did he just "leave them alone."  He was wise, most elders are.  He said you have to respect the bear.  "The bear has a spirit and there are good spirits and there are bad ones.  If you respect the bear and understand that we are all bears, ravens, moose, rabbits, and salmon, we all just have different skins.  We leave each other alone and the spirits we have blend and we become one. We all have animal spirits and all the animals have human spirits."  "At last," I thought to myself, I should have talked to this guy many months ago.

He then said one more thing that brought everything in to perspective and focus and provided me with a touch of Eskimo wisdom that I shall carry with me for the rest of my day.

"It also helps," he said, "that when you are walking across our great land, enjoying what the great Eagle and Raven have made, that you walk with a friend, a close friend, a friend that you have known for many years, a friend you know that you can run faster than."