29 February 2008

Scientiae Carnival: Renewal

I really wanted to participate in this month's scientiae carnival because it is it's 1 year carniversary but I haven't been participating much of late because I'm out of science work and feel like I'm just holding on to my dreams and trying to chase my fears away; fears about my abilities, about long lasting lack of funding, about being stuck away from the job I love. It's already past the due date for this month's carnival (over at Rants of a Feminist Engineer by Skookumchick, it's founder) but it's got me thinking.

Professionally, more then anything, I want to see myself back in research and science in the very soon near future and not just on a volunteer basis but on a paid semi-steady basis. I want to be part of a research group that both challenges and supports me, a place where ideas can bounce and find their way, a place where the ropes I missed out on learning in the past are available for me to learn from, a place that encourages me to take the bull by the horns when I need to and to tack out of the wind when otherwise required. There are dreams here that I dare not vocalize although some of them would seem trivial because I hold such dreams very close to my chest.
Right now what I am trying to remember most of all is that when I feel paralyzed to act because the prospect of failure overcomes me is that the anguish or joy over something working out lasts a short time while the paralysis can go on and on and so therefore there is in actuality less to lose by acting on each and every possibility.

25 February 2008


Skijor = to ski while being pulled by 1 to 3 animals

Pulk = to skijor and then also pull a sled behind you

Well, due to all the questions on my mushing posts about whether or not the Disreputable Dog pulls, I thought I should address skijoring. Of course the Disreputable pulls! Not only that but if you were to google my real name many of the top posted items would be skijoring races. Now, the Disreputable Dog is not a very fast dog but he's not supposed to be; he's more along the lines of what you need to pull a heavy sled and believe me, he can pull twice his body weight all day if need be. He's a great skijorer (see pictures) on long skis especially overnight trips or hut trips. He's game for racing too but he's never in the top league because he's too big, he's not a sprint dog but a dog built for stamina. He's the type of dog the post office would have used to haul the mail across the tundra.

He's never been part of a mushing team but has raced together in two dog teams in skijoring. And done trips. Once when we lived on a sandbar on a tributary to the Yukon River (umm...we were doing field work) some of the locals (meaning they lived in a town upriver from us, about 4 hours by boat) tried to steal him because they thought he would be the perfect trapline dog. And he would. Except he is extremely loyal and wasn't having anything to do with being abducted. When a 120lb dog digs his feet into soft river sand you can bet that no one will get him to budge, but I digress.

The point is he loves to pull and I love to ski and we spend lots of time every winter hooked up into a harness with me skate or classic skiing behind him as he pulls. That makes it sound easy but it isn't. It's a lot of work for both of us. It is important for the skier to maintain a rhythm that doesn't work against the rhythm of the dog. It's great fun and it's particularly useful when you are on a trail that requires your dog to be leashed because he is, and yet you have your hands free.

When we first took up skijoring (in Fairbanks of course, where else?) I happened to mention it to a relative of mine who is one of the original Marlboro Men (seriously) and he mentioned that in his youth they used to do it down Colorado ski hills pulled by horses! Now that, sounds a little crazy to me. A dog, at least, will notice and stop if you fall down.

Spring - the first Crocus

Spring is here in Colorado. There may still be as much as 4 to 6 feet of snow on the ground in places and there are still storms ahead of us but the tide has turned. The daylight has reached a point where the snows will not last. The first crocus of the season flowered today in my mother's garden, there are newly born calves slumbering in the ranchers fields, the tips of willows have turned either purple/reddish or bright orange as the sap returns to their limbs to swell the buds, and best of all, the scents of the earth have returned, floating up to our noses once again after having been frozen much of the winter.

I must admit, I find this an early spring. February is a tough month usually in the northern hemisphere. It usually holds the promise of spring without actually seeing it through. It is for all it's short days, often the longest feeling month of the year. The year when the darkness and the snow and the cold presses on us and we wish for green grass and cherry blossoms and long forgotten warm summer afternoons.

This year, February does not affect me so much, partially because on coming south from Alaska in December I sped up the daylight increase in my own life and having gotten quite used to a spring that is not visible until May I am a bit shocked to find evidence of it in February. Delighted but startled. Every year I have always marked the two scent events of the spring, the day I can first smell the sea, and the day I can first smell the earth. The sea is usually scent-able several days, sometimes even weeks, before the earth. There is no sea here but the smell of earth is clear, musty, and damp, and earthy; of humus and mulch and mud.

* * * *
For those of you interested in the Yukon Quest, Kyla Boivin finished off the Quest as the Red Lantern winner on Feb 23rd. Good going Kyla!!! You can check out pictures of the Finish Banquet and learn about who won what awards here: http://www.yukonquest.com/site/news-articles/?articleid=1615

21 February 2008

Lunar Eclipse & Bach

Did any of you happen to see the Lunar Eclipse last night? I was out at a fantastic classical piano concert by Piotr Andersewski (one of the many wonderful opportunities available here in CO that were not so available in AK) listening to Bach, Schumann, & Szymanowski (yeah, I hadn't heard of that last guy either). Piotr played with fervor and I enjoyed the emphasis and passion he put into the music as well as watching his hands. At intermission I went outside to grab a breath of fresh air and turned to look up at the sky, which had been very cloudy when I arrived at the concert hall. There it was, the moon shadowed a pale red from earth and directly above it the star Regulus (the brightest visible star in Leo) and below it twinkled Saturn, not a cloud anywhere to be seen. One side of the moon was darker then the other (according to Astronomy.com, the "northern limb of the moon lies closer to the center of the earth's shadow") and with it's reddish tint I thought of all the cultures that would have forecast something from this moment.

20 February 2008

Yukon Quest Update

There's been a winner! Lance Mackey crossed the finish line in Whitehorse at 1:23am local time trailed by only 15 minutes by rookie & second place winner Ken Anderson. This is Mackey's 4th win for this race, the most anyone has ever won it. It took more then 10days to complete. The race for 3rd, 4th, & 5th place is still tight with Michelle Phillips, David Dalton, & Brent Sass running close together. Kyla Boivin is currently running in the red lantern spot (the last racer in wins a red lantern which is a very honorable place).

Some highlights of the race this year:

*The jumble ice on the Yukon River on the Alaska side was a real challenge to all mushers. Julie Estey torn her ACL/broke her leg (?) on the ice and had to continue on until the next check-in point which was still miles away at Slavin Cabin. Slavin's Cabin is off the road system so they had to figure out a way to air evacuate her.

*Early in the race one of the rookie mushers was Withdrawn by race officials because veterinarians were concerned about the well being of his dogs. The Quest is a race that takes the well being of the dogs very much into account.

*Frank Turner, the oldest musher (60yrs) who has raced the Quest for 24 out it's 25 year existence (a real record), scratched early on citing that he was too old for this race anymore and the his wife should divorce him if he tries to run it again.

*So far we've had 8 mushers scratch (scratch is what it's called when you decide not to finish the race for whatever reason)
*One of the racers had to give one of her dogs mouth-to-mouth

I'll give you at least one more final update (don't want to bore you too much with mushing news) but there is also the NEXT RACE to look forward to:
The Iditarod starts March 1st in downtown Anchorage.

18 February 2008

A Cat & Her Dog

"I've got it, I've got it...will someone else help me out here? I'm not sure I can hold onto it all by myself!" So I imagine the caption for this picture of the Disreputable Cat holding onto her dear Disreputable Dog's tail for all she's worth. I wish I had the camera out earlier when she was fast asleep with her nose nuzzled into it. Her doggy. Her beloved doggie. And his scrumptious tail which one can play with when needing to vent some predatory instincts and then sleep with when one is done. That is pure cat happiness. I just had to share it.

15 February 2008

Footprint Friday: Porcupine

Guess who?

The answer will be posted at the bottom of this post on Monday evening.

Location: north of the arctic circle on the sandy edge of the Yukon River, Alaska in summer.

Hint: these tracks are both made by the same animal. It's an animal that has a representative species on in North & South America, Europe, Asia, & Africa.
Edited to add: Goodness! What was I thinking??? Of course, Chuck, they do not exist on the continent of Australia any more then they do on Antartica. I'm going to blame it on a late night...how embarassing!! Also, for those of you thinking bear, I add an additional hint that these footprints are only slightly bigger then those of a domestic house cat.
RESULTS: Congratulations to Froghair, Doris Rose, and Vicious W on guessing correctly! It is indeed the North American porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum). The broom like markings that Jen noticed is the dragging of the quills. Did you know that there are 27 documented species of porcupine?? I actually saw these guys (i.e. the ones who made these footprints) mating...it sounded awful. Now all I need is some sort of thing like DJ Kirkby has for the best caption for her Wordless Wednesdays; some sort of prize for the correct guessers! But your names announced here will have to do for now.

13 February 2008

Life is Getting Better

I was reading Saxifraga's blog the other day and she mentioned that her Russian colleague saying "life is not too bad" which reminded me of my Russian colleague who could always be counted on, when asked how he was doing after some rather unfortunate incident - such as fur seals biting our Zodiac in half in the middle of the Bering Sea and barely getting rescued by a fishing crew, or watching the Russian fishing vessel we almost chartered go up in flames and sink in the harbor while we stood on the bridge of another vessel, or even as falling off a cliff and breaking his arm - "life is getting better" (best said in a Russian accent). On one trip which seemed to have more then the usual allotment of frustrating circumstances this saying became our mantra.

Another example of Russian humor: this boat is named the Titanic (2006)

He claimed it was a "very famous Russian saying" and so I asked him how it originated. Here's the story as he told it "There was a Russian man who was an alcoholic, who smoked a lot, and who had no more money so he decided to commit suicide. He went into a public toilet to do so and while he was there he thought he might as well use the toilet first. While peeing he saw a pack of very fine cigars and thought, I will smoke this first. When he was done with the smoking he saw a bottle of the finest Russian vodka, and he thought I will drink this first. Then, having smoked the cigars and drunk the vodka, he said to himself, why should I commit suicide? Life is getting better."

The tale is an interesting insight into Russian humor, humor being one of the cultural things that I fins people are the last to fully grasp. To most North Americans it's a rather grim tale. Every Russian I know laughs uproariously at this tale. However, when I found myself upside down like a turtle in a hole with a 30lb pack on the Russians I was with found it most disturbing that I was laughing so hard I could hardly release the pack from my back - this an American style of humor; to laugh at oneself when one is in trouble. Anyway, I wonder, if that was the same story that Saxifraga's colleague was thinking of?

* * * * *

I have been given a lovely award from Hypoglycemia Girl at her 366 blog, the E award for excellent blogging. She says it's for my amazing photos and fascinating stories! Awww... really?The Mad Hatter and CAE of VWXYNot? also awarded me the E, with the latter saying that I write "wonderfully evocative descriptions of a life that is very different from my own and that often makes me yearn for those higher latitudes." I am most honored. Thanks to all of you! Hmm...it's tough deciding who to pass this on to, many of you are deserving of it... I think though that I will pass it on to Hel and her Truth Cycles for all the lovely walks she takes me on and to Matriarch for her detour as Redstocking where she boldly explored US politics.

12 February 2008

Elementary Lessons

The school I attended from 5th through 8th grade put on a musical every spring. Everybody put on the musical. We used math and physics classes to build sets & make costumes, art classes to paint them, English & music classes to write the tunes, etc. It was a all school encompassing event - everyone was involved. I was a horrible actor and a terrible singer and I found the auditions terribly embarrassing. I would not have been in these musicals if they had not been mandatory. I was not a outgoing child and though there were many things I loved about my school I'm not sure the musicals made the list. But they seem to have been among the things that stuck. Often our musicals were twists on existing musicals, for example we did a set called "Into the Mountains" instead of "Into the Woods". Lately I've been wishing that I had recordings of the songs we made.

I haven't made mention of it here but I have picked up various jobs which I am referring to as "cash" jobs. They are decent jobs but they aren't don't have anything to do with science or my chosen career but they help pay the bills and mark the time until I get back to that career. Anywho, the other day, while doing a particularly dull task at the computer and listening to random music I heard the opening song to our musical "Into the Mountains" which was from a recording of a former music teacher of mine. And it brought back to me not only the memories of standing on that stage but also seemed to remind me of kernels of truth about myself.

This is Mount Sopris, of the Rocky Mountains, she stands just shy of 14,000 feet and watched over my youth constantly from all parts of the valley while I in turn took my yearly pilgrimages up her flanks to her peaks. (2008)

Something is calling me
in to the mountains
out of the valley
and over the stream.

Come know the wilderness,
come find escape,
come feel the mystery,
come share your dream.

Someone is calling me
into the mountains
bringing me higher
towards the unknown.

Dare climb the mountainside,
dare reach the peak,
dare start the journeying,
don’t try to speak.

Some need adventure,
some need a test,
search for a hero,
I'm on a quest.

I hear you calling me,
I'm not alone,
finding the path
that leads me home.
Let's climb the mountainside,
we'll reach the peak,
let's start the journeying,
leading us home.

-words by Polly Whitcomb

11 February 2008

Bird Friendly Coffee/ Chocolate

Ever since I lived in Africa I have been fascinated with the coffee and chocolate growing economy. It seems so strange to me that chocolate is originally from the new world yet is currently grown primarily in Africa while coffee is originally from Africa and now primarily produced from Central & South America. I'm sure that many of you are familiar by now with Fair Trade coffee and even the occasional Fair Trade chocolate, which are supposed to give the growers a fair price for their products. But do you know about Bird Friendly coffee?

Both chocolate & coffee have some fairly similar growing habits. They both originated as shade loving, under canopy, rain forest plants on their respective continents. They were traditionally grown under the canopies of existing trees whose roots held in the unstable soils and they were pollinated by the insects attracted to these groves of more diverse trees. Sometime in the early 1970's the developed world (read the US & Western Europe) decided that coffee and chocolate should be better grown as corn is grown in Iowa - in orderly rows and as a monoculture. To this end the more sun hardy versions were genetically favored and people were taught to cut down the protective overgrowth which held both the ecological diversity and the stabilization of their soils intact so that they could grow "more" chocolate or coffee.
But the truth is that as this happened a lot of ecological and economical problems started to occur. With the loss of the overgrowth the birds and beneficial insects disappear taking away the pollinators. The plants growing in sunshine developed more bitter alkaloids in their fruits. With the roots of the overgrowth trees gone the soil started to erode: in the Americas this primarily led to landslides and mudslides which occasionally wipe out whole villages, in Africa this primarily led to salinization of the soil and the southern spread of the Sahara. With this new form of agriculture came also the funguses and diseases for the chocolate and coffee trees which were more susceptible growing in more stressed and less ideal conditions. Sun grown coffee & chocolate lead to increased deforestation, to the use of herbicides and pesticides, to an increase in natural disasters as well as a loss of sustainable way of life. In addition the song bird populations here in North America and in Europe started to suffer because they overwinter in these places and there was no place for them to settle and feed.

Song Bird or Bird Friendly coffee comes about as biologists realized the importance of the diversity that comes with the traditional methods of coffee farming. The increase in bird, insect (including butterflies), and tree species and the health of the human and ecological environment that came along with this way of farming. Recently research on chocolate has started to come to the same conclusions, as I long suspected it would (I used to dream that I would do this research but then somehow got enmeshed in the arctic research instead). I hope that someday we can also buy bird friendly chocolate because bird friendly is also people friendly and ensures a better sustainability and future for the people who grown these crops. When I lived in Ghana I was sad to learn that the northern farmers kept losing the ground - they could no longer grow chocolate so far north because of the encroaching Sahara which was encroaching because they had cut down the forests to grow the chocolate, a cycle that is self defeating.

Someday I hope the only chocolate & coffee available to us will be bird friendly (also known as shade grown) and fair trade.

1. From Thanksgiving Coffee which cooperates with the American Birding Association to create Song Bird coffee (http://www.thanksgivingcoffee.com/).
2. Women in Ghana collecting water from a well in the village I lived in, 2000

08 February 2008

The Yukon Quest Begins

Tomorrow is race day for the Yukon Quest (http://www.yukonquest.com/), my favorite dog mushing race in existence! The Yukon Quest is a 1,000 mile dog mushing race between Fairbanks, Alaska, USA and Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada and true to it's name the course primarily follows the mighty Yukon River which in it's frozen form was the primary highway into the north in the days of the gold rush. The race alternates which city it starts in and where it ends and is one of the wildest, remotest, and longest of all the sled dog races out there. This year it will start in Fairbanks and end in Whitehorse. You bet that many Fairbanksans will be out there volunteer dog handling at the start on the Chena River and that along the race routes every village along the way will greet the mushers enthusiastically, and there will be people waiting up at all hours of the night in Whitehorse to cheer the mushers across the finish line. This year it looks like there will be 24 intrepid mushers, all of whom have profiles up on the website. There are familiar names up there that I will be cheering along the way.

Dogs impatiently waiting to start by their mushing truck, Quest 2004. Each truck has a symphony of excited dog sounds.

This race more then any other race, in my opinion, challenges the musher's wilderness and survival skills. They must carry certain gear in order to chop their sled out of ice if they should break through, chase off a an attacking moose, food for themselves and their dogs as well as straw for their dogs to bed on. Often the temperatures for this race are well below -40F/C and one days when it warms up too much the mushers have to rest during the day and race during the night to keep their animals from heating up to much. This year it looks like overflow, when river water flows over the frozen ice, will be a big challenge along the race course. Overflow can present a real problem, having dog feet and runners in water in very cold temperatures causes major ice formation on both creating a need for frequent stops to keep feet healthy and runners slidable.

Lining out the team, which is so excited it has to be braked by a snowmachine from the rear, Quest starting line, Fairbanks, 2004.

I'll miss listening to the bark of the excited dogs and the live trail coverage as part of my morning wake-up ritual but I am glad that in this day and age I can still get my fix by listening to it by podcast at KUAC (Fairbanks' public radio station).

Edited to note: It's the 25th anniversary of this race this year!

PS - abernier, if you are reading this, send me an email so I can answer your question more thoroughly!

06 February 2008

Post Super Tuesday Stupor

Ooof. What great turn out we had for the Colorado county caucus where my parents live. We were absolutely overwhelmed. Of course, my father is a big get-out-the-voter and he had ever single registered voter in our county called to remind them of the caucus, many of them he called personally. And so we had the largest turn out ever for this county and it seems we weren't alone. I am pleased to see my fellow citizens turn out to vote in such numbers. I heard that in Fairbanks, Alaska 1,000 people showed up in -41F (-40.54 C) temperatures. We had 5 precincts at our caucus area and I was kept very busy checking people in for more then an hour and the parking lot was so full that people were circling and we were afraid that not everybody would get in.

It was interesting to me that during the caucus nobody seemed ambivalent about the process. We had some people who were very angry about the caucus set-up: they wanted to come in and vote and then leave and they didn't want to have to talk or listen to other people's opinions. We had people who were just so excited about being there and feeling like their voice counted; excited to be involved. And we had young children zooming about on office chairs in the corridors. Note to the organizers next year: if you plan on getting the vote out it might be a good idea to provide a babysitter.

04 February 2008


Here we go a caucusing, a caucusing we go...

I will be at a caucus tomorrow, but sadly, unable to participate other then checking voters in because I can't afford the plane ticket back to Alaska to join in where I'm registered, which is ironically being held at my old workplace! So instead I'm calling Colorado voters and talking my Alaskan friends into going to theirs. I wish that so many candidates on both sides hadn't dropped out before Super Tuesday. I wish that more people in this country felt passionate about exercising their civil liberties. But all in all I think it's going to be an exciting night.

Edited to add: I did not vote. I wanted to and looked into voting absentee but Alaska has switched to caucusing and you cannot vote absentee for a caucus, only a primary. If I have not registered somewhere new by the time September rolls around I will definitely vote absentee in the actual election for Alaska.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the terms here are the definitions of a caucus and primary - some states have one, others the other. Some have a primary for everything other then the presidential race where they caucus.

US Election Caucus: where the members of a political party get together and must be physically present to vote. In addition this usually is lead by members of the party getting up and saying their thoughts prior to voting. The upside of this, to my mind, is that it is also a social event which I think makes some people turn out more. The downside, to my mind, is that your vote is not private and you are in the company of everyone you know and some people may feel peer pressure about their votes.

US Election Primary: also known as a nominating primary. This is where individuals go to a polling station and vote in a private booth for the candidate of their choice. Usually this is also limited to the party with which you are affiliated although in some states independents can now choose a party and vote in their primary.