Saturday, December 31, 2016

A Christmas Letter for My GrandChildren

Happy New Year.  This fall, Last Frontier Magazine ask me to write a homestead Christmas
piece for the Winter edition about what Christmas was like on an Alaska homestead in the fifties.  After several failed attempts to write something interesting and heartfelt, I threw everything away and wrote a letter to my grandchildren.  I share this with you as a Holiday  greeting. 

Yes, that's me by the front door.

Dear Sawyer and Molly,

            Almost sixty years ago when I was five years old, I had my first Alaskan Christmas. In fact that holiday in 1958 was the first Christmas that I remember. It was memorable for many reasons. For one, I was finally old enough to look forward to the excitement of draping a tree with garlands of popcorn and watching the presents pile up under it. I was old enough to look forward to the sound of mom singing carols, the smell of hot cinnamon rolls, and dressing up for Church pageants. But what made it really memorable was Christmas in our own log cabin in the wilds of Alaska.

            We had finished our cabin in October and moved in just in time for Halloween. It seemed like no time before snow was falling and icicles were hanging off the eaves. A whole forest of Christmas trees surrounded our cabin, and by November they were already flocked with snow. When we drove down the lane to our house on clear frosty evening, the lamps in the cabin window filled the windows with golden light that spilled out on the snow and it was as if we were living in a Christmas card. This was nothing like Christmas back in Sugar Tree Ridge, Ohio.

            My brothers went out the back door and crunched across the snowy yard to a cut a nice spruce tree that they stood in the corner of the living room.  It must have made our little cabin really crowded, but I only remember the rich smell of the evergreen forest as the tree warmed and the last of the snow melted from the boughs.  Suddenly, we heard popcorn rattling in the pan, and Amy ran for the sewing thread so we could string garlands of popcorn.  We made paper chains and cut pictures from cards and magazines for ornaments.  Finally, our tree received the one store bought decoration, foil icicles that gaily twinkled in the lantern light.

            In those days, there were no stores around for Christmas shopping and this was long before the Internet, so we only had catalogs to order presents from. And since we didn’t have much money there wasn’t much of that. Most of the Christmas presents we received were made right there on the homestead. In our family, there were no letters to Santa or pretending that a jolly fat elf was coming down the chimney on Christmas Eve. Every present we got came from some one we knew, some we loved, we knew loved us.

            The only Santa we believed in was a local guy that wore the red Santa suit and showed up at the Christmas carnival just before the movie started.  He arrived with ching, ching, ching, of bells and a hearty hoo hoo hoo then sat in a chair by the Christmas tree where he read our names one by one from a long sheet of paper. When our name was called, we walked up to Santa and received a gift, wrapped in green paper for boys and red for girls. On the way back to our seat, we were handed a paper lunch sack with an apple, an orange, some peanuts, and a candy cane. For some of us that was the only orange we would have all year because fresh fruit like that was rare and expensive in 1958.

            After all the kids had received their presents, we sang a few Christmas carols, and then one of the dads started the movie projector, and the lights went down. The only sound for the next hour and a half was the rustle of treat bags and our gleeful laughter for we were totally enthralled by watching a movie – a rare treat in our little frontier community with no TV or regular theater.      

            After the movie, the Walkers headed home to their homestead cabin to build up the fire and light the lantern. And even though there was no Santa, there was still magic for under our tree we found bags of nuts, nuts of all shapes and sizes still in their shells just waiting for us. We also found a fancy tin box of candy, And this was not just any candy, it was Christmas Candy, candy in looping rainbow ribbons of red, green,  and white. But, most magical of all, and still dear to my heart was a small wooden box that with a cargo so precious that each was separately wrapped in it’s own paper. These golden jewels were Mandarin oranges — what you kids now call Clementines. Today they are as common as apples, but back then we only saw them at Christmas. When we peeled one of those tiny oranges, it released the aroma of summer like a moment of sunlight had been trapped inside it. The memory of those magical mysterious fruits is so strong that their smell no longer makes me the think of summer but of Christmas.

            And so, with the spruce logs crackling in the woodstove and carols on the radio, the Walkers settled down in their cabin on that first Christmas Eve and opened gifts they’d made each other. The way I remember it we drew names, so that each person made a gift for one member of the family. Of course, Mom and Dad had something for each of us. Mom had made shirts and dresses, mittens and dolls. Dad had shaped rough lumber into wooden spoons, checkers boards, doll beds and toy barns. We all went to bed wondering how Christmas Day could be any better than Christmas Eve, but it was.  We spent the day playing with Christmas toys, eating once a year treats, and feasting with new Alaskan friends. 

            Every Christmas since that first one, we try to remember some of those traditions, and I figured out over the years that it was not all the treats, gifts, and decorations that made Christmas special; It was a family together in that cabin, sharing a great adventure and warming a winter night with our love for each other.

Merry Christmas,

Poppa Walker

Monday, December 26, 2016

Secondhand Summer: One of the best Alaska Books this Year!

Excerpt from We Alaskans section of Alaska Dispatch News, December 25, 2016

Most Memorable Alaska Books of the Year:  
by David James
"Without a doubt, this year has been exceptional for northern fiction, the best I can recall in more than a decade of reviewing.  But I'm splitting my half-dozen favorite Alaska books of 2016 evenly between fiction and nonfiction."
 David James Three fiction selections were Alaska Laundry by Brendan Jones and The North Water by Ian McGuire, and Secondhand Summer which puts me in pretty good company. Here's what David James said about Secondhand Summer.
Secondhand Summer by another first-time novelist, Dan L. Walker, also shines. This young adult novel set in 1965 follows 14-year-old Sam Barger from Ninilchik, whose mother moves him and his sister to Anchorage after their father dies. Stuck in a low-rent apartment on Government Hill, Sam hits the streets and falls in with three other troubled kids. Initial acts of mischief lead to more serious offenses. Sam finds himself caught between his conscience and a need for acceptance that prevents him from saying no when he should. The kids in this book are stricken by family problems and low incomes. Some are trying their best, some don't even know how to try. Walker explores their motivations and decisions, while their interactions drive the storyline. As with the best teen fiction, this book about growing up under difficult but not impossible circumstances will leave adult readers reflecting on their own youths.

We also Made this list!
SOCIETY OF CHILDREN’S BOOK WRITERS & ILLUSTRATOR OFFICIAL READING LIST — WINTER 2016/2017     WEST (Washington / Oregon / Alaska / Idaho / Montana / North Dakota / South Dakota)
 This makes me glad I'm working on the sequel. This novel explores the relationship between Sam and his older brother Joe in the context of the Vietnam War. Then during a hunting trip the brothers confront even bigger challenges. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Books for the holidays! It's all Good News!

 I love sharing good news and this morning we received some really good news.  Writing in the We Alaskans section of the Alaska Dispatch News, David James said nice things about Secondhand Summer, including.

"The big surprise is “Secondhand Summer” (Alaska Northwest Books, $12.99), a debut novel by Dan L Walker.  .  .  This well-plotted and believable story for teens will also appeal to adults and is one of the best novels I’ve read all year, northern-themed or otherwise."

 Here is the link to the full article that talks about Alaska Themed Books for Christmas.  I thought it linked well with my last blog post, so I wanted to share it.  David A. James is a freelance writer and critic who lives in Fairbanks.   Alaska-themed books for children that make superb holiday gifts

The Christmas book theme is pretty strong in the north where we have long winter nights — and days— to read.  In Anchorage there is a book fair in the Sears Mall the Friday and Saturday before Christmas, and lost of writers online are doing giveaways and promotions for their books. In far off Iceland, however, the epitome of Arctic living, books are heart of Christmas giving. A few years ago I heard about the Icelandic tradition of gifting books on Christmas Eve, which in my house would sound like, "Here's a book. Shut up and read."  But in Iceland it even has a name, the jólabókaflóð, or the Christmas Book Flood. It's called the flood because book releases are concentrated in the couple of months before Christmas.  How literary is that?!
Read more here: Iceland Revels in its Annual Christmas Book Flood

Isn't it great that a country, though small and remote, values literacy so much that reading and sharing books becomes a cornerstone of Christmas when most traditions are unhealth, expensive or totally unproductive. This makes me more committed than ever to make books part of my Christmas, Solstice, Hanukkah, Quanza, New Years, celebration.

This year my gift books came from a variety of locations. One book actually came from a bookstore, but others were purchased direct from the author, at second stores, or fundraiser silent auctions.  Gift books don't have to be new or even recently published.  One of my gifts is a fifty year old non-fiction that is a perfect match for the recipient, and that is the key to any gift. 

So, again to quote my new favorite reviewer, David James, "Head for your nearest independent bookstore and support Alaska writers by giving such volumes to the kids on your list." 

Monday, December 12, 2016

When it Comes to Gifts I say, Book 'em Danno!

I’ve been spending a lot of time with books this year with my novel being published and the need to promote it. This experience has re-invigorated my love of giving books as gifts ­— and not just my book either.   For the last few months I’ve been collecting gift books for Christmas giving, and the last few will have to be found in the next two weeks.  To be honest, not all of my books are purchased new.
Some gift book might come off of my own shelves, just the right book for someone I know well, and I don’t mind giving it up. Some books are adopted like stray cats when I stumble over a title at a yard sale or secondhand store while others I buy from authors to support my fellow writers in their efforts to be read. Sometimes books are ordered fresh and new, unopened with crisp bright jackets. The books are those title I find that must go to one particular person like when I found the book,  Princess Bride for my daughter because she loved the movie so much and later the book, As You Wish by Cary Elwes about the making of the movie for the same reason.
A book gift giving is not that easy because some people are not avid readers or have very narrow, particular reading tastes.  With these people I treat it like buying socks, everyone needs them and size is pretty easy to match, so I buy good socks like I would want, knowing that the person probably needs them.  Even if people don’t like to read much, we know reading is good for you, so buying that person a book is not a bad thing and it says, “I thought about you," which is better than buying them chocolate, which unless it is very special chocolate, says, ‘I thought about you but it was at the last minute”.  Which is better, buying them candy, which they will eat but is bad for them or buying a book, which is good for them but they won’t read?
Besides, most people will read something even if it is only a book of poetry or jokes for reading on the throne — Yes, there are books published specifically for toilet reading.
Some of my friends are easy to buy for because they have a strong interest like horses, tie-flying or travel.  A football fan of mine is getting, Joe Buck’s memoir, Lucky Bastard, about working as a sports announcer. Others are easy to buy for because they are veracious readers in a variety of genre, or I know an author or book type they would enjoy. Teachers are easy to buy for because they love books for their classroom, and e-book readers can get a easy to spend gift card, easy to use but not so personal as book one picks himself.
Sometimes books are a nice surprise that leads the reader to a new place, for example, I once received as a gift, a copy of Reverence for Wood by Eric Sloan. This carefully written and wonderfully illustrated book of early American technology from America’s farmland is a joy to the eye and ear.  It also led me to Sloan’s other work of a similar nature.
Old books have a special place of their own, be they valuable antiques like a two hundred year old bible or first edition Gone With the Wind, but most old books are just wonderful insights or artist marvels.  My leather-bound book of Kipling’s poetry has the most supple leather jacket that one wants to carry it in hand for a whole day, and The Art of Skiing (copyright 1933) that my daughter-in-law gave me is a wonderful visit to the early days of skiing as a family sport. It isn’t the value or the author that counts, it is the connection to the reader that the right book can make.

So next week, or the week after for you last minute shoppers, stop by the old book merchant or secondhand store and see if you can find a book for some one you care enough to give a gift to.  Who wouldn’t benefit from a little more reading?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Gravy Makes the Turkey -- Start Tonight

In my family there is a tradition through the generations that gravy is the measure of a meal and therefore the cook. The roast can be tough and the turkey dry, but good gravy can save the meal and all will be forgiven. Your turkey, whether it’s rolled, roasted whole or chopped up in pot pie, is going to need gravy, and good gravy is no more work than bad gravy. 

Good gravy starts with good stock, and good stock means that you either buy chicken or turkey stock at the grocery store or you make your own. Stock is the liquid extract of meat and vegetables that you can produce in your own kitchen with basic ingredients.
Basic stock ingredients:  onion, celery, and carrots. I add any clean vegetable trimmings such as onionskin, lettuce scraps, and broccoli trimmings. These are simmered in water with the bones of whatever type of stock you are making fish, beef, chicken, and in our case turkey.  

The process:  brown the bones in the oven for 30-60 minutes, then cover with water and add vegetables. Important! Save the fat that renders off the bones during browning. Portions are highly flexible, but for a our turkey, a couple of carrots, an onion, and three stocks of celery with a bit of parsley should be enough vegetables and three quarts of water. Bring the pot to a boil and then let it simmer slowly for 4-6 hours. I have good luck making stock with a pressure cooker in about thirty-five minutes. Add the vegetables, water and browned bones to the cooker.  Cover and cook 30 minutes after it comes to pressure. 
How ever you make stock, strain it and let it cool.  Then skim as much of the fat as you can.  If you are making your stock from the bones of your rolled turkey, all this is being done a day or two before the big day. Now you have some turkey fat and a couple quarts of stock.
Before you get started building the gravy, get it in your head that this is an art not a science.  Or as mother used to say,  “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” Gravy is meat stock or milk thickened with some form of starch, usually flour. We are going to make flour gravy with chicken stock. The flour is where most people get in trouble. The flour in gravy has to be cooked or the gravy will taste like uncooked flour, the proverbial wallpaper paste. That’s the source of most bad gravy; the other danger is lumps.  

Basic turkey Gravy

Remove the turkey from the roasting pan and pour off any liquid into a Pyrex pitcher or stock separator. Add about a cup of stock to the pan and put it on the range top to heat so you can loosen all those tasty morsels stuck to the bottom of the pan. Once this is bubbling and things are loose set this aside or pour it in a bowl or pitcher. Using the fat you saved from roasting bones or butter and put it in a saucepan to heat about one half cup. Measure about the same amount of flour into this fat and simmer for about five minutes to make a roux. You need to be whisking or stirring almost
The Fat off just the roasted bones about 1.5 cups
constantly.  Now, add the pan cleanings and about a quart of stock stirring and heating as you go. As this heats it will thicken. Add stock to thin it or cook it down if it’s too runny. I like to simmer my turkey gravy a while and work it hard with the whip.  If I run out of stock and my gravy is still too thick, add the water from steamed veggies, wine, or beer. I remember the first time I saw mom thin her gravy with the water off of the green beans, I was disgusted.  Then she explained that I had been gobbling gravy made that way all my life. The gravy will need some salt and pepper, and I strain mine because lumps can occur and because I lined my roasting pan with vegetables so at this stage the gravy has chunks of onion celery and carrot knocking around in the pan. 

Now, the other way to skin a cat.You can make good gravy without adding all the fat that is in the roux. You do this by making a slurry of flour and water and adding it to the turkey stock. Put a couple quarters of stock in a pot and start it heating. In a bowl mix a half cup of flour and a half cup of cold water and make some wallpaper paste. Mix it well and then stir it into the stock and keep that whisk moving.  You really want those pan drippings and vegetable piece from the roasting pan for this gravy since you aren’t using all that flavorful fat you skimmed off.  Once this comes to a boil turn it to simmer and stir it often while it cooks for 10-15 minutes. If it is too runny, let it cook longer, too thicken add stock, water, or wine. 

If you made enough gravy you'll have some to pour over leftovers or to use in turkey pot pie.  
 If you made good gravy, you may have none left. Happy Thanksgiving!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Bone that Turkey, Roll that Tom, The Thanksgiving alternative

This a post I originally presented last Thanksgiving.  I've added some detail and photos.  

If you are cooking a turkey Thursday, you are starting to get turkey worried.  It's part of Thanksgiving. Turkey is a problem.  Turkeys are large, cumbersome, and challenging to cook.  Add this to the fact that we serve them on the most celebrated meal of the year, and we have a serious problem.  And if that is not enough of an issue, all iconic images of roast turkey show a crisp, brown twenty-pounder brought to the table on a giant platter to be carved and served medieval style.  IF you want avoid all of these issues read on! 

The turkey problem starts with fitting it in the oven and then getting it cooked without drying out.  One way to solve this problem is to get a bigger oven, but it may be more practical to make the turkey smaller.  At our house, we have a very small oven and have to make it fit the turkey. (OR!!!! Down below I'll tell you about turkey ala GRILL!)
The way I make the turkey fit is to take the bones out so the meat is more compact -- it will cook more evenly and in a shorter time.  Boning the turkey can eliminate both the problem of fitting in the oven and cooking evenly.  And oh yes, a boned turkey is so easy to carve! You can impress your guests with your carving skill and cooking!
It goes something like this:  First remove the first two sections of each wing – save them for stock making.  

Turn the bird breast down and with a sharp boning knife cut along the spine and start filleting the meat away from the rib cage.  The intent is to remove the bone from inside the meat leaving the meat attached to the skin.  When you reach the thigh joint, separate the hip joint and work the knife along the thighbone to remove the meat.
Here you have to make a decision whether to remove the leg bone (the drumstick) or leave it in (attached to the meat).  Recently, I did a turkey like this and left the leg bone in and it went very well.  Read the rest of this to decide which you will try.
Boned with drumsticks
If you are removing the leg bones, continue as you did the with the thigh but you will encounter some bone-like tendons that must be cut away or pulled out with pliers.  Working from the inside, remove the remaining wing bone.  You will now have a sloppy slab of meat with skin on one side.   Rub the meat with seasoning; salt, pepper, sage and rosemary are a good choice.  Some people like to add olive oil or butter to the surface the meat, but I don't. There are three ways to proceed now: rolled and tied; stuffed, rolled, and tied; or flattened.  
A rolled and tied turkey is rolled, skin side out and tied with butcher’s twine into something that looks like a loaf of bread. This will firm up while roasting and slice like a beef or pork roast. A rolled, stuffed, and tied turkey is done the same way except that bread stuffing is prepared and wrapped in the center of your turkey, rolled, and then tied. Try to completely cover the meat with skin when rolling and tying to keep moisture in. Some wooden skewers might be handy for bringing the roll together.  The easiest way to handle the turkey is the third way, which I call flattened.  Boned and seasoned, the turkey is placed meat-side down in a roasting pan and sides pushed in so the meat is slightly mounded.  This works well if you want to leave the legs on.  When I use this technique I like to put a good layer of stuffing in the bottom of the pan and then
the turkey on top, or chunk up carrot, celery, and onion to lie under the bird for a richer gravy.
All three techniques are cooked the same way.  Rub the seasons on the skin (with a little butter or oil if you want).  Cover with foil and cook at 300-325 until done 1.5 to 2 hours.  Remove the foil about 1/2 through for browning. 

Plan B — there is always a plan B: 
If this seems like entirely too much work.  Cut the turkey into quarters.  To do this, split the bird down the back, lay it skin side down and split the breast so you have two identical halves.  Then cut each thigh and leg away from the breast.   Season each section and roast in a pan skin-side up.  You may want to cut the breast meat away from the bone but that's a personal choice.  If you cover the bottom of your pan with chunks of carrot, celery, and onion and lay the meat on those to roast, you will have a good base for gravy or stock.
Note!  The breast will probably be cooked before the legs so pull them out early.  

Stock for gravy:  
If you bone your turkey, you can use the bones for a nice stock.  To make stock, season and roast the bones thirty to forty minutes then simmer them in water and vegetable trimmings for 4-6 hours.  Strain stock and skim the fat to get a rich stock for gravy.  Save that fat and the fat from the roasting pan too.  
We'll do gravy next —stay tuned!  Here;s the gravy link: Turkey Gravy better than Mom's

Speed up the stock process with a pressure cooker and make the stock in 30 minutes.    

 AS Promised.  Turkey on the grill
So, you want to try cooking your turkey on the grill. If you have the common grill with a hood, whether charcoal or propane.  It can work great and free up the oven for other things.  Use indirect heat and a mild wood for flavor.  I recommend roasting in a foil pan or get an old roaster that you dedicate to the grill. Have plenty of foil to cover the turkey after it browns. Monitor it with a thermometer and really, just think of the BBQ as an outdoor oven.  Low and slow! 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Sound of a Tree Falling in the Forest

Hiker meets tree. Photo by Terry Rude
Last weekend, my neighbor sent me picture and a note about some trees down along Iditarod Trail section that borders the eastern shore of Bear Lake. I do a lot of walking on this trail since the trailhead is a quarter mile from my house, but I was out of town so it wasn’t until Tuesday that I could walk down there and inspect.
Some might be wondering how I could be on the Iditarod Trail when I’m five miles north of Seward. Doesn’t the Iditarod Trail start in Anchorage or Wasilla or Willow? Nope, sorry Sally. The Iditarod Trail originates in Seward where the Steamships brought miners, mail, and supplies during the gold rush and this is where the gold, and the winners and losers in the gold rush boarded the ship for Seattle.  That trail is now an National Historic Trail and, lucky for me, runs right along the shore of Bear Lake.

Back to our story.  My dog snape and I decided to check out the fallen tree situation, and Tuesday morning we walked the broad trail that follows the south shore of Bear Lake, listening to the swans talking and enjoying the blue sky day. At the southeast corner of the lake, the trail meets the main Iditarod coming in from Nash Road at the head of Resurrection Bay.

The trail is a bit of a mess here because a couple of years ago during one of our fall floods, the creek left its bed and decided to follow the Iditarod Trail to Bear Lake. Now that part of the trail has been replaced by a rocky streambed.

From this point north the trail follows the eastern shore of the lake and is more narrow and closed to ATV traffic. Snape and I were wading mud holes and stepping over roots as we followed the meandering trail and catching fine views of snow-capped peaks, spruce grouse, and the waterfowl coming and going on the lake. About a mile and a quarter from the trailhead, we came to the tree blocking the trail.

Well, this is not just some little tree blown down across the trail.  This is a major slide involving maybe a dozen trees that have uprooted, broken off and or slide down the hillside. Even up hill from the trail, massive trees have been toppled. The reason is obvious. These magnificent spruces and hemlocks are anchored by roots that are set in less than a foot of soil on sloping bedrock.  Soak that soil with days of heavy rain and add winds of more than thirty-five miles and hour and it’s amazing there are any trees left on that hillside at all.

Anyone using the trail for the next few months will be forced up a steep slope on a nasty bushwhack for a couple hundred yards, or they will be climbing over under around and through several massive root wads.  

Probably fifty yards of trail is covered by this slide involving probably a dozen trees.  Some of the trail is gone as well, pushed down hill to join some of the trees laying in the lake.  Another reminder that everything is temporary in a glacial valley subject to torrential rain, heavy snow, and storm force winds.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Scoring update! Humans: Five Bears: 0

One can’t live on Bear Lake without eventually writing a bit about bears. As I sit watching several swans feeding in front of the house reading about bear problems in my town, this seems like the right time. October has been bear month here on this side of the Kenai Peninsula. Last week a friend and teaching colleague Ron Hemstock was mauled by a bear at the Seward Airport, (Read more)and a few days before that several bears were dispatched by home owners who felt the need to protect their property. (read more)  Ronn's event was rare moment when man and bear collide in unexpected places,  Ronn spends lots of time on trails and mountains sides where one expects bear encounters, but he was attacked in the city limits. A tragic fact of life in bear country.  

It’s important to call things as they are. So far this month, depending whose counting, the score is humans: five, bears: zero. That’s right, we got them outnumbered, and we are killing them faster than they are us.

We live in bear country, I knew it growing up, I knew it when I built my first house on Lake Drive when there were more bears in Questa Woods than people. I raised my kids with bear awareness
and adapted my behavior accordingly.  Even with all that, what happened to Ronn could happen to me.
I knew I was in bear country when I bought this property on Bear Lake and had to honk my horn each morning when I arrived at the job site so I wouldn’t surprise a bruin fishing on my lakeshore. That summer I went several weeks when I saw bears every day. That is the reality of life in places where bears live. We modify our behavior because we know it’s hard for the bears to modify theirs. The alternative is to kill all the bears. Then we end up like California, where about the only place to see a grizzly is on their flag.

Most people who live on the edge of wildland know that living in peace with the animals require some behaviors that keep us all on safe. The better job we do the fewer conflicts we will have. When we moved to Bear Lake from a mile away on Lake Drive, I agreed to give up keeping chickens, Madelyn saw them as bear and eagle bait, so after several years I agreed. That was enough. We keep garbage in the bear-proof cans, and don’t leave birds seed and other attractant around the house. Bears walk through the yard on the way to the lake but they only stick around when we make a mistake. Last spring I left dog food on the porch and the next morning, opened my door to a bear having breakfast. He made three more visit that week before he figured out that was a one night stand. These are the kinds of mistakes that bring bears to our houses and get them shot. 

People who are distressed about bears in their neighborhoods need to look around and try to figure out what’s bringing them to backyards looking for dinner. Garbage is the big one. It’s not hard to secure trash so bears can’t get it.  Another culprit is free running chickens. I don’t think it’s coincidence that chicken-eating bears are common in neighborhoods where people let their chickens run free without coup or pen. The easy access to this prey eventually contributed to bears tearing onto secure chicken coups. If people don’t lockup their small livestock, they’re creating the behavior we don’t want. I kept chickens on Lake Drive (now Stoney Creek) for twenty-five years and had one bear incident in all that time, and that incident was a bear killing ducks I had running loose.    

Am I saying we shouldn’t shoot bears?   No, I’m saying we should do what we can so we don’t have to.  Obviously we will encounter problem bears who become backyards pests and a danger to us all, but most of our bears are not that type.  Not every bear that walks down the road or crosses your yard is a problem. They are part of what most of us enjoy about living here where bears, moose, otter, coyotes, swans, and even the occasional wolf make our lives richer by sharing the this valley with us. If you don’t like these animals in your backyard, I suggest you’re in the wrong place. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

A Fall So Nice We Could Call It Autumn

On the third Thursday of October, the temperature hit fifty degrees here at the lake and we enjoyed another sunny late fall day -- a rare thing indeed. The lake is alive with waterfowl and lies flat without wind to ruffle the surface. The shore vegetation is a brown fringe beneath the deep green of the spruce forest that surrounds us here. The mountains background is snow whitened almost down to tree line.  

Without the typical dark, wet September and October, we have been able to embrace fall.  Embracing fall is one of the last things that we usually do.  Most years we go into October wishing we were somewhere else.  Weeks of rain and even shortening days can make even this beautiful place bleak and depressing. Not this year. These last couple of warm years have delivered lousy winters that are barely cold enough to call them winter, but we got some nice fall weather in the deal.  The wildlife seems especially active as well.

Yesterday, I watched an eagle harvest a muskrat off the shore in front of the house, and today twenty swans rafted up in the north end of the lake.  Oh shore, the brown bears are roaming the neighborhood like Ma Barker and her kids. A sow and three cubs are raiding chicken coops and garbage cans in about a three mile radius. This won't end well for the bears I fear.

Closer to home, the squirrels have been harvesting spruce cones in the yard like it's going to be a hard winter. I had to send a couple to see God when they started caching their booty in the attic of the sauna. An attic of a sauna filled with dry cones is a recipe for disaster, so I cleaned out the attic and made it squirrel proof —fingers crossed. Two days later the loft of my woodshed was loaded with cones. Luckily, my ten-year old friend, Noah climbed up and helped me clean those out. The squirrels had filled ski boots with cones even stuffing them up in the toes. Now I have a couple bushels of fire starters drying in the garage.
We've had one snowfall, and I helped Sawyer build the season's first snowman. Since then the wind and sun disappeared the our sculpture in a process called ablation (Madelyn gives me all those big science words) and only the mountains held their white blankets. That's all suppose to end in the next few days and we can probably expect the typical Halloween snowfall as winter final gets here in November, the month of cold and wind. It was good while it lasted.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

On the Road, Where the Good Times Roll

Part of being an author is working at blatant self-promotion.  From the first time a writer submits a piece to a publisher to selling individual copies at a book fair, one has to be a seller, not my strong suit.  Part of marketing Secondhand Summer has been appearing in libraries for readings, selling books at fairs and bazaars, as well as making visits to schools.  This was a good match with Alaska Book Week 2016.

This week I did a bit of each, including visits to three libraries and three schools from Anchorage to Homer.  Fall is a great time to be driving the Peninsula with less traffic, dramatic leaf colors, and a good chance to have a bull moose cross your path — literally.  The chance of slick roads is low and the fall sunsets and sunrises on the Kenai are a dramatic light show.  Couple that with great meals in the Ninilchik with sister Amy and you have the makings of a pretty good road trip.

Of all my different events last week, I found the time at the schools the most satisfying.   Thanks to teacher, Mike Gustkey, my visit to Kenai Middle School was well organized and comprehensive. Up to three classes at time crowded into the library, and wrote energetically to a prepared prompt.  A teacher of writing, I know the challenge of getting students to engage in writing tasks.  Yet, these students hopped right to it and wrote energetically.  Many were eager to share their writings with the group.   It this is not an accident.  This is result of teachers working with student regularly to improve their writing and boost their writing confidence.  Thanks Kenai Middle School!
During my trips Homer Middle and Soldotna High, I found similar groups of teens who where friendly and polite as I shared my book with them and told my story of life in the last century on the Kenai.  It’s easy to forget how different the world of today’s children from the Alaska I grew up in.  Sure, we have the obvious impact of cell phone and computer technology in our lives, but more significant to me was change from a remote homestead lifestyle here to a rural or suburban life with lots of paved road, public utilities, and economic networks.   These kids don’t see themselves as backwoods sourdoughs, who have to hunt, fish and farm for a living.  Their world is little different from their counterparts in Anchorage, Seattle, or California.  That being said, there is an obvious appreciation by many for the rich environment where they live.

Teachers Bonnie Jason (Homer Middle) and Nicole Hewitt (SoHi) are educators who work hard each day to make students safe and help them learn.   There classes make me proud to be an educator, and I am honored that they think I have something to add to their teaching. 

It’s great to be home this week looking over Bear Lake as I write, but we all know that being away is what makes home so special.  That is true even when I’ve been visiting new friends and old the beautiful Kenai Peninsula.