Monday, June 17, 2019

#30: Rest and Restoration

I WAS FEELING A BIT OF BURNOUT from juggling two jobs and still fretting about lack of hours, a rather chronic problem I was heartily bored with. Too, I was far from home and a prevailing sense of isolation and loneliness was taking its toll. But then Chilkat Float Tours of Skagway treated everyone at Alaska Excursions, where I worked part time, to a ride down Taiya River.
Can a day be lovelier? A lazy river, salmon spawning, eagles soaring, sun looping through a cerulean sky, hang gliders adding color to a glacier glinting off the horizon. Everywhere I looked the raw wilderness spread forever, untouched and pristine as the day God made it, gently lifting me into a place of peace.
Hang Glider Above Nelson Glacier
Steve and Hunter
End of the Float
“Hey! Anyone lose $10?” Our guide pointed to a ten-dollar bill floating on the river’s surface.

Rest. Renewal. Reassurance. Someday I'll go home, but I'll take with me this moment of time and abundance.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

#29 - Friends Forever

Collage of Norma, Brenda, Sandy Jr High
Norma Miller, Brenda Wilbee, Skagway AK 2019

MY BEST FRIEND from junior high days came to visit me in Skagway. I'd moved to Ann Arbor, MI, in the mid-sixties, a skinny little thing from the beach outside Vancouver BC. My younger sister Tresa and I went to a two-room school, where we played four-square under a tin roof, and I memorized all the kings and queens of England. Ann Arbor was a whole different story.

My family landed in a country fighting over racial injustice. I watched the news in horror as Governor Wallace of Alabama ordered the water hosing of people, watched as they were peeled from their hold off lamp posts, skidded on their backsides down sidewalks, rolled like sausages in the streets. I entered a junior high where the racial tension ran high.

Norma Linebaugh, Brenda and Tresa Wilbee
Norma, Me, Tresa
To make matters worse, my mother took me into the allergy clinic at the University of Michigan Hospital where residents were allowed to treat me without supervision. I ended up covered head to heel with uncontrollable eczema, an unsightly, itchy mess that on a good day looked like my skin had been turned inside out. Only my face remained unaffected and I thanked God everyday for that small mercy. I had two friends: Norma and Sandy Bird. The two stuck by when no one else did, and I've treasured their companionship and easy acceptance ever since;  they allowed me a sense of normalcy in a difficult world.

I've lost touch with Sandy, though I'd love to find her. Norma and I kept in touch. My family left Ann Arbor after my father got his PhD. We moved to Iowa, but every summer, as had been our habit, we returned to the West Coast. Between our junior and senior years, Norma came to hang out. We were in each other's weddings, and the last time I saw her was 1985. A long time to go until Skagway 2019.

She arrived by plane, a beautiful sunny day--and I spent a week showing her around and introducing her to the gang.

First on the list, of course, Miss Miss Bea and alley driving. "If you live here long enough," the town matriarch tells Norma, "you end up a little crazy. We're going to go look at the results of DOT being in town too long!"

I drove us down to the ferry slip and eased over to the guard rail. Yup. What up with that sign? Haha!

You can't of course come to Skagway without a trip to the Yukon. Judy Mallory and I took Norma up to Whitehorse, YK.

Norma Miller and Whitehorse, YK, pool
Whitehorse, being a real town meant we had our errands. Norma duly traipsed around with us while we stopped for my chocolate red wine at the liquor store, picked up some art supplies for Miss Bea at the Dollar Store, groceries at the Super Store, lunch at Big Bear Donair. We saved the best for last, of course--an hour at the Whitehorse Recreation Center. Judy and I collapsed into the hot tub. Norma actually went swimming! We were both impressed.

Lily Pad, Skagway AK
But it was in the evenings, tucked into the Lily Pad where I rented (my room the upstair's dormer) and Norma A&B'd (her window the other one upstairs), that I found something stir in my soul. She'd brought a picture album of Slausen Jr. High; and I discovered while pouring over those old pictures that, while she and Sandy were my only real friends, other faces became familiar, and rather pleasant, sometimes amusing, memories bubbled up from deep in my head.

"Oh, yea!" I'd say, discovering Dana all over again, "this is the girl who liked to 'fall asleep' under the tanning light and blister her face!" Yes, a fad. We had our own self-destructive behaviors back then.

Or, "oh my gosh, that's Jackie Smith! She still play the French Horn? Gordie and Louis Stout, I heard Gordie playing the marimba on the radio one day, one of his own compositions. They must have both gone into music."

"Oh, I know!" I said, "what about Bob Streeter? He was going to cure cancer. He was adamant about it." I'd actually never forgotten Bob. Only how to spell his last name, apparently.

Norma was a little fuzzy. Bob didn't go to the school reunions but she'd heard he was a doctor in the Carolinas, maybe. Maybe Virginia.

"Were you in my French class?" I asked. "When the teacher came up and clobbered me from behind."

Norma hadn't. I filled her in.

I'd been sitting in the front row. I sat as I normally did, shy, head down, quiet, minding my own business, when WHAM! I first heard her walking up the aisle behind me; next thing I knew she'd hit me hard, slamming me forward over the desktop, the bridge of my nose smacking the desk edge. My glasses went flying... I actually saw stars, I think, but it was the humiliation that horrified me. All around, stunned silence. Stunned. Frantically, I tried to not cry, blinking back the tears. I could see, blurry on the floor in front of me, my books and papers, an eraser, a pencil. I was in such terrible pain I couldn't move. Why-- What-- The teacher went on as if nothing had happened. I felt sympathetic glances, and began to calm down. Finally, the bell. Everyone got up and quietly traipsed past me. Carefully they skirted my scattered things. Someone retrieved my glasses, set them on the desk. I carefully put them on. And then along came Bob Streeter. He gathered up the rest of my belongings while I struggled to rise. He gave me a hand.  "Where's your next class?"

"Mr. Hart's. Science."

"I'll carry your books."

I'll never forget how he kept the crowds from crowding me, casting worried glances at my face. "I'm sorry," he whispered, settling me in.

From time to time I've tried to track him down, curious. Did he become a doctor? Was he trying to cure cancer? Never did find him; turns out I'd had the wrong spelling of his last name. Strieter, not Streeter. Duh.

Norma and I spent some time googling him, finally tracking him to L.A., where he has a history in cancer research and is a pulmonologist. I was glad to see he'd persevered. I was really glad to see his picture, the kindness that still dwells in his eyes and his gentle, compassionate nature undiminished and evident. He probably has no memory of that terrible day in French class. It's mine to treasure.

Norma had come my last week of a two-month winter reprieve to the far north. Slowly I began letting go of the fun and friends with her at my side, enjoying so much the fun evenings we shared, holed up in the Lily Pad while the wind whistled around the house. Together we looked back forty-five years, at all the old pictures of past lives that took on the present as one by one Norma caught me up. Many were dead: Mr. Gabrian,  David Wheelock, Jan Soefield. Others were alive and doing well for themselves: the Stout brothers, Jackie Smith, Karen Rice... Bob. Pursuing his passion. I hope one day he manages to be part of the puzzle to a cancer cure.

Junior High is Ann Arbor MI was tough, that's for sure; and racial tension still runs high in this country. But time softens when we look back. Good memories, friendly acquaintances, a kind boy, Sandy, Norma. She and I had a fun week, that final week in Skagway. Friend to the end, and still a friend, I don't think we'll wait so long to see each other again!

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

#28 - Formline Design and Native Drum, An Art Form 1,000 Years Old

Skagway News Front Page Feb 9, 2009

SKAGWAY'S TRADITIONAL COUNCIL recently held a class on Tlingit drum making, immersing me at least into an art form a thousand years old: Formline Design. I hate to admit, but all my life I've looked at Northwest Coastal Indian art as "seen one, seen all." My eyes glanced right on past to the next thing in the gift shop or museum. I no longer do this. Formline design, I've discovered to my chagrin, is composed of three basic shapes: the U, the ovoid, and S. And by using these three "lego" pieces and endless variations, you can create images of intricate sophistication.

the 3 basic shapes of formline design
I would have known this had I taken the time to linger and study the drums, totems, dugouts, paddles, and masks I'd grown up with as a child living on the Pacific coastline of Canada and along Washington State's Puget Sound. Never too late to learn, though, and better late than never. 

The drum making was almost immaterial. Abel Ryan, our teacher, a master carver from Metlakatla, AK, hurried us past the construction to the art, where he proved to be a master teacher as well. But first, the drum...

Judy, Abel, Tom, I think a guy named Dennis--making Indian drums
We were given a kit that consisted of a long string of sinew, a 15" hoop, and a pie crust of elk hide that had been soaking in water for how long I wouldn't presume to know. This we were supposed to stretch to make the hide thin. Thin meant a delightful vibration and echo when done.
Brenda Wilbee making Indian drum
Right off, I'm hit with the fact that I don't have the necessary chest muscle or hand strength to sufficiently "stretch" a circle of elk hide that's close to 20" in diameter and an eighth of an inch thick! And how I am supposed to get a grip when it's all floppy and wet? Anxiety kicks in. My efforts will not yield a playable drum. Alrighty then, I think, switching gears. I'll focus instead on the art. In the meantime, keep stretching.

Backside of Indian DrumTen minutes later, we move to the sinew. This, too, has to be stretched. A slippery trick and one that wears out your fingers.

Now we're roping the hide to the hoop, using pre-drilled holes around the "pie crust" edge--12:00 to 6:00, 1:00 to 7:00, 2 to 8, and all around the clock, trying to keep the sinew taut, the hide centered--lacing, tightening, tying off. Not a job for sissies.

Finally, formline design. Three shapes. Oh my gosh. 

My spirit animals are bear and buffalo. The Coastal Indians, however, had no familiarity with the buffalo. Bear it had to be, and I determined to create a face-on view. But with just three basic shapes? How? I was flummoxed and frozen. "Help..." I begged.

Brenda Wilbee's sketch of bear face done in formline drawingAbel started doodling. Three minutes later, he handed me the foundation I needed for my first foray into unknown waters. That night I took his design home, scotch-taped together four sheets of paper, and started in with pencil--and eraser.

Another kick of anxiety. I could not make my bear face symmetrical to save my life. I took what I had to class and Beau Dennis, a Tlingit man, offered me tracing paper and taught me a trick of flipping it over and tracing my pencil line directly onto the drum skin. Flip, flip, and I had the faint outline of "Big Bear."

The end of our third class, many people were finished with the painting of their designs, many of us were not. Mine was not done.
Indian drums

The problem with my bear--even when I got it's eyes painted in--was that it looked a bit like Felix the Cat clock. All I had to do was paint in the 12-3-6-9 in the eye sockets and add a swinging tail. So I went over to Betsy's every afternoon for a week and the two of us offered suggestions back and forth.
Added blue and framed the drum  |  Betsy hard at work with Abel Ryan  |  Painted the nose
added the blue  |  Betsy Albecker  |  Abel Ryan  |  painted the nose

Brenda Wilbee's Drum
At last, done!

Hibernation is over
Wake up, Bear. Open eyes.
Needing food, chow time!

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

#27: 1/3 -- Dog Mushing | Settling For Less & Finding The Best

a 3-Part Story | Part 1

OFFICE of Sky High Wilderness Ranch. Whitehorse, YK
Sky High Wilderness Ranch, Whitehorse,Yukon
MY FRIENDS AND I decided to go dog mushing.

"So what happens if I get out there and find I'm not strong enough to manage the dogs?" I asked the gal in charge, a Yukon Quest veteran and part owner of Sky High Wilderness Ranch in Whitehorse, YK. I had my doubts. Back home I have to advise the grocery boys to pack my bags light. Jocelyn was good. She told me stories that allowed me to make up my own mind. "Let me put it this way," she finally summed up. "Six weeks ago a woman rolled her sleigh. Today she has a new hip."

Dawn, Paul the tour guide, and Becky
Dawn, Paul, Becky Set To Go
Dog Sleds at Sky High Wilderness Ranch, Whitehorse YK
The Waiting Dog Sleds

Becky and Dawn On The Trail

Lauren, it was decided, would take me on the "limo" in a conciliatory gesture to make me feel better. The limo consisted of three wooden seats on a sleigh, drawn by four dogs. Unfortunately, I was put in the back behind two big Japanese girls--yes, I did say big. Since when did they make BIG Japanese girls? I couldn't see a thing. They completely dwarfed me. To make matters worse, a neck injury doesn't allow me to turn my head sideways for much more than a few seconds, so my disappointment got stuck in my throat. I had to blink a few times to keep back tears I was stunned to find lurking. Still, it was better than nothing and I told myself so. "This is better than nothing. Put on your big girl pants."

Brenda Wilbee dog mushing, sorta

And it was! And I did!

"Good boy!" called Lauren from behind me to the lead dog, the sound of the runners smooth against the snowpack and soft in my ears. The wind cut against my frozen cheeks, and I reveled in the slap of the sleighs hitting the earth, the panting of the dogs. All too soon we were back at "start." I was frozen through. And suddenly very grateful to be getting out of the cold. Poor Becky and Dawn, I thought, still out here. I headed for the yurt, an insulated tent just past the Christmas tree.

Sometimes settling for less is better than nothing. Sometimes it's just what we need.

#27: 2/3 - A Yurt, a Phone, and An Outhouse--And International Connection

a 3-part story Part 2

Christmas tree outside yurt at Sky High Wilderness Ranch, Whitehorse, YK
MY "LIMO" RIDE OVER, (Sky High Wilderness Ranch's conciliatory gesture to make me feel better about being too weeny to do real dog mushing with my friends), I headed for the yurt where I was to await Becky and Dawn and where (tour guide Lauren advised) I could get some hot cocoa and heat. I'd heard of yurts, but had never been in one. I had no idea what to expect.

I stomped my boots going up the stairs by the Christmas tree, tugged open the door, and found myself inside a hollow-out marshmallow, thinly insulated, and none too warm. A few sofas, some camping chairs--oh, yes, a dining room table with an attempt at Christmas decorations hanging from the chandelier. Wait, where was I? Japan?

Fifteen to twenty Japanese adults mulled around, tucked into bulky red parkas and toques of every color, the air a bubbled stew of vowels in a thick, savory broth of unintelligible chatter. I felt oddly disoriented.

Yurt interior, Sky High Wilderness Ranch, Whitehorse, YK

I edged toward the wood stove in this sea of red and foreign tongue. Midway, a woman gave a startled cry, stood, and started going through her pockets. Everyone shifted, turned in their seats, looked under cushions. Just then Lauren entered. A tall girl, head and shoulders above the rest of us, the agitated woman and her friends flocked around like cardinals seeking suet. 

A lot of jabbering, Lauren guessing, no one understanding, and then the pantomiming got really interesting. Lauren and I figured it out the same time. The young woman thought she'd lost her phone down the outhouse. I'd just come from there. Had I peed on her Samsung?

I'd been quite impressed, actually, with the outhouse--an attempt to make any girl feel right at home. With the possible exception of anyone Asian, of course. A picture and red "X" informed them they couldn't climb up to squat and do their business. Other than that, it was a cozy little corner of everything feminine: hand sanitizer, a bouquet of lavender, candles, matches, a whisk broom. Everything a girl could want, minus the heat. Word of warning, do not touch the metal chain that holds the door shut with bare fingers. It's a burn to make you squeal and jump, skin peeling right off and another squeal. No joke. Now try to lay out the toilet paper on ice crystals coating the royal throne. 

But back to the Japanese woman frantic over losing her phone down this upside-down bucket into a frozen sea of, well, shit.

"I mean, I can shine a light down there," offered Lauren. "But if it's in there, we can't..." She and the distraught woman left. I pulled out my computer. Two hours to go. I was cold. My pals Becky and Dawn had to be totally frost bitten out there in the wilds of the Yukon, flying along behind race-dog Huskies. I was beginning to feel very grateful for being such a weeny, unable to do the real dog mushing. I was so cold I couldn't type, my fingers too clumsy. My nose dribbled. I finally got up and stood next to the man hogging the stove, hoping he'd get the hint and step to the side so we could at least share.

No such luck. He did take an absent-minded short step forward, however. Twelve inches. Was I supposed to squeeze in between him and the heat? With seventeen layers and a parka? Another tour guide stumbled in, blowing on her hands. She reached into a pocket. "Someone's lucky day," she said and dropped a phone onto the coffee table.

Apple phone
"Oy! Oii! Ouii!" The Japanese all slapped their hands over their mouths. "Oii!" they giggled and laughed, only their eyes visible above cupped hands. The guide leaned over, rebooted the phone, set it back down. All watched with baited breath, even me, until the apple lit up and made the reassuring ding.

The shy, excited crowd circled in, laughing and clucking, even the man hogging the stove. I seized my moment. I stuck my backside to the flames, fingers behind my fanny, and shuddered from the thrill of heat going up my spine even while smiling at the gleeful enthusiasm surrounding the discovered phone--a miracle not covered in poop but instead ice and snow. Clearly it had fallen out of a pocket and landed on a trail. The happy owner swooped it up with a wild cry and smile and plugged in her password. She held it over her head. Everyone cheered.

I let the man rejoin me at the fire, and allowed the bubbled stew of vowels in a thick, savory broth of unintelligible chatter embrace me, feeling oddly connected to these people from the other side of the world.