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.

#27: 3/3 - Frozen Hair and Strangers Now Friends

con't from #27:2/3 - A Yurt, Phone, Outhouse--and International Connection

Brenda Wilbee at Takhini Hotsprings, Whitehorse YK 2019

"THE THING TO DO," said Becky, ducking down into the crazy warm water of Takhini Hot Springs and then surfacing, "is to get your hair wet and watch it freeze."

Dawn and I dropped. I surfaced, winced, then laughed at the cold biting my cheeks.

Tim Horton's, Whitehorse, YK
Our day of dog mushing had called for soup at Timmy's before heading up the road to our cabin and Takhini Hot Springs just beyond. For my American friends, Tim Horton's is Canada's hot spot to stop. Donut holes--Tim Bits we call them--to die for. They also have delicious homemade soup, also to die for. So Becky, Dawn, and I drove back into Whitehorse from Sky High Wilderness Ranch to warm our bellies and thaw our toes. We arrived about four in the afternoon. In other words, twilight.

Whitehorse, YK 2019

Once a First Nation's campsite, the city of Whitehorse has its roots in the 1898 Gold Rush. Named for the foaming, treacherous rapids of the Yukon River--looking like white horses stampeding--the White Horse Rapids once marked the greatest peril on the Trail of '98. Today, however, a hydro-electro dam replaces the once terrifying caldron. Schwatka Lake Reservoir settles peacefully atop a thousand tales of grit and grief. Adventure similar to ours--though deadly and demanding.

Tummies full, we drove out to our cabin, dumped our bags in "Klondike Kate," lay in a fire, and headed for the "best is yet to come."

Klondike Kate cabin at Wilderness Cabins, Whitehorse, YK
Klondike Kate cabin, Country Cabins, Whitehorse
We drove the quarter mile to Takhini Hot Spring, paid our $9 Canadian!, shivered into our suits, and took the plunge.

Takhini Hot Springs, Whitehorse, YK
We were strangers, really. Dawn is my social media techie back home, Becky someone I said hello to on the docks every day while waiting for tourists to get off the cruise ships. A woman who'd agreed to rent me a room this winter in her summer housing. But the two hours we spent in the warm womb of the earth, hair freezing over and watching ice grow around the lamps, we became best of friends. How do women bond?

I will tell you. We talk about X's, we laugh at ourselves, we tell stories about our children, more stories about our grandchildren, we split a gut over embarrassing tales, high-five our secrets, and scratch our heads over such questions as "Do you think democracy may fail?" and "Does God intervene in this troubled world?"

"I'm getting hungry," I said at last. Munchies awaited--on the other side of hell-frozen-over.

OMG! OMG! OMG! The frozen tunnel from pool to shower will kill you. Water logged, body emerging from the womb, you stumble up the stairs, stagger, throw a hand to the wall. Fingers sink into two-inch hoarfrost. You trip, lurch the last step. Reach dry ground. There's your towel, way down there--way down the icy hall on a hook, but it's too cold to stop, too cold to put it on. You make a grab, sprint, chin chattering your chest, goosebumps the size of goose eggs on your flesh, so mindless you nearly divert to the men's shower, realize your error, veer toward the women's, toss your towel, stiff as a board, to a bench, and hurl yourself with your one last last cogent thought--I'm going to die!--to the communal shower enclave and pull the knob. Hot water descends. You're Jennifer Beals in Flashdance.

We took turns hopping in and out of the cascading heat until at last, coming into consciousness by fits and starts the thought we're not going to die, we shivered into our clothes. Ten minutes later we were back at the cabin, visit to the outhouse behind us, in bed, munching on apples. We fell asleep talking.


This is what we woke to.


We could hardly make ourselves leave. Dog mushing and outhouses, phones on the trail and not in the shit, hot soup, hot springs, and hell frozen over we reluctantly headed back to Skagway...three strangers now friends.




Thursday, January 3, 2019

#26: Flying "Over the Top" Into Skagway, AK.


(opens in a separate window)

"Are you getting excited yet, about going to Skagway?" my daughter-in-law asked the night before I was to fly out of Seattle for Juneau--and on to Skagway, AK."

"No, not yet."

I've been splitting my time between the Seattle area and Skagway, AK, for eight years now, and I'd not been up for two and a half of those years and was missing all my friends and the little Alaskan gold rush town. "You can write up there as well as down here," I decided one day just before Thanksgiving. And so began my plans.

Bagge ticketed for SkagwayThree days after Christmas, the morning's flight to Juneau was uneventful. Just another airplane ride in the rain. But when I checked into Seaplanes at the small Juneau airport and they ticketed my bag, I got excited.

And then more excited. The sun came out. A young man all of thirteen, I swear, called my name. "You ready?"

"I am!"

"Lucky you. This is our first sun in a month. We'll go over the top."

Yes! 

Instead of going up Lynn Canal, pretty enough, we'd go over the mountains, stunning, unimaginable, a world of ice and snow. I'd done it once, and knew I was in for a treat. I grabbed my computer bag and trotted outdoors, into the icy air. "Am I the only one?"

"Yup."

Seaplanes, a ride to Skagway

I settled into my seat, breathless. The pilot, I'll call him Dan, gave the propeller a few good whacks, it whirled and whirred into motion, and soon we were taxing out for take off.


We veered away from Lynn Canal and headed straight for the Mendenhall Glacier...

...rising swiftly, steeply, straight for the ice, up, up, up toward the tree line, a layer of fog, sunshine beyond, and the snowy mountains. 


Dan dipped and leveled out, wings just yards from the tectonic uplift of mountains unbelievably beautiful, their tops jagged, uncompromising, the tips sharp enough to have bitten through the earth's crust eons ago and tall enough to escape the glaciers of yore that grind smooth the lesser heights.


And then my phone died. No more pictures to capture the ragged snow-covered mountain tops that framed vast valleys stuffed with snow--heaped atop the Mendenhall Glacier; a snake of crushing weight, a river of ice bent on carving out stone and rock and gouging deep troughs, pressing the earth as it winds north to meet the ice sheath that goes 100 miles up and to the Yukon.

As far as eye can see, ice cream as silky as a cat's ear. Whipped cream. Way, way down, ribbons of navy blue cut through the ice and snow and run out to sea. Sometimes the whipped cream tumbles, with lines like hen scratches, then gives way to cobbled snow. Where the glaciers drop steeply, turquoise sparkles brilliant against the blinding white.

Serrated mountains tops circle like Roman amphitheaters, plunging down to fields of white fluff. A high range sends spikes up like a dragon's back, rounding out to make a sculpture of a fat, plodding Tyrannosaurus Rex frozen in time.

To the west, Lynn Canal sometimes shows up, a deep cobalt blue, then the mountains rise straight up and spread to the horizon. All razor sharp mountain tips, endless white. To the east, they stagger and coil and tower with nothing to tell me they don't circle the world and meet east to west.

Curling away from the white castles in the air, I worked up enough nerve to ask the pilot to take a picture of Skagway for me when we made our final descent. He pulled out a charger. Well, darn! For once I should have spoken up earlier. He plugged in my phone and by the time we eased down to the tree line and wound west and north, Haines hoving into view, he handed me my phone. 47% charged. Yes!

Skagway AK
SKAGWAY, ALASKA
Seventeen miles on, I spot my home-away-from-home. Caught between two mountain ranges, this gold rush town of 1898 is five blocks wide at the docks and narrows to just three. The only road out crosses the river and winds up White Pass to Canada. And while it's gorgeously sunny from the plane, the mountains drop shadows. It's 11:00 a.m., and I know it's cold down there and veiled.

In the twilight, though, my friend Judy Mallory is waiting at the airport to welcome me home.