Tuesday, February 12

Cold... very cold...

"The road back home"
Aniak, Alaska
January 2008

At 40 below, life slows down. At least, my life slows down, because truly, in town, until temperatures reach 50 below life goes on more or less as usual. Schools are open, and so are the store, the clinic, and the post office. Beyond 50 below, people stay home, kids don't go to school, and cars don't want to start.

I've been staying indoors for a few days, except for some short trips to the shed to fetch wood for the stove. Temperatures have been dancing between 30 and 40 below for the past couple of weeks. My usual means of transportation, the ATV, doesn't start at 30 below. And walking I can reach the neighbor's house before I start worrying if my son has frozen to death in the backpack. So life these days doesn't really offer much else to think about other than the freezing cold out there. I'm still not used to it and my tolerance is low in comparison to some of the people that live here.

Of course, it's essential to dress up accosdingly. In winter here, you don't really wear winter clothes, but serious mountain gear. The kind you wear if you were to climb Mount Everest, almost. Of course, no cotton clothes, which are the worst for cold weather (small detail I have leaned by freezing my butt off a couple times). Of course, always wear layers, onion style, so you can take them off accordingly depending on where you are going, how high they have set their thermostat, and how long you're planning on staying. Snow pants on top of regular warm pants, since skirts here are really never in fashion. Boots that advertise as keeping your feet warm at 70 below, which is not true, but at least you know that you can stay warm at 30 below. And a good expensive parka, because you can't be cheap with your winter clothes in Alaska or you risk a frozen death.

To top it all off, get yourself a good fur hat, a facemask, a good scarf up to your eyes, and a couple pairs of gloves. Basically all that remains to be seen of your body are your eyes, as long as you're walking and there is no wind.Otherwise, add a good pair of googles, that hopefully don't fog up too easily.

I can assure you that the worst part is not trying to move with anything that resembles class and style, but getting all of this gear on you before you leave the house. By the time you are ready to go, you are usually drenched in sweat. It's essential to develop a technique that will allow you to accomplish this process in the minimum amount of time, to avoid profuse sweating. And no, you can't wait until you get outside to put on the mask, scarf, hat and gloves. At 40 below, by the time you get your gloves on, your hands have already frozen and there is no way they will warm up while you're out there.

There is a very interesting phenomenon that happens when you reach subzero temperatures. It's easy to get used to, but at first is very peculiar. With each inhale the inside of your nostrils freeze up, and with each exhale, they thaw. The sensation is hard to describe, because I have never experienced anything even remotely similar. Imagine a thin layer of ice filling the inside of your nose and cracking if you move your nose around like a little bunny rabbit. In this temperature, you do have no other option than to breathe through your nose, so the air that comes in can warm up slightly. And every little bit of warmth is vital these days.

Today we have woken up to a whoopin' 38 below, and by mid afternoon we were at 1 below. A difference of almost 40 degrees Farenheit in 8 hours! That's pretty wild. It seems like temperatures may stay "high" like this for a few days. If so, we will be able to go for a walk, skiing, or snow machining without freezing up along the way.

Everything is relative, of course, and the way we judge things depends on the color of the glasses you are wearing that day and that latitude in which you happen to live. Who could have ever imagined that zero degrees F would some day be a fan-tas-tic temperature.

Thursday, February 7


"Afternoon stories"
Amiak, AK
July 2007

It used to be that when people packed their bags and left everything behind to go to a far away land, that land was usually exactly that: far away. Sometimes even very far away, like a different planet. It used to be that the only means of communication was the postal service, and letters could take years to reach their destination, if they ever did. With time and the increased generalized use of the telephone, we started being able to speak directly with our loved ones that were far away. It could take hours to get an international conference set up and when you finally had it, it could drop any minute. But it was good. anyhow, it used to be that if you were away from your people, you were away, and the distance was palpable.

Nowadays, with all the technological inventions that have become part of our daily lives, those insurmountable distances have ceased to exist. And the great culprit is, no doubt about it, the Internet.

For starters, if it weren't for the Internet, I would've never met David. If it weren't for the Internet, he would've never known about this job in Alaska. And if it weren't for the Internet, I would've never agreed to leave my life in Seattle and move to Aniak.

Moving to a small village near the tundra in Southwest rural Alaska was not in my plans for the future. A small village where 527 of the 13.000 people of the Kuskokwim watershed live. This area is about half the size of Spain and it's really easy to feel isolated and alone. A village where there is no cellphones. A town where there is only one radio station that I have found so far, KYUK from Bethel, which sounds kind of surreal in my ears because of the mix of music from my teenage years (Sex Pistols, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin...) with long and slow talks in Yup'ik, language that I don't understand. A village to which we have not brought a TV because it's been a long time since we've had one. A village that is far, far away. Not from Siberia, though, it's actually pretty close from Siberia, just a couple hours by small plane probably. But far away from all the people I love, from everything that is familiar, and from all my favorite places on the planet.

Thankfully, this small village got satellite Internet connection 3 months before we arrived. And suddenly this village doesn't seem so far away. From that village, lost in the middle of one of the largest extensions of wilderness left on the planet, I open windows to other worlds every day. My friends drop by to chat in the mornings, grandpa shows up to enjoy Naím's smile for a while, grandma comes over to sing a few songs to him, I say hi to people here and there when I run into them in the ciber-street, I find pieces of people's lives that I enjoy reading...

And even though it's true that the senses of touch, taste, and smell are not a part of the experience of being with those that are far away and close at the same time, sight and sound are. So, even if the experience is incomplete, the company is very real and the feeling of loneliness and distance become less intense. Thanks for being there.

Sunday, February 3

I did it!!

"Ice Road"
Aniak, Alaska
January 2008

Yesterday I did what I thought would take me months to do (or years, perhaps). I was able to gather all my courage and cross the frozen river without freaking out completely. It may not sound that scary, but when I think that under that frozen layer of ice, that may be a few feet thick run the cold waters of the Kuskokwim river, the longest free-flowing river in the US, things get a little scary. I was scared to death! I will admit that when I realized we were on ice, not land, for a few seconds I thought my heart had stopped, but I was able to relax and enjoy the ride pretty quickly.

At this time of the year, the water is sufficiently frozen so that a large part of the river is used as an Ice Road. It is the only time of the year that you can leave town and go anywhere on wheels. In the summer you can only travel by boat, since we are fully surrounded by water on all sides. And during freeze-up and break-up, there is just no moving around anywhere unless you are flying.

Snow machines, four-wheelers, pick-ups, and even bigger trucks go on the river when the Ice Road officially opens. And even though this information should offer some sense of security to a total Alaska newbie like me, it is also true that here and there you can run into open water or overflow, and you need to recognize them easily in order to avoid them. Everyone in town seems to have a scary story about when they traveled on the river, fell through open water, and miraculously saved their lives. So the security that the first sentence could offer gets brutally destroyed by the second one. It's also true that a great number of the accidents that occur in the river are accompanied by darkness and alcoholism, but it was still scary for me, even in bright daylight.

I am very proud of having conquered one of my biggest fears in this little corner of the world. Once more, I see that we do gain in strength and courage after we do something that we were afraid of doing. It becomes important to reduce the mental space that the incessant chatter of our fears occupies in our brains, so our energy can be transformed into action. Giving in to our fears only increases them, and this usually has a paralyzing effect. With this cold, being paralyzed in not such a good idea.