All material here copyright Jean McDermott. For information on purchasing any article for your publication please use the email link. The language on this site may not be suitable for children or the extremely persnickety.
Jean McDermott is a freelance writer and professional muscian.
Alaskans are justifiably cautious when declaring that Spring is here. When you've had snow for around nine months, you get that way. Even though we are seeing temperatures up to 50°F, and even though the snow is steadily decreasing, whether by melt or sublimation, there is a part in all of us that thinks, "You know, it could get cold again."
That's why each person has a way of adding up little signs that indicate that Spring is really here. One sign is nothing, but if you add them all up, then it might be the real deal.
I left a Vitamin Water in my car three nights running. It hasn't frozen yet.
I had to unplug my car cord, and plug in my freezer cord. (Like most Alaskans, my freezer is not in the house, so I don't have to turn it on except when it's warm outside.)
I have a front porch step instead of a snow ramp, and my doorway area is clear of snow!
The snow has already slid off the roof. (WHOOOOMP)
I really should take the snowfront off my car. (You block off the radiator from wind so your heater will work and you get better gas mileage.)
The dog poop is starting to show in the dog yard.
The dog HAIR is starting to show in the dog yard.
Costume for walking dogs keeps getting lighter. Today's was: Pajamas, boots without socks, hoodie. No hat, gloves in pocket. I really could have just used boots, but I like having pockets.
The owls are hooting!
I really detest my snowboots. I never want to see them again. It's time to switch to yaktraks on tennis shoes, unless the snow around the house is really squishy. Then it will be back on with the horrible boots.
I can see last year's foxtails. Damn it.
Last night I walked the dogs (yes, wearing pajamas, I'm all about comfort) at 10:30 and it was still blue above the trees, a darkish blue, but not pitch black! Summer, here we come!
If I don't miss my guess, a whole bunch of my Alaskan friends are now going to add to this list because I "forgot" one. Hey, it's not a comprehensive list, but I am interested to see what's on your list!
There are ways you know you have turned Alaskan. For one thing, when the weather goes strange on you, it can be perturbing. For Fairbanksans, a winter where the temperature stays above zero most of the time creeps us out. It's not natural. It's just plain wrong. We have had perhaps five days total where it was -20, and nothing colder than that, here, in a place where you can expect at least a week or more of -40, and some weekends of -50 or more. Not this winter. The squirrels never hibernated, and the birches never dropped seed. Sure, it was nice to just stick boots and coat and hat and gloves but stay in my pajamas underneath when I went out to walk the dogs. But it was weird to do that all winter. Or should I say "winter."
So there is one sign of being an Alaskan: you go out in your pajamas to walk the dogs when it's 20 degrees out.
Being obsessed with weather is another Alaskan trait. Sure, people talk about the weather everywhere, but up here we can go on for hours.
I'm a real Alaskan because I can step outside with two dogs on a leashes, while wearing pajamas and boots (and no coat, maybe a hat, probably not) and plug my car in while they go pee. And not get all tangled up in leashes and plug-in cord! That last is the real accomplishment! While I'm out there I can tell the temperature by the way my plug-in cord behaves. Then I can check my outdoor thermometer to see if I am right. I'm always right.
Live here long enough and you'll become a Salmon Snob. Copper River Red salmon is, in my book, the most delicious of all, though I've been told king salmon is even better. I have not had the luck to taste a king, but you won't see me getting excited over a silver. When the Salmon Bake down at Alaskaland started using silvers, I was angry and insulted!
When it finally snowed after around two months of weird winter and no snow, it made me unreasonably super happy. I posted on Facebook and Twitter about how happy I was about the snow. Out of ten people I asked, nine replied that they felt the same way. Most people outside of Alaska would think we were all crazy that we loved it to snow in March. My dogs were certainly overjoyed!
A given: in your freezer you have salmon, halibut, and moose, all wild caught/hunted. Bonus points for caribou, grouse, and beaver tail. And I'm not a hunter. People are generous and share. It's what we do.
I have at least six coats, three of which I should donate or give away because they have so much dog hair in the lining that it's like an extra bunch of insulation. The two coats I use are several years old and the zippers have become contrary, and tend to unzip from the bottom if I don't do it just right. I spent three weeks fixing the zipper on my biggest, warmest down jacket by a combination of using various pliers and other implements to squeeze the zipper parts back into some semblance of usability. Nothing would work until I added duct tape to the bottom zip holder to keep it in the right place.
I need that jacket! It's a survival issue! Parkas cost at least $200 and putting in a new zipper costs at least that much. I've resolved to buy what I've wanted for years, a Canada Goose parka. I think they cost about $600 now. Unless we start having stupid winters all the time. Then I can wear layers of flannel/wool or my crappy-but-expensive Columbia jacket. You know that commercial where someone is dunked in ice water and then they get "warmed up" by putting on the Columbia jacket with the shiny lining? Total crap. That coat is only good down to about zero, if that. If you aren't warm already, there is no way it would warm you up. Oh, and the zipper on that one has gone south, too. Definitely time for a new coat.
Gear: you'll buy it, lots of it, boots and gloves and hats and scarves and balaclavas, snow pants, carhartt everything and yes, coats and jackets and you'll have serious opinions about them! You'll have Stuff I Wear On The Snow Machine, and Stuff I Wear For Work, and Stuff I Wear for Skiing (or skijoring), and then there is the Emergency Clothing box in the car.
Another way you'll know you are Alaskan is you'll have a tiny house with way too much stuff in it. Accept it. Zen is not going to work in Alaska. Did you SEE the list of clothing above?
There are lots of key things that Alaskans say or do or have, but this isn't meant to be a comprehensive list. Just a Sunday meandering on the fact that I never want to move away from Alaska. When I went to New Mexico to visit my kids, I had this strange urge to wear my snow boots on the plane. I should have done it. When I got there it started snowing, snowed almost three feet and we were snowed in for four days. How did I know?
Announcing "Alaska Different Prints," a new site devoted to my art prints that aren't the usual big game fare. Oh sure, eventually there will be a moose or two, but I see beauty in some of the smallest things, and often in woman's Best Friend.
All prints are original work, printed on letter size heritage quality photo paper and mailed via Priority Mail. Realize that even Priority Mail takes five days to get to the Lower 48 from Alaska. I'll cease mailing orders from Dec 19 to Jan 30 to visit with my children, so the sooner, the better, if you want one. Cost is $40 and includes free shipping to anywhere in the USA. Folks in other countries will have to pay for the postage. If you are in Canada it won't be much more, other countries email me. (My email is on the site.)
My first item of the day was to put a coat, boots and gloves on over my pajamas and shovel snow until I could get into my car so I could haul the 40 lb bag of dog food in so that Ole and Sofia could eat. They were much appreciative of this effort and gave me wags and nose kissies.
Then, to wake up. One cup of dark coffee coupled with one scrumptions, goeey brownie. Check!
Awake at last, I checked in on Facebook, and realized that I really, really wanted to see the Doctor Who Christmas Carol episode because I love he floaty fish that fly in the air, plus Michael Gambon. Add Amy Pond and Rory Williams and I now have something fun to watch while I...
...do dishes. There aren't many dishes, except it's time to take the creepy, yucky pans out of the refrigerator and clean them out. If I I wrinkle my nose just right, maybe I won't suffer too much stinkiness.
After that I'll finish making some beef/sweet potato/caramalized onion/whatever else strikes my fancy soup. Of course it will have my iron fish in it for added blood strengthening. You don't know about the magic fishie? (Hmm, I sense a theme here.) In Canada there is a program where if you buy one iron fish, they will send another to a family in Cambodia. Anemia (which I have and must be vigilant about) is endemic to that country and the iron fishies are put in every soup to help alleviate this debilitating affliction.You can help a Cambodian family here: http://www.luckyironfish.com/
After I wash dishes and get the soup going, of course the dogs and I will go outside to play in the snow for a while. (I've been trying to teach Ole to write his name in the snow, but so far no luck.) Also possibly more snow shoveling. If I get really energetic I'll put the dogs in the house and get the loppers and cut down the silly, skinny spruce that keeps leaning over in front of the dog yard gate. I keep shaking it down so that it pops back up, but it's going to have to go.
Oh, and somewhere in there I go feed and water Bucky Bird and clean his cage, and give him treats. And sing chickeny opera to him.
I'll probably rest a little while, and then I'm making flan to bring to Thanksgiving dinner. At some point I'll walk next door and we'll have a nice dinner, and maybe watch a movie. I'm going to bring my DVD of A Christmas Story.
I've had mostly smart dogs. I've had some average, but trainable dogs, and I have two right now who are what I affectionately call Inconveniently Smart Dogs.
Sofia gets up on my desk chair and puts her paws on the keyboard. When I do floor exercises she gets down on the floor and tries to do them, too. But this isn't a story about Sofia.
Ole takes his job as a therapy dog seriously. Most dogs need a job, and his is a) barking once every time he hears my neighbor slam her car door, and b) visiting people, doing tricks for them, and letting them pet him.
He will do this whether it's a therapy dog situation or not, which is why he is such a great therapy dog in general. When Sofia was being worked on at the vet clinic, Ole and I went to the waiting room, and before long, every single person, employee, customer, whomever, had received a good amount of dog therapy, plus other people were starting to have him do tricks.
Today was the Raven Jam, a community jam I started at our local retirement home. The place, coincidentally, where Ole has visited a total of TWICE in about four years. But an Elkhound never forgets.
The jam is two hours long, and the dogs wait in the car. They have a nice dog area in the back of my Flex. After the jam today I knew that both of them would appreciate a little walk outside to stretch legs and go pee. I always grab Sofia first, since she is a Houdini Husky, albeit at 15 she can still go like the wind if she feels like it. Ole is generally the good dog who waits a second for me to grab their leashes, and then they both jump out and all is well.
Today opened the car's hatch, grabbed Sofia as usual and before I could even take half a breath Ole was out like a shot!
The place is like a park, with snow (which Ole adores) and several acres of woods, and a very busy road not too far away. But where does Ole go? Straight into the retirement home and within seconds the automatic doors open and shut and I know he's gone in there to To His Job! I called out, "Don't worry, he's a therapy dog, he won't hurt anyone!"
Ole at Read to the Dogs Day, at Barnes and Noble
I had Sofia out on a leash already, and she's not a therapy dog, so I was lucky that a friend of mine was able to run in there and try to catch up with him.
She found him visiting people in the dining room. No surprise there! No one was upset, least of all Ole. I guess he came right to her, even though she didn't know the magic word. ("Cookie.")
Today, instead of doing the dishes, I'll tell you about how my life has become a waiting game.
Year before last Fairbanks didn't get to have a summer. It rained virtually all summer. This is the first time I found out that when it rains for 40 days and 40 nights, well, for about 90 days and 90 nights, give or take, the ground becomes so saturated that my septic tank fills up with water. When this happens the toilet tries to flush, but can't. The water will slowly drain, but until the ground dries out, there will be no productive and convenient flushing.
We just had two weeks (or more) of nonstop rain. Again. This has led to Fairbanks being the angriest town in Alaska. We had one week of Fall when we often have as much as three, but it was a lovely week. Pretty colors, nice temperatures (60s during the day) and heart-filling gorgeous blue skies.
And then came the damn rain. Temperatures no higher than 44. It seems like my outside thermometer is stuck, because it's always reading 40. Sometimes 36. But around in there.
Once again, my toilet won't flush. It's not backing up, and it's exactly like the "summer" before last when it rained for three months. No flushage possible. Therefore, no pooping. At least no pooping at home. This is...inconvenient.
Here's the thing: if I have it pumped, and the ground is saturated, then the septic tank might rise up out the the ground just like a very, very stinky submarine. All I can do is wait to see if my doughty little terlet will flush if we ever get enough dry days in a row! It should start to work again if things dry out. But if the tank does need pumping, I need to get it done before Freeze Up! Which could begin happening any time. But usually not fully until October. Still, the weather has gone wacko so who knows? All Alaskans know what it is like to play chicken with the weather. Sigh. Right now I have no choice. Oh, and the cost for pumping? About $400.
This time of year Alaskans are working like crazed beavers as they try to get everything stowed away from the oncoming Big Dark Winter. In just about every field of work that involves the outdoors, such as construction, dirt work, plumbing, and so on, people are frantically trying to get their jobs done, you know, the ones they put off doing all summer? It's near to impossible to build a driveway in the rain, I have that on good authority. So all those outdoor working guys and gals are pissed, and everyone else is pissed because we know it's going to be dark soon enough. Bad enough that it's dark when it's not dark!
It's been cold enough to have my Toyo on for some time. If you read the previous post, you know my Toyo went on strike and is now at the Place That Fixes Little Stoves. From what I can tell it needs a new circuit board. But they can't even look at it for almost two weeks from now. So I'm in house heater limbo before I'll even get a call from them. Circuit boards cost $250, labor for two hours is about $200. I expect at least a $450 bill to get it fixed. (New ones cost about $1500.)
Let's not even think about what three weeks of heating my house with an electric heater is going to cost. (Probably around another $400 or more). I told the Toyo fixer people that they should order their jobs by who has a wood stove and who doesn't. Makes sense to me but not to them, alas!
I have to poop, and I have to be warm. So word to those who romanticize living in Alaska: you have to pay to be warm, and even more to be warm when you poop.
Instead of doing the dishes, I'm going to tell you all about my Toyotomi Laser56 heater, and how mine is a blessing and a curse.
Before we even start, here's a picture. It's a small thing, but it heats my entire tiny house. Not only does it keep me warm at 50 below, but it doesn't smell, doesn't make any obnoxious noise (however it does sing special Toyo songs, more on that later), and it does all this on less than 500 gallons of heating oil a year. Yes, a year. Everyone should use these instead of boilers and forced air furnaces (which I like to call Horse Hair furnaces). Folks in the Lower 48 haven't even heard of these things. So if this is all new to you, listen up!
For all of these reasons, my Toyo heater is far more of a blessing than a curse. But because I have no backup method of heating (curse the people who redid this house, not me, *I* didn't take out the woodstove) when it goes on the fritz because it is 30 years old, it is always when I need heating. I have an "economical" electric heater that I use when this happens, but that's not really economical because Alaskans, especially in Fairbanks, pay more for electricity than just about anywhere in the known Universe. Why? Because our electric co-op makes electricity by burning oil. The worst thing you can do in Fairbanks is have all-electric heating.
So it's the end of Fall (all one week of it) and now it's 40° and raining. Which is okay, it's above zero. But I still need to heat the house because, well, even 40 above can get cold after a while. I turned on the trusty Toyo and it was working fine. This went on for several weeks and I thought, cool, we are good to go!
Then one night I woke up because I smelled hot wood. I searched my entire house for anything that might cause a fire, but couldn't find anything at all. Then I noticed my Toyo was showing an EE error. Uh oh. And no matter how many times I restarted it, or forced it to clean itself (it has a cleaning cycle to get the carbon gunk out) it kept shutting itself off.
So I called my friend Tundra Rose, who works on Toyos, and she said it could be a lot of things, probably an ignition error and I should either take it in for a full service or I could open it up and disconnect this particular pipe and clean it with a wire etc. etc.
Today I drank two cups of coffee, and went to open the front of the Toyo. Two screws hold the front on.
Law of the Universe #46: When you need a Phillips-head screwdriver, you must gather at least four straight screwdrivers first.
Law of the Universe #3: It's never as easy as it sounds.
Got the first screw on the right side of the machine just fine.
Take a look at the picture. See those stairs? They are just 1/4 inch too close to the heater for me to get the screwdriver in there.
Drank another cup of coffee.
I was worried I'd break the vent and fuel connectors if I pushed the heater too much, so I gently (yet firmly!) pushed and angled it so I could get the screwdriver in there and take out the screw. Success and not horrible smell of heating oil and no spreading puddle, no ominous cracking sound, so so far, so good.
Lifted the cover off and looked to see just HOW MUCH dog hair was in there.
Well, not much, it turns out! Even though I sweep up enough hair to knit a puppy a week!
Time to plug it in and run it through it's little Toyo paces. The fan went on immediately. Good, I guess the fan is working, I thought.
Then it started igniting and after a bit there was an orange glow in the fire pot. Then yellow flames, and finally a nice blue flame. That's great because igniters cost $200, which is ridiculous when you see how dinky a part that is.
So it heated up. And heated up. And heated up. And heated up some more and suddenly WHAM! I smelled the hot wood smell again! AHA! That poor heater went on getting hotter and hotter and shut itself off in shame.
But now I know what's wrong with it! The fan works, but just doesn't work at the right time. So off to the shop it goes for a wash and toenail clippings and anal gland squeezing--WAIT--wrong cute little thing. Whatever the equivalent is for a fancy, high-tech but elderly heater, that's what it will get at the Place Where They Care For Toyos.
I think my Day of the Stupids started yesterday afternoon.
While teaching music lessons it became abundantly clear that Sofia wasn't feeling well. Plus she kept going back and forth between looking really not good, to being spunky and adorable. (I'll be posting video and more complete Sofia story on the Doggedly blog.)
I had just said goodby to the last student, picked up my purse, grabbed the leashes, turned around to connect dogs to said leashes and Sofia did a giant walking pee on the carpet.
After taking care of the mess, and driving the ten miles home, I found myself taking her out about every hour or more. Clearly, the vet was required and the previous UTI hadn't cleared all the way up.
By nine-thirty I was exhausted, and I did a clean-catch urine sample with her just before I went to bed, and put it in the fridge to take to the vet this morning. I dosed her with cranberry and Vitamin C and hoped for the best.
This morning my son woke me up at 7 with a text (I finally got to sleep around 2). I felt extremely groggy and out of it. But Sofia needed taking care of so I did the whole dog walk, dog breakfast, dog walk again...and then popped open the hatch on the car and said, "Okay guys, hop in!"
Sofia, doG bless her, hopped right in. (Once again, more about this on Doggedly.) But Ole baulked. He would not get in the car. He wanted to be bribed, he wanted bacon, he wanted french dip sandwiches, and what he got was left at home.
I drove the eleven miles to the vet clinic, delivered Sofia's essential essence, ever so carefully collected. I wanted to wait and then get medicine for her (as per the followup requested by the vet) but they said it would be "a while" before they'd get to it so they would call me when the results were ready.
Back into the car for another ten mile car ride and wait....what's this? I'm getting auras...the light is hurtin my eyes... AHA! It's a migraine! Luckily I don't get the pain much anymore, but the Stupids, I seriously get a good, rocking, fluffy case of The Stupids with these migraines. Which in a way made me feel better about myself once I knew I was only a temporary idiot.
Just as I realize this a black SUV nearly rear-ends me as while I"m driving on the freeway at 60mph (limit is 55). This car very nearly smashes into me, nearly hits the barrier, is going at least 100mph probably a lot more, it careers around, almost hitting the center barrier and another car and people are hitting their horns.
I fumble with my cell phone and try to dial 911 and mange to get 911-1. Arrgh. Finally I get through to the Fairbanks Police, have to be put on hold, get connected with the Troopers and the dangerous, insane SUV driver is long, long gone. I tell them about it, and they pretty much think I'm a stupid idiot because no one has been killed YET.
But stuff like that shakes me up. Normally I would have seen that guy coming, but I was just concentrating on going forward and trying to plan how to help Sofie and when we'd go back to the vet again.
Five minutes later, about halfway home, the phone rings and the vet desk person says, "We need a fresher sample. Can you come back?"
I've already forgotten I have a migraine. I'm trying to apply my brain to this because my brain is still dealing with a maniac in an SUV. Do I go back and get Ole before he eats something metallic or chews the vacuum cleaner cord which I just realized I didn't uplug ohmygod I hope he didn't do that I don't want my dog to be dead but Sofia needs her medicine do I go get Ole and them go back to the vet or do I just turnaround and if I go home will Ole get in the and what if Sofia gets out will SHE get back in the car....
And I say, "I'm turning around now."
So back we go, and Sofia got her meds, and I again, forgot I had a migraine and forgot to tell the vet about a bunch of stuff about Sofia I wanted to tell her. The Stupids strike again. I have the attention span of squirrel.
The day isn't over yet, because I have band practice with Ptarmigan. I will warn my band mates that I have dried moss for brains and we'll have fun.