Sunday, July 19, 2015

"We have normality"

"We have normality, I repeat we have normality. Anything you still can't cope with is therefore your own problem." 
                             - Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Where have I been for the last two and half weeks, you ask? What have I been doing? I couldn't possibly have been doing nothing, could I? What are you missing out on?!

Settle down.

I've been doing the usual, really. A nature hike here, a mountain climb there... yesterday Joe and I floated down the Koyukuk from Wiseman to Coldfoot in inflatable kayaks called packrafts. Thirteen miles by Dalton Highway, but it took us five chilly and damp hours! I was still warming up when I went to bed last night.

Mostly, I've been at work, either at the desk being super smart and helpful for anyone interested the ecosystem up here, and a little better than useless for anyone else, or I've been developing my program.

My program?

Why, yes. We offer nightly programs at 8:00 PM every night in the theater. Often on weekends we show a film, but most nights one of the interpretive rangers delivers a live presentation on a topic of their expertise. Bob talks about backcountry travel and camping, Heidi talks about life in Wiseman year-round, Kristin covers the Gold Rush settlers in the Koyukuk Valley in the early 20th century.

Well, now we volunteer interpretive rangers are entering the rotation, too! Jacklyn has a "walk and talk" tour around the visitor center about the berries that can be found in the region, Sarah discusses the geology of the Brooks Range, and Ryan demonstrates gold panning right in the front of the theater!

Joe and I are a bit late to the game, but he'll have a talk ready soon about the value of wilderness, and I'm nearly ready to present the life of... a mosquito!

I've spent hours researching mosquitoes to try to answer a few key questions to the best of my ability: why are there so many here? How do they survive the winter? How are they finding me?

I've figured it all out (to the limit of my own understanding, and the incomplete data that has been collected and published so far), developed a narrative about a day in the life of a mosquito, and found brilliant close-up photos of mosquitoes in all their weird, buggy detail. I've also timed a mosquito biting me because I couldn't find that bit of information anywhere online or in our library.

So that's not on the schedule yet, but I can already talk about mosquitoes for thirty minutes or an hour off the cuff if I had to.

In two days, I'll be heading out with Joe and Ryan on a three-day backpacking trip into the river valleys around Sukakpak Mountain. It's a work trip; we'll be taking photos while we're in there of places that aren't visible from the highway on behalf of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Maybe I'll post more about that later. I don't know! Which brings me to the point of this post:

It's getting harder and harder to write about being here.

I don't know why exactly, but I have a few ideas, and I was warned about this early on, too. Every day, more and more about my life here feels normal.  I mean, I'll go out for a run and the first that takes my breath away is the scenery, not the effort, but what can I say about that?  Post another picture just like all the others?  (And don't worry, when I get decent internet access, you'll get to see everything... except the pictures of my private letters and various cuts and bruises.)

Also, my focus has shifted somewhat away from the here and now (sorry Yoda and Jesus, I can't help it), and toward the future instead.  I'm ready, willing, and probably able to move to Alaska, and I've been job- and apartment-hunting to see if I can make that happen.  That should probably be the headline today, but I like to reward my readers!

So, yes, in between cooking weird meals from whatever's in my pantry, reading Gravity's Rainbow like a boss, hiking to pristine Alaskan streams and dunking my head in, putting my nose to the mosquito grindstone, and going to bed listening to Dan Deacon and Regina Spektor, I've been emailing apartment owners, writing cover letters, and navigating the least pleasant places on the internet: that's right, "Prior Employment" pages on online job applications.

Oh, and yes, I'm reading Gravity's Rainbow, which is not as difficult to read as I was lead to believe.  The prose is... thick, to be sure, but I think one should read it without the expectation of being able to understand everything that's happening, and just let the words wash over you until you get to a more relatable section.  But there's a lot rocket science and organic chemistry, and stuff about the business and political landscapes in the years around WWII, as well as stupid gags, musical numbers, and the raunchiest, most gag-inducing sex scenes I've ever heard of.  It's a weird, wild, wonderful book.

Argh, I forgot, you probably want to know what the heck I'll be doing in Fairbanks.  I don't know exactly, but I have vague plans to start volunteering at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks (UAF) Museum in the insect labs, if they let me, which I heard from a grad student there that they probably would.  In September, I might pester professors to take me on as a grad student in the spring, but that's a long shot.  I'll have better odds after I get more lab experience. In September 2016, I'd be an official Alaska resident, and would consider taking undergrad classes again at that point to further my chances of getting into grad school if I haven't been able to already.  In January 2017 I'd be eligible to receive about $1000 every year from the State of Alaska for being a resident who's okay with the presence of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.  In May 2017, I might be able to take a free class to certify me as an environmental technician and begin working for some big company that wants to develop or continue developing somewhere in the state.

To pay the bills in the meantime, I'm looking at UAF's bookstore, a temp agency, and the company that runs Coldfoot Camp, so far.  I will cast this net far and wide.

Alright, that's enough for today, I think.  To sum up:  I'm still alive, things are still weird, and I'm only getting weirder along with it.

Thanks for reading!


Thursday, July 2, 2015

Don't take my word for it...

I've been reading more than usual.  Much more.  I brought one book with me, lent to me by a friend just before I left, as well as an old Nook that I can use to download library ebooks.  But I haven't needed to download any books aside from one that was stored on it already, because I've discovered a surprisingly extensive library both at the visitor center and at the Coldfoot Camp staff lounge.

The visitor center library is entirely comprised of books related to Alaska and the Arctic in general, but the Coldfoot staff library is more eclectic.  Both essentially use the honor system for borrowing and returning, although the visitor center library does require us to sign out the books we borrow.

Here, then, is a list of the books I've read since I got on the plane from Buffalo, and my thoughts on each:

1) Monster by A. Lee Martinez - A fun and funny adventure set in a magical version of a modern-day American city.  It strongly reminded me of novels by Christopher Moore, which I loved in high school and college, but I feel like I've grown out of since then.  Despite that, it was a nice reprieve from the more serious books I've read or tried to read lately, and a pleasant reminder of the fun I had with Mr. Moore's books.

2) The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot - A true story of science, race, poverty, and almost unbelievable fortune/misfortune, depending on your point of view.  Very well-written, engaging, and something I was long overdue in reading.

3) Shadows on the Koyukuk by Sydney Huntington, as told to Jim Reardon - the first book I read about Alaska since arriving here, and well worth the read.  Sydney Huntington, still living as I write this, turned 100 years old this May, and grew up hunting and trapping with his father in the Koyukuk River Valley region of Interior Alaska.  His stories are wonderful, and I don't think you can find ones like his anywhere else.

4) Arctic Village by Robert Marshall - a book entirely about the community of Wiseman, as observed by Marshall in 1930 and 1931.  Marshall was convinced that the residents of Wiseman were the happiest people on Earth, and explored every aspect of their lives he found of interest through extensive interviews while living with them for a year.  His phrasing and attitudes are dated, to be sure, but he seems to have been earnest and relatively progressive for his time.  A unique historical artifact, if nothing else.

5) Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez - An exploration of the Arctic as a whole, from Alaska to the northern Canadian islands, Greenland, northern Scandinavia, Russia, and back again.  Lopez discusses the environment, wildlife, and human history from the first ancient peoples to early European exploration and modern industrial development.  Very informative, with prose ranging from plain to poetic.

6) The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss - A high fantasy novel, and one that is hard to put down for reasons I can't entirely explain.  It is the autobiography of Kvothe the Kingkiller, a man of legend, fallen on hard times for mysterious reasons.  The first book in a yet-unfinished trilogy.

7) Wildwood by Colin Meloy - The story of a young girl, living in Portland, whose baby brother is kidnapped by crows and taken to The Impassable Wilderness, known to its residents as Wildwood.  She, naturally, sets off to rescue him and has many adventures.  Colin Meloy, incidentally, is the lead singer and songwriter for The Decemberists, and if you're familiar with their music, you know what you're in for with this book.

8) The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss - Second in the Kvothe series, at least as good as the first, but more surreal at times.

9) The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey - A modern classic in certain circles, it inspired a wave of environmental activism in the 1970s focusing on halting development in wilderness areas by sabotaging the machinery and structures involved in the process.  It takes place in the American Southwest, which I have fond memories of, and while I couldn't easily identify with any of the characters or their actions, I understood their motivations and enjoyed their adventures.

10) Neuromancer by William Gibson - A classic of cyberpunk sci-fi, as important to the literature as Asimov's I, Robot.  Difficult to understand at first, but engaging through the end, and a satisfying read overall.  Probably worth reading again to catch what I'm sure I missed.

At the moment, I'm in the middle of two books:  Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, and Walking my Dog, Jane by Ned Rozell.  (Huh, two Jane books, just noticed that.)  The first is a classic of English literature, and I find myself enjoying it more thoroughly than I expected at first.  The second is by a science journalist who lives in Fairbanks, who once stopped in to the visitor center and signed each copy of his book we had on our bookstore shelves.  The book is a chronicle of a walk he took with his dog along the entire Trans-Alaska Pipeline.  In it, he stops in Coldfoot and Wiseman, and records conversations with people known quite well to some of the visitor center staff.

I've had days where I've done almost nothing but read (Wildwood was read in the span of 24 hours), and there wasn't much else to do this past week, when smoke filled our little valley from distant wildfires for six straight days.  But yesterday and today we've had clear skies, and I'm quite glad for it.  Time to go outside!

Thanks for reading. (Hah!)