Following A Trail Of Memories

People who know me well know that for the past couple of years, I’ve been digging into an old Alaska murder case. The murders themselves were terrible, particularly because they included the deaths of two small children (though honestly, is there ever a situation where murder isn’t just awful?).

The murders occurred in 1982 at the end of a busy salmon fishing season on board a gleaming new fishing boat, the F/V Investor in Craig on Prince of Wales Island. Eight people were murdered, including a family from Blaine, Wash. and their four teenage deckhands. Among those killed were the Coulthurst family, Mark, 28, his pregnant wife, Irene, and their two children Kimberly, 5, and John, 4, and crewmen Mike Stewart, 19, Chris Heyman, 18, Dean Moon, 19, and Jerome Keown, 19.

The timeline of events surrounding the murders is a little difficult to wade through because a lot of potential witnesses didn’t even really remember what they were up to during the days surrounding the murders — let alone what was going on around them. A lot of people were drunk, high, or other wise preoccupied with finishing up the end of the salmon seining season. Though weird stuff has been known to happen in some of our small Alaskan towns, mass murder wasn’t the kind of thing anyone would have ever imagined.

The Alaska State Troopers who investigated the case focused their investigation on Bellingham, Wash. resident and fisherman, John Kenneth Peel, framing the incident to the media as a tragic case of workplace rage that resulted from “an explosion of emotion.” Troopers believed that twenty-two-year old Peel had been angry with the skipper of the boat — a man who had also been a former boss — and had gone on a rampage, killing everyone on board before motoring the vessel into the harbor, setting it on fire to destroy evidence, and escaping by skiff.

Peel was arrested two years after the killings, but was acquitted by a jury in 1988 following two grand juries and two lengthy trials that cost the state an estimated $3 million. The lack of resolution in the case has haunted the memories of the victims’ friends and families, as they have been left wondering what frightening events befell their loved ones. 

These events have been on my mind a lot lately, in part because I have been hard at work work putting together a synopsis of the investigation and trials. The sheer complexity of the case is overwhelming and it is easy to feel sympathy for the detectives who were tasked with finding the killer more than 30 years ago.

It’s interesting to me because I’ve never thought of myself as a person drawn to the blood and gore of true crime thrillers. There was a time as a kid when I loved either Steven King horror movies (think Cujo and The Shining) or anything about the 16th century English King Henry VIII and knew exactly which one of his six wives he beheaded or divorced. But as I got older, none of that kind of stuff seemed so captivating anymore. I can’t stomach horror movies and I gloss over parts of books that describe the grisly detail of how some awful event went down. I’ve only ever seen the footage of the Twin Towers collapse by accident. I don’t even own a TV.

I became even more sensitive after I worked for a newspaper in northern California and covered a few murders, tragic accidental deaths, and even travelled overseas to witness human suffering of a different kind in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda. I once wrote a story about a brilliant Oscar-winning artist with mental illness who had committed suicide. Though not nearly as well known, it was a story not unlike what happened recently with Robin Williams’s own suicide. I was struck and saddened by the people who e-mailed or called and wanted to know how the man had taken his own life.

I hadn’t even asked, I told them.

I haven’t wanted to write too much publicly about the Investor case in large part because I didn’t want to succumb to the unnecessarily sensational. It has all the makings of a wild thriller movie and yet, there is nothing glorious or fantastic about what happened to those five men, one woman, and two young children. I’m still trying to figure out the best way to tell this important story. I’ve never been so vain to think that I could solve the case — or to find the missing puzzle pieces that eluded so many cops and attorneys. Obviously, there’s always the hope that by keeping a story alive, there is a chance that some new leaf will be turned over. I still have that hope and will continue to dig and see what gets uncovered.

As a writer, I’ve always known it was important to document events in our lives, especially as they are happening and when our memories are freshest. But when my own dad died at age 61 in 2009, I pretty much stopped writing altogether for a couple of years. During the week after his death, I tried without success to write about all that was going on around me. I tried to catalogue for memory’s sake the visitors, the conversations, the weird details that families go through during the days after a death. I knew I needed to remember these things. I knew I should write them down. Still, I couldn’t do it. I stubbornly refused to document what these weeks revealed, worried that somehow these final memories would overshadow all the other much warmer ones I held. I regret this now, but I understand.

I wish too that I had written more the past few years. Instead, I’ve done a whole lot of listening. And boy, do people have a lot to say. I worked for four years for Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Subsistence, traveling to villages, sitting at dozens of kitchen tables, and listening and learning from the Y-K Delta to the Beaufort Sea coast.

I have been trying to interview as many people as I can who remember the victims of the Investor, who remember the trials, the case, or that time in Alaska’s history.

All through this, I haven’t stopped thinking that the story of the eight who perished on the Investor 32 years ago continues to be important. The case is not resolved. There has been no closure for the communities, the families and friends of the victims, the fishermen and women of the Pacific Northwest. There has been no closure even for the numerous detectives, lawyers, and others who worked the case for years. I have heard frustration, sadness, anger, and bitterness in the voices of dozens of individuals.

My investigation thus far has revealed way more questions than answers. My efforts have been frustrated by distance, an overwhelming number of documents, confusing and contradictory story lines, and people who don’t want to trust me. But I am also slowly peeling back layers. I am finding some answers.

And I am continuing to believe that by keeping the story from being forgotten, one by one, my questions will be answered.

Portrait of Outhouse Life (disclaimer: nudity)

Portrait of Outhouse Life (disclaimer: nudity)

For five years now, I’ve lived without running water. It’s an interesting existence and not uncommon in Fairbanks, Alaska.

I haul water home in 5-gallon jugs. I collect rain water for my garden in the summer.

I heat water on my electric stove to wash my face or clean dishes.

I usually shower at the gym or the university or the laundromat or at a friend’s house, whichever seems more convenient.

It’s not necessarily an easy way to live, but there’s a simplicity in this kind of lifestyle.

And along the way, I’ve learned a few lessons:

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I appreciate more what I have than what I don’t have.

I’m less concerned about my looks.

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I know how to conserve. I live it every day.

I understand that some things, like washing dishes, just take time. I am patient.

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Sometimes it’s okay to use paper plates and paper coffee filters.

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Houses don’t need to be perfect to feel like home.

But sometimes a good cleaning makes everything seem brighter.

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Don’t neglect the small tasks in life, because they can catch up to you.

Always remember to check to see if the slop bucket needs to be emptied.

But if you forget, that’s okay. Messes can be cleaned up.

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Good friends don’t mind if I get naked at their homes. They understand.

Really good friends always have clean towels.

And body scrub.

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It’s okay to neglect yourself, but not others.

It’s time to go for a water run when the dog’s water dish is nearly empty.

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Warm water is cathartic and rejuvenating.

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Fancy things are really just fancy things.

You can’t put a price tag on the things that really matter.

Septic systems are expensive.

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Naked men make every experience better.

Naked women too.

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The dog will always want to go for another walk.

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s all finally about, and that’s what these clues help us to find within ourselves.”

- Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth (with Bill Moyers)

A shelter dog living the dream

A shelter dog living the dream

Anyone who knows me knows that (I think) I’ve got a very special dog. I’ve written about her some, but not too much. I think it’s about time I told her story. I adopted Sadie when she was just three months old. She’s almost 10 years old now, so we’ve been together for a long time.

When I adopted her, I was living in Nevada City, working as a reporter at the local daily newspaper, The Union. I wanted a dog in the same way that some people seem to want babies. The craving came out of the blue and I took it as a symbol of the inevitability of settling down (boy was I wrong).

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I decided I wanted a boxer. I have no idea why. Boxers seemed like a friendly breed with a sense of humor — and I liked the idea of a dog without too much hair. I scoured www.petfinder.com on a daily basis, keeping my eyes out for a boxer puppy.

On one bright day in August, there was a posting describing three boxer/blue heeler mix puppies. Was this my beast, I thought to myself? I drove  to the Nevada County Animal Shelter during my lunch break to become acquainted with the three pups. Sadie was among them — the only girl — and she went by the name Cheyenne.

In truth, I didn’t pay much attention to her; I was more drawn to her  brothers. One was brindle like her, the other had the fantastically exotic markings of a red heeler. They were bouncy and friendly, Sadie was a bit more reserved. I took her brothers out to play in the yard of the shelter. I was trying to choose one, hanging out to see if I’d bond with one over the other. Sadie was still inside, alone in her kennel.

Yes, I will admit it, Sadie wasn’t my first pick. It wasn’t love at first sight. But as it so happens every once in a while, she chose me.

Here’s how it happened:

I eventually brought the two boy pups back to the kennel and when I did, I opened the gate and walked inside, shutting it behind me before removing their leashes so they wouldn’t escape. Puppy love was everywhere, fur jumping up and down, kissing my face… I had to kneel down to remove the leashes and was swatting away ears and puppy teeth and everything else, it was like a mosh pit.

Suddenly, I looked down to see that the small girl dog had, ever so gently and politely, placed her head in my lap.

“Hi,” she said.

And with that, it was settled. She would be mine.

“I wanted a girl dog anyway,” I reasoned.

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The funny thing is, now nine and a half years later, I am still trying to figure out life, but Sadie seems to know what’s up all the time. Sometimes I find this a little annoying, but then I remember that I’m 35 and she’s almost 70 (in dog years anyway). She’s had a remarkable life for a dog.

Here are some of her achievements (and she’s not done yet!):

  • She has lived in Colorado, California, Alaska (and kindof Washington).
  • She has spent a total of about two weeks on Alaska Marine Highway ferries, but her tickets have only cost me a total of about $100.
  • She has travelled roughly 100,000 miles in a truck (this figure is based on the fact that I bought my Toyota Tacoma approximately 3 months before she was adopted and for the most part, she’s almost always my co-pilot).
  • She once sat upright and facing backwards the entire 300+ miles through Nevada.

Sadie

  • On multiple occasions, she has taken a dump outside when the temperatures were 45 degrees below zero.
  • She has an unusual reaction to the word, “cow,” because of a particular incident with a herd of cattle (we don’t talk about that incident).
  • She has lived about 3 months out of every year with other people.
  • She has spent about 3 nights of her life in a kennel. She was petrified, but not as badly as when….
  • … she went to jail on two separate occasions after run-ins with Animal Control.

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  • Sadie and her friend were once regulars at the Rendezvous Bar in downtown Juneau.
  • Sadie once took a crap in front of my former boss’s office — while he was watching her.
  • Sadie once got kicked out of doggy day care for playing too rough with her best friend.
  • She has accompanied me on several interviews during my investigation of an old unsolved murder.

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  • Sadie doesn’t care too much about playing fetch, but she likes to chase stuff. Fetch is a goofy game anyway.
  • She knows how to skijor, but pursues that hobby on her own time with her other friends.
  • She is commonly mistaken for being a wild animal.

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  • She tried to beat up a cop in Utah (she thought he was threatening me), but I held her back.
  • She’s been in two serious fights that landed her in the hospital with stitches.
  • She once leapt six feet off a deck and raced 50 feet across a yard to jump into a dog fight just for the thrill of the action.
  • She has been bear baiting and caribou hunting.
  • The only animal she has ever killed was a vole and it was an accident.
  • I’ve seen her get chased by a bird, a rabbit, a cat, a moose, and a bear.
  • When she got chased by a bear, she ran back toward me, turned around 20 feet from me, and stood her ground.
  • For the first 3 years of her life, whenever she saw another dog, she hid behind my legs.
  • One of her best friends, Ladakh, taught her not to be afraidof dogs anymore. Sadie taught Ladakh not to be afraid of people.

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  • When my niece, Zizi, was a newborn, Sadie never left her side — except when Zizi cried and Sadie would hide in the bathroom.
  • When my niece Sophie was a baby, Sadie slept outside the door of the room where Sophie took a nap.
  • When I once moved across town, Sadie travelled all the way back to our old house (bringing a friend with her). It was a distance of about 7 miles.

And one of my favorites:

  • Unbeknownst  to me, for a while Sadie would accompany an old man with a cane on his daily walks. I saw her with him once and he told me that she always kept him company for about a block of his walk. He said it was the best part of his day.

But my absolute favorite:

  • Her favorite phrase is: “good morning,” which Sadie translates roughly as “I’m going to rub your belly.”

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The Search for the Perfect Alaska Town

The Search for the Perfect Alaska Town

Sometimes I get angry with Fairbanks. It’s cold here. And dark. And people can be super mean and annoyingly grumpy (because it’s cold and dark).

I have escaped from here more often than most people seem to be able to do. My job the past four years has taken me on interesting trips around the state and I’ve met quirky Alaskans doing their quirky stuff. I’ve been able to go visit my sister in Brazil, travel back to Colorado and Nebraska, get hot and tanned in Hawaii, and other trips. And frankly, it’s always been nice to come back home to Fairbanks.

But I’ve  decided to leave Fairbanks, though I can’t quite reconcile leaving Alaska. No, I don’t think I’m drawing out an inevitable break-up, just trying to find my own way in my relationship with this state.

That leaves me in a bit of a pickle. Where should I make my next home in Alaska?

I think in my dream world, I’d be only a part-time Alaskan. Sure, that’s what a lot of people want, but I’d prefer to get out of this state for at least the ugliest months: October, November, December, and January. Once February hits, the sun is back and the snow is glorious and the dog races all over rural Alaska make everything feel alive. But those other months, they could disappear into a dark vortex for all I care.

So let’s see, here are some of my options for a life in Alaska outside Fairbanks:

1. Well, there’s always Anchorage. It’s the state’s biggest city of course and everybody loves to hate on Anchorage because of that. I’m somewhat inclined to agree (for bandwagon mentality sake) and I think we all know that there is some jealousy stuff going on when it comes to this anti-Anchorage mentality. I mean, Anchorage is the cheapest place to live in the state, it has the least expensive transportation, and has access to the most job opportunities. It’s also nestled in a pretty beautiful location on the top of Cook Inlet and surrounded by insane (yes insane) mountains. But the problem is, my heart doesn’t yearn for Anchorage. At the end of the day, it’s just another mid-size suburban city with a conservative politics problem.

2. So maybe Homer? Sure, Homer is a whole lot more liberal than it’s big sister, Anchorage, but it’s so damn far away from anything. I’ve been to Homer twice and was smitten by it’s special fisherman/artsy aura both times. But it’s a lifestyle town, I think… meaning the kind of town you live in and love because it’s got the lifestyle that you want. That’s cool and all, but I’d really prefer to avoid a 5-hour drive or expensive flight every time I wanted to go on vacation or visit my sister and her small children in Colorado.

3. Okay, so maybe Juneau. I have to confess, I love Juneau. I love Juneau so much sometimes I just wish I could move back there and buy a little house on the hill in downtown Douglas and spend every day walking Sadie at Sandy Beach and every night at the Island Pub eating pizza and drinking Blue Moon beer. But I have a small problem: I promised myself that I wouldn’t move back to Juneau without a boat. If I live in a town surrounded by water and mountains, I must have an escape option. And since I don’t trust myself flying a small plane, a boat it will have to be. The other problem is that I don’t like the idea of moving somewhere twice. I already lived in Juneau (even if it was only for a year) and there is a part of me that would like a new adventure.

4. What about Haines? I think a lot about Haines. It’s the prettiest little pocket of a town you can imagine, with mountains that exist only in dreams and access both the Alaska Highway and the channels of the Alexander Archipelago. By boat, it’s just a few short hours from Juneau. By road, it’s not too far at all from Whitehorse (the lovely and country cosmopolitan capital of the Yukon). It’s also got a fisherman/artsy vibe…and yet there are some hearty adventurers and independent types that dwell here. This feels like an option, but yet… it’s so little! While I would like to live there and know that Heather Lende would know my name, I wonder if right now I might be happier with a few more peeps around.

5. Well, Sitka is bigger? Yes, Sitka has also stolen my heart every time I’ve been lucky enough to visit (which is not often enough). This town is the kind of town that you want to live in when you get married and have a half dozen babies. You know they will all grow up to be whip smart adventurers with quirky hobbies and a real independent streak. This feels like a great place to settle down, but I’d also be worried that every time I flew out, I’d be on weather hold for half my trip.

6. Okay, so let’s get back to the main chunk of Alaska: Palmer? I could buy land here, you know, I could really spread myself out. I could build a yurt and a tool shed and a wall tent for guests. I could plant a garden and raise a dozen chickens, maybe a hog or two every so often (I’ve always wanted to learn to butcher a pig). And yet, I would still be a short drive to the Anchorage International Airport in case I wanted to get out of town for a little while or go to Nordstroms to buy a lingerie set, which I may want/need in the evenings after I get cleaned up after my day of wrestling with chickens and pigs in my backyard. The drawback? I’d live in the country. I hate to drive.

Well… the list could go on. Maybe I will add to it as I continue to consider my options. As you can see, I am looking south and east, but that could be because I am enticed by warmer temperatures and that whole boat lifestyle world. Speaking of boats, maybe that’s  what I should do – make a home on a boat and become a dweller of the high seas.

What would you chose?

For now and the next few months, however, I still get to soak up the good things about living in Fairbanks. Like this photo of the northern lights taken the other day by Sebastian Saarlos:

Aurora Borealis - Feb. 18 - Saarloos

Caption from the Newsminer:
“Purple Aurora” — I’ve been photographing aurora for 3 years and last night was the first time I was able to capture purple. Sebastian Saarloos, Delta Junction

Hello Darkness My Old Friend

Hello Darkness My Old Friend

The winter sun is lazy in Fairbanks. Today it won’t rise until 10:51 a.m. and will go back to bed at 2:40 p.m. When it is up this time of year, it barely makes it’s presence known. The sky is shrouded in a cool light; shadows are long, but usually friendly.

Hello friend.

There is a peculiar romance that Fairbanksans have with Sun. We are heavily affected by both it’s absence and presence. In summer, we are frenetic and impatient and full-of-so-much-life. It’s breathless, like new love. We do things like forget to sleep, forget to shower, forget to eat. We are bathed in a constant stream of attention and frankly, it’s exhausting.

In winter, we move slow, drink bloody Mary’s at the Oasis, and go to great lengths to spend time with Sun. We even buy fake Suns (HappyLight), which is maybe kindof like a vibrator for daylight. But it’s G-rated enough that many people at my office have them at work. And dog-friendly!

Sadie and the Happy Light.

When Sun returns in spring, we rejoice by finding all the time in the world to go frolic in the snow before Sun can warm up enough to melt it all. As for me, I’m a Big Fan of Sun so this winter, I plan to chase it south. I head to Colorado and Nebraska tomorrow morning to do some basking… and spend a little time with this guy.

The man who has never seen a tree

“The large baobab tree has fallen, but its roots will nourish the soil forever.”

- ANC about the passing of Nelson Mandela.

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I found this beautiful photo of a baobab tree in my dad’s photo files from my parent’s trip to Tanzania in 2008 (he had set a goal of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro for his 60th birthday).

Baobab trees are one of my favorite trees: casual and fierce, whimsical and grounded. When I visited the village of Point Hope in October, I met a 28-year-old man who had never before seen a tree. There are no trees near Point Hope other than willows (and those don’t really count, he told me) and he had never travelled any further south or anywhere there wasn’t rolling tundra and wide open ocean. He said someday, he would like to see a tree.

And now, while the world is remembering Nelson Mandela and mourning the loss of a man who became a symbol of hope and change, it seems appropriate to dedicate this baobab tree to his memory… and to the wish of seeing a tree!

A vision of an ideal place

I’m a book collector. Okay there, I said it. If I wasn’t such a wanderer at heart, I’d be a book pack rat so my wandering ways are probably a good thing for keeping my possessions at a minimum. Now that I’ve lived in one city for multiple years, I’ve had the chance to indulge a little on my book fetish. Here’s my reading space with a partial view of my collection:

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I have to confess that recently I’ve been a convert to the Kindle (ack!). I still read the paper versions of books when I can, but the Kindle has been helpful for me in airports and while traveling for work. I always have so much gear, paperwork, and extra food that the idea of packing so much punch (i.e. reading goodness) into a Kindle has always been enticing. And then I splurged and bought one and realized that my vision has gone from bad to worse and since I can make the words bigger than on a normal page, reading is easier. That concept really sold me and I found that I’ve read twice as much with my Kindle simply because it’s easier. I guess both my wandering ways and my poor vision will conspire to make sure I don’t turn into a pack rat.

But what’s on my shelves you ask (virtual and real)? Good question.

I’ve got a few that I’m reading, but there is one in particular that I just can’t seem to get over. Cheryl Strayed seems to think the same way about this book, or really, she thinks this way about anything this author writes because she wrote the forward and it reads like a love letter: “When we find each other we say, Oh my god, don’t you just LOVE HIM? And we do. We love Poe Ballantine.”

Yes, yes we do.

I’m nearly finished with Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere and have read several short stories from Things I Like About America. I adore Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere for its writing and find it interesting to read about a familiar place from a perspective of someone who happened to find it during his travels (and made it home).

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Ballantine writes about his life and also about the mysterious death of a local college professor, Stefen Haataja, whose body was found burned and bound in a ditch near where my uncle farms. My mother is a bit more skeptical (since it’s about the country she came from), but she may give it a try.

Chapter 1 starts with the following paragraph:

I first came across Chadron, Nebraska, by accident, in 1994. I had borrowed a car, thrown all my meager belongings in the back, and driven west, the direction of escape after disaster, the direction of decline and the setting sun. I intended to kill myself. The farther you go west, the higher the suicide rate gets, and I thought perhaps that would give me the momentum I needed. In America we remake ourselves, though it rarely works out.

It’s interesting to me how Ballantine stumbled upon a place like Chadron and came to call it home. It’s a similar journey many people probably take – wander around until life happens and you decide it’s easier to stick around than leave. But I can’t say whether this happened for him or not. I first got introduced to his writing because I learned that a documentary had been made about his efforts at unraveling the mystery of Haataja’s death. Curious, I sought out his collection of short stories and was hooked on his prose.

In the story, “Never and Nowhere,” he writes about searching for a certain kind of place:

…I head west on the bus with nine hundred eighty-four dollars and some roast beef sandwiches and some bananas and a bag of trail mix and the usual doubt and the usual set of diminishing expectations. For twenty years I’ve had a vision of the ideal place. I’ve tried to explain the place but I can’t. It is something like nowhere but not a ghost town. It is alive. It is not the vision of a televangelist: Leave It to Beaver with a cop on every corner. Neither is it some apparition of the future: twenty-four hour abortion and free milkshakes for the poor. It’s a place just as free as New York City, but there are no hookers circling my motel room like tranquil sharks in their tan leather jackets and parasols, and it’s quite possible I can’t buy liquor on Sundays. Nobody seems to understand this place. I know it exists.

This story was written about a time before he found himself in Chadron. It makes me wonder if he would think Chadron is that place he was looking for during his wandering years. I’d guess so.

There is something special about that part of the country. Few people travel there and the few who do never really get to see the back country highways or experience the friendliness of a place that doesn’t understand the word pretentious. There is a still beauty in western Nebraska that I think perhaps people who live on Alaska’s North Slope understand best. The tundra often has reminded me of the great plains with its expansive sky, rolling landscape, and a sortof feeling of endlessness that you get when you gaze out on it all. Here is a view from just outside Kaktovik, a pretty little village on an island in the Arctic Ocean:

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The beach in Kaktovik

City dwellers don’t get this, but that’s okay. That’s why books are so great, they provide a portal into worlds that you’ll never really understand. Good thing I’ve collected so many of them!

Five (or Six) Great Things About Alaska

“Stories are data with a soul and no methodology knows that more than grounded theory. The mandate of grounded theory is to develop theories based on people’s lived experiences rather than proving or disproving existing theories.”

- Brene Brown

The building blocks of our lives are the experiences we have – whether we choose those experiences or not. I moved to Alaska in September 2006, which seems like a super long time ago in some ways – and a blink of an eye in others. It’s my opinion that every once and a while, it’s valuable to sit back and browse through your experiences and pick the ones that feel like keepers and worth telling other people about.

It’s hard for me to pick my favorite Alaska experiences, but here are 5 worth sharing:

1. Watching the Iditarod: In one year, I had the luck of being able to watch the ceremonial start in Anchorage (including photographing a wedding on the start line), the real start in Willow, and the race finish in Nome. I write about this trip here, here, and here.

2. Fishing for salmon in Bristol Bay on a gillnet boat.

3. The chance to take my parents to Pack Creek on Admiralty Island to watch brown bears.

4. Traveling by small plane throughout the bush and visiting villages all throughout the north and western part of the state.

5. Floating the Yukon River near Koyukuk on a cool August night.

I could list many more, but for now, I’m pretty pleased to have these sweet memories tucked away.

Oh… and how could I forget this one? A visit from my big sister and favorite nephew and berry picking at Skiland. Make that 6 great memories from my time so far in Alaska:

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Two of my favorite people in the whole wide world.

Mississippi Milk

Mississippi Milk

In September, I had the good fortune to be able to go from the far north to the deep south where I participated in a workshop learning to make a documentary film. It was a great experience and I would do it again in a heartbeat. Thanks Barefoot Workshops.

We went from idea to filming to editing to screening our short film and in the process, I got a chance to remember what it felt like to collaborate with others on a creative endeavor. At the job I work at now, there is a fair amount of collaboration, but we have a different end goal and the whole process feels a little different. The creative process is so unique and I’ve missed it!

The topic we chose for our film was the efforts of a small family dairy business in Oxford, Mississippi (home of John Grisham) to get fresh milk from his cows to the surrounding community. In the process, we got to spend time with the Brown Family (of Brown Family Dairy) and their fleet of cows. I’ve been on farms before (with my mother’s roots in Nebraska’s panhandle, how could I not?), but the Brown Family Dairy had something pretty special going on.

Billy Ray and Paula work together as a team, share a particular vision (though they articulate it in different ways), and as a result, they produce a product that is flying off the shelves and out of Billy Ray’s milk truck each Saturday at the Hernando Farmers’ Market. In a lot of ways, the film captures a relatively simple operation: hard work, constant chores, endless early mornings, and happy customers. But while we were filming, it soon became clear that part of the reason that Billy Ray’s business has been so successful is because of his passion.

We actually talked a lot about this in the editing room… how do you capture passion on film? How do you capture passion in a life? How do you make a choice to live a particular way that is different from the way you grew up… and then excel in that pursuit? I think for a lot of people, that’s why Billy Ray’s story was so wonderful. He didn’t grow up a farmer, but somewhere along the way, he developed a passion for cows. He tried a bunch of other things, but always dabbled in cows until one day when he was working at the City of Oxford he told his wife Paula that he just couldn’t do it anymore. She supported him resigning (though later she admitted that she was surprised he did it so fast!) and the two of them jumped head first into the dairy business. Paula’s a guru at marketing milk and her family’s dairy and getting people to visit the farm and feel like they are part of the process. Maybe it’s a bit of southern hospitality, but I also just think it’s Paula’s special genius at making people feel at home. Together, Paula and Billy Ray have created a beautiful thing.

Go ahead, watch it for yourself:

And join the conversation about Mississippi Milk on Facebook!

End of the Year – End of an Era

Life

My blog has been neglected, but I don’t mind. I have taken a break from this kind of writing and am just now beginning to feel the urge to stretch my fingers once again. Why? Who knows.

Maybe because I told my job recently that I would be resigning at the end of January. Maybe not. I have loved that job and that job has been good to me. There are good people at that job and interesting and important work, but I needed a little bit of time to stretch my legs and explore a little bit more and I couldn’t seem to find the time to do that properly while working there. I also broke up with my boyfriend in a fit of realizing what’s good for me – and apparently that spilled over into other parts of my life. I’m not complaining.

So there it is. The year 2014 will mark the end of my work as a government employee. No more State of Alaska Division of Subsistence work, no more harvest surveys and technical reports. I have some pretty exciting plans up my sleeve, but no need to reveal them all at the moment. For now, I am just hoping to do a good job wrapping up a few of the projects I have on my plate, enjoy a Christmas in Nebraska with my 101 year old grandpa, and then…

Change is good. And new possibilities await.

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