Posts Tagged ‘Nenana Ice Classic’

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

April 28, 2010

Spring Update

Yesterday, driving down the road to the ridge, looking up at the hill ahead, I saw what I first took for snow in the trees–a hazy white area running along the side of the ridge, a softening in the dull brown of the bare branches there.  It took me a moment to realize that what I was looking at was a swath of willows growing on the side of the hill, their catkins fully bloomed from pussy willows to open thumb-sized “blossoms” of fluff and pollen.  As I drove, I noticed these patches all along the hills, and as I rounded the curve heading up the ridge, I saw the trees, their open tops hazy with fluff.  It’s not the flamboyant pinks or whites of cherry or apple blossoms; just a silvery fluff, but it will do.

And the mosquitoes are out in force, dotting Mattie and Sam’s faces, in spite of the repellent I wipe on them.  Again, this year I’ll look for a better solution for bugs, the down side of summer.

As of last night, the ice was getting punchy near the tripod in Nenana, with leads open by the river bank, but no news of the tripod moving yet.  We’re into the range of dates we picked for it to go out this year.  More on this in a later post.

School has two weeks to go.  Students and faculty alike are getting restless with our long warm spell.  My tomato seedlings wait by the window to be transplanted and to move to the greenhouse.   The horses are nearly done with shedding and are ready for something more interesting to do.

This Saturday, the Kentucky Derby, then my long-time friend Jean Anderson and I will give a reading at the Arts Association.  Somewhere in the mail, my new book from Salmon Press makes its way to me from Ireland.

There’s a lot happening–more than this, even–but for now, for the next couple of weeks, we move through the end of winter and all it means, ready to pop one day into green up, into summer, into the time that makes the Interior worth it all.

Poetry Challenge 45

April 23, 2010

Spring is silly season here in the Interior.   The snow is melting, but the ground is still frozen near enough to the surface that the grass is still brown and the leaves have not yet begun to bud.  Same news as last week, in fact.   We’re waiting for the ice to go out in Nenana, when those of us who’ve chosen the exact minute that the tripod moves and trips the clock in the watch house will be a little bit richer.   On campus, today was a holiday from classes.  Years ago, it was a clean up day, but now, it’s an occasion to drop watermelons from the eighth floor, to play mud volleyball, and generally indulge in foolishness.  We all need a break.

So how does spring–or it’s maddeningly slow approach–make you silly?  Or how does waiting for anything that takes time send you off in wild imaginary directions?   And, considering the tender feelings of those of us who haven’t yet seen green, no poems about flowers, please!

The Post of Don Sam Incognito

April 9, 2010

Sam hasn’t posted for a while.  He’s been busy this winter growing a magnificent coat of white fur, which he is now in the process of shedding out.  But now, he’s ready for an update.

Sam, in spite of being an Andalusian gentleman whose ancestors are from a much warmer climate than Interior Alaska, grows a coat that is nearly four inches long by the time shedding season comes in April.  All winter, he looks like he’s half polar bear, and as the sun returns to the corral, the longer outer hairs gleam so that he looks haloed in the morning sun.  Mattie’s hair is not nearly as long or thick, though she seems to grow more of an undercoat.  Now that they are shedding, the corral is littered with clumps of their hair, especially in spots where they are standing to be groomed.

Today, Trish, from our horse club came over to see Sam.  She is considering being one of two riders (besides me) to ride him in lessons and clinics this summer.  We have an ambitious schedule planned and now that the ice is nearly melted from the corral, we can start getting the horses fit in earnest.  We stood for nearly a half hour in the sun grooming out his shedding coat with the shedding blade—a metal strip with a serrated side that rakes the loose hairs from his coat.  We were nearly ankle deep in white hair when we were done.  We tacked Sam up in the longeing cavesson and surcingle and got him going in circles at the trot and a bit of canter.

All the clicker training I’ve done—however sporadically—has paid off, it seems.  He stands to be groomed now—not as much inching back to the end of the lead rope then “panicking” at the feel of the halter pulling on his head.  He stood still as we worked on him, dozing in the last sun of the day.  He was—well mostly—polite as Trish walked him then sent him out to the end of the longe line to work.  He seemed happy to be working and comfortable with what we were asking of him.

Afterward, we went to work with Mattie, too.  After the last incident I reported a few weeks ago, I’ve been working with her on moving her shoulders away from me, tapping on her shoulders till she takes a step sideways away from me, then rewarding her by letting off the pressure, then trying again.  The idea (which I found on a John Lyons trainer’s blog) is to teach her to move away from the whip so that, eventually, I can just point the tip of the whip at her shoulder or hip and she will move out to the end of the line, instead of turning to face me.  Things have been better with Mattie, too.

It’s gratifying to have new people come up and see Mattie and Sam, for it gives me a better perspective on how far we all have come.  I’m less timid about pushing the horses a little now—though I always watch Mattie carefully for signs that she feels threatened—and they know more of what I expect: good behavior.  In all, it makes for pleasanter times with them, and I think of the behaviors I’m trying to shape in them as horse survival skills.  Just like teaching Jeter, the poodle, to sit at the side of the road when he hears a car coming rather than revving up to chase it, teaching Mattie and Sam to be calm and responsive to humans could save their lives if they ever have to be cared for by some other humans less crazy about them than I am.

In the book Black Beauty, Anna Sewell writes that horses’ lives are a story of changing hands, going from person to person.  Unlike dogs, who often live with one person for their shorter lives, horses move from owner to owner throughout their sometimes forty-year lives.  Girls grow up and go to college and their beloved horses are sold to a new owner, or a divorce or illness happens and the owner can’t keep the horse, or a rider is in a long search for the right horse for the purpose and goes through several in the span of years.  Recently, the endurance horse, Elmer Bandit, a half-Arab flea-bitten gray (like Sam) died at 38 with his life-long owner at his side.  He has the record for the most lifetime miles in competition of any horse in that sport—and he competed in his last race this past fall.  He is the exception, to have lived so long with one owner.  I hope to counter this trend with Mattie and Sam—but want them to have reasonable manners just in case.  Besides, they both have psychological and behavioral baggage from their pasts; I want them to feel secure with me.

The corral is mostly down to dirt, now.  This weekend, if the temperatures go back above freezing, we’ll get a crew together and rake and scoop as much of the manure as we can off the packed and frozen sand below.  By next weekend—if it doesn’t snow or rain and freeze (knock on wood)—we could be getting out the saddles.  I have two more lessons on Stormy in the indoor arena, then Mattie and Sam get my full attention, with the help of Trish and Casey.

There are tiny tomato and cucumber plants under my shop light and in the window during the day.  I’m beginning to clear out the greenhouse to prepare it for this summer’s plants.  The ground is brown with dead grass and leaves; the trees are a web of bare twigs.  The Tanana below us is still white with a widening gray swath that shows where the ice is thinning, thawing, and refreezing.  Anything can happen—snow, forty below, a quick melt and breakup.  We’re holding our breath.  We have our Nenana Ice Classic tickets in the can.  One day we’ll see pale green like a haze in the hills.  Then, then, spring.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

May 7, 2009

Things That Go Fast

This past week, for one. Last Friday, after a dance class taught by my dancer son, Ira, we all sat out on the deck at the Pump House swatting early season mosquitoes and watching the Chena River rush past. There were small ice floes, some just flat sheets of ice, some upended pieces that had once been frozen to river mud, now showing the bottom, tinged with red-orange silt and cratered from air pockets trapped there. A few ice sheets had ice chunks sitting on top of them where they had split off of another ice sheet and been shoved one atop the other when the river ice upstream had broken up. The river had been nearly still just the day before, the water rising where it had backed up from ice jams down river.

“The ice must have gone out in Nenana,” I said. We watched branches and more ice chunks float by fast. Then, upstream, we noticed something black, triangular, bobbing at intervals, and moving more slowly than the rest. From time to time it would rise from the river as if to see where it was going, then sink back to a low profile. As it got closer, we could see that it was the corner of a flat object, possibly a shed roof, floating with the current but trailing some part that created drag—or maybe reached the river bottom—and caused the whole thing to lift up occasionally. We watched it for a long time, a slow, unseasonably warm evening beside a fast river.

When we got home, we discovered that the ice had gone out in Nenana at about that time, freeing the Tanana and its tributary, the Chena and flushing the Interior of ice, dead wood, shed roofs, and other detritus that had ended up near the riverbanks. It’s so unusual for the ice to go out at night that only two people had chosen that time and will split the pot. Other years, dozens of people have split the pot, so this was a good year for the winners.

And the next day, another fast thing, Mine That Bird, an unknown horse who came from the back of the pack where, it turns out, he was just cooling his heels, biding his time, waiting for the cue from jockey Calvin Borel to dash past all the tiring favorites and run away with the race. I watched the race on a grainy screen at the Exhibit Hall in the Center for the Arts where horse people were gathered for a tack swap. Next to me, a 10-year-old girl, who knew all the details of her favorite horse and several others and who sat riveted during the race.

Friends who ask me about my feelings about horse racing expect me to talk about abuse or illegal substances, but I’m a bit goofy about watching Thoroughbreds run. They are lean, fit, high-strung horses–teenagers, really–and they love to run. Young colts in the wild race and play together; horse racing takes advantage of this impulse. And horses are honest—to see them stretched out running so fast just because they can—it makes me smile. The Kentucky Derby is all about potential. These horses are growing so fast at three years old that they will be completely different horses in a couple weeks for the Preakness, and even more different—some of them even taller—by the time the Belmont Stakes rolls around. I like to watch them all. They send me back to Mattie and Sam, determined to work through our stuck places and get them and me fit for the riding season. They remind me that anything is possible and to enjoy the moments of summer (and winter, but that’s another subject) as fully as I possibly can. The excitement of the crowd reminds me that it’s time to crawl out of my winter hole and share these moments with my friends.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

April 29, 2009

Finally warm weather. The snow is mostly gone, though still piled in a ridge where it slid off the roof over the past month, and still spread in shady spots in the woods. The corral is now mostly wet sand, boggy in spots where water is still draining off the hillside above, and pocked with the holes Mattie and Sam’s hooves have made when it was softer. Today I examined what had looked like a big patch of unmelted snow and discovered it was Sam’s white winter coat spread out in a spot where he had been rolling.

The tomatoes are four inches high and in their flats in the greenhouse. Soon I’ll be transplanting them into larger pots, one stage away from their final pots–square kitty litter containers, good for saving space in a small greenhouse. I have lettuce in a pot for the deck and a pot of basil I couldn’t resist planting. The deck is warm, the sky is blue, the geese and cranes are staging for their last push north to the nesting grounds. Spring, really, finally.

For those of you who associate spring and flowers, however, spring here is a grimy pause before the bursting-forth of summer. The ground is still soggy, not quite melted below the surface. The trees are still mere sticks, except for the willow catkins or pussywillows, the first hint of what is to come. The roads are muddy and flooded in spots. Everything is brown and gray without the relief of snow. The migrating birds passing overhead: geese, cranes, swans, ducks-are what we have instead of daffodils and crocuses.

Downriver, the tripod still rests in ice, though there are leads in the river and the ice is too soft to walk out on now. If this warming trend holds till Saturday, the ice will go out in Nenana and someone will win a share in the Nenana Ice Classic.

This year, again, proves that there is no predicting spring here in the Interior. When we bought our Ice Classic tickets April 5, only three weeks ago, we were all complaining about what a cold spring it had been. It seemed foolish to predict breakup before May 1. Now, an early ticket just may be a winner. It could be going out now while I write this.

We’re all waiting. Once the ice is gone, our brief spring will start and go. In another week it will be early summer, with bluebells and wild roses, pasque flowers, robins and thrushes, and all the wonderful work of gardening, conditioning and riding horses, and sitting on the deck with friends into the long pale night.

Poetry Challenge 17

April 22, 2009

Now that spring is on its way here in the Interior, we’re watching for little changes that mean we’re really done with winter. Willow buds puff out into pussywillows; low spots in the road fill with water during the warm parts of the day; geese, cranes, and ducks flock in to feed and rest on Creamer’s Field, then straggle north to breed. The big, unmistakable change will be when the ice goes out on the river in Nenana and we learn who had the best guess–and a little more spending money for summer projects.

So write about the small changes that happen where you are that signify a larger change. It doesn’t have to be about spring, or not just about spring. Focus on the little things and let us read through to the big ones.

The View from Mattie’s Pillow

April 20, 2009

Spring progresses here. As I sit at the kitchen table writing this, the sun warms my back. Behind me, by the large window, are four flats of tomato plants in small yogurt cups. Again, this year, I couldn’t resist planting all the seeds in the packet–a small forest of tomatoes.

Yesterday, we spent two hours in the corral, scraping up the manure that fell between snowstorms this winter, now a brown stew on packed and melting ice. Both Mattie and Sam have snow on at least half of each of their sections of corral, packed and grainy. Sam paws at the snow till he’s loosened the surface, then lies down and rolls, flipping from one side to another in his glee at the motion. Mattie rolls, too, then stands, shakes out snow and her shedding hair, then bucks or canters toward the fence to nip at Sam, who nips back, crow hops, clatters the metal fence panels, then trots away. Mostly, though, they doze in the sun, as if saving up its warmth against next winter.

The corral looks like a frozen moonscape–the brown stuff emerging through packed ice. Here and there, sand shows through, saturated with melt water that has nowhere to go till the frozen ground beneath it melts and can drain. In the woods above our house, the ground is still thick with snow, though at the top of the cut bank behind the house, wet loess is emerging. Shasta daisies that I’ve planted there over the years emerge from the snow, leaves already green–I don’t know how–and ready to begin the season. It will be June before they flower, though.

This is breakup in Interior Alaska. The roads are slick with melting snowpack. Where there’s exposed road, puddles form and potholes deepen. The first of the local greenhouses have opened–warm with sun and furnace air, moist with blooming plants. We’re six weeks away from planting time.

The river is still frozen, but getting soft in spots. On our drive toward town, we can see the Tanana arching through its slow bends and oxbows as it heads toward Nenana. Even last week, we could see people walking dogs on its white surface or clustering around a few ice fishing holes. But gray patches are forming–slush ice–and by the end of the week, no one will be walking there as channels of open water carve through the ice.

In Nenana, the tripod, whose movement marks the final moment of breakup for us, is still firmly lodged in ice. After the river clears in Fairbanks and all that swift water, ice, driftwood, and anything else that got left on the ice this winter rushes down stream, it will raise the water level in Nenana where the Tanana joins the Nenana River just above the tripod site set up each year for the Nenana Ice Classic. Each year, the tripod is set up just out from the historic railroad station, a long wire strung from it to a clock by the bank.  The wire will trip the clock, stopping it the moment the tripod moves downstream. We buy tickets with the day, hour, and minute we predict the clock will stop–a 50/50 game, with half going to the village of Nenana and half divided between everyone who has a lucky guess.

But breakup is tricky. Some years a channel forms where the tripod is and moves it just enough to trip the clock, though the rest of the river is iced in. Or the opposite–the river will clear, but the tripod is stuck in the one patch of ice that doesn’t move. One year, the tripod tipped nearly far enough to trip the clock–but not quite–then rested in that position for days. But eventually it all washes downstream and we go about the business of summer.

Here’s the Ice Classic site:

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