Even as I look forward to long summer days, picking berries, fishing, reading a book on my deck or dozing to the rush of Eagle River, I am, deep down, a winter gal.

Besides the basic comforts that winter offers (no bugs, no yard to upkeep, no need to paint my toes), I love how the world slows down beneath a coat of snow. Plus, I would much rather be cold, than hot.

April is a tough month for me, because I race against the receding snow to squeeze in some last minute winter sports.

Last weekend, we drove down to Alyeska so Kyra could finally take snowboarding lessons.  As soon as she learned how to walk, every time we shopped at Target, she would pick out a skateboard and throw it into my cart. When we finally did get her a skateboard, at two and a half, she threw tricks that mom and dad never taught her and slept with it at night.  When she was three, we enrolled her in ski lessons at Alyeska, since they don’t offer snowboarding lessons until a child turns five.  Boy was she frustrated.  She would stand on my board and pretend that it was hers.

Kyra skateboarding at age 3

We knew that snowboarding blood ran thick in Kyra.  By the end of her one-hour lesson, she was edging, skating, even doing tail grabs with ease.  I raced up and down the slope snapping photos of my daughter.  My heart was laced both with pride and also anxiety that she was growing up so fast.

Through my lens, I captured the grace of her body gliding against the blinding snow.  Her baby cheeks stretched by the wind and the most insane smile I’ve ever seen.

Kyra snowboards at age 5

What took us off guard was Ethan’s determination to do everything that his sister could.  He was too young for ski lessons so we hoped to entertain him with a sled or snow angels.  But as soon as my friend lent me ski and snowboard gear for Kyra, Thomas and I knew Ethan would not be satisfied unless he was on the slopes too.

In our living room, the boy insisted on tromping around the house in snowboard or ski boots that were in Kyra’s size. He figured out the snowboard bindings and strapped himself in and then shifted his weight back and forth until he was sliding across our wood floor.

That day at Alyeska, he skied for the first time.  With eyebrows furrowed, he would swipe away our hands trying to steady him and say, “No, I do myself.”  Then, he would shoot straight down the slope with no expression on his face at all.  During Kyra’s one-hour lesson, the boy zipped up the magic carpet and down the slope a zillion times without falling.  We were shocked.

Ethan snowboards at age 2

By the end of that hour, he was crouching down to increase his speed. I don’t remember the last time I had that kind of no fear, just-do-it attitude about life.  It made me wonder when we all lose that courage and belief that we could do anything.

A few days later and before I returned the snowboard gear to my friend, I took pity on Ethan and let him try riding in our backyard.  As I predicted, he had the same grouchy I- can-do-this attitude.

I would set him up at the top of a slope and hold him place with my left foot, while I manipulated the camera in my right hand.  “Don’t step on me!” he would whine, trying to shove me away.

When I finally moved my foot, he would hammer his way down as fast as he could and throw in some jumps to increase his speed.  He never cared where he headed.  Sometimes, he even reverted (switched riding from fakie to forward while the board is still touching the ground) without any hesitation.

And if the board slowed to a stop, he would bend down and pick up some snow and throw it in the air.  Or maybe, he’d throw in an abstract dance.  The boy was completely absorbed in the present moment.  He didn’t worry about where the board would take him next or the bad fall he had on Kyra’s skateboard months ago.

I am grateful that kids remind us that it is our fears and worries about the future or past that cause us to trip or stumble.  The point of power is in the present moment.  This is what I admired in Ethan, completely stoked, flying down the slope until he ran out of snow.


Dandelion Killer

When my daughter was two, she hunted for dandelions in our yard.  The bright yellow flowers delighted her and she would grab handfuls of them for me and insist that I place them in vases throughout the house.

At the end of a dandelion’s flowering days, Kyra played a mischievous game, where she raced to blow apart the seed-bearing parachutes before mom and dad could catch her.

“No,” I would yell from the porch.  “Daddy will be mad, Kyra.”

She would collapse into giggles as the wind picked up the parachutes and transformed them into dandelion snow.  Then, she would leap into the sky, hands grasping for the wispy seeds that danced above her long black hair.

I think when I was her age, I loved dandelions too.  My mother had plenty of photos of me blowing apart a dandelion clock.  But somehow, thirty years later, I had joined ranks with the dandelion killers.

Maybe, I even helped my husband buy weed killers and tools like the Dandelion Digger, the Weed Hound, or the Dandelion Terminator that would pluck them out at the roots.

Recently, during my interviews of local healers in the area for a forthcoming First Alaskans article, I learned that dandelions are edible, a nutritious source of calcium, iron, and vitamins A, B, and C.  The flowers thrown into a bath helps relieve muscle tension.  The roots made into decoctions and tinctures can lower cholesterol and high blood pressure, a condition that affects many in my family.

Kyra sticks a dandelion into the camera

How had I missed such a vital piece of information?  Were dandelions prolific in my garden because we needed their medicinal properties?  Had we poisoned the store right outside our doorstep?

What bothered me most was whether I was a hypocrite.  Subsistence and wildcrafting are traditions I encourage and try to practice in an urban environment, but clearly, I had a lot to learn.

My friend, Christina Salmon-Wassillie, who lives in Igiugig with her husband and three young kids, tells me that without subsistence her community will lose “just about everything we stand for.  If the world were to completely crumble tomorrow, we would be ok.  We have fresh water, fresh fish, animals and berries out our backdoor.  We can live without electricity, gas or propane.  We know how to take care of one another.  We know how to share and be supportive.”

With natural disasters like Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami in mind, I worry that none of us knows how to survive without electricity, technology, and other modern conveniences.

As summer approaches, I am eager to encourage my children to explore what’s outside our doorstep.  Here’s what I plan to do:

  1. Hike with guidebooks like Janice Schofield’s Alaska’s Wild Plants: A Guide to Alaska’s Edible Harvest or Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s Traditional Food Guide for Alaska Native Cancer Survivors.
  2. Harvest plants with someone who knows what they’re doing.  Observe how they harvest, prepare, and store the plants and what they use them for.
  3. Consult with sources like the Alaska Community Action on Toxics to make sure we aren’t harvesting in areas that are polluted or sprayed.
  4. Teach my children to respect others by being nice to plants.
  5. Show them how to give freely and tell them stories about how when you give, it always comes back.  If we go berry picking, I will instruct them to take only what they need.  If they catch their first fish, they must give all of it away to an Elder or someone in need.

What do you teach your children about plants and animals in the Anchorage area?

Making Art with Nature

The first thing my East Coast friends notice about my Alaskan born kids is that they love being outdoors, doesn’t matter if it’s snowing or raining.  Ethan specializes in sinking his feet into the nastiest mud puddle he can find.  Kyra collects rocks, sticks, sometimes logs.  The size and weight don’t bother her at all.  Both of them seem to have a homing device for the deepest snowdrift or steepest berm, anything really that could trap, trip, or bruise them.

As long as they are dressed in the proper gear, I encourage their curiosity about nature.  And since they are also descendants of a long line of artists on my mother’s side, I’m always looking for outdoor art projects that offer a teachable moment in their favorite playground.

Back in December, the kids and I made ice ornaments in memory of my Grandmother and mother who passed away (see my blog post “Holiday Cuing.”  We hung them up on our porch rail, watched them sparkle in the setting sun for about five minutes before we had to leave for the airport.  When we returned two weeks later, before we even made it up the driveway, Kyra said, “Oh no, somebody took our ice ornaments.”

Ice Ornaments

The ribbons that held the ornaments in place were still intact. We jumped out of the car and stepped on a scattering of rocks, twigs, magnetic letters, toys, and other items the kids had froze in the ornaments.

Before tears could spill down their cheeks, I explained to them that the ice ornaments simply melted.  While we were out of town, the temperatures must have risen high enough to melt the ornaments.  The kids asked a lot of questions and I got a chance to get them interested in melting points, solid and liquid states.

With spring on its way, we spent a sunny Saturday making cheerio pipe cleaner bird feeders.  Mainly, I wanted Ethan to work on his eye hand coordination, while Kyra role-played as teacher.  They both finished two feeders each and then ran out onto our deck to tie them on the same ribbons we used for the ice ornaments.

Cheerio Birdfeeders

Day after day, they studied the feeders and worried about why the birds weren’t hungry.  Then one afternoon when Ethan patrolled the living room in his Cozy Coupe while I wrote in my study, he yelled, “Bird, Bird, Bird!”

Running down the hall to the living room, I heard Ethan say, “He’s eating my cheerios!”

Stringing a Cheerio birdfeeder

“Yeah, it worked!” I said, cheering for Ethan, until I peered out the window and saw a huge squirrel freeze with guilt on his way down the porch railing, pipe cleaner and cheerios hanging out of his mouth.

That day, when Dad came home from work, Ethan, who had never seen a squirrel before it ate his cheerios, kept pointing at birds in the sky and saying, “That’s a bird, not a squirrel!”

I’m looking forward to trying out some new outdoor art projects.  Here are two, courtesy of Disney’s FamilyFun Spring Crafts :

Painting in the Rain

Materials: Cardstock and Washable markers.

  1. Draw on card stock with washable markers, then place the papers outdoors in the rain until the colors have run.
  2. Bring the paintings back inside and put them on a flat surface to dry.


Nature Print

Materials: Fresh flowers and leaves, unbleached muslin cloth, paper bags, hammer.

  1. Cover a smooth, hard surface with paper bags and spread out the fabric. Arrange a leaf and flower design on one half of the fabric, then fold the other half over the design.
  2. Feel where the outlines of the leaves or flowers lie. Using a hammer, pound on top of the leaves or flowers, being sure to go all the way to the edges. When the color has bled through the fabric, open it up and scrape off the plant residue. You’ll have a mirror image of the leaves and flowers.


Hike, not Mush

On Tuesday’s show, The Part-time Single Parent, Amanda, Brooke, and Scott highlighted some of the positive aspects of being a part-time single parent.  That got me thinking about how time away from each other can be healthy.

Take this past weekend.  Thomas wanted to ref a Taekwondo tournament.  I couldn’t pass up a rare invitation to dog mush in a remote area of Trapper Creek.

In the past seven years living in Alaska, I’ve always chosen to put aside my wild impulses and wait for my man to take the kids and me on outdoor adventures.  But that weekend was the last chance this season to take up Hal and Nancy Morgan’s generous offer and Kyra’s favorite subject in school was Balto, so I decided to swallow my fears and propose that I take the kids by myself.  Thomas grudgingly agreed to let us go after I told him my friend, Erica, was coming along. And because I do have a tendency to fall asleep when I drive long distances, he also negotiated that I stay a night in Talkeetna.

While Thomas got to do something he loved and get a break from the family, I drove up the George Parks Highway (for the first time) without falling asleep!  In the backseat, Kyra giggled over her new favorite app, “Tiny Wings,” on my old iPhone and Ethan happily entertained himself with his Leap Frog LeapSter Handheld Game Console.  I made it to Talkeetna in an hour and a half without a potty break or a tantrum.

From Talkeetna to the Morgan’s, Erica held onto my iPhone in case we needed help, as I drove less than ten miles per hour down the same icy road which crashed my truck against hers last month.  I gripped the steering wheel tight and ignored Kyra’s repeated question, “Are we there yet?”

An hour of intense driving finally brought us to a haven of log cabins hidden deep in the woods beside a frozen Kroto Creek.  The Morgan’s are an energetic retired military family, who claim that they “have no idea what they are doing.”  But when I took a good look around their home, I gained tremendous respect for what it takes to live off the grid.  They pump water from the well located a few feet away from the main cabin. Chop wood.  Feed and care for twelve outdoor huskies and four more indoor dogs. Potty in an outhouse, something I didn’t think would work too well for toddlers. And serve as local EMT.

The sun glittered off a traffic jam of snowmachines and sleds cluttered about the front of the main cabin.  Huskies chained to handmade dog shelters lined each side of a wide trail which connected all the cabins.  Kyra and Ethan immediately ran down this trail and into smaller passages carved into the deep snow. I could only the see the tips of Ethan’s dragon hat bouncing up and down as he ran away from me.

The dogs entertained the kids for four hours or maybe it was the other way around.  Kyra and Ethan hardly paid any attention to me.  It was awesome!  In the distance, I watched the kids help Hal harness four dogs and hook them up to a sled. When they lost interest, they crawled in and out of the dog shelters while the dogs watched them nervously.

Kyra and Ethan mushing

Hal’s wife decided that it was too dangerous to let the kids mush so she encouraged Erica and I to give it a try.

“Uh, I have no idea what to do,” I said.

“Hike to go. Haw to turn left. Gee to turn right. Whoa to stop,” Hal said.

I stepped gingerly onto the runners and gripped the handlebar with my left hand.  Reaching down with my right hand, I lifted the snow hook. The hook was barely loose when the sled took off.

Wind chafed my cheeks as the dogs picked up speed.  Every bump, every rut, felt like it could knock me to the ground.  I tried to relax and read the contour of the frozen earth. Suddenly, one of the dogs tripped and rolled off the trail, tumbling the rest of the team.  Somehow, they got back on their feet and kept running as if nothing happened.  I love that thrill of not knowing what’s going to happen next.

We broke out of the woods and onto a frozen lake. I was on center stage, like I had finally arrived at the performance of my lifetime. The dogs panted hard. They barked.  The ice scraped below.  But inside, all was strangely quiet. I couldn’t hear my heart, my mind churning cautions, nothing. Just peace.


When we got back to the Morgan’s, Kyra said to me, “Mommee, next time take me.”

She then climbed onto the runners and demanded that somebody be her “dog.”  Ethan was more than happy to oblige. He got down on all fours with his butt facing the sled’s brush bow and started yelping like a puppy.  Everybody started to laugh.

Eventually, a friend of the Morgan’s, a high school hockey player named Kris, took pity on the kids and agreed to be their lead dog.  He taught them all the mushing commands and pulled them around for an hour it seemed.

That night on the way to Talkeetna, before the kids passed out, Kyra said, “Mommee, can you remind me to tell my teachers that ‘mush’ is not the right word.”

Ethan chimed in, “Yeah, it’s ‘hike’.”