Rewiring

Thursday, May 18, 2017. It’s 3:35 pm and I am sitting on my twin-size bed in A-Dorm, trying to spend my afternoon off wisely. I already took an hour-long nap. I have been on St. Paul Island for eight days now, and might be out of the first impressions zone… and have entered the circuitry-meltdown zone. Busily rewiring all the connections in my brain, hoping I don’t blow any fuses.

At the beginning of every new job, there is an awkward period when everything is unfamiliar and strange, nothing routine. Gear, clothing, and equipment fit uncomfortably. Actions feel clumsy and uncoordinated. There is no muscle memory yet, and every simple task requires attention and thought. I haven’t figured out yet which items need to go in the backpack for the day’s work, and which pocket each thing fits into best. Where are my house keys? What am I forgetting to bring when I leave in the morning?

Because I will be driving people around to various sites on the island, I have to learn my way around. This week I’ve gotten the lay of the land, all the roads, the place names of hills and lakes, ponds and melt-pools, points and cliffs and shorelines. Where to park, how to approach a certain vantage point, how to walk around wetland edges and sidehill cuts and quarries. Which way is the wind blowing? What is that smaller island called? Is the tide coming in or going out?

There have been a lot of new birds for me. Life birds. Bar-tailed Godwit, Tundra “Bewick’s” Swan, Northern Wheatear, Pacific Golden-Plover, Least Auklet, Parakeet Auklet, Red-legged Kittiwake, King Eider, Common Pochard, Lapland Longspur in breeding plumage, Gray-Crowned Rosy-Finch, Rock Sandpiper (Pribilof subspecies). I’ve learned how to tell the difference between a Eurasian Green-Winged Teal and an American Green-Winged Teal, and if they’ve interbred the offspring is called an intergrade, not a hybrid, because it was two subspecies who crossed, not two species who crossed. What bird species are common here? Which ones are just passing through? Which ones are incredibly unusual and worthy of sending out a rare bird alert?

My eyes are burning, tired. So much wind, sunlight filtered through fog, mist, and salt spray. Constantly focused concentration. Yesterday I worked on the computer for two hours and was out driving and birding for nine.

I get a smart phone with the job – my first smart phone ever – so have had to learn how to use that. I’m required to submit a daily birds checklist on eBird, so have to learn how to use eBird, both as a smartphone app and on my laptop. My photos weren’t turning out very well due to the low light conditions, so Cameron showed me how to reset the ISO and also how to set it to AV, “Aperture Servo,” which means that you can choose your aperture and the camera compensates by picking a shutter speed that will work. At least I think that’s what it means! My very nice Canon EOS Rebel T6 camera is so different than my Canon PowerShot, and also different than my Canon AE1 ever was, so even though I’ve done photography since high school, I have to learn the whole new system.

There are five different tour vehicles; of course, each one is different and has quirks. A Toyota SUV with 208,000 miles on it, windows that don’t roll down, doors and locks that hardly open from all the years of volcanic grit and wind trying to rip the doors off the hinges. Two white vans, one a Chevy and one a GMC, fairly straightforward since I’m familiar with those models. The Mercedes-Benz Freightliner Sprinter van stumps me, though. It’s only a year old but already has idiosyncrasies of its own, some caused by this harsh environment, but some engineered in. First and foremost, all the symbols on the dash board are European, and I have no idea what they mean. I had to download the manual to find out how to unlock the doors. And where is the cup holder? And where is the gas cap, for the love of pete? (Because I didn’t have the manual handy, I had to resort to watching a YouTube tutorial on the hotel computer.) The final monster in the fleet is a massive 22-passenger International diesel tour bus, complete with semi-truck giant steering wheel, tour guide microphone, and mirror to keep an eye on the kids. Each of these five vehicles was manufactured by a different company, so even the most basic stuff – where are the lights, windshield wipers, washer fluid, door locks, window openers, gear shift, parking brake – is different on each one and has to be learned.

I’ve met at least twenty people: Barbara, Dennis, Mercy, Jiggs, Samantha, Jason, Thomas, Grace, Cameron, Virgil, Nat, Joe, Gavin, Xavier, John, Neon, Sonny, Charles, Tia, Fabius… I write down all their names and try to remember where each person works, what they do, and match names with faces. In a small community like this, it’s helpful to match people with their vehicles, too, so you know who you’re waving at when you pass them on the roads.

Yes, the people of St. Paul Island do the wave. At least some things are familiar and don’t have to be learned.

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First Impressions of St. Paul Island

May 11, 2017

I’m sitting next to Barbara on the plane. She’s an Aleut elder, grew up on St. Paul Island, and is returning home from Anchorage. She crosses herself before take-off, and again before landing, and points out that one of our fellow passengers is Father John, the priest from the island’s Russian Orthodox church. I’m not sure if I should feel reassured or concerned by all the praying, but decide to go with the former.

A tiny gap opens up through the fog, enough for the pilot to land, apparently, and for a moment I see white-capped water from the plane window. Turbulence makes the plane shake and shudder. The edge of the island is clad in winter-brown grass. Sand dunes remind me of the Great Lakes shoreline, but there are no trees. We touch down. Everyone sighs with relief, and jokes around with the flight attendant and pilot as we leave the plane. As we shuffle down the narrow isle, Barbara tells me that she lives in the senior housing up on the hill, and says, “So, now you have a friend on the island!”

I follow the crowd through a warehouse/garage/storage area with a mothballed firetruck and other equipment inside, and down several hallways to a receiving area and gift shop. Big smiles and handshakes from my new co-workers, Dennis and Barbara (not the same Barbara as my friend from the plane). Everyone is friendly and welcoming. Barbara has a facial tattoo, a line of wave-like shapes across her cheekbones. I see in her face the strength and endurance of generations of Aleut people. People of Sea. People who survive.

Dennis drives me to town, on the dusty main road. In the lee of a building, a little clump of Sitka spruce trees hunker down; they are about three feet tall, and look more like a single juniper shrub than trees. “That’s the St. Paul National Forest!” Dennis jokes. Beyond the buildings, we see the reindeer herd, way back against the hills. Tawny brown to match the dried grasses, with dark velvet antlers, and small calves chocolate brown, they blend into their surroundings surprisingly well. Dennis stops the truck so I can take a look. “You might not see them again for the rest of the year,” he tells me.

Town is dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church up on the hill, and the Trident fish processing plant down by the waterfront. The first has a golden onion-dome on the steeple; the second has four smokestacks. This is an island town, a couple of hundred miles from the nearest land, out in the middle of the Bering Sea. It’s village Alaska. It’s bush Alaska. At first glance, it’s rough around the edges. Rust, broken window panes, piles of stuff – sheet metal, buckets, shingles, plywood, lumber, metal drums, crates, tires – scattered everywhere. Plastic trash (packing material, shrink wrap from palletized cargo, junk food wrappers) blows in the wind, and gets wrapped around satellite dish supports. You can tell how hard and which way the wind is blowing because of the trash. I remind myself that it’s early spring, the “snow on the north side/trash in the yard” time of year. And with no trees, everything is visible. What you see is what you get. There’s nowhere to hide.

I haven’t been here for twenty-four hours yet, and have heard about how the kids will go inside any unlocked space, will take stuff, will vandalize things. How anything that isn’t locked down will walk away. There’s a padlock on the fridge in the tourist hotel; otherwise the islanders come in the back door and help themselves to the beer and wine. There is a safe house in town for women to get away from abusive men. I’ve heard two stories about recent suicides.

And this place has a history of slavery. The island was uninhabited until the Aleut people were brought here by the Russians to harvest fur seals. When they purchased the Alaska Territory from Russia in 1867, the US government then took over the seal industry, and kept the Aleuts enslaved. Kids were sent away to boarding school, not allowed to speak their native language. Everyone was forcibly evacuated during World War II – “twenty-four hours’ notice, only allowed to take one bag,” Dennis tells me – and sent to an internment camp in Southeast Alaska. People died. During this time, some of the island men enlisted in the US Army and were off fighting for America, while other US military men occupied the island. When the islanders returned from the war and from the internment, their houses had been trashed by the military. It’s a dark past, a vicious history, and an enduring legacy of injustice.

And yet, the strength of these people, and of the land itself, shines through. I see it in Barbara’s beautiful tattooed face. I see it in the Church, glowing up there on the hill. I see it in the agile, joyful kids playing basketball across the street from my house. I see it in the hunter who walks along the top of the cliffs. I don’t know what he’s after, but the community’s subsistence foods include sea birds, sea lion, seal, halibut, and reindeer. Life is persistent. Against the wind and the surf, only the strong survive.

And the birds? So far, I have caught glimpses from afar, without my binoculars, on the drive into town. Shorebirds and a few gulls in the lagoon. Grey-crowned Rosy-finches right outside the dorm where I will be living. Auklets and snow buntings. But I have been busy unpacking, getting settled, trying to process all this. I feel a bit like a fraud. If I was a real birder, a real guide, the first thing I would have done is get my ass out there to see what there is to be seen. After I go to the store and have lunch and unpack a bit more, that’s what I’ll do.

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A Summer on the Bering Sea

The packing is done, the plane and hotel reservations have been made, and now I just have 24 hours to simmer in my stew of excitement and nervousness until it’s time to take off. Where to, this time? I feel like there should be a drum roll, after a four-month-long emotional roller coaster ride also known as The 2017 Job Search. But, without further ado: I will be spending the summer in the Pribilof archipelago, on the Bering Sea.

Unless you count open oceans as places, as many of my sailor and fisherman friends do, these islands are way out in the middle of nowhere. This five-island archipelago is made up of two larger, inhabited islands (St. Paul and St. George) and three smaller, uninhabited islands (St. John, St. Ringo, and St. Pete.)

No, not really. Just checking to see if you are paying attention. St. Paul and St. George were named for Russian Orthodox saints, not Beatles. And the three smaller islands aren’t named after Beatles, either, but after rock-star animals: Sea Lion Rock, Walrus Island, and Otter Island. I’ll be stationed on St. Paul, and may not get a chance to visit any of the others, although I will certainly take the opportunity if it arises.

For the first time in my life, I am going to work as a full-time tour guide. The Tanadgusix Corporation (TDX) owns and operates the St. Paul Island Tour company for whom I will work. TDX is an Alaska Native tribal corporation, created in 1971 under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. Even though the Pribilofs are part of the state of Alaska, and thereby included in the United States of America, the Aleut (Unangax) people will be my boss. I bet it’s going to feel like a different country.

IMG_2147

The Pribilofs. If you’ve never heard of them, you probably aren’t a birder. Hyperbolic phrases such as “Galapagos of the North” and “Mecca of Birding” come up if you do a quick internet search. The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, which includes all kinds of accidentals, rarities, and vagrants that might be seen anywhere on the continent, lists 990 species. For St. Paul Island, a checklist generated by eBird shows a whopping 302 species. Birds that you might normally only find in Asia, the Arctic, on a pelagic cruise, or in the far west Aleutian Islands – the Pribs have ‘em all. Human visitors to the islands, unlike the avian kind, travel there with focused intention. They pray for bad weather, hoping the wind will carry in rare birds.

I will be taking groups of people out to explore the island, driving them around in a little bus and stopping along the way to set up a spotting scope. We will go out after breakfast, after lunch, and after dinner. The days will be long, and the season lasts until mid-October, so I reckon my life list will be pretty well-padded by the time I come home.

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Birding Florida’s Nature Coast

There is no hard edge to the west coast of Florida. The land is a freshwater sponge of limestone, fed by rain and percolating springs. The water is an intricate filigree of creeks, threading their way through the salt marsh. Islands dot the horizon, big sky above. Where one element begins and the other ends is open to interpretation, weather, and tide. Wings and webbed feet come in handy.

“Florida? So many people! Why would you want to go there?” someone asked me here in Alaska, before I took off to visit my parents last month. I want to go there because that’s where my family lives. Not just the snowbirds, but extended year-round family: aunts, uncles, cousins — and in the old days, grandparents. Like most of the Lower 48, Florida has lots of people, traffic, and sprawling development. But I’ve been fortunate, during visits over the years, to explore some of the out-of-the-way places along Florida’s “Nature Coast” – north of Tampa, on the Gulf side – and have grown to love it: the salt marsh, spring-fed rivers, and hardwood hammocks. And eastward, to the interior, there are open pasture lands, sandhill country, and long-leaf pine forests.

FtIsTrail

Salt marsh along Fort Island Trail. At low tide, wading birds abound along the muddy edges.

GulfatFtIs

Calm day on the Gulf, at Fort Island. A Common Loon and a Horned Grebe were out there.

Oak

Open pasture land, lots of cattle, and Cattle Egrets, too.

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Dawn in Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat, at the Withlacoochee State Forest’s Citrus Tract. Florida Scrub Jay, Carolina Chickadee, and Pine Warbler may also be around.

These natural features and varied habitats are protected by a mosaic of public land: national wildlife refuges; water management lands; and Florida state forests, parks, and wildlife management areas. The name “Nature Coast” was originally a marketing campaign that re-branded Florida’s Big Bend, eight counties along the Gulf coast. (I’d guess that they didn’t want to be confused with Texas’s Big Bend.) My travels have primarily been in just two of those counties, Citrus and Hernando, and only in the winter months.

NatureCoastMap

From north to south, four spring-fed rivers flow west to the Gulf: Crystal River, Homosassa River, Chassahowitzka River, and Weeki Wachee River. Each of them can be explored by charter boat, kayak, or canoe. Only a few roads, constructed from island to island and linked by causeways, extend like fingers out to points on the Gulf. These are: Fort Island Trail/44, Ozello Trail/494, and Cortez Road to Pine Island and Bayport.

The Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail is an excellent resource that offers maps and links to eBird, including site profiles and checklists. Highlights on the trail are marked with eye-catching logos signs showing a Swallow-tailed Kite. Speaking of which, one of my 2017 Florida life birds was the Swallow-tailed Kite. We saw nine of them during my 10-day visit.

Kite

Swallow-tailed Kite, one of four kite species found in Florida. They catch dragonflies, and pluck lizards from tree-tops.

At the beginning of each Florida trip, when my folks pick me up from the airport, riding back to their place I always feel a bit giddy – not only with jet lag and the excitement of seeing them again, but also: Driving with the windows open! Palm and pine trees! The color green! And the birds! Great Egrets in roadside ponds, kettles of Black and Turkey Vultures circling overhead, Cattle Egrets in the fields, Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks, Osprey nests on practically every utility tower. It’s a mix of the familiar eastern birds from my days in Massachusetts and Michigan, and southern specialties, like Wood Stork and Anhinga.

My mom and dad’s residential neighborhood is actually a pretty good place to see and hear birds, too. In February, it seems like there’s an Eastern Bluebird on every house and light post. In March, Northern Mockingbirds sing constantly. If I were in better birding-by-ear shape, their “mockery” would be a good clue as to the other species in the area. A flock of thirteen White Ibises graze the neighbors’ yards, and Northern Cardinals, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Sandhill Cranes, and Northern Flickers are there, too. It can be quite satisfying (especially at the beginning of a visit) to just sit on the porch, enjoy the warm air and sun on my glaringly white northern skin, watch, and listen.

RBWPfemale

Female Red-bellied Woodpecker.

WhiteIbis

Juvenile White Ibis.

But soon adventure calls, or we at least decide to go out to dinner. Most waterside restaurants have Common and Boat-tailed Grackles looking for a handout, and often a Great Blue Heron begging for deep-fried shrimp. Unfortunately, people often comply. After dinner, on a drive out to Bayport to watch the sunset, we are rewarded with a Great Blue in its more natural state.

Heron

Great Blue Heron, sunset, Bayport.

 

If you want to see shorebirds or terns on a beach, Fort Island and Pine Island are just about the only spots in these two counties that offer this kind of habitat. In February 2016, a windy, cold, and rainy time, I saw dozens of Royal Terns and Black Skimmers, and an American Oystercatcher, taking shelter on the beach at Fort Island. At Pine Island, I had Spotted Sandpiper, Greater Yellowlegs, Willet, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Short-billed Dowitcher, and Least Sandpiper. But during my March 2017 visit, it was hot and the Gulf was flat as a mirror. The beaches were packed with human beach walkers and waders, and I didn’t see a single shorebird or tern. As a birder, sometimes you pray for bad weather.

skimmers

Black Skimmers and Royal Terns at Fort Island on a windy and cold February day.

RoyalTerns

Royal Terns.

Interior lakes, ponds, and springs offer the chance to see ducks, coots, and gallinules. A visit to Lake Dora in Tavares (not shown on the map above), made me aware that breeding season is in full swing by early March.

WoodDuck2

Wood Duck mama and ducklings. A sleepy alligator waited nearby.

CommonMoorhen

Common Moorhen on Lake Dora.

Wading birds seem to be the dependable standby on all my visits to the Nature Coast, no matter the weather. In both February and March, I’ve seen Great Blue Heron, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Great Egret, and Snowy Egret. A river trip is an especially good way to get up close, without disturbing these birds.

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If you have a partner who is willing to paddle, the forward seat in a tandem kayak makes for a stable photography platform. As seen here on the Chassahowitzka River.

TricoloredHeron

Tricolored Heron.

LittleBlue

Little Blue Heron.

YCNH

Yellow-crowned Night-herons.

Although both Hernando County and Citrus County have active Audubon clubs with field trips and indoor meetings, I have yet to connect with either of them. Hernando Audubon Society has a checklist that’s been handy over the years. Maybe on some future visit I’ll meet some other birders, and enjoy having a local expert show me around.

In the meantime, I’m getting my folks used to looking at birds. On my last day of this recent visit, my dad and I were swimming in the recreation center pool. “Hey, what’s that bird over there?” he asked.

PrairieWarbler

Prairie Warbler.

LaughingGull

Laughing Gull.

 

 

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View From the Slough

Rock

Harbor, rock, home

EaglesBridge

High tide view through Dancing Eagles’ bridge, to the harbor

ShackHood

My neighborhood today

JakesMummas

Boardwalk house, Seldovia Rowing Club

bridge

Slough Bridge, looking upstream

Boatshed

Boat shed

airport

This is the airport!

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The Chaz

The sign says “Redneck Yacht Club,” so I know we aren’t in exactly the right place, but I can’t resist going inside to check out the scene. Three sun-weathered men are gathered around a table, drinking coffee and admiring a glossy 8 ½ by 11 photo of a boat filled with redfish, drum, and trout.

“I think you could adjust the color in Photoshop, so your shirt doesn’t look so red,” says one, “Otherwise, that sure is a nice photo.”

“Excuse me,” I interrupt, “could you tell me where Kayak Carla is?”

“She’s over there, along the fence,” they point over my shoulder, through a maze of ramshackle buildings, boats, and trucks. Black vultures hang around the parking lot and boat ramp like gulls, waiting for an errant pile of fish guts. Spanish moss and live oak trees soften the cluttered scene, and provide shade from the Florida sun. Surprisingly, I feel very much at home in this alien setting. Boats and birds, fish and fishermen…. No matter the latitude, it feels familiar.

How did I end up here? Ten days ago, I was chatting with my mom and asked her what she wanted for her birthday. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said, “I don’t really need anything.” “Well, is there anything you want?” She didn’t hesitate: “I just want to see my kids.” We proceeded to have the usual conversation about how it’d be nice to be rich and have lots of money for travel, and too bad we weren’t, and what a bummer that is. As soon as I got off the phone, I searched for plane tickets and found one that wasn’t too outrageous. Two days later I flew from my home in Alaska to my parents’ winter digs in Florida.

And now here we are, Mom, Dad, and I wearing bathing suits and sun hats, about to embark for an all-day paddling trip on the Chassahowitzka River. Pronounced something like “Chaz-a-wit-ska,” the name comes from the Seminole Indians and means “place of hanging pumpkins.” I imagine a lush natural garden, with food-bearing vines climbing the bald cypress trees. Paradise. The locals nowadays call it The Chaz-a-Whisky, or simply, The Chaz.

We do an about-face from the Redneck Yacht Club and walk across the yard toward a big pile of kayaks. Kayak Carla sees us coming, and climbs out of her Mazda Miata as we approach. I like her immediately, and figure she’s a kindred soul. This appears to be a one-woman outfit.  She sets us up with boats and life jackets. Mom and Dad share a tandem kayak, while I have my own sit-on-top single. Carla gives us a photocopied map of the river and tells us where we might find the resident manatee, Rachel. The names on the map make me want to explore for more than just one day: Salt Creek, Blue Spring, and The Crack. We slap at no-see-ums, stow our picnic lunches, and launch our boats from the strip of artificial turf on the boat ramp next to the Yacht Club.

Our first stop, only a few minutes from the launch site, is the Seven Sisters Spring. Pure water flows up through limestone, glowing pale turquoise blue in the morning sunlight. Seven holes connect through a network of underwater tunnels, beckoning to free-divers who hold their breath and try to swim from one to another. A warning sign, nailed high up to the trunk of a palm tree, tells the tale of a beloved family member who was lost in the tunnels and didn’t make it out in time. None of us feels any desire to try swimming in the underworld; in fact, I get spooked just looking at the openings, beautiful as they are. We paddle on downstream.

The main Chassahowitzka Spring, not far from Seven Sisters, is about 15 feet deep, has a sandy bottom, and is the perfect swimming hole. The Chaz is a first magnitude karst spring. This means that fresh water flows out of it at a rate of over 100 cubic feet per second, through limestone formed of ancient fossilized sea creatures. Florida has over seven hundred springs, but just thirty-three of them qualify as first magnitude. The water is a steady 72 degrees year-round and bubbles up like a cauldron. I can’t resist taking a dip, and have my folks hold my boat while I slide into the water. The spring water feels soft and clean on my skin. It’s like bathing in the clear life-blood, the birth-waters, of the earth.

We check out the Snapper Hole, looking for Rachel the manatee, but she isn’t there. The tide is going out and will be low at about 2 pm. Although the difference between high and low tides is only about six inches, low water could affect our ability to visit some islands and coves. The water may be too shallow on our way back this afternoon, so we skip The Crack and Blue Spring, and paddle toward the Gulf of Mexico.

Among the islands, we paddle quietly and slowly. A bevy of young river otters frolics in the water, until the mama otter chirps to call the pups back to the safety of their holt. Two yellow-crowned night-herons stalk along the shore; I watch while one of them does a slow-motion butt-waggle before plunging its bill into the water for a fish. Belted kingfishers chatter and chase each other. A wake of vultures is gathered on a bank, eating something dead. (We don’t take a closer look to see what it is). Butter-colored butterflies float on the light breeze. Wildflowers, white and yellow, bloom among the palm trees.

Rejoining the main stem of the river, we reach a waterside village of sorts: about twenty houses on stilts are perched along the edge where the river transitions from forest to salt marsh. If I had to live in Florida, it would probably be in a place like this. Accessible only by boat, vulnerable to hurricanes and no-name storms, where I could fish from my front porch and throw out a blue crab trap or two. I’d watch from my hammock while manatees and gators swim by, osprey plunge-dive for fish, and common yellowthroats sing in the bush.

We are paddling along when an exhalation of breath draws our attention. One manatee, then another, and another, rise to the surface all around us. We sit in our boats, and in awe, watch as half a dozen of these calm creatures swim under us. The water is turbid where they stir up the bottom while feeding. I watch while a smaller-sized manatee puts its face to another’s “armpit” behind the flipper, and realize I’m watching while a calf nurses. Almost all of the manatees have scars on their backs, where power boats have hit them, cutting the sensitive skin with their props.

One manatee surfaces next to my parents’ tandem kayak. It raises its face toward my mother. Then it moves over and looks at my dad. They make eye contact. The manatee submerges again, and disappears. My parents and I look at each other with wonder, and smile.

NOTES

Latitude: 28°42’ N

The pH of the Chaz’s spring water is 7.57, just a tiny bit more alkaline than the liquid that pumps through the human heart.

High tide was at 6 am and measured 0.5 feet; low tide was at 2 pm and measured 0.0 feet.

Manatee viewing guidelines

7Sisters

One of the Seven Sisters.

SwimminHole

My swimmin’ hole: The Chaz of First Magnitude.

YCNH

Yellow-crowned night-herons.

DreamHouse

Dream house.

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Liminal

A colorless dawn wakes me from a nondescript dream. It is not yet full day, but no longer night. The sun is somewhere above the horizon, but is obscured behind the mountains. A pale, waning moon hangs in the west. No clouds mark the air. The sky is a blank slate, waiting for something, anything, to be written upon it.

It’s been this way for a month now.

Limbo. Stasis. A holding pattern. All different ways of saying the same thing: It’s a period of inactivity, a time of no progress or change. The liminal zone, a state between sleep and wakefulness. The transition place.

In a personal sense, one reason I’m in this place is because I don’t know yet what I’ll be doing or where I’ll be this summer. I am waiting to hear from four possible employers about field work jobs for which I’ve applied. One is for the National Park Service, one for the U.S. Forest Service, one for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, and one for a private tour company. Any of these jobs would take me away from home for the summer; any of them would require me to pack up and move to a new place for a few months, see a new scene, be a stranger in town, and learn a new set of birds, plants, and surroundings. It’s an opportunity for transformation, as it is every year. There is a freedom in it, and yet it’s possible to be trapped by the cycle of repetitive, serial nomadism, for you are always the outsider.

I have turned in several job applications for local work, too, as well as the usual part time gigs that could fill in the gaps, if I chose to juggle work and be more of a free-lancer. This year could be the year I end up staying in town for the summer, for the first time since 2013. But summer is my opportunity to earn the money that gets me through the winter, so I must choose carefully. Can I make enough if I stay home? What would it be like to be more involved in this community, to be here for the summer beach potlucks, to listen to the local string band playing tunes next to the harbor, to attend the weddings and wakes and camping trips I always miss because I’m away exploring?

Maybe no-one will want to hire me. Maybe everyone will want to hire me. There’s no way to know at this point – just the waiting.

It’s more than the job uncertainty that has me squarely settled in the liminal zone. Although we are gaining a few minutes of daylength every day, the difference is nearly imperceptible. The weather has been unchanging: cold and sunny. A solid snowpack is on the ground, two or even five feet deep in some places, hardened and glazed from the sun. We are stuck somewhere between winter and spring.

The seed catalog beckons to me from the dream-garden, but why would I order seeds if I won’t be here this summer?

I tell myself to just enjoy the stability and calm. Find peace in this place where you can rest, before you step over the threshold into the unknown. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but I am practicing. I am trying hard to embrace it. After all, I intentionally made this space, thinking it would be a time for creative pursuits. Turns out that it can be a challenge to find inspiration when there is no action, no change. It’s difficult to be productive from within a state of dormancy. I feel like a hibernating bear. And what is a hibernating bear doing, this time of year? Dreaming about waking up?

Monday, March 20 at 2:28 AM (Alaska time) is the Vernal Equinox. We will tip over the line, into days longer than nights. Maybe something will happen then.

Déjà vu.

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