Tuesday, February 28, 2012

How High Can Snow be Thrown?

Things are getting stacked up at the garage

According to the calendar, we are exactly three weeks away from the first day of spring. Of course, that date only demarks the vernal equinox, where the earth’s axis tips enough to provide an even split between night and day. It has nothing to do with warmer temperatures, birds singing, trees budding or flowers blooming… damn the bad luck.

At our house the first day of spring means things should start melting for serious within a month. Truth be told, it couldn’t come soon enough. It’s not a matter of being tired of snow and cold, it’s a matter of practicality. Unlike most of the Lower 48, we’ve had more than the usual amount of snow.

Snowfall on the last three lines. Really? C'mon!

Speaking of which, allow me to digress from the subject for just a moment. I would like to take our local weather monitors to task. Like most local papers, ours provides weather data daily, a provided by some nameless entity at the local airport. According to the paper, those in the Kenai area had to clear 1.5 inches of snow from our drives yesterday, and we’ve had a total of 34.3 inches of snow for the season. I have to call, “Liar! Liar, pants on fire!” to both of those figures. The picture of our snowmachines with two days’ worth of snowfall shows how accurate those figures really are. I have a tip for whoever is reporting the snowfall figures: Take the snowfall measurements OUTSIDE.  (Thank you, readers, for your indulgence. I feel much better.)

Snowmachines in 1.5 inches of snow. Sure, right.

Don’t get me wrong, I like snow. A good snowfall makes our scraggly spruce trees look pretty. Snow makes the long nights brighter by reflecting the glow of the moon. Nothing is more striking than an expanse of snow glistening in pink from alpenglow. All that being said, however, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

We have reached a point of overload at our house. We’re running out of places to throw the stuff, particularly when clearing the back deck. What is most disturbing about the situation is that between the first day of spring and the middle of April, we usually get at least one serious dump of snow (serious being anything more than a foot in a day), and several lesser accumulations. The prospect of throwing what’s coming on top of what’s already stacked up is mind-boggling.

4-foot for sale sign in "34.3 inches" of snow

Ultimately, since we have no control over the weather, there are only two choices: one, rush down to the local Trustworthy Hardware store, where they have an ergonomic snow shovel/hernia truss combination on sale, or two, believe what the paper reports and wear snowshoes with my slippers when I let the dog out. Either way, when the melt starts, things are going to be wet.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Neotoma albigula

N. albigula, the pack rat (rodent version)

Neotoma albigula is also known as the white-throated woodrat, but is more commonly referred to as the pack rat. The pack rat designation stems from the rodent’s tendency to collect and store various items in its nest. Anything which might capture the rat’s fancy – from food to shiny items, useful or not – is likely to be found in the pack rat’s nest. The normal range for N. albigula is the arid Southwest. However, two confirmed sightings of pack rats have recently been made right here in Kenai, Alaska.

My wife and I are moving to a smaller home. We are packing. The process bears a remarkable similarity to rummaging through a giant pack rat midden.

Pack rat thought process: “Oh! Sparkly rock! Must have!”

Wife’s thought process: “Oh! Bright quilting fabric on sale! Must have!”

Author’s thought process: “Oh! Cheap, shiny, new brass for a caliber I don’t reload… yet. Must have!”

The only distinguishing difference between the rodent pack rat and its human counterparts is the question, “What was I thinking when I dragged this home?”  I’m sure the rat is smart enough to ask itself that question. In contrast, my wife and I come up with rationalizations.

The answer to, "Button, button who has the button?"
“Look what I found at the garage sale for only a quarter! I think they’re quite old.”

“Those are lovely buttons, Sweet Cheeks. That’s what, less than half a penny apiece? You smart shopper! What are you going to do with them?”

“I don’t know. I’ll hold onto them until the appropriate project comes along.”

Holding onto them means dropping them into a twelve-gallon plastic tub with the other eighty pounds of buttons that have been collected, or passed down through the generations to my wife. If ever an international tiddlywinks championship marathon is contemplated, I feel confident our home will be in the running for hosting the event. Although, to be fair, there are some very interesting buttons in the tub. I found a button from a Civil War uniform in there, once. Foolishly, I didn’t set it aside. It has never been seen again, having become lost in subsequent layers.

Ready for my brother-in-law
Hobbies seem to be the root of our excess… umm… crap, for want of a better word. There have been many spirited discussions revolving around the various collections associated with our respective avocations.

“Another fishing rod? How many does one guy need?”

“This one has a medium action tip, perfect for silver salmon fishing. Besides, I need backups.”

“Backups? For what?”

“For when your brother comes to visit. Remember the time he broke three poles in a week?”

“That was in 1996! He’s been here four times since, with no harm done.”

Exactly! The law of averages is catching up. I need to prepare. Besides, let’s talk potting soil. How many bags of potting soil does one gardener need?”

“Don’t start. Seedlings need a starter soil, the roses need a higher nitrogen, the bulbs need something acidic and I use the water retaining soil for pots that sit in the sun. You don’t use just one type of bullet for reloading, do you?”

“That’s different.”

Some things one simply can't part with
The biggest problem, however, stems from a common passion: books. Between the two of us we’ve managed to make the house look like a storage annex for the Library of Congress.  “Where are all these books going to fit?” has become a constantly muttered rhetorical question. In an effort to winnow them a little, we started asking two questions. The first, “Is the author dead?” eliminated quite a few, and the second, “Is it old and bound in leather?” also helped. Still, we have a collection of medical texts from the late 1800’s, the complete works of Shakespeare and innumerable volumes of obscure history books to deal with, just for starters. Oh, and bibles. Scads of bibles. Bibles by the score. Enough bibles to start a combination missionary outpost and seminary in Botswana. (Seems both sides of the family had preachers way back when.)

I'm beginning to figure out why Neotoma albigula normally lives its entire adult life in one location.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

A Cup of Coffee

The secret to getting through the long Alaskan winters is to find something which makes you happy, and then pursue it with unabashed fervor.    

This is exactly the approach my neighbor, "Blizzard Bob" (B.B.), takes.  B.B. embraces winter with an enthusiasm that could best be described as rabid.  The man aches for the first snow, and the opportunity to crank up his turbo-charged Belch-flame Spewmaster snowthrower.  He literally cheers when the borough snow plows leave chest high berms at the end of his drive.  His maniacal laugh echoes through the neighborhood when the dark of winter moves to a shade of blindness with a heavy snow.  He is the hairy legged Polly Anna of the frozen north. 

What could possibly cause any individual to express such glee in the face of such adversity?  Massive amounts of coffee, and the knowledge that in all probability, everyone is home with little or no chance of escape.

B.B. fancies himself as the Peninsula's own coffee gourmet extraordinaire.  There is not a single type of coffee bean available to the buying public that B.B. has not tried, and in most cases, made an attempt to improve upon by blending in some manner. 

This passion has its drawbacks.  Being a purist, B.B. won't deal with decaffeinated beans.  "You can't tell me that it tastes the same.  I don't care how they do it.  If you take the caffeine out of the bean you're gonna take the heart out of the blend."

Bob's wife has confided that at the peak of his experimental blends B.B. doesn't really sleep.  She says he simply passes out for brief periods of time every third or fourth day, twitching restlessly, depending on the strength of the blend he happens to be working on at the time.

Winter is the season of socialization for B.B., because he knows Alaskans are a lot like birds: we scatter to attend our own affairs during the summer, and group together to pass the winter in company.  Only, instead of a berry bush, we congregate around a coffee pot.  When the wind snaps like a whip against your face, and the scenery is a bleak, black and white abstract, quiet conversation steeped in the aroma of a freshly brewed pot of coffee warms the soul as much as the body.  That is, until the galloping grind gourmet shows up pounding on the door, like he did one unforgettable evening earlier this winter.

Worshiping at the coffee alter
THUMP!  THUMP!  "Hello?  It's me, Bob.  Hello?  C'mon guys,  I know you're in there.  I can see the car, I know you're home.  How 'bout a cup of coffee?"

Since the presence of the car was a dead give away, and the continued pounding would have only stopped conversation anyway, B.B. was admitted.  He whirled into the room like a hyper dust devil.  His hollow, sunken, bloodshot eyes were frozen open in testimony to his latest quest for the ultimate coffee bean blend.  He carried a little paper bag clutched tightly to his chest.  His nose wrinkled immediately upon smelling our fresh coffee. 

"Whew!  You boiling tar or what?  Oh no, just some of that canned coffee.  Well, have I got a treat for you!"

"Good to see you too B.B., want a cup of fresh coffee?"

"Don't mind if I do.  I'll brew it up right away.  Brought a new special blend with me just so you could try it out.  First I gotta wash the pot and the basket.  Can't leave any old oils to taint the flavor of this special blend.  Where's the dish soap?"

Turned loose with the dish soap, he scrubbed feverishly on the pot and basket to remove the last miniscule traces of any offending residue.  "Where's your distilled water?"

"Uh... I'm ashamed to admit I don't have any."

"Fine then," he was obviously put out, "but you should know that the coffee's only as good as the water it's made with.  My blend can't brew up to its full potential..."

"Well B.B., I don't want to hold back any potential here, maybe we ought to put this off until some other time when I've got the right water."

"No, no.  We'll make do for now, just so long as you know that what's good with this nasty ol' tap water would have been just this side of celestial with good water.  Just keep that in mind."

With the admonishment finished, he opened the little paper bag with trembling, caffeine generated excitement, and shakily measured exactly three scoops with his special brass "blend spoon" into the special unbleached, acid free filter he'd brought along.

"Say B.B., what're all those red and white specks in the grinds there?"

He just smiled slyly, "That's what makes it so special.  Just wait."

As all present waited for the water to drip and the blend to weave its magic, B.B. launched into his patented lecture on  different beans and what makes them flavorful, "...and with that in mind, I chose the French roast for exactly that lightly burned acrid touch, and the Columbian because of the more mellow aromatic quality.  Then, I stepped into realms of blending heretofore never explored... but wait!  Ahh... smell the essence of blending genius."

B.B. grabbed the carafe just as the coffee maker sputtered out its last gasp of steam, and quickly poured each person a cup of the new ambrosia.  "Quick, what do you think?  Nectar of the gods, or what?"

Tightly pursed lips on silent, tilted, squinty-eyed faces offered no response.  Finally, one taster after another swallowed hard.

B.B. listened intently to the first review, "Well... it's different... sorta salty..."

"Wait a minute," another taste tester interrupted, "what's wrong with your lips there?"

"Probably the same thing as yours.  Stick out your tongue.  Omigosh!  Are you bleeding?"

"No, if I was cut all that salt would sure tell me.  What gives B.B.?"

B.B. looked shocked, and stammered out that the red dye was from the secret ingredient.  "You have been treated to my special new blend: French-Columbian-Pistachio delight."          

"Pistachios?  The red stain is from Pistachios?  You used the SHELLS?!"

Obviously, something had gone amiss.  The taste test had serious side effects.  B.B. tried to explain, "I was up all last night perfecting it, didn't get it just so until after noon today... tasted so good, I brewed and drank everything I'd blended.   I knew you'd want to try this, so I made some more.  Problem is, by then I was shakin' so bad I couldn't hold on to the pistachios to shell 'em, so I just ground 'em up with the beans... I mean, what's the harm?  The shells stay in the filter.  Right?"

There was no chance to answer, as at that point B.B. took one of his impromptu naps.

I'm not sure what B.B. will do for company for the rest of this winter; we've all switched to tea.

Alaskan winters go smoother with good coffee
Shameless plug: If you enjoyed this post, let your friends know about it. If you didn’t, tell your in-laws. This story, and others by the author, are available in the e-book, Of Moose and Men: a skewed look at life in Alaska, available for 99 cents at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The second collection of Northland nonsense is scheduled to come out later this year.