Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Amiga, My Friend

1993 was a very bad year for me. On New Year's Eve, I entered 1993 sitting in the emergency room waiting for my mother to be admitted to the hospital. She had Alzheimers and had been complaining of chest pains, then denying them. As the hours passed, my nerves were taunt, held together simply by the sheer fact that I knew I had to keep it together. She'd almost burned the house down only days before by sitting a bag in the oven, something I found just as the bag began to smolder. My father was in ill health, too, and frequently the target of her Alzheimers driven moods. At that point, I was feeling trapped, as if there was no way out.

Finally, after literally pitching a fit when the hospital refused to admit her, something totally alien to my usual laid back, calm personna, Mom was admitted to the hospital. Sadly, she never returned home. She went from there directly to a nursing home where she could receive the care she needed. Only a few weeks later, I was sitting in the emergency room again, this time with Dad. His ill health had caught up to him and he wouldn't return home, either. Less than a week after driving him to the emergency room, I was driving to his funeral.


Despite my sense of loss, of course, life does go on. I was teaching in a middle school with a wonderful group of teachers. One of them decided that I needed a dog. Without saying a word to me, he took it upon himself to collect funds and even contacted the local shelter to see what was available. I wasn't so sure. I had never owned my own dog, odd as that sounds, just the usual family dogs. Yet, with every night sound magnified in the home my father had built with his own hands, it became increasingly apparant to me that I might appreciate a watch dog, so it was off to the shelter.

One of the teachers, my closest friend at the time, had told me wonderful stories of a collie she had as a child. So, despite the fact that I was looking for a smaller dog, maybe a Beagle, I stopped to chat with the mixed breed collie in one of the first kennels to the left as I entered. The card on the front of the kennel designated her a collie/husky mix.

While I was sure I didn't want this dog, she had other ideas. She literally jumped up and placed her two front paws on the door of the kennel, for all the world as if to say, "What took you so long?" I still wasn't convinced, however. I could see a Beagle down the row. I scratched her ears through the wire and moved on.

Okay, I've always loved Beagles. Can you guess that I was a Snoopy fan? So, imagine my surprise when this Beagle won't even come to the front of the kennel to talk to me. There are a couple Cocker Spaniels nearby, however, and I stopped to talk to them. They're friendlier but, well, they have lots of hair. I decided to make one more trip up and down the kennels to look at all the dogs once again.

As I turn, the collie/husky in the first kennel jumps back up on the kennel door as if to say, "I told you so. Let's go home!" I stop again at her kennel. She's too big. She has hair, lots of hair, and I was sorta thinking I wanted a lapdog. She isn't buying any of this, however. As absurd as it sounds, it was as if she was supremely confident that I was supposed to belong to her. I turned as if to go look at the Beagle again. She barked. I turned back.

She looked seriously disgusted with me. In retrospect, I figure she was wondering if she'd picked an idiot to adopt. That little bark, however, did it. Silly me, I convinced myself she'd make a good watch dog. She'd bark at strangers and her size would intimidate 'em. Amazing how well one can lie to oneself when looking into the eyes of a dog that is convinced she's going home with you.

I honestly don't know what possessed me but I walked out into the shelter office and said, "The collie says she's going home with me." Even more amazingly, since there is usually a waiting period to take a dog home, my vet had just called and was on another line. With her blessing, I was soon walking out of there with Amiga, a name I was already rolling around on my tongue in honor of my friends who'd spurred me to take the plunge into dog ownership.

As I walked Amiga to the door, a shelter helper asked if I'd like some help getting the dog into the car. Hmm, maybe, I said. I hadn't thought about such petty details as how I was going to get this dog into the car if she didn't wanna get into the car. Silly me. I had no sooner opened the back door and turned toward her then, whoozh, she merrily leaped in and looked at me, apparantly having decided that even if I was an idiot, I had a nice car. I would soon learn, as I discovered she was far more husky than collie in personality, that the best way to catch her when she went on the lam, which she did often those first few weeks, was simply to get in the car and drive to wherever she was and open the door. Worked ever time. She was a sucker for a car ride.

Driving home that afternoon, I was attempting to reassure her when, in fact, it was Amiga that wound up reassuring me. All the memories and stresses of the past weeks came rushing home as I told her how "It's just you and me, kid." I burst into tears and had to pull off the road. Suddenly, she was nuzzling me, seeming to somehow understand. It was that moment she became Amiga, the Spanish word for "friend."

That was in 1993.

It is now September of 2005. Amiga is lying on the floor before me as I type. In her usual way, she let me know, "What took you so long?" in regards to moving to Alaska. Unlike Foxy, who I adopted at the same shelter largely because she reminded me of a mini-Amiga, Amiga took to Alaska as if she'd been born here. While Foxy wasn't at all sure about this snow stuff, maybe because it often came up to her nose those first few months, Amiga loved it and, in fact, had to talked into coming inside even on days when the temperatures dipped into negative numbers.

She's a grand ol' lady now, her once effortless run gone, yet her personality remains. She is also the dog who, simply by being a husky in disguise as a collie, let me to a study of huskies which, of course, rekindled my interest in the Iditarod and all things dog. Without her, I wouldn't be here in Alaska today. She's my friend, my "Amiga."

Monday, September 26, 2005

Florida to Alaska

I think I first fell in love with Alaska when my plane was preparing to land in Anchorage my first trip up for the Iditarod. That was in March of 2000. I came here from Florida, so the scenery was simply mind-boggling and, as I look back, I was probably hooked even before I landed.

Most of my friends figured that out long before I did, of course. They kept asking when I was moving. I kept replying that I had no intentions of moving. Heck, I really had no intentions of ever visiting again when I got on the plane that first time. I came for the Iditarod's Teacher Workshop, but fell in love with Alaska. I had no clue how that simple decision to fly to Alaska, something completely against character for me, a person who'd always played life so safe, would change my life.

My only real knowledge of Alaska at the time, aside from what I could glean from Internet friends, was from Gary Paulsen's "Woodsong." Who'd ever have thought that I'd not only one day meet him but have Gary as a friend. I sometimes feel like I should pinch myself, that maybe I got someone else's dream and it's all a mistake. BTW, when I told Gary it was all his fault I had moved to Alaska, his response, said with a grin, was, "Oh, no, another life I've ruined!" Yet, it was his genuine love of this state and how it shone through in "Woodsong" that initially enticed me, even it some six years would pass between my reading it and my first jaunt up here.

Skip forward to December of 2003. I've essentially given away (or Ebayed) most of my "stuff" in Florida and am boarding a plane with my two dogs to fly to Alaska to stay. Obviously, there's lots in-between, including a couple years of lurking on the Alaska Living list, but it's a move I've never once regretted. I love this place.

I went from being the total cheechako, arriving in Alaska my first trip in serious need of a shopping trip to ensure I didn't freeze my butt off, to living in a wonderful home here in Wasilla. Right now, I'm cheering every leaf that falls for that means I'm all the closer to getting back my "all direction" mountain views, even if that is a bit of a stretch. I own a snow blower, one of my first purchases after some basics like, oh, a refrigerator. I own another very important Alaskan machine, too, the Mosquito Magnet. Okay, there is one thing I don't like about Alaska, the mosquitoes.

I also own a retired sled dog. Okay, let me rephrase that. I am owned by three dogs, that's Foxy shown in the photo, one of which is a retired Iditarod dog. I've ridden a sled behind a team of dogs. I've fallen off of a sled being pulled by a team of Iditarod dogs. I've stood on frozen rivers and lakes. I've stood in Nome and on the Iditarod Trail, sensing the ghosts of history that passed there before me. I've marveled at how Denali can hide herself so well, then suddenly appear in all her majesty. I've traveled to places I never knew existed and have simply been in awe of the beauty of this place, not to mention eyeballed a mama moose and babe in my front yard. How cool is that, that a basically shy, stay at home from Florida can come to Alaska and do something like that?

I'm rambling but it all converges together at some point to mean that, if I can do it, anyone can. I'm not an outdoor type, I'm a natural wuss, and the entire thought of shoveling snow leaves me "cold," pun intended. Yet, you adapt. Alaska is what you make of her. I'm a better person for being here. I've learned things about myself that I never knew, done things I would have never dreamed of doing in Florida. I'm the Iditarod's "official reporter." I mean, come on. Me? The wuss from Florida writing for the Iditarod? This is the place dreams can come true and even exceed expectations.

True, Alaska demands more of me, she doesn't tolerate mistakes well, but I can't imagine living anywhere else at this point in my life. I love this place.

Sky Waltz

There were no Northern Lights out dancing in the night sky, but as I walked past a window in the darkened house in the wee hours, I spotted another interesting dance going on in the heavens. Despite the clouds, a sliver of moon was peeking out, providing just enough light to penetrate some thin clouds nearby. A light wind obviousy caressed them as the pushed the clouds apart, then back together in ever changing patterns, giving the appearance of a waltz of the lights in the sky. As suddenly as it appeared, it was gone, however, leaving me to wonder if it had even happened. Alaska is like that, teasing you with its wonders, tantilizing you to keep watching to see what She will toss at you next.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Tough Sled Dog....Not

Another tough sled dog story....I know I shared with some privately but, well, what the heck. Hazy isn't at all bothered to be a FORMERLY tough sled dog. Two nights ago, I found some almost stale buns and gave them to the dogs. Hazy couldn't make up her mind where to light to eat her's, so she's running back and forth and back and forth, then just sorta plops down on her rear in the front room facing me, the bun hanging outta her mouth like a cigar. She is such a big blonde, loveable goof.

About that time, Foxy, big tough Sheltie wuss that she is, not to mention less than half Hazy's size, is walking past her to get to me. Amiga was already off to the bedroom with her bun. Smooth as you like, as she walks past Hazy, Foxy reaches over and bites off the end of Hazy's hot dog bun -- you have to realize Foxy would kill for croissants and bread ranks right up there with her, even stale bread -- and just keeps walking over to me.

The look on Hazy's face was, "What the....Did she really just do what I think she did?" which, gotta admit, I was thinking, too. I honestly don't think it was diabolically plotted, either, just too easy of pickings as she walked past and couldn't resist one extra bite of her nirvana food, bread.

So, I guess it's been determined, the wuss of a Sheltie is alpha dog in this house, tho' she does it so cleverly the other two don't have a clue. Hazy is, however, murder on feather dusters! That's another story, tho'.