Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hey, it worked for torture.

Uninsured? No you're not! You lucky dog, you. John McCain and his healthcare policy advisor have you more than covered:

...John Goodman, president of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a right-leaning Dallas-based think tank. Mr. Goodman, who helped craft Sen. John McCain's health care policy, said anyone with access to an emergency room effectively has insurance, albeit the government acts as the payer of last resort. (Hospital emergency rooms by law cannot turn away a patient in need of immediate care.)

"So I have a solution. And it will cost not one thin dime," Mr. Goodman said. "The next president of the United States should sign an executive order requiring the Census Bureau to cease and desist from describing any American – even illegal aliens – as uninsured. Instead, the bureau should categorize people according to the likely source of payment should they need care.

"So, there you have it. Voila! Problem solved."
You just can't invent this shit. I know--I've tried. But somehow, reality is always worse than my most fevered imaginings. Thankfully, if those fevers get too hectic, I know I'm covered. There's an emergency room right around the corner.

So. If you're concerned about the rising cost of healthcare, and are worried that you and your children might one day be without it...don't worry, silly! Just go to the emergency room. Alll better, thanks to Poppy McCain.

For those of you following along in your books, this is the point at which you say, "Aha! I know this will work. Because when they wanted to torture people and make it ok, they just redefined what torture is! That made the problem go away. So it's all good!"

Lucky (or not) for McCain that he was tortured when it was still torture. Under today's regime, he was simply in for some "aggressive questioning techniques." It's a lot harder to deflect difficult campaign questions by reminding people that you were "aggressively questioned for five years."

And no, I'm not denigrating his service. I'm denigrating the way he uses that service as a shield to all criticisms--including his inability to remember how many houses he has. No shit:
Making light of McCain's inability to put a number on his real estate holdings last week, Leno joked with the Republican nominee that, "for one million dollars, how many houses do you have?"

Rather than reply with either a real answer or a similarly light-hearted joke, McCain brought up his POW status.

"Could I just mention to you Jay, that in a moment of seriousness, I spent five and a half years in a prison cell, I didn't have a house, I didn't have a kitchen table, I didn't have a table, I didn't have a chair..."
He has made his own sacrifice into a humorless punchline. Should I even bother to point out that, given an opportunity to make torture illegal, McCain refused to sign the bill?! He was against it before he was for it.

God help us.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

To All Democrats:

The Bill of Rights is in tatters. Our international reputation is bankrupt. Our energy policy is a relic of the 60's. The economy is rotten.

This is the direct result of 8 years of Republican mismanagement--for 6 of which they had the place to themselves.

But just because this is true does not mean you are the default choice. You will have to take power.

Or you can plan how to explain to your kids why we invaded Iran and went to war with Russia while our roads crumbled, our bridges collapsed, our schools closed and millions of Americans went without medical care. The choice is that plain.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Something new, something wonderful.

If you didn't get a chance to watch all of Michelle Obama's speech this evening, you owe it to yourself to set some time aside and see it. I think you'll agree that, with a few different forks in the road, we could easily have watched a convention on behalf of nominee Michelle Obama.

It was an address of personal politics, expressing, perhaps better than Barack himself, the deep service-oriented roots of their political philosophy. It was fitting that she shared a stage with Teddy Kennedy, in this way: Kennedy was born wealthy and could quite easily have turned his energy toward creating even greater personal wealth. Instead he devoted his personal fortune and his political career to serving the cause of those without a voice, without wealth.

The Obamas each came from modest means and each secured a ticket to the big leagues. A law degree from Harvard is a license to earn. But both Obamas have, with that opportunity, also willingly accepted an obligation to serve.

More even than that, however, this was a watershed moment for our nation. If we are lucky, we may be blessed one day to realize just how significant it was. A black woman stood before half of political America and told them in no uncertain terms of her humanity, her intelligence and her love for a black man who they should by now be compelled to elect as leader of the free world.

I'm very, very glad that I was able to see that.

Video below in two parts; runs just over 18 minutes total.

Song of the Day

Saturday, August 23, 2008


Great choice. I refer my reader(s) to Al Giordano:
[A]s the national media vetting process will disclose in the coming days, after 36 years in the US Senate, he's still one of the poorest US Senators: he never availed himself of the back-door personal enrichment techniques that most of his colleagues - Democrat and Republican - have utilized. Beyond class resentment, he retains a sense of class solidarity. His wife since 1977 never went into Washington lobbying: she remained a public schoolteacher.

Biden has also lived personal tragedies that would have splat most people like watermelons tossed from the sixth floor of a Wilmington tenement: between his first US Senate election in 1972 and being sworn in, his first wife and three small children were in a gruesome car accident. Mrs. Biden and his daughter died, his two boys were wounded, and he became a single father. Biden never quite entered the Washington DC culture so seductive to his peers: commuting from Delaware to DC, always coming home at night.

...Yes, I would have preferred the "three point shot" - that Obama pick a running mate from outside of Washington - but as DC insiders go, it's interesting that Biden chose all these years to refuse to live inside it, or meet with its lobbyists.

Obama stopped at the three point line, passed the ball to the new muscle man with the sharp elbows, and put two points on the board instead. I can live with that. And my working class soul is actually looking forward to the populist campaign that will come out of the unlikely alliance of two guys from humble beginnings against the owners of this coal mine called America.
I love Al's coal-mine analogy; love Biden's populist roots. It's a tough sell in Delaware (home of more Banks, Insurance Companies and Corporate headquarters than any state in the nation), but he's made it work since 1977.

He's smart, he's experienced, and he's not afraid to lay the smack-down. I would take a slightly different cut at the basketball analogy to add that Biden is a three point play: three the hard way. He can draw the foul, then make them pay.

And I'm also left with this: who do the Republics answer with? Biden has them beat in foreign policy and domestically. He has them beat on moral grounds and with gravitas. I don't see a guy on the other side of the aisle who is a fail-safe response. It's going to be interesting to see how this all plays out.

Go ahead and read Al's whole take: Second Chance for the Everyman. As one of his commenters said, this is a "brass knuckles" choice by Obama.

Oh, and this made me laugh:
Biden has a reputation for shooting from the hip, as he did when he called President Bush "brain-dead" while campaigning for Sen. John Kerry. Republicans were outraged by his comments, but since Biden had also called former Democratic president Clinton brain-dead, many people dismissed the GOP's criticism.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Patriots blah-blah

I've been writing a fair amount for Pats Pulpit, having become the default source for line commentary. Here's the latest:

In Like Flynn? Or Just in Chaos?

...Flynn is the latest signing in a bewildering array of free-agents old and new that the Pioli/Belichick team has brought in to shore up the front wall. Spurred by a merry-go-round of injuries all along the front five, the Patriots now enter officially desperate waters. To bring in an o-lineman this late in camp is beyond cause for concern--it's indicative of a serious issue. That issue is depth.
Click the link to read the rest.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

From another world.

Coupla nights ago, Lake Forest, California:

REV. WARREN: Okay, on taxes, define "rich." Everybody talks about, you know, taxing the rich but not the poor, the middle class. At what point -- give me a number. Give me a specific number. Where do you move from middle class to rich? Is it $100,000? Is it $50,000? Is it $200,000? How does anybody know if we don't know what the standards are?

SEN. MCCAIN:...I don't want to take any money from the rich. I want everybody to get rich. (Laughter.) I don't believe in class warfare or redistribution of wealth. But I can tell you, for example, there are small businessmen and women who are working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, that some people would classify as, quote, "rich," my friends, and want to raise their taxes and want to raise their payroll taxes.

Let's have -- keep taxes low. Let's give every family in America a $7,000 tax credit for every child they have. Let's give them a $5,000 refundable tax credit to go out and get the health insurance of their choice. Let's not have the government take over the health care system in America. (Applause.)

So I think if you're just talking about income, how about $5 million?

Now, he hemmed and hawed about that. But it was a simple question: where's the line? And that was the only number he could come up with. No matter what you pick, you're bound to piss off some people. But if you understand what things cost, if you have a passing sense for what it takes to get by in the world, you can come up with a number. That number -- where you cross from middle-class to rich -- is a measure of abundance. Sure, some people feel more comfort is due the middle class than others. Certainly, if you're on the bottom of the middle class most of what's above you looks rich enough. And McCain may have shot high on purpose, giving himself a chance to look like a kidder.

But even that underlines the essential flaw here: He really doesn't know where the line is. He doesn't even have a framework for talking about it. He flies on a private jet, owns eight homes and wears $500 shoes. That's more money than most people make in a week and he wears it on his feet. Those pictures of him looking clueless in a supermarket aren't the result of a bad day--he really is clueless about the average American.

The Obama's are rich (though by McCain's line, they're comfortably middle class). But at least they recognize that. And they've devoted their careers to helping ordinary folks. And they recognize that in order to help the common person, you have to understand the common person. McCain, though he wants you to believe he has your best interests at heart, has no idea what your interests are.

In response to that blind-spot, he's essentially adopted Bush's approach to policy discussions. But instead of saying "911 911 911 911," he says, "POW POW POW POW POW."

Which answers exactly nothing. But it has the effect of halting the conversation. That's something he does understand.

Click for big picture:

Monday, August 18, 2008

People Used to Ask Me Why

I think this picture answers part of the question.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A Flash in the Pool: See Phelps, Don't Blink

ESPN's Jim Caple has a celebratory piece up on Michael Phelps' unprecedented 8 gold medals.
I was 10 years old the summer Spitz won seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Games, and I still vividly remember getting the news of his latest races in Munich. For 36 years, those seven golds loomed as one of the few true magic numbers in sports, like Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Ted Williams' .406 batting average and Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game. Spitz's mark was so special that a little part of me wanted Michael Phelps to fail in his quest to surpass him. But I soon was swept up pulling for Phelps to break the record just as everyone else was.

And Sunday he did, replacing Spitz's seven on sports' ever-changing ledger with an eight that will mean as much to current kids as Spitz's number meant to me.
I think Caple's wrong about Phelps' feat having the same impact on kids today as Spitz's 7 did. When Spitz won 7, I was in the womb. The sports world Jim Caple inhabited at the time, and the one that I grew up in, was measurably different from today's.

For sports entertainment, you were lucky if you got a couple of network broadcasts a week. After that, it was radio for your favorite MLB team and college, whatever your Dad took you to see of the local high school kids, the papers and, if you were really dedicated, Sports Illustrated or The Sporting News in your mailbox.

Today, there's a fire hose of coverage. Phelps' amazing achievement will be like a dazzling flash shining briefly out of the torrent--bright in the eye for a moment, then turned under by the tide and forgotten until the next Olympiad. Caple provides the proof of it in his own story, by comparing this moment to the saga of the New Jersey Favres:
Sports is filled with hyperbole, but rarely does the moment live up to the hype. (Jets fans will know what I mean by the first week of October.) This did.
That's the flood. Unless Phelps does something horribly wrong or is revealed as a doper, his time to shine is almost at an end already. And even a negative event like an investigation will prolong it only a few weeks--and ensure it doesn't re-ignite in London four years from now.

There's no room for imagination and anticipation to burn significance and wonder into us today. We track Phelps achievements immediately (if we're interested at all), and hold on to them about as long as a sand-castle's lifetime. Sure, a few dedicated kids will pin Phelps to their walls and dream of medals at night. But those kids are already in the pool. There's just not much room for greatness in unconventional venues to penetrate a market that's already under a flood of more profitable dreck.

I point out the New Jersey Favres story, because it's exactly what I mean. That could have been handled in three reports: Favre reinstated, Packers seek trade, Favre signed by Jets. Instead, we got the polit-bureau tea-leaves-reading version, where every time he took a shit we were subjected to a full report--and it's still going on! Even at the moment when our sporting eyes should be riveted to Beijing.

There are more TV channels than ever, but proportionately less that's worth watching. And all the Phelps's in the world aren't going to change that.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Georgia On Our Mind

With the latest news that Russia has drawn only a dotted line on its incursion into Georgian territory, I wanted to point my gentle readers toward a well-done piece on the politics of that situation and our own.

Gregory Djerejian of The Belgravia Dispatch has an excellent, pithy piece on the motions in Eastern Europe and the superficial and naive administration understanding that brought us to this pass. And which McCain would seemingly double-down on.

A good thumbnail of the situation, including reference to foreign policy heavyweights George Kennan and Henry Kissinger, is followed up by a summary of the evolution of US policy toward Georgia over the last seven years. He concludes:
If we mean to help the Georgians escape an even worse fate, we must summon up the intelligence and humility to have a dialogue with Putin, Medvedev, Sergie Lavrov, Vitaly Churkin and the rest of them based on straight talk (not of the McCain variety, and if we can somehow find a messenger of the stature and talent to deliver the message in the right way, hard these days), to wit: we screwed up overly propping this guy up and he got too big for his britches, we understand, but for the sake of going forward strategic cooperation (and don't mention Iran here, at least not as the first example)--as well as stopping further civilian loss of life--agree to work with us in good faith towards a status quo ante as much as possible, don't enter Tbilisi, and throw show-boats Sarkozy/Kouchner a bone with some possible talk of a going forward EU peacekeeping role (if non-binding, for the time being). This is roughly what we should be saying/doing now, not having the President step up to the White House mike fresh back from the sand volleyball courts of Beijing to gravely declare Russia's actions are "unacceptable in the 21st century."
A side dish to his policy recommendations is a brief explication of the McCain response as a pattern for a McCain Presidency. His take, in short? "If you think you've seen myopic and naive, well, bbbaby, you ain't seen nuthin' yet."

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Yukon River Lodge: Part III

This is the final part of a three part piece. Part I, Part II. Click on images for a larger view.

Yukon River from YRL

Shortly after setting up home on the river, Sam and Tamara went in on a fishwheel with a native Rubyite named Dale. They split the fish and share in maintaining the wheel. Just what that might mean on a yearly basis became clearer to me late in the week. A few days of high water had multiplied the amount of driftwood on the river. A massive raft of it built up on, and under, the wheel and we spent a mostly unsuccessful morning trying to get it all loose. In the end, we pulled the fence and unhooked the spar, hoping that the wheel would drift in toward shore and the flotsam would be pulled past it by the current. With few fish and fewer days to harvest them, Sam is inclined to leave it as it lies.

Even in a short-run year, we enjoyed two meals of fresh King Salmon. Perhaps next year there will be more fish.

Over the course of the week, we have raised the exterior walls for the first floor above a walkout basement, and completed a fair portion of the interior framing as well. There will be no further upward progress, other than a three-gabled roof. Height is hard to heat.

Sam and Larry started the work almost two years ago. With a chainsaw, a portable mill and a John Deere tractor barged down the river from Fairbanks, they harvested the timber that has become the framing and cleared and dug the site for the foundation. A small cabin has been built for Sam and Tamara to winter in. A garden is planted. A pole barn is up. A frontier “home depot” of stickered lumber, rough-sawn from the jobsite, is nearly depleted.

Eventually these will be the walls of the Yukon River Lodge. There will be three guest rooms for up to six guests. There will be a cathedral-ceiling in the great-room, overlooking the river. There will be a screened-in porch on which to rock and watch the Yukon river roll by, and think about the fish to catch in the Melozitna: pike, graying, salmon. The Nowitna National Wildlife Refuge is just around the bend. The ghost-town of Kokrines still lies rotting under the hills. If you come, you may, like me, be lucky enough to know a grizzly was in camp the night before, without having first hand proof.

Tamara has a gift for writing. It brings her a little extra work here and there; a newsletter for the Friends of Alaska National Wildlife Refuges, for example. In the Lodge’s online site, she gives her voice free reign in writing about her new home:
A morning of memories emerge from partly cloudy skies and pewter sheen logs that once drifted down the high waters of the Yukon River, now stopped short of their Norton Sound destination before me on the spit. The sun glistens off the river, shines warmly and exposes the deep greens of summer. And, finally, sitting in a pool of sunlight, I’m pulled out of the haze I have been in the last few weeks. It was cold last night - cold for Interior Alaska in July with lows around 39ºF or so here. Thankfully not cold enough for the garden to be frosted. Although the recent rains have left the garden well watered up on the hill off the river, I can hear the plants plead for more sun and heat as they reach that vital time of growth in the middle of a cooler than normal summer.
And what are they planting on that hill but the hope that you’ll come and a promise to welcome you in?

If Sam has been the muscle of this effort, Tamara has been the rudder. It is she who keeps the world aligned and people fed and bills paid. They like to joke that Sam, when he ventures to Ruby to run errands and pick up mail, is like a lost child—he needs a note pinned to his jacket: “My name is Sam Clark. I am supposed to go to the post office and mail two packages. Please be sure to give me a receipt." But Sam would never be lost for long. He can talk to anyone--even the stray BLM agent who, sadly, was born without a personality.

They make a wonderful, complimentary team.

Two years ago, Sam and Tamara had been living in Two Rivers, a community east of Fairbanks on the road to Chena Hot Springs. It was their sixth year in Alaska. Prior to moving to Alaska in February of 2000, they had been living in Orono, Maine. Sam was working part-time for a forest products company and completing his undergraduate in Forestry at the Univeristy of Maine, Orono while Tamara was working for the University library and taking graduate classes in Counseling. Work was frustrating Sam—there didn’t seem to be much opportunity. The winter previous, Tamara had talked Sam into buying some sled dogs. They had a short string— three pups—and ALASKA was still looming in Sam’s mind.

“I wanted to just quit and go, but Tamara wouldn’t go unless we had work,” said Sam. So they made a deal. If Sam could find them work, Tamara would agree to go. “That was a Friday. I got on the phone and by Monday I had us jobs at a lodge on Lake Minchumina. Eleven days later we were packed and on the road.” Minchumina is on the edge of Denali National Park, 150 air miles southwest of Fairbanks. Sam was to be a wilderness guide and Tamara would also guide during summer months and work in the office in what proved to be the ideal apprenticeship for each of them.

“We took a bush plane from Fairbanks to the lake. From the air, our boss pointed out the lodge, and he pointed out the trail to get there. Then he landed 6 miles away,” said Sam. “We got out, and he said, ‘OK, here’s the snowmachine. You know how to run one? Good. See you later.’ And he left. He was a throw-you-in-to-the-deep end kind of guy.” Three days later, Sam, who had never run a dogsled with more than six dogs, was guiding Lodge guests over snow-covered trails behind a 12-dog team. It was a baptism by ice, but they both weathered the storm.

It wasn’t the ideal work environment, though. The tech-bubble had burst and the lodge couldn’t guarantee them jobs for the summer. There were no other employers in that small community. After a year at Lake Minchumina, sadly, they moved to Two Rivers. Tamara got a job with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Career Services department recruiting teachers to work in Alaska’s bush schools. Tamara’s job gave them healthcare and allowed her to work on her masters again. Sam began to piece tree-work together for some summer money and in the winter he began working for a dog-food supplier. From a work perspective, that went pretty well. Sam is sharp, and he works hard, shows up on time. He was offered a manager’s role—more than that, actually. The owner was ready to turn the operation over to Sam entirely, and Sam was prepared to accept. It meant full-time work, security, the ability to live in Alaska with a reliable income and to mush dogs in the winter.

About a week before he was to take the manager’s role, Ann and Larry came for a visit. Ann asked, “Is this what you want?”

Well, what they wanted was to live in Alaska and run dogs. This was going to make that possible, so, yeah. It’s what they wanted.

Ann rephrased: “If you could do anything, what would you do?” Different answer.

“I would build and open a wilderness lodge on the Yukon River.” But that was out of the question. Sam and Tamara didn’t have the money or the time. It just wasn’t an option: it was a dream—like, “what if you won the lottery?” More a way to torture yourself than a plan.

Ann asked, “What if we helped you?”

Sam and Tamara pushed back at this: you can’t just wave money at this; this isn’t a thing to be done on a whim. This isn’t a thing to be done on a whim in a place like Maine, where you can get to the road, you can get to the hospital, and if things don’t work out you can stay with a friend. But in a place where everything you need that can’t be taken right off the land has to be shipped in by small boat or barge, a place that is pitch dark for half the year and so cold that trees crack and the creek freezes to its bed in 6 feet of ice—a hope, a dream, just doesn’t much matter. This thing takes time. And planning. And money. And work—lots of work. And even then…

But if there is something missing in our American hearts, then maybe it is in Alaska. Maybe it’s sitting on a bluff by the Yukon River, hiding in 40 acres of spruce and birch-stands, nestled under the Kokrine hills, waiting to be milled up, banged together, and roofed with steel against the winter storms.

For Tamara and Sam, that something lives in their sled-dogs as they raise a communal howl at an outboard motor still minutes down river from human hearing. That something comes in through the door behind them in the winter and settles around their table at noon in the dimness: The quiet immensity of the land; the breathing vastness of an arctic night; the strange liberty of space and emptiness, filled with life and empty of speech.

There's gold, and it's haunting and haunting;
It's luring me on as of old;
Yet it isn't the gold that I'm wanting
So much as just finding the gold.
It's the great, big, broad land 'way up yonder,
It's the forests where silence has lease;
It's the beauty that thrills me with wonder,
It's the stillness that fills me with peace.

From “The Spell of the Yukon” by Robert Service, 1907

Monday, August 4, 2008

New Pats' Pulpit post up.

Brett Farve, Rolling Rock, Kevin Faulk and Training Camp

Pay to Play

In 1959, when deejay Phil Lind of Chicago's WAIT revealed that he had accepted $22,000 in exchange for playing a record, his life was threatened and he had to get police protection.

On June 16, 2008, John McCain flipped his flop on off-shore drilling, a prospect he once opposed.

On June 24, 2008, he received a nice, "Thanks for playing our record!" gratuity from the Hess oil family, to the tune of over $256,000:

J. Barclay CollinsHess Corp. Attorney$28,50019-Jun
John B. HessHess Corp.Executive$28,50024-Jun
Susan K. HessHomemaker$28,50024-Jun
Norma W. HessRetired$28,50024-Jun
John J. O'ConnorHess Corp. Executive$28,50024-Jun
Lawrence OrnsteinHess Corp. Senior VP$28,50024-Jun
John ReillyHess Corp. Executive$28,50024-Jun
Alice RocchioHess Corp. Office Manager$28,50024-Jun
John ScelfoHess Corp. Senior VP of Finance$28,50024-Jun
F. Borden WalkerHess Corp. Businessman$28,50024-Jun
table from TPM

That's a nice little thank you, if you ask me. (As a side note: Wow! That's one grateful office manager--either that or Hess pays it's office managers a little bit more than average.) As Paul Krugman notes,
A McCain campaign ad says that gas prices are high right now because “some in Washington are still saying no to drilling in America.” That’s just plain dishonest: the U.S. government’s own Energy Information Administration says that removing restrictions on offshore drilling wouldn’t lead to any additional domestic oil production until 2017, and that even at its peak the extra production would have an “insignificant” impact on oil prices.
Still, if you drill, you get paid. Considering the profits reaped by oil companies, $285,000 is an insultingly small tip.

I'd be pissed, too, John.

UPDATE: From TPM, it turns out that ol' Alice the Office Manager was joined in her largesse by her husband Pasquale, a track foreman for Amtrak. The couple rent their home in Flushing, Queens, where the median household income is $58,069. The two also maxed out their yearly single-candidate limit at $2,300 each. For those of you counting at home, that's $61,600 in campaign contributions this year alone from an office manager and a track foreman. My friends, it would seem I am in the wrong industry.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Yukon River Lodge: Part II

Part II of a 3 part piece. Part I

They have cradled you in custom, they have primed you with their preaching,
They have soaked you in convention through and through;
They have put you in a showcase; you're a credit to their teaching --
But can't you hear the Wild? -- it's calling you.
Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us;
Let us journey to a lonely land I know.
There's a whisper on the night-wind, there's a star agleam to guide us,
And the Wild is calling, calling . . . let us go.

From "The Call of the Wild" by Robert Service, 1907

Trumpeter Swans
Five days later, there is a cloud of mosquitoes trumpeting around my head and face. They sound a single, unison note that is almost loud enough to compete with speech. They aren’t landing: unlike your typical Maine mosquito, which laughs at OFF and scoffs at DEET, these bugs seem to respect the spray. But my god! How they swarm. They land on my shoulder and I crush them, wiping away a dozen per swipe, only to see them instantly replaced.

A sharp breath would result in a snack.

If it weren’t for the fact that I don’t want to look like a pansy in front of Sam, I’d be running my butt back to the boat. But even Sam is impressed: “I’ve seen them worse but this is pretty good. Let’s get out of here.” We’re standing on the verge of a meadow, several miles up Twin Slough. Twin Slough is a stream about 18 miles east of the town of Ruby on the Yukon River. The water of the slough is dark with tannins, leached out of a small part of the vast sub-tundra wetlands that make up much of the Yukon River Valley.

Like the mother river, Twin Slough winds its way through graceful ox-bows and switch-backs. As we retreated from the Yukon, the banks had gradually fallen back, the land softening and flattening, the trees fading from spruce and aspen to “Alaskan willow” and alder and even, perhaps, a tamarack or two. We passed a field of high-bush blueberries. The banks were dotted here and there with arctic poppy, lupine, monk’s hood, even some joe-pye weed. After 6 miles or so, the slough ended. It didn’t reduce to a trickle or fade into a network of runs and rills—it simply ended in a small pond in the middle of grassy wetland. “Moosey,” Sam rightly said: it is perfect moose habitat.

And where there are moose, there are bear. Early in spring Sam took a black bear on the bank by a broad curve in the slough. We had eaten some of him last night and it was damn good: flavorful and rich without being gamey. “He was a spring bear, too,” Sam marveled. The bear had been relatively thin and, perhaps, a little unwary or over-hungry from his long hibernation. But the meat had been good, and would hold the Clarks – Sam and Tamara – until fall, when moose season officially opens.

Black bear are not a favored species in Alaska. Everyone is entitled to take three of them. Sam and Tamara are entitled to six between them. Moose, on the other hand, are a different matter. There is both a season and a limit. Taking a cow is prohibited. Often, even in taking a bull the “trophy value,” that is, the antlers, must be destroyed. This is to discourage trophy hunting. Deep in the interior, however, there are few wardens watching. Sam is scrupulous. A conscientious subsistence hunter, he holds his fire on bears with cubs—at least early in the fall. A winter without meat is not a welcome option. But not everyone is so punctilious with their bullets—be the game bear, moose, or anything else.

We have nosed the boat into the bank of the slough and followed a game trail through a narrow break of trees and under-story to put eyes on a meadow, betrayed from the slough by open sky where dark forest should have been. Meadows, ponds and potholes off the slough like this are fine places to find game—to see or to hunt—and Sam wanted to check it out. No big animals in the meadow today, but plenty of mosquitoes. We head back to the boat.

It is getting late for dinner, though it is as light as mid-afternoon. The sky is grey, undecided. Perhaps it will rain, perhaps not. Interior Alaska gets little rain, though the ground is as wet as a sponge—12 to 15 inches per year. Though it has been spitting at us all day, it won’t amount to much in the end. Sam puts the boat “on step,” that is, on plane: gathering enough speed so that the shallow “v” of the hull no longer plows through the water but skims across the surface like a perpetually skipped stone.

We wind our way down the slough toward the Yukon, the Kokrine Hills playing hide-and-seek behind the trees. The banks of Twin Slough gradually rise from low berms to abrupt cuts and the flora show more spruce. Their needle-like profiles don’t “cone” like a dunce-cap, but shoot straight up like narrow silos. On one bank, a tree leans at a crazy angle over the slough, its roots grasping desperately, patiently, at the silty soil of riverbank. Its equilateral reflection is a perfect copy on the glassy surface of the slough until we race by, headed to the cabin for a late dinner.

We have seen two pairs of moose, both a cow with a calf. Two, maybe three red-tailed hawks. Three trumpeter swans, the pair with 5 cygnets in tow. Two pacific loons, a family of Shoveller ducks (Micione for the Cajuns in the audience), and a tree-full of what I think are probably white-wing crossbills that burst into the air as we and the hawk that was pacing us passed their roost. The crossbills are having quite a summer: A bumper crop of cones in the spruce hangs like bunches of grapes all along the river.

An owl swooped, ghost-like across our path, too quick for eyes to pick its traits and pin its ethereal glide to earth by naming it.

The shoveller ducks swam away as we slid up to them on the way in. First casually, then with increasing urgency until suddenly the ducklings dove to the bottom and the adults took off in front of us. Behind, hiding beneath the surface, the babies clung by their bills to the roots of grasses or stray sticks. Ahead, the adults led us warily on, landing from time to time then flying, drawing us away from their offspring.

At the mouth of the slough, where it joins the Yukon behind an island, a narrow channel communicates with the main river. Accordingly, Sam slowed the four-stroke Honda and made his course deliberately. As we idled through the turns and made our way into the river, the strong tea color of the slough mixed into the coffee-with-cream glacial till of the Yukon in a gradually vanishing rivulet.
(continued below)
Kokrines, mouth of Twin Slough

Kokrines from the Yukon. These hills are in the neighborhood of 5000 feet.

Motoring out of Deep Creek

Juvenile female, Deep Creek; raining.

Kokrines from Twin Slough.

Trumpeter swans, Twin Slough
We approach the creek and the bluff that braces Yukon River Lodge against the river from up-stream, and Jackson stands on the precipice, waiting for his master. Old Jackson is retired — a stout-hearted sled dog, an Alaskan husky, Jackson is the apotheosis of the breed: No pure-breeding nonsense here, no papers, no evaluation of carriage or brow-line. Alaskan huskies are selected for a simple, singular trait: their need and capacity to pull. Fastened in the traces of the sled, Sam and Tamara’s dogs turn themselves inside-out with eagerness. There can be no mistaking it: I challenge any human heart to witness a sled-dog as she waits to be let on the trail and deny the joy you see. Fulfillment at that pitch will forever be denied human kind.

Sam, though he might not wish me to say it, has deep tenderness for Jackson. Jackson hurt his back in the traces of the sled a winter or so ago, pulling at the head of the team. Pride and want made him beg for the harness again, but it was beyond him. There is a small peal of guilt that rings softly in Sam's voice when he talks of Jackson—you can see he feels fault. “That dog has done enough work,” he says. “That dog has done more for me than you could ever ask.”

Jackson, for his part, has as his birthright a dog’s sublime forgiveness for his master. And Tamara and Sam stand by their workers—neurotic Dillon, barking at every new face; Red Dog, policing the dog run; Daisy, shedding now and sitting in a divan of fur—as any devoted leader would look after his men. They have nearly 30 dogs in their charge, including one or two who, like Jackson, are more pets than employees.

Dogs are no longer necessary for Alaskan winter travel. Snow machines are faster, and they eat less. But many people, both native and setters from outside, keep and mush sled dogs. Every summer, the Tanana Chiefs Council (with a little help from Bob Barker!) sends around a team of veterinary students to administer rabies vaccine to the dogs of the Yukon. They pay a visit while I’m there, complimenting Tamara on the cleanliness of the dog-yard and the health of the dogs. The truth is that dogs have been mere workers in Alaska for generations. Competitive mushers and wilderness guides have a strong interest in the health of their animals, but as snow machines have supplanted dogs as a means of transportation, poverty and neglect have made it hard on many animals.

The dog run.
Larry on poop patrol. Keeping the dog run neat is a shared daily task.

Two Things Middle Yukon

Bank Swallow colony, east of the camp on the Yukon. Bank Swallows always nest in colonies; this is a rather large one.

Bank Swallows make good bear food, when the bears can get it--note the claw-marks. Click on the images to enlarge the view. In spite of this apparent mis-match, swallows in Alaska are not sorely pressed -- in Alaska.

As with many migratory species, the Bank Swallow is listed as an endangered specie in California where it is under threat from human activities.

The colony serves as a mutual-aid society. Swallows forage from dawn 'til dusk and strive to maintain close contact with the nest and young during that time. Swallows communicate good sources of food to one another, increasing efficiency and decreasing exposure among members of the colony.

Close-up of the Aspen Leaf Miner worm. Nearly all of Alaska's quaking aspen population is affected by the Leaf miner moth. Very tiny, the larvae live off the leaves and in less than a decade have spread throughout the state. The tracks of the miner worm give whole hillsides of trees a pale, gray-green cast. Trees can survive the moth, though it does retard their growth rate. Field biologists have found that trees that -- through genetic chance -- secrete nectar near their leaves are able to fend off the worm. The nectar attracts ants; the ants eat the miner larvae.

Dendrologists and entomologists are watching this remarkable explosion in the miner population carefully. Will the leaf miner ultimately destroy the aspen population? Will ants alter their feeding patterns to seek out the miner worm rather than the proxy nectar? Will aspens adapt as a population to produce nectar more commonly, thus attracting the ants and fighting the miner worm?

Trees have remarkable adaptive capacity that we only slightly understand. During the gypsy moth infestation of southern New England early in the 1980's, oak trees fought back against the tent caterpillar -- a gestational stage of the gypsy moth -- by altering the chemistry of their leaves. While this is remarkable in itself, even more amazing was their ability to warn other trees.

I can recall those summers from my childhood. Standing in the woods on a quiet early summer day, millions of masticating caterpillars created a persistent susseration that sounded like light rain. What I couldn't hear were Oak trees under attack sending out a distress call in the form of jasmonic acid. The acid drifted out on the air from tree to tree, prompting unaffected Oaks to increase the toxicity of their own leaf chemistry in advance of the assault.n

Might not the Quaking Aspen develop a similar response? May it already? With nearly every acre of the Alaskan population affected, it is to be hoped.

n: See Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels.