I have sad news to report — my ice skating pond is not finished yet. But we have a good excuse. It has been so cold my husband was concerned the water might freeze on the trip home.
The conditions have been extreme here, even by Alaska standards. We had two nights of 20 below zero (-29 C). And then it warmed up a few degrees, and the infamous Matanuska River wind began to blow. In the nearby town of Palmer, where the wind really howls, signs were flying off buildings and people were dashing from cars to shops as quickly as they could. The Anchorage Daily News had this great photo.
We typically don’t get as much wind at our house as in Palmer, but the past couple of nights we could hear it howling over the tops of the trees and threatening to scatter our plastic sleds about the yard.
The Matanuska wind has been known to reach 100 mph in the winter, although this week I suspect it was closer to 50 or 60 mph. The wind chill factor makes an incredible difference. For example, when it was -10F (-23 C), but the wind was blowing at 50 mph, the temperature in effect drops to -45 F (-43 C.)
But we certainly didn’t have it as bad as some areas of the state. On the Kenai Peninsula, south of here, 70 mph winds knocked out the power to more than 1,000 homes. And north in Fairbanks, where it is often extremely cold in the winter, they set a new record for November 17. The temperature, with no wind, was 41 degrees below zero F, which strangely enough is -41 Celsius as well.
This morning at our house, though, the wind has calmed some and the thermometer reads a balmy 10 below zero, so we’re going to give it a try. Sam is bringing home 200 gallons of water in a tank in the back of the truck, and we’re going to see if we can make that ice skating pond.
P.S. We got some exciting news from Canada this week: CHATELAINE MAGAZINE (Canada’s premier women’s magazine – which reaches aprox. 4 million women monthly) has selected THE SNOW CHILD as their March issue Book Club pick (issue comes out mid-Feb). Previous titles that have been book club picks included The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano.
I love ice skating outdoors. When I was a little girl, I would sometimes skate on Wolverine Lake. On good days, the ice would be black and smooth, and I could lay down, cup my hands around my eyes, and look down through the dark cold and see aquatic plants frozen in the ice.
But the lake was several miles from our house, and often it was too windy to really enjoy skating there. Once or twice, I recall, our road was so icy I was able to skate back and forth on it, but it wasn’t quite the same. So my dad built me my own little skating rink in the backyard. It was nothing overly elaborate — just a two-by-four frame. He put down sheet plastic, flooded it with the garden hose, and let it freeze.
I vividly remember skating on that little sheet of ice on winter evenings. It was magical. The cold darkness. Silence broken only by the swish of my skate blades. The ice all to myself, but the warm light of home spilling out the windows and onto the snow. I wasn’t doing any double axels or camel spins, but I loved twirling and gliding across the ice.
I’ve always dreamed of recreating that backyard skating pond. We live near a lake, but often it is too snowy or too windy to get out there. The nearby town of Palmer has an arena, but I have never enjoyed the harsh lights, strangely still air, and noisy crowds of an indoor ice rink.
A skating pond in our yard, however, has been until now virtually impossible. We don’t have a well or live within a city system, so we haul our own water. But over the summer, we got a 200-gallon tank for hauling water in the back of our truck. So…
Yesterday Sam and I moved back the wood pile so he could get the plow truck up into our yard. Then he plowed out a nice little square. Today I’m going to go through our heap of scrap lumber and piece together enough boards to make the frame. It might take a few trips of hauling water, but I think we can make it work.
I planned to wait for some cold, clear weather to flood the pond. But then we woke up to the moon, stars, and 15 below zero. (That’s Fahrenheit, so for Celsius readers, it’s -26.)
Hopefully my next letter to you will include some photos of our shiny new skating pond.
P.S. Thank you all for your kind, enthusiastic reponses to my last letter. I have had a few people email me to ask if I am in fact going to France. ABSOLUTELY! It is a definite yes, yes, yes that I will be going. We are also considering making it a family trip — my 12-year-old might never forgive me if I go to London and Paris without her.
Dear stormy reader,
While the western coast of Alaska is facing what meteorologist say could be the worst storm on record, with hurricane-force winds and 25-foot seas, all is fairly quiet, but very snowy, here at our house. We are in Southcentral Alaska, hundreds of miles from places like Nome where the storm is expected to hit hardest.
Around here, it has been cold — about 5 below zero Fahrenheit yesterday morning. Over the past week or so, we received a good blanket of snow. So in a word, it’s winter! And as evidence, here are some photos I took around our place yesterday.
Dear warm reader,
It’s official, whatever the calendar says. Winter has arrived. We have snow on the ground, the temperature has stayed between 5 and 25 degrees Fahrenheit, and the winter wind has been howling.
The good news? This means sledding season has begun. We have one of the best sledding hills in the land, if I may say so myself. And we have a pile of sleds, for when friends, relatives, and neighbors come over for the fun.
My favorite, though, is our Norwegian kick sled. They are terribly expensive to purchase new here in Alaska. But we were fortunate enough to get a gently used one from a friend. For those who have never had the pleasure of riding one, it’s a blast!
They are designed a bit like a dog sled, with runners, a chair seat where one person can ride, and a place on the back of the runners for another person to stand and steer. You can ride it on flat ground by kicking with one foot. But we prefer to fly down our hill on ours.
The bad news? The same hill that is so fantastic for sledding is also our driveway. When the snow gets deep or the ice gets slick, it isn’t nearly as much fun to drive up as it is to sled down.
And here enters our poor, rusty old 1978 Chevy plow truck. If you wanted to, you could run it like a Flinstones’ car, by sticking your feet out the rusty hole through the floor. Its tires go flat between snow storms, and Sam has to spend more time inflating the tires and trying to get the truck to start than he does actually plowing.
So the snow is here, and we’re both celebrating and grumbling.
P.S. I have some news from London I’ve been waiting to share — BBC Radio 4, one of the UK’s biggest national radio stations, has selected my debut novel The Snow Child for their Book at Bedtime slot. It will be adapted for radio and broadcast in 10 episodes in April. Other episodes have included some of my very favorite novels: Things Fall Apart, A Christmas Carol, On Canaan’s Side, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, and many more. Can’t wait to hear that lovely British accent!
Dear studious reader,
Our daughter came home from middle school the other day with an assignment — to write a five-paragraph essay explaining how to do something. Her dad and I had fun joking about the possible topics she could choose. How to Pester Your Baby Sister. How to Coerce Your Parents into Another I-Tunes Purchase. How to Avoid Washing the Dishes. As you can imagine, she was not amused by our suggestions.
It was only after her evening chores that she was inspired to write her essay. Again, Sam and I offered up amusing takes on the topic, but she said she would just tell it straight — that it didn’t need any embellishments. I think she was right.
So, in unedited copy, here is Grace Ivey’s essay:
Knowing how to catch a chicken is a very important skill to master. Whether a chicken has escaped the henhouse, or you need to capture one for dinner, it’s good to have a plan. The basic three steps are getting prepared, cornering the chicken, and grabbing the chicken.
First, get ready by putting on protective clothing. Wear either a long-sleeve shirt or a coat to protect your arms, and a pair of thick gloves. Then, make sure you are wearing long pants, in case the chicken attacks.
Next, find a specific corner you want to chase the chicken into. Once you’ve found a corner, find a route to scare the bird directly into it. Then, make sure all other escape routes, besides to the corner, are blocked. After that, get behind the chicken and herd it into the designated area. Block the way out of the corner with your body.
Finally, hold out your hands and quickly grab the chicken so that you’re holding down its flapping wings. Make sure the head is faced away from you, so it can’t peck you. Then, you can carry it and move it anywhere you want.
After you go to the hassle of all this, it pays off. Whether your mother makes warm chicken noodle soup or you just put the chicken back where it should be, this task always ends with a feeling of satisfaction … and exhaustion.
P.S. I reprinted this essay with Grace’s permission, with the understanding that I inform readers that it was written under the duress of her language arts class, in case someone should mistakenly think she did this for fun.
Dear returning reader,
I made it back home from my trip to Portland, Oregon, just in time for the first snowfall of the year. At about 8 last night, my husband turned on the porch light and the darkness was filled with huge, wet snowflakes. Our daughters cheered and ran out onto the deck in their bare feet to catch snowflakes on their tongues. Then our oldest dashed back into the house with a handful of snow and slid it down the back of my neck.
As a family, we’re unusual even for Alaskans. We welcome the first snow. We have the greatest sledding hill in the world. We build snow men and snow angels and snow forts. We cross-country ski and snowmachine. We watch the comings and goings of wild animals by their tracks. Most of all I love the clean, quiet feeling of a blanket of fresh snow across the land. It makes me feel at home.
As does a dish of caribou stroganoff, which I made for dinner last night. And a crackling fire in the wood stove.
I’ve always liked Portland. There is so much culture and energy, art and innovation. At the Pacific Northwest Booksellers trade show, I met some wonderful literary people, and discovered some books that I’ll write about in a letter later this week.
Friends from Alaska are living in Portland now. When I was done with the trade show, they took me to 23rd Avenue, with all its upscale shops. I had my first bowl of matzo ball soup, and it was delicious. Then we wandered through a beautiful neighborhood of Victorian turrets, well-trimmed hedges, and $1.2 million price tags, and then up into Washington Park with its towering cedars and hemlocks and its elegant rose gardens. It was a lovely afternoon.
Portland has great beer, fabulous coffee, and entertaining people watching opportunities. It has an enviable book store and countless concerts, plays, gallery shows, readings, and other artsy events.
But at the end of the trip I was ready to come home to Alaska. To snow. To caribou stroganoff. To a warm fire. To family.
Dear quiet reader,
By the end of the day yesterday, I needed a break. We had spent the afternoon painting urethane on wood trim, hanging doors, and wiring light fixtures as a part of our ongoing home construction project. We had also spent the weekend in a state of excitement and awe at the recent news from Norway. Between the paint fumes and the surprising new reality of The Snow Child’s success overseas, I felt a bit of vertigo. I needed to get my feet back on the ground.
“Let’s go grouse hunting,” I said.
So just before dusk, we abandoned the wires and paintbrushes and put on our boots and coats. Sam grabbed a .22, and I helped our 4-year-old daughter get dressed. Then we set out into the woods behind our house, the fallen leaves crunching under our feet, our golden retriever jaunting ahead with a moose bone in her mouth.
As I’ve mentioned in previous letters, hunting for me is rarely about just hunting. It’s a reason to walk quietly in the woods, to leave behind the day’s cares and pay attention to details of the natural world that at first glance seem small but are in fact bigger than any of us.
We stepped over bear scat in the middle of the trail, and, farther up the hill, noticed where a cow moose and her twin calves had bedded down, leaving their imprints in the dry foliage. Our daughter measured herself against the tall, wild grasses that have yellowed in the autumn, and begged a shoulder her ride from her dad. We inspected a squirrel nest in the side of a hollow cottonwood tree, and we joked about how messy the squirrel was — throwing his trash of leftover spruce cones just outside his door. As we neared an old-growth spruce forest, an owl swooped silently through the air and disappeared into the trees.
It is unusually mild here for this time of year. Most of the leaves have blown to the ground and each night it frosts, but it has yet to snow on us. The afternoons have been warm and calm. As we hiked back down the trail, the sun was nearly set and in the far distance we could see the Matanuska River winding through the valley, the sunlight glinting off its water.
Much to my surprise, we actually did get a grouse. Sam shot it among the alder bushes not far from our house. When we returned from our stroll, he cleaned the bird. I coated the small pieces of meat in seasoned flour and fried them in olive oil in a cast iron pan on the stove. It was delicious, if I may so myself.
P.S. Welcome to my new subscribers. I hope you enjoy my letters.
Dear returning reader,
In Wednesday’s letter, I wrote about our recent caribou hunting trip. I described the small details — the sights and sounds of the river.
When my husband Sam got home that evening, he read the letter. “It’s nice,” he said. “I like it.” But then he chuckled, and said he told his coworkers a different version of events. Same hunting trip, same characters, setting and plot, but Sam’s telling was a comedy of errors.
It began the day before we left. As Sam drove to town to get supplies, he heard an ominous sound from his truck. The brakes were going out. He called me at the bookstore, said he wasn’t sure how this was going to work out, but he would try to replace the brakes that afternoon. There was no way we could make the 150-mile drive, pulling the boat, if he didn’t fix the problem.
Which, much to my admiration, he did in about an hour, with the only help coming from our two daughters. First hurdle cleared.
At home, we hurriedly gathered all of our gear and food, working late into the night. We rose the next morning at 5 a.m., bundled up the girls and hooked up the boat trailer.
There, in the pitch dark of our driveway, we realized that the trailer lights weren’t working. No brake lights. No taillights. Sam followed the wires and came to a connection where, when he tugged ever so gently, the entire line fell apart. After much searching, he found his tools in the shed and began rewiring. It was cold and dark. I held the flashlight for Sam while the girls waited, half-asleep, in the house. After a half hour or so, he had all the wires mended. We turned on the truck, tested the lights — now we had no trailer lights, AND no truck lights.
“We blew a fuse,” Sam said. Fuses, and any other store-bought items, are 30 miles the opposite direction of caribou. But by now it was nearly light (not part of the plan.) Sam said we would head north, and if someone came up behind us, we would turn on our turn signal (which we miraculously still had) and pull safely off the road. Next hurdle cleared, kind of.
Until we arrived at the boat launch, more than 150 miles from home and in the middle of nowhere, and our 12-year-old daughter hopped out of the truck in her flimsy Converse shoes.
“Where are your boots?” I asked.
“What?” she said with an expression only a middle school girl can give you. “You didn’t bring them for me?” It was 37 degrees. There could be rain, snow, sleet, and at the very least freezing river water. So I gave her my new insulated rubber boots, which are about three sizes too big for her, and I took Sam’s rubber boots, which are about 6 sizes two big for me, and Sam wore his leaky hip waders. The only one of us in appropriate foot gear was our 4-year-old, who as sweet as she is isn’t much help in launching or landing the boat. But another hurdle was cleared, albeit with cold, clumsy feet.
We got in the boat and turned up river. When we stopped to scout for caribou, we saw dozens of big, beautiful grayling swimming in the clear water below us.
“I want to catch a fish!” our youngest announced excitedly. She has her very own pink fishing rod, which she is very handy at casting and reeling. She loves fishing. It was part of the goal of this trip — we could caribou hunt, and Rori could catch some fish. Except, in the flurry of the morning, we forgot all the fishing gear. Even Rori’s hot pink fishing rod. Rori scowled and stared over the boat’s edge, watching 50 fish swim by.
For the next hours, all was how I described in my last letter — burbling river water, eagle feathers and bear tracks, all beautiful and amazing. Evening approached, and we started a campfire. We hadn’t seen a single caribou, despite all the tracks, but we knew they could come along any time. We got out our dinner — hot dogs, buns. “Where’s the ketchup?” Grace asked.
Sam looked at me. I looked back. “Mustard?” he asked, kind of sadly. Apparently fishing rods and hunting boots weren’t all that were forgotten — we had also left the condiments at home.
But at dusk, not long after we finished our meal, Sam whispered loudly “Caribou!” and we proceeded to shoot one, field dress it, and bring it back to camp just before we lost all light. We left the meat on the sand bar, just the other side of the river from camp, and during the night the monstrously huge bear that had left his tracks along the river did not come visit us or the meat. We stayed warm enough in the tent, and Sam dried his wool socks and hip waders beside the campfire. In the middle of the night, we heard coyotes yipping and the northern lights were out in all their majesty.
In the end, all things forgotten were, well, forgotten.
Dear adventurous reader,
During the weekend, my husband and I decided to take the family on a trip north. The purpose, ostensibly, was to go caribou hunting. We packed a tent, sleeping bags, food, rifles, and warm clothes for all of us. For our youngest daughter we brought full snow gear — snow pants, parka, boots, mittens. Although it hadn’t snowed yet, we suspected it would be well below freezing.
We loaded everything into the back of our pickup truck, hitched our boat trailer, and drove north through river valleys and alpine tundra. Then we launched the boat into clear-running water, and headed up river.
When I say we were “ostensibly” going on a caribou hunting trip, I mean to say that hunting trips are rarely about only the hunt itself. We go in search of moose or bear or caribou. We hope, at the end of the trip, to have meat for the winter.
But more than anything we hope to grab some last bit of autumn. We go in search of surprises, big and small. An eagle feather caught in a spruce branch. Brown bear tracks in the mud. Grayling darting beneath our boat. A small group of caribou passing by camp at dusk.
A good book shared around the campfire. The sounds of the wilderness filling our ears as we sleep — coyotes yipping along the hillside, the river burbling over rocks and logs. Hot oatmeal in the morning, dotted with cranberries gathered from the tundra bushes behind our tent.
When we returned home last night, we brought caribou meat. But to say we had just been gone hunting doesn’t say enough.
Dear kind reader,
Thanks to the assistance of my father-in-law, Jim Ivey, I have several new readers in Florida. Welcome! I hope you enjoy my letters.
In earlier letters I have mentioned how much I love getting comments. It makes writing all the more fun when I hear from you. And you don’t have to limit your comments to the matters at hand. If you ever want to share a good book you are reading, or your own interesting Alaska story, or if you ever have any questions for me about Alaska or my novel, please write in.
Autumn is at its pinnacle here. The birch and cottonwood trees are golden, the alpine tundra is red, and the mountains are often topped with snow in the mornings. Inevitably the glacier wind will begin to blow all the color from the trees. But Mother Nature seems to be holding her breath for the moment, and the land is aglow.