Friday, March 27, 2009

Beth Kinsella Sakanishi’s Birthday, Alaska, and the Iditarod

The 37th running of the Iditarod just finished in Alaska. Lance Mackey passed the burled arch in Nome first, for the third time in a row, a very rare feat. And, he did it with huge blizzards keeping most competitors hunkered down to wait out the storms, as winds drove the temperatures down to fifty below zero.

We’ve been following this year’s Iditarod since watching a television special highlighting last year’s race, a fierce showdown between Jeff King (if you take him at his own words, a very arrogant fellow) and Lance (son of a past winner, with sled dog racing in his blood).

And, with Beth’s birthday here, I dug up some of her writings on Alaska to celebrate that great 49th state, and her special day, as we never get to share birthday cakes, short of hopping a flight to Japan.

So, as you eat a piece of cake for Betka, take some time and read what she wrote twenty years past during a visit with Judy Taylor, Jim Alberts and baby Mallory in Fairbanks (Turn back to Birthday Kids in February for a current picture of ‘baby Mal’):

"We met Mary Shields on our way back down the river. A red-cheeked, merry-eyed woman, she was waiting to give us a dogsledding demonstration. Mary had been the first woman to complete the Iditarod Race -- an incredible 1,200 mile long route following the trail taken in 1925 when a famous team of sled dog mushers relayed 300,000 unites of lifesaving diphtheria serum to epidemic-threatened Nome. Begun in 1973, the second year the race was held Mary Shields and another woman were the only intrepid females to attempt the race and not a few men scoffed at the idea of their even trying to finish.

With a part black Labrador lead dog named Cabbage, Mary crossed over the finish line in Nome at 4 o’clock in the morning. No one was sleeping through her arrival, though. The women of Nome, bundled in parkas, stretched in front of the finish line holding a banner over their heads which read, “You’ve come a long way, baby!”
Mary was witty and informal. As she told us these and other stories, the magic of dog sledding came alive. Her eloquence in describing the beauty of sledding, almost flying, over snow lit by a full moon with only the wind and the dogs for company, left one longing for the experience.-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
‘Home’ is not a house to Alaskans, the wilderness is. I have a wonderful quotation in my journal that I’ve saved because it seemed to describe the Irish so well. It is originally about the Alaskans, however, and now I realize its meaning more fully: “Alaskans are outgoing and yet finally reserved, shielding a secret self that finds its communion in nature, not humankind.”
I find echoes of myself in those words, and elsewhere in Alaska. I wonder if all travelers find bits of themselves in whatever lands they fall in love with, or is it only me -- always secretly looking for that place I can feel comfortable in? Not only the people’s dependence on Nature to refresh them as water from a well, but the pace seemed to fit me here. That ‘Why do today what can be easily done tomorrow or even next week,” view of the world that pulls a frustrated sigh from those who think in “lower 48 time”.
The mist was heavy so we didn’t see Denali, but the scenery all along the way was so beautiful that regret had no place. Mallory was an absolute peach for an eighteen-month -old on such a long ride. I don’t know what she thought about the whole affair but Judy, Jim and I were delighted when, on the way back, we saw moose and caribou. A mother moose and her two calves were munching away to our left as we turned a corner. They were too far for a leisurely look but the caribou we saw next were closer. Beautiful animals, they had the lithe grace of deer, yet a compelling strength evident in their more powerful lines.
Leaving Denali, we headed back to Fairbanks on Alaska’s main (and only) highway. The two-hour ride was a time for memory-weaving. Broken only occasionally by talk (we were all happily tired) and more seldom by the radio, I let the cottage associations drift in: Algonquin first, of course. Moose and wolves not seen but heard, wilderness, forests.

Sifting through these thoughts were earlier ones. Tim, Pat, Tom and I are up the cottage playing inside for once. Occasionally our conversation, concentration, is broken by the slam of the screen door: mom going out to get pump water, Dad taking Jim and Chris for a canoe ride. I’m sitting in a huge cardboard box surrounded by layer after layer of ‘Field and Stream’ and ‘Outdoor Life’. My job is to pick one issue out and hand it to the reader. It is Pat this time -- Pat who has inherited the storyteller voice from both Mom and Dad. While Tim diligently attempts to untie all of the thousand and one red-yarned knots studding the bedspread, we all listen, utterly captivated, to Pat reading ‘This happened to me’ from every issue of ‘Outdoor Life’. Unashamedly melodramatic and gruesome, with their tales of grizzly maulings and jaguar attacks, the stories held us at 8,9, 11 and 13, easily spellbound. Like ghost stories around the bonfire, those stories frightened and intrigued.
Alaska itself can be haunting. There is a quietness so complete, so eerie to city ears, it feels like watching a silent movie, at times. Even the relatively rural summers at Otty are full of noise. There is a spirit to this place that feels like a held breath, a caught voice, a whisper stilled."

Picture One: Beth, 2846 in Rochester, 1981
Picture Two: Northern Lights in Alaska
Picture Three: Mary Shields and her dogs
Picture Four: Wonder Lake in Denali, Alaska


Pat said...

Happy Birthday, Betka!!!

I well remember those wonderful stories from Outdoor Life. I think they were half the reason we went to Alaska for our honeymoon--never knew what was around the next corner,but as long as I had my trusty swiss army knife...?!

I love you,


Judy said...

Wonderful pictures and great memories my dear. I miss you-
we have shared some incredible experiences.
Have a great day!!
Love you always,
cousin Judy

Diana said...

Wonderful stories and pictures - my daughter has a college friend who lives outside Fairbanks in Delta Junction - Kristen went for a visit a couple of January's ago. Her only disappointment was because of volcanic ash - there was a haze and could not get good Northern lights pics - this one is wonderful.

I am a BIG fan of the Iditirod raising dogs like I do (although nothing that is even interested in that kind of cold)

I am amazed at the unique lives we all lead and the connections we have to different places.

Jack said...

Wonderful Beth--Just wonderful

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the comments, guys! Yes, what a fabulous photo of the Northern Lights.

Pat, thanks for putting up the page, and Judy and Diana and Dad -- a big hug and hello.

Alaska was a wondrous place. What memories. One of these days, I'd like to go again: Takeshi has always wanted to see the Aurora. There are even tours from Tokyo, so who knows?

Pat, I can still remember you and Glenn explaining, when you came back from Alaska, how to react in case of a Grizzly bear appearance.


Pat said...


Tell you what--Glenn and I will meet you and Takeshi in Alaska--just say the word!!!