Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Kozy Kusko Quilt Guild, Bethel, Alaska

Friday, February 17, 2012
It took all day and three different flights to reach Bethel, Alaska from Portland, Oregon.  I was pleasantly surprised when I got off the plane that it was as warm as it was.  At -1 degrees, it was 35 to 45 degrees warmer than it was just a few weeks ago (it's a good thing I've got my thermals on!).  Patty Burley, who is the Kozy Kusko Quilt Guild Program Chair and the person most responsible for getting me to Alaska, met me at the airport.  She and her husband, Mike, are my hosts for the next several days. 

Bethel, population about 6,500, is located 340 miles west of Anchorage and sits at the mouth of the Kuskokwim River and the Bearing Sea.  Bethel is situated on top of permafrost, which is permanently frozen ground.  The first thing you notice is the lack of any large trees - or much of any other shrubs or bushes for that matter.  Because the permafrost is constantly moving and shifting, plants can't establish a secure root system.  And the trees that you do see can be hundreds of years old.  Although the region is flat and almost treeless, Bethel lies inside the Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge, second largest in the U.S. 

The second thing I noticed is that all building structures are on stilts above ground level.  This is done to prevent the permafrost from thawing due to a dryer, furnace, or other hot spot in the house.  If the permafrost were to thaw, the house would sink.  As it is, most homes have cracks in their ceilings and walls because the permafrost beneath the homes is constantly shifting.

The third thing I noticed upon arrival was all the taxis. Bethel supports a surprisingly large number of taxicabs. In fact, the city has more cab drivers per capita than any other city in the country, making it the unlikely taxicab capital of the U.S.  It's not so hard to understand, though, because residents pay a lot of money to have a vehicle barged in during the summertime, or a huge sum to have a vehicle flown in during the winter. As a result, there's not a lot of cars, but lots of cabs!

It's a very expensive place to live because you can't drive to Bethel - everything has to be flown in during the winter, or put on a boat and shipped in during the summer.  Gas is $6.13 per gallon, and a gallon of milk costs between $8 and $10....ouch!  Bethel is the hub for the 56 villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The local native people are called Yup'ik (pronounced u-pick).  Because of the high expense of everything, Yup'iks rely on subsistence fishing, hunting, and gathering for food and the Kuskokwim River is their lifeline.  It provides fish year round, as well as a means of transportation.  In the summer, locals travel the river by boat, and in the winter when the river is frozen solid, they drive their trucks, snowmobiles, or dogsleds on it.

Saturday, February 18, 2012
The Kozy Kusko Quilt Guild is a very socially active group of people and currently has about 40 hearty members.  The University of Alaska, Kuskokwim Campus is the site of our two-day Thread Painting class.  There are 15 gals in class and because Patty forewarned me that thread and other quilting supplies are not available in Bethel, I filled one of my suitcases with as much thread, hoops, and sewing machine needles as I could.  It was a good thing, too.  I left town a few days later with only a handful of threads and needles left.

Sunday, February 19, 2012
Everyone in class was very productive and got a lot done on their herons.  In fact, most gals stayed and worked on their pieces long after Patty and I left last night.  While driving home from class on Sunday afternoon, we saw a Sundog (scientific name parhelion), which is an atmospheric phenomenon that creates a bright spot of light in the sky close to the setting sun.  It most often occurs during very cold weather.  I didn't get a very good picture of it, but it was very cool to see.

Monday, February 20, 2012
On Monday morning, Mike and Patty took me over to Bll Eisenbart's home, and I met my first dog musher extraordinaire .  Bill is quite well known in this area for his dogs and mushing skills and has competed in and won numerous races, in particular the Kuskokwim 300 Dogsled Race which is run every January.

He currently has 19 dogs that he is working with who live in his back yard.  These dogs aren't the Siberian husky or other long-haired breed so commonly portrayed in the movies, but rather small, wiry dogs with a strong will and hearts of gold. After hooking up eight dogs to the sled, we were off.  It's surprising how fast we were going.  Bill trains the dogs to run at 10-11 miles an hour whether they're going uphill,downhill or on flat terrain.   And when you're sitting just a few inches off the ground, everything is just whipping by.  We mushed for two hours on the tundra and frozen waterways, and Bill even let me drive for a short while - it was an experience I will never forget!

Captain Jack

Dogsledding on the Tundra - amazing!

After our return, Bill needed to check his fish net on the river and asked if I'd like to go with him and his friend, Don.  We drove onto the Kuskokwim River and checked the net that Don and Bill put out last fall when the river first froze.  They had seven whitefish, a local highly-prized fish, in the net, so fresh fish for Don and Bill's dinner!   I, on the other hand, headed to Tom and Andy's home for an amazing close encounter of the feathered kind.

Whitefish - a local delicacy

Tom is an ornithologist, or bird scientist and has two birds that he keeps at his home - a gyrfalcon and a goshawk.   The gyrfalcon is the largest of the falcon species with adult wingspans reaching from 43 - 64" and weight from 1.8 to 4.6 pounds.  Tom's gyrfalcon is not yet fully grown, so it's still on the smaller side.  The Northern Goshawk is a medium-large bird of prey with short, broad wings and a long tail, which makes it ideal for maneuvering through trees in the forest. We drove to the tundra and Tom flew the goshawk several times.  Both birds are just magnificent and it was incredible to see them up close - I even got to feed the gyrfalcon.  Afterwards, we had a classic, local dinner of moose burgers at Tom and Andy's home.
Northern Goshawk


 Tuesday, February 21, 2012
One of the advantages of living in Bethel is taking flights in and out.  Patty and I arrived at the airport 20 minutes before the plane left, walked up to the counter and checked our bags, went through security screening, and still waited 10 minutes before boarding the plane...what a nice change!  We arrived in a foggy, snowy Anchorage an hour later.  Patty had a few appointments, so I spent the afternoon visiting the Anchorage Museum - a must-see if you're ever in town.  We also visited the Quilted Raven, a great quilt shop in the heart of Anchorage.  They specialize in Alaskan patterns and fabric.  I found it easy to contribute to the local economy...just hoping to find some space in my suitcase!

Patty at a Children's Ice Sculpture Park in Anchorage

Wednesday, February 22, 2012
This morning we ate at a local institution - Gwennies - well known for their reindeer sausage and huge portion sizes.  We drove the scenic Glenn Highway to Wasilla and visited Sylvia's Quilt Depot....another time I felt it necessary to contribute to the local community (the saying, "will work for fabric" applies here!). We also visited a bookstore in the afternoon where I picked up a few books on Alaska and Alaskan art.  At the airport, I said a sad farewell to Patty and checked in for the flight to Fairbanks.  The Alaska Airlines Rep wanted to take a picture of the scale with my bags on it - one weighed 49.5 lbs and the other weighed exactly 50.0 lbs!  Pam Sprout and Betsy Underwood met me at the Fairbanks Airport as I begin another adventure!

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