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Monthly Archives: May 2011

I missed break-up on the Tanana River near Fairbanks this year—traveling—but the mighty Yukon River, 100 miles to the north, holds its ice longer. When I got a phone call last Friday telling me that the ice was beginning to move at Stevens Village, 27 miles upstream from the Yukon River Bridge on the Dalton, I packed my battered RV, loaded my wife, my son, and our aging dog and headed for the river.

Break-up is an event in Alaska, defining the transition between winter and summer—the intense sun of April and May melts the snow in a rush that lifts the rotting ice on the rivers, sweeping the rivers clean. The rhythm of life changes—winters are cold and dark, but the country is accessible by snowmachine—summers are warm and light, and one can travel along rivers by boat, but mostly the uplands are inaccessible.

When we arrived at the river at about 10 PM in the evening, the ice had already moved some—there was about a half mile of clear water below the bridge—but the ice had stopped moving, not really jammed—just stuck. We walked along the edge of the water, admiring the chunks of stranded ice on the shore, waiting, watching. We went to bed about 1 AM, and awoke in the morning to find the ice in exactly the same places. All day on Saturday, the warm sun shone, and the sound of water dripping from the ice piled along the river banks could be heard. But the ice didn’t move. In late afternoon, we sat by the side of the river, enjoying the warmth, waiting, in silence. My son Ben got a stick and started poking at some of the partially floating ice, eventually starting a slow motion parade of large ice chunks along the river bank. My wife fell asleep, as did the dog. I sat and watched the river, the ice, the sun.

8-5921 Yukon Break-up, May 14, 2011

Break-up feels like an unscheduled holiday, a natural tradition, and like human holidays, much of the power the event holds is due to our memories. Where I grew up in Pennsylvania, ice formed on the rivers only during infrequent winter cold snaps, and break-up was not an event. My first break-up was the one I saw in Kotzebue, in June of 1987, a few weeks after coming to Alaska for what we thought was the summer. We’ve managed to stay a bit longer—and break-up feels like the beginning of another year here—a defining moment in the rhythm of this place, a time to both remember and to plan. Or take a nap in the sun.

4-2021 Ice out, Front Street, Kotzebue, June 1987

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With Mother’s day coming up, it seems a fitting time to pay tribute to the first photographer that had a major influence on me—namely, my mother.

My mother as a young woman

As a child, I remember my mother’s camera, a twin lens Argus that took roll film—a snapshot camera with a very crude lens—but I remember the care with which she arranged herself when she took the pictures.  Making pictures was a serious enterprise for her.

Noami Witmer, "Dennis With Easter Egg, 1959"

In the 1960s, my mother switched from black and white film to color slides—a wonderful medium, but one requiring more care in storage than my mother seemed capable of giving her collection.  Many of these slides are now warped, scratched, and dirty—but they are the most direct access to memories that my sisters and I have of our childhood.

Naomi Witmer, "Sue at Easter Egg Hunt, 1970"

I’ve been thinking a lot about these pictures, as I’ve spent the last two weeks going through my parents house, sorting through the papers and artifacts that seem to accumulate over a lifetime—and mixed in with these papers were photographs.  Albums put together 60 years ago have largely fallen apart, and the slide collection was scattered into several locations—pictures I remembered seeing years ago have reappeared, along with many photographs I don’t recall ever seeing before.

Mother, April 25, 2011

My mother is still living, almost 82, but her memory is mostly gone, ravaged by Alzheimer’s.  She is now living in an assisted living facility where she can get the care she needs.  My father is still alive also, but failing, and the clearing of the house was to facilitate his move into a smaller apartment in an independent living community.

I’ve put together a digital picture frame of family photographs for my mother’s room at the home—when I visit, we watch the pictures together.  On good days, she names those she can remember—and guesses at others—often there are stories and laughter over the memories.  But I wonder sometimes if the pictures help her connect with her past, or make her feel inadequate –knowing that she should know the people in the pictures, but unable to connect the images with names or memories.   But I am grateful for the pictures she took of our family, and the memories she left us with.