Yes, those were baby chicks. Six of the tiniest, fuzziest little things. Three were shades of yellow and three had contrasting black splotches. Kim’s husband had purchased them in Fairbanks and the little cheepers had made their big flight the day before.
“Will they lay eggs?” I asked.
“Yes. Other people here have them.”
“Will they stay outside in the winter?”
“Yes – with a heat lamp. And, they’ll lay eggs even when it’s 50 below.”
I love chickens. They remind me of my Grandma Leppke’s Kansas farm where I followed her around when she fed chickens and gathered eggs. Sometimes I bravely snatched an egg beneath a full-grown flapping chicken.
I love chickens. They remind me of when we lived in Browning, Montana and my mother bought each of us four kids an Easter chick, painted in Easter colors, and they lived in a box in the kitchen. We didn’t love them as much when their fuzziness disappeared and prickly feathers emerged. One Sunday, Mom gathered up the chickens and stuck them in our VW van. They weren’t going to Sunday School. They were being dropped off at an Indian family’s home, on the way to our country church. From the looks on the parent’s faces, they would love having the grown-up chickens.
Later that evening, I met with six boarding school girls. Oftentimes people in the Lower 48 think all Alaska Natives are Eskimos. In reality, there are seven primary groups, of which two Eskimo groups, Athabascan Indian, and Aleuts form the majority. These girls were from around the state, and although with different heritages, they shared the commonality of isolated living environments in the villages they’d come from – not that I didn’t think Galena was isolated.
I was to interact as an author – whatever that means. I wanted to connect specifically with Galena so, I read the story “Breakup Takeoff” from Alaska Bush Pilot Doctor. The hero is Don Stickman. Don was an Athabascan Indian pilot from Nulato, a village a short distance downriver from Galena. I’d read through the phone book at the B&B and saw the name Stickman listed. Someone from his family lived in this village. I also chose it because it had to do with the Yukon River breakup — which had not yet occurred by Galena—but was anticipated.
After reading the story, we went on a Five Senses Walk. Five Senses Writing makes a story come alive and helps the reader feel as though she or he is right there – with the characters.
We paid attention to the road surface beneath our feet. Muddy? Smooth? Gravel-bumpy? Sloshy? We put our noses into the air, like a dog sniffing a scent. We smelled car exhaust, tundra awakening from the winter, and the aroma of woodstove smoke. We grabbed a handful of springtime snow, snow that had melted and frozen repeatedly. No longer was it flakey. Nor did it melt instantly in the warmth of our hands. It was grainy – like sand. Closing our eyes helped us focus on our senses. Walking with our eyes closed brought our attention to the warmth and chill of the evening sunshine filtering through the birch trees as we passed between the shadows and the open spaces.
This subdued and reflective focus lasted only so long. The invigorating air combined with long evening shadows compelled the girls to dash about and play shadow tag with one another. Giggles and shouts filled the air.
We hadn’t tasted the snow or mud or old leaves. But when we arrived back at the meeting house, we sipped hot chocolate. Our sensory experience was complete.
“What is the most comforting smell to you?” I asked.
“Wood smoke,” replied one girl quickly.
The short list was added to. Every smell mentioned had to do with the outdoors. These were true Alaskan girls. They resonated with the outdoors — no matter the frigid temperatures or lack of sunlight. It wasn’t the sense of warmth or sight. It was the life of the outdoors.
Wood smoke evokes memories in me of Mom’s propensity for wiener roasts — on a Yukon River shoreline, a Cook Inlet beach, or over a homestead burn barrel. I flashback to brush piles on the Gaede-80 homestead when my parents turned a wilderness into a home. I can still hear the clang of the woodstove door when Mom started the morning fire, while I remained buried beneath my flannel sheets.
Snow. Fresh air. The Big Dipper in a clear sky. Hot dog roasts. Mossy tundra. Even though one of the girls confided that she really was a city girl, she’ll always find her roots, her center, and her rejuvenation in the uncontained outdoor spaces. That’s just the way it is. That’s why I’ll never be a city girl – even if there are urban chickens.