Thursday, April 26, 2007

Finally! Jake's Girl decided yesterday was the day and so, two weeks after first expected, "Dusty" entered the world. She (yes, she - Jake's fourth baby girl in a row!) is healthy and strong and big. She is also the chromatic opposite of her mother. There is not a spot of black or dark brown anywhere on this baby. She is all peaches and cream.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Ever since we first moved here I have listened to my neighbours bemoan the drought. I often wonder when the current conditions will be accepted as the norm and people will start talking about moisture as the exception rather than the expected. Then every couple years we get a good soaking rain like the one that fell on Monday and even the most cynical of us wonder if this is it; the end of dry, the return to green. Our optimism usually lasts about a week until soaring temperatures and scorching winds bring us back to our senses. Then we walk around with our heads down, ashamed to meet the eyes of those fools as gullible as we! The good news is that rain this time of year is not wasted. Every precious drop is gulped down by the cracking earth and the wilting wildflowers who suddenly decide they can afford to bloom after all. The photo at the left is of my view of Heart Mountain yesterday morning as the sun drew clouds of moisture out of the ground. The small size of the picture doesn't do justice to the scene which seemed to emphasize that Spring has arrived!

I think the sounds of spring are just as welcome as its sights. Every year at this time I am surprised as I hear noises I didn't even realize had been missing during the winter months. The birds are the most noticeable. The ones that hang around our place year round are those who missed the singing lessons. Magpies, Ravens, Clark's Nutcrackers and Pinyon Jays have voices that are harsh and strident and remarkably similar. The rare exception of a Finch or Solitaire is a welcome soprano in the chorus of off-key baritones. That all changes in March and April as we start to hear the varied and beautiful songs of the returning snow birds. Bluebirds and Meadowlarks arrive first and are followed closely by Cranes, Warblers, Curlews, Wrens, Doves, Sparrow Hawks and so many more. As the hoofed mammals move to higher summer ground we see much more of the mule deer, the white tails and the pronghorn. If you asked most people what sound an antelope makes I am sure you would get a blank stare in return. In fact, if disturbed they signify their displeasure with an eerily human sounding "humph!" The sound of the snort travels for some distance and I often find myself searching the horizon for a silhouette to match the noise. We have a large buck who seems to have made our front pasture his spring home. My running trail takes me a big circle around his location and each morning I watch him stand on a high mound and move in a tight circle as he watches my progress, each turn I make accented by a loud and disgusted "humph!" as if he is my track coach and none too pleased with my efforts!
We are seeing baby bunnies everywhere. The books say our breed of desert cottontail has their young all year long but someone obviously forgot to tell the bunnies. This time of year there always seems to be an explosion in small grey bundles of fur. I have to force myself not to get too attached as they provide the primary source of food for a whole host of other creatures. The eagles, ravens and even magpies are all on the lookout for tender young lapin. Coyotes, foxes and bobcats spend hours watching juniper bushes for any sign of movement. Even the rattlesnakes seem to time their yearly entrance to the arrival of the young cottontails. We also have jack rabbits that live on our place but we rarely see them. They are nocturnal and don't seem to mix well with the bunnies so they tend to stay out on the prairie rather than around the house. Ken saw one yesterday on his run and at first he thought it was a coyote - that is how big they are. Yesterday was a day for unusual sightings. I saw a beautiful peregrine falcon down by the irrigation ditch and he stayed still long enough for me to positively identify him by his beautiful shade of blue and his tell-tale moustache.
Today I will work on my fabric interpretation of my sketch from Moose Meadows. I am trying a whole variety of new techniques and am excited about the progress so far. I will post pictures once the thing is done.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

I returned yesterday from my three day drawing class in the Beartooth Mountains. It was a wonderful experience and I came back feeling inspired and charged to create. It had a rather inauspicious beginning with the snowfall causing hazardous driving conditions, but once in place we were able to settle in to the task at hand. There were twenty-five people participating in the course; three instructors, 9 hopeful artists and 13 aspiring writers. I found myself in the somewhat awkward position of being older than two out of three of the instructors. Complicating matters was that the third instructor is someone I have met several times under different and more social circumstances. The dilemma was how to address them. As Mr. ____? That felt pretentious and fake. By their first names? Did that somehow imply a preferred standing to the rest of the students that were well entrenched in their underling status? I probably should have just asked which they preferred but instead decided to go with what felt comfortable to me. It wasn't as if any of the teenagers didn't already see me as an aberration anyway. I was surprised to find one other student, a writer, who was older than me. I could feel her zeroing in on me right away and as she approached my inner alarm bells started their frantic signalling. (Step back, you are standing too close!) Of course we ended up as roommates since it was the only logical choice and, as suspected, I discovered her to be warm, intelligent and intensely interested in trying to get inside the mind of anyone in her path. (STEP BACK, YOU ARE STANDING TOO CLOSE!) I felt guilty all weekend as I saw the disappointment in her eyes each time she tried to engage me in some incredibly deep and soul-searching discussion and I would physically and emotionally pull away. It is not that I mind sharing my inner-most thoughts; just that I prefer to do so with someone I have known for more than three hours! (It reminded me of the cliche of the dating years, the girl breaking up with the latest pursuer, lover (potential stalker?) saying "no, no, it is not you; it is me" all the while knowing deep inside "it IS you. You are trying to mold me, change me, smother me, consume me." STEP BACK! YOU ARE STANDING TOO CLOSE!) On the other hand I had several extremely enjoyable discussions with some of the young artists. I think it is because they are still young enough that their focus is primarily inward. "What am I going to do?" "Who am I going to be?" No worry there they will try to discover anything past the wrinkles and the graying hair!

I have often felt my soul is composed of triplets: one is an outdoors-woman, the second an athlete and the third an artist. The first two play well together and in fact often depend on each other. The third part, the artist, is the runt of the litter; undernourished in the formative years, insecure and often solitary. When your medium of choice is fabric, it is hard to create in a wilderness setting. This class has finally allowed me to see there is a place where all three parts of my soul can co-exist quite happily. The sketchbook provides an outlet, a means of expression that can be captured in the field and translated in the studio at a later date. The actual exercises were exciting, rewarding and unbelievably frustrating. Friday was pure joy from beginning to end, nourishment of the kind that can only be experienced in an outdoor setting in the mountains. We started the day early at Dead Indian Creek, then spent several hours at Moose Meadows and ended the outing at the incomparable Crazy Creek (where, ironically, we saw the only moose of the trip). We got back to the field camp a few minutes after 6pm so went directly from feeding the senses to feeding the body. Each of the artists ended up with at least three sketches from the day's activities while the writers painted pictures of the settings with their words. On Saturday I got up early and went for a run. I ran uphill from the camp to the summit of Chief Joseph Highway and then returned. It was a slow out and a quick back. The highlight of the run was coming across a fresh set of grizzly prints about 100 yards south of the summit. He had walked out of the woods and down to the road leaving deep, clear impressions in the snow. At the blacktop the prints turned into raised white etchings as they crossed the highway and then continued down the slope on the other side. I sang my bear song to let him know I was there in case he was still around, assuring him that even though he couldn't see them, I had my army of invisible soldiers ready to come to my defense in the event of his early season ill temper. When I got back to the camp it was time for brunch and then we opened our sketchbooks to the class for everyone to see. We picked our favorite drawing from the day before to display and then the writers all read from their favorite creations. I picked my sketch from Moose Meadows which you can see to the left alongside the photo I took of the scene for future reference. As I looked at the drawings by the other students I felt a twinge of jealousy at each and every one. How I wish I had done that sketch...or that one...or that one! All felt more vibrant and more beautiful than my own. I just hope I can grow from this point and continue to evolve into the type of artist I want to be. On the other hand, strangely enough, I did not have the same emotions while listening to the writers. Their stories, essays and poems were all entertaining and most were very well written, but I did not feel that any of them wrote with my voice. Their descriptions were of weather and water; of emotions and self. But where was the life? Where were the chortling cranes, the noisy outrage of the geese, the intrusive heartbeat of the helicopter pacing overhead? Where were the mule deer with their satellite dish ears turning to catch our signal as we passed by? Where were the white-rumped elk, pausing by the hundreds in their journey west to their higher summer home? These were the images that had brought tears to my eyes and yet they were invisible in the readings. Then it hit me on my run this morning - I am spoiled. Unlike most of the participants of the weekend I live immersed in the settings they were describing. I take the beauty of the land as a given and focus on those other creatures with whom I share it. For many of those kids this weekend was an escape from everyday surroundings. It was a vacation to a place that is foreign and wonderful and something to be treasured for what it contains at the most basic level: trees, lakes, mountains, rivers.
I am so lucky.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

I was right to worry about the weather! We reached a temperature of close to 80 degrees yesterday and today we awoke to 2" of heavy wet snow on the ground and more falling. I heard rain most of the night - it keeps you awake in this country because it is such a foreign (but welcome!) sound - but it must have turned to snow at some point. Luckily the llamas are well suited to such weather. Curry, in the photo on the left, looks like he is wearing a blanket. Houses should have such good insulation! Even so we have shut Pepper, her new baby and Chipotle in the barn to try and keep them a little drier and warmer. Pepper could get by at 40 below but the baby is so small and Chipotle is still sick so we will do our best to keep them comfortable until this system passes by. The drive to the field campus in the Beartooth Mountains will be a slow one. I expect there is even more snow there than here.
One thing I forgot to mention in yesterday's post was that I have sent off my "Spirit of the West" to Clover, Inc. for them to display it in their booth at Spring Market in Salt Lake City. I feel very honored they have chosen it to display and it should get lots of attention as Spring Market is one of the largest wholesale quilting shows in the country. Clover makes needles and other sewing supplies including the tools for needle felting wool which I used to make the buffalo's mane in my quilt. The final piece is a little different than pictured here as I went back in and added some silhouettes of horses in the background in front of the mountains. I also sent off my release form to Mission Hill Media to include an image of my "Lily the Llama" quilt in any book they publish on the Fabled Fiber quilts. Now if I could just settle down from all this activity and find the will to get back in my studio!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I am behind on posting to the blog and everything else this week. It has been so busy I don't even know where to start. I guess the first thing I want to communicate is the visit to the Sage Grouse Lek. This is an amazing event that everyone should get to see at some point in their lives. Ken and I have wanted to view the spring mating dance for a number of years but something always got in the way. This year we decided to go even though it meant getting up at 3:30am on Saturday morning and driving to Cody where we met up with 20 other people doing the same thing we were. We drove 30 miles south toward Meteetsee and pulled off onto a dirt road that wound its way back to the area of the lek. We were told to expect to see about 30 males but I counted at least fifty once the sun started to rise. The first thing we noticed was the sound. The only thing I can compare it to is one of those huge percolating coffee urns. It was halfway between a hiccup and a drum beat and rose and fell like a heart beat. As the sky started to lighten we could make out the amazing antics of the hopeful males. They danced, twirled, jumped and did things with their chests that would make even the most experienced Vegas show girl green with envy. The females were almost invisible, even in full light and were really only noticeable when they flew off to get away from the insistent attention of the males. The only bad news about the experience was that it was hard to get a decent photo. Most of the activity took place before the sun was fully up at which point they dispersed for the day. I like the photo on the left because it shows three males in different positions as well as three females shopping for the best performer. Who said disco was dead!?
Sunday was the monthly WAV meeting in Billings, Monday was the monthly Paintbrush Piecers Guild meeting, one week early so we could meet in Greybull and socialize with all the quilters in the Big Horn Basin. Last Thursday was my first class in "Art in the Wild" which I am taking from Northwest College and I was given more homework to do than I have seen in many years. Tomorrow I leave for the field campus in the Beartooths for three straight days of drawing and painting. I am a little apprehensive because 1) I am the oldest student in the class by at least 30 years and 2) it is supposed to be a miserable weekend weather wise. Friday we hung the annual quilt show at the Art League in Cody. Friday was also the day Ken's dad went to the doctor with chest pain and they told him he needed a triple by-pass ASAP. He is 86 years old. He had the surgery Monday morning and is doing remarkably well. We continue to pray. Ken thinks he will drive to Utah on Friday and stay for a few days to visit his father and see if he can help his mother. I will be back home on Saturday so we will overlap being gone. Yesterday we discovered Chipotle, a one year old female llama, was having terrible vaginal discharge that looks like pus. Today she was incredibly lethargic and wouldn't eat. I have been trying to call the one vet in the area that knows llamas but he was in surgery all day and leaves tomorrow morning for his first vacation in years. He called back at the end of the day and said he will leave a bag with injectible antibiotics hanging on the door. Ken is driving to Powell as I speak and we will give her the first injection tonight and one more tomorrow before I leave. I don't know how Ken will give her the needle on Friday with me gone. Jake's Girl has not yet delivered and I think she may explode. Never a dull moment!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Llamas are wonderful animals for many reasons. We really don't need any more but the babies are so much fun to raise that we can't seem to resist breeding the females. Gestation for the animals is just short of a full year. It is often hard to tell just by looking at the female if she is pregnant or not although they will sometimes begin to show extra weight during the last month. The best indicator of pregnancy is altered behavior as the female senses her changed state almost immediately and will begin spitting at any male that so much as looks at her! There is also a blood test that can be done after 45 days if you really want to know. Last spring we bred three of our females to three different males. All three girls changed their behavior within a few weeks of the breeding and we went ahead and did the blood test as well. Strangely enough, the test came back positive for Jake's Girl but "inconclusive" for both Pepper and Alexis. Soon after booking our ski trip months ago we realized we were going to be cutting the timing close to possible newborn time. Jake's Girl would actually be due April 12 (today!) and if Pepper was pregnant she would be two days earlier and Alexis would be two weeks later. We have been watching the girls closely for the last month and Jake's Girl was the only one really starting to grow. As the time came to leave on the trip we worried that she would not wait until our return and even thought she might have the baby before we left. I was at least glad of the fact that Jake's Girl is our most experienced mama - this will be her 8th baby - and she has borne each cria with ease. We have two teenage neighbors that have been feeding and watering the animals when we are out of town and we warned them and their parents of the possible birth and explained the only thing they really needed to do was to get rid of the afterbirth so it wouldn't attract predators. Sure enough, when we left the wilderness on Saturday we picked up our messages and there was our neighbor telling us Jake's Girl had delivered a baby girl just two days after we left and everyone was doing great. That made us even more anxious to get home as soon as possible. Imagine our surprise when we drove in on Sunday and discovered it was Pepper who had delivered and that it is a baby boy! He is absolutely beautiful and Ken is thrilled at having a new packer to train. We have named the newborn "Cupola" in honor of Cupola Peak, one of the prominent peaks in the Selkirk Mountains where we were skiing. Like all of Pepper's babies, he has the "dipped head" that seems to distinguish them from all the other llamas. In the meantime Jake's Girl looks like she is about to explode and I expect to have another baby picture to post any minute. I still don't think Alexis is pregnant but I'm not willing to bet against it at this point!

Monday, April 9, 2007

I can't believe I came so close to missing the best ski trip of my life! Although the level of exercise and adventure was not as high as on the Haute Route last year, the skiing conditions more than made up for it. And we still managed to burn 5000-6000 calories each day. Another big difference on this trip is that we had a chef that travelled with us from hut to hut so we didn't lose weight as dramatically as we did on the European trek. We choppered about 30 miles into the wilderness to Sunrise hut on Saturday. After getting somewhat organized we spent the usual mandatory hour or so on avalanche beacon practice then went for our first tour/ski of the week. We spent about three hours touring around the area and skiing a couple of nice slopes. The weather was fairly warm and we were a little concerned we might end up fighting crusty snow most of the week even though it has been a record breaking year for snowfall in British Columbia. The photo out the door of the hut shows just how much snow they've had to deal with. Normally you step down from the door of the hut to the outside but you can see we had to climb a number of snow steps just to reach level ground. The outhouses are a long walk from each of the huts and we had to be careful to stay on the trail or end up in snow up to our waists! This was a very unusual mix of people to have on a trip as the new owners of the company came along with their two sons, ages 13 and 16. Normally kids under the age of 18 are not allowed but as the owners they got to bend the rules and it made for a somewhat strained week for a variety of reasons. Our good friend Alison, a guide and the previous owner of the company, joined us for the first part of the trip then hitched a ride to town with a passing helicopter carrying a group of heli-skiers from the area. As always, I worried before starting that I would be the one holding the group up and the worst skier of the lot since I had such a late start to the sport. And, as usual, I was wrong. In fact I was actually in the "A" group of this trip for the first time. My skiing abilities have improved enough over the last few years that I can go just about anywhere and my fitness level is equal to or better than most of the participants even after suffering through a week of fever. (Excepting the guides, of course. Those guys are all muscle and I suspect if x-rayed they would be found to have hearts and lungs at least twice the size of us mortals!).
We woke Sunday morning to a steady snowfall that kept up until the next day, dropping about a foot of new fresh powder onto the surface. Those 12 inches were what made this trip the memory of a lifetime. Avalanche conditions were as stable as they ever would be and we ended up skiing slopes that I had only dreamed of. We headed out Sunday morning and skied some great slopes near the hut. Late in the morning the two guides (Russ and Dave), Ken, David (the only other client), John (the new owner) and I decided to venture further afield and headed up aways from the hut to an amazing area of usually unskiable avalanche chutes. When we got to the top we were totally enclosed in a blanket of fog. We ate our packed lunches trying to out wait the fog but it became obvious it was not going away anytime soon so we decided to go ahead and ski a chute called "Bride of Crankenstein". A 1500 foot, 45 degree slope with a foot of new powder and no visibility. Unbelievable! On the way back to the hut John somehow lost a ski and he found out what happens when you don't have ski brakes. His wife had done the exact same thing earlier in the day and the guides ended up chasing the disappearing ski far down the slope till it came to rest in a tree. Those kind of moves can get you killed in the back country and I am sure they will never do another trip without mounting brakes on their skis! On Monday we did our first and shortest part of the traverse from Sunrise to Meadow Hut. We were scheduled to move on again the very next morning to Vista Hut so tried to make the most of Meadow terrain Monday afternoon. Ken decided to call it a day once he got to the hut but I wanted to experience the area so went back out with most of the rest of the group. We skied a slope called the Apron which you can see in the picture to the left. If you click on the photo you should be able to see us on the up track about 3/4 of the way across the face. The snow was amazing and we skied down through fresh powder up to our knees. David and I decided we really wanted to do it again so followed Alison and Dave the guide 1200 feet up another area just west of the Apron called Serendipity Bowl. That was my favorite slope of the whole week. The powder in the protected Bowl was mid thigh and the 45 degree slope down to below the hut was worth every minute of the long climb to get there. It was almost 7pm when the four of us made our way back to the hut, almost too tired to eat dinner!
The next five days were more of the same. Mega effort every day and some unbelievable skiing at every turn. We skied a run called "3times very good" twice and then were told that had been the third and fourth time the slope had ever been skied in the 20 year history of the company. The problem with taking photos of ski hills is that it is almost impossible to show the steepness of a slope. Everything always looks flat. The two photos to the left are both of "3xvery good". The first one is interesting because Ken took it from the top looking over the edge. It probably doesn't look like much unless you click on it and then realize the trees you are seeing are at the bottom of the slope. This was probably the most difficult slope I have ever skied in my life and one that most skiers can only dream of. The second photo is looking back up the slope from the bottom after we had skied down. The entrance at the top is a very narrow steep chute that is difficult to enter. In fact the first time we did the run we didn't know until we got to the top that we were actually in the wrong place for the entrance. Since the guide had never even seen anyone do the run in the 7 years he has been with the company, he didn't realize he needed to be on the other side of the peak until we were already in place. We decided to go for it anyway so he called the entrance "3 times very gnarly".

The photo on the left shows some of the terrain we traversed during the week. We ended up staying at four huts with the longest traverse being on Thursday to Sentry Lodge where we spent the last two days. It was a great way to end the trip because Sentry is a much newer lodge than the other three and actually has indoor plumbing in the form of composting toilets. It is amazing what a luxury that can seem after a week of trudging through the snow to the outhouse!

The last photo shows one of the slopes we skied in Secret Valley near Sentry. To appreciate it you need to click on the image so you can see the four people at various points on the hill, including the two standing on the top of the ridge getting ready to ski.
I don't know if I will ever have the chance to ski slopes like this again. I would never have believed growing up on PEI that I would ever have the opportunity or the ability to do so but I am so glad Ken has shared his passion for the sport with me.