The View from Mattie’s Pillow

Spring progresses here. As I sit at the kitchen table writing this, the sun warms my back. Behind me, by the large window, are four flats of tomato plants in small yogurt cups. Again, this year, I couldn’t resist planting all the seeds in the packet–a small forest of tomatoes.

Yesterday, we spent two hours in the corral, scraping up the manure that fell between snowstorms this winter, now a brown stew on packed and melting ice. Both Mattie and Sam have snow on at least half of each of their sections of corral, packed and grainy. Sam paws at the snow till he’s loosened the surface, then lies down and rolls, flipping from one side to another in his glee at the motion. Mattie rolls, too, then stands, shakes out snow and her shedding hair, then bucks or canters toward the fence to nip at Sam, who nips back, crow hops, clatters the metal fence panels, then trots away. Mostly, though, they doze in the sun, as if saving up its warmth against next winter.

The corral looks like a frozen moonscape–the brown stuff emerging through packed ice. Here and there, sand shows through, saturated with melt water that has nowhere to go till the frozen ground beneath it melts and can drain. In the woods above our house, the ground is still thick with snow, though at the top of the cut bank behind the house, wet loess is emerging. Shasta daisies that I’ve planted there over the years emerge from the snow, leaves already green–I don’t know how–and ready to begin the season. It will be June before they flower, though.

This is breakup in Interior Alaska. The roads are slick with melting snowpack. Where there’s exposed road, puddles form and potholes deepen. The first of the local greenhouses have opened–warm with sun and furnace air, moist with blooming plants. We’re six weeks away from planting time.

The river is still frozen, but getting soft in spots. On our drive toward town, we can see the Tanana arching through its slow bends and oxbows as it heads toward Nenana. Even last week, we could see people walking dogs on its white surface or clustering around a few ice fishing holes. But gray patches are forming–slush ice–and by the end of the week, no one will be walking there as channels of open water carve through the ice.

In Nenana, the tripod, whose movement marks the final moment of breakup for us, is still firmly lodged in ice. After the river clears in Fairbanks and all that swift water, ice, driftwood, and anything else that got left on the ice this winter rushes down stream, it will raise the water level in Nenana where the Tanana joins the Nenana River just above the tripod site set up each year for the Nenana Ice Classic. Each year, the tripod is set up just out from the historic railroad station, a long wire strung from it to a clock by the bank.  The wire will trip the clock, stopping it the moment the tripod moves downstream. We buy tickets with the day, hour, and minute we predict the clock will stop–a 50/50 game, with half going to the village of Nenana and half divided between everyone who has a lucky guess.

But breakup is tricky. Some years a channel forms where the tripod is and moves it just enough to trip the clock, though the rest of the river is iced in. Or the opposite–the river will clear, but the tripod is stuck in the one patch of ice that doesn’t move. One year, the tripod tipped nearly far enough to trip the clock–but not quite–then rested in that position for days. But eventually it all washes downstream and we go about the business of summer.

Here’s the Ice Classic site:  http://www.nenanaakiceclassic.com/

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