First snow: Brother determines start of family tradition

Posted: Sunday, October 22, 2000

Telling Our Stories

Editor's note: Everyone enjoys a well-written or well-told story, especially one that is lively, laughable and has a point of common interest. This periodic column contains stories written by and about people on the Kenai Peninsula. Most likely many of you can identify with today's seasonal story of a homesteading event that often accompanies the first snow.

We talk about it all summer and fall but can't do it. We discuss when it will happen. The fascination intensifies. Although it will take place on my singularly owned 10 acres of the 110-acre family homestead, I am not allowed to make the decision about it. And even though we sisters are equal in status to our brother, Mark, he is the one who determines the time of the event.

We beg him, "Can we start the burn pile?"

"After the first snow," he tells us.

All summer and fall, the burn pile has changed shape. What started out as a heap of brush and discarded lumber, has grown into an entity of its own. Layer upon layer, one can see the tailings of projects: parts of our brother-in-law Roger's burned down hangar, the old mailbox post, discarded house-siding, beetle-kill spruce, rotted fence railings, grass clippings and stumps from ground clearing. After a recent caribou kill, our brother adds leg bones. My nose-driven golden retriever Copperfield climbs on top, then burrows into the burn pile. Our brother tunnels inside and pulls out the dog.

By this time, the burn pile is half the size of Roger's hangar, nearly 40-by-20 feet and more than 12-feet high. It sulks like a giant porcupine at the end of the airstrip.

Why has it remain untorched for all these months? Why have we had to wait? Forest fire.


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This fear lurks all summer. Soldotna doesn't light up for Fourth of July displays. We don't look to the skies with fascination when there is lightening. Any hint of smoke puts us on an adrenaline alert. We at the Gaede-80 are aware that we live on a powder keg. If given a tiny spark, the beetle-kill spruce that comprises much of our homestead would ignite into ghastly fireworks.

Now, nearing winter, we try to reason with our brother. From mid-September 1999 through most of October we've been drenched with daily rains. In fact, if the temperatures would have dropped, our three-inches of rain in 24 hours would have produced three-feet of snow.

Instead, the taxiway has attracted ducks that leave their prints in the mud. Because of the bog, our brother has moved his Super Cub to the front road, his alternate airstrip. Surely it is safe to start the burn pile.

Our brother does not relent.

Although disgruntled by the decision, we otherwise speak of him in esteemed terms: We believe that "our brother" knows everything. If we have a computer problem, we go to "our brother." If we see an indistinguishable wildlife species, we ask "our brother." We believe he is all-knowing when it comes to Alaska flora and fauna, geology, cyberspace and home improvements. Only once has he ever told me, "I don't know."

"Naomi, I don't know everything -- and I hate plumbing projects," he said.

My mouth dropped open.

Regardless of this minor flaw, we sisters are programmed to fulfill his slightest wish.

"Remember the creamed potatoes and peas Mom made?" he commented.

My sister, Ruth, remembers and they appear for Sunday dinner.

"Looks like I need to get a new pair of slippers," he said.

I find some on my next trip to town.

"What does your fitness center have for men?" he wondered.

Ruth and I seek out information. "Our brother wants to know," we tell the trainer. She looks at us skeptically. "Your brother?"

We smile serenely and sigh, "We have the greatest brother."

She rolls her eyes, "I have two brothers, and I don't like either one!"

Perhaps that's the reason why our brother shines: he is the only brother in a family of three sisters. He has no competition. On the other hand, he is no competition to us -- we same-gender siblings.

Our brother is skeptical of my adult veneration. He claims that in my teen-age years and as my younger sibling, I duct-taped him to the cabin porch. I do not remember this. However, I must admit I have cruelly teased him about being a little guy, a slow bloomer and other things. Perhaps this is penance.

Ruth, on the other hand, has always adored our brother. We have family pictures of him, the chubby hot-tempered toddler on the back of Ruth's tricycle -- dragging his heels and wearing out his shoes, while she drives him around the backyard.

Fortunately, we all grew up, and fortunately, we finally got snow.

The last week in October, the skies clouded up and temperatures dropped below freezing. The saturated ground honeycombed into four- to eight-inch crystals. When stepped on, they randomly splintered, causing the bearer-of-weight to unexpectedly crash through, and leave sporadic foot or hoof pockets in the airstrip or trails.

Huge feathery flakes descended upon woods, fence, buildings -- and the area surrounding the burn pile. Starting Monday, the white stuff fell from the sky. By Thursday, we had accumulated all of two inches. Would this be enough to qualify as "snow" to permit the lighting of the burn pile?

"Let's start the burn pile!" 11-year-old Kenya pleaded with her father, our brother.

Reluctantly, he decided the event could take place, perhaps on Friday. Friday, Oct. 29, the sun did not make much of a showing. By this time, daylight hours were dwindling at a rate of five minutes and 18 seconds per day, and although the sun started up around 8:30 a.m., it mostly reduced the darkness and lingered behind the cloud cover.

We had to wait until children were out of school and adults finished work. I wanted to start the event while I could still take pictures. By 4:30 p.m., we gathered at the burn pile. The light was dim and my camera flashed for the "before" pictures.

Roger had fired up the CAT to groom the surrounding areas as the pile burned. Our combined three dogs wrestled and panted in the 20-degree weather.

Our brother, who had held the brakes to this annual homestead event, now grinned. The pryromaster went to work, tossing old fuel and oil over the pile. He laughed, "This ought to get it going!"

We backed off. He tossed a match. The pile burst into flames, orange against a winter backdrop of twilight shadows and dark woods. We circled the pile to throw in debris along the edges.

Soon, we tossed off hats and unzipped coats. Even though we could never resist a hot dog roast, no stick was long enough to protect us from this fiery furnace. Instead, we brought out sloppy Joes, buns, pickles, mustard, chips and ice cold pop.

Thirty-five feet away, we pulled down the battered tailgate of the '84 GMC truck and comfortably started a celebration. The conversation quickly turned to Mom, the original homestead Gaede lady, who loved a good burn pile and who could turn anything into a picnic. If only she could look down and see us now.

Thus, the first snow came, followed by another. The landscape at the end of the airstrip had been drastically flattened.

Two weeks later, only charcoaled stumps remained. Wisps of smoke puffed from the fire pit and reminded us of that miraculous night, when our brother spoke the word, and the fire consumed the burn pile.

Naomi Gaede-Penner spent last year on the family homestead and taught a writing class at Kenai Peninsula College. She is the author of Prescription for Adventure: Bush Pilot Doctor," a collection of stories about her physician father, Dr. Elmer E. Gaede. This is the first publication of "First Snow." Naomi currently lives in Colorado, but returns to the homestead whenever possible. She can be reached at ngaedepen

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