A Fleeting Star

A Fleeting Star in Pelly Crossing, Yukon | Photo: Melanie Hackett

Crunch, crunch, crunch, crunch.  My feet rhythmically crush the crystals of ice on the forest floor as crimson sunlight reflects from their intricate architecture.  I lift my face towards the mist that is swirling from the depths of the granite canyon, and notice a rainbow emanating within it.  The thunderous rush of a stunning waterfall below vibrates inside my chest, and I can see through the emerald water to the very bottom.  I take a deep breath of the crisp, tangy forest air.  The phenomenal wonders of this place seep into my thoughts.  How precisely atoms are added to a growing ice crystal lattice.  How rays of golden sunshine are dispersed into the spectrum of wavelengths by the prism of mist to paint the splash of colour our eyes can pick up.  How gravity produces such a spectacular waterfall.  How geologic processes carved this bottomless canyon.  And even how all elements combined in such a fashion to cause a river of life to develop.  Yet surrounded by endless beauty, my heart is drowning with an immense sorrow.

I once knew a beautiful person.  Sheena was part of my competitive Irish Dancing team, and we travelled to many competitions throughout North America.  Tall, lanky, brunette, she was often partnered with me.  After finally medalling at the North American Championships in Ottawa, she moved to Australia to begin a new life that would lead her to graduating with honours and becoming a nurse.  She taught in Cambodia for a year, and was nominated as an executive of a non-profit organization that reduces health inequalities in rural and indigenous Australia and around the globe.  She then pursued her Master’s degree in speech pathology.  On the side, she was scouted to become a model and actress.  More importantly than her many accomplishments, I remember her as a wonderful friend and genuinely nice person.

Sheena and I in the dance team group photo
Sheena and I in the dance team group photo

Recently, she suddenly entered my mind.  I’m considering a trip to Australia in the spring, and was hoping to reconnect with her.  Though we hadn’t been in touch for a long while, I had this strange feeling that I should contact her, and couldn’t get her out of my mind.  Later, I received the news that around the same time, she was leaving her final exam for her Master’s degree, and was hit by a car mere steps away from her vehicle.  She passed away at the scene.

Whether my feeling was coincidence, or whether there was something more to it, I will never know for certain.  I like to think that her big heart and spirit filled every corner of our Earth as she passed, and that her short but wondrous presence on Earth will continue to paint rainbows in the hearts of many.

Sheena
Sheena

Several years ago, I myself was hit while bicycling.  The aftermath involved serious injuries that tore from me all of my passions, career paths, and even social networks, including Irish Dancing.  Years of physical and emotional recovery ensued.  In the midst of the darkest times in my recovery, I felt completely hopeless although intellectually I knew that it could easily have been much worse. I was the lucky one.  Eventually I reached a point where I could be grateful enough for everything I did still have to realize the beauty that exists in our world.  And occasionally, during the fleeting times that I had a glimpse into my pre-accident life, the beauty of life was vividly sharpened.

This unexpected tragedy is a harsh reminder that life is too short to be taken for granted and to spend it in sorrow.  Though one life is over, it continues for everyone left behind, including the driver of the car.  A life forever wracked with guilt, this life will likely also face seemingly unbearable challenges in the coming years.  It may never be in the hearts of those who loved Sheena to forgive such a devastating mistake, but the truth is it can happen to any one of us.  More than ever before, I am determined to make the most of my time and enjoy life fully in the wonders and the sorrows, and also to make an effort to bring happiness to others.  Life is but a fleeting falling star.  As the kids these days say, YOLO!  Does that mean I won’t feel sad? Of course not.  There exists an eternal and infinite sadness in my heart.  But it is through this very sadness that the beauty and preciousness of life shines through even more clearly.

It is my hope that through these words, anyone who is navigating through loss may find solace in the idea that the very loss has the potential to highlight the wonders of life both in the cherished memories, and in the time yet to come.

As I’m standing here, feeling the waterfall of tears plunging through the granite canyon, the mist off the water rises once more.  Catching the fluid rays of shimmering light it dances in the breeze before being carried away.  Is it just my imagination, or did I catch a brief glimpse of the sparkling rainbow of an Irish Dancing angel?

Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul

Writer's block

By: Melanie Hackett

Talking Writer’s Block

You’ve probably heard the phrase “Writer’s Block”. But what exactly is it? Is it the block of notepaper that writer’s use to jot down ideas? Is it the weighted block used to contain the strewn mountain of disorganization typical of right-brain thinkers, for when the cat jumps on the pile?

No, the feared Writer’s Block is something much more terrible, something deeply dreaded by those relying on originality of ideas for their work. It is when the glass of creative juice has been drunk to complete emptiness. It happens when all ability to generate sentences and paragraphs of any sort simply stops. Kaput.

It is like the athlete that suddenly cannot perform a skill they have succeeded at countless times, or the musician that suddenly forgot their concerto. This mysterious psychological phenomenon can have several causes.

Sometimes a writer’s brain goes into overdrive and there are so many ideas all seemingly hyped on quadruple espresso, whirling around inside the skull in a struggle to burst out whilst merely colliding into each other, and run-on sentences just run on and on too fast to catch and freeze on some paper, thoughts racing far past the constraints of finger dexterity…

The solution? My god, take a chill pill! Simmer down the boiling over alphabet soup! Sometimes writers just need to chillax. My dad, author of several books, occasionally does this by enjoying a cold beer or puffing a Cuban cigar. But there are also healthier methods than his think drink or his think stink. How about a hot bath, a walk or a ski on the river? Then, once the overdrive has been geared down, some form of coherent thought can begin to assemble on the pages of your notepaper block.

The polar opposite can also happen. Your brain could feel like a black hole, devoid of any thought whatsoever. But, ideas are a dime a dozen. The joy of writing is that unlike most activities, the subject matter can be anything at all, and constantly changing. From mystical extraterrestrial creature sightings in the North to the latest seasonal beer at Yukon Brewery to, heck, even Writer’s Block, one can write on whatever it is that piques your interest at the time. Topics are easy to come by, and the problem lies not in a lack thereof.

So perhaps the black hole issue stems from a tree of emotions within the writer. Whereas runners can run on, accountants can count on, professors can blab on, politicians can fib on, emotional states within writers can simply halt the flow of ideas. Maybe fear of disappointing yourself paralyzes you to become frozen stuck. Or perhaps the writer is bored, uninspired, or discouraged.

Well, we’ve all heard of countless remedies for such dilemmas. Do yoga, drink antioxidant tea, go for a long walk on the beach. Take a hot bath, smoke a Cuban think stink, have sex with your lover. Talk to the cat, eat chicken noodle soup, go see the shrink. Listen to music or try other methods of creating, such as painting, photographing, or dancing, just to fill up that glass of Creativity Punch.

But perhaps the real solution is merely to view Writer’s Block not as a problem, a dreaded ailment of those attempting to produce originality. Perhaps Writer’s Block is simply the footprint for creativity; the priming of the right brain for an explosion of vocabulary onto the parchment. Given enough time and patience, supplemented with the Chill Pill, writers are bound to move past this stage of inventing a masterpiece. After all, the empty punch glass can only be replenished once again!

Revolutionizing Resolutions for New Year

Revolutionizing Resolutions

By Melanie Hackett

It’s happening again. Fireworks are lighting the skies all around the globe. The ball is dropping. People are writing down everything that is going to change with this new beginning. But what exactly is the significance of the New Year?

For most, it’s a clean slate. People are comforted by the idea of a chance to start fresh, erase the mistakes and bad things of the past, celebrate the accomplishments, and resolve to make positive changes starting – mañana!

In reality, most of us realize that New Year’s resolutions typically don’t make it through the first month. It is after all a wee bit irrational to believe that things can just change at the drop of a hat – or a ball in this case. But it is a global starting point for people to reflect on their lives and the changes they want to make, to talk about it, and to participate in something that makes their resolutions seem to sink in.

My mother has always said, “New Year’s resolutions are silly. If I am not pleased with something in my life, I will change it NOW, and not wait until the New Year!” And kudos to her! To change old habits can be extremely difficult and not everyone can do it without some kind of starting point, and even then, we have to work extremely hard not to fall back into the same habits. That is why so many people make resolutions at this time of year. It brings people hope and confidence that they can implement the changes they want to see in themselves or their lives.

For me, New Year’s always held special significance. Our coach for competitive Irish Dancing taught us to reflect on our accomplishments over the past year, and to write out the goals that eluded us or new goals that we wished to achieve in the coming year, as well as a strict plan on how we would aim to do that. My plan would include monthly, weekly and daily strategies, outlining in detail the changes I was committed to making in order to improve my skills at a faster rate. Sometimes, we had to bring these goals in to the first class. Other years, we brought our papers in prepared to share them with the class, only to be told that we were going to get straight to work and start sweating – hard! We would then be required to glue our goals to our mirrors so we would be forced to look at them every morning. But in the end, I think we were all going to work as hard as we already did, whether or not a new year came. The results we wanted to see were much stronger motivating factors than the change from December to January. Similarly, the reason for wanting to make any resolution and the results of the change should be motivating in itself, because ultimately we are not motivated by the change from one day to the next even if it is a new year.

This year, I’ve been struggling with the task of writing down New Year’s resolutions. I don’t anymore compete in the sport that consumed my entire existence, where goals and successes were very well defined. Now, like most people in their twenties, the direction of my life is a little more vague. So instead, I am reflecting on the reasons why it was so important to me, and many others, to come up with resolutions before that ball drops. In the world of highly competitive athletes, it is easy to be defined by your accomplishments, especially in the elite levels. This is particularly true when athletes are children or adolescents with brains that are developing, and their self-identities are only just forming. When 110 percent of their focus is towards reaching a specific goal, as is necessary if they are to succeed in elite sports, they cannot build all of the other elements that make up a healthy self-identity. Essentially, they can become defined by a number – the value of their top placement.

And what is the New Year? It is also just a number; a day like any other. It only holds the meaning we decide to attach to it. So rather than expecting ourselves to be able to change things that we haven’t yet managed to change and being disappointed that an arbitrary number did not change anything at all, why not frame this New Year simply in terms of hope for a good next cycle of the seasons. Why not simply resolve to enter into a future that can be satisfying even though it lacks everything that we may desire; a future that offers hope that if we cannot change certain things, that we will be at peace with the unavoidable rougher times we will all face within the next journey around the sun?

Tonight, for the first time since I can remember, I will not be writing down any resolutions. I will raise my glass of Glühwein high, and toast to the continuation of this ongoing journey through time, resolving to celebrate the good things each day and to enjoy a future that has hope even with the inevitable challenges life will bring. Happy New Year!

Cleanse Yourself of the Myths

Cleanse Yourself of the Myths

By Melanie Hackett

If you are interested in health you have probably heard of “cleansing” diets aimed at ridding your body of toxins by reducing what you eat to a very limited selection of healthy products for two or three weeks.

But wait! Is our physiology that straightforward?  No way.  These diets simply don’t do what they are intended for.  In fact, more toxins are created during these diets!  Of course, there are many different types of detox diets.  Like all fad diets, most of these are merely a tool for companies to earn money off unwary consumers and aren’t based on science at all.  Even my mother, a very health-conscious and active 61-year-old who generally looks for the science, used to do annual “cleansing” fasts consuming nothing but elderberry juice for a week in an attempt to “flush away” toxins.  I will focus on these types of “cleanses”.

In most people with a healthy diet, blood sugar levels are well regulated by two hormones: insulin and glucagon.  Insulin, released by the pancreas after a meal, is the bus driver that takes the blood sugar to work.  Mr Sugar’s workplace is inside all body cells where it can be used as energy for all cell function.  Extra glucose (sugar) combines forming a substance called glycogen, which gets stored in the liver and muscle.  The hormone glucagon, opposite of insulin, is the vehicle that takes Mr. Sugar from these stores back into the blood when your blood sugar gets low.  These glycogen stores are crucial for maintaining blood glucose levels when you aren’t eating.  They can be completely depleted after only a couple of hours of exercise at a heart rate 80 percent of your maximum heart rate. So how do we rebuild them?  Only with a diet high in carbohydrates (fruits, veggies, quinoa, rice, whole grain bread, etc.)!  These stores can also be depleted within a couple of days of consuming much less than you are expending, or not having a diet consisting of about 60 percent carbohydrates.

When the glycogen runs out, your liver breaks down fatty acids and proteins to use for energy instead.  The by-products are three types of what we call ketones.  Two of these are used by the heart and brain, and the third is a waste product stressing the kidneys.  Ketones also make your blood more acidic.  To correct this, your respiratory system goes haywire, and in extreme cases this can be fatal.

For the Bioscience Geeks:

When the pH of your blood is too low, you’ll start to hyperventilate to expel more carbon dioxide.  This works because in the blood, carbon dioxide combines with water and forms bicarbonate and a hydrogen ion (the latter of which makes the blood more acidic).  What’s in your lungs goes into your blood through structures called alveoli.  If there is less carbon dioxide available, fewer hydrogen ions will be produced, and your blood pH will therefore go back to normal.  However, less carbon dioxide also means there is less of a stimulus to breathe.  This is how it can cause fatality.

The main point here is that rather than “flushing away” toxins, we create toxins when we don’t eat enough carbs.  Excess ketones and the physiological effect they have can be considered toxic in the human body.  These effects are pretty much identical to what happens both during starvation and during diabetic coma when a diabetic’s blood sugar is extremely high because they lack insulin, sugar’s bus driver, to help the sugar from the blood to the starved cells.  This is also what happens during the Atkin’s diet, one that should only be tried in morbidly obese people who are at alarming risk of fatality if they don’t lose weight.  In general, if a diet is not healthy or is impossible to maintain permanently, it probably should not be done at all.

When we don’t eat enough carbohydrates and our glycogen stores run out, the use of proteins for energy instead can be compared to burning fossil fuels.  Instead of using renewable energy such as Whitehorse’s hydroelectric power, there are many more waste products with fossil fuels.  The net breakdown of proteins to provide energy (either in a high protein diet such as the Atkin’s diet or when the body is starved of carbs in “cleansing” diets) not only creates ketones, but also causes a negative nitrogen balance, meaning there is a lot of nitrogenous waste being produced.  Just as the burning of fossil fuels taxes Earth’s atmosphere, this taxes the liver as it tries to rid itself of the waste products.  The immune system is weakened, and the levels of cortisol, our long-term stress hormone, may increase, further weakening the immune system.

The physiological effects discussed above merely state what toxins build up in the body and the negative effect on health during “detox” diets, and that’s not even to mention the nutrient deficiencies that occur during such limited diets, which have a cascade of harmful effects in the body.

Eyjafjallajӧ-KABOOM!

Lava lake at Pu'u O'o crater, Hawaii Big Island (Photo: Melanie Hackett)

Where Fire Meets Ice – The Icelandic Eruption

By: Melanie Hackett

Humans have always been fascinated by the immense power of volcanoes. After all, volcanoes are responsible for the birth of new earth, as is rapidly happening on the Big Island of Hawaii. In fact, the gases released by volcanoes may have contributed to the creation of our atmosphere, and therefore set the stage for all of life itself.

Here in the Yukon, these spewing beasts of fire have helped shape the landscape. Have you ever driven the Klondike Highway to Dawson and wondered about the white layer on the sides of the road, especially visible near Carmacks? That is volcanic ash, or tephra, from a massive eruption of Mount Churchill 1300 years ago. Near Fort Selkirk, at the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly rivers, Volcano Mountain is a young and active cinder cone.

But what happens when volcanoes erupt in frigid areas full of glaciers, and how does that change the landscape afterwards? In 2010, a team of scientists from the UK and Iceland set out to the flanks of Eyjafjallajӧkull to discover the consequences of fire meeting with ice.

Remember this Icelandic eruption? Yes, it’s the one that caused the greatest air travel disruption since the Second World War as ash clouds blanketed Europe. However, Eyjafjallajӧkull provided the opportunity for scientists to learn how volcano-driven torrents of glacial meltwater would behave and how they would alter the landscape.

Prince William Sound, Alaska
Prince William Sound, Alaska

When the volcano rumbled to life on April 14, 2010, it melted large amounts of ice, sending cascades of meltwater roaring down the mountain. These glacial outburst floods are given the easily pronounced name jӧkulhlaup. The action culminated in two larger floods that sent the equivalent of 60 thousand Canada Games Centre swimming pools down the flanks of the volcano! The surge flowed both underneath and atop the glacier, carrying gravel and debris into a lake at the base of nearby Gigjӧkull glacier. And before you can say “Eyjafjallajӧkull”, the lake level rose by nearly five metres, engulfing the scientists’ equipment. The jӧkulhlaup continued its rampage, smashed through the far lake wall and drained the lake entirely.

Before this, not much was known about what happens as these catastrophic floods are raging down volcanoes. The scientists’ time-lapse imagery showed another subsequent 140 jӧkulhlaups. Each of these is believed to have occurred after the rupture of temporary blockages in meltwater rivers. These floods were much smaller than the initial two because the increasing tephra created an insulating layer on the ice, so less could melt. However, what the scientists discovered, to their surprise, was that contrary to previous belief, the large floods did not actually transport the most debris. The 140 smaller jӧkulhlaups had a much greater influence on the new shape of the land, as they brought fans of gravel down the mountain.

These findings will be invaluable for future hazard assessment, especially since more and more of these glacial outburst floods are expected in our warming climate. Closer to home, a future jӧkulhlaup is possible at Lowell Lake, a sediment-dammed lake at the headwaters of the Alsek River. Currently there is not enough water in the lake to flood Haines Junction if a catastrophic flood were to happen, but as Lowell glacier melts into the lake with global warming, this could be of concern in the future. However, as Eyjafjallajӧkull has shown us, it is not necessarily the largest and most powerful body that initiates change. There is strength in numbers, and change can be initiated by much smaller forces, that when combined, hold great power.

Here in the Yukon, these spewing beasts of fire have helped shape the landscape. Have you ever driven the Klondike Highway to Dawson and wondered about the white layer on the sides of the road, especially visible near Carmacks? That is volcanic ash, or tephra, from a massive eruption of Mount Churchill 1300 years ago. Near Fort Selkirk, at the confluence of the Yukon and Pelly rivers, Volcano Mountain is a young and active cinder cone.