Weekends are Sacred

Last Wednesday night, Geoff and I left school to meet a late flight. We were stoked – it was a good surprise, an unexpected extra flight from Fairbanks that was carrying the rest of our gear from break. We arrived at the airport and hopped out of the truck into the -20 degree evening air expecting five or six boxes and a backpack. Geoff wasn’t even wearing a coat – it was supposed to be that quick. What we got was a backpack, five or six personal boxes, and about eight-hundred pounds of freight for the school. A lot of it was perishable.

We’d had no idea this stuff was coming. No one from the district called, and the airline hadn’t notified us. The maintenance guy, who usually picks up freight for the school, had gone home for the day (after making sure that nothing was coming in on the plane – the regularly scheduled, dependable morning flight). We couldn’t leave that stuff up there – the tomatoes and lettuce were already half-frozen.

We did what we had to do, lifting box after box into the back of the truck until it was overflowing: we lost boxes a couple times on the ride back to school, but frozen chicken patties don’t suffer too much from that kind of treatment. When we got to school, we unloaded and put everything in its place – the frozen stuff in the freezer, the fresh stuff in the refrigerators, and so on.

This wasn’t according to plan, and it sucked.

Evenings are precious. They are for skiing and working on snowmachines and cooking and playing games and preparing for a weekend in the woods and watching movies. They are also for planning and grading and doing dishes and other necessary chores that allow us to ski and eat and camp and relax.

We powered through the stacking and unstacking, packing and unpacking and went home to eat leftovers. Thursday and Friday passed as all days must eventually pass. When the last kid left the building on Friday, we each heaved a sigh of relief.

That night, in the middle of cooking dinner, I heard a plane. “Plane?” I said, surprised to hear one coming in at 6:30. “Must be a MedEvac,”

“No one has called for the truck,” Geoff replied, sharing my thought. Sometimes we get called when an injured person needs a ride to the airport because the school has the only working truck in the community and the injured person needs to lie down or can’t be transported by four-wheeler. Now that there’s snow on the ground, though, the community should be using a sled.

The call came fifteen minutes later. A whole planeload of freight for the school, mostly canned goods, which will explode if left outside.

Did we…

  1.  Pretend we never got the call and swear never to answer the phone again, leaving the cans to burst on the runway?
  2. Give up our Friday night and go haul freight until our fingers froze off and our backs buckled?
  3. Quit our jobs and move to Iceland?

Geoff put his foot down. Evenings are precious, but weekends are sacred. We have a right to use our weekends as we see fit, to go camping or just choose to not answer the phone. They can’t rely on our being on call every minute of every day.

For the next hour, Geoff negotiated with the agent up at the airport, the maintenance guy, and the Superintendent. It still sucked, but somehow it got taken care of without our ever leaving the house.

There is so much on a teacher’s shoulders already, and I’m witnessing firsthand the toll that added principal duties can take. We’re struggling to find a steady Gwich’in teacher, and we’re down from four classroom aides to two. Our copier is broken, we’re almost out of paper, and we don’t have enough computers. We can’t get sick because we don’t have any substitutes, our kids’ attendance is at about 75%, our special education students haven’t received services for years… Add to that some late-night emergency deliveryman work and you’ve got a camel swaying under its burden.

There’s no easy solution, but there is this:

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The sky was gorgeous this weekend, and I actually managed to go out skiing yesterday. I went as far as a creek thick with overflow, then turned back toward the fiery pink mountains and the warm home lights and warm chimneysmoke of town.

Geoff has finally got his snowmachine fixed, and we’re ready to start breaking trail toward Venetie. We’ll pack up the tent and the rifle and load the sled, then spend the weekend working our way south, keeping eyes out for caribou and good campsites. I am so ready.

Fog Walk

It’s foggy tonight, and the air is filled with ice plankton.

It’s hypnotic. I spent a long time out there with my headlamp pointed toward the opalescent smudge in the sky where the moon would be, holding my breath and watching the stream of sparkling night move by my face.

I tried to keep from breathing (this was not so much a case of “I can see my breath” as it was a case of smokestack), but air trickled in a slow stream from behind my teeth and entered the current like milk, pure white, swirling and discombobulating the glittering particles drifting by in the blackness.

When I had to breathe, my vision was obscured completely by the gust.

Once, walking here, I turned back and walked a while in my own footsteps, observing the way my breath clouds hung behind me like forgotten thoughts: cottonballs stapled to a springtime bulletin board, left behind through the summer to bear witness to the silence of the schoolhouse.

I have never felt so strangely intoxicated without being intoxicated. I have never felt so much a tributary in a vast, spherical watershed.

Today marks two years exactly since I first arrived in Alaska. What a brilliant and utterly new gift to receive on the occasion.

In other news,

Inevitably, yet to my continual surprise, things are changing (as they always are).

I have moved into the cabin with Geoff. It’s a contradiction that I recognize. After all, I love living alone. Somehow, though, this makes sense. This arrangement is temporary, as is almost every aspect of my life in Alaska. That certain knowledge frees me from the burden of expectation. I am happy.

I like the warm, cheerful, cluttered chaos of the house. The cabin has no running water, and it’s small for two people who are used to living alone, but I like it. I like washing dishes with water hauled from school in jugs and five-gallon buckets and heated on a hot plate. I like going outside to pee and check on the northern lights.¬† I like that I can see my snowmachine parked in the driveway from bed. I like the curios and bric-a-brac hung from the beams and tucked into the logs of the walls. I like that I am free to enjoy it all and not worry about what happens next.

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As of last week, my freight canoe is finally done. Her name will be Lyra. In June Geoff and I will run down the Tanana and up the Yukon. We’ll take a break for dipnetting and in August we’ll run up the Chandalar to Venetie and then on to Arctic. Is it summer yet? I’m ready for the sun and the smell of green things and the hiss of silty water against the hull.

I feel like the universe is making me eat my words this month. I have decided that I am getting a dog. I feel like the world’s biggest hypocrite: I always swore I wouldn’t do this, and here I am looking for a puppy. Going out alone last week got me thinking: Why shouldn’t I have a dog for company when I go on adventures? I’ve been interested in skijoring since I first learned about it. Why shouldn’t I take my skiing up a notch and get a four-legged partner for speed over snow?

I’m in Boston now, getting ready for an awesome weekend with old friends. The important things haven’t changed.

 

 

Solstice

Yesterday, I went out alone to bring in the tent.

This seems like a small thing, but I rarely go out alone, and when I do I never go very far from the village. I wanted this independence, this next test, but I was hesitant. I would have to go out beyond my comfort zone on the snowmachine (a vehicle I’m still new to) while hauling a sled (for the first time) and do a demanding chore alone in the cold. A chore I’d never done before at all – the tent had been out there since September, when we brought it out by canoe, and I’d only ever helped put it up last year. Geoff always went back to take it down alone.

My heart was in my throat the whole way across Maggie Lake (I broke my own trail through the fluffy new snow). I had to bushwhack up through a slough and onto the hill where the tent was pitched, and I’d never done much bushwhacking on the snowmachine, so it was exhilarating and terrifying. When I got to camp, startled to be there with so little trouble, not having hit a tree or flipped the sled, I shut down the Bravo (bangbang, bang… bang). The silence fell in on my shoulders like the snow.

And it was fine. Lovely, even. I didn’t spend the whole time looking over my shoulder for lions, tigers and bears. I worked. I had to hammer and dig and chip and lever every stake out of the frozen tundra. I stripped out of my coat and let the falling snow melt on my long-johns. It melted on my hands, too, and when I dismantled the stove, my bare fingers stuck to the metal and popped off – puck puck puck. I put my gloves back on, after a moment or two of that.

I rode in at dusk (it’s always dusk when it’s not night, but I mean around 3:00) without too much trouble. I hit a stump and nearly got bucked off, and there was that steep bit in the bushes where I thought the machine might pitchpole, so I walked alongside, but, all things considered, it was a roaring success. I could do it again.

How awesome is that?

Happy Solstice, everybody.

Keely (newly minted junior varsity arctic badass)

Venetie Volleyball

On Thursday, six kids from Venetie flew to Arctic Village to play volleyball. We’ve been planning this for a while with their principal, and I’ve been looking forward to it since it was just the germ of an idea.

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Venetie and Arctic have a complex relationship. They are partners in land ownership and governance, but there is some animosity between them. Arctic gets a lot of visitors and attention from outside, and I think there’s a perception in Venetie that Arctic is kind of stuck up. Venetie is a rougher village. There seems to be more crime and drinking and ugliness there (though I am not convinced that this is as it seems). Arctic kids grow up with an aversion to things Venetie. When I wore my Wolfpack hoodie this fall, they would call me a “mutt” and make rude comments about people from Venetie. The kids from the two villages snipe at each other over social media, even though they have hardly met in person.

I love those Venetie kids wholeheartedly. I latched on to them over the year and a half I was their teacher, and they mean the moon to me. When kids here say unkind things about them (people from Venetie suck: so and so is mean) I take it pretty hard. This visit was an opportunity to chip away at that prejudice a little.

Thursday, we mixed the groups and played Shipwreck, a team building game where you have to get everyone on your team across the gym before the other team. The challenge: the floor is lava. We gave them tools, (rope, hula hoops, a single roller skate, a scooter) and we set up a few islands. It was great watching them solve problems and come up with creative ways to use the items.

Later, we had them work in teams to make and clean up after a shared dinner, and after dinner we opened the gym for casual volleyball for a few hours. Geoff and I had ordered a glow-in the dark ball, and I had all the kids sign it with highlighters. We set up black-lights on the stanchions and passed out glow sticks for wristbands, then turned out the gym lights. It was pretty spectacular. G’s teeth glowed in the blacklight.

Friday was tournament day, and there was a lot to do, but we took the afternoon off from preparations to get out and enjoy the suddenly warm (-15?) weather. I set some kids up with skis during PE and Geoff set some others up with snowboards. At 1:30 we headed out to the lake. The truck dropped us off beyond the airport, and we skied or walked the rest of the way.

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I skied, and it was blissful. It’s been too cold to ski most of this winter, not because I’m a pansy but because there’s a temperature at which skis just stick instead of gliding. I pulled ahead of the kids and took a picture of them all trekking in the snowmachine trail across the lake to the spot Geoff had chosen for a fire.

dsc05375Geoff drove his snowmachine back and forth, picking up kids in the sled and hauling them out to the fire. I bummed a ride down the lake and back once, before all the kids lined up to try it, whether on snowboards or skis. L was awesome on a snowboard. dsc05384They heckled Eddie, the principal from Venetie, until he got on a snowboard and gave it a try. C, a 7th grader from Arctic, rode backwards on the machine behind Geoff, giggling. The kids kept a great fire going the whole time, and heated water for tea. Everyone had a blast, and no one complained about the long walk out or the chilly ride back to school in the back of the truck.

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We were all exhausted by the time we got back to school, but the day’s activities weren’t done. I led a team in pizza-making, and sweet P from Venetie made cake for everyone to share.

After dinner, the moment was finally upon us. We scrambled to figure out the scoreboard, find a whistle, and organize the kids into reasonable teams (we had to have two teams from Arctic). At 7:30, the games began.

Folks from the village showed up and cheered for both teams, which made me glad. I admit to secretly cheering for the Venetie kids: I could see their nerves, their courage, and their determination clearly on their well-loved faces, whereas the Arctic kids were perfectly relaxed and at home. All the kids played great games, with Venetie losing to both Arctic teams by only a point or two.

After the two schools played, a village team was organized, and they played a few games against mixed student teams. I like that the kids ended the volleyball tournament by playing together. It reinforced what the trip was supposed to be all about (in my mind).

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The kids stayed and watched a movie in my classroom until midnight. I was dragging by that time, completely done-in by the long days. When the Arctic kids finally went home and the Venetie kids finally headed to bed (“bye,” said G as the Arctic kids put on their snowpants in the hall, “it was really nice to meet you”), I was more than ready to get home and into my warm, blessedly horizontal bed.

In the morning, I went over to the school to have breakfast with the Venetie kiddos before the plane came. They were still sleeping when I got there, so I got to read the note they’d written on my board and leak some tears before they woke up.

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A few Arctic kids showed up for breakfast, but they didn’t stay long, so I got to spend a little alone-time with my girls, and that meant a lot to me. The relationship I have with them is nothing like my relationship with the kids here. They feel more like family than like students, and I told them how proud I am of their courage, grace and humor. They gave me all the gossip – who has a new baby in the village, which Venetie girl has a crush on which Arctic boy and so on. A has matured so much since last year, and she is standing up straighter, proud of her bright mind and smile. G has grown into her height – she’s become a confident, stunning young woman. P is so much less volatile now, and she lets her kindness show through more. As usual, C is perfectly herself. I’ve really missed them.

Arctic is traveling to Venetie for a rematch in the spring. The girls are determined to give us a warm welcome and show us a good time. I can’t wait to visit and see what they come up with.