First Walk

DSC03650 on the riverbank, a straw wind sweeps raw the gutters of my heart
and leaves me clattering outside with cold ears and a futile wish

I want a few more sunny yellow days, or just one sweet afternoon
to hang my hammock on the porch and love the sky with gold arms

but the wish drifts and falls and sticks flat to the wet of the river
and leaves me clammy on the bank with cold ears

DSC03643School started yesterday, so I’ve been flying around with my hair on fire for a few days now, getting everything in order. I’m really trying to be a good science teacher this year, and that’s taking a lot of effort. We built anemometers today, and we’re going to talk about how to use them to calculate wind speed tomorrow or Friday. For right now, we’re just looking at RPMs, which is plenty complicated. I want science to be something that the kids can look forward to, a part of the day where they can count on doing something with their hands or getting out of their seats. It should be that, but I’m not good at it yet. I will be. I want to be. I love this time of year because I don’t have any bad habits yet, and nobody is behind. Everything is possible, and everyone’s intentions are good. And man, I just love my kids. They’re awesome, and I’m so glad to be back here with them.

Administration is putting some pressure on Jake and me to rethink how we’ve divided our classes, which is a little frustrating since we’ve started school already. Jake’s about to blow a gasket, since he’s dealing with the lack of a 3-5 teacher and a cook on top of everything else.

I took a walk this evening to clear my head and realized I hadn’t been to the river at all since coming back. There’s been a lot of rain, and I’ve been busy. Fall’s here already. It’s melancholy and gorgeous, replete with fresh breezes that sweep through me when I stand outside long enough to feel the cold through my sweatshirt. I want something to happen before winter, but I’m not sure what it is. Maybe it’s just the usual heartache of autumn.

I’m collecting mugs, postcards, and international currency for my class this year. Send us stuff!

Camped out at inservice

DSC03547By sheer luck, I got invited to camp out on an island in the Yukon this week instead of staying in the dorms at voc-ed. Geoff, who teaches in Arctic Village, had set up his camp on Sunday, and when Terri found out, she fished for an invite. I distinctly remember, while packing my stuff in Belfast, thinking “how much camping will I be doing during inservice? Pah!” and boxing up my gear to mail to Venetie. Whoops. Fortunately, I had my sleeping bag and pad, and Terri brought along an extra tent. It was perfect last night: no bugs, no bears, no people. The sun dipped below the horizon for a while, but it never got truly dark. I slept with the tent unzipped and pegged open to let in the mist off the river and the sound of the water lapping the hull of Geoff’s boat in the night. Perfect.

seasons are sudden

Maybe if I’d been here all summer, I wouldn’t be surprised, but it’s early fall in the Yukon Flats now. I stepped out of the peak of summer, August in Maine, and stepped into cold evenings and clouds and lightning orange trees interrupting the purple and green landscape like easter eggs. The fireweed is going to seed already.

I was in Venetie just long enough to move my stuff into a new apartment (more windows, a bathtub, a south-facing porch, and less cupboard space) and write and mail a letter. I walked through the village with a wary eye on the trees: there have been bears in town. One of my students visited with me while I unpacked my boxes. She’s off to boarding school on Wednesday, so I may not see her again. I told her I’d send cookies every time she sent me a letter of at least one page, and wished her well with a hug. I’m so proud of that girl.

Yesterday, just before I had to hop on a plane to Fort Yukon, my freight came in. I had to unpack all my frozen and refrigerated groceries in a hurry, then hop on the plane. My kitchen floor is covered in cardboard boxes and non-perishable foodstuffs. So much for leaving the place neat and tidy. Inservice is a little frustrating this year: we’re in Fort Yukon, so grocery shopping in our free time is out, and there isn’t really time to go back to Fairbanks, shop, then come back and set up the classroom and the house after inservice. I hope my bananas and lettuce are still good when I get home to Venetie.

DSC03525The first time I got on a small plane to fly out to Venetie, I thought I was going to die. Now it’s become routine, no more strange than riding a bus. The landscape is still beautiful, especially now as it fades subtly into a fall purple with rivers winding through it like silver foil ribbons, but I’m starting to recognize lakes and mountains along the route. The magnitude of everything seems less when the landscape is speckled with landmarks. It feels like the way home, now, which is always shorter than the way out.

DSC03529We’re staying in the dorm at the voc-ed center in Fort Yukon for the week. I spent an agonizing while reading on the couch last night until Jake and Terry showed up on borrowed four-wheelers and carried me and another young teacher out of there. We rode up by the army base (you know, because they used to/still do spy on Russia from here) and into the woods a ways, looking for the Yukon and a teacher who should have come in by boat last night (no luck, but he’ll be here today, everyone is quite sure). We saw bear tracks in the river mud, and a snowshoe hare with his heels already white. Jake drove me down to the river and I stuck a hand in, just to say I’d done it. The brisk evening air felt good on my face and I saw a lot of the village fast. Fort Yukon has stop signs and street names and two stores and a radio station and a bed and breakfast! There’s a tour bus! It’s downright strange.

We’re still looking for a 3-5 teacher because for some reason (aaargh!) the job was never posted. Anybody interested? I’m not on facebook anymore (the district has it all blocked up), and I don’t have a working phone connection at the moment, but you can get me by email: keely.m.oconnell@gmail. You’d get to teach across the hall from me and we can play games and go hiking on the weekends! yay!

Running for the right reasons

Last summer, I wrote this post about body image and exercise and multi-level discomfort. Ever since then I’ve been hoping to write the post I’m writing now.

This summer, I ran in the cemetery in my hometown most mornings with my dad. We talked and sweated and kept each other going, and some mornings it was hot and sticky and other mornings it was cool and misty but we were always there together, and that was awesome. He joked withe everyone that he and I ran in a field of hundreds and were always the fastest (y’know, ’cause everyone else was dead). I’m going to miss my dad something fierce this year, when I’m stuck walking alone because I have nobody to run with and I’m scared of being eaten by wolves if I go alone. We ran only about two miles, but it was hilly and the shade under the centuries-old trees sparkled on the moss. It was just right for us, and the company included a Dr. Nahum Monroe and someone named Zeruviah, both of which are pretty weird cool names. I got stronger, and I got to hang out with my pops. It meant a lot to me.

DSC03518The other night, my last night in Maine, I was alone at Sean’s place on North Haven, waiting for him to finish working dinner and come home. I looked out the kitchen window and the sky was electric, so I pulled on my shoes and started running. It’s about a mile to Ames Point, where there’s this rocky knoll with a 360 degree view of the island and the water. A storm was just passing over the Camden Hills, and the rain curtains were swooping across the sunset. It felt good to be up there alone, saying goodbye to the salt water glitter and the craggy coast. It’s home and it’s okay to run away from it for a while: I know that I am made of granite bones and that my blood smells like the tide. My lungs are furred with sea lavender and if you press your ears to mine you’ll hear waves. I can no more leave the coast behind than I can leave my spine to bleach in the sun on the shore.

Later that night, we walked until we came away from the streetlights and watched the meteor shower, lying on our backs in the middle of a deserted road. I tried not to think that I wouldn’t see my friend or that deep and true night sky again for a while, but the thought drifted in and I wished it away, again and again.

I’m in Fairbanks now, getting ready to spend a small fortune on groceries for the next few months. I ran a while this morning, exploring the park and the trail by the Chena River. I don’t know how far or how fast or how long I went, but I don’t much care. I guess the point is that I’ve gotten to a place where I run because it’s a good way to see the world, and it makes my body feel good. It’s chilly here, and I relished the shiver when I stepped out this morning and the slow warming as my legs pounded heat out of the ground.

Did I ever resolve my discomfort with my motives? No, but the motives have changed and refocused. Now I run because it makes me feel good in the moment: I always start grinning like a fool after about a mile when the endorphins kick in, and I have to work to keep mosquitoes out of my teeth. I run because I’m proud of my strength of body and mind and I want to keep it. I run because it ties me to my dad or my friend or my place on the planet and splats me squarely wherever I am. Has my body changed? No, thanks to the raspberry turnovers and donut muffins from all the wonderful midcoast bakeries that I get to feel good about eating after a morning run with Dad. Has my body image changed? Yes. I feel like a badass.

I feel like I have more to say about this, but maybe this isn’t the time. There’s a lot to do, and it’s only 11:00 am, here, but my body is saying it’s midafternoon and I should probably get down to business.


I think if I had named my boat, maybe I would have named it Blunderbuss. My little bateau is called Even Keel. Has the ring of destiny to it, eh?

Between blunders and squalls we tested that evenness thoroughly this weekend. It was one of those adventures that makes you repeat the mantra adventure can’t happen without danger, adventure can’t happen without danger. As if that will make the scariness okay in the long run.


It started out smooth and sunny: Kit came up from Vermont and we spent a few days sampling the bakeries of the midcoast. Moonbat City, here in Belfast, got a nine out of ten for its chocolate croissant, which is a vote of confidence indeed.

We ferried out to North Haven to visit Sean at Nebo, and Kit stared out at the circle of water around us on the crossing, new to this ocean. The fog was in and we were in that silent, padded room away from the rest of the planet. While she watched the water, I finished reading Ordinary Wolves, marveling at the familiar descriptions of village life, and started reading Sharp Objects, which Stephen King described as an “admirably nasty piece of work” which might have been an apt description of my teenaged self. It’s a long ferry ride.

We hiked up to Ames point and watched the fog roll around in the theater of the bay, then ate at the restaurant, and were not disappointed. Of course not. That place has some pretty rockin dishes, and with Sean in the kitchen, they can’t go wrong.

In the morning, the three of us headed all together back to Belfast, met up with Gideon, and provisioned like lightning for our sailing adventure. Two bottles of wine, a big bag of herbal corn, some hot dogs and a couple jugs of water and we were ready to go. My dinghy was fueled up with a full spare gallon, my sailboat had a full tank. We were ready, so off we went.

The cruise across the bay was sweet and easy. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the wind was perfect. I’m still learning, so heavy wind scares me a little, but it’s nice to have enough to go somewhere. Staring at the same lobster buoy for hours just sucks.

We arrived at Holbrook Island a little after my folks did, and Gideon and Sean, beasts that they are, hopped into the ocean and swam over to Islander. Mom met them with huge towels, and put the water on for lobsters. Kit and Gideon zipped up to the seal rookery with dad and drifted back, listening to the big dogs yawp. I waffled about a swim. It was cold, and I knew it, but it had to be done. When Sean rowed over to my boat to pick up his fishing gear, I met him coming back, and like the jerk he is, he hauled ass away from me! He got his when I caught up and soaked him for his trouble.

Sean caught a mackerel and hooked a few more than that, but none made it all the way to the plate. Can it get better, though, than eating lobsters on deck with melted butter (from Hannaford, of course, which has the best butter, according to Sean), and chucking the shells into the ocean?

We played Taboo for a while, with the following timeless moments:

“I wear this to bed…”
“Glasses!” “Earplugs!”

And, in an instant classic, destined to go down in history, Kit said “not sex, it’s… a physical thing”
yup. Everybody lost it.

Bed was a rocking cockpit bench, with a blue moon rising full and orange and a night bright enough to see color. The seals croaked for hours, and the mosquitoes hummed, but mostly the water hushed by the hull and the sky sparkled.

Sean dropped Kit in Castine the next morning, and came back with a dinghy full of pastries. We needed the very finest in provisions for our adventure: an upwind sail to Western Island.

We sailed off the hook and out into the bay. As usual, the wind was from the south, so we were taking it on the nose, but we had time to spare and it was awesome good fun, crashing over the swells as they built from two to six feet over the course of the afternoon, dipping the nose from time to time, tacking and getting nowhere really but deeper in fun. Gideon and Sean rode on the bow for a while, cackling as the spray spat up around their shoulders, and I sat in the cockpit getting a sunburn and grinning.

DSC03431DSC03439A few hours in, Dad called. It looked like there was going to be a storm. We could turn and run downwind back to Holbrook, or we could head on to Western. We were most of the way there, by then, and said we’d keep an eye on the sky and motor if things looked dicey. For a while everything was hunky dory (insert awesome emoji of hot dudes in a rowboat), but then Gideon pulled up the radar and we started to see the sky going grey.


We’ve talked over and over this next bit, wondering if we made an avoidable mistake, but I think we made the right choice with the knowledge and info that we had. “Let’s keep going. We’ll be there in no time flat if we motor.” No problem. We dropped the sails and lowered the outboard, Sean took the helm, and we motored on south toward Western Island with wary eyes over our shoulders as the black clouds stacked like block castles behind us. A minute later, the motor died and we were drifting, rolling hard as the waves took us broadside, with neither sail nor motor to keep us on course.

“Okay no problem… what’s causing this? We have fuel, we have… AIR!” I shouted, and pushed Sean off the bench to get to the fuel tank and open the air valve. She started right up again, and we turned our bow back into the swells. “Can I get a high five?” I crowed, “I never would have thought of that at the beginning of the summer!” I got my high fives, and the engine spluttered again, and died.

It was too late to run for Holbrook under sail. We couldn’t make it before the storm. We looked at each other and at the towers of storm clouds and at the rocky cape we were minutes from washing up on, and sprang into action. Sean tried tinkering with the motor, but it wouldn’t start. I called my dad and he suggested that maybe all the crashing through swells we’d been doing all afternoon had swamped the outboard, that it might not run if it had gotten wet, but that if we could start it and keep it from soaking again, it might dry itself out. “Dad, I’m scared.” I said. “Call me every five minutes, Keely, and put on life jackets”

Gideon and I put the sail back up while Sean worked the outboard, feeling like we had rocks in the pits of our stomachs, knowing the wind was going to be gusting up to sixty soon. I’d never been through anything like this before without someone to look to for instruction. I felt helpless and I felt afraid and it was up to me to take care of Sean and Gideon. We sailed out away from the cape and also away from Western. The wind wasn’t too heavy yet, but I couldn’t get up enough speed to tack against the swells. We called Dad. “I’ll be there in twenty-five minutes, guys,” he said. I tried and tried and kept trying to tack, and cursed and cursed and finally swung around and jibed instead, jarred by the crack as the boom swung over my head, then shaking with relief as we were able to head up toward our destination.

We could see my parents in Islander coming closer from the north, and we could see the wall of white storm moving in from the West. Our island was still a bit to the south but we were clear of the cape. We were moving, but not fast enough. It felt good to have a little control, but we weren’t going to make it. Sean would get the motor started and it would run for a few seconds then die. It was awful. We felt like the girl in the western, tied to the tracks and watching the train come, helpless to do anything. After a while I made the call to take down the sail. I didn’t want it to be up when the wind came (I later heard a story about a guy whose boom was ripped off in this storm, so it was the right call to make. I heard another story about an inflatable dinghy shredding in the hail at Holbrook island. Madness). Gideon went forward and wrapped his arms around the mast, hoping not to become a human lightning rod. We did our best to point into the wind, but the seas were pretty heavy and there wasn’t much I could do. The sail whipped crazily and we clung to anything we could get a handhold on while we lashed it down, rocking broadside again and now drifting in a sudden west wind. When we looked behind us, Islander was gone. My parents had disappeared into that eerie wall of howling white.

“Yes!” Sean yelled as the outboard cranked up, maybe for the seventh or eighth time in thirty minutes. It sputtered but stayed humming, and he aimed us for Western as fast as he could without risking swamping the motor again. The wind was howling now, out of the west, and it laid the swells down quickly. Rain came and soaked us, but we hardly noticed. Our knuckles, on hands gripping rails and tillers tight, went ghastly yellow as we watched the storm engulf the shore. First Islesboro, then Cape Rosier disappeared completely. We were just south of it, in a circle of wind and rain that felt like a cakewalk next to whatever awfulness had to be going on behind the curtain of white.

It was strangely beautiful: The ocean was the color of willow leaves, pale green, and there was a low layer of white spray from the fat raindrops tearing into the salt skin of it. The rain kept pouring down, but the sun found a split in the clouds, and we had our own double rainbow, its foot hovering always eight feet off the port rail. We were starting to let go of the blind terror, but we weren’t sure yet whether the outboard would cut out again, whether we’d make it to the anchorage, whether the storm was going to slide south and engulf us after all.


We made it. We slipped over the skinny bit of water that covers the cove at low tide and picked up the mooring there, suddenly able to feel the cold of our soaked hoodies, to let out celebratory hollers that bounced Western Island’s cliff face.  The wind blew the storm away to the east and suddenly the sky was blueing. We called Mom and Dad to give them the good news, and soon they came around the cape. Dad dinghied in to us with news and chocolate and cold beer.

“We tangled with a water spout and the wind ripped the supports for the bimini right out. Did you hear any of that on the radio? Water spout caught a couple of kids in a little Laser. We saw them capsize three times right off the rocks. Radioed the coasties, issued a Pan Pan. It was Sophie’s choice: should we come help you guys or should we help these kids right here in front of us? I sent Mom to get the rope. It was awful, but we’re all okay. Everyone’s fine.”


It’s true. Chocolate does work for Dementor shock. Cold beer doesn’t hurt. Sean and Gideon and I built a fire for roasting hot dogs and walked out to the headland. I was still too full of adrenaline to talk straight or use my brain for anything but giddiness. Gideon popped the cork on a bottle of wine and we hopped in the dinghy and rowed out on the flat-calm purple water, past the jaggedy rocks and the cliffs, to watch the sun set. It did, which seemed like a miracle. We got a bonus bald eagle flyover, and lots of little guillemot visits, before we rowed back in to our campfire and our dinner and the big white moon.DSC03461 DSC03470 DSC03469

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I’m still learning, and I have a long way to go. Sailing is awesome, and it’s a little scary sometimes. We made it, though, with no casualties worse than a hat lost at sea, a bad sunburn, and a couple bumps and scrapes. Not too bad, all things considered.