Skiing, snowshoeing, getting a little frosty, a little eccentric

It’s been all about the skiing with me lately. I’ve been out every day for a while now, excluding travel days and Fairbanks days. It’s like flying, when you hit your rhythm, and it’s a quiet way to move over the snow. I love it.

DSC04001 This is from last week, when Angel kept Ben, Terri and me company on an afternoon turn around the village. I miss that sunshine: it’s been cloudy here for ages now, and with the tipping of the earth, we’re only getting a few hours of daylight: I come to school in the dark and head home in the twilight. I ski every evening in blue half-light under the heavy clouds. Before too long, the sun won’t break the trees anymore, and the shadows will disappear into the deeper shadows until spring. I’m hoping for clear skies soon soon soon.

DSC04007 DSC04009I went snowshoeing outside of Fairbanks this weekend with a new friend. I flew to town to see some kids at boarding school in Nenana, but the weather was crap and I didn’t make it out to them. I ran a few errands (bought a sled, a bunch of ice cream for the school, and some parsnips) and had some food that I didn’t have too cook, but the best part of the weekend was easily the part where I was miles from Fairbanks, playing in the woods.

Scott broke trail the whole way as we climbed a steep hill and then hiked along a windy ridge. Stretching my legs and actually climbing for the first time in months felt awesome. By dusk, we’d only made it about four miles, and, with the wind whipping our tracks off the ridgeline and the flagging tape that marked the path buried in a rock-candy snow-crust, we opted to turn around rather than risk getting lost in the dark. The windward sides of both our faces prickled white with frost as the sun went down and we crunched back along the ridge. Later, sheltered in the trees, we all but skied down the mountain using the snowshoes to control the tumbling, galloping roll that gravity gave us. I loved it. That feeling of falling and the soft snow spraying all around made me giddy. The rest of the weekend I could take or leave, but that part was awesome. DSC04015 DSC04014

I haven’t wanted to stop moving since I got home. I went for a walk with some of my middle schoolers today, and skied to the post office after school to look for letters.

It really felt like coming home. When Pat dropped me off at Wright’s on Sunday, I felt a huge sigh burst out of my chest. I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath, but I guess I was. While I waited for my plane, a former student pulled me aside and asked me to bring her son home to Venetie and his grandparents. I boarded the plane with her kid on my hip and he fell asleep in my lap as soon as we lifted off the ground, a bush baby for sure, lulled by the engine’s drone and the smooth ride. I felt so comfortable, sitting with that warm little kid in his batman hat in my arms and watching the roads and the parking lots and the nasty brown slush peculiar to roads and parking lots wink out of existence below us. I was relieved to see Fairbanks disappear, ready to resume my real life, to be back in the bush.

Real life. A year ago, this week, I quit my job in Arkansas. I’d never been to Alaska. I’d never heard of Venetie. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

I have arrived. In so many ways, I have arrived. This independence and remoteness is my natural habitat.

I’m getting eccentric, though, I think. All I can think about when I think about going back to town is how much I hate parking lots.

Blaze Orange Hat

DSC03996A year ago, November
I bought a blaze orange hat for backpacking in the Ozarks.
It was opening weekend: Deer season in Arkansas.
I thought better safe than sorry.

My friends slept through sunrise
While I started a fire, made a cup of tea, walked to the ridge to touch the morning.
The sky, rose and pearly, broke against the trees and I felt the weight of the world
Spinning me into the sun

I looked over my shoulder
at all the lidded eyes and quiet faces asleep in the grass, then turned back
to the mad, pink panic of sunrise and felt like I’d stepped for a moment out of a box
Where I was living safe and sorry.

I thought, I never want to be sorry.

A year ago, November
I emptied my backpack and started a fire. I quit my job and burned
the broken parts of my romance. I packed warm clothes: long underwear
wool socks, my blaze orange hat

This morning, in Alaska
I packed my things in a hurry. I put on my long underwear and wool socks,
But couldn’t find my hat. My friend, no stranger to a sunrise, lent me one to wear.
It’s cold, Alaska, in October.

What a wonder.
I lost my blaze orange hat in an eight-by-eight tent in a field of white. Strange.
how that white smells of smoke in a pearly, frozen country the size of the sky.
My skin, too, smells of smoke.

I know I will never be sorry.

We made snow angels until we were black and blue

Yesterday morning, I knocked on Ben’s door at about 9:00. I heard a muffled shuffling noise and a faint, despairing “oh no!” before he opened the door and let me in. He knew I was planning on coming, and was hoping I wouldn’t. The agenda: a ten-mile hike around Big Lake.

New snow had fallen in the night, but it wasn’t enough to break out the skis again. Those have been retired since the first heavy snow melted into a sheet of treacherous ice. Gingerly was a fan-favorite vocabulary word last week. P does an awesome impression of someone slipping on the ice for vocab-charades. We put on long johns, packed snacks and water, borrowed a GPS and a tagalong dog from Jake and Shannon, and set out, leaving a trail of boot prints in the fresh powder.DSC03945The snow masked the mountain in the distance, but it softened everything, muffling the sound of our steps in a heavy white scarf, and it covered the world with a fresh canvas for the little squirrels and hares and mice to fingerpaint on. It also hid a sheet of ice, left over from the last snow, under a slippery layer of deceptively crisp-looking new snow. I fell in an ever-more-balletic progression of styles. Once, I fell flat on my ass like a four year old. Another time, I wiped out, stood up, and wiped out again (Ben was laughing so hard he nearly keeled over too). Another time my right leg slipped out from under me and my left leg lifted in an elegant high kick as I went down. Ben was falling too, though not as extravagantly as I was, and even Angel (the dog) faceplanted a couple of times. I’ve got black and blue bruises all over my body, but I had a blast.DSC03944We met a fella from the village at this crossroads, and he sent us down the middle road, which, after a time, brought us to the shore of the lake. We didn’t dare try the ice, but there’s enough out there to support the snow, and the sky and the ground and the whole world looked like a blank page.

DSC03948We walked on, exploring old four-wheeler trails along the shore until we came to a scrubby, marshy area at the north end of the lake. Here, it was safest to skate, plowing up an inch or two of snow in front of our boots with each step. We walked on ice dotted with grass clumps for at least an hour, picking our way through the low brush and scrubby trees, before we came to a trail on mostly high, dry ground again.

DSC03975 DSC03971After about five hours, we made it to the landing at Big Lake. At some point since the last time we were there, some knucklehead took a shotgun and blew a hole clear through the outhouse. When he saw it, Ben exclaimed “well now it’s useless!” which made me laugh so hard I fell one more time.DSC03978

Books, Boxing, and Boot Liners

My kids finished their first novels of the year recently. For some kids, these were their first chapter books. One boy in particular announced to me that he’d never read a chapter book before and that it felt good. Since finishing that one, he’s read two others. Instead of poking the other kids when he finishes his work early, he quietly picks up his book and goes to a private corner of the room to read. I keep pinching myself to see if it’s real.

The first group read The Mighty Miss Malone. They were inspired by the account of the 1936 Joe Louis vs. Max Schmeling fight and created puppets and a boxing-themed puppet show based on their reading and their research. They were a huge hit with the younger kids, who couldn’t stop talking about it for days after the big kids came to their classes and put on a show.

Yesterday, a group that read Homecoming finished their project, a picture book based on the story. They did a beautiful job: The illustrations were superb, and the main plot points of the story were all there in terms that little people could understand. I went with them to the K-2 class for their reading. Terri projected the book and had my kids read it aloud for the little guys. When they were done, she encouraged the little kids to thank the big kids with hugs, and “ask them nicely to write another book. You’d like an alphabet book, wouldn’t you?” My big tough boy hid behind a table when the little people came charging around to give hugs. One little girl looked directly at him and said “Wiw you wite us a book about faiwies?” and his face nearly melted. She was soooooooooo cute.

I talked on the phone with a friend in another village last night. He says he’ll take me camping this winter, which is awesome. Just going for walks here opens up the world and makes my heart smile. He’s talking with me about snowmachines and extra boot liners and wall tents, and I can’t wait to find out what the world might look like from that kind of adventure-place. I’ve also been emailing all week with a teacher from another district who’s taking me hiking when I go to town in November. He had all my students when they were in elementary, and seems to have an endless supply of super cute pictures of my kids when they were small. I often feel pretty isolated out here, but this week I haven’t. I’ve felt downright social.

Sometimes I think
everyone around me talks too much
I think
I don’t talk unless I have something to say

Sometimes I wonder
if I have nothing to say, or if
just wears the words out of me

Either way.

Lately, I think
friends are the people you are quiet with
I think
I can hear our skis swishing in the snow

Lately I find
i have some friends here
who hear the silent mountains too.

They say “Let’s go outside and play”
And we do.