Did you know

Did you know that salmon hearts, sizzled with butter and garlic, taste just like mussels? I learned to clean fish yesterday, and we set aside the hearts for a treat.

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Feeeeeeesh!

I’m in Soldotna right now, recovering from long nights of dipnetting. Geoff and I got a hotel room for tonight, and tonight will mark the second or third time I’ve slept in a real bed since the beginning of July, the first time since leaving Maine. I’m looking forward to sleep, but this might be my last chance to use the internet for a while, so I’d better make the most of it.

I arrived in Fairbanks two weeks ago after visiting friends in Washington. Geoff was still working, so I had some time to relax. Those days were hot and sweaty, and I spent one whole day in the Museum of the North (where they have some awesome Alaskan art, air conditioning, and some truly weird furniture made of taxidermied animal parts) and another whole day alternating between sizzling on a towel with a good book and plunging into the icy Chena River while ducks laughed at me.

Friday came. The plan was to drive down the Richardson Highway and head for the Kenai to go fishing, which is more or less what we did, though there were some snags. In absolutely typical fashion, Geoff was a little late out of the starting gate. My stuff accounts for about a tenth of the mess, and it still looked like this when I crawled into my sleeping bag at midnight.

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See Geoff. See Geoff pack. See Geoff still packing. Take a nap.

In the morning we finished packing the truck and loading the boat and stopped for the four Fs: Food (breakfast/brunch), Fuel (for the truck), Freddy’s (Fred Meyer for camp groceries) and Fill (water containers, because running water isn’t an everywhere kind of thing) and finally left Fairbanks around two in the afternoon, bound for a good camp spot south of Delta where we would meet friends bound for Dawson on a motorcycle.

I always forget until I’m in it how vast and magnificent Alaska can be.  The Richardson Highway is beautiful. It traces the pipeline from Fairbanks to Valdez, running beside the broad and braided mud of the Tanana and through wide valleys furred with spruce trees, set with jewel-blue lakes. It’s big enough to get comfortably lost on purpose, to build a campfire so far from anyone else that no one sees the smoke. We camped with friends in a quarry that first night. Their dog dragged a whole caribou leg out of the woods while we cooked a midnight dinner.

Geoff and I spent the next night camped in the rain at Quartz lake, then visited Michael, the guy who’s building the canoe, in the morning. He had the hull ready for us to look at, a flexible, lightweight form, ragged at the top. He’s making something wonderful, there. It felt good, pressing my hands to what will be my boat. August seventh is our tentative pickup date. Soon after, we’ll head for the Yukon.

After a stop for showers and laundry (it’s common, here, to see places advertising the two. Since lots of folks are traveling through and many do without running water, these are useful services), we drove out of the rain and slept at Paxson Lake under a clear sky. I walked to the shore in the blue and gold morning and sat on a bench overlooking the water. There is so little summer, here, but everything in summer so so lush and lively. I watched the clouds, the minnows, the waving fireweed. I could almost hear the blueberries bulging, the spruce needles spooling out. I speculated about what percent of Alaska is, at any given time, covered with moose poop. I thought about the coming school year. I felt guilty for sitting still in the middle of so much activity and walked back to camp to get ready to head out, singing Beatles tunes to ward off bears (I’d forgotten my bear spray like a dodo and you never know).

Farther south, we took the Glenn highway through the mountains to Wasilla, stopping so that I could get my first long look at a glacier. Matanuska Glacier impressed me profoundly. It has a presence, something very grand and stately and dangerous and fragile that got a grip on me as I perched on the ice chests in the truck, staring from an overlook. I didn’t expect to be moved so deeply, but what should one expect of a glacier? I dried a tear or two and climbed back into the cab, Wasilla-bound.

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The confluence of a blue creek with the muddy Matanuska.

“Hey Geoff, if you got the chance would you go to the moon?”
“Nope. I don’t think I would.”
“Why not?”
“It’s a wasteland! All cold and dark. And the food would be terrible.”
“Kinda like living in the arctic, huh? So isolated…”
“It’s completely different!”

It’s hard to believe we made that whole trip in a day, but we did. We picked up fishing licenses in Wasilla and learned that a fire was burning right beside the Seward highway, south of Anchorage, and that the road could close at any minute. It was nine at night but we decided to press on south.

We drove through the burning area and watched a helicopter dip water out of the ocean. Flames were visible on the cliffs above the road and smoke nearly obscured the rising moon. Still, we stopped for water at a pullout where a pipe pours clean water directly out of a rock face. “You watch for fireballs falling down the cliff while I fill the jugs, Keely.”

DSC04931We were both tired and cranky by the time we made it to the campground at nearly two in the morning, but we found a campsite and got the tent up in the end.

After that, it was a waiting game. Gillnetters fish all day at the mouth of the river, essentially blocking it off. It’s not worth the launch fee to go out when no fish are getting through, so we had to wait for the dipnet fishery to be opened for twenty-four hour access.  Our moment came and we set our alarms for 1:30 am. By 3:30 we were fishing an incoming tide in the not-quite dark of a drizzly night.

There are two ways to dipnet: some folks stand in the water up to their ribs holding long-handled nets.

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Here’s the crowd at the river’s mouth, dipnetting from shore.

Others putt along holding nets out beside their boats. When a fish hits the net, you feel a bang and haul it in. We fished from Geoff’s boat, cruising down the banks of the river all night and into the morning.

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Some very well-fed seals at dawn

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On a good day, in a good year, I hear the boats are shoulder to shoulder.

We pulled the boat out at eleven the next morning and went back to camp to sleep. That night, we put in again, this time in more serious rain. As the extra hands, I had lots of downtime through that night. I figured out I can sleep in the rain and cold tucked in among the ice chests and actionpackers if I’m in full foulies with handwarmers in my boots and a ball cap to shed the water. It was a rough night, but the morning was beautiful.

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DSC04957In all, we put the boat in four times and came home with not nearly enough fish. The run peaked early this year and the dipnetters never had a good opening. Still, I’m amazed that there’s a place in the world where you can just stick a net like that in the water, wait, and pull out a fish. We don’t do that in Maine – there just aren’t fish anymore. Anyone I know at home would be over the moon to come home with just one of the fish we brought in, even a flounder we’d have casually thrown back.

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Good company.

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Pee break.

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Camp

We’re off to Tustumena Lake for a long weekend, well-deserved. I’ll try to remember to take breaks from relaxing and soaking up the wonderful to take a few pictures.

Revisiting Winslow Homer

Yesterday, Sean and I went to the MFA in Boston. I love art museums, (though I can distinctly remember being bored to tears by them as a kid) and I could have spent much, much longer exploring the maze of galleries and exhibitions.

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Sean in 8’x12′, an awesome piece about personal space and sprawl and scale in Mumbai

I loved the Megacities Asia exhibition and the gallery of Chinese furniture and the model ships and the very peaceful Buddha in the temple.

We also took a tour of the Americas wing and there paid a visit to some of the paintings of Winslow Homer.  It was impossible, today, not to think of his paintings as we brought Islander down the Penobscot from Winterport in a drenching rain and pea soup fog.

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“Look anonymous and heroic, Mom, I’m taking a Winslow Homer picture”

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The Fog Warning, 1885

As we ran out with the tide, sliding through water still but for the constant bulletholing of raindrops, soaking slowly in the heavy, warm rain, Dad described the grey landscape of fog and water and sky almost the way I have been known to describe the snow and sky and mountains: it’s a thousand shades of gray, dissolving sound and land and the boundaries between this world, the next, the sky and the sea.

DSC04892DSC04887DSC04894It’s beautiful out there, even on days when the horizon breaks down and water soaks into the sky.

A counterpoem from last week: Sleeping Inside

Tonight I slept
on the couch under the front window
and the rain blew in

I had taken my hammock in
Not wanting it to shred in the forecast winds
Not wanting to sleep light in dark rain

I woke up in the lightning night
With the rain soft and cool on my face, so glad
that the sky came to find me

I can’t seem to use a phone in the summer

I’ve been all over the place this summer, from Anchorage to Boston to Brattleboro to Midcoast Maine to Fox Hollow Farm, and if you’ve tried to get in touch with me, I’m so sorry. I’ve been awful at phone calls and emails and every other kind of contact. I miss the routine solitude of my life in the village.

Nicole, I am so bummed I missed you in Anchorage. My old phone was very dead around that time and by the time I replaced it and figured out how to check my voicemail on the new machine, you were long gone. Cathy, I’ll give you a call this week and we’ll set up a visit in Maine.

My struggle with communication is just one way I’ve been having trouble adjusting to summer. I was on the T the other day in Boston and I just couldn’t shake the thought: People do this every day. I can’t believe people do this every day.

I know I’m spoiled. In the village, I almost never have to sit on my butt just to get from place to place. I absolutely never have to sit on my butt in a dank-smelling, grubby metal tube full of  strangers.

I know the city has its perks: Sean has been taking sailing lessons, going to the art museum, and hosting ice cream socials (Margarita sorbet? Wasabi maple ice cream anyone?). There are restaurants, theaters, intriguing strangers and old friends.

Old friends are the best.

Boston is full of folks from college and from Arkansas. It’s so strange and wonderful to be surrounded by people I’ve known for such a long time.

Bethan gave an incredibly powerful and personal performance in Brattleboro after a year of circus training with NECCA. None of us remained dry-eyed.

I woke up a few days ago with Bre’s son crawling across my bed in the guest room. He has a great smile and sweet curls and a friendly nature, and he seems to be a fan of nori rolls (at least of smooshing them up and getting them all over people and things). Bre is the first of my close friends to have kids: I’ve never known a baby that I’m sure I’ll know forever. This is really something.

Tim inspired a really successful birthday gift. He and I are going backpacking before I head back to Alaska. Look out, wilderness, we’re back!

Now I’m in Ohio, and Jesse and Chelsea have filled their home with wonderful people, as usual. It’s busy and cheerful and warm and tasty and creative. I have my hammock in the woods for quiet space among the fireflies, and otherwise it’s all games and cooking and farm stuff and talk with important, beloved people.

Still, I miss the simplicity of life in the village.

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Camped on the spit in Homer.

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Dinner!

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Mom in her garden, the climbing roses in bloom.

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Rock On Spruce Spring Seat

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Lobster!

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The view from my hammock on the farm in Ohio.