Sunshine!

On the subject of sunshine, everyone should know that it’s daylight here twenty and more hours a day now, and twilight the rest of the time. I love hearing the birds singing all night. I went out to pee at two this morning and I could hear the river churning like a slushie machine down at first bend. Spring is here!

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Taking the sno-go in for storage, rocking some scandalously bare knees

In other sunshine-related news, I was nominated for the Sunshine Blogger Award – “an award given to bloggers by their peers for being creative, positive, and inspiring, while spreading sunshine to the blogging community.”

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Thank you Julia for nominating me! I’m honored that you thought of me and also super delighted by your questions.

If you don’t already read Beneath the Borealis, you should. Julia writes an account of her life in a very different part of rural Alaska. She is perceptive, enthusiastic and vulnerable in her writing, and I love each and every one of her posts. She has just added a tiny fluff to her family, so one can assume there will be many enchanting snow-puppy stories coming soon.

Here are the questions posed to me by Julia:

Why did you begin your blog?

I began Chasing Piggens years ago, when I was living in Arkansas.

Partly, I started the blog because the life I shared at that time with my partner Sean was wildly different from the lives of everyone we knew. It was a way of sharing what we were up to, and why.

Partly, too, I was reading a lot of blogs at the time, learning about how folks had tackled projects or approached changes similar to mine. I thought I might have some useful advice for someone wanting to raise chickens in varmint hell or butcher their own pigs with the help of a decrepit swingset. Then I started reading Alaska blogs…

What is the first thing you thought of when you woke up this morning?

“Oh shit, I’m late!”

Geoff woke me up at five thirty this morning, convinced we were late for work because the sun was so high in the sky.

The best part? Friday was the last day of school! We get to sleep in – or out, preferably – and on any schedule we please – for the next three months!

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We shot off rockets with the kids on Friday afternoon to celebrate.

How do you soothe yourself when you’re having a bad day?

I reread a Tamora Pierce book. Tortall is my favorite place to go when the real world is too tough to face.

Hogwarts is a close second, especially on audio as read by the fabulous Jim Dale.

What is your ultimate favorite meal or food item?

STUFFING! I love stuffing! I will go to extreme lengths (trust me – I live in the bush and it’s not easy to come by fresh parsley) to put honest-to-goodness homemade-from-scratch stuffing on the table at Thanksgiving.

If you could only recommend one place to go in the world to everyone you met, where would it be?

I would recommend the arctic. And I would advise everyone to stay for a while.

The arctic is beautiful and vibrant in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I lived in the lower-48. There are places here, river valleys and hilltop lookouts, that are so beautiful and primeval that they crack your heart wide open and compel you to drop everything and revel. You can’t help feeling small and afraid while at the same time feeling that you are at the height of your powers somehow: Impossibly human with a real understanding of what that means. If you hang around long enough, the landscape itself will transform you.

What is your favorite pair of shoes?

I love my Bean boots. They’re great all-purpose rugged footwear, and I kinda like that they mark me as a New Englander in a world of Alaskans in XtraTufs.

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Shoulder-season footwear with teacher-style ornamentation

Do you feel like an adult?

Yes, but I really hope that will go away when I stop being responsible for children all the time.

Lately, as I’ve been researching and scheming for Project LandYurtPlanDirt, I’ve felt ridiculously grown up. I have done heaps of paperwork, and I had to order checks for the first time in my life (who uses checks?! [adults, apparently]). I’m looking forward to the part where I’ve spent all my money and I get to go bash down trees and cut firewood and move into my sweet-ass yurt on a tall deck in among the trees beside the reindeer pasture. I’ll pull in my rope ladder (figurative or not? you decide!), put up a sign that says “no boys allowed” and forget all about paperwork for a good long while.

What makes you feel alive?

River trips, winning at anything, kissing, playing dog football or skijoring with Daazhraii, carefully planning and then spectacularly executing any scheme, singing in the car, fixing things by myself, being trusted.

What is your favorite cocktail or beverage?

I don’t have a favorite! Beverages are conditional. I do have a thing for pink, though. On a slow morning, grapefruit juice. Any time at all, a dash of real-deal cranberry juice in my water. In winter, I like a pink cocktail out on the town.

Do you like where you live?

Yes. It’s also very complicated. Arctic Village is both spectacular and harsh in almost every imaginable way.

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Chasing rockets through Arctic Village in rubber-boots

What do you need to do for yourself to feel good?

SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY! Basic Self-Care vs. Work, Chores and Adventures!

In my life, the latter tends to totally dominate. My work makes me feel like I’m contributing something useful to the world, chores make me feel like I’m holding up my end of my relationship, and adventures make me feel like a badass. Eating well, sleeping enough, and getting any kind of exercise tend to fall by the wayside because those things benefit only me and don’t really impress anyone.

I’ve been a lot better about it this school year – I realize that I need to take care of myself if I want to get the most out of my body and mind – emotional resilience, physical wellness, and mental agility all depend on self-care and are all essential to succeeding as a teacher – but it can be really hard to prioritize myself. If I could push hard twenty-four hours a day, there would still be more to do: Lessons to plan, wood to chop, classes to teach, dishes to wash, papers to grade, game nights to run (I am now the Dungeon Master for some of our middle school boys who just got into D&D), events to plan, reports to draft, staff parties to host and on and on.

This year, Jewels and I worked out after school together.  At this point, we can both recite Jillian Michaels’ “Yoga Inferno” dvd nearly perfectly (our favorite line: “there are days you’d rather be dead than turn on this dvd!”). It is exhausting, but working out erases my headaches and makes me feel like a million bucks. That changed the school year in a huge way for me. Thank you Jewels, for always being game to roll out the yoga mats. You saved my bacon this year.

Nominations:

I would like to nominate some of my favorite, still-active, Alaskan Teacher-Bloggers for this award, and I’ve tailored my questions accordingly. With no internet at home, I’m terrible about keeping up with who’s new out there, so if you know of any good bush-teacher blogs I should follow, please comment.

  1. Aletha over at Tumbleweed Soul is very active and always has something cheerful or funny to say.
  2. Leslie at Occupational Therapy Below Zero works in Arctic Village with me, as well as in other parts of Alaska with other schools, and takes beautiful photos.
  3. Andrew and Kristina at Bellamy Travels are new to Alaska this past year. They work in Hughes and I just found their blog a few weeks ago when they posted an awesome synopsis of their year.

Here are the rules, if you wish to play:

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you.
  2. Answer the 11 questions the blogger asked you.
  3. Nominate up to 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.
  4. List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award in your post/or on your blog

Questions:

  1. Why Alaska?
  2. How does your experience compare to your expectations?
  3. Imagine a bucket. What’s it used for?
  4. If you could design your ideal care package, what would be in it?
  5. What is one thing you buy just about every single time you go to the grocery store?
  6. Do you have a favorite joke? What is it?
  7. What is something you can make, food or otherwise, that you are proud of?
  8. What is one thing you are looking forward to right now?
  9. When you need to laugh, what is your go-to book, podcast, tv show or whatever?
  10. What is your favorite extravagance?
  11. What is something that you miss already about winter?
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The Geoff-est Thing

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Coming down-mountain after a kickass day at Old John.

On Saturday, I went to Old John Lake for the first time. Katie and Mike and the girls let me tag along, and it was beautiful! Following them on the ride up the mountain was delightful: they found the sweetest, smoothest trail to ride so that the girls would be comfy in their nest of blankets in the sled. We sat around jigging for a while, and the girls tested the crust on the snow, seeing how far they could make it before breaking through. At one point, sitting by the fire Mike had built, I remembered the state of the wood pile at home. “Crap! I bet Geoff took the chainsaw with him. I wonder if he remembered to cut some wood first. I chopped the last of it last night.” We chuckled and got on with our day, but I had it marked in my mind, a chore to do when I got home: check the wood pile and the chainsaw. The ride back was spectacular with the whole valley spread out in front of us and I felt outrageously fortunate to get to visit Old John in such good company. Thank you, friends.

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The girls and their monster lake trout

Meanwhile, while I was out fishing, Geoff was setting off on a mission of his own. He was determined to get us some caribou meat and he was done waiting for the herd to come north. We still have great snow, even now, but it is too much to expect it to last another week. Geoff called up the First Chief and made arrangements to go out hunting on tribal land. The plan was for him to head south with Albert. They’d spend the night out there and come back the next day.

When I came home from fishing, I wasn’t surprised to find Geoff gone, but I was surprised to see that he hadn’t taken the chainsaw. I looked around the house a little more carefully and discovered that he hadn’t taken a sleeping bag, either. It was a puzzle, but it probably just meant he was traveling light and he’d come home late that night or in the wee hours instead of the next day. Glad, I set about making a birthday cake. I pictured lighting the candles as soon as he came through the door and having him blow them out while bits of ice were still melting out of his beard.

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Mmmm buttercream. I tried not to sample too much, but there’s just something about buttercream.

Later that evening, I learned that Albert was too sick to go out and that Geoff had taken off with someone else. To go out on tribal land, we have to have a guide, which is why we usually go into ANWR. This news just made me more certain that he’d be through the door any minute.

I finished frosting the cake around midnight and headed off to bed. I woke up every time I heard a sno-go on the road, certain it’d be Geoff, bringing a sled full of meat and work and a wave of cold through the door. But it wasn’t. He didn’t come home.

Around four I woke up, unable to sleep. He didn’t have his sleeping bag or a chainsaw – what if something had happened? He’d be furious if I made a fuss over nothing – the rule is “don’t worry unless I’m late for work – like a couple hours late for work – on Monday morning” but I hated to think of him out there in the cold and dark in some kind of trouble.

I inventoried my gear in my head, planned a way to fuel up the Bravo if I needed to, tried to remember the southbound trail that I thought he was on, and then rode over to the school to check my email. Since I don’t have the use of my cell and we don’t have internet at home, it’s inconvenient to communicate with someone out in the woods, but it’s possible thanks to the inReach, which is a blessed miracle of technology that functions as a GPS and sends text messages via satellite. When I arrived at the school, he hadn’t sent a message, which was either good or really really bad. I sent, “I’m worried – you don’t have your gear. Write back soonest,” and waited, biting my thumbnails and killing the time watching Netflix.

Finally, after about half an hour, he responded. “I’m here, all good.”

“Okay – let me know when you head home. I’m inviting people over for a birthday party and I want to guess at a time.”

“You got it. Should be heading home slowly around 8 am”

I knew he was about forty miles down the trail, so I figured noon was a reasonable expectation. I went home, took a nap, told everyone to come over at six, and made pizza dough.

At three, I got a little worried again and headed back to the school. “Hey, we got crazy turned around, but we’re back on the trail now. See you in a few hours unless we see caribou.”

Well. Judging by the fact that we hadn’t seen caribou in a while, I figured he’d still make it in time for the party.

At five forty-five I heard a sno-go in the driveway. “Geoff! Shoopie, he’s home!” Daazhraii and I flung open the door and bounded out, ready to give lots of loves, but it was the first party guests arriving, not Geoff at all. I tied the dog out, invited them in, and proceeded to have an awesome time eating pizza and cake with wonderful people. By eight, they were all bound for home, and at eight-thirty Geoff rolled up, frosty and thrilled with a sled-load of caribou. I lit the candles on what was left of his cake, he blew them out with ice still melting out of his beard, and then he cut himself a good fat piece.

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Geoff – the notoriously unpunctual Geoff – had done the Geoff-est thing: he had woken up in a snowbank after sleeping in his Carhartts and bunny boots, snow machined for almost twelve hours, and then finally showed up late for his own birthday party, elbow-deep in caribou blood and with cold all the way to the bottom of his pockets.

May your fifties be full of weekends like that, Geoff.

New Neighbors?!

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Short Stack boys on our spring field trip, meeting my future neighbors

Today I committed in a huge way. I signed a purchase agreement for a piece of property in Fairbanks.

Geoff, John and I walked the land a week ago. We found some good high ground and paced out what will be my deck. We appreciated the lovely old trees and the western exposure. “It’ll be perfect as long as the reindeer don’t snore,” Geoff said.

It’s not a large lot, but its location is perfect. The university is less than two miles away on a network of trails that I can use to ski or bike to class. Across the trail to the west is the university’s large animal research station. It’s beautiful, and I’ll have reindeer and musk oxen for my neighbors.

I’ll close on the property as soon as I get to Fairbanks at the end of school, and then I’ll get some friends together and start chainsawing and digging a privy pit and pounding stakes to mark out my deck and power pole. I’m getting ready to make a down payment on a twenty foot yurt, probably from Nomad Shelter, Alaska’s local yurt people down in Homer, maybe even this week.

Gulp.

It’s terrifying, but thrilling.

But terrifying! There is so much to do and I am so ready to do it, but I’ve never written such a big check in my life. While staring down the barrel of a lot more big checks.

This won’t be a permanent place for me. I’m not ever going to be completely happy with living smushed in, but it’s the ideal solution for the years of my MFA program, and I think having the ability to walk out the door and onto a miles-long trail system will provide a new kind of refuge. I’m looking forward to living alone again, and finding the independence and clarity that I remember from my time in Venetie. At the same time, it’s impossibly sad.

So, feelings: A lot of excitement for this fancy new bespoke life, and fear of the unknown. Grief for the things I’m sacrificing, and a sense of liberation, too. Don’t they often go hand in hand?

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Clarity, liberation, kids on a field trip

 

Skiing – Back Soon

Oh Springtime!

It’s been weekends in the refuge on a hilltop with an all-around view. At night we can see the lights of town twinkling twenty miles away. I named the spot Weathertop for the way it overlooks the Junjik valley to the north and the Chandalar valley to the south.

In March, my dad visited Arctic for the first time. We camped at Weathertop, went skiing, and toasted St. Paddy from the top of the world. It felt wonderful to finally be able to show someone why the isolation and frustration are so worthwhile – chump change compared to the compensation of mad-glorious wilderness.

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One weekend, Daazhraii ran sixty miles in three days so that Geoff and I could have a picnic at the end of the trail. Geoff’s been out riding it endlessly, trying to push farther each time and coming back to camp grinning through a beard of snow with the zippers on his carhartts iced in. This weekend, I stayed home and he and Albert camped rough out beyond Spring Creek so that they could just keep pushing out and out.

There is no sign of caribou north of the village yet, but there is plenty of moose activity. Once, I was so close on the trail of a moose – though I never saw it – that its smell still hung in the air. I have noticed the tracks of weasels and marten, and a few times the imprints of hunting owls. There have been wolves, too, though we haven’t heard them howling this year. Their tracks make Daazhraii’s look like tiny butterflies in a field of heavy, wide sunflowers.

Kristie came out to camp last weekend and I got the Skandic stuck. We were cutting firewood, and I’d no sooner run off into the deep snow to get turned around than the machine went down on its side. I couldn’t drive out in forward because I’d gotten myself wedged against a tree in the process of tipping the machine upright. I couldn’t get enough purchase in reverse to make it more than a few feet. In the end, I had to go for help, which was awfully embarrassing. We’d borrowed a short-track Bravo for Kristie to ride – it’s so itty bitty that riding it feels like cruising on a tricycle! – and I was actually able to pick up the back end and just spin it in the trail so that I could ride up to camp to get Geoff. He solved the Skandic problem by running over the tree (maybe the diameter of my knee and fifteen feet tall?!) that I’d been fetched up against. Yikes.

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photo credit: Kristie!  – Thanks lady.

When not on Weathertop I’ve been obsessively googling yurt things. I’m going to look at some property in Fairbanks on Friday, and if it works out the way I hope it will, I’m going to erect a yurt on my own land adjacent to the trail system behind the university. I’ll be able to ski or bike to class! It’s all about yurt companies and wood stoves and incinerator toilets for this gal right now. I have developed a strong distaste for indoor bathrooms, so I’m hoping I can get away with an outhouse, but, if not, did you know that incinerator toilets can function at temperatures as low as -35 fahrenheit?! You could totally put one in an outhouse of sorts. I also know how to get a permit to cut firewood in the borough and that the city of Fairbanks considers yurts “single family dwellings” for permitting purposes.  I love the rush of having something really pressing and fascinating to research.

This weekend, while Geoff and Albert were out breaking trail, Daazhraii and I stayed home and stayed busy.  In addition to yurt-googling, I made cookies and cranberry bread, hauled water and started laundry, swept and mopped and made a wood-burned axe-handle for Geoff. The snow-puppy and I went skijoring and checked out the spring carnival where the kids were trying to pop balloons tied to each other’s feet. I mailed my taxes and a letter and sent off an essay and some photos to a magazine that’s actually paying me for some writing! Woo! Look for more on that in November of 2020. I had to keep chopping wood to have an outdoor fire, too: I’ve been trying to figure out how to extract the teeth from these skulls I’ve got, but I need to macerate them first, which meant boiling them over the fire pit. Anyway. I’m going to call an orthodontist friend soon for some advice on that one.

School is still chugging along, but it seems like an afterthought now that the sun is up. We have been doing all kinds of cool stuff, though none of it is really reading, writing and ‘rithmetic: We’ve been skiing, performing wolf dissections, checking out Jim’s polar bear skin, and planning for our spring trip to Homer and Seward. We’re flying out on Friday with nine kids and we’ll be gone for almost ten days. It’s going to be awesome, but I hate to miss the last weekends of spring.

I’m starting to have trouble sleeping, or at least trouble finding the rhythm of sleep. Spring is the hardest because I still feel the need for the dark to give permission for me to rest. When the midnight sun comes, it’s like a license to nap at will through the long syrupy afternoon. I wore cutoffs and winter boots this weekend to haul water, and I saw a cardinal yesterday. The ducks and geese will start appearing as soon as we have open water. Maybe I’m having trouble sleeping just because I don’t want to miss a second of the season. It’s like soft serve dripping down the back of your hand: eat it quick before it melts! There is no time for savoring, just slurping.

Slurping with relish,

Keely

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overflow at the creek