Field Trip!

The Arctic girls left Anchorage last Saturday night after the NYO athletes’ pizza party. By the time we hit the road, it was after ten, so by the time we got back to Fairbanks it was five in the morning. I noticed, as we drove through Nenana in the early dawn, that the tripod had fallen through the ice since we were last there, only a few days before. The river was open, a passage suddenly made of liquid water.

At the hotel, everyone slept a few restless hours, then we went to Wright’s for an 8:00 check in. When the girls’ plane took off at 9:00, Geoff and I went back to the hotel and crashed for a few precious hours, then he and I returned to Wright’s to pick up the Venetie group at noon.

We ran a few Fairbanks errands and celebrated A’s birthday at a hibachi grill, then turned around and drove the kids down to Anchorage.

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Geoff fell asleep about ten seconds after we switched places. He didn’t have much success making lesson plans.

That was hard. It’s hard to be with kids all day every day, and to do it with all the added stress of traveling and feeding them and making sure they are safe is a monumental feat. I have a newfound admiration for parents. It felt like I never had a moment alone, not even to eat or sleep. I don’t mean to give the wrong impression: I had a great time. It was just a long great time.

We had some great roadside stops

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Between Fairbanks and Nenana

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Just beyond Healy (C didn’t want her picture taken – she hadn’t composed her yuckiest face yet)

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On a windy Monday in Whittier

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South of Denali

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In two weeks we put almost exactly 2,000 miles on the van, and, for the most part, it was pretty easy riding even with eight kids and all their gear in the vehicle. We saw a couple of moose on the road, but they were never problematic road moose, and I learned that Geoff has a working knowledge of approximately 80% of the rest areas and 60% of the gas stations in Alaska.

We cruised through a mountain to get to Whittier, and C calculated down to the second how long it would take us to travel through the tunnel at 25 mph. If there hadn’t been a car in front of us, we probably would have hit it dead on.

The worst part was when G got carsick on the ride up from Seward. She was miserable, and there wasn’t much we could do for her. We’d been whalewatching that day, and she never really got over the rocking of the boat.

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Ponchos for everyone!

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Sea otters!

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Not puking yet, but it won’t be long.

A lot of the kids had never seen the ocean before, and we got to see it up close and personal. We saw  a Steller’s sea lion catch and eat a big salmon, and we saw a humpback whale blow only feet away from the rail of our boat.

The kids loved it – when asked what they’d most enjoyed about the trip, most of them agreed that the whales were the coolest. Those kids that weren’t puking did, anyway.

We had some other great adventures too.

We spent a night at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, sleeping between the sea lion and the seabirds. C unintentionally set off the door alarm at about 10:30 and I nearly had a heart attack, but other than that we had a great time. They loved the touch tank and the feeling of having the place to ourselves after dark. The SeaLife Center rehabilitates marine animals, and they had two baby otters in their care while we were there, and they were outrageously cute. I loved the octopus and the puffins with the funny old man hair.

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The touch tank at the SeaLife Center was very popular.

On Wednesday, we visited the Anchorage Museum, which I think is wonderful. The Imaginarium is a great science lab playground, with loads of giant bubbles and live animals, and the displays about Alaska’s native communities are well-made and incredibly informative: each case has a computer at the end with information about every object, including a transcription of elders discussing the object’s significance and provenance.

After that, we took the kids to see Broadway’s Peter Pan, which I was a little afraid they wouldn’t like, but which they wound up loving. The flying and dancing and swordfighting looked like great fun, and the sets were beautiful. C spent the whole show whispering questions into my ear, and P swears that if her dad doesn’t get her tickets to go see Beauty and the Beast next spring, she’ll cry.

I’m for bed now. I have some recovering to do before this week hits full force. It’s graduation on Friday and Prom on Saturday, and then suddenly it’s the last week and school’s out for summer. Somehow, I need to find time to pack up my house and my classroom to move up to Arctic and the next big adventure. Madness!

It happened so fast!

At the moment, I’m in Anchorage with a group of girls from Arctic Village. This is their annual Native Youth Olympics field trip, and I’m the female chaperone, borrowed from the next village over.

There’s no snow on the ground here, and it rained on the way down from Fairbanks yesterday. There are tiny green leaves on the trees.

On Sunday I put the Sassy White Bravo away for the last time this season. When I get back to Venetie in a week and a half, there won’t be snow on the ground. I returned my skis to gym storage, too. It was a hard day, Sunday. It seemed like winter would last forever, and then suddenly it was over.

As a last hurrah, Ben and I and our visiting student teacher, Addie, took the SWB on its most epic adventure so far. We rode out maybe six miles to the north, the farthest I’ve been along that trail, and started a fire. Terri had given us a foil packet of moose meat, so we set it in among the coals to cook while we went skiing.

It was a gorgeous, warm sunny day. The snow was thick and slick and slushy, and we flew over it fast and sure, hatless and gloveless in our t-shirts.

On the way back, I skied behind the snowmachine – a handy way to move a third body, and a lot of fun. You fly back there, bumping over the ice at a ripping ten or fifteen miles per hour. The trail opened up and I practiced skiing off to the side of the machine in an open area that had been solid ice hours earlier. It happened so fast – all of a sudden I was flying face-first into the deep slush. My skis had sunk into the heavy snow and hooked. I pitchpoled and wound up with ice in my teeth.

I was fine and came up laughing. It’s hard to hurt yourself in the deep, thick, pillowy white spring snow.

But oh, it happened so fast, this spring. It’s suddenly almost summer, and the goodbyes have already begun: Goodbye, snow. Goodbye, skiing. Goodbye, kiddoes.

And goodbye, Venetie.

I’m thrilled to announce that I’ll be teaching in Arctic Village next year.

Still. It happened so fast.

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Beautiful northern lights at midnight last week

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Spring Carnival

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the women’s snowshoe race

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skiing on Big Lake

I’m on my way to a new adventure, but I’m savoring every moment I have left with my kids and in the village, and lingering over the small farewells.

Inservice

My district doesn’t have a spring break, but between third and fourth quarter we have one week of inservice. Inservice, this year, was held in Fort Yukon, which was a major disappointment. In the past, inservice has been in Fairbanks, where we had hotel rooms and the opportunity to go shopping (I’m talking grocery shopping here, not recreational shopping – this is a big deal for bush teachers) and eat out at restaurants. For most people, this inservice meant sleeping on classroom floors and eating cafeteria food. For Geoff and me, it meant camping out.

Last Friday, I made cookies and raspberry bars and dozens of morning glory muffins. I froze it all, along with some beef stew, to get ready for the trip. Fall inservice was in Fort Yukon, too, and the only reason I didn’t die of starvation that week (I’m not big on cafeteria food) was beer (Fort Yukon is not a dry village, like Venetie and Arctic). Geoff showed up late on Friday night with a broken swing arm on his snowmachine. We spent Saturday getting ready and fixing his machine (the replacement swing arm he procured from someone in the village didn’t fit quite right, and rubbed against the steering rod dealie, which made left turns awkward). We took off on Sunday.

I didn’t feel ready to take the sassy white Bravo out for such a big adventure (Fort Yukon is fifty miles from here,  by trail) so I rode on the back of Geoff’s snowmachine. It was windy, but not too cold. I saw my first lynx running across a slough ahead of us, long-legged and elegant. The trail was narrow and brushy, so we had to dodge sproingy, whippy twigs the whole way, but it wasn’t a difficult ride, and I almost regretted leaving my machine in Venetie until we hit the Christian River.

The Christian River is narrow and steep-sided, so once you get down one bank, there’s nothing for it but to gun it up the opposite side – you’d never get up without that momentum. For us, the problem was a branch that lay right across the trail at head height. Geoff couldn’t stop and I couldn’t see it, and as we roared up the far bank, there was this awful knocking sound that came from inside my skull. We both came away reeling from hitting that same branch head-on.

By then it was getting dark, we’d made about thirty miles of the fifty we needed, and we’d passed the major hurdle of the trip. Our heads were both spinning, and the place was perfect, so we decided to camp beside the trail at the top of the riverbank. The river must have flooded at some point, because there was dead wood everywhere. Geoff started gathering wood for a fire while I untied the sled.

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The sled, fully loaded with the bare minimum for a week of inservice fun!

Over the course of a month, Geoff broke well over half the hundred miles of trail he rode to get to Venetie from Arctic. You can’t break trail with a heavily-loaded sled, so on the way down, he left the tent and chainsaw and other useful stuff at a camp he’d set up weeks before, close to his end of the trail. He’d planned to go back for those things at some point, but breaking trail took longer than expected, and when he made it to Venetie, he was limping on a busted swing arm.

All this is to say that when we stopped for the night, we didn’t have the usual amenities: no tent, no cots, no chainsaw, no woodstove to heat the tent we didn’t have. There was plenty of dry wood, and building a fire was no problem without the chainsaw. We collected the soft tips of spruce branches and laid them out on the snow for a mattress, then laid the tarps over that, and wrapped up in the biggest tarp to sleep. Geoff bungeed his rifle to a tree by our heads and kept a flare gun and the bear spray that lives in my backpack close at hand. I had my awesome sleeping bag (thank you, Pat in Tulsa) and I never felt the cold as I laid out on my back that night and watched the aurora dance between the treetops.

In the morning, I used the little white gas stove I typically take backpacking to heat some stew for breakfast and to boil snow for coffee, tea, and the day’s drinking water. Geoff fed the fire and repacked the sled. My sleeping bag hung on a line between two trees, steaming away the night’s accumulated ice and moisture from snowmelt (which finds its way through tarps and spruce boughs effortlessly) and breathing (which ices the top of the bag very much like it ices neckwarmers). We had only twenty miles to go, and we had until 1:00 pm to get there, so we took our time breaking camp.

We’d thought we might find a new campsite on the way into town, but ran too late to stop and look. It’s a good thing we didn’t try to push it, too: we got lost on the river just outside of town, spinning in endless, windy sloughs, looking for a GPS point that claimed to be Fort Yukon, but definitely wasn’t. By the time we got straightened out and found our way to the village and then to the school, we had cut it as close as we could. We walked through the cafeteria doors at exactly 1:00, shedding snow from our outer layers and pink in the face from the biting wind on the river, but on time.

We didn’t get out in daylight that evening to find the best trail out of town. We went looking for it in the dark, but after Geoff nearly drove the snowmachine and sled off a too-steep bank, we called it quits and threw the tarp down in a ditch at the end of the road. It was a nice enough ditch with a great view of the sky, and no one came by that night, but that was a low point, for sure. When he started snoring I almost strapped on my skis and headed back to town, only stopping because I didn’t want to ski alone through an unfamiliar village in the middle of the night.

After that, things improved. We found a beautiful camp about six and a half miles out of town on the bank of a slough with plenty of dead wood for fires.  I flattened a broad area and made a thick bed of spruce tips. Geoff started a fire and stockpiled wood. We arrived late, windburnt and frosty almost every day, carrying into the cafeteria with us the valuables we couldn’t leave strapped to the sled on Fort Yukon’s main drag, making a total spectacle of ourselves. Geoff borrowed a chainsaw to help with the firewood situation, and we were living pretty comfortably.

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Ben skied out with me one night, and I was alone at camp for a few hours while Geoff ran Ben back to town and spent some time visiting folks who were staying with a friend in the village. I had started feeling sick (this happens to me during inservice – I missed a day of last spring’s inservice, too) while Ben and I were skiing, and those few hours I lay in my sleeping bag, feeling weak and woozy, waiting for Geoff to come back, watching it start to snow, and wondering how much time had passed, were some of the scariest and most awesome of my life. I don’t think most people ever get to be that isolated. It’s humbling. I was convinced something was wrong, that Geoff and Ben had fallen through the ice into the river, that I was about to be eaten by wolves, that half the night had gone by. Every choice became heavy: gather more wood and keep the fire going, or stay warm in the sleeping bag? Grab the rifle you don’t know how to use in case you need it, or leave it be because you’re more likely to hurt yourself with it than protect yourself? Stay put and wait for Geoff/rescue/morning, or take off on skis and try to make it to the safety of the school in Fort Yukon?

In reality, I was absolutely fine. Between the fire and the sleeping bag, I was at no risk of getting cold. No animals ever bothered our camp, and I had bear spray handy just in case. It never crossed Geoff’s mind that I’d worry or panic (he’s used to being alone, especially out in the woods). If he thought about it at all, he assumed I felt able to take care of myself (which is flattering, but off-base) so my relief when he finally made it back took him completely by surprise.

Sometimes, he doesn’t realize how new I am at this. He forgets that I’ve been in Alaska only a year. I’m making myself at home here, for sure, but it’s all very new. “How are your wood-chopping skills,” Geoff asked me yesterday as I lounged in the sleeping bag, loathe to get up, even though he’d lit a crackling fire and the sun was sweeping around the corner of the slough, nearly fully lighting the sky.

“Nonexistent,” I replied, and his eyebrows shot up.

“Really?!”

“Really.”

“Well I saved these nice pieces for you. You can try it out. But first, can you pull out your stove and boil some water for coffee?”

I chose clean snow from the slough and filled Geoff’s thermos with coffee while he started working on replacing the swing arm with the correct part he’d ordered from Fairbanks and had sent to Fort Yukon. On breaks, he showed me how to use the axe without cutting off my feet. I made him turn his back (no peeking) when I first tried it out, but I got comfortable enough for an audience by the end of the day.

It was a good day, yesterday. Geoff worked on his machine, calling me over to hold this or find that stupid little thing he’d lost in the snow. I lounged by the fire, cooking porkchops and caribou and boiling snow and reading my book and singing and bantering and laughing. It felt so good to relax and enjoy the beautiful day. Sleeping out is all very well, but living out is the real treat, and inservice hadn’t allowed for daylight hours to enjoy at camp.

DSC04504We wanted to cross the Christian River before dark, so in the late afternoon, we had to pack up and go. It started snowing around the time we took off, and pretty soon the wind picked up and dark fell. The trip wasn’t too bad; even crossing the Christian River was fine. It was just a long haul. We made it back to Venetie around midnight, cold and exhausted, and more or less collapsed without taking a single thing off the sled.

By this morning, the sled, the snowmachine and the world were blanketed in fresh snow. Geoff didn’t take off until late this afternoon (he’s famously slow out of the gate) and he has to make the hundred miles to Arctic by morning. I rode out across Big Lake with him on my machine and saw him off on the trail north. He’s out there now, plowing through the drifts the new snow and the wind must have kicked over his trail in the past week, loving it because this is what he loves to do.

I’m hoping, for our next adventure, I’ll get to help with caribou. Now that the trail’s broken, it’s not such a huge deal to plan adventures with Geoff, and he’s seen caribou between here and Arctic. Who knows?

Sassy White Bravo

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While I was in Fairbanks last weekend, I bought a snowmachine. That wasn’t my aim in going to town (I really wanted a backpack and some bell peppers, both of which I got). Geoff was going to take me snowmachine window-shopping, basically, to help me learn what to look for and what to stay away from. “You want a long track, nothing so heavy you can’t shift it on your own, something like a Bravo.”

We looked around, but everything at the dealerships was too big or too powerful or too new and expensive. There wasn’t even anything worth showing me in any detail, as far as Geoff was concerned. I was cool with it. I didn’t want to have to test drive a sno-go – it’d be my first time driving one, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to learn under that kind of pressure.

We’d given up on the windowshopping when some guys pulled into the parking lot with a snowmachine on a trailer. “That’s a Bravo. You need one of those. Let’s ask if they’ll let us take a look at it,” said Geoff. He hopped out of the car and introduced himself. “Would it be okay if we took a look at your machine?” I was close behind, and he gestured to me, “She’s looking for her first machine and I think a Bravo would be perfect”

“absolutely. These things are fantastic. Nothing more reliable than a Bravo,” he turned to me, “and you’d have no trouble moving it if you got stuck.”

“sounds pretty good to me,” I grinned.

We chatted for a while, and they told us that the Yamaha dealer sometimes gets older Bravos in and that they’ll put you on a list for one if you’re interested. We shook hands all around, said thanks, and cruised over to the Yamaha place.

To make a long story short, they had one on the lot. “This is perfect.” Geoff said, “you’ll never do better.” I thought about it for all of five minutes and decided to go for it. Why not?

My first time driving a sno-go was a test-drive after all. I told the guy who was helping me that I was completely new at this, and he was stoked! When Geoff found us on the lot, my hands were all greasy and there were two guys standing beside me with big grins on their faces, coaching me through replacing the belt. They talked me through the basics (gas goes here, oil here) and explained how to start it. It fired up on the first pull. Geoff gave me his gloves and I took it for a spin around the parking lot, getting a feel for it, nervous, excited, then giddy.

I sat down with paperwork, and Geoff wandered around the place finding the various bits and pieces I’d want to go with my new ride (“here’s a kit for handwarmers, and here’s a siphon hose, and we’ll need to get you a gas can… Don’t forget to get sparkplugs… and oil!”)

Pretty soon, it was done. There was some shuffling of vehicles and some running back and forth to the airport, but it all worked out. I had a snowmachine. “Your very own?” one of my students asked, when they found out why I was calling Wright’s every day this week (they finally flew it up on Thursday). Yes. My very own.

Ben and I took my Sassy White Bravo out for our first adventure yesterday. We rode five or six miles, then unloaded our skis and skied another four or five miles beyond that. This is why I wanted a snowmachine: to get out beyond the circle around the village that has been circumscribed by my physical strength and skiing skills. Now I can carry myself and my gear outside of that circle and explore new territory.

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Here’s our route from yesterday, more or less. We left the Sassy White Bravo at the marker farthest to the right, and skied west as far as that green lake (currently white, of course), then turned and came back.

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The part that scared me the most was cold-starting it by myself in the field. What if I couldn’t get it going? Ben knows less about this stuff than I do, and we were miles outside of the village, already exhausted from skiing. It’d be a long haul home on foot, even with skis, and so embarrassing. I did it though, on the third pull. I couldn’t have been more pleased.

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I like snowmachining. Jake says the grin on my face is so big, I’d have bugs all through my teeth if we had bugs up here. It’s crazy how fast you can move, even on a Bravo (top speed… thirty? I dunno. I think I get a little jittery at twenty, for now, so I haven’t pushed it) compared with skiing.  It’s like the world opened up, or the map just unfolded so that I can see the whole thing, instead of just the panel I’ve been living in for the past year. There’s some cool stuff out there, and now it’s all within my range.

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