I did it again

I bought another boat. What is it about the early days of summer that just does this to me?

This one is an eighteen foot square-stern canoe, and it’ll be built this summer by a small company (a dude named Michael)  here in Alaska called Yukon Freightworks Canoe Company.  I wanted something to take on serious adventures up interior rivers, and this felt right. With a small engine, it’ll make the trip from Circle up to Arctic in August, down the Yukon and then up the Chandalar, even in the shallow places where heavier boats bottom out, and it’ll handle caribou hunting in the fall, which is an adventure I’m eager to try.

DSC04813I went up to Arctic last week to visit and relax after school got out. On Saturday, when I got off the plane, the river was cluttered and hissing with ice. By Tuesday, it was clear, high water full of muskrats and ducks. I hiked along the river on Wednesday afternoon and took a few pictures. A willow in bloom hummed with bees and made my heart fizz. When I came across a four-wheeler and spotted some folks out hunting ducks a little ways along the bank, I turned and slogged through the marsh to get back to Geoff’s place, stopping for raven feathers and tiny purple flowers in bloom. When I got to the house, I napped in my hammock, strung between two stringy spruce trees, until the sun dragged over the mountains. The next morning, it snowed. DSC04814

I can’t quite believe that this staggeringly beautiful, remote place is my new home. I have a P.O Box there (PO Box 22045, Arctic Village, AK 99722) and now that I’ve turned in all my school keys from Venetie, the keys to that box and the key to the Sassy White Bravo are my only keys in this universe. I like the things I can unlock, very much.

DSC04809This week, I’m taking classes in Anchorage to maintain my teaching license. To get here, I took the train from Fairbanks to Wasilla with Geoff, a trip I highly recommend to anyone who is thinking of visiting Alaska. The views are magnificent, the food is good, and the staff are informed and friendly. I have always liked taking the train because the landscape moves by at such a graceful pace. It’s not headlong and hurried like in a 12-passenger van full of kids. We saw some cool old home sites, several moose, trumpeter swans on their nests, and a single lost caribou, way out of his territory and all alone. Over lunch, we dreamed up a backpacking trip that would make use of the flag stop service that some routes still offer.

Yesterday was the best though. Geoff brought me up to Hatcher pass and we hiked several miles in along the Gold Mint trail through this beautiful river valley. I’m an idiot for not bringing my camera. There were a lot of people for the first few miles (forgive me, I’ve been in the bush, there were probably twenty), but as we slowly climbed up the valley alongside the clear-running river, the trail got swampier and snowier, the footprints grew less and less dense, and the cottonwood trees, aspens and alders thinned away to willows. We passed beaver pond after beaver pond, right beside the river, and spotted what I think must have been a wolverine in the rocks across the water. Lupines were blooming on the south side of the valley, and I was so glad to see them that I got a little misty-eyed.

After a while, we came to a place where the river was shallower and braided and the sun was shining on a sandbar in the middle. We took our shoes off, rolled up our pants and waded across the knee-deep, frigid moat, swearing and shrieking at the cold. My feet went completely numb and then burned with the cold, but the sand was warm on the other side, despite the patches of snow still clinging to it. Geoff and I both fell asleep, barefoot in the mountain sun, for a blissful half hour in the afternoon.

My Auntie Sheila (sender of bomb-ass care packages – THANK YOU – the kids [and I] loved the trail mix) tells me that my father said, after visiting me this spring, that if he had come to Alaska at my age, he’d have never come back.  There’s something in that, Pops.

Cowboy Boots in Cambridge

I pulled on my cowboy boots yesterday for the first time in probably two years. The last time I distinctly remember wearing them was the End-of-School-Year Barbecue in Marianna, but I probably wore them a couple of times since then. For the last year or so, they have been collecting dust in storage. Then yesterday, I gave them a brief trial on my bike and decided they were suitable for a ride across the Charles to see Ian in Cambridge.

While I was riding, I thought about something my mom and Granddad would occasionally say, “You can take the man out of Texas, but you can’t take the Texas out of the man.” Aside from my family whom I love dearly, I have had a lot of negative associations with Texas. When I visit them we drive through the terrible urban sprawl of DFW; strip malls essentially line the highway the entire drive up North from the city to my Grandparent’s house, near the Oklahoma border.  I think about the hubris and “Everything’s bigger in Texas”, and the consumer culture. And, of course, all my favorite politicians are from Texas. “Don’t Mess with Texas.”

But walking around Cambridge and Harvard, I proudly sported my boots, smiling as they reminded me about my connection with the Lone Star State. There were all types of people from all over the world, taking pictures, touching John Harvard’s gold shoe, but I was the only one in boots.

Still having the Texas in me, I now believe, means taking pride in what makes me unique. It means taking on big projects, big ideas, and actually doing something, not just talking. When I got back to Ian’s apartment, it was a physical struggle to take the boots off. On each baby toe, there was a huge blister.

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.