In the Elephant Graveyard

At the base of the bluff, where the willows get thicker as you near the river, there’s an aging collection of vehicles and heavy equipment. Covered in snow, it looks like it was just left behind, parked all higgledy piggledy, after some whopping demolition derby. How did it even get here to begin with? Was it shipped in pieces in small planes, then assembled, used for its intended purpose, and abandoned with unlocked doors? I have a long list of questions (lots about services like water, waste, power, phone, internet, television – things that people access here but in mysterious ways) that gets, somehow, a little longer with every answer I get.

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The Elephant Graveyard at sunset, some days ago.

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In the cab of an aging dumptruck.

I went walking in the elephant graveyard today, and explored a little on a snowmobile trail near the old airstrip and along the river. I’m pushing my comfort zone more with each walk, growing comfortable with my surroundings and making little dents in the vastness outside the village. I’m always surprised when I round a bend in the trail and find another log house, chimney puffing cozily. I haven’t grown accustomed to the idea that one can live without a driveway.

The sun hit the roof of the school full force today. The brightness of the colors took me aback. I’ve grown accustomed to the softness of the light, which hasn’t touched the ground with full strength in months. The angled light makes the world sparkle, and I think I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to the short days of winter. I like the dim-lit silence of the spruce trees and the deep, muffled silence of the snow. Sometimes, if I’m walking and I stop to look around at just the right moment, I can hear nothing at all. Usually there’s a chainsaw or a snow-go tearing into the quiet, but sometimes there’s an instant of absolute stillness. I think the light will whip the cover off the birdcage.

When I’m out hiking, I still haven’t figured out where to draw the line between too-safe and unsafe. I’m a bit of a scaredy cat when I’m walking on my own, and I don’t think that’s totally insane. I am in wolf and bear country here (yes the bears are hibernating, but I’ve heard that they sometimes aren’t, so there’s that), and I’m a small person, usually walking alone. A few years ago, a young teacher who went running in her village in southern Alaska was killed by wolves. Scientists ruled it predation, as the wolves involved were not starving, sick, defending a kill, rabid, or habituated to people. It was the first and only such predatory attack documented in Alaska, which is comforting, but only to a point. Large predators almost never attack people, and I know that, but most people aren’t hiking alone in winter in the wilderness. I don’t want to be kept close to the village by fear and miss out on everything (I’m dying to go further, but I haven’t found a walking buddy yet), but I don’t want to be foolish. The scary stuff is out there, but so is all the amazing stuff. Close to the village, you hardly see tracks in the snow – so far, I’ve only seen rabbit tracks once, and, on another occasion, marks from where a raven touched down, each feather leaving a perfect  imprint. It’s no fun to be stuck between fearful and foolish with so much out there to explore. I need to find the trail between and zip through it into the open country.

zzzip! A snowmobile trail that led me from the airstrip through a couple back yards to the post office.

Zzzip! A snowmobile trail that led me from the airstrip through a couple back yards to the post office (closed as usual – school teachers only get mail on Wednesdays in Venetie, due to inconvenient scheduling).

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This picture is the closest I’ve been able to come to documenting the glowing thousand-colors-in-one-ness of the snow and sky. The world isn’t white, just crisply prismatic, dramatic it its starkness and its luscious depth. The arctic is white like dark chocolate.

We’re gaining daylight in heaping tablespoons now. I don’t have windows in my classroom, and I think it’s for the best. I don’t get to see daylight much, but I will soon. In the meantime, I’m opening the door a few times a day to suck in the sweetness of the buttery, luminous snow and to stare at the mountain, agog. I grin when the cold washes through the open firedoor and the students look up. I still get a rush when I place myself on the map, a vanishing spark of a needle in a haystack of dark wilderness.

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10 thoughts on “In the Elephant Graveyard

  1. You’re such a good writer!

    We always carry bear spray – have never had a reason to use it, but it is statistically proven to be more effective in stopping a bear attack than firewarms. Should work on any animal 🙂 Packs of loose-running village dogs can be a hazard, as well as drunks.

    My boyfriend was once approached by a pack of 13 wolves out on a lake. First he thought, wow, how cool! They approached him in a long drawn-out line from a few hundred yards away where they’d made a kill. As they kept approaching (they couldn’t get his scent) he was starting to get nervous but since he and his little puppy were out in the middle of the lake, he felt that turning and walking away would only get them really interested in him, so he kept standing still. The wolves came closer and when they were only about a hundred yeards away, he pulled out his dog whistle, not knowing what else to do, and blew it.
    All 13 wolves stopped in their tracks instantly, hesitated for a split second and turned tail, running away across the lake.

    • I was concerned about dogs and people for the first few days, but I haven’t seen but one dog loose in the village since I’ve been here. It seems pretty taboo to let your dog off its chain unattended. Drunks are, of course, the most dangerous thing around because they’re unpredictable and common, but I’m more confident in my ability to handle them. I can outrun and outsmart a drunk.
      Your boyfriend’s experience with the wolves sounds breathtaking: incredible and terrifying. It would be thrilling to see them doing their thing like that, and also plain frightening to be the focus of their attention. I would struggle to have the presence of mind to stay still, I think.
      I’m going to get some bear spray ASAP. It’ll boost my confidence to not feel totally defenseless and widen my range considerably. There’s so much out there to see!

      • Good for you 🙂 You’ll be fine and very safe with bear spray.
        A shot bear can still keep going for quite a while and since shooting at it doesn’t disable its sense of smell or eyesight, it tends to zero in on the person with a vengeance (after all, the bear is wounded now and fighting for his life). But a sprayed bear won’t be able to smell and see you anymore, giving you an excellent chance to get away, plus he’s not even wounded, so not as angry as an injured bear.
        Just make sure to keep your spray in your parka pocket where it won’t freeze if you walk around with it in the winter time (sorry, I sound like my mom!) 🙂 Glad to hear the dogs are chained. When I worked with First Nation youth, the little sister of one of my kids was mauled to death by a pack of dogs. Thinking about it still gives me the shivers today.

        • I was actually wondering about that: it seems like something that might freeze and then malfunction at a really critical moment!
          Some of my kids have told stories about children who were killed by dogs. It’s bone chilling to think about.

  2. I think one of those nautical whistles would be a good auditory defense against predators. Those things get hella loud–like rupture-your-tympanic-membrane-if-you-don’t-cover-your-ears loud. Also, machetes are awesome if you can’t get a gun: you get to walk around in the wilderness with a sword.

    • I think I’m gonna try to get bear spray somewhere, and a whistle sounds like a fabulous idea! I am not competent enough to carry a firearm, so they make me nervous. A machete sounds like fun, but a little bulky and unwieldy. Although I guess I could get some kind of carrying strap to wear it on my back or a sheath to wear it on my hip. Either way, I think people might laugh at me. “There goes crazy O’Connell, off to slay the bears and keep the kingdom safe for princesses”

  3. You really captured the silence and the light of Interior Alaska. Today we had the most exquisite parhelion, purpling and golding the snow which already sparkled like diamonds or fairy dust. What an amazing place to live in, eh?

  4. Hey, Keely. I haven’t seen many rabbit trails either this year. In fact, haven’t seen many tracks of any kind except the ravens. I love reading your posts!

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