ANWR Christmas

I think I’m going to be in Alaska for a long time.

Jake has always said “Keely, the look on your face when you walked out of that classroom on the first day… I knew you’d be in Alaska a while”

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This wasn’t the look on my face, yet, but it’s a pretty darn good look.

It’s a year later now, almost to the day, and we talked about it again a few days back. He could see it right away, I guess, and I guess on some level I’ve known almost as long.

Last week, in Ohio, Jesse gave me a crash course in chainsaws. My hoodie pockets are full of tiny wood shavings and I feel like a badass. Or at least someone who is approaching badass and isn’t scared completely shitless of chainsaws anymore. I’m working on building the skills to take care of myself out here, and I have miles and miles to go. Even just washing dishes at Geoff’s over break (he doesn’t have running water) was a learning experience.

Geoff took me camping in ANWR for Christmas. We hung around Arctic village for a few days, hoping the temperature would pop up over -30. When it finally did, we jumped (-25 wasn’t much of an improvement, but you take what you can get). Just as we managed to get the tent up at the site he’d chosen, the temperature started dropping. It settled in the forties that night and didn’t shift for days. It dropped to -45 at the coldest, and I thought my buttcheeks might freeze solid when I went out to pee, but it was outrageously beautiful.

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When it’s cold like that, smoke from the woodstove settles in the still air.

We boiled snow for drinking water, and kept the bottles close to the stove so they wouldn’t freeze solid. We kept the frozen fruit by the door, and moved it closer before snacking so that it wouldn’t be -40 when we tried to eat it.

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The sun never kissed our side of the horizon while we were out. We had a few hours of long, soft daylight each day, and endless hours of clear, starry night.

When it’s that cold, engines freeze up. With the chainsaw, you can just bring it into the tent to warm up, but you have to get up every few hours to start the snowmachine (otherwise it might get too cold to start, and then you’re in trouble unless you’ve got some handy, safe way to put fire under the cowling). Geoff literally brought the kitchen sink (it’s a big, handy, enamel bowl, in his case, and fits nicely in an ActionPacker) but drew the line at the generator. Every night we were out, his sleep was broken when the fire would die and the temperature in the tent would plummet. He’d stoke it up, then head out to run the sno-go for a while.

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On one morning’s ride, we stopped here just to stare at the beautiful sky and the light on the snow.

On the last night of our adventure, we rode out and found a bit of high land with a view of the mountains and had ourselves a picnic dinner.

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We built our fire on a hill very much like this one and waited for the moon to rise and fill the valley with light.

I knocked low, dead limbs off the trees with an axe, and Geoff used the sno-go to pack down the snow in our campfire area for easy walking. He unloaded the wood we’d hauled with us (sizable logs from an earlier stop) and started handing me kindling. It was -20 or so, and the wind was blowing a little. I was grateful for the fire, once we got it going.

The stars came out of the murky, day-gray sky first, and we compared knowledge of constellations. Then the moon spilled its light against our backs and the trees, and the smoke from our fire covered its face and made it turn colors. I have come to love the shifting smoke-shadow that the moon casts on snow. It’s every bit as mesmerizing as fire, but so much more cold and ethereal. Eventually, the valley was brimming with moonlight. There was no sound but the chattering fire, no light but the light of our camp and the moon. We were thirty trail-miles from the village. I have never been so far north or so far from other humans.

Geoff wrapped some caribou in bacon and packed it in foil, then threw it right on the fire. I warmed tortillas gingerly on the edge of the blaze. We ate hungrily and fast as the fire consumed the last of our wood, then packed up quickly and unceremoniously while the northern lights started to spool out over the treetops and rode back to camp, with a hurried, chilly stop to load wood that Geoff had cut on the way out.

The tent warmed up fast, and the temperature outside dropped. It was in the thirties again by the time we headed back to town the next morning.

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It was nearly noon when I took this picture. We were on our hurried way back to the village so that I could make my 2:00 flight. It’s hard to get moving before sunrise.

I need to learn to do this for myself. Geoff is awesome, but I’m independent by nature and fierce about it from experience. And I think I’m going to be in Alaska for a long time.

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