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.
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.
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.
“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.
We 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?