River Trip Journal 10

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8/6?
Sunday Evening

Back on the river, finally. We had a good two weeks down on the Kenai and in Fairbanks, but it is good – really good – to have all of our really important possessions contained in the hull of this boat again.

We are in Back Yukon Slough now, on our way to the even narrower Cutoff Slough that leads to the Chandalar.

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We arrived in Fort Yukon yesterday afternoon. We had been unable to get reservations for that flight, but somehow both of us and the dog and all our excess baggage made it on the plane. “You’re on!” said the agent at Wright’s, and there was instant pandemonium. Everything had to come out of the truck and get packed up to be shipped out, the truck had to be parked across the way, the parking paid for, and friends called to cancel evening plans, all in about ten minutes. We had really thought we were stuck in Fairbanks for at least another day and so were totally unprepared. When we finally took our seats about fifteen minutes later in that hot metal canister of a plane with glare on its wings, the relief was huge. Geoff still got absolutely sticky; it was a boiling hot afternoon, and he hates flying, but I felt such a weight lift away that I probably could have floated on air to Fort Yukon even without the plane.

Even after visiting for a few hours at the district office, we were able to get Lyra in the water and ourselves to camp before midnight. I had my best night of sleep in weeks: no rain, no rain fly, no noisy RVs (Jimmy at the beach, he of no teeth, nearly suffocated us when he fired up his gnarly old diesel camper at six in the morning), no pressing worries.

Our freight, two action packers full of pots and pans and food, didn’t make it on the plane with us yesterday and didn’t make it today, so we called Wright’s and had them send it ahead of us to Venetie. We will meet it there tomorrow. For tonight, we have no pans, no stove, no potatoes, and, in Geoff’s case, no sandals or boots. He is wearing his work shoes or none at all.

We are making great time in this slough. It’s shallow and slow: what current there is is with us. The sun has fallen lower in the sky since we went south. It actually gets dark for a little while at night now. On one stretch of still, brown water the sun striped the surface with the shadows of tall black spruce. stripes

The water is much stiller and the channel much narrower here. It is not hard to navigate, but there is no way to cut corners. The long meanders dictate our path.wave curlWe hope to make it to the Chandalar tonight after we pass the mouths of the Christian River and Marten Creek.

I am crossing my fingers that Geoff doesn’t try to persuade me to cook dinner in the dog bowls tonight. I will report back on this matter later.


Later:

When we came onto the Chandalar, it felt like stepping into a walk-in freezer. The water is much colder and paler, though still grayish. We have started traveling upriver again.

As we were motoring along, we passed a few camps. At one, we were waved ashore. I was a little apprehensive. Some people are very opposed to our traveling on tribal land, and, although the river is public, there are some folks who resent our using it. I felt better as soon as we got close enough to make out faces. It was P and S, who had taken me for a dogsled ride in Venetie a few years ago, and they wanted us to come up and visit over tea.

They are incredibly nice guys. They made tea and gave us dry fish for the rest of our trip. Since our life jackets didn’t make it on the plane, they insisted that we take a couple of extra ones from them until we get ours back in Venetie. We ate cookies and they looked over our maps with us and gave us advice on the best route to take and where the tricky spots are. They are fishing for kings and silvers, and they have sixteen dogs in camp. They also have satellite TV.

We saw a flock of young geese right where S had said they would be. We saw cranes strutting on a sandbar and an enormous beaver. At last we settled on a beach a few miles up from camp after a golden sunset. We did not cook in the dog dish. I made a foil pack for some frozen (thawed) potstickers, and Geoff grilled a couple fillets of Kenai River red salmon.lower chandalar camp

Editor’s note on tribal land:

I wrote back and forth with the tribal government this summer, asking for approval to do this trip, which was eventually granted, so Geoff and I could have camped on tribal land if we had needed to. However, Alaska’s navigable waterways are public up to the normal high water mark. Since we always camped on beaches and sandbars, we never actually used that permission. The only times that we set foot on tribal land were when P. and S. invited us up to their camp, where we were made to feel very welcome, and in Venetie, where everyone was lovely to us, helping us to get gas and groceries, and asking me if I was coming back to teach, which was super flattering.

There have been a few people who have commented negatively about our trip since we got back to Arctic, but I don’t think they are the majority. I want to be respectful and have a good relationship with the community here, but I don’t want to let a couple of loud voices push me into giving up adventures on Alaska’s public lands.

I am trying to be honest and open-minded about the whole thing. I want someone to sit me down and really talk to me about it, but that hasn’t happened yet, and I’m not sure who to ask. If you are from Venetie or Arctic, are reading this post, and feel up to helping me understand, come find me or call me at school. I am ready to listen. It is a conversation I really want to have.

Soft

Spring in the arctic is soft. It happens gently, so that without thinking too much about it you’re wearing your sneakers and then sandals to school every day and you’ve stopped building fires altogether. You can’t figure out how you could ever have been skiing on the same trail that is now six inches under water. Was that only last week? You go out to pee at two in the morning, it’s sunny with a pink glow to the north, and you can hear the river a quarter-mile away shushing like a giant slushie. Mud is everywhere. The dog dries out in the house and leaves sand art on the floor.

We had a beautiful final ride in ANWR a few weeks ago. There wasn’t much snow, but it was sunny and warm enough that wet boots didn’t matter too much.

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Arctic Village is dealing with loss right now, and it is hard to know my place as a neighbor-teacher-outsider. I want to lend my strength as the community, especially the young people that I love, deals with grief and loss, but I am not confident that I know how.

The loss is twofold.

A few days ago, an elder passed away. “She was our oldest elder – she was 95!” L told me. Every such loss is tragic: elders have irreplaceable traditional knowledge and wisdom. This is a time of upheaval and change for Gwich’in people, and that knowledge and wisdom is a source of strength and hope. Such a loss is devastating for the community and for the culture.  “She died of a broken heart,” folks said, “she was so sad after what happened.”

A young man, twenty years old, her grandson, took his own life last week. I did not know him and do not know his family well. I do know the kids he grew up with, and I am afraid of the impact that this will have on them.

The suicide rate among Alaska Native men in their twenties is more than ten times the national average. I have heard more experienced teachers speak again and again about the domino effect that a suicide can have in a village.

It is not my place to try to explain this. Any explanation I tried to give would oversimplify a complicated story. My role in this is to help my students find empowerment in a very hard world.

But I have been bad at it.

When we found out what had happened, I held the older kids in my classroom so that we could insulate them from the tragedy for a few minutes. When adults from the village arrived, we (the staff and community-members) broke the news. After a few words and a few moments of silence, the other adults left, and I was alone with the kids. They were absolutely silent. I have never heard them like that.

“Do you want me to put on a movie so that you guys have something to zone out to, or is it better this way?”

“It’s better this way.”

That was my great offering. A movie. They sat for an hour until we dismissed school. Before they left, I told them that I loved them, but I could feel the words, like a stack of pancakes hitting the floor, falling flat for them in the empty air.

I have not been the best… what? this year. I was going to say teacher, but that’s not what I mean. I have been a perfectly good teacher. Maybe I have not been my best self this year. I have tried to do too much too fast. I spent a lot of time recovering from, planning for, or going on adventures. It has made me happy. But. In Venetie, I would have been giving that time to the kids – going walking or making cookies or working on the prom or planning awesome art projects. We built momentum, the kids and I. And that made me happy. This year, there have been no cookie nights. Nobody ever asked for them, and I felt it wasn’t quite right to offer. There was no prom. The play was awesome, a bright spark, but it wasn’t enough to get a real fire going.

If my heartfelt “I love you” fell flat for the kids, it was for the same reason that this school year fell flat for me: I didn’t give it the dimension that brought last year to life in Venetie: my personal time and space and passion. These are things that are not in my contract, that no one has the right to expect of me, but that, freely given, have let me fall in love with what I do and let me be who my kids need me to be.

I will not give up the time that I spend in the woods with Geoff and Daazhraii. That time makes the world crisp at the edges and centers me in myself.

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I will not give up, the way I did this year, the commitment that brings my work to life for me and makes a real difference for the kids.

I haven’t figured it out, but I am facing the question: How do I give the kids the best of me without selling myself short? How do I get what I need and still give enough?

For Geoff, this spring was a bitter exploration of this question.

He got a letter late in March asking him (us) to stop traveling on tribal land without either obtaining permission from the council or bringing a tribal member.

He was devastated. Geoff has been camping and snowmachining in Arctic for several years now, and to suddenly have this happen was a real blow. It is hard to live in the village, fall in love with the land, give your time and energy to the kids – above the call of duty, and then have the rug swept out from under you. It makes you feel awful and unwelcome and unappreciated. It hurts.

We always try to be careful and respectful of the land and people. We don’t take wood from people’s wood yards or waste caribou meat. We never leave trash behind – we often pick it up.

I think it is evident in my writing that I feel a spectacular reverence for the lands and waters around Arctic Village.

But it is tribal land, and our traveling on it – our living on it, even – constitutes trespassing.

I never thought to ask if we were stepping on anyone’s toes. I guess we thought, if we thought about it at all, that our awesome work with the kids and our long-term residency exempted us from rules that might apply to, in Geoff’s words, “yahoos from Fairbanks who are just coming out for the weekend”

Privileged assumption much?

And yet.

What prompted this edict? It could be any of a number of things. I get lost in wormholes whenever I try to pin it down. A concern for our safety, a personal conflict, a kneejerk reaction, an exercise of authority, a bid for new revenue, a devotion to the rule of law, a sense of pride?

It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like looking at myself as someone who has been kicked off of tribal land. I don’t think of myself as that disrespectful or inconsiderate.

And yet.

It’s not something I have the right to feel offended by.

The tribal government has the right to ask us to stop traveling outside the village on tribal land, plain and simple. It is fair, but it still stings.

So. We are writing a letter requesting permission to camp on the east bank of the Chandalar during our river trip this summer. We plan to invite Geoff’s good friend, a tribal member, to travel with us more, now that we have a second tent. As a gesture of goodwill and of our commitment to the kids, we donated a large sum to the student activities fund, which pays for student travel. Next year, regardless, we will travel primarily in ANWR. The land to our north is beautiful, and we have been talking about maybe shooting for the continental divide.

Right now, though, it is spring. I am in Fairbanks, hundreds of miles from all of my responsibilities and quandaries. I have the summer to grapple with the hard stuff. Maybe by fall I will have it figured out. Maybe.

Shook-up world: What is the value of wilderness?

Like so many people, I am dazed by the events of this week. On Tuesday night I went to bed in tears, shocked and frightened by the outcome of the election. Trump’s campaign always felt like a prank to me, and now it feels like a prank that got out of control and set fire to the house with all of us trapped inside.

My fear stems from the following:

  • We have just sent a message to every secretly bigoted and misogynistic creep on earth that we, as a nation, condone abusive behavior and expressions of prejudice. This, more than anything else, frightens me.
  • I heard yesterday that Mr. Trump has expressed an interest in allying with Russia in Syria. Although I thought I remembered hearing that Russia was no longer backing Assad, I couldn’t find anything in a short online search to confirm that recollection. It is horrifying to think that our country might lend support to a criminal head-of-state who has used chemical weapons against his own people.
  • We have empowered a science-denier to make policy decisions that will have an irreversible impact on the environment.
  • Mr. Trump will have the opportunity to appoint as many as three supreme court justices.
  • Mr Trump will appoint a cabinet. I keep hearing rumors of a Secretary of the Interior with oil interests (Forrest Lucas, Sarah Palin) and an Energy Secretary with financial interests in fracking and in the Dakota Access Pipeline (Harold Hamm). I’m trembling here at the hem of ANWR.
    I understand that our Department of the Interior is responsible for managing federal lands in the best interest of the American people, for industry and recreation as well as conservation, but I am not convinced that the economic and political benefits of developing oil and natural gas are always worth the price we pay.I have not been persuaded that the potential benefits of developing mineral resources in ANWR outweigh the potential cultural and environmental costs. I know that this state runs on oil money and that my job and many, many others depend either directly on the oil industry or on the state budget. I know that it has never been demonstrated that the Porcupine caribou herd would be disrupted by development in the 1002 area. I know that the pipeline needs to maintain a minimum pressure or be permanently dismantled, and that with Prudhoe Bay producing less than in previous years, we need a new source for oil if we want to keep it open. I know that Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has vowed to open the 1002 area in ANWR for drilling, and there will never be a better opportunity.  I expect the onslaught to be immediate and forceful, and I know that my students and their families are not prepared for it.

I’m trying to channel my anxiety into action. I’m reading endless articles and teaching my class with a renewed passion for civics. I am trying to cultivate a diversity of nuanced opinions among my students, who are usually, to their detriment, of one mind. I told the kids today, as I have been telling them for months, to bring me their voter cards when they turn eighteen and I’ll bake them each a cake to celebrate their power. I want the kids to know how the government works and how to influence it. I want to spend the next four years building up to a huge celebration of the centennial of women’s suffrage. I want to get my students informed about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline and in contact with native kids, like them, whose environment and heritage may be threatened by oil development. I also want them to understand – really understand – the perspectives of people who don’t share their views, including those who wish to develop oil resources. I have never been so motivated to get my students writing clear, cogent, persuasive essays. We have such a long way to go, though. They are miles behind and not catching up quick.

But, after all, why bother with all of that? What is the value of wilderness?

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Wilderness is valuable for its power to make us feel small. We spend so much time in human-built environments, perfectly made to our scale, that we forget how we diminish in the presence of  mountains and tundra, how we disappear in the course of rivers that churn with mud and power. When I am out there, I am no greater than one of seven-billion ice-crystals lying under an unknowably deep and vast sky.

It is valuable for its beauty, if you believe that beauty has value.

It is valuable for subsistence and cultural diversity, if you believe that subsistence and cultural diversity have value.

It is empowering.
How does it feel to stand in a silent, snow-filled valley, hundreds of miles from anywhere?
It feels like hugging the sun.

It is valuable for its complexity. As Carl Sagan reminds us, “The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together” (thank you, Symphony of Science). We have so much yet to learn from the systems that interconnect in wild places. It is not enough to take pictures and samples to fossilize in a lab somewhere: the complexity of nature demands space, time and variables that cannot be simulated or artificially preserved. By eliminating wilderness, we preclude the full expression of these complex systems and curtail our studies and potential scientific knowledge.

The variation – the biodiversity – that powers the miracle of evolution also powers the miracles of medicine and technology: we look to biology and ecology for answers to our most difficult human challenges, and, without wilderness, those answers have no place to live.

And what about this wilderness? The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? What is its value, specifically? I try to be pragmatic, and I think I am. I can see my way all the way around most political issues. I can see what people who want to develop the resources in the 1002 area see. Economic growth is important. Jobs are important. Energy independence is important. But vast, untouched and untouchable wilderness is inherently valuable for its power to command our respect and awe. Arctic beauty is important, more so as it dwindles. Culture and caribou are important. Unique biological and ecological processes and systems are important. And the only difference that really matters between these things and those things is that these things are available nowhere else in the world.

If by cultivating economic growth, jobs, and energy independence we compromise the biodiversity and cultural diversity of the planet, we pay too high a price.

In other news, ahshii. It’s snowing.

At last.

Oops Pie

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By far, the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me happened on Monday.

Last weekend, Geoff, Albert and I borrowed a canoe and took off for an adventure. We were camped a ways up Deadman’s Creek, and we spent all of Monday hiking in the tundra and berry picking at the base of the mountains. We’d just gotten back to camp, tired and sore from picking our way across the tundra, and were sitting down to eat some dinner before heading back to the village when search and rescue showed up. A complete surprise.

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“Yeah, your Dad called the troopers,” one of the guys said. I looked down at my feet, silently wishing the ground would split open so that I could fall in and be swallowed up by a new slough. Stupid-girl Slough.

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The details don’t matter much, just that it was a communication breakdown and entirely my fault. The searchers were good-humored about it, glad to find us all in one piece. What a first impression I must have made, though, moving to Arctic and causing such a stir within a week. There was a sign posted out in front of the school when we got back “No school Tuesday September 6th until Teachers are Found.” Wright Air flew over the river looking for us, and Venetie was all stirred up on my account. Board members called the superintendent. Kids cried. Geoff’s mom found out and told her neighbor and he managed to get a prayer circle going in West Virginia. What a mess.

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But all things, even embarrassing things, pass, I guess.

I made pie the other day from the blueberries we picked on Monday. They were shriveled up and sweet and purple on the red-leaved bushes, and they made my fingertips and teeth blue. That Tuesday morning the mountains were dusted with snow (we motored through a nasty little rain-squall to get back to the village, and it was cold and awful, so it stands to reason it’d be snow a few-hundred feet higher), so I think that was the last of the season’s blueberries. Embarrassment pie, mortification pie, sweet, delicious, wonderful, blueberry-major-oops pie. dsc05140

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How to be Wildly Happy on a January Day in the Arctic

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Wake up slowly, miles from anywhere. Stoke the fire and watch the sun wash the snow for a slow noon hour.

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Then, layer up and ride out while daylight still lingers like sugar on the ridgelines.

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Break trail a while, then stop to watch the sky go soft around the edges,

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and to sweetly kiss someone wonderful at the top of the world,

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while that world turns to silhouettes and shadows, and the valley shivers with steam rising from the overflowed creek.

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Hold on, swallow fear, and fly over rattling ice you can hardly hear over your rattling heart.

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And climb a hill and wonder, breathless, at the pathless wilderness, the sure mountains with the sun pressed between their shoulder blades.

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Watch your breath fog in the cold and know that months have come and gone since human boots have printed this hilltop. Let the shape of this bowl of sky press into your memory while you leave winding, wood-gathering footprints on the hillside.

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Build a fire while the sunlight dies. Make dinner and press palms to the column of heat while you wait for the moonrise to break the soft peaks of the horizon.

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Let the night overflow, then ebb to moonlight and the shadows of two human figures on the snow. When the firewood is gone, take the long road home. Arrive late. Arrive cold. Arrive stiff and stumbling and exhausted. Arrive grinning and shivering and grinning. Sleep well, sleep warm.