Scarcity and… not that

346DCE4F-3FE7-4704-A038-1E9F6217DE2CI’ve heard it was a great year for blueberries. Rumor has it someone in Arctic picked thirty gallons. I mostly missed the season, thanks to summer break and teacher inservice, but I put away three quarts before hard frost.

I was stoked for September to roll in so that I could pick cranberries (they’re lingonberries, really, but everyone here calls them cranberries). They’re my favorite: I make cranberry bread and chutney to eat with caribou fry meat, and I’ll eat them plain Jane just for the sweet tart bite and the memory of fall. These past two years they’ve been easy to pick and abundant during my time here, far more so than blueberries which begin to shrivel and sag toward the end of August, so I was prepared to pick and process gallons.

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Two years ago, the berries were fat and juicy and everywhere.

It didn’t work out. I have only two quarts of cranberries, and I’m saving those for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I searched and searched, and I stood in banks of the juicy green leaves, stymied. The plants weren’t bearing. The fruit just wasn’t out there. Maybe it’s a pollinator problem. Maybe we had a too-hot or too-cold or too-wet or too-dry summer. I don’t know, but I’m sure glad I’m not relying on berries as a source of winter calories.

Boom and bust is the name of the game. Before I went to town last week, we were in a lean time: there was one very old tub of hummus in the refrigerator, but that was about it; we’d run out of fresh foods and frozen veggies and were eating into our stash of dehydrated camp meals; I didn’t have yeast to make pizza dough or butter and eggs to make cookies.

It wasn’t all bad: the freezer was full of Kenai reds, we were overwhelmed with caribou from our trip upriver over Labor Day weekend, someone gave us some moose ribs, the store had potatoes, so dammit it wasn’t worth doing a Freddy’s order with only a few days to go before a town trip.

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Lyra loaded down with three fat caribou after a beautiful weekend in the refuge

Now scarcity is not the problem. It’s really the opposite: Geoff’s gone to town and I’m overwhelmed with plenty. There is too much fresh food: there’s fruit in the fruit bowls and there are boxes of salad in addition to a flat of microgreens I started in the lean weeks. I hardly know what to cook to use it all up before it goes bad.

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corner microgarden

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FRUITS!! (and stuff): neato neato neato

One of the things I love about Geoff is his confidence in me. This week, he left me home alone with a chainsaw I’d never used (the one I’m familiar with is broken), a pile of full-length logs, and an empty diesel tank. It’s getting colder now, so we’re lighting fires twice a day to keep the house cozy.

It was Saturday afternoon, and Geoff had already hopped on a plane for Fairbanks when I realized I didn’t know how to start the other – bigger – chainsaw. It has a weird choke and switch thing that I hadn’t seen before. I called down to Fairbanks and Geoff and John talked me through it and damn if this big monster chainsaw didn’t feel like sudden-onset superpowers. I had a couple days’ worth of wood chunked in no time flat, so I got down to business and chopped enough to see me through for a few days. Plenty again.

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It feels good to be rich in fruit and firewood and puppy-dog snuggles.

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Why Development in the Arctic Refuge is a Terrible Idea and What You Can Do About It.

I attended a BLM scoping meeting at the community hall the other day. Folks in Arctic were asked to describe specific concerns about the development required in the Arctic Refuge by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, and to suggest ways that the required development can be done sensibly.

The unanimous position of the speakers was this: any development, regardless of location and timing, will disrupt the porcupine herd and the migratory birds that nest in the 1002 area. Disruption of the herd will mean catastrophic cultural and economic disruption for the Gwich’in.

It was fascinating. I learned a great deal about caribou: the scent glands in their feet that allow them to relay information about trail conditions and hazards, the vital nutrients that the cows and calves glean from the unique ecosystem of the coastal plain, and the cultural, economic and spiritual relationships Gwich’in people have with the caribou and have had for millennia.

Developing nonrenewable resources on the coastal plain is shortsighted. Attaching this provision to unrelated legislation was deceptive. I am disappointed in my government and disturbed by the speed with which all of this is moving forward. I am humbled by the activists in this community, some of whom have been fighting this battle for decades. I am hopeful that the voices of this community will be heard, that this process will be slowed and ultimately reversed, and that eventually the coastal plain will be protected as wilderness.

If you’re interested in learning more, please read the expert opinion of a former and long-time employee of Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game who also served as a lead biologist for caribou studies.
To have your voice heard, submit comments here.

The tribe has requested an extension of the scoping period and that meetings be held in other Gwich’in communities, such as Fort Yukon, Beaver, Chalkyitsik and Circle. They have also requested a careful examination of the 1987 treaty that protects the Porcupine caribou and an invitation to the planning process for impacted Canadian communities.

Please consider lending your voice to theirs and seconding their very reasonable requests.

If you are an Arkansas duck hunter – as many of my former students are – you should be aware that the health and migratory patterns of waterfowl may hang in the balance as development moves forward.
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A spring snowshoe hike in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

 

April Came Early

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April in March

April came early this year. Weeks ago, we had the long, snow-bright evenings and the warm afternoons with slick trails that characterize my favorite month in the Arctic. There has to be a word for this time of year in Gwich’in. I will ask Albert, someday. Birds start to appear, the little songbirds that seem to erupt from nowhere – how do they survive the winter? – and it’s finally time to ski – I have the bruises to prove it: I wiped out spectacularly last weekend.

Right now, my tent overlooks the Junjik valley. It’s positioned so that we can spy on the overflowing river valley with binoculars, can see Nitsih Ddhaa from our sleeping bags, and so that every pop of the lively ice below echoes through our camp. It’s also halfway up a little mountain.

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We headed out to camp last Saturday night after Geoff welded his snowmachine back together (His Skandic has been falling to pieces this spring. Every time we go out it’s something new – a swing arm, a belt, an exploded bearing, a broken exhaust… Sassy Bravo has been reliable, except for – ehrm – user error and the headlight thing, and what’s the point of fixing that now, anyway, when we have some fifteen hours of daylight?). I skied out ahead with the dog loose beside me. The creek at the border of the refuge was overflowing and drenched with the pink of the evening sky. I picked a path across, careful to keep my skis dry, and slogged through the thigh-deep drift on the far bank to regain the trail. Daazhraii and I skied on – I love how I lose myself in the slip and glide of it all as the light fades from the snow – and I changed into my heavier gear when Geoff caught up, a few miles down the trail on Cargo Lake.

The moon rose full and yellow in a notch to the east as we floated up the Chandalar valley. It vanished behind the mountains and then rose again above them, irrepressible as a hot air balloon. In the long moonlight, I alternated staring out into the crosshatched night-woods, looking for caribou, and resting my cheek against Geoff’s back. It is still thirty below at night, and the wolverine ruff of his jacket is a soft shelter from the wind of travel. The lullaby hum of the engine, the glide of the track and the perfect unreality of the landscape in the moonlight make something like a magic carpet ride of the arctic night. Refuge indeed.

We crossed over two rivers and passed the open water in the Junjik, then climbed the steady, messy trail up the hill to the tent. At camp we discovered that someone had been there in our week’s absence, at least long enough to build a little fire and warm up. They zipped the tent all the way when they left, and added to our wood-pile. Later, Geoff found their trail to our north: two or more people hiking with sleds.

On Sunday, the wind blew steadily all day. Geoff took off to the north to break trail up the valley, and I stayed in camp, stitching a little on my beadwork, chopping firewood, listening to the wind hissing through the cold, skinny trees, and packing our gear. When he got back, Geoff went into the tent to thaw out and I slipped off on my skis toward town.

The wind was at my back, and on the better sections of trail I flew. It’s just that it’s such a long way down the mountain. Most of the downhill bits are ruts, paired with a little uphill at the end, so you don’t go too fast. There are sticks and willows that can snag skis, and bits where the trail splits or wavers over gullies. There was one long, straight section of trail that had no speed bumps. I saw it coming, knew I’d get going too fast, but I felt agile and bulletproof in my heavy winter gear and didn’t care. I kicked off and glided out and down, the wind pressing my blue windbreaker into my shoulders and my headlong rush pressing it into my chest. I accelerated, and the light glared hard off the snow into my squint. For long seconds I was rushing over the trail at what had to be the hull speed of my poor skis. I could feel every twig in the trail punching the hard soles of my boots. I made the first little curve, barely, and whistled on over another long, straight stretch. I dodged a willow wicket, a pothole. I pounded on and down, faster and harder until my knees ached. The wide valley below rose up, white and splendid, and then the second curve came, too sharp, too fast, and I bit it like a rhino on ice skates.

The valley floor was in my face, down my front. I stood up and the snow still reached my hips. I’d lost a ski. I had to unzip my bibs to empty the snow from my pants. The radio had flown out of my fanny-pack and landed down the trail a ways. The dog looked on, a little perturbed, the wind ruffling his pricked, concerned ears. I stagger-waded over and climbed up to the trail, picked up the radio, and dug around in the deep snow until I got lucky and unearthed my ski. Clipped in, I skied on across the flatter, more ski-friendly valley as far as the Junjik. Geoff picked me up on the river ice.


Some of you out there might know that I applied to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, for an MFA in Creative Writing. Some of you might also know that I was accepted and offered a TA-ship, with attendant tuition waiver, stipend and medical. A few of you know how hard it was for me to decide what to do with that choice. In the end, after grappling with it and getting nowhere, I flipped a coin.

Tails.

I’m teaching in Arctic for one more school year; teaching, skiing, sewing, writing, cooking, kissing, fighting, chopping, boating, picking, building, shooting and living for one more year. I deferred, and I will be a student at UAF in the fall of 2019. With luck, I’ll be able to reapply for a TA-ship and receive a similar funding offer. And I am awfully lucky: look at where I get to spend the next year of my life.

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North

We finally took off north this weekend. Geoff Nitsiiddhaa

Geoff and I have been talking about heading for the continental divide all year, but it hasn’t happened. All winter we’ve been getting wood instead of working on trail, which is good: I’ve finally hit a groove in my firewood chopping, i.e. chopping not chipping. We’re using less diesel and we’ve adjusted to heating water on the wood-stove as a first choice, but we haven’t been traveling as much as we did last year and even the year before. This weekend we finally took off and made it north of the woodyard for the first time.

We packed up on Saturday, determined to break trail as far as we could, but it was a false start. We got into a herd of caribou a few miles out of town and wound up spending the evening working on meat.  Geoff and Vadzaih

I like working on meat in the snow. After the fire ants and heat of Arkansas, the clean, fresh snow is a blessing. Caribou are easy skinning by comparison with pigs, and the work goes fast. It was cold, twenty below on Saturday, and the metal spine of my knife got stuck to my fingertips a few times when the blood froze, but warming up was just a matter of sticking my hands between the hide and the warm meat. A novelty. meat steamWhile we were working on meat, a friend from sewing night drove by with a load of wood and mentioned that there were hundreds of caribou on Airport Lake, where they used to drop cargo, once upon a time. It was only a few minutes, so I took off on the sassy white bravo to have a look while Albert and Geoff worked on one of the caribou, and I’m so glad.

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I came around the corner and there they were, ranged out over the lake like a broken string of beads spilled across a white tabletop. I turned the key and the bravo shuddered to a halt between my knees. The caribou watched me for a minute, then got on with their evening, fairly unperturbed. I love the way they tip their heads up and back to high-step through the snow with perfect posture.  I love the way they stand perfectly still and stare because I am an alien in their woods.

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I recognize that my pictures pretty much suck at explaining how awesome this was, how the caribou overthrew me. I love that I got to see this alone and under my own steam. I could have sat on the bravo forever and watched them go by, but dark was falling, my friends were waiting, and the meat was cooling in the snow.

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Hot tip: carry a thermos of hot water instead of a thermos of tea: it can be used for tea and for hand-washing and knife-rinsing in cold weather. Man it feels good to not have to wash up with twenty-below snow. bloody bunny boots

We let the blood thaw off our boots in the foyer (ha) and laid out the quarters on cardboard to thaw. Chips of blood-ice scattered everywhere and made little puddles on the floor. What a pain.

Still, we made it out on Sunday. We ran about ten miles out, most of it fresh trail in the deep snow, and Daazhraii ran along the whole way. We made it as far as we could before dark – my headlight is still out – and then turned back. We’ll try and cut across the valley now to a stash of awesome wood we left on the Junjik in the fall. Daazhraii definitely not sneaking snacks

Daazhraii flagged on the return trip but refused to ride the snowmachine, no matter how worn out he got. We had to run slower than slow on the way home, but the boy never quit. He’s one tough pup. He was such a wee cutie a year ago, and now he’s this big, badass ski dog.

Daazhraii one year ago!skidogsmile

We’re still working on meat, but quarters laid close to the door don’t thaw that fast, so we have a few days to get it done.

I really oughta get home and do that.

‘Night.

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When Things Break

On the last night of winter break, the hot plate died. The light came on, but the water never heated up. Geoff tried to replace the bad wiring, but it fried on the first try. The house filled with burning-plastic smoke, so we unplugged the hot plate and stood back to evaluate the situation.

No big deal, you might think. It’s just a hot plate, you might think. I have a great appreciation for the importance of the hot plate in my life, but even I thought it was a minor inconvenience, an item easily replaced on the next trip to town.

Well.

I moved the big pot from the hot plate to the stove and got on with the dishes. I brushed my teeth and went to bed and pretty soon it was forty below.

Geoff gets up earlier than I do, so he gets the fire going in the morning and makes himself coffee while I sleep. When it is forty below, he thaws the fuel line to the monitor (thank goodness for backup heat – we do not have to worry about the house freezing while we are at school) with a heat gun and warms up the snowmachine, also with a heat gun. I know I need to get out of bed when I hear the heat guns.

So off we went to school and it was lovely to see the kids and begin to work on the school play and organize Gwich’in Wednesdays. It was also lovely to get home and sit down and recover. School can be a shock to the system after time off.

I made dinner – something something and mashed potatoes – and in the middle of boiling the potatoes, the propane waned to almost nothing.

Well.

No hot plate. No propane.

I stoked up the fire, and Geoff ran over to school to dig our coleman stove and the little green propane bottles out of storage. We set up a cutting board on our useless range-top and perched the camp stove there, its little bottle balanced on a plate behind it. We ate half-done potatoes that night.

Propane is much harder to replace than a bum hot plate. We have to get a bottle shipped in from Fairbanks, and the airline that performs that service has run out of bottles earmarked for Arctic. We’re still working on solving this problem.

There was no question of heating water for dishes and hand-washing on the camp stove. That’s usually a few gallons at a time, and the coleman stove isn’t meant for that kind of load. We’ve been using the wood stove to heat water since the beginning of January, which means getting a fire going straightaway after school or washing hands with cold water.

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Rampaging around the forest destroying woodpecker habitat to heat my dishwater.

I miss the hot plate.

But it’s kinda cool, because we can just roll the sink-bowl-cart across the kitchen and shift the slop-bucket stool a little to the west and BOOM! We are all set up to use hot water from a new source. No plumbing needed, TimZ. I like having a modular kitchen.

Really, I love living in a dry cabin. If you do not have a toilet, you never have to clean a toilet. It was a little inconvenient when I had a stomach bug last week – having to bring in and assemble your frozen toilet every time you need it is pretty… crummy when you seem to need it every five minutes.

I wouldn’t trade it, though. There’s an economy of space that comes with dry living that I would hate to exchange for on-demand hot water and a flush. I never thought I would get there when I first came to Alaska, but I have been lucky to be surprised a thousand ways in these years.

I have been reading the blog of a new-to-Alaska teacher who is just beginning to be surprised by the million tiny adjustments of village life. I am enjoying it very much. If you have enjoyed my story, you may want to read hers. Check it out.

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Home sweet lovely dry home.