Occupational Hazards

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so much more than just the cold!

1. Parasitic Arthropods

Our cabin is currently sitting empty with the windows open. Last time I checked, the temperature upstairs was about -5. I never actually saw a bedbug, but I have a distinctive line of bites along my ribs.

Kids bring bedbugs to school, along with head-lice, pretty frequently. A few weeks ago, I had a kid raise his hand in the middle of read-aloud. I glared, and he put his hand down. A minute later he threw his hand up like Arnold Horshack and waved it in the air. All it took was a raised eyebrow and he burst:

“I found a zhii!”

That is one of my hundred or so Gwich’in words, so I did what most people would do if someone loudly announced that they’d just picked a louse out of their hair- what everyone else in the classroom did – and stared slack-jawed.

He looked back, totally ingenuous.

“Umm. Go to the office.” He left. I tried to play it cool and get back to read-aloud, but he came right back in.

“Um, where’s the office?”

“Katie! Go tell Katie!”

Katie’s our administrative aide and she’s worth her weight in gold. She quietly arranged a school-wide head check and called parents.

After a while my student came back into and helpfully notified us all that “nobody should sit there. [He had] dropped it.”

All that is just to say that parasitic arthropods are just part of classroom teaching. What are you going to do? It’s really a wonder we’ve never had bedbugs before.

We threw the mattress in the yard last week, and a day of forty-below took care of that. Freezing the house at a temperature of zero or below for a few days will kill any bugs or even eggs that are left inside. We had to move the canned goods and perishable food out of the place, but there are no pipes to freeze. It’s a perk of arctic living.

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ice on the windows so you know it’s cold: bedbugs begone!

2. Trauma

I realize I am just beginning to understand trauma: it’s the dread I feel with the coming of dividends and holidays – times of heavy partying; It’s the sick feeling I get when someone who doesn’t usually visit the school shows up in the middle of the day. So often those visits mean that someone – a student’s cousin or a parent – has died.

This fall, I taught for two hours with the knowledge that two of my students had lost a parent that morning. They had no clue, just went about business as usual. I held everyone in my classroom, escorted kids to the bathroom, made sure no one snuck a device under the table and got on social media. I tried to keep it light, have fun, not let on. It seemed to take years for the kids’ grandma to come and get them. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

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meanwhile, the sun is rising again, a little longer each day

By the time these kids hit middle school, they’ve seen far more tragedy than I saw in the twenty-five years of my life before Alaska. I have only been around for a few years, but already my gut is twisted with it all.

Trauma clouds the vision and tragedy is what happens when someone gets backed into a corner and can’t see a way out. Tragedy is what happened to both these boys, one of whom was my student. I try not to let myself dwell on it, but I have had a hard time letting it go.

3. Polar Bears

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This is Not a Polar Bear

Jim is my neighbor, the father of a whole pack of young Arctic Village girls. He came by the school to pick up his daughters and I got to hear this story firsthand while the girls got their winter gear on. I just about lost my cool when I heard about this: it was the same weekend I was out thinking I was so badass for patching up the Bravvie all alone in the wilderness. I would have felt a lot less badass if I’d known there was a polar bear prowling around the area.

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And after I fixed it, practically under the nose of a ravenous bear, my ride found the strength of ten Bravos, plus two! (this is how we haul school trash, these days)

**Polar bears aren’t really an occupational hazard. I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. This is just a ridiculously nifty story.

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Field Repairs

It was twenty-below or so when we rode out from camp, and the ride was smooth. Geoff broke trail ahead of me, the Skandic plowing up a bank on either side of the trench it cleared in the tundra snow. The sun still hasn’t come up since November, but we’re getting alpenglow that creeps a little farther down the slopes each day, and the cold blue light that filters over the ridgeline to the south lasts a few hours. We headed north toward the mountains, breaking the trail that we hope will take us up into Smoke Creek and toward the divide.

When we reached the river, I decided to take Daazhraii and turn back to camp. I didn’t want to push the dog too hard – large as he is, he swims in the mire of a fresh trail – or be out after full dark. It was only a few miles of backtracking, and Geoff planned to be right behind me after pushing the trail a few miles more across the Chandalar, so I wasn’t worried about riding alone.

I turned and took a long detour through the extra-thick buttercream tundra just to revel in the way the Bravo seems to lift up and ride on plane like a flat-bottomed skiff. The dog bounded behind, wallowing a little in the deep powder, but grinning and glad. It was just after that, maybe only two miles from camp, that my sno-go came to a halt, headlight dimming and then dying, the insulation of the engine’s roaring suddenly vanishing, so that I became, all at once, a part of the landscape rather than a traveler just moving through.

I tried to start the Bravo – no dice – then lifted the cowling. The spark plug boot had popped off, taking with it the little nut that screws onto the plug itself. It was wedged up inside the plastic cap that connects to the wire.

Shit.

No Geoff, so no tools.

Oops.

I know I should carry some basics, but I don’t. This situation is so improbable: Geoff is always with me, fully-loaded down with probably fifty pounds of good stainless steel, and, when he’s not, we carry a pair of UHF radios.

I pictured the second yellow hand-held, tucked under feet of snow blanketing the riverbank just south of Chandalar lake where we left it in an airhead moment on a packrafting adventure this summer.

Shit.

Dismounts are not elegant in full winter outerwear. I plunked into the deep snow beside the trail and opened the seat compartment of my Bravo: plastic bags, spare spark plugs, no tape, no tools at all, not even the scrench that had been in there for weeks. Definitely no needle-nosed pliers, which is what I really needed. What did I have? My emergency box, behind the seat, was full of dry clothes and firestarter. Not so useful. In my pockets I carried a lighter, some hand warmers, a headlamp and a knife. Bust.

I waded off through the deep snow to the lake’s edge where a few dead trees stood bare and raggedy. My feet were cold already, even in my bunny boots, and I needed to keep busy and warm if I was going to have to wait for Geoff to show up. I broke off low, dead branches and kicked down a few scraggly dry spruces. Winter outerwear is like chain mail: you can just throw yourself at a tree, or half-climb it and try to pull it down on top of you without worrying too much about taking a branch to the ribs in any serious way. The small branches burned quickly, so I had to keep at it. I hung my neckwarmer and hat by the fire to thaw out while I worked to gather more fuel. The moisture of your breath condenses on your outerwear in the cold, so you wind up with ice buildup, which eventually gets uncomfortable.

As I was dragging an armload of twigs back to my fire, something clicked in my brain: sparkplugs.  I hustled back to where the Bravo waited, open like a clamshell in the trail, and tried unscrewing the nut from one of my spare plugs so that I could use the plug itself as a tool to remove the jammed nut from the rubber boot. Gloves on, I couldn’t loosen it. I tried taking my glove off and got nothing but a cold-scalded hand for my trouble.

Frick.

I gave up and went back to trudging heavily through the sometimes thigh-deep snow on the perimeter of the lake, wishing for snowshoes and gathering fuel while I waited for Geoff to turn back around.

When I got cold, I’d squat in the snow by the fire, then get up again to gather more fuel when the fire burned too low.

For two hours, maybe, I fed the fire, waiting. He didn’t appear. I did jumping jacks and added a bit of wood.

Night began to fall from the north and there was no sign of a headlight in the distance, no whine of an engine.

In the near-dark, I reevaluated my assets. I thawed the ice out of the elastic band on my headlamp, thinking maybe I could use it to clamp the rubber spark-plug boot to the engine and hold the nut in place long enough to make the short ride back to camp. Failing that, I could start walking. It wasn’t far, but the trail still hadn’t set, so it would be slow, difficult going, like wading in the surf, and I didn’t want to have to come back for the Bravo later. I took the spare spark plug out of my pocket and heated it, too, thinking maybe if I warmed it up the nut would come loose.

Not wanting a tongue-to-the-flagpole incident, I waited until the spark plug was really warm before sticking it in my mouth, then gripped the nut between my back teeth. I turned, and it came loose.

Just like that, I was back in business.

I screwed the spare plug into the nut jammed in the cap, popped out the nut, returned it to its rightful bolt and fired up the bravo.

Just like that.

While the Bravo muttered and churred in the trail, warming up, I threw the last of my wood on the fire. I was hoping it would burn long enough for Geoff to see it and realize what I’d pulled off all on my own. Night came as I drove away, turning my head to watch the live blaze of my campfire recede into the darkness.

(Geoff arrived at camp thirty minutes after I did, rimed with frost. He’d broken trail almost to the mountains, maybe another ten miles, and gotten stuck for a while in overflow.)

It makes a difference

Fifty-five below is a lot colder than forty below. This morning, on the way to school, I could feel my nose prickling with frostbite needles, even through my neckwarmer.

The propane is still flowing, maybe because we have a mostly-full tank. The monitor is icing up, and Geoff’s talking about plugging in the heat tape to keep the fuel from jelling in the intake.

It’s been cold since Saturday. At camp, my keychain thermometer was bottomed out at -30. Geoff’s machine needs some repairs, so we left it beside the tent when we came back to town. Daazhraii lolloped ahead of the Bravo, perfectly easy in the frigid night, puffing clouds of breath that hung in the air behind him, obscuring the trail and dissolving the beam of the headlight. Out of this golden mist, pawprints materialized, helpfully tapping out a dotted line through the night. When we stopped to switch drivers or to warm our hands, Daazhraii would appear out of the darkness and lie in the snow beside us, grinning and burying his head in the drifts, eating snow.

I love how I can still be surprised by the way the cold changes the behavior of common elements, how it turns things around and makes the ordinary world extraordinary. It always surprises me, too, how real cold still frightens me. Walking to and from school at fifty-below, I get a chill behind my heart that has nothing to do with my core body temperature, and I’m very, very glad that my keys are there when I reach for them to open the door. Stepping in, the mist billows around my shoulders. We all make dramatic fog-machine entrances in times like this.

Trick or Treat

My thermometer read -8 yesterday evening, but it felt colder. Fog rolled in through the door every time we opened it for trick-or-treaters, and we had frost building up on the screws around the doorknob. We couldn’t shovel wood into the stove fast enough, and going out to pee (between visits from kids) was a dread chore. Looking at it now, online, I see that the airport recorded -29 degrees, so I guess I need a new thermometer for the house.

Halloween is a little different around here.

There’s a knock on the door, and you open it. Maybe you’re expecting a witch or a zombie, but instead there’s a cloud of freezing fog and child in winter gear, fully covered from head to toe to keep out the frostbite ducks under your arm. In most places, trick-or-treaters come in costume. Here, they just can’t. You close the door behind them.

In Arctic Village, instead of handing over the treats and sending the trick-or-treaters on their way,  Geoff and I greet them by name and invite them in to warm up. Kids whip off their gloves and gravitate to the wood-stove, where the pink gradually recedes from their cheeks. Warm, they start looking around.

Somewhere in there, I’ve passed out home-made chocolate chip cookies (which I probably wouldn’t even try in a different community) so when the kids start wandering, they shed crumbs everywhere they go. They poke around and ask questions (is that your garden? What’s in there? Can I taste it? Whose bed is that? What’s making that big cloud behind your house? Can I have some cookie dough?).

Eventually, the adult driving the four-wheeler or sno-go to pull the sled for them makes it clear that it’s time to go, and they suit up, pulling on hats, neckwarmers and gloves and shoveling candy back into their bags from where it’s spilled, inevitably, all over the floor.

“I don’t like green onions, but that spicy stuff [cilantro] is goooooood” said N. “Can we come over and help cut meat again sometime? And make dinner with your garden?”

“Can I have some more cookie dough?” K, looking hopeful, reached for the spoon.
“You’ve been here twice tonight. You can’t double trick-or-treat!”
“Please?”
“Fine.”
She left happy, again.