Skiing – Back Soon

Oh Springtime!

It’s been weekends in the refuge on a hilltop with an all-around view. At night we can see the lights of town twinkling twenty miles away. I named the spot Weathertop for the way it overlooks the Junjik valley to the north and the Chandalar valley to the south.

In March, my dad visited Arctic for the first time. We camped at Weathertop, went skiing, and toasted St. Paddy from the top of the world. It felt wonderful to finally be able to show someone why the isolation and frustration are so worthwhile – chump change compared to the compensation of mad-glorious wilderness.

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One weekend, Daazhraii ran sixty miles in three days so that Geoff and I could have a picnic at the end of the trail. Geoff’s been out riding it endlessly, trying to push farther each time and coming back to camp grinning through a beard of snow with the zippers on his carhartts iced in. This weekend, I stayed home and he and Albert camped rough out beyond Spring Creek so that they could just keep pushing out and out.

There is no sign of caribou north of the village yet, but there is plenty of moose activity. Once, I was so close on the trail of a moose – though I never saw it – that its smell still hung in the air. I have noticed the tracks of weasels and marten, and a few times the imprints of hunting owls. There have been wolves, too, though we haven’t heard them howling this year. Their tracks make Daazhraii’s look like tiny butterflies in a field of heavy, wide sunflowers.

Kristie came out to camp last weekend and I got the Skandic stuck. We were cutting firewood, and I’d no sooner run off into the deep snow to get turned around than the machine went down on its side. I couldn’t drive out in forward because I’d gotten myself wedged against a tree in the process of tipping the machine upright. I couldn’t get enough purchase in reverse to make it more than a few feet. In the end, I had to go for help, which was awfully embarrassing. We’d borrowed a short-track Bravo for Kristie to ride – it’s so itty bitty that riding it feels like cruising on a tricycle! – and I was actually able to pick up the back end and just spin it in the trail so that I could ride up to camp to get Geoff. He solved the Skandic problem by running over the tree (maybe the diameter of my knee and fifteen feet tall?!) that I’d been fetched up against. Yikes.

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photo credit: Kristie!  – Thanks lady.

When not on Weathertop I’ve been obsessively googling yurt things. I’m going to look at some property in Fairbanks on Friday, and if it works out the way I hope it will, I’m going to erect a yurt on my own land adjacent to the trail system behind the university. I’ll be able to ski or bike to class! It’s all about yurt companies and wood stoves and incinerator toilets for this gal right now. I have developed a strong distaste for indoor bathrooms, so I’m hoping I can get away with an outhouse, but, if not, did you know that incinerator toilets can function at temperatures as low as -35 fahrenheit?! You could totally put one in an outhouse of sorts. I also know how to get a permit to cut firewood in the borough and that the city of Fairbanks considers yurts “single family dwellings” for permitting purposes.  I love the rush of having something really pressing and fascinating to research.

This weekend, while Geoff and Albert were out breaking trail, Daazhraii and I stayed home and stayed busy.  In addition to yurt-googling, I made cookies and cranberry bread, hauled water and started laundry, swept and mopped and made a wood-burned axe-handle for Geoff. The snow-puppy and I went skijoring and checked out the spring carnival where the kids were trying to pop balloons tied to each other’s feet. I mailed my taxes and a letter and sent off an essay and some photos to a magazine that’s actually paying me for some writing! Woo! Look for more on that in November of 2020. I had to keep chopping wood to have an outdoor fire, too: I’ve been trying to figure out how to extract the teeth from these skulls I’ve got, but I need to macerate them first, which meant boiling them over the fire pit. Anyway. I’m going to call an orthodontist friend soon for some advice on that one.

School is still chugging along, but it seems like an afterthought now that the sun is up. We have been doing all kinds of cool stuff, though none of it is really reading, writing and ‘rithmetic: We’ve been skiing, performing wolf dissections, checking out Jim’s polar bear skin, and planning for our spring trip to Homer and Seward. We’re flying out on Friday with nine kids and we’ll be gone for almost ten days. It’s going to be awesome, but I hate to miss the last weekends of spring.

I’m starting to have trouble sleeping, or at least trouble finding the rhythm of sleep. Spring is the hardest because I still feel the need for the dark to give permission for me to rest. When the midnight sun comes, it’s like a license to nap at will through the long syrupy afternoon. I wore cutoffs and winter boots this weekend to haul water, and I saw a cardinal yesterday. The ducks and geese will start appearing as soon as we have open water. Maybe I’m having trouble sleeping just because I don’t want to miss a second of the season. It’s like soft serve dripping down the back of your hand: eat it quick before it melts! There is no time for savoring, just slurping.

Slurping with relish,

Keely

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overflow at the creek

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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.

River Trip Journal 13

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Thursday
8/10/17

A slim, red-brown fox visited camp this morning. He was curious enough to come out in the open and take deep breaths of our scent, but not curious enough to come so near that the dog would notice him. Daazhraii can be a little dense when it comes to noticing wildlife.

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Dense, but so cute.

There were raptors in the cliffs last night, and we saw a bunch of juvenile loons (I think) paddling along in the water with their wings.

We had a lazy morning. Geoff cleaned the guns and I made toast and eggs. Later, we shot the .22 and the .460 just for practice. I am improving as a firearm-lefty, which is nice. I could probably nail a bunny with the .22 if I got the chance. The pistol, however, is another story. The .460 went off when Geoff was showing me how the double-trigger mechanism works. Fortunately, Geoff is smart enough to always have the gun pointed down-range. Still, it just about rattled the teeth right out of me. I tried it, but it was just too much. It made me jittery. Daazhraii hid in the boat from the moment we started shooting until long after we were done.

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we realized what a bad idea this was when the rain came

The river is blue-green now. When did it change? Navigational hazards include oblique light from thunderstorms (I had a great time driving in the rain, today), bulges where the water piles up against cliffs as the river rounds sharp corners, and long, cobble shoals that seem to bar the way. We had to raise the engine a couple of times today.

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Had a nice sunset walk last night.

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Geoff slept through sunrise, which makes sense since it seems to last from about two in the morning until about six.

We are making our best upriver time yet, even though the East Fork is fast, rapids-fast at times. It is so shallow that we sort of ride a bubble.

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I got giddy in the rain, but the boys just got wet.

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After the thunderstorm today, we came around a bend and were met by an unlikely sight: two guys were standing, apparently boatless, on a gravel bar in the middle of nowhere. They appeared to be working away on a cylindrical object that I initially thought was some kind of barbeque grill. It wasn’t. Apparently this is a real job description: helicopter into remote areas and remove spent rocket parts. Helicopter said parts to convenient open areas for dismantling. Dismantle rocket parts with awesome power tools in the middle of the most scenic landscape imaginable. Repeat.

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rocket boys or extreme cookout bros?

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We are camping tonight at the Wind (wild and scenic) River. It looks like we’ll make Arctic Village tomorrow. School is looming and consuming more of my thoughts, but I’m not sure I’m quite ready to rejoin the rest of the world.

For the record, I achieved a trifecta of aspiring arctic badass accomplishments today: chainsaws, boats, and guns. We shot this morning, I did some shaft-greasing and filter-changing on Lyra today, and I cut down a tree for our fire tonight.

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I made that out of a tree. Pretty cool.

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Then I made this. It is also made from trees.

(self-congratulatory back-pat)

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It is possible that this is the most badass photo that I have ever appeared in

Editor’s note:

I ran out of paper in my journal that Thursday, so I have to reconstruct the rest for you: We did make Arctic Village that Friday, after a long day’s haul. Somehow I actually sunburned the whites of my eyes that day (lesson learned).

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Team Lyra pushed on after it got late in hopes of getting hot showers. Unfortunately, there was not hot water in the school or the teacher apartments: the district had neglected to send glycol. We wound up using the stove to heat water for baths, which was not nearly as satisfying.

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relaxing in the familiar shadow of Paddle Mountain

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end-of-summer fireweed

Breathtaking Smoke Creek, which we passed that Friday, was a highlight of the trip, and I picked the fall’s first blueberries that day. Since then, it seems I’ve done nothing but pick berries and try to dry out my rain gear, but that’s a subject for another day.

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My frequent burden, lately.

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Smoke Creek

made it

Made it!

Bye for now, Summer

I’m in Arctic Village, this time for good. I flew in after inservice and Boots took the plane low to show his granddaughter, in the copilot’s seat, the herds of caribou up on the mountains. The plane dipped and bumped low over the trees and the other passengers turned green and pukey, but I was thrilled. The tundra was red and gold and the caribou were silver and galloping under a clear blue sky. What more could you want from a flight?

Everyone in the village was cutting meat all week or scrounging for gas to get up the mountain to hunt. It was science and traditional knowledge week at school, and the kids were cutting meat in the gym and working on a dogsled. Geoff opened the fridge in the school kitchen one afternoon and a whole bloody leg wrapped in garbage bags fell out. It was crazy.

Here are some pictures from my back porch, overlooking the Chandalar:

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If I step out back at five in the morning, I can see every pond in the valley (there are a lot of them) breathing silver mist into the air before the black mountains and the red horizon.

The willows have all turned yellow and rumor has it there’s been frost in the wee hours. We’re turning the corner and I’m so glad – winter is my favorite season since I’ve found ways to get out in it. I’m running most evenings now, getting ready to start strong with skiing this winter. I want to set a rabbit snare along a short ski loop so that I can check it often, and I’ve persuaded someone to teach me how to do it.

Geoff has agreed to go with me to Venetie by snowmachine. I hope it happens. There’s a lot of work involved, but it would really be something to show up some weekend out of the blue and visit for a while.

This week has been hard. Starting something new here and imagining those kids in Venetie starting a new school year without me has been a constant ache behind my heart. I miss their personalities and their ease with me. I’ll get there with the kids here, but it will take time, and, meanwhile, I’ll miss my class of characters like crazy.

Inservice was a stupid as usual (cold to lukewarm showers, sales pitches from textbook companies instead of professional learning, no collaboration time except bits and pieces at the end of the day), but some good things happened: Terri’s Aunt Bernice came and did a poetry workshop, which was fun; Student News is going strong in its second year, with more folks than ever participating; the union meeting felt productive and energetic, which made a nice change; and the math teachers met and agreed on a resolution to offer a two-year Algebra 1 option, which will reflect the kids’ learning more accurately on their transcripts. Barring sabotage by administrators with control issues, this will mark a good change for kids.

Geoff and I ran his boat up from Circle and camped on the Yukon for the week. We spent some time exploring the route to the Chandalar and some of the rivers that feed the big one just south of Fort Yukon. I’d write more, but there are things to do. It’s the last long weekend before Thanksgiving, and the mountains are calling. Here’s the photodump with illumination by caption:

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Packing in Fairbanks, prior to the great canoe heartbreak of 2016

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Camp on a high bank just north of Circle

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That log has ears

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This was my first bear sighting in Alaska, and the gorgeous animal was swimming across the Yukon. Pretty amazing.

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Island Camp. We were visited by a moose (he left only footprints while we were out) and a beaver, who slapped his tail and turned his nose up at us as he flew downriver. There was old bear scat in the dry slough, but we didn’t see any recent sign.

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Before inservice began, we explored miles up the Christian River.

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I got Chainsaw 102 in this dreamscape of an old burn on the Christian River.

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Firewood!

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The confluence of Cutoff Slough (part of the Yukon) and Marten Creek. Look closely: Marten Creek is the color of black coffee. The Yukon is the color of chai. The Christian River is the color of black tea. The Chandalar is blue.

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Yukon sunset, just north of Circle.

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seasons are sudden

Maybe if I’d been here all summer, I wouldn’t be surprised, but it’s early fall in the Yukon Flats now. I stepped out of the peak of summer, August in Maine, and stepped into cold evenings and clouds and lightning orange trees interrupting the purple and green landscape like easter eggs. The fireweed is going to seed already.

I was in Venetie just long enough to move my stuff into a new apartment (more windows, a bathtub, a south-facing porch, and less cupboard space) and write and mail a letter. I walked through the village with a wary eye on the trees: there have been bears in town. One of my students visited with me while I unpacked my boxes. She’s off to boarding school on Wednesday, so I may not see her again. I told her I’d send cookies every time she sent me a letter of at least one page, and wished her well with a hug. I’m so proud of that girl.

Yesterday, just before I had to hop on a plane to Fort Yukon, my freight came in. I had to unpack all my frozen and refrigerated groceries in a hurry, then hop on the plane. My kitchen floor is covered in cardboard boxes and non-perishable foodstuffs. So much for leaving the place neat and tidy. Inservice is a little frustrating this year: we’re in Fort Yukon, so grocery shopping in our free time is out, and there isn’t really time to go back to Fairbanks, shop, then come back and set up the classroom and the house after inservice. I hope my bananas and lettuce are still good when I get home to Venetie.

DSC03525The first time I got on a small plane to fly out to Venetie, I thought I was going to die. Now it’s become routine, no more strange than riding a bus. The landscape is still beautiful, especially now as it fades subtly into a fall purple with rivers winding through it like silver foil ribbons, but I’m starting to recognize lakes and mountains along the route. The magnitude of everything seems less when the landscape is speckled with landmarks. It feels like the way home, now, which is always shorter than the way out.

DSC03529We’re staying in the dorm at the voc-ed center in Fort Yukon for the week. I spent an agonizing while reading on the couch last night until Jake and Terry showed up on borrowed four-wheelers and carried me and another young teacher out of there. We rode up by the army base (you know, because they used to/still do spy on Russia from here) and into the woods a ways, looking for the Yukon and a teacher who should have come in by boat last night (no luck, but he’ll be here today, everyone is quite sure). We saw bear tracks in the river mud, and a snowshoe hare with his heels already white. Jake drove me down to the river and I stuck a hand in, just to say I’d done it. The brisk evening air felt good on my face and I saw a lot of the village fast. Fort Yukon has stop signs and street names and two stores and a radio station and a bed and breakfast! There’s a tour bus! It’s downright strange.

We’re still looking for a 3-5 teacher because for some reason (aaargh!) the job was never posted. Anybody interested? I’m not on facebook anymore (the district has it all blocked up), and I don’t have a working phone connection at the moment, but you can get me by email: keely.m.oconnell@gmail. You’d get to teach across the hall from me and we can play games and go hiking on the weekends! yay!