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:


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:


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


Camp on a high bank just north of Circle


That log has ears


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



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.



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


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





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.


Yukon sunset, just north of Circle.



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!

Making a life in the enchanted forest: Country Living Challenges, bush edition

I couldn’t sleep last night, so I went for a walk and found the sky fickle with its watercolors. Green first this way, then a wash that way, then washed out to start completely fresh. The aurora feels eerie and sentient, like the synchronous fireflies in the Cataloochee Valley. Maybe I am just easily bewitched by things that glow in the dark.DSC01955The row of glowing windows is the community hall, down the old airport runway from the school. This is the very center of my village, just a pool of light that doesn’t even touch the sky.

When I told Jake that I’d gone for a night walk, he looked dubious.
“If you’re walking at night, don’t go too far” he warned
“I was just out front here,” I gestured to the airport.
“Well, don’t go beyond the last house, anyway, even on the old airport” he said. “These ice bears won’t hesitate. They’ll just come at you and there’s nothing you can do. We’ve got one near the village right now. Big, nasty sucker.”
“I won’t be going far, no worries. I’m too chicken to really get out much, even in daylight”
Jake laughed and slapped my shoulder.
I guess ice bears are bears that don’t hibernate. Horrifying.

I’ve been walking in the village as often as I can, and, yesterday afternoon, I found myself out of school with daylight still burning low in the sky. I strolled down to the community hall and around by the washeteria. I saw C unfastening a harness from her blue plastic sled. She introduced me to her dog, (“he’s a hunting dog, but he fits the harness, so I have him pull me around sometimes. He’s pretty fast.”) and her auntie stepped out of the log house and said hello to me. We chatted for a minute, then I walked on, waving goodbye to C and grinning. Later, an older fellow called me over to chat about the weather. He was standing on his porch, watching a little girl play in the snow. I walked on, and they soon passed me on a 4-wheeler, waving, “just looking after you, to make sure you stay out of trouble” he teased as the rumbled by. On the surface unremarkable, these bits of chit-chat marked a turning point in my life here. Until yesterday, I hadn’t spoken to a non-teaching adult in the village (outside of business at the store or the post office), even about a child. I want to be a part of life here. I want to be invited to dinner or on adventures, and to have people to talk to who aren’t my students. I want someone to show me around and to tell me stories and to explain how things work. I don’t want to feel like the last, lonely dodo in the zoo, just sitting on my rock, serving my purpose while everyone waits for my expiration date.

This morning, one of the school board members approached me in the gym. “Do you like it here?” He looked directly into my face. He has dark brown, crinkly eyes that laugh easily from the shadow of his ball cap.
“Yes.” I said.
“Good.” He said. “I’m on the school board. I wanted to hear it straight from you.”
“I like it here. I love my kids, and teaching here, but It’s hard,” I said, meaning the dodo thing, wanting to say more.
“To us, it’s just our way of life,” he said, doing the laughing eyes thing, “you’ll get used to it.”
I suppose he thought I meant the climate and the geography and the ice bear threat and the price of butter. Those things are just awesome or appropriate, depending on your outlook.

I love this place. I love those things. I love my kids. If someone would just ask me to dinner or in out of the cold for a cup of hot tea so that I could love them too, I’d be almost sure I want to stay in Venetie next year. I know, without a doubt, that I will be teaching in the bush, but I don’t know if I can commit to spend next year here if the social tensions within the school and between the school and the village don’t ease up, at least enough for me to slip some thin roots through the gap. I don’t want to rust away from emptiness.DSC01875