April Came Early

keelycamp

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.

junjikrockcamp

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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Alone at Camp – November Journal Entry

DSC07092November 4-5 2017
6:00 PM

It is my first night camping alone in the arctic – or in the winter, period, I guess. I want to be someone who can do this, but I am a little nervous. So far, so good, though. It was zero when I got here. It is five below now.

As proof that I am really here doing this scary, wonderful thing, I offer this detail: – I could not make this up – the tent smells like a candy shop because of the half inch of hazelnut coffee I had to melt out of the kettle before I could make tea.

I am not far from home – town – Arctic Village. I can hear dogs, snowmachines, the occasional chainsaw. Before he left on the plane, Geoff checked with me that I would have the gear to feel safe: a radio, a satellite messaging device, a .22, bear spray, a flare gun, an axe, skis, and enough firewood for days ready to go at camp (thanks to an enthusiastic wood-chopping friend). I am probably safer here than I would be in my house. Daazhraii is with me, too. Still, my heart rate has been just a little elevated since I got on the snowmachine in the dooryard.

9:05 PM

I am doing well. I was surprised, when I got to camp, by how easy and comfortable I felt. I still had a hard time relaxing for a while, but it comes easy now. I am boiling water for dinner and overheating in my long johns. I have opened the windows to cool off, and I can see the full moon from the head of my cot. The moon and snow brighten everything. Through the window by my feet, I can make out one light from someone’s cabin on the edge of the village. I heard a lot of sno-gos earlier, but there aren’t so many now. Daazhraii stands guard outside.

4:55 AM

I am making it! I wasn’t sure I’d be brave enough, but the cheerful, cozy little stove and the quiet, reassuring company of the pup are enough for me, it seems. Boy, though, the dog can really stink up this little tent with his farts. I think that’s what woke me up. It’s snowing a little. The moon is a bright spot in the haze.

11:00 AM

I feel a little silly for how I parked the sno-go in the getaway position last night and conserved the batteries in my headlamp in case I should need them. Now I am drinking tea, starting another book, and beginning to think of doing some work at school this evening, after I go home. It’s hard not to wonder what I was so nervous about to begin with.

My First Frostbite!

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Daazhraii and Geoff among the caribou tracks on the lake at high noon

I guess I had a gap between my goggles and my neckwarmer when I was pushing the SWBravo’s land speed record (30mph) on the lake this weekend. There was this stabbing sensation like a needle pricking repeatedly across the bridge of my nose and I had to stop and slap a glove against it. Sure enough, it’s glowing all red and sore today. Photo on 12-4-17 at 4.09 PM

This fall has been the hardest since my first year of teaching, I think. There are conflicts with the district about a variety of things (including, stupidly, exactly how far away from the school we need to keep the dog), conflicts with community-members about my friends visiting, and conflicts with older students who feel that they have outgrown school. I am also a little personally conflicted: I want to apply to grad school, go and get a Masters in Creative Writing (poetry?!), but I don’t want to leave Arctic.

There aren’t resolutions for any of these, but camp is a good release valve, and I am getting comfortable with the chainsaw now, out there in the woods “rampaging around destroying woodpecker habitat” as Jesse said when he was visiting.

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Geoff and Jesse, crossing the creek into ANWR

The kids, on the other hand, the elemiddles at least, are doing great. They’re reading and writing much more willingly and skillfully than they did at the beginning of the year; They made incredible hand turkeys for Thanksgiving; They look forward to our daily chunk of Harry Potter read-aloud; They seem glad to be here and willing to bear with me a little more than they used to.

Tonight is the first sewing night at the council. It’s hard to get myself moving at the end of the day, but I’m really looking forward to learning a little beadwork and hanging out with some people who aren’t either under the age of twenty or Geoff. Wish me luck.

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Shazheh ahshii

Home sweet home, August 19

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Home sweet home this morning, August 30th.

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I think the title of this post means “It’s snowing at my house” in Gwich’in, but I make no promises. We’ve had snow on Nitsii Ddhaa, the big mountain at the head of the valley, since last Saturday, but snow here at just 2,000 feet was a surprise.

It’s early, just August, and I was hoping to pick cranberries for at least another week. I made a great haul – a quart in less than an hour – up at the Junjik this weekend, and I was hoping to put up a gallon for chutney and cranberry bread. I’m almost sure this means the end of the blueberries.

River Trip Journal 13

smoke creek

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.

daazhraii lap

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.

gunshot action packer

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.

east fork beautiful

Had a nice sunset walk last night.

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gun camp sunset geoff sleep

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.

geoff daazhraii rain snuggle

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

geoff after stormgeoff after storm drinks rain

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.

rocket boys

rocket boys or extreme cookout bros?

rocket parts

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.

keely's pile of logs

I made that out of a tree. Pretty cool.

campfire

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

(self-congratulatory back-pat)

superman face

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).

selfietogetherwillow bank

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.

daazhraii familiar mountains

relaxing in the familiar shadow of Paddle Mountain

Daazhraii home

arctic bank

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.

bear spray and berries

My frequent burden, lately.

smoke creek 2

Smoke Creek

made it

Made it!