River Trip Journal 1

7/3/17

6 am

On the Tanana

We got a nice break in the clouds this morning, and nearly baked alive in the tent under the fly, so we got up and stripped it off. The mosquitoes had thronged in the night and were poised on the screens. There were more of them than I have ever seen in one place: they looked like pepper on a heap of mashed potatoes.

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We left Fairbanks two days ago on 7/1. Our hope is to be in Fort Yukon by 7/10, but I have some doubts: we are moving slow and not getting the miles per gallon that we wish we were. The boat, Lyra, is lovely. She rides high and steady, though she handles like a soggy washtub downriver. So far, we’ve been traveling all downriver, making a steady ten miles per hour or so when under power. Upriver? Who knows. We haven’t really tried it.DSC06288

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The first night was perfect. We were on a sandbar in the middle of the river, protected from skeeters by the lightest breeze. We were able to leave the fly off all night and watch the hours-long rosy sunset morph into a sweet peach sunrise.

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It began sprinkling in the morning and didn’t let up until afternoon, when we packed up and left. We cruised for a while, but big scary clouds threatened. At first, I wanted to stop and wait it out, but we decided to push on, and it wasn’t too bad. The rain was only really heavy for a few minutes and there was no lightning near us.

We passed under the railroad bridge in Nenana last night just as the northbound train crossed. We waved to the passengers. A nice fellow in Nenana gave Geoff a ride the gas station there. He visited with us on the bank for a while before we left to head downriver. Just down from Nenana, we passed the loading area for the barges. Huge parcels were positioned on the bank and marked with the name of the destination village and the weight.

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When the storm clouds began looking really inevitable and menacing and the wind picked up, we decided to stop. There was a huge wood pile on the shore opposite this point, so we collected some good driftwood for a fire before making camp. The tent is right beside a game trail, and our beach has been visited by a brown bear and a cow moose with a calf quite recently. I like to walk the beach and read the mud newspaper at each new camp before bedtime. It makes me feel a little more at home, knowing who has been around. We got dinner and crawled into the tent just before the heavy rain started.

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This morning, we heard before we saw a chevron of ducks flying right overhead. Geoff said they sounded like a swarm of bees.

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Soft

Spring in the arctic is soft. It happens gently, so that without thinking too much about it you’re wearing your sneakers and then sandals to school every day and you’ve stopped building fires altogether. You can’t figure out how you could ever have been skiing on the same trail that is now six inches under water. Was that only last week? You go out to pee at two in the morning, it’s sunny with a pink glow to the north, and you can hear the river a quarter-mile away shushing like a giant slushie. Mud is everywhere. The dog dries out in the house and leaves sand art on the floor.

We had a beautiful final ride in ANWR a few weeks ago. There wasn’t much snow, but it was sunny and warm enough that wet boots didn’t matter too much.

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Arctic Village is dealing with loss right now, and it is hard to know my place as a neighbor-teacher-outsider. I want to lend my strength as the community, especially the young people that I love, deals with grief and loss, but I am not confident that I know how.

The loss is twofold.

A few days ago, an elder passed away. “She was our oldest elder – she was 95!” L told me. Every such loss is tragic: elders have irreplaceable traditional knowledge and wisdom. This is a time of upheaval and change for Gwich’in people, and that knowledge and wisdom is a source of strength and hope. Such a loss is devastating for the community and for the culture.  “She died of a broken heart,” folks said, “she was so sad after what happened.”

A young man, twenty years old, her grandson, took his own life last week. I did not know him and do not know his family well. I do know the kids he grew up with, and I am afraid of the impact that this will have on them.

The suicide rate among Alaska Native men in their twenties is more than ten times the national average. I have heard more experienced teachers speak again and again about the domino effect that a suicide can have in a village.

It is not my place to try to explain this. Any explanation I tried to give would oversimplify a complicated story. My role in this is to help my students find empowerment in a very hard world.

But I have been bad at it.

When we found out what had happened, I held the older kids in my classroom so that we could insulate them from the tragedy for a few minutes. When adults from the village arrived, we (the staff and community-members) broke the news. After a few words and a few moments of silence, the other adults left, and I was alone with the kids. They were absolutely silent. I have never heard them like that.

“Do you want me to put on a movie so that you guys have something to zone out to, or is it better this way?”

“It’s better this way.”

That was my great offering. A movie. They sat for an hour until we dismissed school. Before they left, I told them that I loved them, but I could feel the words, like a stack of pancakes hitting the floor, falling flat for them in the empty air.

I have not been the best… what? this year. I was going to say teacher, but that’s not what I mean. I have been a perfectly good teacher. Maybe I have not been my best self this year. I have tried to do too much too fast. I spent a lot of time recovering from, planning for, or going on adventures. It has made me happy. But. In Venetie, I would have been giving that time to the kids – going walking or making cookies or working on the prom or planning awesome art projects. We built momentum, the kids and I. And that made me happy. This year, there have been no cookie nights. Nobody ever asked for them, and I felt it wasn’t quite right to offer. There was no prom. The play was awesome, a bright spark, but it wasn’t enough to get a real fire going.

If my heartfelt “I love you” fell flat for the kids, it was for the same reason that this school year fell flat for me: I didn’t give it the dimension that brought last year to life in Venetie: my personal time and space and passion. These are things that are not in my contract, that no one has the right to expect of me, but that, freely given, have let me fall in love with what I do and let me be who my kids need me to be.

I will not give up the time that I spend in the woods with Geoff and Daazhraii. That time makes the world crisp at the edges and centers me in myself.

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I will not give up, the way I did this year, the commitment that brings my work to life for me and makes a real difference for the kids.

I haven’t figured it out, but I am facing the question: How do I give the kids the best of me without selling myself short? How do I get what I need and still give enough?

For Geoff, this spring was a bitter exploration of this question.

He got a letter late in March asking him (us) to stop traveling on tribal land without either obtaining permission from the council or bringing a tribal member.

He was devastated. Geoff has been camping and snowmachining in Arctic for several years now, and to suddenly have this happen was a real blow. It is hard to live in the village, fall in love with the land, give your time and energy to the kids – above the call of duty, and then have the rug swept out from under you. It makes you feel awful and unwelcome and unappreciated. It hurts.

We always try to be careful and respectful of the land and people. We don’t take wood from people’s wood yards or waste caribou meat. We never leave trash behind – we often pick it up.

I think it is evident in my writing that I feel a spectacular reverence for the lands and waters around Arctic Village.

But it is tribal land, and our traveling on it – our living on it, even – constitutes trespassing.

I never thought to ask if we were stepping on anyone’s toes. I guess we thought, if we thought about it at all, that our awesome work with the kids and our long-term residency exempted us from rules that might apply to, in Geoff’s words, “yahoos from Fairbanks who are just coming out for the weekend”

Privileged assumption much?

And yet.

What prompted this edict? It could be any of a number of things. I get lost in wormholes whenever I try to pin it down. A concern for our safety, a personal conflict, a kneejerk reaction, an exercise of authority, a bid for new revenue, a devotion to the rule of law, a sense of pride?

It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like looking at myself as someone who has been kicked off of tribal land. I don’t think of myself as that disrespectful or inconsiderate.

And yet.

It’s not something I have the right to feel offended by.

The tribal government has the right to ask us to stop traveling outside the village on tribal land, plain and simple. It is fair, but it still stings.

So. We are writing a letter requesting permission to camp on the east bank of the Chandalar during our river trip this summer. We plan to invite Geoff’s good friend, a tribal member, to travel with us more, now that we have a second tent. As a gesture of goodwill and of our commitment to the kids, we donated a large sum to the student activities fund, which pays for student travel. Next year, regardless, we will travel primarily in ANWR. The land to our north is beautiful, and we have been talking about maybe shooting for the continental divide.

Right now, though, it is spring. I am in Fairbanks, hundreds of miles from all of my responsibilities and quandaries. I have the summer to grapple with the hard stuff. Maybe by fall I will have it figured out. Maybe.

In other news,

Inevitably, yet to my continual surprise, things are changing (as they always are).

I have moved into the cabin with Geoff. It’s a contradiction that I recognize. After all, I love living alone. Somehow, though, this makes sense. This arrangement is temporary, as is almost every aspect of my life in Alaska. That certain knowledge frees me from the burden of expectation. I am happy.

I like the warm, cheerful, cluttered chaos of the house. The cabin has no running water, and it’s small for two people who are used to living alone, but I like it. I like washing dishes with water hauled from school in jugs and five-gallon buckets and heated on a hot plate. I like going outside to pee and check on the northern lights.  I like that I can see my snowmachine parked in the driveway from bed. I like the curios and bric-a-brac hung from the beams and tucked into the logs of the walls. I like that I am free to enjoy it all and not worry about what happens next.

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As of last week, my freight canoe is finally done. Her name will be Lyra. In June Geoff and I will run down the Tanana and up the Yukon. We’ll take a break for dipnetting and in August we’ll run up the Chandalar to Venetie and then on to Arctic. Is it summer yet? I’m ready for the sun and the smell of green things and the hiss of silty water against the hull.

I feel like the universe is making me eat my words this month. I have decided that I am getting a dog. I feel like the world’s biggest hypocrite: I always swore I wouldn’t do this, and here I am looking for a puppy. Going out alone last week got me thinking: Why shouldn’t I have a dog for company when I go on adventures? I’ve been interested in skijoring since I first learned about it. Why shouldn’t I take my skiing up a notch and get a four-legged partner for speed over snow?

I’m in Boston now, getting ready for an awesome weekend with old friends. The important things haven’t changed.

 

 

Oops Pie

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By far, the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me happened on Monday.

Last weekend, Geoff, Albert and I borrowed a canoe and took off for an adventure. We were camped a ways up Deadman’s Creek, and we spent all of Monday hiking in the tundra and berry picking at the base of the mountains. We’d just gotten back to camp, tired and sore from picking our way across the tundra, and were sitting down to eat some dinner before heading back to the village when search and rescue showed up. A complete surprise.

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“Yeah, your Dad called the troopers,” one of the guys said. I looked down at my feet, silently wishing the ground would split open so that I could fall in and be swallowed up by a new slough. Stupid-girl Slough.

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The details don’t matter much, just that it was a communication breakdown and entirely my fault. The searchers were good-humored about it, glad to find us all in one piece. What a first impression I must have made, though, moving to Arctic and causing such a stir within a week. There was a sign posted out in front of the school when we got back “No school Tuesday September 6th until Teachers are Found.” Wright Air flew over the river looking for us, and Venetie was all stirred up on my account. Board members called the superintendent. Kids cried. Geoff’s mom found out and told her neighbor and he managed to get a prayer circle going in West Virginia. What a mess.

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But all things, even embarrassing things, pass, I guess.

I made pie the other day from the blueberries we picked on Monday. They were shriveled up and sweet and purple on the red-leaved bushes, and they made my fingertips and teeth blue. That Tuesday morning the mountains were dusted with snow (we motored through a nasty little rain-squall to get back to the village, and it was cold and awful, so it stands to reason it’d be snow a few-hundred feet higher), so I think that was the last of the season’s blueberries. Embarrassment pie, mortification pie, sweet, delicious, wonderful, blueberry-major-oops pie. dsc05140

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I did it again

I bought another boat. What is it about the early days of summer that just does this to me?

This one is an eighteen foot square-stern canoe, and it’ll be built this summer by a small company (a dude named Michael)  here in Alaska called Yukon Freightworks Canoe Company.  I wanted something to take on serious adventures up interior rivers, and this felt right. With a small engine, Geoff and I will use it to make the trip from Circle up to Arctic in August, down the Yukon and then up the Chandalar, even in the shallow places where heavier, deeper drawing boats bottom out, and it’ll maybe be good for caribou in the fall, which would be a pretty cool adventure.

DSC04813I went up to Arctic last week to visit and relax after school got out. On Saturday, when I got off the plane, the river was cluttered and hissing with ice. By Tuesday, it was clear, high water full of muskrats and ducks. I hiked along the river on Wednesday afternoon and took a few pictures. A willow in bloom hummed with bees and made my heart fizz. When I came across a four-wheeler and spotted some folks out hunting ducks a little ways along the bank, I turned and slogged through the marsh to get back to Geoff’s place, stopping for raven feathers and tiny purple flowers in bloom. When I got to the house, I napped in my hammock, strung between two stringy spruce trees, until the sun dragged over the mountains. The next morning, it snowed. DSC04814

I can’t quite believe that this staggeringly beautiful, remote place is my new home. I have a P.O Box there (PO Box 22045, Arctic Village, AK 99722) and now that I’ve turned in all my school keys from Venetie, the keys to that box and the key to the Sassy White Bravo are my only keys in this universe. I like the things I can unlock, very much.

DSC04809This week, I’m taking classes in Anchorage to maintain my teaching license. To get here, I took the train from Fairbanks to Wasilla with Geoff, a trip I highly recommend to anyone who is thinking of visiting Alaska. The views are magnificent, the food is good, and the staff are informed and friendly. I have always liked taking the train because the landscape moves by at such a graceful pace. It’s not headlong and hurried like in a 12-passenger van full of kids. We saw some cool old home sites, several moose, trumpeter swans on their nests, and a single lost caribou, way out of his territory and all alone. Over lunch, we dreamed up a backpacking trip that would make use of the flag stop service that some routes still offer.

Yesterday was the best though. Geoff brought me up to Hatcher pass and we hiked several miles in along the Gold Mint trail through this beautiful river valley. I’m an idiot for not bringing my camera. There were a lot of people for the first few miles (forgive me, I’ve been in the bush, there were probably twenty), but as we slowly climbed up the valley alongside the clear-running river, the trail got swampier and snowier, the footprints grew less and less dense, and the cottonwood trees, aspens and alders thinned away to willows. We passed beaver pond after beaver pond, right beside the river, and spotted what I think must have been a wolverine in the rocks across the water. Lupines were blooming on the south side of the valley, and I was so glad to see them that I got a little misty-eyed.

After a while, we came to a place where the river was shallower and braided and the sun was shining on a sandbar in the middle. We took our shoes off, rolled up our pants and waded across the knee-deep, frigid moat, swearing and shrieking at the cold. My feet went completely numb and then burned with the cold, but the sand was warm on the other side, despite the patches of snow still clinging to it. Geoff and I both fell asleep, barefoot in the mountain sun, for a blissful half hour in the afternoon.

My Auntie Sheila (sender of bomb-ass care packages – THANK YOU – the kids [and I] loved the trail mix) tells me that my father said, after visiting me this spring, that if he had come to Alaska at my age, he’d have never come back.  There’s something in that, Pops.