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.

junjikrockcamp2

Advertisements

Arctic Spring Lullaby

DSC02711My new favorite spot is on the riverbank by the elephant graveyard. It’s prickly with dry grass, charred by old fires, and studded with shell casings. It has a giddy breeze and the sound of water rushing by in some kind of big hurry. It has a huge slick of melting river ice that glares into the sky with blinding defiance and tips over helplessly into the clear water. The steep bank is made just right for the dangling of tired, muddy boots. I lay out there on Sunday afternoon, watching blue roll onto the sky, tasting the dust on the air and reveling in the sudden, dry earth under my shoulderblades. Sometimes, lying under a blue sky like that, in just that kind of wind, I can let my heart fly up like a kite with a long, dancing tail. That’s the happiest I know how to be.DSC02703

DSC02726I went down to the bank tonight just to think for a while, and to read my book and listen to water bringing the cold mountain song down like a lullaby. There are sirens in the Chandalar, luring sailors into the hills.

let me put my arms around you
(shush shush shush)
like this circle ’round the sun
(hush sh-shush)
come running to the woods, girl
(shush shush shush)
when your work is good and done
(hush sh-shush)

or just let screen door slam to
(shush shush shush)
and let the water run
(hush sh-shush)
so I can put my arms around you
(hush now hush)
like this circle ’round the sun

1:03 am

1:03 am, north of a circle ’round the sun.

In the Elephant Graveyard

At the base of the bluff, where the willows get thicker as you near the river, there’s an aging collection of vehicles and heavy equipment. Covered in snow, it looks like it was just left behind, parked all higgledy piggledy, after some whopping demolition derby. How did it even get here to begin with? Was it shipped in pieces in small planes, then assembled, used for its intended purpose, and abandoned with unlocked doors? I have a long list of questions (lots about services like water, waste, power, phone, internet, television – things that people access here but in mysterious ways) that gets, somehow, a little longer with every answer I get.

upload4

The Elephant Graveyard at sunset, some days ago.

upload2

In the cab of an aging dumptruck.

I went walking in the elephant graveyard today, and explored a little on a snowmobile trail near the old airstrip and along the river. I’m pushing my comfort zone more with each walk, growing comfortable with my surroundings and making little dents in the vastness outside the village. I’m always surprised when I round a bend in the trail and find another log house, chimney puffing cozily. I haven’t grown accustomed to the idea that one can live without a driveway.

The sun hit the roof of the school full force today. The brightness of the colors took me aback. I’ve grown accustomed to the softness of the light, which hasn’t touched the ground with full strength in months. The angled light makes the world sparkle, and I think I’ll be sorry to say goodbye to the short days of winter. I like the dim-lit silence of the spruce trees and the deep, muffled silence of the snow. Sometimes, if I’m walking and I stop to look around at just the right moment, I can hear nothing at all. Usually there’s a chainsaw or a snow-go tearing into the quiet, but sometimes there’s an instant of absolute stillness. I think the light will whip the cover off the birdcage.

When I’m out hiking, I still haven’t figured out where to draw the line between too-safe and unsafe. I’m a bit of a scaredy cat when I’m walking on my own, and I don’t think that’s totally insane. I am in wolf and bear country here (yes the bears are hibernating, but I’ve heard that they sometimes aren’t, so there’s that), and I’m a small person, usually walking alone. A few years ago, a young teacher who went running in her village in southern Alaska was killed by wolves. Scientists ruled it predation, as the wolves involved were not starving, sick, defending a kill, rabid, or habituated to people. It was the first and only such predatory attack documented in Alaska, which is comforting, but only to a point. Large predators almost never attack people, and I know that, but most people aren’t hiking alone in winter in the wilderness. I don’t want to be kept close to the village by fear and miss out on everything (I’m dying to go further, but I haven’t found a walking buddy yet), but I don’t want to be foolish. The scary stuff is out there, but so is all the amazing stuff. Close to the village, you hardly see tracks in the snow – so far, I’ve only seen rabbit tracks once, and, on another occasion, marks from where a raven touched down, each feather leaving a perfect  imprint. It’s no fun to be stuck between fearful and foolish with so much out there to explore. I need to find the trail between and zip through it into the open country.

zzzip! A snowmobile trail that led me from the airstrip through a couple back yards to the post office.

Zzzip! A snowmobile trail that led me from the airstrip through a couple back yards to the post office (closed as usual – school teachers only get mail on Wednesdays in Venetie, due to inconvenient scheduling).

upload3

This picture is the closest I’ve been able to come to documenting the glowing thousand-colors-in-one-ness of the snow and sky. The world isn’t white, just crisply prismatic, dramatic it its starkness and its luscious depth. The arctic is white like dark chocolate.

We’re gaining daylight in heaping tablespoons now. I don’t have windows in my classroom, and I think it’s for the best. I don’t get to see daylight much, but I will soon. In the meantime, I’m opening the door a few times a day to suck in the sweetness of the buttery, luminous snow and to stare at the mountain, agog. I grin when the cold washes through the open firedoor and the students look up. I still get a rush when I place myself on the map, a vanishing spark of a needle in a haystack of dark wilderness.

North Pole or Bust

DSC01599No, we’re not actually driving to Alaska. That’d be ridiculous. We are on a nice long sleigh ride, though: Good ol’ Carro has once again carried us to Ohio to visit our friends at the farm.  He hiccupped a bit in Memphis, squealing at 1700 rpms, but we shrugged our shoulders, made a gamble, and ignored it. It paid off. We made it to Louisville in good time, and spent the night with Bethan. She woke up with Bruno Mars hair and made us pancakes.

I spent a stupid hour on the floor of a Louisville post office this morning, sealing up flat rate boxes full of pepperonis and coconut milk with crappy dollar store tape. The woman behind the counter was a little hard of hearing and we miscommunicated with abandon. It would have been frustrating and miserable, but Sean made me laugh and we sang along to the radio together, ignoring the stares of the less absurd P.O. patrons as we belted box after box with loud strips of tape. I am going miss the snot outta him.

"Alaska, population 2"

A student’s take on my move: “Alaska, population 2”

Gotta Catch ’em All

It’s now 10:37 and we’ve concluded our annual Spring Sunday Pig Chase.

dinner at 10:30 and a cranberry margarita, thank you very much.

dinner at 11:00 and a cranberry margarita, thank you very much.

We went to Memphis today to pick up groceries, feed and maybe a canoe. As we stepped out the door, dressed in our raincoats and dreading the deluge, our three little pigs greeted us cheerfully from the driveway.

Aw. Heck.

Aw. Heck.

We chased them back into their pasture with the full understanding that they have completely lost their fear of the electric fence. We knew they’d get out again, but we had to go.

Memphis was nice. We didn’t get the canoe, but we got a sweet new grill, fencing for the gardens, lots of pig feed and some needed staples at Whole Foods (staples = bagels, chocolate, cranberry juice and baguettes). We hurried home so that we could unload the truck and get to Helena in time to watch Game of Thrones with some friends. When we got home, the pigs were gone. They were nowhere to be found, but they had left clues.

Pig damage in the garden. They must be stopped!

Pig damage in the garden. They must be stopped!

After searching for a while we came in and made some calls, cancelling our plans and asking friends for backup. While I was on the phone, we spotted the swine trotting through the yard. Sean and I cornered them in their house and managed to tackle Daisy.

 

The first one was easy. She brayed horribly in Sean's arms, but his triumph was unquenched.

The first one was easy. She brayed horribly in Sean’s arms, but his triumph was unquenched.

 

We stashed her in the chicken yard. About ten minutes later, we caught the next one. Sizzle bashed her head into the chicken gate when we herded her in, but she’s fine now. That left Levi, and Levi didn’t want to be caught. Ian showed up after a while, and the three of us chased her all over these hills. At one point, the boys had her cornered in a hollow tree (!) but she escaped them.

When it got dark, we lost track of her. All we had for light was Ian’s phone, and he needed to get home, so we nearly gave up. I knew I wouldn’t sleep well without knowing Levi was in her pen with her sisters, so we cruised down to our neighbor’s place to borrow a flashlight. While we were there, our car crapped out. No joke. Byron is a saint and (of course) he helped Sean fix it. All it needed was a little battery scraping.

Levi wasn’t in her old pasture. She wasn’t visiting her sisters. She wasn’t in the yard anywhere. We found her asleep in her hollow tree and Sean snagged her.

My sweetheart is the ultimate Porkemon Master: he caught ’em all.