sea legs

My world revolves around boats: In just two months Geoff and I have traveled the full lengths of the Kantishna and the Muddy and hundreds of miles on the Chandalar. Geoff waterskiied on the Kantishna. I bought a packraft and nearly t-boned a cow moose in the middle of the North Fork. We ran Geoff’s boat aground in the Kantishna and I swore never to leave the house again without 1) a mosquito headnet, 2) a pair of neoprene booties, and 3) a comealong. Lyra took a beating in some Chandalar rapids. I took a break from the wilderness and spent a week in Maine playing games and sewing in the salon on Islander while the pogies ran up the Passagassawakeag. Now it’s dipnet week on the Kenai, but we’re taking today off to wash clothes and take showers and, indeed, use the internet. Besides, the gillnetters go out on Thursdays and scoop up all the salmon. Sometimes at night when I lie down in my bedroll (or couch, or – very occasionally – bed) on shore, I’d swear the world is rocking around me; I sometimes wonder if I’m losing my balance, but, looked at this way, it stands to reason I’d be uneasy on dry land this summer.

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When we left Arctic on the first of June, I labeled our actionpackers: Camp, Food, Maintenance. The sun has now worn the sharpie away. This is what I hoped for when I came to Alaska: Looking in the mirror of my friendships, as I did when I went back east, I find myself profoundly changed. The wilderness crawls inside of you and fills you up with its spare and rugged reality, but it won’t leave, after a while, and you’re left gasping with the loneliness of it. I didn’t expect that. I was never good at small talk, but now I get lost in the weirdness of lines painted on parking lots, dogs on leashes their entire lives, the scads of everything at our fingertips. Gaping at the commonplace feels more natural than trying to communicate about things that I don’t understand anymore.
“I wish I had something – anything – in common with my brother.” I told Geoff over breakfast today.
“I don’t know what to tell you.”
“I can’t think of a single thing we could talk about.”
I can’t really hold up my end of a casual conversation. To the extent that I was ever – what? normal? usual? inoffensive? culturally fluent, maybe – I think I’m not anymore. It’s sad and scary, and okay, too, in a way. Is it self-centered to imagine I am different? Probably. Does it matter? Not really. That kind of thing only matters in a context where there are other people, and in my context, there mostly aren’t.

Teaching doesn’t really qualify as authentic social interaction. In my classroom, I am myself, but no one sees me that way. I am my job, my role, my function. I am just this to my students and to almost everyone else in the community. Sometimes I feel like the picture of a person, a placeholder for a collection of ideas about teachers or outsiders.  This, too, is lonely and isolating.

For days on the Chandalar, when smoke from a forest fire filled the sky, I wondered if the world had turned to ash, had no way of finding out without treating my concerns seriously, and wouldn’t that confirm the fragility of my sanity? I waited it out, and when we arrived in Venetie we found no zombies or invaders or horrible, transfixing TV news (outside of the ordinary horrible news). The next day, I bought a ticket for home, supposing this whole episode to be a pretty clear indication that I needed a break from isolation.

I’m not quite ready to commit to becoming someone who lives a life like that, where it’s reasonable to wonder if you’re the last woman on earth and to spend hours contemplating the ramifications of public arboreta.

I’m glad I’ve signed up for a couple years in Fairbanks to recalibrate my social skills, but I’m dreading it, too. I’ll miss the wilderness. I’m not sure I want to revert completely, but I don’t know how to live with a foot in two worlds. Is this a stupid problem, or is it the essence of the question for maybe the majority of people on earth?

I guess I mean to say that I feel off-balance lately. Shifting from the bush to the lower-48 was disorienting and alarming, and shifting gears again a week later was frustrating. I’ve spent a lot of time this month feeling vaguely off-kilter and uncomfortable, out of my element and then dissatisfied with my solution. “Challenge yourself,” Sean said, when I complained to him in Boston. “You can’t expect everything to be easy.”

Fair. You can’t live on a boat all the time and not expect to wobble when you step on shore.

On another note, I’ve been writing a lot lately, but not for the blog. I’ve been saving up some poetry and some essays, maybe for publication, assuming I can get my act together and actually put together some submissions. Wish me luck!

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April Came Early

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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.

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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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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.

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The Elephant Graveyard at sunset, some days ago.

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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).

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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”