Freezeup Song

It’s a little like whale song, or what I imagine whale song is like. You can hear it all through town, especially at night.

Geoff and I hiked out to first bend yesterday afternoon and sat on the bluff just listening while the river ice pinged and whooshed and yowled and groaned.

“It’s hard for me to justify taking the time to do this, just going for a walk.”

“It’s okay. I’m glad we did it. It was nice to just sit and listen.”

There’s not really much snow, but the cold is getting bitter. We’re going through firewood  much faster than we were a week ago, and, as of this morning, we’re waking up in the dark.

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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.

DSC07706

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!

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.

gun camp sunsetgun camp sunset 3gun camp sunset 2gun camp sunset 4

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!

River Trip Journal 12

confluence valley beautifulTuesday

So, so lovely. The confluence spread wide and glittering blue under a north-facing bluff as we left a rainstorm and entered a valley full of sun. We climbed with the East Fork into the mountains and left the Main Stem behind as it skirted away to the south.

We left the map on Geoff’s GPS completely behind as we climbed into the mountains.

pointy mountain

keely looking at mountains

Today felt like climbing stairs. We would ascend a set of white rapids and then level off a bit, ascend and then level. Geoff encouraged me to take the helm and drive a little in the rapids. Lyra handled beautifully, but it took ages for my heart rate to normalize afterward. There was all this noise and pull at the tiller, and sometimes this dizzying illusion of descent as we climbed upward and the valley opened away, apparently below us. I felt light-headed and giddy and out of control, and I was more than glad to let Geoff take over after I’d proved to myself that I could guide us through the narrow channels between shoals and among the gnarly white pits that marked submerged boulders.

send to dad

We’re in the canyon, camped on a beach cradled in the narrow shadow of the mountains. I took out the fishing pole for the first time tonight and cast into a pool in the river’s elbow. I saw a fish nosing at my hook, but it never bit.

A plane flew low between the black-spruce ridges as we set up our camp tonight. I checked the inReach reflexively to make sure we had not accidentally signaled for help. I do this every time we see a boat or a plane unexpectedly. I do not want to accidentally set off any alarms ever again.

Geoff says this is the most beautiful place we have camped all summer. He might be right. I loved the sprawling sandbars and beetle-green hills of the Tanana, but there is something about the way the sound of water is filling this dark valley with stars.

canyon camp

River Trip Journal 11

8/7/2017

Woke up early this morning and busted a move. Potstickers and salmon at midnight tided us over until now.

The Chandalar is much colder than the Yukon. No more baths, alas! When we came out of Cutoff Slough, it felt like walking into a grocery store in an Arkansas summer: a sudden arctic blast.

We drove through a bit of burning forest just now. Thick, smoky air, bright sunlight catching in the billows, red-topped, dead-needled spruce. Lots of eagles today.

fires

Later:

The faster current is a little scary. I had to navigate some really shallow gravel bars and riffles as we left Venetie at dusk heading into the sun. It was definitely the toughest section of river I’ve driven yet.

happy keely lower chan drive

It was really lovely to see M. and get hugs from kids. Everyone was helpful and curious and welcoming. Sometimes I miss Venetie a lot.

Getting gas was a little tough. They don’t take cards. We worked it out after a few tries.

Surprise plane wreckage beside the river tonight. Not sure what to make of that. It’s only four miles from Venetie, but I’ve never heard of it. It’s filled with names and initials that I recognize, though, painted on or smudged into the dust and grime on the inside.
(Editor’s note: this plane crashed in 1997 after taking off from Venetie. No one was killed, though the wreck looks pretty terrifying)

planeplane tailGeoff plane inside

We had a harder time finding a camp than we have in the past. The shores are mostly cobble now, where before they were sand.

keely boobs?

I’m nervous about navigating the canyon as we turn onto the East Fork, probably tomorrow night. We will be gaining a lot of elevation, and I’m not sure what to expect exactly. Everyone says we’re doing well to try this at high water, and that now is the highest it’s been all summer, so our chances are good, whatever that means.

plane camp moonplane camp sunsetsilhouettes