Field Repairs

It was twenty-below or so when we rode out from camp, and the ride was smooth. Geoff broke trail ahead of me, the Skandic plowing up a bank on either side of the trench it cleared in the tundra snow. The sun still hasn’t come up since November, but we’re getting alpenglow that creeps a little farther down the slopes each day, and the cold blue light that filters over the ridgeline to the south lasts a few hours. We headed north toward the mountains, breaking the trail that we hope will take us up toward the divide.

When we reached the river, I decided to take Daazhraii and turn back to camp. I didn’t want to push the dog too hard – large as he is, he swims in the mire of a fresh trail – or be out after full dark. It was only a few miles of backtracking, and Geoff planned to be right behind me after pushing the trail a few miles more across the Chandalar, so I wasn’t worried about riding alone.

I turned and took a long detour through the extra-thick buttercream tundra just to revel in the way the Bravo seems to lift up and ride on plane like a flat-bottomed skiff. The dog bounded behind, wallowing a little in the deep powder, but grinning and glad. It was just after that, maybe only two miles from camp, that my sno-go came to a halt, headlight dimming and then dying, the insulation of the engine’s roaring suddenly vanishing, so that I became, all at once, a part of the landscape rather than a traveler just moving through.

I tried to start the Bravo – no dice – then lifted the cowling. The spark plug boot had popped off, taking with it the little nut that screws onto the plug itself. It was wedged up inside the plastic cap that connects to the wire.

Shit.

No Geoff, so no tools.

Oops.

I know I should carry some basics, but I don’t. This situation is so improbable: Geoff is always with me, fully-loaded down with probably fifty pounds of good stainless steel, and, when he’s not, we carry a pair of UHF radios.

I pictured the second yellow hand-held, tucked under feet of snow blanketing the riverbank just south of Chandalar lake where we left it in an airhead moment on a packrafting adventure this summer.

Shit.

Dismounts are not elegant in full winter outerwear. I plunked into the deep snow beside the trail and opened the seat compartment of my Bravo: plastic bags, spare spark plugs, no tape, no tools at all, not even the scrench that had been in there for weeks. Definitely no needle-nosed pliers, which is what I really needed. What did I have? My emergency box, behind the seat, was full of dry clothes and firestarter. Not so useful. In my pockets I carried a lighter, some hand warmers, a headlamp and a knife. Bust.

I waded off through the deep snow to the lake’s edge where a few dead trees stood bare and raggedy. My feet were cold already, even in my bunny boots, and I needed to keep busy and warm if I was going to have to wait for Geoff to show up. I broke off low, dead branches and kicked down a few scraggly dry spruces. Winter outerwear is like chain mail: you can just throw yourself at a tree, or half-climb it and try to pull it down on top of you without worrying too much about taking a branch to the ribs in any serious way. The small branches burned quickly, so I had to keep at it. I hung my neckwarmer and hat by the fire to thaw out while I worked to gather more fuel. The moisture of your breath condenses on your outerwear in the cold, so you wind up with ice buildup, which eventually gets uncomfortable.

As I was dragging an armload of twigs back to my fire, something clicked in my brain: sparkplugs.  I hustled back to where the Bravo waited, open like a clamshell in the trail, and tried unscrewing the nut from one of my spare plugs so that I could use the plug itself as a tool to remove the jammed nut from the rubber boot. Gloves on, I couldn’t loosen it. I tried taking my glove off and got nothing but a cold-scalded hand for my trouble.

Frick.

I gave up and went back to trudging heavily through the sometimes thigh-deep snow on the perimeter of the lake, wishing for snowshoes and gathering fuel while I waited for Geoff to turn back around.

When I got cold, I’d squat in the snow by the fire, then get up again to gather more fuel when the fire burned too low.

For two hours, maybe, I fed the fire, waiting. He didn’t appear. I did jumping jacks and added a bit of wood.

Night began to fall from the north and there was no sign of a headlight in the distance, no whine of an engine.

In the near-dark, I reevaluated my assets. I thawed the ice out of the elastic band on my headlamp, thinking maybe I could use it to clamp the rubber spark-plug boot to the engine and hold the nut in place long enough to make the short ride back to camp. Failing that, I could start walking. It wasn’t far, but the trail still hadn’t set, so it would be slow, difficult going, like wading in the surf, and I didn’t want to have to come back for the Bravo later. I took the spare spark plug out of my pocket and heated it, too, thinking maybe if I warmed it up the nut would come loose.

Not wanting a tongue-to-the-flagpole incident, I waited until the spark plug was really warm before sticking it in my mouth, then gripped the nut between my back teeth. I turned, and it came loose.

Just like that, I was back in business.

I screwed the spare plug into the nut jammed in the cap, popped out the nut, returned it to its rightful bolt and fired up the bravo.

Just like that.

While the Bravo muttered and churred in the trail, warming up, I threw the last of my wood on the fire. I was hoping it would burn long enough for Geoff to see it and realize what I’d pulled off all on my own. Night came as I drove away, turning my head to watch the live blaze of my campfire recede into the darkness.

(Geoff arrived at camp thirty minutes after I did, rimed with frost. He’d broken trail almost to the mountains, maybe another ten miles, and gotten stuck for a while in overflow.)

Advertisements

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.

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