No zip code, even. Awesome.
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.
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!
On the last night of winter break, the hot plate died. The light came on, but the water never heated up. Geoff tried to replace the bad wiring, but it fried on the first try. The house filled with burning-plastic smoke, so we unplugged the hot plate and stood back to evaluate the situation.
No big deal, you might think. It’s just a hot plate, you might think. I have a great appreciation for the importance of the hot plate in my life, but even I thought it was a minor inconvenience, an item easily replaced on the next trip to town.
I moved the big pot from the hot plate to the stove and got on with the dishes. I brushed my teeth and went to bed and pretty soon it was forty below.
Geoff gets up earlier than I do, so he gets the fire going in the morning and makes himself coffee while I sleep. When it is forty below, he thaws the fuel line to the monitor (thank goodness for backup heat – we do not have to worry about the house freezing while we are at school) with a heat gun and warms up the snowmachine, also with a heat gun. I know I need to get out of bed when I hear the heat guns.
So off we went to school and it was lovely to see the kids and begin to work on the school play and organize Gwich’in Wednesdays. It was also lovely to get home and sit down and recover. School can be a shock to the system after time off.
I made dinner – something something and mashed potatoes – and in the middle of boiling the potatoes, the propane waned to almost nothing.
No hot plate. No propane.
I stoked up the fire, and Geoff ran over to school to dig our coleman stove and the little green propane bottles out of storage. We set up a cutting board on our useless range-top and perched the camp stove there, its little bottle balanced on a plate behind it. We ate half-done potatoes that night.
Propane is much harder to replace than a bum hot plate. We have to get a bottle shipped in from Fairbanks, and the airline that performs that service has run out of bottles earmarked for Arctic. We’re still working on solving this problem.
There was no question of heating water for dishes and hand-washing on the camp stove. That’s usually a few gallons at a time, and the coleman stove isn’t meant for that kind of load. We’ve been using the wood stove to heat water since the beginning of January, which means getting a fire going straightaway after school or washing hands with cold water.
I miss the hot plate.
But it’s kinda cool, because we can just roll the sink-bowl-cart across the kitchen and shift the slop-bucket stool a little to the west and BOOM! We are all set up to use hot water from a new source. No plumbing needed, TimZ. I like having a modular kitchen.
Really, I love living in a dry cabin. If you do not have a toilet, you never have to clean a toilet. It was a little inconvenient when I had a stomach bug last week – having to bring in and assemble your frozen toilet every time you need it is pretty… crummy when you seem to need it every five minutes.
I wouldn’t trade it, though. There’s an economy of space that comes with dry living that I would hate to exchange for on-demand hot water and a flush. I never thought I would get there when I first came to Alaska, but I have been lucky to be surprised a thousand ways in these years.
I have been reading the blog of a new-to-Alaska teacher who is just beginning to be surprised by the million tiny adjustments of village life. I am enjoying it very much. If you have enjoyed my story, you may want to read hers. Check it out.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
Back on the river, finally. We had a good two weeks down on the Kenai and in Fairbanks, but it is good – really good – to have all of our really important possessions contained in the hull of this boat again.
We are in Back Yukon Slough now, on our way to the even narrower Cutoff Slough that leads to the Chandalar.
We arrived in Fort Yukon yesterday afternoon. We had been unable to get reservations for that flight, but somehow both of us and the dog and all our excess baggage made it on the plane. “You’re on!” said the agent at Wright’s, and there was instant pandemonium. Everything had to come out of the truck and get packed up to be shipped out, the truck had to be parked across the way, the parking paid for, and friends called to cancel evening plans, all in about ten minutes. We had really thought we were stuck in Fairbanks for at least another day and so were totally unprepared. When we finally took our seats about fifteen minutes later in that hot metal canister of a plane with glare on its wings, the relief was huge. Geoff still got absolutely sticky; it was a boiling hot afternoon, and he hates flying, but I felt such a weight lift away that I probably could have floated on air to Fort Yukon even without the plane.
Even after visiting for a few hours at the district office, we were able to get Lyra in the water and ourselves to camp before midnight. I had my best night of sleep in weeks: no rain, no rain fly, no noisy RVs (Jimmy at the beach, he of no teeth, nearly suffocated us when he fired up his gnarly old diesel camper at six in the morning), no pressing worries.
Our freight, two action packers full of pots and pans and food, didn’t make it on the plane with us yesterday and didn’t make it today, so we called Wright’s and had them send it ahead of us to Venetie. We will meet it there tomorrow. For tonight, we have no pans, no stove, no potatoes, and, in Geoff’s case, no sandals or boots. He is wearing his work shoes or none at all.
We are making great time in this slough. It’s shallow and slow: what current there is is with us. The sun has fallen lower in the sky since we went south. It actually gets dark for a little while at night now. On one stretch of still, brown water the sun striped the surface with the shadows of tall black spruce.
The water is much stiller and the channel much narrower here. It is not hard to navigate, but there is no way to cut corners. The long meanders dictate our path.We hope to make it to the Chandalar tonight after we pass the mouths of the Christian River and Marten Creek.
I am crossing my fingers that Geoff doesn’t try to persuade me to cook dinner in the dog bowls tonight. I will report back on this matter later.
When we came onto the Chandalar, it felt like stepping into a walk-in freezer. The water is much colder and paler, though still grayish. We have started traveling upriver again.
As we were motoring along, we passed a few camps. At one, we were waved ashore. I was a little apprehensive. Some people are very opposed to our traveling on tribal land, and, although the river is public, there are some folks who resent our using it. I felt better as soon as we got close enough to make out faces. It was P and S, who had taken me for a dogsled ride in Venetie a few years ago, and they wanted us to come up and visit over tea.
They are incredibly nice guys. They made tea and gave us dry fish for the rest of our trip. Since our life jackets didn’t make it on the plane, they insisted that we take a couple of extra ones from them until we get ours back in Venetie. We ate cookies and they looked over our maps with us and gave us advice on the best route to take and where the tricky spots are. They are fishing for kings and silvers, and they have sixteen dogs in camp. They also have satellite TV.
We saw a flock of young geese right where S had said they would be. We saw cranes strutting on a sandbar and an enormous beaver. At last we settled on a beach a few miles up from camp after a golden sunset. We did not cook in the dog dish. I made a foil pack for some frozen (thawed) potstickers, and Geoff grilled a couple fillets of Kenai River red salmon.
Editor’s note on tribal land:
I wrote back and forth with the tribal government this summer, asking for approval to do this trip, which was eventually granted, so Geoff and I could have camped on tribal land if we had needed to. However, Alaska’s navigable waterways are public up to the normal high water mark. Since we always camped on beaches and sandbars, we never actually used that permission. The only times that we set foot on tribal land were when P. and S. invited us up to their camp, where we were made to feel very welcome, and in Venetie, where everyone was lovely to us, helping us to get gas and groceries, and asking me if I was coming back to teach, which was super flattering.
There have been a few people who have commented negatively about our trip since we got back to Arctic, but I don’t think they are the majority. I want to be respectful and have a good relationship with the community here, but I don’t want to let a couple of loud voices push me into giving up adventures on Alaska’s public lands.
I am trying to be honest and open-minded about the whole thing. I want someone to sit me down and really talk to me about it, but that hasn’t happened yet, and I’m not sure who to ask. If you are from Venetie or Arctic, are reading this post, and feel up to helping me understand, come find me or call me at school. I am ready to listen. It is a conversation I really want to have.