The Geoff-est Thing

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Coming down-mountain after a kickass day at Old John.

On Saturday, I went to Old John Lake for the first time. Katie and Mike and the girls let me tag along, and it was beautiful! Following them on the ride up the mountain was delightful: they found the sweetest, smoothest trail to ride so that the girls would be comfy in their nest of blankets in the sled. We sat around jigging for a while, and the girls tested the crust on the snow, seeing how far they could make it before breaking through. At one point, sitting by the fire Mike had built, I remembered the state of the wood pile at home. “Crap! I bet Geoff took the chainsaw with him. I wonder if he remembered to cut some wood first. I chopped the last of it last night.” We chuckled and got on with our day, but I had it marked in my mind, a chore to do when I got home: check the wood pile and the chainsaw. The ride back was spectacular with the whole valley spread out in front of us and I felt outrageously fortunate to get to visit Old John in such good company. Thank you, friends.

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The girls and their monster lake trout

Meanwhile, while I was out fishing, Geoff was setting off on a mission of his own. He was determined to get us some caribou meat and he was done waiting for the herd to come north. We still have great snow, even now, but it is too much to expect it to last another week. Geoff called up the First Chief and made arrangements to go out hunting on tribal land. The plan was for him to head south with Albert. They’d spend the night out there and come back the next day.

When I came home from fishing, I wasn’t surprised to find Geoff gone, but I was surprised to see that he hadn’t taken the chainsaw. I looked around the house a little more carefully and discovered that he hadn’t taken a sleeping bag, either. It was a puzzle, but it probably just meant he was traveling light and he’d come home late that night or in the wee hours instead of the next day. Glad, I set about making a birthday cake. I pictured lighting the candles as soon as he came through the door and having him blow them out while bits of ice were still melting out of his beard.

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Mmmm buttercream. I tried not to sample too much, but there’s just something about buttercream.

Later that evening, I learned that Albert was too sick to go out and that Geoff had taken off with someone else. To go out on tribal land, we have to have a guide, which is why we usually go into ANWR. This news just made me more certain that he’d be through the door any minute.

I finished frosting the cake around midnight and headed off to bed. I woke up every time I heard a sno-go on the road, certain it’d be Geoff, bringing a sled full of meat and work and a wave of cold through the door. But it wasn’t. He didn’t come home.

Around four I woke up, unable to sleep. He didn’t have his sleeping bag or a chainsaw – what if something had happened? He’d be furious if I made a fuss over nothing – the rule is “don’t worry unless I’m late for work – like a couple hours late for work – on Monday morning” but I hated to think of him out there in the cold and dark in some kind of trouble.

I inventoried my gear in my head, planned a way to fuel up the Bravo if I needed to, tried to remember the southbound trail that I thought he was on, and then rode over to the school to check my email. Since I don’t have the use of my cell and we don’t have internet at home, it’s inconvenient to communicate with someone out in the woods, but it’s possible thanks to the inReach, which is a blessed miracle of technology that functions as a GPS and sends text messages via satellite. When I arrived at the school, he hadn’t sent a message, which was either good or really really bad. I sent, “I’m worried – you don’t have your gear. Write back soonest,” and waited, biting my thumbnails and killing the time watching Netflix.

Finally, after about half an hour, he responded. “I’m here, all good.”

“Okay – let me know when you head home. I’m inviting people over for a birthday party and I want to guess at a time.”

“You got it. Should be heading home slowly around 8 am”

I knew he was about forty miles down the trail, so I figured noon was a reasonable expectation. I went home, took a nap, told everyone to come over at six, and made pizza dough.

At three, I got a little worried again and headed back to the school. “Hey, we got crazy turned around, but we’re back on the trail now. See you in a few hours unless we see caribou.”

Well. Judging by the fact that we hadn’t seen caribou in a while, I figured he’d still make it in time for the party.

At five forty-five I heard a sno-go in the driveway. “Geoff! Shoopie, he’s home!” Daazhraii and I flung open the door and bounded out, ready to give lots of loves, but it was the first party guests arriving, not Geoff at all. I tied the dog out, invited them in, and proceeded to have an awesome time eating pizza and cake with wonderful people. By eight, they were all bound for home, and at eight-thirty Geoff rolled up, frosty and thrilled with a sled-load of caribou. I lit the candles on what was left of his cake, he blew them out with ice still melting out of his beard, and then he cut himself a good fat piece.

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Geoff – the notoriously unpunctual Geoff – had done the Geoff-est thing: he had woken up in a snowbank after sleeping in his Carhartts and bunny boots, snow machined for almost twelve hours, and then finally showed up late for his own birthday party, elbow-deep in caribou blood and with cold all the way to the bottom of his pockets.

May your fifties be full of weekends like that, Geoff.

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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.

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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!

When Things Break

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.

Well.

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.

Well.

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.

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Rampaging around the forest destroying woodpecker habitat to heat my dishwater.

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.

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Home sweet lovely dry home.

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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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