April Came Early

keelycamp

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.

junjikrockcamp

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.

junjikrockcamp2

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North

We finally took off north this weekend. Geoff Nitsiiddhaa

Geoff and I have been talking about heading for the continental divide all year, but it hasn’t happened. All winter we’ve been getting wood instead of working on trail, which is good: I’ve finally hit a groove in my firewood chopping, i.e. chopping not chipping. We’re using less diesel and we’ve adjusted to heating water on the wood-stove as a first choice, but we haven’t been traveling as much as we did last year and even the year before. This weekend we finally took off and made it north of the woodyard for the first time.

We packed up on Saturday, determined to break trail as far as we could, but it was a false start. We got into a herd of caribou a few miles out of town and wound up spending the evening working on meat.  Geoff and Vadzaih

I like working on meat in the snow. After the fire ants and heat of Arkansas, the clean, fresh snow is a blessing. Caribou are easy skinning by comparison with pigs, and the work goes fast. It was cold, twenty below on Saturday, and the metal spine of my knife got stuck to my fingertips a few times when the blood froze, but warming up was just a matter of sticking my hands between the hide and the warm meat. A novelty. meat steamWhile we were working on meat, a friend from sewing night drove by with a load of wood and mentioned that there were hundreds of caribou on Airport Lake, where they used to drop cargo, once upon a time. It was only a few minutes, so I took off on the sassy white bravo to have a look while Albert and Geoff worked on one of the caribou, and I’m so glad.

keely airport lake caribou

I came around the corner and there they were, ranged out over the lake like a broken string of beads spilled across a white tabletop. I turned the key and the bravo shuddered to a halt between my knees. The caribou watched me for a minute, then got on with their evening, fairly unperturbed. I love the way they tip their heads up and back to high-step through the snow with perfect posture.  I love the way they stand perfectly still and stare because I am an alien in their woods.

vadzaihVadzaih Airport Lake 2

I recognize that my pictures pretty much suck at explaining how awesome this was, how the caribou overthrew me. I love that I got to see this alone and under my own steam. I could have sat on the bravo forever and watched them go by, but dark was falling, my friends were waiting, and the meat was cooling in the snow.

albert's antlers

Hot tip: carry a thermos of hot water instead of a thermos of tea: it can be used for tea and for hand-washing and knife-rinsing in cold weather. Man it feels good to not have to wash up with twenty-below snow. bloody bunny boots

We let the blood thaw off our boots in the foyer (ha) and laid out the quarters on cardboard to thaw. Chips of blood-ice scattered everywhere and made little puddles on the floor. What a pain.

Still, we made it out on Sunday. We ran about ten miles out, most of it fresh trail in the deep snow, and Daazhraii ran along the whole way. We made it as far as we could before dark – my headlight is still out – and then turned back. We’ll try and cut across the valley now to a stash of awesome wood we left on the Junjik in the fall. Daazhraii definitely not sneaking snacks

Daazhraii flagged on the return trip but refused to ride the snowmachine, no matter how worn out he got. We had to run slower than slow on the way home, but the boy never quit. He’s one tough pup. He was such a wee cutie a year ago, and now he’s this big, badass ski dog.

Daazhraii one year ago!skidogsmile

We’re still working on meat, but quarters laid close to the door don’t thaw that fast, so we have a few days to get it done.

I really oughta get home and do that.

‘Night.

homesweetGeoff coat

caribou airport lake 1

Snow-puppy and his Isolation Distress

It was a beautiful afternoon. The moon rose at three or so, just as the light was fading. I rode the Sassy White Bravo out toward the creek to give the dog a run and to practice breaking trail in the deep snow (you lose your steering and have to lean to make turns. And don’t ever stop moving because you will sink and then you’ll have to shovel snow out from on top of your skis. I am not great at this, but I am trying to improve). The moon was enormous on the horizon: too big, like an alien spaceship lurking behind the mountains.

I got back from my ride and I couldn’t resist strapping on my ski boots and my gaiters and going for a slide around the loop, just to keep watching that moon, maybe to kind of keep an eye on it in case it had sinister intent. When I got back from skiing, I harnessed the dog and he pulled me around the loop one more time. It was that kind of afternoon. I just couldn’t get enough.

skijortotown

Yeah, that’s like 3:30 pm or something.

I love that I have Daazhraii to count on when I want to go out. He’s a total chicken, (he is scared of fireworks and little girls) but having someone with me – even someone who is absolute yellow-bellied poultry – still eases the anxiety that comes with wandering the arctic night alone. Geoff wanted to stay in tonight (he doesn’t care for skiing anyway) but I didn’t have to go out by myself. I had my snow-puppy right there waiting, begging me with those big brown eyes and that floppy lolling drooly tongue to just please open the door and let that cool comfy air float in, or, better yet, let him go out. I put on my boots and he started to dance. He is great company. daazhraii by the door

The flip side to great company is crushing loneliness, at least for the dog. He has what I guess is called isolation distress: he gets anxious when he is alone. Any company will do, but solitude is unacceptable. He barks and cries and tears things up. He’ll do it for hours and hours. It’s not a behavior issue, it’s an emotional response that’s out of his control. He does things when he’s alone that he has no inclination to do when he has company. Leaving a shirt with my smell on it doesn’t work – he just shreds it in his panic. Playing music, stuffing toys with treats for him to extract, none of it helps. He won’t touch his food when he’s alone. He can’t be left in vehicles: this summer he ate Geoff’s front seat and my best friend’s husband’s head rests. He ate one of my bunny boots (see the above photo) and a thermometer when we left him in the house about a month ago. He sometimes breaks out of kennels, which I guess is better than chewing his own fur off, which some dogs with this problem apparently do when they have no other outlet. If he can’t break out, he’ll cry nonstop for hours and soak the door and the floor around his kennel with slobber. It’s awful to see him panicking like that, but it’s impossible to have him with us all the time.

I wish there were more that I could do. The internet professionals suggest slowly desensitizing him by leaving him for increasing amounts of time, starting with just a few seconds and working up to hours over the course of several weeks. The problem there is that leaving him for a longer time during that therapy period can undo any progress he makes. We can’t take six or eight weeks off from work to practice leaving the dog alone and in the summer we travel constantly. I hope he can benefit from this protocol someday, but right now it’s not realistic. Some people drug their anxious dogs, but I’m not quite there yet. I’ve thought about getting him a friend – when loose dogs visit, he calms down immediately – but one dog is a lot of work and I’m not sure I’m ready to take on another, complete with his/her own unique challenges. Besides, it might not help.

For a while, earlier in the fall, he was in a kennel right outside my classroom window during the school day. That was fine. He’d sit comfortably in his kennel, watch the world go by, listen to my voice through the window, and never make a peep. We started slowly moving the kennel and got him comfortable with a spot just outside of teacher housing. Unfortunately, the school district directed us to remove him from school property (in most places, this would make sense, of course, but in this village it is pretty ridiculous. There are loose dogs everywhere). Now we have him across the lot on a run, and he is not happy. In fact, he’s panicked. The barking drives everyone nuts – the maintenance guy, who has to work outside, has walked out over the incessant yelping at least once, and I can’t blame him. We keep Daazhraii at school where I can see him from my window because I’m terrified that if we left him alone on a run at the house, someone would get sick of his yelping and just walk up the driveway and pop him with a .22.

It’s challenging, and it has sometimes seemed like there’s no answer. There was a while in early December where I was missing school days to keep the dog company. Is it a sick day if I’m sick at heart? If it’s me or the maintenance guy? Magically, in the last few weeks, Daazhraii has started calm down, even remaining quiet for half-hours at a time during school and chilling in his dog house. He’s started to howl instead of yelp, too, so things aren’t quite so bad. The howling is pretty cool, actually. Cross your fingers and hope he continues to improve.

When we’re in Fairbanks, there are some different challenges. We can’t leave him in a hotel room, and we don’t like to leave him unattended in the car for long. Geoff and I have found that if we give him a good run before we leave him in the car, he is less likely to eat the seats while we grocery shop. This is not a guarantee, by any means, but it meant that we had a good incentive to take him out and work him every day when we were in Fairbanks last week. We played a lot of football on the lakes out by the airport.

keelyshoopiefootballwinter

I love my dog. He is gorgeous, obviously, but he is also affectionate, smart, sensitive, willing, hilarious, expressive, and strong. When he’s with his people, he’s mellow, attentive and sweet. He’s so quiet that I sometimes have to look around and check to make sure he’s in the cabin at all. He has learned some fifteen or twenty commands – my personal favorite is “gimmeakiss” – and his manners are excellent. I have taught him to wait for an okay before going through doors or starting in on his dinner. He rings a bell at the door to be let out. He likes to play tug-o-war and keep-away. He often lies with his chin just barely on the tips of someone’s toes. He likes to lie on his back with his spine in a crescent and his back legs spraddly. In the morning, Daazhraii jumps up onto the bed and burrows under my neck with his wet nose and leaves snail-trails of dog boogers all over my face. He likes to nibble my ears and chin. When we go out for rides on the sno-go or for walks or skis or runs, he bounds around exuberantly and throws up snow in great big sprays, that huge tongue lolling, those legs kicking out, that tail fluttering and floofing, those ears swiveling and pointing. It’s impossible not to melt a little inside.

My friend Kristie took these next two pictures, and they are some of my favorites.

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This one is in the tent at camp. That’s Daazhraii’s happiest place: he’s free to roam outside and he knows right where to find his people. I love his dog-smile in this photo.

iPhone Image 4B4D0C

One of his cutest habits is burrowing into the snow. He’s always got a white face-mask when he’s outside. He just goes for it in the deep snow, diving like a porpoise. It’s totally charming.

There was a time in my life when I swore I’d never get a dog. There were at least thirty reasons, and half of them were “poops in yard”. That’s the least of my problems, it turns out now. I sometimes feel like a hypocrite, but I never regret bringing him home, even when I’m lost in a hopeless spiral, wondering if Daazhraii’s crying will be the straw that finally gives that extra leverage to the folks who want Geoff out of the village or wondering if someone will decide to take their issues with Geoff or me out on the dog.

He’s wonderful, even if he is imperfect, and I’m not so surrounded by good company that I can afford to reject someone who loves me just because he’s a little bit crazy.

No one else would have gone skiing with me tonight, and that’s worth everything. He’s an amazing animal in his element here, doing what his ancestors were bred for and loving it. He helps me to be my best self, to go out and soak up the moonrise, and he makes me stupidly happy, so I’ll put up with his eating my boots and crying from lonesomeness and love him madly anyway.

daazhraiilightsnow

How could you not?

keelyshoopieskijormoon

 

Also: If you’re out there dealing with separation anxiety or isolation distress with your dog, I get it. It’s horrible and agonizing. I have a huge amount of respect for those folks who find a way to manage this issue with composure and compassion for all involved.

Reflection

So, it’s New Years Eve.

Every new year, since I first came to Alaska, has marked profound changes in my circumstances and in my dreams. This is the first time in many years that I’ve spent this transition away from old friends – my heart’s family. In fact, at the moment, I’m completely alone except for my dog. If I can’t be with loved ones, I’m glad to be by myself. There’s a little extra gravity to sitting and thinking and writing alone. Later on I’ll go get Geoff and we’ll go to the community hall and join the fiddle dance, but for now I’m free to sit here in perfect silence and consider.

It’s been a year of changes around here: Congress voted to open ANWR and Arctic Village got cell service.

There were some pretty great achievements: The inservice snowmachine trip last March, the school play, learning to skijor with Daazhraii, the Christmas party, the river trip, dipnetting our limit on the Kenai, finally getting the Bravo running properly, doing stained glass with the art class, reading Harry Potter aloud to the elemiddles, that time I got my tongue stuck to an axe-head and then unstuck.

I was in town last week, mostly to take the GRE, but also to do some shopping. When the plane took off yesterday morning, I slipped back to my first flight to Venetie. We flew over a dawning Fairbanks where the streetlights were painting the parking lots and roads with pale pink circles, the Chena was steaming, everything was smoking and billowing in the cold, catching the little light of the almost-sunrise, and the lights of town were golden. It was exactly as I remember it from that first time, three years ago, when I was hurtling headlong and helpless into the unknown.

This time looked the same on the outside, but it felt entirely different. I was going home in a plane full of familiar faces, not alone into some unknowable adventure.

In that first year, I left things behind and began from scratch.

In the second year, I found my feet and my skis and a kind of real happiness.

This year, I grew strong and brave. I have learned to navigate on the rivers of the interior, I have camped alone in the winter, I have been stuck in overflow, I have chosen trees and cut them down and chopped them into firewood, I have learned to flush the fuel lines/grease the shaft/change the spark plugs/replace the pump and filter, I have slept on a bed of spruce needles fifty miles from anywhere at forty-five below.

This was the year of Daazhraii:

This was the year of Lyra:

This was the year of firewood:

I have been able to look forward and outward this year. I am applying to graduate school. I am counting down to the release of this year’s state land sales brochure. I’m daydreaming about the rivers I will explore in Lyra, the chickens I will raise if I wind up living in Fairbanks for a while, the cabin I want to build somewhere remote some day.

It’s a good view, this teetering on the the brink of new things. I can see the sun coming up on some pretty great stuff, and this new year’s full moon is lighting up the things behind and around me that make my life awesome: students who are beginning to come into their own, a dog who makes everything sunshine, a fella who is maybe even more independent than I am, friends who are orbiting the same sun, mountains and miles of snow, and a community hall that is even now beginning to fill up with dancers.

 

Alone at Camp – November Journal Entry

DSC07092November 4-5 2017
6:00 PM

It is my first night camping alone in the arctic – or in the winter, period, I guess. I want to be someone who can do this, but I am a little nervous. So far, so good, though. It was zero when I got here. It is five below now.

As proof that I am really here doing this scary, wonderful thing, I offer this detail: – I could not make this up – the tent smells like a candy shop because of the half inch of hazelnut coffee I had to melt out of the kettle before I could make tea.

I am not far from home – town – Arctic Village. I can hear dogs, snowmachines, the occasional chainsaw. Before he left on the plane, Geoff checked with me that I would have the gear to feel safe: a radio, a satellite messaging device, a .22, bear spray, a flare gun, an axe, skis, and enough firewood for days ready to go at camp (thanks to an enthusiastic wood-chopping friend). I am probably safer here than I would be in my house. Daazhraii is with me, too. Still, my heart rate has been just a little elevated since I got on the snowmachine in the dooryard.

9:05 PM

I am doing well. I was surprised, when I got to camp, by how easy and comfortable I felt. I still had a hard time relaxing for a while, but it comes easy now. I am boiling water for dinner and overheating in my long johns. I have opened the windows to cool off, and I can see the full moon from the head of my cot. The moon and snow brighten everything. Through the window by my feet, I can make out one light from someone’s cabin on the edge of the village. I heard a lot of sno-gos earlier, but there aren’t so many now. Daazhraii stands guard outside.

4:55 AM

I am making it! I wasn’t sure I’d be brave enough, but the cheerful, cozy little stove and the quiet, reassuring company of the pup are enough for me, it seems. Boy, though, the dog can really stink up this little tent with his farts. I think that’s what woke me up. It’s snowing a little. The moon is a bright spot in the haze.

11:00 AM

I feel a little silly for how I parked the sno-go in the getaway position last night and conserved the batteries in my headlamp in case I should need them. Now I am drinking tea, starting another book, and beginning to think of doing some work at school this evening, after I go home. It’s hard not to wonder what I was so nervous about to begin with.