Lily won the one-dog race with Daazhraii yesterday!
Lily won the one-dog race with Daazhraii yesterday!
It’s been weekends in the refuge on a hilltop with an all-around view. At night we can see the lights of town twinkling twenty miles away. I named the spot Weathertop for the way it overlooks the Junjik valley to the north and the Chandalar valley to the south.
In March, my dad visited Arctic for the first time. We camped at Weathertop, went skiing, and toasted St. Paddy from the top of the world. It felt wonderful to finally be able to show someone why the isolation and frustration are so worthwhile – chump change compared to the compensation of mad-glorious wilderness.
One weekend, Daazhraii ran sixty miles in three days so that Geoff and I could have a picnic at the end of the trail. Geoff’s been out riding it endlessly, trying to push farther each time and coming back to camp grinning through a beard of snow with the zippers on his carhartts iced in. This weekend, I stayed home and he and Albert camped rough out beyond Spring Creek so that they could just keep pushing out and out.
There is no sign of caribou north of the village yet, but there is plenty of moose activity. Once, I was so close on the trail of a moose – though I never saw it – that its smell still hung in the air. I have noticed the tracks of weasels and marten, and a few times the imprints of hunting owls. There have been wolves, too, though we haven’t heard them howling this year. Their tracks make Daazhraii’s look like tiny butterflies in a field of heavy, wide sunflowers.
Kristie came out to camp last weekend and I got the Skandic stuck. We were cutting firewood, and I’d no sooner run off into the deep snow to get turned around than the machine went down on its side. I couldn’t drive out in forward because I’d gotten myself wedged against a tree in the process of tipping the machine upright. I couldn’t get enough purchase in reverse to make it more than a few feet. In the end, I had to go for help, which was awfully embarrassing. We’d borrowed a short-track Bravo for Kristie to ride – it’s so itty bitty that riding it feels like cruising on a tricycle! – and I was actually able to pick up the back end and just spin it in the trail so that I could ride up to camp to get Geoff. He solved the Skandic problem by running over the tree (maybe the diameter of my knee and fifteen feet tall?!) that I’d been fetched up against. Yikes.
When not on Weathertop I’ve been obsessively googling yurt things. I’m going to look at some property in Fairbanks on Friday, and if it works out the way I hope it will, I’m going to erect a yurt on my own land adjacent to the trail system behind the university. I’ll be able to ski or bike to class! It’s all about yurt companies and wood stoves and incinerator toilets for this gal right now. I have developed a strong distaste for indoor bathrooms, so I’m hoping I can get away with an outhouse, but, if not, did you know that incinerator toilets can function at temperatures as low as -35 fahrenheit?! You could totally put one in an outhouse of sorts. I also know how to get a permit to cut firewood in the borough and that the city of Fairbanks considers yurts “single family dwellings” for permitting purposes. I love the rush of having something really pressing and fascinating to research.
This weekend, while Geoff and Albert were out breaking trail, Daazhraii and I stayed home and stayed busy. In addition to yurt-googling, I made cookies and cranberry bread, hauled water and started laundry, swept and mopped and made a wood-burned axe-handle for Geoff. The snow-puppy and I went skijoring and checked out the spring carnival where the kids were trying to pop balloons tied to each other’s feet. I mailed my taxes and a letter and sent off an essay and some photos to a magazine that’s actually paying me for some writing! Woo! Look for more on that in November of 2020. I had to keep chopping wood to have an outdoor fire, too: I’ve been trying to figure out how to extract the teeth from these skulls I’ve got, but I need to macerate them first, which meant boiling them over the fire pit. Anyway. I’m going to call an orthodontist friend soon for some advice on that one.
School is still chugging along, but it seems like an afterthought now that the sun is up. We have been doing all kinds of cool stuff, though none of it is really reading, writing and ‘rithmetic: We’ve been skiing, performing wolf dissections, checking out Jim’s polar bear skin, and planning for our spring trip to Homer and Seward. We’re flying out on Friday with nine kids and we’ll be gone for almost ten days. It’s going to be awesome, but I hate to miss the last weekends of spring.
I’m starting to have trouble sleeping, or at least trouble finding the rhythm of sleep. Spring is the hardest because I still feel the need for the dark to give permission for me to rest. When the midnight sun comes, it’s like a license to nap at will through the long syrupy afternoon. I wore cutoffs and winter boots this weekend to haul water, and I saw a cardinal yesterday. The ducks and geese will start appearing as soon as we have open water. Maybe I’m having trouble sleeping just because I don’t want to miss a second of the season. It’s like soft serve dripping down the back of your hand: eat it quick before it melts! There is no time for savoring, just slurping.
Slurping with relish,
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 into Smoke Creek and 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.
No Geoff, so no tools.
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.
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.
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.)
Fifty-five below is a lot colder than forty below. This morning, on the way to school, I could feel my nose prickling with frostbite needles, even through my neckwarmer.
The propane is still flowing, maybe because we have a mostly-full tank. The monitor is icing up, and Geoff’s talking about plugging in the heat tape to keep the fuel from jelling in the intake.
It’s been cold since Saturday. At camp, my keychain thermometer was bottomed out at -30. Geoff’s machine needs some repairs, so we left it beside the tent when we came back to town. Daazhraii lolloped ahead of the Bravo, perfectly easy in the frigid night, puffing clouds of breath that hung in the air behind him, obscuring the trail and dissolving the beam of the headlight. Out of this golden mist, pawprints materialized, helpfully tapping out a dotted line through the night. When we stopped to switch drivers or to warm our hands, Daazhraii would appear out of the darkness and lie in the snow beside us, grinning and burying his head in the drifts, eating snow.
I love how I can still be surprised by the way the cold changes the behavior of common elements, how it turns things around and makes the ordinary world extraordinary. It always surprises me, too, how real cold still frightens me. Walking to and from school at fifty-below, I get a chill behind my heart that has nothing to do with my core body temperature, and I’m very, very glad that my keys are there when I reach for them to open the door. Stepping in, the mist billows around my shoulders. We all make dramatic fog-machine entrances in times like this.
It had been a long day.
My old friend Mark was visiting from the lower forty-eight. We had spent a week and a half touring Alaska together, and man, did we do it all.
We drove Turnagain Arm, we panned for gold (and found some flecks!) we hiked a little of the Kesugi Ridge trail, we rode four-wheelers out to a friend’s remote property in Talkeetna, we picked blueberries, we visited Wal-Mike’s, we ate Kenai River red salmon campfire tacos, we saw the sunset over the volcanoes at Ninilchik, we took a water taxi to Kachemak Bay State Park, we hiked to a glacial lake and Mark swam in it, we packrafted out to some icebergs and I climbed to the top of one, we saw bears and otters and moose. Man did we see moose.
That morning we’d woken up in our tent at Rusty’s Lagoon, across from Homer, which is a beautiful place to camp if you don’t mind bears. We packed up our gear and stashed it in a bear box, then packed the raft the three easy miles to the glacier view. We played there all day with the dog and the raft, then hiked out to meet our water taxi at 6:30 for the bumpy ride back to Homer. Ravenous, we ate dinner, then headed north on the Sterling Highway. I meant to camp at Clam Gulch, but I missed the turnoff just after sunset, too distracted by the road work and the moose cow and calf munching on the roadside to realize what had happened. When I did realize it, I figured I was awake enough to make it another hour to Skilak Lake, so I pushed on.
Darkness came as a bit of a surprise. I’d been adjusting to waking in the middle of the night to find the tent dark, but driving at night is a whole different ballgame. My eyes were starting to get bleary and that warm bowl of seafood pasta in my belly was starting to feel pillowy and warm. The road construction workers were beginning to look like aliens and the reflective cones were sliding around in my peripheral vision when I spotted it: that beautiful triangular tent shape on a brown sign that means “home” in the summer. Morgan’s Landing. Okay.
I’d never been there, but Mark took charge of navigation from the copilot’s seat. We found the campground, mostly empty, and stepped out of the truck with relief. I stretched my arms over my head, opened the back door for the dog, and let out a massive sigh, ready to have the tent up and the sleeping bags laid out so I could hit the hay already, thank you very much.
The sound of hooves pounding on sod jolted me to alertness and I looked over the truck bed just in time to see a huge dark shape disappearing over a rise, maybe thirty feet away, with my dog’s fluffy white tail close behind.
“Shit! That thing was right there! SHIT!”
Barking, quickly receding into the distance.
“Daazhraii, c’mere Shoops! Hey!” I whistled and called and raised all kinds of a racket in a campground in the middle of the night, but the barking just kept fading. I tried to play it cool to Mark, and pulled the tent out of the truck. “He’ll be back,” I said, and snapped the poles together in the glare from the headlights, “he always comes back eventually.”
He didn’t though. After a while I couldn’t tell one distant barking dog from another. The tent was up and I was emptyhanded, starting to feel that vise on my lungs that means the dog has been missing too long. Mark had paid the camp fee and returned from the fee station, so I fired up the truck and backed out of the campsite. The headlights caught that glowing white plume-tail as I turned. The idiot dog was back. The moose must have lost him in the woods somewhere.
Daazhraii trotted up, panting and wheezing and grinning like a gargoyle. I stuck him in the back seat with a scolding and a hug, pulled back into the space and got my sleeping bag and pad laid out in the tent. I opened the door to let Daazhraii out so that he could come to bed, and he was off like a shot, slipping to the ground and around the truck.
“NO!” but it’s like his brain shuts off when there are moose to chase.
Hoofbeats, fading into the night forest.
“How could it be right there? Again!?”
This time we drove after them. We followed the sound of barking across lots in the park and down back roads. We whistled and called out the windows of the truck, but Daazhraii was in a different world. At one point the moose was standing on the side of the road, maybe fifteen feet from the truck, just staring into the headlights while the dog danced around her heels, barking.
“Should we… Should we grab him?” Mark didn’t sound eager.
“No freaking way. That thing has got to be pissed. She could pancake us if she felt like it, no problem. We’re staying in the truck.” The moose stared, the dog barked, I whistled and shouted. After a moment dog and moose faded into the trees again. “Damn.”
It was one in the morning now. We’d spent an hour chasing the dang critters and I was seeing stars. We were following the sound of barking up a backroad when the barking suddenly stopped and there was Daazhraii, grinning and panting in the headlights. I loaded him up and we drove back to camp.
“To heck with Morgan’s Landing,” I told Mark over the sound of the dog’s panting. “We’re not staying here with a crazy moose.” As I pulled into the campsite, my headlights picked up the shine of two brown eyes five and a half feet off the ground. Her ears flicked and she chewed a mouthful of grass.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. It’s right there. Again.” Mark was staring through the passenger window and across maybe twenty feet into her eyes. “Did it lose a baby here or something? Why does it keep coming back?”
“We’re outta here. We’ll find someplace else to sleep.” I was half crazy with adrenaline.
“What about the tent?” It was glowing in the headlights. My sleeping bag was in there, or I might have pulled out right then.
We had to wait five minutes for the moose to mosey off, and we waited a few more just to be sure she was really gone before packing up the tent in record speed and heading out.
“Sorry you had to pay the camp fee for Morgan’s Landing and we didn’t even stay. What a waste. But that was crazy.”
“That wasn’t Morgan’s Landing, dude. That was Moose’s Moose for sure.”
At two in the morning I found a well-lit parking lot in Cooper Landing and we all crashed out in the truck. I wasn’t taking any chances.