River Trip Journal 10

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8/6?
Sunday Evening

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.

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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. stripes

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.wave curlWe 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.


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.lower chandalar camp

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.

River Trip Journal 5

7/9

It’s beautiful here in the mountainous section of the Yukon. We’re in sort of a canyon, and the walls tell an impressive geological story.

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We stopped last night to see a friend of Geoff’s from years back when Geoff worked a summer kids’ camp with him at his fish camp. We were going to stay, but it didn’t feel quite right. We pushed on up the rapids at an impressive five miles per hour. The rapids weren’t all that rapid or rocky. I had been nervous, expecting something more formidable, but it was no sweat. There were lots of fish wheels, but I still have not actually seen one catch a fish.

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Just at the end of the rapids, we were greeted by a really lovely family. Geoff was acquainted with the older man from his time working that camp in the rapids. There were two smart, funny, personable middle-school-age boys and their parents, whom I liked a lot. He was happy-natured and friendly, and she was a badass musher and homeschool mom. She had three seven month old pups and let Daazhraii play with the pack. They were lanky sled-dogs, and they made him look short, stocky and clumsy.

We ate dinner with this wonderful family last night, and they fed us breakfast this morning and sent us on our way with king backs for the dog and canned king for ourselves. This is the first year in a while that kings have been open for subsistence. Folks are pleased, but it sounds like they’re not getting the numbers they were hoping for.

I like the way drying fish looks, hanging on racks in long evening light, all pink and translucent. I like the smell of smoke and smoking fish. It’s a lovely thing. People talk about greasy hands and hair and joke about the endless work, but that’s nothing I couldn’t handle. I can see spending a summer or summers on fish someday, if I’m lucky enough to have the chance. The snack breaks are pretty great, and the view beats any corner office I’ve ever heard of.

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River Trip Journal 4

7/8/17

The sign hanging above the post office in Tanana says “Tanana, Alas.” The “ka” must have fallen off. It’s a misrepresentation, though. Tanana is pretty, lively, and welcoming. The washateria has great showers, and the water is good. The library at the school opens a few times a week in the summer so that folks can read and use the internet.

We met a Norwegian family that had rafted downriver from the bridge and a French couple in a canoe. Geoff met some folks he knew from the old days, and everyone I talked to was curious about our trip. The girl who was working the counter at the store let us bring Daazhraii in while we shopped and chatted with me about where we were heading. Tanana is accustomed to floaters, so strangers are kind of commonplace and come with a ready-made explanation. It’s a different vibe from villages that I’ve visited before.

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Shade for people

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Shade for dogs. Daazhraii had dug this nice, cool hole to chill in. Smart boy.

The weather was screaming hot and clear when we were in Tanana, and Geoff and I were both getting sunburned in our shadeless sandbar camp. The sand got so hot around midday that you couldn’t walk across it barefoot. We stayed an extra day at the confluence to go through all of our gear and sorted out a good amount to mail back to Fairbanks to make a little more room in the boat. It was sweaty, miserable work, and we spent most of the afternoon after we finished it sitting half-in the river, arguing and burning, making ourselves miserable and knocking chunks off of the bank to hear the splash and see the splatter and vent a little frustration. We buried our feet in a stratum of icy mud beneath the surface and glared at the shivering hot air rippling above the white sand of our island. Ice cream sandwiches back in Tanana took the edge off the heat a little.

We got to town and mailed out our extra gear. The store-owner was chatting with me about our plans and Arctic Village. “Well, make sure you’re putting on sunblock, girl!” she warned.

“I don’t have any,” I exclaimed. “You always forget something on these trips…”

“Say no more,” she said, “I think I’ve got some upstairs.” She returned with sunscreen from her own cupboard and insisted that I take it. What a kindness.

At the library, I visited for a while with the librarian while my next Harry Potter audiobook downloaded. It’s always interesting to talk with folks who are connected with schools in different villages to compare and contrast.

We decided in Tanana that, to hell with fishing on the Kenai, we’ll just take the rest of the summer for this trip. We were supposed to be in Fort Yukon on the tenth and that just isn’t happening, so we’ll set ourselves up to take our time.

We left Tanana in the rain last night (I counted forty-six dogs in a dog yard on the shore. Whoah!) and cruised until we found a flat spot on the south shore of the river. It was a late night, so we slept in and had a great swim this morning. The water got deep enough quick enough that I could dive off the transom with the boat tied to the shore. Daazhraii came in with us and romped and played in the shallows and chased sticks. It was a rare true break from packing or driving or setting up or breaking down camp. We didn’t motor out until mid-afternoon. There’s nothing new about this, but we were able to relax without worrying about making our deadline in Fort Yukon because we’ve decided that we don’t have one.

Wahoo!

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(editors note: we wound up in Fort Yukon on 7/19 and took off 7/20 for the Kenai where we had a super-successful weekend dipnetting. We’ll be eating reds all winter! Now we just have to make it to Arctic before the school year starts.)

Running for the right reasons 2

Visiting West Virginia transports me back to Warren Wilson. The afternoon thunderstorms stir up familiar smells, and the forest is full of old friends, softly lullabying in the breeze. Cercis canadensis, Hamamelis virginiana, Quercus alba, Robinia Pseudoacacia: The back of my memory whispers the Latin names of the trees, though I can’t seem to recall the common names as easily. Perhaps I have forgotten them because they are less musical.

The pup and I went for a run this morning. Daazhraii chased the deer until they disappeared in the dense understory, then returned, and a few minutes later chased off after the next white tail, bounced back, flew off again. There was a good rhythm to our run.

As I struggled up one of the ridiculously steep hills on this gravel road, I heard the voice in my head saying “you can do it! Keep going! Your body is sometimes your only tool in an emergency, and you want it to be a damned good tool! Push!”

Now, if my inner voice hadn’t just instructed me to keep going, this would have stopped me in my tracks. I have never felt quite this thing quite so deeply. When I dug in and dug for strength, I found this voice in the bedrock of my resolve. What an awesome reason to run.

I am not serious about running or yoga or even skiing, which I love best of all. I am not consistent or skillful or strong, but I like to feel good about my strength and I like that there is now a voice in my head that speaks of the need for reliable power in case of trouble. The river trip up the Chandalar is coming, and winter adventures in ANWR after that. I want my body to be able to handle the things I’ll put it through, and I want enough on top of that to enjoy walking in the woods after the work is done.

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I brought my dog home just in time to visit the place where I grew up. Mom and Dad may have finally sold the house!

It has been a good summer so far: Geoff and I went to a lovely graduation in Petersburg, and climbed Petersburg mountain with the pup. I got to see my dear, dear friends in Baltimore and Vermont, and visit a 5th grade classroom with Alaska stories and a sled dog for show and tell. Daazhraii ate a snow-cone on the national mall and met the ocean head-first off the dock in Belfast. I saw my best friend and my favorite kiddo and the kiddo called my dog “Cool Doggie!” We played games and went out in the boat with my family. We drove two days with no AC in a heat wave, dreaming of the arctic: I tied ice cubes into my bandana and fed more ice cubes to the snowpuppy and was completely insufferable to be around. Geoff and I cooled off in a pool, listening to sixties music and then watched a sudden mountain thunderstorm drench the towels we’d left hanging out to dry in the sun. I bought totally-for-sure-legal fireworks and made forty chocolate chip cookies, and tonight I’ll listen to the moths jitterbugging on the window screens until I get tired of reading and turn out the light.

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The dog is still damp from diving into the harbor.

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Three of the people closest to my heart out for a cruise in my hometown harbor

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Geoff and Daazhraii in Petersburg after the pup’s first (terrifying) sip of ocean water.

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Boat dog!

 

Marten Lake or Bust. Seriously.

That Monday in March was probably one of the most beautiful days Geoff and I spent on the trail all winter. It was also one of the most frightening.

We woke up at Gweelah Camp and spent hours trying to thaw ourselves out. Geoff stepped straight into his forty-below boots that morning and it took a while for his feet to bounce back. We huddled over our low, damp fire, willing our clothes to dry, our toes to thaw, our water to boil. I felt brittle and stiff, like a frozen-solid sapling that snaps at a touch in the deep winter: the night before, huddled in that damp sleeping bag, was the closest I’ve ever come to truly, dangerously cold.

When we finally took off, we were low on fuel, low on really good food, and low on sleep. We had fifteen miles or so to go before Marten lake, and we felt sure now that there was no trail. I kept touching the package of toe warmers in the breast pocket of my bibs for reassurance. They were the last pair, and I’d been saving them against an emergency. They served as a kind of talisman: I knew I had five hours of comfortable feet, and as long as I could do without them, I had something in reserve.

The sun was blazing that day, setting the world to glittering in every direction. The ridgeline carried us like a rising swell over a sea of sparkling foam. We had sweeping views of the valley and the Chandalar, swirling against the foothills like a shining white pennant. The low hills rolled away from us in every direction and the mountains in the distance dazzled with searchlight-brilliant peaks. Daazhraii and I walked miles, all told, pushing ourselves to make up ground and help conserve fuel while Geoff broke trail ahead. I took no pictures, for some reason, but it’s clear and blinding-glossy in my memory.

When we crested the last ridge, we could see Marten lake far below in the valley. Dusk was falling, and the trail shot straight down the densely forested slope below. Geoff took us as far as he could, then left us again. I kept the puppy close as I walked, slower now than I had in the daylight, more cautious and aware of the woods around me. The forest had closed in, and the dark was circling. I had an ear out for night hunters. I kept the puppy close.

At times Geoff was gone a long while. He’d return, run us to the end of the trail he’d made, and then continue ahead alone. Each time he returned, I’d ask “did you make it to the lake?” Each time, he’d reply “not yet. I must be getting close, though.” We both felt exhaustion setting in, and when we passed through a promising patch of dry wood that might have made a warm camp, we pushed on with a sigh.

We were hoping for a cabin, a snug, dry cabin with a wood stove where we could dry our sleeping bags, frozen into a stiff mass from the steam and frost of the cold night at Gweelah Camp. I thought I remembered something from a conversation overheard a year ago in Venetie, but deep down I suspected the memory was just a wish or a fabrication. And even if there was a cabin, how would we find it? It was too much to hope for broken trail, a specter that seemed to have been haunting us now for days, especially broken trail that would lead to a dry, warm haven in this endless, frozen wilderness. It was just too much to ask.

The slope seemed to last forever, miles of straight, narrow trail with walls of brushy black spruce woods on either side. When Daazhraii and I rode behind Geoff, I huddled over the puppy, pushing clattering, clawing, dry willow branches aside. I took a good blow to the cheek once, and got a bit of crumbled bark in my eye. The eye watered and the tears froze, and I felt myself crumbling inward, at the end of my strength and resolve. It would be hard going if we couldn’t find a cabin. We’d both be drawing on tapped reserves of strength to cut trees and build a good fire and make hot food and dry our sleeping bags and take care of all the chores that mean the difference between a comfortable night and a dangerous one. It would be a night for space blankets and the last of the toe-warmers.

Riding on the snowmachine behind Geoff in that steep, narrow cut through the dark trees, I was scared. It was cold, and dark was falling, and I was done in, exhausted beyond my experience. I leaned my cheek against Geoff’s back and took a little strength from his blustery confidence and refusal to be cowed by the hungry night.

Just then, the skis bumped up and the snow broke in a straight line ahead of us. Trail. I let out a whoop and felt fizzies bubbling up from my toes. I’d stopped believing in trail days before, and yet here it was. My fingertips shivered with adrenaline and I cheered and danced. We followed the trail out onto the lake and around a few bends. Suddenly, rising right in front of us, cutting a straight line against the stars, there was the roofline of a cabin. I nearly fainted with relief.

It all happened so fast, once we found the trail. Hours of plowing through deep snow against the mounting arctic night and all its attendant terrors ended in moments with a bump in the snow and a line of darker dark against the black sky.

We turned aside the nail that kept the cabin’s door shut and went in. By headlamp, Geoff got a fire going. In a very short while, I was able to take off my coat, hat, gloves, neckwarmer. Steam rose from damp fleece and blurred the dim interior of the one-room building. We found ourselves laughing, cheered by the crackling warmth and the boundless relief of having a comfortable place to spend the night.

We looked for a high-powered radio, thinking we might be able to make a call to Venetie, but didn’t find one.

Geoff told me now that we had about three gallons of gas left, “not enough to get us to Venetie. Maybe not even enough to get just me if I left you and the sled”

“Looks like we’ll have to stay a few days”

“Oh darn – we’ll miss our valuable and instructive spring inservice!”

We planned to wave a gas can in the air the next morning when the plane came over. Boots would send someone with fuel for us, and we’d make it to Fort Yukon by Wednesday, with luck. We laughed, thrilled with the sudden gift of a vacation.

In time, we managed to untie the sled and bring in our food and sleeping bags. We strung ropes from the ceiling and hung everything to dry like so many rugs for sale in a bizarre sort of cold, steamy bazaar.

We fed the puppy and before we could feed ourselves, we were asleep on the bunk in the corner.

We woke up an hour or two later to the sound of snowmachine engines outside. The cabin was cold, and I jumped to my feet in the dark, searching for a headlamp and a sweatshirt.

“Knock knock!”

The door opened and a freezing cloud poured in, illuminated by the beam of a headlamp. Two figures materialized in the mist and resolved into familiar faces, once my eyes adjusted to the glare.

“We heard you guys were in trouble, so we came down to see if we could help out.” The two men stomped their boots, pulled up a chair and a bucket beside the stove, and started shedding layers of outerwear, hanging gear by the fire to dry. “Thought we might find you here.”

One man unpacked his backpack, pulling out fruit cups, pop, yogurt and dry meat “my little nephew wouldn’t let me leave without supplies,” he explained apologetically, “Would you like a pop?”

It turned out that, despite Boots’ seeing us that morning, folks in the village and at inservice in Fort Yukon were a little worried. These guys had taken off around three that afternoon with a sled full of fuel for us. It took them seven hours to travel the seventy miles of trail that we had spent the past four days painstakingly breaking, mile by mile.  They shared their snacks (I have a real weakness for dry meat) siphoned fuel, and took off for Venetie.

“You’re sure you don’t want to stay?”

“Nah, we’ll push on to Venetie. We’ll visit for tonight and head back tomorrow.”

“Who do I owe for the gas?” Geoff asked.

“I paid for it. We’ll just take care of it when you get back, okay?”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it, man. It was a great ride down.”

That was that. The door puffed open in a cloud of cold fog, snowmachines roared to life, and the night was silent and dark again. We went back to sleep, maybe a little heavy-hearted with the knowledge that we’d have to head out in the morning after all. That vacation had sounded pretty good.

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Daazhraii relaxing in the morning with a good book at the Marten Lake cabin.

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A beautiful sight.

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I ran out onto the lake in my jammies at twenty below to give the plane a cheerful A-OK that morning. Afterwards, we headed out.

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Everything but the kitchen sink – including the toilet (which is a bucket, and which we have to carry because puppies are disgusting)

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Looking back on Marten Lake from the top of the next ridge.

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It was another crystal blue day with long views from a rolling ridgeline. We were well-rested and glad, and not much could be finer.

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Riding the dash. Or pretending to.

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It’s about thirty miles – trail all the way! – from Marten Lake to Venetie. This was taken about halfway, and you can just make out Big Lake in the distance.

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We reached Venetie around nightfall. Five miles out, I opened my precious toe-warmers, secure in the knowledge that I wouldn’t really need them.