Oops Pie

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By far, the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me happened on Monday.

Last weekend, Geoff, Albert and I borrowed a canoe and took off for an adventure. We were camped a ways up Deadman’s Creek, and we spent all of Monday hiking in the tundra and berry picking at the base of the mountains. We’d just gotten back to camp, tired and sore from picking our way across the tundra, and were sitting down to eat some dinner before heading back to the village when search and rescue showed up. A complete surprise.

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“Yeah, your Dad called the troopers,” one of the guys said. I looked down at my feet, silently wishing the ground would split open so that I could fall in and be swallowed up by a new slough. Stupid-girl Slough.

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The details don’t matter much, just that it was a communication breakdown and entirely my fault. The searchers were good-humored about it, glad to find us all in one piece. What a first impression I must have made, though, moving to Arctic and causing such a stir within a week. There was a sign posted out in front of the school when we got back “No school Tuesday September 6th until Teachers are Found.” Wright Air flew over the river looking for us, and Venetie was all stirred up on my account. Board members called the superintendent. Kids cried. Geoff’s mom found out and told her neighbor and he managed to get a prayer circle going in West Virginia. What a mess.

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But all things, even embarrassing things, pass, I guess.

I made pie the other day from the blueberries we picked on Monday. They were shriveled up and sweet and purple on the red-leaved bushes, and they made my fingertips and teeth blue. That Tuesday morning the mountains were dusted with snow (we motored through a nasty little rain-squall to get back to the village, and it was cold and awful, so it stands to reason it’d be snow a few-hundred feet higher), so I think that was the last of the season’s blueberries. Embarrassment pie, mortification pie, sweet, delicious, wonderful, blueberry-major-oops pie. dsc05140

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Bye for now, Summer

I’m in Arctic Village, this time for good. I flew in after inservice and Boots took the plane low to show his granddaughter, in the copilot’s seat, the herds of caribou up on the mountains. The plane dipped and bumped low over the trees and the other passengers turned green and pukey, but I was thrilled. The tundra was red and gold and the caribou were silver and galloping under a clear blue sky. What more could you want from a flight?

Everyone in the village was cutting meat all week or scrounging for gas to get up the mountain to hunt. It was science and traditional knowledge week at school, and the kids were cutting meat in the gym and working on a dogsled. Geoff opened the fridge in the school kitchen one afternoon and a whole bloody leg wrapped in garbage bags fell out. It was crazy.

Here are some pictures from my back porch, overlooking the Chandalar:

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If I step out back at five in the morning, I can see every pond in the valley (there are a lot of them) breathing silver mist into the air before the black mountains and the red horizon.

The willows have all turned yellow and rumor has it there’s been frost in the wee hours. We’re turning the corner and I’m so glad – winter is my favorite season since I’ve found ways to get out in it. I’m running most evenings now, getting ready to start strong with skiing this winter. I want to set a rabbit snare along a short ski loop so that I can check it often, and I’ve persuaded someone to teach me how to do it.

Geoff has agreed to go with me to Venetie by snowmachine. I hope it happens. There’s a lot of work involved, but it would really be something to show up some weekend out of the blue and visit for a while.

This week has been hard. Starting something new here and imagining those kids in Venetie starting a new school year without me has been a constant ache behind my heart. I miss their personalities and their ease with me. I’ll get there with the kids here, but it will take time, and, meanwhile, I’ll miss my class of characters like crazy.

Inservice was a stupid as usual (cold to lukewarm showers, sales pitches from textbook companies instead of professional learning, no collaboration time except bits and pieces at the end of the day), but some good things happened: Terri’s Aunt Bernice came and did a poetry workshop, which was fun; Student News is going strong in its second year, with more folks than ever participating; the union meeting felt productive and energetic, which made a nice change; and the math teachers met and agreed on a resolution to offer a two-year Algebra 1 option, which will reflect the kids’ learning more accurately on their transcripts. Barring sabotage by administrators with control issues, this will mark a good change for kids.

Geoff and I ran his boat up from Circle and camped on the Yukon for the week. We spent some time exploring the route to the Chandalar and some of the rivers that feed the big one just south of Fort Yukon. I’d write more, but there are things to do. It’s the last long weekend before Thanksgiving, and the mountains are calling. Here’s the photodump with illumination by caption:

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Packing in Fairbanks, prior to the great canoe heartbreak of 2016

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Camp on a high bank just north of Circle

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That log has ears

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This was my first bear sighting in Alaska, and the gorgeous animal was swimming across the Yukon. Pretty amazing.

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Island Camp. We were visited by a moose (he left only footprints while we were out) and a beaver, who slapped his tail and turned his nose up at us as he flew downriver. There was old bear scat in the dry slough, but we didn’t see any recent sign.

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Before inservice began, we explored miles up the Christian River.

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I got Chainsaw 102 in this dreamscape of an old burn on the Christian River.

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Firewood!

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The confluence of Cutoff Slough (part of the Yukon) and Marten Creek. Look closely: Marten Creek is the color of black coffee. The Yukon is the color of chai. The Christian River is the color of black tea. The Chandalar is blue.

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Yukon sunset, just north of Circle.

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Skiing, snowshoeing, getting a little frosty, a little eccentric

It’s been all about the skiing with me lately. I’ve been out every day for a while now, excluding travel days and Fairbanks days. It’s like flying, when you hit your rhythm, and it’s a quiet way to move over the snow. I love it.

DSC04001 This is from last week, when Angel kept Ben, Terri and me company on an afternoon turn around the village. I miss that sunshine: it’s been cloudy here for ages now, and with the tipping of the earth, we’re only getting a few hours of daylight: I come to school in the dark and head home in the twilight. I ski every evening in blue half-light under the heavy clouds. Before too long, the sun won’t break the trees anymore, and the shadows will disappear into the deeper shadows until spring. I’m hoping for clear skies soon soon soon.

DSC04007 DSC04009I went snowshoeing outside of Fairbanks this weekend with a new friend. I flew to town to see some kids at boarding school in Nenana, but the weather was crap and I didn’t make it out to them. I ran a few errands (bought a sled, a bunch of ice cream for the school, and some parsnips) and had some food that I didn’t have too cook, but the best part of the weekend was easily the part where I was miles from Fairbanks, playing in the woods.

Scott broke trail the whole way as we climbed a steep hill and then hiked along a windy ridge. Stretching my legs and actually climbing for the first time in months felt awesome. By dusk, we’d only made it about four miles, and, with the wind whipping our tracks off the ridgeline and the flagging tape that marked the path buried in a rock-candy snow-crust, we opted to turn around rather than risk getting lost in the dark. The windward sides of both our faces prickled white with frost as the sun went down and we crunched back along the ridge. Later, sheltered in the trees, we all but skied down the mountain using the snowshoes to control the tumbling, galloping roll that gravity gave us. I loved it. That feeling of falling and the soft snow spraying all around made me giddy. The rest of the weekend I could take or leave, but that part was awesome. DSC04015 DSC04014

I haven’t wanted to stop moving since I got home. I went for a walk with some of my middle schoolers today, and skied to the post office after school to look for letters.

It really felt like coming home. When Pat dropped me off at Wright’s on Sunday, I felt a huge sigh burst out of my chest. I hadn’t realized I was holding my breath, but I guess I was. While I waited for my plane, a former student pulled me aside and asked me to bring her son home to Venetie and his grandparents. I boarded the plane with her kid on my hip and he fell asleep in my lap as soon as we lifted off the ground, a bush baby for sure, lulled by the engine’s drone and the smooth ride. I felt so comfortable, sitting with that warm little kid in his batman hat in my arms and watching the roads and the parking lots and the nasty brown slush peculiar to roads and parking lots wink out of existence below us. I was relieved to see Fairbanks disappear, ready to resume my real life, to be back in the bush.

Real life. A year ago, this week, I quit my job in Arkansas. I’d never been to Alaska. I’d never heard of Venetie. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.

I have arrived. In so many ways, I have arrived. This independence and remoteness is my natural habitat.

I’m getting eccentric, though, I think. All I can think about when I think about going back to town is how much I hate parking lots.

Blaze Orange Hat

DSC03996A year ago, November
I bought a blaze orange hat for backpacking in the Ozarks.
It was opening weekend: Deer season in Arkansas.
I thought better safe than sorry.

My friends slept through sunrise
While I started a fire, made a cup of tea, walked to the ridge to touch the morning.
The sky, rose and pearly, broke against the trees and I felt the weight of the world
Spinning me into the sun

I looked over my shoulder
at all the lidded eyes and quiet faces asleep in the grass, then turned back
to the mad, pink panic of sunrise and felt like I’d stepped for a moment out of a box
Where I was living safe and sorry.

I thought, I never want to be sorry.

A year ago, November
I emptied my backpack and started a fire. I quit my job and burned
the broken parts of my romance. I packed warm clothes: long underwear
wool socks, my blaze orange hat

This morning, in Alaska
I packed my things in a hurry. I put on my long underwear and wool socks,
But couldn’t find my hat. My friend, no stranger to a sunrise, lent me one to wear.
It’s cold, Alaska, in October.

What a wonder.
I lost my blaze orange hat in an eight-by-eight tent in a field of white. Strange.
how that white smells of smoke in a pearly, frozen country the size of the sky.
My skin, too, smells of smoke.

I know I will never be sorry.

We made snow angels until we were black and blue

Yesterday morning, I knocked on Ben’s door at about 9:00. I heard a muffled shuffling noise and a faint, despairing “oh no!” before he opened the door and let me in. He knew I was planning on coming, and was hoping I wouldn’t. The agenda: a ten-mile hike around Big Lake.

New snow had fallen in the night, but it wasn’t enough to break out the skis again. Those have been retired since the first heavy snow melted into a sheet of treacherous ice. Gingerly was a fan-favorite vocabulary word last week. P does an awesome impression of someone slipping on the ice for vocab-charades. We put on long johns, packed snacks and water, borrowed a GPS and a tagalong dog from Jake and Shannon, and set out, leaving a trail of boot prints in the fresh powder.DSC03945The snow masked the mountain in the distance, but it softened everything, muffling the sound of our steps in a heavy white scarf, and it covered the world with a fresh canvas for the little squirrels and hares and mice to fingerpaint on. It also hid a sheet of ice, left over from the last snow, under a slippery layer of deceptively crisp-looking new snow. I fell in an ever-more-balletic progression of styles. Once, I fell flat on my ass like a four year old. Another time, I wiped out, stood up, and wiped out again (Ben was laughing so hard he nearly keeled over too). Another time my right leg slipped out from under me and my left leg lifted in an elegant high kick as I went down. Ben was falling too, though not as extravagantly as I was, and even Angel (the dog) faceplanted a couple of times. I’ve got black and blue bruises all over my body, but I had a blast.DSC03944We met a fella from the village at this crossroads, and he sent us down the middle road, which, after a time, brought us to the shore of the lake. We didn’t dare try the ice, but there’s enough out there to support the snow, and the sky and the ground and the whole world looked like a blank page.

DSC03948We walked on, exploring old four-wheeler trails along the shore until we came to a scrubby, marshy area at the north end of the lake. Here, it was safest to skate, plowing up an inch or two of snow in front of our boots with each step. We walked on ice dotted with grass clumps for at least an hour, picking our way through the low brush and scrubby trees, before we came to a trail on mostly high, dry ground again.

DSC03975 DSC03971After about five hours, we made it to the landing at Big Lake. At some point since the last time we were there, some knucklehead took a shotgun and blew a hole clear through the outhouse. When he saw it, Ben exclaimed “well now it’s useless!” which made me laugh so hard I fell one more time.DSC03978