Gweelah (Swamp) Camp

I have been lax in telling the story of Why We Were Late to Inservice (unabridged). Let me recap:

It was a March weekend. Geoff and I had to be in Fort Yukon on Monday for teacher inservice. On Friday night we followed the trail thirty miles to Zhoh Camp, where we had left the tent on previous trail-breaking trips. On Saturday, we broke trail about ten miles to Traa Camp. Sunday morning we woke up from a night at forty below with sixty miles left to go to Venetie and another fifty from Venetie to Fort Yukon.

If you’re thinking this is a ridiculous thing to expect to do in a day, you are not completely wrong. On good trail with a snowmachine, you can travel twenty miles an hour. We wouldn’t have good trail, but given an average of ten miles per hour, we could make it to Fort Yukon by morning. We’d heard in Arctic that the trail was broken as far as Bob Lake, only ten miles from Traa Camp, so after Bob Lake we’d have smooth sailing and fast progress to Venetie. We’d have to stay up all night to make it to Fort Yukon in time for an early-afternoon start on Monday, but it wasn’t out of the question.

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“Bob Lake by sunset, Venetie by midnight!” I cheered.

“No problem,” Geoff said, and we began breaking camp.

In the light of day, being alone for a while seemed far less frightening than it had in the dark, so I encouraged Geoff to break trail up to the top of the ridge while I packed up the sled. It was my first time packing the sled completely by myself, and it was a great challenge. Daazhraii romped in the snow while I tried to lash a five gallon bucket and a chainsaw and a pair of snowshoes to the top of a load that was already teetering. When Geoff got back, he inspected the sled, pronounced it awesome, and we hitched up and boogied.

Without the extra weight of sled, dog and woman, Geoff had made quick progress to the top of the ridge. We covered his new trail easily, and stopped to take in the view of Brown Grass Lake. browngrasseast

Downhill is a lot easier than up when you’re hauling a load, and it was all downhill or flat to Bob Lake. We experimented with speed and power, and eventually found a happy place where we floated on top of the snow, sled and all. It felt like hydroplaning in a car, and Geoff’s control was about as good. We sort of shimmied and slipped sideways now and then, and a couple of times we nearly catapulted ourselves into a tree, but we covered ground fast and before we knew it we’d made Bob Lake.

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On the side of the trail by Bob Lake’s south shore there is a drilling rig. It’s been there since they cleared the cat trail in the 70s or 80s and it is wildly incongruous. Bob Lake is the halfway mark between Arctic and Venetie, so this truck is fifty miles from the nearest road, and the nearest road is hundreds of miles from the nearest road that actually goes anywhere. I laughed when I saw it.

Aside from a truck in the untracked wilderness, there was one other notable feature of Bob Lake, specifically, the untracked wilderness thing. No tracks. No trail. No idea how far we might have to go before reaching the smooth sailing we’d banked on. We didn’t discuss it, just pressed on, hoping to find a broken trail around the next bend. Or the next. Over the ridge? Beyond that lake?

Daazhraii and I did a lot of hiking while Geoff broke trail past Bob Lake. The pup’s paws got cold (it was twenty below or so), and I ran the risk of overheating if I worked too hard, so we took a lot of breaks. I would lie on my back in the snow and Daazhraii would hop onto my belly and walk in circles to get settled. Geoff would come humming back down on the snowmachine and find us sprawled like that. He would help me up (lying on your back in all that winter gear with a wriggly thirty-five pound weight on your stomach feels a lot like being turtled) and we’d all hop back onto the snowmachine together, the puppy bundled in a fleece blanket between us.

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The sunset was magnificent that night, but it marked a turning point. Without the light, Geoff could no longer see well enough to stay on the cat trail. We had to stop or turn back. Until that moment, we’d been able to believe that we would find a broken trail. At sunset, we were forced to accept the fact that we likely wouldn’t see a trail again until Marten Lake, still fifteen miles away. It was at this point that we probably should have admitted defeat and turned around. We could have made it to Arctic in five hours; the trail was clear and familiar. Folks would be starting to worry.

I sent an “OK” message with my SPOT, hoping it would reach the right people. (Ultimately, it turned out that my parents were the only people who weren’t worried about us.)

Instead of turning back, we made camp where we fetched up when Geoff found he could no longer see the trail. We had some dry wood handy, though not as much as we would have liked. I started a fire while Geoff found dead trees and unloaded the chainsaw. Geoff started cooking while I shuffled around in the waist-deep drifts, pulling the tips off of spruce trees and building a green mattress beside the fire. It was cold, and we weren’t having much success getting warm. When Geoff dug the thermometer out from between our sleeping pads and it read -35, we felt perversely better.

I held the dog’s blanket beside the fire, trying to dry out the fleece. Steam billowed around my arms, but the blanket stayed cold and wet to the touch. I held it as long as I could and it just seemed to get soggier and soggier. The fire burned low in its snow-pit, and trickles of water from the ground below filled the dips around the burning wood. We had built our camp in a swamp.

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The steam collected on the things we placed near the fire, riming the nearby trees with frost. I had hoped to have a dry blanket for the dog to snuggle up on in the morning, but I soon gave up and moved my belongings out of the immediate area.

We went to bed that night with Daazhraii curled up in Geoff’s sleeping bag by our heads and the two of us crammed into my bag together. The dog was fine, but I’ve never spent a more miserable night. It was cramped and cold, and I kept slipping toward the fire pit. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling the cooking grate under my feet through the sleeping bag. Close to dawn I started feeling panicky and struggled to the top of the bag to get a breath of fresh air. It was cold and uncomfortable and impossible. “Just keep moving your feet,” Geoff said, “we’re fine, just please don’t panic.” I slipped in and out of sleep a few more times before we started the day, exhausted and grumpy and miraculously all in one piece. It had dropped below minus forty and we had been damp to start with. We were right on the edge of dangerously cold.

While Geoff was making his coffee, the plane flew over, circling us twice. We stood in the trail giving Boots (the pilot) a big thumbs up to let him know we were okay. Geoff tried to reach the plane by radio, but we learned later that they can’t tune in to the frequencies that our radios use.

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Well, you wanted adventure, I lectured myself while Geoff was out breaking trail up the next ridge, this is what adventure feels like. Daazhraii gnawed on a caribou antler I had found in the trail, and I heated kibble and broth for his breakfast, slowly and carefully positioning my boot liners to be close to the heat without bathing in steam. Geoff and I had a hot meal of oatmeal, rice, and freeze-dried veggies: we had run out of meat by this time.

Instead of trying to dry our gear, we packed it up, frost and all. It would be a really hard night if we couldn’t reach Venetie or get enough dry wood to build a monster fire to thaw our sleeping bags and my boot liners. I thought I remembered hearing something about a cabin at Marten Lake from Lawrence, who used to work maintenance in Venetie, but I wasn’t sure, and even if there was a cabin, I wasn’t confident that we could find it.

Geoff transferred fuel just before we took off. I am no expert, but the jugs looked dangerously low. “Are we going to make it to Venetie if we have to keep breaking trail?” I asked. Geoff said something evasive.

Maybe it was, “we have enough gas to run a chainsaw for weeks”

Which really didn’t answer the question, exactly, but it put a giddy bubble in my chest. At this point, it was Monday and we were officially late. Folks knew from Boots that we were okay, and we’d decided to go for it, regardless of the difficulties. It was an adventure, and missing inservice… well inservice is lame anyway.

Venetie Volleyball

On Thursday, six kids from Venetie flew to Arctic Village to play volleyball. We’ve been planning this for a while with their principal, and I’ve been looking forward to it since it was just the germ of an idea.

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Venetie and Arctic have a complex relationship. They are partners in land ownership and governance, but there is some animosity between them. Arctic gets a lot of visitors and attention from outside, and I think there’s a perception in Venetie that Arctic is kind of stuck up. Venetie is a rougher village. There seems to be more crime and drinking and ugliness there (though I am not convinced that this is as it seems). Arctic kids grow up with an aversion to things Venetie. When I wore my Wolfpack hoodie this fall, they would call me a “mutt” and make rude comments about people from Venetie. The kids from the two villages snipe at each other over social media, even though they have hardly met in person.

I love those Venetie kids wholeheartedly. I latched on to them over the year and a half I was their teacher, and they mean the moon to me. When kids here say unkind things about them (people from Venetie suck: so and so is mean) I take it pretty hard. This visit was an opportunity to chip away at that prejudice a little.

Thursday, we mixed the groups and played Shipwreck, a team building game where you have to get everyone on your team across the gym before the other team. The challenge: the floor is lava. We gave them tools, (rope, hula hoops, a single roller skate, a scooter) and we set up a few islands. It was great watching them solve problems and come up with creative ways to use the items.

Later, we had them work in teams to make and clean up after a shared dinner, and after dinner we opened the gym for casual volleyball for a few hours. Geoff and I had ordered a glow-in the dark ball, and I had all the kids sign it with highlighters. We set up black-lights on the stanchions and passed out glow sticks for wristbands, then turned out the gym lights. It was pretty spectacular. G’s teeth glowed in the blacklight.

Friday was tournament day, and there was a lot to do, but we took the afternoon off from preparations to get out and enjoy the suddenly warm (-15?) weather. I set some kids up with skis during PE and Geoff set some others up with snowboards. At 1:30 we headed out to the lake. The truck dropped us off beyond the airport, and we skied or walked the rest of the way.

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I skied, and it was blissful. It’s been too cold to ski most of this winter, not because I’m a pansy but because there’s a temperature at which skis just stick instead of gliding. I pulled ahead of the kids and took a picture of them all trekking in the snowmachine trail across the lake to the spot Geoff had chosen for a fire.

dsc05375Geoff drove his snowmachine back and forth, picking up kids in the sled and hauling them out to the fire. I bummed a ride down the lake and back once, before all the kids lined up to try it, whether on snowboards or skis. L was awesome on a snowboard. dsc05384They heckled Eddie, the principal from Venetie, until he got on a snowboard and gave it a try. C, a 7th grader from Arctic, rode backwards on the machine behind Geoff, giggling. The kids kept a great fire going the whole time, and heated water for tea. Everyone had a blast, and no one complained about the long walk out or the chilly ride back to school in the back of the truck.

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We were all exhausted by the time we got back to school, but the day’s activities weren’t done. I led a team in pizza-making, and sweet P from Venetie made cake for everyone to share.

After dinner, the moment was finally upon us. We scrambled to figure out the scoreboard, find a whistle, and organize the kids into reasonable teams (we had to have two teams from Arctic). At 7:30, the games began.

Folks from the village showed up and cheered for both teams, which made me glad. I admit to secretly cheering for the Venetie kids: I could see their nerves, their courage, and their determination clearly on their well-loved faces, whereas the Arctic kids were perfectly relaxed and at home. All the kids played great games, with Venetie losing to both Arctic teams by only a point or two.

After the two schools played, a village team was organized, and they played a few games against mixed student teams. I like that the kids ended the volleyball tournament by playing together. It reinforced what the trip was supposed to be all about (in my mind).

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The kids stayed and watched a movie in my classroom until midnight. I was dragging by that time, completely done-in by the long days. When the Arctic kids finally went home and the Venetie kids finally headed to bed (“bye,” said G as the Arctic kids put on their snowpants in the hall, “it was really nice to meet you”), I was more than ready to get home and into my warm, blessedly horizontal bed.

In the morning, I went over to the school to have breakfast with the Venetie kiddos before the plane came. They were still sleeping when I got there, so I got to read the note they’d written on my board and leak some tears before they woke up.

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A few Arctic kids showed up for breakfast, but they didn’t stay long, so I got to spend a little alone-time with my girls, and that meant a lot to me. The relationship I have with them is nothing like my relationship with the kids here. They feel more like family than like students, and I told them how proud I am of their courage, grace and humor. They gave me all the gossip – who has a new baby in the village, which Venetie girl has a crush on which Arctic boy and so on. A has matured so much since last year, and she is standing up straighter, proud of her bright mind and smile. G has grown into her height – she’s become a confident, stunning young woman. P is so much less volatile now, and she lets her kindness show through more. As usual, C is perfectly herself. I’ve really missed them.

Arctic is traveling to Venetie for a rematch in the spring. The girls are determined to give us a warm welcome and show us a good time. I can’t wait to visit and see what they come up with.

 

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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Did you know

Did you know that salmon hearts, sizzled with butter and garlic, taste just like mussels? I learned to clean fish yesterday, and we set aside the hearts for a treat.

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Feeeeeeesh!

I’m in Soldotna right now, recovering from long nights of dipnetting. Geoff and I got a hotel room for tonight, and tonight will mark the second or third time I’ve slept in a real bed since the beginning of July, the first time since leaving Maine. I’m looking forward to sleep, but this might be my last chance to use the internet for a while, so I’d better make the most of it.

I arrived in Fairbanks two weeks ago after visiting friends in Washington. Geoff was still working, so I had some time to relax. Those days were hot and sweaty, and I spent one whole day in the Museum of the North (where they have some awesome Alaskan art, air conditioning, and some truly weird furniture made of taxidermied animal parts) and another whole day alternating between sizzling on a towel with a good book and plunging into the icy Chena River while ducks laughed at me.

Friday came. The plan was to drive down the Richardson Highway and head for the Kenai to go fishing, which is more or less what we did, though there were some snags. In absolutely typical fashion, Geoff was a little late out of the starting gate. My stuff accounts for about a tenth of the mess, and it still looked like this when I crawled into my sleeping bag at midnight.

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See Geoff. See Geoff pack. See Geoff still packing. Take a nap.

In the morning we finished packing the truck and loading the boat and stopped for the four Fs: Food (breakfast/brunch), Fuel (for the truck), Freddy’s (Fred Meyer for camp groceries) and Fill (water containers, because running water isn’t an everywhere kind of thing) and finally left Fairbanks around two in the afternoon, bound for a good camp spot south of Delta where we would meet friends bound for Dawson on a motorcycle.

I always forget until I’m in it how vast and magnificent Alaska can be.  The Richardson Highway is beautiful. It traces the pipeline from Fairbanks to Valdez, running beside the broad and braided mud of the Tanana and through wide valleys furred with spruce trees, set with jewel-blue lakes. It’s big enough to get comfortably lost on purpose, to build a campfire so far from anyone else that no one sees the smoke. We camped with friends in a quarry that first night. Their dog dragged a whole caribou leg out of the woods while we cooked a midnight dinner.

Geoff and I spent the next night camped in the rain at Quartz lake, then visited Michael, the guy who’s building the canoe, in the morning. He had the hull ready for us to look at, a flexible, lightweight form, ragged at the top. He’s making something wonderful, there. It felt good, pressing my hands to what will be my boat. August seventh is our tentative pickup date. Soon after, we’ll head for the Yukon.

After a stop for showers and laundry (it’s common, here, to see places advertising the two. Since lots of folks are traveling through and many do without running water, these are useful services), we drove out of the rain and slept at Paxson Lake under a clear sky. I walked to the shore in the blue and gold morning and sat on a bench overlooking the water. There is so little summer, here, but everything in summer so so lush and lively. I watched the clouds, the minnows, the waving fireweed. I could almost hear the blueberries bulging, the spruce needles spooling out. I speculated about what percent of Alaska is, at any given time, covered with moose poop. I thought about the coming school year. I felt guilty for sitting still in the middle of so much activity and walked back to camp to get ready to head out, singing Beatles tunes to ward off bears (I’d forgotten my bear spray like a dodo and you never know).

Farther south, we took the Glenn highway through the mountains to Wasilla, stopping so that I could get my first long look at a glacier. Matanuska Glacier impressed me profoundly. It has a presence, something very grand and stately and dangerous and fragile that got a grip on me as I perched on the ice chests in the truck, staring from an overlook. I didn’t expect to be moved so deeply, but what should one expect of a glacier? I dried a tear or two and climbed back into the cab, Wasilla-bound.

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The confluence of a blue creek with the muddy Matanuska.

“Hey Geoff, if you got the chance would you go to the moon?”
“Nope. I don’t think I would.”
“Why not?”
“It’s a wasteland! All cold and dark. And the food would be terrible.”
“Kinda like living in the arctic, huh? So isolated…”
“It’s completely different!”

It’s hard to believe we made that whole trip in a day, but we did. We picked up fishing licenses in Wasilla and learned that a fire was burning right beside the Seward highway, south of Anchorage, and that the road could close at any minute. It was nine at night but we decided to press on south.

We drove through the burning area and watched a helicopter dip water out of the ocean. Flames were visible on the cliffs above the road and smoke nearly obscured the rising moon. Still, we stopped for water at a pullout where a pipe pours clean water directly out of a rock face. “You watch for fireballs falling down the cliff while I fill the jugs, Keely.”

DSC04931We were both tired and cranky by the time we made it to the campground at nearly two in the morning, but we found a campsite and got the tent up in the end.

After that, it was a waiting game. Gillnetters fish all day at the mouth of the river, essentially blocking it off. It’s not worth the launch fee to go out when no fish are getting through, so we had to wait for the dipnet fishery to be opened for twenty-four hour access.  Our moment came and we set our alarms for 1:30 am. By 3:30 we were fishing an incoming tide in the not-quite dark of a drizzly night.

There are two ways to dipnet: some folks stand in the water up to their ribs holding long-handled nets.

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Here’s the crowd at the river’s mouth, dipnetting from shore.

Others putt along holding nets out beside their boats. When a fish hits the net, you feel a bang and haul it in. We fished from Geoff’s boat, cruising down the banks of the river all night and into the morning.

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Some very well-fed seals at dawn

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On a good day, in a good year, I hear the boats are shoulder to shoulder.

We pulled the boat out at eleven the next morning and went back to camp to sleep. That night, we put in again, this time in more serious rain. As the extra hands, I had lots of downtime through that night. I figured out I can sleep in the rain and cold tucked in among the ice chests and actionpackers if I’m in full foulies with handwarmers in my boots and a ball cap to shed the water. It was a rough night, but the morning was beautiful.

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DSC04957In all, we put the boat in four times and came home with not nearly enough fish. The run peaked early this year and the dipnetters never had a good opening. Still, I’m amazed that there’s a place in the world where you can just stick a net like that in the water, wait, and pull out a fish. We don’t do that in Maine – there just aren’t fish anymore. Anyone I know at home would be over the moon to come home with just one of the fish we brought in, even a flounder we’d have casually thrown back.

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Good company.

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Pee break.

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Camp

We’re off to Tustumena Lake for a long weekend, well-deserved. I’ll try to remember to take breaks from relaxing and soaking up the wonderful to take a few pictures.

Inservice

My district doesn’t have a spring break, but between third and fourth quarter we have one week of inservice. Inservice, this year, was held in Fort Yukon, which was a major disappointment. In the past, inservice has been in Fairbanks, where we had hotel rooms and the opportunity to go shopping (I’m talking grocery shopping here, not recreational shopping – this is a big deal for bush teachers) and eat out at restaurants. For most people, this inservice meant sleeping on classroom floors and eating cafeteria food. For Geoff and me, it meant camping out.

Last Friday, I made cookies and raspberry bars and dozens of morning glory muffins. I froze it all, along with some beef stew, to get ready for the trip. Fall inservice was in Fort Yukon, too, and the only reason I didn’t die of starvation that week (I’m not big on cafeteria food) was beer (Fort Yukon is not a dry village, like Venetie and Arctic). Geoff showed up late on Friday night with a broken swing arm on his snowmachine. We spent Saturday getting ready and fixing his machine (the replacement swing arm he procured from someone in the village didn’t fit quite right, and rubbed against the steering rod dealie, which made left turns awkward). We took off on Sunday.

I didn’t feel ready to take the sassy white Bravo out for such a big adventure (Fort Yukon is fifty miles from here,  by trail) so I rode on the back of Geoff’s snowmachine. It was windy, but not too cold. I saw my first lynx running across a slough ahead of us, long-legged and elegant. The trail was narrow and brushy, so we had to dodge sproingy, whippy twigs the whole way, but it wasn’t a difficult ride, and I almost regretted leaving my machine in Venetie until we hit the Christian River.

The Christian River is narrow and steep-sided, so once you get down one bank, there’s nothing for it but to gun it up the opposite side – you’d never get up without that momentum. For us, the problem was a branch that lay right across the trail at head height. Geoff couldn’t stop and I couldn’t see it, and as we roared up the far bank, there was this awful knocking sound that came from inside my skull. We both came away reeling from hitting that same branch head-on.

By then it was getting dark, we’d made about thirty miles of the fifty we needed, and we’d passed the major hurdle of the trip. Our heads were both spinning, and the place was perfect, so we decided to camp beside the trail at the top of the riverbank. The river must have flooded at some point, because there was dead wood everywhere. Geoff started gathering wood for a fire while I untied the sled.

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The sled, fully loaded with the bare minimum for a week of inservice fun!

Over the course of a month, Geoff broke well over half the hundred miles of trail he rode to get to Venetie from Arctic. You can’t break trail with a heavily-loaded sled, so on the way down, he left the tent and chainsaw and other useful stuff at a camp he’d set up weeks before, close to his end of the trail. He’d planned to go back for those things at some point, but breaking trail took longer than expected, and when he made it to Venetie, he was limping on a busted swing arm.

All this is to say that when we stopped for the night, we didn’t have the usual amenities: no tent, no cots, no chainsaw, no woodstove to heat the tent we didn’t have. There was plenty of dry wood, and building a fire was no problem without the chainsaw. We collected the soft tips of spruce branches and laid them out on the snow for a mattress, then laid the tarps over that, and wrapped up in the biggest tarp to sleep. Geoff bungeed his rifle to a tree by our heads and kept a flare gun and the bear spray that lives in my backpack close at hand. I had my awesome sleeping bag (thank you, Pat in Tulsa) and I never felt the cold as I laid out on my back that night and watched the aurora dance between the treetops.

In the morning, I used the little white gas stove I typically take backpacking to heat some stew for breakfast and to boil snow for coffee, tea, and the day’s drinking water. Geoff fed the fire and repacked the sled. My sleeping bag hung on a line between two trees, steaming away the night’s accumulated ice and moisture from snowmelt (which finds its way through tarps and spruce boughs effortlessly) and breathing (which ices the top of the bag very much like it ices neckwarmers). We had only twenty miles to go, and we had until 1:00 pm to get there, so we took our time breaking camp.

We’d thought we might find a new campsite on the way into town, but ran too late to stop and look. It’s a good thing we didn’t try to push it, too: we got lost on the river just outside of town, spinning in endless, windy sloughs, looking for a GPS point that claimed to be Fort Yukon, but definitely wasn’t. By the time we got straightened out and found our way to the village and then to the school, we had cut it as close as we could. We walked through the cafeteria doors at exactly 1:00, shedding snow from our outer layers and pink in the face from the biting wind on the river, but on time.

We didn’t get out in daylight that evening to find the best trail out of town. We went looking for it in the dark, but after Geoff nearly drove the snowmachine and sled off a too-steep bank, we called it quits and threw the tarp down in a ditch at the end of the road. It was a nice enough ditch with a great view of the sky, and no one came by that night, but that was a low point, for sure. When he started snoring I almost strapped on my skis and headed back to town, only stopping because I didn’t want to ski alone through an unfamiliar village in the middle of the night.

After that, things improved. We found a beautiful camp about six and a half miles out of town on the bank of a slough with plenty of dead wood for fires.  I flattened a broad area and made a thick bed of spruce tips. Geoff started a fire and stockpiled wood. We arrived late, windburnt and frosty almost every day, carrying into the cafeteria with us the valuables we couldn’t leave strapped to the sled on Fort Yukon’s main drag, making a total spectacle of ourselves. Geoff borrowed a chainsaw to help with the firewood situation, and we were living pretty comfortably.

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Ben skied out with me one night, and I was alone at camp for a few hours while Geoff ran Ben back to town and spent some time visiting folks who were staying with a friend in the village. I had started feeling sick (this happens to me during inservice – I missed a day of last spring’s inservice, too) while Ben and I were skiing, and those few hours I lay in my sleeping bag, feeling weak and woozy, waiting for Geoff to come back, watching it start to snow, and wondering how much time had passed, were some of the scariest and most awesome of my life. I don’t think most people ever get to be that isolated. It’s humbling. I was convinced something was wrong, that Geoff and Ben had fallen through the ice into the river, that I was about to be eaten by wolves, that half the night had gone by. Every choice became heavy: gather more wood and keep the fire going, or stay warm in the sleeping bag? Grab the rifle you don’t know how to use in case you need it, or leave it be because you’re more likely to hurt yourself with it than protect yourself? Stay put and wait for Geoff/rescue/morning, or take off on skis and try to make it to the safety of the school in Fort Yukon?

In reality, I was absolutely fine. Between the fire and the sleeping bag, I was at no risk of getting cold. No animals ever bothered our camp, and I had bear spray handy just in case. It never crossed Geoff’s mind that I’d worry or panic (he’s used to being alone, especially out in the woods). If he thought about it at all, he assumed I felt able to take care of myself (which is flattering, but off-base) so my relief when he finally made it back took him completely by surprise.

Sometimes, he doesn’t realize how new I am at this. He forgets that I’ve been in Alaska only a year. I’m making myself at home here, for sure, but it’s all very new. “How are your wood-chopping skills,” Geoff asked me yesterday as I lounged in the sleeping bag, loathe to get up, even though he’d lit a crackling fire and the sun was sweeping around the corner of the slough, nearly fully lighting the sky.

“Nonexistent,” I replied, and his eyebrows shot up.

“Really?!”

“Really.”

“Well I saved these nice pieces for you. You can try it out. But first, can you pull out your stove and boil some water for coffee?”

I chose clean snow from the slough and filled Geoff’s thermos with coffee while he started working on replacing the swing arm with the correct part he’d ordered from Fairbanks and had sent to Fort Yukon. On breaks, he showed me how to use the axe without cutting off my feet. I made him turn his back (no peeking) when I first tried it out, but I got comfortable enough for an audience by the end of the day.

It was a good day, yesterday. Geoff worked on his machine, calling me over to hold this or find that stupid little thing he’d lost in the snow. I lounged by the fire, cooking porkchops and caribou and boiling snow and reading my book and singing and bantering and laughing. It felt so good to relax and enjoy the beautiful day. Sleeping out is all very well, but living out is the real treat, and inservice hadn’t allowed for daylight hours to enjoy at camp.

DSC04504We wanted to cross the Christian River before dark, so in the late afternoon, we had to pack up and go. It started snowing around the time we took off, and pretty soon the wind picked up and dark fell. The trip wasn’t too bad; even crossing the Christian River was fine. It was just a long haul. We made it back to Venetie around midnight, cold and exhausted, and more or less collapsed without taking a single thing off the sled.

By this morning, the sled, the snowmachine and the world were blanketed in fresh snow. Geoff didn’t take off until late this afternoon (he’s famously slow out of the gate) and he has to make the hundred miles to Arctic by morning. I rode out across Big Lake with him on my machine and saw him off on the trail north. He’s out there now, plowing through the drifts the new snow and the wind must have kicked over his trail in the past week, loving it because this is what he loves to do.

I’m hoping, for our next adventure, I’ll get to help with caribou. Now that the trail’s broken, it’s not such a huge deal to plan adventures with Geoff, and he’s seen caribou between here and Arctic. Who knows?