River Trip Journal 13

smoke creek

Thursday
8/10/17

A slim, red-brown fox visited camp this morning. He was curious enough to come out in the open and take deep breaths of our scent, but not curious enough to come so near that the dog would notice him. Daazhraii can be a little dense when it comes to noticing wildlife.

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Dense, but so cute.

There were raptors in the cliffs last night, and we saw a bunch of juvenile loons (I think) paddling along in the water with their wings.

We had a lazy morning. Geoff cleaned the guns and I made toast and eggs. Later, we shot the .22 and the .460 just for practice. I am improving as a firearm-lefty, which is nice. I could probably nail a bunny with the .22 if I got the chance. The pistol, however, is another story. The .460 went off when Geoff was showing me how the double-trigger mechanism works. Fortunately, Geoff is smart enough to always have the gun pointed down-range. Still, it just about rattled the teeth right out of me. I tried it, but it was just too much. It made me jittery. Daazhraii hid in the boat from the moment we started shooting until long after we were done.

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we realized what a bad idea this was when the rain came

The river is blue-green now. When did it change? Navigational hazards include oblique light from thunderstorms (I had a great time driving in the rain, today), bulges where the water piles up against cliffs as the river rounds sharp corners, and long, cobble shoals that seem to bar the way. We had to raise the engine a couple of times today.

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Had a nice sunset walk last night.

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Geoff slept through sunrise, which makes sense since it seems to last from about two in the morning until about six.

We are making our best upriver time yet, even though the East Fork is fast, rapids-fast at times. It is so shallow that we sort of ride a bubble.

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I got giddy in the rain, but the boys just got wet.

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After the thunderstorm today, we came around a bend and were met by an unlikely sight: two guys were standing, apparently boatless, on a gravel bar in the middle of nowhere. They appeared to be working away on a cylindrical object that I initially thought was some kind of barbeque grill. It wasn’t. Apparently this is a real job description: helicopter into remote areas and remove spent rocket parts. Helicopter said parts to convenient open areas for dismantling. Dismantle rocket parts with awesome power tools in the middle of the most scenic landscape imaginable. Repeat.

rocket boys

rocket boys or extreme cookout bros?

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We are camping tonight at the Wind (wild and scenic) River. It looks like we’ll make Arctic Village tomorrow. School is looming and consuming more of my thoughts, but I’m not sure I’m quite ready to rejoin the rest of the world.

For the record, I achieved a trifecta of aspiring arctic badass accomplishments today: chainsaws, boats, and guns. We shot this morning, I did some shaft-greasing and filter-changing on Lyra today, and I cut down a tree for our fire tonight.

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I made that out of a tree. Pretty cool.

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Then I made this. It is also made from trees.

(self-congratulatory back-pat)

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It is possible that this is the most badass photo that I have ever appeared in

Editor’s note:

I ran out of paper in my journal that Thursday, so I have to reconstruct the rest for you: We did make Arctic Village that Friday, after a long day’s haul. Somehow I actually sunburned the whites of my eyes that day (lesson learned).

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Team Lyra pushed on after it got late in hopes of getting hot showers. Unfortunately, there was not hot water in the school or the teacher apartments: the district had neglected to send glycol. We wound up using the stove to heat water for baths, which was not nearly as satisfying.

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relaxing in the familiar shadow of Paddle Mountain

Daazhraii home

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end-of-summer fireweed

Breathtaking Smoke Creek, which we passed that Friday, was a highlight of the trip, and I picked the fall’s first blueberries that day. Since then, it seems I’ve done nothing but pick berries and try to dry out my rain gear, but that’s a subject for another day.

bear spray and berries

My frequent burden, lately.

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Smoke Creek

made it

Made it!

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River Trip Journal 11

8/7/2017

Woke up early this morning and busted a move. Potstickers and salmon at midnight tided us over until now.

The Chandalar is much colder than the Yukon. No more baths, alas! When we came out of Cutoff Slough, it felt like walking into a grocery store in an Arkansas summer: a sudden arctic blast.

We drove through a bit of burning forest just now. Thick, smoky air, bright sunlight catching in the billows, red-topped, dead-needled spruce. Lots of eagles today.

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Later:

The faster current is a little scary. I had to navigate some really shallow gravel bars and riffles as we left Venetie at dusk heading into the sun. It was definitely the toughest section of river I’ve driven yet.

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It was really lovely to see M. and get hugs from kids. Everyone was helpful and curious and welcoming. Sometimes I miss Venetie a lot.

Getting gas was a little tough. They don’t take cards. We worked it out after a few tries.

Surprise plane wreckage beside the river tonight. Not sure what to make of that. It’s only four miles from Venetie, but I’ve never heard of it. It’s filled with names and initials that I recognize, though, painted on or smudged into the dust and grime on the inside.
(Editor’s note: this plane crashed in 1997 after taking off from Venetie. No one was killed, though the wreck looks pretty terrifying)

planeplane tailGeoff plane inside

We had a harder time finding a camp than we have in the past. The shores are mostly cobble now, where before they were sand.

keely boobs?

I’m nervous about navigating the canyon as we turn onto the East Fork, probably tomorrow night. We will be gaining a lot of elevation, and I’m not sure what to expect exactly. Everyone says we’re doing well to try this at high water, and that now is the highest it’s been all summer, so our chances are good, whatever that means.

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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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