Field Repairs

It was twenty-below or so when we rode out from camp, and the ride was smooth. Geoff broke trail ahead of me, the Skandic plowing up a bank on either side of the trench it cleared in the tundra snow. The sun still hasn’t come up since November, but we’re getting alpenglow that creeps a little farther down the slopes each day, and the cold blue light that filters over the ridgeline to the south lasts a few hours. We headed north toward the mountains, breaking the trail that we hope will take us up into Smoke Creek and toward the divide.

When we reached the river, I decided to take Daazhraii and turn back to camp. I didn’t want to push the dog too hard – large as he is, he swims in the mire of a fresh trail – or be out after full dark. It was only a few miles of backtracking, and Geoff planned to be right behind me after pushing the trail a few miles more across the Chandalar, so I wasn’t worried about riding alone.

I turned and took a long detour through the extra-thick buttercream tundra just to revel in the way the Bravo seems to lift up and ride on plane like a flat-bottomed skiff. The dog bounded behind, wallowing a little in the deep powder, but grinning and glad. It was just after that, maybe only two miles from camp, that my sno-go came to a halt, headlight dimming and then dying, the insulation of the engine’s roaring suddenly vanishing, so that I became, all at once, a part of the landscape rather than a traveler just moving through.

I tried to start the Bravo – no dice – then lifted the cowling. The spark plug boot had popped off, taking with it the little nut that screws onto the plug itself. It was wedged up inside the plastic cap that connects to the wire.

Shit.

No Geoff, so no tools.

Oops.

I know I should carry some basics, but I don’t. This situation is so improbable: Geoff is always with me, fully-loaded down with probably fifty pounds of good stainless steel, and, when he’s not, we carry a pair of UHF radios.

I pictured the second yellow hand-held, tucked under feet of snow blanketing the riverbank just south of Chandalar lake where we left it in an airhead moment on a packrafting adventure this summer.

Shit.

Dismounts are not elegant in full winter outerwear. I plunked into the deep snow beside the trail and opened the seat compartment of my Bravo: plastic bags, spare spark plugs, no tape, no tools at all, not even the scrench that had been in there for weeks. Definitely no needle-nosed pliers, which is what I really needed. What did I have? My emergency box, behind the seat, was full of dry clothes and firestarter. Not so useful. In my pockets I carried a lighter, some hand warmers, a headlamp and a knife. Bust.

I waded off through the deep snow to the lake’s edge where a few dead trees stood bare and raggedy. My feet were cold already, even in my bunny boots, and I needed to keep busy and warm if I was going to have to wait for Geoff to show up. I broke off low, dead branches and kicked down a few scraggly dry spruces. Winter outerwear is like chain mail: you can just throw yourself at a tree, or half-climb it and try to pull it down on top of you without worrying too much about taking a branch to the ribs in any serious way. The small branches burned quickly, so I had to keep at it. I hung my neckwarmer and hat by the fire to thaw out while I worked to gather more fuel. The moisture of your breath condenses on your outerwear in the cold, so you wind up with ice buildup, which eventually gets uncomfortable.

As I was dragging an armload of twigs back to my fire, something clicked in my brain: sparkplugs.  I hustled back to where the Bravo waited, open like a clamshell in the trail, and tried unscrewing the nut from one of my spare plugs so that I could use the plug itself as a tool to remove the jammed nut from the rubber boot. Gloves on, I couldn’t loosen it. I tried taking my glove off and got nothing but a cold-scalded hand for my trouble.

Frick.

I gave up and went back to trudging heavily through the sometimes thigh-deep snow on the perimeter of the lake, wishing for snowshoes and gathering fuel while I waited for Geoff to turn back around.

When I got cold, I’d squat in the snow by the fire, then get up again to gather more fuel when the fire burned too low.

For two hours, maybe, I fed the fire, waiting. He didn’t appear. I did jumping jacks and added a bit of wood.

Night began to fall from the north and there was no sign of a headlight in the distance, no whine of an engine.

In the near-dark, I reevaluated my assets. I thawed the ice out of the elastic band on my headlamp, thinking maybe I could use it to clamp the rubber spark-plug boot to the engine and hold the nut in place long enough to make the short ride back to camp. Failing that, I could start walking. It wasn’t far, but the trail still hadn’t set, so it would be slow, difficult going, like wading in the surf, and I didn’t want to have to come back for the Bravo later. I took the spare spark plug out of my pocket and heated it, too, thinking maybe if I warmed it up the nut would come loose.

Not wanting a tongue-to-the-flagpole incident, I waited until the spark plug was really warm before sticking it in my mouth, then gripped the nut between my back teeth. I turned, and it came loose.

Just like that, I was back in business.

I screwed the spare plug into the nut jammed in the cap, popped out the nut, returned it to its rightful bolt and fired up the bravo.

Just like that.

While the Bravo muttered and churred in the trail, warming up, I threw the last of my wood on the fire. I was hoping it would burn long enough for Geoff to see it and realize what I’d pulled off all on my own. Night came as I drove away, turning my head to watch the live blaze of my campfire recede into the darkness.

(Geoff arrived at camp thirty minutes after I did, rimed with frost. He’d broken trail almost to the mountains, maybe another ten miles, and gotten stuck for a while in overflow.)

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I Won!

Just so that everyone knows, I beat this (charming) person’s butt fair and square in a tea-making contest this weekend.

GeoffJunjik.jpg

The loser. He doesn’t look too miserable.

Tea-making is a spring carnival race that I’m planning on entering this year (along with the egg toss, and perhaps the snowshoe race), so I spent some of the weekend getting practice. I lit two sturdy little fires on Saturday, then challenged Geoff to a race on Sunday.

The idea is, you race to be the first to get water to a rolling boil in your pot. You get an axe and a knife and a lighter and some dry wood and go to town, huffing and puffing and panicking. I burned off some of the wispy hair that sticks out from under my hat this weekend.

The real deal race is Thursday, and I’m sure to embarrass myself magnificently in front of the whole village.

Wish me luck.

Reflection

So, it’s New Years Eve.

Every new year, since I first came to Alaska, has marked profound changes in my circumstances and in my dreams. This is the first time in many years that I’ve spent this transition away from old friends – my heart’s family. In fact, at the moment, I’m completely alone except for my dog. If I can’t be with loved ones, I’m glad to be by myself. There’s a little extra gravity to sitting and thinking and writing alone. Later on I’ll go get Geoff and we’ll go to the community hall and join the fiddle dance, but for now I’m free to sit here in perfect silence and consider.

It’s been a year of changes around here: Congress voted to open ANWR and Arctic Village got cell service.

There were some pretty great achievements: The inservice snowmachine trip last March, the school play, learning to skijor with Daazhraii, the Christmas party, the river trip, dipnetting our limit on the Kenai, finally getting the Bravo running properly, doing stained glass with the art class, reading Harry Potter aloud to the elemiddles, that time I got my tongue stuck to an axe-head and then unstuck.

I was in town last week, mostly to take the GRE, but also to do some shopping. When the plane took off yesterday morning, I slipped back to my first flight to Venetie. We flew over a dawning Fairbanks where the streetlights were painting the parking lots and roads with pale pink circles, the Chena was steaming, everything was smoking and billowing in the cold, catching the little light of the almost-sunrise, and the lights of town were golden. It was exactly as I remember it from that first time, three years ago, when I was hurtling headlong and helpless into the unknown.

This time looked the same on the outside, but it felt entirely different. I was going home in a plane full of familiar faces, not alone into some unknowable adventure.

In that first year, I left things behind and began from scratch.

In the second year, I found my feet and my skis and a kind of real happiness.

This year, I grew strong and brave. I have learned to navigate on the rivers of the interior, I have camped alone in the winter, I have been stuck in overflow, I have chosen trees and cut them down and chopped them into firewood, I have learned to flush the fuel lines/grease the shaft/change the spark plugs/replace the pump and filter, I have slept on a bed of spruce needles fifty miles from anywhere at forty-five below.

This was the year of Daazhraii:

This was the year of Lyra:

This was the year of firewood:

I have been able to look forward and outward this year. I am applying to graduate school. I am counting down to the release of this year’s state land sales brochure. I’m daydreaming about the rivers I will explore in Lyra, the chickens I will raise if I wind up living in Fairbanks for a while, the cabin I want to build somewhere remote some day.

It’s a good view, this teetering on the the brink of new things. I can see the sun coming up on some pretty great stuff, and this new year’s full moon is lighting up the things behind and around me that make my life awesome: students who are beginning to come into their own, a dog who makes everything sunshine, a fella who is maybe even more independent than I am, friends who are orbiting the same sun, mountains and miles of snow, and a community hall that is even now beginning to fill up with dancers.

 

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.

daazhraii lap

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.

gunshot action packer

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.

east fork beautiful

Had a nice sunset walk last night.

gun camp sunsetgun camp sunset 3gun camp sunset 2gun camp sunset 4

gun camp sunset geoff sleep

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.

geoff daazhraii rain snuggle

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

geoff after stormgeoff after storm drinks rain

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?

rocket parts

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.

keely's pile of logs

I made that out of a tree. Pretty cool.

campfire

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

(self-congratulatory back-pat)

superman face

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).

selfietogetherwillow bank

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.

daazhraii familiar mountains

relaxing in the familiar shadow of Paddle Mountain

Daazhraii home

arctic bank

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.

smoke creek 2

Smoke Creek

made it

Made it!

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.

fires

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.

happy keely lower chan drive

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.

plane camp moonplane camp sunsetsilhouettes