River Trip Journal 10

glow

8/6?
Sunday Evening

Back on the river, finally. We had a good two weeks down on the Kenai and in Fairbanks, but it is good – really good – to have all of our really important possessions contained in the hull of this boat again.

We are in Back Yukon Slough now, on our way to the even narrower Cutoff Slough that leads to the Chandalar.

lowerchandalar geoff smile

We arrived in Fort Yukon yesterday afternoon. We had been unable to get reservations for that flight, but somehow both of us and the dog and all our excess baggage made it on the plane. “You’re on!” said the agent at Wright’s, and there was instant pandemonium. Everything had to come out of the truck and get packed up to be shipped out, the truck had to be parked across the way, the parking paid for, and friends called to cancel evening plans, all in about ten minutes. We had really thought we were stuck in Fairbanks for at least another day and so were totally unprepared. When we finally took our seats about fifteen minutes later in that hot metal canister of a plane with glare on its wings, the relief was huge. Geoff still got absolutely sticky; it was a boiling hot afternoon, and he hates flying, but I felt such a weight lift away that I probably could have floated on air to Fort Yukon even without the plane.

Even after visiting for a few hours at the district office, we were able to get Lyra in the water and ourselves to camp before midnight. I had my best night of sleep in weeks: no rain, no rain fly, no noisy RVs (Jimmy at the beach, he of no teeth, nearly suffocated us when he fired up his gnarly old diesel camper at six in the morning), no pressing worries.

Our freight, two action packers full of pots and pans and food, didn’t make it on the plane with us yesterday and didn’t make it today, so we called Wright’s and had them send it ahead of us to Venetie. We will meet it there tomorrow. For tonight, we have no pans, no stove, no potatoes, and, in Geoff’s case, no sandals or boots. He is wearing his work shoes or none at all.

We are making great time in this slough. It’s shallow and slow: what current there is is with us. The sun has fallen lower in the sky since we went south. It actually gets dark for a little while at night now. On one stretch of still, brown water the sun striped the surface with the shadows of tall black spruce. stripes

The water is much stiller and the channel much narrower here. It is not hard to navigate, but there is no way to cut corners. The long meanders dictate our path.wave curlWe hope to make it to the Chandalar tonight after we pass the mouths of the Christian River and Marten Creek.

I am crossing my fingers that Geoff doesn’t try to persuade me to cook dinner in the dog bowls tonight. I will report back on this matter later.


Later:

When we came onto the Chandalar, it felt like stepping into a walk-in freezer. The water is much colder and paler, though still grayish. We have started traveling upriver again.

As we were motoring along, we passed a few camps. At one, we were waved ashore. I was a little apprehensive. Some people are very opposed to our traveling on tribal land, and, although the river is public, there are some folks who resent our using it. I felt better as soon as we got close enough to make out faces. It was P and S, who had taken me for a dogsled ride in Venetie a few years ago, and they wanted us to come up and visit over tea.

They are incredibly nice guys. They made tea and gave us dry fish for the rest of our trip. Since our life jackets didn’t make it on the plane, they insisted that we take a couple of extra ones from them until we get ours back in Venetie. We ate cookies and they looked over our maps with us and gave us advice on the best route to take and where the tricky spots are. They are fishing for kings and silvers, and they have sixteen dogs in camp. They also have satellite TV.

We saw a flock of young geese right where S had said they would be. We saw cranes strutting on a sandbar and an enormous beaver. At last we settled on a beach a few miles up from camp after a golden sunset. We did not cook in the dog dish. I made a foil pack for some frozen (thawed) potstickers, and Geoff grilled a couple fillets of Kenai River red salmon.lower chandalar camp

Editor’s note on tribal land:

I wrote back and forth with the tribal government this summer, asking for approval to do this trip, which was eventually granted, so Geoff and I could have camped on tribal land if we had needed to. However, Alaska’s navigable waterways are public up to the normal high water mark. Since we always camped on beaches and sandbars, we never actually used that permission. The only times that we set foot on tribal land were when P. and S. invited us up to their camp, where we were made to feel very welcome, and in Venetie, where everyone was lovely to us, helping us to get gas and groceries, and asking me if I was coming back to teach, which was super flattering.

There have been a few people who have commented negatively about our trip since we got back to Arctic, but I don’t think they are the majority. I want to be respectful and have a good relationship with the community here, but I don’t want to let a couple of loud voices push me into giving up adventures on Alaska’s public lands.

I am trying to be honest and open-minded about the whole thing. I want someone to sit me down and really talk to me about it, but that hasn’t happened yet, and I’m not sure who to ask. If you are from Venetie or Arctic, are reading this post, and feel up to helping me understand, come find me or call me at school. I am ready to listen. It is a conversation I really want to have.

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seasons are sudden

Maybe if I’d been here all summer, I wouldn’t be surprised, but it’s early fall in the Yukon Flats now. I stepped out of the peak of summer, August in Maine, and stepped into cold evenings and clouds and lightning orange trees interrupting the purple and green landscape like easter eggs. The fireweed is going to seed already.

I was in Venetie just long enough to move my stuff into a new apartment (more windows, a bathtub, a south-facing porch, and less cupboard space) and write and mail a letter. I walked through the village with a wary eye on the trees: there have been bears in town. One of my students visited with me while I unpacked my boxes. She’s off to boarding school on Wednesday, so I may not see her again. I told her I’d send cookies every time she sent me a letter of at least one page, and wished her well with a hug. I’m so proud of that girl.

Yesterday, just before I had to hop on a plane to Fort Yukon, my freight came in. I had to unpack all my frozen and refrigerated groceries in a hurry, then hop on the plane. My kitchen floor is covered in cardboard boxes and non-perishable foodstuffs. So much for leaving the place neat and tidy. Inservice is a little frustrating this year: we’re in Fort Yukon, so grocery shopping in our free time is out, and there isn’t really time to go back to Fairbanks, shop, then come back and set up the classroom and the house after inservice. I hope my bananas and lettuce are still good when I get home to Venetie.

DSC03525The first time I got on a small plane to fly out to Venetie, I thought I was going to die. Now it’s become routine, no more strange than riding a bus. The landscape is still beautiful, especially now as it fades subtly into a fall purple with rivers winding through it like silver foil ribbons, but I’m starting to recognize lakes and mountains along the route. The magnitude of everything seems less when the landscape is speckled with landmarks. It feels like the way home, now, which is always shorter than the way out.

DSC03529We’re staying in the dorm at the voc-ed center in Fort Yukon for the week. I spent an agonizing while reading on the couch last night until Jake and Terry showed up on borrowed four-wheelers and carried me and another young teacher out of there. We rode up by the army base (you know, because they used to/still do spy on Russia from here) and into the woods a ways, looking for the Yukon and a teacher who should have come in by boat last night (no luck, but he’ll be here today, everyone is quite sure). We saw bear tracks in the river mud, and a snowshoe hare with his heels already white. Jake drove me down to the river and I stuck a hand in, just to say I’d done it. The brisk evening air felt good on my face and I saw a lot of the village fast. Fort Yukon has stop signs and street names and two stores and a radio station and a bed and breakfast! There’s a tour bus! It’s downright strange.

We’re still looking for a 3-5 teacher because for some reason (aaargh!) the job was never posted. Anybody interested? I’m not on facebook anymore (the district has it all blocked up), and I don’t have a working phone connection at the moment, but you can get me by email: keely.m.oconnell@gmail. You’d get to teach across the hall from me and we can play games and go hiking on the weekends! yay!

Bush Living Challenges 2: Uh… Everything? (except the important stuff)

DSC02022Mail comes every day, but because of school, I can only get to the post office on Wednesday. I, very unwisely, didn’t get a sled in Fairbanks this week and continue to carry my parcels through the snow like an old-fashioned Christmas card. It’s tricky when I have a lot of boxes! Today, Mr. Ben very kindly let me put my packages in his sled. Over the sound of the sled scraping over the hard snow (it got cold again this week) we chatted about postcards and speculated about the contents of our packages as we walked home. I love Wednesdays. The school has early dismissal and the teachers all walk or ride in the school truck to get the mail. My friends and family have been amazing about sending regular letters and care packages, so I always have something to look forward to. Masi’ (That’s Gwich’in for “thank you”) and loads of love, y’all.

This is Fort Yukon from the air.

This is Fort Yukon from the air.

Venetie looks similar to this, but smaller and with mountains in the distance. Someday I’ll have the presence of mind to take a picture. Almost everything in the village has to be flown in on a small plane (special circumstances might call for a barge up the river, but I think that’s just for vehicles and other things too heavy and bulky to fly). Heavy things like furniture and liquids get expensive quickly, and there’s a wait for everything. When flying out of Fairbanks, baggage goes on the plane with you and freight goes on a plane sometime when there’s room. Baggage is a dollar more per pound than freight, but freight is uncertain. Don’t send your cheese freight and expect to make pizza that same night. Boxes usually come within a few days, and the freight office will keep them cold or frozen for you while they’re waiting to ship.

That monstrosity is my grocery receipt from January 2nd.

That monstrosity is my grocery receipt from January 2nd.

I bought everything I needed for two months that day, then stocked up again last week. The first time, I bought a ton of frozen green veggies, and I’m still working on those. My fridge is awesomely cold, so I still have (unfrozen) carrots, rutabagas, turnips, parsnips and cabbage from January. Eggs too. I freeze things like butter and cheese, and I make most of my own bread products. Salad greens and fruit are really the only things I can’t keep, so I revel in those things when I get the chance (salad twice a day, every day this week! With avocados!). Apples are okay in the fridge for a month, but they go a little soft after that. This time, I got some frozen fruit to spice up my breakfast once in a while. Really, the food thing isn’t that bad. Running out of something or realizing you are missing a key ingredient that can’t be found at the village store really truly sucks, but it doesn’t happen to me too much. I’m a good provisioner, and I stocked up with a good variety of ingredients, so I work with what I’ve got. Pro – tip: Cilantro freezes with its flavor intact. It’s worth its weight in gold on taco night. I discovered this accidentally, when my cilantro wound up in a box of frozen stuff for shipping.

Here's the post office! I took this photo way back in January, probably around midday. Compare the quality of light to that in the photo from this afternoon with the packages! It's incredible how much we've leaned into the sun!

Here’s the post office! I took this photo way back in January, probably around midday. Compare the quality of light to that in the photo from this afternoon with the packages! It’s incredible how much we’ve leaned into the sun!

Here's a closeup of the flyers on the post office

Here’s a closeup of the flyers on the post office, a little gossip for those of you who are interested.

In case you were wondering about what's newsworthy in the village

And some more, just in case you were wondering about what’s newsworthy in the village.

The phone company?

The phone company?

The dump

The dump. We’re working on recycling, but it doesn’t make much economic sense.

The district had inservice in Fairbanks last week, which provided a nice opportunity to get groceries and eat ice cream. I got to visit book stores and the ice park and the Festival of Native Arts, where I had the pleasure of seeing one of my students dance. I strolled through a couple of art galleries with my hostess, an awesome lady who works in the district and offered to put me up for the weekend and drive me around, which was extremely helpful because I still have no idea what I’m doing, logistically, though I’m figuring it out. She made sure I made it on the plane with everything I’d need, and I’m grateful to her for that.

ICE PARK!

ICE PARK!

The art and culture and food made a good change of pace from the predictable pleasures of village life, but I’d worn myself out teaching hard in the weeks leading up to inservice, so I spent most of last week in training or in a sick fog. I didn’t even get to have dinner with Dave and Lindsay, which I was looking forward to. I slept through dinner a lot.

It felt weird, having to get in a car to go somewhere. I didn’t like opening the cupboards in my suite at the hotel and not seeing the comforting rows of flour bags and cans of coconut milk that I keep soldier-neat here in my Venetie apartment. Flying in on sunday, when the pilot banked the plane and I caught sight of the mountains, then the tiny village, vanishing small in the flats, I felt my face stretching on its own into a (snotty [so snotty] still-sick) smile. Home. My little corner of the wilderness.

DSC01973My life here is simple and my time is full but never rushed. A friend commented to me in a letter that he’s impressed by my ability to keep cabin fever at bay. It’s not hard. I like having time to fill with cups of tea and french practice and cooking and long walks and phone calls. I like the simple pleasure of once-a-week mail and my breathtaking view of the night sky.  As I told another friend, I have the luxury of bathwater time, copious and comfortable and ideal for reading. I need a houseplant or two, and I still need a sled, and in a truly ideal world I’d have an actual bathtub, but coming home made me realize how profoundly I am happy here.

Welcome Home

I made it to Venetie today.

I’m lying on my couch right now, listening to the clock tick and the whining doppler buzz of snowmachines in the village.

I got up early and repacked my boxes of groceries for the flight, then David and I loaded them up in his car. He dropped me and my stuff off at Wright’s with a hug, and there I was. Lindsay and David were beyond kind to me, and I would have been at a loss without their help: they took me gear shopping and grocery shopping and showed me around Fairbanks a little. Their advice was like solid gold. I feel, now, like I could do it on my own next time. Looking back, it’s hard to believe I spent only 24 hours with them, just as, looking back now, I can’t believe I’ve known Shannon and Jake for only twelve! Only two days ago I was newly arrived in Anchorage, floored by my first sight of the mountains and glaciers of Alaska. These have been some busy hours, my friends.

Wright Air Service is a passenger and freight line out of Fairbanks. I checked in, stepping on a scale with all of my gear, then scampered through the snow (the sky was dark, but the moon was orange on the horizon) to the other building to arrange for my groceries to be sent through their freight service. I hope they arrive tomorrow.

Here’s the fun part: When the pilot came into the waiting room and called us up, I was nervous. I’d never (in my memory) been on a plane that small. I was told to wear all of my warmest gear (baffins, wool socks, bibs, long undies, flannel, sweater, parka, neckwarmer, gloves) in case of a crash. Let that sink in. I was nervous.

Shannon told the pilot that I was new, and he showed me to the copilot’s seat. I hoisted myself up and squeezed in, trying not to panic. He helped me figure out how the seat belt harness thing worked, I fired up the kindle and, before I had my headphones in, we were rolling down the runway. Dixie Chicks Ready to Run was pounding in my head. I grinned and kept my fear behind my teeth and just like that we were in the air, smooth and slow.

It was almost 10:00 am and the sun was beginning to think of making an appearance. The Chena river, which winds around the buildings and under the snow-white roads of Fairbanks was steaming in billows and plumes and catching the light of the pinkening horizon. The streetlights dappled the roads and parking lots of Fairbanks with bright bubbles of cast light. All pink and gray, it looked like a page ripped from the Polar Express and taped to the window – quiet and still and beautiful. I looked at the compass, then straight ahead, due north over the mountains. Gorgeous. Empty. Vast. The experience was breathtaking. For just a moment, during the flight, I had a true sense of the scale of the interior, the great uninhabited miles of it, spreading out infinitely in every direction like a mathematical plane, with our plane, my whole life, just a point upon it.

The sun came up and painted the world in starker greys. It cast long tree shadows like in the bicycling hour of Maine summer evenings. We flew over the flats, the Yukon, frozen, wide as the Mississippi, with its great tributaries and snow-white oxbow lakes. We picked up a passenger in Fort Yukon, then headed west to Venetie, toward a white mountain, flying low. We landed, smooth again, and were off, hauling gear out of the cargo area. Jake hopped on someone’s truck to catch a ride to pick up the school’s truck, and the plane left, and there we were, standing alone in the snow beside a rapidly freezing pile of boxes and totes. Some of Ben’s stuff, shipped the day before, was waiting when we got off the plane. Shannon cautioned us to handle it with care in case it shattered from the cold.

It’s bedtime. I’ll write more and post some pictures when I can.