River Trip Journal 9

7/18/17

Everyone in Beaver was very helpful. We met friendly little girls named E and R whose grandma made calls so we could get gas on a Sunday. Paul Jr. was not around, so we gave up on our plan to stay and, after we got fuel, boogied on, none the richer in junk food, alas!

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As we were leaving, I drove over a barely-submerged log. It was completely undetectable, but rolling over it felt like hitting a whale or a manatee or a sea-monster! The deck buckled and warped, then sprang back into shape. I’d hate to do that in a fast skiff: it would rip the bottom right out.

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At this point, I want to mention that we have been eating with skewers for chopsticks this whole time. We have no silverware to our names. I am looking forward very, very much to eating a salad with a fork when we get back on the road system. The plan is to leave the boat in Fort Yukon and spend a few days fishing after all.DSC06509

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The night of the 16th we spent on an island with a clear slough and lots of bear tracks. We had a beautiful sunset. Last night, we camped on a dry slough sheltered behind a ridge of willows. It felt great to finally get out of the wind that had been taunting us all day, blowing spray over the engine onto the helmsman’s back.

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The river is really wide now. The Chandalar pours in just up from here. It’s shallow and seamless-looking. Very tricky.  We are running aground pretty regularly now in the flats. We step out into the ankle-deep water and Lyra floats free, for the most part. It’s hard to tell shoals in the wind, though.

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I was divebombed by an arctic tern this morning while availing myself of the facilities. Scary, but very cool. They are really beautiful, graceful birds. Audubon’s tern is not an exaggeration: the terns are every bit as swift and sharp and dramatic as he paints them.

I took a bath today off a steep bank. I had to hold the end of the bowline, which was staked to the shore, so that I wouldn’t slip and be swept away in the powerful eddy. When I dunked my head, I could hear the silty water whooshing by my ears.

The horseflies are as bad as ever.

Our dog food from Yukon Jeremy at the Bridge is still holding out.

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We are camping tonight on Inservice Island, just up from Fort Yukon. I just crept up on a couple of beavers swimming up our slough. When the first beaver finally caught sight of me, he slapped his tail and dived dramatically, then came up only a few feet farther away.

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We got to town around ten. Lance wasn’t in Fort Yukon and we passed Tony on the river. So far, we are not having much luck figuring out how to leave the boat. Better luck tomorrow.

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(editor’s note: we made it happen after a rough start with a flat tire and some plane troubles. The Kenai was great! We are heading back out in the next few days. Arctic Village, here we come.)

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I can’t seem to use a phone in the summer

I’ve been all over the place this summer, from Anchorage to Boston to Brattleboro to Midcoast Maine to Fox Hollow Farm, and if you’ve tried to get in touch with me, I’m so sorry. I’ve been awful at phone calls and emails and every other kind of contact. I miss the routine solitude of my life in the village.

Nicole, I am so bummed I missed you in Anchorage. My old phone was very dead around that time and by the time I replaced it and figured out how to check my voicemail on the new machine, you were long gone. Cathy, I’ll give you a call this week and we’ll set up a visit in Maine.

My struggle with communication is just one way I’ve been having trouble adjusting to summer. I was on the T the other day in Boston and I just couldn’t shake the thought: People do this every day. I can’t believe people do this every day.

I know I’m spoiled. In the village, I almost never have to sit on my butt just to get from place to place. I absolutely never have to sit on my butt in a dank-smelling, grubby metal tube full of  strangers.

I know the city has its perks: Sean has been taking sailing lessons, going to the art museum, and hosting ice cream socials (Margarita sorbet? Wasabi maple ice cream anyone?). There are restaurants, theaters, intriguing strangers and old friends.

Old friends are the best.

Boston is full of folks from college and from Arkansas. It’s so strange and wonderful to be surrounded by people I’ve known for such a long time.

Bethan gave an incredibly powerful and personal performance in Brattleboro after a year of circus training with NECCA. None of us remained dry-eyed.

I woke up a few days ago with Bre’s son crawling across my bed in the guest room. He has a great smile and sweet curls and a friendly nature, and he seems to be a fan of nori rolls (at least of smooshing them up and getting them all over people and things). Bre is the first of my close friends to have kids: I’ve never known a baby that I’m sure I’ll know forever. This is really something.

Tim inspired a really successful birthday gift. He and I are going backpacking before I head back to Alaska. Look out, wilderness, we’re back!

Now I’m in Ohio, and Jesse and Chelsea have filled their home with wonderful people, as usual. It’s busy and cheerful and warm and tasty and creative. I have my hammock in the woods for quiet space among the fireflies, and otherwise it’s all games and cooking and farm stuff and talk with important, beloved people.

Still, I miss the simplicity of life in the village.

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Camped on the spit in Homer.

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Dinner!

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Mom in her garden, the climbing roses in bloom.

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Rock On Spruce Spring Seat

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Lobster!

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The view from my hammock on the farm in Ohio.

 

Butter, Sugar, and Eggs

At quarter to six last night, I realized I had only enough butter left in the freezer for one batch of sugar cookies. I’ll be in Fairbanks in two weeks, but, last night, I was looking down the barrel of a long two weeks without butter. I tucked myself into my gear and crunched my way over to the store, hoping they were open, hoping i wouldn’t leave the girls stranded in the cold, hoping they’d have butter at the store, hoping they’d be able to break a fifty.

The store is four short aisles of dry goods, a couple of coolers and freezers, and a half-shelf with some bruised and spotted and wildly expensive fruit. There’s always stuff for sale hanging from the low ceiling on coat hangers. This week, the gloves and hats were interspersed with hand made red and pink paper hearts. The whole store could fit easily in the house Sean and I shared in Arkansas. It feels like a miniature gas station and general store, the kind you find on the roads out of town back home in Maine, only moreso. I snagged a couple of pounds of butter and set them on the counter. “That’s fifteen dollars” the girl said. I handed her a fifty, and she had to clean out the register to make change for me. I felt like a jerk.

I made it home by six, and Shannon and Jake dropped by to leave the nine colors of icing that Shannon had made for us to decorate our Valentine’s Day cookies with. After they headed out, the phone rang: C, calling to let me know that the girls would be late. “Helloooo,” she said in a silly, squeaky voice, “this is Shelleeeeeyyyy”
“Hi Shelly, what’s up?”
“Do you have any coooookiieeeess?”
“Not yet, but I’m planning to make some later”
“Can I have some?”
“Sure, Shelly. There’ll be plenty to go around”
“It’s just me!” She said in her normal voice. A giggle dam broke on the other end of the line. “We have to eat dinner. We’ll be late. Maybe… seven?”
“Sounds like a plan. Get plenty to eat so you don’t eat up all the cookies – Shelly!” This clever comment brought down the house and their laughter bubbled up through the phone until C hung it up. Click. Silence.

The girls showed up at seven.

P is thirteen-year-old agony in full bloom: she’s experimenting with makeup,  crushing on an awful boy, bending the truth badly, and dancing to Avril Lavigne in front of the (my) bathroom mirror. It’s painful and wonderful. This is the one who wears snowpants all day. I can’t get over that. Snowpants and smudged eyeliner.

S is new to the group. Quiet and reserved except when she’s not, like a braces-smile, she doesn’t get as silly or open up as easily as the others, but she’s cracking her cool shell a little, and I like her quirky teeth and honest questions. She seemed genuinely surprised that I didn’t mind their eating raw cookie dough, playing their own music, and lounging on my couch.

C is the youngest. She about peed her pants laughing on my kitchen floor when her older sister walked in with eye-makeup last night. She spent minutes screaming in gales of giggles, clutching her belly and rolling under the table. P looked stricken for an instant, then rolled her expressive eyes at the two older girls and sat down like a lady. C got up and rolled her eyes at me, then started making silly faces, crossing her eyes and sticking out her tongue and squinching up her nose. I made silly faces back, and she lost it again.

A is like cotyledons. She’s like toes dipping toward a still pond or a palm testing the air around a wood stove. “Ms. O, can you check this?” She’s my strongest student in math, and my most needy. She loses her cool when she has to be creative. She loves grammar, and hates writing. It’s like she’s on the cusp of something, and just needs a little push to get there. “Did you like the poem you made me write? Why did it have to be fourteen lines?!” “Listen to this!” Improvements. Her smile is almost as bright as she is. A is the thinker. “Did you notice?” “Oh, do you think he meant…?” I think she’d throw herself off a cliff for me. I’m going to push her, and she’s going to fly.

Pop music, courtesy of DJ P, bounced off the walls. The sisters created some sort of complicated partner dance and practiced it to critical acclaim in the living room. We mixed and baked and frosted cookies. The girls gave me some of the latest news from the village: One of my male students was punched in the face last night by a drunk guy while he was out Walking Around (that’s what the kids do for fun). “Poor Guy!” “Do you’ll think he’ll have a black eye?” We decorated dozens of sugar cookies (enough for the whole school) with sprinkles and candy hearts and nine colors of icing until the girls collapsed on the couch in a frosting-streaked heap. They’d have stayed there all night if I hadn’t sent them away at 9:30.

DSC01933The days are longer, now, and full of full-sun. I can no longer see stars on my walk to or from work. Used to be I couldn’t see anything else. I miss the romantic twilight of January, but I like the feeling that the world is growing every day, and gaining speed: I see some new shadow, or something newly in full sun, every time I leave the house. Last weekend, I saw the sun touch the ground for the first time, like a spill of sugar on an off-white carpet, and now it’s everywhere, an eggshell world accelerating toward the limit of daylight, ready to crack and spill yellow on everything.

Cookies and Caribou

The cookie girls came by tonight. We have a weekly deal, now, which brightens up my Thursdays. This Thursday was a little different, though. When one of them had called me at school earlier, I’d expressed my regrets: I had a dinner to get to and couldn’t make cookies with them. She was sad, but we agreed tomorrow would be fine. She asked if I could bring home the schoolwork she’d missed today so that she could swing by to pick it up, and I agreed on the condition that she not stay long, since I had a lot to do.

At around six-thirty, there was a knock on the door. I was on my way out, ready to tuck my cabbage salad under my arm and run through the cold night to the school building for the potluck, but when I saw the girls’ big brown eyes peeking out through frosty tunnels of winter gear, I had to let them in. I gave the young lady her homework, and she held out her hand in its grubby glove and offered me a wadded-up paper towel.

“what’s this?”
“Fry meat! You said you wanted us to bring you some” It was indeed meat, brown and greasy in its questionable paper towel vehicle. I popped a cube into my mouth and chewed. Tender. Sweet. Unfamiliar.
“What kind of meat is it?”
“Caribou.” This was my first caribou. I spotted a long, pale hair on one of the other chunks, smiled, and popped it in my mouth.
“Really! I’ve never had caribou before. It’s good!” I said, chewing.
“I’ll tell my auntie you liked it. Let’s go.” (this last to her sister)
“Wait, let me give you something.” I went to the cupboard and pulled down a treat “You guys will have to share, and this has to be a secret because I don’t have enough to share with everybody, but this is something special my parents sent me from Maine. You can only get caribou here in Alaska, and you can only get these in Maine, so it seems like a fair trade. It’s called a whoopie pie.”
“what is it?”
“Chocolate cake with frosting sandwiched in the middle”
“Yum. Thank you.”
“you’re welcome, girls. Thank you so much for sharing with me”

I should have said mahsi’. It’s the only word I know in Gwich’in, so I should start putting it to work.

They left and I finished throwing my cabbage salad together and flew out the door, savoring my last chunk of fry meat. It really was delicious, but that wasn’t the biggest reason for the grin on my face.

Cookies

I just sent four of my kids out the door, still sticky with chocolate fingers from the cookies they devoured.

This morning, my scintillating sixth grader marched up to me. “What time should I come to your house for cookies tonight?”
“This is the first I’ve heard about making cookies for you”
“So what time should I show up? 8?”
“I’m not making any promises, but if I let you in and I make cookies, you have to read to me while I make them.”
“OK. See you at 8”

She brought her sister and three friends, and they took turns reading Ella Enchanted to me while I whipped up a batch of Fannie Farmer’s chocolate chip wondercookies with oatmeal. They’re pretty cute.