April Came Early

keelycamp

April in March

April came early this year. Weeks ago, we had the long, snow-bright evenings and the warm afternoons with slick trails that characterize my favorite month in the Arctic. There has to be a word for this time of year in Gwich’in. I will ask Albert, someday. Birds start to appear, the little songbirds that seem to erupt from nowhere – how do they survive the winter? – and it’s finally time to ski – I have the bruises to prove it: I wiped out spectacularly last weekend.

Right now, my tent overlooks the Junjik valley. It’s positioned so that we can spy on the overflowing river valley with binoculars, can see Nitsih Ddhaa from our sleeping bags, and so that every pop of the lively ice below echoes through our camp. It’s also halfway up a little mountain.

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We headed out to camp last Saturday night after Geoff welded his snowmachine back together (His Skandic has been falling to pieces this spring. Every time we go out it’s something new – a swing arm, a belt, an exploded bearing, a broken exhaust… Sassy Bravo has been reliable, except for – ehrm – user error and the headlight thing, and what’s the point of fixing that now, anyway, when we have some fifteen hours of daylight?). I skied out ahead with the dog loose beside me. The creek at the border of the refuge was overflowing and drenched with the pink of the evening sky. I picked a path across, careful to keep my skis dry, and slogged through the thigh-deep drift on the far bank to regain the trail. Daazhraii and I skied on – I love how I lose myself in the slip and glide of it all as the light fades from the snow – and I changed into my heavier gear when Geoff caught up, a few miles down the trail on Cargo Lake.

The moon rose full and yellow in a notch to the east as we floated up the Chandalar valley. It vanished behind the mountains and then rose again above them, irrepressible as a hot air balloon. In the long moonlight, I alternated staring out into the crosshatched night-woods, looking for caribou, and resting my cheek against Geoff’s back. It is still thirty below at night, and the wolverine ruff of his jacket is a soft shelter from the wind of travel. The lullaby hum of the engine, the glide of the track and the perfect unreality of the landscape in the moonlight make something like a magic carpet ride of the arctic night. Refuge indeed.

We crossed over two rivers and passed the open water in the Junjik, then climbed the steady, messy trail up the hill to the tent. At camp we discovered that someone had been there in our week’s absence, at least long enough to build a little fire and warm up. They zipped the tent all the way when they left, and added to our wood-pile. Later, Geoff found their trail to our north: two or more people hiking with sleds.

On Sunday, the wind blew steadily all day. Geoff took off to the north to break trail up the valley, and I stayed in camp, stitching a little on my beadwork, chopping firewood, listening to the wind hissing through the cold, skinny trees, and packing our gear. When he got back, Geoff went into the tent to thaw out and I slipped off on my skis toward town.

The wind was at my back, and on the better sections of trail I flew. It’s just that it’s such a long way down the mountain. Most of the downhill bits are ruts, paired with a little uphill at the end, so you don’t go too fast. There are sticks and willows that can snag skis, and bits where the trail splits or wavers over gullies. There was one long, straight section of trail that had no speed bumps. I saw it coming, knew I’d get going too fast, but I felt agile and bulletproof in my heavy winter gear and didn’t care. I kicked off and glided out and down, the wind pressing my blue windbreaker into my shoulders and my headlong rush pressing it into my chest. I accelerated, and the light glared hard off the snow into my squint. For long seconds I was rushing over the trail at what had to be the hull speed of my poor skis. I could feel every twig in the trail punching the hard soles of my boots. I made the first little curve, barely, and whistled on over another long, straight stretch. I dodged a willow wicket, a pothole. I pounded on and down, faster and harder until my knees ached. The wide valley below rose up, white and splendid, and then the second curve came, too sharp, too fast, and I bit it like a rhino on ice skates.

The valley floor was in my face, down my front. I stood up and the snow still reached my hips. I’d lost a ski. I had to unzip my bibs to empty the snow from my pants. The radio had flown out of my fanny-pack and landed down the trail a ways. The dog looked on, a little perturbed, the wind ruffling his pricked, concerned ears. I stagger-waded over and climbed up to the trail, picked up the radio, and dug around in the deep snow until I got lucky and unearthed my ski. Clipped in, I skied on across the flatter, more ski-friendly valley as far as the Junjik. Geoff picked me up on the river ice.


Some of you out there might know that I applied to the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, for an MFA in Creative Writing. Some of you might also know that I was accepted and offered a TA-ship, with attendant tuition waiver, stipend and medical. A few of you know how hard it was for me to decide what to do with that choice. In the end, after grappling with it and getting nowhere, I flipped a coin.

Tails.

I’m teaching in Arctic for one more school year; teaching, skiing, sewing, writing, cooking, kissing, fighting, chopping, boating, picking, building, shooting and living for one more year. I deferred, and I will be a student at UAF in the fall of 2019. With luck, I’ll be able to reapply for a TA-ship and receive a similar funding offer. And I am awfully lucky: look at where I get to spend the next year of my life.

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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.