Moose’s Moose

It had been a long day.

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My old friend Mark was visiting from the lower forty-eight. We had spent a week and a half touring Alaska together, and man, did we do it all.

We drove Turnagain Arm, we panned for gold (and found some flecks!) we hiked a little of the Kesugi Ridge trail, we rode four-wheelers out to a friend’s remote property in Talkeetna, we picked blueberries, we visited Wal-Mike’s, we ate Kenai River red salmon campfire tacos, we saw the sunset over the volcanoes at Ninilchik, we took a water taxi to Kachemak Bay State Park, we hiked to a glacial lake and Mark swam in it, we packrafted out to some icebergs and I climbed to the top of one, we saw bears and otters and moose. Man did we see moose.

That morning we’d woken up in our tent at Rusty’s Lagoon, across from Homer, which is a beautiful place to camp if you don’t mind bears. We packed up our gear and stashed it in a bear box, then packed the raft the three easy miles to the glacier view. We played there all day with the dog and the raft, then hiked out to meet our water taxi at 6:30 for the bumpy ride back to Homer. Ravenous, we ate dinner, then headed north on the Sterling Highway. I meant to camp at Clam Gulch, but I missed the turnoff just after sunset, too distracted by the road work and the moose cow and calf munching on the roadside to realize what had happened. When I did realize it, I figured I was awake enough to make it another hour to Skilak Lake, so I pushed on.

Darkness came as a bit of a surprise. I’d been adjusting to waking in the middle of the night to find the tent dark, but driving at night is a whole different ballgame. My eyes were starting to get bleary and that warm bowl of seafood pasta in my belly was starting to feel pillowy and warm. The road construction workers were beginning to look like aliens and the reflective cones were sliding around in my peripheral vision when I spotted it: that beautiful triangular tent shape on a brown sign that means “home” in the summer. Morgan’s Landing. Okay.

I’d never been there, but Mark took charge of navigation from the copilot’s seat. We found the campground, mostly empty, and stepped out of the truck with relief. I stretched my arms over my head, opened the back door for the dog, and let out a massive sigh, ready to have the tent up and the sleeping bags laid out so I could hit the hay already, thank you very much.

The sound of hooves pounding on sod jolted me to alertness and I looked over the truck bed just in time to see a huge dark shape disappearing over a rise, maybe thirty feet away, with my dog’s fluffy white tail close behind.

“Shit! That thing was right there! SHIT!”

Barking, quickly receding into the distance.

“Daazhraii, c’mere Shoops! Hey!” I whistled and called and raised all kinds of a racket in a campground in the middle of the night, but the barking just kept fading. I tried to play it cool to Mark, and pulled the tent out of the truck. “He’ll be back,” I said, and snapped the poles together in the glare from the headlights, “he always comes back eventually.”

He didn’t though. After a while I couldn’t tell one distant barking dog from another. The tent was up and I was emptyhanded, starting to feel that vise on my lungs that means the dog has been missing too long. Mark had paid the camp fee and returned from the fee station, so I fired up the truck and backed out of the campsite. The headlights caught that glowing white plume-tail as I turned. The idiot dog was back. The moose must have lost him in the woods somewhere.

Daazhraii trotted up, panting and wheezing and grinning like a gargoyle. I stuck him in the back seat with a scolding and a hug, pulled back into the space and got my sleeping bag and pad laid out in the tent. I opened the door to let Daazhraii out so that he could come to bed, and he was off like a shot, slipping to the ground and around the truck.

“NO!” but it’s like his brain shuts off when there are moose to chase.

Hoofbeats, fading into the night forest.

“How could it be right there? Again!?”

This time we drove after them. We followed the sound of barking across lots in the park and down back roads. We whistled and called out the windows of the truck, but Daazhraii was in a different world. At one point the moose was standing on the side of the road, maybe fifteen feet from the truck, just staring into the headlights while the dog danced around her heels, barking.

“Should we… Should we grab him?” Mark didn’t sound eager.

“No freaking way. That thing has got to be pissed. She could pancake us if she felt like it, no problem. We’re staying in the truck.” The moose stared, the dog barked, I whistled and shouted. After a moment dog and moose faded into the trees again. “Damn.”

It was one in the morning now. We’d spent an hour chasing the dang critters and I was seeing stars. We were following the sound of barking up a backroad when the barking suddenly stopped and there was Daazhraii, grinning and panting in the headlights. I loaded him up and we drove back to camp.

“To heck with Morgan’s Landing,” I told Mark over the sound of the dog’s panting. “We’re not staying here with a crazy moose.” As I pulled into the campsite, my headlights picked up the shine of two brown eyes five and a half feet off the ground. Her ears flicked and she chewed a mouthful of grass.

“You’ve got to be kidding me. It’s right there. Again.” Mark was staring through the passenger window and across maybe twenty feet into her eyes. “Did it lose a baby here or something? Why does it keep coming back?”

“We’re outta here. We’ll find someplace else to sleep.” I was half crazy with adrenaline.

“What about the tent?” It was glowing in the headlights. My sleeping bag was in there, or I might have pulled out right then.

We had to wait five minutes for the moose to mosey off, and we waited a few more just to be sure she was really gone before packing up the tent in record speed and heading out.

“Sorry you had to pay the camp fee for Morgan’s Landing and we didn’t even stay. What a waste. But that was crazy.”

“That wasn’t Morgan’s Landing, dude. That was Moose’s Moose for sure.”

At two in the morning I found a well-lit parking lot in Cooper Landing and we all crashed out in the truck. I wasn’t taking any chances.

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sea legs

My world revolves around boats: In just two months Geoff and I have traveled the full lengths of the Kantishna and the Muddy and hundreds of miles on the Chandalar. Geoff waterskiied on the Kantishna. I bought a packraft and nearly t-boned a cow moose in the middle of the North Fork. We ran Geoff’s boat aground in the Kantishna and I swore never to leave the house again without 1) a mosquito headnet, 2) a pair of neoprene booties, and 3) a comealong. Lyra took a beating in some Chandalar rapids. I took a break from the wilderness and spent a week in Maine playing games and sewing in the salon on Islander while the pogies ran up the Passagassawakeag. Now it’s dipnet week on the Kenai, but we’re taking today off to wash clothes and take showers and, indeed, use the internet. Besides, the gillnetters go out on Thursdays and scoop up all the salmon. Sometimes at night when I lie down in my bedroll (or couch, or – very occasionally – bed) on shore, I’d swear the world is rocking around me; I sometimes wonder if I’m losing my balance, but, looked at this way, it stands to reason I’d be uneasy on dry land this summer.

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When we left Arctic on the first of June, I labeled our actionpackers: Camp, Food, Maintenance. The sun has now worn the sharpie away. This is what I hoped for when I came to Alaska: Looking in the mirror of my friendships, as I did when I went back east, I find myself profoundly changed. The wilderness crawls inside of you and fills you up with its spare and rugged reality, but it won’t leave, after a while, and you’re left gasping with the loneliness of it. I didn’t expect that. I was never good at small talk, but now I get lost in the weirdness of lines painted on parking lots, dogs on leashes their entire lives, the scads of everything at our fingertips. Gaping at the commonplace feels more natural than trying to communicate about things that I don’t understand anymore.
“I wish I had something – anything – in common with my brother.” I told Geoff over breakfast today.
“I don’t know what to tell you.”
“I can’t think of a single thing we could talk about.”
I can’t really hold up my end of a casual conversation. To the extent that I was ever – what? normal? usual? inoffensive? culturally fluent, maybe – I think I’m not anymore. It’s sad and scary, and okay, too, in a way. Is it self-centered to imagine I am different? Probably. Does it matter? Not really. That kind of thing only matters in a context where there are other people, and in my context, there mostly aren’t.

Teaching doesn’t really qualify as authentic social interaction. In my classroom, I am myself, but no one sees me that way. I am my job, my role, my function. I am just this to my students and to almost everyone else in the community. Sometimes I feel like the picture of a person, a placeholder for a collection of ideas about teachers or outsiders.  This, too, is lonely and isolating.

For days on the Chandalar, when smoke from a forest fire filled the sky, I wondered if the world had turned to ash, had no way of finding out without treating my concerns seriously, and wouldn’t that confirm the fragility of my sanity? I waited it out, and when we arrived in Venetie we found no zombies or invaders or horrible, transfixing TV news (outside of the ordinary horrible news). The next day, I bought a ticket for home, supposing this whole episode to be a pretty clear indication that I needed a break from isolation.

I’m not quite ready to commit to becoming someone who lives a life like that, where it’s reasonable to wonder if you’re the last woman on earth and to spend hours contemplating the ramifications of public arboreta.

I’m glad I’ve signed up for a couple years in Fairbanks to recalibrate my social skills, but I’m dreading it, too. I’ll miss the wilderness. I’m not sure I want to revert completely, but I don’t know how to live with a foot in two worlds. Is this a stupid problem, or is it the essence of the question for maybe the majority of people on earth?

I guess I mean to say that I feel off-balance lately. Shifting from the bush to the lower-48 was disorienting and alarming, and shifting gears again a week later was frustrating. I’ve spent a lot of time this month feeling vaguely off-kilter and uncomfortable, out of my element and then dissatisfied with my solution. “Challenge yourself,” Sean said, when I complained to him in Boston. “You can’t expect everything to be easy.”

Fair. You can’t live on a boat all the time and not expect to wobble when you step on shore.

On another note, I’ve been writing a lot lately, but not for the blog. I’ve been saving up some poetry and some essays, maybe for publication, assuming I can get my act together and actually put together some submissions. Wish me luck!

River Trip Journal 1

7/3/17

6 am

On the Tanana

We got a nice break in the clouds this morning, and nearly baked alive in the tent under the fly, so we got up and stripped it off. The mosquitoes had thronged in the night and were poised on the screens. There were more of them than I have ever seen in one place: they looked like pepper on a heap of mashed potatoes.

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We left Fairbanks two days ago on 7/1. Our hope is to be in Fort Yukon by 7/10, but I have some doubts: we are moving slow and not getting the miles per gallon that we wish we were. The boat, Lyra, is lovely. She rides high and steady, though she handles like a soggy washtub downriver. So far, we’ve been traveling all downriver, making a steady ten miles per hour or so when under power. Upriver? Who knows. We haven’t really tried it.DSC06288

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The first night was perfect. We were on a sandbar in the middle of the river, protected from skeeters by the lightest breeze. We were able to leave the fly off all night and watch the hours-long rosy sunset morph into a sweet peach sunrise.

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It began sprinkling in the morning and didn’t let up until afternoon, when we packed up and left. We cruised for a while, but big scary clouds threatened. At first, I wanted to stop and wait it out, but we decided to push on, and it wasn’t too bad. The rain was only really heavy for a few minutes and there was no lightning near us.

We passed under the railroad bridge in Nenana last night just as the northbound train crossed. We waved to the passengers. A nice fellow in Nenana gave Geoff a ride the gas station there. He visited with us on the bank for a while before we left to head downriver. Just down from Nenana, we passed the loading area for the barges. Huge parcels were positioned on the bank and marked with the name of the destination village and the weight.

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When the storm clouds began looking really inevitable and menacing and the wind picked up, we decided to stop. There was a huge wood pile on the shore opposite this point, so we collected some good driftwood for a fire before making camp. The tent is right beside a game trail, and our beach has been visited by a brown bear and a cow moose with a calf quite recently. I like to walk the beach and read the mud newspaper at each new camp before bedtime. It makes me feel a little more at home, knowing who has been around. We got dinner and crawled into the tent just before the heavy rain started.

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This morning, we heard before we saw a chevron of ducks flying right overhead. Geoff said they sounded like a swarm of bees.

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Early (metaphorical) Frost and Pictures from Tustumena Lake

I went for a hike with Geoff last night out to the east of the village. There’s a gravel road that runs that way for a few miles, past countless little ponds and a caribou fence and through clouds of mosquitos. I am enchanted by this inviting, velvety-beautiful landscape. I didn’t want to turn around and come back to town, so I dreamed up a short backpacking trip in that direction for labor day weekend to explore the ridge that shelters the valley and to try to reach Old John Lake. That might be one of the last nice weekends before it gets truly cold. The leaves are already red on the blueberries, and the fireweed is hazing sunny hillsides with its rich fall mahogany and white.

I’m in Arctic Village right now because my boat is not finished.

All summer, I dreamed about those long, honey-slow August days meandering in unfamiliar sloughs, the late mornings breaking camp on sunny sandbars, and the long twilit evenings by a pinprick fire in the vast, dark blanket of the wilderness. It’s too late now to make the trip at all, and I find my summer gone unexpectedly in an early killing frost.

When the builder called as we were driving the trailer down to Delta to pick up the boat last week, I felt my heart split and I cried, off and on, for the better part of several hours.

I think I have a name for her, this freight canoe, but I haven’t said it aloud yet. It’s astronomical and arctic, musical and literary and brave. We’ll see. Hopefully, she’ll be completed for fall hunting before the river closes in October.

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A few weeks ago, back on the Kenai, we spent a weekend on Caribou Island. We loaded Geoff’s boat and made two trips up the river and then across milky Tustumena Lake to the cabin.

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The cabin was windswept and sunlit and cozy, just right.

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That first night, we pulled the boat ashore at the narrow channel between the island and the mainland, and while we stood there, picking up loose driftwood for the fire, a bull moose crossed from the island right behind the boat and came ashore not two-hundred feet from us, belly dripping.

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Geoff reenacted the spectacle.

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For the first few days, it was windy. The boat dragged anchor and washed up on the rocky beach in front of the cabin multiple times before we got the hook set far enough from shore. We stayed on the island until Saturday, when the wind laid itself down enough for us to get out in the boat to explore the east end of the lake, where the glacier feeds it.

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That end of the lake is chilled by a glacial breeze and fed by multiple clear creeks where sockeye salmon spawn. We poled up into these creeks, wary in case of bears, whose wide trails split the green grass banks. They were sunlit and sparkling, fish-smelling and dank, rich and green and electric with living things feasting and breeding in the bacchanalian excess of the salmon run.

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I found an enormous eagle feather on the beach at the mouth of one such creek, which I left on the wildlife camera some other visitor had strapped to a driftwood limb.

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We were sorry to leave that place. I hope to go back someday, maybe next time to stay a little longer.