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!

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April Came Early

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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.

 

Soft

Spring in the arctic is soft. It happens gently, so that without thinking too much about it you’re wearing your sneakers and then sandals to school every day and you’ve stopped building fires altogether. You can’t figure out how you could ever have been skiing on the same trail that is now six inches under water. Was that only last week? You go out to pee at two in the morning, it’s sunny with a pink glow to the north, and you can hear the river a quarter-mile away shushing like a giant slushie. Mud is everywhere. The dog dries out in the house and leaves sand art on the floor.

We had a beautiful final ride in ANWR a few weeks ago. There wasn’t much snow, but it was sunny and warm enough that wet boots didn’t matter too much.

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Arctic Village is dealing with loss right now, and it is hard to know my place as a neighbor-teacher-outsider. I want to lend my strength as the community, especially the young people that I love, deals with grief and loss, but I am not confident that I know how.

The loss is twofold.

A few days ago, an elder passed away. “She was our oldest elder – she was 95!” L told me. Every such loss is tragic: elders have irreplaceable traditional knowledge and wisdom. This is a time of upheaval and change for Gwich’in people, and that knowledge and wisdom is a source of strength and hope. Such a loss is devastating for the community and for the culture.  “She died of a broken heart,” folks said, “she was so sad after what happened.”

A young man, twenty years old, her grandson, took his own life last week. I did not know him and do not know his family well. I do know the kids he grew up with, and I am afraid of the impact that this will have on them.

The suicide rate among Alaska Native men in their twenties is more than ten times the national average. I have heard more experienced teachers speak again and again about the domino effect that a suicide can have in a village.

It is not my place to try to explain this. Any explanation I tried to give would oversimplify a complicated story. My role in this is to help my students find empowerment in a very hard world.

But I have been bad at it.

When we found out what had happened, I held the older kids in my classroom so that we could insulate them from the tragedy for a few minutes. When adults from the village arrived, we (the staff and community-members) broke the news. After a few words and a few moments of silence, the other adults left, and I was alone with the kids. They were absolutely silent. I have never heard them like that.

“Do you want me to put on a movie so that you guys have something to zone out to, or is it better this way?”

“It’s better this way.”

That was my great offering. A movie. They sat for an hour until we dismissed school. Before they left, I told them that I loved them, but I could feel the words, like a stack of pancakes hitting the floor, falling flat for them in the empty air.

I have not been the best… what? this year. I was going to say teacher, but that’s not what I mean. I have been a perfectly good teacher. Maybe I have not been my best self this year. I have tried to do too much too fast. I spent a lot of time recovering from, planning for, or going on adventures. It has made me happy. But. In Venetie, I would have been giving that time to the kids – going walking or making cookies or working on the prom or planning awesome art projects. We built momentum, the kids and I. And that made me happy. This year, there have been no cookie nights. Nobody ever asked for them, and I felt it wasn’t quite right to offer. There was no prom. The play was awesome, a bright spark, but it wasn’t enough to get a real fire going.

If my heartfelt “I love you” fell flat for the kids, it was for the same reason that this school year fell flat for me: I didn’t give it the dimension that brought last year to life in Venetie: my personal time and space and passion. These are things that are not in my contract, that no one has the right to expect of me, but that, freely given, have let me fall in love with what I do and let me be who my kids need me to be.

I will not give up the time that I spend in the woods with Geoff and Daazhraii. That time makes the world crisp at the edges and centers me in myself.

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I will not give up, the way I did this year, the commitment that brings my work to life for me and makes a real difference for the kids.

I haven’t figured it out, but I am facing the question: How do I give the kids the best of me without selling myself short? How do I get what I need and still give enough?

For Geoff, this spring was a bitter exploration of this question.

He got a letter late in March asking him (us) to stop traveling on tribal land without either obtaining permission from the council or bringing a tribal member.

He was devastated. Geoff has been camping and snowmachining in Arctic for several years now, and to suddenly have this happen was a real blow. It is hard to live in the village, fall in love with the land, give your time and energy to the kids – above the call of duty, and then have the rug swept out from under you. It makes you feel awful and unwelcome and unappreciated. It hurts.

We always try to be careful and respectful of the land and people. We don’t take wood from people’s wood yards or waste caribou meat. We never leave trash behind – we often pick it up.

I think it is evident in my writing that I feel a spectacular reverence for the lands and waters around Arctic Village.

But it is tribal land, and our traveling on it – our living on it, even – constitutes trespassing.

I never thought to ask if we were stepping on anyone’s toes. I guess we thought, if we thought about it at all, that our awesome work with the kids and our long-term residency exempted us from rules that might apply to, in Geoff’s words, “yahoos from Fairbanks who are just coming out for the weekend”

Privileged assumption much?

And yet.

What prompted this edict? It could be any of a number of things. I get lost in wormholes whenever I try to pin it down. A concern for our safety, a personal conflict, a kneejerk reaction, an exercise of authority, a bid for new revenue, a devotion to the rule of law, a sense of pride?

It makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like looking at myself as someone who has been kicked off of tribal land. I don’t think of myself as that disrespectful or inconsiderate.

And yet.

It’s not something I have the right to feel offended by.

The tribal government has the right to ask us to stop traveling outside the village on tribal land, plain and simple. It is fair, but it still stings.

So. We are writing a letter requesting permission to camp on the east bank of the Chandalar during our river trip this summer. We plan to invite Geoff’s good friend, a tribal member, to travel with us more, now that we have a second tent. As a gesture of goodwill and of our commitment to the kids, we donated a large sum to the student activities fund, which pays for student travel. Next year, regardless, we will travel primarily in ANWR. The land to our north is beautiful, and we have been talking about maybe shooting for the continental divide.

Right now, though, it is spring. I am in Fairbanks, hundreds of miles from all of my responsibilities and quandaries. I have the summer to grapple with the hard stuff. Maybe by fall I will have it figured out. Maybe.

Field Trip!

The Arctic girls left Anchorage last Saturday night after the NYO athletes’ pizza party. By the time we hit the road, it was after ten, so by the time we got back to Fairbanks it was five in the morning. I noticed, as we drove through Nenana in the early dawn, that the tripod had fallen through the ice since we were last there, only a few days before. The river was open, a passage suddenly made of liquid water.

At the hotel, everyone slept a few restless hours, then we went to Wright’s for an 8:00 check in. When the girls’ plane took off at 9:00, Geoff and I went back to the hotel and crashed for a few precious hours, then he and I returned to Wright’s to pick up the Venetie group at noon.

We ran a few Fairbanks errands and celebrated A’s birthday at a hibachi grill, then turned around and drove the kids down to Anchorage.

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Geoff fell asleep about ten seconds after we switched places. He didn’t have much success making lesson plans.

That was hard. It’s hard to be with kids all day every day, and to do it with all the added stress of traveling and feeding them and making sure they are safe is a monumental feat. I have a newfound admiration for parents. It felt like I never had a moment alone, not even to eat or sleep. I don’t mean to give the wrong impression: I had a great time. It was just a long great time.

We had some great roadside stops

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Between Fairbanks and Nenana

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Just beyond Healy (C didn’t want her picture taken – she hadn’t composed her yuckiest face yet)

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On a windy Monday in Whittier

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South of Denali

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In two weeks we put almost exactly 2,000 miles on the van, and, for the most part, it was pretty easy riding even with eight kids and all their gear in the vehicle. We saw a couple of moose on the road, but they were never problematic road moose, and I learned that Geoff has a working knowledge of approximately 80% of the rest areas and 60% of the gas stations in Alaska.

We cruised through a mountain to get to Whittier, and C calculated down to the second how long it would take us to travel through the tunnel at 25 mph. If there hadn’t been a car in front of us, we probably would have hit it dead on.

The worst part was when G got carsick on the ride up from Seward. She was miserable, and there wasn’t much we could do for her. We’d been whalewatching that day, and she never really got over the rocking of the boat.

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Ponchos for everyone!

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Sea otters!

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Not puking yet, but it won’t be long.

A lot of the kids had never seen the ocean before, and we got to see it up close and personal. We saw  a Steller’s sea lion catch and eat a big salmon, and we saw a humpback whale blow only feet away from the rail of our boat.

The kids loved it – when asked what they’d most enjoyed about the trip, most of them agreed that the whales were the coolest. Those kids that weren’t puking did, anyway.

We had some other great adventures too.

We spent a night at the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, sleeping between the sea lion and the seabirds. C unintentionally set off the door alarm at about 10:30 and I nearly had a heart attack, but other than that we had a great time. They loved the touch tank and the feeling of having the place to ourselves after dark. The SeaLife Center rehabilitates marine animals, and they had two baby otters in their care while we were there, and they were outrageously cute. I loved the octopus and the puffins with the funny old man hair.

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The touch tank at the SeaLife Center was very popular.

On Wednesday, we visited the Anchorage Museum, which I think is wonderful. The Imaginarium is a great science lab playground, with loads of giant bubbles and live animals, and the displays about Alaska’s native communities are well-made and incredibly informative: each case has a computer at the end with information about every object, including a transcription of elders discussing the object’s significance and provenance.

After that, we took the kids to see Broadway’s Peter Pan, which I was a little afraid they wouldn’t like, but which they wound up loving. The flying and dancing and swordfighting looked like great fun, and the sets were beautiful. C spent the whole show whispering questions into my ear, and P swears that if her dad doesn’t get her tickets to go see Beauty and the Beast next spring, she’ll cry.

I’m for bed now. I have some recovering to do before this week hits full force. It’s graduation on Friday and Prom on Saturday, and then suddenly it’s the last week and school’s out for summer. Somehow, I need to find time to pack up my house and my classroom to move up to Arctic and the next big adventure. Madness!