Wildfires and Lightning

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My Courage

Last night, I dropped TimZ at the airport, set up my tent, and tried to sleep. It’s smoky and dim in Fairbanks right now, thanks to nearby wildfires (actually, most of Alaska’s road system is smoky. Tim and I drove the Richardson, the Glenn and the Parks this week and never escaped it). I had to treat and tuck away a swirling mass of worries before I could relax. I was worried about the fires, my health, my community, my planet, worried about money, worried about a young woman I love who is going to have a baby very soon, and worried about the state’s funding cuts to the university system and how they might alter my plans for the future (Bullshit. Infuriating, stupid wasteful bullshit). It’s a lot.

I did get to sleep though. I used to feel unsafe and stay awake, jumpy, burning through books and headlamp batteries when I was camping alone, but these days I don’t worry about dangerous animals or people. My dog is always beside me, a bastion of confidence, alert to anything moving in the trees. Too, I keep my bear spray close. I sleep well in the little nook I’ve found out there among the contours of the tree roots.

Last night though, I woke around one. At first, I wasn’t sure why. The sky was dim and hazy as it had been when I went to bed. The dog was relaxed. I flipped my pillow and shut my eyes. The next distant thunderclap solved the mystery. I rolled onto my back and looked up through the screen. Should I put up the fly? Is it really going to rain? I hope so. We need it.

Lightning flashed. One, two, three… I counted to twelve before I heard thunder. According to the basic forecast on my phone, the storm would pass by in an hour or so. I stayed put to wait it out, counting out the proximity of each lightning flash.

One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight… nine… boom

One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… boom

One… two… three… four… five… six… kaboom

At five seconds, I read the special advisories I had assumed were just more smoke warnings. One contained the phrases “dry lightning” and “half inch hail”. I tried to remember safety rules for storms but all I could think of was “don’t take shelter under a tree, stay in the car”. The black spruce trees whispered overhead and began to sway. It says it’s going to pass by north of here, it says it’s going to miss me. One… two… three… four… The next one will be farther... one… two… CRACK! I jumped up, rolled everything into my bedroll, and flung it out the door, fumbling shakily with the zipper. I started to throw the fly over the tent. One… BOOM! metal poles! I left it half-covered to sprint for the car. “Shoopie!” CRRRACK! The dog was surprisingly calm, trotting over the bog boards as usual even as the wind picked up and the trees whipped, my reservoir of courage. Halfway to the car, lightning and thunder came together: the sky went white and I felt the earth shake with the fury of it. I was sure the house next door had been struck. Running, with every hair on my body standing straight up, I slammed into the car, flung my armload of bedding and my magnificent dog into the back and sat stunned in the driver’s seat, trembling and unable to figure out how to turn on the headlights in this rental car I’d only driven the one time before.

I pulled out onto the road, heading for shelter at John’s – and called Geoff. By some miracle he answered – he’s the deepest sleeper I have ever known and never answers in the night – and kept me company as I made the short drive. The sky was an eerie, dense gray and when it opened up the rain came down like Arkansas, too heavy for Alaska. I tumbled out of the car when I got to John’s, still echoing with adrenaline, fumbling for my keys, and let myself in the back door amid the pandemonium. “What in the hell!?” John stood straight up in the loft when I banged the door open. “Oh, hi Daazhraii. Hi Keely. Hell of a storm!”

I flung my bedroll down. “It’s terrifying. I’m sorry for breaking in unannounced. Can I stay?”

“Of course. You break in anytime you want.”

It took a lot longer for me to settle down to sleep the second time last night.

I read a little about the fire situation this morning. It’s a bleak outlook with the weather so messed up and hot. Fuck climate change. I am so sad, today, for this beautiful, fragile, utterly screwed place that I call home.

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Alison and TimZ on Kesugi Ridge last week before the Talkeetna fires blew up. Miles of beetle-killed spruce spread out below them along both sides of the Chulitna.

 

Solstice at the Treehouse

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That ol’ midnight sun through the tent roof

As of Thursday, the driveway is in and solid. Geoff and John had a great time taking turns with the skidsteer and the roller. They claim it was exhausting, getting jiggled all over the place by that vibrating roller machine, but I think it was just the heat. It’s been in the eighties all week, and we’re all so slick with sweat that the mosquitoes haven’t hardly been able to get enough purchase to bite. We quit early the day we finished that project.

 

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“You doubted us, Keely.” John brought a little drawl with him when he moved up here from Florida.

“I know it, I’m contrite.” Their work on that driveway must have saved me thousands of dollars. They have lifetime parking privileges, for sure.

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Shoopie was a big help, obviously.

While they were doing that, I was working on digging out a privy pit (earning myself lifetime pooping privileges?). Digging is heavy work, especially as I get deeper, but the hole is refreshingly cool, so it’s not as bad as working above-ground in the heat of the day. I hit permafrost about four and a half feet down, and we’re experimenting with some strategies for thawing it out and keeping the hole going.

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This is not a picture of me digging out an outhouse hole, but it’s a cool picture.

The three of us played with the laser level one day this week, figuring out how much higher the back end of the deck will be than the front (answer: about five feet). We must have looked a treat, the three of us tiptoeing through the strings and holes and 2×6 forms all over the building site, holding up a piece of white paper to catch the faint red lines, squinting and dodging and trying to cast helpful shadows without blocking the laser.

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Some of the pads were easier to prepare than others. This one was a stumper.

It’s starting to take shape. I can almost see it in my mind, now.

 

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I split the cost of a wood-chipper with a friend, so I’m spending a lot of time (when I’m not hanging out in the cool privy pit) chipping all of the slash from the trees we had to fell. The chips will go to protect the trail from compaction so that, hopefully, I won’t wind up with a mud mess next spring. Chipping is loud, dusty work: my sweaty arms and neck get all gritty, but I smell surprisingly nice thanks to all the fresh spruce tips I’m pulverizing.

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Part of the trail won’t need chips, since Geoff is building me this nifty set of wagon tracks, soon to be a boardwalk proper

For a minute yesterday, while I was using the wood-chipper, I zoned out, probably thinking about Hot Licks, the local ice cream joint, and the chipper chowed down hard on a sapling with a horizontal branch that I wasn’t quite ready to let go of. My right hand got slammed into the top edge of the hopper-feeder-tube thing with tremendous force. It felt like the ring finger had been split horizontally, even through my leather glove. The pain was blinding black for a second before I actually felt the adrenaline wash in and throw a fog over my brain. I was instantly muddled. I couldn’t think of what to do first and just stood there in the roar of that crazy machine, kind of in shock. I knew I couldn’t scream because the guys would freak out, so I bit my lip and sucked air, stumbling toward the truck, then stopping to rip off the glove and look at the bit at the end of my arm that was throbbing so horribly. It was surprisingly normal looking, considering. I stared for a few seconds, then turned back to be responsible and turn off the chipper, then back toward the truck again, wobbly and disoriented.  I climbed awkwardly into the bed and ripped the lid off the ice chest, cradling my right hand, then pulled all the beer and boxes of grocery store sushi aside (yes, this is correct, because we’re cool like that) and plunged my hand into the cold water at the bottom, rattling the floating ice cubes against the plastic sides.

After a minute, I scooped up a handful of ice in my still-gloved left hand and made my way down the trail, cradling my numb right fingers to my belly-button and wobbling, still kind of drenched in adrenaline and not totally in touch with my surroundings. I was starting to get a little more clarity, starting to wonder whether the finger was broken and how much it would hurt when the adrenaline wore off.

Geoff spotted me coming. “Hey, Keely, if all three of us work on concrete it’ll go a lot faster. You up for helping out here for a while?”

“Nope.” I sat in the one blue camp chair we keep down there, taking deep sobby breaths.

“Nope?” Geoff took note of the wobble, the tear tracks in the wood-dust on my face, and the cradled right hand and did an excellent job of suppressing panic while he got me to show him the hand and flex the finger, all three joints. He is handy with hugs and aspirin, when he needs to be, and I calmed down enough in pretty short order to just feel pissed that I’d be out of commission for a while. And guilty for leaving the lid off the ice chest and not putting the beer and sushi away.

We had decided to take Saturday off and after the finger catastrophe it seemed especially appropriate. We grilled all kinds of meat out on the deck all day. I made a blueberry rhubarb crisp with the last of last years blueberries and some fresh rhubarb. Happy solstice weekend, everyone! I wore a dress to celebrate.

“That dress really shows off your mosquito-bites, Keely.”
“Just because I don’t have the fullest figure…”

In the end, the finger injury wasn’t even all that bad. I am typing with that finger now, and it’s not hurting much. I can’t completely close my right hand, but I bet I’ll be in good enough form to use shovel tomorrow, and that’s all that matters. The biggest disappointment is the unremarkable look of the finger. The bruise hardly shows under the tan.

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Butter, Sugar, Dog Hair

Two elementary school girls came over this afternoon to make cookies. They have a sleepover lined up tonight, and I loved listening to them discussing the games and pranks they plan to play.
“What if you hide outside the door and scare them?”
“We could put whipped cream on their face!”

We made a couple dozen tiny cookies and a specially tailored cardboard cookie-carrying box with the words “top secret” printed on the top so that they could transport them without losing them all to nosy neighbors.

It was wonderful and also a little sad for me. Cookie night used to be a big thing in Venetie. It never took off here in the same way, but this felt to me like those old cookie nights used to, with the girls laughing and opening up a little in ways they don’t at school. I am going to miss them. And all of this.

While the cookies were in the oven, J asked to play with Daazhraii. Now, Daazhraii is a pretty good dog. He’s playful, obedient, tough, smart, quiet, affectionate with his people, and sensitive (sometimes a little too sensitive), but he doesn’t like children, especially little girls. He treats kids with extreme suspicion and, if they approach him in an enclosed space, he stiffens, glares, and, if they keep coming toward him, growls. It’s scary and disheartening.

I have done a lot of reading on this, and I try to handle it well. I control any fear or anxiety I feel when kids are around him. I don’t allow him to be cornered, and, when I need to, I remove him from the situation gently. I don’t validate his fears by punishing him, I just watch him carefully and do what I need to do to remain confident that everyone will have a positive experience.

“See how his tail is stiff? That means he doesn’t want to be petted. Let him sniff you and, if he walks away, just let him go.”

It works well, and it seems to be helping him build up his confidence, because when J talked me into letting her play with him, he aced it.fullsizeoutput_228

One of L’s little-kid-sized rubber boots had a tear in it, and I’d just put on an Aquaseal patch, so she and I stood in our socks on the steps and watched as J spoke softly and gently to Daazhraii until – I couldn’t believe it – he let her pick up his rope toy and play tug and chase. They played for at least half an hour, at first on his run by the front door, then running laps around the house, taking turns carrying the rope toy. He was as gentle as – gentler than – I’ve ever seen him, and completely beside himself with the fun of it, totally relaxed and thrilled with his new best friend.

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Daazhraii seems to be mellowing, and I’m glad. There is not much room in the world these days for dogs that can’t be trusted. He may never get to be really trustworthy (I still wouldn’t let him into the house with the kids, where he tends to get more territorial and feel more cornered), but he’s making some progress, and that’s pretty exciting stuff.

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Sunshine!

On the subject of sunshine, everyone should know that it’s daylight here twenty and more hours a day now, and twilight the rest of the time. I love hearing the birds singing all night. I went out to pee at two this morning and I could hear the river churning like a slushie machine down at first bend. Spring is here!

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Taking the sno-go in for storage, rocking some scandalously bare knees

In other sunshine-related news, I was nominated for the Sunshine Blogger Award – “an award given to bloggers by their peers for being creative, positive, and inspiring, while spreading sunshine to the blogging community.”

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Thank you Julia for nominating me! I’m honored that you thought of me and also super delighted by your questions.

If you don’t already read Beneath the Borealis, you should. Julia writes an account of her life in a very different part of rural Alaska. She is perceptive, enthusiastic and vulnerable in her writing, and I love each and every one of her posts. She has just added a tiny fluff to her family, so one can assume there will be many enchanting snow-puppy stories coming soon.

Here are the questions posed to me by Julia:

Why did you begin your blog?

I began Chasing Piggens years ago, when I was living in Arkansas.

Partly, I started the blog because the life I shared at that time with my partner Sean was wildly different from the lives of everyone we knew. It was a way of sharing what we were up to, and why.

Partly, too, I was reading a lot of blogs at the time, learning about how folks had tackled projects or approached changes similar to mine. I thought I might have some useful advice for someone wanting to raise chickens in varmint hell or butcher their own pigs with the help of a decrepit swingset. Then I started reading Alaska blogs…

What is the first thing you thought of when you woke up this morning?

“Oh shit, I’m late!”

Geoff woke me up at five thirty this morning, convinced we were late for work because the sun was so high in the sky.

The best part? Friday was the last day of school! We get to sleep in – or out, preferably – and on any schedule we please – for the next three months!

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We shot off rockets with the kids on Friday afternoon to celebrate.

How do you soothe yourself when you’re having a bad day?

I reread a Tamora Pierce book. Tortall is my favorite place to go when the real world is too tough to face.

Hogwarts is a close second, especially on audio as read by the fabulous Jim Dale.

What is your ultimate favorite meal or food item?

STUFFING! I love stuffing! I will go to extreme lengths (trust me – I live in the bush and it’s not easy to come by fresh parsley) to put honest-to-goodness homemade-from-scratch stuffing on the table at Thanksgiving.

If you could only recommend one place to go in the world to everyone you met, where would it be?

I would recommend the arctic. And I would advise everyone to stay for a while.

The arctic is beautiful and vibrant in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I lived in the lower-48. There are places here, river valleys and hilltop lookouts, that are so beautiful and primeval that they crack your heart wide open and compel you to drop everything and revel. You can’t help feeling small and afraid while at the same time feeling that you are at the height of your powers somehow: Impossibly human with a real understanding of what that means. If you hang around long enough, the landscape itself will transform you.

What is your favorite pair of shoes?

I love my Bean boots. They’re great all-purpose rugged footwear, and I kinda like that they mark me as a New Englander in a world of Alaskans in XtraTufs.

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Shoulder-season footwear with teacher-style ornamentation

Do you feel like an adult?

Yes, but I really hope that will go away when I stop being responsible for children all the time.

Lately, as I’ve been researching and scheming for Project LandYurtPlanDirt, I’ve felt ridiculously grown up. I have done heaps of paperwork, and I had to order checks for the first time in my life (who uses checks?! [adults, apparently]). I’m looking forward to the part where I’ve spent all my money and I get to go bash down trees and cut firewood and move into my sweet-ass yurt on a tall deck in among the trees beside the reindeer pasture. I’ll pull in my rope ladder (figurative or not? you decide!), put up a sign that says “no boys allowed” and forget all about paperwork for a good long while.

What makes you feel alive?

River trips, winning at anything, kissing, playing dog football or skijoring with Daazhraii, carefully planning and then spectacularly executing any scheme, singing in the car, fixing things by myself, being trusted.

What is your favorite cocktail or beverage?

I don’t have a favorite! Beverages are conditional. I do have a thing for pink, though. On a slow morning, grapefruit juice. Any time at all, a dash of real-deal cranberry juice in my water. In winter, I like a pink cocktail out on the town.

Do you like where you live?

Yes. It’s also very complicated. Arctic Village is both spectacular and harsh in almost every imaginable way.

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Chasing rockets through Arctic Village in rubber-boots

What do you need to do for yourself to feel good?

SUNDAY SUNDAY SUNDAY! Basic Self-Care vs. Work, Chores and Adventures!

In my life, the latter tends to totally dominate. My work makes me feel like I’m contributing something useful to the world, chores make me feel like I’m holding up my end of my relationship, and adventures make me feel like a badass. Eating well, sleeping enough, and getting any kind of exercise tend to fall by the wayside because those things benefit only me and don’t really impress anyone.

I’ve been a lot better about it this school year – I realize that I need to take care of myself if I want to get the most out of my body and mind – emotional resilience, physical wellness, and mental agility all depend on self-care and are all essential to succeeding as a teacher – but it can be really hard to prioritize myself. If I could push hard twenty-four hours a day, there would still be more to do: Lessons to plan, wood to chop, classes to teach, dishes to wash, papers to grade, game nights to run (I am now the Dungeon Master for some of our middle school boys who just got into D&D), events to plan, reports to draft, staff parties to host and on and on.

This year, Jewels and I worked out after school together.  At this point, we can both recite Jillian Michaels’ “Yoga Inferno” dvd nearly perfectly (our favorite line: “there are days you’d rather be dead than turn on this dvd!”). It is exhausting, but working out erases my headaches and makes me feel like a million bucks. That changed the school year in a huge way for me. Thank you Jewels, for always being game to roll out the yoga mats. You saved my bacon this year.

Nominations:

I would like to nominate some of my favorite, still-active, Alaskan Teacher-Bloggers for this award, and I’ve tailored my questions accordingly. With no internet at home, I’m terrible about keeping up with who’s new out there, so if you know of any good bush-teacher blogs I should follow, please comment.

  1. Aletha over at Tumbleweed Soul is very active and always has something cheerful or funny to say.
  2. Leslie at Occupational Therapy Below Zero works in Arctic Village with me, as well as in other parts of Alaska with other schools, and takes beautiful photos.
  3. Andrew and Kristina at Bellamy Travels are new to Alaska this past year. They work in Hughes and I just found their blog a few weeks ago when they posted an awesome synopsis of their year.

Here are the rules, if you wish to play:

  1. Thank the blogger who nominated you.
  2. Answer the 11 questions the blogger asked you.
  3. Nominate up to 11 new blogs to receive the award and write them 11 new questions.
  4. List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award in your post/or on your blog

Questions:

  1. Why Alaska?
  2. How does your experience compare to your expectations?
  3. Imagine a bucket. What’s it used for?
  4. If you could design your ideal care package, what would be in it?
  5. What is one thing you buy just about every single time you go to the grocery store?
  6. Do you have a favorite joke? What is it?
  7. What is something you can make, food or otherwise, that you are proud of?
  8. What is one thing you are looking forward to right now?
  9. When you need to laugh, what is your go-to book, podcast, tv show or whatever?
  10. What is your favorite extravagance?
  11. What is something that you miss already about winter?

New Neighbors?!

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Short Stack boys on our spring field trip, meeting my future neighbors

Today I committed in a huge way. I signed a purchase agreement for a piece of property in Fairbanks.

Geoff, John and I walked the land a week ago. We found some good high ground and paced out what will be my deck. We appreciated the lovely old trees and the western exposure. “It’ll be perfect as long as the reindeer don’t snore,” Geoff said.

It’s not a large lot, but its location is perfect. The university is less than two miles away on a network of trails that I can use to ski or bike to class. Across the trail to the west is the university’s large animal research station. It’s beautiful, and I’ll have reindeer and musk oxen for my neighbors.

I’ll close on the property as soon as I get to Fairbanks at the end of school, and then I’ll get some friends together and start chainsawing and digging a privy pit and pounding stakes to mark out my deck and power pole. I’m getting ready to make a down payment on a twenty foot yurt, probably from Nomad Shelter, Alaska’s local yurt people down in Homer, maybe even this week.

Gulp.

It’s terrifying, but thrilling.

But terrifying! There is so much to do and I am so ready to do it, but I’ve never written such a big check in my life. While staring down the barrel of a lot more big checks.

This won’t be a permanent place for me. I’m not ever going to be completely happy with living smushed in, but it’s the ideal solution for the years of my MFA program, and I think having the ability to walk out the door and onto a miles-long trail system will provide a new kind of refuge. I’m looking forward to living alone again, and finding the independence and clarity that I remember from my time in Venetie. At the same time, it’s impossibly sad.

So, feelings: A lot of excitement for this fancy new bespoke life, and fear of the unknown. Grief for the things I’m sacrificing, and a sense of liberation, too. Don’t they often go hand in hand?

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Clarity, liberation, kids on a field trip