It’s Good to be Home

“Welcome back! No, welcome home.”

I looked up, caught flat-footed, at the young woman unloading cargo from the plane. She smiled at me, glad and familiar, and you could have knocked me over with a feather.

“Thanks! It’s really, really good to be here.” I said it a little too brightly, still off-balance. I don’t really expect to be welcomed home when I step off the plane in Arctic.

It’s not that people aren’t welcoming. Most are.

But home.

This is my home, if I can be said to have one. When I am not here, I am traveling, sleeping in a bed one night for every thirty in a tent. The house I grew up in was sold last summer to a stranger who I hear has since filled it with tropical birds. My family lives in an RV.

It goes a lot deeper than circumstance: I love these children with the fiercest part of my heart, worry over them, watch them grow up, and feel pride and pain both on their accounts. The land too: the smell of labrador tea and the taste of caribou meat and the color of twilight dusk-dawn at fifty below when the chimneys smoke sideways; it all makes my heart vibrate with a bone-deep note of yes. This is where I belong. And it is. I have never loved a place so much.

But this is my home in the way that white people mean home. It is my home by luck and love, not by right. I have no ancestral homeland, no blood and culture ties that go deeper and older than the permafrost. Most of us don’t. Four-year-old A said it best tonight: she put one hand on each of my cheeks and pulled down with her thumbs, then leaned in so close I could almost taste her runny nose; “your eyes are blue!” she hollered, and all the other kids had to come and take a look. Four serious little gap-toothed brown-eyed girls inspected my face and A held my cheeks still so my eyes wouldn’t go squinty when I laughed.

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Home? Home! 

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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.

Roof Leopards

Geoff took off on Wednesday to run spring errands and get his teeth fixed, so I’ve been holding down the fort for a few days. I like the quiet, but I’m ready for him to be back in action. Things are thawing out, and I can’t keep up with all the melting on my own.

We brought home a couple of caribou two weeks ago, and when Geoff left we’d taken care of most of the meat, but still had a couple ribcages and three legs to process. Sure enough, when I got home from school that day, slipping and slushing all the way in bunny boots and a sweatshirt, the meat in the snowbank beside the house – a reliable freezer all winter long – was soft to the touch.

Work gloves on, I grabbed a caribou (minus its legs – what would you call that?) and hoisted the drippy ribs into my arms, up the steps and onto the table. I stayed up late processing (and marathon watching MASH). I got a good bit done, but the backstraps were still frozen into the spine when I went to bed at midnight, so I left the long, curving backbone, now sans ribs, lying on the table to thaw until morning. Daazhraii gave me good cuddles and I slept well in the unmistakable quiet half-light of an arctic spring night.

Most mornings, Geoff wakes me up around 7:30 and we make it to school just before 8:00. When he’s gone, I am on my own, and it’s actually kind of hard. I don’t have an alarm clock or a phone that will work as one, so I just sorta hope for the best and ask Geoff to try and remember to call me. Thursday morning, I woke to the ringing of a phone, so I jumped out of the covers to run down from the loft and answer it. I couldn’t find it, but when I looked at the clock I read the fatal hour: 7:30. I raced through morning chores in the broad daylight of a high spring morning: feeding the dog, picking out some clothes to wear, brushing my teeth because somehow my school toothbrush went missing last week (WHYYY???), cutting, bagging and tagging the backstraps, and stashing the rest of the spine in the snow beside the house. I fired up the snowmachine and cursed when it wouldn’t move, then realized it was frozen to the ground and kicked each ski loose. When I got to school, the door was locked and no one was there.

I parked the sno-go and put the dog on his run. “Did people think with Geoff and Mark gone, we had to cancel school, Shoopie? Where the heck is everybody? It has to be five after.”

It was, of course. Five after seven. I haven’t been that early to school all year.

At least I got a shower that day.

That evening after school, I went to check on the status of the caribou meat piled in the dwindling snowbank on the north side of the cabin. I stepped around the corner and almost got mauled by a half-ton sheet of snow with foot-long icicle teeth that picked that moment to slide (pounce?) off the roof. My scream brought the dog around, and he glued himself to my knees until he was satisfied that I was, in fact, unharmed.

The snow buried the tarp that covered the meat, so I left it, figuring the extra insulation would keep the cold in. Maybe also because I didn’t want to play tackle football with that particular snow leopard.

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I Won!

Just so that everyone knows, I beat this (charming) person’s butt fair and square in a tea-making contest this weekend.

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The loser. He doesn’t look too miserable.

Tea-making is a spring carnival race that I’m planning on entering this year (along with the egg toss, and perhaps the snowshoe race), so I spent some of the weekend getting practice. I lit two sturdy little fires on Saturday, then challenged Geoff to a race on Sunday.

The idea is, you race to be the first to get water to a rolling boil in your pot. You get an axe and a knife and a lighter and some dry wood and go to town, huffing and puffing and panicking. I burned off some of the wispy hair that sticks out from under my hat this weekend.

The real deal race is Thursday, and I’m sure to embarrass myself magnificently in front of the whole village.

Wish me luck.

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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