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?
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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

 

Occupational Hazards

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so much more than just the cold!

1. Parasitic Arthropods

Our cabin is currently sitting empty with the windows open. Last time I checked, the temperature upstairs was about -5. I never actually saw a bedbug, but I have a distinctive line of bites along my ribs.

Kids bring bedbugs to school, along with head-lice, pretty frequently. A few weeks ago, I had a kid raise his hand in the middle of read-aloud. I glared, and he put his hand down. A minute later he threw his hand up like Arnold Horshack and waved it in the air. All it took was a raised eyebrow and he burst:

“I found a zhii!”

That is one of my hundred or so Gwich’in words, so I did what most people would do if someone loudly announced that they’d just picked a louse out of their hair- what everyone else in the classroom did – and stared slack-jawed.

He looked back, totally ingenuous.

“Umm. Go to the office.” He left. I tried to play it cool and get back to read-aloud, but he came right back in.

“Um, where’s the office?”

“Katie! Go tell Katie!”

Katie’s our administrative aide and she’s worth her weight in gold. She quietly arranged a school-wide head check and called parents.

After a while my student came back into and helpfully notified us all that “nobody should sit there. [He had] dropped it.”

All that is just to say that parasitic arthropods are just part of classroom teaching. What are you going to do? It’s really a wonder we’ve never had bedbugs before.

We threw the mattress in the yard last week, and a day of forty-below took care of that. Freezing the house at a temperature of zero or below for a few days will kill any bugs or even eggs that are left inside. We had to move the canned goods and perishable food out of the place, but there are no pipes to freeze. It’s a perk of arctic living.

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ice on the windows so you know it’s cold: bedbugs begone!

2. Trauma

I realize I am just beginning to understand trauma: it’s the dread I feel with the coming of dividends and holidays – times of heavy partying; It’s the sick feeling I get when someone who doesn’t usually visit the school shows up in the middle of the day. So often those visits mean that someone – a student’s cousin or a parent – has died.

This fall, I taught for two hours with the knowledge that two of my students had lost a parent that morning. They had no clue, just went about business as usual. I held everyone in my classroom, escorted kids to the bathroom, made sure no one snuck a device under the table and got on social media. I tried to keep it light, have fun, not let on. It seemed to take years for the kids’ grandma to come and get them. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

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meanwhile, the sun is rising again, a little longer each day

By the time these kids hit middle school, they’ve seen far more tragedy than I saw in the twenty-five years of my life before Alaska. I have only been around for a few years, but already my gut is twisted with it all.

Trauma clouds the vision and tragedy is what happens when someone gets backed into a corner and can’t see a way out. Tragedy is what happened to both these boys, one of whom was my student. I try not to let myself dwell on it, but I have had a hard time letting it go.

3. Polar Bears

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This is Not a Polar Bear

Jim is my neighbor, the father of a whole pack of young Arctic Village girls. He came by the school to pick up his daughters and I got to hear this story firsthand while the girls got their winter gear on. I just about lost my cool when I heard about this: it was the same weekend I was out thinking I was so badass for patching up the Bravvie all alone in the wilderness. I would have felt a lot less badass if I’d known there was a polar bear prowling around the area.

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And after I fixed it, practically under the nose of a ravenous bear, my ride found the strength of ten Bravos, plus two! (this is how we haul school trash, these days)

**Polar bears aren’t really an occupational hazard. I don’t want to give anyone the wrong idea. This is just a ridiculously nifty story.

Field Repairs

It was twenty-below or so when we rode out from camp, and the ride was smooth. Geoff broke trail ahead of me, the Skandic plowing up a bank on either side of the trench it cleared in the tundra snow. The sun still hasn’t come up since November, but we’re getting alpenglow that creeps a little farther down the slopes each day, and the cold blue light that filters over the ridgeline to the south lasts a few hours. We headed north toward the mountains, breaking the trail that we hope will take us up into Smoke Creek and toward the divide.

When we reached the river, I decided to take Daazhraii and turn back to camp. I didn’t want to push the dog too hard – large as he is, he swims in the mire of a fresh trail – or be out after full dark. It was only a few miles of backtracking, and Geoff planned to be right behind me after pushing the trail a few miles more across the Chandalar, so I wasn’t worried about riding alone.

I turned and took a long detour through the extra-thick buttercream tundra just to revel in the way the Bravo seems to lift up and ride on plane like a flat-bottomed skiff. The dog bounded behind, wallowing a little in the deep powder, but grinning and glad. It was just after that, maybe only two miles from camp, that my sno-go came to a halt, headlight dimming and then dying, the insulation of the engine’s roaring suddenly vanishing, so that I became, all at once, a part of the landscape rather than a traveler just moving through.

I tried to start the Bravo – no dice – then lifted the cowling. The spark plug boot had popped off, taking with it the little nut that screws onto the plug itself. It was wedged up inside the plastic cap that connects to the wire.

Shit.

No Geoff, so no tools.

Oops.

I know I should carry some basics, but I don’t. This situation is so improbable: Geoff is always with me, fully-loaded down with probably fifty pounds of good stainless steel, and, when he’s not, we carry a pair of UHF radios.

I pictured the second yellow hand-held, tucked under feet of snow blanketing the riverbank just south of Chandalar lake where we left it in an airhead moment on a packrafting adventure this summer.

Shit.

Dismounts are not elegant in full winter outerwear. I plunked into the deep snow beside the trail and opened the seat compartment of my Bravo: plastic bags, spare spark plugs, no tape, no tools at all, not even the scrench that had been in there for weeks. Definitely no needle-nosed pliers, which is what I really needed. What did I have? My emergency box, behind the seat, was full of dry clothes and firestarter. Not so useful. In my pockets I carried a lighter, some hand warmers, a headlamp and a knife. Bust.

I waded off through the deep snow to the lake’s edge where a few dead trees stood bare and raggedy. My feet were cold already, even in my bunny boots, and I needed to keep busy and warm if I was going to have to wait for Geoff to show up. I broke off low, dead branches and kicked down a few scraggly dry spruces. Winter outerwear is like chain mail: you can just throw yourself at a tree, or half-climb it and try to pull it down on top of you without worrying too much about taking a branch to the ribs in any serious way. The small branches burned quickly, so I had to keep at it. I hung my neckwarmer and hat by the fire to thaw out while I worked to gather more fuel. The moisture of your breath condenses on your outerwear in the cold, so you wind up with ice buildup, which eventually gets uncomfortable.

As I was dragging an armload of twigs back to my fire, something clicked in my brain: sparkplugs.  I hustled back to where the Bravo waited, open like a clamshell in the trail, and tried unscrewing the nut from one of my spare plugs so that I could use the plug itself as a tool to remove the jammed nut from the rubber boot. Gloves on, I couldn’t loosen it. I tried taking my glove off and got nothing but a cold-scalded hand for my trouble.

Frick.

I gave up and went back to trudging heavily through the sometimes thigh-deep snow on the perimeter of the lake, wishing for snowshoes and gathering fuel while I waited for Geoff to turn back around.

When I got cold, I’d squat in the snow by the fire, then get up again to gather more fuel when the fire burned too low.

For two hours, maybe, I fed the fire, waiting. He didn’t appear. I did jumping jacks and added a bit of wood.

Night began to fall from the north and there was no sign of a headlight in the distance, no whine of an engine.

In the near-dark, I reevaluated my assets. I thawed the ice out of the elastic band on my headlamp, thinking maybe I could use it to clamp the rubber spark-plug boot to the engine and hold the nut in place long enough to make the short ride back to camp. Failing that, I could start walking. It wasn’t far, but the trail still hadn’t set, so it would be slow, difficult going, like wading in the surf, and I didn’t want to have to come back for the Bravo later. I took the spare spark plug out of my pocket and heated it, too, thinking maybe if I warmed it up the nut would come loose.

Not wanting a tongue-to-the-flagpole incident, I waited until the spark plug was really warm before sticking it in my mouth, then gripped the nut between my back teeth. I turned, and it came loose.

Just like that, I was back in business.

I screwed the spare plug into the nut jammed in the cap, popped out the nut, returned it to its rightful bolt and fired up the bravo.

Just like that.

While the Bravo muttered and churred in the trail, warming up, I threw the last of my wood on the fire. I was hoping it would burn long enough for Geoff to see it and realize what I’d pulled off all on my own. Night came as I drove away, turning my head to watch the live blaze of my campfire recede into the darkness.

(Geoff arrived at camp thirty minutes after I did, rimed with frost. He’d broken trail almost to the mountains, maybe another ten miles, and gotten stuck for a while in overflow.)