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.

Did you know

Did you know that salmon hearts, sizzled with butter and garlic, taste just like mussels? I learned to clean fish yesterday, and we set aside the hearts for a treat.

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Feeeeeeesh!

I’m in Soldotna right now, recovering from long nights of dipnetting. Geoff and I got a hotel room for tonight, and tonight will mark the second or third time I’ve slept in a real bed since the beginning of July, the first time since leaving Maine. I’m looking forward to sleep, but this might be my last chance to use the internet for a while, so I’d better make the most of it.

I arrived in Fairbanks two weeks ago after visiting friends in Washington. Geoff was still working, so I had some time to relax. Those days were hot and sweaty, and I spent one whole day in the Museum of the North (where they have some awesome Alaskan art, air conditioning, and some truly weird furniture made of taxidermied animal parts) and another whole day alternating between sizzling on a towel with a good book and plunging into the icy Chena River while ducks laughed at me.

Friday came. The plan was to drive down the Richardson Highway and head for the Kenai to go fishing, which is more or less what we did, though there were some snags. In absolutely typical fashion, Geoff was a little late out of the starting gate. My stuff accounts for about a tenth of the mess, and it still looked like this when I crawled into my sleeping bag at midnight.

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See Geoff. See Geoff pack. See Geoff still packing. Take a nap.

In the morning we finished packing the truck and loading the boat and stopped for the four Fs: Food (breakfast/brunch), Fuel (for the truck), Freddy’s (Fred Meyer for camp groceries) and Fill (water containers, because running water isn’t an everywhere kind of thing) and finally left Fairbanks around two in the afternoon, bound for a good camp spot south of Delta where we would meet friends bound for Dawson on a motorcycle.

I always forget until I’m in it how vast and magnificent Alaska can be.  The Richardson Highway is beautiful. It traces the pipeline from Fairbanks to Valdez, running beside the broad and braided mud of the Tanana and through wide valleys furred with spruce trees, set with jewel-blue lakes. It’s big enough to get comfortably lost on purpose, to build a campfire so far from anyone else that no one sees the smoke. We camped with friends in a quarry that first night. Their dog dragged a whole caribou leg out of the woods while we cooked a midnight dinner.

Geoff and I spent the next night camped in the rain at Quartz lake, then visited Michael, the guy who’s building the canoe, in the morning. He had the hull ready for us to look at, a flexible, lightweight form, ragged at the top. He’s making something wonderful, there. It felt good, pressing my hands to what will be my boat. August seventh is our tentative pickup date. Soon after, we’ll head for the Yukon.

After a stop for showers and laundry (it’s common, here, to see places advertising the two. Since lots of folks are traveling through and many do without running water, these are useful services), we drove out of the rain and slept at Paxson Lake under a clear sky. I walked to the shore in the blue and gold morning and sat on a bench overlooking the water. There is so little summer, here, but everything in summer so so lush and lively. I watched the clouds, the minnows, the waving fireweed. I could almost hear the blueberries bulging, the spruce needles spooling out. I speculated about what percent of Alaska is, at any given time, covered with moose poop. I thought about the coming school year. I felt guilty for sitting still in the middle of so much activity and walked back to camp to get ready to head out, singing Beatles tunes to ward off bears (I’d forgotten my bear spray like a dodo and you never know).

Farther south, we took the Glenn highway through the mountains to Wasilla, stopping so that I could get my first long look at a glacier. Matanuska Glacier impressed me profoundly. It has a presence, something very grand and stately and dangerous and fragile that got a grip on me as I perched on the ice chests in the truck, staring from an overlook. I didn’t expect to be moved so deeply, but what should one expect of a glacier? I dried a tear or two and climbed back into the cab, Wasilla-bound.

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The confluence of a blue creek with the muddy Matanuska.

“Hey Geoff, if you got the chance would you go to the moon?”
“Nope. I don’t think I would.”
“Why not?”
“It’s a wasteland! All cold and dark. And the food would be terrible.”
“Kinda like living in the arctic, huh? So isolated…”
“It’s completely different!”

It’s hard to believe we made that whole trip in a day, but we did. We picked up fishing licenses in Wasilla and learned that a fire was burning right beside the Seward highway, south of Anchorage, and that the road could close at any minute. It was nine at night but we decided to press on south.

We drove through the burning area and watched a helicopter dip water out of the ocean. Flames were visible on the cliffs above the road and smoke nearly obscured the rising moon. Still, we stopped for water at a pullout where a pipe pours clean water directly out of a rock face. “You watch for fireballs falling down the cliff while I fill the jugs, Keely.”

DSC04931We were both tired and cranky by the time we made it to the campground at nearly two in the morning, but we found a campsite and got the tent up in the end.

After that, it was a waiting game. Gillnetters fish all day at the mouth of the river, essentially blocking it off. It’s not worth the launch fee to go out when no fish are getting through, so we had to wait for the dipnet fishery to be opened for twenty-four hour access.  Our moment came and we set our alarms for 1:30 am. By 3:30 we were fishing an incoming tide in the not-quite dark of a drizzly night.

There are two ways to dipnet: some folks stand in the water up to their ribs holding long-handled nets.

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Here’s the crowd at the river’s mouth, dipnetting from shore.

Others putt along holding nets out beside their boats. When a fish hits the net, you feel a bang and haul it in. We fished from Geoff’s boat, cruising down the banks of the river all night and into the morning.

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Some very well-fed seals at dawn

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On a good day, in a good year, I hear the boats are shoulder to shoulder.

We pulled the boat out at eleven the next morning and went back to camp to sleep. That night, we put in again, this time in more serious rain. As the extra hands, I had lots of downtime through that night. I figured out I can sleep in the rain and cold tucked in among the ice chests and actionpackers if I’m in full foulies with handwarmers in my boots and a ball cap to shed the water. It was a rough night, but the morning was beautiful.

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DSC04957In all, we put the boat in four times and came home with not nearly enough fish. The run peaked early this year and the dipnetters never had a good opening. Still, I’m amazed that there’s a place in the world where you can just stick a net like that in the water, wait, and pull out a fish. We don’t do that in Maine – there just aren’t fish anymore. Anyone I know at home would be over the moon to come home with just one of the fish we brought in, even a flounder we’d have casually thrown back.

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Good company.

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Pee break.

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Camp

We’re off to Tustumena Lake for a long weekend, well-deserved. I’ll try to remember to take breaks from relaxing and soaking up the wonderful to take a few pictures.

Equinox and Fox Walks

A fairly typical scene from last week, before the snow fell.

A fairly typical scene from last week, before the snow fell.

Cosmically speaking, there are a lot of neat things going on these days. The aurora is supposed to be good on Thursday, which is exciting as it hasn’t been spectacular for a while. The equinox was a few days ago, launching fall in other places and winter here. Last, but not least, there is supposed to be an eclipse tonight. I am going to have to go out this evening to watch the eclipse. If last night’s moon is anything to judge by, it’s going to be pretty spectacular. The moon is supposed to be rising mid-eclipse, which could be really strange and special, but might be hard to see. Some thoughtful planning is in order. I wish I had access to some high ground.

Last night's moon over the slough.

Last night’s moon over the slough.

Yesterday, Terri, Ben and I went for a hike out beyond the gravel bar on a quest for a view of the mountains. We never really got there, but we had a nice walk and a campfire dinner of baked potatoes and apples. DSC03867On the way out, a local guy on a four-wheeler stopped to talk and warned us about leaving the village without a gun. We were carrying bear spray and making plenty of noise, but folks here are very cautious about wildlife, and he hated to think of our needing a gun and not having one. We did see grizzly tracks and scat, and the bears are known to hang out by the gravel bar where the dog salmon are spawning now. DSC03856After our friend took off, we stopped by the gravel bar for tea and to watch the fish, which are huge and numerous. Apparently, a large portion of the world’s population of these salmon come back to our slough. They’re called dog salmon because folks around here use them for dog food. I let two kids out of school early the other day to take in nets and feed dogs. The fish are clearly tired out, sometimes rolling a little sideways in the current. They’re two feet long, and all muscle. They have to thrash a bit to get through the skinny water, and they sound like a herd of caribou splashing through the shallows. Sometimes you can see their dorsal fins sticking up out of the water, even when they’re completely still and silent. It’s totally strange. Our friend found us there, watching the salmon drift in the shallow water, and pressed a rifle on Ben, just in case.

The three of us walked a while beyond the gravel bar before we lit our fire. I wanted to hike to someplace new, and the weather was perfect: forty at least, with day-old snow on the ground and blue skies and sun.

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We found a hole in a tree

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and fairy sparkles

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and the sky looked like a bomb pop all the way around, the east more pink and violet, the west more peach.

We wound up walking home in the dark, which I haven’t done before. I walk within the village after sunset often, but I haven’t ever been out beyond the firebreak after sundown before. It was new, and new was just what I wanted from my day yesterday.

Friday’s snow has stuck, the first to last more than a few hours. We’re due for more on Tuesday, so this may be it, folks. My kids begged me for a hike on Friday, and I gave in with pleasure. There’s something magical about walking in falling snow, and it’s not something to miss out on when the opportunity comes knocking. When we got back, I opened the classroom windows and we watched snowflakes blow in and dissolve on the carpet.

After school, I went out alone and followed fresh fox sign around a pond beside the old airport runway. DSC03831It’s the kind of thing that has to be done alone, a very personal pleasure. I walked out to the pond on purpose, knowing that there’s a fox that hangs around near there, thinking I might pick up his trail. After some bumbling around, I did, with deep satisfaction. The snow was only a few hours old, so I knew with certainty that the prints were fresh. I followed the fox’s tracks until they doubled back on themselves and I lost them under my own garbledy old boot prints. By that time, I was ready to move on to other things anyway, so I walked on up the runway.

DSC03842I love the way ravens’ wings make that whipping sound, a weighted rope swinging beside your ear. I like the way they leave wingprints in the snow.

DSC03846The snow is still so new. It’s a change in the landscape, for now, and I’m seeing it fresh. It’ll be with me a while, though, and after a while, I’m sure, it won’t seem so sparkling. Still.

I’ve been eating well, and walking out often. School is great and I’m mostly happy. I miss having friends around, but some of my favorite people have called me up lately to say hi, and that’s been awesome. If you tried me yesterday and I missed you, try again! I still can’t make outgoing calls, but I’m in touch with the phone company about it, and when their technician gets back from moose hunting, I think the issue will be resolved.

Gideon sent me a box of honeycrisps, which arrived just after school dismissed on Friday. I can’t wait to share them with the kids on Monday. The two who were still around when the box came in said (and I quote) “wow! How juicy!” and “I think… that is the best apple I have ever eaten.” They go crazy for fresh fruit, and really fresh really good fruit is unheard of. It’s freaking awesome.  Here’s a picture of apples in the snow:

mmmm! Picnic!

mmmm! Picnic!

Microgreens!

Microgreens!

Today, Jake and Shannon are taking me out shooting, and I’m excited about it. If I’m going to be an Alaskan, I guess I should learn to be comfortable with firearms. Later, when there’s more snow, I’m going to learn about snowmachines. Terri and I are talking about going in on one together, and now that my boat’s sold I think I can commit to that. Why not? I’ll for sure be able to get out to the mountains if I’ve got ski power, and that could make all the difference.

Arctic love,

Keely