We finally took off north this weekend. Geoff Nitsiiddhaa

Geoff and I have been talking about heading for the continental divide all year, but it hasn’t happened. All winter we’ve been getting wood instead of working on trail, which is good: I’ve finally hit a groove in my firewood chopping, i.e. chopping not chipping. We’re using less diesel and we’ve adjusted to heating water on the wood-stove as a first choice, but we haven’t been traveling as much as we did last year and even the year before. This weekend we finally took off and made it north of the woodyard for the first time.

We packed up on Saturday, determined to break trail as far as we could, but it was a false start. We got into a herd of caribou a few miles out of town and wound up spending the evening working on meat.  Geoff and Vadzaih

I like working on meat in the snow. After the fire ants and heat of Arkansas, the clean, fresh snow is a blessing. Caribou are easy skinning by comparison with pigs, and the work goes fast. It was cold, twenty below on Saturday, and the metal spine of my knife got stuck to my fingertips a few times when the blood froze, but warming up was just a matter of sticking my hands between the hide and the warm meat. A novelty. meat steamWhile we were working on meat, a friend from sewing night drove by with a load of wood and mentioned that there were hundreds of caribou on Airport Lake, where they used to drop cargo, once upon a time. It was only a few minutes, so I took off on the sassy white bravo to have a look while Albert and Geoff worked on one of the caribou, and I’m so glad.

keely airport lake caribou

I came around the corner and there they were, ranged out over the lake like a broken string of beads spilled across a white tabletop. I turned the key and the bravo shuddered to a halt between my knees. The caribou watched me for a minute, then got on with their evening, fairly unperturbed. I love the way they tip their heads up and back to high-step through the snow with perfect posture.  I love the way they stand perfectly still and stare because I am an alien in their woods.

vadzaihVadzaih Airport Lake 2

I recognize that my pictures pretty much suck at explaining how awesome this was, how the caribou overthrew me. I love that I got to see this alone and under my own steam. I could have sat on the bravo forever and watched them go by, but dark was falling, my friends were waiting, and the meat was cooling in the snow.

albert's antlers

Hot tip: carry a thermos of hot water instead of a thermos of tea: it can be used for tea and for hand-washing and knife-rinsing in cold weather. Man it feels good to not have to wash up with twenty-below snow. bloody bunny boots

We let the blood thaw off our boots in the foyer (ha) and laid out the quarters on cardboard to thaw. Chips of blood-ice scattered everywhere and made little puddles on the floor. What a pain.

Still, we made it out on Sunday. We ran about ten miles out, most of it fresh trail in the deep snow, and Daazhraii ran along the whole way. We made it as far as we could before dark – my headlight is still out – and then turned back. We’ll try and cut across the valley now to a stash of awesome wood we left on the Junjik in the fall. Daazhraii definitely not sneaking snacks

Daazhraii flagged on the return trip but refused to ride the snowmachine, no matter how worn out he got. We had to run slower than slow on the way home, but the boy never quit. He’s one tough pup. He was such a wee cutie a year ago, and now he’s this big, badass ski dog.

Daazhraii one year ago!skidogsmile

We’re still working on meat, but quarters laid close to the door don’t thaw that fast, so we have a few days to get it done.

I really oughta get home and do that.


homesweetGeoff coat

caribou airport lake 1


Alone at Camp – November Journal Entry

DSC07092November 4-5 2017
6:00 PM

It is my first night camping alone in the arctic – or in the winter, period, I guess. I want to be someone who can do this, but I am a little nervous. So far, so good, though. It was zero when I got here. It is five below now.

As proof that I am really here doing this scary, wonderful thing, I offer this detail: – I could not make this up – the tent smells like a candy shop because of the half inch of hazelnut coffee I had to melt out of the kettle before I could make tea.

I am not far from home – town – Arctic Village. I can hear dogs, snowmachines, the occasional chainsaw. Before he left on the plane, Geoff checked with me that I would have the gear to feel safe: a radio, a satellite messaging device, a .22, bear spray, a flare gun, an axe, skis, and enough firewood for days ready to go at camp (thanks to an enthusiastic wood-chopping friend). I am probably safer here than I would be in my house. Daazhraii is with me, too. Still, my heart rate has been just a little elevated since I got on the snowmachine in the dooryard.

9:05 PM

I am doing well. I was surprised, when I got to camp, by how easy and comfortable I felt. I still had a hard time relaxing for a while, but it comes easy now. I am boiling water for dinner and overheating in my long johns. I have opened the windows to cool off, and I can see the full moon from the head of my cot. The moon and snow brighten everything. Through the window by my feet, I can make out one light from someone’s cabin on the edge of the village. I heard a lot of sno-gos earlier, but there aren’t so many now. Daazhraii stands guard outside.

4:55 AM

I am making it! I wasn’t sure I’d be brave enough, but the cheerful, cozy little stove and the quiet, reassuring company of the pup are enough for me, it seems. Boy, though, the dog can really stink up this little tent with his farts. I think that’s what woke me up. It’s snowing a little. The moon is a bright spot in the haze.

11:00 AM

I feel a little silly for how I parked the sno-go in the getaway position last night and conserved the batteries in my headlamp in case I should need them. Now I am drinking tea, starting another book, and beginning to think of doing some work at school this evening, after I go home. It’s hard not to wonder what I was so nervous about to begin with.

My First Frostbite!

daazhraii caribou tracks.jpg

Daazhraii and Geoff among the caribou tracks on the lake at high noon

I guess I had a gap between my goggles and my neckwarmer when I was pushing the SWBravo’s land speed record (30mph) on the lake this weekend. There was this stabbing sensation like a needle pricking repeatedly across the bridge of my nose and I had to stop and slap a glove against it. Sure enough, it’s glowing all red and sore today. Photo on 12-4-17 at 4.09 PM

This fall has been the hardest since my first year of teaching, I think. There are conflicts with the district about a variety of things (including, stupidly, exactly how far away from the school we need to keep the dog), conflicts with community-members about my friends visiting, and conflicts with older students who feel that they have outgrown school. I am also a little personally conflicted: I want to apply to grad school, go and get a Masters in Creative Writing (poetry?!), but I don’t want to leave Arctic.

There aren’t resolutions for any of these, but camp is a good release valve, and I am getting comfortable with the chainsaw now, out there in the woods “rampaging around destroying woodpecker habitat” as Jesse said when he was visiting.


Geoff and Jesse, crossing the creek into ANWR

The kids, on the other hand, the elemiddles at least, are doing great. They’re reading and writing much more willingly and skillfully than they did at the beginning of the year; They made incredible hand turkeys for Thanksgiving; They look forward to our daily chunk of Harry Potter read-aloud; They seem glad to be here and willing to bear with me a little more than they used to.

Tonight is the first sewing night at the council. It’s hard to get myself moving at the end of the day, but I’m really looking forward to learning a little beadwork and hanging out with some people who aren’t either under the age of twenty or Geoff. Wish me luck.




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.


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.


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.

Marten Lake or Bust. Seriously.

That Monday in March was probably one of the most beautiful days Geoff and I spent on the trail all winter. It was also one of the most frightening.

We woke up at Gweelah Camp and spent hours trying to thaw ourselves out. Geoff stepped straight into his forty-below boots that morning and it took a while for his feet to bounce back. We huddled over our low, damp fire, willing our clothes to dry, our toes to thaw, our water to boil. I felt brittle and stiff, like a frozen-solid sapling that snaps at a touch in the deep winter: the night before, huddled in that damp sleeping bag, was the closest I’ve ever come to truly, dangerously cold.

When we finally took off, we were low on fuel, low on really good food, and low on sleep. We had fifteen miles or so to go before Marten lake, and we felt sure now that there was no trail. I kept touching the package of toe warmers in the breast pocket of my bibs for reassurance. They were the last pair, and I’d been saving them against an emergency. They served as a kind of talisman: I knew I had five hours of comfortable feet, and as long as I could do without them, I had something in reserve.

The sun was blazing that day, setting the world to glittering in every direction. The ridgeline carried us like a rising swell over a sea of sparkling foam. We had sweeping views of the valley and the Chandalar, swirling against the foothills like a shining white pennant. The low hills rolled away from us in every direction and the mountains in the distance dazzled with searchlight-brilliant peaks. Daazhraii and I walked miles, all told, pushing ourselves to make up ground and help conserve fuel while Geoff broke trail ahead. I took no pictures, for some reason, but it’s clear and blinding-glossy in my memory.

When we crested the last ridge, we could see Marten lake far below in the valley. Dusk was falling, and the trail shot straight down the densely forested slope below. Geoff took us as far as he could, then left us again. I kept the puppy close as I walked, slower now than I had in the daylight, more cautious and aware of the woods around me. The forest had closed in, and the dark was circling. I had an ear out for night hunters. I kept the puppy close.

At times Geoff was gone a long while. He’d return, run us to the end of the trail he’d made, and then continue ahead alone. Each time he returned, I’d ask “did you make it to the lake?” Each time, he’d reply “not yet. I must be getting close, though.” We both felt exhaustion setting in, and when we passed through a promising patch of dry wood that might have made a warm camp, we pushed on with a sigh.

We were hoping for a cabin, a snug, dry cabin with a wood stove where we could dry our sleeping bags, frozen into a stiff mass from the steam and frost of the cold night at Gweelah Camp. I thought I remembered something from a conversation overheard a year ago in Venetie, but deep down I suspected the memory was just a wish or a fabrication. And even if there was a cabin, how would we find it? It was too much to hope for broken trail, a specter that seemed to have been haunting us now for days, especially broken trail that would lead to a dry, warm haven in this endless, frozen wilderness. It was just too much to ask.

The slope seemed to last forever, miles of straight, narrow trail with walls of brushy black spruce woods on either side. When Daazhraii and I rode behind Geoff, I huddled over the puppy, pushing clattering, clawing, dry willow branches aside. I took a good blow to the cheek once, and got a bit of crumbled bark in my eye. The eye watered and the tears froze, and I felt myself crumbling inward, at the end of my strength and resolve. It would be hard going if we couldn’t find a cabin. We’d both be drawing on tapped reserves of strength to cut trees and build a good fire and make hot food and dry our sleeping bags and take care of all the chores that mean the difference between a comfortable night and a dangerous one. It would be a night for space blankets and the last of the toe-warmers.

Riding on the snowmachine behind Geoff in that steep, narrow cut through the dark trees, I was scared. It was cold, and dark was falling, and I was done in, exhausted beyond my experience. I leaned my cheek against Geoff’s back and took a little strength from his blustery confidence and refusal to be cowed by the hungry night.

Just then, the skis bumped up and the snow broke in a straight line ahead of us. Trail. I let out a whoop and felt fizzies bubbling up from my toes. I’d stopped believing in trail days before, and yet here it was. My fingertips shivered with adrenaline and I cheered and danced. We followed the trail out onto the lake and around a few bends. Suddenly, rising right in front of us, cutting a straight line against the stars, there was the roofline of a cabin. I nearly fainted with relief.

It all happened so fast, once we found the trail. Hours of plowing through deep snow against the mounting arctic night and all its attendant terrors ended in moments with a bump in the snow and a line of darker dark against the black sky.

We turned aside the nail that kept the cabin’s door shut and went in. By headlamp, Geoff got a fire going. In a very short while, I was able to take off my coat, hat, gloves, neckwarmer. Steam rose from damp fleece and blurred the dim interior of the one-room building. We found ourselves laughing, cheered by the crackling warmth and the boundless relief of having a comfortable place to spend the night.

We looked for a high-powered radio, thinking we might be able to make a call to Venetie, but didn’t find one.

Geoff told me now that we had about three gallons of gas left, “not enough to get us to Venetie. Maybe not even enough to get just me if I left you and the sled”

“Looks like we’ll have to stay a few days”

“Oh darn – we’ll miss our valuable and instructive spring inservice!”

We planned to wave a gas can in the air the next morning when the plane came over. Boots would send someone with fuel for us, and we’d make it to Fort Yukon by Wednesday, with luck. We laughed, thrilled with the sudden gift of a vacation.

In time, we managed to untie the sled and bring in our food and sleeping bags. We strung ropes from the ceiling and hung everything to dry like so many rugs for sale in a bizarre sort of cold, steamy bazaar.

We fed the puppy and before we could feed ourselves, we were asleep on the bunk in the corner.

We woke up an hour or two later to the sound of snowmachine engines outside. The cabin was cold, and I jumped to my feet in the dark, searching for a headlamp and a sweatshirt.

“Knock knock!”

The door opened and a freezing cloud poured in, illuminated by the beam of a headlamp. Two figures materialized in the mist and resolved into familiar faces, once my eyes adjusted to the glare.

“We heard you guys were in trouble, so we came down to see if we could help out.” The two men stomped their boots, pulled up a chair and a bucket beside the stove, and started shedding layers of outerwear, hanging gear by the fire to dry. “Thought we might find you here.”

One man unpacked his backpack, pulling out fruit cups, pop, yogurt and dry meat “my little nephew wouldn’t let me leave without supplies,” he explained apologetically, “Would you like a pop?”

It turned out that, despite Boots’ seeing us that morning, folks in the village and at inservice in Fort Yukon were a little worried. These guys had taken off around three that afternoon with a sled full of fuel for us. It took them seven hours to travel the seventy miles of trail that we had spent the past four days painstakingly breaking, mile by mile.  They shared their snacks (I have a real weakness for dry meat) siphoned fuel, and took off for Venetie.

“You’re sure you don’t want to stay?”

“Nah, we’ll push on to Venetie. We’ll visit for tonight and head back tomorrow.”

“Who do I owe for the gas?” Geoff asked.

“I paid for it. We’ll just take care of it when you get back, okay?”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah, don’t worry about it, man. It was a great ride down.”

That was that. The door puffed open in a cloud of cold fog, snowmachines roared to life, and the night was silent and dark again. We went back to sleep, maybe a little heavy-hearted with the knowledge that we’d have to head out in the morning after all. That vacation had sounded pretty good.


Daazhraii relaxing in the morning with a good book at the Marten Lake cabin.


A beautiful sight.


I ran out onto the lake in my jammies at twenty below to give the plane a cheerful A-OK that morning. Afterwards, we headed out.


Everything but the kitchen sink – including the toilet (which is a bucket, and which we have to carry because puppies are disgusting)


Looking back on Marten Lake from the top of the next ridge.


It was another crystal blue day with long views from a rolling ridgeline. We were well-rested and glad, and not much could be finer.


Riding the dash. Or pretending to.


It’s about thirty miles – trail all the way! – from Marten Lake to Venetie. This was taken about halfway, and you can just make out Big Lake in the distance.


We reached Venetie around nightfall. Five miles out, I opened my precious toe-warmers, secure in the knowledge that I wouldn’t really need them.