April Came Early

keelycamp

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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North

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.

‘Night.

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!

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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.

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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.

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Soft

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.

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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.

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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.