The Geoff-est Thing

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Coming down-mountain after a kickass day at Old John.

On Saturday, I went to Old John Lake for the first time. Katie and Mike and the girls let me tag along, and it was beautiful! Following them on the ride up the mountain was delightful: they found the sweetest, smoothest trail to ride so that the girls would be comfy in their nest of blankets in the sled. We sat around jigging for a while, and the girls tested the crust on the snow, seeing how far they could make it before breaking through. At one point, sitting by the fire Mike had built, I remembered the state of the wood pile at home. “Crap! I bet Geoff took the chainsaw with him. I wonder if he remembered to cut some wood first. I chopped the last of it last night.” We chuckled and got on with our day, but I had it marked in my mind, a chore to do when I got home: check the wood pile and the chainsaw. The ride back was spectacular with the whole valley spread out in front of us and I felt outrageously fortunate to get to visit Old John in such good company. Thank you, friends.

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The girls and their monster lake trout

Meanwhile, while I was out fishing, Geoff was setting off on a mission of his own. He was determined to get us some caribou meat and he was done waiting for the herd to come north. We still have great snow, even now, but it is too much to expect it to last another week. Geoff called up the First Chief and made arrangements to go out hunting on tribal land. The plan was for him to head south with Albert. They’d spend the night out there and come back the next day.

When I came home from fishing, I wasn’t surprised to find Geoff gone, but I was surprised to see that he hadn’t taken the chainsaw. I looked around the house a little more carefully and discovered that he hadn’t taken a sleeping bag, either. It was a puzzle, but it probably just meant he was traveling light and he’d come home late that night or in the wee hours instead of the next day. Glad, I set about making a birthday cake. I pictured lighting the candles as soon as he came through the door and having him blow them out while bits of ice were still melting out of his beard.

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Mmmm buttercream. I tried not to sample too much, but there’s just something about buttercream.

Later that evening, I learned that Albert was too sick to go out and that Geoff had taken off with someone else. To go out on tribal land, we have to have a guide, which is why we usually go into ANWR. This news just made me more certain that he’d be through the door any minute.

I finished frosting the cake around midnight and headed off to bed. I woke up every time I heard a sno-go on the road, certain it’d be Geoff, bringing a sled full of meat and work and a wave of cold through the door. But it wasn’t. He didn’t come home.

Around four I woke up, unable to sleep. He didn’t have his sleeping bag or a chainsaw – what if something had happened? He’d be furious if I made a fuss over nothing – the rule is “don’t worry unless I’m late for work – like a couple hours late for work – on Monday morning” but I hated to think of him out there in the cold and dark in some kind of trouble.

I inventoried my gear in my head, planned a way to fuel up the Bravo if I needed to, tried to remember the southbound trail that I thought he was on, and then rode over to the school to check my email. Since I don’t have the use of my cell and we don’t have internet at home, it’s inconvenient to communicate with someone out in the woods, but it’s possible thanks to the inReach, which is a blessed miracle of technology that functions as a GPS and sends text messages via satellite. When I arrived at the school, he hadn’t sent a message, which was either good or really really bad. I sent, “I’m worried – you don’t have your gear. Write back soonest,” and waited, biting my thumbnails and killing the time watching Netflix.

Finally, after about half an hour, he responded. “I’m here, all good.”

“Okay – let me know when you head home. I’m inviting people over for a birthday party and I want to guess at a time.”

“You got it. Should be heading home slowly around 8 am”

I knew he was about forty miles down the trail, so I figured noon was a reasonable expectation. I went home, took a nap, told everyone to come over at six, and made pizza dough.

At three, I got a little worried again and headed back to the school. “Hey, we got crazy turned around, but we’re back on the trail now. See you in a few hours unless we see caribou.”

Well. Judging by the fact that we hadn’t seen caribou in a while, I figured he’d still make it in time for the party.

At five forty-five I heard a sno-go in the driveway. “Geoff! Shoopie, he’s home!” Daazhraii and I flung open the door and bounded out, ready to give lots of loves, but it was the first party guests arriving, not Geoff at all. I tied the dog out, invited them in, and proceeded to have an awesome time eating pizza and cake with wonderful people. By eight, they were all bound for home, and at eight-thirty Geoff rolled up, frosty and thrilled with a sled-load of caribou. I lit the candles on what was left of his cake, he blew them out with ice still melting out of his beard, and then he cut himself a good fat piece.

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Geoff – the notoriously unpunctual Geoff – had done the Geoff-est thing: he had woken up in a snowbank after sleeping in his Carhartts and bunny boots, snow machined for almost twelve hours, and then finally showed up late for his own birthday party, elbow-deep in caribou blood and with cold all the way to the bottom of his pockets.

May your fifties be full of weekends like that, Geoff.

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Skiing – Back Soon

Oh Springtime!

It’s been weekends in the refuge on a hilltop with an all-around view. At night we can see the lights of town twinkling twenty miles away. I named the spot Weathertop for the way it overlooks the Junjik valley to the north and the Chandalar valley to the south.

In March, my dad visited Arctic for the first time. We camped at Weathertop, went skiing, and toasted St. Paddy from the top of the world. It felt wonderful to finally be able to show someone why the isolation and frustration are so worthwhile – chump change compared to the compensation of mad-glorious wilderness.

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One weekend, Daazhraii ran sixty miles in three days so that Geoff and I could have a picnic at the end of the trail. Geoff’s been out riding it endlessly, trying to push farther each time and coming back to camp grinning through a beard of snow with the zippers on his carhartts iced in. This weekend, I stayed home and he and Albert camped rough out beyond Spring Creek so that they could just keep pushing out and out.

There is no sign of caribou north of the village yet, but there is plenty of moose activity. Once, I was so close on the trail of a moose – though I never saw it – that its smell still hung in the air. I have noticed the tracks of weasels and marten, and a few times the imprints of hunting owls. There have been wolves, too, though we haven’t heard them howling this year. Their tracks make Daazhraii’s look like tiny butterflies in a field of heavy, wide sunflowers.

Kristie came out to camp last weekend and I got the Skandic stuck. We were cutting firewood, and I’d no sooner run off into the deep snow to get turned around than the machine went down on its side. I couldn’t drive out in forward because I’d gotten myself wedged against a tree in the process of tipping the machine upright. I couldn’t get enough purchase in reverse to make it more than a few feet. In the end, I had to go for help, which was awfully embarrassing. We’d borrowed a short-track Bravo for Kristie to ride – it’s so itty bitty that riding it feels like cruising on a tricycle! – and I was actually able to pick up the back end and just spin it in the trail so that I could ride up to camp to get Geoff. He solved the Skandic problem by running over the tree (maybe the diameter of my knee and fifteen feet tall?!) that I’d been fetched up against. Yikes.

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photo credit: Kristie!  – Thanks lady.

When not on Weathertop I’ve been obsessively googling yurt things. I’m going to look at some property in Fairbanks on Friday, and if it works out the way I hope it will, I’m going to erect a yurt on my own land adjacent to the trail system behind the university. I’ll be able to ski or bike to class! It’s all about yurt companies and wood stoves and incinerator toilets for this gal right now. I have developed a strong distaste for indoor bathrooms, so I’m hoping I can get away with an outhouse, but, if not, did you know that incinerator toilets can function at temperatures as low as -35 fahrenheit?! You could totally put one in an outhouse of sorts. I also know how to get a permit to cut firewood in the borough and that the city of Fairbanks considers yurts “single family dwellings” for permitting purposes.  I love the rush of having something really pressing and fascinating to research.

This weekend, while Geoff and Albert were out breaking trail, Daazhraii and I stayed home and stayed busy.  In addition to yurt-googling, I made cookies and cranberry bread, hauled water and started laundry, swept and mopped and made a wood-burned axe-handle for Geoff. The snow-puppy and I went skijoring and checked out the spring carnival where the kids were trying to pop balloons tied to each other’s feet. I mailed my taxes and a letter and sent off an essay and some photos to a magazine that’s actually paying me for some writing! Woo! Look for more on that in November of 2020. I had to keep chopping wood to have an outdoor fire, too: I’ve been trying to figure out how to extract the teeth from these skulls I’ve got, but I need to macerate them first, which meant boiling them over the fire pit. Anyway. I’m going to call an orthodontist friend soon for some advice on that one.

School is still chugging along, but it seems like an afterthought now that the sun is up. We have been doing all kinds of cool stuff, though none of it is really reading, writing and ‘rithmetic: We’ve been skiing, performing wolf dissections, checking out Jim’s polar bear skin, and planning for our spring trip to Homer and Seward. We’re flying out on Friday with nine kids and we’ll be gone for almost ten days. It’s going to be awesome, but I hate to miss the last weekends of spring.

I’m starting to have trouble sleeping, or at least trouble finding the rhythm of sleep. Spring is the hardest because I still feel the need for the dark to give permission for me to rest. When the midnight sun comes, it’s like a license to nap at will through the long syrupy afternoon. I wore cutoffs and winter boots this weekend to haul water, and I saw a cardinal yesterday. The ducks and geese will start appearing as soon as we have open water. Maybe I’m having trouble sleeping just because I don’t want to miss a second of the season. It’s like soft serve dripping down the back of your hand: eat it quick before it melts! There is no time for savoring, just slurping.

Slurping with relish,

Keely

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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.)

It makes a difference

Fifty-five below is a lot colder than forty below. This morning, on the way to school, I could feel my nose prickling with frostbite needles, even through my neckwarmer.

The propane is still flowing, maybe because we have a mostly-full tank. The monitor is icing up, and Geoff’s talking about plugging in the heat tape to keep the fuel from jelling in the intake.

It’s been cold since Saturday. At camp, my keychain thermometer was bottomed out at -30. Geoff’s machine needs some repairs, so we left it beside the tent when we came back to town. Daazhraii lolloped ahead of the Bravo, perfectly easy in the frigid night, puffing clouds of breath that hung in the air behind him, obscuring the trail and dissolving the beam of the headlight. Out of this golden mist, pawprints materialized, helpfully tapping out a dotted line through the night. When we stopped to switch drivers or to warm our hands, Daazhraii would appear out of the darkness and lie in the snow beside us, grinning and burying his head in the drifts, eating snow.

I love how I can still be surprised by the way the cold changes the behavior of common elements, how it turns things around and makes the ordinary world extraordinary. It always surprises me, too, how real cold still frightens me. Walking to and from school at fifty-below, I get a chill behind my heart that has nothing to do with my core body temperature, and I’m very, very glad that my keys are there when I reach for them to open the door. Stepping in, the mist billows around my shoulders. We all make dramatic fog-machine entrances in times like this.

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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