Why Development in the Arctic Refuge is a Terrible Idea and What You Can Do About It.

I attended a BLM scoping meeting at the community hall the other day. Folks in Arctic were asked to describe specific concerns about the development required in the Arctic Refuge by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, and to suggest ways that the required development can be done sensibly.

The unanimous position of the speakers was this: any development, regardless of location and timing, will disrupt the porcupine herd and the migratory birds that nest in the 1002 area. Disruption of the herd will mean catastrophic cultural and economic disruption for the Gwich’in.

It was fascinating. I learned a great deal about caribou: the scent glands in their feet that allow them to relay information about trail conditions and hazards, the vital nutrients that the cows and calves glean from the unique ecosystem of the coastal plain, and the cultural, economic and spiritual relationships Gwich’in people have with the caribou and have had for millennia.

Developing nonrenewable resources on the coastal plain is shortsighted. Attaching this provision to unrelated legislation was deceptive. I am disappointed in my government and disturbed by the speed with which all of this is moving forward. I am humbled by the activists in this community, some of whom have been fighting this battle for decades. I am hopeful that the voices of this community will be heard, that this process will be slowed and ultimately reversed, and that eventually the coastal plain will be protected as wilderness.

If you’re interested in learning more, please read the expert opinion of a former and long-time employee of Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game who also served as a lead biologist for caribou studies.
To have your voice heard, submit comments here.

The tribe has requested an extension of the scoping period and that meetings be held in other Gwich’in communities, such as Fort Yukon, Beaver, Chalkyitsik and Circle. They have also requested a careful examination of the 1987 treaty that protects the Porcupine caribou and an invitation to the planning process for impacted Canadian communities.

Please consider lending your voice to theirs and seconding their very reasonable requests.

If you are an Arkansas duck hunter – as many of my former students are – you should be aware that the health and migratory patterns of waterfowl may hang in the balance as development moves forward.
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A spring snowshoe hike in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

 

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Roof Leopards

Geoff took off on Wednesday to run spring errands and get his teeth fixed, so I’ve been holding down the fort for a few days. I like the quiet, but I’m ready for him to be back in action. Things are thawing out, and I can’t keep up with all the melting on my own.

We brought home a couple of caribou two weeks ago, and when Geoff left we’d taken care of most of the meat, but still had a couple ribcages and three legs to process. Sure enough, when I got home from school that day, slipping and slushing all the way in bunny boots and a sweatshirt, the meat in the snowbank beside the house – a reliable freezer all winter long – was soft to the touch.

Work gloves on, I grabbed a caribou (minus its legs – what would you call that?) and hoisted the drippy ribs into my arms, up the steps and onto the table. I stayed up late processing (and marathon watching MASH). I got a good bit done, but the backstraps were still frozen into the spine when I went to bed at midnight, so I left the long, curving backbone, now sans ribs, lying on the table to thaw until morning. Daazhraii gave me good cuddles and I slept well in the unmistakable quiet half-light of an arctic spring night.

Most mornings, Geoff wakes me up around 7:30 and we make it to school just before 8:00. When he’s gone, I am on my own, and it’s actually kind of hard. I don’t have an alarm clock or a phone that will work as one, so I just sorta hope for the best and ask Geoff to try and remember to call me. Thursday morning, I woke to the ringing of a phone, so I jumped out of the covers to run down from the loft and answer it. I couldn’t find it, but when I looked at the clock I read the fatal hour: 7:30. I raced through morning chores in the broad daylight of a high spring morning: feeding the dog, picking out some clothes to wear, brushing my teeth because somehow my school toothbrush went missing last week (WHYYY???), cutting, bagging and tagging the backstraps, and stashing the rest of the spine in the snow beside the house. I fired up the snowmachine and cursed when it wouldn’t move, then realized it was frozen to the ground and kicked each ski loose. When I got to school, the door was locked and no one was there.

I parked the sno-go and put the dog on his run. “Did people think with Geoff and Mark gone, we had to cancel school, Shoopie? Where the heck is everybody? It has to be five after.”

It was, of course. Five after seven. I haven’t been that early to school all year.

At least I got a shower that day.

That evening after school, I went to check on the status of the caribou meat piled in the dwindling snowbank on the north side of the cabin. I stepped around the corner and almost got mauled by a half-ton sheet of snow with foot-long icicle teeth that picked that moment to slide (pounce?) off the roof. My scream brought the dog around, and he glued himself to my knees until he was satisfied that I was, in fact, unharmed.

The snow buried the tarp that covered the meat, so I left it, figuring the extra insulation would keep the cold in. Maybe also because I didn’t want to play tackle football with that particular snow leopard.

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I Won!

Just so that everyone knows, I beat this (charming) person’s butt fair and square in a tea-making contest this weekend.

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The loser. He doesn’t look too miserable.

Tea-making is a spring carnival race that I’m planning on entering this year (along with the egg toss, and perhaps the snowshoe race), so I spent some of the weekend getting practice. I lit two sturdy little fires on Saturday, then challenged Geoff to a race on Sunday.

The idea is, you race to be the first to get water to a rolling boil in your pot. You get an axe and a knife and a lighter and some dry wood and go to town, huffing and puffing and panicking. I burned off some of the wispy hair that sticks out from under my hat this weekend.

The real deal race is Thursday, and I’m sure to embarrass myself magnificently in front of the whole village.

Wish me luck.

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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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.