River Trip Journal 4

7/8/17

The sign hanging above the post office in Tanana says “Tanana, Alas.” The “ka” must have fallen off. It’s a misrepresentation, though. Tanana is pretty, lively, and welcoming. The washateria has great showers, and the water is good. The library at the school opens a few times a week in the summer so that folks can read and use the internet.

We met a Norwegian family that had rafted downriver from the bridge and a French couple in a canoe. Geoff met some folks he knew from the old days, and everyone I talked to was curious about our trip. The girl who was working the counter at the store let us bring Daazhraii in while we shopped and chatted with me about where we were heading. Tanana is accustomed to floaters, so strangers are kind of commonplace and come with a ready-made explanation. It’s a different vibe from villages that I’ve visited before.

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Shade for people

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Shade for dogs. Daazhraii had dug this nice, cool hole to chill in. Smart boy.

The weather was screaming hot and clear when we were in Tanana, and Geoff and I were both getting sunburned in our shadeless sandbar camp. The sand got so hot around midday that you couldn’t walk across it barefoot. We stayed an extra day at the confluence to go through all of our gear and sorted out a good amount to mail back to Fairbanks to make a little more room in the boat. It was sweaty, miserable work, and we spent most of the afternoon after we finished it sitting half-in the river, arguing and burning, making ourselves miserable and knocking chunks off of the bank to hear the splash and see the splatter and vent a little frustration. We buried our feet in a stratum of icy mud beneath the surface and glared at the shivering hot air rippling above the white sand of our island. Ice cream sandwiches back in Tanana took the edge off the heat a little.

We got to town and mailed out our extra gear. The store-owner was chatting with me about our plans and Arctic Village. “Well, make sure you’re putting on sunblock, girl!” she warned.

“I don’t have any,” I exclaimed. “You always forget something on these trips…”

“Say no more,” she said, “I think I’ve got some upstairs.” She returned with sunscreen from her own cupboard and insisted that I take it. What a kindness.

At the library, I visited for a while with the librarian while my next Harry Potter audiobook downloaded. It’s always interesting to talk with folks who are connected with schools in different villages to compare and contrast.

We decided in Tanana that, to hell with fishing on the Kenai, we’ll just take the rest of the summer for this trip. We were supposed to be in Fort Yukon on the tenth and that just isn’t happening, so we’ll set ourselves up to take our time.

We left Tanana in the rain last night (I counted forty-six dogs in a dog yard on the shore. Whoah!) and cruised until we found a flat spot on the south shore of the river. It was a late night, so we slept in and had a great swim this morning. The water got deep enough quick enough that I could dive off the transom with the boat tied to the shore. Daazhraii came in with us and romped and played in the shallows and chased sticks. It was a rare true break from packing or driving or setting up or breaking down camp. We didn’t motor out until mid-afternoon. There’s nothing new about this, but we were able to relax without worrying about making our deadline in Fort Yukon because we’ve decided that we don’t have one.

Wahoo!

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(editors note: we wound up in Fort Yukon on 7/19 and took off 7/20 for the Kenai where we had a super-successful weekend dipnetting. We’ll be eating reds all winter! Now we just have to make it to Arctic before the school year starts.)

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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.

Labor Day Week Photo Explosion!

According to Levi and Sizzy (who escaped today, to no one's surprise and everyone's exasperation) you haven't known true happiness until you've done this.

According to Levi and Sizzy (who escaped today, to no one’s surprise and everyone’s exasperation) you haven’t known true happiness until you’ve done this.

Mud is bliss.

Mud is bliss.

We spent the weekend in Texas with Sean's family.

We spent the weekend in Texas with Sean’s family.

Sean taught his nephews some porcine wisdom about the joy of getting dirty

Sean taught his nephews some porcine wisdom about the joy of getting dirty

We came home and had a Wednesday cookout at the lake.

We came home and had a Wednesday cookout at the lake.

There was even some paddling, (not the kind we have in schools), and a swim and float with eyes full of the cottonball sky.

There was even some paddling, (not the kind we have in schools), and a swim and float with eyes full of the cottonball sky.

Our meat chicks arrived today, and, after spending the afternoon at school with Mr. P, immediately soaked themselves in their water and began to shiver. We don't have a hair dryer (they're not environmentally friendly or useful to people with little hair) so we toweled them off as best we could and stuck them under the lamp.

Our meat chicks arrived today, and, after spending the day at school with Mr. P, immediately soaked themselves in their water and began to shiver. We don’t have a hair dryer (they’re not environmentally friendly or useful to people with little hair) so we toweled them off as best we could and stuck them under the lamp.

They're all fluffy again, and adorable. No sign of spraddle or gunkybutts yet.

They’re all fluffy again, and adorable. No sign of spraddle or gunkybutts yet. These birds are destined for plates all over the scintillating metropolis of Marianna, AR. We ordered extras so we could sell to our friends, and people seem into it!

Boople and I adored them from afar. Neither of our cats has ever posed a threat to our chicks, but we'll leave the little critters in the spare room with the door shut, just in case.

Boople and I adored them from afar. Neither of our cats has ever posed a threat to our chicks, but we’ll leave the little critters in the spare room with the door shut, just in case.

Who could believe this cutie is a skilled killer?

Really though, who could believe this cutie is a seasoned killer?

Red, Right, Returning

If there is a picture of homecoming that is etched on my heart, it’s the sun setting over Belfast harbor on an August evening. I see one set of lights like the ones you see when you come around the bend in a road and catch sight of your city, illuminated, and your heart lifts up, but then I see another set of lights in the trembling reflections in the water, bursting as we pass and disappearing in our wake.

If I have an anthem, it is the thrum of a motor, the seashell swish of the murky water (quieting for the evening as the wind lies down) rushing by the hull. It is the deep clanging of the red bell buoy by the ledge as it rocks in our wake.

Happiness tastes like salt on my skin, in my hair, in the warm shore breeze, in the very fabric of the comforter wrapped around my shoulders.

It’s a sunburn, the rocking of the earth when you come ashore after days on the water, salt ocean stinging a barnacle-cut foot, a three-strand dock line passing over a palm.

Sunset from Little Pickering

Sunset from Little Pickering

We spent last week in Maine with my family, mostly on the boat. Dad said my eyes got bluer with every passing day, and I could feel the cotton clearing from my chest cavity, the fog clearing from my mind. Summer in Maine is a pure shot of light.

Sean's friend

Sean’s friend

Sean's friend meets mayo

Sean’s friend meets mayo: my mom makes a killer lobster roll.

That charm? I come by it honestly.

That charm? I come by it honestly.

I totally vanquished my foes and conquered the island of Catan in Seal Cove.

I totally vanquished my foes and conquered the island of Catan in Seal Cove.

Bre and TimZ came out with us for an adventure, and took advantage of the opportunity to recover from a night of ginsntonics with a boat nap.

Bre and TimZ came out with us for an adventure, and took advantage of the opportunity to recover from a night of ginsntonics with a boat nap.

We set up camp on Little Pickering island, the paradise of my childhood.

We set up camp on Little Pickering island, the paradise of my childhood.

Incidentally, as my father was snapping the above picture from the bridge, he was running the boat aground on a sandbar. The tide was outgoing, and it was a bit of a disaster.

Bre, Tim, Sean and I invited my folks to join us for dinner, and we had a spare tent set up for them in no time. We wrapped potatoes and corn in foil and roasted hot dogs over the fire. Bre played her ukulele and we sang along. The sunset, the smoke, and the sound of waves on the beach were soothing, and we soon retired to our tent. Mom and dad didn’t sleep: they spent an anxious night hoping Islander wouldn’t roll and then waiting for the tide to come back in to float her again.

I woke in our tent at midnight to the sound of the waves of the incoming tide burping through the swim platform. I unzipped the door and looked out at the great hull, glittering in the moonlight. Dad was rowing the dinghy around on captain’s business, and mom stood on the beach, watching. I threw some wood on the embers of the fire and walked down to the water. Glowing algae was spilling off dad’s oars like smoke. I splashed my hands in the water and they glittered.

We dragged the kayak down the beach, and I woke Sean up to paddle around a bit. It was eerie, coasting behind the beached trawler, lit only by the helm LEDS. It felt like a ghostly shipwreck: the only sound was the slapping of wavelets against the hull and the swish of the kayak pushing aside the water. It was beautiful though: the campfire glittered at the high tide line, the wake and every dip of a paddle lit with bioluminescence, and the sky was full of sparkle. I stood on the beach with my mom and watched for shooting stars. We saw a few, and before long the tide had lifted the boat back to a float and my parents took off to anchor nearby for the night. I sat by the fire and watched for a few more shooting stars.

In the morning, we had breakfast tacos, which consisted of scrambled eggs and bacon stuffed in pancakes. No plates needed! It’s been a while since I’ve been luxury camping. How delightful to have a frying pan and a cooler! We went swimming and paddling and gathered sand dollars on the sandbar, and in the afternoon we said goodbye to our friends in Buck’s Harbor.

For the next few days, we explored Merchant’s Row. Sean and I dinghied into Stonington for a few more jugs of water and some lobsters, and we anchored off of McGlathery, which is reputed to have a wild sheep population. We didn’t run across any woolies, but the island was beautiful, and Hell’s Half Acre, our next anchorage, was, if anything, more beautiful still.

Mom and Dad and their boat in the background

Mom and Dad and their boat in the background

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Shadow mermaids

Shadow mermaids

We stumbled across this sweet creek on McGlathery.

We stumbled across this sweet creek on McGlathery.

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At Hell's Half Acre, Sean and I floated for a half hour with the wind, just watching the sky go by.

At Hell’s Half Acre, Sean and I floated for a half hour with the wind, just watching the sky go by.

On our last night, I stepped out on deck to brush my teeth. The tintype moon hung in a fog sky, and my heart cracked. Maine is my native country, and it’s beautiful, and I will go back someday to my home by the sea.

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