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.)

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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.

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

When Things Break

On the last night of winter break, the hot plate died. The light came on, but the water never heated up. Geoff tried to replace the bad wiring, but it fried on the first try. The house filled with burning-plastic smoke, so we unplugged the hot plate and stood back to evaluate the situation.

No big deal, you might think. It’s just a hot plate, you might think. I have a great appreciation for the importance of the hot plate in my life, but even I thought it was a minor inconvenience, an item easily replaced on the next trip to town.

Well.

I moved the big pot from the hot plate to the stove and got on with the dishes. I brushed my teeth and went to bed and pretty soon it was forty below.

Geoff gets up earlier than I do, so he gets the fire going in the morning and makes himself coffee while I sleep. When it is forty below, he thaws the fuel line to the monitor (thank goodness for backup heat – we do not have to worry about the house freezing while we are at school) with a heat gun and warms up the snowmachine, also with a heat gun. I know I need to get out of bed when I hear the heat guns.

So off we went to school and it was lovely to see the kids and begin to work on the school play and organize Gwich’in Wednesdays. It was also lovely to get home and sit down and recover. School can be a shock to the system after time off.

I made dinner – something something and mashed potatoes – and in the middle of boiling the potatoes, the propane waned to almost nothing.

Well.

No hot plate. No propane.

I stoked up the fire, and Geoff ran over to school to dig our coleman stove and the little green propane bottles out of storage. We set up a cutting board on our useless range-top and perched the camp stove there, its little bottle balanced on a plate behind it. We ate half-done potatoes that night.

Propane is much harder to replace than a bum hot plate. We have to get a bottle shipped in from Fairbanks, and the airline that performs that service has run out of bottles earmarked for Arctic. We’re still working on solving this problem.

There was no question of heating water for dishes and hand-washing on the camp stove. That’s usually a few gallons at a time, and the coleman stove isn’t meant for that kind of load. We’ve been using the wood stove to heat water since the beginning of January, which means getting a fire going straightaway after school or washing hands with cold water.

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Rampaging around the forest destroying woodpecker habitat to heat my dishwater.

I miss the hot plate.

But it’s kinda cool, because we can just roll the sink-bowl-cart across the kitchen and shift the slop-bucket stool a little to the west and BOOM! We are all set up to use hot water from a new source. No plumbing needed, TimZ. I like having a modular kitchen.

Really, I love living in a dry cabin. If you do not have a toilet, you never have to clean a toilet. It was a little inconvenient when I had a stomach bug last week – having to bring in and assemble your frozen toilet every time you need it is pretty… crummy when you seem to need it every five minutes.

I wouldn’t trade it, though. There’s an economy of space that comes with dry living that I would hate to exchange for on-demand hot water and a flush. I never thought I would get there when I first came to Alaska, but I have been lucky to be surprised a thousand ways in these years.

I have been reading the blog of a new-to-Alaska teacher who is just beginning to be surprised by the million tiny adjustments of village life. I am enjoying it very much. If you have enjoyed my story, you may want to read hers. Check it out.

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Home sweet lovely dry home.

Snow-puppy and his Isolation Distress

It was a beautiful afternoon. The moon rose at three or so, just as the light was fading. I rode the Sassy White Bravo out toward the creek to give the dog a run and to practice breaking trail in the deep snow (you lose your steering and have to lean to make turns. And don’t ever stop moving because you will sink and then you’ll have to shovel snow out from on top of your skis. I am not great at this, but I am trying to improve). The moon was enormous on the horizon: too big, like an alien spaceship lurking behind the mountains.

I got back from my ride and I couldn’t resist strapping on my ski boots and my gaiters and going for a slide around the loop, just to keep watching that moon, maybe to kind of keep an eye on it in case it had sinister intent. When I got back from skiing, I harnessed the dog and he pulled me around the loop one more time. It was that kind of afternoon. I just couldn’t get enough.

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Yeah, that’s like 3:30 pm or something.

I love that I have Daazhraii to count on when I want to go out. He’s a total chicken, (he is scared of fireworks and little girls) but having someone with me – even someone who is absolute yellow-bellied poultry – still eases the anxiety that comes with wandering the arctic night alone. Geoff wanted to stay in tonight (he doesn’t care for skiing anyway) but I didn’t have to go out by myself. I had my snow-puppy right there waiting, begging me with those big brown eyes and that floppy lolling drooly tongue to just please open the door and let that cool comfy air float in, or, better yet, let him go out. I put on my boots and he started to dance. He is great company. daazhraii by the door

The flip side to great company is crushing loneliness, at least for the dog. He has what I guess is called isolation distress: he gets anxious when he is alone. Any company will do, but solitude is unacceptable. He barks and cries and tears things up. He’ll do it for hours and hours. It’s not a behavior issue, it’s an emotional response that’s out of his control. He does things when he’s alone that he has no inclination to do when he has company. Leaving a shirt with my smell on it doesn’t work – he just shreds it in his panic. Playing music, stuffing toys with treats for him to extract, none of it helps. He won’t touch his food when he’s alone. He can’t be left in vehicles: this summer he ate Geoff’s front seat and my best friend’s husband’s head rests. He ate one of my bunny boots (see the above photo) and a thermometer when we left him in the house about a month ago. He sometimes breaks out of kennels, which I guess is better than chewing his own fur off, which some dogs with this problem apparently do when they have no other outlet. If he can’t break out, he’ll cry nonstop for hours and soak the door and the floor around his kennel with slobber. It’s awful to see him panicking like that, but it’s impossible to have him with us all the time.

I wish there were more that I could do. The internet professionals suggest slowly desensitizing him by leaving him for increasing amounts of time, starting with just a few seconds and working up to hours over the course of several weeks. The problem there is that leaving him for a longer time during that therapy period can undo any progress he makes. We can’t take six or eight weeks off from work to practice leaving the dog alone and in the summer we travel constantly. I hope he can benefit from this protocol someday, but right now it’s not realistic. Some people drug their anxious dogs, but I’m not quite there yet. I’ve thought about getting him a friend – when loose dogs visit, he calms down immediately – but one dog is a lot of work and I’m not sure I’m ready to take on another, complete with his/her own unique challenges. Besides, it might not help.

For a while, earlier in the fall, he was in a kennel right outside my classroom window during the school day. That was fine. He’d sit comfortably in his kennel, watch the world go by, listen to my voice through the window, and never make a peep. We started slowly moving the kennel and got him comfortable with a spot just outside of teacher housing. Unfortunately, the school district directed us to remove him from school property (in most places, this would make sense, of course, but in this village it is pretty ridiculous. There are loose dogs everywhere). Now we have him across the lot on a run, and he is not happy. In fact, he’s panicked. The barking drives everyone nuts – the maintenance guy, who has to work outside, has walked out over the incessant yelping at least once, and I can’t blame him. We keep Daazhraii at school where I can see him from my window because I’m terrified that if we left him alone on a run at the house, someone would get sick of his yelping and just walk up the driveway and pop him with a .22.

It’s challenging, and it has sometimes seemed like there’s no answer. There was a while in early December where I was missing school days to keep the dog company. Is it a sick day if I’m sick at heart? If it’s me or the maintenance guy? Magically, in the last few weeks, Daazhraii has started calm down, even remaining quiet for half-hours at a time during school and chilling in his dog house. He’s started to howl instead of yelp, too, so things aren’t quite so bad. The howling is pretty cool, actually. Cross your fingers and hope he continues to improve.

When we’re in Fairbanks, there are some different challenges. We can’t leave him in a hotel room, and we don’t like to leave him unattended in the car for long. Geoff and I have found that if we give him a good run before we leave him in the car, he is less likely to eat the seats while we grocery shop. This is not a guarantee, by any means, but it meant that we had a good incentive to take him out and work him every day when we were in Fairbanks last week. We played a lot of football on the lakes out by the airport.

keelyshoopiefootballwinter

I love my dog. He is gorgeous, obviously, but he is also affectionate, smart, sensitive, willing, hilarious, expressive, and strong. When he’s with his people, he’s mellow, attentive and sweet. He’s so quiet that I sometimes have to look around and check to make sure he’s in the cabin at all. He has learned some fifteen or twenty commands – my personal favorite is “gimmeakiss” – and his manners are excellent. I have taught him to wait for an okay before going through doors or starting in on his dinner. He rings a bell at the door to be let out. He likes to play tug-o-war and keep-away. He often lies with his chin just barely on the tips of someone’s toes. He likes to lie on his back with his spine in a crescent and his back legs spraddly. In the morning, Daazhraii jumps up onto the bed and burrows under my neck with his wet nose and leaves snail-trails of dog boogers all over my face. He likes to nibble my ears and chin. When we go out for rides on the sno-go or for walks or skis or runs, he bounds around exuberantly and throws up snow in great big sprays, that huge tongue lolling, those legs kicking out, that tail fluttering and floofing, those ears swiveling and pointing. It’s impossible not to melt a little inside.

My friend Kristie took these next two pictures, and they are some of my favorites.

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This one is in the tent at camp. That’s Daazhraii’s happiest place: he’s free to roam outside and he knows right where to find his people. I love his dog-smile in this photo.

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One of his cutest habits is burrowing into the snow. He’s always got a white face-mask when he’s outside. He just goes for it in the deep snow, diving like a porpoise. It’s totally charming.

There was a time in my life when I swore I’d never get a dog. There were at least thirty reasons, and half of them were “poops in yard”. That’s the least of my problems, it turns out now. I sometimes feel like a hypocrite, but I never regret bringing him home, even when I’m lost in a hopeless spiral, wondering if Daazhraii’s crying will be the straw that finally gives that extra leverage to the folks who want Geoff out of the village or wondering if someone will decide to take their issues with Geoff or me out on the dog.

He’s wonderful, even if he is imperfect, and I’m not so surrounded by good company that I can afford to reject someone who loves me just because he’s a little bit crazy.

No one else would have gone skiing with me tonight, and that’s worth everything. He’s an amazing animal in his element here, doing what his ancestors were bred for and loving it. He helps me to be my best self, to go out and soak up the moonrise, and he makes me stupidly happy, so I’ll put up with his eating my boots and crying from lonesomeness and love him madly anyway.

daazhraiilightsnow

How could you not?

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Also: If you’re out there dealing with separation anxiety or isolation distress with your dog, I get it. It’s horrible and agonizing. I have a huge amount of respect for those folks who find a way to manage this issue with composure and compassion for all involved.