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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overflow at the creek

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home alone poem

My dog comes to the door when I put on my boots

“okay” I tell him,

and he shadows into the night with a bound.

 

I walk out of the dooryard.

My headlamp lights the path, the block.

I raise the axe and bring it down

Spruce snicks into the sugar snow.

 

I reach for another log

And, as I straighten, I am stopped

Half-hunched

Staring into green-blue-lit eyes

 

Last winter, I stared into the eyes of a wolf

Just these eyes on a frozen night lake.

 

It looked its fill.

 

Green light lunges and snaps overhead.

Stars prickle on the back of my neck.

The spruce trees shiver.

 

I exhale.

 

Then, easily,

my dog steps into the glow of my headlamp.

His eyes melt again to chocolate.

 

Inside, I let firewood clatter to the floor.

He steals a piece to gnaw

gets bits of bark on the rug.

 

No stranger.

Zhoh (wolf) Camp

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A sky-blue-pink sunset on the way down the trail to the tent

From my notes:

Friday, 3/3/17 10:30 PM

I saw a wolf tonight.

Geoff and I were getting wood just after arriving in camp. Daazhraii was curled up on my sleeping bag in the tent beside the stove, beat, as he always is, after a cold night ride down here. Geoff had taken down two trees and I had already limbed them when the chainsaw ran out of gas. Seeing no further work for myself for a few minutes, I started walking back to the tent to check on the pup. The tent was only about fifty yards away, so I didn’t even bother to put my overcoat back on.

I was several yards down the trail when my headlamp caught a pair of eyes, green-blue, about as far away as the tent, and seemingly on the trail. Daazhraii? I thought, (his eyes are that color by headlamp), and then immediately discarded the notion: the eyes were much too far off the ground. Vadzaih? Surely it’s a vadzaih, I thought next, but I think I knew better already. The profile had none of a caribou’s boxiness.

It was very still, and I stood frozen for a while, locked into those glowing eyes. I thought I could make out the silhouette of a sickle tail curving down to brush the snow.

“Geoff?” I said, “There’s something on the lake – really close”

“What does it look like?”

“Maybe a wolf. Probably a vadzaih?” I said as I began to back slowly away.

There was more, but it’s a blur: getting back to Geoff and the snowmachine, watching in horror as the animal loped toward the tent and Daazhraii – holding a tight hope that the puppy would stay inside – keeping my eyes on the silent, silky-graceful shadow as it slipped through puddles of moonlight and the dark tree-shadows of the clearing behind the tent – the sudden light and roar of the sno-go as we crashed through flying ice crystals toward camp. I stood on the seat and pointed at the wolf as it casually loped out of sight. Geoff never saw it at all – his memory is of the fear in my voice.

Geoff fired the pistol once after the animal was away, just to be sure to scare it enough that it wouldn’t come back. I held my hands over Daazhraii’s ears on our cot, still shaking from the adrenaline.

We checked the prints later, and there was no mistake – it was a single, large wolf that had come to investigate our camp. It stood and stared at me from about 120 feet away.

I have seen wolf tracks often, especially this winter. There was one memorable incident last year where a wolf crossed my ski-trail within about fifteen minutes of me; I saw the tracks as I was returning to camp and they ran right over my own outgoing tracks. Twice now, I have heard wolves howling. It is eerie and beautiful and strangely welcoming: Join us here in this vast, glorious country, they might be singing. Until tonight, though, a part of me did not believe wolves were beings of substance: certainly they would come to lay prints as wide as my palms in the snow, but they would then disappear as quick a breath, invisible and incorporeal. Just phantoms in the silent winter woods. It was like coming face to face with a ghost.

Strange that the wolf came across the lake while we had the sno-go and the chainsaw running, loud and bright. Strange how it let me get so close and then ran toward the tent and the camp. Geoff thinks it was curious about Daazhraii, and I have to agree. The puppy will not be going out alone tonight.

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Zhoh camp and little Daazhraii in the morning.

Daazhraii

dsc05533It’s snowing, which rocks. The trail down the valley looks like bubble-wrap and jolts the snowmachine with every tussock. The snow will soften it.dsc05537We went out several weeks ago and Geoff shot a caribou: a young male. We gutted it where it fell, leaving the entrails for the wolves and foxes. We ate caribou heart for dinner at camp that night before skinning and quartering it. All that week, we cut meat after school and into the evening.

dsc05458dsc05461Camp is about fifteen miles down the trail, and we broke another fifteen two weeks ago. Only seventy more to Venetie!

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We had guests in camp the weekend before last. They didn’t visit while we were home, but the tracks were quite fresh.

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There will be a new challenge as we push down the trail this weekend. His name sounds like something between black and swan in Gwich’in – closer to swan. Daazhraii. He is a malamute/greenland dog mix, and he’s a big boy – 20.5 pounds at 11 weeks. I am smitten, and Geoff is no better. He spent last weekend cooking and freezing caribou chunks for dog treats.

dsc05603dsc05592dsc05574Bringing Daazhraii along will be tough. We’re bringing extra clothes in case of accidents, and I wish now that I’d found a light I could stick to his collar for nighttime romps. He’s an absolute sweetie and never wanders far, but I’d hate to lose sight of him out there. The fresh snow is nice though: his tracks will be obvious, and he won’t make it far, floundering along in the drifts.

Daazhraii: He snuggled up in my lap at Wright Air last weekend and showed his tummy to the world. I played with his feet and his ears and his tail and he just wriggled closer and went to sleep. He has learned to sit and come and look up when we say his name. He hasn’t mastered the bathroom, but he’s learning. The hardest thing has been leaving him for the day. I visit every hour between classes, but he still cries every time he’s left alone.

Bonus pictures:

Too muddy for too many words

Writing in our journals. Miss A wrote

Miss A wrote in her journal that “the best part of being outside is feeling the sun on my back. It feels so warm and good.”

This week is culture week, and the students have a half-day of music every day. They are learning fiddle, guitar and traditional dance.

This week is culture week, and the students have a half-day of music every day. They are learning fiddle, guitar and traditional dance. The program these folks run is amazing, and the kids are loving it.

For culture week, one community member invited us to his house to see the wolf he'd trapped. Black wolves are prized for their fur along the coast.

For culture week, one community member invited us to his house to munch on dry meat and see the wolf he’d trapped. Wolves are a significant threat to the moose population, which the community relies on for subsistence, so managing wolf numbers in the area is of real concern to the village. Black wolves like this one are prized for their fur by the people who live along the coast.

Some of the kids and I took the music instructors for a walk.

Some of the kids and I took the music instructors for a walk after the cakewalk last night.

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The prom committee made another hundred dollars from the fundraiser, and I won back the lemon cake that had been making my house smell like heaven all afternoon. Only about a quarter of it made it home, though. You can’t not share your cakewalk winnings.

I had girls in the kitchen right up to the last second baking cakes, and there's only so much giggling one can handle in a small space before fresh air becomes absolutely mandatory. I needed that walk.

I had girls in the kitchen right up to the last second baking cakes, and there’s only so much giggling one can handle in a small space before fresh air becomes absolutely mandatory. I needed that walk, and the beautiful, silly kids just made it more refreshing.

M built the tiniest snowman!

M built the tiniest snowman! This is the only week of the year so far where the snow has been wet enough to make snowballs. They fly thick and fast whenever I take my students outside for journals.

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I found this outside my house.

Feet.

Look at those puddles.

“I’d like to run through that puddle in the morning,” remarked A on our post-cookie walk through the village tonight.

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Most of the walk was a game of tag and tangle with Gracious, C’s adorable dog.

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We’re excited! The Cinderella Project of Maine is trying to help us get prom dresses, and we made the roll call (about three minutes in) on CNN Student News today! Between that and cookie night, it’s been a real red letter day.