Today, a short, chilly November Tuesday, was all about summer. My big goal for next summer is to squeak through without getting a real job just one more year. While I’m here, I’m here to write. I want to live in my treehouse and write lots of essays and hang out with Silna, not wear myself down slogging away at some job I don’t love to make grocery money. Besides, there’s the two weeks off for fishing in July, and the couple weeks it’ll take to get my boat down here from Arctic with Geoff. No way I can hold down an actual job. “Maybe I’ll just go mushroom hunting and sell morels” (that’s me)
“You’ll be lucky to make back your gas money.” (that’s Alan. He’s practical)
“So I’ll camp out for a few days at a time and eat… mushrooms?”
“That’d save you gas but cut into your profits. You should take the .22, then you could eat porcupines.” Like I said. Alan’s practical.
Alan’s plan for the summer is to work as a wildland firefighter. There’s always work for firefighters, pandemic or no, and that’s been especially true over these past few years. The pay is good, and he likes that kind of labor, so he’s started preparing.
See, there’s a test. Alan’s pretty smart, but smart doesn’t get you a mile and a half run in under twelve minutes. To join UAF’s fire crew, you need to be able to complete 45 sit-ups, 30 push-ups, and five pull-ups, do a three mile pack test with a forty-five pound pack in under 45 minutes, and run a mile and a half in under 11 minutes 30.
On pack test day in Arctic and Venetie, agency guys (BLM maybe?) would come out and administer the test. It was like a parade: folks you didn’t usually see out and about would be marching through town in the middle of the day, weighed down with those 45-pound backpacks. Three miles in forty-five minutes. I always figured I could do that, if push came to shove and I needed to work in summer. As far as I know, that’s the only requirement for those fire crews.
I don’t think I could make the team at UAF, though. Even with six months to prepare, I don’t think I’d be able to manage five pull-ups. I did, however, do a set of eight pushups today. That’s my personal best!
Today was the day Alan set his baseline scores for all of the fitness test criteria. Colin came over this morning and the two of them ran a mile and a half course through my neighborhood. I timed them, walking briskly from the start to the finish line with my phone in stopwatch mode in the pocket of my Carhartts. It was about five below, and the sky was that spoonbill pink on white in the south. I should take a walk every morning.
Back at my place, they took turns doing the calisthenics. I did my one set of pushups, held Alan’s feet for the sit-ups, and tallied everything in a notebook. Later, we drove to Alan’s and he loaded up his hiking pack with most of a fifty-pound bag of rice, then timed himself on a three-mile course. I worked on clearing up some old dirty dishes and things. Men are gross when they live alone. Later, panting and crusted with ice, he burst through the door. “People drove by and thought, dang, that guy is cool,” he bragged easing the pack to the floor and shaking frost out of his hair, “I made sure to jog when someone was coming by so I’d look extra cool. They all stared, like dang.”
“Dude,” I said, “they probably thought you were running off with a backpack full of stolen electronics or something. Who cruises around Goldstream in November with a pack like that?”
“Fair. That might have been why they were watching me. Dang.”
I felt a little lame, watching Alan work so hard toward his summer goal today, so, just now, I emailed the local foragers cooperative to see about actually hunting morels and picking berries for pay next summer, and then I sat down to write. Writing doesn’t pay many of my bills, but it’s the work I want, and if I really want it, I’d better work these scribble-muscles just as hard as Alan works those actual muscles if I want to stay in shape and earn my place on the bookshelf someday.
When it gets cold, here in Fairbanks, I can feel little jets of air shooting in through little gaps at floor level in the yurt. Like a hot tub, but not at all like a hot tub.
A secret: every fall, when the temperature bottoms out and I find myself stepping outside at night for the first time since the drop, I panic a little. Maybe it’s the sudden immersion in an illusion of the vacuum of space; that darkness in the stars, the empty, icy, weightlessness that threatens to suck the hot breath right out of my lungs and pull me apart. Maybe it’s all that heavy, icy air suddenly settling on me so that for a moment I feel like I can’t breathe under the lead of it, like the night air might force itself into my lungs and harden there. Can it be both at once? The terror of a crushing weight and the terror of weightlessness?
But then, every year, I pull on my Carhartt extremes and slip on my bunny boots. If you’ve never worn bunny boots, you might not know that they make for awkward walking. Each foot suddenly gets a lot heavier, and each step gets a swing to it, so that, like it or not, you’re walking around like an arrogant young cowboy with a brand new shootin’ iron. They say smiling sends happiness signals to your brain, so you can fake joy to make joy. Maybe it’s the same with confidence. Eventually, walking like that makes me feel at home in the dry, cold snow. Eventually, every year, the night and the ice and the starlight become my habitat.
Indoors, though, I wear fuzzy slippers almost all winter. No need to let the ice-jets sneaking in under the wall-cover tickle my toes.
Last night, after an afternoon at the shooting range and a run with Jane on Murphy Dome, I made cranberry chutney with the last of my frozen berries. I thawed some caribou steaks from our adventure with the Fortymile herd, and Alan picked some kale from the garden we planted this spring at his place. I had baked a loaf of sourdough bread earlier in the day, and I sliced a little of that up, too. A perfect dinner, all-Alaskan.
Local ingredients: Wild lingonberries from UAF’s trail system Fortymile caribou from an adventure in the White Mountains Kale grown in the Goldstream Wild Alaskan air yeast
The fireweed flowers are long gone, and the leaves have gone red. The birch leaves are fading, too. We got our last round of blueberries a week ago, and it’ll be cranberries and moose this weekend.
School started a week ago, and I’m struggling to transition to the very different work of studying. I want to be outside, doing my human hyperphagia, coming home and looking into my freezer with satisfaction at the neatly stacked vacuum bags of meat and fish and the jars of frozen berries. Instead, I’m inside doing winter’s work – reading, writing – and looking out the window at the last bits of summer dissolving.
I don’t know what woke me at 4:00 this morning, but I found my water glass empty and went barefoot onto the deck to fill it from one of my blue jugs. There was an owl out there, singing a night song in the clear rinse of a new day. I didn’t look for it, just listened as I drank a full, cool glass, refilled it, then came inside. I laid my body in my nest, stretched and shifted, closed my eyes, opened them. For some reason, I couldn’t settle down.
I like that expression – settle down. This context makes me wonder if it comes from the way birds fluff their feathers over their feet when they roost for the night. Even if it doesn’t, that’s how I’m going to imagine it from now on.
I’ve never been a good sleeper. I think I love Alaska’s summers because they give me permission to be as wakeful as I like, to sleep when I’m tired and work or play when I’m not. Deep winter is like that too – the sun designates no particular time for productivity, so my body, with its irregular desire for rest, can have free rein.
Daazhraii just leapt up and went to the door, ears and head high, featherduster-tail atwitch. I have earplugs in because Geoff is here and he is snoring, so I didn’t hear anything, but when I went to the door to answer the plea in those brown dog-eyes, Sylvester the camprobber was perched in the alder that taps the east edge of my deck. He had not “settled down.” His eyes were bright and his feathers were smooth and the branch he was clinging to was still swaying. He must have been raiding the kibble, kicking up a clang from the stainless steel dish. I let Daazhraii out, and Sylvester skedaddled. The dog is curled up in the corner of the deck now, nose in his tail, ears up. Let the squirrels and jays come scrounging, he says.
Silna must have heard it too, but she doesn’t seem to care who shares her rations. She is still curled up behind my knees, neat as a pin, shifting slightly when I stir so I’d hardly know she was there. I call her my liquid dog because of the way she pours herself into cuddles and nooks. She will sometimes bury her nose in my lap so thoroughly that her hind legs come off the ground and she slithers, upside down into the cradle of my legs.
When I am done here, with this early-late writing, I will get up and put on yesterday’s overalls. I will go down the steps and to the woodpile and choose a chunk of firewood to chop. When it is split, I’ll peel the bark away and fling it into a growing mulch pile. The split wood will join the rest in a drying stack. That done, I’ll do a few push-ups and brush my teeth. That will mark an official start to the day. I like having a routine that gets me out of bed and dressed and moving in the mornings.
Geoff flew in from Arctic a few weeks ago so to that we could go dipnet at the Kenai river mouth like we always do. Usually, that whole excursion is routine, but this summer it was different. Driving through the Nenana canyon where most of “Denali” is boarded up in mid-July felt strange. Not hugging friends was excruciating, and so was the worry that came with deciding to hug them anyway. We skipped showers at the washateria and tried to do all of our grocery shopping in one go. I learned that one of my favorite restaurants had closed up for good this summer.
But mostly, it was fine, and when the weather was fine it was lovely. We had some nasty weather on the river, but it cleared up most days, and there were a few absolutely sweet days of sunshine in Clam Gulch, where we set up camp.
I went running on the beach there with the dogs, and tried harnessing them both together for the first time. Silna didn’t really get the point, but we had a good time dodging the eagles that dotted the shore, hunched over fish carcasses.
One afternoon, after a run, I walked into the surf to rinse off and stopped short. Something was raising the hair on my arms. I looked up at the seagulls, down at the froth, behind me at the shore and across the inlet at the volcanoes of the Aleutian range. Set net buoys bobbing orange in the middle distance. Clear sky, fireweed and beach grass, dun bluffs, glacial erratics. Beautiful and inviting, all of it. Silna was up the beach, relaxed, gnawing on a salmon spine. My feet went numb in the water while I tried to pinpoint the source of my alarm. Finally, my eyes landed on the curl of darkness under the crest of each breaker. I was unsettled by the way the afternoon sun put the shadows in front of the waves. It seemed unnatural, uncanny. Something Atlantic embedded deep in my animal brain rejected the west-facing beach, argued that I must be in a dream of some kind. I tried to push past it, but I couldn’t make myself go in deeper than my thighs. I dunked my head under, swam a few strokes in the shallows along the shore, scrubbed my body a little, then walked out, relieved in an animal way.
We got our fish (Alaskanism? Does everyone talk this way? I’m not sure I like it, but I think in these terms in spite of myself). All but one. I like to think of that one as one of “our fish” too, the one that goes upriver and spawns and dies and completes the cycle of plenty, ensures a future harvest. The one that ties us to that cycle.
Terri was along, dipnetting for the first time, and she couldn’t get enough of the fishing, but when she whacked the salmon and clipped their gills and tails, she would whisper “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” I told her to say “I’m grateful, thank you, thank you,” instead, but I don’t know if she was really listening.
This is a moment of bounty in the north: plenty of time and light and food to thank the land for. The nasturtium on my deck is in on the frenzy, tumbling over the tabletop in a cascade of blossoms all tangled in the mess I never seem to manage to clean up between projects. A few weeks back, I harvested morels with some friends in last year’s burn on Murphy Dome. In a few more weeks, I’ll be picking cranberries on the tundra. This weekend, I’m driving up the Steese to fill whatever containers I can find with blueberries, and after I chop wood this morning, I’m going to fire up the chainsaw mill and start some lumber drying. Plenty to be grateful for.
Alan and I went up Murphy Dome yesterday and found a nice ridgeline trail fringed in dwarf alder. It seemed to go on forever, and I think if I hadn’t promised Geoff I’d be back, we might have walked miles farther than we did and come home late in the scraps of dark.
We drove up there for the shooting range that Alan found on one shoulder of the hill. It is quieter and shorter than the borough-maintained range in the valley, a perfect place for me to get some practice. I’m pretty skittish around guns. I think, if I didn’t need to know how to use them, I’d just pretend they didn’t exist. But I do need to know how to use them: I eat meat, and I want to keep eating meat, and to do that I need to be able to kill an animal myself and say thank you, I’m grateful, thank you. And if I’m going to do that, I want to do it as kindly, as quickly and surely, as possible. Caribou opens on the Steese soon, and I want meat in my freezer, especially now with all of the pandemic-uncertainty. I want to learn this thing, even though it scares me.
“Let’s get you warmed up,” Alan said, and firmly put the .22 in my hands. He knows he has to hold me to my word on the matter of guns, that I’d wheedle out if I could. I plinked the target a few times and started to relax.
Alan is a very good shooting teacher. He is that rare person who can break down a skill that has come to be as natural to him as walking or talking, and explain it in clear pieces to the raw novice. He’s good at noticing how people are feeling and helping them build confidence. When he could see I was ready, he took the .22 away and handed me my rifle, the one he bought for me to use and had me dry-practicing with all winter. I hadn’t held it in at least a month, and it felt heavy and awkward. He must have noticed how I was standing, so stiff and uncomfortable: “Check it to make sure it’s safe.” I did, and as I worked the bolt it started to feel more familiar, lighter.
I practiced, actually firing that rifle – my rifle – for the very first time. My first two shots weren’t great, but the next two were better. Alan moved my hands, my shoulders, helped me remember. He was warm and gentle and said all the right things, noticed and said so when I did things well. “Good hand position there, nice and relaxed.” “Good shot!” joyfully. We held hands and walked down together to check out the holes in my cardboard target.
We determined that I would be lethal to a caribou that was standing perfectly still fifty yards away. If such a thing comes to pass in a few weeks, I’ll take the shot. “And I’ll be there, backing you up,” he said. Alan. All the right things.
“One shot from a little closer, so you can finish strong.” And I did, and we put the rifle away and loaded the dogs up, but the day was too beautiful and the dirt road was too inviting, so instead of heading back to town, we bumped farther out along the rutted dirt road and found the ridgeline trail.
In a few weeks, I’ll go out there for cranberries. Now, though, the upper reaches of my spruces are aglow in earnest and it’s time to chop wood, set aside this early-late writing, and begin something.