Huslia First Impressions

Not exceeding the speed limit anytime soon.

Flying out of Fairbanks yesterday I got completely disoriented. I kept scrubbing the plane’s window to melt the frozen fog so that I could peer down at the landscape. Reflexively, I looked for familiar hills and riverbends. I found none. This is new territory.

Just now I got back from my first walk around Huslia. It was my first and last chance to walk in daylight, since I’ll be teaching all week and leaving on Saturday. I walked around the school a little and bumped into some kids who filled me in.
“The sixth grade boys are kind of mischief,”
“Thanks for letting me know. I’ll be okay though. They’re not my first mischief boys.”
“If you yell at them, they’ll just make fun of you.”
“Good to know.”

I’ll challenge any of the boys who messes with me to a wood-chopping contest after school. That should do it. Or at least get someone’s wood chopped.

The girls were worried about me being out in the cold, too. “Your eyes are freezing!” Just the usual: a little ice in my lashes and on my hat. It’s maybe thirty below, but it was sweet of them to worry.
“I’m doing okay. I want to walk all around the village to learn my way.”
“Well don’t be afraid to take breaks. It’s pretty cold out.”

They’re awful sweet.

Not that cold, but tired–I didn’t sleep too well last night in my unfamiliar bed.

Here’s what jumped out at me on my walk: there are birch trees here, and a couple street signs (at about chest height, since they’re mostly not for cars), and people tow wooden basket sleds behind their sno-gos, not just plastic ones. The riverbank is really tall. I stood on it to watch the last sliver of the sun set over the river. Wish: May tonight’s be the first of many Koyukuk sunsets I witness.

There’s something either really silly or really profound about how different my first observations of Huslia were from the ones I made in my first weeks in Venetie. I guess we notice the things that are most different from what we’re used to.

It feels really good to be back in a village. It’s like a clamp came off my chest as soon as I got off the plane. Everything just seems to move slower in the bush. I’ve missed it. And that confirms something I already knew: this is it for me. This is how I want to live.

I’m also, kinda weirdly, in the lap of luxury. For this week, while my unit is getting painted, the district has me staying in this massive three-bedroom apartment. There’s running water (and laundry!) and baseboard heat with a backup blazeking. I keep finding myself standing around with no idea what to do because I’m used to so much time going to chores. For now, I’m not missing the chores, but I will soon. It’s kinda hard to sleep in a house that stays this warm. And stuffy. I can’t believe I miss the drafts in the yurt, but I do. Gosh, am I good at finding something to complain about or what? I love having a bathtub though.

Last night was my first night in Huslia, and just as I was getting settled in there came a knock at the door. When I opened it, I found four young girls standing on the top step.

“Hi!” I said.

“Hi,” they said, “are you a new teacher?”

“Yep, sixth grade.”

“ooh, we’re in sixth grade,” one girl gestured to one of the others. They were full of questions. “Do you have any kids?”

“afraid not”

“pets?”

“a dog, but she’s not here right now.”

“I have a dog,” one girl said.

“we have a class pet!” said another.

“Yes, I met Sammy the Hamster.”

“how long are you staying?” They all quieted down to find out.

“I’ll be here until the end of the school year,”

“Oh good!” said one girl, “you seem nice.”

“Howabout the rest of your life?” said the smallest one.

I think it’s time to dust off the mixing bowl and bring back cookie night.

The girls asked for a sleepover, but I don’t think I’m ready to commit to that in my first week.

When I saw them again at the end of my walk today, one of them asked when they could come for cookies. I said I’d talk to the principal, and if she says yes we can do it on Thursday. “I’ll bring chocolate chips,” said the ringleader.

Jimmy Huntington School: Home of the Huslers

Off on Another Small Plane

I accepted a job in Huslia yesterday.

I’ll start December 13th. Grade 6, eleven kids. I couldn’t be more stoked to get back into a classroom. I’ve missed children a lot these last two and a half years, and 6th grade is a great fit for me.

I also feel weird about it. I want to start finding my way to someplace settled and permanent, and starting over in a new community where I don’t know if I’m likely to land for keeps feels like a step in the wrong direction. It also feels like a betrayal of the kids. Teacher turnover is such a huge problem in rural Alaska, and I hate to go someplace knowing that I’m likely to eventually leave. I guess that’s the nice thing about 6th grade, though: I’ll be with these eleven kids through the end of the year, and they’ll move on over the summer. If I do too, it’s not as big of a betrayal as it would for students I’d work with again next fall. Still.

And who knows? Maybe it’ll be just the ticket. Maybe I’ll never want to leave.

Here’s what I want, long term: I want to live in an Alaskan community that has more use for snowmachines and four-wheelers and boats and planes than for cars. I want to be surrounded by people I can love and who can love me. I want to live in my own home, not in teacher housing or a rental cabin. I want to have babies and to believe that they are safe in the homes of their friends and my neighbors. I want trees, caribou, mountains and rivers. I want to work hard for the things that sustain me, and in working to offer my gratitude.

Tangent: Speaking of gratitude, I have decided I’m going to be a gort — a meadow vole — (the one in my yard is named “Gort” so therefore all meadow voles are gorts) for halloween. I can make a costume with my brown overalls and my grandma’s mink stole and some bits of fur from my sewing box for ears. I’ll draw on whiskers and add a short tail and voila. DIY Halloween. Down with capitalism and plastic from China.

Here’s what I need, short term: a job that pays better than a graduate assistantship, health insurance that doesn’t suck. A dentist appointment.

So there’s some tension between what I want and what I need.

And maybe these aren’t the right questions to ask anyway–what do I want, what do I need. Maybe I should be asking who needs me. The sixth grade job has been posted since summer, so that’s an easy answer. And who wants me? Well, I interviewed as a backup in case they couldn’t find a substitute by the holidays (I figured I’d feel less bad about subbing, so I put myself on the list), and by the end of the interview YKSD was ready to offer me a contract. So.

So I’ll fly out in December and stay until the beginning of break, getting to know kids and families and the staff at the school. And then I’ll come back to Fairbanks, put my treehouse-home to bed for the time being, pack my things, and fly back to Huslia with Alan and Silna just in time to go dance at the hall for New Years. Alan will stay a week or so, and then he’ll come back to Fairbanks.

I’ll bring the Bravo. At first I thought maybe I’d leave it here, but when I mentioned that idea to Geoff he laughed out loud. “You’re just going to want to borrow someone else’s sno-go then.” And he’s probably right. And maybe in the summer, if I decide to stay, I’ll make a trip of it and take Lyra down the Yukon. She’s never been downriver of Tanana, and it’s a fine thing to have a boat in the fall.

On Not Stopping

Friday’s snow had that magical, slow, fat feel to it. Winter wonderland, powdered sugar stuff, and it was still warm enough to enjoy walking home from campus in just a fleece. There were a few golden leaves still clinging to the birches, and the Christmas-red bunchberries were still poking up through the snow on the ground. White and red and gold and sublime. I love that three mile walk through the woods.

And the snow kept coming. Alan came over on Saturday to help me wrap up some fall chores and had to stop to help someone out of a ditch just up the road from my place. Inexplicable ditch people are common this time of year. Been there myself once or twice. Here’s the story of this one as best I can tell it:

Alan and the driver pushed and dug and boosted, trying to get the car out of the ditch. While they worked, another truck came up alongside. This truck was creeping really slowly, checking them out and looking like it was about to stop, so Alan took a breather and waited, thinking more help was on the way. As the truck passed, moving at a snail’s pace, the driver rolled the window down. “I’m not stopping,” he said to Alan.
Why are you telling me this? Alan thought, sweating and puffing a little from exertion, if you don’t want to help you can just go on by. Then his eyes snagged on the wheels, all locked up: the driver meant to stop, but he couldn’t. The truck was just slow-gliding through the slush at a crawl.

I’m not stopping.
I like it. As a metaphor, it works. Brakes or no brakes, the truck just slides by. The inexorable in scene.
“I’m not stopping,” delivered matter-of-fact.
I thought the first snow would melt off and leave us another few days of fall, but it didn’t. Winter’s not stopping; no sense getting worked up about it. I won’t get cranberries this year; so what? I’m not stopping, I’ll just get them when another September comes sliding by.

In the meantime, this place is a confection of red berries, golden leaves and sugar-white snow and I am reminded to savor the sweetness while it lasts.

Putting it all to bed

Yesterday Alan and I devised a machine for lifting the engine off the boat. It consisted of a hook screwed into one of the beams at the back of his cabin and a rope harness and a comealong. We thought we were awfully clever when we got it all set up and it seemed to be working.

Hot tip: disconnect the battery before you attempt to lift a boat engine off the transom: there’s nothing like having it halfway up and then realizing your battery is still hooked up to the bilge pumps and they’re firmly attached to the boat and that battery is not coming away without a wrench which you don’t have handy, and and and.

Putting everything to bed for the winter is always harder than I expect: the loose axes and shovels need to be leaned up against vertical surfaces so they don’t get buried in the snow, the insulation panels need to be fit just so over the windows, every system needs to be drained or brought inside or fed its own special chemicals to keep from freezing and busting. It’s a whole set of fiddly chores, and they come right when it’s time to go hunting and berry picking.

Bye then summer, nice knowin’ ya!

It was a good summer, full of friends and floats and trips to Talkeetna and projects and craftsmanship and dogs dogs dogs. Alison helped me with the hearth pad mosaic project and we wandered the valley looking for big rocks for her garden. Daazhraii’s leg slowly gained condition, Silna had a near miss with a porcupine in the canyon up Petersville, and Crozier spent the summer escaping from every situation he could, the rascal. I figure he was just out looking for Alan.

Since Alan was away on Kodiak until school started, and I went to Arctic to bring Lyra downriver with Geoff and Tim instead of going down to the Kenai for dipnet, we’re looking at the bottom of the freezer these days, and I don’t like the look of it. It’s too late for moose, and caribou closes before the weekend, so we may be out of luck until winter hunts open. If all else fails, we’ll get serious about burbot this winter when the ice comes in and eat ourselves sick on fish fry.

Meanwhile, look for me out in the woods this weekend dusting the snow off the lingonberries. If we do come into some game later in the season, I want to be ready to bust out the cranberry chutney.

ALSO! If you’re curious about some of the things we’ve been getting up to, check out Alan’s youtube channel – it’s a lot of gun reviews (which aren’t exactly my thing, but I’m learning to appreciate his expertise) and great bonus videos of cute dogs.

First Snow 2021

I’m sitting on the 2nd floor of the Margaret Murie building at the University of Alaska Fairbanks watching the first snow fall on the green lawns of west ridge. I’m trying to develop a routine of writing here every Monday and Wednesday morning this year. So far I’m having mixed results – the last two weeks have been wild and fun, but not productive writing-wise.

I like the space though–on a clear day I can see all the way to the Alaska Range–and I like the idea of a routine. Maybe it’ll settle on me as the fall wears on.

Today’s project was finishing some copyedits and minor revisions for a forthcoming publication. It feels weird to write that, but I have to say I like it.