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.
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.
Yesterday, I slept in a little past nine. Silna spent the night curled up inches away under my cot, stirring now and then, while the light dimmed behind the hills to the north, then brightened again.
Alan showed up while I was still tucked in. “Brrrr. It’s in the low forties this morning,” he said
“No wonder I’m still in bed, then,” I said, “It’s chilly outside the covers.” But I flung them off anyway. We had plans.
Some weeks ago, I felled a really big spruce. I was super thrilled; there isn’t much that makes you feel more awesome than all that weight hitting the forest floor and rebounding into your boots and knowing you did that. That is your boom.
Nicole, Reggie, Alan, and I peeled it with a drawknife and a hatchet, using the blade of the hatchet like a spud knife to take off huge, wet strips of bark and cambium. Our pants and gloves became soaked with the watery sap and the slick blond logs slipped through our hands like fat salmon. I loved it, that joy of messy work that feels so clean, somehow.
Some of the middle pieces of the tree went to a raised garden bed, notched, log-cabin-style. I learned then that notching is not as easy as you might think and that chiseling wet wood is much easier than chiseling dry. I broke my first chisel working on that project, but I got my tomatoes and squash in before they busted free of their pots.
Some of the smaller-diameter pieces I left long. Those, in company with some lengths from another tree, will make the posts for the loft I aim to build later this summer.
The remaining pieces, cut into six-foot lengths, have gone to the mill.
Milling is hard, dusty work. The Alaskan mill mounts on the bar of the chainsaw and steadies it as the chain rips down the length of the log you’re milling. The posts are marked with measurements, so you can cut the plank to a preset width. Alan has been helping me, which I’m extremely grateful for. It is not a one-person job.
When we start a new log, we set the mill to three inches, nail a 2×6 flat along the top, then slide the mill along that to create a straight first cut. The resulting pieces of “siding” are an inch and a half at the thickest point, and structurally useless, but Alan made a cute planter-box out of some of them, and I’ve been saving others to dry and use as paneling on a future project.
While you are milling, the chain digs out a cut the width of the bar through the log and sawdust flies thick. It mixes with the hot exhaust from the saw and tickles in your nose when you inhale it. It smells like a paradox – clean, fresh spruce shavings and fumes from burning petroleum. Even through the earmuffs, the saw roars too loud for any overhead jet to cut in. You don’t look up. The mill and saw vibrate in your hands clear up to the wrists. You are fully absorbed, physically, back bent, nose, ears, hands busy. Your mind is free for a while.
I love that.
After each cut, one of us shovels the sawdust into a sled. I’ve set some aside to mix with wood glue to fill the cracks in the floor, and the rest I’m using to mulch the muddy parts of the trail. With all this rain, I’m glad to have so much of it.
Milling takes a lot of gas and a lot of time, and it’s amazing how quickly your chain dulls, running long rips like that, but you end up with great lumber. I’m drying some of the widest pieces, hoping they’ll be straight and wide enough to make a countertop. I’d like that, to be able to say that I sourced my kitchen counter on-site. So far, though, most of the planks have gone to the boardwalk.
Geoff freehand ripped an incredible set of bog boards for my wagon to roll along last year, then constructed a notched-log support system for them. It was a really magnificent feat of chainsawing, and they’ve worked perfectly, but it’s always been a goal to plank them over, and as of tonight, it’s done.
This summer has been a lot of that: planking the bog boards, finishing the deck, finding permanent solutions to the problems I had to figure out as I went along. There is insulation yet to lay in, a retaining wall to build, and a mosaic to create in the hearth-pad, but I’m chipping away at it.
From my very clean chimney to (hopefully) yours,
P.S. I ate some really tasty spruce-tip scones recently. Shoutout to Nicole for her culinary stylings.
We raised the yurt and sunk the power pole the weekend before I started grad school at UAF.
It was August, still warm but past the peak of mosquito season, so as soon as the walls were hung and the doors were mounted, I set up my cot. It had been months since I’d had space of my own, really. I arranged my water bottle and a book I had to read for one of my classes on the edge of the crate that contained my new wood stove, then added a candle, since it was starting to get dark again and I didn’t have electricity yet. Moved in. I didn’t mind that the wall covers were still flapping loose.
All that first week I went to orientation at UAF, then came home and cooked my dinners on a fire, burning the ends of 2x4s and slash from trees we’d felled to clear the site for the platform. It would be a few days yet before I had a cookstove, and weeks before I had electricity. That Saturday night, orientation behind me and a new semester ahead, I curled up on my cot, now pushed against the wall, pulled a candle close, and tried to read a little before sleep. I had to get through the first couple-hundred pages of an anthology for my first class on Monday.
As usual, the noises of the night slipped through the gaps in the walls and penetrated the thin cover over the lattice. During the day I could hear the wings of ravens flapping overhead. At night, the owls and the rustling of rodents in the duff still startled me, though I was getting accustomed to the company.
This particular night, though, voices from outside broke my concentration. They seemed to be coming from the forest all around me, which wasn’t right. I have a road on one side, a trail on another, and an empty, forested lot on a third. I couldn’t make out what the voices were saying, but they sounded angry. I reached for my bear spray and tucked it into the lattice in easy reach, marked my page in the book, blew out the candle. The doors were locked, but that didn’t matter much. The wall covers were still open at the edges, and, since I didn’t have stairs or decking yet to make the doors an easy access point, I’d been getting into the yurt by climbing through the gap in the hard wall underneath my one glass window. It was open to the woods, a big enough gap for a cow moose to get her head through, an easy point of entry for anyone smaller. I wished Daazhraii was with me, but he was in Arctic with Geoff.
I listened in the dark, breath quiet, as the shouting escalated. I thought maybe some folks were parked up at the nearby trailhead and partying along the path. Periodically, they’d quiet down for a while, and I’d start to relax, but then I’d hear a burst of laughter or a snatch of conversation, sometimes yelling and cursing. Just before eleven o’clock, I thought I heard gunshots. I stayed absolutely still while my fear wrestled with my self-control and my rational mind. My fear won out. I reached for my phone and looked up the number for the police station. They referred me to the troopers.
“I don’t want to make a big deal out of it or put anyone out,” I said, just above a whisper, “I’m not sure it was shots, but it really sounded like it.” And if someone nearby was shooting, they weren’t doing it responsibly. It was dark, they were close, and my walls were made of fabric.
“We’ll send someone to drive by in a while and take a look. Thanks for calling,” the woman’s voice was tinny and felt too loud coming through my cell-phone’s speaker. When she hung up, the darkness around me seemed to get bigger and the thin walls seemed to evaporate. I felt completely exposed, lying there waiting, listening for the sound of a car on the road. The partygoers seemed to have calmed down, and all I could hear now was occasional, muted laughter and chatter. I started to feel stupid. Was I such a wuss that I couldn’t make it even a week alone in my own home? Was I still scared of the dark like I was when I was little? Had I heard what I thought I heard, or was it just my imagination? Should I have called a neighbor, late as it was, instead of calling the troopers? Should I have gone out to investigate? I lay stiff and tense, waiting. Every few minutes I’d check the time on my phone. 11:30. Midnight.
“Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…”
I almost jumped out of my skin when they started singing, then I felt a wave of embarrassment tow me under. I was a complete idiot. Mortified, I called the troopers back. “Yeah, I called about a half hour ago… they just started singing happy birthday. It’s just a birthday party. I’m so, so sorry.”
Later, I found out that three people were shot at that party sometime after midnight. No one was seriously injured. John filled me in after he read about it in the paper on Monday. I thought he was kidding at first because I didn’t hear a thing. I must have slept right through the gunfire. I guess the birthday song must have put me at ease.
The Birthday Gunfight. It has a kind of legendary status in my mind.
I was pretty freaked out but I stuck out the next few nights, phone and bear spray clutched tight, and pretty soon the yurt began to feel safe: John made things happen every day while I went to campus: he built the outhouse, ran wiring, paneled the wall under the window. After school, I hung insulation, buttoned down the walls, chopped firewood. We teamed up to put in the chimney and I think that first fire made all the difference. Suddenly there was an inside that was warm and dry, and an outside that was separate, pushed away.
The walls are still fabric, and they’re still too thin at times (think -45 F, more on that soon, I promise), but they offer plenty of protection in ordinary circumstances, and I am sure I’m the only person in my neighborhood who has heard a moose clopping across the nearby paved road at two in the morning, the only one who can be certain she sat up in bed to listen as the very first of the sandhill cranes spiraled overhead and proclaimed that spring had come to Fairbanks.