Summer’s really getting going now, and I have the mosquito bites to prove it. Alan and I just got in from an overnight backpacking trip with a big crew of new friends (new friends! Meeting new people feels almost sinfully delicious!) in the Chena River Recreation Area, and we’re still all mud up to mid-calf and blisters under the toes and skeeter bites clear up to here and it just feels so good. So good. (Hot tip for anyone thinking of heading to Stiles Creek cabin any time soon: bring a mosquito net – the cabin isn’t safe from the swarms)
It’s been a gorgeous, busy, cool-weather spring. The snow stayed on the ground a long time, and my garden plants have taken their time in germinating, but the mosquitos haven’t been too bad yet (well, up until this weekend), and the sap run went well into May. I brought in a pint and a half of finished birch syrup just using the sap from the two tapped trees in my woods.
Just like last year, my woods turned into a creek when snow in the field next door started to melt in earnest. Unlike last year, I was ready. Alan and I hauled a lot of water before the trail became unsleddable, and I had rubber boots ready to go for wading through the mire. By the time the flood was knee-deep, we had concocted a scheme for a new annual event: prodding stick required, rubber boots optional. Alan’s beer box boat won the race, but Silna stole the show when she came through for Manny and carried his craft over the finish line.
Using this wonderful video as a guide, Alan and I have been trying to learn traditional brain tanning and practicing on a couple of caribou hides from last fall’s hunt. It’s going pretty well so far. He wants to make a buckskin shirt (without too much fringe, of course) and I want to have some soft, beautiful hide to make into a pair of beaded slippers trimmed with rabbit fur to wear at school when I get back into the classroom next year.
The past few months have been hard: Back in March, Daazhraii was injured in Arctic Village (we don’t know how, though the vet believes someone must have hit him in the knee with some kind of club). The injury left him essentially crippled and he developed a horrible abscess and infection that ate away at the bone and nearly cost him the leg. After more than a week of draining infected fluid all over the house, the vet cleared him for a first, exploratory surgery and scraped away the necrotic flesh from the knee. Later, after that first incision healed, the vet went in to operate on the severed cruciate ligament and nearly gave up and amputated: the infection had eaten away too much of the bone. Over the phone, Geoff begged him not to take the leg, so he did what he could and we all got lucky: as of today, Daazhraii is scheduled for a final surgery that should give him almost full use of the leg again by the fall.
The summer’s arrival has brought some much needed light: there’s finally good news about Daazhraii’s leg, there’s a memorial service scheduled for next week that will allow Geoff and me and our friend Alison to grieve in community for a loved one who died in the autumn, there’s all the good fresh food that the end of winter brings, and there’s the promise of a season brimming with new faces, smiles showing bright, bared to the endless sun.
Late the other night, I drove Alan and Crozier back to Alan’s place in the Goldstream. Alan’s been staying with me more than usual lately, since his Bronco’s been in the shop (apparently, they had to order a part from Texas, and it got delayed on its way because the pandemic is slowing down barge traffic from the lower-48). It’s been lovely: we’ve been cooking together, trying to establish some healthy routines, and mostly failing no thanks to a recent mutual obsession with the Great British Baking Show. All I want lately is cream puffs! The dogs have been keeping each other entertained, and we’ve been playing board games with the friends in our bubble, drinking lots of tea, and taking turns doing dishes. Each of us has been trying to take a daily leash walk with one of the dogs to soak up a little of the precious sunlight that filters through the trees in my neighborhood. A few times we’ve met in the clearing up the trail and let Silna and Crozier off their leashes to run around together and smell the fascinating smells of the world outside my yard. The whole thing has been very nice and domestic and cozy.
Now, though, it looks like we’ll both be spending Christmas more or less alone. Alan will be stranded at his house with no vehicle, and I’ll be pretty limited in my movements, too. It’s all Silna’s fault: she’s taken it upon herself to go into heat for the holidays.
Here’s a primer on female dogs in heat: a few days before they become fertile, they begin to bleed and their vulvas swell up to twice their regular size. The blood and discharge can get a little messy, but it’s not too bad. Silna sleeps a lot more than usual and seems more sensitive. Alan described her as extra-doe-eyed. It’s a little bit inconvenient, and it can last for up to a few weeks, but managing her symptoms isn’t a huge deal. The real problem is the scent she emits. Everything I’ve read indicates pretty unequivocally that every single male dog in the North Star Borough is going to break loose and charge over here to pitch some woo within a few days (get it? Howling dogs say wooOOOoooOOO!). Unfortunately, Crozier is an intact male, and I really don’t want puppies right now, so he and Alan have got to go.
There are a few really good reasons for this. First of all, Silna’s still very young. She’s only in her second heat, and I absolutely don’t want to breed her until she’s physically mature. Second, I haven’t had her evaluated by an expert. She’s brilliant, personable, fast, flexible, eager, and sound, but she’s also small and not very typey for a Greenland dog. I don’t want to be responsible for bringing subpar puppies into the world. Third, Crozier had parvo and spent a lot of time on the property this summer. It would be awful to go through that again, knowing I have the power to prevent it. I’d like to give any surviving virus a couple years to dissipate, or plan a litter that would whelp and mature in winter when the ground is encased in snow and ice. Fourth, I’d feel horrible if any of her pups wound up in a crappy home. She’s special, and if she ever has a litter, I want every one of those pups to have a home as good or better than the one I could give them.
I have some guilt about keeping her intact at all: on the whole, I’m a big fan of spaying and neutering dogs. Whenever I stayed home sick as a kid, I’d sit on the couch with my tea and applesauce and watch The Price is Right. At the end of every episode, Bob Barker would remind me to spay and neuter my pets, and I had nothing better to do, home alone, than to take that message to heart. Here I am, though, with my own female dog entering her second heat and no plans to spay her any time soon.
Daazhraii is neutered. I got him fixed when he was about two. It seriously improved his cranky attitude, no question about it. That was the biggest reason I wanted it done: he’d taken to growling at people – anyone but me and Geoff, really, even friends he knew well – who wanted to pet him. The world absolutely doesn’t need more cranky dogs in it, and his bad attitude wasn’t from some abusive experience: he’d had a really good life, with lots of socialization and no major traumas. It’s just who he was, and that didn’t need to be passed down. He’s still nuts, but a little less so. And he’s big and strong and gorgeous, and all the freight dog people look at me like I must have been off my rocker when I made the decision to get him snipped, but I’ll stand by that decision as long as I live. I swear, he’s a basketcase. It wouldn’t have been worth it.
Silna is Daazhraii’s opposite: she’s not as impressive a physical specimen, but she’s got all the charm, brains, and will that Daazhraii has never had. She meets new acquaintances, human or dog, enthusiastically, and she meets challenges with the same vim and a bold heart. She learns everything I try to teach her and plenty I don’t, and she’s got sense as well as smarts. In harness, she pulls hard and steady. It’s difficult to believe the two of them are half-siblings.
Alan’s dog Crozier has the size and power that Silna doesn’t, and he’s sweet as honey ice-cream. If I ever find I need a dog team, I could do a whole lot worse than to let the two have a litter. And, honestly, I’d really like to have a dog team someday. Definitely not this year, probably not next year, but in the not-too-distant future when I go… well, I don’t know for sure where, yet. Maybe back to Arctic or to some other village, certainly back to the bush. She’s part of a long-term plan.
In the meantime, the long term plan requires some investment, and that means another quiet Christmas. I’ll spend Christmas Eve in solitude while most of the folks in my pandemic bubble celebrate at Joshua’s house, but I’m okay with that. I’ll light some candles and I’ll sing some carols in the wonderful little amphitheater of my home, and maybe I’ll bake something special for myself, and I’ll think a little about the holiday traditions that have a hold on my heart and which of them I want to carry on. I’ve been thinking a lot about tradition and ritual and the power of celebrations lately, and I’ve been thinking a lot, too, about what traditions I want to invent or pass down to share with my own kids, when they arrive on the scene. Which they will, if I have anything to say about it, maybe around the time I finally get that dog team running. On Christmas day I’ll make myself a celebratory breakfast of pancakes and enjoy the last day of holiday music on the radio. Actual radio, too, not that internet stuff.
Right now, it’s sixty degrees warmer than it was this time last year, and instead of poor Zeus (Alison’s pitbull, who spent a very chilly holiday shivering in the treehouse with me last year) I’ve got Silna here to keep me company, along with Daazhraii, who has flown south for a visit while Geoff does some hard trailbreaking on his snowmachine out in the Arctic Refuge. It’s nice having the Shooper around: I feel a lot safer letting Silna, that lusty little tart, play outside when her big, strong, eunuch bodyguard is hanging around. I’m sure he’d raise a fuss if any strange males came sniffing around. With no one else here, and no real way to go anywhere (since they can’t be left in the truck for very long or Silna will eat the upholstery) I have plenty of time to work on making Christmas presents. When I ask someone to watch Crozier for a few hours so that Alan can come over to celebrate with me on the 26th, I’ll be able to offer him a homemade stocking (maybe with rabbit-fur puffballs!) stuffed with a few nice, handmade things.
And that’s not too bad, after all, is it? For an estrus holiday?
So you may have noticed that the blog is kind of on hiatus. I’ve been avoiding even checking my email these past few weeks, and I haven’t really looked at facebook in months. Being home is wonderful, and the sun and the salt and everything keeping me busy have made me too happy to worry much about the rest of the world, or writing it all down. Basically, it’s taking an act of parliament to get me to a computer, but here I am, saying hey and apologizing for radio silence.
I’m spending today in the sunny back garden of my childhood home splicing thimbles into various lines for various things. I’ve never done it before, but with the help of youtube I’ve become competent.
Did I mention I bought a boat? Well I did. It’s a Tanzer 22, and I went for my first sail on Monday. Yesterday the weather was crap (also known as ideal for reading and beef stew and making cookies), but today is gorgeous, and Dad’s going to coach me in safe anchoring this afternoon. Jealous yet? I’ve already learned to step a mast, and how not to launch a sailboat from a trailer, and what chainplates and cotter pins are, and I’ve shaken off the outboard curse (an affliction I think I was born with) and now have a 70% and climbing success rate with the two outboard motors I’ll be running this summer. I’m brushing up on using charts for navigation, and I know how to use a radio. Penobscot Bay has been my back yard since I was a kid, so I’ll have a little edge. All that’s left is the part I’m good at, which is balancing between wind and water. I’ll learn the rest, and if I’m lucky and a little smart, I won’t damage anything in meantime. Wish me luck.
So far, the summer is exactly what I needed. Old friends, whopping good news from afar, salt in my hair, lupines and beach roses, excellent food, and a lovely fellow on an island nearby that I can pick up on a whim and go adventuring with in the bay. I’ll be back in the fall, and may put in a few words before then, but for now I’m taking a break from the internet to soak up every second of this perfect summer.
It has been snowing for twenty-four hours now, though the accumulation is only a few inches. In any case, Nicole officially has the better part of spring with her crocuses and butterflies. I went walking yesterday afternoon in the biting wind and snow, and the village was all but deserted. B and A slid up on a fourwheeler to offer me a ride. A’s loooong ponytail swung across her back as they slipped to a stop, and the wind picked it up and blew it into her face. B squinted and grinned at me, tipping his head to keep the sideways snow from blowing into his eyes.
“Need a ride?”
“No, I’m just going for a walk”
“You sure? This is the opportunity of a lifetime!” He gestured grandly.
“More like the opportunity of a deathtime!” (teachers have to make really lame jokes. It’s in the contract)
He chuckled, then, catching himself, quickly straightened his face to indignation.
“okay, if that’s how you feel”
B tried to make a big show and just skidded halfway across the road. A screamed and her ponytail swung wildly as they disappeared into the curtain of falling snow.
Every day this week, I’ve taken myself on a long walk. Until yesterday, it was warm and sunny, and I rambled willy-nilly all over the edge of the village, trying not to pop up in anyone’s back yard or to cross the invisible line around the village where Outdoorsy Girl Safely Exploring The Woods Alone turns into Stupid Outsider Getting Eaten. I wouldn’t bring that up again, but someone new warns me every time I turn around. I’ll take it as a sign that I’m growing to be well-liked.
In these past few weeks, people have grown much friendlier. A few days ago, a student’s grandma stopped me on a walk to invite me on a trip to Big Lake during carnival, and to warn me not to go too far alone because of the wolves. This morning, A and her brother, B, invited me in for waffles and to watch part of Mr. Bean. Someone always says hello to me, now, and people will stop me to talk about their kids or the school or carnival. I’m glad that folks have, indeed, warmed up with the weather.
This was taken from the bank of the river on our warmest day yet, looking down onto the frozen water. I like how it looks almost like a wave breaking on a beach somewhere. I had to try several times to get close to the way I wanted it, but I like how it came out. I’m learning.
I brought in a willow branch on Monday afternoon, and by bedtime its buds had popped out in all their soft, fuzzy glory. Spring is swift and opportunistic in Alaska, I guess. You could almost watch these buds burst like popcorn.
There are these wonderful, fat birds that I’ve started seeing around. I don’t know about birds, but they look like overstuffed super-sized birdfeeder birds. Obviously, this picture is of no use to anybody as far as identification goes, but I like the image very much.
The fat ones make a nice change from the ubiquitous ravens, which were flying together in the snowfall this morning, making a peculiar bubbling noise. I like ravens well enough. They have these great big fluffy ruffs around their necks, like little black flying lions that eat garbage.
My class is making pysanky eggs next week. It’ll be a little lame after Easter, but I think the kids will still dig it. They loved blowing eggs this week, and Shannon was awesome and let them bring their jars of egg down to the kitchen where she fired up the griddle and scrambled each kid’s individual portion for a snack. I have dozens of perfect, empty, white eggshells drying on the windowsill now, just waiting for the post to catch up with our activities.
My amazing parents sent Easter baskets for each of my students, filled to bursting. We’re going to have a lot of fun with the marbles next week when carnival and testing leave us with weird time to fill. The kids ate themselves sick before lunch, occasionally asking “Ms O! Is this a marble or is it candy?” Nobody died.
Things have been weird at school. We have state testing confusion and personal issues among the staff out the wazoo. With carnival next week and Easter this weekend, we had a real pressure cooker going. It would have been fine, but the interpersonal problems with the staff have been getting to me. There’s subterfuge and manipulation and venom everywhere, and I don’t feel like I can really trust anyone.
My nerves finally got completely fried yesterday. After a few kids made heavy power plays, I broke. I tried to get it together during lunch, but, when the kids got back, I still had tears plopping off my face. I tried for a few minutes to cool it, and, to their credit, the kids did exactly what I asked of them. When I realized it was hopeless, I went to ask Jake to find someone to cover for me. Instead, he dismissed the class early and sent me home to cry it out, which I did. My students were brilliant. They brought me cupcakes and feel better cards, and told me to call Sean so that I wouldn’t have to feel so bad. They were everything I needed to feed the kindness and patience and trust that had worn thin and snapped. It’s not the job and it’s certainly not the kids that wear on me: it’s the climate of suspicion among my coworkers that grinds me down.
There will be changes next year, and for that I’m grateful. I have my fingers crossed for someone who will climb mountains with me on the weekends and likes to play board games. If you are reading this, I make good pizza and great cookies, and I’m willing to learn to cross-country ski properly. Carnival starts on Monday, and I’m starting to get excited. On my morning walk, a gentleman I know passed me on his four wheeler with two dogs hitched to a plastic sled running behind. In the sled was his four-or-five-year-old granddaughter, laughing her head off. My kids keep telling me how excited they are for the dog races and the princess coronation. C will be racing four dogs and also running for princess. She started making her own earrings during math class this week, when I deemed her sufficiently ahead in her work.
I can’t wait to see her in her outfit with all that dark hair falling down her back. She’s usually very practically dressed with her long braid tucked into the back of her sweatshirt. It’ll be a privilege to see her in the dress and slippers that she’s been working so hard on with her auntie and grandma, and to hear her give her speech in Gwich’in. I’m going to ask her to make a pair of earrings for me. If she can be persuaded to make them, I’ll treasure them forever.
No, we’re not actually driving to Alaska. That’d be ridiculous. We are on a nice long sleigh ride, though: Good ol’ Carro has once again carried us to Ohio to visit our friends at the farm. He hiccupped a bit in Memphis, squealing at 1700 rpms, but we shrugged our shoulders, made a gamble, and ignored it. It paid off. We made it to Louisville in good time, and spent the night with Bethan. She woke up with Bruno Mars hair and made us pancakes.
I spent a stupid hour on the floor of a Louisville post office this morning, sealing up flat rate boxes full of pepperonis and coconut milk with crappy dollar store tape. The woman behind the counter was a little hard of hearing and we miscommunicated with abandon. It would have been frustrating and miserable, but Sean made me laugh and we sang along to the radio together, ignoring the stares of the less absurd P.O. patrons as we belted box after box with loud strips of tape. I am going miss the snot outta him.
A student’s take on my move: “Alaska, population 2”