Spring Things!

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)

Celebrations!

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.

Manny, Alan, and Silna getting prepped for the First Annual Yaranga Creek Floodwaters Beer Box Boat Invitational
Fleshing is stinky, satisfying work.

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.

Scraping demands that good ol’ all-natural mosquito repellent

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.

Bring on that sun.

In which I vacuum seal some chocolate cake

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It may look unappetizing to the uninitiated, but that is what is known in my neck of the woods as The Chocolate Cake. After you’ve tasted The Chocolate Cake, you can never eat other chocolate cakes without regret. It’s a Cook’s Illustrated recipe for “Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake” if you’re interested. Sean made it for the first time on my 20th birthday, and I shamelessly hid it from all of my friends and devoured it in secret. It’s that kind of cake.

It’s smooshed up in that baggie because we decided to go backpacking to celebrate Sean’s birthday last week, and the vacuum sealer was (er… is) still on the counter from all of the bacon-processing. We took the cake, took Friday off, and took to the woods with our friend Morgan (we were later joined by friend Andrew) to have an adventure on the Sylamore Creek section of the Ozark Highlands Trail.

By the time we reached the trailhead on Friday, it was 2:30. We’d had to de-mildew our gear and take care of the critters and run a few errands before we could leave, and the drive took nearly three hours. We planned on camping out and meeting Andrew a mile or two from the next trailhead (he’d hike in from that direction a little later in the afternoon). That afforded us a six or seven mile hike for the afternoon. Satisfied with the plan, decked in blaze orange, and full of chicken-salad sandwiches, we set off.

DSC00975The trail is mostly well-marked with white blazes, though it clearly sees little use. We did the crunchy-leaf shuffle for miles, the rustling so loud that we couldn’t carry on a conversation. The leaves on the ground sometimes obscured the path, and we once lost the trail completely and had to just aim ourselves north until we hit a jeep road that we recognized from our map. Getting lost in the woods spiced our afternoon with adventure, but it also cost us some time, and when it started getting dark we still had miles to go. The moon was huge that night, and it broke the horizon orange like an egg-yolk, but not until much later. For the last hour or so, we walked in full dark, navigating from bright blaze to blaze along the trail and then following the wide swath of a jeep road. At one point Morgan stopped, turned off her light, then turned it on again. “It’s spiders!” she said, “there’s hundreds of them! Their eyes are glowing.” She handed me her headlamp but I couldn’t see it, no matter how I tilted the light.

We reached a wide-open feed plot at around 6:45, but it felt like midnight. The stars were bright on the sky like I’ve heard the eyes of spiders are bright on the forest floor. We built a fire in the middle of the jeep road and set up camp. We roasted home-made venison sausages and baked sweet-potatoes in the coals. Andrew joined us later that night, ready to hang out by the fire, but by then we were all half-asleep, curled up in our nests around the coals.

DSC00954I got up just before dawn, chilly beside the ashes of the fire, and lit my stove to make myself some tea. When I sleep out, seeing the sunrise is a priority for me. I feel like a sunflower, smiling at the sky, getting my bearings for the day. I loaded up a bottle with hot tea, stuffed it into my sweater, and grabbed my camera. I found a nice corner of the woods and let the world light up with me in it.

DSC00958When I got back to camp, dragging some dry wood, everyone else was still asleep. I re-lit the fire and built it up a little, then crawled back into my sleeping bag with my hot-tea-bottle to warm my toes. I pulled out Harry and read a little by the breaking light of the sun and the flickering light of the fire.

DSC00953Too soon, everyone else was up, hustling to get coffee ready and start breakfast. We had bacon and eggs (ain’t nobody does deluxury backpacking like us folks) cooked in paper-bags over the fire. You rub the bacon on the bag to grease it, then make a bacon-nest in the bottom. You crack an egg into the nest, fold the top of the bag over, then spear it on a stick and hold it over the coals. To tell you the truth, a foil-pack works better, but the paper-bag scheme has a cool-factor that foil packs don’t offer, plus you can burn your cooking implement when you’re done, instead of packing it out. At one point, my bag caught fire and burned down to the bacon, but we slid the charred remains of the bag into another bag and I cooked on with great success (and at great length, this took something like an hour)

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As you can see, my egg is seasoned with paper bag ash

We spent Saturday on the trail and came across our first hunters only a short walk from our camp. Saturday was opening day for deer season in Arkansas, and we’d been concerned about hunters coming upon us early in the morning, especially sleeping as we were in the middle of a feed plot. I heard four-wheelers and some shots in the early morning, but there was another feed plot down the road a stretch, and our sleep had gone undisturbed. The hunters we met looked bemused to see us tromping through the woods, all decked out in orange and with heavy packs and no guns, but they were friendly and chit-chatted with us a while.

We filtered water twice in some cold pools in the bottoms. They weren’t flowing (trickling at best) but we pushed our concerns back and drank up. We’re still fine.

We looked a little smurfy in our bulletproof hats, but our ears were damn warm.

We looked a little smurfy in our bulletproof hats, but our ears were damn warm.

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Sean quite liked these funky formations.

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We were forced to abandon our filtration mission at this pool with the cool rock wall when Andrew went for a swim. Brrr!

DSC00970We camped the next night on a north face, and I pointed my hammock east. I didn’t have to break my cocoon to watch the sun come up: I just basked under the pink sky and read about Harry’s adventures at Poudlard (that’s french for Hogwarts, it seems). After a time, we all got up and reluctantly stuffed our aching feet into our frosty shoes and boots and set off down the trail to the next road crossing where we dropped our packs, hitched up our pants and stuck out our thumbs. A young man, unsurprisingly in a pickup loaded up with hunting gear, stopped for us, and (surprisingly) he didn’t make us ride in back but allowed our stinky selves into the cab. We chatted about spray-foam insulation and pheasants as the red hills swooped by, and he left us at Andrew’s car, ready for a pizza.

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