Birthday Gunfight

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.

The Geoff-est Thing

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Coming down-mountain after a kickass day at Old John.

On Saturday, I went to Old John Lake for the first time. Katie and Mike and the girls let me tag along, and it was beautiful! Following them on the ride up the mountain was delightful: they found the sweetest, smoothest trail to ride so that the girls would be comfy in their nest of blankets in the sled. We sat around jigging for a while, and the girls tested the crust on the snow, seeing how far they could make it before breaking through. At one point, sitting by the fire Mike had built, I remembered the state of the wood pile at home. “Crap! I bet Geoff took the chainsaw with him. I wonder if he remembered to cut some wood first. I chopped the last of it last night.” We chuckled and got on with our day, but I had it marked in my mind, a chore to do when I got home: check the wood pile and the chainsaw. The ride back was spectacular with the whole valley spread out in front of us and I felt outrageously fortunate to get to visit Old John in such good company. Thank you, friends.

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The girls and their monster lake trout

Meanwhile, while I was out fishing, Geoff was setting off on a mission of his own. He was determined to get us some caribou meat and he was done waiting for the herd to come north. We still have great snow, even now, but it is too much to expect it to last another week. Geoff called up the First Chief and made arrangements to go out hunting on tribal land. The plan was for him to head south with Albert. They’d spend the night out there and come back the next day.

When I came home from fishing, I wasn’t surprised to find Geoff gone, but I was surprised to see that he hadn’t taken the chainsaw. I looked around the house a little more carefully and discovered that he hadn’t taken a sleeping bag, either. It was a puzzle, but it probably just meant he was traveling light and he’d come home late that night or in the wee hours instead of the next day. Glad, I set about making a birthday cake. I pictured lighting the candles as soon as he came through the door and having him blow them out while bits of ice were still melting out of his beard.

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Mmmm buttercream. I tried not to sample too much, but there’s just something about buttercream.

Later that evening, I learned that Albert was too sick to go out and that Geoff had taken off with someone else. To go out on tribal land, we have to have a guide, which is why we usually go into ANWR. This news just made me more certain that he’d be through the door any minute.

I finished frosting the cake around midnight and headed off to bed. I woke up every time I heard a sno-go on the road, certain it’d be Geoff, bringing a sled full of meat and work and a wave of cold through the door. But it wasn’t. He didn’t come home.

Around four I woke up, unable to sleep. He didn’t have his sleeping bag or a chainsaw – what if something had happened? He’d be furious if I made a fuss over nothing – the rule is “don’t worry unless I’m late for work – like a couple hours late for work – on Monday morning” but I hated to think of him out there in the cold and dark in some kind of trouble.

I inventoried my gear in my head, planned a way to fuel up the Bravo if I needed to, tried to remember the southbound trail that I thought he was on, and then rode over to the school to check my email. Since I don’t have the use of my cell and we don’t have internet at home, it’s inconvenient to communicate with someone out in the woods, but it’s possible thanks to the inReach, which is a blessed miracle of technology that functions as a GPS and sends text messages via satellite. When I arrived at the school, he hadn’t sent a message, which was either good or really really bad. I sent, “I’m worried – you don’t have your gear. Write back soonest,” and waited, biting my thumbnails and killing the time watching Netflix.

Finally, after about half an hour, he responded. “I’m here, all good.”

“Okay – let me know when you head home. I’m inviting people over for a birthday party and I want to guess at a time.”

“You got it. Should be heading home slowly around 8 am”

I knew he was about forty miles down the trail, so I figured noon was a reasonable expectation. I went home, took a nap, told everyone to come over at six, and made pizza dough.

At three, I got a little worried again and headed back to the school. “Hey, we got crazy turned around, but we’re back on the trail now. See you in a few hours unless we see caribou.”

Well. Judging by the fact that we hadn’t seen caribou in a while, I figured he’d still make it in time for the party.

At five forty-five I heard a sno-go in the driveway. “Geoff! Shoopie, he’s home!” Daazhraii and I flung open the door and bounded out, ready to give lots of loves, but it was the first party guests arriving, not Geoff at all. I tied the dog out, invited them in, and proceeded to have an awesome time eating pizza and cake with wonderful people. By eight, they were all bound for home, and at eight-thirty Geoff rolled up, frosty and thrilled with a sled-load of caribou. I lit the candles on what was left of his cake, he blew them out with ice still melting out of his beard, and then he cut himself a good fat piece.

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Geoff – the notoriously unpunctual Geoff – had done the Geoff-est thing: he had woken up in a snowbank after sleeping in his Carhartts and bunny boots, snow machined for almost twelve hours, and then finally showed up late for his own birthday party, elbow-deep in caribou blood and with cold all the way to the bottom of his pockets.

May your fifties be full of weekends like that, Geoff.