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.
Last night, after an afternoon at the shooting range and a run with Jane on Murphy Dome, I made cranberry chutney with the last of my frozen berries. I thawed some caribou steaks from our adventure with the Fortymile herd, and Alan picked some kale from the garden we planted this spring at his place. I had baked a loaf of sourdough bread earlier in the day, and I sliced a little of that up, too. A perfect dinner, all-Alaskan.
Local ingredients: Wild lingonberries from UAF’s trail system Fortymile caribou from an adventure in the White Mountains Kale grown in the Goldstream Wild Alaskan air yeast
The fireweed flowers are long gone, and the leaves have gone red. The birch leaves are fading, too. We got our last round of blueberries a week ago, and it’ll be cranberries and moose this weekend.
School started a week ago, and I’m struggling to transition to the very different work of studying. I want to be outside, doing my human hyperphagia, coming home and looking into my freezer with satisfaction at the neatly stacked vacuum bags of meat and fish and the jars of frozen berries. Instead, I’m inside doing winter’s work – reading, writing – and looking out the window at the last bits of summer dissolving.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve heard it was a great year for blueberries. Rumor has it someone in Arctic picked thirty gallons. I mostly missed the season, thanks to summer break and teacher inservice, but I put away three quarts before hard frost.
I was stoked for September to roll in so that I could pick cranberries (they’re lingonberries, really, but everyone here calls them cranberries). They’re my favorite: I make cranberry bread and chutney to eat with caribou fry meat, and I’ll eat them plain Jane just for the sweet tart bite and the memory of fall. These past two years they’ve been easy to pick and abundant during my time here, far more so than blueberries which begin to shrivel and sag toward the end of August, so I was prepared to pick and process gallons.
Two years ago, the berries were fat and juicy and everywhere.
It didn’t work out. I have only two quarts of cranberries, and I’m saving those for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I searched and searched, and I stood in banks of the juicy green leaves, stymied. The plants weren’t bearing. The fruit just wasn’t out there. Maybe it’s a pollinator problem. Maybe we had a too-hot or too-cold or too-wet or too-dry summer. I don’t know, but I’m sure glad I’m not relying on berries as a source of winter calories.
Boom and bust is the name of the game. Before I went to town last week, we were in a lean time: there was one very old tub of hummus in the refrigerator, but that was about it; we’d run out of fresh foods and frozen veggies and were eating into our stash of dehydrated camp meals; I didn’t have yeast to make pizza dough or butter and eggs to make cookies.
It wasn’t all bad: the freezer was full of Kenai reds, we were overwhelmed with caribou from our trip upriver over Labor Day weekend, someone gave us some moose ribs, the store had potatoes, so dammit it wasn’t worth doing a Freddy’s order with only a few days to go before a town trip.
Lyra loaded down with three fat caribou after a beautiful weekend in the refuge
Now scarcity is not the problem. It’s really the opposite: Geoff’s gone to town and I’m overwhelmed with plenty. There is too much fresh food: there’s fruit in the fruit bowls and there are boxes of salad in addition to a flat of microgreens I started in the lean weeks. I hardly know what to cook to use it all up before it goes bad.
FRUITS!! (and stuff): neato neato neato
One of the things I love about Geoff is his confidence in me. This week, he left me home alone with a chainsaw I’d never used (the one I’m familiar with is broken), a pile of full-length logs, and an empty diesel tank. It’s getting colder now, so we’re lighting fires twice a day to keep the house cozy.
It was Saturday afternoon, and Geoff had already hopped on a plane for Fairbanks when I realized I didn’t know how to start the other – bigger – chainsaw. It has a weird choke and switch thing that I hadn’t seen before. I called down to Fairbanks and Geoff and John talked me through it and damn if this big monster chainsaw didn’t feel like sudden-onset superpowers. I had a couple days’ worth of wood chunked in no time flat, so I got down to business and chopped enough to see me through for a few days. Plenty again.
It feels good to be rich in fruit and firewood and puppy-dog snuggles.