Butter, Sugar, Dog Hair

Two elementary school girls came over this afternoon to make cookies. They have a sleepover lined up tonight, and I loved listening to them discussing the games and pranks they plan to play.
“What if you hide outside the door and scare them?”
“We could put whipped cream on their face!”

We made a couple dozen tiny cookies and a specially tailored cardboard cookie-carrying box with the words “top secret” printed on the top so that they could transport them without losing them all to nosy neighbors.

It was wonderful and also a little sad for me. Cookie night used to be a big thing in Venetie. It never took off here in the same way, but this felt to me like those old cookie nights used to, with the girls laughing and opening up a little in ways they don’t at school. I am going to miss them. And all of this.

While the cookies were in the oven, J asked to play with Daazhraii. Now, Daazhraii is a pretty good dog. He’s playful, obedient, tough, smart, quiet, affectionate with his people, and sensitive (sometimes a little too sensitive), but he doesn’t like children, especially little girls. He treats kids with extreme suspicion and, if they approach him in an enclosed space, he stiffens, glares, and, if they keep coming toward him, growls. It’s scary and disheartening.

I have done a lot of reading on this, and I try to handle it well. I control any fear or anxiety I feel when kids are around him. I don’t allow him to be cornered, and, when I need to, I remove him from the situation gently. I don’t validate his fears by punishing him, I just watch him carefully and do what I need to do to remain confident that everyone will have a positive experience.

“See how his tail is stiff? That means he doesn’t want to be petted. Let him sniff you and, if he walks away, just let him go.”

It works well, and it seems to be helping him build up his confidence, because when J talked me into letting her play with him, he aced it.fullsizeoutput_228

One of L’s little-kid-sized rubber boots had a tear in it, and I’d just put on an Aquaseal patch, so she and I stood in our socks on the steps and watched as J spoke softly and gently to Daazhraii until – I couldn’t believe it – he let her pick up his rope toy and play tug and chase. They played for at least half an hour, at first on his run by the front door, then running laps around the house, taking turns carrying the rope toy. He was as gentle as – gentler than – I’ve ever seen him, and completely beside himself with the fun of it, totally relaxed and thrilled with his new best friend.


Daazhraii seems to be mellowing, and I’m glad. There is not much room in the world these days for dogs that can’t be trusted. He may never get to be really trustworthy (I still wouldn’t let him into the house with the kids, where he tends to get more territorial and feel more cornered), but he’s making some progress, and that’s pretty exciting stuff.


Trick or Treat

My thermometer read -8 yesterday evening, but it felt colder. Fog rolled in through the door every time we opened it for trick-or-treaters, and we had frost building up on the screws around the doorknob. We couldn’t shovel wood into the stove fast enough, and going out to pee (between visits from kids) was a dread chore. Looking at it now, online, I see that the airport recorded -29 degrees, so I guess I need a new thermometer for the house.

Halloween is a little different around here.

There’s a knock on the door, and you open it. Maybe you’re expecting a witch or a zombie, but instead there’s a cloud of freezing fog and child in winter gear, fully covered from head to toe to keep out the frostbite ducks under your arm. In most places, trick-or-treaters come in costume. Here, they just can’t. You close the door behind them.

In Arctic Village, instead of handing over the treats and sending the trick-or-treaters on their way,  Geoff and I greet them by name and invite them in to warm up. Kids whip off their gloves and gravitate to the wood-stove, where the pink gradually recedes from their cheeks. Warm, they start looking around.

Somewhere in there, I’ve passed out home-made chocolate chip cookies (which I probably wouldn’t even try in a different community) so when the kids start wandering, they shed crumbs everywhere they go. They poke around and ask questions (is that your garden? What’s in there? Can I taste it? Whose bed is that? What’s making that big cloud behind your house? Can I have some cookie dough?).

Eventually, the adult driving the four-wheeler or sno-go to pull the sled for them makes it clear that it’s time to go, and they suit up, pulling on hats, neckwarmers and gloves and shoveling candy back into their bags from where it’s spilled, inevitably, all over the floor.

“I don’t like green onions, but that spicy stuff [cilantro] is goooooood” said N. “Can we come over and help cut meat again sometime? And make dinner with your garden?”

“Can I have some more cookie dough?” K, looking hopeful, reached for the spoon.
“You’ve been here twice tonight. You can’t double trick-or-treat!”
She left happy, again.

River Trip Journal 3


Camera broken! Disaster! (editor’s note: the camera was later de-broken)

It is just past midnight at confluence camp. I made cookies in the collapsible stove-top oven to celebrate our first sight of the Yukon.


Manley Hot Springs was adorable. A crew of celebrants was playing bocce after the 4th of July events in the center of town. Someone offered us drinks, so we sat a while and let the dog romp. Everyone we met was friendly and personable. Daazhraii made tons of friends.

After a while, we went and got a pizza at The Roadhouse, and talked about spending the night. It was getting late, but the night was beautiful and I felt more comfortable with the routine of camping than with the risk of leaving our gear in the boat overnight, even in Manley. We got a ride down to the slough at go-time, beer and ice and dog and gas cans and all.

We are realizing that we need more fuel than we thought. We filled up two gas cans in Nenana, and Geoff is worried we’ll have trouble getting a few more in Tanana. We just aren’t getting the fuel efficiency we were hoping for, which I guess isn’t surprising, given the amount of gear we are carrying.

I drove us out of Manley at just about the dewpoint of the evening, maybe near midnight, when the sun was down but the sky was still pink and silver. We camped on an island just downriver. I spotted a mama moose with her baby in the swamp in the elbow of the slough on our way out, and it turns out they were good wildlife-luck. Today, we saw a moose swimming across the Tanana – Daazhraii was wired once he finally spotted it – saw a big black bear (brown of coat) munching at the top of a tall cutbank, and saw a beaver rocketing downstream beside us. We did not, however, see any mammoth tusks protruding from the cutbanks, though I made sure to look carefully, just in case. Lame.


All this time I’ve been carefully moving a little watermelon around in the boat, trying to protect it from doggy claws and careless bumps. Today, there was room for it in the twelve-volt cooler, so we chilled it all morning and when the sun got hot, hot, hot, we cut the engine and feasted on cold, sweet, sticky, drippy, pink watermelon while we floated downriver, listening to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I’m going to have to get the next book downloaded when we reach Tanana.


The bank here at confluence camp keeps crashing into the river. I think we’re going to lose a few feet by morning.

It was a fireweed day, full summer, hot and bright and lush. There was an old burn along the bank for miles, and the fireweed frothed electric pink around the ankles of the standing dead tree trunks. We cut the engine and floated, watching the wilderness roll by and listening to the silty swish of the river against the hull. Swallows were nesting in the cutbank under the fireweed, and they rose and whipped around in daring gyres against the blue sky. It’s enough to take your breath away, sometimes.


A barge came by camp this evening. Tooted at us. Way cool. Good night.


Too muddy for too many words

Writing in our journals. Miss A wrote

Miss A wrote in her journal that “the best part of being outside is feeling the sun on my back. It feels so warm and good.”

This week is culture week, and the students have a half-day of music every day. They are learning fiddle, guitar and traditional dance.

This week is culture week, and the students have a half-day of music every day. They are learning fiddle, guitar and traditional dance. The program these folks run is amazing, and the kids are loving it.

For culture week, one community member invited us to his house to see the wolf he'd trapped. Black wolves are prized for their fur along the coast.

For culture week, one community member invited us to his house to munch on dry meat and see the wolf he’d trapped. Wolves are a significant threat to the moose population, which the community relies on for subsistence, so managing wolf numbers in the area is of real concern to the village. Black wolves like this one are prized for their fur by the people who live along the coast.

Some of the kids and I took the music instructors for a walk.

Some of the kids and I took the music instructors for a walk after the cakewalk last night.



The prom committee made another hundred dollars from the fundraiser, and I won back the lemon cake that had been making my house smell like heaven all afternoon. Only about a quarter of it made it home, though. You can’t not share your cakewalk winnings.

I had girls in the kitchen right up to the last second baking cakes, and there's only so much giggling one can handle in a small space before fresh air becomes absolutely mandatory. I needed that walk.

I had girls in the kitchen right up to the last second baking cakes, and there’s only so much giggling one can handle in a small space before fresh air becomes absolutely mandatory. I needed that walk, and the beautiful, silly kids just made it more refreshing.

M built the tiniest snowman!

M built the tiniest snowman! This is the only week of the year so far where the snow has been wet enough to make snowballs. They fly thick and fast whenever I take my students outside for journals.

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I found this outside my house.


Look at those puddles.

“I’d like to run through that puddle in the morning,” remarked A on our post-cookie walk through the village tonight.


Most of the walk was a game of tag and tangle with Gracious, C’s adorable dog.



We’re excited! The Cinderella Project of Maine is trying to help us get prom dresses, and we made the roll call (about three minutes in) on CNN Student News today! Between that and cookie night, it’s been a real red letter day.

Shattering white in the sun

Drip, drop, drip.


It was warm today. Chunks of snow hurled themselves over the eaves and hurtled past my classroom windows at startling intervals all day long. Icicles drizzled melt water into the pitted snow below.

Yesterday, Shannon and Terri shanghaied me after school and took me to Big Lake on Shannon’s new snow-go. I was sandwiched between them, my cold face buried in the fur ruff on Shannon’s jacket. The narrow, icy trail slipped and skittered under the roaring snowmachine, and I felt my knees grip harder, skittish and too-cautious as always.

When we got there, I looked up and around at the expanse of white and blue and space in every direction. I could feel the mountains yarding on my heartstrings across the ice. I have to get up there, once at least, before I leave the village for good. I should have taken pictures of the mountains: If I had, you could probably see the words “come hither” stenciled in the sky by their ridges. I did, I think, or maybe it was just a whisper from inside the part of me that loves to want just for wanting’s sake, and lingers, grinning, on windy precipices, tasting salt.

I took only one ridiculous snow-go selfie, but in my defense, I had no gloves and those machines can really fly.

I took only one ridiculous snow-go selfie with Terri, but in my defense, Shannon was in front of me, I was in awe, I had no gloves (abducted, remember?) and those machines can fly.

I opened the window over my sink wide today and let the sound of the ice and snow, first slipping and scraping on the metal roof, then falling in white sheets to smash on the ground in a snow-cone splash, slip into my kitchen over the log-deep sill.

It’s been an exhausting week. The shattering ice confused with the chattering of the girls and made a little white noise for me rummage in to find a smile. They mixed their own cookies while I made a pot of curry and arbitrated disputes over who would get to choose a cookie first. They laughed and left their wet snowpants in puddles on the floor and hung their grubby socks to dry on the ledge of my open window and tracked muddy prints all over the floor and made me happy.

Yesterday evening, C came by to tell me that her sister wouldn’t be able to make it to school today.  P would have to stay home and babysit the four-year-old so that their auntie could make it to work. We walked over to the school in the dusk light and got P’s math book and independent reading so that she wouldn’t fall behind. “I will never have kids” said C. “It isn’t fair”

The village is grieving and drinking and grieving. A young man passed away last weekend, and everyone is reeling. I knew the man, who used to cook for the school. He played country music too loud and grinned and danced along when I’d bop by in the middle of my crowd of kids, mouthing the words and playing mini air guitar. One of my boxes wound up at his house, and I met his newborn baby and his wife on one of my first days in the village.

The kids have been sullen and sleepless. No one is taking this well, and those whose families live hard have retreated into silence to bear the living harder.

Today, the body was returned to the village. Nearly everyone met the plane at the airport. My class chose to go, and we rode packed in the back of the red school pickup, bending our heads against the wind. We hopped out of the truck and joined the crowd of people standing in the melt-glittery white light of morning. Everyone looked up as the fat plane ripped the blue sky open overhead. When the long wooden box was lowered out of the plane, the young men lifted it and began to walk the mile or so back to the village. The rest of us followed on foot, the fourwheelers and snow-gos growling behind. As one man tired, another stepped in to take his place bearing the dead. A skin drum beat time all the way to the village, and a man’s husky singing voice rose above the footfalls and engines and quiet talk of the crowd. Halfway home, an obviously intoxicated man stumbled into M, a severely autistic high schooler. M looked at me with silent, confused, helpless big brown eyes and tried to step away. Another boy dodged behind me until the man fell behind us.

The men of the village carried Earl right up the steps of the church and through the front door. Everyone stood inside in winter coats. After a few short prayers, a murmured amen, everyone left. I took my students back to class.

Yesterday, one girl wrote in her writing journal that the brilliant, multicolored northern lights of this past week have comforted her. She feels like they’re a message from her uncle on his way to wherever he’s going, a silent promise that it will be okay.

For steel-eyed sixth grader, C, it’s not enough. She’s angry and righteous and pained. She blames alcohol. Drinking has been ripping up the village like a wrecking ball these past few weeks. She wants the council to get together and stop it. “They used to check planes and raid people’s houses that did it, but they don’t do nothing now.” I want so badly for her to have the voice to scream it all someday and be heard, but for now she can’t, and it’s ripping her apart. She is so small and her feelings are so big. This place puts awful burdens on children.

Tonight, Terri, the lower elementary teacher who lives next door, banged on my window. “Come look!” she shrieked, “it’s incredible!”. I gathered my robe around my legs and stepped barefoot onto the porch. It was warm today, and the night was bearable for a long moment.

I stood slackjawed until the cold bit too hard into my toes and my bare knees had goosebumps.

Moments later, I was flinging pants and a coat and a hat on.

Have you ever laid back in a spinning playground tire swing and watched the northern lights ripple and unspool from green to pink in the sky? They unwind across the velvet stars like skeins of acid yarn. They flutter and shimmer like handlebar ribbons in the summer. Night lights for people in the cold.DSC02028 DSC02036