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?
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.
Last night, I dropped TimZ at the airport, set up my tent, and tried to sleep. It’s smoky and dim in Fairbanks right now, thanks to nearby wildfires (actually, most of Alaska’s road system is smoky. Tim and I drove the Richardson, the Glenn and the Parks this week and never escaped it). I had to treat and tuck away a swirling mass of worries before I could relax. I was worried about the fires, my health, my community, my planet, worried about money, worried about a young woman I love who is going to have a baby very soon, and worried about the state’s funding cuts to the university system and how they might alter my plans for the future (Bullshit. Infuriating, stupid wasteful bullshit). It’s a lot.
I did get to sleep though. I used to feel unsafe and stay awake, jumpy, burning through books and headlamp batteries when I was camping alone, but these days I don’t worry about dangerous animals or people. My dog is always beside me, a bastion of confidence, alert to anything moving in the trees. Too, I keep my bear spray close. I sleep well in the little nook I’ve found out there among the contours of the tree roots.
Last night though, I woke around one. At first, I wasn’t sure why. The sky was dim and hazy as it had been when I went to bed. The dog was relaxed. I flipped my pillow and shut my eyes. The next distant thunderclap solved the mystery. I rolled onto my back and looked up through the screen. Should I put up the fly? Is it really going to rain? I hope so. We need it.
Lightning flashed. One, two, three… I counted to twelve before I heard thunder. According to the basic forecast on my phone, the storm would pass by in an hour or so. I stayed put to wait it out, counting out the proximity of each lightning flash.
At five seconds, I read the special advisories I had assumed were just more smoke warnings. One contained the phrases “dry lightning” and “half inch hail”. I tried to remember safety rules for storms but all I could think of was “don’t take shelter under a tree, stay in the car”. The black spruce trees whispered overhead and began to sway. It says it’s going to pass by north of here, it says it’s going to miss me. One… two… three… four… The next one will be farther... one… two… CRACK! I jumped up, rolled everything into my bedroll, and flung it out the door, fumbling shakily with the zipper. I started to throw the fly over the tent. One… BOOM! metal poles! I left it half-covered to sprint for the car. “Shoopie!” CRRRACK! The dog was surprisingly calm, trotting over the bog boards as usual even as the wind picked up and the trees whipped, my reservoir of courage. Halfway to the car, lightning and thunder came together: the sky went white and I felt the earth shake with the fury of it. I was sure the house next door had been struck. Running, with every hair on my body standing straight up, I slammed into the car, flung my armload of bedding and my magnificent dog into the back and sat stunned in the driver’s seat, trembling and unable to figure out how to turn on the headlights in this rental car I’d only driven the one time before.
I pulled out onto the road, heading for shelter at John’s – and called Geoff. By some miracle he answered – he’s the deepest sleeper I have ever known and never answers in the night – and kept me company as I made the short drive. The sky was an eerie, dense gray and when it opened up the rain came down like Arkansas, too heavy for Alaska. I tumbled out of the car when I got to John’s, still echoing with adrenaline, fumbling for my keys, and let myself in the back door amid the pandemonium. “What in the hell!?” John stood straight up in the loft when I banged the door open. “Oh, hi Daazhraii. Hi Keely. Hell of a storm!”
I flung my bedroll down. “It’s terrifying. I’m sorry for breaking in unannounced. Can I stay?”
“Of course. You break in anytime you want.”
It took a lot longer for me to settle down to sleep the second time last night.
I read a little about the fire situation this morning. It’s a bleak outlook with the weather so messed up and hot. Fuck climate change. I am so sad, today, for this beautiful, fragile, utterly screwed place that I call home.
Alison and TimZ on Kesugi Ridge last week before the Talkeetna fires blew up. Miles of beetle-killed spruce spread out below them along both sides of the Chulitna.
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.
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.