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.
Some months ago, I ordered a kicksled from Kicksled Alaska. I’d been thinking about it for quite a while: what could be more perfect for commuting to campus or running the dogs? Skis are great, but switching in and out of ski boots is a pain, and ski boots aren’t much use against the extreme cold Fairbanks sees in the middle of winter. Plus a kicksled can be used for moving a little bit of gear, like a backpack. I thought about it and thought about it, then said to heck with it and went ahead and placed the order. I think I’ve already gotten my money’s worth.
The sled finally arrived about two weeks ago, and it has seen use every single day since then. Alan and I went straight to the hardware store to make a few dog-related modifications and then took the sled to the river for a test run. That whole first week, we took turns kicksledding out to the burbot sets. The dogs learned to get excited when the harnesses came out and went from awkwardly pulling out of sync to matching their gaits and running shoulder to shoulder.
We had to take our fishing lines in this past weekend, so now we take turns running the dogs on the trails around Alan’s neighborhood, practicing “gee” and “haw” and “on by,” and wearing out the pups. Silna is real lead-dog material: when she sees Crozier veering off to try and pee on a tree, she knocks into him to remind him to stay on task. You can almost hear her scolding him. She’s the brains, Crokie’s the muscle, and together they’re turning into a handsome little team of two.
I don’t know thing one about mushing. I learn something new every day from working with these puppies, a real classic case of “who’s training who?” We’re careful to take it easy, to always stop when the dogs get tired, to always quit while everybody’s still having fun, and I think that’s good enough for now. It’s easy to see how people get hooked, though. There is a clear path from here to ten dogs and a basket sled with a tent, a grub box, and a chainsaw in it, no question about it.
The best part of my days, lately, is checking burbot sets. Alan and I have five sets in a slough on the Tanana, and every day we walk or ski or snowshoe out to chip out the ice and haul up the lines and see if we’ve got anything. So far, a week into this attempt, we’ve caught three smallish fish.
Burbot are hideous. They’re slimy and green and kind of grotesque. If a catfish and an eel had a baby, it would look something like a burbot. But they’re a freshwater cod, so their flesh is white and flaky and firm, and when they’re battered and fried and served with a wedge of lime, they’re tough to beat.
But the pleasure of checking burbot sets doesn’t really have much to do with the fish, though they make a nice perk. It’s mostly about getting outside. Every day, no matter what, we have to go out and check our sets. It’s required by the fishing regulations. It doesn’t matter if it’s cold or if it’s windy or if I had too much of Alan’s homemade honey mead at brunch (that was yesterday: his mead was really very good); no matter what, we go out and check our hooks and replace the bait.
And that requirement allows me to prioritize checking sets. It takes about two hours, all in all; more when the trail’s blown over, less when conditions are nice. And I get to spend those hours outdoors, moving my body, playing with my dogs, soaking up the changing season. It feels good and purposeful and … justifiable? Often, guilt plagues me when I try to prioritize my own joy. Is it some kind of genetically coded thing from the Catholics? There’s always grading to do and writing to write and wood to haul and dishes to wash and all of that is important, and all of that sets me free to do the things that I want in the long run, and some of that is rich and rewarding, but it’s not the stuff that feeds my soul and makes me feel free and easy and alive. Checking burbot sets is technically a chore, but it feels like a subversion of the system, like some kind of loophole. It’s a chore I love, and being accountable to an outside regulatory body (Alaska Department of Fish and Game, thank you so much for this) allows me to elevate it on my priority list. It’s a pleasure that isn’t guilty but feels like it should be.
Because of a (slight) excess of Alan’s honey mead, I was a little slow to get going after brunch at Joshua’s yesterday. Alan had to drive to the landing, and it was nearly sunset by the time we got there. The trail was good and packed, thanks to the snowmachiner who wandered into the slough a few days back, so the skiing was easy and fast. I started out a little wobbly, but the fresh air and exercise swept the last of the mead fumes out of me pretty quickly, and soon I was centered and smiling, enjoying the whip of the little breeze and double poling. By the time we got out to the holes, it was twilight. It had been cold, was maybe fifteen below or so by then, so we had to chip the holes out, one after another. Twice we severed our paracord lines with the blade of the chipper and I had to stick my arm into the dark water to grope around in the hole for the other end. Twice I got lucky and found it still clinging to the smooth-bored ice. It’s startling, sticking your hand into water that is warmer than the air. By the time we finished resetting all of our lines, my feet were going numb in my ski boots and it was nearly full dark. There was an orange glow in the west that reflected a little off the snow, and the lights of the houses on the hill overlooking the river were shining, warm and bright in the black sky.
Is there anything that can beat that feeling? That spreading warmth in your toes that comes straight from the pumping of your heart? The bobbing light hooked to the dog’s collar and his quiet panting? That certainty about the way home, the woodstove that’s waiting there? The swishing sound of skis in the night?
I don’t light a fire every day, even in winter. Don’t get me wrong, my home is a yurt, and our winters are subzero, and the membrane between my tiny, fragile version of the indoors and the great and sublime outdoors is very thin and permeable. There is always a fire going in the winter, it’s just that I don’t light a new one every day. That might seem trivial. I feed the woodstove every six or eight or ten hours, depending, and that keeps my house from freezing. What’s the difference, really?
This is part of it: On New Years Eve, Geoff and I drove through the night from Wasilla to Fairbanks. Everywhere we stopped for gas or to pee or to switch drivers, there were fireworks. Shoopie had to stay in the car – I think he held it for all 300 miles – but Silna, all business as usual, hopped out and relieved herself whenever she had the chance. The moon was huge in the mountains, and the moonlight spilling down the slopes of the Alaska range was stunning. You can’t beat winter night drives through the pass.
Geoff is in the process of moving his belongings out of Arctic in preparation for his retirement in May. We’d gone down the highway to drop some stuff at Geoff’s storage unit in Wasilla and to see Alison and Matt, our friends in Talkeetna, for a few days. We hadn’t planned on making the drive up so soon, but things happen. Alison and Matt were hosting their bubble’s New Year’s Eve party, and we decided it was in the best interest of public health if we weren’t there. I know it was irresponsible to visit at all, and I’ll offer no excuses but this: everyone involved had been careful ahead of our visit, and everyone involved will be careful post-visit. Geoff and I are both beginning situation-appropriate versions of quarantine.
All that is just to say that, at 11:30 on New Year’s Eve, instead of chilling champagne and eating cream puffs, we were passing through Healy. The Totem was open, and there were trucks packed in the lot. It would have been so nice to stop, get out, wander into the bar, make friends with strangers to ring in the new year, but we couldn’t do that. We stopped a minute in the parking lot of the grocery store across the street and watched occasional fireworks sputtering up from the cabins in the trees while Silna peed, but we moved on pretty quickly, and the handful of lights from town disappeared in the rearview. It was sad and lonesome, driving into the dark like that on what should have been a convivial, crowded, happy night. I would have loved to stay in Talkeetna and party with our friends or even to just stop and share a toast with a fellow celebrant in a public place along the way, but it wasn’t possible, and that was hard. I hate being so helpless, powerless, in all this pandemic stuff. It’s getting harder and harder to be good all the time, and nights like that I have to fight myself to stay on track. We drove on.
Before leaving the yurt to head down the highway, I’d taken all of the freezables (onions, potatos, liquid anything, computers, canned food) out of the treehouse to store at Alan’s and had let the fire burn out. When Geoff and I got back to town on New Year’s, a little after two, my place was frozen to about zero degrees. The jug of drinking water I’d left on the floor was solid block of ice. Silna and Daazhraii curled up on Geoff’s cot, tails tucked under their noses, and puffed little jets of steam. I had to start a fire.
While Geoff carried our belongings in from the truck, I started. With chilly hands, I used an old tomato can to scoop the ashes from the firebox into my cold steel slop bucket. With the same hands, I arranged a sheet of birchbark and some kindling in the center of the firebox, then found a lighter. You may not know this: in extreme cold, plastic cigarette lighters don’t work. They need to be warmed first. I let the last heat from my palms soak into the plastic, then tried it. My hands were so numb that I didn’t even feel the spark wheel tearing the skin of my thumb. No luck.
Lighting a fire is an act of power. It is so human to assume control of the environment that way, to build fire and contain it, to harness it, and to reflect and protect its heat strategically. When the lighter sputtered, I did another fundamentally human thing: I turned and scanned my home, looking for an alternative tool. There: I walked to the range and lit a burner to touch off the curl of birchbark in my hand. It blazed up with an oily sizzle, and I carried it back to the woodstove to ignite the blaze that would warm my home, protect me from the winter, heat my water, cook my food.
Lighting a fire is an act of renewal. It is the bringing to life of something hungry and hot, not a living thing exactly, but nearly. It is the initiation of a relationship, an agreement that in exchange for my care, the fire will provide. It’s the sealing of a commitment and an act of trust. I have not lit a new fire in the days since then but have instead nurtured that spark as it has, in turn, nurtured me.
I did not get the New Year’s Eve I wanted. I would have chosen warm human companionship, the banishment and disavowal of the old year, a sense of shared renewal, a countdown, a toast, a buzz, an explosion. Instead, in this plague year, I got this: to build a fire, to exert some miniscule measure of control, to renew again the cycle that sustains my small life.
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?