Use Every Part of the Spruce Tree

Yesterday, I slept in a little past nine. Silna spent the night curled up inches away under my cot, stirring now and then, while the light dimmed behind the hills to the north, then brightened again.

Alan showed up while I was still tucked in. “Brrrr. It’s in the low forties this morning,” he said

“No wonder I’m still in bed, then,” I said, “It’s chilly outside the covers.” But I flung them off anyway. We had plans.

Plans!

Some weeks ago, I felled a really big spruce. I was super thrilled; there isn’t much that makes you feel more awesome than all that weight hitting the forest floor and rebounding into your boots and knowing you did that. That is your boom.

Nicole, Reggie, Alan, and I peeled it with a drawknife and a hatchet, using the blade of the hatchet like a spud knife to take off huge, wet strips of bark and cambium. Our pants and gloves became soaked with the watery sap and the slick blond logs slipped through our hands like fat salmon. I loved it, that joy of messy work that feels so clean, somehow.

Some of the middle pieces of the tree went to a raised garden bed, notched, log-cabin-style. I learned then that notching is not as easy as you might think and that chiseling wet wood is much easier than chiseling dry. I broke my first chisel working on that project, but I got my tomatoes and squash in before they busted free of their pots.

Some of the smaller-diameter pieces I left long. Those, in company with some lengths from another tree, will make the posts for the loft I aim to build later this summer.

The remaining pieces, cut into six-foot lengths, have gone to the mill.

Milling!

Milling is hard, dusty work. The Alaskan mill mounts on the bar of the chainsaw and steadies it as the chain rips down the length of the log you’re milling. The posts are marked with measurements, so you can cut the plank to a preset width. Alan has been helping me, which I’m extremely grateful for. It is not a one-person job.

When we start a new log, we set the mill to three inches, nail a 2×6 flat along the top, then slide the mill along that to create a straight first cut. The resulting pieces of “siding” are an inch and a half at the thickest point, and structurally useless, but Alan made a cute planter-box out of some of them, and I’ve been saving others to dry and use as paneling on a future project.

While you are milling, the chain digs out a cut the width of the bar through the log and sawdust flies thick. It mixes with the hot exhaust from the saw and tickles in your nose when you inhale it. It smells like a paradox – clean, fresh spruce shavings and fumes from burning petroleum. Even through the earmuffs, the saw roars too loud for any overhead jet to cut in. You don’t look up. The mill and saw vibrate in your hands clear up to the wrists. You are fully absorbed, physically, back bent, nose, ears, hands busy. Your mind is free for a while.

I love that.

After each cut, one of us shovels the sawdust into a sled. I’ve set some aside to mix with wood glue to fill the cracks in the floor, and the rest I’m using to mulch the muddy parts of the trail. With all this rain, I’m glad to have so much of it.

Milling takes a lot of gas and a lot of time, and it’s amazing how quickly your chain dulls, running long rips like that, but you end up with great lumber. I’m drying some of the widest pieces, hoping they’ll be straight and wide enough to make a countertop. I’d like that, to be able to say that I sourced my kitchen counter on-site. So far, though, most of the planks have gone to the boardwalk.

When it was half-finished, I let the test-walkers try it out.

Geoff freehand ripped an incredible set of bog boards for my wagon to roll along last year, then constructed a notched-log support system for them. It was a really magnificent feat of chainsawing, and they’ve worked perfectly, but it’s always been a goal to plank them over, and as of tonight, it’s done.

This summer has been a lot of that: planking the bog boards, finishing the deck, finding permanent solutions to the problems I had to figure out as I went along. There is insulation yet to lay in, a retaining wall to build, and a mosaic to create in the hearth-pad, but I’m chipping away at it.

From my very clean chimney to (hopefully) yours,

Keely

P.S. I ate some really tasty spruce-tip scones recently. Shoutout to Nicole for her culinary stylings.

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.

Wildfires and Lightning

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My Courage

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.

One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… eight… nine… boom

One… two… three… four… five… six… seven… boom

One… two… three… four… five… six… kaboom

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.

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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.

 

Solstice at the Treehouse

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That ol’ midnight sun through the tent roof

As of Thursday, the driveway is in and solid. Geoff and John had a great time taking turns with the skidsteer and the roller. They claim it was exhausting, getting jiggled all over the place by that vibrating roller machine, but I think it was just the heat. It’s been in the eighties all week, and we’re all so slick with sweat that the mosquitoes haven’t hardly been able to get enough purchase to bite. We quit early the day we finished that project.

 

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“You doubted us, Keely.” John brought a little drawl with him when he moved up here from Florida.

“I know it, I’m contrite.” Their work on that driveway must have saved me thousands of dollars. They have lifetime parking privileges, for sure.

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Shoopie was a big help, obviously.

While they were doing that, I was working on digging out a privy pit (earning myself lifetime pooping privileges?). Digging is heavy work, especially as I get deeper, but the hole is refreshingly cool, so it’s not as bad as working above-ground in the heat of the day. I hit permafrost about four and a half feet down, and we’re experimenting with some strategies for thawing it out and keeping the hole going.

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This is not a picture of me digging out an outhouse hole, but it’s a cool picture.

The three of us played with the laser level one day this week, figuring out how much higher the back end of the deck will be than the front (answer: about five feet). We must have looked a treat, the three of us tiptoeing through the strings and holes and 2×6 forms all over the building site, holding up a piece of white paper to catch the faint red lines, squinting and dodging and trying to cast helpful shadows without blocking the laser.

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Some of the pads were easier to prepare than others. This one was a stumper.

It’s starting to take shape. I can almost see it in my mind, now.

 

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I split the cost of a wood-chipper with a friend, so I’m spending a lot of time (when I’m not hanging out in the cool privy pit) chipping all of the slash from the trees we had to fell. The chips will go to protect the trail from compaction so that, hopefully, I won’t wind up with a mud mess next spring. Chipping is loud, dusty work: my sweaty arms and neck get all gritty, but I smell surprisingly nice thanks to all the fresh spruce tips I’m pulverizing.

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Part of the trail won’t need chips, since Geoff is building me this nifty set of wagon tracks, soon to be a boardwalk proper

For a minute yesterday, while I was using the wood-chipper, I zoned out, probably thinking about Hot Licks, the local ice cream joint, and the chipper chowed down hard on a sapling with a horizontal branch that I wasn’t quite ready to let go of. My right hand got slammed into the top edge of the hopper-feeder-tube thing with tremendous force. It felt like the ring finger had been split horizontally, even through my leather glove. The pain was blinding black for a second before I actually felt the adrenaline wash in and throw a fog over my brain. I was instantly muddled. I couldn’t think of what to do first and just stood there in the roar of that crazy machine, kind of in shock. I knew I couldn’t scream because the guys would freak out, so I bit my lip and sucked air, stumbling toward the truck, then stopping to rip off the glove and look at the bit at the end of my arm that was throbbing so horribly. It was surprisingly normal looking, considering. I stared for a few seconds, then turned back to be responsible and turn off the chipper, then back toward the truck again, wobbly and disoriented.  I climbed awkwardly into the bed and ripped the lid off the ice chest, cradling my right hand, then pulled all the beer and boxes of grocery store sushi aside (yes, this is correct, because we’re cool like that) and plunged my hand into the cold water at the bottom, rattling the floating ice cubes against the plastic sides.

After a minute, I scooped up a handful of ice in my still-gloved left hand and made my way down the trail, cradling my numb right fingers to my belly-button and wobbling, still kind of drenched in adrenaline and not totally in touch with my surroundings. I was starting to get a little more clarity, starting to wonder whether the finger was broken and how much it would hurt when the adrenaline wore off.

Geoff spotted me coming. “Hey, Keely, if all three of us work on concrete it’ll go a lot faster. You up for helping out here for a while?”

“Nope.” I sat in the one blue camp chair we keep down there, taking deep sobby breaths.

“Nope?” Geoff took note of the wobble, the tear tracks in the wood-dust on my face, and the cradled right hand and did an excellent job of suppressing panic while he got me to show him the hand and flex the finger, all three joints. He is handy with hugs and aspirin, when he needs to be, and I calmed down enough in pretty short order to just feel pissed that I’d be out of commission for a while. And guilty for leaving the lid off the ice chest and not putting the beer and sushi away.

We had decided to take Saturday off and after the finger catastrophe it seemed especially appropriate. We grilled all kinds of meat out on the deck all day. I made a blueberry rhubarb crisp with the last of last years blueberries and some fresh rhubarb. Happy solstice weekend, everyone! I wore a dress to celebrate.

“That dress really shows off your mosquito-bites, Keely.”
“Just because I don’t have the fullest figure…”

In the end, the finger injury wasn’t even all that bad. I am typing with that finger now, and it’s not hurting much. I can’t completely close my right hand, but I bet I’ll be in good enough form to use shovel tomorrow, and that’s all that matters. The biggest disappointment is the unremarkable look of the finger. The bruise hardly shows under the tan.

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Mosquito Bites on my Mosquito Bites

Five days ago, after a wonderful but unexpected two weeks in Trapper Creek being a badass with Alison and Matt, I went to Yukon Title and signed all of the required paperwork with shaking hands. I became a (slightly wobbly) property owner, just like that.

The lot was forested, accessible by road or trail but with no parking. I say was because it is all changing. As of today the lot features stacks and stacks of drying spruce, a clearing just the right size for a twenty-foot diameter yurt with a large deck, a cleared area ready to become a driveway, and a long trail connecting the two. Geoff, John and I have been earning our pizza (like ninja turtles!).

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A plan!

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Ripping logs for the trail

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The deck site yesterday

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The deck site today

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We are cutting and stacking firewood as we go. With luck and planning, it’ll dry well. We’re piling slash to run through a chipper and use to mulch the trail as needed.

At the Fairbanks North Star Borough Community Planning office, I told the woman at the counter that I wanted to build a deck with a yurt on it.

“You mean a yurt with a deck on it?”

“No, that’s not really how it works.”

She looked at me like I was nuts, but she issued a zoning permit and a street address for me, so that’s something.

I guess what I am doing is a little different. Most people build where they have vehicle access for logical reasons. The neighbors up the road are building this summer too. Their lot is all dug up like a donut with a big hole in the middle, pretty much the opposite of mine. I like the privacy of my forested lot, and the mind-shift that will always be evoked by leaving the vehicle behind and walking through trees covered in snow or through horsetails and wild roses to the yurt whatever the weather – rain or cold or mosuitoes – I think it is important, so I am incorporating it by design.

Geoff, ever practical, points out that I will need a very long extension cord to plug in my vehicle when it gets cold. He suggests I get a generator in a locked box at that end of the property, warm that up with a cordless heat gun, then use it to heat up the engine block. Smartypants. I’ll figure that all out later I suppose.

This whole project is challenge after challenge. I went to the electric company yesterday and inquired about getting a hookup. Now I need to figure out how we are going to get a thirty foot power pole in there. And then how do we stand it up?

Then there’s the driveway. I went through a fear period where I was terrified that if we tried to do it ourselves, we would rent the little bulldozer thing, drive it off the trailer toward the driveway, hit the ditch, do a header, and everyone would get squished.

“Have you ever driven one of those things before?”

“No, but I have driven a tank.”

Helpful, Geoff? I don’t know.

There is a culvert to place and gravel to pack in. After we clear the organic layer, should we use that geotextile stuff at the bottom where it’s a little mucky? I am trying not to sweat it. It’s not a twelve-lane highway. We need the driveway, and soon, to stage the rest of the project. Besides, I’m sure the neighbors are getting tired of our truck (with attendant dog chained to the hitch and parts snowmachine crash-landed in the bed) being parked on the road. Everyone’s been nice about it, but it’ll be good to get out of the way. And to have a place to unload that dang sno-go.

imageOverheard in the saw shop: “you might be Alaskan if you’ve got a sno-go and a mountain bike in the back of your truck at the same time”

(Dude didn’t even comment on the goofy husky or the three chainsaws).

Passing bicyclist in a parking lot: “you still riding that skidoo? Hardcore!”

I am unexpectedly glad to be done with this phase of Project Treehouse. Most of the clearing is done, so there won’t be too much more cutting of live trees. I have cut and hauled plenty of loads of mostly-dead, dry firewood out in ANWR, but there’s something different about live trees in the very greenest weeks of spring. It’s a little sad. I don’t know what it is, exactly. Maybe it’s how they seem to fall so slowly (except when they go down wrong and they’re heading for your noggin). Maybe it’s how much the light in the forest changes with each felling. Maybe it’s just that they’re in my custody: my trees. I am glad to not have to do too much more of it, and I am glad we saved the lovely birches.

I am exhausted. We did laundry tonight and after all the sawing I could hardly lift the laundry bag. I have sap up to my elbows and across my face. I feel naked without my safety glasses and hearing protection. Thank goodness Carhartt was on sale at The Prospector for Father’s Day, because I am living in work overalls this summer. I have mosquito bites on my mosquito bites and bruises all over. I should be getting Geoff to help me clean and tune up my Stihl, which has been acting up a little, but I am grateful to have the following excuse: my dad, who is absolutely right, reminded me to write; there’s a lot I’ll want to remember.