It’s Good to be Home

“Welcome back! No, welcome home.”

I looked up, caught flat-footed, at the young woman unloading cargo from the plane. She smiled at me, glad and familiar, and you could have knocked me over with a feather.

“Thanks! It’s really, really good to be here.” I said it a little too brightly, still off-balance. I don’t really expect to be welcomed home when I step off the plane in Arctic.

It’s not that people aren’t welcoming. Most are.

But home.

This is my home, if I can be said to have one. When I am not here, I am traveling, sleeping in a bed one night for every thirty in a tent. The house I grew up in was sold last summer to a stranger who I hear has since filled it with tropical birds. My family lives in an RV.

It goes a lot deeper than circumstance: I love these children with the fiercest part of my heart, worry over them, watch them grow up, and feel pride and pain both on their accounts. The land too: the smell of labrador tea and the taste of caribou meat and the color of twilight dusk-dawn at fifty below when the chimneys smoke sideways; it all makes my heart vibrate with a bone-deep note of yes. This is where I belong. And it is. I have never loved a place so much.

But this is my home in the way that white people mean home. It is my home by luck and love, not by right. I have no ancestral homeland, no blood and culture ties that go deeper and older than the permafrost. Most of us don’t. Four-year-old A said it best tonight: she put one hand on each of my cheeks and pulled down with her thumbs, then leaned in so close I could almost taste her runny nose; “your eyes are blue!” she hollered, and all the other kids had to come and take a look. Four serious little gap-toothed brown-eyed girls inspected my face and A held my cheeks still so my eyes wouldn’t go squinty when I laughed.

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Home? Home! 

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That’s a mouthful, eh?

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I have been running on the Mountain Road most clear evenings since school started. While my feet pound and my breath rushes I can let go of the day and let my mind watch the colors change on the tundra. I get to measure daily how far the snow has crept down the flanks of the big mountain at the head of the valley. Daazhraii free runs with me and, in theory, provides some warning in the case of dangerous wildlife. Mostly he lollops along with his enormous tongue hanging out and plunges around in the kettle ponds terrorizing the ducks, though now that I mention it, I realize the ducks have gone.

Last night I put on my hip belt and the dog sat sweetly while I fumbled with his harness. I clipped a bungee line to him and then to me, and Geoff took off on his bike. “Daazhraii, come on bud,” Geoff called, and we were off for the very first time.

It’s called canicross: dog assisted cross country running. It feels like flying. Daazhraii hauls with his heavy freight dog shoulders, chasing the bike, and the bungee rope stretches and pulls on my hip belt. I glide, my arms and hands free to fly.

We ran our usual route, and I didn’t feel that tightness in my belly that means I’m really pushing myself, even though we were moving faster than I usually jog. Daazhraii was focused and bouncy, a little surprised to be allowed to pull, but delighting in the freedom to guide our speed.

I was giddy. It’s fun and freeing and glorious, and it takes teamwork and energy and focus. We practiced “whoah” and “hike”. Once he gets used to pulling (he’s been trained not to pull on leash, so it’s an adjustment for him) we’ll work on “gee” and “haw” and “on by”. I can’t wait for ski season.

He’s a little young to work. You are supposed to wait until a dog is about a year old and his bones and muscles are fully developed before putting him to work in harness. Daazhraii is only ten months, but he isn’t working too hard or too often, and I want to make sure to practice “whoah” while I can still dig in my heels and stop him. On skis, that is going to be a lot harder.

What joy, though. I couldn’t keep from grinning, and Daazhraii ran laps around the driveway when we got home to the cabin, just to let some of the happy fun fizz off the top. daazhraii august snow

Shazheh ahshii

Home sweet home, August 19

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Home sweet home this morning, August 30th.

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I think the title of this post means “It’s snowing at my house” in Gwich’in, but I make no promises. We’ve had snow on Nitsii Ddhaa, the big mountain at the head of the valley, since last Saturday, but snow here at just 2,000 feet was a surprise.

It’s early, just August, and I was hoping to pick cranberries for at least another week. I made a great haul – a quart in less than an hour – up at the Junjik this weekend, and I was hoping to put up a gallon for chutney and cranberry bread. I’m almost sure this means the end of the blueberries.

Oops Pie

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By far, the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to me happened on Monday.

Last weekend, Geoff, Albert and I borrowed a canoe and took off for an adventure. We were camped a ways up Deadman’s Creek, and we spent all of Monday hiking in the tundra and berry picking at the base of the mountains. We’d just gotten back to camp, tired and sore from picking our way across the tundra, and were sitting down to eat some dinner before heading back to the village when search and rescue showed up. A complete surprise.

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“Yeah, your Dad called the troopers,” one of the guys said. I looked down at my feet, silently wishing the ground would split open so that I could fall in and be swallowed up by a new slough. Stupid-girl Slough.

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The details don’t matter much, just that it was a communication breakdown and entirely my fault. The searchers were good-humored about it, glad to find us all in one piece. What a first impression I must have made, though, moving to Arctic and causing such a stir within a week. There was a sign posted out in front of the school when we got back “No school Tuesday September 6th until Teachers are Found.” Wright Air flew over the river looking for us, and Venetie was all stirred up on my account. Board members called the superintendent. Kids cried. Geoff’s mom found out and told her neighbor and he managed to get a prayer circle going in West Virginia. What a mess.

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But all things, even embarrassing things, pass, I guess.

I made pie the other day from the blueberries we picked on Monday. They were shriveled up and sweet and purple on the red-leaved bushes, and they made my fingertips and teeth blue. That Tuesday morning the mountains were dusted with snow (we motored through a nasty little rain-squall to get back to the village, and it was cold and awful, so it stands to reason it’d be snow a few-hundred feet higher), so I think that was the last of the season’s blueberries. Embarrassment pie, mortification pie, sweet, delicious, wonderful, blueberry-major-oops pie. dsc05140

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Bye for now, Summer

I’m in Arctic Village, this time for good. I flew in after inservice and Boots took the plane low to show his granddaughter, in the copilot’s seat, the herds of caribou up on the mountains. The plane dipped and bumped low over the trees and the other passengers turned green and pukey, but I was thrilled. The tundra was red and gold and the caribou were silver and galloping under a clear blue sky. What more could you want from a flight?

Everyone in the village was cutting meat all week or scrounging for gas to get up the mountain to hunt. It was science and traditional knowledge week at school, and the kids were cutting meat in the gym and working on a dogsled. Geoff opened the fridge in the school kitchen one afternoon and a whole bloody leg wrapped in garbage bags fell out. It was crazy.

Here are some pictures from my back porch, overlooking the Chandalar:

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If I step out back at five in the morning, I can see every pond in the valley (there are a lot of them) breathing silver mist into the air before the black mountains and the red horizon.

The willows have all turned yellow and rumor has it there’s been frost in the wee hours. We’re turning the corner and I’m so glad – winter is my favorite season since I’ve found ways to get out in it. I’m running most evenings now, getting ready to start strong with skiing this winter. I want to set a rabbit snare along a short ski loop so that I can check it often, and I’ve persuaded someone to teach me how to do it.

Geoff has agreed to go with me to Venetie by snowmachine. I hope it happens. There’s a lot of work involved, but it would really be something to show up some weekend out of the blue and visit for a while.

This week has been hard. Starting something new here and imagining those kids in Venetie starting a new school year without me has been a constant ache behind my heart. I miss their personalities and their ease with me. I’ll get there with the kids here, but it will take time, and, meanwhile, I’ll miss my class of characters like crazy.

Inservice was a stupid as usual (cold to lukewarm showers, sales pitches from textbook companies instead of professional learning, no collaboration time except bits and pieces at the end of the day), but some good things happened: Terri’s Aunt Bernice came and did a poetry workshop, which was fun; Student News is going strong in its second year, with more folks than ever participating; the union meeting felt productive and energetic, which made a nice change; and the math teachers met and agreed on a resolution to offer a two-year Algebra 1 option, which will reflect the kids’ learning more accurately on their transcripts. Barring sabotage by administrators with control issues, this will mark a good change for kids.

Geoff and I ran his boat up from Circle and camped on the Yukon for the week. We spent some time exploring the route to the Chandalar and some of the rivers that feed the big one just south of Fort Yukon. I’d write more, but there are things to do. It’s the last long weekend before Thanksgiving, and the mountains are calling. Here’s the photodump with illumination by caption:

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Packing in Fairbanks, prior to the great canoe heartbreak of 2016

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Camp on a high bank just north of Circle

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That log has ears

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This was my first bear sighting in Alaska, and the gorgeous animal was swimming across the Yukon. Pretty amazing.

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Island Camp. We were visited by a moose (he left only footprints while we were out) and a beaver, who slapped his tail and turned his nose up at us as he flew downriver. There was old bear scat in the dry slough, but we didn’t see any recent sign.

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Before inservice began, we explored miles up the Christian River.

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I got Chainsaw 102 in this dreamscape of an old burn on the Christian River.

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Firewood!

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The confluence of Cutoff Slough (part of the Yukon) and Marten Creek. Look closely: Marten Creek is the color of black coffee. The Yukon is the color of chai. The Christian River is the color of black tea. The Chandalar is blue.

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Yukon sunset, just north of Circle.

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