Last night, after an afternoon at the shooting range and a run with Jane on Murphy Dome, I made cranberry chutney with the last of my frozen berries. I thawed some caribou steaks from our adventure with the Fortymile herd, and Alan picked some kale from the garden we planted this spring at his place. I had baked a loaf of sourdough bread earlier in the day, and I sliced a little of that up, too. A perfect dinner, all-Alaskan.
Local ingredients: Wild lingonberries from UAF’s trail system Fortymile caribou from an adventure in the White Mountains Kale grown in the Goldstream Wild Alaskan air yeast
The fireweed flowers are long gone, and the leaves have gone red. The birch leaves are fading, too. We got our last round of blueberries a week ago, and it’ll be cranberries and moose this weekend.
School started a week ago, and I’m struggling to transition to the very different work of studying. I want to be outside, doing my human hyperphagia, coming home and looking into my freezer with satisfaction at the neatly stacked vacuum bags of meat and fish and the jars of frozen berries. Instead, I’m inside doing winter’s work – reading, writing – and looking out the window at the last bits of summer dissolving.
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.
I’ve heard it was a great year for blueberries. Rumor has it someone in Arctic picked thirty gallons. I mostly missed the season, thanks to summer break and teacher inservice, but I put away three quarts before hard frost.
I was stoked for September to roll in so that I could pick cranberries (they’re lingonberries, really, but everyone here calls them cranberries). They’re my favorite: I make cranberry bread and chutney to eat with caribou fry meat, and I’ll eat them plain Jane just for the sweet tart bite and the memory of fall. These past two years they’ve been easy to pick and abundant during my time here, far more so than blueberries which begin to shrivel and sag toward the end of August, so I was prepared to pick and process gallons.
Two years ago, the berries were fat and juicy and everywhere.
It didn’t work out. I have only two quarts of cranberries, and I’m saving those for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I searched and searched, and I stood in banks of the juicy green leaves, stymied. The plants weren’t bearing. The fruit just wasn’t out there. Maybe it’s a pollinator problem. Maybe we had a too-hot or too-cold or too-wet or too-dry summer. I don’t know, but I’m sure glad I’m not relying on berries as a source of winter calories.
Boom and bust is the name of the game. Before I went to town last week, we were in a lean time: there was one very old tub of hummus in the refrigerator, but that was about it; we’d run out of fresh foods and frozen veggies and were eating into our stash of dehydrated camp meals; I didn’t have yeast to make pizza dough or butter and eggs to make cookies.
It wasn’t all bad: the freezer was full of Kenai reds, we were overwhelmed with caribou from our trip upriver over Labor Day weekend, someone gave us some moose ribs, the store had potatoes, so dammit it wasn’t worth doing a Freddy’s order with only a few days to go before a town trip.
Lyra loaded down with three fat caribou after a beautiful weekend in the refuge
Now scarcity is not the problem. It’s really the opposite: Geoff’s gone to town and I’m overwhelmed with plenty. There is too much fresh food: there’s fruit in the fruit bowls and there are boxes of salad in addition to a flat of microgreens I started in the lean weeks. I hardly know what to cook to use it all up before it goes bad.
FRUITS!! (and stuff): neato neato neato
One of the things I love about Geoff is his confidence in me. This week, he left me home alone with a chainsaw I’d never used (the one I’m familiar with is broken), a pile of full-length logs, and an empty diesel tank. It’s getting colder now, so we’re lighting fires twice a day to keep the house cozy.
It was Saturday afternoon, and Geoff had already hopped on a plane for Fairbanks when I realized I didn’t know how to start the other – bigger – chainsaw. It has a weird choke and switch thing that I hadn’t seen before. I called down to Fairbanks and Geoff and John talked me through it and damn if this big monster chainsaw didn’t feel like sudden-onset superpowers. I had a couple days’ worth of wood chunked in no time flat, so I got down to business and chopped enough to see me through for a few days. Plenty again.
It feels good to be rich in fruit and firewood and puppy-dog snuggles.
Geoff took off on Wednesday to run spring errands and get his teeth fixed, so I’ve been holding down the fort for a few days. I like the quiet, but I’m ready for him to be back in action. Things are thawing out, and I can’t keep up with all the melting on my own.
We brought home a couple of caribou two weeks ago, and when Geoff left we’d taken care of most of the meat, but still had a couple ribcages and three legs to process. Sure enough, when I got home from school that day, slipping and slushing all the way in bunny boots and a sweatshirt, the meat in the snowbank beside the house – a reliable freezer all winter long – was soft to the touch.
Work gloves on, I grabbed a caribou (minus its legs – what would you call that?) and hoisted the drippy ribs into my arms, up the steps and onto the table. I stayed up late processing (and marathon watching MASH). I got a good bit done, but the backstraps were still frozen into the spine when I went to bed at midnight, so I left the long, curving backbone, now sans ribs, lying on the table to thaw until morning. Daazhraii gave me good cuddles and I slept well in the unmistakable quiet half-light of an arctic spring night.
Most mornings, Geoff wakes me up around 7:30 and we make it to school just before 8:00. When he’s gone, I am on my own, and it’s actually kind of hard. I don’t have an alarm clock or a phone that will work as one, so I just sorta hope for the best and ask Geoff to try and remember to call me. Thursday morning, I woke to the ringing of a phone, so I jumped out of the covers to run down from the loft and answer it. I couldn’t find it, but when I looked at the clock I read the fatal hour: 7:30. I raced through morning chores in the broad daylight of a high spring morning: feeding the dog, picking out some clothes to wear, brushing my teeth because somehow my school toothbrush went missing last week (WHYYY???), cutting, bagging and tagging the backstraps, and stashing the rest of the spine in the snow beside the house. I fired up the snowmachine and cursed when it wouldn’t move, then realized it was frozen to the ground and kicked each ski loose. When I got to school, the door was locked and no one was there.
I parked the sno-go and put the dog on his run. “Did people think with Geoff and Mark gone, we had to cancel school, Shoopie? Where the heck is everybody? It has to be five after.”
It was, of course. Five after seven. I haven’t been that early to school all year.
At least I got a shower that day.
That evening after school, I went to check on the status of the caribou meat piled in the dwindling snowbank on the north side of the cabin. I stepped around the corner and almost got mauled by a half-ton sheet of snow with foot-long icicle teeth that picked that moment to slide (pounce?) off the roof. My scream brought the dog around, and he glued himself to my knees until he was satisfied that I was, in fact, unharmed.
The snow buried the tarp that covered the meat, so I left it, figuring the extra insulation would keep the cold in. Maybe also because I didn’t want to play tackle football with that particular snow leopard.
Everyone in Beaver was very helpful. We met friendly little girls named E and R whose grandma made calls so we could get gas on a Sunday. Paul Jr. was not around, so we gave up on our plan to stay and, after we got fuel, boogied on, none the richer in junk food, alas!
As we were leaving, I drove over a barely-submerged log. It was completely undetectable, but rolling over it felt like hitting a whale or a manatee or a sea-monster! The deck buckled and warped, then sprang back into shape. I’d hate to do that in a fast skiff: it would rip the bottom right out.
At this point, I want to mention that we have been eating with skewers for chopsticks this whole time. We have no silverware to our names. I am looking forward very, very much to eating a salad with a fork when we get back on the road system. The plan is to leave the boat in Fort Yukon and spend a few days fishing after all.
The night of the 16th we spent on an island with a clear slough and lots of bear tracks. We had a beautiful sunset. Last night, we camped on a dry slough sheltered behind a ridge of willows. It felt great to finally get out of the wind that had been taunting us all day, blowing spray over the engine onto the helmsman’s back.
The river is really wide now. The Chandalar pours in just up from here. It’s shallow and seamless-looking. Very tricky. We are running aground pretty regularly now in the flats. We step out into the ankle-deep water and Lyra floats free, for the most part. It’s hard to tell shoals in the wind, though.
I was divebombed by an arctic tern this morning while availing myself of the facilities. Scary, but very cool. They are really beautiful, graceful birds. Audubon’s tern is not an exaggeration: the terns are every bit as swift and sharp and dramatic as he paints them.
I took a bath today off a steep bank. I had to hold the end of the bowline, which was staked to the shore, so that I wouldn’t slip and be swept away in the powerful eddy. When I dunked my head, I could hear the silty water whooshing by my ears.
The horseflies are as bad as ever.
Our dog food from Yukon Jeremy at the Bridge is still holding out.
We are camping tonight on Inservice Island, just up from Fort Yukon. I just crept up on a couple of beavers swimming up our slough. When the first beaver finally caught sight of me, he slapped his tail and dived dramatically, then came up only a few feet farther away.
We got to town around ten. Lance wasn’t in Fort Yukon and we passed Tony on the river. So far, we are not having much luck figuring out how to leave the boat. Better luck tomorrow.
(editor’s note: we made it happen after a rough start with a flat tire and some plane troubles. The Kenai was great! We are heading back out in the next few days. Arctic Village, here we come.)